Have Dice Will Travel

Have Dice Will Travel
Have Dice, Will Travel: Sofia

Keith Baker | 21 Feb 2011 09:00
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"Trade dice?" I said. At this point, Stefan and I had left the Patriarch and were heading towards the next stop on his gaming tour of Sofia. Around us, doors and bus stops were plastered with death notices - a combination of memorial and obituary, posted to commemorate fallen loved ones. There's something slightly eerie about seeing obituaries taped up in the same sort of places I expect to find posters for college bands and lost pets.

Strange as the death notices are, the story of the dice is far stranger. Sofia's gaming community was building steam at the start of the twenty-first century. These gamers are sharp, tech-savvy people; today, many of the people I talked to are software engineers or employed in other technical industries, and even while in University a number of them maintained game-oriented websites. Nonetheless, it was difficult for them to acquire goods outside of Bulgaria. International mail was expensive and unreliable, and credit cards were still relatively rare. The story reminded me of my earlier experience in Slovakia. Players relied on photocopies of the rules, or even copies of the copies; my host Boian told me that he regarded the original books as holy relics. But D&D takes more than rules. Damyann could duplicate the rulebooks... but he couldn't copy his dice. The caltrop-like d4, the workhorse d20, the lonely d12 - these are vital tools of D&D. Most gamers I know have bags of dice - specific sets for different characters, specialized dice designed for particular systems, dice that glow in the dark, dice of metal or stone. For the players gathered at the Patriarch, any die was rare and precious; most groups had a single set of dice between them. My guide Stefan obtained his first dice when Damyaan had to sell a few to cover his rent. Dice slowly trickled into the country, in the pockets of friends and relatives returning from trips to countries with game stores. Nonetheless, there was a time when people would gather around the Patriarch to trade dice. I can imagine the wizard bartering with the barbarian, offering to trade a fresh d12 ("Only rolled on Sundays!") for the battered d4 he needs for his latest spell.

These gaming pioneers were inventive and intelligent, and they came up with many ways to address this shortage of dice. People folded dice from paper. They came up with ways to emulate missing dice using the ones they had. At least one set of dice was produced out of dental enamel! Others went a step farther, creating entirely new systems that weren't so dependent on these dice. Axiom 16 uses six-sided dice, which have always been easily available. Endyval is another prominent Bulgarian RPG. Stefan has brought me to one of the holy sites of Endyval - a gazebo in a park, where Endyval players would gather each day to continue the story. Stefan is trying to be diligent and to show me all the historical locations he knows about, but I soon realize that he has no great love of Endyval. According to Stefan, Endyval is a freeform game, in which dice of any sort play a minimal role. In the US, I know many people who enjoy such diceless systems, but Stefan is not among them. Along with various criticisms of the system, Stefan observes that the dice give him a curious sense of justice. He can figure the odds, and his fate isn't solely in the hands of the possibly capricious gamemaster. When something goes wrong it's because luck isn't with him, not due to stupidity on his part or a vendetta on the part of the GM. He says "I have to be pretty detached from my character not to mind when he fails." The random element of dice provides that distance - a sense that even if things go wrong, he did the best that he could.

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