Aesthetics in dice mechanics

Some of you, reading this title, will know instinctively what I’m “on about”. Some of you will be confused. Let’s do a little thought experiment, to explain what I mean about the aesthetics of dice mechanics. Imagine…

  • A warm, fluffy unicorn game played with a d100 percentile dice system
  • A gritty, grimdark OSR game played with dice pools of d6s
  • A game about high-risk, high-reward fights played with 3d6 roll-under

Some of these might feel more “right” than others, but there should be some degree of dissonance, some sense of “hey, this isn’t quite what I imagined”. Now, some of this is the mechanical properties of the dice (bell curves and high stakes unpredictable outcomes aren’t that well meshed) and some of this is also the historical baggage (d100 games tend not to be “light”), but I would argue that each of the major dice systems has their own “flavour”, even if mechanically they produce similar results. Here are some off the top of my head:

  • d100/percentile - Scientific, accurate, gritty, realistic
  • d20 - Classic, fantasy, unpredictable, chaotic
  • d6 dice pool - Narrative/story-driven, constrained, abstract
  • 2d6/3d6 - Predictable, reliable, constrained, historic
  • Funky dice (d3, d7, d16 etc.) - Wacky, gonzo, chaotic

Do you have any thoughts on this? Please let me know!


I think you are spot on with this. At least when it comes to first instinct for me. There are games that manage to go against expectations. Like Barebones Fantasy from DWD Studios or any other of the D00lite games that use percentile and still manage to be lean and fun. I always found it hard to sell people on d100 based Fantasy as it always feels “wrong”. Absolutely get what you mean.

Barring non-standard resolution models, I’ve thought for a while now that fussing over what dice to use for task resolution is kind of a design red herring.

I’ve advocated in the past for starting with the most structure-heavy aspect of your game and building the resolution system to complement that.

For example, if you’ve designed a combat system that uses d4s, d12s, and everything inbetween as damage dice, it makes sense to use the d20 for your resolution (so you can use the whole standard RPG dice set).

That said, I would rather see designers pull resolution systems from other games for aesthetic reasons (as your post suggests) than obsess over creating some wildly original system. I think the latter is a waste of time.

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I can see that these perceptions exist, but honestly, I stopped feeling so particular about dice a while back. I like the way they look, and want them to roll with a nice “kinetic feel,” but that’s about it. One of the first games I really enjoyed as a teenager used paper-rock-scissors as the main resolution mechanic (Laws of the Night). So no, I don’t have those aesthetic perceptions regarding the dice that you mentioned, but that’s just me.


In agreement with @CapKudzu and @flyrefi here. I do take your point - each die and resolution system exists within a cultural context of gaming, and thus can have a “feel.” I agree that feel can shape people’s experience - for example, the d20 has become synonymous with DnD, and is “the gaming die of fantasy” for a lot of folx. 2d6 has the PbtA association, dice pools have a World of Darkness feel for us old folx (a Blades feel for the youngers), and so on.

I’m interested in a couple of things, though - I think we often get a little basic in our approach to dice. We use them a particular way, have a game association with them, and stop thinking of them as just objects - like cards, or tiles, or what have you.

So thing one: I like to think about how to create certain emotional experiences that echo or support the theme of the game. I don’t necessarily think that’s die-specific: for instance, a d20 can be used to key off a chart, or a scaled success system, or some kind of gambling system, and so can all the others. There are ways to represent more results with small dice, and ways to simplify outcomes with big ones. So question 1 for me, more than size of die, is emotional resonance of resolution mechanic.

For instance, the one I’ve seen lately I thought was emotionally most interesting but also elegant (it was posted on Twitter, though I can’t recall by whom!), was a 1d6 resolution where 1-3 was failure, 5-6 trouble, 7-8 success, and 9+ failure. You roll a single d6, then decide whether to roll and add a second, creating a “push your luck” style emotional engagement with a rather simple approach.

That brings me to thing 2: elegance of design. Here, I don’t mean lack of complexity or simplicity, I mean a balance between a mechanic that is intuitive and easy to understand, but incorporates player choice, some sort of nuanced choice, and emotional engagement. The example above seems very elegant to me (I’m kind of fascinated), and most mechanics I haven’t figured out how to use I’ve scrapped because they were either too complex or lacked the emotional outcomes I was going for.

Thing 3 is accessibility. A d6 is the ultimate die for me for one reason: most people have access to one. I do think there’s a lot to be said for standard decks of cards, coins, dominoes (though they’re less common than they once were), chess pieces, checkers - anything people might have on hand. This, again, has to be tempered by emotional engagement - if you can’t create the experience you’re looking for with a yes/no coin toss, then coins are a bad choice. I’ve seen a game in which a designer has put Scrabble tiles to fascinating use (super cool idea!), and I use minifigs from LEGO obsessively in my games.

So yes - I think dice DO have an “aesthetic” attached, if only due to our lived experiences with them? But other resolution tools (string, cards, tiles) have such resonance, too - and perhaps offer an interesting way to bring a “new” feel to old emotional ground. For me, game mechanic decisions for a given game come down to the emotional experience it creates, its elegance, and the accessibility of the tools.

Thanks for such a cool topic! I’m now thinking about all the weird mechanics I’ve abandoned, and wondering if they can be resuscitated! I love these conversations for getting me thinking through this stuff and exposed to everyone else’s ideas - thank you!


Your point on elegance reminds me of the difference between “roll a d6: 1-3 is failure, 4-6 is success” and something like, “Call evens or odds and roll a d6. If the result is as you called, you succeed.”

The latter introduces just the slightest wrinkle of paranoia and anticipation that I think works well for games trying to evoke horror or high-stakes thrills.


Reminds me also of the difference in feel between roll d6, 1-2 failure, 3-4 mixed success, 5-6 success, and an opposed roll of 2d6, higher wins, lowers lose, middles are mixed, same rough results but very different feel to how the game plays (in part because these do in fact have different probabilities, but as well the opposing roll makes it feel more dynamic, like your struggling with the world itself, where as the first might feel more like your reacting to the world).

This is an interesting question. I think that there are a couple things going on simultaneously here:

  1. The dice mechanics themselves result in a particular gamefeel. It feels different to roll a usage die or a dice pool or a d100.
  2. There are cultural expectations associated between dice mechanics and types of games, but these can be independent of gamefeel.

I think it’s hard to disentangle these because the cultural expectations vary for everyone depending on what they’ve played before. I think personally I care way more about the gamefeel aspect than the cultural expectations aspect because my players are generally less experienced with the wide variety of RPGs out there. But if I was making a game for the Gauntlet folks who play tons of games and are familiar with many systems, the cultural expectations would matter more.