How are dice being used in Dungeons & Dragons

Introduction

Today, Dungeons & Dragons are rule books. However, to a minimum, if you actually want to play D&D, you need to get a set of dice. One set is 7 dice of various sizes as described in detail here.

These sizes are:

  • 1d4
  • 1d6
  • 1d8
  • 1d10 (x2)
  • 1d12
  • 1d20

Today, a set generally includes two 1d10 dice. One for the units and one for the tenth. One die has 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0 and the other has 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 00. This gives you a way to roll a 1d100 (a percentile die.)

In the following article, I talk about how the dice are generally used in Dungeons & Dragons. After a while, you will notice that there are patterns. At first, though, new Dungeon Masters may get lost to what dice should be rolled in what circumstances.

Quick Reference Table

Here is a simplified table as some dice changed over time, but this gives a quick general idea of which dice are used for what part of Dungeons & Dragons.

Note that I do not always show whether it uses one die or multiple dice.

Usage Dice
Ability Scores 3d6 or 4d6
Hit Points (minuscule) 1
Hit Points (tiny) 1d4
Hit Points (small/weak) 1d6
Hit Points (medium) 1d8
Hit Points (strong) 1d10
Hit Points (very strong) 1d12
Hit Points (very large) 1d20
Height 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10
Weight 1d4, 1d6
Traits 1d6, 1d8, 1d10
Starting Wealth 1d4 to 5d4 × 10
Surprise 1d6, 1d20
Attack Roll 1d20
Weapons (light) 1d4
Weapons (small) 1d6
Weapons (medium) 1d8
Weapons (large) 1d10 or 2d6
Weapons (big) 1d12
Spell Damages multiple of d4, d6, d8
a few use d10
Healing multiple of d8 or d4
Saving Throws 1d20
Difficulty Class (DC) 3d6, 4d6, 1d20
Initiative 1d6, 1d10, 1d20
Treasure Tables 1d100
Encounter Tables 1d6, 1d12, 1d100
Morale 1d6, 1d20
Random Dungeon 1d100, 1d20

Ability Scores (3d6 or 4d6)

The Ability Scores were rolled using 3d6 in Original D&D and AD&D 1e. One day, in a Dragon Magazine, it was suggested that we use 4d6 and use the 3 highest rolls to ease on the bad rolls. This helped tremendously in getting much more decent characters.

In most cases, monsters do not get to roll their own scores. Some scores are assigned as per their own characteristics. For example, each Giant has a very specific strength. So specific that Potions of Strength are actually named after them.

In the Original D&D and AD&D 1e, ability scores would not change except with magic. You could find some Tomes that would somehow teach you how to increase one of your scores by 1 or 2 points. We pretty much never found one of those and since you could use it only once, it was an incredibly limited resource.

In newer editions, leveling gives you a chance to add 1 or 2 points to your ability scores. It was either that or getting a feat in Fifth Edition. That being said, it is now possible to get higher ability scores without magic.

Second Edition gives us six methods to roll your ability scores. The standard one of rolling 3d6 per score and choosing where each roll goes. It also has a strict one: roll 3d6 in order, so first time for Strength, second time for Intelligence, etc. You definitely are not going to be able to choose the class you wanted with such a method (well... not likely anyway.) Etc.

Edition Dice
OD&D 3d6 in order
AD&D
1e
I: 3d6, choose
II: 4d6 use highest 3, choose (Dragon)
III: 4d6 use highest 3, adjust with -2 → +1 (Dragon)
AD&D
2e
I: 3d6 in order
II: 3d6 × 2 choose best
III: 3d6, choose
IV: 3d6 × 12, choose 6
V: 4d6 use highest 3, choose
VI: 8/score + 7d6 to assign, but cannot go over 18
D&D
3e/3.5e
4d6 use highest 3, choose
+1 every 4th level starting at level 4
D&D
4e
I: use 16, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, choose
II: start with 8, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 22 points to adjust, choose
III: 4d6 use highest 3, choose
D&D
5e
I: 4d6 use highest 3, choose
II: use 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8
III: use 27 points to get scores between 8 and 15

After you chose or rolled your scores, you should first choose your race if you haven't already as that will give you bonuses to various scores. In some versions, you may even get a penalty for a certain races (i.e. Half-Orc had a penalty of -2 to their Charisma in AD&D 1e).

Player Character Hit Points (classes)

Hit points vary quite a bit between classes.

There is a table with the dice used for a class based on the edition. In all editions you get your constitution bonus repeat for each level, except in Forth Edition where you get constitution only at level one.

Class 0e 1e 2e 3e 4e 5e
Assassin 1d6 12/+5 1d8/+5
Barbarian 1d10ua 1d12 15/+6phb2 1d12/+7
Bard 1d6 1d6 1d6 12/+5phb2 1d8/+5
Cavalier 1d12ua
Cleric 1d6 1d8 1d8 1d8 12/+5 1d8/+5
Druid 1d8 1d8 1d8 12/+5phb2 1d8/+5
Fighter 1d6+1 1d10 1d10 1d10 15/+6 1d10/+6
Illusionist 1d4 1d4 1d6/+4
Monk 2d4/+1d4 1d8 12/+5phb3 1d8/+5
Paladin 1d10 1d10 1d10 15/+6 1d10/+6
Ranger 1d8 1d10 1d8 12/+5 1d10/+6
Rogue
(Thief)
1d6 1d6 1d6 12/+5 1d8/+5
Sorcerer 1d4 12/+5phb2 1d6/+4
Warlock 12/+5 1d8/+5
Warlord 12/+5
Wizard 1d6 1d4 1d4 1d4 10/+4 1d6/+4

In Third and Fifth Editions, characters get the maximum of their hit dice at first level, without the need to roll the die. So for example, in 5e a Wizard at first level gets 6 hit points plus his constitution.

Class names and organization between classes and sub-classes have changed quite a bit through time. For example, in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition, Thieves and Bards are classified under the name Rogue and all Rogues have the same hit die. Illusionists pretty much disappeared and instead became a Wizard specialization, so again, they would have the same hit die as the Wizard.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e), the Paladin was moved from being a Fighter sub-class to being a Cavalier sub-class when the Unearthed Arcana came out. It was so difficult to ever get such good rolls, even with the 4d6 and using the 3 best rolls, that we ended up never playing those classes.

Note that we had to wait up to Fourth Edition to get a little more hit points to Wizards so they don't die on the very first blow. I mean, even with a 1d6 + constitution in 5e they can get killed by creatures that have an 1/2 hit die like a giant centipede... but still, it gives them a little more of a chance to survive if they end up in a one on one combat once in a while.

Fourth and Fifth edition offer an incremental amount of hit points when you progress in levels (i.e. +4/level on 2nd and further levels). Fifth gives the option to either roll the die (1d12 for a Barbarian) or use the incremental amount (+7 for the Barbarian.)

Monster Hit Points

Monsters that represent an NPC, such as an evil cleric with an army of zombies, use the same hit dice as presented for classes. In other words, the evil cleric uses 1d8 per level and Barbarians use 1d12.

For most of the other monsters, those found in the monster manuals, it has pretty consistently been 1d8 per level.

To represent smaller monsters, though, 1d3, 1d4, or 1d6 are used. A weak monster may also use a 1d8 - 1 (Goblins).

Similarly, larger monsters may be given larger hit dice. I have seen 1d10 and 1d12 and in very rare circumstances, 1d20. But in most cases, instead of 1d20, it would give the monster 3d8 which is nearly the same and more likely to give the wanted results.

Various monsters, especially Deities and Demi-gods, were given a specific number of hit points. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragon 1e, we see that a Golem gets 50 hit points. No more, no less. (Although you could give it less if it is considered that it was attacked before the characters reach the Golem.)

So in most cases, you are not likely to see a monster which is not using the d8 for their hit points. That makes it easy on the Dungeon Master who can have a small stash of 8-sided dice behind his screen in order to determine the hit points of each attacking monster.

The number of hit dice a monster has usually represents its level. In turn that defines the difficulty of killing that monster and thus its worth in Experience Points (XP), although special abilities add to the XP and that is not always translated in additional hit dice.

Height & Weight

In most cases, you can skip on this trait for characters because you are not very likely to ever use that information. Yet, if you do roll for the height and weight, it usually requires a combination of d4 and d6 dice. Depending on the version, d8 and d10 may also be used.

Since it is used just once at the time you create your character, what dice are used it not very important. Just check the rules at that time to confirm the information.

Traits

In various versions traits are defined in small tables requiring a 1d6, 1d8, or 1d10. These allow for generating traits for NPCs and allow players to roll a die instead of choosing their traits (at times the number of choices makes it overwhelming.)

Older versions of Dungeons & Dragons did not have Traits tables. You just chose what you wanted.

Starting Wealth

Whenever you create a character at level 1, you get a small pile of gold coins.

Each version has its own rules because the prices of various items vary greatly. However, what I've seen is that they generally keep using a number of d4.

Surprise

In the first three editions (Original Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e and 2e), the surprise roll was done with 1d6 and surprised you were if the roll was 5 or 6. Some monsters/classes could surprise the opponents whenever they rolled 4, 5, or 6, maybe even 3, 4, 5, or 6.

Since the Third Edition, we use a 1d20 Stealth Check (the person trying to surprise) and a 1d20 Perception Check (the person who may end up surprised.)

So the surprise is now clearly viewed as a general skill, instead of a specialized ability of Thieves.

Attack Roll

Something that has not changed from the beginning is the Attack Roll. It has always been a 1d20 and still it.

What has changed in 3e is the Armor Class which was flipped. Instead of going from 10 to -10 and requiring a complicated table to know whether you hit your opponent, now the 1d20 plus all your modifiers has to be equal or higher to your opponent armor class. This makes is a lot smoother than the old tables.

So in older versions, an AC -5 was really good. In newer versions, and AC of 23 is really good.

Note that Fifth Edition introduced a new concept of advantage and disadvantage using 2d20 rolls and choosing the best (advantage) or the worst (disadvantage). This is used in 5e as a replacement to adding/removing bonuses.

Weapons

Weapon damage are rolled with all the dice except the d20.

It changes depending on the weapon capability, whether it is light or heavy, and the damage can changes depending on how you use the weapon (i.e. a charge, using as a range weapon instead of melee one).

The smallest weapon, in terms of damage, has pretty much always been your fist unless you were a monk. Although in newer versions a fist is similar to a dagger in terms of damage.

There is a table of damage for fist fights. Note that you also want to add your Strength modifier unless you are a Monk, then you are likely to use your Dexterity. Your class may have other exceptions (Thieves had various rules about hand-to-hand combat in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e.)

Dungeons & Dragons Damages
Edition Small Medium Large Monks
Original D&D 1d6
Advanced D&D 1e 1phb1e 1d3 to 8d4
Advanced D&D 2e 0, 1, 2pw
D&D 3e 1d2 1d3 1d6 to 2d20
D&D 4e 1d4 Vary
D&D 5e 1d4 1d4 to 1d10

The damage that arrows make depend on the bow in use. Similarly, carets damages depend on the crossbow in use.

Also the modifiers vary depending on the class, monster, weapon used.

Many monsters do not use a weapon, yet they make damages quite equivalent to having a weapon... a heavy weapon at times. For example an ancient dragon claw will generally do as much damage as a heavy battle axe.

Again, the dice used for the damage of monster claws, teeth, tail, etc. vary greatly. Smaller creatures are likely to use a 1d4, whereas large ones can end up using a 1d12. A purple worm that lands on someone does 4d12 damage in 5e. If you roll a 20, then that's 8d12... Ouch!

I suggest that you ask your players to write down the damage that their weapons inflict. That way they won't have to check the book each time they use that weapon.

Spell Damages

Low level spells often use the d4 for damages (Magic Missiles). However, in most versions there were two main dice used: the d8 for Health related damages or cure and the d6 for evocations.

For Health related spells, some versions use 2d4 instead of 1d8.

For evocations, some spells use 1d8 or even 1d10. In 5e Wizards have access to a set of cantrips that inflict 1d10 damages on success (a melee or range attack has to succeed for the damage to be inflicted.)

Magic objects that generate damage also often will use the d6. This is because in most cases they replicate a spell such as the Cone of Cold.

Like with weapons, it is a good idea to write down the damage that your spell generate so you won't have to look at the PHB each time you cast that spell.

Healing

There are multiple methods to heal a character when it took some damages in a combat or a bad fall.

One is resting. In this case, the healing varies dramatically between versions. Some versions give you 1 hit point per night, others give you back all your hit point after a night's sleep. Yet others offer you to roll dice (5e gives you a number of healing dice equal to your level, the healing die is the d8.)

Two is drinking a healing potion. The healing power of potions is always defined in terms of a roll of dice. In older versions it was 1d8 or more depending on the potion. In 5e it became 2d4 which is a little nicer in the sense that you are less likely to get a small number, but it also decrease your chance of getting 8 hit points at once.

Three is using a spell, Clerics, Monks, Paladins, Bards, and some others can cast the Cure spell. Depending on the level of the spell or how that version of D&D works, you get about 1d8 or 2d4 for a 1st level spell. The most powerful healing spells will bring a character back to her full health (all hit points restored) and the ultimate such healing spells cures all the characters in a group.

Forth is using a power such as the Lay on Hands from  a Paladin. There are not very many similar powers available, though.

Fifth is the bard songs. This is similar to casting a spell, but in many cases you just regain +2 hit points from the song, or something of the sort. Everyone who can hear the song can regain hit points, though.

Sixth are special magical items such as a fountain with water that works like a healing potion. I've seen staff that one can use to cast the Cure Wounds spell. Etc.

Saving Throws

Along the Attack Rolls, this is one that always required a 1d20 to determine whether you saved or not.

You always get bonuses because of your Ability Scores.

In older versions, you had to use tables that varied quite a bit depending on your class, race, and what was hitting you. For example, Dragon Breath was a specific column in the Saving Throws Table.

Since Thrid Edition, this was changed to using a Difficulty Class (DC) Roll. So now you are as good (or bad) at escaping the Breath of a Dragon than a Fire Ball or any other weapon that require you to roll a DC check on Dexterity. This may sound strange to someone who played AD&D, but in the end I think that it is rather sensible.

This was a great move, I think, because maintaining a table that includes at least 3 if not 4 coordinates is a huge matrix which is fine for a computer to handle, but not so much for a Dungeon Master (DM).

Difficulty Class

Checking whether you can accomplish a task was left to the Dungeon Master in early versions. Skills were mentioned here and there but we had no real system defined to know whether the character was able to accomplish the task. Since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e we got a clear Ability Check which in Thrid Edition became the Difficulty Class (DC) and has sticked since then.

Your class and race both give you specific abilities on top of a few more you can select at creation and later when you gain levels.

Edition Dice
Original D&D undefined
Advanced D&D 1e 3d6 under ability score
4d6 for harder tasks
Advanced D&D 2e 1d20, Ability Check
D&D 3e 1d20, Skill Check
D&D 4e 1d20, Skill Check
D&D 5e 1d20, Ability Check

In the Original Dungeons & Dragons, there was no mention of ability checks.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition, there was some mention to roll 3d6 or 4d6 under the Ability Score that made sense. So if you were trying to break out of a jail by breaking the metallic bars, you may be asked to roll 4d6 and if you were able to run under your Strength Score, you were able to at least bend those bars.

Since 3e you just roll 1d20 and add your Ability Score modifier and compare to the DC of the task at hand. If your roll is over that DC, then you succeeded. In 2e, you still had to check tables to know whether you would succeed. Those tables would depend on your ability score.

Initiative

I won't go at least about initiative here since I already talk about that in my Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons pages.

There is a quick table, though to show the dice used on a per edition basis and whether modifiers apply.

Edition Dice
Chainmail 1d6, simultaneous, attacker
Original D&D 1d6 + initiative modifier
Advanced D&D 1e 1d6
Advanced D&D 2e 1d10 + modifiers
D&D 3e 1d20 + initiative modifier
D&D 4e 1d20 + modifiers
D&D 5e 1d20 + initiative modifier

Note that the move from the 1d6 in AD&D 1e to 1d10 in AD&D 2e was actually done by Gary Gygax before he wrote AD&D 1e... he just did not take the time to also change that part of the rules in D&D 1e.

Treasure Tables

All the Dungeons & Dragons editions include a very large number of treasures: Coins, Gems, Jewels, Objects of Art, and Magical Items such as Potions, Scrolls, Weapons, Armors, Rings, Wands, Staves, and various items like bags, slippers, and flying carpets.

There are so many treasures that in order to select an entry you need a large dice. This is why in most cases the tables make use of 1d100.

The tables have changed quite dramatically between editions, but most they still use the 1d100 to select the objects that you are going to offer your player characters.

Now, once the object was selected there may be a quantity, a value, or some sub-feature of that item that you need to select. This is done with all sorts of dice. It could be a 1d20, 3d6, 2d8, 1d10... You find all of them on that one!

Personally I prefer to use my own wit to choose what the creatures you kill have. They may have a ring or a magical weapon of some sort. Those items will make sense in my campaign. Or rather, I know that it will help my players in some way (depends on their wit too, though). In other words, it will give them a way to move forward in the campaign.

That being said, once in a while I end up with a random encounter and I will at times roll a treasure for the massacre of those foe. One of my players got a Deck of Card that way and has had a lot of fun with it.

Encounter Tables

The Dungeon Master's Guides all have a set of encounter tables. These make use of 1d100. The cheer number of monsters, just like Treasures as mentioned above, definitely warrants the use of a 1d100.

Side Note: I still think that those tables should be in the Monster Manuals and not the Dungeon Master Guide.

In the Dungeon Master's Guides, the monsters are generally sorted by terrain: wilderness, plains, mountains, swamps, deserts, cold regions (i.e. artic), caves, dungeons, etc. Each table has a very large list of monsters that can appear along the way.

Various sub-tables may use smaller dice rolls, but those main tables are too large. That being said, in a campaign, you very rarely will have such large tables because the authors of the campaign know what monsters are going to appear in a location or another and they will place such tables with very specific monsters. Those tables may use a die as small as a 1d6. Pretty all dice have been used for those tables, although already there a 1d20 is rare.

I've really rare used the encounter tables of the Dungeon Master Guides. However, I use them to find monsters that match the terrain my players have to go through.

Morale

The Morale in Dungeons & Dragons comes from the days of Gary Gygax playing Wargame.

Before inventing Dungeons & Dragons, Gary created a wargame named Chainmail. It was a document that you could buy from his company, TSR, that could be used to play a wargame in a medieval set. Later he added fantasy characters to chainmail (later as in after he created Dungeons & Dragons.)

In a wargame, you have armies going against each others and the Morale plays an important role. When two groups of men fight each others, once one group is quite reduced, say by 50% or more, then the men composing that group start to lose their morale. At that point you have to roll a die to see whether they continue fighting or start retreating.

The first versions of Dungeons & Dragons had a Morale line for monsters or at least something mentioning the strong possibility for a group of this or that type of monster to run away once their leader was killed or himself starting running away. Or when no leader was present when any one of them would be killed.

Morale was rolled on a 1d6 and in generally on a 1 to 4, they would start running!

This Morale also applied to Henchmen which were strong in all versions up to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e. In 2e, though, the 1d6 became a 1d20 ability check and it stayed that way since then. The Henchmen were also made part of Followers. (There was a concept of Followers in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e too, but it was not as clear.)

Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition did not include methods to hire an army to go to battle along with you, but you had followers just like in 2e. Morale was still included and would give you benefits such as +2 against Fear or Will saves.

Personally, I thought it was interesting to be able to higher henchmen, but going to a war was never really something I wanted to do in D&D. I like D&D as a Role Playing Game (RPG) and that means playing one character rather than an army. That being said, I had followers in my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e and these would help greatly, too greatly probably because once they all were around level 7 nothing could stop us. It was massacre after massacre...

So I think it is great that Dungeons & Dragon Forth Edition decided to not include those options. You can certainly still have a few men helping you, but not a bunch like in older versions.

In Fifth Edition, they re-added the option, but that's an optional rule in the Dungeon Master's Guide. You're actually likely to miss it and since players won't hear of it by default (unless they read the DMG too...) it is very likely that they won't do it much.

In my 5e campaign, the Cleric got a Deck of Cards and pulled out that one card that gave him a fanatic followere of the same race as him (so we have two Gnomes!) He also got some Zombies. My fighter has an hawk, but that's from the Familiar spell. The Druid also has an animal, but again, it's not like a Henchmen watching on your back. So my players have followers, but not the same as what one would think. They also worked with a couple of NPCs so far. I think that helps quite nicely.

Random Dungeons

Another one of those things in the rules I never used: you can generate dungeons using dice. I never seriously tried to do that, so I have no idea how it really works.

That being said, again, these random dungeons tables are large. You get a new room, with or without a door or multiple doors, you have monsters or no monster, you get treasures and empty rooms. You could have a stream going through or a very deep pit... It goes on and on.

In most cases, these tables make use of 1d100. I've seen some using a 1d20.

Since I never used those tables because I think I can as well and very quickly define a valid dungeon anyway which means I probably don't need to spend time rolling dice and coming up with a dungeon that may not be as good as could be. Also when I create it myself I can decide whether it is a straight forward dungeon (three rooms in a straight line like in my pyramid which is quite representative of real pyramids!) or a complete maze that has tunnels after tunnels used to get the players lost over and over again.

A small graphic marking the end of the paragraph

  • ua. a. b. Unearth Arcana
  • phb2. a. b. c. d. Player's Handbook 2
  • phb3. Player's Handbook 3
  • phb1e. I could not find this information in my copy of the rules. Some monsters have a 1d2 damage for hand-to-hand combat... but generally those have nice claws.
  • pw. Punching and Wrestling damages are dependent on the attack die roll. In some cases you could maintain the hold from round to round, inflicting damages automatically on the following round.