The first time I sat down to a D&D game the obsession with having multiple sets of dice was something that seemed a bit odd – it not outright baffling. Oh what a sweet naïve summer child I was! Dice are a huge part of tabletop RPGs and as owner of so many different sets of D20 dice or full D6 and D20 sets, a good dice discussion is something I now have plenty of opinions on.
Which was why I was surprised when someone brought up the use of a spindown die instead of a d20. I had never even heard of such a thing, though in fairness Braden is the local MTG expert among us. But after having it explained to me I was with the group who thought that it was a bad idea to use a spindown like any other d20.
After doing some serious research and reaching out to other tabletop RPG players and fans, the consensus seems to be that the two are definitely not interchangeable.
Unlike 20-sided dice (d20) Spindown dice were never made for rolling for roleplaying. They are specifically designed for counting which is why the numbers wrap around the die in sequential order. This is unlike your normal d20 where low and high numbers are mixed, therefore in theory creating more balance in the chance between rolling well or poorly. The general consensus among tabletop role-players is that spindown dice should not be used in place of conventional d20s.
So is conventional wisdom right here, or is there more to the story?
Spindown Dice Are Technically Counters, Not Dice
The biggest thing to look at right away is the fact that the Spindown dice are not actually designed to be dice. Yes, they look like a die and are even called dice, but that is to fit in with the gaming aesthetic that so many of us enjoy while around the table.
I mean who really wants a cardboard counter? Seriously.
But that’s the thing. A spindown die is just that: it’s a counter. A placeholder. The numbers are in sequential order rolling around the die not because that makes sense when trying to randomize a roll (it doesn’t) but because it’s there to keep track of a count.
That’s what these dice were designed for and that’s how they are used in Magic: The Gathering, or in other similar roles outside of Magic. These were never designed to be rolled and that’s why the numbers aren’t separated and interspersed in a way that are balanced. Or at least seem that way.
And there’s really good reason to believe the “It’s 5% chance for any number to roll either way” logic is terribly wrong in this case.
Are D20 Dice Really “More Balanced?”
While many people might be surprised to learn this, especially if they have a background in statistics or physics, the difference in design between a Spindown die and a conventional d20 can cause serious problems especially in regards to fairness when rolling during a tabletop campaign?
But wait, since both have 20 numbers spread out over 20 sides, how can there actually be a major difference?
Great question, and here are the answers, with major focus on why the Spindown die just isn’t the same as its d20 counterpart.
1: Easier to Control the Spin
I talked to multiple people who have played both MTG and games like Pathfinder or D&D for years. From several who expermiented with dice there was a general consensus that it was easier to control the spin on a Spindown die than it was with a d20.
A major reason for this could be that since the Spindown die is meant to be used as a marker the same effort wasn’t put into balancing it perfectly when manufactured because no one was (in theory) going to be rolling it.
2: Rolling a “Side” Gives the Same Effect
Even if you weren’t perfect at forcing a die to roll the way you wanted, since the numbers on a spindown were sequential, you only had to get it close to your target for it to usually count. An 18 is still likely a success even if your goal was a 20. A 4 is likely a failure even if you were trying to get a 1 to botch.
In other words, even having just a little bit of control over what part of the dice rolled would allow a player or DM to usually cheat at a whim barring a major screw up.
3: Imbalances in Spindown Dice Cause Drastic Streaks
Even if you went against real world experience for the theoretical to mathematically show that the chance of getting any one result was 5% regardless of which die was used, there’s still one major real world truth that causes a problem with that base assumption.
Virtually no die is perfectly balanced.
Very good die are close, to the point where for all real world purposes it mine as well be considered balanced. However, since so many dice are imbalanced to some extent, what would be a minor problem on a d20 (since the good and bad numbers are spread out throughout the die) becomes a huge problem when using a Spindown die.
Since all the big numbers are in one area, all the middle numbers in another, and all the low numbers one the final section, that means any imbalance on the die that makes it more likely to roll a certain way will drastically alter how consistently a die is considered good or bad.
And that can easily be game breaking for a tabletop campaign.
You can see more great discussions on this topic here.
Final Verdict: No Go for the Spindown Die as a Substitute D20
While I like having new dice as much as the next player, spindown dice are a counter, not a die, and that’s how they should stay. If you’re a MTG player, by all means, grab some good ones. They’re cool looking and I love the wrap around effect. For a free for all one shot, I’d even allow them.
But for a conventional tabletop RPG campaign whether it is Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or any of the other amazing systems out there that require the use of a d20, you want to go the conventional route. Don’t try to swap out your d20s unless you live for complaints, wild swings in success/failure rates, and all the other less than stellar things that can come up during a grindy campaign.
The d20 is a classic RPG die and that’s the one that you should go with.
Some Great Dice Picks:
Hey, there’s always a place in a player’s collection for more good dice. And if you’re a MTG player…I assume that this still applies?
There are so many amazing options out there for dice whether you’re looking for more d20s for your campaign because your current collection has the terrible habit of betraying you, or because you don’t need a reason, shut up. So if you’re looking to add some really good looking dice to your collection whether d20s or Spindown, take a look at either of these links for up to date pricing on some really cool collection.
The main point to take away from all of this is that spindown dice do not serve the same purpose as a d20. Your conventional d20 is meant to be roll to bring up one of twenty potential die numbers while a spindown die isn’t meant for that at all. It’s meant to be a counter. A really cool and fancy way to keep track of rounds one at a time, when necessary.
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years.