Monday, July 9, 2012

The Limitations of Dice

Well done, well done!  The cause of dice has been bravely defended!  Long live the die!

I am not surprised that so many people missed the point.  A fetish is a very powerful influence upon a person's belief system - enough to terrify people, enough to send them to war ... and certainly enough to make them stamp their feet and raise their voices.  And make no mistake about it - dice are a fetish.

Many people seem to think that I am advocating the use of electronic randomizers to replace dice.  Some of the comments spoke about using a phone to generate a die roll instead of rolling die - and since the electronic die replaces the substantial die, it possesses the same limitations of the substantial die.

What are those limitations?  Hm.

Gentle reader, the game is not the dice.  The dice are the tool by which we create a random element in the game, which is necessary for creating uncertainty and drama - the "unexpected" which forces every action taken by the players to be one of RISK.  Without risk, there is no game.

The game requires that the players possess SOME control over what they wish to risk, and to what degree they wish to risk.  In the main, it is similar to a player at a craps table deciding upon what odds they wish to bet.  The will to play long odds vs. the will to play short odds is also a fundamental part of the game.  The good player learns when to play long and when to play short - and balances their play against the odds they choose to play at.

So long as these elements remain part of the game, everything else can be changed.  If the change improves the game, the change OUGHT to be made.

The question isn't, "Is die rolling a lot of fun?"  The question, dear readers, must be, "Are dice the last word in how to play the game?"

The answer to that question is No.

People speak about "roll-playing games" - which result due to the limitation of dice.  IF I wish to increase the number of variables which can be rolled for - and therefore nuance the unexpected and in turn the element of risk, I must roll MORE dice to compensate for the new possible variations.  As I increase the game towards greater and greater nuance, I must roll more and more dice.  As I roll more and more dice, the game becomes increasingly complicated, as each new set of dice rolls requires more human computation to determine their outcome.  Human computation in the game is dull!  There is a limit to how much human computation players are prepared to do.  As long as we must rely upon human computation to determine the level of nuance in a game, the game can only be nuanced to a certain degree.

Once more for the sleepers in the back - if you only want to know if your sword hits, and how much damage it does, that only takes one die roll.  But if you want to know where your sword hits, that's a die.  If you want to know if you drop your sword, that's a die.  If you want to know where your dropped sword lands, that's a die.  If you want to know what your blow to the enemy's head dies, that's a die.  Everything you want to add is a DIE.  And every die that's added is another moment with other players at the table are watching a die roll bounce and flip its way to its conclusion.  It's another five seconds in the game, while Billy picks the yellow dice he rolls for "drops & breaks," and for Billy to wind up, and for Billy to throw too hard and bounce it off the table, and for the players to debate on the modifiers and for the DM to look the results up on another chart.

It's another five seconds YOU don't play, gentle reader, while Billy does.  It's five seconds multiplied by the number of other players, further multiplied by the number of rounds, further multiplied by the number of other nuanced rolls, all resulting in more confusion and debate and disagreement.  It's more shit for the new players to learn and it's a further obstacle in the reward mechanism of success.  More rolling just fucking sucks.

So we don't do it.  We limit ourselves TO THE DICE.  We limit the game TO THE DICE.

That's okay ... because we love the dice, don't we?  Yes, we love them.  Fuck the goddamn game - we have all the risk assessment we can handle anyway.  We don't need more.

About the dumbest thing I've heard over the last four days is this idea that dice create a physical/emotional effect by the time it takes for them to fall.  This isn't dumb because it isn't true.  This is dumb because people seem to think ONLY dice can have this effect.

By this time, three decades into the widespread availability of computers, people ought to know that human response can be programmed.  It's not like this is new!  You want to incorporate a time element?  No problem.  You think your animal brain can tell the difference?  It can't.  You respond chemically the same way to watching a fake die on the screen as you do to a real die ... the only difference is, when you hold the real die in your hand, you develop a mythical, imaginary attraction to it which you confuse with reality.  When you decide that you'd rather retain that imaginary attraction over and above the possibilities and principles of the game, then you make the die your game.  And in that case your game, my dear reader, is NOT D&D.  It's something you might consider doing alone and then washing your hands afterwards.

Oh, I realize there are a lot of really stupid people who would rather fetishize their dice and play the game the way its always been played.  If this kind of reaction wasn't rife in the human population, we'd have tossed religion out on the doorstep centuries ago.  People will hold onto their bullshit no matter what you say - which is fine for them.  Doesn't change the fact that it IS bullshit.  No matter how many sentimentality flags are stuck in its steaming pile.


  1. First, if no one understood your point, then I'd say the problem might be on your end, and not everyone else's.

    Second, since you've conjured up a 'problem,' Ron Edwards-like in its relationship to actual play, tell us how you plan to 'solve' it.

  2. If we're going to forever blame comprehension on the author, then we might just as well throw out ALL the literature that has ever been written. If I must write down to the stupidity of an audience, I'd be writing porn.

    Secondly - solve the problem? Are there no diagnosticians in the world?

    In fact I meant to post something after this on that issue - but the first part of any treatise is to make the reader understand that there IS a problem. The fetishism of dice is so strong (as demonstrated by the emotional flatulence of last week) that I doubt very much most readers can pull themselves out of their own ass.

    I stated very clearly that adhering to traditionalism is what people love to do. And then we watched people defend traditionalism on the basis that it is "traditional" ... using psychology to argue that things that are "traditional" are really, really liked.

    scottz's comment, for instance, which I defined as piled higher and deeper, can be used to describe ANY part of the game, not just the dice. In other words, dice are immaterial to his argument. No one seemed to comprehend that - despite the fact that for anyone who can read literature, it is disturbingly obvious.

  3. 1) Unless you're only using machined casino d6es, I suspect a good RNG is providing more honest results that even my precious Gamescience dice, let alone the cheap rock-tumbled rounded-edge variety.

    2) I'd like to expand on scottz's point 3 a little- rolling the dice yourself does lend a false sense of agency. When you roll a 1 on a save-or-die saving throw, you have the (again, actually false) sense that you made that happen. Now, if there's a mechanism to reseed the random number generator, and you let the players say "Hey! Important roll! Please reseed!" that pretty well alleviates this concern...

  4. I for one actually still think the state machine of rounds could make for the tension of combat with no rolling of dice at all.

    Each player enters their turns independent of each other before initiative is accounted for. Then combat ensues as the state machine then displays each set of actions accounting for initiative. (or real time even, why not?) Tension builds, will the spell get off in time? Will my swing manage to stun the enemy?

    The only downside would have to be the program's ability to account for enemies moving out of 'close and melee' range, and the ability to add and alter rules without having a reasonable practical knowledge of programming and scripting.

  5. For a long time now, dice have served the referee. Whenever a character dies, I hold up my hands and say, "sorry, that's just how the die landed." It's not my fault. I picked out or established the tables, with some knowledge of the likelihood of character death given the party's abilities, but because this was mediated through plastic, it's not my fault. We're still friends. Blame the dice, or buy yourself a new set! And given the subject matter of most RPGs, it's unsurprising that this appeal to superstition works on most players.

    More seriously: risk, drama and the unexpected arise not from the random element, but from the players making decisions with imperfect information. As much as they don't know what number the die will turn up, they also don't (or shouldn't!) know what's on my dungeon key.

    Furthermore, the main resolution mechanic is not the die roll, but the discussion. The player proposes, the referee implicitly or explicitly lays out the consequences, and if there's a dispute, a die is rolled. While there are limits to the game due to the mechanics of dice and paper available at the time of its design, these limits keep the flow of the game in the hands of the most flexible devices at the table. (i.e. The clumsiness of the concrete combat resolution system "Billy" uses is a good reason to stick to an abstract system, where the narrative ins and outs of the scrap are up to the play group.)

    It doesn't follow deductively, but there is an intuition that, once the game starts going over to computers and the non-human resolution can be as complex as one likes, the whole game will follow. Dice are not essential to D&D, but they serve and protect the essential and distinctive element of the game.


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