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.
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.
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.
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.