With improvisation, I just do it. It might be a total failure but then you just throw the dice again. – Christian Marclay
Contributing to a fun experience for everyone at the table is the only real “rule” i adhere to as a D&D dungeon master. All the other guidelines, tips and tricks contained in the rulebooks and offered by Sage Advice, countless YouTubers, Twitch streamers, blogs and articles are purely optional. If they work in your game to add more fun, that’s terrific and you should totally utilize them. If not, there’s no harm done in completely disregarding them.
However, D&D remains a game no matter your approach to it, and the thing that makes it unique is the trove of oddly-shaped dice laid out on the table. Along with pencils, paper and whatever version of the rules your group prefers, dice are the only other necessary component to playing a game of D&D.
For the uninitiated, here’s a rundown of the different die denominations and their place in the current D&D environment:
- d4: The smallest of the dice, this four-sided pyramidal caltrop-like die gives a random number between one and four. This is most often used to determine the damage on small weapons like daggers and clubs, additional magical benefits like those granted from the bless spell or crusader’s mantle’s ongoing radiant damage, and increments of time like 1-4 rounds, hours or days.
- d6: Rogue characters will need several of these six-sided cubes for all the extra sneak attack damage they’ll get, and squishy characters will be familiar with them because their hit points are determined with them. For those into a totally random D&D experience, 5th edition’s backgrounds have tables to come up with characters’ bonds, ideals and flaws with d6 rolls. A step up with small weapons, things like maces, handaxes and scimitars use these for damage, and suffering from a fall means rolling one of these for every ten feet of distance to see how badly the character is hurt. A lot of spells and monster attacks use the d6 for damage as well, often in multiples. The ever-popular fireball deals at least 8d6 damage, while an ancient red dragon’s fire breath doles out a massive 26d6 damage! More than any other die, the d6 is one that gets rolled in multiple.
- d8: Still in the lower half of the array of denominations, this diamond-shaped die is a workhorse. Middle-rank classes like bards, clerics, rogues and warlocks use this one for their hit points. Spells and weapons that use a d8 are reliable damage dealers. On the flip side, healing effects determined with the eight-sided die can swing the tide of a battle. Like for the d6, the backgrounds have d8-based tables for random determination of characters’ personality traits. Also like the d6, the d8 gets rolled in multiple for lots of spells and monster attacks like chain lighting.
- d10: Front-line combatants like fighter and paladins use these for hit points, and correspondingly big weapons use these for their damage. Quite a few mid- to high-level spells use d10s for damage as well – very often in multiple. Unique to the d10, distinct for any of the other dice, is using them for percentile rolls. Two d10 are rolled, to represent the tens and ones places. For example, if there is a 50 percent chance of success at something, the player rolls 2d10 resulting in a three and a nine, for 39. Since 39 is less than 50, the action is successful. There are several ways to roll percentile dice. Most dice sets come with two d10s, one of which has single digits and one with double digits, to show which is the tens and ones place. Or a player could use two differently colored d10, say a red and a yellow and call “yellow high” meaning the yellow will be the tens place. Or just roll the same die twice, with the first roll the tens and the second the ones. In 5th edition, there’s little usage of percentile rolls compared to older editions. Notably in the Player’s Handbook, the wild magic sorcerer can trigger a d100-determined wild magic surge anytime they cast a spell, and new characters can roll d100 to get a random mysterious trinket. As a DM i use percentile rolls quite a bit behind the scenes. In my group’s last session, they freed some prisoners from a cultist lair, and debated whether to continue on with the prisoners in tow, escort them back to town or simply let them find their own way back. A simple table i made beforehand provided their chances of survival. The party decided to let them loose to find their own way back, which gave them pretty low chances of living. However, they outfitted the freed prisoners with extra armor, weapons and supplies they had and that greatly increased their odds. A roll of the percentile dice behind the screen let me know whether they made it back alive or not on their own. The players haven’t checked back in town yet, so they have no idea what fate befell those they liberated (and i don’t want to spoil it for any of them if they read this).
- d12: Traditionally the barbarian’s die, this one is mostly used for determining a barbarian’s hit points and the weapon most associated with them: the greataxe. The role of the d12 role gets a bit of expansion in 5th edition though, with a couple of the bard’s special abilities employing it at higher levels. An evocation wizard also has one ability that uses the d12, except it’s as the negative effect on themselves after overchanneling arcane energy. And there are two spells that use d12 for damage: poison spray and witch bolt.
- d20: This will be the most oft-rolled die at the table, no question. Swing your mace at that fire giant? Roll a d20. Try to persuade an alchemist to give you a discount on some potions of healing? Roll a d20. Picking a lock? Climbing a wall? Deciphering ancient runes? Roll d20s all around. The meat-and-potatoes of D&D takes place through d20 rolls pretty much since 3rd edition, which introduced the d20 system that’s stuck with D&D ever since. All modifiers to die rolls aside, rolling a one on a d20 always results in failure, and at the other end of the spectrum a roll of 20 is always a success. But there’s more! Rolling a natural 20 not just a success – it’s a critical success. That means the outcome is more spectacular than just a positive result. In combat, rolling a natural 20 is a critical hit, and all the dice for damage are doubled. So if that character scores a critical hit on that fire giant, they’d roll 2d6 to determine how much damage they deal with their mace. Additional dice, like those from a rogue’s sneak attack or a paladin’s smite, are also doubled. Outside of combat, critical successes can mean that alchemist gives you a discount for life, or you glean special insight into those runes.
Some groups’ playstyle leans away from too much dice rolling, preferring instead a more narrative approach to their roleplaying and even combat situations. That’s perfectly okay; as we’ve established, the primary goal of D&D is to have fun however you wish.
i like to have players roll dice as much as possible. They’ll describe what they want to do in any given situation, and i tell them sure, and have them roll a check of some sort. Even in social encounters, when players act in character and have a conversation with an NPC, it comes down to a roll of the dice. The behind-the-scene trick here is to let the players’ words and action simply modify the difficulty of success on the die roll. Using the above example of buying potions from an alchemist, i would determine the difficulty of convincing them to sell their wares for cheaper is pretty high to start off. There’s not really any benefit for them to make less money. But maybe the player makes an argument that they’ll spread word-of-mouth positive advertising for the shop, or that the town is in danger and helping them ultimately helps the shop, or whatever the player comes up with to try and change the alchemist’s mind. At the end of the day, i’ll still have it come down to a die roll, except the bar of difficulty to success is lower. Doing so encourages players to engage more with the world, and simultaneously inject the random element of dice rolling that makes D&D a game.
The added benefit of rolling dice a lot means there are more chances to roll natural 20s and achieve critical successes. Players love rolling 20s. It’s arguably the most exciting moments during play. The probability of critical rolls is always the same, but the more you roll, the more 20s will come up. My DMing style cleaves to encouraging players to try anything they imagine that makes the game more fun for them, having them describe or act out what they want to do or say, then letting the dice land where they may.
There’s plenty of times when it might not even have a direct effect mechanically. For instance, a few sessions ago the party gunslinger wanted to run forward and slide on the ground between another of the group’s characters to take a shot at a cultist down the hall. He rolled an acrobatics check and failed, so it wasn’t a very graceful manuever. But he did end up prone on the ground where he wanted to be and took his shot. If he’d succeeded, he would still be prone and able to attack. If he’d rolled a one, he might have knocked his companion over or been unable to shoot, and on a 20 would have deftly got into position and had advantage on his attack (which would have been a die-doubling critical hit).
By and large, players are eager to do more than robotically swing their weapons and hit or miss, or get shut down with a DM saying no whenever they ask if they can do this-or-that. They elegance of D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games is that, without the boundaries of video game programming, contained board game rules and the like, players are free to let their characters attempt anything they can imagine. It can be disappointing to fail, but players often remember those failures with a smile just as much as their great successes.
One of the greatest joys i get as a DM is playing with people who have never played D&D before, and waiting for that moment when it clicks for them that they can attempt anything. i love when players start off saying “can i…?” to which the classic DM response is “you can certainly try.”
It all comes down to a roll of the dice.