What’s better: Rolling d100 or flipping a coin?

Nov 19 2012

'indecision dice' by snigl3t on Flickr

‘indecision dice’ by snigl3t on Flickr

Somebody mentioned to me a few weeks ago that rolling a d6 feels more limiting than rolling a d20.

That’s certainly how it feels. It’s fun to find a combination of bonuses that leverage the dice in your favor, and a d6 gives you fewer opportunities to do so. Indeed, lots of potential bonuses would quickly overwhelm the die’s randomness.

However, when examing the math behind a system’s mechanics, one finds that most designers work hard to keep the odds consistent. In recent editions of D&D, you’re generally rolling 1d20+2 vs. 10, or 1d20+22 vs. 30. Other systems will push those odds one way or another, but are still structured to keep significant margins of success and failure in all dice rolls.

Now, crunching numbers to stack the odds is a very geeky pursuit. It’s part of a game’s “fun,” its long-term appeal. Geeks love figuring out how to maximize a consistent system.

But when you’re trying to tell a story, this die probability mini-game can quickly get in the way. So here’s a counterpoint:

During the last +Indie+ convention, +E. Bryan Rumph playtested a coin-based game, The Coin’s Hard Edge, for me. I had a great time, partly because the coin flip made randomness clear. Your character will break the door open, or he won’t. The odds are obvious. If he doesn’t succeed, try something else, instead of spending 10 minutes searching for the right combination of skills, attributes, talents, gear, etc. to give you a slightly better chance.

Why do we use dice in games? To introduce surprise. I thought I could swing from that rope over to the next building, but I fell into the courtyard instead. Now what? When players can greatly influence randomness, surprise fades.

If we tighten our control of the dice too much, the game turns into poker rather than storytelling.

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