"[Ornaments Mm through Xx.]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1619. See Original

Analog Games in Pop Culture : Why your Dice Collection is a Work of Art

Dice from David Chapman's collection

Dice from David Chapman’s collection

A dice collection is as unique as the person who owns it. They represent more than a gaming mechanic. The dice we use reflect our own personal interests and identity.

I believe they hold a greater mystique which we can examine as we unravel their history.

A Dice Collection Takes on Many Shapes

I think the first element we need to look for in our dice is their shape.

The Origins of the D20

The D20 wasn’t always the standard that we know of today. In Wargaming it was the six-sided die which held the most importance. Players demanded a more accurate representation of military statistics in their games. Leading to innovations in the 1970s for replicating percentile chance in combat.

“Thus, late in 1969, when chatter began in the ‘Must List’ of Wargamer’s Newsletter about the commercial availability of 20-sided dice, these implements were presented as a means of generating percentile numbers: the advertisement from the Bristol Wargames Society refers to them as ‘percentage dice’ and doesn’t even say how many sides they had. This is an area where the exotic icosahedron excels, as the models sold at the time were numbered 0-9 twice, rather than 1-20. With two throws, one could therefore generate a number from 1-100. Gary Gygax was among the readers of Wargamer’s Newsletter at the time, and thus it is unsurprising that he chimed in with a letter in the February 1971 issue saying, ‘I imagine that sales of 20 sided dice will pick up when Mike Reese starts selling the [Tractics] rules.’ The d20 gets an early mention in the Tractics rules published in the fall of 1971.” – Playing at the World, Jon Peterson

Gary Gygax incorporated the twenty-sided die into the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Along with the D4, D6, D8, and D12. Creative Publications of California were selling them as a set of platonic solids.

D20 as Any Other Shape

I love the line at the end of Jon Peterson’s article.

“Today, we can’t imagine polyhedral dice without thinking of gaming, but their association with games is the sort of happy historical accident that frequently accompanies success.”

Numberphile asked the question if the D6, D60 and D120 were fair dice. This video reveals a simple fact. It is the symmetry of these dice which makes them fair. It is this property which gives each face an equal chance of landing face up. This also applies to dice of varying sides including the D10.

The choice of platonic solids was fortuitous. Games going back as far as 5,500 years use these shapes as dice. There is an aesthetic beauty which make them popular. Games have also seen other polyhedra like the D14.

The Universal Beauty of a Dice Collection

The platonic solids appear frequently in art and architecture. You will find these familiar shapes in the world around you. The following are some examples which I hope will show you what is out there from a variety of sources.

There are only five platonic solids in three dimensions. They are also referred to as regular polyhedra.

Dice Collection from Jayson Elliot

Dice Collection from Jayson Elliot

The D4 – Tetrahedron or Triangular Pyramid
The D6 – Hexahedron or Cube
The D8 – Octohedron
The D12 – Dodecahedron
The D20 – Icosahedron

Astronomer Johannes Kepler represented the length between the planets and the sun as nesting platonic solids. This illustration is from the “Mysterium Cosmographicum.”

. "Orbivm Planetarvm dimensiones, et distantias per qvinqve regvlaria corpora geometrica exhibens. [Kepler's first cosmological model to explain the relative distances of the planets from the Sun in the Copernicun System]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1596.

. “Orbivm Planetarvm dimensiones, et distantias per qvinqve regvlaria corpora geometrica exhibens. [Kepler’s first cosmological model to explain the relative distances of the planets from the Sun in the Copernicun System]” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1596.

Mathematician George Hart collects examples of polyhedra in art on his website. I like the work from M.C. Escher.

If you keep your eyes open you may spot these shapes at your local store. Chandra Reyer pointed out that you can find this D12 shaped terrarium at target. There are also talented artisans on Etsy who make all sorts of objects for purchase. I am fond of these stained glass dice.


A Dice Collection has Many Tales to Tell

You don’t need the science to enjoy the way it feels to roll the dice. I believe it provides another layer of beauty to them. I am very proud of my collection. Each die reminds me of an adventure that I’ve had. That level of personal meaning makes each one special in my eyes. Just like a work of art.

What stories do you have connected with your dice?


  1. Avatar

    The 10-sided die is a relatively late addition, but it is now the standard for percentage dice. Does the article imply that because they are not Platonic solids the roll isn’t fair (random distribution)? I’m not sure…

    In the early days at TSR there was competition to paint/mark the D20s in the best and most artistic ways. Generally we were starting with plain single-colored dice, often white. We would fill in the numbers with ultra-fine sharpies or technical pens or paint brushes. 1 through 10 would have black numerals, and 11-20 would be in green, red, or gold. Very pretty–Dave Sutherland was a master at it. I also experimented with painting every other facet a contrasting color like red to make the 11-20 numbers pop out. The dice selection we have today is amazing and beautiful art!

    –Allen Hammack

    1. Avatar
      Susan Silver

      Not at all! Allen. I realize my wording is probably poor. Yes the D10 is fair. As well as other dice sets with more and less faces. I just focused on the platonic solids because I wanted to teach people more about the mathematics and beauty of them. I appreciate your feedback. I’ll try to re-work the language to make it more clear the intent.

      1. Avatar

        I agree, the math and geometry of the perfect Platonic solids is beautiful! Over the years, *many* different shapes and configurations of dice were tried, and a lot of them ended up being non-random because of unforeseen factors. The best resource on this is Lou Zocchi. I bet he would give you some interesting information for a follow-up. Fun article, Susan! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Wintertree Software

    I have a lot of dice. As in, a dice jar bigger than my head. I’ve been accumulating dice the better part of 40 years. I’m that person who always makes a beeline to the dice any time I set foot in a new FLGS. I just got some Space Roller dice (and you should too). I was doing a demo at a store for Free RPG Day, and I was set up too close to the dice display; I bought more dice. Because … dice. I So when I needed to take a picture of a lot of polyhedral dice for a product, that should have been easy, right? Just dump out the dice jar?

    Um … no. I have hundreds of dice, but mostly weird dice. I didn’t have enough non-weird, non-cubic dice, for the picture I needed. I had to order a bunch off Amazon! …so now I have even more dice….

  3. John Enfield
    John Enfield

    Each of my dice sets does tell a story. I’ve still got the first dice I used to learn D&D with. A set of all white ones which I’ve colored the numbers on back then. Kind of had to since the etched in numbers weren’t colored to start with making them hard to read. I also have a set of purple ones with gold numbers that my wife uses when she plays. My favorite set is my deep maroon with gold numbers. I’ve played them a lot. For a while, I had a set of basic blues that came with the 4e starter set of plastic minis that were declared unlucky by the group I was in. Didn’t use them for a long time, but now I don’t believe in unlucky dice anymore and am using them again. I especially like the D20 and have more of them than any other. My favorite has elvish script on each facet and looks like it’s stone. All of my dice are plastic though. Do you have any made of other materials? If so, do they feel as though they perform differently?

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