That’s actually a daunting topic. I could go on at great length about dice bags, certainly. The dice we gave out as wedding favors. How my original D&D dice (the ones you color with a crayon) all met a terrible fate when I left the expert D&D box on top of a heater. But instead, I’m going to pick a trick I’m very fond of. See, it’s very easy to come up with a pretty robust system of randomness when you have an unlimited number of dice to draw from, and it’s with that in mind that it’s always nice to travel armed with big stack of dice, but sometimes that’s just not an option. Sometimes you need to pull a game together with just whatever fits in your pocket, so there are a few interesting tricks for getting a seriously broad range of outcomes with just a few dice.
Now, if you only have one six sided die, you’re kind of hosed for variety. You can roll for the value from 1-6, or you can make a binary success or failure (usually on 3+, 4+ or 5+ depending) but there’s only so much variety out there. Certainly, you can even make a weird sort of curve, with
- Spectacular Failure
- Partial Failure
- Partial Success
- Dramatic Success
But with a single die, the randomness of that is crazy. Still, it’s a useful chart as you manage to scratch up more dice.
With 2 dice, you start getting some interesting options. Just adding them together gives you a little bit more of a curve, but that’s not the only trick. If the dice are different colors you can subtract one from the other to make a range from -5 to +5, as is done in Feng Shui or ad hoc fudge. Alternately, you could subtract the smaller die from the larger die to produce a small number from 0 to 5, weighted towards 1. Lastly, you can introduce some level of skill by allowing the roll of two dice and choosing the best one (or the worst one) for anything that you could do with a single die, including that success chart.
3 dice, though, is a magical number. If you have three six-sided dice, you can do almost anything.
Right off the bat, it’s a 10 centered curve, which makes it a reasonable (if imperfect) stand in for a d20. Plus, in some ways, this makes for an even better way to generate a fudge-style curve than d6-d6. Many, many gamer have internalized the D&D stat curve, so they know a 12 is a +1 and a 6 is a -2 on such an instinctive level that they can read a 3d6 and turn it into a value from -5 to +5 with negligible thought.
There’s another trick from fudge as well which can be useful here, called min-mid-max. When you roll 3 dice, depending on circumstances, you can take the lowest, middle or highest value. By itself, this allows a simple skill system (Untrained, trained and expert) which can be used with any of the resolutions you can use with a single d6, including that chart. Alternately, you can do a 7 step system that goes something like this:
- Lowest die (average 2)
- Middle die (average 3.5)
- Highest die (average 4.9)
- Lowest die + Middle Die (average 5.5)
- Lowest Die + Highest Die (average 7)
- Middle Die + Highest Die (average 8.4)
- Sum of all 3 dice (average 10.5)
This is a fun one because while the averages progress in a reasonable fashion, the maximums have curious jumps. Being level 7 is the only way to get a result higher than 12, just a being level 4 is the only way to get a result higher than 6. This creates an interesting 2 tier model, where the best of one tier (level 3 and 6 respectively) are almost as good as the worst of the next tier (4 and 7) over the long run, but there are some things that they just can’t do. I find there are a lot of things this models very well, especially in a game with a lot of competition, such as Amber.
Now, this only scratches the surface of what can be done with a few dice, and doesn’t even touch on fun things like bluffing or hidden information. But what I hope it illustrates is that dice, even just a few of them, are incredibly powerful and versatile. When you think about a system it might be fun to go deep into the dice bag to make things go, but when you need to make do with less, there are still a lot of options.
1 – Pretty sure this is stolen from Dying Earth
2 – Int((3d6-10)/2)
3 – One nice bonus there is that it makes “faking down” your level of ability entirely doable even with open die rolls. You simply take a lower set.