Casino Dice & Regional Variations in Old-Schoolers

casino dice picture

In a gambling casino, the dice are extra large red celluloid cubes… Dice – said to have been invented by Palamedes who taught the game to his countrymen during the siege of Troy – are the oldest known objects men have used for the purpose of gambling. They have been excavated from cities dating back to 1000 B.C.: made of ivory, knucklebones of sheep, carved from stone or metal. Pagan priests used them when they wished to ask the advice of their gods. The answer to any burning question of the hour lay in the way the numbers came up. There are men today who put that same trust in the extra large red celluloid cubes.

-No House Limit, Steve Fisher (Hard Case Crime)

I’ve recently been grooving on the Hard Case Crime series. Their reprints of pulp noir novels are exactly where my reading tastes are at right now, and (gaming relevance approaching) Lester Dent’s Honey In His Mouth is so good that I think it may be worth seeking out his Doc Savage books, for those of you who like your D&D cast in the mold of two-fisted pulp action rather than a heist caper. The cover of No House Limit, plus the above passage on dice, reminded me that I wanted to talk about some observations I made at So Cal Mini Con III.

WordPress informs me that this initial reminder was back on August 25th, 2010; I drafted the above then, and let it languish until Cyclopeatron’s post Understanding Crappy Dice Apologists reminded me again today.

The observation I was going to make was that the old-school gamers I met in Anaheim had a striking number of big celluloid dice, as well as nifty cases to carry their gaming stuff in. You can see both of these in the picture of Cyclopeatron GMing Gamma World below, and I was so impressed with the stuff Telecanter could carry in his Traveling GM Kit that I asked him to pose with it after Javi and I played in his game.

I like to think Cyclopeatron is saying "Behold the power of my casino dice and lacquer boxes" in this picture but it probably ain't so.


Telecanter & his amazing Travelling DM Kit

As the title of this post suggests, I was originally thinking of this as an example of regional variation, with an appropriately regional explanation. People in Southern California live close to Las Vegas, so they have greater exposure/access to casino dice. And they drive to their games, so that the important consideration is not how much you can carry on the subway but rather keeping it well-organized so that getting into and out of the car isn’t a nightmare of packing and re-packing.

On first reading Cyclopeatron’s post, I was like “oh it’s not a local cultural thing after all, it’s just that those guys were hip to the demonstrable bias of other dice, which I wrongly perceived as the quaint folkways of Southern California.” And in fact looking at those pictures of the Anaheim con didn’t provide much empirical support for my conclusion; on the one hand most of the d6s on view there were not casino dice, while on the other hand I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Greengoat here in NYC sporting a set of celluloids and he definitely has a sweet case for carrying minis in. So there is some support for the argument that I lack true scientific realism.

But the great thing about what Cyclopeatron has to say about dice is that he doesn’t prioritize one over the other. He demonstrates that we can talk rationally about objective qualities of dice, but he’s also glad to celebrate the weird customs and magical beliefs about dice that are a unique part of roleplaying culture. And since culture is what transmits knowledge, these two perspectives are inextricable. Intellectually I value the precision of my Zocchi dice; emotionally I treasure them as a reminder of being converted by the man himself during his last year as a Gamescience exhibitor. Likewise, when I get my casino dice, the pride I take in their engineering qualities will be matched by my pleasure in being part of a network of blogging and actual play that connects me to people who tell me cool things I want to know. (On that tip, Bruce Lee plays ping-pong with nunchuks, and a friend’s personal rock reviews and related tales).

The final thing that I want to talk about related to Cyclopeatron’s post is this, from the comments:

Heh, this whole elitist rant reeks of the same carrion spewed forth by those that swear there is only ‘one true game’, think that the basement calender reads 1973 and use playground phrases like TETSNBN. I have not time for such things and am dropping my subscription to this blog. When/if you fall off your elitist high-horse I’ll return.

Which gives me an opportunity to repost this, originally from a thread at the OD&D boards about why gamers are so negative about one another’s differences in gaming preference:

I think that a big source of negativity is the human superiority/inferiority thing, which we get from primate dominance behavior. As kids, lots of us were told that people who played sports were better than we were because we played with books and dice and miniature mans. This kind of message is so pervasive in our cultures that it’s hard to say “no that’s crazy, you like one thing, I like another, we both like to play so let’s either find something in common or agree to disagree.”

Instead, we tend to buy into the basic assumption and react to being made to feel inferior by trying to make what we like into an assertion of superiority: “no actually I’m better than you because books are mind-expanding and dice are oracular and nerds make more money than sports stars.” It’s great to celebrate what’s unique and awesome about RPGs, but when it becomes a superiority thing:

– focusing on the us vs. them aspect erodes common ground; I want games that I can play with people who also like sports. I suspect that a reason many of us as kids abandoned “basic” for “Advanced” D&D and now are in a market dominated by games that are 576+ pages long is we want to feel superior to those who aren’t bookish enough to master all this complexity; having been excluded from sports etc. we now want revenge by making our games exclude all but an initiated elite.

– when we’re amongst ourselves, the behaviors we learned from this history – of being made to feel bad about the games we play, and responding to that by asserting that our games actually make us superior – continues even outside the context in which it sorta made sense. We’re all gamers, so it’s crazy to still do this us vs. them thing amongst ourselves! I think Ron Edward’s name pushes buttons because people think he’s saying his way of playing is better than theirs, so now they’re not interested in engaging with his ideas, they’re defending and counter-attacking. (Note that it is often the case that people are in fact saying they’re better than you; I’m not denying this at all, just saying that the non-crazy reaction is “yeah whatever, let’s talk about this cool thing instead” and maybe deciding to hang out someplace where the discussion isn’t dominated by assertions of superiority, such as here!)

So sure, some people in our little world really are elitists. But often this accusation is aimed at people who are making reasonably objective statements – these dice are inaccurate – and expressing personal opinions on the matter – such dice are crappy. When you take this as someone looking down on you, get up in arms, and wait for them to fall off their high horse, isn’t it more about your own delusions that some people are above others & your reaction to feeling that your rightful place on this hierarchy is threatened?

Just as Cyclopeatron is fascinated by the psychology of dice, I’m intrigued by the ways that fantasy roleplaying both encourages and challenges hierarchical thinking – a higher-level character more or less is a better person than a lower-level one, but D&D is a social game that can be easily derailed by dominance struggles around the table. (Compare online multiplayer games, where the impersonal nature of the medium much better facilitates PvP and comparing who pwns who). When I argue that some kinds of RPG facilitate hierarchy more than others, this is somewhere between a fact an opinion; it’s not to say that you or I are better or worse than one another because we like those games, or don’t. I want to be your equal, so that we can get together and have a good time as peers on a level playing field where our precision-engineered dice will dispense justice to one and all alike.

4 Responses to “Casino Dice & Regional Variations in Old-Schoolers”

  1. December 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    I love regional variation in anything. Unfortunately I haven’t gamed outside Southern California, so I can’t really offer any ideas about what might be unique about our area. At the big L.A. cons people use by and large use generic chessex or koplow cheapie-by-the-pound dice.

    Interestingly, though, your Las Vegas hypothesis IS correct in my case. I have some friends that visit Vegas regularly to gamble, and they bring me back casino dice. I think they get the used ones for a dollar each. The ones I was rolling at MiniCon were from The Orleans, a place that holds fond memories for me.

    There are some other interesting dice in that photo. That yellow d4 near the edge of the shadow is an original 1970s die from a Holmes set my mom bought for me at a thrift store a long long time ago. That tan d6 near the top corner of the blue composition book is a 1940-50s bakelite die I found in a little junk shop near the base of Mt. Whitney. The blue polyhedrals behind my screen are GameScience dice transmitting the spirit and rigor of Colonel Zocchi!

    The sentiment I like the the least in this whole dice discussion is “Just roll whatever dice you got, who cares?” I think dice are bizarre and beautiful little objects. They are a wonderful aspect of our material culture as gamers and should be celebrated.

  2. December 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Those are very cool dice stories and they do evoke a classic retro-future SoCal flavor for me, much like your post about Clifton’s Cafeteria.

    I agree about the totemic power of dice; let them be fetishized! I can never dis Quag Keep because bracelets of dice that spin on your wrist upon fateful occasions = one of my favorite conceits for a magic item.

  3. 3 Scott LeMien
    December 22, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Now I HAVE to get better dice. 3d6 cold is bad enough, but the idea that I may be rolling 1s way more often than I should? ugh! In fact, screw the scientifically weighted dice, where are the loaded ones?

  4. December 27, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Sorry to be late to the dance, but damn fine post here Tavis. Kudos!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2010

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