How To Solve the Cold Dice Problem

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 23, 2012

It will happen to you one day and when it does don’t be embarrassed, it happens to all gamers. I’m talking about cold dice. Eventually the dice run cold for all of us. Maybe the d6 keeps coming up 1, the d12 won’t roll higher than 3 or the d20 isn’t cooperating at all and you haven’t hit a monster all fight. Eventually the dice gods will correct the problems and balance the scales, but until then a streak of poor rolls can crush even the most experienced player.

When a player goes through a bought of bad dice karma it can actually have a detrimental effect on the entire group. Even though everyone else rolls as expected and has fun doing so, one player’s poor rolls can effect the overall mood of the entire table. I’ve learned over the years that when this happens (and it will, if it hasn’t already) players and DMs can actually do a lot of things to turn the tide.

What Players Do

As a player with bad dice karma you can ride it out or follow the three steps below until you achieve satisfaction and turn your luck around.

  1. Verbally abuse the dice: Yelling, complaining, and even cursing at the dice may not actually help but it will often make the player feel a little bit better. I’ve seen more than my share of dice get berated only to roll the desired number on the very next throw. It could be luck or it could be that the die took your threats seriously. Either way I’m a believer.
  2. Switch dice: I’ve never met a gamer who didn’t own more than one set of dice. When the dice are running cold it’s time to cal in a reliever. However, even this isn’t always effective. After all, even relief pitchers need to warm-up before they can strike out the next batter. By the time the new dice warm up the battle could be over… and your PC could be dead.
  3. Destroy the offender: In extreme cases where a die just won’t roll the number you need when you need it, a player might go to the extreme of destroying the dice. I’ve heard players claim that they’ve smashed bad dice with a hammer, melted them in the microwave, thrown them in a lake, or subjected them the wrath of a soldering gun. One of the players in our main group actually used a paint stripper to melt his pesky d20. (Note that destroying dice can be dangerous so please exercise caution if you’re going to do more than throw a d20 into a lake.) One important reminder if you’re going to go to this extreme: be sure to line up the rest of your dice where they can see the show. By witnessing the execution they’ll know that you’re serious when you threaten to destroy them for poor rolling.

Have you even seen a melted d20? Other dice take note.

What DMs Do

In all seriousness there will be times when a players dice just won’t roll high enough for him to make a meaningful contribution. I’ve been that guy and it’s awful. The game drags on and you actually dread your turn coming up in the initiative because you know you’ll miss again. As the DM I see this happen a lot. It doesn’t usually happen for more than a coupe of rounds but every so often it becomes a real problem.

As the DM you have ultimate control over what happens in your game. There are plenty of things that you can do to help the player suffering from cold dice. Make them a more active participant by adding elements to the game that don’t depend on great dice rolls or that don’t require dice rolls at all. Here are a few examples.

  • Miss effects: A lot of powers in 4e D&D still do stuff on a miss, most daily powers for example. If a player is going through a cold dice streak encourage them to use powers that will have some effect regardless of the dice roll. Since most PCs only have a few daily powers you might have to come up with a way for them to use these powers more than once a day. I’ve let players recharge a daily power by trading in two encounter powers or cashing in an action point. Be creative and do what it takes to keep the player involved. If none of the PC’s attacks do anything on a miss you may also allow them to retrain on the fly.
  • More than just fighting: The most interesting combat encounters usually have something going on other than just the fighting. It’s a good idea to include non-fighting options in any encounter, but it is especially important if you’ve got a player with cold dice. Mini-skill challenges are a popular choice but they usually require decent rolls as well, so that isn’t always going to be the best alternative. Try to include tasks that anyone can do, tasks based more on role-playing that aren’t dependent on dice. These should make sense for the encounter and be more than just busy-work. Try to work in some kind of reward for the PC who completes the non-fighting tasks to emphasize the task’s importance to the encounter and the story.
  • Get a new job: Sometimes there are tasks that need to be done during combat that no one else is willing to do. Don’t feel that just because you’re a striker you HAVE to attack every round. If the dice are cold find another way to be useful and get a new job (until your luck changes). We’ve found that giving one PC a bunch of healing potions and then having him go where he’s needed most has been very effective when a PC can’t perform his usually job (usually because he’s out of healing surges). As the medic you can also aid you allies by performing Heal checks to trigger their second wind or grant saves. These tasks do require a roll, but if you’ve got a really good Heal skill then you may only need to roll a 3 to succeed.
  • Assist others: As mentioned above, performing a Heal check on your allies can certainly be a useful way for a guy with bad dice to contribute in a meaningful way. Along those lines there’s always the opportunity to assist with other skill checks. Assisting is usually much easier and won’t require you to roll a 20. Worse case scenario if you fail the check you only impose a -1 penalty which isn’t that bad.
  • Accept help: Many players and DMs forget that it’s possible to assist others with attack rolls or assist to pump up their defenses. If a player is consistently rolling badly, introduce a few friendly NPCs to assist him. This can really improve a PC’s odds. Alternatively the DM can find ways to give the slumping PC combat advantage as often as possible. A helpful NPC can become the PC’s flanking buddy, or maybe there’s a terrain feature that knocks creatures prone. It seems like such an obvious and simple thing, but sometimes that +2 to the attack roll can make all the difference.
  • Group checks: The beauty of group skill checks is that the entire party isn’t screwed if one guy rolls poorly. In a party with six PCs, only three need to make the check successfully for the group to succeed. By using more group checks when a player is on a cold streak you let them roll dice but alleviate some of the pressure if they roll poorly. If the group does fail, the blame isn’t solely on the one player’s shoulders.
  • New dice: If all else fails and one player has unprecedented bad luck it’s time to go to extreme measures. This is when the players need to pass the hat, collect a few bucks, and just buy the player a new set of dice. This gives the player the freedom to get rid of his old dice. Depending on how unlucky he’s been of late he may even want to destroy the bad dice permanently. Just remember to let the new dice watch.

What did you do the last time you went on a really long cold streak with your dice? As a DM, how have you handled this situation when it’s happened at your gaming table? Please share your ideas and your stories.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Lastowski March 23, 2012 at 10:00 am

Several of my players keep their dice on the table with the highest value facing up when they’re not using them… “just so the dice get used to having that number come up”. Other players I’ve had have sorted their dice into categories… These red dice I only use for fire spells, but these black ones are for death saves. Don’t think this does anything in the physical world to the dice, but it gives players something else to focus on.

2 Thorynn March 23, 2012 at 11:04 am

I think hot and cold dice runs are part of the fun. Sure it’s frustrating when you’re on a cold run, but it’s awesome when you’re rolling hott!!! Other 4e solutions include a magic item called Dice of Auspicious Fortune, which allow you to roll 3d20s and save the results for use during combat. Especially useful for making sure daily powers hit, or excluding an ally from a blast with a guaranteed low roll.
Thorynn´s last blog post ..Wasteland 2 – How Kickstarter is changing the way everyone does everything

3 Alton March 23, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I jsut roll each of my dice a 100 times, compile the data and use the best ones statistically.

Seriously.
Alton´s last blog post ..Stuffer Shack: SOTY(Site of the Year Award) Update 5

4 Sir Khardos March 23, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Alton really isn’t joking, I seen the data on his rolls. It was quite interesting to see.
The only thing I’ve found that works for me to get neutral results, is to have the dice sitting on its mid-number (D20s on 10 or 11, D8s on 4 or 5, etc). I’ve become fairly superstitious about it. But I have this one D20 that I can’t seem to get a decent roll with. When one of my buddy’s uses it, he very rarely gets a roll that is below 15 on it.

5 Tommy March 23, 2012 at 3:40 pm

I ran a D&D campaign 2 weeks ago to teach new players. They all had cold dice. Most rolling crit missing. To make things even worst I kept rolling natural 20s for the monsters. As a GM I had to change more then a few rolls, AC and so forth to prevent the players from feeling discouraged and bored.

6 The Gimper March 23, 2012 at 9:06 pm

The corollary to this is what do you do when the DM’s dice are consistently on a hot streak? I’ve heard of a DM’s d20 being run through a blender.

-Rico

7 Ninja'd-M March 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm

As a DM when I notice a player on a cold streak I try to examine in game the problems turning his bad run into a streak of stumbles, mistakes and hopefully comic misadventures. This usually does two things: 1) it gives them some character spotlight (any press is good press) 2) it gives them something in game to focus on and try to overcome.

For example, I had players fighting a dragon wyrmling and our barbarian could NOT beat the AC. I explained that the dragon’s “adult” scales were still coming in and had covered the side he attacked more completely than the other parts, making it harder to penetrate that side. As he tried to overcome this threat (and did so intelligently and in character) I gave a bonus to attack. Naturally he continued to fail and I had to come up with more reasons for his troubles (and gave him more benefits once he did). Eventually he did hit (and immediately lost his benefits since his streak ended) but more importantly the experience stuck with the player and character long after the battle ended.

8 Tinimir March 24, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I know a player who actually microwaved his dice to warm them up.

Something that wasn’t mentioned is to change your rolling surface. If you are rolling your dice on a particular surface (Tomb of Horrors, Eberron Campaign Setting, Lords of Middle Earth 1) change what you are rolling your dice on to see if the dice like the new surface.

9 Ensign Expendable March 26, 2012 at 1:11 am

This comic highlights that it’s not just gamers that are perfectly rational until they come up against things that they have no control over: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2559

On a more serious note, and to agree with Ninja’d-M, bad dice rolls don’t have to be the killer of fun as has been traditional in D&D. Bad luck can lead to unexpected and exciting twists to the adventure if the DM and players are prepared to roll with it. Some systems have mechanics built in for taking failure and making awesome (I’m thinking of Mouse Guard, Spirit of the Century, Leverage and the like) but there’s no reason why the enterprising DM in D&D 4e can’t use the same philosophy to make failure just as exciting as success.

After a while of playing in the style demonstrated by Ninja’d-M above you’re players will be too busy waiting for the awesome drama triggered by failure to shout at their dice. When an unexpected TPK is replaced by a dungeon escape after capture then it also helps to cut down on prep time required of the DM too as the plot for this session has just written itself and you’ve still got the material ready for when they get back on track (which may be many merry, unexpected, adventures down the road. If ever).

tl;dr Bad dice rolls ROCK!
Ensign Expendable´s last blog post ..A Few Random Thoughts

10 donalbain March 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm

all things aside who still battle-crys when they role a natural 20 for attacks

11 Sunyaku March 28, 2012 at 12:11 am

Sometimes when a player is consistently rolling bad, I have them roll again on crit fails. If the roll low on the second roll as well, then not only do bad things happen to them (fumble), but bad things inadvertently happen to nearby enemies as well, e.g. someone falling down grabs someone else and knocks them prone as well… or your weapon sticks in a pillar, but did enough damage that shards of stone begin falling from the ceiling… etc. etc.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..The Avengers DnD Builds

12 Knot Knormal March 28, 2012 at 11:24 pm

I’m kind of new to the D&D world and a couple of months ago i went out an finally bought my first set of dice. I picked them because they looked pretty cool, green and purple blend with gold numbers. well since joining a new campaign a couple of weeks ago they have been nothing but trouble. these dice have been so bad that in one day i died 6 time due to bad saves and killed the entire group twice due to epic fails. the dice continuously put me in bad spots that i can’t role play out off, like pissing off a king because i called his mom a whore… thank you nat 1 diplomacy. Is there any way i can keep these dice in this campaign but change their luck? or am i wearing the noob hat here and there for just catching a rash of bad?

13 Joe Lastowski March 29, 2012 at 9:13 am

Hmm… @Knot, maybe give them as a gift to your DM?

I’d suggest buying several more d20s, then rolling all at the start of a game to see which ones are hot. It’s often handy to have multiple d20s on hand anyway, in case you have powers that affect multiple enemies.

14 Don Cee March 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Our players go and wash their dice in the bathroom at our game store with warm water.

I thought it was hogwash, but it really works!
Don Cee´s last blog post ..D&D Adventures – Elder Eye Elemental @ The Game Keep

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