Cardboard Children – On Dice

Hello youse.

What is a die? Let’s take a look at the standard 6-sided die. Six faces, yes? Numbered, usually with pips, from 1 to 6. One pip means failure, six pips means success. That’s how we usually understand it.

It is an object of pure chance. You take a die in your hand and shake it. The shaking means nothing. It does nothing. It creates the illusion of agency. You let the die loose and it tumbles, cracks open its chaotic secret. Failure. Success.

Today, I review dice.

THE FATAL DICE

In “The Mahabharata”, that beautiful, centuries-old epic poem, Yudhisthira loses everything he loves playing dice with Shakuni. His wealth, kingdom, family and wife are lost to those dice. Shakuni, a master schemer, knew Yudhisthira’s great weakness and exploited it fully.

Yudhisthira, King of Indraprastha, was expected never to turn down a call to war or an invitation to a game of dice. A novice at the game, he loses and keeps losing, drunk with the expectation that his luck must change.

Those dice. They must roll in your favour at some point, surely?

Knucklebones came first. Made from the talus bones of animals, they were used in a game similar to the modern-day “jackstones” or “five-stones”. You would toss five bones into the air and try to catch as many as you could on the back of your hand. While children played this, young Greek women of antiquity used the knucklebones to pass their fate into the hands of Aphrodite.

Men put numbers on them. They would toss the knucklebones onto a surface, and the number touching the surface would be the result.

Yudhisthira’s fate was sealed.

SNAKES

Most people know dice by way of popular board games. Snakes & Ladders is one of the first board games any of us ever play. The board is printed with a grid, usually with numbers ascending to 100. From box to box, number to number, your piece is moved according to a roll of a die. Snakes & Ladders is entirely a game of chance. You can only move in one direction – always towards the box with the next highest number. If you hit a snake you “slide” backwards along its length. If you hit a ladder you leap ahead on the grid. The die sends you to meet these banes and boons in a completely random fashion.

Children love it.

When you’re young, everyone is better than you at everything. Games like Snakes & Ladders put children and adults on the same footing. It’s all about those dice. You can’t be bad at these games. You can only be. The shake, remember, tells the lie of agency. A child will shake dice for a longer time than an adult will, as if it somehow matters. A child believes in the tooth fairy. Knuckles will grow white, gripping those bones, in the belief that some kind of control is possible.

It is beautiful to be a child.

NUMBERS

Dice randomly generate numbers. A conventional six-sided die is usually enough, but other dice have become popular in gaming. The D10 in particular, with its ten sides, is perfect for generating percentiles. Most role-playing games use D10s for this very reason – in storytelling terms it is simple to understand that your detective has a 70% chance of successfully finding a clue. A percentile roll of 70 or under means success. We use the tools of chance to communicate the concept of chance.

Chance is everywhere. That’s why human beings like to put numbers on things. As footholds.

We also like to touch things.

If you leave a pair of dice on a table, you can be sure that someone will roll them. I think there are two main reasons for this – and they are simple ones.

  • 1. People love the feel of dice. There is something beautiful about the touch-hold-clack of picking dice up that can only be matched by the open-clack-tumble of letting them roll. Dice feel good. The sound of dice is important too. The shake is mainly about hearing the bones rattle. The next time you see someone roll dice, watch to see if they ever close their eyes when they let them go. I think you might be surprised by how many people do this. That’s the player listening for the sound of the dice hitting the table – their auditory cue that something in the universe has changed.
  • 2. It’s important to know what the result is. Dice on a table, unrolled, tell us nothing. They are just objects. Just things. The number you can read from them before you roll them is meaningless. It isn’t the result of anything. It’s just there. But when you roll those dice, you get an actual result. You might even get the same number on both dice – a result that means you need to re-roll to see what the next result is. Results are important. An unrolled dice is an unfinished story.
  • DOUBLES

    We all will die someday. It is natural that we have a fascination with immortality. Tithonus and his like tell us that it’s a poisoned chalice we dream of drinking from, but the romance of choice is compelling. None of us can decide to live forever. It is a thing completely out of our control.

    When we roll a double, we can almost believe we can beat death.

    Notice this – when someone rolls a double on a pair of dice, removed from the context of some supporting “game”, they will never stop rolling. They will roll again, to see if they continue to be “lucky”. If it is another double, they will roll again. At some point, if those doubles keep coming, there is the sensation of escape. The laws of the universe have been broken. How unlikely must it be that you would roll another double?

    They roll again. A double.

    Here, we reach the essence of why gambling destroys so many of us; why Yudhisthira was exiled. When “luck” is with us, and we create a freakish sequence of results, we move subtly into a realm that makes us uncomfortable. It is The Kingdom of This-Can’t-Be. If you roll doubles forever, you must be something separate from the rest of the human race. You must be a god. And this can’t possibly be. So you roll and roll again, until everything in the universe rights itself. Until, if within the confines of some sort of game, you lose.

    You then believe you can’t lose forever. And so you roll.

    You are either a God or a Fool. You can’t be both.

    Dice instruct us on the truth of what we are. It is a comforting truth indeed.

34 Comments

  1. Astragali says:

    Ahhhhh, dice.

  2. guygodbois00 says:

    “Alright, Kelly, how about these?” “No dice”

  3. hbarsquared says:

    Absolutely brilliant. The last bit reminded me of the opening scene from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. R (or is it G?) keeps flipping a coin, and it keeps coming up heads. Everyone watching instinctively knows something is wrong, that these fools are playing a dangerous game that must, by some ancient law, end poorly.

  4. Wret says:

    Dice is a set of shameless RNGs and the devs should be SHUNNED. 3/10

    …I do wonder if thoughts like this article are why casino mini-games seem popular in games, or the Casino stage in Sonic Adventure 1/Every damn Sonic

  5. daimonahte says:

    So, GOTY?

  6. amateurviking says:

    True story: I always keep a few dice around the lab for random number generation. My boss thought I was nuts initially but ye cannae beat a guid die for quick randomisation and blinding.

    • arboreal says:

      How does that work in practice? IANAMathematician but you can’t get a 9-sided platonic solid, can you? Wouldn’t you need that for number strings (assuming you’re using dice for number strings)? If I were to want to create truly random number strings using die (which I don’t currently but who knows what the future holds), anyone know how I’d go about it?

      Edit: Use a 10 sided die and count the 10 as zero, duh. I had a moment, apologies.

      • geerad says:

        By the by, you can create a d9 (or similar unusual numbers) by putting 9 faces around a cylinder and making the top and bottom so they can’t be landed on.

        That’s an unsatisfying answer, but you can also buy a d5 that has three rectangular sides and two triangular ones. The sides have to be specific proportions for the die to be fair.

      • Ed Burst says:

        You can generate any random range using any shape of dice.
        Let’s say I want a number between 1 & 28, equal chance of each, and I have only a single six-sided die.
        I could say, ‘roll this die, subtract one, then multiply by 6, then roll the die a second time and add that to the total’.
        This would generate a number between 1 and 36. But I wanted a number between 1 & 28, so we need a second rule: if the number generated is over 28, start again.

        (‘Count 10 as zero’ isn’t a good rule for simulating a d9, since if we want a d9 we are generating 1 to 9, or possibly 0 to 8. ‘Reroll if you get a 10’ should work better.
        Also, a d10 is not a platonic solid, since the faces are not regular polygons.)

      • amateurviking says:

        Nothing super complicated, just subsampling and such, most of my experiments at the moment rather conveniently use sample sizes in multiples of 12 so I can use a d12 to subdivide and select at random.

  7. 00looper00 says:

    Beautiful

  8. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Dice are lovely. I have several leather bags of all kinds of dice I bought at various gaming conventions. Whenever I need dice I tend to search for a while until I find some that are “appropriate” (usually that means that their color and design has to match the situation in some way). I also have a blue D20 that is attached to my key chain and a metal D10 that lies on my shelf and that I bought just because it was beautiful.

  9. princec says:

    My dice live in a little Cthulu-knitwear bag as penance when they’ve failed me.

    They spend a lot of time in that bag. The little bastards.

  10. newc0253 says:

    D10?

    First, it’s written d10.

    Secondly, any ful kno that d20 are geometrically more appealing than d10 and can produce percentile figures just as easily.

    • Koozer says:

      How do you generate percentiles with a d20 with the fidelity of 2 d10s?

      • Phendron says:

        I imagine that the contrarian’s method would halve the value of each roll, not quite ‘just as easily’ but not much harder.

        I’ve had a couple of DMs use a similar method of using two D10 (yeah stuff it) for a D20 result, usually to obscure a quick glance from players when they were too lazy for a screen.

        • Ed Burst says:

          You can simulate a d10 with a d20 by saying ‘If it’s over 10, subtract 10’, or similar.
          (You can also get d20s that are marked with the numbers 1 to 10, twice each. I know of a D&D player who mistook one for a regular d20 and then spent a whole game session thinking they were just being really unlucky.)

  11. Spacewalk says:

    I have no dice on any of my tables because they are on the floor. Diagnosis: rolling.

  12. Gog Magog says:

    Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard etc

  13. Koozer says:

    It’s always curious how attached people become to their dice. They talk of their favourites, the ones that never fail them, or the ones they distrust. It’s a peculiar human trait to yearn for rhyme and reason in everything, even the most glaringly random and meaningless.

  14. icarussc says:

    A++ Will read again.

  15. Martel says:

    Oh boy do I love dice and I appear to have passed that onto my 3yr old daughter as she takes out daddy’s bin of dice and just rolls them for fun. At least I can pretend it’s educational by going over the numbers she rolls, but she just likes the act of rolling rather than the results.

    It’s even to the point of using real dice while playing an online rpg just so I can have the sensation of rolling them, digital dice just don’t cut it.

  16. MacBeth says:

    I bought a ridiculous number of beautiful metal 3d-printed-and-then-cast dice from Shapeways just because they look great. They don’t work any better than normal dice – in fact they’re in many cases worse, because the numbers are more difficult to read, they’re heavy so they don’t roll well, and they have spikes which damage things… but they look they could decide the fates of men (and women, of course)…

  17. Muzman says:

    Coincidentally I saw this old story for the first time the other day.
    link to cnet.com

  18. PikaBot says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that the dice game in which Yudhisthira lost everything was in fact completely rigged. And he even figured it out pretty quickly, but was still unable to turn down the challenge because that was the kind of guy he was.

    It’s been years, though, I could be remembering wrong.

  19. bp_968 says:

    A good friend of mine makes titanium dice with pretty ludacris tolerances, something like one hundredth of a millimeter or so! A machining blog did a short article on them here: link to blog.cnccookbook.com

  20. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Do people have house rules for dealing with dice rolling?
    We tend to use the box lid for rolling in, but then if you have two people rolling, you need to find another box. Also, if you manage to roll it off the table you have to yell ‘counts!’ before you see it if you want to take the result.

    I’m also pretty sure the dice in our Space Crusade set are cursed.

  21. grimdanfango says:

    One of the most effective uses of dice I have seen lately is in the (seemingly-perpetually-#1-rated) Twilight Struggle.
    You can very nearly play the game entirely without dice-rolls, or you can rely on them extensively. It’s entirely up to you how much you lean on the dice, and it is proportionally riskier the more you do, the potential gains are higher, but so are the potential losses. The game seems to use them as a symbol of the unpredictable nature of war, so the more aggressive actions involve dice, while the more diplomatic actions don’t.
    (…and the more moderate aggressive actions use dice, but give less dramatic ranges of outcome)

    This struck me as sort of a mini-revelation when I first played the game. Giving the player direct control over the level of chance they choose to employ.

    What other board games utilise this trick? As a relative newcomer to board games, I would like to find more of them :-)

  22. clg6000 says:

    Speaking as a ridiculous antiquated grammarian, I can’t thank you enough for using “die” in the singular and “dice” in the plural. There’s been a troubling trend of “dice” being allowed to represent a singular chance-giving polyhedron. Heck , that malarkey has even crept into respectable dictionaries: link to oxforddictionaries.com Thanks for standing up for the forces of good and truth.

    P.S….fix “An unrolled dice is an unfinished story” please?

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Yes, this, absolutely. “A dice” is awful and must be stopped.

  23. Premium User Badge

    CdrJameson says:

    Two dice added together beat two dice read one after the other.

    This is just true.