I recently read a fascinating blog entry at Ponderings on Games called Goblin Dice. He sums up the term pretty well:

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important.

The author goes on to point out that, because of this binary pass/fail mechanic, a number of problems with this ambiguity occur. This was even parodied here in the web comic DM of the Rings where whether or not Frodo managed to destroy the One Ring came down to a single d20 roll and the DM rolled…a 10. Well, did Frodo destroy the Ring or not?

Part of the problem when interpreted this way is that a d20 roll is often seen as a result on a continuum. A 1 is an absolute failure, a 20 is an absolute success, and everything else is in the middle. I suppose one thing that I like about “cinematic” systems like Savage Worlds and the good ol’ d6 System is that they avoid this problem by having open-ended die mechanics. You can’t judge your dice result of 1 to infinity as a continuum, so you compare the result to the target number and it’s pretty obvious by how close you were how much you succeeded or failed by. Roll 10 under, you definitely failed. Roll 1 under, you barely failed. Roll 20 over, you definitely succeeded and probably won a medal for it. Granted, this can still result in Goblin Dice if you’re not careful, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space avoids this problem by having different levels of success. Just hit the target number? You get a “Yes, but…” result, meaning you got what you wanted, but it didn’t work as well as you hoped. Get it by a moderate amount? You get a “Yes” result, meaning it happened just as you wanted. Get it by an extreme amount? You get “Yes, and…” meaning it turned out better than you’d hoped. The inverse happens with failure as well.

I encourage gamers to read the whole article at Ponderings on Games, it’s a really a good read. And feel free to share your thoughts, here or on the original article.