Adventure Dice Oracles and More

Adventure, Dice, Oracles, Transparency, and Chaos

Why adventure games would be wise to use transparent and simple dice mechanics.

Rags to Games

For a while I’ve referred to to the roleplaying games I write and draw and design as OSROWHY games – “OSR Or What Have You.” Then a couple of days ago Ben Milton of Questing Beast mentioned (previously used by The Retired Adventurer since 2012) the term “adventure game” and, more specifically, tabletop adventure game (TAG). I’m more partial to roleplaying adventure game (RAG), because I don’t always need a table with my adventure game, but I do always need a bit of role play.

So that’s cool, having a nifty word to describe it.

Playing At Community

In adventure games (RAGs and TAGs both) we’ve got one of my favorite communal activities, where a bunch of us humans gets together, makes stuff up, pretends to be imaginary characters acting and reacting in a joint imaginary world. Some folks like to run games like this without a referee player, personally I prefer them with a referee.

Why does a rag need a referee? I played cops and robbers, or nazis and partisans, as a child, and one of the biggest challenges that always came up was the showdown.

The One: “I got you!”

The Other: “Nu, uh! No you didn’t!”

The referee is there to decide whether The One’s rubber-band projectile actually struck The Other or not. The decision made, play can continue.

Rags and Ruins

The Oracle of Dice

But how can one referee an imaginary battle? Between the Blues and the Greens? Fantasy football between dragons and mindflayers? Nobody knows the outcome, not the players, not the referee.

That’s where the dice come in. The dice are the referee’s tool for portraying the possible. The referee plays the role of a dice-talker petitioning the oracle of the shared imaginary space for answers.

The referee can use use the dice as a broader oracle, to determine tomorrow’s weather or the politics of the kingdom across the mountains, the personality of a toadstool fairy or how the Moon died and was reborn. The dice are a tool, a conduit to the fantastic, and the result of the dice is the oracle made manifest. The referee interprets the oracles numbers and words according to rules and whim, common sense and common story.

As dice-talker the referee has two key tasks: they determine the question to ask of the dice and they can give final interpretation on the results.

The dice need not always be consulted, but they are always there – ready to bring clues, to create form out of chaos.

Ah, Good Oracle. Have you dice?

The Transparency of Dice

From my very first encounters with roleplaying adventure games, I encountered calls for a more realistic game, with better mechanics.

The first such influence was the AD&D dungeonmaster’s guide. I imbibed that overly baroque monstrosity and I created intricate classes and overdetailed worlds.

Later, in high school, I discovered probability theories and bell curves, and many people on the Internet discussing in painstaking detail what the best maths for the perfect gaming mechanic for their precise game should be.

It’s still a popular canard to moan and groan about the mechanics of D&D and how it’s unsuited to this genre or that. I think that canard is blanched, plucked, gutted, packed, and well past its sell-by date.

Whether a roleplaying adventure game uses one dice mechanic or another, or three, is largely irrelevant——so long as it or they are simple and intuitive enough for a 12-year-old to grasp easily. When the dice make it possible to ask clear and transparent questions, and receive unequivocal answers, they’re fine as oracles and make the referee’s job easy.

For example, a 1 in 6 is less likely than 3 in 6. An 11 on a d20 is 5% better than a 10. The increments are stable, the maths is simple, the numbers are manageable.

Then there are opaque dice mechanics. Rolling two dice is already pretty opaque. Rolling two different dice, three or more dice, adding and subtracting dice, and other weird combinations? Oh, you are gone.

Quick! What’re the odds of rolling 2–5 on a 2d6? Hurry! Compare that with the chance of rolling 2–5 on a d10.

When a game uses opaque dice mechanics—even as simple as 2d6—the stakes are harder for the players and referees to gauge. Who’s going to remember at the table that rolling 8 or less with 2d6 is equal to 72.2%? Why should they have to? Don’t get me started on dice pools.

When a roleplaying adventure game uses an opaque mechanic, it should be clear why it is doing so. What is gained by removing insight from players and referees and reducing their agency? There can be games that want that, fair enough, but they should explain why.

Break the robots.

The Chaos of Dice

Now, D&D isn’t a game that often uses dice in opaque combination. 3d6 get used for ability scores, 2d6 are often used for encounter checks, reaction rolls, and morale. And, perhaps in the most bizarre example, high-level wizard spells like the fireball do 10d6 damage (hint: there’s a 68.7% chance of rolling between 30 and 40, inclusive).

A common argument is that this is more realistic. The results cluster around the average and are not scattered around. After all, that’s just common sense, isn’t it? Things tend to average out and follow a bell curve, don’t they?

I think this is utter nonsense and try to do away with opaque dice at all times. Three reasons:

  1. The real world is long stretches of boring (bell curves) interspersed with unpredictable moments of interesting (dangerous). Why do you want to add all the boring to your game? You don’t have to be realistic, add the interesting instead!
  2. A 3d6 roll is basically a d216 with very clustered central values. A 2d6 roll is a d36. If the roll leads to a table look-up (encounters) anyway, why add the extra step of adding up dice? You can just have variable result distributions. For example; roll d6: 1–3 terrible, 4–5 bad, 6 good. If you want a bigger die, use a d30 or a d20. There’s enough steps to play with there.
  3. Finally and crucially, I have limited time to play roleplaying adventure games, and when I play, I want to have wild adventures. I’ve done the “cave with goblins,” the “hex crawl,” the “dung ages simulator.” It’s been enough. I want my dice and my tables to regularly deliver extreme events and unusual challenges. I want a picaresque of rare riddling beasts and whimsical battles with windmills, hysterical changes of heart, and indignant soliloquies.

There is something special about rolling a 20, a critical hit, on a d20. I love criticals and exploding dice, the scariest encounter (usually the dragon) and unexpected failure on what should have been a trivial test.

They bring the challenge to the players: how will you get out of this mess this time?

And that, after all, is what an episodic communal roleplaying adventure game is really about: making messes and getting out of them, while exploring wondrous new places and meeting strange new friends.

Oh, and sometimes, about stealing the golden aircar of Mizandoul Maker-of-Mirages from the treasure horde of the Synchronized Union of Friendly Friends of Earth and Raruka (S.U.F.F.E.R.).

Make your game more Picaresque. Do it!
It carries within itself the potential of endless faces.

Hey, time for the self-promotional thing! I run the stratometaship patreon where I publish the metal roleplaying adventure games I write and illustrate. It’s a buck a chapter, and so far a chapter a month, and lots of folks say the writing isn’t half bad. You can also just share it around—visibility matters! Thanks and welcome to the Year of the Pig! May the Dice Gods rain blessings upon you in their oracular wisdom.

10 comments

  • I think you’re assuming people understand probability better than they actually do. You give a d20 to someone, ask them what the average roll is, and they’ll usually (correctly) guess about 10. The problem is, if you ask them what roll comes up the most, they will (incorrectly) guess about 10 again. Most people feel like those middle rolls of around 10 are the most common rolls, that rolling a 10 or 11 is more common than rolling a 1 or a 20, even though they’re all equally likely.

    Which is to say, most people assume that their roll of a d20 is producing a bell curve (although they probably don’t know that phrase), even though it’s not. That’s what the 2d6 mechanic in most PBTA games is about. A roll of 2d6 actually produces the results that people incorrectly expect from a d20, ie. a few good good rolls, a few bad rolls, and a lot of middling rolls.

    The PBTA mechanic not only better matches what most people expect from the dice, but it packs that middle range of dice results with the most interesting, complicated, grey results. A wizard doesn’t just incinerate an enemy camp, they do so but it attracts the attention of a fire demon. A fighter doesn’t just stab an orc, they stab an orc and it’s poisonous bile spills onto their skin. A thief doesn’t just get gravely injured and roll to see if they pull through or not, they appear at the Black Gates and get offered a bargain by death itself.

    Those are the wild messes you say you want, right? The complications, the costs, the bargains, the morally grey stuff instead of clean cut black and white? The PBTA mechanic pushes you in far more wild and unpredictable directions than an occasional simple crit.

    • (was out all day, so approved late)

      On wild messes:

      No, I don’t want the dice telling me, “ooh, it’s a middling result, so add a mess.” I want the dice to tell me, “wow, that’s unexpected! Things have gone to hell in a handbasket!”

      In fact, the “middling muddling” of PbtA actually removes the oracular effect, because it forces the referee and players to add mess and muddle by fiat to most situations. Instead of providing a final resolution, clean as a vorpal blade, it’s making _everything_ messy. When you expect a mess, the mess is not fun. It’s a hassle.

  • I’ve been rolling dice for RPG (or RAG) play since the 1970’s and I’m not sure what you are driving at. To me dice don’t matter much but I do value not having to buy special dice just for this game and I like my dice to be easy to read. I have big hands and good mental arithmetic so I don’t mind rolling a handful of dice and adding them but I know people who are not so blessed. Dice are a means to an end … I’m here to play a RAG so having the dice rolling become a sub-game is distracting and for that reason I prefer to avoid exploding dice mechanisms. Many modern eurogames exploit game generated chaos to substitute for dice generated randomness. I would love to be able to work out a way to apply that to RAG conflict resolution but so far it eludes me.
    I also like the term dice talker 🙂

    • I agree with you very much. In an rpg, I think dice are just an “ultimate arbiter” or “oracle” – if you can find a solution by talking, you don’t need the dice at all.

      I’m perfectly fine playing with a single d6, or maybe two. But I have a special love for the d20. O.O

  • I think you’re assuming people understand probability better than they actually do. You give a d20 to someone, ask them what the average roll is, and they’ll usually (correctly) guess about 10. The problem is, if you ask them what roll comes up the most, they will (incorrectly) guess about 10 again. Most people feel like those middle rolls of around 10 are the most common rolls, that rolling a 10 or 11 is more common than rolling a 1 or a 20, even though they’re all equally likely.

    Which is to say, most people assume that their roll of a d20 is producing a bell curve (though they probably don’t know that phrase), even though it’s not. That’s what the 2d6 mechanic in most PBTA games is about. A roll of 2d6 actually produces the results that people incorrectly expect from a d20, ie. a few good good rolls, a few bad rolls, and a lot of middling rolls.

    The PBTA mechanic not only better matches what most people expect from the dice, but it packs that middle range of dice results with the most interesting, complicated, grey results. A wizard doesn’t just incinerate an enemy camp, they do so but it attracts the attention of a fire demon. A fighter doesn’t just stab an orc, they stab an orc and it’s poisonous bile spills onto their skin. A thief doesn’t just get gravely injured and roll to see if they pull through or not, they appear at the Black Gates and get offered a bargain by death itself.

    • Oh, I think people making that mistake and having the extreme results more often is far more interesting. Though I haven’t seen anybody actually making the mistake of assuming a 20 or a 1 is less common than a 10 or 11. I will ask my players. 😉

      That said, I know the PbtA mechanic well – the fact that it ‘fits expectations’ is … an annoyance to me. I want extreme results. The system of “complications” is also an annoyance to me. I think the referee should build a complicated environment a priori, not dependent on the rolls themselves.

      Yeah, different preferences 😉

  • I agree with very nearly everything in this post save one point. “If the roll leads to a table look-up (encounters) anyway, why add the extra step of adding up dice? You can just have variable result distributions. For example; roll d6: 1–3 terrible, 4–5 bad, 6 good.” I have a different take. I like using each of the possible results on 2d6 for outcomes, and the fact some are more likely. I find table populating and referencing is quick. Working out the likelihood of variable result distributions on a d20 or larger table, or even looking up the result, makes me go cross eyed. For character generation, I like how arcane 3d6 (drop lowest) is, but I realize now it is very nearly the only place I call for players to roll multiple dice. I also never make someone new to the game roll a character, I just give them pregens to pick from.

    • That is true – with the 2d6 you get the pretty nice spread and if you’re comfortable, the 11 results it gives are nice. And that 1-in-6 chance of rolling a 7 is pretty clean.

      It really comes down to preference very much. I like rolling a single die and looking at it slowing down to see where it’ll end up. Other folks prefer multiple dice.

      I can’t even say I’m utterly “consistent” – often I’ll suggest odds to players, and a number of dice to roll, after they lay out a plan. If they’re game for it, that’s what decides it.

Get UVG now!

Exalted Funeral is our honored partner for all things publishing and distribution.

Not just UVG, straight up the finest rpg, metal, and miscellanea this side of cloud-watered Lethe.

Join the Stratometaship

More art, more metal, more RPG, more Stratometaship.

or

The WTF Newsletter

WTF is loosely and proudly affiliated with the Hydra Coöp. Pay homage to the other hydras:

Dungeon Dozen
From the Sorcerer's Skull
Hill Cantons
Legacy of the Bieth
Rogues and Reavers
Straits of Anian
Sword +1

Buy Hydra

Contact