Roman Dice Tower

People have been playing games with dice for a very long time, and for as longs as we’ve been playing with dice we’ve been worrying about how to make sure we (and everybody else we’re playing with) get a fair throw. One solution to this problem is the dice tower, a box you can toss your dice into and have them rattle out the bottom. Dice towers are nothing new, either. Here’s a Roman version.

Dice tower, photograph by Rheinisches Landesmuseum via Wikimedia (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn; 4th c. CE; copper alloy)

This tower was found on a villa in Germany, near the Rhine River. Dice tossed in the top cascaded through a series of baffles to randomize them and then down a series of steps a the bottom. On their way out, they would have knocked and rung thee little bells (only one of which survives).

The Latin text on the step face reads: “The Picts are defeated. The enemy is destroyed. Play in peace.” This text helps date the tower to the fourth century, when the Picts first emerged as a power on the Roman frontier in Scotland. The Rhine was an important trade route that connected across the North Sea to Britain, so it is no surprise that people in the German provinces might want to celebrate a victory over the Picts with a game of dice.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Artifacts and Transmogrification: Arcane Mage and Elemental Shaman

When I last shared some of my transmogrifications, I talked about how I transmogged over my guardian druid’s fist weapons and adapted my holy priest’s look to suit his new staff. Sometimes, though, you just get lucky. With my arcane mage and my elemental shaman, the artifact just happened to fit nicely with their existing look.

Here’s the shaman. I was going for a nature-y, raindrops-on-leaves look, with a brown and green base accented with blue gems. The artifact fist weapon and shield go nicely, each having a big shimmering blue center.

170223shaman170223shaman2My mage has been rocking a purple set with turquoise accents for a while now and the purple crystals in the arcane staff go beautifully with it.

170223mage170223magesideSometimes, things just work out.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Tulum, City of Adventure

What does a City of Adventure look like? The kind of place where your main characters could stage intrigues in the airy halls of the palace or get down and dirty in the wretched hives of scum and villainy on the outskirts? Where your merry band of player characters could plot their next caper or set up their base while they clear the hinterlands of monsters? Maybe it could look like this.

170130castilloThe city of Tulum is one of the best-preserved ancient Maya cities on the coast of Central America. It served as the principal seaport for nearby inland cities on the Yucatán Peninsula, connecting overland trade routes with seaborne trade in the Carbibbean. The walled city sits right on a cliff overlooking the sea from which beacons may have served as a lighthouse to help guide incoming ships through a gap in the barrier reef. A small sheltered beach between cliffs provided a safe landing. Imagine piloting a trade canoe laden with salt and textiles through a stormy night, trying to keep the beacon fire in sight as the waves crash on the reef all around.

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Ancient d20s

If you’re a role-playing gamer, you probably recognize the profile of a twenty-sided die, or d20, right away: the collection of triangles making up a bumpy sphere by which we invoke the capricious god of random numbers. This shape (technically known as an “icosahedron”) has been in use a lot longer than Dungeons & Dragons has been around. Here’s an example from Roman-period Egypt which has the names of Egyptian gods marked on its faces in demotic, an Egyptian script.

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Dakhleh die showing “Isis” face via Martina Minas-Nerpel, “ A Demotic Inscribed Icosahedron from Dakhleh Oasis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-48 (Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt, currently Valley Museum, Kharga, Egypt; 1st c. CE; limestone)

Here’s another example from Egypt. This one has Greek letters on each of its faces.

Icosahedron via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Egypt, currently Metropolitan Museum; 2nd c. BCE - 4th c. CE; serpentine)
Icosahedron via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Egypt, currently Metropolitan Museum; 2nd c. BCE – 4th c. CE; serpentine)

It’s possible that these dice were used for some kind of game, but more likely they were used for divination. The die with the names of gods may have been used to determine which god a person should pray to for help. The Greek letters probably corresponded to a list of pre-written oracular responses: ask your question, roll the die, and consult the table for the answer, sort of like the ancient version of a magic 8-ball.

Some might say the uses of the twenty-sided die haven’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Artifacts and Transmogrification: Guardian Druid and Holy Priest

Legion, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, has a new feature: artifacts. Instead of replacing your weapons with more powerful weapons as you level up, you get an artifact weapon that increases in power as you play. Artifacts put a new wrinkle in the transmogrification game.

(Quick primer for those of you not playing World of Warcraft: as you play the game, your character acquires new gear—weapons and armor—which make your character more effective. They also appear on your character’s model in the game. Transmogrification is a system that lets you change the appearance of your character’s gear so you can make your character look how you want.)

The artifacts all have brand-new, unique models and its clear that a lot of time and design effort went into them. In some cases, the results are beautiful. In other cases, not so much. Some are real works of art, but they may not fit your character’s aesthetic. I find I react very differently to artifacts on different characters.

My guardian druid, for example, doesn’t like her new fist weapons, not one little bit. On the left below is what her gear looks like in its natural state. Her artifacts are now transmogrified to a pair of colorful, jewel-like weapons and I’ve built the rest of her set around their colors.

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My holy priest, on the other hand, loves his new staff. His previous set, on the left, was based on dusty reds and bronzes. With his new artifact staff on the right, he’s totally getting his blue on.

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I’ve got lots more characters in different specs with different styles still to level up and get transmogged. I’ll drop some more pictures when I get there. Are you using the artifacts? Transmogging over them? Transmogging in response to them? Share your thoughts.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Unreal Elwynn Forest

Elwynn Forest is the starting zone for humans in World of Warcraft, a sun-dappled wood with little villages and outposts. Like a lot of other players, I have fond memories of leveling up some of my first characters through Elwynn. Here are a couple of screenshots from in game of what the area looks like.

160502inn160502farmNow, feast your eyes on Daniel L’s gorgeous and detailed reconstruction of the zone using the Unreal Engine 4:

Elwynn Forest in Unreal 4: Update 2 by Daniel L

Post edited for formatting

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Why Wouldn’t Playing Games Get You a Job?

This wall ad by the Finnish game house Remedy deserves wider circulation:

NYT Jussi Pullinen Remedy Wall Ad

“Mom always said that playing games won’t get you a job. From Espoo with love since 1995. Thank you Remedy crew, friends, families, Finnish dev community, fans and gamers around the world. This one is for you.”

Remedy (of the Max Payne and Alan Wake fame) designed this ad to celebrate their April 05, 2016, launch of a new game, Quantum Break, reportedly the most expensive entertainment production ever made in Finland.

The ad’s irony at one’s own expense sounds very Finnish to me. In Finland, it’s a little embarrassing to be successful or rich, and Finns don’t tend to draw attention to their achievements. At the same time, as a Finn, it’s very satisfying to see Finnish game companies grow up into mature businesses with large, world-wide audiences.

It’s also high time for people to recognize that storytelling is an integral part of human nature and that games are just as viable a medium for telling stories as are myths, songs, novels, image-based art, and the like.

Image by Jussi Pullinen via Nyt.

Disclosure: A friend of mine works at Remedy, but this post is in no way compensated or even requested by them.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army

160322elephantTor.com published an article online today about diversity in Hannibal’s army written from the point of view of historical wargaming. It is a interesting article and well worth a read, but unfortunately it misses the opportunity to really address questions of racial and cultural diversity in ancient warfare. Here is a quick attempt to address some of the things that were lacking.

Race and culture

Race is a term with a lot of baggage, as we are all painfully aware, but it means different things in different contexts. In modern parlance, it describes a socially-constructed division of human beings into more or less arbitrary categories, largely on the basis of skin color and other physical features. In a fantasy context, it refers to distinct species of intelligent creatures like Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and so on.

The unaddressed problem in the Tor.com article is the conflation of race and culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, overtly racist theories of history posited that people of different genetic backgrounds naturally had different qualities. Many of these stereotypes still linger in our popular culture: the stoic Indian, the mischievous Irishman, the passionate Italian, etc. This belief in racial character was encoded in early classic works of fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which gave us the stubborn Dwarf, the ethereal Elf, the vicious Orc, etc.

Even as we struggle to root out this conflation of race and culture from our modern life, it lingers on in works of fantasy and science fiction: the logical Vulcan, the boisterous Klingon, the decadent Centauri, the proud Dothraki. As we look back at history, we have to think of the people of the past not in terms of racial qualities but in terms of cultural contexts. People of different origins often do behave differently, but those differences are explained by the cultures they lived in, not the races they represent.

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Gamer Girls ca. 330 BCE

Image: via Esther MacCallum Stewart
Two girls playing knuckleones via Esther MacCallum Stewart

Not that this should come as any surprise to anyone, but girls have been gamers for over 2,000 years.

Here’s a statuette of two girls playing knucklebones from ca. 330 BCE. In the ancient Mediterranean, the heel bones of sheep (commonly, though inaccurately, called “knucklebones” in English) were used for playing a variety of games, as they still are in many parts of the world today. They could be rolled like dice or gathered up in games similar to jacks, which is what these two appear to be doing.

Knucklebones crossed the whole spectrum of ancient society. Men and women, girls and boys all played. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes mentions them as the toys of poor children (The Wasps 295) while Suetonius quotes a letter by the Roman emperor Augustus enthusiastically recounting his gaming exploits (The Deified Augustus 71). It is hard to think of a pastime that is so widely shared today.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

The “Sheer Dumb Luck” Table

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Sometimes the tools you use the most are the simplest ones. This is one of the simplest things in my arsenal when I run a role-playing game, but I use it all the time.

Your players will often ask you questions that you didn’t think of ahead of time. Is the guard wearing gloves? Are there any pine cones lying around? Does this planet have any beryllium deposits near the surface?

Of course, if it matters to the adventure whether or not the guard is wearing gloves, then you have your answer and you go with it, but often either yes or no will do, you just have to pick one. It can be exhausting to always be having to decide, so you can just flip a coin, but not everything in the world is a fifty-fifty chance. If you’ve already established that it’s a cold night, the chances that the guard is wearing gloves are pretty high.

That’s where the table comes in, which, in honor of my favorite Harry Potter character, I have dubbed: The “Sheer Dumb Luck” table.

150922luck

Simply pick the descriptor on the list that sounds right for whatever your players asked and roll 3d6. Is the guard wearing gloves? Very likely. Are there any pine cones? Somewhat likely. Any beryllium? Virtually impossible. If you roll equal to or under the number given, the answer is yes. If higher, no.

  • 4–Virtually impossible
  • 6–Very unlikely
  • 8–Unlikely
  • 10–Fifty/fifty
  • 11–Somewhat likely
  • 12–Likely
  • 14–Very likely
  • 15–Virtually certain

And the best thing about this table: sometimes, once you’ve rolled, you realize that the opposite answer is actually better. One way or another, you’ve answered the question and the adventure can keep rolling.

Like everything, it’s a tool, not a rule. Not everyone likes to leave as much up to chance in an adventure as I do. Use it if it helps, ignore it if it doesn’t.

Images: Books and dice by Erik Jensen; “Five points…” via rosereturns.tumblr.com

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.