Tabletop Highlight: On the Importance of Dice

I am a firm believer in the importance of dice in tabletop RPGs. To be entirely fair, that’s not exactly an uncommon opinion, even if more people are moving toward digital dice rollers instead of actual rice. Sure, telling a computer to roll twenty six-sided dice makes it a lot cleaner and it does the math for you which makes it take less time, but there’s no feeling compared to being a twentieth level sorcerer casting disintegrate just so you can roll forty six-sided dice all at once. At one point, I literally had bought enough d6’s so I could roll damage all at once for my caster. It was an amazing feeling, making it rain dice like that. It was also incredibly difficult since I could barely hold that many at once and rolling them involved a lot of me saying “did anyone see where the beige one went?” and my friends replying “no, but I did find the purple one from last week under this radiator.” Good times.

All that aside, what I’m really talking about is the importance of specific dice, which is also a bit misleading since I’m not thinking of one specific die in all of creation. What I’m talking about is the importance of having specific dice for you to use. By our very nature, as creatures reliant on ephemeral chance to dictate the course of our gaming session, we tabletop gamers are a rather superstitious bunch. For instance, I not only have a favorite set of dice, but I pick the dice I use on any given night by how aesthetically pleasing I find them as I get ready for the game. I firmly believe that prettier dice roll better and no amount of bad luck on my more gorgeous dice can shake that belief. The inverse is also true. When my players are having a string of bad rolls, I swap to using my ugliest, most generic and awful dice so the enemies the party is facing roll worse. My absolute favorite set, the set that has rolled more triple-twenties than all of my other twenty-sided dice put together, is a beautiful set of clear plastic dice with bits of black paint or plastic swirled inside them. Unlike every other set of partially clear dice I’ve ever seen, the color is only on the inside of the dice. It doesn’t touch the outside layers at all, so you can spin the dice as you hold it up to the light and watch the smoky black color swirl at your fingertips. I don’t even let other people touch those dice. I keep them in a plastic container inside my dice bag so I’ve always got them ready to go in case I need to roll well on something important.

If you take a survey of all tabletop players, you’ll find a range of traditions and superstitions. There are players who believe in punishing their dice when they roll poorly and even destroying the dice if they keep rolling poorly after being punished. This punishment can range from something as mild as leaving the offending die on its own for a while to the incredibly gross tradition of putting one of your misbehaving dice inside your mouth for a while. I’ve even seen someone go so far as to file through a die they were punishing so it could never roll again, which just seems completely over the top to me. There are also people who believe that you need to roll all of your dice at once, regardless of how many that might be. I’ve got a friend who uses a specific die for every type of action his character might be taking in any game he’s playing, so he has to buy new dice every time he plays a game with an additional action type. I prefer to buy new dice for characters who are about to make their debut, so the character and the dice start off fresh. I generally only get new dice for characters who are supposed to be a part of a campaign for a long time and I do it to avoid any kind of mental influence on how I see the dice.

Despite the range of beliefs and the things people do with their dice, most people remain a bit more rational and logic-oriented than their superstitions suggest. I bet if you followed up your first survey with a second survey asking people if they though there really was something to their little traditions, almost everyone who answered the first one would say “no.” And yet we’d still turn around and immediately go back to our superstitions as soon as the situation called for it. The way I’ve always viewed it is that there’s no harm in being cautious or believing in something that’s probably not there. If it isn’t there, then you’ve just spent a bit of time marking a tradition. If it turns out that there was actually something to it, then you’ve got your bases covered already. It’s why I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I won’t denigrate anyone who believes in them. Additionally, and probably more importantly, it helps the players feel like they’re in control of what is pretty much just random luck. If you believe punishing your dice will make them roll higher next them, then you’re in control of your own outcomes because you can “encourage” your dice to get with the program. You more order you can impose on what seems like chaos around you, the better you feel.

The same is true of having specific dice for specific things. I probably haven’t rolled more triple twenties with my favorite set of dice than with any of my other sets, but the belief that I do roll more twenties makes me remember when I do. It’s simple confirmation bias. The same is probably true of punishing dice or whatever inane thing we all do that makes us feel more comfortable with the fact that the world isn’t as cut-and-dried as we’d like to think it is. Random things happen outside our control or comprehension and we get a glimpse of that when we play games with dice because the difference between success and failure is pure chance. For the vast majority of us, there’s no skill involved, no talent, just dumb luck. Even the most skilled of us, who should be able to succeed no matter what is thrown at us, can sometime fail because of chance. So roll the dice and hope you get more passes than failure.

Tabletop Highlight: Critical Fails

Critical failures are some of my favorite parts of Dungeons & Dragons as a Dungeon Master. I don’t particularly enjoy my players failing at something because I generally want them to succeed, but it certainly opens the moment for some interesting improvisation on my part. A healthy dose of random interjection keeps even the mundane parts of a campaign from growing stale.

I’ve introduced new enemies, added a whole layer of complexity to my world, and even killed someone else instead of the person who just rolled three 1’s in a row. People really ought to be more careful when they’re shooting into melee combat, really. They also need to stop accidentally summoning Outsiders to the material plane, thereby ushering in the eventual collapse of the universe because Outsiders are pure entropy and cannot be killed because entropy can’t be killed without breaking every law of the universe. And then you have bigger issues than entropy.

Aside from attack rolls, there are a few other critical fails that can be a lot of fun. Catching something or throwing something is a stat check using dexterity. If a player rolls a critical fail on a toss or a catch, it can be a lot of fun to describe what got broken by the fumbled throw. My personal favorite strength check failure was the giant, manly barbarian getting a splinter from the door he was trying to break down and being unable to do anything until he got it removed. A close second was the drinking contest. The Dwarf was trying to bond with the half-goliath barkeeper and decided drinking copious amounts of alcohol was the best bet. The dwarf lost, of course, but the fun was in describing how he got blindingly drunk and accidentally drank the barwoman’s dishwater. He burped bubbles for forty-eight hours because he didn’t even fish the bar of soap out of it first.

For saving throw’s, the fails are often a little more catastrophic. Just last night, one of my players turned into a water-breathing creature so he could avoid drowning in the swamp (a crocodile had tried to drown him and failed). Since it was a bunch of still, disgusting water that he spent a while swimming around in without doing anything about his open wounds, I had rolled a secret save versus disease, just to see what would happen. He rolled a 1 and thus caught an ingested disease because he kept accidentally swallowing swamp water while trying to breathe it. Good times. Waking up blind is always a great way to start the day.

In less extreme circumstances, critical failures just make for great flavor. Have someone critically fail their save versus a magical attack like a fireball? Throw in a comedic moment where they miscalculate and take cover behind something that’s just going to make the explosion worse, like a source of tinder or something easily flammable. Crit failing their Reflex save to avoid a trap? Have them dive the wrong way or have them just leap straight up in the air. Crit failing their Will save to see through illusion? Have them enthusiastically participate in the illusion. The possibilities are endless if you’re quick on your feet.

Past experience has taught me that there’s an important line to walk as a DM between throwing in extra penalties for critical failures and just adding flavor. If the moment is super tense and everything rides on this moment, be wary of adding flavor. If everyone is caught up, they likely have their own mental images of what is going on, so you want generic details that will meld with whatever they’re seeing. Penalties make this easier as you’re adding a new aspect to the image rather than changing something existing, and you can always add flavor on top of a penalty. If someone just failed something very routine, penalties can cause the session to drag, so extra flavor is usually the way to go unless you have something important hinging on this routine task.

The great thing about being a DM is realizing that all rules are situational and that you are the ultimate arbiter of what is right when you’re running a session. Figure out how you like to use critical fails and hope you get enough opportunities to put them to use. All that really matters at the end of the day is that everyone is having fun, whatever form that takes.