The Role Of Randomness In Fantasy Role Play Games
By Jennifer Diane Reitz


What are all those funny RPG dice?

These are POLYHEDRAL DICE. These dice are universally associated with Role Playing Games. There are six types in use, five of which are perfect Platonic solids, the five regular polyhedrons. Gaming has added an additional 'bastard', or non-platonic die, the ten-sided decahedron (D10). Such dice can easily be purchased at any games shop, and come in many colors, and are rather pretty to look at.

The Polyhedral Dice include the D4, or Tetrahedron, which has four sides, the D6, or Hexahedron, a six-sided cube shaped die well known to most people, the D8, or Octahedron, which has eight triangular sides, the D10, or Decahedron, the non-Platonic 'bastard' die that has, as you would expect, ten sides, the D12, or Dodecahedron, the 12-sided regular shape so beloved by the ancient Greeks, and the very symbol of role playing games, the D20, or Icosahedron, the 20-sided die.

Each of these dice are numbered upon their sides, and can be rolled individually to generate a number from one to their maximum value, or they can be rolled in combination for all sorts of ranges of values and probabilities. The D10 dice are often specially numbered and come in a pair, one D10 is numbered from 0 to 9, the other in units of ten, 00 to 90. Used together, the twin D10 dice can generate any number from 1 to 100. This clever trick is done by adding the dice, thus a combination of 00 and 1 would represent a value of only one, but a combination of 00 and 0 (all zeroes) would represent 100. An 80 partnered with a 2 would be 82. This makes it possible to roll true percentages.

The Gods Are Insurance Adjusters

There is a lot of money to be made in the insurance business, and indeed has been since the days of the ancient Phoenician sea traders. For one to be successful at the insurance game, one must be a good gambler, because ultimately, the insurance racket is a business based on gambling. Unlike the kind of gambling that occurs in casinos, insurance is based on betting upon the very nature of observed reality as a whole.

Our actions in life seem to have very little to do with the roll of dice. We make rational choices, and act according to our individual wills. Accidents can happen, certainly, but for the most part, when we drive or walk, bathe or eat, play at the beach, or choose our dinner, we mostly feel in control of our existence. On the personal scale, this is true enough.

However, on the macro scale, at the level of watching the activity of hundreds, or millions of lives, all of those many choices and results are most usefully expressed in terms of probability. You, as an individual, may have fun at the beach one bright day, but an insurance adjuster is literally betting the company on knowing precisely how many playful people on that beach are going to get skin cancer. Individually, your chances are based on innumerable factors, such as genetics, exposure, and the use of lotion...but collectively, thousands of people must be averaged simply to be tracked at all, and those thousands, or millions, will show a predictable and consistent probability of getting cancer on any given outing. On the individual level, life is choice, but on the vast, cosmic level, existence is percentages and probable outcomes. This truth works so very, very well, that vast unholy riches beyond the dreams of avarice may be gained from the application of it. In reality, life really is a crapshoot.

Playing Dice With The Universe

Fantasy Role Play Games simulate fantastic and exciting adventures. Players make individual choices in the games, in the name of the characters they play, and the results of those choices are determined not by childish whim, or by absolute possibility, but instead by adjusted probability.

The greatest juggler in the world will occasionally fail, the most capable dancer slip and fall, and sometimes, the most inept and clumsy footballer will make an unbelievable goal. These unpredictable events make up the very heart of our myths, stories, daydreams, hopes, and history. Excitement and fun are based upon surprise and novelty, and the human animal is wired to seek such in pastimes, such as games. Even totally rigid, mathematically predictable games, such as chess, are pleasurable only because our human minds are too weak and dim to calculate every last variable, and thus play seems spontaneous and filled with surprises. Chess players do the best they humanly can, but if they were possessed of godlike and absolute intelligence, there would be no sport, because all possible moves at any given time would already be known, and thus only a mechanical set of optimal actions would be rational to make. There could be no surprises.

When children play pretend, they make choices, and the outcomes are also chosen, which can lead to dispute and conflict. "Bang bang", says the child playing policeman, "you're dead!". The child playing the robber defiantly cries "No! You missed! I am not dead! Nya nya!". Annoying and argumentative hijinks ensue, possibly for hours.

This problem of disagreement of outcomes is not limited to children, adults also fight over such matters in other contexts, and thus any play with raw imagination seems doomed to endless bickering.

Seeing the world as it truly is, on the macro scale, as endless probabilities and few or no absolutes, makes agreement possible. Once the probabilities for an event are either known...or even arbitrarily agreed upon...then randomization can be used to produce surprising -and thus enjoyable- outcomes that everyone can agree upon. The only requirement is that all parties agree upon the probability of an event prior to determining the result with a randomization device. And the oldest tool for controlled randomization is the die.

Dice in Role Playing Game serve the function of Fate. If the children above had agreed to use a common D6 -a six sided die- to resolve their mock police chase, and agreed on a common probability of success, the fate of the robber could not be rationally contested. Neither child would have any reason to disagree upon the results of their scenario, because the probabilities, the game mechanism, and the results would already have been agreed upon as being fair before an unpredictable resolution occured.

The Why Of Dice

 A game in which the results of every action are absolutely, clearly, and constantly known in all cases, cannot have any surprise or novelty, and would be utterly boring. Add the possibility of surprise, and a game becomes pleasurable, allow free choice and an indeterminate outcome and the game becomes fascinating. Dice provide a means to introduce surprise and novelty, in a controlled and manageable manner. Further, so long as the Probabilities involved are agreed upon, gameplay can occur with a minimum of argument despite the possibility of unpredictable events.

Dice -probabilities- make an RPG worth playing at all.

Diceless Concepts?

There have been attempts to create entirely diceless RPG systems, and to a point this can work, in that characters will have set abilities, and choices are determined to be possible, or impossible, based upon these set abilities. The bulk of gameplay is essentially improvisational theatre, supplemented by the odd checking of a statistic, or of a chart of outcomes. However, even in these systems the occasional rare use of a die or randomizer of some sort is included, because -at the core of reality itself- still lurks both the need for, and the truth of, unpredictability.

Ultimately, the ability of a diceless system depends on the trust and agreement of the players of it, and this once again introduces the problem of the children playing Police and Perpetrators. The use of dice and agreed probabilities allows anyone to play with anyone.

From Whence The Probabilities?

We have dice, we have imagination. So where do those much described probabilities come from?

This is the value of game systems, of hardbound Dungeons and Dragons books, of all those "To Hit" charts, and "Saving Throw" lists. Products and creations of these sorts provide charts of probabilities and lists of chances and likely outcomes, tables to fit every sort of need. They are convenient resources for resolving disputes, and act as an outside, impartial, authoritarian foundation.  However, it is entirely possible to create your own such tables and charts, or even to simply agree upon some basic system of rules governing outcomes, to achieve a functional game.

Choices And Adjustments

If all the RPG consisted of was rolling a die or dice over and over for a type of action, even despite the randomness involved, it would also become boring. It is also unreasonable, because individuals often try to do commonplace things in new, or in adapted ways. To represent this in the Role Playing Game, the Game Master and Players may make adjustments to the agreed probabilities. This is done by adding or subtracting points, what is called giving 'Plusses' or 'Minuses' to dice rolls. The player character of an Archer, firing an arrow into a target, uphill and against the wind, with the sun in his eyes, would be at a distinct disadvantage. Even if the characters normal DEX, Dexterity, was, say, 16, a high number, and easy to roll under on a 20-sided die, the factors mentioned would reasonably change that statistic. A Minus to Success could be given...a minus 1 for shooting uphill, another -1 for the wind, perhaps even another -1 for the sun. Thus a -3 could be subtracted from the Archer's normal chances, making the roll the player must make more difficult. If the Archer had the advantage, through clever player choice, or game circumstance, a bonus, a Plus could be added, making the player's roll easier.

Imagine an impossibly difficult circumstance, one where the Archer had almost no hope of success, where the Player must roll a five or under, and everything depended upon making that DEX roll. Imagine the suspense of the attempt, and the excitement and glory of the success should it occur! One can also imagine some frantic thought and scheming to figure out a way to improve that chance by some action...thus is the stuff of a great story, and thus a great game. Adjustments make the use of dice even better.

The Joy Of Dex

The use of dice to act as a judgement of Fate upon the choices of the players of a Fantasy Role Playing Game permits both surprises and agreement with regard to results. Without such a means of randomness and agreement, the RPG would become dull, or a hotbed of contention in most cases. The colorful polyhedral dice of the RPG permit free imagination to function within prescribed and mutual bounds, and thus turn often poorly executed improvisational theater into a legitimate game.

Dice are the true masters of the Tabletop RPG, because they act as impartial and surprising determiners of Fate. They are also reflections of our actual, quantum mechanical reality, because poor, silly, stubborn little Einstein was wrong after all... God DOES play dice with the universe.

And thus, so do we.


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