Why Do We Even Roll Dice?There are some easy answers to this question and some hard ones, ones that are crappier and ones that are slightly better. I hope that my answer is of the "hard, slightly better" types. To rephrase the question: "Why is it that in rpgs, we generally use dice to determine the outcome of events?"
A couple observations before we get started:
- Yes, I fucking love dice. This is not a dice-hater post. Find me at a con and ask me to see my dice bag and see how much love is in there. Yep, I fucking love dice.
- Some people don't love dice. I remember seeing a specific request on the U Con website in the run up to U Con 2013 on the "rpg requests" page for "rpgs that don't use randomizers." While I don't feel the same way, I can clearly understand why they do: these folks would rather not leave their rpg fate to the winds of chance.
- Yes, you can use things other than dice to get a random outcome. Castle Falkenstein was awesome and I remember it well and I know about Savage Worlds initiative. Someone could also mention the Fate Deck. Sure. You have options.
Right, now we can get on with the fun part. Let's look at how we use dice.
- We roll dice to tell us if a thing happens. Like an attack roll or a saving throw. This can be binary or graded.
- We roll dice to determine the magnitude of a thing. How much damage done. How far does it go.
- We roll dice to tell us what things are like. How high your Strength score is. What your age is.
- We roll dice to give us ideas that we turn into other stuff. What wandering monster is encountered. Who's in the NPC party. What the random dungeon feature is.
In short, we roll dice to answer questions.
Clearly, it's not the only way we could answer questions, but it's one that we use. Frequently.
And we can answer several questions at the same time: "I hit and it's a critical!" Or in WhatevsWorld: "I did the thing, but it's a partial success so I get this particular badstuff, too." Yes, dice rolls are about probability, but they're about meaning, too. We could go about determining that meaning any number of ways.
That poster on the U Con site who asked for games without randomizers. He/she/they/pronoun could have been thinking "I want a game where the answers to questions are determined by the players and the GM!" That's cool. I can see that. An rpg where it's pretty much just "let's play pretend" or where player choice (agency?) is baked right into a success/failure mechanism or something. Maybe there are tokens that each person has that you can spend to get to narrate a particular detail. I don't know. I never even read Amber. But I can see it working. Because I am a question-answering machine, just like you.
Just like my dice.
There's a degree of comfort in the use of dice. We have old and new books full of tables that tell us to roll the dice and here's what you'll get. A sort of divination not unlike looking up that dream you had last night about the legless crocodile that stole all the cotton candy in your "10,000 Dreams Interpreted" book. Or throwing coins on the I Ching or however that thing works. I can roll some dice, look up the result and be confident that the result has meaning in and of itself. But why does just the result have meaning? Can't the roll itself have some sort of meaning? (And I'm not talking about in some ritualistic, fetishistic context, but for reals, yo.)
I think Dice Drop Tables are alluring for this reason and also completely fucking scary. Suddenly, not just the result of the dice but also where they fucking landed is also important. I can make a table that relies on random numbers no problem; my brain is wired to answer questions like that. But when I see a super-sexy dice drop table by +Claytonian JP or +Dyson Logos or nearly all of goddamn Vornheim by +Zak Smith I get intrigued and then captivated and then lost and then I panic just a bit because my brain is not wired to work that way. This is not how my brain tends to use dice to answer questions.
And why? Why should the placement of the roll of a die matter less than whatever facet landed facing up? Is there something sacrosanct about a goddamn number that makes it more important in my brain than the physical space in which it landed? It's just not a way that I'm used to extracting meaning from a dice roll. In the broadest sense of things, the spatial relationship of dice to each cannot matter any less than the number on them. Why do I let it?
Our attempts to use dice to answer questions is an attempt to extract meaning from their results. Dice are food for our imaginations. Impartial arbiters of "whether or not." Tellers of fortunes, dictators of woe. We give meaning to all of these things by putting them into our games and making up new bits. And yes, you can do this in other ways, but I'm having a hard time imagining ways that give a more robust array of results, even results that my brain has trouble making sense of. And if there are levels of meaning that can be extracted from a medium that aren't even readily apparent, doesn't that naturally increase its inherent utility? Dice are that medium. We roll them to find out, because they give us more robust answers than other methods of answering our questions and the only limit is our ability to extract information from them.