I was reading some articles the other day about Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and the history of Dungeons and Dragons. I started to wonder: Where did these guys from Wisconsin get the now iconic polyhedral dice from? Did the war games of the time use polyhedrals?
Before original D&D was published, but after its invention and they'd started playing it, the story I've heard is that a Dave Wesley found these odd dice in an educational supplies catalogue and thought they might be good for the game. Gary Gygax had a love of statistics and probability, and that probably had a lot to do with his quick adoption of the dice.
Polyhedral dice were called for in the original D&D, and low-quality pack-in dice sets appeared in the boxed editions, so they've been part of the game since the beginning. Though some few rare wargames may have used them, that's not from whence they came to D&D.
Ah, I found the quote I was remembering. Greg Svenson, one of the original Blackmoor players, recalls:
Dave Arneson did tell me that he found a set of polyhedral dice on his trip to England, but that was before I met him and I never saw that set of dice. We used six sided dice in the early Blackmoor days. We were even using d6's when we started play testing the new D&D rules in mid 1973.
My understanding is that Dave Wesley is the person who found the polyhedral dice in an educational supply catalog and showed them to Gary Gygax, who liked them and adopted them for D&D. So, it is quite possible that Dave Wesley was the first modern gamer to use them, but I don't know that for sure. I did not personally see polyhedral dice until I saw a boxed set of D&D rules in 1974.
So, doing some light reading, I stumbled across an article written by Dave Anderson about this exact issue!
It's in Kights of the Dinner Table #150. Pages 103 and 104.
Here are some quotes:
My European tour finally pulled into London, England and I visited a game store near Trafalgar Square called The Tradition Stop (Note: All times, places and locations are subject to poor recollection. I am doing my aged, feeble best.)
Upstairs was a small game section -- the games at the time being purely ones with military miniatures. (Board games in England were a rarity back then.) Amidst the Military History books, painting guides, and miniatures was a small bin containing a handful of 20-sided dice.
They were red and black. The numbers were not 'filled' and judging but the flaws in the ones I still have, not all that well made.
I bought three pairs.
After Don't Give Up the Ship I started in on Blackmoor (the forerunner of D&D), and the 20-siders resurfaced. Magic, being the strange, arcane thing that it is, cried out for strange dice.
OK, so D&D was going to be published. We needed a source of 20-siders. The boys in Geneva found a source on the West Coast.
It was a small educational toy company that sold sets of dice for showing shapes. Each set had 1-4 sided (yellow), 1-6 sided (pink), 1-8 sided (bright green), 1-12 sided (light blue), and one 20-sided (a white one numbered 1-10).
Made of soft plastic no one realized how quickly the 20-siders would wear out.
The rules were not quite done when a problem arose. Would we break open the sets and take out only the 6-sider and the 20-sider? (The others would be donated to a local school)
Well, a little work shoed how labor intensive that would be, not to mention a waste of dice.
Add rules that used the 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided, and not just the 20-sided dice.
Anyway, those are the relevent parts
David Wesely is credited by Dave Arneson with having introduced polyhedral dice to D&D. Theory from the Closet interviewed Wesely on a train to Gen Con in 2010 if you're interested in hearing about it from the man himself. (There are some sound quality issues with the recording, but it's quite worth it.)
For a strongly-sourced historical look at this question, see the analysis of the history of polyhedral gaming dice here. This story is basically about how the wargaming community became aware of the availability of polyhedral dice, about which companies adopted it first, and then how these dice ended being a part of D&D.
In short, though d20s were available in the 1960s through international standards associations, they were little known to gamers. That changed when Wargamer's Newsletter began publishing notices about them around 1969, describing d20s as a good means of resolving percentile statistics in games. Gary Gygax subscribed at the time, and mentioned that these dice would go well with a game he was working on called Tractics, a modern-setting wargame that made extensive use of statistics. In turns out that the cheapest way for Guidon Games (publisher of Tractics) to get the dice was to order a whole set of Platonic solids from a company in California called Creative Publications (one of their period advertisements is included in the blog post). From there, in June 1973, Gygax started posting about using all five Platonic polyhedra in games, in particular mentioning his work on fantasty campaign rules at the time.
All of this is excerpted from the chapter of Playing at the World on dice (Section 22.214.171.124) though the blog post has better pictures. The comments on the blog post address some of the alternative accounts (like Wesely's).
Incidentally, the Dalluhn Manuscript ("Beyond This Point Be Dragons") is remarkable for its lack of use of polyhedral dice - it is one of factors that makes it look like a pre-publication document rather than something later.
This is from Wikipedia's article on Dice:
Seven- and eight-sided dice are stated in the 13th century Libro de los juegos to have been invented by Alfonso X in order to speed up play in chess variants.
Around the end of 1960s, non-cubical dice became popular among players of wargames,and since have been employed extensively in RPGs and TCGs. Reciprocally symmetric numerals like 6 and 9 are distinguished with a dot or by being underlined.
Gygax was was very familiar with these war games so he would have had access to these different kinds of polyhedral dice.
There is a much older game known as Little Wars by H.G Wells but I haven't found any evidence to support that it used dice
Also there is a much, much older game known as Kriegsspiel that also used dice.
The original edition published used nothing but d6's as required dice, but had an option for use of d20's as well.
The 1975 release of Supplement 1: Greyhawk moved to the much wider use of polyhedrals, requiring d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d100 rolls.
There is limited evidence, however, that the earlier drafts may have extensively used percentile dice. Namely, a manuscript entitled Beyond This Point Be Dragons, supposedly found in the possessions of Professor M.A.R. Barker, and not quite authenticated by Dave Arneson. This manuscript is nominally called the "Dalluhn Manuscript." Some of the released extracts show percentile driven tables, such as "Exhibit C".
There is little convincing evidence of polyhedral use other than the d20 and d100 prior to 1974 (the pre-release era), tho Gygax is said to have been using the d20 driven "Alternative" Combat system from before release. Dave Arneson did use percentiles almost exclusively in early drafts.
It is worth noting that the d100 rolls used 2d20, as the available d20's were marked 0-9 twice, not 1-20. The pentagonal trapezodipyramid was not commercially readily available until the later half of the 1970's.