Howe do you feel about... Dice?

edited June 2014 in Game Design Help
I know this is an old chestnut for some, but I would like to know what is your personal feeling on the necessity of dice in games. I invite you to participate in my poll at


  • edited June 2014
    “Your major design goal is to make Games Like Play Like Fiction, correct?”

    “That’s right.”

    “Writers don’t use dice or any other random elements when building a story. It’s not like they are sitting in front of the computer and rolling a die to see what happens next. Why should people who are playing our games?”
    Because that would be called writing?
  • .. or the Amber Diceless RPG, or Freeform Roleplay, or any number of other games that use a randomizer other than dice, or attempt to use no randomizer at all. I know that the post on my site may not seem to be the least bit serious. I did write it in such a manner to make it fun, but from a designer's standpoint, it is very serious.

    The change of such an intrinsic element in a story or role playing game is.. for the lack of a better term.. a game changer. Cards certainly don't play the same way that dice do. It may be possible to create a story game that plays more like Chess- Move and then Countermove. Engines like these would make for some games that feel very different from your basic D&D clone.

    However, are they worth producing? Would such mutant games have an audience? That is the reason of the poll. I certainly hope more will participate.
  • edited June 2014
    Using JENGA is a game changer. Using rock-paper-scissors is a game changer. Using votes is a game changer. But what is the game? Does the mechanic fit it? Do you see my point here?

    Trying to predict the appeal of an unwritten game based on a mechanic is probably not the wisest way to go. Generally it makes more sense to conceive of the game first, and then find or construct a mechanic that matches the dynamics of the fiction you're trying to create. It's kinda like saying "What is the necessity of balls in sports?" Depends on the sport, doesn't it. Some don't use balls at all.

    I suppose it's possible you might discover or invent a mechanical device or subsystem that's so fascinating and unusual in its decision-making potential that it inspires you to create a whole game around it. But that still doesn't tell me whether I'd be interested in your game. Tell me more about your game.
  • Ron Edwards said something good about this. He compared dice to The Ball in games.

    So, when you play with a ball, you don't want to just sit there throwing a ball in the air. You need some uncertainty to make it fun.

    That uncertainty can be random: for example, when you throw the ball against a wall to catch it, and it doesn't bounce the same way every time. Or it can come from other players: for example, when you throw the ball to others and they don't always throw the way you expect.

    That translates to roleplaying games too. When you're roleplaying, you want some uncertainty to make it fun. That can come from dice, from the storytelling of others or from somewhere else, but it must be there.
  • edited June 2014
    True. An engine doesn't tell you what an entire game is like, but it can greatly change how a game feels when you play it. For example, Jenga and the Dread RPG are a perfect fit since the mechanic evokes stress in the players as the game continues. Sooner or later, that tower is going to fall and the character involved is out of the game. It would not be nearly as effective if it were done with dice.

    At this particular point, I am indulging my Crazy Brain in its quest for new ideas. The poll may surprise me or simply give me a meh answer by the time it closes. The discussions that occur while it is open may provide me with answers for questions I have yet to ask.

    Are dice necessary for a game? No, of course not. Its silly to even ask. How do you feel about dice? That is an entirely different matter. Some gamers get very attached to their dice. I'm really no exception. I have a pair of Gamescience d10s that I have had since the early '80's and I swear they are still in pristine condition. I made one design that used only d6s and one playtester complain that she wanted to use All her dice. My current group swears up and down that I have some kind of Dice Mojo that allows me to roll better than them.

    Will my question lead to better games? Maybe. I won't know until I ask.
  • edited June 2014
    I'm with Graham on this one. [edit] I do however feel that dice are overused and, in most of the times, unquestioned when included in roleplaying game design.

    Dice in tactical games removes the value of decision-making.
  • edited June 2014
    Thanks @Graham, I didn't know I was using Ron's tools for my object lesson. But I like what you said.

    @Keith Sears - I will answer your last question (feelings about dice), which is different than your first question (necessity of dice). I will completely ignore your other question (are they worth producing).

    I feel, like most of the players I've ever run, that dice are imbued with a magical energy. They are like demons to a sorceror. They can tell the future, they can yield to your will, they can become your favorite, they can have good days and bad days, and they can turn against you. Of course we know that this is all projection. But it is a very very common projection. Does that mean dice must be the mechanic of uncertainty? Of course not. But you do need to find or invent some uncertainty mechanic that gives your game the feeling you want it to have, and use it.

    Uncertainty in a game represents and embodies a central aspect of existence: the fact that life is full of things you can't predict, which affect you. If there isn't any uncertainty, you violate the Czege Principle ("creating your own adversity and its resolution is boring"), and whatever you're doing becomes almost impossible to call a game. Even without violating that principle, some of the games we've been talking about here lately - including one of my own - fall into this grey area where it's almost more fitting to call it an "exercise" than a "game".

    Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (Will I succeed? I don't know! It's exciting!)
    • If there is just one tiny little portion of the rules which is beyond my control and affects me, I can still call it a game, but it's getting difficult.
    • If there are other players and they are adversarial or competitive (in either sense of the word) relative to me, I can still call it a game.
    • But if everything is admissible and everything is cooperative, that is an exercise, not a game.
    There are different types of uncertainty mechanics.
    • If you use a physical mechanic (dice or whatever), the uncertainty represents the fact that the world is constantly a surprise, and affects you.
    • If you use a procedural mechanic (person to my left starts my sentence for me or whatever), the uncertainty represents the fact that other people are constantly a surprise, and affect you.
    Sports use both physical and procedural mechanics, if you think about it, but the uncertainty is all physical. From the coin toss to the capricious wind to the condition of the field to the trajectory of an object flying through 3space.

    Back to fiction games. Your attention may be focused on the physical events of the gameworld, or your attention may be focused on the social activity in the gameworld, or a mixture of both. It's possible to imagine a game where the object (the unnecessary obstacle) is to remain attentive even though the whole thing is getting more and more boring. That would not be fun. But it would be a game.

    Now jumping down one level: Within the ontology of the game world (i.e through the eyes of a PC), the mechanical uncertainty we've been looking at does not represent anything - it embodies the unpredictable nature of existence, either physical, or social, or both. Even if you don't consider yourself a Simulationist, this is one thing your fiction game will simulate: the nature of someone existing within a causal reality bigger than their own agency. This is the single common trait possessed by all fiction-creating methodologies that can truly be called "games".
  • edited June 2014
    Dice are like balls in yet another way: sometimes they inspire people to downplay the fiction and start playing competetively against eachother and against the rules (because of the expectation of dice/ball).

    Moreover, I don't think there needs to be a 'randomizer' per se, dice or another game changer. That's just one way of fulfilling the need to have something in the middle, something to keep the peace between the writers-players, a referee. Often this is 'rules' or 'random' (=something which creates a priori equality). A social contract that stipulates 'playing like fiction' as thing-in-the-middle works equally fine. But that may not be so easy to determinate as clearly as mechanical rules (although possible), and is still nothing more than people agreeing (all it needs is someone saying 'I don't go along with the rules/with playing like fiction' to break the contract).

    So it boils down to making sure there's something formal which you can agree on. In our case we have to make sure that 'this' actually allows and stimulates better fiction. It's no use to emulate the deliberateness of (written) fiction, rp is another type of fiction, with other needs.

    I am making a game that looks and plays like literature, but is actually based off the mechanics of oral conversation, which are closer to rp. There's some dice and randomness, but no where near central. The game changer in it is a bit more elusive, and I'm eager to see if it works.

    [edit: I guess my post was superseded while typing by the more eloquent and comprehensive post by AsIf!]
  • I've played one RPG that didn't use dice or other randomized -- Mortal Coil -- and I found it didn't work for me: the lack of randomness induced a pretty strong analysis-paralysis. In Mortal Coil you have a limited stock of different types of chips that you wager, and whoever ends up wagering more chips wins a conflict. I started to overthink about how many I should reserve for the rest of the session and how many the NPC was likely to bet and how much my character needed to succeed ... It became like a brain-burning strategy game and took me far, far away from the fiction.

    With dice (or cards, or goat entrails, depending on the game) I can focus on what my character would attempt, and then let go and see what happens.
  • Dice are fine, whatever. Cards are where it's at, especially playing cards. Who uses dice anyway, just weird nerds.
  • what is your personal feeling on the necessity of dice in games
    Ok Dice in games are good for the random thing, move x number of squares

    but dice in stories are good as impartial vote, decision making like a jury ?

    The fate or responsibility is with the dice not the players.

  • I tend to prefer dice-based rpgs, though there have been other options that have worked in some games. I want a compelling reason to abandon them however. For us the dice are a pretty integral part of the game (which is one reason why we ban dice apps). I can totally see where others may not have this attachment though.
  • edited June 2014
    Do y'all remember when you bought your first poly dice? I was just thinking about mine.

    I didn't buy them simply because they were cool, even though they are, and I like polyhedrons. But I didn't buy my first game because I wanted to play with weird dice. I bought the weird dice because I liked a cool game. IOW, the game could sell me on the weird dice, but the existence of weird dice alone wouldn't sell me on a game. Isn't that your experience as well?

    (And the dice were really crappy in the early 80s! I remember my pale blue TSR d12 was actually slightly lopsided!)
  • I like dice, but I also dig card-based and diceless games (particularly those with resource management). Players are usually unpredictable, so even when there's no physical element of randomisation, there's always the fact they'll push the plot towards totally unplanned directions. Even in a railroadish game, the GM might have to ocasionally go out of their way to keep things on track. This alone differs the experience of writing a story on your own, with no other creative force to compete.

    Dice are supposed to be an unbiased input, so as long as it's coherent it doesn't bother me. That's not the same as saying you need them to play, but games flow better when they have something to play the role dice are usually there to represent.
  • The main thing to avoid in RPG design is cargo cult design -- copying succesful elements without understanding the underlying principles that make them succesful.

    So the question isn't "are dice good", the question is "are dice good for THIS game, and why?"

    Is it a story game? Awesome. How do dice contribute to the game's agenda? (Maybe they introduce constraints to inspire creativity, as in Fiasco. Maybe they ensure spontaneity.) What other elements could serve these purposes, and are they better? (Primetime Adventures uses cards to create interesting emergent resolution to scenes.)

    Is it a game of skill, players vs world? Awesome! How do dice contribute to the game's agenda? (Maybe they lend a sense of fairness to the game, as in D&D. Maybe they make tactical decisions more interesting.) What other elements could serve these purposes, and are they better? (Amber uses a diceless system with clear-cut precedence rules to exhibit fairness.)

    When in doubt, go back to first principles. And if you can't justify something, drop it.
  • I love dice. I love rolling them! I don't love games that ask the players to go through this long multi-step calculation. As storygame designers we should be using our game components to reduce the workload on the players. Not just give them busy-work.
  • edited June 2014
    I've been thinking about this a lot... Not easy to answer. To have a broader picture, consider this:
    1. Playing chess vs backgammon
    2. Children playing with dolls vs playing a board game

    1. Both chess and backgammon are tactical (BG is not a game of luck, if you play at a certain level), both are about two minds working against each other. Both work fine, but dice make backgammon less deterministic and give it an element of surprise & excitement.

    2. When children play with dolls, they don't use dice, they still play - heck, they even roleplay! Still, they experience excitement and joy. I guess it's fun because they improvise: So, they use creativity, an open-mind and sensibility to interact with each other.

    So, dice mechanics give games a certain flavor.
    Randomizers are not necessary for roleplaying and having fun. If you have players who enjoy improvisation and stay open-minded about what will happen, you can ditch randomizer mechanics.

    This is very subjective and not comprehensive. Please consider this just as some brainstorming.
  • Seems to me that the success of games like Amber, MURPG and Castle Falkestein is testament to the fact that dice are not needed. I do think a lot of people do enjoy throwing dice. It must hit the spot that similar games of chance hit. Some people even have what appear to be rituals concerning how to roll the dice: shake it this way or that way, blow on it, close their eyes when releasing it. :) Come to think of it it's damn fun.
  • Dice are little trivial things. They're harmless to invest in. It's theses little bits of plastic or wood. Who could be upset at them? They're not expressing a political opinion. They're not asking you to acquire one particular state of mind. It requires little skill to use. As long as you can pick them up, and drop them. They're an easy buy-in, because they are close to nothing.
    Do I think you need them to tell a story, hell no.
    Some writers have used dice or chance to tell stories or compose music.
    Philip K. Dick and John Cage are two notables examples.
    I imagine Lewis Carroll(and H.G Wells)would've appreciated the hobby.
  • For my personal taste, dice are overused in most RPGs. I'd be happy with much less dice rolling.
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