When you first start, one of the most confusing parts of playing Dungeons & Dragons is figuring out which die to use when the DM calls for a roll. While there are many different rule systems which use the dice differently, Dungeons & Dragons uses what is referred to as a D20 System which is what this article will focus on.
What do we need dice for anyway?
Whenever your character attempts to do something to influence the world, then a dice roll will be called for and the result (after any relevant abilities and skills your character has are taken into account) will determine whether your attempt is a success or failure. From there, you and your party can react accordingly.
It might sound a little unfair, but the dice are designed to help keep things interesting. You can construct the most well-laid plan, but there are always going to be things that go wrong. Maybe your character has a lucky break, or the villain just happens to glance your direction at the wrong moment. Either way, the dice give that element of chance to the game which can allow for fantastic successes and miserable failures.
This is undoubtedly the die that you’ll use the most during a given session. Easily identifiable as the largest and most spherical die in the set, the 20-sided die is used for attacks, using skills and abilities, and for reacting to things.
When rolling this die for a check, higher numbers are generally successes. For skill checks, a roll of 20 (referred to as a Natural 20, meaning it’s the highest score you could possibly roll) is considered an especially good success which may result in additional benefits. On the opposite side, rolling a 1 (also called a Natural 1 or Critical Failure) can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences.
Easily the least-used die, the 12-sided die is primarily used for damage from a handful of weapons, such as the greataxe, and a couple of spells, such as poison spray and witch bolt.
A set will come with only one of these dice, and it is easily confused with the D20, as they look a little similar (although the d12 is smaller with fewer sides). Unless you’re playing a barbarian or a higher level spellcaster, this die is unlikely to be used very often, so when you’re learning the dice, it’s not a bad idea to just leave it in the bag to avoid confusion.
The ten-sided die is a multi-use die and will be used for damage and to roll percentages. There should be two of them in a standard polyhedral set, and one die will have two digit numbers instead of one digit numbers.
To start, we’ll look at the single digit die. This die is used primarily for damage as well as for various spell effects.
The second d10 in your polyhedral set should have two digits. When rolled with the single digit d10, it becomes capable of numbers between 1 and 100. When rolling the two dice together, read the two digit die as the tens place and the one digit die as the ones place. Most of the time it is pretty self-explanatory, but just remember that a roll of 00 and 0 is 100% while rolling 10 and 0 is 10% as it is impossible to roll 0 on any die, including the d100.
As a note, there are several systems which use the ten-sided die for all rolls and so some game shops will sell blocks of d10s. In a D20 System like Dungeons & Dragons, the d10s in a standard set should be more than sufficient.
Much like the d12, this die is primarily used for damage. Next to the traditional six-sided die, the eight-sided die is one of the most common damage dice in the game. While it will not be incredibly useful at lower levels, at higher levels it will become the primary damage die for most classes.
Although a basic polyhedral set only comes with one d8, don’t be surprised if you end up having to roll multiple times for damage at higher levels. Picking up an extra one when possible isn’t a terrible idea.
The most readily recognizable dice in the set, the six-sided die will usually feature etched numbers instead of the traditional pips that are on most gaming sets.
This die is the most common damage die in the D20 System, and both spells and weapons will commonly use one or more of these die for damage. The standard polyhedral set comes with one, but blocks of nothing but six-sided die can be purchased at your local game shop. Although eventually you’ll probably need a d6 dice block, it’s not necessary at the start.
Shaped like a tiny pyramid, the D4 is a little tricky and can be a challenging to read at first. Depending on the maker of your die, the numbers may be clustered at the tip or located on the bottom horizontal edges. Regardless of what style your die is, always read the number that is facing the correct way.
Much like the d6, d8 and d12, this die is used solely for damage. At beginning levels, it is fairly useful as damage from some weapons, including the dagger, and several cantrips call for the four-sided die. Unlike the other die, this one quickly becomes useless at higher levels, however, so you’ll rarely need more than one or two.
How many dice sets do you need?
If you’re a player, then you probably really only need one set of polyhedral dice to start and they come in every color combination that you could want. While there are online rollers available, I strongly recommend getting physical dice as dice rollers tend to be a little skewed. Expect to spend around $8 – $12 on a basic set of dice, although fancy dice with special designs or materials like metal will cost more.
In the long term, most players keep two to three dice sets and alternate between them during sessions in the hopes of getting better rolls. It’s also a good idea to eventually invest in a d6 dice block as well. But again, staring with one set should be just fine.
DMs on the other hand, need to plan on having at least two sets minimum to start as there will be times when you have to make rolls for multiple enemies at once. Having multiples of the different dice will make everything go much faster. When I DM, I tend to keep three sets out and the rest in the bag for emergencies.
If you’ve figured out the dice and you have everything you need to start playing D&D, then you’re ready to move on to the next step: finding a group! Of course, if you already have a D&D group, then you can head back to the D&D Basics for more articles to get you started! You can also check out our Archives for a wider range of topics.
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