Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Diceman Cometh

Fairly recently a couple of youtube videos have been making the rounds. These clips are a recording at the most recent GenCon of Lou Zocchi giving his infamous spiel about dice. Before I go any further, I want to make sure everyone reading this understands that Zocchi is maybe one of the most underappreciated figures in the hobby. He's designed some great games, such as his Star Fleet Battle Manual. I've never had the chance to play SFBM but on paper it looks a lot more like what I wanted Task Force's Star Fleet Battles to be. He's published great stuff done by other people, such as the generic stat version of Bob Bledsaw's wicked awesome haunted house dungeon Tegel Manor. And in the early days of the hobby he was the only place to go for polyhedrals. I have huge respect for the man and everything he's done for our crazy little hobby.

But when I first watched those videos I linked above, I did so intently but not reverently. Colonel Zocchi's explanations and demonstrations arguing for the superiority of his dice were very interesting stuff. But at the end I asked myself "Is this just a sales pitch?" After all, I don't know crap about making dice. Why should I take Lou Zocchi's word on dice, knowing that he's an interested party in the affair?

So I asked some people for a second opinion. Specifically, I emailed three dice outfits (Chessex, Koplow, and Crystal Caste) and Kevin Cook, a.k.a. the Dice Collector. I sent them all links to the videos and asked for their take on the situation. Mr. Cook was the first one to get back to me. Here's what he said:
I have known Louis Zocchi since 1988 and he has come to become one of my favorite people

He is a showman ... he is very frugal ... but he is not a Liar nor does he stretch the truth

His demonstration does show the tolerances that GameScience dice have ... that other manufacturers do not

Dr Daniel Murray in Canada (developer of a dice rolling and recording machine) tested Gamescience dice and found that they are indeed as close to random as are possible with current mass production techniques
Obviously the Dice Collector isn't an impartial observer either, but this bit about Dr. Murray seems sound. I've also heard back from two of the three members of the distinguished competition. One of the nice folks at Crystal Caste declined to make a detailed comment, offering only that Zocchi was a friend but they disagreed on some points. That seems like a fair reply to me. No need to step on anyone's toes in what is a small industry. Chessex offers a longer response, which I will quote in full:
Much of what Lou discusses in the video about production of dice is accurate, however much of it is based on production in the 70's and 80's, such as the old TSR dice that were in the D&D Basic Set he mentioned (which were very poor quality dice). We used to import dice from Asia in the 1980's, but gradually went away from those sources for many of the reasons Lou articulated and stopped buying dice from Asia in the early to mid 1990's. Since then, our dice are manufactured from molds we had made for the factories in Europe and we feel make well-balanced dice. I am not sure of the exact tolerances from face to face, but the last time we checked, they seemed pretty close to each other. Having said all this, for the customers who we see at shows, a surprising number of them actually want dice that seem to roll high or in a certain way. Besides, every one is looking for their "lucky" die. So, the question really is how important are the dice to be perfectly balanced?

Nearly all that Lou talked about did not pertain to our dice since the focus of his video was his dice versus dice made in China or Taiwan. The only part of his video that was directed towards us were the use of lamps at our booth to highlight our dice. The biggest reason we have the lamps is because we sell at a lot of show venues where the lighting is terrible, so poor that it is often difficult to distinguish colors like blue and purple apart from one another. We find it easier for preparations to have the lamps at all shows rather than have them at some and not others, even though it costs $100-$200 for the electrical hookup. The other main reason for the lamps is the extra light helps to bring out the details in the materials we use that normally would be missed by customers when they QUICKLY pass by our booth (after all, at big shows like Gen Con, we only have a few seconds of each attendees time to impress them enough to want to stop to take a closer look at our dice and we think the lamps do help us achieve this result).

So, the lamps are not there only to increase the luster of them, though this is does occur. For example, our opaque dice have not been polished to anything close to a high luster because we think they look better with a slightly matte finish. So, the lamps don't help here.

We actually sell Lou's dice at shows where he does not exhibit as well as to the trade. We think they are a quality product and there is a market for his dice and, since I have always liked Lou, try to help him out by increasing his outlets of distribution. We don't know if this is common knowledge or not, but the producer of the video, Gamestation (or their owners), are in the process of purchasing Gamescience from Lou. Our guess is the promotional value gained from being on You Tube is why the video was made and put up there. We don't have any problem with this and think it is a good idea on their part, but we think they could have been a little more forthcoming in their motivation as to why the video was made. Perhaps we should do some informational videos about our dice, the history of some color developments, etc.

I hope this answers your questions and thanks for sending us the video link.
We found it interesting.

I agree that some of Lou's spiel seems targeted at older dice, like the infamously bad TSR dice of days gone. But for me the most interesting thing here is what Chessex doesn't say. There's no denial of Zocchi's claims about his competitors' inking process, which he suggests as the main place in the process where dice become lopsided. For me personally that was the most important part of the Colonel's patter.

I think it's important to note here that dice are simultaneously two different things in our hobby. On the one hand they are random number generators, intended to provide fair results to all players. On the other hand they are potent totems of gamer culture. The fact that we use weird poly dice is part of our geek heritage. I don't like diceless games or games that use spinners or cards as randomizers because that's not the way we do things. Similarly, Zocchi's technical issues are easily solved by using computerized randomization. A couple of times I tried using columns of electronically produced die-rolls hidden behing my screen, but it felt cold and lifeless to me.

So it seems to me that Zocchi is selling what I want. Gaming as I understand it involves rolling handfuls of weird dice, but it is equally important that those dice work as random number generators. As far as I can tell Colonel Lou doesn't make a d30, so I'm keeping my big purple thirty-sider from the Armory. Other than that, my plan is to rely on Gamescience for my future polyhedral needs.


  1. I have & emjoy my Koplow/Armory d30s, but GameScience dice are the only ones I pick up as of now. Yeah, some of them are ugly, some are awesome (like my infamous Gamescience percentile "tablewreckers", the bane of my gaming group and kitchen table finishes everywhere), but they have character and I trust them. It may sound weird, but they "fit" my gaming style.

  2. Kudos to you, Jeff, for going the extra mile once again. I'm very impressed that you took the time and effort to track down some other opinions in regards to this video I seem to have come across a lot recently.

    Nothing against Lou, but it's always nice to hear more than one side of any story,allowing the listener to take all the facts into account before making up his own mind.

  3. First the diceman gets behind you, and then he's inside you, and then he becomes you and you become him...

  4. I generally use Chessex dice, and have never found them to be anything less than fair. There was a perception amongst my players that my pair of black D20s had a penchant for turning up 20s. One of the mathematically inclined of them decided to conduct a test, and rolled them two hundred times to establish if there was indeed a bias, which resulted in almost a perfect average.

    Frankly, if over two hundred rolls the difference is not perceptable, it is not really worth mentioning. :D

  5. The Colonel is awesome. I've known him now for... going on 15 years. His major unsung contribution in the industry is that he is essentially the Gygax of Distribution. He was the first mass-distributor of RPGs, and without him the industry would not exist.

    He was also one of Bob Bledsaw's greatest friends. Lou is the one who finally talked Bob into coming back into the industry, got him the gig giving seminars with Arneson and others at Gen Con 1998, and hosted him at his booth in the hall for several years thereafter. Odds are if you bought dice at the Gamescience booth at Gen Con sometime in the last 10 years (save for last year), you bought them from Bob as often as from Lou's hands. If the salesman was tall, white-haired, told you stories of olden days and did a magic trick, it was Lou; if he was short, dark-haired, and told you lots of stories of the olden days, it was Bob.

    It was a bittersweet moment for me to see him at this year's Gen Con, his last Gen Con (at least, as a vendor; hopefully he sticks around as an attendee). Not only did I know it might be the last I would see him, but also I knew Bob would not be there, either, ever again.

    My father used to give each of use kids a bit of cash, every time we'd go home and visit. "Mad money," he called it, to go out and have fun. When dad passed away, my mom gave us each a handful of cash; what we didn't know was that dad set aside a bit every two weeks for each of us, adn when we saw him he'd grab whatever was in the jar and give that to us. I used the last of that Mad Money to buy the last dice I'd ever buy from the Colonel. A set of purple polys, a set of blue polys, and his special set of "dice so ugly, no one would want to steal them." I now use those dice, plus the dozens of other dice I'd bought over the years from him, and only those dice (well, plus an Armory d30, but including a Zocchihedron d100) for my AD&D 1E Greyhawk Campaign.

    Our magic-user player cast find familiar last session. As the casting time was 1 to 24 hours, I merrily pulled out a Gamescience d24 and had him roll...

  6. Anonymous1:33 PM

    A German Gamer, who has a phd in mathematics IIRC, made a test and found statistical significant results.,44636.msg848842.html#msg848842

  7. Gamestation is pushing this and good for them. The hobby is filled with companies who try to hide the passion of their designers, Wizards of the Coast being a good example, they carefully allow only sightings of the excellent people who make the game rather than push them out front. I think the companies are worried that if they develop their people as celebrities they will get big heads and leave. Some do, most don't.

    I think though that hobby companies would be well served by putting people like Lou, or Mythic's Paul Barnett or the other passionate folk front and center. That passion is powerful stuff, I bet Gamestation sold some dice off those videos and Wizards might sell some more books if they let a bit more of that passion show for their stuff as well.

  8. Thanks for the link, Sett! Google translator made a bit of a hash out of the post, but the line "everything indicates that Zocchi right" seems pretty straightforward.

  9. I know I forwarded the video to my gaming group and gaming frieds. As a result, I'm anticipating a Gamescience Christmas. I personally picked up some tan and orange opaque 7-piece sets for some friends.

  10. Other than that, my plan is to rely on Gamescience for my future polyhedral needs.

    Same here. The night I first watched those videos I immediately ordered 50 bucks worth of Gamescience dice. I showed the video to my friends, and we all agreed to suspend further gaming until the dice arrived. They came yesterday. Let the gaming resume!

    (When I first started reading this post I got nervous that you were about to blow the lid off some sort of scam that Zocchi was running. Phew!)

  11. DiceGate '08, perhaps? :)

    On a side note, I really hope Col. Lou comes back as a Guest of Honor for Gen Con this year and as many years thereafter as possible. I think I'll write a letter to that effect to Gen Con this weekend and send it off.

  12. Any man who labels purple dice "Statutory Grape" already has my vote.

  13. This post should get the gaming blog Pulitzer. Well done.

  14. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Jeff, Very nicely written. I do have to agree with Chessex, to a point, that their dice production has changed a lot and I do not believe that Koplow, Chessex, or Crystal Caste is that far off these days (by comparison to the 80s and 90s production from them). Here is the problem I have though. I spoke with Lou just the other day and his dice were tested by Dr. Murray about 4 years ago – I heard the same story that Kevin Cook did. I posted this on our store blog (really more of an announcement board) so if you want to see that story stop by and read it here. The short of it is, do the math and four years ago is not the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Gamescience dice still proved superior.

    By the way Jeff, you mentioned your D30 being a rounded. Well did you know there are still a few Armory sharp edge D30s out there? (Yes, shameless plug, forgive me – I am a gamer, but in the end I am a merchant as well). If you are interested you can stop by the g2ch website and take a look at what we have for Armory and Gamescience Dice. Thanks for the great post on this Jeff! Steve @ g2ch

  15. We recently compared two Chessex D20s from a couple of players' sets and they were visibly different: One was indeed slightly egg-shaped (side by side you could actually see the difference in height). That die already had a reputation of being a "low roller." Needless to say, the Chessex owners are pretty disappointed in the lack of equality in the dice.

    As for the comment from Chessex about people wanting non-random dice.... we call those people cheaters around here. Shame on Chessex for apparently thinking that's their market.

  16. Anonymous4:34 AM

    My own article D&D Dice was inspired by the same videos. I looked into the serious scientific research done on the issue (Dr Dan Murray is about it) as well as the issues Lou raises in the video.

    I also looked into why we think some dice are lucky or unlucky despite the fact that nearly everyone's dice are fair and balanced.

  17. My favorite thing about this post is the respect and friendship that there appears to be amongst the dice-makers. That’s very refreshing.

    Also, it’s nice to know that the Zocchiesque Chessex dice I received recently really are Zocchi’s.

  18. A pretty darn informative article, and a great read. Nice work.

  19. Anonymous5:49 PM

    Great post Jeff, thanks for following up after those videos.

  20. I bought a set of Gamescience dice and I am very happy with them. Does anyone know if they are still in production? If not, I plan to buy more!

  21. After watching the video I did my own test on my Chessex dice. Haveing been a machinist I dug out my micrometer, calibrated it and began to measure my dice. ALL of them were egg shaped. There was a difference of at least .015" in many places and one instance of a .025" difference on one die. All had the tumbler blemishes mentioned as well.

    As soon as I can get some Gamescience dice I plan to mic them as well but expect not to see that much variation.

  22. ashteryth11:40 PM

    It's marketing, plain and simple. I'm also in engineering and took a micrometer to some of the gamescience dice I have and found anywhere from .011" to .023" at the highest end of the spectrum.

    In reality though, this is well within tolerance when you examine the weight and physics of the dice, and exacts will pretty much never occur with this kind of product. If you really care about that, then you should be using a software RNG, though I agree they are impersonal.

    Even the inking process is unlikely to have any real effect, particularly since Sharpie ink isn't any lighter and won't be any more exact in the end. The physics of it all, when accounting for the force of the throw and gravity and the very negligible differences of the dice dimensions, doesn't really indicate there will be any distinguishable difference in results. Plus, as I've already noted, gamescience dices seem to fall in the same level of tolerance as the competitors.

    Still, got to hand it to him, the marketing works. But based on my analysis, that is all it is.