The Saving Throw
Tabletop RPG Primer Last Updated: Nov. 21, 2005
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To Die or Not to Die: That is the Question

Or, to use dice or not to use dice.

Most tabletop RPGs have systems that are based on using die rolls to determine the results of actions. There are a few unusual ones that are designed not to use dice at all, but instead use some sort of comparative ability system or simply the gamemaster's judgment to determine the results of character actions. So, which is better?

There isn't a clear answer to this question. Using the dice is typically far better in campaigns or games that are going to be combat-oriented, avoiding the gamemaster always having to make all those minute decisions, like deciding whether an attack hits and what kind of damage it causes. However, using dice also imposes more reliance on a game's rule-set, and that can be more restrictive to the story--not usually by a great degree, but it is more restrictive nonetheless. Additionally, rules and rolls can often significantly slow the pace of a game; I've experienced single combat encounters that lasted hours by themselves, largely because of the need to continually add and subtract, apply modifiers, and statistically improbable series of low die rolls that prevent anyone from hitting each other.

Not using the dice tends to work well only in highly story or role-play-driven campaigns, where the emphasis is on player character creativity and interaction. In these campaigns, character skill levels are much less relevant because the game becomes more of an interactive, mental, or social exercise rather than being about rules and rolls. In general, these will tend to go faster, but detailed enough campaigns can proceed just as slowly as a dragging combat encounter. That's not always a bad thing, of course, as long as the story is interesting. Note, though, that campaigns where dice are used can be just as story-oriented as campaigns where dice are not used; however, the tendency is for campaigns using dice to be more combat-oriented and campaigns without dice to be more story-oriented.

This also depends largely on the players involved. So-called "hack-and-slash" players are interested mostly in combat and character advancement, not interaction or story. For them, dice are recommended. But some players will find the series of die rolls in combat very tedious and dull, and in these cases, it may be advisable to leave the dice at home and focus on story. This just demonstrates the importance of the gamemaster knowing the playing style of the player's involved while he or she develops a campaign.

Language of the Tabletop Gamer: The Common Die Codes and Modifiers

Ever wonder what 2d6, 2d4+1, or +2 sword mean? Well, it's actually pretty easy. A large majority of tabletop games use a virtually identical shorthand to identify what dice to roll and how to determine the result.

For the die codes, the first number, before the "d", indicates the number of dice to roll. If there is a number immediately after the "d" (no plus or minus first), it indicates the exact dice to use by the number of sides. Thus, you often see this to refer to various polyhedral die: d4, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d100. Sometimes, these indicate dice that don't actually exist. "d3" is the most common example; this is accomplished by rolling a d6 (standard six-sider), halving the result and rounding up. If there is a plus or minus followed by a number at the end of the code, you just add or subtract that number from the total result when you roll.


  • 2d4: Roll two four-sided die and add the rolled values together.
  • 1d4+1: Roll one four-sided die and add one to the rolled value.
  • 3d8-4: Roll three eight-sided dice, add the rolled values together, and subtract four.

See? It's easy.

Sometimes you'll see something like this, however: 2d+1, or just 2d. Usually, this refers to standard six-siders, but some games that only use one type of die may use this shorthand, too. In this case, you just use that exclusive die in whatever number indicated.

+2 Sword and similar phrases originate from AD&D. These weapons are usually magical, and provide a bonus to both hit and damage rolls. The "+2" or whatever you see is the magical bonus. Weapons with really high magical bonuses often have more elaborate names, like +4 Mace of Impacting. Often, these weapons have additional effects or powers as well.

Mini Me: Using Minatures

Usually, when role-playing a combat encounter, the gamemaster tries to keep a rough mental picture of where everyone is during the fight. This can quickly become difficult, however, especially when there are many combatants involved in a fight and the gamemaster is controlling most of them. Thus, the gamemaster usually only manages to keep a vague idea of where each character is; this can make for rather static and unchanging combat encounters.

One method to try and address this is by using miniatures to represent the combatants in an encounter in conjuction with some type of grid. Hexagonal grids are the most common. Many tabletop RPGs have rules designed for the use of miniatures, but I am aware of no games that actually require them. In fact, before the second edition of AD&D, movement rates were listed in terms of the number of cells a character could move on one of these grids. In Star Wars RPG (West End Games edition), the space speeds of starships are listed in the same way.

While miniatures can help to make combat encounters more involving and interesting, they also add another minor layer of complexity to combat, which is typically already the most complex portion of any gaming session. For this reason, many gamemasters and players may prefer not to use them in the interests of trying to keep combat encounters as fast-paced as possible.

The Mysteries of the Dice Further Explained

Still curious about how different dice systems work? Well, while I already showed you the old West End Games system, I'll tell you a little more about how various other systems work to demonstrate the variety.

  • Various flavors of AD&D: AD&D has always used the dice in a number of ways, partly (I believe) to use all of the polyhedral dice available. It is very likely the origin of the commonly used die codes. The latest edition, the Third Edition, based on the "d20 system", isn't as bad, generally using a simple system of rolling a d20, adding in a modifier based on an attribute and then on a skill against a particular difficulty number determined either by the gamemaster or by specific rules. If the roll meets or exceeds the difficulty number, the action succeeds; otherwise, it fails. AD&D uses HP to represent health, and each weapon has its damage defined by a die code, such as 1d4+1 or 1d10. The roll determines the amount of damage in terms of HP, which is how most of the polyhedral dice are used.

    However, the 2nd edition used many different rules depending on the situation. Hit tests were rolled with d20s. The number to beat was determined by the attacker's THAC0 (To hit armor class 0) minus the target's armor class. (Lower armor classes were better). Rolling either that number or higher represented a hit. Proficiency checks worked the opposite way, usually being based on a particular attribute, and requiring you to roll the attribute's value or lower to succeed. Saving throws, also based on a d20 roll, were similar. Thieving skills were rolled on a d100 (usually actually two ten-sided dice, one marked 0 through 9 and the other marked 0 through 90 in increments of 10), and again, one had to roll their skill or lower to succeed.

    This probably explains why the system was changed, as it imposed a higher-than-necessary learning curve.

  • Shadowrun: Shadowrun's system, as of Third Edition (the last I am familiar with), uses six-siders exclusively. A skill's rating determines how many six-siders you roll, but in Shadowrun, the rolled values are not added together. Instead, sixes can be rerolled, adding to the result of each die. Then each die is compared to a difficulty number, usually in the single digits. Each die result that matches or exceeds the difficulty number is considered a "success"; the number of these "successes" determines how good or bad the result is.

  • The Icon System: The Icon System was used in Last Unicorn's line of tabletop RPGs. It, too, uses six-siders exclusively, but in an unusual way. The value of the attribute a skill is based on determines the number of dice to roll. Only the highest roll is used; the value of the skill is then added to it and compared to a predetermined difficulty number. Matching or exceeding the difficulty number indicates a success. Like West End Games' "wild die", the Icon System uses a "drama die", which is one of the dice rolled. A 1 on the drama die turns any failure into a dramatic failure, while a 6 on the drama die allows the next highest die to be added in as well.

Shawn "Ahhhhhh! Too Much Information!" Bruckner

On This Page
To Die or Not to Die
Common Die Codes and Modifiers
Using Miniatures
Dice Systems Explained

You Want Less Detail?
(on the previous page)
The Gaming Materials
The Gaming Participants
Player Preparation
Gamemaster Preparation
The Gaming Session Itself

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