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We've all been newcomers to tabletop gaming at some point and had to learn for the first time which die was which. I vividly recall the first request for me to roll a 'percentile' and blankly staring at my first set of dice, feeling shame as the group chuckled at my ignorance.

I'm currently running a D&D 3.5 game for some close friends, all of whom are getting their first tabletop and D&D experiences. I've noticed this same shame in their faces when I request die rolls even though we've been playing about once a week for four or five months.

How can I help them learn to distinguish dice?

Things I've tried for my group:

  • Referencing dice by common shapes. E.g. d4 = pyramid, d8 = double pyramid. Not a success and still leaves me having to point out which is the correct die.
  • Different colors. Same story as before, "No, the red die!"
  • Lining them up by value. Tedious for the player to maintain.

I don't recall any grand realization on my part when I started and understanding dice is second nature at this point. I'm out of ideas. Is this just a "practice makes perfect" situation?

What has helped you distinguish the dice?

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How long as this been going on? \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 2 '16 at 19:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's enough comments casting unwarranted aspersions on people's intelligence. We take it for granted that the Platonic solids &c are familiar, but outside of RPG and math fandom they're not really—most people's exposure to them is limited to a few school classes while growing up, which they don't even remember. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 3 '16 at 1:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure what your asking, i guess. Are you saying they don't know what die is the 20 sided die? Or are you saying they don't know what die to throw to determine damage (etc.)? The first is really simple after the first 1-2 sessions. The second is a struggle that will continue any time someone tries something new. \$\endgroup\$ – coteyr Jun 3 '16 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @coteyr I left it kind of generic in hopes that I would get some of the responses like I did that will be useful for many people outside of myself. For my application specifically, my curiosity is how do you help new players recognize the dice. As in, if I'm walking down the street and throw a die at them, they should be able to say "Why'd you throw a d8 at me?!" without second thought. \$\endgroup\$ – rosst Jun 3 '16 at 15:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @rosst It might seem counter-intuitive, but on this site, questions specific to the problem you're having are deemed more useful than artificially-broad and generic questions, not less. The reason is that if you make a question generic, it will only attract generic answers, and not answers tailored to the specific problem you're trying to solve. Plus, if there's a broad question to be answered, other users might be discouraged from asking more specific versions of it, which means they don't get answers tailored to their problems, either. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 6 '16 at 4:15

16 Answers 16

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Short answer: really, practice is the only answer

It's like any kind of memorization task, eventually you're going to get it, and you'll have trouble until then. But there are ways to make the memorization easier.

  1. You are going to have to correct them sometimes. Don't think of that as a failure. Just make the correction and move on.
  2. Don't default to telling the player what to roll. People tend to learn better when they make a mistake and get corrected than when they're following rote orders. So if they're supposed to roll a d20, let them grab a d12, and let them take a second to ask you if it's the right one or not. Depending on the player's style, maybe just tell them "yes" or "no," rather than telling them which die.
  3. Designate one person to help. At a lot of tables, every. single. person. tries to help and it can be really overwhelming for a new person. When you have four people all trying to help louder and faster than one another, it can sound an awful lot like four people screaming at you for getting something wrong. Maybe the designated coach is the DM, maybe it's a player (if the new player was brought in or is close friends with a more experienced person, they're a great choice for this), but tell the group as a whole to simmer down.
  4. Be patient, and let them know it's OK. A lot of times, you're totally OK with a bit of a delay and are accommodating the new player, but they don't know it. Sometimes a new player will decide to drop out if they feel like they're being a burden to their friends, and that's not cool.

In terms of being able to distinguish them, a good mnemonic can be to have the player set the dice up in front of them with the highest number facing up. That's a quick numerical identifier and it lets them reference the correlation between the shape and number while they aren't rolling so they can be quicker to act when they are rolling.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just figured I'd follow up on this with my experience. We had a session this past weekend and I think made some solid improvement. I definitely followed suggestion 2 and left the initial die selection to them and rarely (until we got rushed) would I correct them. Patience is not a strong suit of mine but I did my best and I think everyone improved that night. Much appreciated answer. \$\endgroup\$ – rosst Jun 6 '16 at 17:02
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This answer is absolutely right in saying that the best solution is to get practice and experience with dice in play. So let's power-level your players' dice XP!

Take a session or two to play a game that forces frequent interaction with all the polyhedrons at once rather than one a time.

Games which put emphasis on picking up multiple different-shaped dice at once will give players sessions of intense exposure to all the polyhedrons. A few nights of such games should level up your players' experience with distinguishing between dice faster than playing D&D 3.5 can.


There are a number of systems which do this to some degree, but I recommend Danger Patrol: Pocket Edition () for the task. It's freely available online and just two pages! Here's why I think it's great for the job:

  • It's designed for quick-start, no-prep adventures that only take a couple hours. That means the sunk costs (money, time, and effort required before you can start playing) are super low.
  • The rules have outlines of the dice alongside what they're for.
  • Everything the players do involves touching dice: shifting them around as well as rolling them. While DP:PE doesn't use d12s or d20s every roll has the potential to use all of the remaining polyhedrons (you're always rolling d10s and d6s, usually d8s, often d4s).
  • Each shape of die has a different dramatic meaning: d6s are for narrated danger, d4s are for looming threats, d10s are for character features, d8s are for situational bonuses. This gives players another approach to differentiating the polyhedrons.
  • Bonus points because the system rewards recognising when a die rolls its highest possible number!

One word of caution: be sure to read the Danger Patrol rules ahead of time as they don't clearly draw the lines between how different mechanics interact. These cards are very helpful for players, but there are some GM-only mechanics too. They're simple, but not really clearly explained. Reading answers and asking questions under the RPG.SE tag may be helpful.

Another game deserves mention--Savage Worlds (). I recommend Savage Worlds because it's closer to D&D levels of crunch (so your players may find its boundaries more familiar). Character's traits are assigned dice between d4 and d12, rolled alongside a d6: you're only ever rolling 2 kinds of dice at once, but the shape of the die is defined by what you're doing so it changes frequently. SW character sheets often have drawings of the dice shapes; it uses every polyhedron except the d20; and free 'everything you need to play' packages are available.

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Most of the time players will need only two dice: A d20 and the damage die for their weapon. Instead of handing the new players a full set, give them just these two and introduce them to the other dice when they need to roll them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is solid theory and I've done it myself, but it seems to be ignoring the asker's particular context; their players are using more than two polyhedrons. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Jun 3 '16 at 1:03
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Give them a playmat with pictures and labels of each die, plus other important info for the game system

The most effective way I have found is to give them a playmat which has both a picture of each die and a space for it. Savage Worlds has a popular fan made playmat that has a picture of each die and a space for where it goes (along with other important info), which could easily be adapted to any system:

enter image description here

Benefits:

  • Learning by spaced repetition (the most effective way of learning): they see the picture and match it with a die
  • Matching shapes is easy
  • There is both a visual cue and a written label
  • No player needs to help them
  • Other information you want them to learn is also on there

It would be easy to make an equivalent for any system of your choice (or a generic one).

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There really should not be any reason for anybody to feel ashamed of picking up the wrong die. We all had to learn to tell which was which, and it didn't happen immediately.

You wouldn't feel ashamed of, say, not being able to distinguish orthoclase from plagioclase, or a reed warbler from a nightingale, would you? At least not if you weren't already an experienced geologist or ornithologist, respectively. So why should you feel ashamed of not being able to immediately tell the difference between a d8 and a d10?

So my recommendations would simply be:

  1. Introduce the dice to new players. When you get a new player, just ask them if they've played these kinds of games before, and whether they're familiar with the funny-shaped dice. If not, take some time to go over them at the beginning. Let the player hold each die in their hand and look them over, one by one, and explain how and for what purposes each of them is used in the game. (In particular, with the d10, take extra time to show the player how to use two of them to roll d100, if your game uses that.) It may help to provide some extra tangential detail, like "This is the d4; it's the smallest die we use, and the one that hurts the most if you step on it." to make the different dice more memorable.

    (Of course, if you have a new player who's never played RPGs before, there's really a whole bunch of other stuff you should also be telling them about how this whole role-playing thing works and so on anyway. But that's not what this question is about.)

  2. Provide a cheat sheet. Some games, like the Savage Worlds mentioned by BESW, often have pictures of the dice on each player's character sheet. If your game doesn't have them by default, consider finding or making some custom character sheets that do. Or just print out a separate cheat sheet like this one for your players.

  3. Avoid putting time pressure on new players. Given time, it's easy to figure out which die is the d8: it's the one that has an 8 on it, but doesn't have a 9 or a 10 or any higher numbers. But of course, looking through your dice like this (or consulting a cheat sheet, or asking someone else) takes extra time, and can make the player feel stressed if everyone is staring at them and waiting for them to make the roll. The best way to avoid this, IMO, is just to allocate extra time for new players, and make it clear to everyone that there's no hurry.

and, above all:

  1. Make it clear that there's no shame in asking. After going over the dice with your new players, just tell them that if they don't remember which die is which (or any other detail about the game), they can always ask. And remind them of this at the beginning of every new session. Make it clear to everybody at the table that it's perfectly OK to ask "Which one was the d12 again, this one?"
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the introduction of the dice: Do not just describe the shape of the dice, also describe the sides. You can use those to distinguish most of the dice: 4 sides: D6 ("standard board game dice") / D10 (almost triangular side); 5 sides: D12; 3 sides: D4 / D8 / D20 ("just make an educated guess whether the number of sides is correct"). Furthermore there's a trick that reduces the time to find the largest number on a dice: Look for the smallest number and then turn the dice around. This way you're not looking for a number that may not exist on a dice. (beware of the D10 with 0s though...) \$\endgroup\$ – fabian Jun 3 '16 at 19:13
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Partial answer: The only technique I've used that hasn't been mentioned in the question or in other answers is placing the largest number pointing up after I've finished using a die. It's slightly less tedious than keeping all dice in order (although I've done that for some games), but it does still take player overhead. (It also feeds into the common superstition that dice will "remember" how they are placed and be more likely to roll that number, but that's neither here nor there.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ they may remember it an resent it, giving you the opposite face instead :^) \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Jun 4 '16 at 6:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ An equally common superstition, true. \$\endgroup\$ – ATayloe Jun 6 '16 at 15:17
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When I introduce new players to the game, I place all the dice on the table onto a piece of paper with labelled areas for each dice size, so that when they need a die they can take it from the appropriate area.

I ask them to replace the dice to the correct place in the dice pool, so they get used to recognising the dice as they use them.

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Though you have already tried it in a way, I still would like to contribute what I believe is the easiest way to get started:

If you just mention the color that they need to roll, it is very easy for players to pick the right one.

EXAMPLE

Please roll the red D20

Though I have not actually used this in a D&D setting, I used it in various situations where people who usually don't play, were playing a single game with multiple dies. And this has consistently worked extremely well as long as the colors are not too similar.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For this to work you must have mismatched sets. If you have more than 1 red die, this will not actually be helpful... That said if you don't have a huge dice collection, your FLGS probably sells single dice. Get a mismatched set. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Jun 3 '16 at 14:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ The 3.5 D&D Basic Game set comes with a set of polyhedral dice in which each is a different block color, probably for this question's reason. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jun 4 '16 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this would work best if you say it this way the first time. Get "red" into the players' head before any other info, and they will grab the red one. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Jun 6 '16 at 23:28
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use a cheat sheet while learning

Take a picture of each polyhedron, create a document that shows the value count next to them and maybe their most frequent uses, then bring a print for each of your players. Combine this with colored dice and your players will have an easier time learning the different dice.

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You had the right idea by specific colors. But make sure they all have the same color scheme. It can be confusing if one D20 is green but for another player it is red.

If that does not work have them draw each die (just the outline shape) and write the number in it. The act of drawing and labeling it will cause the brain to produce a stronger memory of which die is which.

If you think that will just annoy them make it a contest and give the best cheat sheet card a free potion of healing. You could even incorporate it in role play if you wanted to be slicker or funnier depending on your audience (players). Good luck :)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for having them draw the die shape, engaging different "learning modes" \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 23 '16 at 18:48
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These techniques have work for me both with younger kids and casual gamers:

Use a sample set

Matching shapes is easy. Remembering stuff is hard.

Set up a set of dice in front of you. Point at the die when you refer to the type of die/dice they need to roll.

Positive thinking

Encourage the players to arrange their dice with the highest numbers up. Then when you say "8-sider" they pick up the one that says "8."

This is based on real brain science by Dr. Daniel Kahneman . People mental shortcuts, especially when they feel rushed. If you ask someone to roll a "d8" and they don't know what that is, they are likely to reach for the first "8" they see. (Even if you then describe the die as a double-diamond, "8" is still in their heads, and easier to recognize.)

Review, review, review

Talk about the dice before play starts. If you've got a funny story about one, tell it. Quiz the players a little if they'll put up with that.

Use fewer dice

If dice are really making people stress out and not enjoy the game, you can just (temporarily?) remove some of them, and the game play won't change much.

Play with just d6, d8, and d20. Use the following for other dice rolls (do the math yourself, don't make the players):

d4 : use d8 / 2
d10 : use d20 / 2
d12 : use d6 * 2, subtract 1 every other time

(You could be more accurate if you used a d12 and divided by 2 for d6's, but I think confusing the d12 and d20 is the most common dice mistake.)

Use a dice roller web page or app

This page at Wizards.com has automatic dice, with pictures and names. There are many more.

Give up and use an electronic system

You could set their characters in roll20, where they can point and click their way through dice rolls.

Note that these systems have their own learning curves. This tip is for video-game players who might be more comfortable a computer interface.

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Keep them in one of those compartmentalised trays (the kind you get dips and snacks in).

Use labelled cups, beakers etc. If you're artistic, you could even draw pictures on them.

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Positive reinforcement

Nothing to add to the answers advising you to take your time besides: Reward them when they pick the correct dice on the first try (with chocolates, small xp or whatever). Ok, this might actually sound pretty dumb, but positive reinforcement has been proven to increase efficiency in learning. Might be worth giving a try.

(As long as you don't make it sound too childish to your players, that should be fine)

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I know in DND, throwing dice around is a ritual but I generally don't let my players to roll their dices. I roll for them, thus no need for them to hunt for the die they need. Saves time and a lot of trouble if there are players tempted to cheat around. Another plus side: you might use your mobile phone to roll the dice without killing the immersion.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Uh, might want to change "power players" to "cheaters". Someone who's pushing the power envelope a little hard might be a problem in some respects, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily going to cheat. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jun 4 '16 at 19:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if this is even an answer. Unless—are you maybe suggesting that the way to teach players to recognise dice is to not teach them at all? If that's your answer, you should probably edit it to say that directly. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 4 '16 at 19:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ It was just a different way of handling things. Different view to solve the problem. Edited to make it (hopefully) clear. \$\endgroup\$ – Cem Kalyoncu Jun 5 '16 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Cool, so it's just a “your assumed solution (teaching them) isn't necessary, here's why” kind of answer. Those are fine! (We call them “frame challenges” ’round here, but that's just local jargon.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 5 '16 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did also change “power players” to “players tempted to cheat”. I suppose some cheaters might be power players, but not all cheaters are power players and certainly not all power players are cheaters. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 5 '16 at 17:31
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At the start of your session, encourage those players that don't yet have the dice memorized to take a few moments to lay one of each die on the table, turn each to its highest value (the d10 should be turned to the 0 but still treated as a ten for the next step), then place the dice in ascending order in a spot designated for dice not being actively used. Whenever they roll the dice, instruct them afterwards to turn them back to that largest number before returning them to the staging area.

Because the dice at rest are already showing their highest numbers, each of which also corresponds with that die's name, it will be very easy for the players to locate the correct die when needed - so if you tell them to roll the d12, it will be very easy to find because (1) it's sitting between the d10 and the d20, and (2) the 12 is showing.

Whichever dice are used the most, your players will probably have memorized after just a few hours of play. If not, you've still given them a system to easily find the right die when needed, so don't be surprised to see somebody set it up on their own at the start of the second session.


Note: this might not help with learning percentile dice. In D&D, this could be accommodated by the DM making all such rolls until the players become familiar with the other dice (i.e. not giving the players a tens digit die), but in other systems where percentile rolls are more commonplace, YMMV.

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Another option is a nice Dice-Box, with a separate labelled pocket for every dice. You can put it one the table, it can look really nice (with leather and nice fabric) and you can put each die in its own place. After rolling you can keep the die you rolled on the table and put it back if you need another die.

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