Dice. Magical, wonderful, glittering things that dice are, they hold a particular place in the imagination and memory of fantasy gamers. Of course, online and even good old stand-alone computer or console games are certainly more swift with the calculation of fate than tossing tetrahedral chunks of plastic. The stunning graphics, sound, and special effects are alluring indeed, and the gameplay speed itself is a sometimes good thing. But good old dice and the ubiquitous wonder of graph paper can renew one beautifully absolute aspect of fantasy, both writing and gaming, that to me speaks a great deal about the emotions involved: finality, or at least occasionally immutable moments.
This all came to mind as I watched my daughter and son work through Baldur’s Gate together on our older laptop earlier this year. They were thrilled with the alternate selves they created, an Elven archer and Halfling illusionist who astutely suited their personalities. I was immeasurably pleased that they appreciated the way the game world came together, and how their actions and interactions influenced events, but managed to avoid pointing our life lessons. After all, I look forward to years of having more gamers in our house, so laying anything on too thick may have been counter-productive! But as they worked along, and as the quests and situations became more challenging (“So many knolls, Daddy!”), I became a little uneasy with how I advised them to work through the game. They became adherents of the “save” function, disciples of the do-over.
Obviously, this reveals more about how I may play computer games than I like, but it also points to the flexibility of electronically mediated games. While playing with dice and paper certainly can be just as manipulated, and the entire prospect of a Mulligan during a game can certainly be mutually agreed on in some circumstances, there is something more of a shock of finality to them. I know, I know, Warcraft, Guild Wars, and their like don’t quite allow one to save and replay, and the MMO worlds are arguably even more interactive than a smaller group of people sitting around a table, but there is a genuinely palpable moment in holding that die, and an accompanying revelatory moment when the result appears. Perhaps a brief, curious pause, perhaps jubilation, perhaps deadly silence, but there is a shared realization that something has been done and cannot be undone.
As a reader of fantasy, the same sense of finality pervades the books and stories I adore. Arthur draws the sword, Dobby dies, Faramir survives but carries the darkness within his dreams, no matter how many times we return to them. All the alternatives, possibilities and lush differences that enrapture us as readers and lovers of fantasy literature are the hallmarks we frequently look to first when considering works; how the story’s clarity or character’s arc reveal something we wonder about or set us off on new, rich tangents of connection and creation. But those billowing sails of thought and possibility and magic are pinned to a few absolute, unchangeable events in the stories, moments which have to happen and resonate through the works.
The certainty, the finality of a dice roll in “old school” gaming gives a similar point of reference, I think: an alchemical moment where the very essence of chance becomes a fulcrum for a gaming session and a hard point which new actions must extend. Everything changes, on some scale, and the players must adapt and create and react afterwards, in a different way than before. This was why, as I watched my children play on in a careful, saving and restarting and experimenting way, I chose to dig through the attic, unearth the unwieldy, dog-eared gaming manuals and well-used dice, and break the seal on a long neglected pad of graph paper. Yes, I was a very rusty game master, and my daughter often asked why it took SO LONG to play this way, and for the first few times both of them wanted to re-roll a bad result, but the reward for playing in person and without second chances was more than I expected. Both of the character backstories that emerged were brilliantly rich, replete with the silliness that only kids could place so innocently, and the looks of expectation, as they cradled and clicked their dice, were mirrors of Christmas morning, as they hoped for the gift of a twenty, not the coal lump of a two.
We have only played twice, but regularly my conversations with my children return to what exactly they hope their characters will become, or where they hope they will go, and often, how they got to be where they are. Once, my daughter observed that her character was not as strong as her electronic game character because of a die roll early on, but quickly said she was “OK with that because that makes me think of sneaky ways to get past monsters instead.” Fantastic introspection indeed.
By Lindsay Craig