The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Superstitions - Dice

I like to think that I am a very rational person, that I base my actions on good reasoning and hard data.

But the simple fact of the matter is that I engage in a few superstitious behaviors. These are behaviors that even I think are silly, and that I know to be pointless, and yet I engage in them and feel as if they are good and sensible, even while intellectually knowing how foolish they are.

Case in point: dice. I am superstitious about dice.

Okay, a little background is in order to make this all make some sort of sense. My name is Matthew and I...I...[deep breath]...I am a gamer. And not someone who sits in front of an X-Box or Wii and presses buttons. No, I am a role-playing game enthusiast. I enjoy sitting around with my friends, pretending that we are adventurers out to slay dragons

Okay, I've said it, I feel better now, like a great weight has been lifted from my chest.

Now, contrary to popular belief, we don't dress up in costumes, we don't run around with plastic swords, and we don't address each other as "my lord" and "my lady" - people who do that are called LARPers (LARP for Live Action Role Playing) and even the geekier tabletop gamers tend to think that the LARP scene is a little strange.

No, we're tabletop gamers, we gather 'round the eponymous table, papers with our character's descriptions and statistics in front of of, and we play out the game using dice to resolve situations with uncertain outcomes.

There is a lot of dice rolling in the average game. Enough that many players jokingly refer to these games as "roll playing" rather than "role playing" games.

And that is where my superstition comes in.

See, in most truly random distribution of numbers, there will be streaks where the numbers are high, and streaks where the numbers are low. It has nothing to do with the way that the numbers are generated (provided that the number generation is truly random), it's just the way that random distributions work. The NPR show Radiolab even has a segment on this in which a mathematician is able to determine which list of numbers was truly randomly generated and which was created to look randomly generated by noting that the truly random list had more streaks of the same number in it.

And so it is around the gaming table. Every gamer knows that there will be a point in every evening in which they seem to be on fire - making every roll that they need to and failing few, if any, rolls - and others when they seem to have a losing streak, consistently failing rolls and making successful rolls just enough to get their hopes up to have them dashed again.

This is exactly what one would expect from a random distribution of numbers, you know, like the kind of distribution that one gets from rolling dice. I have even tested this, thinking that maybe there are characteristics of the dice that might make them more likely to roll one way or another, but when I chart my dice-rolling experiments (good lord, I am a geek, it's a wonder anyone listens to me), I find that they consistently act in the way predicted by random chance.

But, as the saying (which I have been unable to find the source of) goes, luck is probability taken personally, and as much as I am aware that my streaks of good or bad rolls are simply random, it feels like the universe is screwing around with me. I know that it's random chance and there's nothing for it, but I feel like I should be able to influence it in some way.

And so I try to influence it. I have a large number of dice (though not a huge number, like many of the other players that I know), and when I hit a streak in which I am rolling poorly, I switch to another die or set of dice. Of course, I usually continue to roll poorly, which makes this attempt to influence fate into an exercise in frustration, but at least for the moment I feel like I have done something useful. When I am playing a game (such as the older versions of Dungeons and Dragons* or GURPS) in which for some types of rolls a high number is good, and a low number is good for others, I'll even keep track of which dice seem to be consistently rolling high or low and designate those dice for those types of rolls.

And do I roll any differently than anyone else at the table? No, of course not. I don't even roll any differently than on those occasions when I only have one set of dice to roll and therefore can't switch them around. The evidence proves that I am not doing anything that could change the outcome of my games, and I know that. But I still feel like I am doing something to change the outcome.

I have witnessed other superstitions as well. I used to play with two guys who would roll their dice for a good 15-30 minutes straight before gameplay started in order to "get rid of the bad rolls." I know other people who will only buy dice in certain colors. And I know people who will only use dice that have had a ritual done over them.

Does any of this actually help? Most people will acknowledge that it doesn't actually do anything other than make them feel better, and they treat the thing with a rather tongue-in-cheek attitude. However, some folks claim that it does help them, but actually watching their gameplay demonstrates otherwise.

And, perhaps that is why so many people cling to superstitious behaviors, because many folks won't except that something that feels like its working really isn't doing any good.

Well, at least it's good to know that I am not alone. The blogger noisms has also posted about dice superstitions.

*Incidentally, a common scenario or "adventure" used in Dungeons and Dragons is the dungeon crawl - in which the player characters move around in some sort of interior maze, usually caverns, a castle, or the eponymous dungeon, killing monsters and stealing their loot. This has led to one of the host of the podcast Fear the Boot to describe it as "Home Invasion: The Role-Playing Game."


Jim Ryan said...

Good post!

Speaking as a LARPer, I have to say it: this is one of the reasons we don't use dice! ;)

(Okay, not really, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.)

Now, speaking as a tabletop gamer (Yes, we LARPers can be found sitting down at gaming tables as well! We're like communists! We could be anyone! Quick! Get your children tested for signs of haberdashery!) I must admit that I find myself setting my d20s down so that the 1 is always facing the top. I'm not entirely sure why I do this - I think it has mostly to do with the idea that it will be statistically less likely - or perhaps, slightly ironic - for a die that spends a majority of its time in the 1 position to actually ROLL 1s. Does this keep me from rolling 1s? Of course not!

I've had friends who liked to enact their superstitious die rituals to the point of annoyance, and I came up with this line of reasoning about it: There are only two options here. If what you're doing with the dice doesn't work, then there's no point in doing it, so you may as well stop. If it DOES work and you're actually influencing the outcome of the die roll, then that means you're cheating and therefore you SHOULD stop doing it. Either way, you should stop doing it.

Telling people this doesn't seem to help, and usually is more likely to get me in hot water with them than to actually get them to change what they're doing.

So these days I just let it go. Heck, if dice rituals make them feel better then that at least is helpful since they'll be approaching the game with a more positive attitude. Hey, whoever said the placebo affect is a BAD thing? :)

Anthroslug said...

"Heck, if dice rituals make them feel better then that at least is helpful since they'll be approaching the game with a more positive attitude. Hey, whoever said the placebo affect is a BAD thing? :)"

...and right there you hit the nail on the head. Ultimately, if it helps us have fun, I'm okay with it at the gaming table. Now, if these people were taking the same approach to medicine, I'd be concerned.

Oh, and yes, you LARPERS are a sneaky lot, aren't you? I'll have to keep alert!

Joshua said...

Jim, no, no no. 1s are bad. Very bad. Dice are ok face up as long as any number other than 1 is up. If they have a 1 on top then they get more used to rolling a 1.

Actually, I move dice off of 1 for a very specific reason. I've played enough games where 1s are bad that looking at dice with 1s on top actually makes me feel like something bad has just happened. This is especially the case if I just glance down at the die and see a 1.

Anthroslug said...

Joshua: I hand't even considered the possibility that many gamers might be conditioned to see particular numbers as bad, and that that may have as much bearing on how some folks arrange their dice as anything else. That's a good and really interesting observation.