Let the Players Roll More Dice

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 14, 2011

Players love to roll dice. This is one of the reasons that strikers are so popular in 4e D&D. Strikers attack more often and always seem to roll more damage dice than classes in the other roles. I must admit that I fall squarely in the “love to roll dice” camp. It’s part of what I find appealing about D&D or any board game for that matter. Quite simply, it’s fun. But for some players rolling dice is where their interest stops.

I’ve had a lot of issues lately with players who don’t pay attention to what’s going on when it’s not their turn. I’ve tried a lot of different things to keep them engaged from rewards to punishment but many simply zone out. I see this a lot during public play like D&D Encounters and LFR. I’d pretty much given up and come to accept that some players are simply there to roll dice and don’t care about what else is going on if it doesn’t directly affect their character. And then I finally came up with a way to solve this problem and the solution involved rolling more dice.

When it’s your turn you make an attack roll (or multiple attack rolls if you’re a striker). If you hit you then roll a bunch of damage dice. Unless you have an interrupt or a monster provokes an opportunity attack you can put the dice down until your next turn. But what if you had more chances to roll dice when it wasn’t you turn?

Defenses in 4e D&D all begin at 10 and go up from there. Have you ever wondered why the system was set up this way? In the 3.5e PHB it explained that the base 10 represented an average defense roll, a “take 10” mentality to keep combat simple and eliminate unnecessary defensive rolls. But what if we make defending an active part of combat, at least for the PCs?

Rather than have an AC of 22, you’d have an AC of 12+1d20. Whenever anything attacked your AC you’d have to roll your defense. This means that your AC could be as low as 13 or as high as 32 in this example. On average your defenses would still round out in the 22 ballpark that you’re used to, but now the act of defending falls on your shoulders and required you to make a roll (or multiple rolls).

This is not something that will appeal to every group or every player, but if you’ve got a table where most of the players attack and then stop paying attention this might be exactly the kind of engagement that keeps them glued to the action.

I think that for this kind of system to work best, once the PCs’ defenses become randomized the DM should make all the monsters attacks flat. Stop rolling for the monsters and just add 10 to their attack score. After all, there only needs to be one roll – either an attack roll or a defense roll. Rolling on both sides of the equation will just slow things down. You haven’t introduced any more dice rolling to the encounter, you’ve just given more of it to the players.

The way combat works today my monster would normally roll +14 to attack your 22 AC. With the new system you’d have to make an AC defense roll vs DC 24 (the +14 I began with and then the add 10 we removed from your static AC). Your AC defense is 12+1d20 as we noted above so you’d successfully defend on an 14 or better. The odds remain exactly the same. The only thing that changes is that the players do all the rolling.

Using the numbers above I used to hit on any roll between 8-20 (13 possible numbers). Now you successfully defend by rolling anything between 14-20 (7 possible numbers). In either of these two scenarios, 7 numbers on the die are good for the PC no matter how you do the math.

By eliminating monster attack rolls a monster no longer scores a critical hit on a 20. After all a 20 on your defense roll is fantastic and means that nothing touches you, the same way a monster rolling a 1 on their attack would normally miss. However, if you roll a 1 on your defense roll then you’ve made a critical fumble and the monster does maximum damage just like they would if they’d rolled a 20 on their attack. The mechanic is still present it’s just changed ends of the spectrum.

With the DM free of rolling dice he can focus on the story and the theatrics. Normally I’d say something like “The monster attacks you and rolled 18 vs. AC. Does that hit?” The response is a yes or no and combat continues. Now I can say “The monster swings his big club right at your face, defend with your AC, DC 18.” This leaves it to the player to complete the scene. If the defense roll succeeds then he could respond with “The club bashes against my helmet and rings my bell.” If the defense roll succeeds then he could respond with “I duck at the last second and the club goes over my head.” With the onus on the player to finish the scene they will be more inclined to give more than a yes or no response.

When the players need to roll active defenses they will immediately know which monsters have the best attack scores. The way combat works today the players generally have no idea what the monster’s attack scores actually are because the DM only reveals the total after the dice are rolled. By telling players the DC to defend against they’ll realize which attacks are deadly and which ones are less likely to hit. This can affect combat strategy and highlight the more powerful foes. It instills a sense of danger that is missing from combat today.

With the players rolling all the dice it also encourages them to pay closer attention to the entire combat. If a monster is supposed to suffer a -2 to its attack the players are a lot more likely to remember if they’re the ones rolling the dice. They can police each other and remind everyone who has what conditions on them that might affect the numbers.

By removing the dice from the hands of the DM everything is decided by the players themselves. I know that my players believe my DM dice hate them and always roll a 20s at the worst possible time. Now players have only themselves to blame when the dice are against them. By rolling their own defenses they no longer have to fear the 20. No matter why they’re rolling, high rolls are always good regardless if they’re making attack rolls, defense rolls, skill checks or saving throws. It’s those pesky 1s that will become even more of a pain in the butt.

Having players make active defense checks may take a few battles to master, but I think players will catch on quickly enough. For those who like rolling dice I think it will catch on very quickly.

Do you think your players would be interested in rolling their own defenses? Do you think it would keep player more engaged? As a DM would you be willing to give up the dice rolling or do you think it would leave you with too little to do?

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1 Quirky DM October 14, 2011 at 10:08 am

I remember 3rd edition introducing this idea as an optional rule. (Unearthed Arcana or PHB 2, maybe?)

The only thing is that you really should be adding subtracting 12 from the character’s defense score in order to keep the odds the same. In your example of +14 attack vs AC 22, a monster needs an 8+ to hit, or has a 13/20 chance to hit. Once you make this a defense roll, (where players win ties) the equivalent chance on DC 24 will be a failure for the player (ie. the monster hits) if their roll is 10+1d20, not 12+1d20.

I may have to use this in my next game. I’m not so in love with my dice that I need to do all the rolls. Plus I can still do damage rolls since it’s likely easier for me to have the appropriate damage dice on hand then it is for the players.

2 Camelot October 14, 2011 at 10:25 am

Math issues aside, I have definitely considered doing this before, but I’ve never tried to implement it. It’s hard for players to be jolted out of what they know with a new rule like this, but I think it would make it more fun for the players and easier on the DM.

3 JR October 14, 2011 at 10:28 am

You definitely need to avoid the monster rolling an attack and the player rolling a defense number. Once two dice are being rolled, you are no longer using a uniform distribution — you have fundamentally changed the math of combat from a uniform distribution to a roughly normal distribution.

In a 1d20 situation, there are 20 possible outcomes, and the 5 worst outcomes comprise exactly 25% of the probability space. In a 2d20 situation, there are 39 outcomes. The 10 worst outcomes comprise only 13.25% of the probability space. When the players and monsters roll attacks and defenses, you’re far more likely to get an ‘average’ outcome and far less likely to get an outlier. That means an encounter which would be survivable with some good rolls could be un-winnable.

4 Liack October 14, 2011 at 10:32 am

Not a bad idea. The only potential issue I have is the average of a d20 is 10.5, not 10. So, ultimately, the DM’s attacks are less likely to hit (2.5%).
For example, for a +9vsAC against a PC with AC 19, by replacing d20 by average.
Current : Atk 1d20+9 vs Ac 19 = 10.5+9 vs AC 19 = usually hit
Method : Atk 19 vs Ac1d20 + 9 = 19 vs 10.5 + 9 = usually miss

So, maybe a coin toss for a random +1 to monster attacks, and we are back to balance 😉

5 Liack October 14, 2011 at 10:35 am

I hadn’t consider the “tie means player win” situation…fuzzy maths :p

6 Ameron (Derek Myers) October 14, 2011 at 11:00 am

I realize now that the math needs to be tweaked a bit more to work. And I totally forget to mention that you’d have to exceed the attacking DC rather than match it which is usually the case. I think Quirky DM’s suggestion to add 12 rather than 10 resolved the math problems and it means that all you have to do is match the number rather than beat it. I’ll admit that I wrote this really late last night and my math brain was already sleeping. Let’s agree that the math needs to be tweaked. Assuming we can find a solution (which I think the +12 does nicely) what are your thoughts on active defenses?

7 CJ October 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

This is a brilliant solution. I often find myself over busy while players are sitting idle. Just from the perspective of taking some of the menial tasks away from the DM to speed up the game this is a rule worth implementing.

In Ars Magica, probably the lowest possible die rolling RPG, players roll for defense. It makes the combat more interesting and realistic. Sometimes, you defend well, and sometimes you flub it.

8 Quirky DM October 14, 2011 at 1:13 pm

I guess I started the math issue, so I’ll comment more on the actual feature. It’s a good way to handle the player disassociation issue. As I stated earlier, I think having the DM handle damage dice is the way to go- you can roll them up while the player rolls the attack and you don’t have a player scrambling to find whatever dice happen to be used by this monster.

Besides that, I also think it fits well into the 4e monster paradigm. Monsters follow their own set of advancement rules, healing surges, power levels, etc. Monsters are a template to provide a challenge, so the idea of moving the concept of combat as a challenge to the players that they overcome is in line with development we see not only here, but in many other RPGs such as Mouseguard and Burning Wheel. As we separate character creation and monster generation apart, there’s no reason not to move the mechanics of battle apart to accomodate that. (except maybe as a golden cow) And there could be some very good reasons to move it the other way, player involvement and combat speed increase being two of them.

9 Wez October 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm

We’ve been doing this for almost two years now. Makes it much more exciting for the players. And makes those big bursts and blasts from the enemy takes seconds and involve the whole table.

All we did is add 22 to the attackers to hit, and let the players add a d20 to their defences if they roll equal or higher than the monster the monster misses. This was all the changes are on the DM side – easier than explaining why the characters lose 10 AC.

We love it, your results may vary.

Player: AC 20
Monster: +14 to hit

hit on a 6 or more – miss on 1,2,3,4,5 – crit on 20

Player: AC 20 + d20
Monster: 36 (14+22) vs AC or get hit

hit on 15 or less – miss on 16,17,18,19,20 – crit on 1

10 Jess October 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm

@Quirky DM: Actually, if you retain the same mechanic that whoever is rolling must exceed the target number, as in the case of attacking, then it maintains a consistent set of expectations for the players and means that the math is only off by 1 instead of two, which I would hand wave as negligible, at least in my games. I like the idea a lot, but I have a few players for whom the math is secondary to enjoying the theatrics of the game, and so keeping things simple and consistent means that they don’t get bogged down in the math rather than enjoy the game play. Plus it means that I can throw tougher encounters at the PCs and they’ll have slightly better odds of handling it well and making it out alive.

11 panzerleader October 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I love this idea! Call it active defense. DM “The orc brings his sword slashing downward at… Quinn the knight!” PC: “Quinn raises his mighty shield to block…” rolls some dice “17! Plus my AC 22 so I get uh…” DM: “39! You block the blow! But oh no the orc next to him…etc”

Yep, love it. Shoot this idea over to Monte Cook.

12 anarkeith October 14, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I lifted a segment-based combat system from a friend’s home-brewed rules and tacked it on to 4e. Basically, you don’t have a turn anymore. You have an attack rate. The DM counts off segments and you act when your attack rate indicates you could attack. Players have to track that, which keeps ’em focused. There are a couple of other wrinkles that keep their attention as well. I’ve posted specifics on the Obsidian Portal wiki for my campaign:


13 Kiel Chenier October 14, 2011 at 9:28 pm

@Ameron I think the idea of active defenses is a novel one worthy of investigation, but I feel it’s implementation is the cause of a wholly different problem.

We’ve DM’d the same games in the past, and I’ve always felt bad because you often are the one to DM for the table filled with kids under 16 and adult players with attention spans of kids under 16. You get a raw deal, and you’re a class act for handling it proactively.

Maybe I’m too much of a curmudgeon, but I know from experience that you’re an engaging DM, and if your players at live events and encounters are zoning out or getting distracted, it’s more on them as players than on you as a DM.

Paying attention to the game is part of showing respect to the person who took time out of their day to host a game for you to enjoy. If a player can’t muster even that minimal amount of respect, then perhaps they ought not to play.

Hate to be the bad guy, but I’m just saying.

14 Sunyaku October 15, 2011 at 1:15 am

I agree this is an excellent idea… and with the math straightened out, I really don’t think it would be too difficult for players to learn a new rule. But then again, I play with a table of scientists and engineers…

15 jmutchek October 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I like it… a lot. I think the math with an adjustment of 12 puts the odds on par with RAW, and I can imagine how turning over the narrative to the player to resolve the attack would lead to some pretty fantastic flavor.

I’m actually watching the latest Acquisitions Inc. video from PAX Prime and there is a perfect example in which Chris Perkins opens an attack with some nice flavor and has to stop to ask “does a ___ hit you?”… and then narrate the resolution.

I’m going to have to give this some serious thought… and I hope WOTC reads your post too! Needs more darts thrown at it, but you might be on to something. 🙂

16 Oz October 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm

I’ve considered this for my home-brew d20 game. As for the difference between 10 and 10.5, I’m willing to give the players the .5 benefit. As for who wins in a tie, just rule that attackers always hit on ties so a defense roll has to exceed the attack score.

17 Ryxson October 15, 2011 at 11:23 pm

@Wez: my gaming group has been doing exactly the same thing. DM has less to do when it’s a monsters turn, and player get to roll more dice. They also have less recourse when they roll a 1, and get crit by the monster.

18 Eric Herston October 15, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Congratulation, you’ve just re-introduced the saving throw. 🙂

19 mbeacom October 16, 2011 at 2:39 pm

It’s a nice mechanic. That’s the very reason I’ve kinda of missed the use of the “Save vs.” that was heavily used in previous editions. Any time someone was attacked with a spell or by a magical effect (gaze attack, breath weapon, etc), it was the player doing the defense rolling, rather than the DM doing the hit rolling. This was eliminated under the guise of a “unified mechanic” where the attacker is always doing the rolling and they’re always rolling a D20 vs. a target number. What you mention (bored players off their turn) is definitely an unintended side effect/consequence with this unified mechanic. If it were me, I’d bring back traditional saving throws, then you would have much less of this. Or in your case, extend traditional saving throws to non-magical attacks. Cuz, essentially, you’re describing how saves used to work. I always liked it and I STILL like it.

20 Rico October 16, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I like this idea, however, I’m not sure that, “With the onus on the player to finish the scene they will be more inclined to give more than a yes or no response” is true. I expect that the most common response will be, “you hit” or “you missed.” Players who are more inclined to role play and dramatic story-telling will give the kind of answers you envision, and hopefully it will rub off on other players, but I’m not holding my breath.

On a someone different, but related note, I’d like to see rolls for things like perception and theivery checks handled exclusively by the DM. This preserves the story-telling element of those checks, and prevents the inevitable, “I roll the check too” responses from the other players when one player obviously failed his check.

21 mbeacom October 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I like that idea Rico. I’ve had similar issues with “I check too” or when I say, give me a perception check to one person in particular, 6 dice come flying across the table.

I’ve introduced in my games, “the downside of the check”. If you want to aid another, great. But if you want to do something purely because you know someone else got a bad roll and basically, you’re hoping for second chance, I have certain things I take into consideration.

1. Checks take time. Is YOUR search of the room delaying the party so that something is happening in your absence?
2. If the first diplomacy/bluff/intimidate didn’t work, trying again with a different party member could really make things bad for the group.

Basically, I tell the players in these situations, “If you try this again, “X” may happen” so they can weigh the risk against the reward. I always base it on the story so it’s not some arbitrary thing. It needs to make sense to the players but it can work.

Having said that I like the DM rolls checks, at least in many cases, it would avoid the potential for abuse.

22 Rico October 17, 2011 at 3:40 pm


Not only does it help avoid the potential for abuse, but it makes more logical sense for some things such as checking for traps and disarming them. If the player checking for traps knows that his total score was a 6, he knows he failed the check. If the DM rolls it and says, “You’re sure there are no traps,” maybe the check succeeded, or maybe it failed (and even if it failed, there may in fact be no traps). It preserves the mystery.

23 Al October 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I love the idea, however DMing at public events I’ve noticed too many players having problems adding 8+5 together correctly never mind in a timely manner. Asking them to add AC + d20 I shudder to think how long it will take and whether I’ll get a correct answer.

24 Wolfgrim October 19, 2011 at 9:12 pm

I love this idea. I’ve never thought of it, but as a DM I see all the advantages! There is no downside to this strategy. As a DM I have always tried to find a way to interest players who would rather talk to other players or preffer not to sit at the table when it is not their turn. The outcome of these zone-out’s is aweful. It can affect the entire group simultaniously. With this system if they player rolls a 1 on a d20 they take maximum damage, whereas with a 20 on a d20 the attack would automatically miss. I am a DM who preffers to focus on atmosphere, storyline, pacing and immersion. I have always found rolling dice for monsters attacks to be a pain in my thigh. On several occasions I have had Slayer’s and Powergamers take advantage of my tardiness. As a DM, who wants to roll dice for each creature and keep track of the rolls? I sure don’t, especially when I can be setting up the next encounter, preparing loots and overall staying one step ahead of my players. I will surely implement this system. Players are far-far more likely to pay attention to combat when they have to roll to defend themselves. This system reminds me of the “Fighting Fantasy” series. Another plausible idea to use in conjunction with this system, is to have players roll to see who get’s hit. The player that rolls the lowest is hit, that way no one feels that the DM is picking on them. I have found that I have had to keep track of player’s HP because I inflict too much damage on the little guys and end up being far too severe. In several cases I have had DM’s pick on my character and I always hated this. As a player it feels antagonizing.

25 Icosahedrophilia February 15, 2012 at 12:52 am

Without knowing about this post, I wrote a very similar one a few days ago. If my calculations were right, you keep the “to hit” probabilities the same if you change the PCs’ defenses from 10 + modifiers (you know, half level and ability modifier and all that) to 1d20 + modifiers, and you calculate the DC as 11 + monsters’ attack modifiers.

26 Quirky DM February 15, 2012 at 8:51 am

Re: Icasahedrophilia
That all depends how you consider the “tie” situation. In standard 4e mechanics, when a player rolls against a DC, a tie indicates success. Taking the example from your article, the minotaur with +19 to attack is pitted against a warforged with AC 26. (+16 to AC) The minotaur needs a 7 or higher to hit, which gives a 70% hit chance.
Alternatively, with players rolling the dice you would set a DC at 30 with a defense bonus of +16. This means a player succeeds on a 14 or higher, which gives the minotaur a 65% hit chance. (13 or less on the defense roll) So your calculations are off by 1.
However, if you decide to alter the mechanics for defense DCs so a tie goes against the roller, then your numbers work. My preference is to make the check mechanic consist across the entire game- all ties go in favor of the roller.

27 NewDM March 29, 2012 at 3:40 am

While I agree that this idea is cool and sounds like a great way to engage the players more, it also comes with one big drawback. By allowing the players to essentially roll the enemy’s attacks against them, you are taking away the DM’s ability to fudge the numbers behind the screen. I can recall a number of times when I had my monsters either hit a PC to teach the player a lesson, or intentionally missed an attack because I didn’t want to crit the same PC 3 times in a row. I understand you can fudge the damage numbers behind the scenes but you can’t if the players are criting themselves for you! Just sayin.

28 Jess Morris April 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I’ve been using this system in my current game for a while now and my players love it, especially as it gives me more head space to prep everything else and keeps them entertained. One of them though, on a rolling a natural 20, asked what that meant. Rolling a natural 20 always means something in D&D, usually something spectacular. I know the rolls are reversed here, and a 1 indicates a monster crit, but it feels like something should happen when the player rolls a natural 20 on defense as well. Any ideas?

29 Ameron (Derek Myers) April 4, 2012 at 3:10 pm

@Jess Morris
How about a natural 20 on a defense roll gives you a bonus to the next defense check made before the end of your next turn (you’re in the zone, if you will). Or better yet, why not let the player roll two defense checks the next time he’s attacked and take the more favourable result? Either option could work. They’re balanced and wouldn’t break the game because really, how often do you roll a 20 (about once in twenty rolls).

30 John October 20, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I can’t wait to try this out. I love rolling dice even as DM but do find there’s just too much going on sometimes. In thinking of variations and options of this active defense–if one or two players just aren’t as excited about more dice rolling– 1. Is it desirable or feasible to use active defense for say 4 players and use the standard method for the 5th player? Granted this is one more detail to keep track of, but could it work? And 2. if the players like active defense but don’t love it, or are indifferent, could you use this for certain epic battles or unique extended contexts (within a certain building or area or while fighting certain creatures) where the storyline would explain why the PC’s are more actively defending themselves?

31 James December 19, 2012 at 8:18 pm

@Jess Morris – if a 1 on a defense roll is equivalent to a 20 on an attack, it stands to reason that a 20 on a defense roll is equivalent to a 1 on an attack roll.

32 Doug September 8, 2013 at 5:41 pm

I just added this aspect to my game yesterday, and let me tell you the difference it has made in my players. They’re more attentive to combat, they like the dice rolling, and appreciate their AC bonuses now.

The only thing is I do tend to hit less often with my monsters, and after reading through the comments about the hit probability math, I will have to add a small bonus (like the +1 mentioned in one comment).

But, just for the fact that I have engaged players again, and not bored ones turning to their smartphones to bide their time, I am completely stoked about this new rule change.

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