Tools for Tabletop: Narrating Descriptions

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So the player characters are tromping through a giant mushroom forest this week… what do I say to them? I need to tell them about the forest, but what words should come out of my mouth? Stopping with, “You walk into a giant mushroom forest,” won’t convey the world I’ve built in my head at all.

Narration advice I’ve heard includes: “read more”, “play lots of games and emulate your favorite GMs”, and simply “practice.” These are great suggestions but they don’t work for everyone. The anxiety jitters I feel when I sit down to GM haven’t gone away despite doing all those things.

After a lot of struggling, I found more specific narration suggestions in the writing community. Much of this post is based on the content and structure of a post by N. Strauss. Similar ideas and variations of them are discussed, in different terms, in this article by Stephen King from 1980 (link may be unreliable). I also found useful tips on scene goals in this post by Chris Eboch.  I condensed and reframed their ideas to more directly apply to tabletop RPG narration.

Many of these techniques are for describing physical places or people and most generalize to describing anything else that’s physically perceptible: creatures, spell effects, plants, prophetic visions, etc. Don’t feel limited by the exact examples I picked.

Before a game I sit down and write short bullet lists of three to eight items for places and NPCs the players are likely to run into. When I narrate I incorporate the points from the lists. I sometimes create more than I need, but no single place or person takes long. The things that I prepare ahead of time are much more vivid than things I come up with at the table.

Use specific details in your descriptions.

Imagine I’m GMing and I say, “Your party reaches a small village”, what are you picturing? Form an image of the scene in your mind.

Suppose I said, “Your party reaches a small gnomish village. All the homes and shops are diminutive but sturdy and well built.” Is the picture in your mind’s eye a bit different now?

How about, “Your party reaches a small gnomish village just as the sun begins sinking beneath the horizon. The diminutive homes and shops are sturdy and well built but strangely quiet. Doors are closed, windows are shuttered, and you don’t see anyone in the streets.” Is this place giving you a slightly different impression? Would your plan for what to do next change based on these details?

Specific details help the players take in the world the way they would if they were really there. Details also help players figure out how to begin reacting to the world and investigating new places and people.

Choose the details carefully.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking more details is more better, but a flood of irrelevant details will blot out the bigger picture and bore the monkeys out of your players. At some point they’ll tune out your “boxed text” or, worse yet, become actively disruptive in an attempt to make you stop talking.

Pick details that make the picture clear without overwhelming the players. If you’re worried about camouflaging something in the scene, like a trap trigger or hidden loot, make the environment more complex and interesting instead of padding the description with irrelevant details.

A competent trap builder would know better than to put an obvious pit trap in an otherwise featureless 10 by 10 room. Likewise, players don’t need to hear about the size and shape of every barrel in a storeroom if none of them are relevant to their quest or contain anything interesting.

Choose details that differentiate.

Just about every fantasy character has a race, so if you tell me a woman is an elf that doesn’t help me to picture her or know how to react to her. If you tell me she’s a thin elf in traveling clothing carrying a bow, I have more of an idea of who she is. There are still a lot of elves that could describe. If you also tell me she has a scar across her left eye, a medallion of the local neutral elven god around her neck, and an air of disdain about her when she looks at the non-elven party members, I have a much clearer impression. These details distinguish her from other elves the PCs will meet in their travels.

When you have to describe something, ask yourself how is this _____ different from all the other _____s that my party will run into?

Use details that suggest a bigger picture.

If you describe a tavern table as unpleasantly sticky, with a visible layer of grime that hasn’t been cleaned in years, I’m likely to assume the rest of the building is in a similarly disgusting and flea infested state. If you tell me that a cavern is scattered with fresh bones I’m likely to assume that a dangerous predator lives here… and could be coming back soon!

Keep the situation beyond the immediate scene in mind when you describe the surroundings. Include details that foreshadow or offer clues about things you want the players to know or guess.

This holds for characters and monsters as well. Scars, clothing, colors, patterns, and adornments can suggest their history and allegiances or foreshadow their future plans and loyalties.

Describe things the way the characters would perceive them.

Different player characters are likely to notice different things in the same situation. You can add a lot of flavor by giving a player additional description specific to their character’s history, unique skills, or physical position in the environment.

For example, a rogue may have a sharper eye on the details of security, like locks and guard patterns, or they may notice how easily NPCs could be bamboozled or pickpocketed. Someone who grew up locally might be quicker to pick out strange changes to local traditions. A shorter race like a halfling (or someone who’s been knocked to the floor with a well timed punch) will probably have an easier time seeing a paper pinned to the underside of a table. 

Don’t force the PC to mechanically test for this information. This isn’t hard for them to notice; you’re telling them about things they can see easily that others would have a more difficult time perceiving.

You can pass PC-specific description to a player in a note or verbally. If you start passing notes it’s up to the player if they want to share the information truthfully with the others. If you tell them verbally the other players will know, whether or not their characters find out. Each strategy has it’s strengths and some groups handle one or the other with more grace.

Incorporate all the senses in the description.

Picture a scene in your mind and imagine the visuals of what the characters would see there. If you also think about how it smells, what temperature it is, and what it sounds like it’ll feel more like a real place. Sounds, smells, and other tactile cues don’t need to be ominous or strange. A bakery might smell of cinnamon, or closing a door might dampen the noise from a party the characters are sneaking out of. The existence of the other senses will better connect your players to the moment and can give them hints to what’s happening around them.

This particular piece of advice is a bit trite, but used with the other techniques, it creates more immersive and vivid descriptions.

Tell players what they perceive, not how they feel about it.

When you GM it feels easy to describe things in terms of reactions or judgments. I can’t count the number of times GMs have told me non-player characters were “sweet” or “trustworthy” when my first reaction was they’ll more likely than not push me into a volcano if I turn my back on them. As a GM you don’t get to dictate how PCs feel about the world. Nine times out of ten if you try to tell them how to feel they’ll ignore you anyway.

Pushing value judgments also isn’t an effective way to describe things. “You see at a scary castle,” isn’t going to make your players feel fear. Instead choose specific details that are intended to make the castle sound ominous and uninviting.

“After hours of trudging up and down you round the curve of a last hill and get your first glimpse of the castle. It’s still about a half mile away, up the twisting, winding path on the mountainside. The castle’s foundation juts out from the rocks of the cliffside so that half of it sits over empty air. In the shadow of the mountain it’s hard to make out the exact shape of the castle walls, but you can pick out the dark roofs of the jagged tower tops silhouetted against the sky. The wind picks up and you can hear a faint whistling or howling from somewhere within the castle’s crumbling stones.”

If you describe a scary castle, the players will feel the fear on their own.

Phrase descriptions in terms of what the PCs perceive. Avoid describing things with value judgments (“nice”, “ugly”, “beautiful”, “kindly”) or feelings that imply a character’s reaction (“scary”, “infuriating”, “lovable”, “confusing”). To get a specific reaction or value judgment from the PCs, focus on describing details that would cause you to react that way or make that value judgement.

Note: There are some times when mechanics like magic dictate how a character feels. Those are an obvious exception here. It’s still important to give the players some agency. Yes, the mechanics may say their character must flee from the dragon in terror, but while terrorized and fleeing different characters are going to react differently. Tell the player the restrictions of the mechanic and let them narrate their own (re)actions under those restrictions.

Describe things with a purpose.

Narration is a powerful tool. It can help you to move the plot forward, create moods, give players big pieces of information, or subtle hints and nudges in new direction when they get confused. You can pack a lot into each scene.

In a tabletop game you don’t always know where the protagonists are headed. Sometimes the players expect a scene to be important, and it doesn’t match where you thought the plot was going, so you don’t have anything planned. You can still strive to make the most of whatever situation the party wanders off into.

You can use a scene to:

  • advance the current plot
  • advance the over-arching plot
  • give the characters important information
  • give the characters hints or rumors about the over-arching plot
  • reveal something about the PCs or NPCs
  • reveal something about the world
  • develop a theme or foreshadow a future event
  • set the mood

When you imagine a scene for the first time, pick one to four of these goals you want to accomplish in the scene. You’ll need to decide the specifics of the goals, like what future event you’d be foreshadowing. When you come up with your descriptions be sure to include at least one or two details that support each of the goals you chose and, if possible, a few details related to what the players are likely to want from the area.

Revealing things about the protagonists in tabletop games is slightly different than in books. It can be prompted by something the GM pulled from a character’s backstory and worked into the current plot. It can also be spontaneous and player driven. When I run long term games I compile lists of themes and elements players have built into their characters. Using these same themes and elements in the plot or incidentally in the world can give the players opportunities to build on their characters, without pulling the development out of their hands. 

Setting the mood in a scene is crucial in some genres and it’s different with a table full of players than a single reader. I try to slowly build up to mood changes over several scenes in the way that a good horror story builds up normality. For horror and unease specific mood, I’ve found that weather, light, and heat related descriptions can have a profound impact on how players feel about about a place. Often how uneasy my players are is directly proportional to how normal vs unnatural the weather and temperature is. For example, if the party enters a shop, it can also be dark, strangely cold and damp, or smelling of mouldy books.


Put your descriptions in terms of what the PCs perceive. Include specific details and pick enough of them to illustrate important things in the scene without going into all the irrelevant minutiae. Decide which details to use by asking how the specific thing you’re describing differs from similar ones the PCs have seen or will run into. Use descriptions including multiple types of sensory information (sight, sound, smell, touch, etc.). When possible offer individual PCs different details geared toward their personal view of the world. If you want the players to feel something or make a value judgment, focus on describing details that would cause you to feel those feelings or make that value judgement. 

Decide if there are situations or future events beyond the immediate scene you want to foreshadow. Pick one to four specific goals you’d like to accomplish in each scene.

Don’t worry if you only use some of these tips at any given time. A scene in a tabletop game doesn’t need to be a perfectly nuanced and polished masterpiece. The purpose of descriptions in RPGs is to convey the important details to the players, not write a book.

What about all that other narration that’s not description?

There’s a lot to narration that’s not description of the static physical state of things. Action narration, combat narration, and effectively role-playing NPCs are each their own cans of worms that I’m not going to open right now. Depending on my motivation I may write about more of these in the future. 🙂

What Defines Reality at the RPG Table?

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The in-game world in a tabletop RPG is subjective. Everything exists in the thoughts of the people sitting around the table. This theoretical world only becomes a shared reality when one person tells the others what they think exists.

More concretely, if words don’t come out of your mouth, the part of the world you’re imagining doesn’t exist for the table as a whole.

It took me a while to realize why this is so dangerous. As a GM if I imagine important things that I don’t describe, players often misunderstand what I imagined in the physical space around their PCs. This can lead to unfortunate situations where they make decisions that are reasonable based on how they imagine the world and utterly stupid based on how I imagine the world. The problem isn’t that the players are stupid, crazy, or reckless; I gave them a bad view of what’s in my mind.

This kind of miscommunication can lead to some very frustrating games of Twenty Questions as players grope around the metaphorical landscape trying to get the GM to illuminate details that their characters should be able to easily perceive. It’s frustrating for both the players and the GM.

Players aren’t immune to failing at this kind of detail communication either; since they aren’t traditionally the final arbiters for the table’s shared reality, when players fail to communicate it affects the game in a different way. Players sometimes don’t mention things they imagine about their character or their character’s actions and only realize later that the GM didn’t default to imagining the same things. This is the classic situation of “but I totally bought rations at the last town,” when buying rations would be a reasonable thing to do, but the player hadn’t explicitly mentioned it.

As the GM this puts me in a bad position: either I have to tell the player that since it wasn’t in the shared reality (they didn’t tell the table before) it isn’t true, or I can tell them that it’s fine, they can have done something after-the-fact. Neither of these is ideal. Players who get shut down for not conveying their mental model of the world clearly tend to become paranoid and over communicate every little detail, no matter how irrelevant or boring.

Players who are always allowed to do things “after the fact” face the temptation of saying they would have done things they wouldn’t have because it’s convenient for their characters to have done them. Most groups want to build their narrative chronologically, with a planned release of secret information over time for dramatic effect. So a lot of gamers I know look down on a player changing their actions after-the-fact as something that verges on cheating. Even if I don’t think it’s a big deal in a specific case, it tends to make people grumpy if some after-the-fact action changes are allowed and others are not. And if I wanted to run a game where players could retroactively change the continuity of the narrative at any time I’d be better served by a less traditional RPG.

The other dangerous thing about the table’s shared reality is that it makes secret-keeping feel far more clever than it is. In real life secrets can be hard to cover up… there’s often physical evidence or multiple people who might spill the beans. If I want to keep a secret from my players in a game, it’s pretty darn easy. Literally everything in a tabletop game is secret until you tell the table about it.

Because it’s hard to keep secrets perfectly in real life, keeping secrets in a game feels seductively valuable. It’s not… and when I started seeing everything as secret by default I realized that if I keep a secret perfectly, it adds nothing to the game. It’s never revealed and none of the players know or care about it’s existence.

Instead of hoarding secrets like dragon gold, it’s more fun to slowly reveal them over time. Building up clues and hints gives clever players something to puzzle over. For unobservant players who don’t care about figuring out secrets it may just be background color that makes the world seem a bit more chaotic and real. When a secret is revealed later that color may take on interesting retroactive significance.

Hoarding secrets is a common pitfall for players too. If you’re playing a character with cool appearance, dark secret, or interesting back-story and you never bring it up in game you’ve lost the opportunity to share this cool aspect of your character with the other people at the table. Don’t hold character secrets close to your chest. Get them out there and let them define you in-character. If they cause messy complications, that’s one more thing the GM can work into the fabric of the story, and GMs almost always appreciate PCs with opportunities for more story!* If you ask some GMs will even be willing to conspire and help you yank some skeletons out of your closets.

This post has mostly talked abstractly about when to communicate the things you imagine and share secrets you’re hiding. I’ve read posts on similar topics and they always make me think, “but how exactly do I describe something so the other people here see what I’m imagining?” It’s a question that I struggled with for a long time. In my next post I’ll be offering a few concrete tips.

* Note: This isn’t a license to be an asshole. If you do things that seriously hurt or kill the other PCs without asking the players if that’s okay, you’re going to deserve whatever censure you get. If you knowingly hurt players by pushing their out-of-character buttons without making sure that’s something they’re okay with, you should probably rethink why you’re taking part in this hobby.

Escaping Wargaming: How the Purpose of Rules Has Changed in the Tabletop World

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I want to start by saying, I have a strong fondness for wargames. I cut my teeth on board games and tactical wargames long before I got excited about tabletop RPGs. Wargames have rules, generally well defined rules, and that’s a lot easier for a kid who’s a bit awkward around other people.

The origins of RPGs in wargaming are far before my time (I’m not that old!) but I’ve seen the echos of how wargaming has shaped the industry right through to modern times. There’s a series of unspoken assumptions that people make about rules and how the rules you have reflect on a game that’s slowly shifted over the years. New, truly innovative games have chipped away at old ideas and prejudices as people began to accept that a game can have a short book with few rules and produce a consistent and enjoyable experience.

In the 80’s and 90’s the RPG writer’s favorite example of why we have rules seemed to be a kid’s game of cops and robbers. “It’s like that,” they’ll say, “but we have rules so that when one person says ‘I hit you!’ the other person can’t just say ‘No, you missed!’” The problem is, even kids don’t quite behave that way. Sure they fight and disagree, but kids have a great sense of narrative arcs and they absorb archetypal stories and characters like sponges. When I ran games for kids it was awesome how hard they worked to get things like “the anti-hero’s redemption through heroic sacrifice” to happen. They knew that was how the stories were supposed to go.

Beyond that, most of us aren’t children. The unspoken point behind the cops and robbers example is that children can be petulant and angry when they don’t get their own way. Assuming that you need iron clad rules to adjudicate every conflict without wiggle room means the players and GM you’re modeling are so immature they never got past that development stage. Do we really think gamers are incapable of looking beyond their immediate wants to the desires of other people or the needs of the group? Or that they’re totally incapable of separating their in-character persona from their out-of-character self?

None of this was important in war games because players weren’t actors in the unfolding drama. You might want that cavalry unit to win a skirmish, but you weren’t personally invested in the survival of one of those little riders. You were focused on the larger battle and the tactical puzzle of how to beat your opponent. The rules were used to abstract away physical and psychological things on the battlefield, since recreating a battle at 1:1 scale with actual military gear and people killing each other isn’t practical.

The focus of many wargames has traditionally been on understanding and recreating historical events, so rules supporting realism were valued over a game being fast or abstractly fun. It’d be especially bad if a wargame was prone to unrealistic numerical imbalances of power, since the overt goal is generally to give players a fair chance to display their tactical prowess as if they were commanding real units. These values have persisted for a long time in the tabletop community and you can still find gamers who put a very high premium on rules being “realistic”, “technically correct”, or “accurate”… even to the exclusion of being fun at times.

But in a tabletop game the role each person takes is very different than in a wargame and what it means to “win” is coincidentally different. What people think of as winning in RPGs varies about as much as what they think it means to win in real life. Designers have always tried to deal with this to some degree. We’ve seen cooperative tabletop games, adversarial tabletop games, and games that can be either depending on the player’s choices. This all sounds very flexible, but up until the last ten years or so many designers lost sight of why rules existed in their games.

Highly tactical games, like Shadowrun or editions of D&D like 3.0 and 3.5, focus on creating an air-tight set of “realistic” tactical rules… giving the players something they hopefully can’t subvert or unbalance too badly. This is often a reaction to the power-gaming that occurred in earlier versions of the rules. Other than power gaming issues, designers didn’t generally talk about what kinds of gameplay those rules were encouraging or what kind of gameplay they wanted to encourage. If you wanted a good experience at the table, you had to find a good GM or be a good GM.

To me it felt a lot like wearing a sweater 5 sizes too big to a formal dance. Sure, I’m not nude, but I’m really not dressed for the occasion. If I go to the dance with my best friends we’ll probably enjoy it, but the sweater isn’t helping me to have fun, just keeping me from being arrested for public indecency.

For a while there was push-back against highly tactical, complex games. Some games, like Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), began trying to present simpler, more compact rules that let groups ignore the “realistic” complexities and get on with their gaming. Many of these games were still very generic and a lot of people looked down on them because they didn’t have highly structured systems. I got some side-eyes when I chose to run a BESM game and I’m pretty sure that a few of my friends filed it away mentally as, “well she’s just doing it because she can’t handle the rules in a real game like D&D.”

Some of these games also hearkened back to the subset of the very early old school RPGs that had much simpler rules. A few of these early games, like Tunnels & Trolls, are still around and started getting considerably more attention during this period.

Slowly game designers began to question, what game are these rules creating? How can I create the experience I want with different rules? And what experiences do gamers want anyway? This led to games like My Life with Master and Steal Away Jordan that pushed players into more narrative responsibilities and situations that were possibly less familiar or comfortable.

Over time these indie games got more and more traction and larger companies started producing rules that were tuned to helping players create the experience the designers wanted, rather than modeling reality. Not all of these were “rules light” or moved in the direction you might think. D&D 4.0 was built on rules geared to create a tactical combat game that valued a balanced and fun player experience rather than pure simulation or realism; it was a big deviation from it’s predecessors and upset a lot of people because of it. Around this time we also got a flood of narrative storytelling games like Shock and Fiasco that shifted the responsibility of narration entirely over to players, removing the GM from the game.

There are still people who prefer Shadowrun to Fiasco or the Leverage RPG, but the general attitudes have shifted. Games aren’t looked down on just because they have fewer or less traditional rules and people are starting to understand that a game can create other kinds of experiences if it uses rules designed for purposes other than simulation.

There may still be lessons in wargaming that can help us to grow, but we’re beginning to build games based on the unique needs of tabletop play, instead of living in wargaming’s shadow.

How True Are Your d20s?

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Old black and white photograph of stacks of dice from TSR, Koplow, Armory, ‘oriental imports’, and GameScience. There are two stacks for each company. Each pair of stacks is uneven, except for the pair of GameScience Stacks

Photograph of Lou Zocchi, a large white man, balding with grey hair, wearing dark rimmed glasses and a t-shirt.

Lou Zocchi

Lou Zocchi is a man who cares deeply about dice. Zocchi’s well practiced speech on on dice quality is famous. It’s fairly entertaining if you have 20 minutes to spare. Part of his argument is the above photograph. Zocchi stacked twenty-sided dice from several companies. Each stack places the same numbers on the top and bottom. For example, one stack might have 1 placed on top of 20 repeatedly, while the next stack might have 9 placed on top of 12 repeatedly. Based on the height of the stacks, it appears that everyone’s dice are irregularly shaped. Everyone’s, except for Zocchi’s.

Did Zocchi pick and choose for best effect? If it was accurate at one point, is it still? I’m pretty sure that the photograph dates to the late 1980s or early 1990s. One of the companies, TSR, hasn’t existed since 1997. Is this still a fair comparison? Eva and I set out to find out.

Image of stacks of dice from Crystal Caste, Chessex, Koplow, and GameScience. The stacks are assembled from multiple photographs.

(Click to see it in all of its obsessive glory. You can also see the monstrous 6,219×1,920 image.)

Photograph of two twenty sided dice from GameScience, one opaque green and one translucent red. The 7 face in on top of both, and flashing is visible along one edge of the 7 face.

Flashing on GameScience dice

These are stacks of twenty-sided dice from Crystal Caste, Chessex, Koplow, and GameScience. There are 20 from each company, 10 opaque and 10 translucent or transparent. I lost one of the Chessex translucent dice, so there are only 9 in those stacks. We stacked each set of 10 dice three times, once stacking 20s and 1s, once stacking 12s and 9s, and once stacking 11s and 10s. For the GameScience dice, we also stacked the 14s and 7s, as the 7s have the worst of the flashing.

There is an clear problem with the Crystal Caste dice. We didn’t notice anything odd when we originally purchased them, but their elongated shape is obvious when you know to look for it. Chessex has similar, but less severe, irregularities. Koplow’s dice hold up well in this test, especially the translucent dice. GameScience’s dice are incredibly consistent… except for the 14/7 sides.

There is substance to Zocchi’s claims, although Koplow is a serious challenger. But the photographs are really a publicity stunt, colorful, not rigorous science. So we broke out a digital caliper and measured the distance between every opposite pair of faces for every one of the 79 dice.

Once we had the measurements, I analyzed them. For each individual die I calculated the largest difference between the widths of each pair of sides. Across all of the dice for a given manufacturer, I then calculated the minimum, average, and maximum differences. I also calculated the standard deviation across all of the face pairs across all of the dice for a manufacturer. If a company’s dice are uneven, it will show up here. I broke Crystal Caste into two groups because it became clear that their translucent and opaque dice are wildly different.

Differences in paired face widths by manufacturer in inches

Company Min Avg Max StdDev
Chessex 0.014 0.020 0.027 0.010
GameScience 0.002 0.005 0.009 0.003
Crystal Caste 0.016 0.026 0.044 0.022
…CC Opaque 0.016 0.017 0.021 0.006
…CC Translucent 0.028 0.035 0.044 0.012
Koplow 0.006 0.010 0.020 0.006

The numbers reinforce what is visible in the photograph. Crystal Caste’s translucent dice are the most irregular. Crystal Caste’s opaque and Chessex’s entire line are more uniform, but aren’t in the same class as Koplow and GameScience. Koplow’s dice are very uniform, but GameScience trumps everyone else.

We avoided the flashing on the GameScience dice as it was hard to get repeatable results measuring on the flashing. Based on the stacking test it’s clear that the flashing adds a significant amount of irregularity, so I recommend sanding off the flashing.

I was also interested in seeing how consistent a manufacturer’s dice are. Low consistency suggests uneven manufacturing and makes an entire line of dice suspect. For each pair of faces I calculated the standard deviation across all dice for a manufacturer, then identified the largest value for each manufacturer.

Width standard deviation by manufacturer

Company Max 1-20 2-19 3-18 4-17 5-16 6-15 7-14 8-13 9-12 10-11
Chessex 0.014 0.014 0.010 0.006 0.006 0.006 0.006 0.010 0.009 0.008 0.007
GameScience 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.002 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.002 0.003
Crystal Caste 0.036 0.036 0.028 0.014 0.013 0.015 0.016 0.029 0.028 0.014 0.013
…CC Opaque 0.002 0.002 0.001 0.001 0.001 0.001 0.002 0.001 0.001 0.002 0.002
…CC Translucent 0.006 0.006 0.003 0.003 0.005 0.004 0.003 0.004 0.006 0.002 0.004
Koplow 0.008 0.008 0.006 0.005 0.004 0.007 0.005 0.005 0.005 0.007 0.003

These results are more surprising. Chessex’s dice are the least consistent. Koplow’s are much more consistent. Crystal Caste’s translucent dice are surprisingly quite consistent. GameScience makes highly consistent dice. The biggest surprise is Crystal Caste’s opaque dice, which were the most consistent. This leads me to conclude that Crystal Caste’s misshapenness is not the result of inconsistent manufacturing processes, nor something as random as being tumbled as Zocchi claims. I believe Crystal Caste has malformed molds or master dice. When Eva bought the dice, she was told that the opaque dice, which we found to be more regular, were from the first few batches of a new set of molds. If Crystal Caste has moved to these new molds, it’s possible that their quality has risen to roughly the same level as Chessex’s.

Clearly the shape of a die impacts how it lands, but it’s hard to say how much it affects the randomness. Sure, GameScience dice seem better than the others, but are Koplow’s random enough for actual play? Determining this requires actually rolling the dice, a task Eva and I plan to undertake in the future. In the meanwhile, check out this fascinating article suggesting that GameScience’s dice are measurably more random than Chessex’s… except when it comes to rolling 14, the side opposite the flashing! There is also some good research on showing a distressing bias toward 1 on Chessex and Games Workshop six-sided dice.

Added 2013-02-26: Matthew J. Neagley has done some more analysis of our measurements over at Gnome Stew.

For myself, I was impressed with Koplow’s dice, but they fail to arrange the numbers so that the sum of opposites sides equals the largest number on the die plus one. That won’t bother some people, but it drives me crazy. I foresee more GameScience dice in my future.

Raw Data and Results

The raw data for the dice width measurements and calculated results are available as a Google Drive spreadsheet.


The Dice

Eva purchased the dice in 2009, directly from each company’s booth at Gen Con. She attempted to get an assortment of colors to avoid bias from a single batch of dice. Eva told each company about our plans to measure the dice and asked if there were particular dice they wanted us to use. They uniformly said to choose whichever dice she liked. The GameScience staff reminded her to stack them on the side with the flashing as well.

The dice are unmodified and have not been subjected to significant wear and tear since their purchase. We have not used them for any games. They spent most of their life sitting in plastic baggies in a storage tub on a shelf.. We left the flashing on the GameScience dice.

The Photographs

Photograph of a framework built out of Legos designed to hold dice in two stacks.I built a measurement framework to hold the dice out of precision engineered Danish scientific aparatus: Legos. The framework has uneven legs so that it leans backward, simplifying stacking dice. The framework has two “grooves” into which dice can be stacked.

I mounted the camera onto a tripod pointed into the corner of a built-in shelf. I pushed a blue Lego baseplate with a smooth center areas into the corner. I placed the framework onto the smooth center area and pushed it into the corner where it was stopped by the Lego studs at the end. By pushing the blue plate into the corner of the shelf and the framework into the corner of the plate, I could ensure consistent placement between photographs.

I put sets of dice into each groove, 10 at a time (9 for the Chessex translucent), stacking so that a given pair of numbers was always on the tops and bottoms: 20/1, 12/9, 11/10, and for GameScience only 14/7. Koplow dice are numbered differently, there is no 12/9 pairing, instead I stacked 12/2.

I stacked the dice so that the triangle of the face on top roughly aligned with the triangle on the face touching it, causing the dice to alternate in facing. I marked each stack with a label sitting at the bottom of the framework. (You can see the labels, a bit of pink, at the bottom of some of the stacks.) I repeated for each pair of sides. The same dice are used in each case, but the order of the dice was not preserved. I ordered the dice using the scientific principle of “whatever I happened to grab,” with the exception of striving to ensure that the top most die was reasonably visible against the background.

I loaded the photographs into the GNU Image Manipulation Program, sliced the photographs into individual stacks, and grouped the stacks by manufacturer and translucency. I used the top and bottom edges of Legos at the top and bottom of the framework for alignment. No scaling was done. Because the groves in the framework were very close, edges of the adjacent stack are visible in the final image.

The Measurements

Eva and I measured the dice using Wixey Digital calipers model wr100, accurate to a thousandth of an inch. In the case of the 7 face on the GameScience dice, the face with worst flashing, we avoided the flashing as much as we could to ensure repeatable results.