Saturday, May 17, 2014

How we got the d20

Those d20 rules are quite common aren't they? They started back in the original D&D and have grown to cover quite a vast amount of genre. They're easy to understand and those 5% increments are sure easy to calculate. But where did it all start?

To begin to understand the story and the work it took to get our hobby up and running we must leave the internet generation behind and travel back in time. So back in time we'll leave the PC and Atari generation behind too. Even those, who like me, played with 4 bit graphics on a gaming console will be baffled by the limited technology of the time.

Sometimes this can be hard to relate to unless there's a reference we can carry back in time as a measuring stick. But what is easy to visually understand, computer intensive and can still relate to an era without video games? The Mandelbrot set. The Mandelbrot set a quite a complex image with its roots back in the 70's and will help me tell this story and hopefully carry you back in time, convey enough of the setting to help you feel inside the era and place the challenges they faced in perspective as they worked hard without many of the things we take for granted today. Without further delay lets travel back in time and see the dawn of the d20.

This is the Mandelbrot set. My cell phone (Samsung Galaxy III Mini) takes 0.97 seconds to render it, and that's on a bad day. Usually it takes between 0.45 and 0.65 seconds.

In 1984 a computer would take minutes to render it on a IBM AT at 8MHz with  80287 math coprocessor using a CGA graphics card with 640x200 resolution with two colors or 320x200 with four colors. Total hardware cost $4000 (1984) US Dollars.

In 1978 the first visualization of the Mandelbrot was made with ASCII. I don't know what computer it was nor it's cost, but I believe it was done at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, Heights, New York, and thus not cheap.

Now step back ten more years back to 1968...

Back then wargames were using statistical data from military experience to add realism to the game. An example of this is Korns' Modern War in Miniature (1966) which used percentage tables to represent weapon effectiveness. Yet his tables had the limitation of relating to d6 rolls. So Korns added a conversion table that related d6 rolls to percentages in, you guessed it, roughly 5% increments.

Those were numbers just waiting for the d20 to show up and it did in 1969, when they were mentioned in the "Must List" of Wargamer's Newsletter.

These 20 sided dice provided an easy way to generate percentile numbers by numbering their sides 0 to 9 twice and rolling two times.

Which brings me to Gygax's article "Four & Twenty and What Lies Between." (June 1973) and the reason I begun with all the computer stuff. In this article Gygax explains the probabilities for polyhedral dice combinations. Which he obviously calculated by hand since, as I already showed, there were no readily available computers and was decades away. Quite a daunting task once you realize how limited and expensive computers were at the time.

Finally he comments that to him "the most useful are the 20-sided dice." and adds the note "color in one set of numbers on the die, and you can throw for 5% -- perfect for rules which call for random numbers from 1-20." What use could that have? In the same article Gygax reveals that he was  "busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game." That game was, of course, none other than Dungeons & Dragons.

Now let it sink for a little. Let yourself get carried away to that time. Let the setting engulf you. Reread the Mandelbrot thing again and let it take you back to a time when computers didn't help us see things as advanced CGIs do today. A time when Tron was still 15 years away. A time when your imagination created and filled in all the detail on its own. A time when everything was new and no rules were set. Start fresh and use your imagination to create you fantasy setting, one without limits.

Roll for initiative, the adventure begins...


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