Tabletop Highlight: On the Importance of Dice

I am a firm believer in the importance of dice in tabletop RPGs. To be entirely fair, that’s not exactly an uncommon opinion, even if more people are moving toward digital dice rollers instead of actual rice. Sure, telling a computer to roll twenty six-sided dice makes it a lot cleaner and it does the math for you which makes it take less time, but there’s no feeling compared to being a twentieth level sorcerer casting disintegrate just so you can roll forty six-sided dice all at once. At one point, I literally had bought enough d6’s so I could roll damage all at once for my caster. It was an amazing feeling, making it rain dice like that. It was also incredibly difficult since I could barely hold that many at once and rolling them involved a lot of me saying “did anyone see where the beige one went?” and my friends replying “no, but I did find the purple one from last week under this radiator.” Good times.

All that aside, what I’m really talking about is the importance of specific dice, which is also a bit misleading since I’m not thinking of one specific die in all of creation. What I’m talking about is the importance of having specific dice for you to use. By our very nature, as creatures reliant on ephemeral chance to dictate the course of our gaming session, we tabletop gamers are a rather superstitious bunch. For instance, I not only have a favorite set of dice, but I pick the dice I use on any given night by how aesthetically pleasing I find them as I get ready for the game. I firmly believe that prettier dice roll better and no amount of bad luck on my more gorgeous dice can shake that belief. The inverse is also true. When my players are having a string of bad rolls, I swap to using my ugliest, most generic and awful dice so the enemies the party is facing roll worse. My absolute favorite set, the set that has rolled more triple-twenties than all of my other twenty-sided dice put together, is a beautiful set of clear plastic dice with bits of black paint or plastic swirled inside them. Unlike every other set of partially clear dice I’ve ever seen, the color is only on the inside of the dice. It doesn’t touch the outside layers at all, so you can spin the dice as you hold it up to the light and watch the smoky black color swirl at your fingertips. I don’t even let other people touch those dice. I keep them in a plastic container inside my dice bag so I’ve always got them ready to go in case I need to roll well on something important.

If you take a survey of all tabletop players, you’ll find a range of traditions and superstitions. There are players who believe in punishing their dice when they roll poorly and even destroying the dice if they keep rolling poorly after being punished. This punishment can range from something as mild as leaving the offending die on its own for a while to the incredibly gross tradition of putting one of your misbehaving dice inside your mouth for a while. I’ve even seen someone go so far as to file through a die they were punishing so it could never roll again, which just seems completely over the top to me. There are also people who believe that you need to roll all of your dice at once, regardless of how many that might be. I’ve got a friend who uses a specific die for every type of action his character might be taking in any game he’s playing, so he has to buy new dice every time he plays a game with an additional action type. I prefer to buy new dice for characters who are about to make their debut, so the character and the dice start off fresh. I generally only get new dice for characters who are supposed to be a part of a campaign for a long time and I do it to avoid any kind of mental influence on how I see the dice.

Despite the range of beliefs and the things people do with their dice, most people remain a bit more rational and logic-oriented than their superstitions suggest. I bet if you followed up your first survey with a second survey asking people if they though there really was something to their little traditions, almost everyone who answered the first one would say “no.” And yet we’d still turn around and immediately go back to our superstitions as soon as the situation called for it. The way I’ve always viewed it is that there’s no harm in being cautious or believing in something that’s probably not there. If it isn’t there, then you’ve just spent a bit of time marking a tradition. If it turns out that there was actually something to it, then you’ve got your bases covered already. It’s why I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I won’t denigrate anyone who believes in them. Additionally, and probably more importantly, it helps the players feel like they’re in control of what is pretty much just random luck. If you believe punishing your dice will make them roll higher next them, then you’re in control of your own outcomes because you can “encourage” your dice to get with the program. You more order you can impose on what seems like chaos around you, the better you feel.

The same is true of having specific dice for specific things. I probably haven’t rolled more triple twenties with my favorite set of dice than with any of my other sets, but the belief that I do roll more twenties makes me remember when I do. It’s simple confirmation bias. The same is probably true of punishing dice or whatever inane thing we all do that makes us feel more comfortable with the fact that the world isn’t as cut-and-dried as we’d like to think it is. Random things happen outside our control or comprehension and we get a glimpse of that when we play games with dice because the difference between success and failure is pure chance. For the vast majority of us, there’s no skill involved, no talent, just dumb luck. Even the most skilled of us, who should be able to succeed no matter what is thrown at us, can sometime fail because of chance. So roll the dice and hope you get more passes than failure.

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