The recent display by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of an Egyptian icosahedron, a twenty-sided die commonly used in tabletop role-playing games, is a reminder that games of chance have existed for millennia. The die dates from the Ptolemaic Period (304-30 BC) and was once held in the collection of the Reverend Chauncey Murch (died 1907). It was collected between 1883 and 1906 while Murch was a missionary in Egypt. The collection was purchased by the Museum from the Murch family with funds provided by Helen Miller Gould, 1910.
The four-, six, eight-, twelve-, and twenty-sided die are the shapes of Platonic solids, named after the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who associated the classical elements with the solids in Timaeus:
- 4-sided: Fire
- 6-sided: Earth
- 8-sided: Air
- 12-sided: Constellations (“…the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven”)
- 20-sided: Water
It’s believed that the original Greek dice were formed to represent these Platonic solids.
Fine arts auction house Christie’s sold a Roman glass gaming icosahedron, circa 2nd century AD for $17,925. It was acquired by a Maryland Fine Arts professor’s father in Egypt in the 1920s.
The icosahedron, or d20, was popularized in Dungeons & Dragons but its use in gaming likely reached back further than the game’s debut in the early 1970s. As I explained in my book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:
In 1969, Dave Wesley moderated a wargame session at the University of Minnesota in which players represented individual characters in a Napoleonic scenario centering around a town named Braunstein. At this time, the notion of having a Game Master who invented the scenario for the battle of the evening was actually inspired by Strategos, The American Game of War, a training manual for U.S. army wargames by Lt. Charles Adiel Lewis Totten, published by Doubleday in 1880. Wesley had found a copy in the University of Minnesota library and attempted to adapt it prior to the Braunstein game. Wesley had read about the notion of “n-player” strategy game after reading Kenneth Swezy’s The Compleat Stategist.
Wesley’s group normally consisted of eight people, two of which played while the other six watched. In an attempt to be more inclusive, he developed roles for the other players beyond the usual wargaming army commander. Wesley invented a mayor, banker, university chancellor and more, each role with its own objectives and goals. When nearly twenty people showed up, Wesley made up roles for them too.
It was telling that the players received their orders in a separate room, where Wesley briefed them, and were not allowed to share the information with each other. What was supposed to be an orderly set of instructions devolved into a duel when two of the players, one an officer in the Prussian army and the other a pro-French radical student, told Wesley they had challenged each other to a duel. Wesley was once again forced to improvise; he rolled some dice and declared that one had shot the other, with the winner imprisoned. The game continued well into the night, at which point Wesley realized that the players had taken over the game – his carefully crafted rules that would ultimately help determine who won no longer applied. To Wesley, the game was a failure.
Later, Wesley ran a second version of the game, placing the players in the role of leaders in a fictional banana republic. Dave Arneson was a participant in both games. Dave Arneson continued to run versions of Braunstein and started inventing new scenarios. Eventually, he expanded them to include ideas from The Lord of the Rings and Dark Shadows which were popular at the time. This eventually led to the creation of Blackmoor (Wesley 2006).
Wesley also lays claim to using polyhedral dice, which up to that point had been used as teaching tools for math professors. The use of the four-, eight-, twelve-, and twenty-sided dice made their debut in the 1974 “Blue Box” edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The gaming icosahedron didn’t look like it does today either, as Steve Winter explains:
It didn’t help that 20-sided dice at that time weren’t numbered 1 to 20. Instead, they were numbered 0-9 twice. A 0 counted as 10, and a “control die” was needed to run the full range from 1 to 20. (The control die, usually a d6, was rolled along with the d20. So if the d6 showed 1-3, the 1-10 on the d20 was read straight-up. If the d6 showed 4-6, then 10 was added to this number.) Why go through all of that? Because the 20-sider needed to do double-duty as both a d10 and a d20.
Polyhedral dice are used in tabletop role-playing games to this day, with the icosahedron being most prominent in the D20 System.
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