D&D Math – Adding the Numbers

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 20, 2011

Player – I rolled a 15, plus 7. Do I hit his AC?

DM – What’s the total?

Player – Um, hold on. 15… (Counts under breath) 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. (At full volume again) 22! Does that hit?

DM – Yes it does. His AC is 14.

I’ve been playing a lot of public-play D&D over the past year; mostly D&D Encounters but also a fair amount of LFR. This is of course in addition to my regular weekly game. Playing in all of these games allows me to see how other people play and lets me learn from the experience. It also highlights problem areas in my game and in the game of the other players and DMs.

One disturbing trend that I’m seeing more and more is players that don’t (or possibly even can’t) do the math. They roll a d20, call out the result and then give me their modifiers and ask if they hit. In many cases the roll is high enough to beat the monster’s defences, so I know they hit even without the modifier added in; however, I always ask for the total before confirming a hit or miss. And it’s not only happening with attack rolls. It’ happens with damage rolls too.

As the DM I always try to keep the gaming moving. I have a lot of tricks and shortcuts I use at my table to ensure that the game run smoothly. But I feel that taking the time to get the players in the habit of doing the math is worth any minimal delays it may initially cause.

Before going on, I must admit that I have two exceptions to my “give me the total” rule. The first is when a player rolls a 20. After all a 20 always hits so the only reason to call out the total is when the monster has a really high defence and there’s an outside chance that it’s just a regular hit and not a crit. However, in the games I’ve played since 4e was released I’ve only ever seen a natural 20 not result in a crit once. The other exception is after the monsters defence score is known (usually because I’ve announced it to the table) and you’ve done the math in your head. In these cases I accept it when a player rolls, calls out the number, and simply tells me they hit.

Even though I always ask for totals, whether it’s an attack roll or a damage roll, a lot of players still don’t do it. In all fairness, we do have a few younger players participating in D&D Encounters – but this is simple math. I can’t believe they don’t give me the total because they can’t add two or three relatively small numbers in their head. What I think it comes down to is laziness and poor gaming protocol.

In most cases when there are a few players that don’t do the math themselves, other players at the table will often do it for them when I ask for the total. This presents me with difficult dilemma. On the one hand I’m glad that someone can do the math and give me a total quickly. However, the person giving me the number isn’t the player who rolled the dice. So my attempt to get them into the habit of giving me the final result clearly isn’t working. And when they realize that the other players will help them, they have no incentive to do it themselves.

When the other players help the lazy ones by doing the math, I know they’re just trying to help speed things up. I also know that the more I keep asking for the totals, especially when it’s apparent that the roll hits, the more I’m beginning to look like a jerk DM. But I believe that in the long run I’m helping the lazy players become better players, and I’m helping them speed up any game they’re going to play in down the road, whether it’s my game or someone else’s.

Do you have this problem at your gaming table? When players in your game (especially in public-play games) don’t add the numbers themselves, do you do it for them? Am I blowing this whole thing out of proportion and making a big deal out of nothing or do you see this as a common and growing issue?

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1 Blinkey June 20, 2011 at 9:59 am

I’ve had this as a passing issue with a few players. It shouldn’t bug me but it does (usually when i’m tired and my temper is a little shorter than it should be).

It bothers me more as a courtesy thing above and beyond anything else. The players wouldn’t like it if I told them that the monster rolled ’12 + 6 + 1 (charge bonus)’ and then asked them if it hit. Many don’t even consider this when giving out their own attack roll data. Any decent DM i’ve ever seen always gives out the total. Players maybe take this for granted. It almost feels rude when they expect the DM to do all their maths. This feels like the impact of video games promoting lazy gamers. Many expect everything to be done entirely for them by the magic box that provides their entertainment. (I feel like a grumpy old man!).

I realise this all sounds very petty from my perspective. I admit its a pet hate and many players don’t realise they cause irritation by doing it. I also have too many other players who like to ‘show off’ their quick maths skills by yelling out the answer which saves my poor brain from having to actually do the maths. As you say above, they really just want to be helpful but it doesn’t help solve the root problem.

One player i’ve come across I’m confident was only reading out all the numbers out of insecurity. Trying to make sure they had added up all the relevant numbers. This came more from their inexperience and often caused us to mention things such as combat advantage, charge bonuses, weapon bonuses etc which the player had genuinely forgotten. In this situation I can see the benefit of this kind of behaviour. I guess where appropriate you just have to run with it and then wean the player out of that process once you think their rules knowledge is a little more sturdy.

Cheers for the article Ameron. This was not a rant I thought i’d be writing when I woke up this morning.

Keep up the good work.


Blinkey 😉

2 Sentack June 20, 2011 at 10:01 am

We got one guy at our table, he’s 41, has a doctorate degree in philosophy, the most fiscally responsible person I know (bought a house recently with the full 20% down, double payments, etc) and in general is a really bright guy.

Can’t do basic math worth a damn.

I’ve taken a couple quick videos of us playing in a 3.5 game and in one he figures his total attack result incorrectly in at least 3 different occasions within 2 minutes.

The vast majority of it is clearly laziness but, part of it is that too many people don’t do basic math in their head every day. They trust cash machines when purchasing goods and computers in general, to do all the work. Keep enforcing people to do the math, if we don’t, who will.

3 Colin June 20, 2011 at 10:06 am

I have noticed the same problem at my FLGS for Encounters. While my private group consists of math savvy players, the public games have shown otherwise. While there is no correlation, it’s something I’ve had to get used to. There seems to always been one player on Wednesday evenings that exemplifies this (above). It hasn’t been a problem so far since we’re all level 2 and combat is still simple enough that it doesn’t slow anything down.

However, during my Histhaven session (for Free RPG Day on Saturday), we had two players (out of four) that struggled with this. It definitely slowed the game down. It didn’t help that they were slow on their turns anyway…We were also playing at Paragon level, so it was more dramatic since there is more math, powers, tactics, and other considerations during combat.
The biggest problem was that the player that struggled most with the numbers had incorrect numbers on their character sheet, thus effecting every roll. He had a hand-written character sheet, so I suspect had he actually used a Character Builder, it wouldn’t have been such a problem.

Another problem may be out-of-turn math/numbers, too. If the player is struggling to figure out if ‘such and such power’ will hit or not, it seems to compound on present slowness.
I tend to be one of those players that throws out the numbers to speed up the game.

4 Sully June 20, 2011 at 10:08 am

One thing i’ve done is have monster defense stats written on folded and propped up index cards, so everyone at the table can see them. I don’t care about the argument that we should keep those things hidden; a warrior can tell if a monster is better at taking damage off its armor/hide or dodging, etc. Whatever. Once the players no longer had to ask if their roll hit, they started doing the math automatically and could just tell me whether they hit or missed. It’s a little more preptime for the DM, and can slow things down if you run a game with a more random encounter style where you come up with monsters on the fly, but it also saves a lot of flipping around in the pages for the DM during combat.

5 Colin June 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

I’ve also employed index cards displaying monster defenses, specifically when they go up against ‘bosses’.
Perhaps asking the player(s) on the spot is causing them to struggle more, whereas having an index card displaying numbers the entire time would mitigate it.

This is a great article and something all DMs and players can related to at some point.

6 Tourq June 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

In the last 4e campaign I played in, the DM would tell us what numbers were required to hit his monsters, and we would tell him if we hit or not. Usually, it worked like a charm and sped up combat.

Sometimes, though, it became quite comical as (occasionally) he would have to tell us his defences over and over and over and over…

7 4649matt June 20, 2011 at 10:59 am

I gamed with a guy that struggles with even basic arithmetic. Instead of making it a constant pressure on him and putting him in a negative spotlight, the players did math as a team. Usually one of the more math apt payers would sit next to them and help them out.
While playing with a different group we had the opposite end of the spectrum, we were playing D&D3.5 at epic levels where the numbers become staggering and one guy at the table was faster than a calculator. So everyone called the relevant numbers and he spat them back out like lightning.
For people that like math, it brings an extra layer of enjoyment to the game, for those lacking an aptitude in math, it can become an impediment to their enjoyment so I recommend to share the load. That is one benefit of a team.
My two coppers.

8 Amradorn June 20, 2011 at 11:11 am

It’s not all laziness. Some people simply have trouble with basic math. As a DM who does have some trouble with math I can be a bit slow with the numbers. Since I know this is a problem for me I always make sure I have a calculator handy as a last resort.

Besides the game is about telling a story as a group and having fun. For someone that struggles with math having it displayed out in front of everyone like that isn’t much fun.

9 Lahrs June 20, 2011 at 11:37 am

I run into this problem all the time, but not just in gaming, but in everyday applications. Before going back to college, I used to manage multiple arcades for Namco throughout Kentucky. Much of my time was doing paperwork, working on machines and dealing with employee issues, but there were times when my employees would be overwhelmed by kids and I ended up behind a redemption counter with them to help kids cash in their tickets for prizes. I am 32, so even though I have been out of school for awhile, it hasn’t been that long, yet I had to do all of my homework without a calculator. We are talking basic addition and subtraction as the kids were cashing in their tickets, but I was able to handle three or more kids simultaneously while many of my employees struggled with one. If I didn’t buy them a calculator to help them, I do not know how they would have been able to do anything in a timely manner. This applies to college students as well. I see it all the time in my English classes, where some basic math problem comes up, a student, or even the teacher gets it wrong, and then laughs it off claiming that they are English majors and not math majors. This isn’t calculus, we are talking basic addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.

This isn’t a D&D problem, this is an education problem, and while your intentions are good, I think you may be putting too much pressure on people who very well may not have the tools to complete the task, even one which we consider so ridiculously easy. To others, this is a stressful test in front of many onlookers who they may feel inferior too every time they have to roll the dice. By calling them out each time, it makes the problem worse. I wouldn’t necessarily give them a free pass, and I would allow them to do the smaller numbers, but if they are having difficulties and the group is their to help, I would let them help. It is also a judgment call whether they need help or are lazy. Laziness should not be tolerated and I would ask them to add it up themselves every time if they are able.

10 Lahrs June 20, 2011 at 11:41 am

I hate posting about being an English major and then doing something stupid like using their instead of there when needed. See, we all screw up from time to time. Maybe next time I will proofread before hitting the submit button.

11 Drabix June 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

It’s a growing problem. I have two players with this problem at my table and the rest of the group now knows not to do the math for them.

12 Sully June 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm

It’s probably just an excuse to play more D&D with my kids, but we homeschool them and it seems to be working pretty well as arithmetic practice! Woot! d&d during schoolhours ftw!

13 Bobbydrake75 June 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I found that back in the 3.5 days that I was forced to make a player create a chart because of all the different bonuses and power attacks and the like. 4th Edition is easier but some people refuse to be ready for their turn and to know their characters. I give a pass to the Wednesday night encounters people but I think that people that are playing in a campaign should know their powers and bonuses. Sadly, many of the characters have the same bonus to hit and damage for every power but still resort to looking back on the card for the numbers each time that they use them. The ideal player comes to the table knowing what their character can do. Knows their bonus to hit, knows their limitations as far as adding goes and does something about it. Adding 14 + 19 to hit and 7 + 4 + 6 +13 for damage is hard enough without rolling a 14, looking back to the card, figuring, then asking if 33 hit, yes ok, rolling 3d8, adding the subtotal to 17 and looking back to the card and saying ummm … 30 damage oh and (looks back to the card) and he is slowed …. ummmm look at the card again …. till the end of my next turn. The next person starts their turn … the player breaks in “oh and 2 more damage because he is bloodied…
Suggestions for players:
1. If you can’t add, make a chart. 10 minutes tops and everyone wins.
2. Write down bonus to hit and damage somewhere handy so that it is fresh in your mind. Likely they are the same for many of your powers.
3. Be ready for your turn, have a power(s) ready and lead by example.
4. Make a spread sheet or word table of all of your combat powers so that you are looking at one sheet versus 4 sheets.
(I wish that I can attach a word doc example that I have)
5. Respect other players by not talking during their turns unless you are saying something to that character.

My 2 cents,

14 Rhetorical Gamer June 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I realize that some people struggle with basic math and as someone who has been a middle school teacher, I don’t really like putting players “on the spot” but even I’ve given in to the urge to talk to some players out of session about being a little more ready with their math…

I game primarily with people who are college students, graduate students, and up into their early 40s — with a decent spread of blue and white collar occupations and all with a minimum of a high school degree. And I have players who have to count on their fingers just to add a d6’s worth of sneak attack damage or who get really annoyed at me when I ask what’s the total and they reply, what’s +7 and +19?

You are not alone in this (as all the other posters seem to have encountered it as well) and I hope you keep pressing folks to do their own math.

15 Jeremy Morgan June 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I agree with what’s been said in this article. As long as you state your intentions about helping your players to work the math out themselves, I don’t think someone can reasonably argue that you’re being a jerk, either.

Keep on keepin’ on.

16 Toldain June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I have one player like this. She is an otherwise highly competent person. But she gets really anxious about things when she is rolling a hit. She is anxious about whether she hit or not, it’s her job, she’s a striker. She’s anxious about whether she can do the math or not, that’s a lifetime thing. Part of the issue is that she doesn’t use the Character Builder, and is really not sure of her modifiers. This adds to her anxiety.

Nobody in the group does her math for her, they are very mature and understand that as disrespectful. My approach is to ask her to add it up and wait patiently. The other players, thank Marr, follow my lead. If she’s forgotten a bonus, they will point that out, but that’s fair game, bonuses are hard for everyone to track.

If you’re playing D&D or any roleplaying in a tough combat, you are already “on the spot”. That’s what makes it fun. The magic is more about how you deal with failure and slowness. Mistakes are corrected, but not stigmatized, no matter how many times they are made.

This fits with a larger theme of the play group: Mistakes and failures are merely opportunities for a more interesting story. I don’t want the group grinding to a halt endlessly debating what to do next, so I feel this attitude toward mistakes is essential.

17 Matt Gallinger June 20, 2011 at 7:52 pm

I think everyone is on the same page… many players either simply have bad internal math skills or get flustered when everyone is looking at them and asking them to do math in their head.

However, asking for the total of the roll is critical, especially when teaching new players. They must understand how the whole game works together and at higher levels that means frequently incorporating bonuses from feats, magic items and powers that don’t necessarily come into play on every turn.

Taking the team approach is great. As a matter of fact, at my Encounters table, its frequently the smart 14 year old doing the math faster than the adults and announcing everyone’s score… I find him a good back up calculator 🙂

18 Rabbit is wise June 20, 2011 at 9:06 pm

We have one of those gamers at my FLGS, he also rolls into a small box at the far end of the table, our DM is more concerned with the story than the rolls so he doesnt ever bother this guy with making his rolls public, but I’ve noticed that he crits about 3 times an encounter, and when he counts out his roll he’s usually lying, for some gamers its a tell for when they’re cheating. In a more serious game i would make a big deal, but i treat encounters as a testing ground for different types of characters and so do alot of the other guys. but remember just like in poker, bluffers in d&d have tells too… and usually they’re terrible. lol

19 iserith June 20, 2011 at 11:21 pm

I once had a player at my table that had no math skills whatsoever, to the point that he brought a calculator to add simple numbers. In an effort to speed up the execution of his turn, he’d even put in his static modifiers first and the + sign and wait for the result of his roll before plugging that in (slowly). He didn’t last.

My feeling is that, short of a major learning disorder, if you can’t do simple arithmetic, stop playing D&D, get some flashcards, and come back when you can add 17+8. You should be spending his or her free time getting your mathematical house in order – for your own sake if not for those around you, public education system be damned.

20 Anarkeith June 21, 2011 at 10:59 am

There are players out there who have real, functional reasons that math is a challenge for them. Judging whether a player is functionally challenged, or just lazy is tricky. I’ve DM’d for many years and I’m still anxious when it’s time to add things up. I take the time to get it right, and encourage my players to do the same.

21 Francois B. June 21, 2011 at 11:35 am

Hey all, and yes, i myself have 2 of those players (out of 4)

One has an iPad and got Mach Dice (very cool dice app!) were he just punches in his attack or dmg (like 2d6+2d8+14), presses “roll” and reads off the total at the bottom. Since there are 5 different screens you can switch between, he keeps one with just a d20 with his normal bonus already added and has another for his damage dice with bonus added. Works great, but does not roll real dice. He doesn’t mind, and i certainly don’t either. Imagine having all your players roll and just read off the exact, 100% ok, total in 2 secs after rolling. Priceless and Time Saving!

For my second player, reading in dim light+small characters is almost impossible because of eyesight. I created the following Battle Sheet : http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1514300/LFR/OrviksBattleSheet.pdf . Nice big numbers, short text for special things on his stances, total max damage in parentheses for those crits and defenses in big numbers at the end.
Fast and works great. Also, he’s starting to know them by heart! Even better!

For those struggling to add numbers, i found it might be easier to calculate the static numbers first, then add the d20 roll (or dmg roll) to that number. Ex. MBA +7 vs AC , the player should try adding all his modifiers first, let’s say for this example he has CA (so 7+2=9), then add the d20. Have him/her say “9+” then rolls (he rolled a 12, so 9+12) instead of the usual D20+static. Same for damage rolls, for example MBA 1d8+7, have him/her say “7+” , then roll the d8 (he rolled 3, so 7+3=10). This is most useful when having multiple damage dice, looking at you thief. IMHO it’s easier to start with your static number like 7 then adding the first, second, third, .. dice to the new subtotal.

Why? I found most people rolling, then searching their static, forgetting what they rolled, then forgetting what the static was once it was found. Even then, they forgot or didn’t know what other modifiers they already added and basically making a mess in the head they can’t calculate (or worse, miscalculating). So get all the static modifiers out of the way first (CA bonus, charging, other modifiers), then add the dice rolls seem to work out better.
Also, cleaner for those walking calulators out there to just blurt out the correct total 😉 (i am guilty).

22 Ameron June 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I’m on vacation this week with limited internet access. I’ll reply in more detail to these comments when I return later in the week. But until then thank you for these great comments. Apparently this is a topic that is affecting a lot of gaming tables and is not just isolated to mine.

23 Rabbit is wise June 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Ok i know leaning disabilities exist, but if you can learn how to drive a car, clothe yourself, show up to work on time so you can buy your 45 dollar gold plated dice, and countless mini’s, rule books etc… then maybe 1 in 6 d&d players arent inflicted with a learning disability but with laziness. Or maybe they should spend a few more minutes a day practicing simple math, its 18 + 7 for god sake’s… maybe im being over critical, and yes i do know people with learning disabilities; its because of those people that i attribute most lack of basic math skills to laziness than learning disabilities… by the way not sure how i feel about electronic dice, good or bad…

24 Rabbit is wise June 21, 2011 at 8:07 pm

lol leaning disabilities, I meant learning disabilities, obviously…. maybe

25 Dan June 21, 2011 at 10:02 pm

I have only two words… pocket calculator.

26 Kiel Chenier June 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Simple answer.

Most people (including D&D players/DMs) are simply pants-on-head-retarded.

The sooner you accept this the happier you will be.

27 joey June 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm

almost wants you to bring back THAC0, doesn’t it?

28 Riley H July 19, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Found this article why i was at work searching for tips on better RP/Combat with D&D. I am very guilty of this and have been playing DnD for 3 months. I had no idea it was that annoying. Everytime i started to add in my head i would just freeze up with everyone waiting.

Math is part of my job as a programmer, but it’s more related to constructing an abstract equation that the user’s variables interact with. That’s the fun part for me.

I like the advice above of figuring out the static numbers and saying “7+” then rolling.

I also think it will help if i just address the group before we play next time. Telling them that i have trouble doing math in my head with them watching. I’m also going to ask that they are patient with me and not add/call out the numbers for me.

Who knows, getting it out in the open might help the freeze up. Thanks for all the tips everyone!

29 dukethepcdr August 20, 2011 at 5:05 am

I see it as a symptom of an even bigger problem. Sure, it’s bad enough that so many people have gotten out of the habit of doing math in their head. That’s partly the fault of people relying increasingly on calculators, computers etc to do their math for them. I’ll admit that I am not the biggest math wiz either but I compensate for it by doing it on paper quickly rather than just sitting there waiting for someone to give me the answer. I know all the operations (addition, subtraction etc) I just sometimes have trouble visualizing the numbers in my head, especially if I have to carry numbers over from one place to another.

I’ve known players who even keep a really small calculator next to them (or who even have one of those clipboards that have one built into the clip or an app on their phone) who use that to make the math faster for them.

We simply don’t practice doing math in our heads enough anymore. Many clerks today can’t even figure change without a program on their register to do it for them.

An even bigger problem that I see in role playing games and gamers today is a general ‘dumbing down’ of everything. We’ve gotten so used to playing games on computers and consoles that have an A.I. to tell us what the rules are, what you can and can’t do, that do all the ‘number crunching’ in the background and that even have walkthroughs or tutorials that tell you how to play the game. Most of the video game RPGs out there have very little story and have the player make very few decisions. So many kids these days don’t even read anything that has more than a few paragraphs in it unless a teacher makes them. Even the rule books for today’s table top RPGs are more simplistic and streamlined than they used to be. Now we even have online versions of these books that let you just type in a keyword or question and it answers the question.

A while back, I was playing some D&D with some teenage kids. I got out a couple of AD&D books and had them look through them. The kids eyes got big as saucers as they thumbed through it. The shook their heads in bewilderment and handed them back to me. They said “that’s kinda cool, but we’re not gonna use those in the game are we?”. When I said ‘no’ they were relieved and said “good cause they are way too complicated”. They couldn’t even figure out the character creation tables and sheets and asked if they could use Character Builder on the website instead.

I’m all for making the games accessible and attractive to the next generation. If we try to keep everything too ‘old school’ we’ll run out of players soon. But there are times when I get frustrated at how little so many younger players are able or willing to figure out without a computer to help them.

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