Quirkworthy’s Ramblings: A Primitive Cult

This article reprinted by kind permission of Ravage magazine.

A Primitive Cult

I’m always surprised that anthropologists don’t hang around gamers more. We are a superstitious lot, much given to watching for signs and portents, careful ritual and lucky talismans. I think we’d make excellent study subjects for understanding how myths and legends arise among primitive cultures. There must be a few doctorate studies waiting to happen, for example:

Luck and the Gamer – Hard Statistics versus Irrational Belief

Fetish and Totem Items Among Developing Gaming Cultures

The Etiquette and Social Impact of Dice Cups and Towers Among European Gamers

You get the idea. Personally I’ll be looking forward to the paperback editions. Or the movie.

For reasons that are intuitive to anyone who’s ever played, spending more than 5 minutes around dice makes you believe in all manner of unlikely and irrational things. I know it’s not just me because I’ve seen it in people of all ages and types and over many years. Believing in the Gods of the Dice is just part of being a gamer.


Ritual & Belief

Let me give you some examples and see if any of them sound familiar. Most of them are rituals that supposedly bring luck – because luck is what it’s all about.

You’re playing a game that involves a series of dice rolls to resolve a combat. You roll some dice and then offer your opponent the ones that hit because they are close to hand and are the right number to roll next. He politely refuses, knowing that your dice are loyal to you and will not work as well for him.

He picks up his dice from a heap on the side, carefully selecting those he feels will be lucky this time instead of the half dozen that are nearest. Perhaps he goes by intuition alone, or perhaps he chooses ones that were sitting with the 6 face up, or the 1s. Whichever he feels “charges” them best. Perhaps instead he decides that the ones he rolled last turn had been underperforming and reaches for some “fresh” dice that have so far not taken part in the battle and haven’t worn out their luck. Of course, all the dice are from his carefully chosen “special” collection. He simply couldn’t use the ones that came with the game. Oh no. Whichever dice he chooses it won’t simply be the nearest ones.

When he picks up the dice he shakes them in his cupped hands and then he blows on them. Eh? Are his hands cold from the chill of the room? Are his dice too warm like his cup of tea? No, it’s luck again (or is it magic)?

Even when he rolls them onto the table he can be influenced by luck. Sometimes certain areas of the table are unlucky and others roll better. No, seriously, I’ve seen it happen. And why is this any more odd than the rest? If blowing on dice can make them roll higher numbers, then why not different parts of the table?

These are just a few of the more common rituals that go together to make the runs of good and bad luck that plague gamers, and I haven’t even mentioned lucky dice cups, hats, badges, plushy Cthulhu mascots and all the rest of the stuff that is brought out especially at tournaments (where every edge counts).

What on Earth is going on?


Pattern Recognition

Human brains are very good at pattern recognition. In fact, it’s one of the things they do best. This skill is responsible for all sorts of useful survival traits, but is also the reason why we see teddy bears and elephants in clouds and the face of the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. In a gaming sense I suspect that this is contributing to a number of common features you hear about round the table.

A couple of terrible dice rolls on the same part of the board makes that bit unlucky; winning the first three times you wear that raggedy old Essen T-shirt makes it lucky; that unit never wins when the hero is with them despite his extra dice (so he’s unlucky). In this last case it can even change the way you build an army or play a game. I’ve seen board gamers do the same thing, choosing suboptimal options (when judged purely on statistical value) because they find them unlucky: “I never do well with the Trader.”

This is no different from the often-mentioned idea of the mere presence or absence of certain people (usually Bond girls) being lucky for gamblers round card tables. It’s also related to the superstitious nature of combatants throughout history. They are risking their lives whilst the gamer only risks losing the game, but the principle is the same and all seek an advantage. The need to feel that you have such an advantage is far more powerful than the need for it to make any real sense.



Few people sit down and record every dice roll they make over a long period of time. I have.

On the face of it that might make me King of the Geeks, but there was a perfectly good reason (at least some of the time): battle reports. When I started doing battle reports we used to write down every dice roll. The idea is a sound one: you don’t know what’s going to be important until the end so you record everything, just in case. The turning point of the game could be early on, but you won’t always see it at the time. It also meant that we could go back and ensure that the rules had been played correctly and so on. In any case, we made notes of everything. The reality is that dice are random and in random sets you will get apparent patterns, but they never stay. That’s what random means: there is no real pattern.

Well, that’s not entirely true. In an individual game there sometimes are apparent local patterns that last for a certain time, and this is where I think the whole basis for a perfectly reasonable belief in the Dice Gods lies. From having actually studied the numbers I can say that even when a player’s dice rolls for a whole game were almost perfectly average overall, it is not uncommon to see a certain subset of those rolls show a significant and consistent deviation. In other words, when you break it down, a single type of random event can easily show local patterns. For example, I’ve been playing a lot of God of Battles recently. My orc stone thrower has been underperforming terribly. It should, on average, get 4 hits per shot. In four games, with multiple shots per game, it had not managed to ever roll more than 4. It has rolled 2, 3 and 4 hits, but never more. Its actual average was way below where it should have been. Now I know that this is random and so I kept it in the army despite a strong urge to decommission it as an unlucky piece. Perhaps it read my mind. Sure enough, in the last time I played it redressed some of the balance with its first (and only ever) roll of over average: 8 hits. It’s an unlikely way to redress the overall average of the piece, but it works, and over a longer time I’m sure it will be even more balanced. But until that point? Well I’m a believer…


By the way…

Can you play a whole game without any special dice, lucky hats or blowing on the dice? Do you feel comfortable doing so?

What are your lucky rituals? Can you think back to when they started and remember what triggered them? Are they still true now?

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26 Responses to Quirkworthy’s Ramblings: A Primitive Cult

  1. crimsonsun says:

    For me I always pick up the dice that rolls ones to roll again, if theres not enough ones then I pick up twos next and so on. Now this stems from two places both I feel are fairly logical, at least at first glance.

    Firstly I feel it is rude to grab up your successes in a game, instead I remove the failures leaving the dice that hit firmly in place this I feel is a basic part of gaming etiquette. Secondly (now this one is where the logic starts to slide) when playing I like to re-roll the ones that fail as they are statistically more likely to pass the next time, yet I know on a table top game this is a falsehood as each and every dice roll on a d6 has a 16% chance of generating any result and must be considered apart for a chain of results when considering statistics at the volume you use during a game. (Note I am avoiding going further into a statistical discussion as its a completely different topic)

    • nathan payne says:

      I’ve had more D6 than i care to think about… but i feel some are more rubish than others. And roll alot more one’s with them. I’m well known for my bad rolls. If i roll well in a certain spot on the table i’ll roll there again.. its an hot spot of luck, or so i think. I won a game of boltaction last week, my dice rolls were average. Any other game i would of lost, but kev rolled really bad. Every time to rally fail… every time to shoot miss,every time to bring on a reserve fail. Thinking about it he never gave his dicea blow…. shaked them hard in hand… never a whisper to them to roll high..and never changed them ? Is that why the dice gods of luck never bothered to show up for him. Mmmmmm and i thought it was my tatics and awesome game plan, never mind 🙂


  2. This is a topic I hear a lot about at clubs and tournaments and from blogs and podcasts. Other than having adopted a practice of never using someone else’s dice without their permission (because that’s rude), I don’t have any dice rituals nor have I ever really seen any in 30 years gaming. I tend to think they are observed more in the exception than the rule. You often hear about *that guy* with his passive-aggressive dice obsession or the bloke who never washes his “lucky” T-shirt, but although I’m sure there are some weird dice people, I’m equally sure that they aren’t as prevalent as anecdote suggests.

    All that said, I do sometimes play to the stereotype: blaming my dice or haranguing them for persistent failure. I am also quite nostalgic about particular sets of dice that I associate with fondly-remembered events or clubs. But that’s all done in fun and tongue firmly in cheek.

    I think if I actually met someone with over of these superstitions actually held sincerely, I would consider them odd and, probably, a bit stupid.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      The examples in the article above are all things I’ve seen myself rather than rumoured tales of strangeness. You say you’ve not seen this sort of thing, but you do the same yourself, even if tongue in cheek 😉

      I suspect that most gamers know really that it doesn’t really make a difference, and that they all do it with an element of self-knowing mockery. I also think that there is often a bit more to it than that and that this is the same causal process for a lot of other superstitious and ritualistic behaviour. But that may just be my training in archaeology. It’s a running joke that anything unexplained on a dig would be defined as “ritualistic” 🙂

  3. Bidge says:

    I feel the dice as I shake them in my hands, they tell me just the same as I would visualise a golf swing in my head, when they are ready to roll the numbers I need. Much of the time it works for me. “Feel the Force Luke, feel the Force.” and when that doesn’t work I microwave them to teach them a lesson whilst making the other watch! 😛

  4. Koltoroc says:

    I don’t generally believe in luck, The only thing I do with my dice is sort through them once in a while to sort out the ones that got damaged or dirty. I don’t follow any rituals. unless you count using different coloured dice to roll all “attacks” or similar at once.

    I have seen people do a lot of rituals though (D6 mostly). notable ones was a guy that always set up all his dice in a row, showing the 6 on top, as the result he wants to have and using them slowly up as the game goes on before doing it all over again. He used to pick the first 2 dice that rolled a 1 for morale checks.

    Then I knew a guy with a huge bucket of dice and used any given dice only once, at best twice per game. Also, depending on his results the previous weeks he may burn one in front of the other dice to “teach them a lesson”. considering his “luck” in the games it didn’t work, lol

    Probably not uncommon are people that have dice colourcoded for every army. not that common are people who absolutely refuse to play without said colourcoded dice.

    one guy used to shake a “voodoo doll” before a game to curse the other players dice.

    not quite a dice ritual as such, but I was playing in a bloodbowl liga where one of the rules was to only use one set of dice each match. Which set was irrelevant as long as both players used the same set throughout the whole game

    yeah, you get to meet a lot of wierd people if you play long enough…

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’m slowly buying new dice to replace my odd collection of disparate cubes that I’ve hoovered up over the years. This isn’t because I think the new ones will be more lucky, but because I think it’s about time I treated myself and Chessex make some really attractive ones. I’ve also gone for green for Orcs, blue for Sea Elves, and so on as it’s aesthetically pleasing.

      Only allowing one set per match is something I’ve heard a couple of times in tournaments. I’ve also come across people giving the players tournament dice and requiring them to use those rather than their own. It’s the same as opening new cards for poker games and so on – it’s avoids the possibility/accusations of cheating.

  5. Craig Johnson says:

    Whena friend and I play dreadball at each others house we will often bring our own dice, and any previous 6’s will be rolled again

  6. I do have some rituals, mostly coming down to rerolling good dice. However in the end the dice just need to be balanced to offer really a random result. I guess most dice with rounded edges due to the polisher will tend to some numbers, while casino dice should offer true randomness.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Theoretically. Properly checked casino dice are both pricey and (to me) rather ugly.

      I don’t think that the rounded edges make a great deal of difference to the odds as that’s the shape they’re moulded in. A little may be worn off by tumbling, true, but that should be uniform.

  7. Bjorn Bonten says:

    I tend to re-roll hits as they are the ones that helped me get to this point. I have some glow in the dark D6’s which I believe work better when charged by light. I always take the dice displaying 6 first just cause as a gamer you recognise them the fastest (subconsciously?). Those are some of my dice based habits. I think it started all by simply joking around about the dice Gods and such that we developed certain rituals as a personal touch. Almost like a signature move if that makes sense.

  8. Certain spots on the table are lucky! I’m sorry but that is just a fact 😉

    Also I once wondered into a Space Hulk tournament at the old Maelstrom shop in Mansfield and when I happened to spend some time at a particular table watching a rather tense and down to the wire game, one of the gamers wouldn’t let me leave because I had brought them luck ever since I’d been watching!

    Personally I hold to the belief that if you keep your eyes open for the opportunities and don’t let your head go down if things aren’t going well in a game then the dice will reward you and if that fails I simply shout at them profusely! 🙂

  9. Left hand To Hit and Right hand To Wound.

    Of course if I’m having an off-day then it sometimes has to be the same hand for both rolls, or sometimes reverse those hands, or mid-game it changes, or…

    … or is that just me 😉

  10. sideofiron says:

    I have heard of a player who engaged in ritual decimation.

    At the end of a game, poorly performing dice would be collected and lined up on a workbench. Every tenth dice would be smashed with a hammer as an example to the others.

    But that guy was just a little unstable.

  11. Pete Melvin says:

    I have a “Panzer” dice that has a picture of a Panzer III as the six. Any dice roll that requires a single dice and a high number gets that dice rolled for it. On the other hand, I have a “Phoenix” dice with a our club logo (a phoenix, duh) as the one. Now that thing NEVER rolls what you want it to. I’d get rid of the accursed thing but THAT feels like bad luck too. Weird huh?

  12. My dice rituals, along with all my other gaming rituals, are designed for optimal sportsmanship. Much like touching other people’s miniatures I avoid touching other people’s dice. Like all etiquette, this is much relaxed when playing at home with friends.

    For example, never touch dice that score successes, or are active. This means if you need to roll more dice than don’t grab successes to do so. It also means no gathering dice together to make counting easier.

    As for luck, there is no such thing. We just don’t like feeling powerless and so we try to convince ourselves that we have some measure of control.

    I’ve just flipped a coin 99 times and come up heads each time. What are the odds of tossing the coin and getting heads again? 50/50.

    Although I have heard it said that since most dice aren’t manufactured with strict tolerances players who discard “unlucky” dice and keep “lucky” dice may be unwittingly building a pool of crooked dice.

    That is, if they track their results of individual rolls over thousands of throws and not just discard a die the second it comes up as a 1.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Many years ago, when playing a lot of Squad Leader, I became convinced that I rolled consistently worse than my regular opponent. So, being young and foolish, I began to track all my rolls in our weekly games. These used the old Avalon Hill square edged D6 that came with the game, but we both rolled whichever ones were to hand and did not have specific dice for each player.

      After several thousand rolls I worked out my average and it was noticeably off what it should have been. I checked the maths and it was the same. It didn’t stop me using those dice or playing that game, but it did tell me that I wasn’t dreaming 🙂

  13. TimB says:

    Well, the interesting thing is that the dice most of us use are not random, and tend to roll more 1s than they should:


    While this is not peer reviewed or anything, the method is sound (assuming it is not a total fabrication). I previously found a much longer version with more in depth discussion about why there were more 1s, but, with the internet being as it is, I now can’t find that!

    So, the dice probably really are out to get you 🙂

    • Quirkworthy says:

      It’s not that dice aren’t random, it’s that they aren’t an even distribution of results within that randomness.

      I sometimes wonder about dice with logos and whatnot on one face and how much difference if any that makes. I was told by a dice manufacturer that they sometimes have bubbles and irregularities within them (as this article mentions).

      Having read the article at the link you posted, I must say that I don’t really understand why the rounded corners make a difference to which side the dice lands on. He seems to be saying that their effect is that they cannot stop the dice rolling (which is obvious), but why that should make any difference to the side they eventually stop on is not discussed. If, as he also contends, the difference between the amount of weight removed for a 6 and a 1 has no effect, then what difference does the rounded edge have? It rolls more before it stops. So what? How does that make any difference to the result?

      I agree that carefully made and measured casino dice are very likely to be more accurate and to give a more even chance of rolling each result. However, I find them ugly, not to mention hard to find and expensive. Mainly ugly though. That and I don’t like the feel in my hand (I used to have a set).

      I think that this accuracy and care in the making is what makes the casino dice more accurate, not their shape. The translucency allows you to see and reject any with obvious bubbles. Beyond that quality control issue it is irrelevant.

      So whilst this is all very interesting (and assuming we take it at face value), do I think it matters? Not for me personally. The normal rounded edged dice may roll slightly squiffy odds overall, but within a game they seem to come up randomly enough for my needs. If mine are off then my opponent’s are too, so that evens the playing field.

      • timbiggs says:

        I agree it is a bit complicated and I would have prefered proper peer reviewed research, but we have to make do with what we get…. 🙂
        Here are my thoughts, no guarantee they are right….

        I think the shape does matter- consider a sphere. If it is perfect, with no imbalances, then it can roll and stop with any side up. However if one side is slightly heavier it will be more likely to stop with that side down…and this likelihood will depend on the magnitude of the imbalance and also if it is given a good free roll- the longer it is allowed to roll, the more time the relatively small imbalance has to act- e.g. is to rotate the ball so that an imbalance which started at the side is at the bottom/top. The closer you are to a ball, the more likely this is to happen as a hard sharp edge will cause it to bounce, undoing the work the imbalance has been doing and also impede an off-axis rotation. Consider how far a sharp cornered die needs to rotate in order for it to topple- it can’t really roll along the corners easily. However, if there are no sharp corners it can roll a bit off axis and then a bit more, and this increases the chance of a side face becoming a top/bottom face. Come to think of it casino dice don’t really roll at all, they seem to just bounce.

        In a similar manner a slightly heavy side which is a top/bottom face as it rolls is more likely to end at the bottom for a smooth cornered dice that a sharp one- the force required to roll one more face is much lower, so the effect of any small imbalance will be greater (in other words the imbalance and the die act like a weight and lever- with a sharp cornered die , the pivot point is the corner so there is virtually no lever distance for the imbalance to act over. However, with a smooth cornered die, the imbalance can extent beyond the pivot, as the curved edges undercut the side of the die). The sharp cornered imbalance can only act if there was enough rotational energy to tip the die beyond vertical in the first place and it will always be less effective than that of a round cornered die.

        Now we come to the tricky bit- what is the imbalance? If all the sides were exactly the same then the corners would not be needed (assuming you did not look which faces were at the side when you started the roll). The sides are the same, apart from the pips/numbers, so these must be the cause of the difference, and on dice with pips, face 1 and face 6 are the most different so we would expect any difference to be seen most keenly here. Now I don’t know ( and it is impossible to determine without some detailed experiments) whether the pips make it heavier, the slight indents make tiny air cushion shock absorbers, the additional holes cause the face to contract in a different matter leaving it a different shape, or something else. However these experiments suggest that there is such an imbalance, and it is probably impossible to remove entirely while maintaining pips. This is probably something the casinos know too, and they are also aware that sharp corners will reduce this factor significantly, probably beyond the ability to detect in reasonable sample sizes.

        Do I use casino dice? No, I agree with you, they are just not nice. And I also agree that everyone is at a similar disadvantage, so it really does not matter. However, I have observed that some of the logoed dice perform better than I would expect (these are ones with a logo instead of 6, and they belong to other players, not me), but this could just be superstition, I guess I would need to do a proper trial….

  14. ntw3001 says:

    Red dice are lucky, everybody knows that.

    I have a (white, GW) dice which always rolls ones (called ‘The Dice Which Always Rolls Ones’). It has a grimy-looking ring around the one spot. Is it the sign of an imperfection which noticeably alters the odds, or does it just make this one dice more noticeable? Certainly I might have other dice which roll worse; I can’t pick any others out of the crowd, and when I pick up a fistful of dice I’m not combing through them to pluck out The Dice Which Always Rolls Ones. If it rolls a six, maybe I never even notice it was there. Sometimes I do notice, and I think: Way to go, The Dice Which Always Rolls Ones. You worked hard and did a good job.

    I tested it once. It actually does roll a lot of ones; about once in three rolls. I guess that’s the answer.

  15. E r 1 c k B 0 u c h 4 r d says:

    Maybe that’s an anglo-saxon thing. In French Canada, I’ve only seen one player ever mentionning a “lucky die” in 20 years of RPG gaming and boardgaming. And he was, well, on the “highly geeky” end of the curve, though a nice chap.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Could be, though I suspect that it’s not that simple. When I was at GW I was on staff at a number of international events, and attended others. I’ve seen plenty of gamers from across Europe with special dice cups, mascots, etc on the tournament tables. I never did a survey. Perhaps someone really can wangle a sociology doctorate out of it 😉

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