Monday, December 10, 2012

For the Love of Funky Dice

With the advent of G+ Communities this last week, I found myself a moderator of the DCC RPG community, and I'm more than glad to be involved. I love DCC and the opportunity to be involved with a group as more than just a member and I find it amazing that folks are interested in giving me any authority ever, even if it is just "mod power" (holy crap, breakthrough! "Mod power" conjured up images of British men in suits on scooters fighting people with psychedelic powers.). Anyway, during the course of the last few days, there have been a lot of DCC fans coming out of the woodwork and lots of discussions emerging about tons of different topics. While some posters have been trolling (for my sensibilities, the guy who says "I want to learn more, but I'm sure that the fighter vs. mage power disparity is still too big for my liking" isn't actually contributing to the conversation, but trolling it; learn more, then make a value judgment), there's been one really, really interesting thread going on about the so-called "Zocchi dice" (although I prefer the term "funky dice").

The original poster (OP) of the thread suggested that the game would be much better if the funky dice were left out in subsequent editions. To be completely fair to the OP, I don't believe he is alone in this attitude. To be completely fair to the discussion, the funky dice were something that initially had turned me off to DCC. The concept that I would have to go out and buy a whole new set of dice rather than use any of the dice that I've had for years just to play one particular game really irritated me, so I can understand the OP's frustration here. I learned to look past the d5's and d14's to the system itself, and that's what I fell in love with. Furthermore, Joseph Goodman gave a pretty solid accounting of how to approximate the funky dice using traditional polyhedrals, so I stopped worrying and decided to dive in. Once I did dive in, I decided that the funky dice filled a valuable role in the game and invested in my own set. These days, I don't game without the funky dice, just incase I need to know what day of the week it is (d14) or what hour of the day it is (d24) or any number of other crazy things. The discussion over on G+ made me realize that there are three major reasons that I love the funky dice so much.

Dice Chain = Simple Math

Not the dice chain
In games with what I'll call "limited sets of polyhedrals," you see a lot of bonuses and penalties. You see a lot of "you do that, but at minus two" or "your advantages give you a plus five on that roll." Now, I'm not one to shy away from math (see below), but it seems to me that the inclusion of the funky dice and the dice chain makes a lot of this stuff much easier in DCC. Instead of a +2 bonus, why not allow the character to roll a d24 instead of a d20? If you want to apply a penalty, why not a d16 or d14 (for those seriously bad ideas)? Hell, a very clear advantage could cause the roll of a d30 rather than stringing together a series of bonuses.

Here's the chief difference between stepping up in dice size and stepping down: on a d30, a result of "30" is just as likely as a "1;" on a d14 roll, the result of "1" is possible, whereas the "30" isn't. Lowering die type will occlude certain results, but increasing die type will only include new results. The result is that a lowering drastically reduces the probability of success (by occluding successful numbers) and increasing the die type increses the probability of success substantially (by including new successful numbers that have the same probability as the failing ones). This is a long-winded and probably not terribly insightful way of discussing the fact that stepping up or down in the die chain means less math (since there are fewer modifiers) but has a similar effect on probability (for the most part).

More Fun Probability Distributions

I use a lot of mixed-dice expressions. Folks who read my "What Happens When I Eat the Space Tentacle?" article from a few days ago may have noticed that I use 2d6, 1d4+1d8 and 1d5+1d7 to achieve the same range of numbers. The distributions of these ranges, however are drastically different from one another, however. The 2d6 distribution is a pyramid-style distribution, with "7" (the median result) being the most common result (and thus the mode), successive integers to either side of the "7" have equal descending probabilities, such that the first and last results ("2" and "12") have relatively low, equal probabilities. When you look at the distributions of the 1d4+1d8 roll, the median result (still "7" and it's going to be for all 3 distributions) is just as likely as a "6" or an "8." Similarly, the first and last results are slightly more probable here. Finally, the distribution of 1d5+1d7 gives a probability distribution that flattens in the middle so that the median is just as likely as two results to either side (thus, "5," "6," "8," & "9" are just as probable as "7"). With this distribution, the first and last results in the range are even more likely than in 1d4+1d8. Why do any of this? I wanted different proability distributions that reflected a strong central tendency (2d6), a weaker but still present central tendency (1d4+1d8) and a fairly weak central tendency (1d5+1d7). (For my non-math-y friends, "central tendency" means "the tendency of any random number with a range of numbers to be close to the median," or, more succinctly in this context, "the likelihood of any dice result to be close to 7," so that the further out from 7 a result in the range is, the less likely it is.)

The long and the short of this is to say that with the funky dice, I can tailor the probability of different dice expressions to match or model the distribution that I want to see. I know that to most of you out there, this sounds nuts. But ask yourself, "Why did Gary write the random encounter charts to be 1d8+1d12?" The answer is that 1d8+1d12 gave him the probability distribution that he wanted; common encounters would be equally likely and substantially more likely than the rare or very rare encounters. If you wanted, say, more common encounters (or encounters with the same probability; and if he had had access to the dice back then), he could have rolled 1d6+1d14. Or, for even more stuff at the same probability, 1d4+1d16. But, way back then, old Uncle Gary did not have these options available to him. We do. Why not use them to our advantage and with flair?

The Fresh & New Effect

I will never get tired of this box
I remember when I first opened by '83 Mentzer Red Box. Yep, that's where I started. Also, I think I got it at a garage sale and I probably only knew Dungeons & Dragons from the cartoon at the time. It's amazing to think that the box was as complete as it was because not only was there a white crayon in it which confused me, but also there were these six little bits of horrifically ugly green plastic in there. After some investigation, I figured out that they were dice, that D&D was a game and that the dice were used to play the game. I know, right? Canny learner over here. Regardless, there was a sweet moment of awe inspired by these little chunks of Col. Zocchi's (I'm pretty sure they were Game Science dice because they really hew closely to the GS profile) precision green uglies. I mean really, do you even remember when you first started playing with polyhedrals? Do you remember the awe? The majesty? How these things were unlike anything you'd ever seen before? How this game that used them was unlike anything you'd ever used dice to do before? I mean, holy crap, man, your pre-polyhedral world was simply over once you played with these. Over, man.

OSR writers and blogger talk about how nostalgia isn't the prime motivator for OSR gamers. I'd rather say it isn't the only motivator. There's also the sense of wonder that RPGs invoke in their players (yes, and DMs) when they're first getting started or hit that sweet spot in gaming where everything just seems to be going right. I would argue that their first polyhedrals probably shocked most gamers with wonder (if not, woe to your jaded and boring soul) and that this wonder is often connected to their early gaming days (so it looks a lot like nostalgia, but I'd say it's something different). For me, at least, rolling a d5 to see if it will actually work is just like rolling that first d4 and having to figure out how to read it. Rolling a d16 for initiative when using that two-handed weapon is just like rolling a d12 to see how smashy that axe chop was. And so on. There's something new, fresh and exciting about having new dice to play with, especially new dice of a sort that I've never used before.

So, there you go. I love the funky dice and I'm not going back to not using them. I find them a really neat addition to my gaming table and, so far, my players seem to enjoy them as well. To those of you who scoff at "having" to buy extra dice just for DCC, I say to just take the plunge. I've bought 2 sets of Col. Lou's awesome dice and haven't regretted a moment of it. Maybe a moment of disappointment when I opened the box and angels didn't shoot out of it to a heavenly choir but hey, what was I expecting? (Honestly, I was a little let down when I first opened them up but then I realized that I had unreasonably built up what was just the purchase of little pieces of plastic.) Divine favor and revelation of universal unspoken truths notwithstanding, I've got to say that the funky dice have been a great -- and welcome -- addition to my gaming table.