Psychological Component of Mechanics

Started by Ari Black, March 07, 2011, 03:53:09 AM

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Ari Black

I've played a few RPGs. Many of them use the D&D D20 system or some variation. Others, like World of Darkness, use multiple D10s and count successes. I've seen opposed rolls and actions "bought" with dice, and pulling cards out of a deck, and a number of other mechanics. They all have their pros and cons and some match their games better than others. What I want to do is compare my experiences with two specific ones. D&D's D20 and WoD's D10s.

For the most part, the D20 roll is efficient and accessible. You roll one die, add modifiers, and compare to a set value for a meet or beat. It's fast, it's straightforward. It's also frustrating as heck when you roll consistently low.

Compared to the D20, the WoD D10s, even the revised version, is somewhat unwieldy and slow. You roll a number of D10s, the number being based on your character's skill in the action they're attempting, compare each dice against a set difficulty value for a meet or beat, cancel a success for each 1 rolled, reroll any 10s for a chance to gain another success, count the resulting successes and, if after all that, you have any successes, you succeed.

Yes, I know, I make it sound like a lot but it really is fairly quick when you know what you're doing. I've played with both systems. So my question is this: Why do most of the players I've GMed for find the WoD system more psychologically satisfying than the D&D system? The odds are fairly close to the same. I've seen players fail colossally with the WoD system and brush it off and the same players fail a minor roll with the D20 and moan about it for the rest of the session. Why is this? 


Well, one fairly established answer is that of the physicality of multiple dice.  Even if you roll piss-poorly, you still got to hear the clatter of eight dice falling onto the table.  Which also means there is a visceral difference between rolling with low numbers of dice and rolling high numbers; the degree of skill or power being exercised is directly visible.  So even if you fail, it's still quite clear that your 8-die roll was of a different order than a 3-die roll.

One of my WoD GM's used to roll his dice on a board that sat across his lap.  To see him gather up two handfuls of dice and to have them go thundering across this echo-board generated a quite immediate impression of "OMG we are so FUCKED", long before he got to counting them up.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Jeff B

I agree with Contracycle, there is just something satisfying about throwing a handful of clattering dice (read "horrifying" if someone else is doing something to your character).  :)

I'll speculate as to another reason:  There is just something depressing about attempting a reasonably simple or common feat in a d20 system and rolling a "4" or, heaven forbid, a "1".  Five percent of all your attempts will result in "1", and it always feels demeaning somehow.  After the fourth round of trying to hit the $#%#$!@#*! goblin, which only requires a 13 to do, you have rolled a 5, an 8, a 3, and a 6.  It's enough to ruin a character image.  A "1" is, after all, the worst possible roll anybody could ever make in a d20 system.  It's great fodder for cheap humor at the table, which is fine, unless you wanted to take your character and the game a little more seriously.  I think this wild, linear system is part of what causes many D&D games to be humor-based, regularly stripping away any dramatic build-up that players might attempt.  I believe the fact that it is, as I mentioned, the worst possible result also sends a symbolic message of utter failure.  I mean, things just can't get any worse, per the game mechanics.  Importantly, this failure percentage applies no matter how good your character is at the given task:  If he would succeed by rolling a "2", he will still be embarrassed 5% of the time when that "1" appears.  That will happen on average, say, five times per session?  Insert whatever figure you prefer there.

On the other hand, the multi-dice system you describe takes an inherently positive view of any action:  It is rare that the player will generate zero successes, unless trying something very hard.  Because of this, the message from the dice is:  "You succeeded, but not enough."  This is a much better message than, "You suck.  My hamster could have hit that goblin."  The multi-dice system creates a statistical curve that will, over time, teach the player when to expect success and when not to.  If the player is granted 4d10 to roll, and need roll only a 5 or better on just one of them, his odds for success are approximately 98.7:1 (I think), and his chance of rolling the absolute minimum dice score of "4" is a microscopic 1:10,000.  Heck, if he actually manages to roll a "4" on 4d10, give him a prize!  So this is much better than the 5% humiliation rate, regardless of overall success chances, offered in a d20 system.

I can't prove any of this, of course, but I think the d20 attack roll is just one of many arbitrary design elements that sabotaged D&D from its infancy.


I've always enjoyed the way Savage World dice physically shift as your character grows more proficient. When you pick up a d12, and everyone else has a measly d6, you can't help but feel warm and fuzzy - "That's right, my Spirit rating is AWESOME."

So, dice shape (as opposed to sheer number) seems to be another way to promote tactile difference between characters.

Ari Black

Thank you all for your responses!

I really think Jeff B has hit it on the head. Has anyone had any experience with a dice mechanic that's as, or close to as, streamlined as the D20 but doesn't suffer from the "My hamster could hit that goblin" syndrome?


Choice of dice.

Last night I wrote a little blog post about the same thing: forgive me if I link to it instead of rewriting it
My RPG and writing blog:

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

Ari, let's get some actual play discussion into this thread.

Best, Ron