Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice Part 1: My Torrid and Complicated Relationship With Dice


In 2018, there is no more accessory to table top gaming that is more fetishized and objectified than dice. Not books, not miniatures, not pens and pencils and paper. Dice. Platonic solids. And not just any dice, oh, no, no. What used to be a necessary, somewhat utilitarian contrivance has officially become an obsession for many people. What used to be something we had maybe twelve to fifteen of has mushroomed into a very expensive collecting endeavor that costs upwards of hundreds of dollars. We’ve gone round the bend, us gamers. We don’t just have dice, anymore.

Now we’ve got artisanal craft dice.



Later, I’m going to talk about some of these newfangled objects d’arte and whether or not they have any business on the gaming table. For now, I’m going to break down my imperfect recollections of dice from a grognard-neckbeard perspective. This is probably way more than you want to know about me and my dice, but I want to make it clear that while I have opinions, and they are strong, about stuff like dice, it comes from a place of measured and learned consideration and not out of my ass, like so many other things I may say.

My first set of dice was a TSR product, and you know exactly what I’m talking about; they were smallish, somewhat soft, and came in primary colors. My inaugural set was baby blue. I first got said set in the new and improved Basic Dungeons and Dragons boxed set. Later, in the Star Frontiers boxed game, I got some green and red ones. Though made of high impact plastic, when you rolled them on enough hard surfaces (like, say, any coffee table) or dropped them on any tiled floor, or looked at them with hardened expressions, they would develop micro abrasions along the edges. This “weathered” the dice, and in a world where such things were a recent development, we thought that was cool; it meant the dice were getting used.

Other companies followed suit. Fantasy Games Unlimited included a larger, uglier set of opaque orange dice in their boxed Villains and Vigilantes game. While not industry standard by any means, it soon became acceptable to start including a set of cheap-ass dice in the boxed sets of most games.

This was not the first
set of dice I bought,
but it will give you an
idea of how lucky
you young punks are
to be alive today.
The first dice as accessory product I saw was in a hobby shop, hanging all by itself. This was a real hobby shop, one that sold model kits, train terrain, and related paints and knives and woods and plastics. And there was always, in these “classic” hobby shops, a magazine rack whereupon was placed this “newfangled fad,” the role-playing games and modules, pushing out the Model Train Enthusiast magazines and the Radio Control Modeler magazines.

These particular dice were on a nearby wire spinner rack, along with a selection of lead miniatures in blister packs. Six dice, translucent plastic, in different jewel-tone colors. These were Armory dice, and they were so fucking impressive. Clear plastic, and also uninked. That is to say, un-crayon-ed. The Armory also sold, right next to their pretty dice, a set of four chunky crayons in different colors you could use to color in the pips on the dice you just bought. You just press hard into the numbers, scrape the wax into the grooves, and then wipe the excess off with a paper towel. It took a while. But in many respects, it was worth it, because you could customize your number colors to really contrast against the plastic. I had a purple d10 and used the yellow crayon on the numbers and it was awesome to behold.

The Armory didn’t make these dice, so much as they re-packaged them from—I dunno, wherever the hell they were buying them from. Our dice options were pretty limited back then: there were the “math dice” polyhedrals, in primary colors, that were repackaged and sold by Koplow. There was GameScience, who made these precision dice with sharp edges and points (the d4 dice were actual caltrops, I shit you not). There were whatever those dice were in the TSR sets. And then there were the dice that the Armory bought, repackaged and sold on blister cards. You could get translucent dice in several colors or you could get opaque dice in several colors. By the late 1980s they were even importing "European style" translucent dice with rounded edges and corners.

An Armory Dice Ad from 1984. Look, Ma!
Crayons! That's the set I had. 
The Armory also sold, bafflingly, a thirty-sided die they trademarked and tried to convince everyone that we needed. It didn’t work. Not on me or anyone else I knew. The d30 is the Spinal Tap amplifiers of the role-playing game world. "Well, it’s ten higher, isn't it?” they say. “Why don’t you just use percentile dice, or make a d20 table and use only your best twenty ideas instead?” you ask. “This is a thirty-sided die,” they reply.

Now you see them more frequently, and I blame Dungeon Crawl Classics and their “dice chain” for that. I still maintain that those weird-ass dice (Koplow markets them as a set labeled “Who Knew? Dice.” I’ll tell you who knew: math nerds and geometry groupies. They should be called “Who Cares?”) While the d30 feels and looks unmistakably “old school” it’s still the single most impractical die you can own in that people actually have to invent tables to make it worth your while. Unless, of course, you’re playing Dungeon Crawl Classics. If that’s the case, enjoy your chain of weird-ass dice: they only cost you, what? Thirty bucks for a complete set? Jeez, Louise.

As someone who was on the hook for his own gaming supplies, my original dice collection was meager and hodge-podge. Aside from the gems I’d bought myself, there were a number of freebie dice and even a couple of random pipped d6 dice I'd scrounged from somewhere. All in all, less than twenty dice, maybe. It was enough. It got us through most games. If we needed more than 2d8, we just rerolled what we had. No fuss, no muss.

Those dice and their accompanying red velour belt pouch were part of my gaming set-up until well into my twenties.

Then I got a job. At Chessex.

Reviewing Art & Arcana

You have probably seen or heard about this massive tome on The Internets or maybe seen a review on The YouTubes. Art & Arcana is a gi...