Sunday, February 3, 2013
How Gaming Got Its Dice
Wargamers constantly reach for greater heights of realism in their simulations, and by the mid-1960s, they increasingly relied on actual military statistics to model their combat. Perhaps the most influential example of this trend is Michael J. Korns's book Modern War in Miniature (1966), a WWII-setting wargame which offers little by way of system other than tables aggregating real-world weapon behavior. Korns reduced these statistics to percentile probabilities: for example, a particular rifle might have a 70% chance to hit a target 200 yards away. But how to resolve those odds during play? There is no intuitive way to extract percentile results from rolling a small number of d6s, but Korns provided an appendix that gave the closest approximation, roughly 5% increments:
This was not the first time that the use of 20-sided dice for wargaming had been proposed: Lenard Lafoka wrote an article late in 1968 that described the potential applicability of the icosahedron to wargames, but since readers would have no means of procuring one, Lakofka actually provided instructions on how to construct a 20-sided die out of wood or cardboard. The dice discussed in Wargamer's Newsletter in the early 1970s were available only from Japan or Britain, and for Americans ordering from either was a costly and lengthy proposition. Don Lowry, the publisher of Tractics, couldn't rely on an expensive and slow source for supplying the needs of his customers.
The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons made far less use of polyhedral dice aside from the d20 than later editions; the d4, d8 and d12 make only very rare appearances. Nonetheless, polyhedral dice quickly became a signature feature of D&D. They were moreover an early stumbling block when demand for the game was high: one could easily photocopy rules, but not dice. TSR continued to resell the Creative Publications dice, but at a considerable mark-up: initially $1.75, then $2.50, then $3.00. Many gamers therefore experimented with alternative methods for generating numbers, reminsicent of the Korns table above. Others eventually found the source of the dice and ordered directly from Creative Publications. By the 1980s, TSR had sufficient sales to strike aggressive wholesaler agreements, and it was only then that they augmented their sets of Platonic solid dice with a newcomer: the d10. In the years since, mad scientists like Lou Zocchi have produced all sorts of unusual dice, some more practical than others. Today, we can't imagine polyhedral dice without thinking of gaming, but their association with games is the sort of happy historical accident that frequently accompanies success.