Search This Blog

Monday, 21 March 2016

Writing by dice.

 I did this as a guest blog some time ago and thought I'd reblog it here.

I came upon the idea of using dice in writing when I was Gamesmaster in a selection of role playing games [the pen and paper kind, not the computerised sort, because I’m really that old] and I made some tables for random events and personality traits because the player characters very rarely stuck to the plot as laid out in either published adventures or those I had written, and wanted to go off and talk to people who were mentioned in passing for local colour.  So, rather than be wrong footed, I developed the ability to quickly roll a few personality traits to see how these random people would react to being spoken to by a bunch of [usually] scuzzy looking strangers with big weapons and bigger attitudes.
I confess there may be a bit of an art in adding the traits together and building a whole personality and –if need be – back story to them, but if you talk to yourself in the role of this person, often enough it just builds itself.  Especially, oddly enough, if any of the traits seem contradictory.
Eg, X is weedy, a sportsman and determined.  Plainly he was a younger son, born rather weedy and grew up, probably bullied by a big, sportsman of a father and older brothers and bullies at school.  He decided to train secretly so that he could fight back against the worst bully, who relied on body mass and intimidation, and was defeated by the determined wiry strength of our hero.  Does X hide his sportsmanship behind dressing like a dandy because wiry strength or no he is never going to look good in a Corinthian’s many caped coat?  Or does he dress quietly and without attempt to ape any fashion?  Is he either ridiculed in the first case, or overlooked in the second? Does the despised dandy have the chance to knock down the villain who is mauling the heroine?  

I also include tables of incidents, mishaps and events, and though it is entirely possible to write a whole story using this method [see my story HERE] I generally use the method for sub-plots when I feel a need to add a distraction, if one is needed.  

I normally work from a table 10x10 with a pair of 10 sided dice; however, I have things like that at home because of all the RPGs I’ve been involved with over the years, so I’ve reworked this into two tables of 36 characterisics, one for men and one for women because most people have at least one ordinary die knocking around somewhere.  You can roll one twice for x and for y, or two different coloured ones together.  If you have 10 sided dice, then by all means expand this… or swap out traits you don’t like for others. I’ve constructed this using an informal analysis of the people in Heyer… it is the sort of people who might be met in the upper classes; servants and tradesmen should really have a table to themselves. 


Good natured
Horse mad
Tone deaf
Softly spoken


Good natured
Good figure
Horse mad
Poor figure
Tone deaf
Fine needlewoman

Use a 6-sided dice to determine something more about a character: can roll once on each column [age may have been determined beforehand of course].
Has child[ren]
Middle aged
Ruined by debt
Noble family
Past youth
Awful family
Comfortably off
Well enough
Family of the Manse
Married happily
Military family
Married unhappily
Very wealthy
Absorbing hobby

* eg slight deformity, birth mark, unpleasant voice, too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, stutter, wall-eyed, red hair etc

I also use a dice-driven decision path when writing mysteries. I usually use it for the odd short story to fill in, if I’ve had several stories write themselves and I need one or two to fill in.  However, I’ve developed a decision path for odd irritating incidents to carry a regency story forward.  This can create tension inside a story, add a chapter or two and may even change the direction of the plot.  The main rule is, if something feels wrong, discard it.  Nothing is hard and fast; this is just a starting point for a side plot or two!  I confess I tend to just be inspired by plot bunnies by random facts about the period, but this is handy too for backstories about why a secondary character may be in disgrace or acting as they do.

Incident and mishap table

This set of tables shows an initial incident, then  details [if required] about that incident, and then who was responsible, if anyone. 

1        a secret is betrayed
2        a rumour is started
3        a compromising situation arises
4        a mysterious letter arrives
5        belongings are lost/stolen/damaged
6        a costume disaster occurs!

Secret betrayed

1    family secret regarding a black sheep
2    family secret regarding legitimacy or otherwise
3    the character has a scandal in their past
4    the character or family member has written a book
5    something the character has said and now wishes unsaid
6    it’s someone else’s secret and that person thinks the character is the only person to know it

Rumour started

1    The character is a flirt/rake
2    the character is the author of some scurrilous publication OR has spread scurrilous tales
3    the character is much richer OR much poorer than he/she really is
4    the character has a love child OR is a love child OR has behaved scandalously
5    the character is mad or has madness in the family
6    the character is not who he/she says he/she is

Compromising situation

1    the character loses way and goes to the wrong bedroom
2    the character is directed [by accident OR maliciously] to the wrong bedroom
3    the character is locked in somewhere with member of the opposite sex [by accident OR maliciously]
4    the character gets into the wrong carriage
5    the character is lured somewhere by letter or other means
6    the character is abducted or drugged to arrange a compromising situation

Mysterious letter arrives

1    from someone out of the character’s past wishing to rekindle friendship/love
2    from someone out of the character’s past begging aid, financial or practical
3    from a family member who needs something
4    the letter is a blackmailing letter threatening to reveal something
5    the letter brings unwelcome news of financial problems/ruin for the family
6    the letter brings news of an unexpected legacy which may or may not be an encumbrance

Belongings lost/stolen/damaged

1    the all-important finishing touch for meeting the love of the character’s life has gone missing.  It may have been removed maliciously, misplaced or tidied away
2    clothes have been cut up and ripped.  Could be deliberate or it might be some animal…
3    small valuable items are going missing and appear to be stolen.  They probably are.
4    small items of no particular value are going missing.  Could be anyone for a number of motives from kleptomania to annoyance value.
5    Something gets ripped on the way out, and it’s too late to mend it
6    Letters have gone missing.  Have they been stolen, misplaced, or slid into a secret drawer by mistake?  If the last, what else is in there?

Costume disaster

1    something is spilled down a costume; if it’s white, it’s bound to be red wine
2    a costume catches on a projection and tears, and it’s somewhere public
3    a lady’s d√©colletage is insufficiently well engineered and her bosom makes a public appearance. 
4    a gentleman’s trouser flap isn’t buttoned properly and threatens to descend
5    the character is responsible for catching a part of the apparel of a member of the opposite sex in a pin or fob, or through tripping, and rips it
6    the character manages to spill something down another person

Who, if anyone, is responsible for the Incident?

For this, use 3 dice, and add them, giving a range from 3-18.  Most frequent occurrence will be 10-11, and as many incidents are going to be caused by enemies, I have assigned them to the most likely spots. If you prefer a more random chance, place those responsible where more than one choice is given into 2 more categories to make 18 not 16, and list the people in 3 groups of 6: rolling 1-2 for the first group, 3-4 for the second group, and 5-6 for the third group, and then one die for the group determined. 

3    stranger or mischief maker
4    animal agency or child
5    social inferior
6    neighbour
7    distant family member
8    sibling or close family member
9    family enemy/rival
10 jealous lover/ex lover/wannabe lover
11 rival
12 servant, for personal reasons or paid by another
13 former friend
14 friend
15 social superior
16  underling in position of trust
17 someone from the past
18  someone trusted like a parent/guardian/governess

NOTE if someone who should be ‘on the character’s side’ does something that seems mean, potentially either the character has offended this person and a rebuke got out of hand, or a situation may have been engineered with good intentions, and may, or may not, go according to plan.  Eg, Lady Peacock locks Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with Colonel Mustard because they have quarrelled and she knows they are made for each other.  This may lead to worse quarrels or let them make up their differences.  If Lady Peacock locked her daughter  Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with Colonel Mustard because she wants to engineer a good match with the wealthy and titled colonel, an entirely different scenario ensues…
However, just in case inspiration fails, here is a table of motives: use 2 dice and add them, giving a range of 2-12.  7 is the most frequent.  Once again this may be broken into two tables of 6 with an additional motive if need be.


2    knowledge
3    hatred
4    family reasons
5    revenge
6    for gain [material or social or to attract someone]
7    jealousy
8    sudden anger
9    fear of something the character might do or know
10  fear of what someone else might do
11  bribed or threatened
12  good motives to help character.

Random incidents that may be witnessed by characters

Random things can happen to kickstart a struggling plot.  Here I’ve put together 36 incidents which can happen, by rolling one die to get the number of the table, and a second to get the incident on that table.  Really there should be one table for the country and one for the town; where an event is specific to the town I have tried to put a country alternative.  Discerning readers may notice some incidents borrowed with my tongue in my cheek from Heyer or from my own stories.  This is simplified from my much more extensive tables where I roll first what sort of person is encountered based on the area… These can be used to add a bit of local colour, or to start a subplot.

Table 1

1 climbing boy descends into character’s chamber
2 street urchin knocked down by coach/labourer’s child knocked down by cart
3 a beggar asks for money.  On 4-5 he is crippled and may be an ex soldier/sailor. On 6 he is a false cripple
4 there’s a very young prostitute crying, who has been beaten up
5  a thief tries to pick the character’s pocket; 1-4 it’s a child
6 a street entertainer is trying to get people to bet on thimble rigging or similar

Table 2

1 there’s a parade of performing beasts and acrobats from Astley’s Amphitheatre
2 two rival theatre companies/performances have people out crying the attractions of their entertainments; a punch-up ensues
3 a tradesman is beating a dog/donkey/pony pulling a cart which has become lodged in a rut or on a stone
4 a man accuses another of cheating at cards or dice
5 A troop of soldiers march by.  1-4 they look very smart in their scarlet coats 5 they look scruffy but proud because they are fresh from the wars 6 the appearance is spoiled by one who marches like a ploughboy/is dirty/is drunk
6 sailors in a press gang are looking for ‘recruits’

Table 3

1 two carriages or carts have collided and a dispute ensues
2 somebody barges rudely past the characters and may knock them over
3 A Whig and a Tory have taken a dispute in a pub onto the street and a crowd has gathered to see the fun
4 a street preacher is telling anyone who will listen about eternal damnation
5 a rabble rouser is urging the masses to throw off the yoke of the damned aristocrats; he’s about to be arrested, if the masses don’t protect him.  This could mean a riot.
6 there’s a new consignment of some special muslin in an emporium and women are ready to tear out eyes and hair to get to it first

Table 4

1 a gentleman takes out a snuff box which should NEVER be seen in mixed company and several ladies faint at its improper shape.
2 a wealthy woman wants it all and she wants it NOW and is telling everyone so loudly.
3 a wealthy man has hurt someone with his curricle 1 he is taking care of the unfortunate injured person personally, 2-3 he has offered money to them, 4-5 he’s trying to buy off witnesses, 6 he’s blustering that it was none of his fault
4 there is to be a talk by a member of the Royal Society trying to raise money for something like an expedition to Egypt to dig tombs, to fly a hot air balloon across the channel studying weather patterns, or to study the volcanoes in Italy and Sicily.
5 Some wealthy ladies are giving the cut direct to another lady. [roll on the mishap table for why, perhaps…]
6 He seems like a bona fides nabob but is he really an imposter?

Table 5

1 is that really Daniel Mendoza in person?
2 the female is an opera singer; you may meet her anywhere [indeed you just have] but there are plenty of rumours attached to her, and her liaisons…
4 He’s plainly a gentleman, but he’s drunker than a lord. 1-2 he’s amiably fatuous, 3-4 he’s aggressive, 5-6 he’s about to pass out.
5 The girl is plainly a lady but she has no maid or footman with her and is attracting unwanted attention
6 a very intimate letter turns up between the pages of a book from the lending library. Was it left there by accident, and will someone want it back, or was it a means of passing clandestine letters and the character picked the book before the recipient could manage to get it?  Is there a plan of an elopement?

Table 6

1 a gentleman is thrown from his horse and is injured
2 a horse bolts, frightened by a military band/ sounds of shots from shooting game
3 There’s a big society wedding at St George’s Hanover Square.  1 bride and groom look deliriously happy 2-4 bride and groom look as satisfied as might be expected with an arranged marriage 5-6 bride and groom are mismatched, probably young girl sold to old rich man [but might be personable young charmer marrying a rich old widow]
4 There’s almost a riot outside a cartoon shop as some leading figure is lampooned
5 there’s a balloon ascent at Vauxhall!
6 The new debutante is a mystery woman.  Is she all she claims to be? 


  1. Thank you for this. I can't study it at present but at first glance it appears it will be extremely useful. Just scanning it in a hurry showed me ideas I can use.

  2. excellent, feel free to use or discard as you see fit, I have a servant personality trait table as well, currently in longhand, bt if you are interested I'll see about getting it into word to post

  3. I knew there had to be something like this somewhere for writers to use for the various plots. This is hilarious. I'm not sure if you meant to be funny or not, but I couldn't stop laughing. I never thought of using dice. I also think there must be a room full of typists somewhere where they are given the plot outlines using descriptions like you have listed and told to cut and paste the pre-written information in paragraph sections. Each typist probably turns out 5 books a day that way. There must be a similar chart with stupid titles. Have you noticed the "free" or low priced regency romance e-books that have titles that are about 8 or 10 words long--they must be for people that search for their reading materials with key words. The authors make the titles so long they would show up on any word search a person could think of. Like: Duke Loves his Betraying Mistress and His Hot Wife (Spicy Regency Romance)...
    But I love your Jane books--how could it be that you would use something like this? LOL I guess we all have our favorite short cuts. Thanks for sharing.

  4. it was written tongue in cheek as well as with serious intent [spot the Heyer tributes]
    Thank you, I don't often have to resort to dice as most of the time characters write themselves, but I do sometimes use them as starter points for extra suspects, or for a huge cast of servants [I used the servant table, not yet posted, for ALL the servants in Jane and the Hidden Hoard; they then proceeded to grow, like Topsy, in the writing of them] whom I then develop on from the initial 3 traits I roll, because I start to develop a picture, discard one trait, and decide that that two conflicting traits are due to a backstory that has no likelyhood of coming out in the story, but will let me know how this character will react, etc etc. And often enough when I start to write someone, the red line goes through all the dice and I leave them to write themselves, because they don't fit the theoretical profile. It's a tool, a starting point, a bit like putting up scaffolding to do work on a house; the scaffolding is a framework but ultimately you take it down and the real work is visible. Do read the short I posted though, there's a link, and see what you think. Anyone who is a good enough writer ought to be able to base a story on almost anything! I wish I could turn out 5 books in a day, but I'm horribly afraid I have too much integrity and respect for my characters.

  5. What a fascinating post! I love all the possibilities. And I especially love your first example. It makes me want to read more of the weedy younger son's story!

  6. You never know, it might yet get written... I do sometimes roll up a whole story to write for an exercise if I have block at all