Writing with dice, again

Screenshot anime DanMachi / Dungeon ni Deai

The status of my white-haired main character has grown a lot! That’s because I roll dice every Sunday morning. It also makes for very fast writing, as it turns out.

Since April 18th, I’ve had fun writing a fiction story. Around the end of April 26 (that would be 8 days later) I reached 50 000 words. It’s slowed down a bit since (65 000 by the end of the month), which is good because I have other things to do as well. Also to avoid repetitive stress injury from insane amounts of typing, I could not do this all year round. But it is a pretty awesome feeling when the writing just runs through the brain onto the screen.

The fiction is a coming-of-age psychic mini-superhero story using dice. The scope is similar to that of Smallville (the TV and book series) in that it follows a boy with unusual abilities from he discovers them until he is fully grown. But the tone is very different. The powers are different, and they start out very weak, so much so that at first they are indistinguishable from coincidence. There are also no truly superpowered enemies or allies – for the duration of this story at least, it is assumed that the Main Character is the only of his kind on Earth.

(There may be sequels, or maybe not. The story as first draft is extremely bare-bones and I might easily expand it not only by adding detail but also by writing scenes in between existing scenes. In the hands of a better writer, this story could easily be as long as Smallville. Then again, in the hands of a better writer, Smallville might have been worth watching more than halfway through.)

(When I say these 65 000 words are “bare-bones”, I mean as in “we only know the hair and eye color of the main character and his best friend”, “we don’t know the layout of any buildings”, “we don’t know the local plant life but the setting is said to be in northern Europe” (it is actually in Denmark, to the best of my knowledge, with a brief vacation in southern Norway which is mentioned in one of the first chapters.) It is the complete antithesis of filler. Pretty much all except the action and dialog is left to imagination, at least as of today.)


Now about the dice. The psychic powers are very closely based on GURPS third edition, the Psionics chapter with a little extra detail from the Psionics extended rulebook. This is a robust, realistically scaling role playing system that lets you transition seamlessly from the everyday to the fantastical given enough time. In my case, I roll the dice every Sunday morning (story time, not my time!) and increase one stat each time.

For those who want to try this approach but not for psychic powers, they may want a different time scale and a different skill set. But I particularly like psionics, so.

At the start of the story, as the Main Character enters high school, he is noticeably weaker, slower, clumsier and (barely noticeably) stupider than the rest of his class. The only stat that is above average is Longevity, which is one I added as a vital stat, which it is not in GURPS. (In GURPS there is a life extension subpower of healing, I am skipping that in return.) Because longevity has already kicked in, the character is aging more slowly than his classmates, so that at the onset of high school he is only just past puberty. This delay explains most of his weakness, which also makes him a victim of relentless bullying ever since his childhood.

Each Sunday morning (story time) I roll 1 ordinary 6-sided die first to determine the type of stat to increase. In my setup, there are two groups of psionic powers plus vital stats. The first group is variations of telekinesis and telepathy. The second group is miscellaneous psychic powers such as teleportation, ESP and healing. Each of these have a power component (the strength of the psychic power) and a skill component (the chance of success and level of precision, if applicable). The eyes of the die translate as follows:
1 = basic psychic power group
2 = misc psychic power group
3 = vital stat
4 = basic psychic skill group
5 = misc psychic skill group
6 = vital stat up to 15, after that reroll

After determining the group, a new single-die roll determines the exact power or stat to increase by 1. For example: Roll 1 = 2, which means we will increase the raw strength of a miscellaneous psychic power. Roll 2 = 6, which takes us to the specific power of healing. (As it happens, in the actual story this power got a higher than average number of rolls throughout the story, to the point where I tried to vary the way I threw my dice, including using two different dice for the two rolls, but the phenomenon continued. Make of that what you will.)

As for skills, they start at IQ-3. This is not really useful information unless you know GURPS. But it means that when the vital stat of Intelligence rises, the skill stats increase along with it but the power level does not – only the chance of success and degree of control.  So with starting INT= 9 (IQ 90) an accumulated skill roll of 1 would give an actual skill of 6, or a chance of success of 9.3%. For the first chapters, I added a beginner’s luck to the narrative to introduce some of the powers into the story, but then the Main Character naturally finds that it is almost impossible to make it happen again until months later when his skill has improved again. His powers start out almost useless and stay that way for his first year in school, where he continues to be bullied mercilessly but increasingly often get premonitions that warn him, or miraculously escapes before getting too badly beaten up. At this point he has really no offensive or defensive powers beyond running away.

The dice only determine what is possible, they do not decide the story as such. But they do push on it. Due to the early and relatively rapid growth of his healing and telepathy, it was natural to develop him into more of a healer type. Certainly his mother  sees him as such. As a result, at the end of high school he decides to become a nurse, and after a year changes studies to doctor (physician) as his intelligence continues to increase. This means that for the most part, detective or combat abilities are downplayed even when his powers reach a level where such a role would become possible. If the dice had caused a rapid increase in strength and telekinesis early on, he might have become a more classical combat-oriented hero.


Obviously this approach will not work for all genres, but perhaps it can help someone else escape from writer’s block. There are also many other ways in which dice can be used for fiction. In my Sims 2 blog, for instance, my simulated neighborhood Micropolis was exposed to random events from year 40 onward, such as climate change or the outbreak of a genetically modified disease. I had a list of possible events and used dice to determine which of them actually happened, if any, and in which order. I hope this can give blocked writers some new ideas. Good luck!

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