Players can take many types of actions in a game, this article will deal with just some of the actions related to dice. Dice rolling is normally considered a random mechanic in games, and rightly so. However, giving players actions related to the already rolled dice and not just giving them the task of rolling them to decide the outcome, opens up another world of possibilities in game design. This deals with choice, as the fundamental difference between a task a player must do and an action they have selected.
For thousands of years and across many types of games, players have been told by the game rules to roll dice. This has traditionally only been used to find the outcome of an action that is happening in the game. The player might be able to choose the action but then are told to perform the task of rolling dice to determine the outcome of that action. What if the designer just changed the order of these things? We could make many other combinations of actions, tasks, and outcomes relating to dice. Discussed further down, under the title, dice and the outcome.
Note: This is a follow-up article to one that I wrote called Dice Rolling
Fair Warning: this article might be a little longer than normal. I will be trying to more thoroughly cover the subject of the use of dice. This will still not be an exhaustive list as this subject could fill several large volumes in a game design library.
How To Use Dice?
In the last article on Dice Rolling I gave a list for some of the ways dice are used. This time we will go more into how those ways of using dice are used. This will be in the form of both real game examples (with links to the games) and some made up examples that are my thought on how these could be used as game mechanics. Here is that list again but this time we will talk about each one:
- Roll to set a number
- Roll & Add
- Roll +Math+ Roll (add/subtract/multiply/divide)
- Roll vs. Roll (Roll the Highest/Lowest or More/Less Than)
- Roll Over/Under Target Number
- Random Selection
- Variable Set Collection
- Random “Usable” Element/Worker/Resource
- Selectable Number/Value (Tracking Counter)
- Thrown/Flicked (Dexterity Component)
Roll to set a number
By far this is the most common reason to throw the dice. This is a part of all dice rolls (where the dice faces are numbers). While it might seem like it can go without saying, this is still a very important aspect of dice actions in building new mechanics. When was the last time you saw this use this way:
Example: Once “X trigger event happens” in the game. Roll a six-sided die, the number rolled is how many turns left until the game ends.
This would be a roll to set the number of turns left in the game. This makes the time the game will end (if the triggering event occurs) go from unknown to set in stone. If a normal game continues until Y event ends the game, this other event brings the game to an end on a turn that was not anticipated by the players… but they still have some time to try and race to the finish. While many games have events that trigger the game to end, very few (if any) have an event that just starts a random timer to end time. Just food for thought.
Roll & Add
This is the roll with plus or minus modifiers found in most role-playing games and many other types of games. This was one of the first ways used to help dynamically change the probability of success based on non-random factors like skills or even more random factors like wind. One note is that adding a negative modifier is the same thing as subtracting a positive one… hence the name is not Roll & Add/Subtract.
Example: D&D roll one twenty-sided die and add any relevant modifiers. Web Link
It is worth noting here that this can be (and is) used other ways in other games. There are roll & move mechanics where the player has a set movement speed or other attribute and the roll is added to that number. In these cases, the logic is reversed and the roll is the modifier to the set starting number. The main difference is normally, the part being added is smaller than the part it is added to. This is for the ease of use of the players and keeps calculations simple.
Roll +Math+ Roll (add/subtract/multiply/divide)
I some ways this is as simple as it sounds but can be used in too many ways to count. The uses are almost as infinite as math itself. This could be anything from rolling two dice and adding them to give you a bigger number. The roll and move in Monopoly is this way. However, many of the more complicated uses of these mechanics, are less common because the math is less approachable by players. This sort of mechanic is normally used in educational games and some war games where the math skills of the player are part of the meta-game. To try and show another possible use for this roll dice and do some math consider this:
Example: At the start of each round roll one six-sided die (for each resource) and place it next to the resource pile (wood/stone/metal/etc…). When players take a harvest action, roll the number of dice equal to their civilizations tech score (for that resource) and divide the total dice result by the number on the die next to that resource.
This creates a random variable variation in the resource economy of the game each round. It will affect player motivation for harvesting one type of resource over another type this round. It will be like some shifting sand under the player’s feet that they must try overcome by increasing the tech score of their civilization or buying or building something. These upgrades will lessen the impact of a six being next to a resource they need this round. This could simulate a random change in the supply and demand of the resources.
Roll vs. Roll (Roll the Highest/Lowest or More/Less Than)
While not explicitly stated in the name this any comparison of dice to form a single outcome or answer. This is used primarily for in-game combat, “conflict resolution” or skill tests, but it does have other uses. The main form is one player is rolling against another player, but can be one player rolling both parts.
Example: Risk uses this for combat. The rules govern how the comparison works and how ties are resolved. In this case, the attacker and defender roll six-sided dice and dice are compared highest die to highest die, then next highest and so on. In each set of dice (one attacker’s die and one defender’s die) the highest wins and the defender will win ties.
Variant: A homebrew rule that I use when playing Risk (many years ago) adds the more than side of roll comparison. As the two highest dice are compared, the number rolled more than the other roll was how many armies were lost by the person who lost that roll. Ties still counted as just one army. So if the two dice were a 5 and a 2 the loser, lost 3 armies. This made the battles much faster and more brutal. It also gave a small army a greater chance of inflicting real damage on a stronger army before going down.
On a personal side note, when searching on google for an example using roll against roll board games, my last article on “Dice Rolling” was listed on the first page of results… almost brought a tear to my eye.
Roll Over/Under Target Number
This is seen more in a Player vs. Environment (PVE) that as above in a Roll vs. Roll or Player vs. Player (PVP). The two are very similar in execution but the number to beat is a set number that does not change because of an opposing die roll. There is no real difference between the over or under side of the mechanics. Many time this is used to score successes for skill tests in role-playing games that happen outside of combat.
Example: Warhammer 40K. In this game, players roll one or more (normally) six-dice based on the unit that is attacking. These dice must roll at or above a target number, based on the armor of the unit being attacked. Each success was a Hit. Then there were other rolls for damage and saves, but you can see that in the rules. Web Link
This is used in conjunction with tables or lists of outcomes that let a player roll a normal die and then see what happened based on the number rolled. This was more common in games when I was younger and has lost favor with new design concepts. Custom dice were not as common in those days, so finding other uses for standard six-sided die became the basis for many such mechanics. This has also been used with a range of values on the dice 1-2 is thing one, 3-4 thing two, and 5-6 thing three. This information about the selections might be found in a table on the game board, in the rules, or on a player aid.
Example: B-17 “Queen of the Skies”. This is by far one of my all time favorite solo games. This game (and others like it) are not very approachable to players today. However, every designer should study the mechanics used in this game. YouTube Web Link
One thing to understand about this use of dice is, going into the roll a player knows all the things that could happen but not what will happen. The player might only be able to pick what table to use base on the type of action they are picking before the roll. The dice are doing the selection for the players.
Variable Set Collection
No game is more famous for this use of dice than Yahtzee. For many dice games, this is the core mechanic. The rules for these type of games set the methods and procedures for things like; locking dice that will not be re-rolled, how many rolls a player gets each turn, and what combinations they are trying to make.
Example: Players have a character card with stats like hit points and ability/power actions. The player rolls a set of five six-sided dice for each round of combat. The enemies are also cards with stats and powers. The enemy rolls two six-sided dice for combat. This means during combat a player will roll seven dice (five green and two red). Each character power action has a dice combination that must be rolled to activate it. Likewise, the enemy card has a die number (or number range) next to its basic attack. The player can roll dice until they defeat the enemy or they are knocked out. Each time the player rolls they may save or lock any of their dice onto one of the power actions. The red dice are always re-rolled when the player rolls. So while the hero is rolling to build sets with the dice they are constantly being “hit” by enemy dice actions from the enemy card. (long-winded way of saying that dice set collection could be used in other game types).
Random Usable Element/Worker/Resource
I have started to see this used in games more and more as designers begin to understand how to move the randomness of dice to the front side of action outcome. In this players roll their dice to set a pool of options that may then be used as the player sees fit (according to actions that correspond to a location on the board or a number on the dice).
Examples: For this one, I will list two games, both use this mechanic in very different ways. This makes them the perfect showcase for great uses of this type of dice play. The first is; Tiny Epic Galaxies and the other is Alien Frontiers
There are many other examples of this in games. Just remember that the rolling generally comes before the player needs to make a choice. This keeps the random element of the dice from directly touching the outcome of the player’s action selection (while still having some influence on limiting the player’s options for the round of play)
Selectable Number/Value (Tracking Counter)
I guess in some ways this is more like an honorable mention for dice. In this, the dice only serve as a counter to show the current value of a game element. The dice are not rolled in the traditional sense. I do think that this could be mixed into other dice rolling mechanics to form some interesting combinations.
Example: What if a character power in a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) style game had a random cool down. A player would use the power, then roll a six-sided die, that value would then countdown by -1 at the start of the player’s turn. Once the die was removed from the power it would be available to use again. This might work great for a short range “blink” type movement ability.
Design Tip: I am quite sure that if designers took the time to analyze the possible uses for game components and tried to combine them in new ways, they would develop many new game mechanics to use in their games. Even if you don’t use that mechanic in the game you are currently working on, it can be “tucked away” in a design journal for later use.
Thrown/Flicked (Dexterity Component)
While many see dexterity type of board games as only for kids or just a fad, they should not be dismissed out of hand by designers. And while I can’t think of a game that uses dice as a dexterity element, I am mostly sure there is one out there, and I am even more sure that someone needs to make one if there is not one.
Example: Players take turns throwing dice into an arena area. The walled off area could have scoring zones (without walls) and the dice could serve to show any number of things about each zone they land in. The highest die in each zone might score the most points for that zone. A 6 roled into a zone might let a player pick up and remove a die that had been thrown into the same zone by another player. Let your imagination run through what you might do with such a game…
I am sure that a game with good dynamic rules could be a fun game with only dice, dominoes, and zones on a board. I just added knocking dominoes over with dice for the fun of it. Again, as a designer keep you mind open to new ideas… just get the ideas tested as soon as possible.
Dice and the Outcome
Now that we have talked in more detail about some of the ways dice might be used. Let’s look at some examples of what happens when we move outcome of a random roll to the beginning and then let players take actions that then cause tasks to be performed. We will call it a layered outcomes (because I feel like it).
Dice Roll – Outcomes – Actions – Tasks
What if each round a player has 5 stamina dice each representing the ability to take other types of physical actions in a game. This dice pool is rolled at the start of the round to set the values (Dice Roll). Now, the players have the (Outcomes) of the roll to help make their choice how to use the dice (Actions), and they might even choose to not roll (some or all), so they can save the stamina dice to defend against other player’s actions when it is not their turn. The Dice Roll has created a resource pool that the players can use to take actions. Actions can now cost rolled values/points in any combination of dice. Many limits and variations can come from this pool.
Example: Action costs for special powers on a game board or player aid. (based on rolling 5 six-sided dice):
Roll this turn is:
, , , , and 
Example: Costs in dice points for the special power actions:
- 4+ (limit one die) | any one die , , 
- 4 (limit one die) | only a roll of  on one die
- 4+ (no die limit) | any combination of dice that add up to 4 or more
- 4 (no die limit) | any combination of dice that add up to 4 but not more
- 4 (two die minimum) combinations of x4 or ++ or + or +
Now the player has the option of spending the  they rolled on only two of the options (the actions with 4 or more points as the cost).
I am sure you can see how this can give the player many options for action selection while still having a random element. This can help to limit what they can do this turn, to a range of options based on the dice rolled. This is a departure from having access to a full list of actions and a having set number of action points to spend. By adding, even more, layers (re-rolls and such) you can further help to control the random force of the dice. The goal here might be to make sure the players don’t Feel like the outcome was random. There are few worse things than thinking that dice alone determined the outcome of your selected action. After all, you want players to be able to say that when the game gave them lemons they made lemonade.
One Idea for Randomness mitigation (control of luck)
Now let’s take a look at the classic:
“dice + skill vs. target number = outcome”
This is by far one of the most used dice mechanics in role-playing games. It is the core mechanic behind many very fun and very engaging games…
However, it does have some drawbacks that players hate. In most cases the maximum variance and randomness of the die roll is larger than the player’s perception of their chance of success. (they feel they should have succeeded)
This is when you hear players say things like “come on! I should have totally blown that away.” and from the side of player expectations, they are right.
If 90% of the time a player should succeed at a task based on some skill and then twice in a row they don’t, they will call the game system broken. (in the player’s mind it is broken). From the standpoint of most math-savvy designers. They have truly built a system that gives the players a 90% chance of success. This is mathematically accurate based on the roll of that sort of dice plus that skill level bonus…
The sad part is dice math is very harsh and not at all based on player expectations. The 90% means 10% of the time the player will fail… but dice don’t remember that you failed on the last roll and that the dice should let you win for 9 more rolls. Many players over the years have learned to put up with this.
The main thing to take away from this system is; when the outcome of the action hinges on the dice roll, you are giving the random force a lot of power over what happens.
One way around this is to have the outcome of the dice happen first (like we did above), but another way is to have the dice bend to the will of the players through other-random or non-random mechanics.
Example: Let’s say we have a normal role-playing game within the D20 family of systems.
What if we make the characters luck a new type stat number?
This new luck could represent the ability to perform a coin toss when the dice act up. This would only be used after a failed outcome when the odds of success were grossly in a player’s favor (but the dice roll was just way too low). This luck stat would grow stronger from these failures when not used by the player.
The choice to call on the less-random force of lady luck could still make things go wrong or worse, but it could also turn the tide when failure is not an option. The luck stat would start at 1 and go up only when a player accepted their fate during a “bad” roll (at the discretion of the game master/controller person).
Then once the player has had it with the dice, they choose to leave it all to luck and flip a coin (up to the number of times they are able based on their current luck).
Example: If a player had 3 luck, they could try to flip heads on a coin up to three times. Each flip would cost 1 luck. once they have flipped heads on a coin they have passed the roll that they were “mad” about.
If the action is still a fail (all tails and no heads on the coin flips), then the outcome is now even worse than before, but if lady luck smiled on them (any heads coin flip) the tide turns.
Note: For the sake of dice actions please understand that a “coin” is a two-sided flat die. Dice actions being broad enough to include all random forces that are not always a “cube” style die.
Yet another way would be for the non-random luck to be a token for each point of luck a character has gained, these tokens could just outright used to defy a bad dice roll. This would still be only after the outcome of the action has gone bad, not before. So, a player would not be able to use this luck token at just any time to overcome a hard challenge that they had very little chance of succeeding at to start with.
I am sure as time goes on I will write more on the topic of randomness mitigation tactics. There are many dice mechanics out there and someday I want to go over them each… one of my personal favorites is the exploding die. For now, I hope this helps frame some the way dice are used and gets you thinking about how to use them in your games. I do hope something in this “rant” helps.
This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.
“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”
“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”