Choose Your Weapon

Historically, my dice have always sucked.

I picked dice for their ascetic appeal. (Chessex was my preferred brand, and I purchased more than just dice from them ~ my favorite product was a wet erase, vinyl map; grids on one side, hexes on the other.) Unfortunately, as a player, this meant that I pretty much always sucked. My dice had a horrible habit of rolling less than the average on just about everything.

as pretty as they were, I could never get a roll this high from them…

Where this hindered my success as a player, it helped my players’ success whenever I ran the game.

20d6 lightning bolt? Sure. Let’s do this. … 47. FML…

I didn’t really figure this out until I had stopped playing, having to focus my time more on work and family than the game, when it occurred to me that the critical distinction between player and DM ~ in terms of what dice you use ~ is frequency. The DM is rolling far more dice than the players ever will. Even if you can get your players to think of every single roll as contributing to the team effort, they’ll still view their individual rolls with a certain attachment. That’s perfectly natural reaction, and it’s something we should take advantage of.

So if, as a DM, your dice favor lower numbers slightly more than what’s considered average, that’s perfectly okay. It gives the players a bit of an edge in most situations. Besides, you can always bump up the challenge in other ways.

The bottom line is that, at best, the DM’s dice should be fair and balanced; and at worst, they should favor the players. This is why, after reading this article, I picked up Game Science dice; and I can’t not make a plug for them here ~ they are fantastic and every DM should have a set for his table.

Players, however…

Players should use whatever dice get them good results.

I don’t mean that players should cheat. No one should cheat at the game. If I ever find a player cheating, I give them a single warning because I’m assuming they weren’t listening when I explained my position the first time. There is no second warning: cheaters are expelled from the game. Forget “rocks fall.” Their characters cease to exist entirely.

But is it cheating to use a die that clearly favors certain numbers, as a result of its manufacturing or design process?

The dice are your players’ weapons. Their characters spend a lot of effort on acquiring treasure in the hopes that they’ll find a magic sword, or that they’ll have enough cash to commission a high quality blade, or they’ll earn enough prestige to be awarded some weapon from some aristocrat, probably as part of a knighthood. The characters work for these things but the players only have their imaginations and some words on a piece of paper ~ good enough for your game, so long as you honor it and don’t do anything to screw them over ~ but there’s something real about the tactile sensation of rolling a die between your fingers; something about the way the light glints off its mottled surface; something almost human about the way it teeters on the edge before softly landing to show that precious 20.

One of my best players did this thing whenever he went to buy dice: he would pick up a handful and study them, really closely study them, like he was appraising a gemstone. After examining and rejecting several (dozens), he would settle on a handful. He would take these to a nearby table, anything with a flat surface and good balance, and he would roll them a few times. It never took him more than a few rolls. And he didn’t seem to care what the exact numbers were, just as long as they were “above average,” whatever that meant for him. Those that made the cut ended up in the his pocket (paid for at the counter, of course); the others went back in the bin.

He never owned a full set. His dice were always a Frankenstein collection. And he always dominated the game. Not in a bad way ~ he wasn’t the center of attention and he was a strong team player ~ but whenever the players were in a bad way, when this one guy pulled out his one die, there was a collective sigh of relief as the tension melted away in the room. He didn’t always succeed. He didn’t always hit or deal maximum damage. But that didn’t matter to his party; what mattered was that he succeeded and hit and dealt max damage often enough for them to notice a pattern. It was just often enough for them to develop superstitions about his dice or his luck.

When he pulled out his sword ~ I mean, his d20, that special one, the solid black with red numbers ~ the table knew that shit was about to get real.

DM should have fair, quality dice. Players should have weapons ready for war.



6 thoughts on “Choose Your Weapon

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  1. I have a couple of Gamescience dice (including a very nice d20 numbered 0-9 twice), and I like them. An acquaintance gave me a set of gleaming metal dice as a belated holiday present, and I’ve used them with pride. Very nice, but also dangerously pointy.

    As far as whether a die is balanced: some DMs refuse to allow “spin-down” dice (the very large, nicely textured ones used as life counters for Magic: The Gathering), on the grounds that the high and low numbers being clustered together “means you’ll always roll either a high or a low number”. I pointed out that rolling a high or a low number is always a possibility, and their position on the die has no bearing on the probability unless it somehow affects the balance of the die – something for which they didn’t even have anecdotal evidence.

    (Just realized how much I typed about dice, but I suppose every hobby has its minutiae; a car nut of similar temperament could probably write just as much about manual and automatic transmissions.)


    1. I agree that the position of the number makes a difference to balance. It may be a very small difference, but it exists.

      You might try one of the home tests from the linked page with the “counter dice.” See if it demonstrates a clear bias or not.


    2. “…some DMs refuse to allow “spin-down” dice… on the grounds that the high and low numbers being clustered together “means you’ll always roll either a high or a low number”. I pointed out that rolling a high or a low number is always a possibility, and their position on the die has no bearing on the probability…”


      You are 100% correct. Position of the numbers makes absolutely no difference on a balanced die.

      However, those “spin-down” dice also should not be used because they are not balanced. It is inherent to the manufacturing process that their center of gravity is not centered.


      1. Speaking from experience? I ask because I’m curious: it makes sense to suspect spin-down dice of being off-balance because it’s one less consideration for the manufacturer, making the whole process less expensive. Or is that an incorrect assumption?


        1. Yes, correct assumption.

          The spin down dice only have to be decorative and readable. They are made by a process called compression molding. This is where they take a plastic powder or pellets and put them into an open, heated mold. Then the two halves of the mold are pressed together (thus the compression).

          This squeezes and melts the plastic in contact with the mold. But it generally will not melt all the way through. Because of the specifics about how the mold is heated and a variety of other factors, it does not melt evenly. So, from the get-go the center of gravity is not in the center.

          I’ve cut open a spin down d20 and the center was powder.

          If the die is handled before the plastic has cooled – and it almost always is due to productivity goals – it probably will deform because only a thin outer layer has been melted and gives it shape.

          Secondary operations may also skew the shape of the die. Often the die is painted. Then It is thrown in a tumbler to remove rough edges, give it a polished finish and to remove paint that is not in a deboss (indentation) for a number. Statistically, it should wear evenly. In practice, it doesn’t.

          Game science uses injection molding. In this process a molten plastic is injected under pressure into a mold. When it is cool, the mold is opened and the die removed. The dice will be attached to a “stick” of plastic called a sprue. The spruce is a remnant of the channels in the mold that the plastic runs through from the injection point.

          Some of the same issues exist here. If the dice have not sufficiently cooled, they could deform. But these molds are often cooled.

          Sometimes voids can appear in the center due to the plastic shrinking. These could skew the CG. I suggest buying transparent dice. You can see if they have voids. In fact gamescience sells “bubble” dice – gem dice with voids – at a discount because they are defective.

          While GS does not tumble them, the sprue can be an issue. If it were a Vegas casino, it would not be allowed. Casino dice are fully machined.

          Liked by 1 person

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