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FACTUALLY OBSCURE: HISTORY OF DICE

By Ansley Newland

Confession time – I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t know how to play Dungeons and Dragons. I know there are campaigns, dungeon masters, and characters you create that tend to become a part of your soul….and there are dice.

Lots and lots of dice.

I’m told that collecting D&D dice is a part of the whole experience. Some players like to have a different set for each character. Some like to have multiple sets to lend out to new players or forgetful players. Some like to have alternatives in case a set starts to roll unlucky (at which point they are banished to “dice jail”). And some like them because they are, and I quote, “shiny math rocks that go clickety-clack.”

I myself own a set of D&D dice, thanks to an incredibly generous friend (who also helpfully provided the above quote). The gift came with a promise to teach me to play, but alas, COVID-19 and the many miles between us have not yet made that possible. Even if they don’t see much action they are absolutely lovely, and looking at them got me thinking: Just where did dice come from anyway?

Well, dear readers, you are about to find out, because my midnight googling is this month’s article, and it’s all about our many-sided, many numbered friends.

Girolamo Cardano and Galileo

The earliest ancestors of our modern dice were likely not used to play games, but to tell fortunes and to try and predict the future. Before the 16th century, when Italian scientists such as Girolamo Cardano and Galileo began applying mathematical probabilities to dice games, most people believed that the outcome of any toss was the will of the gods or fate. A variety of materials were used; from coins to sticks to palm oil kernels, but one of the most common were knucklebones - the ankle bones of animals such as sheep or goats. Ankle Bones are basically cube-shaped but are only four-sided, as two sides of the bone are rounded and can’t be landed on. Symbols or numbers were carved on each flat side of the bone and when the bones were dropped, the symbols that landed face up were read to divine the future.

Over time, the casting of knucklebones would grow from divination practice to popular entertainment. Historians aren’t sure who was the first to turn “reading symbols on bones to divine the future” into “reading symbols on bones to decide who wins this pile of money” but by the Roman and Greek periods, synthetic knucklebones were being created out of different materials such as glass, ivory, and gold. Eventually, the rounded-off sides were flattened to create the six-sided pieces that we are familiar with.

Passe-dix

It didn’t take long for dicing to catch on as a pastime. Although still centuries away from Yahtzee, by the medieval period, games such as Passe-dix, Hazard, and Cross and Pile were popular ways of keeping entertained and winning a few coins. Dicing was popular with people of all classes. Henry VIII himself was a fan and legend has it that his love of dice ended up costing him the bells of Saint Paul’s church.

But just as it didn’t take long for dicing to catch on, it didn’t take long for cheating at dice to catch on either. A “shape,” a “brick,” or a “flat” is a die that has been altered so that it is no longer a perfect cube. Shaped dice can be manipulated into landing on a certain area often, depending on how they have been modified. 

“Loaded” dice may measure as a perfect cube but have additional weight added to one side just below the surface, increasing the odds of that side of the piece landing face down when thrown. So if you wanted to increase your chance of throwing a “6”, you would weight the opposite “1” side.

While the outcome of any throw can never be entirely pre-determined (maybe the gods really do have a say), crooked dice could be relied upon to turn up a favourable outcome often enough.

That’s not to say you should go about shaving or loading your dice before your next D&D game. Rolling a “1” at the worst possible time is part of the experience. 

But what about that iconic twenty-sided die so beloved by D&D enthusiasts today? Turns out, it’s been around almost as long as knucklebones themselves. Archaeologists have found twenty-sided die dating all the way back to the second century B.C.E in Egypt and the familiar shape has turned up in ancient Rome and Greece as well. While it’s not possible to tell if these dice were used for divination or for gaming (though the thought of Ancient Egyptians playing D&D brings me joy), it’s clear that our favourite “shiny math rocks that go clickety-clack,” have been around for a long time.

Curious about playing dice the medieval way? Try your hand at Passe-dix, one of the most popular dice games of the time (just don’t go betting any church bells).

How to play?

Passe-dix is played with three dice. The number of players is unlimited and each player takes turns being the BANKER. The first gamer rolls: every time he throws UNDER ten he (and all the other players in the game) lose the specified stake, which goes to the banker. Every time he rolls ABOVE ten, the banker must return double the stake to all the players in the game. For example, if the stake is $5, and the person rolling the dice only rolls a 6 (or any total less than 10), then the banker takes $5 from all players (not just the person rolling the dice). If the “roller” rolls a 12 (or any total more than 10), the banker gives each player $10.

After three losses (throws that are under 10), the roller position is passed to another gamer in the circle. The banker changes after each roll.