Thursday, April 24, 2008

On the Oracular Power of Dice

While reviewing the first issue of Fight On!, I was reminded of something I knew but had never articulated before. An important part of what characterizes true old school gaming is the acceptance of the oracular power of dice. This acceptance ties into several distinct elements of old school gaming, so I want to discuss each of them in turn.

Firstly, randomness is an important part of any game that can reasonably be said to be "old school." Most old school game mechanics, from character creation to combat to the creation of settings, include random elements, often quite significant ones. To some extent, I suspect this has to do with the simple love of dice. There's something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal. There's also a bit of risk involved -- or at least what passes for risk in a tabletop RPG. Unless thy dice be ill-wrought, you have an equal chance of rolling high on a D20 as you do of rolling low. Every toss is thus a kind of mini-adventure, whose outcome is beyond anyone's control.

That's the second feature of old school gaming and the real heart of this particular matter: the embrace of events beyond your control as an integral part of the gaming experience. This includes players and referees alike, it should be noted. One of the things that is often forgotten is that, back before he became a "storyteller," the referee was as much a player as anyone other. What this meant in practical terms is that, while the referee created and established the starting conditions for an adventure, he couldn't guarantee any particular outcome to it. Indeed, he doesn't generally know what the final outcome is going to be. I mean that non-trivially, since any game that uses random rolls in, say, combat has gameplay elements whose outcomes are unpredictable.

In true old school games, though, dice rolls can determine how almost anything can happen and frequently do. That's why you see things like NPC reaction tables, morale rules, and other such elements. In old school gaming, many things are literally outside the control of the referee; the dice determine whether a possible NPC employer likes the PCs enough to offer them work or whether those hobgoblins stand and fight or run away like scared little girls. Even if he wanted to do so, the refree cannot dictate how many elements of an adventure will play out, as the dice often have purposes of their own. Old school referees simply roll with these punches and adapt accordingly.

In old school games, the "story" arises from the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction; it isn't something you can set out to create. That's why lots of people, in reflecting on old school gaming, will talk about how "unsatisfying" their experiences were. Likewise, many trends in modern RPG design are driven by a desire to ensure that every given game session is not only "fun" -- whatever that means -- but also meaningful. The simple reality is that that's an impossible goal and in fact I would argue that it's an unworthy one. Much like life, old school gaming is often "just a bunch of stuff that happens" and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only "meaning" that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.

Consequently, old school gaming makes demands on those who play it and relies pretty heavily on an imaginative and quick-thinking referee. Lacking in even one of those and its gameplay can feel "flat." At the same time, when it possesses both, you have an entertainment like no other because the outcome is largely unexpected. You never know where an old school game is going to take you, even if you're the referee. The dice sometimes point the way clearly and sometimes hazily, but you have to learn to trust that, even if you can't yet see it, they do point somewhere fun and exciting. And here's the great thing: you can always roll some more. The plethora of tables and charts in old school games mean that there's always a way out. Not sure how to deal with the latest weird results of your dice roll? Roll them again and see if they give you a better "answer" this time.

Like the oracles of old, dice aren't prophets; they're invitations to look at the world in a different way. I personally find this style of play refreshing and liberating. It's why OD&D excites me in a way that 4e does not and indeed cannot. Fortunately, I'm not alone.


  1. I love this post. It encapsulates a lot of what I am now looking for in my transition into OD&D. Let's face it, the act of rolling dice is FUN. I strive to allow the players to roll them as often as possible, that's why I don't enjoy games in which the referee rolls ALL of the dice.

    Two aspects of old school gaming that I have come to embrace in my transition are Save or Die Poisons, and random Monster and Treasure Distribution within my dungeons.

    Save or Die is harsh, in a favorable, old school way. Let the dice fall where they may.

    Random dungeon stocking makes the creation and filling of dungeons a mini-game for me, and I enjoy it much more than I ever imagined I would.


  2. The "mini-game" aspect of random rolling is important, I think. I enjoy creating dungeons through the use of tables and I always liked generating planets and characters for Traveller. I enjoy being surprised by the results I get. Sometimes they make little sense and are unusable but sometimes they make little sense, so I have to think about the results and find a way to justify them, which results in even better dungeons than if I'd just planned it all out from the beginning.

  3. I liked the randomness, because it became a tool to force inventiveness, both for the players and the referee.

    The dice also reinforced the role of the DM as referee - it was the dice that was determining that those last 3 orcs would fight to the death, the dice that decided that the King was in a bad mood, the dice that decided your ultimate fate.

    It was that element that enabled Save or Die challenges, things like Grimtooth's Traps or most of the modules of the day.

    The dice are a powerful, powerful tool in the arsenal and I lament their loss in many newer games.

  4. There's a great line in Encounter Critical, "It is unrealistic to require characters to qualify for a character class; many people are very bad at what they do."

    That inspired me to roll dice for character class as well as stats. In a game like EC having a weakling Warrior or maladapted Pioneer just fits the spirit of things!

  5. I hate to psychologize everything, because it's usually a recipe for disaster, but I do think there's something ... unhealthy about the trend toward giving the player control over every detail of his character's creation and actions in-game. At the very least, I think it's unnecessarily limiting in terms of gaming possibilities.

    I remember well randomly rolled characters who, frankly, sucked and yet proved to be lots of fun to play. Heck, Xylarthen, the first sample character in D&D history, is relentlessly mediocre and in fact ill-suited to being a magic-user and yet there he is in Volume 1 of OD&D. The sample EPT character is almost as underwhelming. I think that says something about gaming and how it has evolved over the years. I'm not quite sure what, but I don't think it's a good thing whatever it is.

  6. Great post! I was floored by the phrase "the oracular power of dice" in a previous post. This connection between ancient divination and present-day fantasy games really appeals to me.

    (Is the ancient priest who used divination devices to "determine the will of the gods" and point the blame for an unpleasant answer away from himself all that different from the DM who prefers to give a random table the chance to inflict unpleasant results on the PCs rather than doing it by fiat? (^_^) And, yes, unpleasant results are as--if not more--important than the pleasant results to a fun game.)

    I'm tempted to argue, however, that for Gygax, such tables were tools to be called upon when the DM blanked or when whimsy struck. Not integral parts of the game, per se. When I asked him about using the reaction chart, I believe he said he rarely--if ever--did. Although, I don't think that invalidates your observations about the style of play that you're talking about here. So, let's leave that aside.

    Even when I've made PCs for 3e, sometimes I rolled randomly for almost everything. Race, class, etc. Others in the group were inspired to try it too. Always came out interesting.

    "I remember well randomly rolled characters who, frankly, sucked and yet proved to be lots of fun to play."

    A lot of gamers seem to have no concept of relativity. It doesn't really matter what the numbers are. Whether you roll ability scores with 3d6, 2d6+6, or 1d6+12 doesn't significantly change the play of the game. It just shifts all the numbers up.

    Unless you're using rules that over-reward high scores, but even then, if everyone has an 18 then an 18 is no longer special. You may just have to descend to a deeper dungeon level a little sooner to keep your interest up. At worse, you've just made things more cartoonish but not necessarily more satisfying.

    Not to mention that the player matters much more than the scores. Haven't we all seen the character with low ability scores and a level or three behind outshine the rest of the party because the player made smart, interesting, or insightful choices.

  7. Re: Gygax and dice

    I think you're almost certainly right that Gary viewed them as aids to play rather than as integral to them, but then he had the benefit of being a far better referee than I ever could be. I'm regularly struck with moments of indecision and uncertainty and so, somewhere along the line, I've just internalized the notion that most things should be determined randomly, unless I have good reason to do otherwise. I expect I'm not alone in this regard and most old school referees I know are much the same.

  8. On top of all the high-brow reasons why dice are important to the game, I also look at the more visceral aspect of it - rolling dice is fun. Tossing that big d20 or a pile of 6's or 10's gives you that Vegas/gambling thrill, that fame and fortune or poverty and ruin all lie on THIS toss of the bones. Or THAT one, or ANOTHER...

    It's one thing that I don't care for in even well-done systems, when the die-rolling is limited to perhaps a single d10 or d6 or whatever. I've watched newbie players time and time again, and everyone gets a thrill out of rolling the dice. In fact, players, from what I have seen, would rather roll the dice and even have a hefty chance of failure rather than have the ability to just do something automatically and not toss dice. Everyone leans over and stares at the results wide-eyed and we've got Christmas all over again.

    As to their use as a GMing tool, Stephen Marsh, writer of the Random Thought Table over at SJG's Pyramid magazine, once wrote an article about RPG mechanics where he stated one of the things he likes in certain RPGs is the ability to use the "Roll the Dice and See How Pretty They Look" method of conflict resolution. Meaning, you should be able to roll the main "success or failure" dice and just be able to look and say "yeah, that's a win" or "woah, you're screwed" 95% of the time without having to roll, ponder, consult charts, roll more dice etc.. I know this idea isn't for everyone, but I tend to agree - sometimes I just like to say "roll me some dice" and see what turns up in order to resolve a conflict.

    In the end, Dice Just Kick Butt.

  9. Re: fun

    You're right: rolling dice is fun and I'm pretty sure that the adoption of polyhedrals for OD&D was done because they were simply exotic and fun to roll compared to boring old D6s.

  10. Yeah, in the end, probabilities are probabilities. OD&D could just have easily said "roll X six-sided dice and get under the THACo" a la GURPS, or some other mechanic (it's not like there aren't countless RPG systems that just use D6s in all sorts of different ways).

    I don't know that much about the history of the polyhedral dice - did TSR have them specially made by a plastics company back in the day?

  11. As I recall, TSR initially used an educational supplier somewhere in the Midwest for the original polyhedrals, which -- and this may simply be legend -- were never intended to be used a dice but were instead simply small models of regular geometric solids, thereby explaining their poor quality as randomizers. Eventually, though, demand outstripped the ability of the educational supplier to provide them and so TSR eventually had to make their own dice for sale.

  12. BTW, Dave Wesely has claimed to be the first to use polyhedral dice.

    At least, in modern times. There was that ancient Roman d20 up for auction.

  13. Lots of things are claimed as inventions of Dave Wesley, so I tend to be skeptical. Of course, I know of a story told by one of Dave Arneson's players (Greg Svenson perhaps?), who claims that Dave found polyhedral dice in England and brought some back to show the Blackmoor crew. They thought they were cool and decided to use them.

    I honestly have no clue what the truth of the matter is. My guess is that, like roleplaying generally, there were lots of ideas swirling around in wargaming circles and lots of people swapped and shared ideas without attribution. Plus, there was lots of independent invention going on. My feeling is that many of the things Dave Wesley claims as his own inventions were things he genuinely invented but that had minimal impact outside his immediate circle (Braunsteins being one of the few exceptions).

  14. James, I was probably not the source of your story.

    Dave Arneson did tell me that he found a set of polyhedral dice on his trip to England, but that was before I met him and I never saw that set of dice. We used six sided dice in the early Blackmoor days. We were even using d6's when we started play testing the new D&D rules in mid 1973.

    My understanding is that Dave Wesley is the person who found the polyhedral dice in an educational supply catalog and showed them to Gary Gygax, who liked them and adopted them for D&D. So, it is quite possible that Dave Wesley was the first modern gamer to use them, but I don't know that for sure. I did not personally see polyhedral dice until I saw a boxed set of D&D rules in 1974.

  15. Thank you very much for this post. I've never seen it before, but it encapsulates the way I try to run my games. I feel disappointed when a session isn't as "fun" as I'd have liked it to be, but I guess there's always the next session. Some of the random moments are the most memorable and so when those bits of magic happen, it makes the whole endeavor worthwhile.

  16. Forgive me for commenting on a three-year-old post, but I wanted to extend your observation about the nature of the random element in play. One of the most important mid-century theorists of play, Roger Caillois, proposed a four-fold model for classifying games, (although rather than "games" as a whole, what he really was classifying were cultural logics of play... I'll explain in a bit.) The four categories were agon, or competition; alea, or chance; mimicry (imitation) and ilinx, or vertigo. Wikipedia discusses him and his system (and each term) ably enough: I won't expand more here. But the role of alea is a fascinating one. It contrasts with agon, which is about one's own abilities, skilles; the demonstration of mastery over rivals and challenges, etc. Alea is not only about that which you cannot control, it stands for (and can be seen as a sign of) the extent to which one is favored by the heavens, what one's fate is, how the gods look upon you. In a secular world, it is less popular unless it involves money (which is the divine favor that interests our society now the most, perhaps.)