Goblin Dice

Dice do many different things in our RPGs. They are a crucial element of the Game part of it. They model the un-modelable, all the little things that combine to determine what happens. They offer the illusion of challenge – we know the PCs will win. They take the story in unexpected directions. But do the same dice do it all?

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important.

And, immediately, a caveat: unless your game is just about rolling dice. In which case, good for you, and carry on. But I want story from my roleplaying, in addition to rolling dice. D&D and its ilk don’t warn you that it’s not what they were made for, and so many people still try to use them for this, because they don’t know any better. I didn’t know any better, and it’s only now, after a decade of GMing, that I’m coming to realise it, undoubtedly reinventing the bicycle.

So why do I say goblin dice are unsuitable for anything more important than killing goblins? They are swingy. They offer no nuance beyond the binary pass/fail. They are meant to be rolled a bunch of times over the course of killing goblins, not once to see if you can survive/convince the king to help you/save the world. Failing a roll is anti-climatic, but that’s ok, contingent on getting more rolls soon. Missing a goblin is fine… but even in 4e it’s getting less so. Partly because the turns take so long, and party because everyone, not just wizards, have limited resources they can expend on that roll (encounter or daily powers). It’s not fun to miss and waste a rare resource through no fault of your own. It’s even less fun to die this way. Skill challenges introduced in 4e try to mitigate this, with mixed success.

So many issues I have with D&D stem from this simple observation, so much of GMing advice and wisdom accumulated over the years is aimed at circumventing it, that writing it feels like stating the obvious. And yet I haven’t really considered it from this angle, so, perhaps, neither have you.

“Never have a single roll stop the party from progressing through the adventure.” Social skills, unusable for anything meaningful. Save-or-die. GMs “cheating” to improve the game. Goblin dice are at the root of it all.

That last one deserves more attention. GMs and game designers have dedicated so much effort to making the games do what they want despite the goblin dice. In a certain class of game, you want the good guys to win in the end, not the guys that rolled higher. To put it another way, genre or GM or even players often know better than dice, especially goblin dice.  Of course they do!  And there are other games that acknowledge that. Yes, I’m talking about narrative control and players-as-authors or players-as-directors, and other Big Model-esque stuff.

While this post is not about solving the problem, merely about stating it, I’ll offer a couple of ideas. The obvious solution would be to steal a conflict resolution mechanic of your choice, and use it in place of goblin dice where appropriate. Another idea, that has just occurred to me today, is to replace a single goblin die roll in non-goblin situations with a triple roll of the same dice. Normally, you’d use the middle roll, thus creating something approximating a bell curve, without actually changing any numbers in your game. You can opt to use the high roll as a “yes, but…”, a success with a complication. And perhaps using the low roll (and still succeeding) would be a “yes, and”, allowing for extra shiny outcomes. Or you could wager upon succeeding with the low roll. Not yet sure if this idea is any good, though.

There’s more to be said on the topic of transplanting different narrative control approaches into “traditional” rpgs, but that’s what next post is for.

12 thoughts on “Goblin Dice

  1. A game is a game as long as you can win or loose. That’s why the dices are used. If you remove or negate them then it will be not a game but a story.

    Sure thing it is bad for game when a character dies from a sudden bad roll against random tavern drunkard. But most of gaming systems have fail-safe measures from some destiny points to outright raise from dead *cough* dnd *cough*.

    1. >>A game is a game as long as you can win or loose. That’s why the dices are used. If you remove or negate them then it will be not a game but a story.

      First, there are games without dice. And second, this is where the dreaded agenda comes in. In some groups, story is more important. “You can’t win in a roleplaying game” is a well-known maxim they choose to adhere to. But you’ll notice I don’t actually advocate not using dice. No, I suggest we avoid using dice meant for unimportant outcomes to determine important outcomes. And when I say dice throughout, I mean dice mechanics, of course.

      >> Sure thing it is bad for game when a character dies from a sudden bad roll against random tavern drunkard. But most of gaming systems have fail-safe measures from some destiny points to outright raise from dead *cough* dnd *cough*.

      Don’t get me started on raise dead in D&D. I actually have a post on the topic… Yes, destiny/plot/fate/hero/action points are a way of overcoming goblin dice. But it’s a stop-gap measure: it doesn’t recognize the difference between the dice, just that goblin dice can produce undesired outcomes.

  2. Check Fate Core for “bell curve” rolls with “yes…” . It is clearly simple, but kinda system locked, because Fate.

    And one more – normal distribution will bite your ass of in very unexpected moments if you do not have some additional points mechanics (aka Fate Points) to “balance” it.

  3. In some games, such as horror/zombie RPG’s, it is extremely important to use goblin dice for the most vital of rolls.

    Of course, in a survival RPG nearly every roll is a vital roll, hehe.

    I believe that instead of trying to figure out how to tell a story in a game that you “can’t win”, you should instead find ways to further the story and allow playability despite losing.

    You would think that Epic Characters shouldn’t die to random tavern drunkards. Yet my philosophy is to punish players for being needlessly violent and always resolving conflict through combat and murder. However, character development can occur from a random NPC once he lands a killing blow on a very powerful character. Perhaps he is a dishonored hero himself.

    Characters dying can greatly enhance the story, and in more realistic games (Shadowrun, Survival games, Horror games) it is vital to the gritty theme of danger and death. IMO, no threat of death in a RPG means no real challenge, no real victory, no real fun. Of course, I am probably the worst at not wanting a favorite character to die, or an epic character with a deep backstory and significant personality to simply perish to a generic NPC in a generic mission over a few thousand currency.

    Still, the problem as I see it isn’t in the story being destroyed by character failure or death, and thus you should allow the player to succeed so the story isn’t ruined. The problem relies on playability after a character dies, and the fact players will want to keep playing after death or instead of it- because it isn’t fun to sit out or have to go home because of a bad dice roll. The problem relies in a story that revolves around the PLAYERS, not a greater goal.

    Ego-Centric stories typically end when the ego is destroyed.
    A bigger story that is about far more than selfish individuals will never end.

    Just look at the horribly crappy X-Men 3 movie. Almost everyone dies in it, which is a big reason people hated it. Of course, that is also far more realistic than not a single person ever dying and the badguys being “imprisoned” or knocked out instead of bloodily murdered. The problem isn’t the reality of heroes being killed left and right in petty ways that sometimes don’t even further the plot, but the ego-centric perspective people have over their favorite heroes. I am not saying I am right to suggest alternatives, as that might degrade the quality of the story. I’m just saying that’s where the problem lies.

    A problem that horror/survival/gritty RPG’s and “scary movies” don’t have. Instead of being centered around the HERO, it’s actually centered around the VILLAIN. No one cares if the villain dies. However, the VILLAIN needs to kill heroes for him to BE a villain.

    A superhero game where you play AS the villain, doing awful things, would result in botched rolls an goblin dice being WANTED in vital situations. The random NPC police officer who shoots The Joker dead will be deemed a hero- and a new, more powerful threat to the next villain the character creates.

    1. Perhaps a RPG should encourage having several characters created, and leveled up, during initial character creation.

      This way, when on an adventure- a Wizard, an Archer, and a Warrior venture to save a Princess.

      Soon the party finds themselves surrounded by 6 goblins, sent by the Villain. Here are various outcomes. Each player has 3 characters drafted up before playing.

      1) Everyone botches their goblin dice. They’re all dead. The worst situation, but a required one. Random NPC goblins won. All three players start over as a different party, who set out for the same objective, using their second characters: three Rogues. Fortunately they are about the same distance to the Princess as the party that just died.

      2) Reinforced after their victory, the goblins attack the players again. 6 goblins v. 3 rogues. PlayerA’s rogue dies. After their victory, the GM has a perfect opportunity to surround them with an entire army of goblins- something they cannot possibly win. Fortunately, an elven army arrives, slays the goblins, and learns of the adventure. As a token of empathy, the elves command one of their soldiers to assist in the adventure. (PlayerA that had died, now plays as his third character.)

      3) The three make it to the Villain, and engage in an epic battle. Almost instantly, the wizard kills all three heroes due to amazing dice rolls. PlayerB and PlayerC have a single character left. As PlayerA sits out (or joins in with a 4th character.) 2-3 barbarian characters, on a separate adventure, arrive days after the death of the elf and rogues. Combat pursues, and the likelihood of the Villain insta-gibbing with critical hits is probably not likely to happen again.
      If the Villain is obviously going to lose, perhaps PlayerA could instead play as a villain’s assistant, which would make it GM + PlayerA vs PlayerB + PlayerC. Have some PvP involved!

      4a) If victorious, the princess is saved by the remaining barbarian(s).

      4b) Failure. The Villain barely survived with a few hitpoints. Wounded greatly, the princess managed to kill him and escape! Or perhaps he bled out or was killed by a minion who saw him weak. Insert villain foul caused by bad deeds, resulting in princess escaping.

      4c) Failure. The Villain survived, mostly unharmed. The reason he wanted the princess? Control over the kingdom. The story now progresses a decade later, where a new campaign begins under the rule of a dark power. Orcs patrol the city, the castle now belongs to the goblins, and humans are enslaved while the elves wage war with the villain.

      IMO, this story is about the Kingdom, about the World. Not about the heroes. It’s not ego-centric, where the story revolves around the characters. The story instead revolves around what the characters stand for- freedom, good, lawful deeds, greed, whatever.

      Dynamic player control, random story alterations, and a greater goal that focuses on things outside of individual characters is IMO a far better story.

      Just look at Game of Thrones. It’s not based on a single character. In fact, main characters are constantly killed off. Instead, it’s based on the KINGDOMS involved. And there just happens to be someone still around fighting for every kingdom.

      1. Welcome to my humble blog, glad it evoked such a response from you. Note, however, that I’m not suggesting we get rid of death or failure in games. Instead, I suggest that such things shouldn’t be left to goblin dice. A character dying because they chose to pay that price for the greater good (or refused to do something terrible in order to survive) is much more memorable than a character dying because they rolled a 1.

        Game focusing on overall story of the world is one way of playing it, but it’s not the only one. It’s a good fit for, say, Dark Heresy, where the world is terrible and life is cheap. But it won’t necessarily fit a group interested in heroic fantasy of D&D or the like.

        And even in a game where a character’s life is insignificant, something else isn’t. If the game is about a kingdom more than it is about characters, then perhaps characters’ fate can be consigned to goblin dice, but the fate of the kingdom shouldn’t be resolved with them.

  4. Excellent post. I’ve read about how the 3d6 resolution produces a bell curve that’s much more balanced. An expert can depend on his skills in any ordinary situation, while rolls on low numbers will reliably fail. I’ve read about this in the GURPS context, where it’s native to the system, but a quick google on “3d6 bell curve” produced a bunch of results on adapting the 3d6 mechanic to DnD games.

    The only problem I can think of is throwing a d20 is more fun than rolling three ordinary yahtzee dice.

  5. A beautiful piece of insight. And I very emphatically do love the term—although, poor goblins…

    That said, I can relate with the feeling of meaningless death being important to grit-heavy settings. I imagine a different mechanic might work better than your goblin dice.

    The problem—my problem—with mitigation mechanics, especially ones involving negotiation between the parties in conflict, is that they can often feel fluffy in a huggable teddy kind of way.

    Or are goblin dice appropriate in a setting where the characters’ lives should feel insignificant? In a horror setting, should the frustration of meaninlessness failure be left alone? Is that part of the masochism which called for the setting in the first place?

    More interestingly, in a gritty setting like Song of Ice and Fire, should goblin dice persist somewhere? Admittedly, though shocking, character death in the books SoIaF I’d think isn’t ever arbitrary: a tactial mistake, or a mistake of judgment and politics, is usually what brings them about. The only death which felt frustrating and like a goblin die death to me was that of Oberyn Martell, but then it was his pride (not an imagined goblin die) that got him.

    But what do you think? Is there another blog post coming up which will discuss gritty/survival/horror and the role of goblin dice?


    1. Glad you found the idea useful!

      Different kinds of games do have different expectations for the way their dice work, something this post doesn’t really address. Though even then, the sense of mortal danger or “grittiness” can be accomplished through other means.

      For instance, in OSR-like games, death is often a d20 roll away – but the focus of the game is typically on avoiding the roll, outsmarting the dangers. If you got into a tough fight or triggered a trap, well, better hope you’re a lucky goblin.

      In horror games, the shocking and meaningless deaths can be approached in different ways too. See Dread, where the players pull blocks from a jenga tower whenever they do something risky. Each pull is a bit like a goblin die roll, except it is combined with the growing tension as the tower becomes unstable, mirroring the fiction. Or Cthulhu Dark, where PCs simply die if they try to fight monsters – no roll required or possible.

      In these examples, as in SoIaF you mention, severe consequences don’t just happen due to a goblin die, they are earned.

      That said, it’s also possible to have games where the PCs take on the role of goblins, sometimes literally: see the slapstick Goblin Quest (http://ponderingsongames.com/2015/07/30/first-impressions-goblin-quest/), for instance.

      Bottom line: goblin dice are fine as a mechanic, they can even be used for important things, but there should be a reason for it.

  6. Without the chance to fail, what does success mean? “What kind of game are you playing” – one where the “hero” has a chance to die at the hands of the vile enemy, or one where failure is not an option as an outcome (or something in between?). D&D (among others) has the chance of failure built into it. If your point is that goblin dice aren’t a good tool for that, then suggestions for a better tool certainly would be a welcome inspiration for other GM’s.

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