By Shamus Posted Wednesday Apr 12, 2006

Filed under: Tabletop Games 27 comments

When I was a teenager, four-sided roleplaying dice were made like this:

The faces were numbered. However, due to the shape of the die the face you “rolled” was the one facing the table. You figured out what you rolled by looking at the bottom edge and seeing what number was there. Confusingly, this meant that the side you rolled was the only one you couldn’t see and had every number on it except the one you rolled. That is, the “two” side had 1, 3, and 4 on it.

This struck me as a bit strange and counter-intuitive at the time. I was always unhappy with the design of the four-sided. My own thought was that the four-sided should use a different shape:

Take the standard 4 sided, then select any 2 perpendicular edges. Take these edges and move them away from each other a bit, which will make each face more of an acute isosceles triangle. You end up with this:

This will produce a four-sided solid suitable for rolling, with one side clearly facing more directly up than the others.

For whatever reason I lost interest in the game when I was about fifteen. I didn’t have anything to do with it until about 18 years later, when I started playing again in early 2005. However, I noticed the design of the four-sided has changed since I was a teen:

Now the tips are numbered, instead of the faces. I’ve been to the local geek store comic book and RPG shop and they don’t have any of the old style dice for sale. I can only conclude they don’t make them that way any more. I wonder when this happened? Knowing geeks, I bet it was a big deal, and I’m willing to go one further and bet there are old-school purists and holdouts out there who shun the new dice. I have no evidence of this, I’m just extrapolating. I know how we geeks can get.

It’s unexpected, since every other shape uses numbered faces instead of tips, but I think the new design is much more intuitive. I had my kids (ages 4, 6, and 8 ) roll them as a test, and they found the new dice to be far easier to understand. All of them understood the new ones, but only the middle child was able to figure out how to read the old style dice.


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27 thoughts on “Four-Sided

  1. MOM says:

    She is soooo smart

    totaly objectively

  2. ARJ says:

    Well, here in Australia at least they do have what you call the “old” style. I have a few purchased at most a couple of years ago and find them annoying as well. I prefer the tip-numbered dice simply because, when looking down at the die, it’s easier to read a number on the top then bend down to see the number way at the base of the die. But then, my vision has never been that great anyway.

    I think the side-numbered dice I have were part of a set vs. the tip-numbered which were purchased individually.

  3. AlbinoDrow says:

    I’ve always used the new 4-sided, but a while ago my dad gave me his old collection with some 4-sided that were like that. It took me a while to figure out how to read them.

  4. Ben Finkel says:

    I have “new” and “old” in equal amounts, and seeing as I am 17, I don’t think my “old” ones are really that old. Sorry, Shamus, that I’m posting in all these backlogged entries, but I am reading them for my first time. Blekh. Whatever.


  5. Joe Werner says:

    Well, after having read this I checked my “regular” (regular tetrahedron) d4s at home. They are “old style” purchased somewhen between now and the early nineties. However, I also have “the other kind” where one side really faces up. I like those much better, they roll higher (unless rolling for my HPs where they totally suck).


  6. CyberGorth says:

    My Dicebag has both types in it. I think some companies switched styles and others didn’t. Niether one is that hard to read though, you just look for the only number that’s the right way up!

  7. Andrew says:

    Check out for a different shape entirely. Basically just a box, with pointed ends so that the die can’t come to rest standing up. The d20s in this style are a pain to read, but the d4s are nice.

  8. DiceHoarder says:

    I have no idea why anyone has a hard time reading the “oldd” D4. The number rolled is the edge on the table. It is the same number on all three sides that you can see, and is the only number facing right-side up to read easily.

    For example, the dice pictured at the top read, in order 1, 2,& 3. Try it at home for those of you with the “old” style. The last die shows 3, 4, 1 (clockwise from them bottom edge). The other faces that you can’t see in the picture are 3, 2, 4 and 3, 1, 2 (read the same way). Therefore, the number rolled is 3.

    Granted, the newer point numbered die is much easier to read. We used to have to bend our heads down to read the older ones when using a low table to roll on.

  9. Meems says:

    I’ve never actually had a problem reading the old style dice. If you can’t get your head down to table level, you just pick them up and be careful not to turn them over.

  10. deadlytoque says:

    I think the problem with your redesigned d4 is that the 4 sides are not equal in area, meaning that some sides would probably be biased. I have no idea how one would calculate the bias, but the faces with more area would end up facing the table more often the those with less area.

  11. Target says:

    I’ve never liked d4s period. I don’t think they roll well. Though an interesting note, recently I saw a d8 shaped die where 2 facets bore each number 1-4. The only problem I see with these is when you are reaching for an actual d8. >.

  12. Scott Simmons says:

    “I think the problem with your redesigned d4 is that the 4 sides are not equal in area, meaning that some sides would probably be biased. I have no idea how one would calculate the bias, but the faces with more area would end up facing the table more often the those with less area.”

    No, each side is identical, and the die as a whole is symmetrical (just not polyhedronical). (I don’t know if that’s even a word, but it should be!) I actually have a few four-siders like this, but I can’t recall where I got them … The only problem I find with them is that they don’t roll well on the table, so you’ve got to make sure they get a good spin in the air for real randomness.

  13. David says:

    Hi Shamus! You may not read this, as this is an old post already, but I thought this was pretty cool. I just recently bought my first set of role playing dice, including a d6, d10, combined with a d100, d12, d20, and a d4. The funny thing is, I thought about this post when I bought it, but didn’t realize until I reread it, that the d4 was an older model. :P
    I’m amazed that they still make those, but also, it’s kind of nice to know I’ve got an ‘old school’ d4.

  14. Cthulhu says:

    The old DragonDice game from TSR had a d4 shaped like the one you show.

  15. Kizer says:

    My first d4 was in the “new style.” Then I purchased several d4s, in sets and individually, from varioius card shops. Some were “old,” some were “new.” To me, the “old” style with the number at the base actually seemed new to me. I even asked the owner if this was a new style, and he said it was . . . What makes this even stranger was I bought these dice at a Wizards of the Coast store. I’m not sure what the full story of the d4 is. It’s strange, but in the end I have to agree with Andrew, the crystal d4 is my favorite.

  16. McNutcase says:

    I just got around to buying a bunch of new dice today.

    All the D4s are old-style, like the one in the big pile of dice at the bottom of the page using the Lawful Good theme.

    I think the black and red one is going to be my favourite for GM rolls, simply because it has a doom-laden look. For player rolls, it has to be the pearlescent white one…

  17. wintermute says:

    I recently picked these up: 12-sided dice numbered 1-4 three times.

    They are the best d4’s I’ve ever owned and yuo can’t have them.

  18. I picked up some dice over the weekend and noticed, thanks to your post, that the 4-sided dice were all “old fashioned”.

    These were the cheapest (yet still ridiculously expensive at over 50 cents each) dice the store had, priced at $3.20 for 6 (4d, 6d, 8d, 10d, 12d, 20d). They are sold by Koplow Games, The NICE DICE Company — details provided as proof these old fashioned dice are still made.

  19. Kyte says:

    Oddly enough, my classmates has a old-style d4 in his dice bag. I doubt they were made before 2002. Then again, I’m in Lat.Am. I also happened to figure’em out right away.
    Maybe it’s just an exposure issue?

  20. thunks says:

    How about having a die which is a tetrahedron with 1 number per side, but suspended upside down within a clear tetrahedron? That way, the die would only have four sides, and the number you rolled would be uppermost. Im not sure thats the greatest description ive ever made of something though.

  21. Tacoma says:

    You could also just have rod-shaped dice that are made with some number of sides. It might be a bit harder to identify which was which but people have that problem with d8 / d10 now.

    I find that I can read both types of d4 just fine but I take longer to add them up when I roll a bunch of d4s that include both styles.

  22. Musoeun says:

    I knew my dad RPed in college, but only found hard evidence a few years ago when we got a bunch of dice from my grandparents, including a lonely-looking “old style” d4. I always thought you just looked at the bottom number here (you can sort of see it on the red one in the pic, the bottom number on both visible faces is a 2, thus you rolled a 2). No flipping over necessary.

    I also had a DM who’s “d4” was two d6s, which I think doesn’t balance out right but I don’t currently feel like working it out.

  23. D&D_Gamer says:

    DiceHoarder is right.

    You’re supposed to read the “old-style” dice by reading the only number that is upright. I’ve never even heard of anyone ever picking up the dice to see what the number was underneath…

  24. Noah Tall says:

    Please take a look at Patent # 5,690,331 – The die is used in the Dragon Dice Game and some knock-offs numbered 1-4 were made at one time.

  25. Kaida says:

    I bought a new set of “Dragon Dice” that confused even me: They are read by “The number that appears right side up.” The bottom right corner. I cannot for the life of me figure that one out, except maybe so they could put their logo in the center. Weird.

  26. Mersadeon says:

    After a long time in being interested, I finally got D&D stuff and I’m ready to play. This of course includes dice.

    I’ve got 2d4, and they are both “old-style” ones – maybe the new ones just didn’t catch on in Germany?

  27. Michael Link says:

    To my knowledge, gained while working at a game/hobby shop, the “new style” are manufactured by Chessex.

    The “old style” are manufactured by Kaplow.

    I know Alliance, the leading RPG and gaming wholesaler in most of the US, would usually steer us toward Chessex dice when we ordered, but we had a an account with a chess and table games vendor that could get us the Kaplow dice if we wanted them, or in the event we needed to order a strange chess item and tacked on some Kaplow dice to make free shipping.

    I would bet that wholesales/importers in other countries are just filling these orders with Kaplow dice for whatever reason.

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