How Custom Dice Help or Hinder a Game

Preamble

This past week I taught and refereed a game of Star Wars: Legion for Curtis and Brian. Star Wars: Legion (or typically just referred to as Legion) is a miniatures war game published by Fantasy Flight Games, and I picked it up on sale from my FLGS thinking it would be an enticing way to get some of my friends into the miniature war gaming hobby. It was a selfish noble endeavor. So I assembled, painted, and set up everything hoping to make it an awesome experience for my players. While the setting and IP of Legion made it inviting for them, Legion’s custom dice and measuring system made it a bit of a bear. It was reflecting on this game that made me think about custom dice and how some games use them effectively and how they are a detriment to other games.

What are Custom Dice?

Before delving too far into this topic, I want to quickly define what I am referring to when I mention “custom dice”. In brief, custom dice are dice which contain special information rather than, or in addition to, typical numeric information and are rolled to determine a random result of that information.

Bolt Action’s Order Dice are not custom dice

To help clarify, let’s quickly talk about dice that are or are not custom dice. Dice that have the typical  range of numeric results (1 through 6 on a d6, 0 through 9 on a d10, etc) that have custom colors, fonts, or inking are not custom dice. Dice that have an atypical range of numeric results, such Formula D’s twelve-sided dice with results 7 through 12, are custom dice. Dice with custom symbols that are not rolled for results, such as Bolt Action’s order dice, are not custom dice but instead more like six-sided tokens. Dice with custom symbols that are rolled for results, such as Martian Dice’s dice, are custom dice.

The Pros and Cons of Custom Dice

When determining whether or not custom dice are right for your game, designers need to look at the value that they add in comparison to their draw backs. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is through the design of these custom dice (both aesthetically and programmatically) and their usage that designers and players will decide whether they enhance their gaming experiences.

Pros

Player Comprehension: Custom dice can be used to help players better understand the rules of a game. This can be as simple as changing a single face of a six-sided die to remind players that rolling a six does something does something special.

In Formula D, the higher gear you use the slower you CAN’T go.

Changing the Curve: In some games, a normal set of dice could be too random for good balance or of the wrong order of magnitude. A typical eight-sided die with range 1 through 8 is a racing game can cause huge swings in player advantage. In those instances, some designers opt for a eight-sided die with the range of 4 through 8, with a specific distribution of values between that ranges (example [4,5,6,6,6,6,7,8]), to reduce the deficit between players rolling well and poorly while still maintaining an amount of unpredictability. Changing the statistics of your results can bring predictability and stability to a game.

Multi Axis of Success: With typical numeric dice, the results of a roll are expressed as a single piece of information. In most games, this result is the value of the dice rolled and this gives you a binary axis of success. The final result of a binary axis of success is either a “Yes” or a “No”. Some games can take the results of a typical dice roll and extract further information from it such as what is the value and is that value odd or even giving them an additional axis of success. Results “Yes” and “No” then turn into “Yes, and”, “Yes, but”, “No, and”, and “No, but”. Custom dice can further increase these number of axis of success as you can pack more and a greater variety of information into them.

Cons

What do all these symbols mean?!

Intuition: Most people over age 10 are pretty familiar with numbers between 0 and 100 and, more importantly, how they interact with each other. Its easy to understand that 15 is a greater value than 10, or that 11 is an odd number. Custom dice may present an issue for players trying to decide if triangle symbol is better or worse than a circle symbol or if green dice is better or worse than yellow dice. Our brains all come hardwired a little differently, so one player might think green dice are better than yellow because of one reason while another player may think the opposite. This becomes a barrier to entry as players now need to learn new information and how it all interacts.

Rules Bloat: When a designer comes up with rules ideas they often find it difficult to cull the great ideas from the mediocre ones. They look for solutions for problems that don’t exist and, in attempting to solve them, can create new ones. They use a complex carbon fiber web where a robust and easy wooden plank would do. This leads the designer to make even more rules to justify the complexity of their original mechanisms. All these extra rules now mean that players will miss more rules or, worse, misunderstand them.

Games with Custom Dice

Lets look at some examples of board games, role playing games, and miniature war games where custom dice are a major or minor player. The games below include both good and bad, simple and complex examples of custom dice.

👍Martian Dice

Collect chickens, cows, and humans in Martian Dice.

Martian Dice is a very simple push-your-luck game where a player rolls a set of 13 dice and attempts to keep sets of matching faces without busting. The custom dice in Martian Dice are six-sided dice where the numbers have been replaced with the symbols of a chicken, cow, human, tank, and death ray. Tank symbols are bad for the player as they cause the player to bust if they have any at the end of their turn and the death ray symbols are used to cancel out each Tank symbol.

While it could be possible to play this game with a typical set of six-sided dice where 1s count as tanks and 6s as death rays, these custom dice do two things that are good for the game. The first is that they change the curve of the results. You are more likely to the death ray symbols as they occupy two of the die faces while the chicken, cow, human, and tank each occupy a single face. This modified curve means that the player has better odds against busting incentivizes that the player to really push their luck trying to collect matching sets. They also help with player comprehension as the red tank symbols are bad for the player and must be canceled by the green death ray symbols, that is, you need a death ray to destroy a tank.

Overall, Martian Dice is an excellent example of how simple changes in the statistics curve incentivizes players to behave in specific ways and how clear symbology helps them understand the rules.

👍The One Ring

A set of The One Ring Dice.

The One Ring is a role playing game where a player attempt actions by rolling a set of custom dice versus a target number. This set of custom dice includes a twelve-sided Feat die and six-sided Skill dice. The twelve-sided and six-sided dice both contain different and important information or symbology on them and I will talk about each separately and how they effect game play.

The twelve-sided Feat die has the numbers 1 through 10 along with a Eye of Sauron symbol and a Rune of Gandalf symbol. The Eye of Sauron counts as a zero, moving the curve of a typical twelve-sided die, and also is used to trigger in game effects. The Rune of Gandalf counts as an automatic success and is also used to trigger in game effects. Per the rules, a typical twelve-sided die can be used in lieu of the custom Feat die. In this instance the typical die’s 11 face is considered the Eye of Sauron and the 12 face the Rune of Gandalf. Using this typical die instead of the Feat die can now cause the player confusion as their intuition will be to count the 11 and 12 result of the die as it’s numeric value, or misunderstand a replace the 1 with the Eye of Sauron instead of the 11.

The six-sided Skill dice have the numbers 1 through 6 with the 1, 2, and 3 faces in a hollow font and a special symbol on the 6 faces. In the rules, when a player rolls a 6 on a Skill die it can trigger an increase in quality of result, an additional axis of success. The special symbol on the 6 faces of the dice remind the player about triggering those special results. The hollow font on the 1, 2, and 3 faces help remind players that when they have taken enough damage that results of 1, 2, and 3 on the Skill dice count as a result of zero.

The custom dice in The One Ring are very similar to your typical twelve-sided and six-sided dice, to the point that these typical dice are easy enough to play with. However, the custom dice provide clarity to triggering rules on specific results and also help players quickly read the results of a roll.

👎Mouse Guard (Second Edition)

Custom dice included in the Mouse Guard Box Set.

A spinoff of The Burning Wheel role playing game, Mouse Guard (Second Edition) uses a simple dice pool resolution system where players roll a pool of six-sided dice and results of 4, 5, and 6 count as successes. Typically played with a set of typical six-sided dice, Mouse Guard also has a set of custom six-sided dice that players can use. These custom dice have a snake symbol on three faces, a double swords symbol on two faces, and an axe symbol on one face. The snake symbols correspond to the 1, 2, and 3 faces of a standard die, the double swords symbols correspond to the 4, and 5 faces, and the axe the 6 faces. While it’s fairly intuitive that the snake symbols do not count as successes, there is confusion between the double swords and the axe symbols. There are some rules in the game that trigger on the result of a 6, which would explain why the axe symbol is different than the double swords symbol, but it isn’t intuitive that triggers something special. There are constant questions of “what does this axe mean?”, “can I use this symbol if my character doesn’t have an axe?”, “Is this worse than the two swords?”.

While I think the intent was to create dice which players can quickly results by immediately identifying the three symbols, it falls short by the symbology chosen by the designer.

👍Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (et. al)

Look at all those symbols!

When it comes to custom dice systems, the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire role playing game (and it’s sequels Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny) leans on the more complex side. This RPG uses a roll-off dice pool system where the results in the pool of good dice can be cancel by the results in the pool of bad dice. Dice can have a combination of three different symbols on them, good dice having success, advantage, and triumph symbols and bad dice having failure, threat, and despair symbols. During a roll, success symbols are canceled by failure symbols, advantage canceled by threat, and triumph and despair symbols are not canceled. The resulting combination of symbols after cancelling results can create 12 different outcomes, each with variations on the degree of outcome. In addition to the multiple axis of success created by these custom dice, the distribution of symbols on the dice mean the results aren’t “zero sum” and lean towards a “success with threat” outcome.

While the symbols on the custom dice can take a little bit of time for a player to get to grips with, the general rules of building the dice pool (adding more good dice is good, adding more bad dice is bad) and the cancelling of symbols is intuitive for most. However, the sheer variety of outcomes in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire could only be made possible by the inclusion of custom dice

👎Star Wars: Legion

Star Wars: Legion Dice

Now we finally come to Star Wars: Legion, the miniature war game which inspired this manifesto essay. Legion uses a similar roll-off dice pool system as Edge of the Empire where the attacker rolls a pool of attack dice and the results are canceled by the defender’s pool of defense dice. The eight-sided attack dice and six-sided defense dice each have different colors of dice, each color varying the propagation of symbols. When a player is asked to make an attack or defense roll the model’s statistics will tell them which color dice to roll. Models may include a Surge result, which replaces the Surge result of the dice with the result indicated instead of typically having it count as a blank result. Models and weapons may also have Keywords, a special ability, which may also allow the player to alter the dice.

At first glance through the rules, I thought these dice, though annoying with the limited amount provided in the starter set, would be fine. The problems that would appear wouldn’t do so until we actually started playing the game. The first, and most problematic for the new players was with the custom dice. The dice provide very little additional information in exchange for rules bloat. Looking at the eight-sided dice, when you compare the dice color with a model’s statistics you quickly find that they function as standard eight-sided dice with white dice succeeding on a 7+ result (6+ if the model has a Surge), black dice hit on a 5+ (4+ with surge), and red dice hit on a 3+ (2+ with surge). They provide a change to the curve in lieu of simple target number, but lack the intuition that a simple target number has. They do provide an additional axis of success with critical hits, but that is the equivalent of rolling the max result on the die (8 in this case) which is seen in many other games.

Because Legion uses custom dice they also now have to use a special way to present the information to the player. When a player took their action, they would have to look one place for symbology of dice color and quantity, another for surge results, and another for any other Keywords. All this symbology, while it doesn’t necessarily make the game mechanically poor, slows the game down lessening the overall play experience.

The issues custom dice, in addition to Legion’s custom movement rulers and range ruler, don’t make Star Wars: Legion a bad game. They do make it feel clunky and hinder a player’s learning experience as they are not only required to learn the core rules for the game but also the games unique symbology driven by custom dice which add no interesting benefit.

Does my Game Need Custom Dice?

If you are designing a game and are considering custom dice for it, here’s some final take aways from this article you should consider. The largest item is, in my opinion, are your custom dice more intuitive at translating or emphasizing the rules of your game in lieu of typical dice? The symbology on the dice is not the area you want to try an emphasize a game’s setting or background. Easy comprehension of rules is such a vital point of game design which can keep a player in a good state of mind allowing them to better weather the ups and downs of mediocre game design and poor swings in luck. If your custom dice do not aide in is, they have failed their purpose.

Ugh.