A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by +Oleg Crew from Hibercon Technologies to review their new D&D Dice Roller app. The hardest part of this process, other than finding some spare time, was figuring out how to use product keys in the iTunes store. Once I got that worked out, I was off to the races.
The core functionality of this app could not be any simpler. It has a one-second loading screen, no options menu... no credits page, for that matter. So right off the bat, it has a ruthless dedication to clarity and simplicity on its side. Given what it's replacing - my time-honored polyhedrals, which it must be admitted have a longer history of ignominy than glory - this is a great decision. Even one screen-tap of delay between startup and "picking up" the dice is getting in the way of its usability and convenience, since an iPhone or iPad is going to go to sleep during other players' turns. (Well, not my iPhone; in something like a fit of pique I set my iPhone to never go to sleep, like some kind of sleep experiment.)
The dice-rolling screen features a large open space where the die-rolling is rendered, with what gives every impression of being real physics. At the bottom of the screen, you choose dice: d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, d100. I'd call this the first of the missed opportunities: the gaming world is bustling with other die sizes and custom-printed dice these days. If you don't need to create it in meatspace, it would be great to include a d3, d5, d7, d9, d11, d24, d30... all of the wacky dice that the OSR folks love so hard. I don't know what, if anything, it would take to be allowed to include Fate dice, and I realize that FFG has released their own dice apps for WHFRP 3e and Star Wars. Still, these are the kinds of use cases where I need a dice app. My dice-purchasing habits are pathetically conservative - I don't have a single wacky die to my name. You know what? I'll go ahead and clip a corner off my Gamer Card for that. (It's probably still a valid d2 afterward.)
The app's handling of the d100 is unusual, in that it's the only die expression you can't combine with any other. This is fine for how D&D uses the d100 - pretty much all table lookups. It would be nice if this were expansible to d1000 and so on in a single roll, but that would have involved complicating the UI.
The dice are sharply rendered and readable, which is great. When selected, they enter the dice field with sound and fury, caroming off of the back wall and each other. It's wonderfully tactile; in fact they behave exactly like real dice rolled in a box. This has its good side and its bad side.
Good: It's psychologically easier to "trust" the dice, because they behave realistically. It doesn't feel like an RNG that could be poorly seeded.
Bad: A later die roll can alter an earlier one. Since you can't drop all 10d6 of that fireball literally at once (i.e., it's ten sequential screen taps, not one ten-die tap), your later dice can change the results of your earlier. When the die pool gets large and the field gets full (anywhere north of the ten-die mark), dice can land on top of one another, sometimes resulting in cocked dice. Cocked dice cause a "Wrong State" message (a case of devspeak that really shouldn't be user-facing), and you can't reroll one individual die - only the whole thing. This is a place where the app's dice are explicitly worse than in meatspace.
The app also adds up all of the rolls, which is great for fast math on big die pools. This is another place where it would be fantastic to see more support for non-D&D games as options within the app: it should be trivially easy to support the World of Darkness with d10s, a Difficulty slider (for oWoD support), optional botch rules, and boxes for 8-again, 9-again, and 10-again. (Since it's an app, there could also be a +Robert Toennisson Achievement for rolling six successes on three dice. It'll be called "Real-Life Fate Mage.") Other games would benefit from more complicated dice expressions, such as the fascinating but rarely used d6-d6, where the lesser value is always subtracted from the greater to create a 0-5 spread.
There's a separate page displaying a history of die rolls in the app. It preserves the individual die results, though very large pools are elided to save space.
It's a bit too clear that this product was created by non-native English speakers. In English, "dices" is never a noun. Singular, die; plural, dice. This doesn't get in the way of function, of course.
The dice are a very light gray, with black numerals on the faces. The d2 is an exception here, with a 1 for Heads and an interesting triple dragon decoration for Tails. The d2 has a surprisingly hard time coming to a full rest. I think offering only one die color is a missed opportunity - a lot of indie games these days explore the rich die result opportunities of dice of different colors. Don't Rest Your Head springs to mind as a game that this app would not help you run. An Options page with alternate die colors, faces (preferably customizable by the user), and more complex options would be a worthy addition to the app.
I've talked a lot about running non-D&D games with this app, so I want to circle back around and be fair to the creators. D&D is in the title; they don't remotely pretend that it's well-suited to any other game. The blurb describing the app mentions exactly one game that isn't explicitly a D&D setting or derivative of D&D - Savage Worlds. Is it fair to criticize something for being only what it claims to be, not what I wish it were? Possibly not. Broader usability would improve my outlook on the app, though.
The app has a $2.99 price point, which the app's page notes as less expensive than actual dice. It's a fair assessment, though every gamer of my acquaintance has a deep, idiosyncratic, and profoundly unhealthy relationship (fixation? codependence? Facebook status: "It's Complicated"?) with their dice. Odi et amo, excrucior! Go to a Chessex booth at a con and you will see approximately eight thousand people who look this and pretty much see this. My point here is that people generally don't regard using the dice they compulsively collect as a great burden - but even the most discerning aficionado leaves the dice bag at home once in a while. So how would I feel about the price point if I hadn't gotten my review copy for free? It seems a little high relative to other products in the Apple store, especially based on its narrow functionality.
I would give this product two and a half stars; it has definite merits, but also some issues that erode those strengths. On the FACE scale, that translates to 0 faces. Pick this up if you want a dice-rolling app with a clear and minimalist UI and some sharp visual and auditory aesthetics.