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Hot Button: Dice Pools

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On December 6, 2010 @ 8:58 am In Hot Buttons | 16 Comments

Some of my current freelancing projects involve All for One: Regime Diabolique, which uses the Ubiquity rules system (pioneered in Hollow Earth Expedition). Under this system, you roll a number of dice and count the “evens” as successes. It doesn’t matter what dice you roll; indeed, you could even use coins or playing cards if you wanted to.

At first, my players thought it was pretty sweet that they got to choose their favorite dice and just count evens. However, when I picked up a set of Ubiquity dice (different colored d8s that let you roll less dice and just add the results), my group found them much more preferable. The Ubiquity dice are simply more convenient and speed play.

This got me thinking about dice pools. As an old-timer, I’m hardwired to prefer single-roll systems, such as using a d20 or percentile dice. When dice pool systems such as Shadowrun and Vampire: the Masquerade came around, my groups had difficulty adjusting. While the settings were very compelling, we usually ended up adapting them to GURPS (which was done for us in the case of Vampire) or some homebrewed single-roll system. I believe that the Victorian age supplement for Vampire actually included a “one-roll” option.

There seems to be a general consensus that dice pools get unwieldy after a certain point, as most dice pool systems that I’ve read include methods to cut down on dice rolling (limiting the number of dice, granting automatic successes in place of dice, using an average, etc).

Even today, while dice pool systems no longer bother me, I still lament the amount of time that dice pools take compared to single-roll systems, especially those that allow “exploding” dice. Players actively avoided fights in my 7th Sea games just so we wouldn’t get bogged down in a long dice-fest (which ironically kept us from enjoying what was supposed to be the meat of the game).

I’m wondering if this was just an issue with my group or if other groups have difficulty adjusting to dice pool systems (or, heck, single roll systems if your group is used to dice pools). Is there something about a dice pool system that makes you cringe, or do you not even blink when you realizing that “hot new game X” uses a dice pool? As a corollary, have you found some dice pool systems better than others?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Hot Button: Dice Pools"

#1 Comment By Jeffrywith1e On December 6, 2010 @ 10:11 am

When I see Dice Pool, for me the first thought is D6 System. I have been interested in OpenD6 for several months and am interested to see where it goes now that it is open. The community is living and perhaps rejuvenated. One reason is probably the latest Mini Six, which has been getting great press.

The drawback for the system is apparent when dealing with ridiculous numbers of dice. That is a moot point for me as I rarely run games that get to that point.

#2 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On December 6, 2010 @ 10:30 am

When I first began playing Shadowrun (my first game involving dice pools, and my favorite game setting), dice pools were a unique and interesting innovation. It allowed for degrees of success, which I felt (and still do) were more organic and flowing than digital systems, such as D&D or now D20’s “success/failure” mechanics. The degree of success directly affected things like damage applied to a target, and let the player know exactly how well his roll affected the environment.

The downside is that, yes, large dice pools tend to slow down the game. The recent innovation in dice pool games is that they combine a bit of digital success with the dice pool to speed up test resolution. Exalted, NWoD and Shadowrun 4th edition (and the 20th Anniversary edition) have a fixed number that each die needs to achieve to succeed, but still have multiple dice to allow better scaling of success/failure than a single die’s “yes/no.” This is a definate improvement over both variable target numbers and variable number of dice.

I guess the gist of this is that I like dice pools.

#3 Comment By Dunx On December 6, 2010 @ 10:46 am

I ran a short Star Wars campaign, but it only lasted a handful of sessions so I never ran into the issue of monstrous numbers of dice. Still, throughout it all I was thinking “how could I convert this to BRP*?”

These days I would probably convert it to Savage Worlds.

The point about degrees of success is a good one, but as has been written about recently in this very Stew you can do the same thing with single result systems using critical/fumble rules, or the SW Raises, or any number of other approaches. Dealing with dozens of dice at once just seems terribly cumbersome.

[*] I probably thought “RQ” in my head at the time since this pre-dated the BRP label, AFAICR, but that was the intent.

#4 Comment By BishopOfBattle On December 6, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

I started GMing with Shadowrun and most of my player’s first time tabletop experiences were with the same, so there wasn’t an “old school way” of doing things we had to transition out of. Since then we’ve all tried other systems too and I enjoy both types of dice rolling mechanics for different reasons.

Specific to dice pools, though, I think from a Player perspective, it can be a lot of fun. If there’s one thing Players like to do, its roll dice. They want to roll dice any time they can and I always figure, if you get to roll ten dice at once then that’s like 10x the fun, right? (Probably not to that extreme)

From a statistical perspective, rolling 1D20 with a +10 to your roll because you’re a Stealth pro is basically the same as rolling 12D6’s compared to an average guy who would roll only 4 because you’re a Stealth pro. The difference is, the D20 player would only get to roll one die, the same die that everyone else rolls, even though they will by default do much better than others. The Dice Pool player on the other hand gets to count out 12+ dice, feel the bulk of them, and really get a tactile feel for how much “better” they are. It also makes the occassional epic failures that much more impactful.

Similarly, when the GM is running a BBEG who takes aim at a player in a D20 game, the villian may get the +12 bonus to hit that makes it likely a player will get hurt every round. But if the GM points at you and tells you the BBEG takes aim at your character and then you hear him shaking a mass of 15D6’s in heir hands, its a huge tension builder.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On December 6, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

I don’t think that dice pools are particularly unwieldy, nor do I think they offer a unique benefit. As Dunx noted, you can have degrees of success with single dice tests as well. 4E does this with critical hits (and weapon breakage in the new Dark Sun), and I think many groups do so intuitively: When someone gets a 33 on an Insight check, most DMs probably give that PC more info, even though the DC was only 15.

One thing that does tend to be different about pools is how they change probabilities, which are often poorly understood from the start (http://www.gnomestew.com/tools-for-gms/a-beginners-primer-on-probability). In nWoD, for instance, a PC adds his attributes and skills to get a dice pool, and each die rolled at 8 or better is a success. It’s not clear that the game was designed with the probability effects of this fully in mind, even ignoring exploding 10s.

Two dots in an attribute indicates average ability. With one die, your chance of success on an task is 30% (rolling 8+). If you roll two dice, it’s 51%, because to fail, both dice have to be 7 or less; each die has a .7 chance of getting that result, and .7*.7 = .49 chance of failure. Add a third die, and now you’re at a 65.7% chance of success. Another and it’s 75.99%.

There are a few things to note here. The first is that even a small number of dice give you pretty good odds, so creating challenge tends to require having pool penalties come up often. nWoD builds this in by having defense stats subtract from dice pools, for instance.

The second effect is the marginal change in chance of success. The first die changed your chance of success from 10% (because you can always roll a chance die in nWoD) to 30%, a +20 gain. The next created a +21 change. The next was +14.7, then +10.29, etc. In other words, each additional die is worth less than the die before it. On its face, this should discourage getting high scores in attributes, particularly in games where each die in a stat costs more than the previous die (like nWoD). Only by tying something beyond a chance of success to a die can you make greater levels worth the cost, such as access to new powers with each die.

The marginal change in chance of success is hard to calculate on the fly, which might skew decisions. For instance, D&D and nWoD have rules for “flanking.” In D&D, when A and B stand on opposites of X, they gain a +10% to hit X. In nWoD, X’s defense trait drops one level for each additional attack it’s avoiding in a turn, so if X has a defense of 4 and A strikes first, A’s attack is penalized at -4, and B’s attack is penalized at -3.

Suppose that A and B are facing multiple opponents. What should they do? In D&D, their decision is mathematically simple; working together gets them each a +10% chance to hit. In nWoD, it all depends on their respective attack pools, the opponent’s defense pool, their initiative rolls; in any particular battle, it’s not going to be possible to figure the odds.

This is something that happens in a dice pool game. It’s not necessarily bad or good. One might argue that impossibility of calculating in nWoD is bad because players can’t build characters effectively or make the best decisions. On the other hand, another might reply that in games where players can calculate odds easily, PCs’ decisions are more mathematical than they are entertaining.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On December 6, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

I like dice pools, but have never had a more than a 10 die pool to deal with. I don’t like adding 8d6, but I’m okay with rolling 8d6 and counting 5s and 6s as successes.

Of course, I’m also tempted to just pick up blank d6s (or d10s) and color in the appropriate number of sides for very fast success counting.

#7 Comment By Razjah On December 6, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

I like dice pools when teaching people. New players, in my experience, shy away from “geek math” and things like that. Dice pools give them something concrete to work with. They also get to understand that one bad roll doesn’t mean the end of the world. A 1 on a d20 with a bonus of +10 is terrible, but a 1 on a d6 when you are rolling 5 d6 you still have a very good chance of success. Also, dice pools help new players who see the polyhedral dice as all sorts of weird dice. With a pool of d10s at least all the dice are the same and they don’t worry about rolling a d12 instead of a d20.

#8 Comment By AJSB On December 7, 2010 @ 4:45 am

I played a long(ish) campaign of the old d6 Star Wars and can attest that yes, dice pools get unwieldy fast. (Particularly in that system, where a 6d6 starting skill was possible and using a force point doubled the number of dice you could roll. By the end my pilot was rolling 18-20 d6 at critical piloting moments! And you had a combined success total to aim for, not single dice totals, which meant a lot of adding up.) I’m not sure I’m really sold on the whole dice pool mechanic, to be honest.

#9 Comment By MaW On December 7, 2010 @ 8:15 am

I play Godlike, which uses a system called One Roll System. It’s based on pools of d10s, and we don’t find it unwieldy at all really. This is probably because the rules limit you to rolling 10 dice, and success is determined by how many of the dice show the same number, so no adding up required or anything tedious like that. The ‘width’ of your roll (how many of the same number you got) affects who’s action happens first (wider => faster) and how much damage you do (if it’s a damagey kind of thing – weapons are specced with things like “width in kill + 2 shock to hit location”), while the ‘height’ – the actual number you got more than one of – determines how well you do something, or where you hit the person you’re shooting at (ten being the head).

So it’s not all that difficult. Everyone declares, everyone rolls, widest matches are dealt with first, sometimes knocking out narrower matches entirely if it turns out you got shot by someone who was a quicker draw than you. The only real complication is the addition of hard dice (which are always 10), and wiggle dice (which are whatever number you want them to be, and you decide after the roll, so they’re mightily powerful things and therefore very expensive).

Some things entail a penalty to your dice pool, like trying to do multiple actions per round (drop one dice per extra action from the smallest pool of all the skills involved in those actions, then roll what’s left), or making a called shot to a specific location (set one die to the location you want to hit, discard another, and roll what’s left), or something the GM decides is difficult in that sort of way. Other things might require a height above a certain number.

And while characters can get more than 10 in any given skill via their superhuman powers, they only ever roll 10. And really, you’ve got something like a 99.9% chance of a match when rolling 10d10, so you don’t really need more than that. The extra dice give you insulation against difficulty, multiple actions, called shots and the like, and given that things like the size of your Body pool determine how much you can lift regardless of what you actually roll (the roll just determines how fast and how easily you lift it within your capabilities), having more than 10 can be useful.

So my experience with dice pool systems is good! But I’ve not used any of the others, and one can see in the One Roll System elements of avoiding some of the things described in the post and by other commenters.

#10 Comment By shadowacid On December 7, 2010 @ 11:32 am

The type of dice mechanic and the statistical spread of numbers it produces goes a great distance towards flavoring how a game works.

Shadowrun (my personal favorite game) would have a very different feel if it had the linear distribution that a single die roll gets. But the more bell-curvy distribution of multiple die rolls keeps everything towards the middle and you know that your character will generally be performing at a certain level most of the time.

#11 Comment By Panos On December 7, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

There is a really neat dice pool mechanic out there, that I discovered fairly recently and changed my attitude against dice pools. It is used by games like Chronica Feudalis, Ironclaw, Agon, And in a more narrow form also in Savage Worlds and Cortex.

It goes like this: you may include a variable number of factors in the dice pool, i.e. Attributes, Skills, Powers or what have you. Each of those factors is represented by die type; d4 is low, d12 exceptional. You roll all the dice, but keep the highest result. By using die types you can replace the large number of dice and still have the tactile feel of the dice pool. The challenge level is represent in similar way; in my house-brew system I include the opposition/challenge die (or dice) in the action pool, just in different color, and all I have to do to determine the quality of the outcome is to compare the highest green (good die) to the highest red (bad die). The number of factors may be anything the GM feels is appropriate/applicable to the scene: Ability, Tactics, Gear, anything, so it can boil down to 1 Green vs. 1 Red die dice pools or swell to half a dozen die pools vs. the respective opposite one. The dice pools are always manageable and require no time consuming math to water down the tension. The d4 – d12 range can take the place of 1 – 5 dice for each factor, in a similar scale of efficiency.

I want to clarify that the above is a more open interpretation of the Chronica Feudalis system which I moded for use at our Fading Suns game.

#12 Comment By troy812 On December 7, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

I love Hollow Earth Expeditions.
What a great game. I first played it at Gen-Con this year and have used it as my “go-to” game since.
I love the dice system + the style points … ahhh fast, furious and above all a fun game.

#13 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-12-10 On December 10, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

[...] Hot Button: Dice Pools [...]

#14 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 3:13 am

Despite my D&D roots, I’ve come to favor dice pools over linear because it just seems like it’s more fun. Plunking down 10d6 and counting successes brings a smile to my face, what can I say? It’s also nice to not sift through my pile-o-dice every couple of rolls to find that elusive d4 that I know I have around here somewhere or did I leave it at home ah screw it I’ll roll 1d8 and divide by 2 – instead I have a stack of twenty d10s and I know I need ten of them once combat starts.

From a game design perspective, die pools also cut out a lot of the math used to calculate the costs of buying a +1 bonus vs the cost of buying a +2 bonus – simply make buying another die in the pool the same cost every time and the reducing advantage per point spent takes care of itself. Getting a +10% the first time is easy, getting it another +10% requires more XP, but since every additional die has the same cost there’s no table to look up to level your character in the middle of a session.

Of course, that doesn’t stop most systems from increasing the price of further dice anyway, but if I were creating a fast-and-loose game system, I would choose die pools for that reason.

#15 Comment By black campbell On January 11, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

The first dice pool based game I played was WEG’s d6 Star Wars RPG, and after having to bring a wheelbarrow to have your rebel cruiser open up on a Stardestroyer, most of the dice pool systems seem a bit more streamlined.

Right now, the only one I’m running is Hollow Earth Expedition, where “take the average” gets used like a cheap prostitute.

Oh — congrats on Jewel of the Empire, Walt.

#16 Comment By Coldbringer On August 9, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

While my first couple of games played were of the single role variety, the games that I really considered “my games” have all been dice pool games. D6 Star Wars and Shadowrun were the first two and more recently Cthulu-tech and Wild Talents.

I do like the levels of success that dice pools offer and well grabbing all your dice as the GM and then asking to barrow a few more tends to get people nervous.

The massive amounts of dice can get a bit annoying, but there are work-arounds, like limiting when you roll and the like so its only when its really important, rather than rolling 15 dice to land a helicopter on a clear day.


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