Friday, 5 March 2010

Dice Fetishism

I love dice and am an unashamed dice fetishist.

Fetish is itself an interesting word in the English language as it generally describes two quite different concepts. The most commonly used sense is that of sexual fetishism, often loosely and inaccurately defined as an attraction to a item or practise (shoe fetishism, leather fetishism etc.) but more accurately as a condition where the item or practise is more important to the viewer/participant than is the individual to whom they relate. The other, older use is of more primitive spirituality and religion whereby a physical totem provides a tactile link to a metaphysical or religious concept - for example a idol or crucifix, the holding or veneration of which allows the worshipper to feel a greater communion with a difficult to grasp non-physical concept.

From a humourous viewpoint people like myself with a collection of several thousand dice and an inability to walk past the Chessex stall at Games Expo without the wallet flying open are often described as fetishists of the first (inaccurate and loose) kind, but in reality we are the second kind.

Dice are ancient. Much like the suits of a deck of playing cards they betray their antiquity by being designed for the pre-literate and the pre-numerate. Six-siders have spots, they do not have numbers so they are neither tied to numeracy nor an specific alphabet. (Six-siders with numbers are aberrations and were not made as dice in the first place - they were mathematical instruction aids showing the number of faces of a platonic solid. No real dice fetishist could ever love a d6 with numbers).

When we pick up that six-sided cube and see which of it's six ancient designs comes to the fore we are not simply generating a random number. We have a tactile link to the games played by men and women all the way back to the dawn of civilization. By picking up the d6 and casting to the fates it becomes that fetish. We touch the thread of history tying us to every gamer who ever threw a die or knucklebones. We curse the bloody thing for throwing low and praise it for throwing high and put this down to it's little plastic capricious ways but older man had deities of luck and randomness and their puissance and whim flowed through the little cubes of ox-bones and ivory and their attendant superstitions.

And they feel good in the hand. Yes, your mobile phone can produce a pseudo-random number (even though it does it by unromantically seeding a slice through the registers with it's current timestamp) but that is so purely functional that it has no soul. Hold two solid six-siders that clack together nicely in the palm, loosely close the fingers and shake. Never just throw a dice off-handedly or with no effort. They disapprove and will punish you for it. Like brewing tea or drinking chocolate or rolling a cigarette, enjoy the comforting satisfaction of ritual.

Every six-sider is a item of religious and historical veneration. When you roll one or buy one or curse one or bless one or purge it "pour encourager les autres" you are part of that skein of gaming history and outrageous fortune. And it's a beautiful and uncluttered, functional design classic.

Irregular, worn polydice with badly cast or painted numbers are irritating. They are poor quality tools that can't be trusted to do a decent job. But irregular, mis-cast cheap six-siders have personality. They aren't perfectly random, they are vicious little bastards or affectionate helpful friends that might roll high or might roll low or might flip-flop between biases with little warning. In many ways, a wonky six-sider is a more perfect die than a high quality one. They are more true to the nature of luck and randomness than something that really is random.

But then there are ten-siders.

d10s are soul-less little creations, the brainchild of the accountant sort, the personality that thinks that in a decimal world, the 10-sider is somehow more logical, more correct and proper. It isn't of course, and in a perfect world, the d12 would take it's place. Advocates of a so-called dozenal numeric system point out that 12 can be divided equally into 2,3,4 and 6 whereas diving 10 into 4 gives us fractions and 3 and 6 just leave us with the mathematical frig of recurring decimal places. The d12 deserves to be held in higher esteem that it currently does.

d10 systems are competent but somehow lack that magic. They are cursed by being tied to that strong streak of sensibleness. If they were people they would be dull and sensible Daily Telegraph readers living in a semi in North London, the sort of people who decided that they needed to own a people carrier and have an ISA and shift their mortgage around to get a preferential rate so that they can carry on their dull, disapproving lives with a slightly larger bank account. Every d10 system is at heart a d6 system that has suffered from the sensible and dreaded onset of middle age, a feeling that six sides aren't granular enough and ten somehow suits the decimal nature of our numeric system without really ever expressing why this is such an advantage. It's lost touch with it's younger d6 self that grew it's hair and didn't give a shit.

There are dog people and there are cat people and there are d10 people and there are d6 people even if the d10 people don't realise this.


  1. "d10s are soul-less little creations, the brainchild of the accountant sort..."

    Hey, us accountants have souls, well-ordered souls, thank you very much. :p

  2. I like the D10, entirely because you can string together as many as you like for those rare cases when you really need to represent the difference in scale between the common character, and the common GOD.

  3. Nice! As a d12 person am I honourably folded into the d6 crowd??