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  • Writer's pictureRobey

#diceday - Roll for Initiative!

I'll be getting #seriouslygeeky about the mathematics of different dice mechanics from next week's #diceday blog, but for this week, while I take a paused after my marathon trot through the various polyhedrals and their custom offspring, I wanted to talk more about our relationship with dice, as tabletop gamers.

I recently listened to an interview with effie_elf_ears from Loaded Bolter (which I recommend, btw), in which she described herself as a "dice goblin". And I also happened to notice, the other day, yet another Kickstarter for custom dice, this time for a polyhedral set containing googly eyes. I don't wish to suggest that the trend for customized RPG dice has jumped a shark, here, but...

And as my trawl through our various polyhedrals proved, with photos from my own collection - well... I have a collection of dice. There's no other word for it. Few are the dice in my collection that don't have a story attached to them, whether it was where I bought them, who gave them to me, what faction or army inspired them or what stupendous result they once delivered me.

Giving my son his first polyhedral set was... an emotional moment.

And yet... as a designer, my instinct is always that dice, fundamentally, get in the way of a good game.

That's not to say that they ought to be removed or that randomness is somehow bad. In know that eurogame enthusiasts would probably say that they should and that it is, but that's not me: I'm a miniatures gamer, and we are literally accustomed to speaking of "the dice gods". That's the kind of place that they hold. No, when I say that they "get in the way", I mean that every act of rolling dice in a game - especially in an RPG but also in a miniatures game - is a step away from the immersion of the experience. When I say "Sergeant Kilzalot fires his megabolter at the evil space critter", the picture in my mind's eye is of an epic scene of riotous combat, as the heroic sergeant guns down the savage attacker in a merciless hail of explosive lead. And the instant I have to put aside that image to pick up the dice and do the mental arithmetic necessary to adjust my mental image to the reality of the results, the suspension of disbelief is broken.

This is why I called this blog "roll for initiative". It's the traditional cry of the Dungeon Master when combat starts and my heart falls. Because my heroic ranger is poised to leap into deadly hand-to-hand with the undead minions of the necromancer terrorizing my home town, but I... I rolled a 2 and it's going to be eight minutes of maths and stats until I get to do something and, even when I do get to do something, it's more maths and stats.

So why do we have such a positive relationship with our dice?

Well, there is some bizarre alchemy going on in our heads when those chunks of plastic hit the table (don't talk to me about metal dice!). We ought to see numbers. We might be looking 4+ on a d6 to hit. And our eyes certainly pick out all of those dice with a 4, 5 or 6 showing. But our brains... our brains are still engaged with the images, as every success is a greenskin caught in a hail of savagery.

But it's not a perfect relationship. When the image and the reality are so deeply at odds, there will always be moments in which the dice betray our imaginations. The role of the designer is to try to minimize those moments, so that the high drama of victory isn't painfully at odds with the tragicomedy of failure. And over the next few weeks, I'll be looking at a selection of common mechanics in miniatures games and RPGs and talking about how I think those both succeed and fail in achieving that balance.

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