Dice pools: why do you love (or hate) them?

I’m back to tinkering with my system, and this iteration might end up being a dice-pool mechanic:

  • roll Xd6, over 4 is a “hit”, target number Y of hits

I have never played such a system before, and as such I look to your experience.
What makes this type of resolution mechanic really sing? Why do you prefer (or disfavour) it?

My current idea is to have sort of freeform skills and stats, and one can tinker with the following, all or some applying to particular rolls or skills:

  • each die showing a 6 adds a side-effect or +1 hit
  • each die showing a 1 adds a complication or Doom™
  • you can push a roll (thanks Call of Cthulhu), rerolling with higher risks
  • win or lose certain ties (4 vs 4, etc) automatically

Game design theory aside, it just feels and sounds awesome to roll a handfull of dice, especially if you need both hands to be able to shake them before you throw.

Besides that there’s different things or aproaches to dice pools I think, but I’m too tired in the brain at the moment to form any well thought out coherent reasons other than it feels great.


So yeah, tossing a shit ton of dice out on the table is just fun.

In terms of mechanics/game feel building the dice pool needs to either be super fast and simple or fun and interesting.

For fast and simple, I like Never Knows Best, where you add dice based on a small number of tags/traits on your character sheet that apply to the roll, or Messerspiel, where there is a quick checkdown list of questions about the situation and character to determine die pool. In either case it takes about 15 seconds, which is perfect.

For fun and interesting, I like the Burning Wheel family of games, or Forged in the Dark. In these games there are a number of tools you can use to increase your die pool, and you describe what you are doing in the fiction in order to justify the use of the mechanical tools as part of a negotiation with the GM. It’s different in different specific games, but the overall experience of the system and the fiction feeding back into each other as you build your pool in negotiation is super fun for me. That said, the kind of system mastery and negotiation on the meta-level with the GM this requires outside the fiction isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

Avoid fiddly modifiers and over defining situations that add dice to the pool (+1D if you’ve got blue eyes, -1D if you’re holding your weapon in your off hand). Learning all of those very specific situational modifiers is super annoying and super slow. Worst of all worlds.


I love luck pushing mechanics, so that’s great! I’m not so into the other things. My feeling is that once the dice hit the table, the results should be easy to interpret. If I need to parse out what specific number is on each die, and then apply specific effects depending on the numbers, (or even worse, look up the results in a table to understand what the result is) that slows down play in a way that isn’t enjoyable for me. It feels fiddly and doesn’t engage my brain or creative faculties at all. It’s just a thing that takes time that I need to apply in order to find out what happens, and that’s not usually fun. One or two of these that are memorable and easily parsible can be fine, and even exciting, like your crits and fumbles here, but the more of them you add, the slower resolution becomes and it can get bogged down fast.


I think I agree. I’d use a very light touch there since I want a bit of the “rich rolls” stuff.
“6s are bonuses” tilt things in the favour of the players, but then again so does winning ties
“1s are bad” let you burn more dice and risk more, or apply when you use dangerous, chaotic skills or equipment…

I’m thinking which to test, keep or scrap.


I totally forgot about exploding dice!
Hmm, “explode on 6” can add some “critty”, punchy goodness to it…


I generally dislike counting-success dice-pools. Many people like them, so don’t let my issues deter you, but here’s what bothers me about them:

  1. Uneven difficulty steps make most players bad at assessing odds.
  2. Uneven difficulty steps make most GMs bad at setting difficulties.

With a simpler die-roll, it’s easy to tell how much +1 or +2 bonus changes the odds. Most people have no idea how much the odds change when adding a die to a dice pool because it’s a complex calculation.

Likewise, GMs are often mistaken in this matter, and even if they get it, the step-change for difficulty increases can be huge. Most dice-pool sizes have a few difficulties >85%, but pushing one point past that causes about a 20% jump.

Multiplying 6’s and allowing re-rolls mitigates the problem with step-levels, but doesn’t help with the complex statistics.

All of which is to say, dice-pool setups need very good lists of sample TNs for GMs to reference so they can accurately set challenges.


Okay, I’m a bit more awake now, having slept and drinking my first coffee. Let’s see what I wanna say about dice pools. I like them for several reasons, but there’s also different systems.

A generic reason, besides how it feels good, it’s also a lot easier to find the dice. This might be a more local thing, but over here in Belgium you’d really have to know where to find game stores and get special dice if you want all the different polyhedral dice. Meanwhile, if you want some regular dice, you can find them everywhere. Dollar-store type stores sell sets of them, a bunch of boardgames have them, Yahtzee still is sold in boardgames sections at the supermarket or the toy store, or people still have it at home. If you want to introduce people to roleplaying games, it also means you can just raid the boardgames cupboard instead of already having to buy an entire set of dice.

Using RISUS (my go to game) you just roll all your dice and add them up. There’s not as much adding to the pool until you do ‘teamwork’. When teamwork is done one is the leader, they roll all their dice for their cliche, the others help, and they also roll all their dice for their chosen cliche, but only sixes count and are added to the leader’s roll to see wether the thing you roll for succeeds. While, when I read this I always thought that it would be mostly disappointing, in play it has shown to happen reliably enough. It also cranks up the result a bunch, since the maximum amount of dice you can normally have for a roll is six. So even just one six rolled and added to the result is a big deal as the maximum you can normally roll is 36.

Another mechanic where you can modify the amount of dice you can roll is to pump your rolls. This is an optional mechanic where you basically sacrifice dice from your cliche, and add a die to the one roll per die sacrificed. It basically means that you use so much effort that you wound yourself.

Again, I’m running out of time to type (gotta go to a school feast), but I got something in on the discussion.

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As mentioned above, rolling lots of dice can be just physically fun.
Personally, I also tend to love more rich complex die pools than simpler faster ones. For me, if I want a quick resolution I would just not use dice pools.

For the richer complex ones, I love how granular and varied you can make things.

  • Each die can represent different things (like your skills, traits, attributes, help from others, fictional positioning, etc).
  • Each die can be different, different color (great example is help dice, so you can see WHOs help actually mattered), or even a different die. Like if in general a 4+ is a success, it makes a big difference if one die is a d4. Or if one die is a d10. And you can easily have a die pool of different dice.

To me, even the simplest die pool is going to take more time than most non die pool mechanisms. So if the need is for fast resolution, die pools to me are not the way to go. It’s not their strength. The fastest way to “resolve” a die pool, in my opinion, is to be a purely “what is the highest number rolled”, don’t count successes, don’t have exploding dice (both positive or negative), don’t have re-rolls. Be able to quickly assemble pool, roll the dice ONCE, be able to quickly identify what the highest number is, use that to determine whether it is a success or not.

As mentioned above, probability calculations are much more complex and less intuitive (sometimes counter intuitive). It is very hard for anyone to calculate them on the fly. So much stronger examples, heuristics, and support are needed to get the actual probabilities desired.


I like:

  • How tactile they are - you know you are set if your hand is full.
  • Successes are such a clear metric of how well you did.


  • Requires tedious defense rolls because static difficulties do not scale well.
  • Number of dice can get excessive.

METTLE Core was my bid to get around my dislikes while preserving what I liked about them.

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I agree, if you want quick and intuitive resolution then you should use a roll under/over system. Dice pools are for games with relatively few rolls where a single roll gets discussed a lot in the fiction with each die having narrative importance and then each roll has a large effect.

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I opted for a d6 dice pool in my latest game because… it just made sense. I got rid of stats altogether; instead using only tag-like skills. The basic die mechanics are:

  • unskilled: 1d6
  • skilled: 2d6
  • expert: 3d6
  • circumstances: +1d6
  • 1-3 = fail; 4-5 = partial success; 6 = success
  • max 4d6 for ANY roll

Thus, if a PC is skilled at a thing, they have a better chance at success. I don’t use to-hit mods (eg. +1); only mods to damage when applicable.

As others allude to, I really had to ponder percentages and how mods might affect rolls. When you do this, I would bet you’ll find reasons to use or not use dice pools. Just let it make sense or not!

Hope my example helps a bit…

My homebrew system uses d6 dice pools where 4,5,6 count as successes. Also, one of the d6s is a different color and can explode (or sometimes cause special fumble conditions). The max of anything, though, is 10 dice. I don’t like the swinginess of single die rolls (like the traditional D20 system), so I initially did dice pools where you added up the total and went with that, but over time everybody liked it better when there was no math to speak of and success or failure was quite visual. Modifiers usually only come in the form of adding to or taking away from the pool one or more dice. There is one mechanism in the game that can give you “pips” you can spend to improve the numerical value of one or more dice that slightly improves the chance of getting successes.

Again, my biggest reason for doing this was that I don’t like the swinginess of single die resolution but I still wanted something fast. The more dice you are rolling, the greater the likelihood of getting enough successes to do the thing, and that works for me! The single exploding die emulates a “critical” and always excites the players when somebody rolls one.


I prefer dice pool systems to modifier systems because the results are right in front of me and I don’t have to do any maths to understand them. I don’t know why but even really simple addition makes me freeze up sometimes which is inconvenient and embarrassing.