Why dice?

Why dice?

· Caio Lente · #d&d  #system  #dice 

There are many articles on this specific topic, but I can’t stop thinking about it. The question kind of consumed my last few weeks in a way that I wasn’t expecting because it’s so simple. It was, for me, a tiny version of Fermat’s Last Theorem: a problem with a (deceptively) simple statement that takes ages to really understand and prove.

I’m just gonna rip off the band-aid and say it: why do we use dice in RPGs?

The question

Let’s start by refining the question, because in its raw state it’s actually wrong and unhelpful. First, it’s wrong because not every RPG uses dice; computer RPGs almost never explicitly use dice, and even some tabletop RPGs don’t use them (some use cards, for example). Second, it’s unhelpful because it doesn’t address the actual question behind the question; this isn’t about the randomization engine the developers choose, it’s about the randomness itself.

Think about how much uncertainty could be done away with if role-playing games didn’t rely on randomness. Wouldn’t it be cool if your character never missed? Wouldn’t it be nice if you always did the maximum amount of damage? How awesome would it be if your PC always passed every perception check, sneaked by every guard, persuaded every noble?

I know, a game like this sounds freaking awful. But why?! In real life, we’re constantly struggling because we can’t do everything perfectly. In sports, the goal of an athlete is usually to become as good as possible, as reliably as possible. But in RPGs, where we’re basically playing make believe, saying “you always do max damage, you pass every check” suddenly makes the game boring.

So a better question might be: why do we find randomness in RPGs fun?

Small aside

It’s important to note that, strictly speaking, not every RPG uses randomness. In Dread, for instance, players pull blocks from a Jenga tower to determine whether an action succeeds, and in Amber, actions are resolved by comparing attributes which the players determine during character creation with an attribute auction.

I think, however, that these are exceptions that prove the rule. RPGs with random elements are much more popular than those without, to the point that even computer RPGs still rely a lot on randomness in order to determine outcomes and/or damage. So the question “why do we find randomness in RPGs fun?” is still valid even if not literally 100% of RPGs use randomness.

The answer(s)

Now let’s try and answer this elusive question. I thought a lot about it, did some research (see the links at the beginning of the post), and finally got somewhere. After too much time, I came to the conclusion that there are three main reasons why we use dice (i.e. randomness) in tabletop RPGs.


Randomness is useful when trying to simplify complex systems. Do players want rules that model absolutely every single aspect of an action? Probably not. Even Rolemaster, with its (in)famous charts, still can’t precisely model every aspect of real-world combat, so some kind of simplification has to happen.

Computer games with realistic physics simulations might be able to avoid randomness, but then they become games of pure skill (aiming with your mouse, for example). In tabletop RPGs, where the players have no way of actually controlling their characters’ swords and spells, randomness is necessary to model accuracy and damage; for instance, wargames (D&D’s predecessors) use dice to simulate whether or not a unit hits1 or misses their target.

“Thus, in a board wargame, […] randomness has a positive aspect beyond creating a degree of uncertainty; it provides simulation value, because in reality, a military commander can never control everything that happens on the battlefield, so ‘random factors’ stand in for all the myriad issues that create uncertainty in a chaotic struggle.”

Greg Costikyan


Randomness can help bring a little bit of balance to a situation that in the “real world” would be resolved unambiguously. This keeps everyone on their toes because the tides can turn at any moment; any sure victory can turn into a defeat if the dice don’t play nice.

For example, if a low-level party tries to go against a high-level monster, odds are in the favor of the monster. If all RPGs simply compared stats in order to determine outcomes (like Amber), then the monster would win 100% of the time. With some randomness involved, however, the party can win if luck is on their side!

“While the tension of randomness can sometimes feel unpleasant, having no tension is even worse. Even against an equal opponent, many games can start to feel boring once you’ve won a significant advantage or taken a significant setback. You can either lose hope for victory or any fear of defeat.”

Dan Felder


As is usual in RPGs, GMs prepare the outlines of a story that then gets transformed by player actions; the dice, however, can surprise even the players, becoming a new source of drama and narrative uncertainty. In this sense, randomness becomes an agent of emergent narrative, where players and GM alike are all brought along for the ride.

Random encounters are a prime instantiation of this. The GM might generate a random encounter with an NPC that the players then recruit, or with a monster that ends up killing one of the PCs. Both outcomes are ultimately a consequence of player actions, but randomness is responsible for creating the situation (rolling for the random encounter) and influencing the outcome (successful persuasion checks, bad rolls on saving throws, etc).

“This is one of the most important functions of die rolls in a game. By injecting a source of unpredictability as to outcome, however shaped and controlled by the GM, they enable the deliberate derailing of plot trains.”

Mike Bourke


RPGs, especially TTRPGs, use dice in order to generate randomness. This randomness is desired because it is a tool for simplifying complex systems like swinging swords and casting spells, it keeps players on their toes by doing away with certainty of either victory or loss, and it fosters emergent narrative by surprising both players and GMs with unexpected results.

Now I can rest in peace. Finally. No more questions about randomness in RPGs. Truly. I mean, randomness is fun because it helps simulate stuff, add tension, and create drama. So more randomness = more better! That’s it, I found the nugget of knowledge at the end of the tunnel!2 Wait. Unless… No. Please, stop. Let it go. No more thinking about this.

Stay tuned for part 2!

  1. That’s actually why D&D characters have hit points. That comes from wargame units, which could only take so many hits before dying. ↩︎

  2. This metaphor makes sense, shut up. ↩︎