D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

If you want your D&D game to tell a story, why bother with the dice? Why bother with a random element capable of foiling our plans?

The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook calls Dungeons & Dragons a game about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. If D&D players only wanted to collaborate on stories, we could join a writers’ room and pitch dialog, beats, and character arcs just like in Hollywood, but without the paychecks.

Instead, we add dice.

The oldest known d20 comes from Egypt dates from somewhere between 304 and 30 B.C.. The die may have rolled in a game, but oracles may have cast it in divination rituals. Blogger James Maliszewski writes, “There’s something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal.” Like an oracle’s die, our dice lead our characters into an unknowable future. The dice make us surrender some control, because they add the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. We embrace that.

Surprise

After countless stories, we all start to see patterns repeated. We still enjoy them for many reasons, but even the best can seem like a familiar dance performed well. So when a tale breaks the pattern, the unexpected becomes riveting.

Stories from D&D games can follow patterns of their own. Two combat encounters plus a roleplaying interaction take us to the big bad, and then to dividing treasure. We dungeon masters have an extra incentive to follow the expected track that we prepared, so the dice help us let go. They nudge us off course and remind us to welcome uncertainty. Writing about dice and random encounter tables, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains, “Such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn’t one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.”

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford likes how rolling in the open forces him to honor the outcome of a roll even when his own inertia might sway him to override it. “As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised. I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”

Creativity

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Forget dice for a moment and think of the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity.

Poet William S. Burroughs coined a cut-up method of writing where he scrambled words on scraps of paper and then assembled the jumble into new poems. If poetry seems too high-minded to connect with a game rooted in pulp fantasy, then consider this: Rock musicians like Curt Cobain, Thom York, and David Bowie used the technique. Burroughs asserted, “Cuts ups are for everyone.”

David Bowie explains his use of the process, “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black uses a program to make random lists of titles, plots, and other idea seeds. He explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.”

Creation doesn’t stop during writing and preparation. It extends into the game session when the dice inject that random element.

Fairness

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the dungeon master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the DM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the DM wants the dice to take the blame.

Random rolls reduce the DM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite DM and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

D&D historian Jon Peterson writes, “Die rolls impart to players a sense of fairness, they also give the referee a way to decide events impartially when they can’t trust themselves. Back when referees were adjudicating between competing parties (and in early D&D, they still were, sometimes). Referees needed a way not to show favor, even unconsciously, to one competing party over another. Dice play an important part in hedging against the risk of unintended bias.”

In modern D&D we tend to associate dice with the attacks, checks, and saves at the core of the game, but the games’ founders used dice to impartially settle questions about the game world. Many DMs still roll to direct a monster’s attack, but otherwise the technique seems faded. Now we seldom roll to learn a shopkeeper’s disposition, or the guards’ morale, or for the weather. To settle these and other questions in the game, we seldom think to just ask the dice.

D&D adventure designer Will Doyle knows the technique’s power. “I use ‘lucky rolls’ literally all the time. For example, player is sneaking down a corridor, I call for them to make a lucky roll to see what happens. On a 10 or above, it’s probably clear. Roll lower than that, and guards come whistling along.”

Preference

Ultimately, how much your rely on luck depends on your taste for a game that can feels as surprising and as messy as life. James Maliszewski associates a big dose of random chance with old-school gaming and writes, “Much like life, old-school gaming is often ‘just a bunch of stuff that happens’ and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only ‘meaning’ that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.”

How much of the future do you and your players want to force, and how much do you want to keep unexpected?

“What do dice represent?” D&D video creator Matt Colville asks. “They represent the future and the fact that the future is ultimately unknowable,” “You know we may know the odds of the different horses in a race and who’s likely to win and there may be a horse that is very heavily favored to win, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to win. No. Because the future is uncertain. That’s what the dice represent.”

3 thoughts on “D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

  1. sapphirecrook

    The dice are indeed about the minutia and the uncertainty of the future. Of a sudden twitch, a strained muscle, a shock of fear, a blanking of the mind, the metal fatigue of a lockpick.

    I appreciate that the intro actually gets this right. Too many people don’t seem to fully grasp that storytelling is a posthumous activity, after history is written, the act of interpreting events in a certain context. The game and human elementsmelt when people forge destinies to be followed, instead of situations to be resolved.

    Rolling the dice, and knowing when not to roll them at all, is a key GM trait. As they say, a bad GM blames his dice, a good GM blames himself.

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  2. Lich Van Winkle

    Thanks for another thoughtful post! I agree with you entirely about the role of the roll of dice.

    The argument you make points to one way in which a bunch of other fantasy games are superior to D&D, in my opinion. Whereas D&D has a bizarre and uneven saving throw system, now melting together with the skill system, games like Tunnels & Trolls, followed by Chaosium games and Advanced Fighting Fantasy, have a Luck stat that unites them and is explicitly called Luck. How it is interpreted as a story feature is up to individual groups, but a Luck mechanic can be wonderfully fun, especially when it gets gradually depleted, as in AFF.

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  3. Pingback: How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice | DMDavid

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