Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Retrospective: Dragon Dice

The first polyhedral gaming dice I ever owned were a set of multi-colored, low impact ones I bought in a Kay-Bee Toys. I bought them because my printing of the Holmes Basic Set came with chits and a voucher for dice from TSR, apparently because such dice were still in short supply at the time. Though my friends and I tried using the chits -- we separated them into little bathroom Dixie cups -- we quickly found them unwieldy and, frankly, not very fun. Rolling dice is an enjoyable experience, whereas picking little pieces of laminated cardboard out of a cup is not.

So, I sought out a set of dice and found them wherever I could. As it turns out, the dice I bought were identical to the ones some people got in their Holmes sets. I later acquired a duplicate set in my copy of Gamma World. When I got those dice, I thought they were the coolest things in the world, not knowing any better. I used them for a couple of years, since I hadn't yet succumbed to dice fetishism and saw no need to buy more, even though the D20 was rapidly losing its edges and becoming spherical through continued use.

After that initial set of dice, the next set I acquired came in the Moldvay-edited Basic Set. They were blue, like the ones pictured above (those in my Expert Set were yellow), and they also exerted a strange fascination for me. For one, they came with a little black crayon to color in the numbers. This struck me as peculiar, since my original dice came pre-inked. Also of interest was that the D20 was actually numbered 1-20 as opposed to 0-9 twice, a fact that TSR proudly proclaims in its advertisement. I honestly don't know if the ad is correct in its claim, but, if so, it wasn't until 1981 that the hobby saw a "true" D20. I can't speak to the truth of it one way or the other, only that I personally never saw one numbered 1-20 until 1981.

Over time, I acquired several more sets of "Dragon Dice," as TSR called them. For some reason, I really liked them, even though they weren't of the greatest quality. Over time, they too started to show signs of wear, losing their edges through regular use. But they were smaller than my original dice and were of uniform colors, two qualities my younger self found very appealing. Indeed, Dragon Dice were my gateway to the wider world of matched dice sets. When I started playing, I never saw anyone with matched dice sets, only hodgepodge collections of them. Once I acquired my Dragon Dice, though, I found it harder and harder to use "mismatched" dice and slowly started acquiring a sizable collection of dice sets.

Eventually, I stopped using my Dragon Dice, moving on to dice produced by Gamescience or The Armory, both of which were much, much better made and available in a wider variety of colors and materials. But I still have a certain fondness for these TSR dice, as they introduced me to one of the weirder aspects of our hobby (at least to outsiders): its fascination with dice.

42 comments:

  1. I still have a big handful of these old dice, some of them in really rather good shape. I drug them out for the local Gygax Memorial D&D game last year.

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  2. It took me a little while longer to move to “modern” dice, because I was cheap. Sometime in late 1982 or early 1983, TSR, or the store they worked through at the time, advertised the old, multicolored sets with the white 0-9x2 d20s in some godawful amount at very low prices. So a friend of mine and I went in together to get them. We had an endless supply of bad dice for years.

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  3. I still have my blue set like those from my Moldvay Basic Set. It came with a white crayon. I guessed that the crayon might be for “inking”, but it was years before I found confirmation of that. They’re still in pretty good shape since I almost immediately got some Gamescience dice and didn’t use the blues much. Oddly, I have a second twenty-sider among them now that I don’t know where it came from.

    I can also still pick out the two small, nondescript six-siders that came with my Starter Traveller set.

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  4. My first game was Dragon Warriors purchased in the local book shop. Dice, aside from the standard six sided, were impossible to find locally. I made my own set from cardboard following instruction for creating polyhedral shapes in a children's activity book. Needless to say they didn't roll very well or have much durability but they were significantly better than nothing. My first real set were included in the MERP box. Simpler times.

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    1. Remember that spinner in the back of Dragon Warriors book 1?

      A photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/61332423@N02/6078242824/

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  5. And for the bonus! What were the colors of the original Holmes dice?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I was going to ask that (not as a trivia question -- just wondered).

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  6. My first set of polyhedral dice were the blue dice that came with the Moldvay Basic Set. Then I bought some translucent and metallic Gamescience dice. Once I discovered Koplow polyhedrals, though, I never looked back.

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  7. I've still got the original dice that came with my Moldvay Basic set & oddly enough those were multicolored. The d20, d4 & d12 are all yellow, the d10 is brown (?!) & the d8 & d6 are both green.

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    1. The dice I got with the Moldvay set were also assorted colors - kind of pastel earthtones. I've never seen dice quite those colors again; I wish I still had them.

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  8. TSR also published a "collectible dice game" called Dragon Dice in 1995. Never played it myself (or even saw it much, except in ads).

    http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1860/dragon-dice

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    1. Yeah, I remember seeing these in my FLGS and at the one GenCon I attended in 1997. I think a lot of RPG companies saw the success of early CCGs (Magic, etc.), and thought...why not collectible dice.

      I never bought Dragon Dice, but I do recall scooping up and playing Iron Crown Enterprise's Dicemaster. A fun little game a friend and I bought at GenCon and played with our spouses several times.

      http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/4799/dicemaster-cities-of-doom

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    2. I played this game a fair bit before being hired by TSR in March 1996, and still enjoyed it after, even though it was part of what killed the company. Funny story: I was talking once to Tim Brown, who worked closely with Lester Smith (who designed the game). When they went to name the game, they really wanted to call it Dragon Dice. It was such a great name! But the trademark was taken. They tried a bunch of other names, but nothing really stuck like Dragon Dice. Finally, they decided to check who owned the trademark, to see if they could just buy it from the owner. Turned out, TSR owned the trademark. Duh. =)

      Jeff Quick

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  9. You're right about our fascination with dice, James. Every so often I hear of games like Amber that bill themselves as "diceless", as though that were a selling point. To me, diceless RPGs sound as fun as frictionless sex.

    @Rob Conley: yellow d4, orange-red d6, green d8, blue d12, and a white d20. Although my original set is long-gone, my current collection contains modern dice that match that color scheme.

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  10. Original Holmes Set

    D20-White
    D12-Blue
    D8-Green
    D6-Red
    D4-Yellow

    If you needed a ten sider, you just used the D20. I actually have a few sets of those dice. I got my first set with the Holmes set and if I had gotten chits instead of dice, I might not have ever really gotten into the game. I had never seen or heard of dice like those, and even though the quality was so bad, those original dice were like talismans into some mystical secret society.

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  11. My first set of these beauties was *gifted* from my school buddy; the one who introduced me to the D&D, via the awesome Moldvay Basic set, and then later the Expert set, and then naturally 1st ed AD&D. That particular set was of the tan/brown color. He felt free to pass them along to me, when he acquired his full "crystal" set (clear plastic, of course, but man, were those sweet back then).

    I *know* I never got rid of them (garage sales, etc), but I do not know where they are. I have so much of my old school TSR stuff, but that is the one thing I am missing; that original die set.

    I eventually got my own full sets from several Basic and Expert sets (both Moldvay/Cook/Marsh and Mentzer eras). As far as *these* dice sets, like the ones you have posted above, I have full sets of light blue (2 sets), dark greenish-brown, yellow, and... oh my.. hmmn... maybe one more. Oh, also have some of the d10 sets from Star Frontiers, and Gangbusters, IIRC.

    I also have the Holmes dice set(s), from both D&D and Gamma World.

    I, like many others, gathered several crap-tons of mixed and matched dice, and full sets too, from TSR, Gamescience, Koplow, and several others, since those early days. My Gamescience sets get the most use from me these days, but I *too* have a certain special place in my gaming heart for those original Dragon Dice.

    After all of that babble, I should add: Great post, James!

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  12. I remember receiving a package of "dice" once, but they were labeled as "Random Number Generators". Man, talk about obfuscating. . .

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  13. Oh, and ever notice how in some (maybe *all*) of the bagged sets of these dice (the ones that came with the Basic/Expert sets, at least), the d20 was a slightly different coloring? I have a couple still-sealed bags of them, and a few opened and played-with sets, too - and I recall the d20s being darker(?) by just a little bit. I wonder why that was. Maybe they were produced at a different time? The d20s, I mean. Anyone else have these and notice that?

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  14. i still have my holmes yellow d4, green d8, and white d20. The other two have long since disappeared. The d20 is practically round, though.

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  15. My first were from the Moldvay Basic set but I lived in Biloxi, MS so I quickly acquired a collection of GameScience dice. Later on I ended up working for Lou Zocchi's ex-wife so I heard over and over again about how they used really specific geometry and other aspects of mathematics to come up with the perfect polyhedral shapes. I think that at some point she had almost convinced herself that they pretty much invented polyhedral dice.

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    1. Um...yeah...Lou talks really good, like a used car salesman. Personally I think Gamescience dice are a rip off. They come with sprues, the numbers aren't inked and they charge you MORE.

      And they look cheap.

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  16. my first gaming dices: a couple of little red d6 of the megatraveller boxset. I bought my D&D basic set (italian translation of the Holmes set) which included a set of polyhedric dices of various colors. In the old days when I GMing gurps my favorite was a transparent cube with 3 tiny d6 inside. Crazy stuff.

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  17. Oh Dragon Dice. Back in the day my Game Store never carried them, but B. Dalton's Book store upstairs did. I still have all my original sets even if my d20 is almost a perfect ball (like yours).

    I now have more dice than I'll even need, but those first couple of sets were (and still are) something special.

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    1. Seems like everyone's d20 from those sets turned into a sphere over time.

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  18. I bought my first d20 from the local game store. I believe it was just called "the shop" and Magic: The Gathering was its bread and butter. Consequently, I think they only sold d20's. Mine was red and blue with silver numbers. I'd give a tooth to have it back.
    At some point, my gaming group decided that Chessex dice were the only ones worth having, and I owned a mismatched set.
    I now own two sets: A black Chessex set with white numbers (my "Morgul" dice), and a white Gamescience set with black numbers. I really prefer the Chessex set. They have weight.

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  19. I had a set of these that I think came with my Moldvay Basic set, but they were red -- did anyone else have red ones from that set?

    Gamescience are still my favourite.

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  20. I too played with the Holmes Basic set with the cardboard chits

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  21. My first polyhedral dice came from a mathematical supply store, because they were the only place you could get weird dice at the time. They were the same multicoloured polyhedral dice (each die had a different colour to help children identify which was which) that were later included in the various boxed sets from various manufacturers, as well as independently by the Australian distributor (which wasn't surprising, since I discovered a need for strange dice from some early tabletop wargaming rules).

    They were designed for teaching children probability, not for repeated rolling, so I soon had the safest d4 in existence (as well as a several d20 that could challenge a Zocchi d100 to a distance rolling competition). The manufacturer must have wondered why there was an startling increase in the demand. Later sets of dice, whilst still low impact thermoplastic, were monocoloured sets.

    And then the first high-impact polyhedral dice were created. Including some of the most lethal d4 in existence without the snipped points...

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  22. Dice? Dice?? I'm still using the chits. Why didn't somebody tell me?

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  23. One of the strange things that's filtered through my mind over the years--one of many, I assure you-- was if the color of the dice in the sets were the same in every box. I see now they apparently weren't.

    In my Moldvay Basic Set: all dice were yellow.
    In my Expert Set: the d20 was blue; the rest of the dice were green.

    The crayons? LOL.

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  24. My original set came with the Black Box of basic D&D. Color coded to help tell the difference. I still think the orange with black lettering d20's that came with that set were the best d20's I've ever had.

    Nowadays I tend to get Chessex when I buy dice (once every five years or so- in a pound set). I refuse to buy Armory (are they still in business?), because the first set that I bought the d6 cracked in half after 6 months, and every d20 our group bought from Armory had a tendency to roll either 8 or 18 more often then other numbers.

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  25. I'll be damned what version of Basic D&D I had...it didn't survive one of many 1980's college and early adulthood moves. Bought it in 1980. It came with the mud dice. A light blue color with a green crayon.

    I long ago lost every die from the set except the d6, which still sits in the old plastic peanut container I use from odds and ends that used to belong to sets where one or more got lost.

    Ironically, the D8 from the set didn't wear down to an oval...it cracked and one of the tips broke off. I distinctly remember the d20 as numbered 1-20. I used them for a year or two until I could afford some from The Armory, and Chessex.

    I use Chessex stuff exclusively now...can't really justify the extra expense of Gamescience. For d6 games, such as Traveller, I had an endless supply of d6's from the various Avalon Hill and SPI wargames I'd been collecting for years before I ever bought an RPG.

    It's a testimony to just how rare polyhedral dice sets were in the late 1970's to early 1980's that some of us actually liked the mud dice. They really were/are garbage compared to even the worst of stuff I can find now.

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  26. I think I got the Basic Rulebook and the Expert boxed set (came with the module Isle of Dread). A set of dice was in the box, yellow I think. It had the little crayon as well. I bought an extra set, red. I still have a couple left. My first dice that sat for decades, but still bring back memories.

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  27. Woah, I doing a search for dice crayons (I needed to explain the function of the crayon to an incredulous youth), and your graphic appeared immediately. Very rare that it's a post from the same day! :o
    I only remember seeing white dice crayons. Most interesting. My first polys from the D&D basic set were a light blue. All other dice in the shops seemed very posh in comparison!

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  28. My Moldvay B and X sets had the baby blues pictured. My Mentzer X had red dice. Boy, I loved rolling that blue d6 three times for each ability score (in order) after I got my Basic set. And white crayons, of course.

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  29. Dragon dice were terrible then and still are. However, they are the hallmark of our hobby. I have red, orange and blue dice from TSR. I lost the crayons a long time ago. I use a couple of sets of terrific Cheesex dice now. I also have bunches of third party dice which are mostly cheesy but for one set of black dies with red lettering. Those are super-sweet, but hard for my old eyes to see now.

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  30. In the Moldvay Basic set I got in '82, the dice were all of different colors. I actually managed to find my well worn originals a couple of years ago. There was a green d4, green d6, orange d8, orange d10, yellow d12 and orange d20.

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  31. Does 'low impact' mean they were soft?

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  32. I bought a copy of Moldvay Expert last year on eBay. I laughed when I opened it - it still had a blue set of the original dice sealed in their little bag, along with a crayon - yellow IIRC - to "ink" them.

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