Dice. The embodiment of random chance and something around which superstitions have been built through the ages; dice are something humans have owned and been interested in since the dawn of civilisation. Bone dice found at the Skara Brae Neolithic settlement in Orkney are estimated to be from around 3100 BCE, and dice have been found at pre-historic sites all over the world. They’re a human commonality.
The history of Dice superstitions
The idea that you can generate randomness with a small item in your pocket has captivated people ever since there have been people. Way back when, they were used for prediction, but these days (and also way back then, we assume) they’re primarily used for generating fun and amusement in games. You can find them at the casino (and in most board games today) but they are present in every version of society that we’re aware of, both modern and ancient. Sophocles (circa 400BCE) claimed that the Greeks invented dice; but the ancient Greeks claimed they invented everything (including philosophy), so we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that people have always used them, or something akin to them.
These days we use all sorts of dice for entertainment, but outside of the casino’s cubic six-sided craps dice, we mainly use them for tabletop games. Role-playing games like D&D (and wargames like Warhammer) use the most diverse set of dice to create varying levels of randomness, and usually refer to them as dX, where X is the maximum range the die can generate. There’s the d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and the percentage die, or d100.
Worshipping the Dice Gods
While the history and breadth of dice is indeed astounding, I’m here to talk about the anthropomorphisation of them; especially among the modern role-playing set. Any D&D player can tell you about ‘dice jail’ or the idea that a dice can be ‘having a bad night’, ‘be in a bad mood’ or otherwise not be rolling well. You can even make or buy ‘Dice Jails’, to put your misbehaving pieces of plastic/glass/metal/wood/bone in, to punish them or remove them from further play. Realists and mathematicians (cynics) will tell you that it’s bollocks - dice always have the same chance of rolling a 1 as they do a 20; they’re non-sentient items that just stop moving according to a combination of inertia, gravity and friction. Most gamers will tell you that their dice are sentient, or arbiters of the ‘Dice Gods’ who need to be satiated and worshipped to create ‘good rolls’ at the table.
Some players even go to the lengths of naming their dice and asking them to roll well; Marisha Ray (star of Critical Role) often appeals to her favourite d20 ‘Don’t f**k me Gil!’ when she needs a good outcome to make something amazing happen in-game. She’s also the proud owner of an aforementioned ‘dice-jail’ where she puts misbehaving dice, a fate that Gil has suffered many times in the several hundred episodes they’ve been playing. Many players I know will run ‘dice tests’ before they start their sessions: roll your d20s and see which ones go well.
The rules of the Dice Gods
This is just a Skinneresque conditioned superstition we play on ourselves anyway - the idea that a mindless piece of plastic (or other material) can actually have any sort of effect on the way it stops moving is ridiculous... isn’t it?
The Dice Gods look down upon you.
In my many years playing and DMing D&D, I’ve seen a lot of superstitions surrounding dice and attempts to appease the ‘Dice Gods’. I present to you now, the Unwritten Rules of the Dice Gods for your own edification.
Rule 1: The Dice Gods owe allegiance to no player.
The Dice Gods (and subsequently the dice themselves) are not your servants, and will not do your bidding. Any attempt to dominate them will fail.
Rule 2: The Dice Gods are not ‘Fair’
Don’t assume that because you’ve had bad rolls in the early part of your session that you are ‘due’ some good luck down the line. This only leads to heartbreak. Every new roll is a chance to commune with the Dice Gods and should be approached with nonchalance (or supplication).
Rule 3: Never tell the Dice Gods what you do or do not want to see.
Mentioning that you ‘need better than X’ or ‘anything but an X’ will result in failure. You cannot bend the gods to your will. You can only attempt to petition them for favourable outcomes. Anything else is sacrilege and will be punished.
Rule 4: Never attempt to talk ‘statistics’ to the Dice Gods.
They don’t give a shit about your mortal mathematics. Thoughts like ‘I’ve been rolling shit all night, I’m due a good roll’ or ‘Surely I can’t get three 1’s in a row’ will result in punishment and derision from the Dice Gods. Speak about statistics at your peril.
Rule 5: Recognise the Champions of the Dice Gods.
Some dice are always friendly and will give you desired outcomes more often than not. Exalt these champions of chance at every opportunity. Kiss them, keep them in special velvet bags, separate them from the other (lesser) dice. The Dice Gods will smile upon those who treat their champions with respect.
Rule 6: Rituals empower the dice and bring favour from the Dice Gods.
Having your own special way of rolling the dice pleases the Dice Gods, and will bring their favour. It is an old adage that having a beautiful woman or handsome man blow on your dice before rolling brings the favour of the Dice Gods (as seen in many films throughout time); as does having a personal ritual, special dice cup/tray or method of rolling. Addendum: Rolling many dice at once might feel good, but you are spreading the favour of the Dice Gods amongst many dice at once. For high total scores, one at a time is always best.
Rule 7: They are just inanimate objects and the Dice Gods aren’t real.
Science is real. Statistics are real. You’ve got the same chance to roll a 1 as to roll a 20 every time you pick up the dice. Roll the f**king bones and get on with it; there are five more players who are waiting for their turn to not roll a crit and we can’t be here all night.