04 November 2013

Dice can "dramatically decompose"

Cellulose nitrate was used to make dice from the late 1860s until the middle of the twentieth century, and the material remains stable for decades. Then, in a flash, they can dramatically decompose. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode.
From Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck by Ricky Jay and Rosamond Purcell, 2002.
After reading that I immediately checked my box of D&D dice, which have been sitting on the shelf for years. They all seem to be intact.

Text and image via Sutured Infection.


  1. After being a regular lurker on TYWKIWDBI for about 5 years, I decided that this might be a good post to make my first comment.

    Cellulose Nitrate is an incredibly dangerous substance to have around. I first learned about it in regards to old film in a class on collections management in a museum studies program. The film will remain stable for a number of years and then unpredictably deteriorate at temperatures above freezing. The deteriorated film can burn underwater and is nearly impossible to extinguish. Museums and archives that have cellulose nitrate negatives and films in their collections generally keep them in deep freezers, often with the doors chained and padlocked shut as a way to minimize the incredible risk associated with them. Standard procedure is to get the film in different format as soon as possible, usually through digitization, and then dispose of them as quickly as possible.

    Here's the National Parks Service's bulletin on Cellulose Nitrate negatives...

    I don't know if the same cautions would apply to these dice, but given their rates of decay, it certainly seems plausible that these could easily burn your house down.


    1. Thank you, ZRH. Spurred by your comment I did some more research. Several websites discuss collecting vintage casino dice:


      It sound like the cellulose nitrate dice would have been used in the first half of the 20th century and that the dice I bought in the 1970s were probably cellulose acetate. I hope so.

  2. You have the right of it Stan. Even the earliest commercially available polyhedral dice for D&D (and war games) play were plastic. This blog post nicely describes how D&D got its dice.

    The whole Playing At The World blog is worthwhile if you are interested in the history of war gaming in general and D&D in particular; or if like me you weren't born until 1979 and want some idea of what went on in the "before times" : )

    1. Thanks, Dan. That first link is quite interesting.

    2. To follow up on your post, I listened to Dave Arneson talk at Gen Con a few years back just before he passed away. He mentioned that they had to buy the dice from Creative Publications in full sets, but they didn't have rules that used the d12. So, they made up a few rules in an effort to make the purchasers of the game feel that they got their money's worth (and not have an orphaned d12).

      I'll always remember that intimate Q&A session because it was in a medium sized room at a hotel with only about 20 people in attendance. I felt he deserved to have more people in the audience.


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