Ruminating on Shiny Math Rocks

If anything identifies someone as a gamer, it is dice. Without them, you could just be a bunch of folk sitting around a table, reading big colourful hardcover books or staring at laptops/datapads. But as soon as the dice come out, everyone knows your secret; you are gamers, your imaginations constrained and sometimes ruled by polyhedral fate.

It may shock the young members of the TTRPG hobby, but it was not always so. When I began playing Dungeons & Dragons (dinosaur-skin edition) there were no dice companies selling buckets of shiny, sparkly math rocks to waiting gamers. And TSR was not yet packaging the game with a set of extruded plastic dice. No, my friends, the box set I started with contained sheets of chits, numbered 1 through whatever, depending on what range of results you wanted to generate. We cut them out and sorted them into film canisters (what do you mean, what’s a film-!? Never mind, Google it.). When we did something in-game like attack a monster, we gave the canister a shake, reached in and the number we pulled out was our “Roll”. Woe betide the person that accidentally dropped the canister, spilling chits all over the place, especially if we lost any. Game stoppages while we, ahem “got our chits together”, were not uncommon.

In fact, the first time someone brought a set of dice to the table, we were a little leery. There was a brief period of monkey/monolith squabbling before we figured out that this would (barring imperfections in the die casting) be as random as picking out chits. And, as I’m sure every gamer out there can attest, there was something ultimately more satisfying about rolling a die than drawing a chit. I’d pulled the “20” chit during combat before, and was excited. But the first time I rolled a “nat20” on the die, I felt a physical thrill run up my spine.

Or should I say, “nat10Blue”. Another bit of dice trivia, the earliest twenty-sided dice (or icosahedrons, if you want to get all mathy) were not numbered 1-20, but 1-10 twice. Why? Because that allowed the twenty-sider to double as percentage dice, generating a number between 1 and 100. You simply coloured each set of numbers differently, usually by rubbing coloured crayon into the number stamp. If you needed to roll a “d20” you announced which was your “tens” colour (11-20) and rolled. In my case, if I rolled a green 2 it was a 2, but if I rolled a blue 2 it was a 12. And if I needed a percentage number I simply rolled the die twice, the first number was my “tens” and the second was my “ones” ( a roll of 2 and 7, for instance, became 27). Simple, right? Eventually the ten-sided die came along, and the d20 was numbered as we see it today.

If you wonder why the d10 was late to the party, you can get more info here. It has to do with mathtastic things like platonic solids and such.

Despite being small lumps of plastic formed along precise mathematical and engineering principles to generate random numbers, there is a great deal of mythology and superstition associated with gaming dice. Every gamer out there has their own “dice etiquette”, and the heavens shall rain fire upon you if you violate it! Some are simple and even reasonable, like “don’t touch my dice without asking” or “don’t get your dice mixed up with mine”. More extreme rules I’ve encountered? Things like, “if a d20 fails me (usually by rolling a 1) three times in a session I destroy it”. Yikes! That person is the dice industry’s favourite. I’ve encountered people who will not buy their own dice, because it’s unlucky; instead, they give the money to someone else to buy the dice for them.

And it doesn’t stop there. “My d20 is all out of twenties” is a common lament heard at gaming tables. It is considered normal to beg, plead, and cajole dice to generate the desired number, despite a lack of any apparent aural apparatus on the die’s part. It is not uncommon for players to name sets of dice, and even individual die themselves, in an attempt to create a “we’re all in this together” relationship with these little chunks of plastic, or metal, or stone, or….

Understand, I say none of this mockingly. I am a gamer, sunk just as far in dice-related rattle-shaking as all the rest. I have sets of dice for each game I play. I will not lend out these sets, though I keep spare dice around for others to use as needed. My dice are not named, but I know from long experience which die will do the job when I need it. And I will retire dice for the evening if they are not performing well, like subbing out the pitcher after some bad innings.

And I admit, I may have a dice problem. I can’t go to a con or game store without picking up “just one more set”. I buy them in all shapes and sizes. I buy them for games I may never play, and I buy dice for games I will likely never play again. With the advent of different dice materials, like wood, stone, petrified wood, gemstones and semi-precious stones, metals of all sorts… I don’t anticipate running out of options for cool dice anytime soon. And I don’t stop at dice, oh no. Dice accessories are just as bad; I have more rolling cups, dice trays, and dice bags than I know what to do with and I keep looking for more. Admittedly, I have more or less successfully hidden the worst of my addiction from my fellow gamers. But when I die and historians explore my room…

Do I regret it? Not a little. As addictions go it is pretty tame and harmless (unless I lose a d4 in the carpet, then its caltrop city). Really, who am I hurting with these polyhedral jewels? No one but the monsters, baby, no one but the monsters.

So what is your dicing etiquette? How superstitious are you? Do you have your dice addiction under control?