The Role of DnD Dice [DnD Dice Explained]

DnD dice can be tricky at first. But when you think about it, it’s actually quite fascinating. In this article, we’ll cover how DnD dice work and what is the role of DnD dice sets in role-playing games. Though the best way to explain it is by giving you a slight historical background first so let’s jump in!

The Role of DnD Dice

Dice have always been regular features in the mechanics of board games. But what was revolutionary about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the way that it used its expanded dice set to create a sense of unknown, of randomness, of the unexpected, to act as the hand of fate.

Until the rise of Role Playing Games, (RPGs) it had been the standard 6-sided dice which had been used by conventional board games, such as Monopoly, to move players along a track or by Wargamers re-running their famous, historical battles. D&D used an altogether different set of dice to create magic and mayhem…often literally. 

In such an expansive game as D&D the dice act like the hand of god, fate, destiny, luck, biology…call it what you will…they are used to generate characters and then govern their actions. Everything from landing the killing blow on a rabid, jackal-headed temple minion to scaling the side of the wizard’s tower, from surviving the venom laced on an assassins blade to generating the temperament of the elemental being you have just conjured. You need the background skills to know how to undertake various tasks, but the random roll of the dice is often the difference between success and failure.

On a historical note, polyhedral dice have been found dating back to 2400 BC in ancient Sumer, where they were used in games which may have been the forerunner to Backgammon, so you are in good company.

Dicing With Destiny

Six-sided dice have been about for as long as mankind has gamed and gambled, everyone from bored ancient Egyptian guards to early Chinese merchants would have played games of chance to while away the hours.

The brilliant stroke on the part of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the masterminds behind the game, was to incorporate polyhedral dice which had evolved both in the table-top wargaming world to add randomness to the clashes of large scale armies or as a teaching tool, opinion remains divided. But it was this element which hallowed for all manner of number generation and shifting probabilities which gave the game its fluidity.

It should be noted that the convention when talking about dice is the reference them with the letter D and also its highest number. A standard six-sided is a D6, a twenty-sided dice a D20 etc. Throwing more than one of each dice kind is referred to as 3 x D6 or more commonly 3D6.

Although there are 6 standard types of dice used in D&D with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 20 sides, standard sets are generally made up of 7 dice. The reason for this is that when you want to generate numbers between one and one-hundred, generally used for checking success rolls where the outcome is based on a percentage chance, you need 2D10. One is used to generate tens, the other units.

So 6 shapes of dice but sets will have dice which serve 7 different functions. It also pays to add additional dice to your set, especially D6’s. It is always better to roll the required amount of dice in one throw rather than repeat throw a single dice the required amount of times.

The Standard Dice or D6

Everyone will be familiar with the standard dice or D6 and it is this which forms the basis of character generation within the game. A character’s core attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma – are initially based on a roll of 3 such dice 3D6. This means that each characteristic has a score of between 3 and 18 with scores in the 9 to 12 range being most common. Such a weighted system allows for extremes but generally delivers more modest scores. 

This is a base score only and depending on other choices, such as race and profession, this can change. Dungeon Masters also occasionally add their own rules which reflect the nature of the world that you are gaming in, such is the openness of such a game system, but this type of character generation is the starting point for most D&D games as well as many of those it inspired.

The Twenty Sided Dice or D20

Perhaps the most commonly used dice in the game, the D20 is generally used to see if you have been successful at a given task. Your background abilities – level, strength, race etc will determine the score that you need to achieve, the roll of a D20 determines success of failure. This covers everything from attacks, saving throws to skill checks, and ability checks.

Percentile Dice

Percentile dice is a fluid term. It refers to a way of generating numbers between 1 and 100 and is used to resolve any action which has been given a percentage chance of success. With a hundred sided dice being impractical, there are a number of ways. In the early days you would use 2 twenty sided dice, one as tens and one as units often painting the two dice different colours to differentiate and treating the numbers as generating 1 to 10 twice over. That is, if you rolled a 9 or a 19 they both represented nine.

Later on, with the popularity of the game, games companies started producing ten-sided dice (D10) which made life much easier. You can even buy dice which have the number 10, 20, 30 etc on the face so when used with a standard D10, the result is is crystal clear.

The Other Dice – D4, D8, D12

Most of the remaining dice are used for determining damage delivered by weapons, the bigger the weapon, the bigger the dice. This is often used in combination of modifiers, perhaps expressed as a rather hefty 2-handed axe as delivering 1D8 + 2 damage…meaning roll the die and add 2 to the result. This is a way of pushing the average damage higher to reflect the size and punch of the weapon.

The Roll of a Lifetime

All dice are also used to generate random outcomes or arbitrary results from the various tables found in the rule books, as well as being a useful tool for the DM to use to add random outcomes to the adventure at hand.

Perhaps the players are investigating a labyrinthine maze where the numerous doors behave in different ways. Rather than work out the various properties for each, the resourceful DM might create a table to be consulted each time the party try to open a door. The random dice roll might determine if the door is locked, unlocked, trapped, magical or perhaps might even be a teleport device delivering the players to the forgotten basement of the Alchemists Guild Hall on a different continent. That’s randomness for you…it can be very….random.

Stats All Folks!

The role of DnD dice is quite straight forward. As a player, dice are there to be rolled, to act as the unknown hand guiding events either propelling you on to a place in the history books or dropping you face-first in a stinking moat. But as a DM it pays to understand a little about how dice generate their spread of numbers, about averages and extremes and how you can weight the dice-rolls to create logical outcomes.

Once you know a bit about them, dice become less a random factor and more a blend of logic tempered with a touch of luck. The dice can sometimes be the players worst enemy but it is always the shrewd DM’s friend.

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