Cthulhu Inspiration from the Discovery Channel

I’ve been on a bit of a Discovery Channel reality show kick lately — largely because I can watch it on Netflix on one screen while working on something else on the other. For some reason these kind of shows don’t demand as much of my attention, likely because I don’t mind when I miss stuff.

But I recently discovered that most of these Discovery Channel shows are perfect settings for Call of Cthulhu games!

As I talked about before in the Cthulhu Formula, one of the big keys to one-off Cthulhu games is getting the setting right. Ideally the setting should be some place interesting that you can build good, quirky characters around. But the crucial part is that the settings needs to put the characters, who are just normal people going about their normal lives, into a place where they can’t just call the cops or go home when stuff starts getting freaky. As technology progresses this gets particularly difficult — finding ways to get the characters somewhere without internet or cell phone coverage in particular.

Enter the Discovery Channel.

Deadliest Catch


Take Deadliest Catch: what better Call of Cthulhu setting than a crab fishing boat in the middle of the Bearing Sea during a storm?

A crab boat has a crew just about the perfect size for a gaming group. Cell phones don’t work. Radios and sat phones are iffy, especially during a storm. When things go wrong there’s nowhere to run — just endless frigid waters as far as the eye can see.

The characters are just going about their life, fishing for crab, playing pranks on other boats, when they get a distress call… the storms are so bad the Coast Guard can’t respond, or doesn’t even hear the call. The players’ boat is near enough to investigate and they come upon the eye of the storm with the other boat just sitting dead in the water. They go to investigate and find… whatever. Maybe the boat is deserted, with only vague clues as to what happened in its last hours. Maybe the crew were mercilessly hunted and slaughtered by some thing (and maybe that thing has made it onto their boat).

This show is positively filled with possibilities made perfect by the setting. The characters are all alone on the Bearing Sea. Take out their radio & EPIRB through misfortune or sabotage and there’s no chance of calling for any kind of help. And there are strange things out in the middle of the ocean — not to mention the character’s lives are based on hauling up things from the bottom of the sea. Perhaps they brought up something strange, and wonderful, and ultimately horrible.

I can’t believe I’ve never thought to run a Deadliest Catch game. Hell, even the title sounds like the title of a Cthulhu Game!

Gold Rush


Or how about Gold Rush. A small group of out-of-work adventurers heads up to Alaska to try to strike it rich mining for gold. Once again, they’re up in areas so remote that cell phones don’t work. Better yet, a simple storm can make the roads unpassable. Once again, the crew is the perfect size for a gaming group. For more setting interest, there are bears all over the place, and they can be dangerous. During the height of summer the daylight can last for 20 hours (and in winter darkness lasts that long… but you don’t mine in winter, of course. But perhaps wintering over on mining grounds…).

And my favorite part… the characters are literally digging as deep as they can looking for ancient riverbeds. What happens when they dig too deep, and unearth something strange. The entrance to some kind of alien tomb, with the promise of riches inside. Or they trigger an ancient curse, or release some foul entity too ancient and powerful to be killed that was entombed millenia ago.

You can also choose to have neighboring claims with NPCs that can go crazy, or get killed off. Perhaps the initial disturbances you can write off under as the kooky neighbors trying to jump your claim and scare you out of town. But more likely it is raw greed that will drive the characters to push forward in spite of strange happenings until they are in too deep, following the trail of gold farther and farther down until they awaken the slumbering monstrosity below. And now they have to survive those few all-too-long hours of darkness with nothing but their wits and several large pieces of construction machinery between themselves and the gibbering terrors that man was not meant to comprehend.

I love the machinery too! Bulldozers and loaders and excavators are the perfect bits of interesting equipment to give the characters just a chance in hell of fending off Cthulhu monsters. And they have the potential to create all kinds of problems, especially as sanity begins to ebb away.

Of course Gold Rush isn’t a great title for a Cthulhu game — probably have to change that up to something like From Beneath It Devours.

Another similar show is Ice Road Truckers (not actually Discovery Channel, but along the same theme) — also a great setting, though you’d have to work a bit to get a full group into the setting.

I haven’t yet plumbed the full depths of the Discovery Channel offerings, but I have high hopes that they will continue to produce shows that translate perfectly into Cthulhu settings. And I do believe my next Cthulhu game will be set in an Alaskan Klondike gold claim.


New Candidate for Oldest Dice Found

Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University reported to Discovery News that they found ancient dice at a dig site in Turkey dated at around 3000 BCE. Along with the dice they found 49 stone game pieces carved into numerous shapes, including pigs, dogs, and pyramids:

World's oldest game pieces
Dozens of elaborately carved game pieces found along with ancient dice in a 5,000 year old dig site in Turkey.

Sağlamtimur presented the find at the annual International Symposium of Excavations, Surveys and Archaeometry. He said he believed the pieces belong to a complicated chess-like game. If so, this would be evidence of a game more complicated than other ancient games like Senet or the Royal Game of Ur. His team is trying to puzzle out the rules of a game that would use all these pieces — though notably no board was found.

Ulrich Schädler, director of the Swiss Museum of Games in La Tour-de-Peilz, argues that it is unlikely this is a game of higher complexity and suggests instead that they found pieces for several different games all stored in one place. In particular he pointed out that the pyramids found look like the dice used in the Royal Game of Ur.

This site is dated to “nearly” 3000 BCE, which would make these the oldest confirmed dice. The next closest are the 4-sided dice (though they worked a bit differently from ours) found in the Royal Game of Ur dated at 2600 BCE. Games of Senet have been found dating back even farther, to 3100 BCE, but we don’t classify the 2-sided pieces as dice. The oldest d20 dates from 30BC – 300BC.

We have updated our History of Dice post & graphic to incorporate this new credit for the oldest dice.

World's oldest d20
World’s oldest d20, found in Egypt and dated to 30 BCE to 300 BCE. We have no indication of how these ancient d20s were used.
The Royal Game of Ur, dated to 2600 BCE and on display at the British Museum.
The Royal Game of Ur, dated to 2600 BCE and on display at the British Museum.


History of Dice Infographic
Awesome Dice’s complete history of dice, including every major dice find & first sighting of each type of dice.

Custom Dice Manufacturing

We get a surprising number of inquiries from people who want to have custom dice manufactured, either for a special event or a game they are designing, and a surprising number of magicians who want trick dice. Unfortunately we do not manufacture custom dice, but we can certainly point you in the right direction.

First, let’s stress the difference between custom dice, and customized dice.

  • Customized Dice are dice that have already been made that then have your custom design laser etched onto one or more faces. You are not doing custom colors/shapes, and the customized faces are not fully beveled, but instead the design is laser etched into the surface so it doesn’t sit as deeply as molded dice. You can get dice customized in small quantities, including just a few dice, for reasonable prices per die. The cost will, of course, be higher than the retail price of dice, and large quantities don’t get much of a price break. You are limited to the colors of stock dice that the manufacturer has available.
  • Custom Dice are dice using custom molds. With a custom mold the dice can include any kind of design, number of faces, fully beveled, and any get combination of dice color and inking color. This is the method required if you want a unique size or number of faces on the dice. There are substantial set-up costs and you must print very large quantities.

Custom Dice Manufacturers

In our experience, people who want to manufacture custom dice often have unrealistic expectations — that they will be able to print only a few hundred dice in a unique shape, and for a cost of less than the retail price of standard dice.

Customized dice can be made in quantities as small as just 10 dice, and the cost will be around a dollar per face being customized. You are limited to the color of dice and inking available.  You can get price breaks with larger quantities, but never down to only pennies per face, and the cost is never going to be like getting dice wholesale. You can get customized dice in a variety of styles from:

  • Chessex: They offer customized dice in a large variety of d6 colors and sizes, with customization on the 1 or 6 face; a more limited variety of d10s, with customization on the 10 face; or opaque white dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 & d20) with customization on all faces. Turnaround for small orders is a few weeks.
  • Q-Workshop: They offer customized dice in a large variety of colors and sizes for every type of die (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, & d20) including customization of all faces. Turnaround for small orders is a few weeks. As long as you want standard dice shapes, Q-Workshop customization will essentially let you get almost entirely custom dice without the huge cost of building your own molds.

For truly custom dice you will need to pay to create a custom mold, which will cost you thousands of dollars at a minimum. Your minimum quantity will be at the very least 1,500 of each die. Manufacturing will happen overseas, so you’ll also have to pay for shipping, which will likely be another several thousand. If you want to find a US plastic injection molding manufacturer to make your dice, figure you’ll have to pay ten times as much for your setup and significantly more per die.

That said, if custom dice sounds like what you’re looking for, you can go through PandaGM for your custom dice manufacturing. They have manufacturing sources in China. They have a very good reputation and the lowest minimum quantities of anyone I’ve ever worked with. Most game printing companies can source custom dice. Do not bother them if you don’t want thousands of each die.

1-Sided Dice Now on AwesomeDice.com

1-sided diceWe here at Awesome Dice HQ are thrilled to announce the launch of 1-sided dice. Yes, the fabled d1 is finally here!

Why do you need 1-sided dice?

Imagine this all too common scenario faced every day by D&D DMs around the world: your group is in a dungeon crawl. There’s a room with a pie in it, and the pie is guarded by an orc. If the characters open the door, one of these things happen:

1. The orc attacks

That’s it, there’s only the one option. So the characters do indeed open the door and the poor DM consults the chart. Unfortunately the smallest die type he has is a d4, so our DM has no choice but to roll the d4 over and over until he gets a 1 before he knows what the orc is going to do.

This is exactly the situation that 1-sided dice are designed to solve. Now the DM can grab the d1 and quickly roll just one time, see what the orc will do, and get on with the action of the game. In this way 1-sided dice make your game move faster and better.

Möbius Strip Dice

The 1-sided die is a möbius strip: an object with only one side. If you put your finger on any point of of the die and move it along the surface, you’ll eventually come back to the starting point and will have touched every part of the die (there is not any other side).

1-sided dice are about twice the size of standard gaming dice. Gamers can “roll” the d1 by spinning it like a coin. The numbering comes uninked, and if desired can be easily filled in with a fine-point permanent marker.

The 1-sided dice are available in plastic and as solid stainless steel metal. To be completely frank, the metal d1 is far superior: it has a nice solid heft, looks awesome, and spins delightfully. However, stainless steel is expensive, so we also have a plastic version. It’s the same size and dimensions but it’s very light, lighter even than standard dice despite being much larger.

At Last – Perfect Randomness

These 1-sided dice are the highest precision gaming dice available. The 1-sided dice are guaranteed to have zero deviation from perfect randomness. They are, in effect, statistically perfect. As we saw in our randomness test, even GameScience precision dice don’t roll to casino-level accuracy. But with the d1, you will get the mathematically predicted distribution every time.

Here’s some close-up shots of the 1-sided dice:

1-sided dice
Metal version of the 1-sided dice.
Plastic 1-sided dice
The plastic version of the 1-sided dice.

1-sided dice mobius strip

GameScience Dice Shortage

April 2014 Update: Lou Zocchi now once again controls GameScience. However, GameScience dice are still not being manufactured, and there is still no way to predict when they will be.

Jan 2014 Update: GameScience dice are still not being manufactured. There is no predicted date on when they might be able to start making them again; however, GameStation confirmed that they are no longer the GameScience manufacturers: “I can safely say that we will not offer Gamescience again.

We are currently unable to get our hands on any GameScience dice, and GameScience dice are not being manufactured at this time.

Our distributors have been out of stock of most GameScience dice for some time now (though they still have the occasional odd-sized “Zocchi Pack” set at hand (update: these are gone too) they have no 7-dice or other sets). In frustration we finally went direct to GameStation, the company that purchased GameScience some five years back. The response we got was:

Unfortunately, we are currently not shipping out to retailers or distributors at this time.  I apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused you.  If you would like, I can email you when Gamescience Dice will be available to you again.

This was a strangely vague response. I replied asking for even the roughest ballpark timeline of when they would be back in stock, and got no response at all. Adding to the strangeness, GameStation had taken down their video of Lou Zocchi giving his GameScience spiel at GenCon.

So we did a bit more digging, reaching out to some contacts. We were able to confirm that in fact no GameScience dice are currently being manufactured at all (including the d100), and it’s unlikely that manufacturing will start up for at least a month or two until next year at the earliest. However, everyone one we spoke with was hopeful that manufacturing would start up again this year, but no one was willing to hazard a guess when, or whether the full color assortment would become available at once (there were some suggestions that manufacturing might start up one color at a time – but that is not at all certain, they could all come back at once).

While both manufacturers and distributors are out of stock, it is not possible for us to get any GameScience dice of any kind, and it will likely be a long drought before they’re available again.

Thanks to Welbo to providing the updated GameStation quote.

Most Popular Gaming Dice

It’s no secret that we gamers love dice — heck, we built a business around it. So we thought it would be fun to take a look at exactly what kinds of dice gamers like the most. With the tens of thousands of dice we sell each year, we figure there aren’t many businesses around that sell more dice than we do so we’re in a unique position to know what kinds of dice are most popular to gamers. And we love sharing data!

This data is all based on sales on Awesome Dice, and we’re counting number of purchases for each dice type. This data set is looking at all of 2012 sales — if there’s enough interest, we’ll continue posting this kind of information every year.

Most Popular Dice Set Types

Most popular dice set types

Starting at the top we’re looking purely at the kind of dice sets that gamers buy. It’s probably no surprise that 7-dice sets of classic D&D dice are the winner — these dice are used in countless RPGs from Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder to Earthdawn and Call of Cthulhu. What is a little surprising is that 12d6 dice sets weren’t as far behind as we’d have thought. This is largely because when wargamers buy 6-sided dice, they buy a lot of them. It’s not uncommon for us to get orders of ten or twenty 12d6 sets at once — almost always of plain opaque dice.

The 10d10 sets are a small fraction of dice sets sold, far diminished from the glory days of World of Darkness back in the late 90s. The odd dice are the sets of unusual-sided dice (d3, d5, etc) sold by GameScience.

Most Popular Dice Colors

Most popular dice colors chart

Here we’re taking a look at the most popular colors of dice out there. For purposes of this data, a die that is blue and red, for example, counts as both a blue and a red die. However, dice that are black and red would just count as red. Our logic here is that the black & red die is considered a red die — someone is buying it because it’s a cool-looking red die, not because of black. So the dice counted in the black column are dice that are predominantly black.

Blue is the clear winner for most popular dice color. From there red, green, black, and purple all steadily decline until the big drop-off. Glow in the dark dice sell surprisingly well, especially considering the difficulties we have in keeping the coolest glow in the dark 7-dice sets in stock. The Other column includes orange, yellow, gray, bronze, teal and other minor colors.

Most Popular Dice

Okay, enough of the charts of aggregate data — let’s take a look at what are flat out the most popular single sets of dice! For this we are excluding the cheap opaque dice. I think we can agree that there’s nothing particularly appealing to the opaque dice other than their price, but by numbers alone they would control half of the top 10 list, and that just isn’t terribly interesting.

It’s much more fun to look at the dice that gamers choose based on appearance, rather than price. Well, perhaps we should make an exception for number 1…

Pound o DIce

#1: Pound o’ Dice

The single most popular set of dice is actually the Pound o’ Dice — and it’s in first place by a pretty large margin as well. The Pound o’ Dice is a giant bag containing a random assortment of around 100 dice. These dice include a lot of factory seconds, but are also mixed in with high-quality dice from various Chessex dice sets.

Gamers cannot get enough of Pound o’ Dice. As owners of several of these ourselves, we can understand why. The Pound o’ Dice is a great and cheap way to stock up on a bunch of extra dice to replace the ones that are lost under furniture or provide dice to the people who forgot their own.

Mini gold dice set

#2 & 3: Mini Metal Dice 7-Sets

The second and third positions on the most popular dice list are the tiny 5mm mini metal dice. These dice sets come in both gold and silver colors (silver is #2, and gold is #3) and these dice are small enough that you can actually just about fit the entire set on the surface of a penny.

There’s just something about making something really, really small that appeals to people (remember the mini PHB & DMG?). In practice these mini dice make a very easy set of dice to carry with you anywhere.

Glow in the dark 12d6 dice set

#4: Glow in the Dark 12d6

Glow in the dark dice are just awesome. The 12d6 version earns its position in the top ten due to the combination of awesome glowiness and affordable price… and perhaps because we managed to get a particularly attractive photo of them glowing.

To be fair, the Glow in the Dark Elven Dice would very likely be in the top 10 if we could just keep them in stock. Every time we get more of these in from their manufacturer in Poland they blow out in a few weeks and it takes months to get more back in stock.

Elven translucent blue dice

#5: Elven Translucent Blue 7-Set

The Elven Translucent Blue dice are truly awesome. While the exact appearance varies from set to set, these dice feature cool designs inked in blue on a clear die. As a result, you can see the elven writing through dice dice, giving an elven feeling background to any given face of the dice.

These dice are works of art, and we totally get why they’re so popular.

Scarab Royal Blue dice set

#6: Scarab Royal Blue 7-Set

Here at Awesome Dice we’re big fans of the entire Scarab collection of dice, and Scarab Royal Blue brings in the top spot as the 6th most popular dice set. The Scarab dice in general do a really good job of mixing a solid color with black to give a darker, textured appearance.

It probably isn’t surprising that the Scarab Royal Blue is so popular since, as we’ve learned, blue is the most popular dice color of gaming dice.

Scarab Jade dice set

#7: Scarab Jade 7-Set

A personal favorite, the Scarab Jade 7-Dice Set is to green what the above set is to blue. Jade is the right word to describe these dice, making them perfect for everything from L5R characters (they come in 10d10 sets as well) to any wilderness characters. Or heck, any character at all — they’re just very cool-looking dice.

Gemini purple black dice set

#8: Gemini Purple-Black 7-Set

Given the popularity of the Gemini Purple-Black dice set, we were surprised to see that purple was so low in the most popular colors. It appears that if a gamer has a hankering for purple dice, then this is the purple dice set of choice.

Gemini Shell-Black dice set

#9: Gemini Black-Shell

A nice change from the typical bold and strong colors, the Gemini Black-Shell 7-set swiftly became a favorite a gamers. This is particularly impressive since we didn’t stock this dice color until halfway through the year! It will be interesting to see how it performs this year with a whole year to compete for the top 10 spot.

Scarab Blue Blood dice set

#10: Scarab Blue Blood 7-Set

Rounding out the top 10 list is yet another in the Scarab collection, the Scarab Blue Blood 7-set. To us, this is the true Scarab red die type, and it’s interesting that it’s the only red dice set in the top 10, considering all red dice combine to be the second most popular color.

Most Popular Dice Bags

Night Sky Dice BagWe’d like to be able to do a similar analysis of dice bags as we did with the dice, but we feel the data is pretty skewed on the dice bag front. We spent a good amount of time last year sourcing new cool dice bags, and as a result most of the dice bags were available for radically different periods of time — we didn’t even get our leather dice bags or chainmail dice bags on the site until early this year.

That said, the basic dice bags all took the top spots, including the metallic gold dice bag. The most popular non-basic dice bag was the Night Sky dice bag (pictured to the left).

If the emails we get are any indication, the Dragon Scale Dice Bags are the most desired bags, but their hefty price probably prevents them from making the top-selling list. Our new selection of leather dice bags have been incredibly popular, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them topping the list in 2013.

What Do You Think?

What do you think should have made the list for coolest gamer dice but didn’t? Do you think there are other ways we should have looked at aggregate data? And most of all, is this kind of information the kind of thing you’d like to see us do more of at Awesome Dice? We’re always eager to dig into any kind of dice-related data that we can (such as our randomness test) but don’t know if most gamers get quite the enjoyment out of these statistics as we do.

New: Cthulhu Elder Sign Leather Dice Bags

Cthulhu Elder Sign leather dice bag.Just in at Awesome Dice — Cthulhu Elder Sign leather dice bags!

These are the same high quality genuine leather construction as the rest of our leather dice bags, but with a green foil stamped Elder Sign design on the bag, to keep your dice safe from the unfathomable machinations of Old Ones. With this dice bag, Great Cthulhu himself cannot steal your dice.

The Cthulhu dice bag is what we consider the perfect sized dice bag: about six inches tall by about 4.5 inches wide — capable of holding up to 50 dice, but still small enough to stuff into a jacket pocket. The dice bag comes with a leather draw cord, and that lovely new leather smell.

The Elder Sign Cthulhu leather dice bag is exclusive to Awesome Dice!

Chainmail & Leather Dice Bags

Here at Awesome Dice we spend a lot of time trying to find not just the coolest dice to sell, but also the coolest dice bags — and in our humble opinion we have one of the best dice bag selections out there. But there have been two obvious things missing from the beginning: chainmail dice bags, and good old fashioned leather dice bags.

Happily, we have recently found solutions to our problems with both of these types of dice bags and we’re happy to announce we have both stainless steel chainmail dice bags for sale as well as a big selection of leather dice bags. We’re very happy to have these holes in our dice bag selection filled.

Chainmail Dice Bags

Chainmail dice bags have long been a favorite of D&D gamers: there’s nothing like carrying your dice in a bag that could actually withstand a slashing attack. Finding a reliable supplier of quality chainmail dice bags has been a heck of a problem though. And when we did find them, they were often cheap things made out of aluminum, and not steel.

Chainmail Dice Bag

If you’re going to get a chainmail dice bag, you want a stainless steel one. If you don’t care what it’s made of, well, then you probably don’t care that it’s chainmail in the first place. Happily we eventually found a good supplier that makes the chainmail dice bags themselves, and they are very high quality construction. We’re thrilled with them.

Leather Dice Bags

Leather dice bagsThe problem with leather dice bags wasn’t so much finding a supplier (well — some places did try to pass faux leather off as real, but they were the exception and that was usually Chinese import places), but rather finding a supplier that could get us quantities at decent prices. You would be shocked at how many places want to sell leather dice bags for forty to fifty bucks a bag.

In a bit of serendipity, we finally found a great leather shop (based in the US too) with good quality and great prices at right about the same time we found the chainmail bags. We were so pleased with the quality that we actually brought in a dozen different leather dice bags. This includes a bunch of different colors of foil stampings — they have a cool dragon design that is hot stamped into the leather. We also got red and purple suede dice bags — also real leather — that look just phenomenal.

As always, if you guys think there is anything that Awesome Dice is missing from the site, please let us know. We’ll do our best to get it, or at the very least let you know why we don’t carry it. And we are always working to expand our selection.

20th Level Sucks: a 3.0 Adventure Failure Story

Recently I was talking with someone about my recent first level characters suck post and about my problems with high level D&D games. I promised him I’d post a follow-up about why I hated very high level D&D games so much, so here it is!

Once Upon a Time in 3.0…

I was working at FFG when D&D 3.0 hit and FFG hopped on the bandwagon to make some quick bucks off the unstoppable d20 money train. After dipping their toes in the water with some adventures, FFG leapt in with both feet, publishing a line of hardcover books and eventually getting into settings.

So during the heyday we had a couple of fulltime RPG developers. One of them was very excited when Dragon magazine published a 20th level adventure for 3.0 and his enthusiasm was infectious. Before long he had a group of us rounded up to play in the adventure.

Our instructions were to create 20th level characters, and we were only allowed to use official WotC books for abilities and whatnot (somewhat notably he did not allow us to use  FFG books).

So we set to it. Some people went hardcore with their min/maxing, while others of us spent far more time than we should have on our character background. Eventually we were ready to go.

epic D&DArt by 1mpact

Save or F***

Back when I was playing 2nd edition (first was a bit before my time) we would refer to certain abilities as “save or f**k” abilities, because if you failed your save, game over. Maybe you died, maybe you turned to stone. Even sleep was essentially a save or f**k because if you failed, you could easily have your throat cut.

As D&D progresses these abilities become more and more common. By the time you have a group of 20th level characters, we quickly learned, combat involves sitting around while your spellcasters slaughter everything in their path with DC 40 save or f**k spells. I was some kind of melee fighter, as I recall, and so like the other melee guy was mostly superfluous to the fighting.

natural-1For two encounters the spellcaster (shapechanged, flying, and invisible) laid waste to everything we encountered. Finally we moved on from waves of baddies to one super tough one, some kind of leviathan. This monster was so tough that he could only fail his save on a roll of 1. He had is own save or f**k ability that he used on the party, but we could only fail if we rolled a 1.

So the encounter was really just the monster and spellcasters trading off, waiting for the 5% chance that someone rolled a natural 1 on a saving throw, and then they’d die.

That was literally how combat was decided at that level. Whoever rolls a 1 first loses. Nothing else really matters, with all the healing and giant health pools. I mean sure, the other melee type and myself were jumping in there, doing some damage and taking some damage as we hacked away, but there was no possibility our actions were going to determine the outcome.

After that encounter the DM stopped the game, though we were only halfway through the adventure, and vowed never to run high level D&D again.

I Haven’t Tried Again Either

Now to be fair, that was 3.0. I’m sure 3.5 wasn’t much different, but I have not even looked hard at very top level Pathfinder characters (which is what we play now) or 4th edition. I don’t know how those versions deal with the unbalanced scaling that has been with D&D from the beginning and that breaks the game at high levels.

Perhaps they found a way to fix things — but I know that save or f**k spells still exist, so I kind of doubt it. Either way, I’m a bit trepidatious to try and I’m planning my Pathfinder game to cap out with the characters hitting 12th level or so just to be safe.

First Level Characters Suck

Ranger art by YamaO

My gaming group recently started a new Pathfinder campaign that I’m running, and as the characters started dinging 2nd level, I was quickly reminded once again how much 1st level characters suck. Certainly from a player point of view you tend always to be looking forward to the next level, the next feat, the next spell level or ability gain. But as a GM I’m just desperately looking for the characters to get the point where I can plan a challenging combat encounter without accidentally killing them.

The core problem with the first level characters is simply that they have so frickin few hitpoints. Even after just a few levels, their health starts to reach a point where good and bad attack rolls average out. But at first level, a simple encounter against a handful of CR 1/3 skeletons could kill them off if the dice turn against the party.

Don’t get me wrong, high level characters suck even worse. D&D simply breaks down at high levels, becomes a horribly designed nightmare of a game that ceases to function properly, but that’s a rant for another time.

Our group hung out at first level for a good 4-5 sessions, and every combat was a nightmare to design. The difference between laughably easy and TPK was a thin, thin line. But at second level a bit of magic happened, and all those encounter design problems went away.

2nd Level: the Biggest Gain in the Game

I was marveling at how much tougher the group was when I realized the simple reason: at no other level do characters gain in overall combat power more than 2nd level. I mean seriously — the characters are literally twice as powerful. They doubled in combat effectiveness. Even without 2nd level spells or extra feats, the group was suddenly a combat machine. Why, they could reliably take more than two hits without dying.

So I think in the future there will be no more first level campaigns. At the most they can start with first level characters for the first night, do a bunch of roleplaying, and then bump to 2nd level before they start putting themselves in danger.

Chalkboard Gaming Table

Like many gaming groups, our game takes place on a crappy old kitchen table down in the basement gaming room. I was pondering the water-damaged surface one night and had a great idea — make the table surface into a chalkboard!

Chalkboard Gaming Table

They actually make chalkboard paint, which makes it incredibly easy to turn your gaming table into a chalkboard gaming table. The chalkboard surface is easily erasable with a chalkboard eraser, and you can always wipe it down with a damp cloth if you want to remove all traces of chalk.

We still use a battlemat for running D&D combat, but for looser combat systems, encounters where positioning is less crucial, and broad overviews (the city looks approximately like this, etc) the chalkboard surface works great. The gamers all love it ’cause they can can take notes on the edge of the table (or, in one case, denote the area of the table that belonged to them) for hit points, damage modifiers, etc. It’s also very popular for doodling.

And if you lean on the writing and get some chalk dust on your sleeve, it easily wipes off, unlike leaning on the battlemat and getting marker smeared on your work shirt. Soda spills wipe off easily (and wine spills, as we learned the first night we used it).

How to Do It

You can get chalkboard paint from your local hardware store in the paint section, or order it online. I used this stuff that I got from Home Depot, Rust-Oleum Chalkboard. It’s worth noting that you want to be sure to get latex-based paint for this (which this is).

Chalkboard paint

You’re also going to need a latex primer. I used some old gray primer I found stashed away under the stairs, but regular old white primer will work just fine.

  • Sand down the surface that you’re going to paint. Any kind of electric sander will really save your hide here. You need to sand the shiny finish completely off your gaming table. You’ll be able to easily feel the difference between the smooth shiny finished surface and your rougher bare wood sanded surface. Be aware that this will create tons of dust, so clear stuff out of the room first — or do like I did and toss a giant tarp over the table and do your sanding while crouching beneath the tarp.
  • Vacuum or wipe all the sawdust off the table. Then get a damp rag and wipe it down to clear more dust, then do it again. You really want to have all that sawdust gone before you paint.
  • Let the table dry off from your washing — this shouldn’t take long.
  • Paint the table with a latex primer. This is important — you need to prime the bare wood before putting the chalkboard paint on. You can use a brush or a napless roller for this. Let the primer dry for a couple hours.
  • Paint with chalkboard paint. I found that even the napless roller left a texture I didn’t like, so I ended up painting with a brush. Put it on thick — don’t let anything clump or pool, of course, but don’t paint it out all thinly.
  • Use three coats. At least, this is what I did, to ensure I had a nice thick surface. You have to wait a good four hours between coats, so this is most likely a project that will take a couple of days (but only 10 minutes a coat).
  • Let it dry. Once you have your three coats on, you need to restrain your enthusiasm and let the paint dry for a long time. The can recommends several days, and further suggests that you shouldn’t wet it for 7 days after painting. This makes this a good project to do in between weekly gaming sessions, provided you can rip it out the day after gaming.

The longest part of this was the sanding and dust cleanup, which took me around a half hour. Otherwise the painting was about 5-10 minutes per coat.

It’s worth noting that you may want to very lightly sand the finished surface with some kind of very fine sanding cloth if you want a smoother surface. I did not do this and the surface is a bit rough — but it works perfectly fine for our purposes and I’m probably not going to do anything more to make it smoother.

You can usually get chalk at your local big box grocery store — they have it in the kids school supply section and it’s dirt cheap. You can, of course, also order it online — which is what I had to do to get my chalkboard eraser.

All in all I’m loving the chalkboard gaming table. If any of you try out the same thing, let me know how it works out!

Chalkboard gaming table closeup
The chalkboard gaming table as it looks after our last game.

New World’s Oldest d20: Egyptian d20

Almost 10 years ago an ancient Roman d20 was found dating from 100 AD. This totally awesome 20-sided die sold at auction at Christie’s for $17,925 and at the time was the oldest d20 ever found.

Well — move over Romans, the Egyptians now take the title for the oldest d20 with this awesome ancient d20 dated from 300 to 30 BC, from the Egyptian Ptolmaic period. This sweet die is now housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has apparently been there since 1910 without any gamer knowing.

World's oldest d20

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this die was collected between 1883 and 1906 from a missionary in Egypt and is a part of their Egyptian Art collection. We can only speculate on what the die was used for, but it certainly looks incredibly cool. The Egyptian d20 is carved from serpentine rock.

Many thanks to Geekologie for the heads up, and we have updated the History of Dice to include this piece as the world’s oldest d20.