If you’re playing an RPG and rolling dice, you’re usually only interested in one thing: what number lands facing up. Tabletop games overwhelmingly use dice to numerically simulate chance, and dice do this job well.
But dice can do more. Dice are physical objects, and games and players can leverage that for novel functions at the table.
If all you need is a random number, countless web apps will oblige. (Back in my day, we had to program our graphing calculators to get the job done.) But if you have a flat surface and some dice, and you want to get more mileage on each roll, here are four titles that establish and simulate place using dice as objects in space.
Veins of the Earth
Patrick Stuart’s Veins of the Earth is a marvelously creative and beautifully written sourcebook for deep subterranean exploration. Stuart’s prose is complemented by Scrap Princess’s equally excellent artwork, which captures the same tone and texture of rough stone, oppressive darkness, and lurking fear.
Most importantly (for this post’s purposes), Veins features a brilliant method for randomly generating caves with dice. It uses numerical results, physical orientation, and relationship in real space to efficiently simulate fictional space (instead of, say, rolling results on a bunch of different tables). It’s a masterclass in leveraging dice values and their arithmetical relation and their physical position and spatial relation as meaningful values for generating diegetic space.
It starts by rolling 2d6 on a sheet of paper. The difference between the two values determine the total number of exits. The sum dictates characteristics of the cave’s largest exit.
That exit’s location is determined by the farthest die’s orientation. Whichever direction the 1 faces, the PCs will there find the exit. Similarly, the entrance’s location is determined by the 1’s facing on the nearest die.
And the space between those entrances and exits? That’s determined by the distance between the dice; the greater the gap, the bigger the cave. Draw the space around the dice, position the entrances and exits, and you have yourself a very random cave.
The distance between dice is primarily measured in the length of fingers, hands, and arms. This may seem like a strangely casual metric, but it’s exactly in keeping with the book’s character.
Veins’ text and art emphasize the individual’s mental and physical relationship to the dark spaces around them, creating a sense of psychological isolation and physical presence—especially crawling through squeezes and clearing rocks from breakdowns—in a dark, enclosed world beneath the world. The use of anatomy as a ratio for cave size subtly buy cleverly re-emphasizes the motif of embodiment in space.
The Vast in the Dark
Like Veins, Feral Indie Studio’s The Vast in the Dark explores the deep dark, but instead of enclosed caves, it specializes in open spaces punctuated by esoteric megastructures. Maps are generated at three scales: regional, local, and ruins.
To generate the regional map, drop a handful of dice (more or fewer depending on how populous you want the landscape to be) onto a hex grid. On 2 through 4, the occupied hex is ruins; 5 and 6 indicate a megalithic pillar; and 1s and diceless hexes are wasteland.
To generate the local landscape, repeat the process: drop a handful of dice onto another hex grid representing a six-mile area. The dice values determine what’s found in a particular hex: ruins, occupied ruins, or empty wastes.
Vast also includes a quick mechanic for elaborating the local map’s ruin hexes. Lay out a square grid and assign a die to a row or column on each side. Pick a side and, starting at the die, draw a line straight across the page. Move to adjacent sides, drawing lines that stop when they intersect another line. The cells occupied by lines are halls, and all others are rooms or similar areas. The die values don’t effect the resulting layout; this method relies purely on their positioning around the map.
AwkwardTurtle and Brian Stauffer’s Wallet Dungeons (named for its business-card size) also takes a grid approach to dungeon generation, but with a novel twist. Instead of using dice to generate a map on a grid, the dice are the grid—a 3-dimensional one.
Like Vast’s method, you start with a handful of dice—not on a grid, just wherever. Each die’s value determines a room’s general character (dead end, passageway, tower, etc.) and how many other rooms (dice) it can adjoin.
Once you’ve assembled your dungeon—probably with an isometric drawing for easy reference but definitely by building a little dice-fort—consult each die again, adding its value to all adjacent dice. The sum determines additional character: jail, crypt, library, etc.
Note also the lowest and highest neighboring die value. Each will impart an additional quality on the room, such as trapped, flooded, ornate, and the like. Wallet Dungeons additionally includes a short table of general random encounters (threats, obstacles, boons) to lend some narrative liveliness.
Did I mention this all fits on a business card? Another ingenious use of space.
Clowder is the collective noun for a group of cats, and Whimsy Machine’s Clowderful is a game about exactly that. The players interpret a group of community cats who must teach kittens about life in their neighborhood.
Clowderful uses a deck of playing cards for conflict resolution. It uses dice to represent household attitudes toward the cats.
To generate the neighborhood, roll a standard seven-piece dice set onto a sheet of paper. Each die’s position represents a household; players draw the houses, property lines, roads, and vacant spaces. Each die’s value represents the inhabitants’ friendliness toward the cats; a maximum value indicates allies who feed and care for them, while lower values represent greater hostility.
Cards are used to change a die’s value. Players can raise die values and improve attitudes, or they can lower die values and drive households out of the neighborhood. Play ends when all cards are drawn. No matter what, the cats win. Because cats.
Dice x Space = Action
These four systems all repurpose dice as physical objects, not just numerical representations. But with one exception, they also retain the numerical values and use their meaning to establish spaces and their characters.
They don’t subvert dice’s intended function by reducing them to purely physical objects—we could throw rocks and get an outline of a cave or the layout of a neighborhood. They put materiality in conversation with mathematical meaning to elegantly generate fictional locations.
By doing so, they also simulate complex dynamics in time. It’s probably most apparent in Clowderful, which explores the progress of interspecies relationships. The other titles also inherently involve time, since no character (or player) experiences all points on a map simultaneously; they explore them over time and narrativize the places they find.
The time dynamic is subtly but powerfully present in Veins. In his introduction, Stuart writes that caves are “a complex expression of the interaction of water and rock” over time. When PCs descend, they delve through strata, and so “caves are a route through stone and therefore literally a route through time.”
Stuart means this in the historical sense, but it’s true in the experiential sense as well. Space implies time, and time invites action, whether that’s crawling a cave, exploring some ruins, looting a dungeon, or trading purrs for tuna from the little old lady who lives on the corner.
Know any games that use dice in creative ways? Let me know, and I’ll do a follow-up post.
System as social contract between designers and players
On facilitating and incentivizing character depth in TTRPG systems
An overview of your rights and publishers’ responsibilities