Second World Simulations - Theory and Practice

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 Theory and Practice
Written by Steve Peterson
Saturday, 03 June 2006
I originally thought that I'd talk about a few instances in games or game design or microwave food preparation where the theory sounded awfully good, but the practice didn't quite work. Then I wrote up this next bit and figured I had enough so perhaps I'll visit some of the other instances in a later column.

### The little Caltrops

You know what I'm talking about; those tiny devices that ought to have small arrows pointing towards the tips with the caption, "face towards enemy". You could say I'm not a big fan of the d4. Sure it has the whole almost-a-symbol-of-Masonic-order thing going but that doesn't excuse the fact that it rolls horribly. You toss it hard at the table and it bounces once then slides to the floor. You drop it from a height of six feet and it lands exactly the way you held it; that's a randomizer?!? I'd like to see the medical statistics for how many gamers these things have sent to the emergency room. Forget that one's on the floor and no more mambo for a while; slam your head into the table after rolling the third fumble in a row and everyone will think you've converted to some odd chance-oriented variant of Hinduism; slam your hand onto the table to make a point and you'll find the sandmen on your trail. While I'll never understand why games can't just do away with the little horrors altogether, a while back someone came out with this fantastic idea, a cure for the d4, a device that rolled well and didn't need to be declared on your insurance form.

This was the eight-sided four-sided die. The execution is simple of course, like most great ideas. They simply numbered the eight faces of a regular eight sided die from 1 to 4 twice. This rolled well, only hurt a bit when you stepped on it (and didn't stick permanently in your foot), and didn't require a weird numbering scheme to indicate the value that had come up. You just read the number on the top like all normal dice. You see, way back when I first started the whole gaming thing my group opened up our blue box with the vaguely cat-looking dragon on the cover and saw all these nifty (but not terribly durable) plastic dice inside. No problem with most of them but then we came to the four-sider; it didn't work like the others. It lacked a top. Being either innate geometricians (or unobservant slugs) my friends and I immediately recognized that only one side amongst the four really stood out from the others (1); that was the bottom side. So we'd go ahead and roll the die then pick it up, look at the numbers on the bottom and use that to determine what we rolled. Of course the idiots who designed the thing couldn't just put one number on the bottom, they had to put an arcane array of three numbers each facing outward or inward, depending on the particular die designer. Fortunately, the sum of each side added to a different number between 6 and 9 inclusive so we could just quickly add the values up, subtract 5, and that gave us our result. During those years we may very well have been the fastest humans in the world at adding together 1 + 3 + 4 - 5.

I seem to have side-tracked; don't worry, this all has a point and it actually does have a lot to do with theory and practice. So along comes these eight-sided four-siders and I'm finally happy; I can stop rolling buckets of six-siders in Shadowrun and Champions and play a little D&D 2e or even allow Obsidimen back into my Earthdawn campaign. Theory here had me by the cajon�s. So we start using them and I no longer fear using a dagger wielding kobold in my game; I no longer avoid assigning evil wizards magic missile and cone of cold spells. Everything proceeds swimmingly and I'm dishing d4-damage like a madman. I actually like the way an eight-sider rolls; it's a bit more rolly than a six-sider but doesn't wander around your table indefinitely while everyone stares at it waiting for it to drop off into the cat food like a twenty-sider. Yep, eight-siders and twelve-siders roll real good; you'd think the ten-siders would roll well too but since White Wolf decided that buckets of ten-siders would be 66% better than buckets of six-siders, die-makers have flooded the market with high-impact, gently-rounded-edge ten-siders. High-impact dice have that innate bounciness that, when combined with smooth round edges, produce a rolliness just shy of the twenty-sider (though nothing even approaches the rolliness of the 24 year old white-plastic twenty-sider named Chuck you still have left over from the blue box).

Have I side-tracked again? Anyway, we're loving the eight-sided four-siders (2) and rolling away. Then it happens. Anyone who's picked up these lovelies knows what I'm talking about. Anyone's who's picked up these lovelies and favors longswords or 2e flamestrikes knows exactly what I'm talking about. You drop that twelve-die flamestrike on a crowd of ghouls (any creature that can possibly force you to make 3 saves vs. paralysis in 2e deserves far worse than a flamestrike) ready to see a satisfying 50+ or even 60+ points of purifying fire damage and here it comes: 27. With bad luck a bunch of the saving throw factories could even make it. Meanwhile the fighter dinks away with what seems like an endless series of one's and two's over there. With the flamestrikes you'll check pretty quickly of course and see the first traces of the eight-sided four-sider virus spread in amongst what you thought were your regular eight-siders. The fighter might not share your good fortune though. I've seen a player notice as late as two to three hours into the night; and my players did an awful lot of hacking.

But we're all smart people; after all, we've got something like 80 years of college between the four of us. So we hold to the theory. Theory is all powerful; theory is good; if you want a good, albeit over-hyped, discussion of how theory withstands counter-examples see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Eight-sided four-siders are the wave of the future and we just haven't mastered them yet (after all, we still smarted from our slowness at mastering the four-sided four-sider). What we needed to do was color-code. Each player has their own set of eight sided dice; the true eight-siders all black and the four-siders white. Of course we're all pretty cheap so we couldn't have a universal rule where all dice at the table were either black or white and all and only black eight sided dice were eight-siders. So we get to the game, organize our dice appropriately and start hacking. I surprise the 12th level group with a crowd of third level clerics, the group blanches (still 2e remember), and the fighter leaps into the middle of the saving-throw gatling guns. Bam, bam, bam and he sees a 1, a 2, and a 2 and he's still surrounded. And now the wizard has to weigh the value of dead hold person factories against a thoroughly scorched (and already somewhat pissed-off) player character fighter. There's just no way you can keep dice segregated through the course of a night; players share because their dice rolled across the table or got misplaced under the character sheet or pile of pork rinds or the player just forgets all about the color coding in the panic of facing a crowd of low-xp-value opponents that can make your party roll a total of 15+ saving throws per round. It takes a while to sink in and an awful lot of 1's and 2's on damage dice; eventually you get to the point where whenever you roll a 2 for longsword damage you pick up the eight-sider just to be sure. Finally, the theory has to go and you put the eight-sided four-siders in the big box with Chuck and all the other dice you don't use anymore.

And you think that's the end. You think you've done the great experiment and there just ain't no ether out there. But it never ends; eight-sided four-siders are like film psychos; they just keep coming back. You finish out your campaign rolling the little caltrops then, after a brief hospital stay, decide to go back to some other game, perhaps one of the buckets of dice games. So you play that for a while but those games don't have a gazillion scenarios produced every year for them so you come back to the one game that might not have the buckets of dice thing going for it but does have buckets of stuff-I-don't-have-to-spend-10-hours-a-week-writing-up going for it. Your hapless players walk into the dungeon (sans daggers and spell slots filled out with sleep) and face down their first orc. And that orc just pulverizes them; the fighter can't get a 5 to save his life. The orc laughs off their puny attacks and you're thinking kobolds, gotta stick with the kobolds next time. Then the player of the fighter notices it; you see, back in the buckets of dice game you needed to pull in ALL your dice, including the spare six-siders or ten-siders you stashed away in the no-use box. And when you did that you gave the virus a chance to spread. What you need is some kind of dice-prophylactic. Gamers hate to give up their dice; they'll keep Chuck even when he's grown utterly featureless and they can't distinguish him from a ping-pong ball. So tossing the eight-sided four-siders causes a special kind of pain; but, ultimately, it's what you have to do. So you go through your boxes, cans, bags, cups, and old popcorn containers full of dice and you segregate out all the eight-sided ones then you carefully check each one and toss the four-siders in the trash because they are a virus, a chronic one, and if you don't take drastic measures like these they will come back to haunt you, over and over.

1) I hope that my group's ability to pick out asymmetries in the spatial structure of the world and the objects that inhabit it point more to our potential for discovering startling new truths about the underlying physics of the world than to our incredible cloddishness in not noticing that only one of the three numbers on a side read right-side up, and that it was the same number no matter what side you looked at. That we read d4's wrong for much longer than I'd like to admit and that we never really bothered to ask why they'd put three numbers on each face in the first place probably answers that question.

2) Or should it be four-sided eight-siders?

Last Updated ( Sunday, 04 June 2006 )

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