Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Dice Gods Move In Mysterious Ways...

Vengence of the dice gods (picture from the blog
of a talented artist named Vorgus)
I thought today I'd post about something that has always made me think.  There are a lot of little superstitions wargamers have, some a little more tongue in cheek than others.  I'll share a few of mine and would love to hear if you have any of your own.

In a game ruled entirely by chance, it's not entirely unnatural that a few superstitions should grow up around it.  Most common is the phenomenon of the 'dice gods'; supernatural, statistical beings who play with the fates as a child plays at marbles.  It's a convenient crutch for the unlucky to be able to blame the gods for his/her misfortune.  Tied to this is the sacred liturgy which speaks of being able to appease or even anger the gods, mainly through either beardy gaming or playing with unpainted models.

Sometimes (myself included here), our irrational anger is directed towards those cubes of fate themselves: the humble dice.  According to Professor Wikipedia, dice predate recorded history, and so it's only logical to assume that ancient Mesopotamians cursed a run of snake eyes sitting around a table with their friends much as we do today.  A number of the curious cleromantic quirks we engage in include:
  • Ordeal by Water.  An uncooperative die is punished by being kept in water (or more usually the cold dregs of a leftover cup of tea) for a short time.  (This is one of my favourites).
  • Ordeal by Isolation.  A die is deliberately overlooked and left in your carry case on its own, without any supper, to think about what it's done.
  • Ordeal by Crushing.  A die is left under a heavy rulebook, or in extreme cases, a chair leg as a punishment.
  • Ordeal by Fire.  (Extreme and quite rare), where a die is ritualistically incinerated in a blast furnace.
An so on.  But, of course, for every explanation religion has, science has a counter-argument.  Just as there are dice gods, so too is there dice science, or 'diceology', purported as the true answer to wargaming.  This generally takes the form of loosely-misinterpreted pseudo-maths.  The schools of diceological thought include:
  • 'Playing the dice', where before a game a player will roll a bunch of dice together.  All those which come up as '1' are kept aside, on the assumption that it won't roll another one straight afterwards and can be safely called upon when a six is needed.  (Actually, tongue-in-cheek superstitions aside, an alarming number of people really believe this one)
  • The theory that dice are predisposed to resist cajoling or over-enthusiastic shaking, and so by throwing a die quickly, you can catch it off guard and get a six.
  • Use of loaded dice.  Not really superstition, or diceology.  Mainly cheating.

Of course, it's all baloney.  And we know it's baloney, and doesn't really work (except the loaded dice).  But it still gives us a bit of pleasure to pretend it's real I suppose.  Some of them have a purpose, like scaring young 'uns into painting up their models for the club with tales of vengeful gods.  I've found it's a bit of a community thing among gamers, and I suppose a communal game would be a little boring if, when firing a shot and scoring an unlikely hit we were to exclaim, "I say, how unlikely, yet statistically feasible", instead of shouted prayers to imaginary gods.  The thing about wargaming is there is a very strong sense of natural selection, and things that don't need to be there usually fall by the wayside.  This quirky trait of most gamers seems to be very strong indeed, because like wargaming itself, superstitions like this are fun, even though we know it's not real.

But on a more serious note I bet that most wargamers have a better grasp of certain statistical concepts than the ordinary man on the street.  Certainly, working out the probability of a guardsman killing himself by firing a plasma gun taught me more about statistics than any of my A-Level statistics lessons.  And the odds of a snake eyes (1/36) or of a mutated snake eyes (1/216), or even a twin snake eyes (1/1296) are engrained in my head now forever.

Bit of an odd post, but just some filler while I wait for my Forgeworld purchases to arrive.  But I like holding our hobby up to scrutiny once in a while.


  1. We wargamers are a superstitious bunch! One of my favourites is if there are a mixture of different coloured dice you have to use at least one of each. Excluding on colour angers the dice gods... apparently

    1. Ha, I'd never heard of that one. But now I have, I'm definitely going to have to stick to it...

  2. A superb diatribe on our little cuboid masters of fate. I particularly like the Ordeal by Isolation and have witnessed first-hand Ordeal by Water (luke-warm coffee). Ah, but the mixing of colours must be in-line with rolls for certain weapons or events :P

  3. The store manager of a place I used to go to had a habit of banishing unruly "random number generators" by throwing them as hard as possible down the long stock room...

  4. I don't know that I have dice habits, although I do like lining them up. I guess that's more ASD than anything else though...

    I read an interesting post once - years ago - on cheating with scatter dice; casting them straight so they only roll along one plane, thereby removing two of the 'miss' arrows from the equation and narrowing the odds of a 'hit' to (I guess) 2-in-4. It was said to be entirely feasible given practice...although I suspect the dice are more likely to 'bobble' on a textured gaming surface than on - say - a baize or smooth table.

    ...actually, I just remembered that when I used to play D&D I'd have a lot of pre-game practice rolls and often would keep each die on its highest value once rolled, until it was needed. Again though, probably just me being me.

  5. I know one of the superstitions in my area is 'Dice Lice', if it comes to be known that there is a particularly unlucky set of dice than they must be afflicted with the parasite. After a set has been diagnosed with 'Dice Lice' it must not be allowed to contact any clean dice, unfortunately there seems to be no cure for the annoying little pests, most simply discard the contaminated set in favor of a healthy batch.

  6. @oink: I wonder if that's linked to the 'Scottish Play/Macbeth' phenomenon, whereby it's bad luck to call a die by its name, and that instead you have to call it something like a random number box. If not, exile is still a good punishment.

    @Drax: I wonder if you can do that with D6? Maybe that's why the opposite sides add up to 7, so that if you roll in that way, trying to exclude a 1, you also exclude the 6. Certainly, rolling on sloping, damp chipboard in our cellar-wargames room makes for an extra element of randomness. We may now invest in a luxury green baize 'rolling table'.

    @Chris: Dice lice! I've not heard of that one but it sounds very feasible. I may get some dice shampoo now.

  7. At our club, we hold that certain people affect the dice. Not their own, but if they are in the room, and you believe that they curse you, your dice will roll worse. Yesterday we even tested this theory by asking Ian (one of the cursed) to move around the room as others rolled dice to see if his 'morphic field' had a range.