Some role-playing game systems—like Dungeons & Dragon before its third edition—use a combination of roll-over and roll-under mechanics (“roll-over”: high rolls vs. target number are good; “roll-under”: low rolls vs. TN are good).

Does this mixture of mechanics have any design or gameplay benefits that make it superior to using a roll-over only mechanic or a roll-under only mechanic?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I have some obvious observations and some non-obvious musings on this, but they are decidedly not answer-shaped or possible to be answer-shaped, as RPG.se defines it. I get the feeling that you’re hoping for such things though. If you’re indeed looking for discussion, thoughts, and collaborative investigation, your question may be better suited to a discussion forum. We have collected a list of RPG discussion forums here to make it easier to find one. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 26 '18 at 1:14
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I took the editing scythe to this question so as to pare it down to question's essence. If it's no longer asking what you want answered, please edit it further or rollback. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 26 '18 at 2:41
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan You're awesome, that looks good to me. I need to learn how to pare down my backstory. Great scythe work! \$\endgroup\$ – koreanbean Jun 26 '18 at 2:44

I have done some game-design work, mostly in D&D 3.5e-derived settings, which are roll-over. However, some roll-under ideas were considered—albeit briefly—for some of these mechanics, so I’ve given this some thought and discussed these with other designers. I cannot claim as much experience with this question, though, as someone who has done a lot of work with roll-over, roll-under, and mixed systems. But from my perspective,

There is no particular “advantage” to mixing the two; that is pure downside, because it makes the game less consistent and forces players to remember which rolls are which.

But picking one and enforcing consistency has its own downside: there can be advantages to one or the other in certain situations, but if you enforce consistency you cannot use the “better” approach when it would make sense. For examples:

  • Roll-under has the nice property for percentile rolls that your target number is also your chance of success: if you must roll a 20 or less on a d100, you have a 20% chance of succeeding. For roll-over, the same 20% chance would be a roll above 80—you have to do 100−x to determine your odds each time.

  • On the other hand, roll-over works much better for unbounded numbers: you can always increase a target number in roll-over, but decreasing a target number in roll-under is somewhat awkward when it gets negative.

In short, by not having the game consistently use one or the other, you are free to pick whichever is appropriate for a given roll, not being constrained by the game using the other type for everything else. The downside is, the freer you are with this—the more you use whatever roll type seems most appropriate for each roll, the harder it’s going to be for players to remember which rolls are which.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that the advantage of roll-under you noted is pretty much limited to roll-under on d100; roll-under on d20 (such as THAC0) does not gain that benefit. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Jun 26 '18 at 13:38
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage True, though it’s not necessarily the only advantage. I think describing it as a “property for percentile rolls” is indication enough that non-percentile rolls don’t share the benefit. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 26 '18 at 13:41
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ One experience based note, having played a lot of AD&D: the mixed rolls actually help distinguish different mechanics that work differently, which otherwise might be easily confused. If mechanics aren’t unified, it can serve as a marker. (E.g., Since ability checks work very differently than to-hit, having them roll-under makes it much easier to remember that the procedure is completely different, despite still being a d20 roll.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 26 '18 at 16:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is interesting, because while acknowledging that using two mechanics can create cognitive dissonance, their is also the possibility of it serving the use case better. Would love to hear more about your experiences with this directly @SevenSidedDie, initial cognitive dissonance aside I can see the marker and different success rate here being an interesting use-case. Do you think there is a case to be made that, despite mixing of systems being pure down-side itself, that it might be worth it in being able to use one or the other to model what you want more effectively? \$\endgroup\$ – koreanbean Jun 26 '18 at 20:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @koreanbean Most things used d20, except for those d100 things and damage rolls. And everything was roll over. But only attack rolls and saving throws has auto failure/success on 1 and 20, and only attack rolls had critical hits. Thinking other rolls do auto success and failure is an all-too-common mistake, and causes serious problems with the system. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 27 '18 at 12:35

I've been a GM and a player in exclusive roll-over systems like Pathfinder and Homebrewed D20 systems with both exclusive roll-under and combined mechanics. This is my experience, it may not be a perfect answer but hopefully it helps.

First a comparison of the aspects that stand out to me about the two systems as a GM.

Roll-over: I've found that the roll-over mechanic is far easier and quicker to fudge when you're putting something together on the fly. I've also found that each individual roll tends to take longer to work out, there's more math involved in getting to the final result, disorganised players make this much worse.

Roll-under: Tends to take more prepwork and is less intuitive when you're setting up, so it's much harder to work on the fly. Once you have the numbers set it's very quick and simple to run for people who are used to it, when you have a group who are either long time players of dedicated roll-over systems or who play dice pool games like Shadowrun getting them into the roll-under habit can be amazingly hard work.

As a player I found the two mechanics to be much the same, I have a target and I get it or I don't, again roll-over takes longer to work out the result for, if there are a lot of bonuses etc... but not that much longer if I'm well organised.

When it comes to combination systems the first system I ever played extensively was a homebrew D20 system that used both under- and over-rolls and at the time I found it reasonably straight forward. A couple of years ago, having played Pathfinder exclusively for several years in the meantime, I went back to it and was amazed by how confusing it was to get back into the habit of most of the game being on over-rolls but having several of the most important mechanics work on a roll-under basis. I ended up having to give the GM my finished roll numbers and trust he had it together, which didn't always work.

In short I don't find that there's a lot to differentiate the two systems but I do find an exclusive system of either roll-under or roll-over more straightforward. Exclusive systems are simpler playing habits to get into they don't have the added complexity of "what kind of roll is this?", all rolls are on the same footing.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you find that anything in the combination of systems helped represent different modes of gameplay resolution better, or not? \$\endgroup\$ – koreanbean Jun 26 '18 at 20:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ On the same line of thought as koreanbean, did the hybrid system use roll-over and roll-under on the same dice? Or was it the d100 mecanics of old D&D skill checks. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jun 26 '18 at 22:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ On another note, it's an interesting point of view on the difference between roll-over/under. In the roll-under system you tried, were the bonus managed by the GM or the players?(I am asking because it would really change the difficulty of fudging Target Numbers) (Also, Have a +1) \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jun 26 '18 at 22:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @koreanbean Yes that would be a good demarcation that would make a mixed system much easier to deal with. The system I was dealing with used a contested roll for character interactions, both combat and social, which was effectively an over-roll with a random, moving, target number but was actually an under roll for degree of success based on character skill+stat rating. An actual under-roll for uncontested checks. Over rolls for resisting damage and for stat-based checks with no skill rating attached. That was after we did some work on simplifying the mechanics. \$\endgroup\$ – user40081 Jun 27 '18 at 16:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @koreanbean Yeah the guy who built most of the mechanics was doing a non-linear math degree and could do a cube-root in his head, he thought it was simple enough but the rest of us took a while to get into it, it was okay once we did, but I wouldn't go back to it. \$\endgroup\$ – user40081 Jun 27 '18 at 16:35

I know of a game where roll-over and roll-under mechanics are both used and to great effect.

In Trollbabe, the only numeric component of your sheet is your Target Number, a value between 2 and 9 that never changes during a single adventure.

  • For magic conflicts, you need to roll a d10 over the Target Nummber.
  • For physical conflicts, you need to roll a d10 under the Target Number.
  • (For social conflicts, you need to roll over or under, whichever has the worst chance to succeed, but this time hitting the target number is a success too.)

This way, it is really clear that you can either be good at fighting or at casting spells (Or mediocre at both and a little less bad at social. Trollbabes are not very social women.)

Also, since you can only add or subtract 1 to the Target Number between sessions, it ties the rolls together more easily than "add 1 to this to subtract 1 to that".

Trollbabe has no modifiers to the roll, so the sum/subtract factors that Ash talks about in their answer do not apply.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What a name, Trollbabe :-D. \$\endgroup\$ – koreanbean Jun 26 '18 at 20:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.