Thursday, September 02, 2021

Why do we only have Five Dice for Table Top Roleplaying Games?

Why do we only have Five dice for Table Top Roleplaying Games?

Table top roleplaying games are dominated by five dice. There is the d4, d6, d8, d12, and the most famous, the d20. The d10 is common as well, but it came late, circa 1980. There are other dice in use as well, to include a d100, but these are not as common as the five mentioned above being more rarities, like magical items themselves, than anything else. Considering dice are one of the most popular and second most necessary game accessory, one might think there would be a greater variety of them and an integral use for them in The Game.

One would be wrong. So, the waster of time that I am, I decided to do some research and ‘thunkin on this mighty peculiarity.’

Where fore Art Though Oh d16?

When the original role-playing game was being created, virtually the only dice available to those developers was a six-sided dice. Chainmail, the game from which Dungeons and Dragons would eventually spring, used 2d6 for adjudication. This is not surprising as almost all games at the time used a d6 die.

Other dice had been developed but were not widely available. In fact, the earliest d20 die can be traced back to 320BCE in Egypt and again a short time later in Rome and even further back, the oldest d4 is 5000 years old [link]. By 1900, all the dice we are very familiar with had been designed, developed or used at some point. This includes the d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d14, and d20. Despite these dice being used over the centuries, the wargaming community of the 20th century primarily used the d6 for degerming the outcome of an action.

Merry Ole’ England Bound!

Dave Arneson, on a trip to the United Kingdom, came across some d20 dice in a bin at a gaming shop. He bought several sets and returned to the USA with them. This would have been in the very early 1970s. He showed them to Gary Gygax about that time. I believe Gary was aware of the existence of other dice but had perhaps not had any in use with the possible exception of a modified d20 or d10. But that does not matter. What matters, is that in or about the 1973 range, at least the d20 was introduced into Chainmail or Blackmoor to handle magic and thusly the obsession with ‘funny dice’ was realized.  

The 1974 release of Dungeons and Dragons contained the dice we all know and love (sans a d10). Between the development of Chainmail a few years before and that release, the ‘funny dice’ had become integral to The Game. I would imagine what happened is that once the d20 was introduced, the floodgates were open to the other dice out there (albeit a small flood of three more dice).

Where did these dice come from?

This is interesting.  As it turns out, Dave Wesley showed Gary Gygax a catalogue in or about the 1973 time frame that contained a d4, d6, d8, d10 (d20 modified), and d12 dice. TSR, which was working on the release of the boxed set for Dungeons and Dragons, ordered some of these dice. However, they did not have rules for the use of the d4, d8, and d12. They only had rules for the d6 and perhaps the d20. Rather than throw the dice away (or donate the extras to a school – that was considered) Gary and crew shoehorned in rules for the d4, d8, d12, and d20. Thus, we get our beloved set of dice.

But why only those and not others?

Indeed, why not other dice? It seems once you open the door to various dice one might as well take in and use as many different types of dice as possible. I think there are several reasons this did not happen. The most obvious is that no other types of dice were in production and, other than the d6, all other ‘funny dice’ were produced by one company in Japan and one in the United Kingdom.

One might wonder why there were no other dice in production since d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20 were produced. Why not a d16, d10, d14, d18, and any other even number one can think of. More than likely, there was no reason and no demand. What would anyone do with all those dice? So why were the d4, d8, d12, and d20 produced. The clue is in the origin of Gary’s first purchase. The dice came from a catalogue selling educational aids. The d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20 are Platonic Solids. They would have been used for educational purposes. These dice were probably used for geometry, math, chemistry, physics, or perhaps even philosophy.

That’s boring – not. 

And this is when my interest was really piqued. Forty-five years after having started playing The Game, I have always wondered why more dice were never added to the mix. Although the production of other dice types became available over the decades but were never significantly incorporated into the gaming milieu. I have developed a theory (of course I have). So let us begin with what it is about those five little ‘funny dice’ (as Gary Gygax called them i believe) that makes them so peculiar. They are all Platonic solids.

There Can Be Only Five

Platonic solids are regular convex polyhedrons. Now, I don’t claim to know much about this so please check out this article at Wikipedia for a more in-depth discussion of Platonic Solids.There are two very interesting things about Platonic Solids. The first is that they all have equal sized face, equal angles, and an equal number of faces meeting at each vertex. Now, even more interesting, there are only five Platonic Solids known to man, at least in the three-dimensional space we all live in. It is this latter aspect of the Platonic Solids that really baked my noodle. I had been, prior to my research, unaware that this was the case.

There are mathematical reasons for only having five Platonic Solids. I don’t pretend to understand them. But this is what I found fascinating. In my search for more Platonic Solids, I found them in other dimensions. In the second dimension there are an infinite number of solids (if I understand that correctly). Imagine that, a whole infinite number of dice our two-dimensional counterparts can use. In the third dimension (where we sit), there are the five solids. In the fourth dimension there are six solids. Which, if you ask me is sort of boring. And this is where I threw in the towel, in the fifth dimension and above, each dimension only contains three solids – that we know of.  

At least that’s what I read (and “understood”).

Platonic Solid make great dice because they are, in short, solid. So, we have the five Platonic Solids as the mainstays for our gaming dice because of dimensional limitations. Of those, the d6 has been the linchpin of gaming for hundreds if not thousands of years and continues to be so to this day. So why not more? Surely with modern manufacturing, mathematics, computer generated designs, and all our modern scientific advances, we should be able to produce more types of dice that can be as solid as The Solids.

Well, they have been produced. Around 1980 the d10 was brought into The Game and from there, the number type and shape of dice exploded. There are at least the following types; d14, d16, d18, d24, d30, d100, and even a moebius strip dice to name a few. There is even a d120 glow in the dark dice out there somewhere. For nearly four decades the number and type of dice has been growing. So why aren’t these dice in greater use. Well, there are some problems and issues with dice that are not Platonic Solids. 


To wit and with some remorse….

Dungeons and Dragons was the first role-playing game and its use of the five Platonic Solids as a core to the game’s mechanics has been long established. For nearly thirty years, any other dice types were not commonly available and their use was never incorporated into The Game. The tradition and rules have been established and we know how difficult it is to break with tradition. So, no new dice were nor are used in the world’s most popular role-playing game. Nor is there any plan for them to be used.

The dice beyond the five were, apparently, not easy to design nor to produce. This is in part because they do not have even faces or vertices. What has become the standard is a kite for each face. What this ends up looking like, for the d14, d16, d18, etc., is a d8 with many rounded sides or even alternating kite faces. Unlike the five Platonic Solid dice, these lack is a distinctive feel to them and, as importantly, a distinctive roll. I am of the mind that the act of rolling the dice is as fun for many as is the result. Its all in the roll. These dice just do not roll with a distinctive nature and as a result, are less well received or enjoyed.

These dice often have a near identical appearance as well. Some of the designs of these appear the same and distinguishing quickly between a d16 and d18 can be a little cumbersome in game or even out of game. When looking at the five, they are immediately identifiable, easy to distinguish, and quick to grasp. Not so many of the others. There are exceptions.

Loaded dice from Pompeii
Production and design of dice has always been hampered by odds. Ideally, a dice should have an equal chance of rolling any one of the numbers on its faces. The dice used in almost all casinos goes through rigorous design and testing to ensure that the d6s they use are all weighted so that each face has an equal chance of being rolled. This is not the case with most dice produced for The Game. Although they may look nice and feel nice, most of the dice produced are not, in fact, created in such a manner as to produce an equal chance of each face being rolled. We all have our favorite dice right? There is a reason. The design and production hurdles are immense and the dice are not fair.

And finally, a very important reason.

I suppose the most important question is whether or not incorporating any or all the potential dice into a game’s rules is necessary. The percentage difference between a d18, d20, and d22 is small and it would have to be mighty granular game to need those differences. The same goes for all the dice. Most games only have a few types of actions and a narrow range of reactions. The current crop of games probably do not require nor need that level of granularity. Could they use them? Yes. But do they need them? No. Suffice it to say, the current set of platonic five suffices to serve all the game’s needs to most everyone’s satisfaction.

But Can More Dice Be Used

All the above issues with the various non-platonic dice aside, can or are they be used in games? Yes. Yes, they can and they are being used in various games. I actually designed a game around the d30 because I like that dice so much. A few other companies have taken these dice and incorporated them into their games. Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game uses a d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24 and d30 in addition to the platonic five.

Even though one finds dice in various games, are they popular? Well, no, they are not popular at all. Despite being in a few games, they only seem to be curiosities for dice collectors, gamers, and a necessity for but a handful of players. Most gamers have a few of these dice laying around. But within the table top roleplaying community and board games in general, the d6, d10, and d20 dominate with the other platonic dice following. I rarely see the non-platonic dice at the table, know no one off-hand who uses them regularly, and all my humble attempts at incorporating them into my home game have failed miserably.

Why doesn’t anyone like these dice?

It seems that we are stuck with the five Platonic Solids as dice. The production and design problems could or likely have been overcome and more game designers could incorporate them into their designs. But I don’t think that will happen.

I would propose that, at the end of the day or where the rainbow meets the ground, the Platonic Solids are profoundly attractive to the senses of us, us as perceiving beings. There are only five Platonic Solids in the third dimension. These are the only five shapes that can have equal faces and equal vertices. We humans are three dimensional creatures perceiving a three-dimensional world. There is probably some deep psychological attunement to those shapes. The others just don’t have that symmetry and beauty and are thus overlooked and cast aside. We likely will never see those dice at the table unless,. that is, we….

Free our minds.

Note and Disclaimer: I don't pretend to be a dice expert, mathematician, historian of games, or other. The above is presented as it rolled through my head reading about dice. Please go here if you are interested in perusing a little more about dice, fairness, and yadda yadda. Let this be a beginning and enjoy your research and feel free to correct me where I am wrong.



Torsten said...

I'd never thought about the way the dice roll as being part of the game's appeal, but you're correct. There IS a sound to it that is both portentous and pleasing. That mighty d20 cascading across the felt is the sound of the warhammer bludgeoning its path to ungern-face. Roll a d30 and you get the pitter-patter of the centipede bumbling its way off the table and rolling under the fridge.

Davis said...

"""""Roll a d30 and you get the pitter-patter of the centipede bumbling its way off the table and rolling under the fridge.""""

LMAO, that's is a great alliteration?... wow good description