Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Dice

Dice. Generators of random numbers. And an integral part of the RPG scene. When you have a situation where you absolutely have to know whether or not something did or did not happen, you go to the dice. Roll a die, add a modifier, and compare the result to the number you need to meet or beat. Most role-players have their own set of dice they bring to the game. Some have superstitions surrounding their handling. Some are convinced that a given die always rolls high or low. I have been known to get dice out before a game and position them either high or low number up depending on how I need it to roll.

As a veteran gamer (got started on BECMI in the 80's), I have become both a collector and critic of dice. So when last week these dice became the talk of the net:
I had to say something. A lot of people are calling these dice cool. And I admit, they look cool. But I will have to say that as a gamer, I don't care for these dice. Or more accurately, I don't have a use for these dice as far as using them to game. I see too many issues with them that preclude them from being used as anything other than a show piece. When it comes to dice, I have a few pieces of criteria before I decide to buy them.

1.) Legibility

While many people like to choose dice that look cool when they bring them out at the table. I prefer to choose dice that I can read clearly. Nothing annoys people more than when someone rolls a die and then picks it up to look at the result because they can't read it as it lays on the table.

These are some of the dice I own. As you can see, they all possess two things: good contrast between the numbers and the rest of the die, and a lack of extra 'artwork' that confuses the surface and obscures the number. In general, I look for solid colors for the die and a numbers that are inked with a color that contrasts with the die. A lot of my dice are red with white lettering, which shows up fairly well. Black lettering on a white die seems to be my second favorite type.

Now here are all of my dice.
The dice are separated with the ones I can read on the left and the ones I have trouble reading on the right. Overall, I have found that the ones I have the hardest time reading are the ones with gold lettering on an iridescent red die, which makes up my d30 and my set of d10s on the right. The quicker you can read the result of a die, the quicker you can get on with the game. If you have to pick up a die to read it, get a new one. Most people will think you're cheating if you do that.

2.) Size

Most RPG dice are of a standard size, comparable to the size of a standard six-sider. Occasionally, you get dice that are either a bit bigger or smaller. But some dice are fall outside of a, for lack of a better word, comfortable size.

For example, I purchased two d10s a year ago because I wanted ones that rolled numbers from 1 to 10 instead of from 0 to 9 like most ten-siders. When they finally came in the mail, I realized that I didn't pay too much attention to the size listed in the seller's website. These things are almost as big as my d30! They also don't feel "right" when I roll them. They're not unbalanced or anything, but the size and weight just seems of to me. Too small of a die can be a problem as well. Those kinds of dice can be hard to read if they are too small, and can get lost easily if you're not careful.

3.) Utility

Sometimes, gamers buy dice just to say we own them. I'll admit to buying a d16, a d30, etc. A lot of them don't get used, though some groups like The Order of the d30 are trying to get some of them used more often. Overall, I have more d20s and d6s since they are the dice I have used the most for gaming. Others, like my d8 with compass directions on it, I break out for laughs. But more often than not, I buy dice to game with rather than show off.

4.) Ergonomics

This is a fancy word that means, "does it work". This can cover a lot of areas. In the spiky dice above, I look at them and the first thing I think is, "those could hurt someone". The standard pyramidal d4 already has the nickname "the caltrop" due to the fact that no one wants to step on one with bare feet, but the "Thorn Dice" actually have spikes on them. I have a hard time thinking they will be comfortable to hold, and I can just imagine them scratching up the game table with a bounce or a slide. Way to piss off the host of your gaming group. Even if the table is a piece of junk bought at the Goodwill, no one wants someone messing up their furniture if they can help it.

Ergonomics can also refer to the numbering used on the die. I bought a set of d12s labeled 1-4 thrice to use as a replacement for the "caltrop" d4. The only problem I have? The numbers are all in Roman numerals. For some reason I can't add numbers that are written in Roman numerals. Standard numbers and pips are fine. Maybe if the 4 was written as "IIII" instead of "IV" it would be easier. Maybe it's just me.

5.) Materials

I've seen dice made of everything from stainless steel to folded paper. My cheapest dice are two d10s from the old Marvel Super Heroes RPG. They're called "mud dice" because the plastic is soft and dents over time due to constant rolling. I prefer a die made of a sturdy, solid plastic. Lightweight, durable, and easy to roll and I'm good to go.

6.) Price

This is the final criteria. Most dice go for about $1 a piece sold loose. Most of those are usually solid-colored. Sets of dice can run a bit more depending on the colors and patterns of the plastic. A lot of starter sets run between $5 to $10. The set of dice from Shapeway shown above runs $28. And that is for the white plastic versions. Any other color adds five bucks to the price. Go to metals, and you are looking at $90 to $190. Granted the high end are silver dice, but who needs silver dice? My entire dice collection is probably worth $60-$70, and that was accumulated over years of gaming. If I spend $20 on a single item for gaming, it's going to be a book, not a die.

That's all I have to say about dice. I probably rambled on for too long, so please be assured that this is all just my opinion and not a how-to on choosing dice. Tomorrow, we get to the games.


  1. I have one other criterion for picking out which dice I use: nostalgia. Back when I started gaming, in the late 90s, the dice that came in the oD&D boxed set and the official AD&D dice sold for 2e were very similar. They both included solid-opaque, Chessex-brand dice in the following colors:

    d20 in orange
    d12 in yellow
    d10 in white
    d10 in black (oD&D) or d% in white (2e dice)
    d8 in blue
    d6 in red
    d4 in green

    So, to this day, I tend to prefer solid-opaque Chessex dice (with Koplow NiceDice coming in at a close second) that have roughly the same color scheme.

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