All right gamers, listen up: It’s dice tutorial time! You’ve bought one of our awesome dice sets, or are about to, and soon it’ll be time to use them.
This guide to d4 dice is the first in our series explaining each type of die in a full polyhedral dice set. If you’re new to the world of gaming with polyhedral dice, or just want a refresher on the various dice and how they work, you’ve come to the right place!
Meet the Humble d4: It’s Old!
The world of polyhedral dice begins with 4-sided dice, commonly known as “d4” dice. The “d” means “dice” and the “4” means “4 sides.” Four is the smallest number of sides a regular polyhedral die can physically have. (At least in our 3D world.)
The d4 is thousands of years old—older than the invention of paper! Like most other dice in a full polyhedral dice set (all but the d10), the traditional d4 is one of the five Platonic solids known to ancient humanity. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, and others were using d4s thousands of years ago for gambling, divination, and other shenanigans.
In fact, this ancient heritage is why we use these particular dice in modern tabletop gaming rather than, say, d5s and d16s. Who knew that rolling 4-sided dice could bring you closer to your ancestors?
Some of our premium dice sets evoke this ancient factor by having cool designs and being built out of ancient materials like wood and stone:
- Check out our Wood Dice Sets and Stone Dice Sets and be amazed! The power of the Ancients compels you! Do it, do it now!!!
Traditional & Alternative d4 Dice Shapes
The traditional d4 is very pointy and looks like a pyramid. Each side is an identical equilateral triangle. This shape is known as a “tetrahedron,” which is just a fancy way of saying “d4”: “Tetra” means “four,” and a “hedron” is a class of geometric solid.
- On a related note, d4 dice are the most painful of all the polyhedral dice to accidentally step on in the middle of the night, so put your dice away when you’re done with them. A good dice bag is an essential part of any dice set, to keep your dice—and your feet—in good condition.
Alternative d4 Dice
The same thing that makes a d4 so painful to step on also makes it the hardest of all the polyhedral dice to roll. The tetrahedral shape is so stable that it doesn’t want to do anything but sit there peacefully—very different from a nearly-spherical d100 that Won’t. Friggin’. Stop. Rolling.
You can deal with this by shaking a d4 instead of rolling it normally, but you can also just use friendlier d4 dice shapes. So at Dice Envy, we do sell the traditional d4s in our sets, but we also sell our popular Infinity Dice, which are 4-sided dice that are longer and flatter. These alternative d4 dice roll much more easily, giving you fairer rolls and letting you roll more gently instead of shaking the dice.
- Tip: Different d4 dice shapes have no bearing on the rolls you’ll get. All of our dice are fair (i.e., each side has an equal chance of being rolled) to a high degree of precision.
Rolling a d4
The odds of rolling any given value on a d4 are 1 in 4, or 25%.
When you roll a d4, the value of your role is always given by the number that is facing right-side-up. Usually, this number will be printed on the pinnacle (i.e., the top) of the dice, but—confusingly for some new gamers—sometimes it’ll be on the bottom instead.
Just look for the number that’s right-side-up, and you’ll always know how to read 4-sided dice.
- Tip: The average roll of a single d4 is 2.5. That may or may not be useful info to you now, but if you game long enough it’ll probably come up.
Rolling Multiple d4s
If your GM or a player’s handbook asks you to roll “3d4,” they mean “three d4 dice.” If they ask you to roll “4d4,” you roll four d4 dice. You get the idea! The number in front of the “d” just tells you how many of those dice to roll. If the GM only wants you to roll a single d4, they’ll say “Roll d4” or sometimes “1d4.”
Common d4 Rolls in D&D and Other Tabletop Games
Despite looking so cool, d4s are used much less often in D&D than the higher-value dice—probably less often than any other type of die besides the d12. If your GM asks you to roll a d4 it probably means they don’t care what happens and are already daydreaming about ordering dinner.
In short d4 dice are hugely underappreciated, and we’ll talk about why next, but first let’s look at the kinds of situations that tabletop games do use them for:
- Low-Value Damage: One of the most common uses for 4-sided dice is as a low-value damage dice. A GM sending weak enemies against you might have them deal 1d4 damage to your character when they hit. In D&D, if you’re using a weak weapon like a club, dagger, or dart, or a weak effect like a vial of poison or a hunter’s trap, you might only do 1d4 damage to your target. This helps balance the game for characters at lower levels.
- Light Spell Effects: The d4 is also commonly used for light healing spells and light damage spells. The idea of using a smaller-value die to heal is so that you can’t spam healing in critical situations, forcing you to make careful tactical decisions.
- Small Bonuses: Many bonus rolls also call for d4 dice. If you have an enchanted sword, it might deal its regular damage on other dice, and then an additional 1d4 of damage for the enchantment bonus. In D&D, for instance, the spell Bless lets you add 1d4 to another roll. 4-sided dice are basically “fun size” dice.
- Low-Value Modifiers: D&D uses a d4 as a low-value modifier, such as a human’s weight, a dwarf’s height, or a character’s starting wealth. These values shouldn’t be modified too much, and d4 dice are perfect for that. Another example is the “Wondrous Item” in D&D called Keoghtom’s Ointment (lol), which comes in a jar that contains 1d4 doses. If a player finds some of this stuff, the GM doesn’t want them to have too many doses.
- Low-Variance Rolls: Using a die with fewer sides creates less variance in your rolls. This can be useful in situations where you don’t want to have too many options, or where you don’t want extreme rolls to be too different from average rolls. For example, a 4-sided dice is perfect for a character to answer the question “How full are you?” after a meal. Rolling a d20 would be annoying—like, what even is the difference between rolling a 13 versus a 14 on fullness?
Outside of D&D, some games use d4 dice more frequently. They can be a good choice for the weaker party in an “opposed roll”—where two players roll dice against each other. For example, to see whose character is the first to answer a riddle. If one character has a disadvantage against the other, they might roll a smaller die, like a d4.
The d4 is also useful in any situation where you’re trying to decide something involving the number 4, like which direction to go in (west, south, east, north) or what season of the year is your character’s favorite.
You can see that, even though they’re less common than most other dice, d4 dice are still an integral part of any complete set of tabletop gaming dice. You don’t want to go without them!
Why 4-Sided Dice Are Much More Powerful Than You Realized
By itself, the humble d4 doesn’t hold many secrets. (Other than the eldritch pain of stepping on it.) But when you start combining d4 dice, you can begin to warp the powers of reality itself—not even kidding. Here’s how it works:
If you rolled 5d4 and added them all up, you would get a value anywhere from 5 to 20. You could also just roll a single d20 and get a value anywhere from 1 to 20. So why would you ever roll 5d4?
Well, for one thing, it can just be really fun to roll a bunch of 4-sided dice at once—especially if you’re rolling a whole bunch of traditional and alternative d4 dice shapes together. Never underestimate “It’s fun!” as a valid reason to do something in an RPG. But more importantly, rolling 5d4 is WAY more likely than 1d20 to get a result somewhere in the middle of the pack. It changes the statistics of rolling dice.
Math Time! =D
The statistical distribution curve of roll values for one die is flat: Every value has an equal chance of being rolled. But when you combine two dice, the curve looks like a triangle. Combine even more dice and it starts to look like a traditional bell curve.
- Any time you want dice rolls to be more typical (i.e., closer to the average, less extreme), roll multiples of smaller dice instead of one larger die.
This is not a special property of 4-sided dice in particular. All dice work this way. But d4 dice, with their small values, are the most practical for rolling large numbers of dice together. You can roll 2d4 instead of 1d8, 3d4 instead of 1d12, and 5d4 instead of 1d20.
The Pros & Cons of Rolling Multiple Dice at Once
This fundamentally changes the game, making extreme results less likely. This helps to:
- Improve game balance: A dungeon crawl that has fewer extreme dice rolls is more predictable and easier for the GM to balance. Players will have a better sense of what their characters can and can’t do.
- Avoid feel-bad rolls: If you roll 3d4 for damage, you can never get a result of 1 like you might with a d12. The minimum possible is 3. This reduces the feel-bad problem of successfully hitting an enemy on your attack roll but then doing virtually no damage to them on your damage roll. The same logic applies if you’re rolling for a beneficial spell. It feels really bad to use up a crucial spell slot only to get virtually no benefit from the spell because you rolled a 1.
Of course, there are also downsides to rolling multiple d4 dice instead of one bigger die:
- Sometimes crazy rolls are a lot of fun, and you won’t get those moments as often this way.
- The lower frequency of extreme roles can lock out characters who are in trouble and need to get a really high roll to save the day.
In other words, using multiple d4 dice to replace larger dice rolls is a tool in your kit—use it when the time is right, but don’t use it all the time.
You’ve Convinced Me! I Want to Order 5 Million 4-Sided Dice!
Well, actually, we don’t currently sell most of our traditional tetrahedral d4 dice by themselves loose. Supply chain issues, inventory management…economies are weird. But fear not! You have four choices:
- If you see some 4-sided dice that you really like in one of our sets, you can order the full set, keep the d4 for yourself, and gift the rest to a friend! They probably won’t even notice! You are a good friend!
- You CAN order d4s individually in our custom dice sets.
- If you like alternative d4 dice shapes, we do sell our Infinity Dice both individually and in 4-packs, so that’s another great way to get your d4 empire going.
- Join our subscription box! Every month we’ll send you cool dice for you to gradually build up your collection. All hardcore tabletop gamers own multiples of every type of die, both for making BIG ROLLS and for fitting the style and mood of a given campaign. The dice you roll with can reflect the character you’re playing, the world you’re in, or something else entirely. It’s neat to have options.
But Wait! There’s More d4!
Do you like both the traditional tetrahedral 4-sided dice and the alternative d4 dice shapes? Many of our 9-and-10-piece sets contain both the traditional tetrahedral and Infinity d4 types!
You’ll never have to chop a d8 in half ever again!