When Dice Met Dungeon

These days it's not uncommon for board games to include "adventure"-style elements that mimic tabletop role-playing games, including using dice as a resolution mechanic. But it wasn't always that way.

Dice Came First

Greek poet Sophocles claimed that the Greeks invented dice games. Archaeological evidence proved otherwise, dating dice games as far back as 6000 B.C.:

The earliest dice can be traced back to 6000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, and were often used to tell fortunes. Ancient Egyptians played one of the oldest known board games called Senet with dice, and during the Tang Dynasty in China, people gambled using dice. Back then, people carved the objects into conical or knucklebone-like shapes from horse hooves or bone. It was not until the Roman Empire that the predominance of cubic dice emerged.

Around 2,600 B.C., tetrahedral (four-sided) dice were used in The Royal Game of Ur (a.k.a. "Game of Twenty Squares"). A possible precursor to backgammon, Ur is one of the earliest examples of dice used in a board game.

It wasn't until 1100 B.C. that dice became standardized, with numbers appearing on opposite faces equated to prime numbers. This transition was important, because in earlier times dice was largely considered to be representative of chance, and thus the shape of the die didn't really matter. As dice shifted from tools of prophecy to games of chance, balance became more important. Cubic dice were created in 400 B.C., thanks to the Romans. Combined with numbers on all the same sides and dice that were the same shape and size, games of chance flourished.

The iconic icosahedral die (20-sided) dates as far back as 200 B.C., with a Greek or Latin number on each of the faces. Although we associate polyhedral dice with the Platonic solids in role-playing games today, the concept of Platonic solids dates back to their namesake, Plato, in 360 B.C. Platonic solids are regular, convex polyhedrons constructed by congruent regular polygonal faces with the same number of faces meeting at each vertex. Just five of those solids meet the criteria: the aforementioned tetrahedron, cube, octahedron (eight-sided), dodecahedron (12-sided) and icosahedron. For a more detailed history of each polyhedral, see Save vs. Dragon's article and Awesome Dice's infographic.

Polyehdral dice are taken for granted today as part of most tabletop role-playing games, but their popularity was due in part to one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons.

From Board Game to Tabletop

Jon Peterson picks up the timeline of when dice jumped from board games to tabletop wargames:

Dice had played an integral role in gaming since Prussian wargamers of the early nineteenth century first developed combat resolution tables. Those games and the many works they influenced, however, relied exclusively on 6-sided dice, apart from a few experimental dead-ends (like Totten's 12-sided teetotum in the late nineteenth century). When modern hobby wargaming culture began in the 1950s, it too stuck with 6-siders: the first Avalon Hill game (Tactics, 1954) requires a "cubit" for combat resolution, and the miniature gamers who contributed to the War Game Digest similarly seemed content to rely on the d6. By 1970, however, polyhedral dice had begun to creep into the wargaming community, as we see in the advertisement above from a 1971 Wargamer's Newsletter.

Wargamers increasingly sought to determine more realistic odds of events happening on the battlefield, better-suited to a percentage range of 1 to 100. Icosahedrons were then labeled with two faces showing each 0 through 9, enabling gamers to generate a number from 1-100 with two throws. Co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, predicted sales of the d20 would pick up speed as it was used in games. There was just one problem -- nobody could source the dice locally in the U.S. That all changed in 1972:

News of an American supplier of 20-sided dice began to spread in mid-1972 through wargaming zines like The Courier, as in the notice from Dion Osika above. The dice were also prominently featured in the first issue of the People's Computer Club magazine of October 1972, with an advertisement that showed a spinner and then five "superdice." Intriguingly, the supplier, Creative Publications of California, only sold their 20-sider in a set with four other dice: one of each Platonic solid. These five geometric shapes alone have a special property (that all of their faces, edges and vertices have the same relationship to their center of gravity) which makes them ideal as dice.

Dave Anderson explains what happened next in Knights of the Dinner Table #150:

It was a small educational toy company that sold sets of dice for showing shapes. Each set had 1-4 sided (yellow), 1-6 sided (pink), 1-8 sided (bright green), 1-12 sided (light blue), and one 20-sided (a white one numbered 1-10). Made of soft plastic no one realized how quickly the 20-siders would wear out...The rules were not quite done when a problem arose. Would we break open the sets and take out only the 6-sider and the 20-sider? (The others would be donated to a local school) Well, a little work showed how labor intensive that would be, not to mention a waste of dice. The answer? Add rules that used the 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided, and not just the 20-sided dice.

With the debut of Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax did just that. Be they divination tools, gambling icons, or statistical models, polyehdral dice are frustrating and thrilling us today just as much as they did 8,000 years ago.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca


On the evolution of dice in the game, one thing struck me over the weekend. I was reading the reprint of the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG and there was not a single instance of the 3d6 style notation. It just says stuff like “roll three damage dice” with the assumption that these were d6’s.


I still have two partial sets of those low impact dice. The d4 and d8s died horrible deaths when I tried making ceramic dice molds using clay and a kiln using the 'lost die' method. The goal of making aluminum dice was less then totally successful. Today, the d20s are well rounded and roll a long time before picking a number.


Before dice, people split sticks or bones lengthwise so that they had a curved side and a flat side, and tossed several to achieve various combinations. (They didn't understand the probability very well, though!)

I understand that opposite faces of Viking dice didn't match the modern arrangement.

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