Dungeons & Dragons uses d20 rolls to randomly determine success and failure. A single d20 yields extreme numbers like 1 and 20 as frequently as middle numbers, and this shapes the game. In the real world, experts attempting routine tasks rarely fail and novices making a first try rarely succeed. But D&D tests rolled on a d20 often lead experts to botch checks and the untrained and untalented to luck into success. The d20 often makes experts look inept, defying everyday experience.
Seeking a better match with reality, some roleplaying game designers create games with core mechanics that total the results of multiple dice. This creates a bell-shaped curve of probabilities that makes the highest and lowest numbers rare, and lets players build heroes that show the sort of reliable competence we see in fiction.
Meanwhile, in D&D worlds, the mighty barbarian fails to open a pickle jar, and then hands it to the pencil-necked wizard who easily opens the lid. Such outcomes feel wrong, but with the right mindset, that swingy d20 can become a storytelling feature rather than a bug.
To start, as a DM, don’t ask the barbarian for a check to open the damn jar. “Remember that dice don’t run your game—you do,” explains the Dungeon Master’s Guide. “At any time, you can decide that a player’s action is automatically successful.” This means skipping rolls on tasks “so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure.” For best results, rate “easy” generously. Let talented or skilled characters skip the rolls where only a comical fumble would explain failure.
For knowledge and information checks, drop the roll and tell players what their characters should know. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.
If everyone at the table rolls a check with the swingy d20, someone usually rolls high. In D&D, letting everyone roll certain checks practically guarantees success. The one wizard proficient in, say, the Arcana skill will seldom roll a better success than every one of the other 4 know-nothings in the party.
For a real test that acknowledges the skilled and talented characters, allow fewer characters to roll. Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.
Granting an expert character advantage reduces the chance of an unlikely fumble, and improves the chance that talent will lead to success.
- Limit a check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages groups to have the character most suited to a challenge to lead the way.
- Limit a check to the skilled characters and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.
When someone fumbles a roll, instead of describing the failure in a way that makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an impossible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.
Despite all these techniques, the d20 brings extreme numbers that create shocking failures and inexplicable successes. To cope, treat the swings as a storytelling challenge to embrace. The dice make us surrender some control, adding the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. Savor that.
“As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised,” explains D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “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.”
The dice nudge, and sometimes shove, D&D games out of their expected course. They give D&D games a way to surprise us, and to challenge us to become more creative—to invent storytelling twists we would not have imagined without the random nudge.