Thursday, January 6, 2011

Musings Occasioned by Funny Dice

In yesterday's post, I spoke positively of the fact that Goodman Games's upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classic Roleplaying Game uses all the Zocchi dice, including those weird ones like D5, D7, and D24. Allow me to explain why.

Unless Joseph Goodman or someone else associated with the DCC RPG has explained the rationale behind the inclusion of these dice, I'd be willing to bet that the primary reason for including them in the game is because he likes them -- which is the exact same reason that funny dice were used with OD&D. It is, after all, quite possible to play a RPG without the use of anything but the standard six-sider, as Traveller and other games have shown us. Heck, it's possible to play LBB-only OD&D (more or less) with only D6 and percentile dice (numbered 0-9 twice, of course). I tried doing just that in the early days of my Dwimmermount campaign, before switching back to the full range of Platonic solids (and that interloper, the D10).

Now, you can argue that there are good reasons to use a wide variety of dice types from a statistical or simulation standpoint and there's merit to that approach. But, for me, being able to whip out the D8 whenever someone uses a sword or the D4 when determining kobold hit points has nothing to do with math and everything to do with the fact that I like them. Polyhedral dice are fun little artifacts. I enjoy looking at them, holding them, and, most of all, rolling them. My use of them in D&D isn't because of the wider range of probabilities they offer or how they better simulate this or that in the game. Rather, it has to do with the experience of using them.

When I say "experience," I'm not talking about anything as highfalutin as "emulation." My point is not that using a D12 for a doppelganger's attack is somehow more "realistic" or better conveys the death-dealing capability of an imaginary shapeshifter. No, all I'm saying is that I like the physicality of the dice. I like their presence on my table and the way that they convey, to me and my friends, that we're playing a game but not a boardgame. Even my eight year-old son, who doesn't do tabletop roleplaying and who doesn't have 30+ years of inculcated association between polyhedral dice and RPGs, thinks of them as "Daddy's special game dice." And he's right: roleplaying games are special games and so they can have special dice if their creators want them to have them.

That brings me to my other point. The mere fact that Joseph Goodman likes the D7 is more than enough reason to include it in his game. If I had to point to a single thing that most displeases me about a lot of contemporary game design is that it places too high a premium on rationality. I may have imagined it, but I recall reading an article or an interview somewhere in which one of the designers of D&D III (maybe Monte Cook or Jonathan Tweet?) noted that, in designing the game, nothing was off-limits and they considered changing any aspect of D&D they felt didn't make sense. That strikes me as a terrible design principle when revising a game whose lasting appeal is, to a great extent, founded on the fact that it doesn't make sense.

From the first, Dungeons & Dragons was a great big, gloriously incoherent mess -- which is why it took the world by storm. A lot of the game's incoherence comes from the fact that its creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, just threw together a lot stuff they happened to like. They didn't sit down and try to make sense of it all. They didn't worry about rationalizing the way magic worked or the social ramifications of dungeons or why they should use weird polyhedrals when six-sided dice were much more readily available. No, they just went ahead and made a game they liked, based on stuff they liked, and let the chips fall where they may. The result was the only RPG ever to become a mass market fad, so they must have done something right.

I'm not opposed to game design based on solid first principles by any means. I do think, however, that post-old school game designers (and gamers) tend to overemphasize it to their detriment. I contend that D&D's incoherent messiness is a big part of its lasting success and that messiness exists because it was created but not "designed." Again, let me state clearly that I think there's value in designing a game with forethought. Let me also state clearly that I think that this latter method of producing games is no more likely to produce a fun, enjoyable game than the haphazard, rambling "Hey, I like this" method that produced Dungeons & Dragons.

And that's why I see it as a good sign that Joseph Goodman is using all the Zocchi dice. Their inclusion is not necessarily a stroke of genius, but neither is it a sign that the DCC RPG is a bad game. If it's a sign of anything, it's that Goodman recognizes that fun is often irrational and operates according to "just because" principles. That gladdens me.

50 comments:

  1. Funny dice, indeed!

    When I first started playing (Holmes!), it was rolling the crazy dice around on the tables in the library at school that attracted the new players. Folks would see me rolling dice and wonder what was up, a few minutes later, bam, new players.

    Of late I have been wondering at the history of those dice. How the heck did Gygax and Arneson even know polyhedral dice existed? As far as I know, TSR was one of the first companies to make the things. Where did Gary and Dave find a d20?

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  2. Where did Gary and Dave find a d20?

    There are conflicting stories on this point, with several people, including Dave Wesely, claiming to have been "patient zero" for the introduction of polyhedral dice into gaming. All I know for certain is that, in the early days, TSR had to get their dice from an educational supply store, which suggests that the origin of these dice lies with someone who had a connection to or knowledge of their use in some schools for the teaching of geometry.

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  3. I love weird dice and fully support any excuse to use them, rational or not. Check out my collection here:

    http://www.dicecollector.com/JM/

    I agree that a big part of D&D's appeal is that it taps into a collaborative, ad-hoc tinkering and "bricollage" sense of play than a rational, engineered, "designed" sensibility. Scraps of different fantasy worlds and different players'/gm's sensibilities get collaged together and that's what makes the flavor of the resultant stew unique.

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  4. And I am in! I just love dices, my collection is not impressive as the one of jay but I just love dices :)

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  5. The playtest docs for Joseph Goodman DCC RPG is filled with his enthusiasm for the genre and the rules are there because he likes them for playing Swords & Sorcery games.

    The overall impression isn't that is a heartbreaker but rather a design that crafted with joy and enthusiasm. Whether this will translate into a successful RPG line remains to be seen but it won't be a lack of trying.

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  6. Actually I think the popularity of D&D was more to do with the novelty of it. Nothing else like a structured roleplaying game with fantasy motifs really existed before it. It definitely caught the zeitgeist of the times though.

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  7. > Of late I have been wondering at the history of those dice. How the heck did Gygax and Arneson even know polyhedral dice existed? As far as I know, TSR was one of the first companies to make the things. Where did Gary and Dave find a d20?

    Aside from the UK company that had been making percentile d20s for their role-playing games since 1970, y'mean? :)

    =

    (heh... time to speculatively invest in d19s and d27s for publicity purposes? :p)

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  8. You said it.

    The main reason I won't play games like World of Warcraft or D&D Online?

    I can't use my dice. :)

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  9. If I had to point to a single thing that most displeases me about a lot of contemporary game design is that it places too high a premium on rationality.
    A-fucking-men. Preach it, Brother!

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  10. Color me non-plussed. Game designer predilections are only cute up to the point they cost money to humor. I'll Hold judgment until the final design shows whether or not the extra-knobbly dice are justified, but I wonder if Goodman will serve as a distributor for the weird dice. They aren't particularly easy to get at game stores now.

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  11. I have a feeling that the percentile dice, like hex-maps, came to wargaming via the Rand Corporation; I just can't remember where I read about it.

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  12. According to a Dave Wesely interview, he bought sets of educational polyhedral dice (solely for the d12) for use in Braunstein. The "left over" dice were later incorporated into proto D&D games by Arneson.

    http://theoryfromthecloset.com/2010/08/30/show060-interview-with-david-wesely/

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  13. NOTE - it is at 1:20 mark in the interview.

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  14. Not that I disagree with you overall, but you make a post hoc ergo propter hoc error here.

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  15. I'm in the camp with iamtim on this. There's something about the dice that makes table top gaming more special than wow or any mmorpg on a computer. The experience is not the same for a variety of reasons and the use of those" funny dice" are a big one.

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  16. I love the "funny-shaped dice." For me, they're part of the charm of the hobby. I think that's one reason I admired, but never really warmed to, games such as GURPS or Hero -- all d6s all the time is missing a certain something.

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  17. If the d5 and d7 weren't atrocious monstrosities, I'd be fine with a game that included them.

    Since they are atrocious monstrosities, though, I'll pass, and stick with the d16, d24, and d30, thanks.

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  18. The reason why you play with different dice is because you want to play with the probability distributions. 2d6 has a very different distribution than d4+d8, even though they both roll 2-12. The distributions determine expected value and variance, which are pretty key elements in evaluating the balance of a game mechanic.

    The best example of this is skill rolls in Hero System. The near normal distribution of 3d6 greatly exaggerates differences in ability in opposed skill rolls -- much more than the uniform probability of a d20.

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  19. Purely on the subject of the dice, I'll say that D&D really rocks for me when it manages to merge *both* the mechanics and the flavor (simulation and spectacle, if you will). With the original D&D dice-based randomizer, it manages to satisfy: a) spectacle of special dice, b) elegant scaling of heavier weapons, c) educational opportunity on probability & platonic solid geometry/symmetry, d) tactile sense of die smacking the table ~ medieval melee combat (as opposed to chits or cards or something)

    As ever, I personally i find it hard to forgive the sup-I switch from d6 hit dice to d8 (just because it's so easy to find a giant fistful of d6's when necessary, and so hard for d8's).

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  20. Perhaps Gary and Dave got the idea for a d20 from time travel?

    http://www.christies.com/Lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=4205385

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  22. @Walker

    Do you honestly think that the person who wrote this post doesn't know that? It's on like page one of the DMG. This post is about something else.

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  23. Again, I'm on the edge here. Dice are cool. It delights me that if I could round off the triangle sides on the rhombicuboctahedron, I could get an 18-sider. But the value drops off real quickly; the six dice of D&D seems like a nice number. That's more than enough to make outsiders notice the different dice. If you could get other dice easily, then eight dice could work. But six dice already means I'm scrabbling around some times to find a d8 when I need it. Another five dice adds complexity without much gain. And if I can't buy them to match my steel set, or my opalescent ruby set, there goes a lot of the fun.

    I agree that you make a post hoc ergo propter hoc error. The Model T is not the optimal car, despite being the most popular one until the VW Bug. And it's likely the VW Bug made its niche because of features its competitors couldn't copy and would have failed had they tried.

    One die type can be fun, if there's enough of them. Tossing 27 d6s at points can be great fun.

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  24. I'll admit to being a lover of dice for many of the same reasons as James. But not as far as the game itself. Eh? I'll explain...

    I do love the cool, colorful, weirdly shaped little buggers from an aesthic angle. I collect them, or did, and have numerous sets that I periodically pull out and look at.

    When I play a game though, I like having one type of die. Since I'm not as interested in the mechanics of games as the story and role playing parts I don't want to think about what die is for what weapon and which one is skills and which one I need 'to-hit'. I prefer the answer to all those questions be the same. You need a D6. You need several D6. You always, only, need a D6. I'm fine with that.

    I actually like the look of the D10 the most, though I do have round (sphere) D6's my sister got me for Xmas years ago and those are fun.

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  25. I agree that you make a post hoc ergo propter hoc error. The Model T is not the optimal car, despite being the most popular one until the VW Bug. And it's likely the VW Bug made its niche because of features its competitors couldn't copy and would have failed had they tried.

    Without for a minute denying that I'm guilty of this logical fallacy -- it's my favorite one! -- consider your second sentence. I think D&D's initial and long-term successes are founded on features that its competitors couldn't copy, because most of its competitors have never really understood the game's strengths and indeed have taken them to be weaknesses in need of "fixing." One of D&D's greatest strengths in my opinion is the fact that it's a big, patchwork mess constructed from bits and bobs that Gygax and Arneson (and others) just happened to like and that just happened to scratch an itch people had back then and continue to have.

    So, I agree saying that, because D&D proved popular and was a big incoherent mess, being a big incoherent mess is the secret to a RPG's success is a fallacy. However, what I was trying -- and, apparently, failing -- to convey was not that so much as the idea creating a RPG based largely on one's preferences as opposed to some a priori sense of "rational design" is no impediment to success, as D&D shows.

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  26. I love how he uses a d5, a d7, etc. I've been doing that for years:

    d5 = d10/2
    d7 = 2d4-1
    d16 = 3d6-2

    How bloody hard is that? I used to have a table of numbers and dice that could be rolled to generate a number between 1 and x.

    I also think that D&D wasn't popular because was incoherent -- I think it was popular because it was brand new. No one had ever come up with that concept before.

    Probably a popular second would be the Vampire LARPs -- people who wouldn't roll a die or make marks on paper to save their lives, who love dressing in black and acting all goth. That stuff sells like hotcakes. Except for them, it's not a fad -- it's a lifestyle choice.

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  27. @steelcaress - it would be better to roll d8 for d7 and reroll on the 8, and roll d20 for d16 and reroll on a 17-20. Uniform distribution is maintained.

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  28. People have been trying to explain D&D's success relative to other RPGs pretty much since the second RPG was released, and I doubt it's going to be solved here. Let me just state that I find the notion that it's because it's an incoherent mess to be among the least convincing that I've ever heard.

    Zocchi dice are an affectation. It's great that Goodman likes them. If I have to go buy Zocchi dice to play this game when I've already got dozens of sets of "standard" dice--many more than I need, certainly--then that's a major, and in fact probably fatal marketing blunder. At least in terms of getting me to express any interest in it. But I suspect that I'm far from unique in that regard.

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  29. Further on this...

    Bayes theorem: P(A given B) = P(B given A) * P(A) / P(B)

    P("roll a 1" given "rolled in range 1-7") = P("rolled in range 1-7" given "roll a 1") * P("roll a 1") / P("rolled in range 1-7")
    = 1 * (1/8) / (7/8)
    = 1/7

    ... which is the same probability as rolling a 1 on a d7.

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  30. TSR had to get their dice from an educational supply store

    Polyhedral dice were used as a teaching aid in maths. I don't know exactly what for since I never actually encountered them whilst doing maths. However a maths teacher in high school, on seeing me with them, did accuse me of breaking into the supply closet and stealing the dice. He was very confused when he discovered "his" dice were still there. After all, why would anyone possibly want strange dice that no one actually ever used? [This was in 1979 I believe.]

    I do have to admit that I love the fact that companies are coming out with more regular prism dice (this is the form of the d10), so you can finally get a simple d14 to throw. [One of the most irritating dice to simulate.] These strange dice (including the d16 and d18) are useful, especially in games where you are throwing multiple dice to resolve stuff (making simulating these dice rather impractical).

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  31. ... and finally on this...

    If rolling a dX where X > 20, you've got two choices.

    1. Roll d10 for "tens" and d10 for "ones" and if you're out of range, re-roll.

    2. Save yourself some re-rolls by using the polyhedral die closest to, but greater than or equal to, your "tens" digit. "Ones" must always be d10. e.g. d51, use a d6 as "tens", d10 as "ones".

    Important: if your "tens" is in range but your "ones" is not e.g. rolled 42 trying for a value on a d41, you need to re-roll BOTH dice. Otherwise, the probability of getting a 41 isn't 1/41, it's 1/4, because the probability you rolled the 4 on the d4 was 1/4 but you are destined to eventually roll the 1 on the d10.

    (I hope that's true... I haven't proven it!)

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  32. @Reverance Pavane "Polyhedral dice were used as a teaching aid in maths."

    My grade school had a huge tin of d10s in one of the classrooms. OK, I may have "borrowed" one, and I still feel terrible about it. They were shaped like a d8 with the two pointy ends truncated s.t. two new square faces were created, given the die 10 sides. Given a nice long roll across the tabletop, it would land on a square face (which had the 9 or 10), guaranteed. I still have the die, and it has no place on my gaming table!

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  33. To be clear, my position is that the physical "true" d5 and d7 by Zocchi are abominations because of their unequal sides. Proper dice have identical sides and either one or two vertex angles in a regular pattern.

    Thus the proper forms for dice are the Platonic solids (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20), Catalan solids (like the d24 and d30), the dipyramids (like the d8 and d16), and the antidipyramids (like the d6 and d10). And as a consequence, all dice have even numbers of sides.

    You can only make an odd die by taking a proper die with a number of sides equal to an even multiple of the odd number, and marking it multiple times. But that's not how Zocchi did his d5 or d7; he has crafted abominations that are not identical in their sides.

    Thus shall Zocchi be consigned to the Abyss for his service to Chaos, where the Type III demons shall feast on his entrails.

    (And replace his eyes with those "d100" golfball things.)

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  34. > They were shaped like a d8 with the two pointy ends truncated s.t. two new square faces were created, given the die 10 sides. Given a nice long roll across the tabletop, it would land on a square face (which had the 9 or 10), guaranteed. I still have the die, and it has no place on my gaming table!

    I don't know whether anyone else came up with such an absurdity earlier but unfortunately that's Zocchi's original d10 design from May 1971. Just as well people stuck to using decimal d20s for gaming rather than following his recommendation... :p

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  35. Stupid dice is the reason I won't be picking this game up. I use D6 and D20 and nothing between! Grrr.

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  36. Personally, I prefer the Platonic solids... I'm not even that big a fan of the d10!

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  37. "The result was the only RPG ever to become a mass market fad, so they must have done something right."

    The only RPG in the US ever to become a mass market fad. In Scandinavia, D&D never caught on (until D&D3e and strangely enough D&D4e), but a BRP-derived rules set took the world by storm. Mirroring the success of D&D, and totally pushing D&D out of the picture. This BRP-variant was so huge a fad that almost every boy my age have played it, at least once (I'm 42). And then the fad went away late 80's.

    In Germany, Das Schwarze Auge became the mass market fad. I'm unsure of how D&D fared, but I think that it didn't reach the masses they way DSA did.

    So D&D did something very right, for sure. But it was rivalled and bested by other products in other markets, products with different rules and different sensibilities. So it is in my opinion problematic to point at the rules and the organisation of early D&D and claim that it was those very properties of the game that made D&D the only mass market success ever.

    I think it was more that D&D managed to capture a zeitgeist, to ignite the imagination of ten of thousands of young men (and some women), to be a portal into fantasy and a fantastic world, more than the rules themselves that did the trick. That's why D&D was bested in other markets, because they managed to caputure a similar wave that crested ten years later, and used different rules for doing that.

    /M

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  38. Magnus, good argument. Forget not thy network effects. :)

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  39. @Paul and yes Platonic Dice rules, than there are lesser dice...

    taking the clue from Steve post

    and making a scale from purest to abominations

    Platonic Solids (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20)

    Catalan Solids (e.g. d24, d30)

    dypyramids (e.g. d16)

    antidypyramids (e.g. d10)

    abominations (all the others....)

    here are "fair" dice: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Isohedron.html

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  40. I'm sure I read somewhere that Gygax or Arneson -- I think it was Gygax -- had discovered the polyhedral dice while on a trip to England, and brought a set back to use in the proto-D&D game, which had been using d6's up to that point.

    I'm no scholar of the early hobby though, so I can't say where I read that.

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  41. @kelvingreen - Arneson stated that he picked up decimal(?) d20s in the mid-60s (possibly from Tradition if that was on, rather than just off, Piccadilly?) and laid those aside prior to later use in Blackmoor. If his recollection is correct, those would presumably have been the early Japanese d20s rather than the later home-grown (Bristol) ones since the latter weren't available until October 1970.

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  42. To be clear, my position is that the physical "true" d5 and d7 by Zocchi are abominations because of their unequal sides. Proper dice have identical sides and either one or two vertex angles in a regular pattern.

    Now, this is a position I can get behind, because it's based on a clear and intelligible definition of "dice." Even though I don't worry about such things myself, I fully understand that someone else might.

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  43. Fabio has a great link there. Only isohedrons have gravity working equally on all faces (transitive symmetry). That excludes d5, d7, and any odd number of faces.

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  44. waaaaaah! This game uses different dice than the normal different dice that I use!
    If you don't dig it, change the game to suit your needs or don't play it.

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  45. The D5 is ok, but I love my D7s. Mainly because I pulled out 3 of them at the last OwlCon in front of Steve Jackson and told him they were for Spinal Tap GURPS.

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  46. I think you need both: you need to pander to your audience to get popular, but you need to have a passion to have any ideas to present in the first place.

    If OD&D hadn't pandered, we'd probably either have no non-humans, or a choice of different coloured martians. While they're interesting ideas for retro-clones, the game probably wouldn't have gotten as popular.

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  47. @stevenehrbar:

    what about dice that are prism-shaped (where the top and bottom of the prism aren't results, and the other faces are elongated so you can roll along that axis)? You can make dice of any range using this pattern.

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  48. My first encounter with "funny" dice was on a fine summer day, at the age of 8, when I caught a glimpse of the older (cool?) kids on the neighbors porch table rolling colored rocks. Yep, I thought they were rocks. -sigh-

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  49. The d7 dice is sold apart from the GameScience 12 set dice (and that's disappointing!).

    I don't know... maybe I can ignore this designer's whim and roll the common dice like steelcaress suggests.

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