Dice Pool Party
By The Warden
Everyone loves a pool party. It’s a chance for everyone to get out and mingle with everyone at the same time, catch up with old friends, and make new ones. Therefore, this cheesy analogy concludes that everyone must love a dice pool party because it’s a chance for all the dice to be rolled and mingle with all the other dice, right?
Doesn’t seem so. Dice pools are when multiple dice are rolled simultaneously as part of a single roll to attempt a single action or effect. I love them. It’s a bizarre compulsion I have to drop as many dice on the table in one moment. The clacking of so many shapes of plastic with numbers bouncing up and down excites me like a toddler playing with that round thing which makes a lot of noise when you press the red button in the middle. Or a puppy with a squeaker toy. This perception, however, is not shared by all role-players.
My memory of using a dice pool goes back to the old wizard spells of AD&D (as does everything in my gaming career, it seems) as the old fart would drop down 18d6 with a fireball spell. I may be exaggerating on the exact numbers, but my eagerness on rolling multiple dice has been accentuated by my last paragraph. Even having a 2d6 weapon gave me a thrill as a fighter because I was rolling two dice to cut the dragon open. The application of these effect dice pools were limited and reserved for high-level play, a reward for sticking it out through the long run of a game and picking out spells to use at the right moment to inflict maximum damage (and make up for the fact that a strong wind would kill a wizard at 1st level).
Using dice pools as a resolution mechanic is often met with mixed reactions, a topic I’ve been considering for some time as part of my own work involving my own game designs. I wanted to build a dice pool mechanic for my game and was surprised by the reaction I’ve received over the past several months, including these comments that shall remain anonymous and paraphrased.
“They take too long to add up and slow down the pace of the game.”
“You’d be surprised how many players can’t add quickly.”
“A d20 and a d6 are different and take longer to process…”
“Why roll so many when you can simply use one?”
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and rarely do the majority of people stand behind any one opinion. I was taken aback by the immediate responses to the concept of dice pools and it demonstrates the daunting task of creating a resolution mechanic involving multiple dice.
PROBABILITY AND THE BELL CURVE
As we all know, using dice to determine success against a target number relies on probability, the odds of a particular number or series of numbers resulting out of a predetermined collection. Most RPGs are built using probability to determine the chances of success and ensuring players will be able to enjoy the game with the satisfaction that the odds are stacked in their favor. For example, during my days publishing D&D 4e products, I knew the basic probability for success was 55% as nearly every action roll was built on the premise of rolling at least a 10 on a d20 (especially the saving throw); modifiers and opposing defense ratings aside, all players were certain they would have at least a 55% chance of success on an attack roll. By adding on magic items and fighting lower level monsters, they could increase those odds. Boom, simple.
There are multiple sources online demonstrating what’s known as the bell curve for dice probability, particularly the common d20. One of their greatest arguments suggests using 2d10 instead as the bell curve increases one’s odds of rolling within a particular range (10-14) more often than on a single d20. Others suggest rolling 3d6 provides a more stable result. Some designers have sworn off using d20s altogether as the range on these dice sway too far in one direction or another. To test it out for yourself, I highly recommend SmallRoller, a dice probability calculator.
ADDITIVE DICE POOLS
A basic version of applying dice pools is to take your pile, roll ‘em all, and add up the total. The Star Wars d6 system and Exalted are examples of this method, predominantly using the same dice type with every roll. Others, such as Don’t Rest Your Head by Evil Hat Productions, apply this device with unique variants, such as selecting the highest colored dice to represent the highlight of the particular roll.
THE SUCCESS POOL
Other RPGs use dice pools to accumulate a total number of successes, thereby gauging the strength of the roll by how many times all the dice rolled match or exceed a success number. The Storyteller System from White Wolf Publishing and Lady Blackbird being recent examples of this style.
Applying this system encourages players to access more dice in an effort to garner more successes, a process working off probability but on a more reliable level. (It can also be a variant of the representation mechanic discussed back in Representation vs. Simulation). For an excellent dice pool probability calculator, you can try out Scott Gray’s Dice Pool Calculator.
MEASURING STRENGTH IN DICE
How a game applies dice towards its resolution mechanic depends on how the game and its designers wish to proceed and deliver their game, as it is with everything else assembled during the design phase. All we’ve been able to establish thus far is multiple dice of the same type (d10s, d6s, or whatever) increase the odds of stability.
So what about mixing it up with multiple dice of multiple shapes?
I know I’ve referenced it a couple of times already, but there’s an excellent reason why I turn to the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game – it’s a damn good system. And in this case, they use a mixed dice pool. Everything from d12s to d4s are grasped firmly in one hand, each one assembled from a superhero’s traits, affiliation, and other sources suitable to the given task at hand. The concept behind these dice is the stronger a hero is with a given aspect, the higher the dice rolled. Therefore, it’s safe to say the Hulk gets to use a d12 while Mr. Fantastic is lucky to use a d4 (that’s not how it works, I’m just using this to demonstrate a point), a tradition passed on throughout the Cortex System published by Margaret Weis Productions.
The difference in the Marvel RPG is the player and GM determines which of the dice in the pool are to be used for various effects. At least two dice are chosen for the total, setting the power of the acting or opposed roll, while the result is determined by the size of the dice set for the effect. To access additional dice in the pool, players must spend their Plot Points and the GM (or Watcher) can spend Doom Dice to add another dice to the total or to the effect.
Characters often stumble, trip up, or completely screw up despite their heroic best efforts, an unwanted yet necessary feat found in every RPG and dice pool games are no different. As this mechanic type functions on the result of every individual dice in the pool, disadvantage and fumbles can rise from rolling a specific number, such as 1. In the above-mentioned Marvel RPG, every dice resulting in a 1 becomes an opportunity for the Watcher to cash in (while simultaneously benefiting the player with an additional Plot Point if they take advantage of the opportunity).
In the original Storyteller System, every dice coming up 1s counts as a fumble and negates every success rolled; if the fumbles outweighed the successes, you completely screw up.
PROS AND CONS
Functionally, dice pool RPGs have as much to offer as any other type of game and, if anything, can produce more reliable results at the table than the standard single-dice systems. On paper, there is much about these mechanics one could view as advantageous and flexible; if you want to increase your odds, there are resources available to add more dice to your pool. In reality, it’s a tough sell. To paraphrase the rapper adage, “mo’ dice, mo’ problems.” Those who have grown up playing single-dice RPGs perceive games using dice pools as attempting multiple actions or resources in one fell swoop and place an unfounded stereotype of complication on such games. Perhaps this is why mostly independent and smaller-press publishers have made use of them, with certain exceptions such as White Wolf Publishing (though their success dictates they lost the term “independent” decades ago).
As more and more popular games begin to make use of dice pools, it is entirely possible this perception will change and the use of dice pool mechanics will see a slow and steady increase until the day eventually arrives when a new player says “What? There’s only dice to roll. Oh, I guess that’ll work, but isn’t that too simple?”