Friday, July 6, 2012

The Age of Dice

Dice are like any other technology.  When people start talking about the sensual quality of its use, then you know the technology is already dead.

The current arguments about paper books, for instance, in which people talk about their smell, or the tactile feel of a book in their hands.  I happen to think books have a purely technological superiority - I can upload the page I want in a book in about two to five seconds, thank you muchly ... about the time it takes the e-book to stop showing the company's marketing logo.  Still, that's not the argument you hear - it's all about a book's feel.

So it goes with dice.  Carl, in a comment yesterday wrote,

"You can't shake a number generator in your hand and blow on it. You can't throw it soft so it barely rolls or hard so it bounds around for an eternity. There is no moment of suspense as the rotation slows and the final tumbles produce a result."

There it is.  The pathetic bleat of the last ditch argument.  It feels better.

I don't want to bad mouth dice too much.  People worship them.  But if we're going to propose that dice are so special that an instant video of a result isn't as interesting, we're going to be quickly up shit creek.

Has anyone invented a video game that includes a reader pad for dice?   This is totally possible.  You plug the pad into your USB port, you throw the die on it, the pad reads the grooves in the downside of the die and declares you've thrown the obverse side.  There you go!  A video game that takes into account the moment of suspense that can only be gained by ROLLING A DIE.


Tradition is a beautiful thing.  Here's the thing about tradition.  Most of the time, it is only tradition because at the time of its creation, that's all there was.  This is a good reason because it is the ONLY reason.  Usually, when it ceases to be the only reason, the tendency is for human beings to concoct additional, backward-in-time justifications towards the argument that IF there were other options, we would still have taken the one we did, because its better.

Fact is, we don't know that.  Some people just wish that.  But I promise you, if TSR could have made money in 1979 by producing a really keen electronic device that randomly rolled any number you wanted, that was small and self-portable and made a really cool Star Wars beeping sound when you punched a big red button, we would be arguing about the value of that.

Dice are going to be around a long time.  No one has to worry they won't be able to use dice in their games.  But it isn't because they're "better" ... that is just bullshit.  It is because dice are older.


scottsz said...

Some things to note.

1. Up until a certain point, integrated circuits didn't have the ability to generate true random numbers - they only simulated this ability.

2. The few integrated circuits that do generate true random values accomplish this by interaction with their own physical components. I know there was one manufactured that took readings of the radio decay of a particular metal found in its own structure (I believe)... the technology most capable of generating randomness has to interact with physicality to do so.

3. While your previous point about simulation and limit cycles was certainly a valid one - the common user experience can't tell the difference in the limited scope of traditional tabletop gaming, dice rolls represent a physical and distinctly imperfect randomness that is inherently more intimate than the simulated randomness of machines. Because of these imperfections (one player rolls the dice low to the table, while another shakes it and drops it), the die's movements (and thus results) take on a residue of the participants. Granted, it's a terribly fine differential, but it is there. As the tabletop RPG experience becomes smoother over time (a game's campaign versus, say, a one shot), these residual differentials in result cascade or compound. I imagine this is more noticeable on the player's side of the screen, and opens a comfortable (and youthful) personal channel to the 'magical thinking' that has become so reviled in recent years.

4. There is a view that holds that the game has deeply psychological and symbolic components in its most pure form. For the moment, let me assume that view to be true (it can - and should - be decomposed into ugly components, but that's off topic). As dice rolling is a physical action with a tangible totem (of a sort) then the action is both influenced by - and influences - a player's mental states. Neurobiologist's have shown that observing a behavior triggers parts of the brain in the observer to ignite a partial experience in the observer. I believe this may be one of the roots of the cohesion that can occur in a group of players. As all players watch the die roll, their involvement has a physical (albeit faint neurochemical) basis. I believe (although I haven't researched) that this explains (but doesn't justify) the mythical emphasis on combat expressed by many. No 'combat game' would have such a wide abstraction and imprecise mechanical combat structure as D&D does, however, consider which slivers of time in a game session incorporate (or require) the greatest number of die rolls.

5. I could be wrong, but I believe an imperfect, physical randomness will always exceed a logically perfect, simulated randomness. I believe that the difference becomes more noticeable over time with a consistent group of participants.

Sorry for the long comment.

Butch said...

What you say is true, but...

I still like my dice. :)

Alexis said...

No, no, no, no scottz ... that was wholly relevant and needed to be said. Completely sincere about that.

Still, you piled it awful high and deep in a remarkably short span of time.

Alexis said...

In any event, I added a poll just for you, scottz.

scottsz said...

high and deep? I did my best to edit the comment without risking being confusing.

Carl said...

I have never fetishized my own dice but it seems incredibly common among everyone I have ever played D&D with. Many dice are even imbued with personalities and used in certain circumstances and not others based purely on the mythology built up around them over long periods of play time.

Alexis said...

I'm sorry, scottz. I was trying to convey my sincerity, but everything on the net comes off as sarcasm.

I meant that you wrote a good thesis proposal for a PhD.

DaveL said...

Dice an paper don't need batteries or an internet connection. Digital media storage devices, both optical and magnetic have about a ten year or so life span, there are books that are hundreds of years old in existence, and dice that are older. Having said that, I use both. Electronic rollers and random table generators are easy to use and multiple instances fit on my laptop screen. Just because a given technology has been supplanted by some other technology, doesn't mean the old one stops working.

Alexis said...

Yes, you're right, Dave. Men should keep that in mind while using their straight-razors.

Anonymous said...

"But I promise you, if TSR could have made money in 1979 by producing a really keen electronic device that randomly rolled any number you wanted, that was small and self-portable and made a really cool Star Wars beeping sound when you punched a big red button, we would be arguing about the value of that." (Alexis)

Dragonbone (not TSR though).
I suppose an 'offical' TSR dragonbone would have done better...

"1. Up until a certain point, integrated circuits didn't have the ability to generate true random numbers - they only simulated this ability." (scottsz)

Hah! My brother & I wrote various BASIC programs on our C64 to roll up characters for D&D and Rolemaster, and if you rolled enough sets (probably less than 100), you'd get the same exact stats in the same order... that's 10 Rolemaster stats, rolled as percentiles. We realized thn that *RND was not actually random... Very interesting comments!

waywardwayfarer said...

I do find polyhedral dice aesthetically pleasing, but a hand-held electronic dice simulator would be awesome. No more wild throws skittering off the edge of the table. I could definitely get used to that.

Butch said...

Actually, some of my most memorable moments in tabletop revolve around dice -- searching through your bag for your lucky dice, the tactile feel of the dice clattering against each other in your hand, the anticipation before a die is rolled, that maddening moment when the die has finished rolling but you can't see the result yet...

I guess I'm an analog man in a digital world.

Jim Berrier said...

Dice are definitely going be around a long time. Craps makes way too much money. For us geeks, I think Pen&Paper could be obsolete before dice. I love the feel of dice in my hand, but when I am old and arthritic, those holo-dice will feel great. I can't wait to sit around a game table with holographic maps and images and tell the young whipper snappers about the good ol' days when we roleplayed up hill both ways.

Lord Gwydion said...

The dice app on my smart phone has a "shake to roll" function. So I can still get that tactile sensation when using it.

That said, if I have my real dice, I'll use them. My smart phone's battery runs down too quickly. If it were a long session, I'd be constantly turning the screen on, unlocking, rolling, then turning the screen off to save power. THAT's the big reason (for the moment) that I prefer my actual dice.

Well, that and the fact that I've had some of these dice for a long time, and to me they do sorta seem to have "personalities" (yes, I realize that's just me projecting my impressions onto the dice).

Oddbit said...

So, I think dice are still around for the same reason casino slots don't display the loss the instant you press a button. If there's anyone I think would know how to abuse player psychology I'd give it to the casinos.

I'd further venture to say that once we do get our own little doodad that provides a moment of tension and fancy pleasing sounds, it probably won't go over. This is because we've lived in the age of calculators, where pressing the '=' button results in instant feedback.

Of coarse, the second they get the instant feedback it will cease having the casino psychology draw and the players wont feel as committed as they did to the dice. The guaranteed 'fair' medium.

Fair, because you know how it works, you know the innards, the outside, the activation to completion of the whole procedure. You've rolled or thrown things since you gained motor function in your arms.

Not to say digital isn't fair, but what's your guarantee? And if the it's the GM's device, what if he is fudging it?

Dice survive I believe because they have the tension and players are willing to accommodate the 'settling time' the dice take because of tradition, and because players feel they are 'fair' or at least that they have control over the bias.

JDJarvis said...

Dice are fun and certainly no more obselete than playing cards.

Black Vulmea said...

I've had no problem switching to online or app dice rollers. It's the numbers I'm after, not the 'sensation' of rolling them.