What is it with dice? Why do these small objects hold such a fascination for me? How can something as simple as a six-sided die have such an impact on how I think and feel?
This post is also available in an extended version on the podcast: Season 9, Episode 2
The Roots of Fascination
When I was pretty young, probably around 6 years of age, my Dad started to involve me in his wargaming hobby. He would receive intriguing packets containing wargaming magazines and he would also periodically take me with him to The Games Room, the local wargame-focused game store in Norwich wherein I grew up.
The packets Dad received in the mail generally contained wargames in the form of hexed thick paper maps and cardboard panels of counters that he called “chits”. He would read the rules of each game and then set them up for play. I would get roped in, initially as an observer but over time I began to be invited to command a unit, eventually graduating to becoming Dad’s regular opponent.
Dice rose up in my consciousness as objects of fascination.
Weirdly, I think the deeper fascination of dice all started with a pair of ten-siders. In 1979, Yaquinto published Panzer – “A Tactical Game of Armored Combat on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945” – by James M. Day. Dad bought this from the Games Room, probably early in 1980.
Panzer came with two ten-siders, one red and one white. I think the first set were twenty-siders numbered 1-10 twice. Later, we were rolling the typical d10s you’d see today but I think they came in a supplement. I am not 100% sure.
I remember both the twenty-siders and the ten-siders with fondness. They were large and had the imprint of the numbers on them but I remember Dad using a crayon to colour the numbers on the white die to make the number clearer to read. That crayon stuff rubbed off quickly because we played Panzer an awful lot that year and for years after. It was my favourite board wargame. I even bought a copy of the 2012 updated version of Panzer that is now published by GMT games. It’s a brilliant wargame if you like small unit actions in World War II involving tanks.
How did the dice get my attention? They were weird. They were also rolled together to give a range of numbers from 1-100 and used to look up the odds of hitting a target on a very intriguing small reference card – one for each type of vehicle in the game – and then again to determine exactly where on the vehicle the shot struck. This was my exposure to hit location tables on vehicles – an innovation soon to be transferred to people when I discovered RuneQuest – and it was my first taste of the d100 roll.
I loved that I could roll those two dice and then look up to see what happened. The battles were an unfolding story of battle between my Soviet armoured company and my Dad’s German forces. We played week-in-week-out it for ages. We were still playing a few times a year in 1989 when I left home for university.
I have a deep emotional connection with dice. Ideally, there is more than one die in my hand when I play too – the biggest reason I dislike playing Dungeons & Dragons is that you roll 1d20 or single dice for damage most of the time. I think it’s the added weight in my hand, the clatter and rattle as I shake the dice in my cupped palm, and the act of throwing them that is key. They need to hit a flat, hard surface – the gaming table – and they need to roll freely to land in a clear upright position. I learned terminology, like “a cocked die” being unacceptable, when I was very young.
Recently, while playing online, I began to use real dice again and eschew the virtual tabletop. Picking up 3d6 and rattling them in my hands evoked the feeling. I remember, when I declared an action in a game, that my Dad would smile – a rare thing – and invite me to “roll the bones”.
Glee flows through me still, just as it did when I was a child. I noticed I was rattling the dice in my hand close to the microphone, hanging down as it does near my head, and making sure all the players could hear that sound. I pause dramatically, rattling the dice longer, before I throw them. This is exciting to me. The moment of truth, the point of decision, the dice determine the outcome.
Dice In My Pocket
There is magic in rolling dice. Some mornings I wake up and my mood is very low. Some days, especially after work, I am exhausted and my mood tanks towards the low end of the scale. There have been weeks and weeks of my life filled with grey tiredness and low mood in which the whole of life seems empty, devoid of joy. Get up, work, home, eat, sleep. Get up, work, home, eat, sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I discovered something about those days. I discovered how to cast a Dispel Depression spell on myself. I would pick up at least two dice and rattle them in my hand. Instantly, I access the feelings of pleasure that I associate with gaming. It literally makes me smile.
Most days, I carry two or three d6 in my pocket. Sometimes, when my mood is very low, I swap them out for a pair of ten-siders. Occasionally, if I am feeling really old-school, I dig out my twenty-sided d10s. The only times I don’t carry dice are when I am foolish enough to believe that I am doing ok. It’s easy to forget how quickly thoughts can arise and moods can change.
I have my hands on my pockets a lot at work. People say I look relaxed and I communicate to the students that I am in charge. No-one realises what is really going on. There are dice in my pocket. When I am stressed, I secretly hold them in my clenched hand.
There is a magic in dice. When I am in need of a shift in my mindset and mood, I will pick up a pair or trio of dice and I will roll them. Even better, I will grab something easy to roll with and simply allow myself the pleasure of that rattle, clatter, and smile. That’s the real reason I love rolling up characters. It’s the reason I secrete myself away even today to play a game alone. I am accessing the arcane blessing of the dice.
And I rather suspect I am not truly alone.