Rolling Damage

Do you roll or use static damage in your D&D game?

5th Edition stat blocks list damage as a flat number, with rolled damage in parentheses:

If you deal damage, you must do one of these (or some variation). But do you know why? In order to make an informed choice about whether to use flat or rolled damage, you should understand the benefits of each.

Flat Damage

Several very smart and experienced Dungeon Masters have transitioned to flat damage. They are happy to sing of its virtues. Notably, Sly Flourish makes the case for “static” monster damage, primarily focusing on the time it can save at the table. Since both rolling and math take time, not doing them is faster!

Of course, flat damage may be easier for folks for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you prefer predictability for your players. It can also help folks with dyscalculia, who might otherwise experience difficulty adding additional math to the battle equation.

Rolled Damage

Personally, I still roll damage at my table. While it’s not as easy, I’m able to derive enough benefit to make it worth it. I also employ some time-saving techniques to cut down on any time loss. Let’s focus on two different situations, since the benefits are different for each.

Small Damage. For small damage totals, you can roll attack and damage dice at the same time. This alleviates much of the concern folks have about damage dice “taking extra time” at the table. If all the dice are tossed at once, the only additional time sink is some basic arithmetic. While this can be prohibitive for some folks, it is generally a skill that can improve with practice.

The benefit is that the damage die informs the narrative. A hit that deals 3 damage plays much differently than a hit that does 10 damage. Especially when the target’s HP total is closer to 10. What might be a glancing blow in one case is a crushing impact in another. The cool thing is that this still works, even when you miss! The 3 damage miss may have been a weak swing that was deflected. The 10 damage miss may simulate a large windup that’s too slow and deliberate to connect.

Big Damage. For large damage totals, you get a big dramatic dice drop. It takes time to count, but the tension it creates makes it worth it. As you call for a saving throw and reach for the dragon’s fistful of breath weapon dice, the players’ eyes will widen with anticipation. That tension hangs in the air until the damage total is declared. Taking a pause to count up dice here actually serves its own function in that it telegraphs the sheer power of the attack, tipping players to avoid it in successive rounds.

There’s less narrative bite to the variability with large damage totals, but you can still tell whether something was a good roll by reference to the flat total (or the classic, “hey, that’s a lot of 8s!”).

If you want to read more about damage dice, check out breath weapon dice pools or how to rebalance the animate objects spell using the spell scaling charts. Support us on the ThinkDM Patreon!

4 thoughts on “Rolling Damage

  1. TL;DR = I rolled, then static, now rolling again.

    When we moved to an electronic system – thanks COVID! – I started using static damage. It was awkward to roll the dice in Roll20, and then add the monster’s modifier, and then do that 7 more times for the entire goblin band. And you can’t just “roll the attack and damage together” by picking up more dice. (Of course, you can do precisely that with *characters* – it’s a specific setting on the character sheets!)

    With the “Beyond20” plugin, though, we were able to start rolling the dice in Roll20, from the monster stat block in DNDBeyond, so rolling became a thing again. I started rolling dice sometimes – but I use a lot of custom (or reskinned) monsters to keep my players on their toes, so I didn’t want “Panther: Claw +4/d6+4” to show in the output window for the “displacer beast” I said they were fighting (which, incidentally, apparently never uses Claws or its teeth… check the stat block!).

    Then we implemented a “Lingering Damage” rule to make even the “1 encounter during a day of traveling” have some long-term impact (note: this is NOT “Lingering Injury” from the DMG… it’s an abstract “point” you get when critically hit or hit for 25% of your MAX HP in a single blow, that impairs… stuff.) And suddenly the simple benefit of static damage had an unintended metagame consequence: The 42hp warrior was making decisions about which foe to fight based on whether that foe did 10 damage or 11+ (i.e. above or below his character’s 25% threshold)! Whoops!

    So, last battle, I went back to rolling the dice. The “10 static damage” Skeletal Giant Owls (actually, something else as a reskin) went back to rolling 2d6+3… and that 12pt hit caused Lingering Damage (but the 6 and 8 pt hits were just sucked up). Poor hobgoblin ally… 11hp would have survived “10 static damage”, but instead took 14 and was decapitated in the flyby!

    (And I like the narrative difference opportunity as well — the 6 point swipe was a raking claw on an arm, but the 14pt hit was a claw straight across the throat for the poor NPC soldier.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Theoretically couldn’t you do a sort of hybrid system?

    I’ll use the 10d10 attack from the article to explain what I mean.

    You roll the attack die, & simultaneously you roll a small die (in this case i’ll use a D4) for damage, where each number represents a different increment of flat damage.

    Then
    1 is 10 Dmg (the minimum)
    2 is 30
    3 is 60
    & 4 is 100 damage (The maximum)

    This allows for narrative & variability while still being incredibly simple.

    Though it still doesn’t have the impact of a huge dice drop.

    Like

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