One moment I was at Gen Con, stalking the aisles of the vendor floor for the next big board game. The next moment I was shopping for an engagement ring — or at least that’s what it felt like. A woman with beautiful hands was lifting semi-precious stones out of a brightly-lit glass case, laying these beautiful objects out on a velvet cloth and encouraging me... to roll them.
Luxury has come to tabletop gaming. First it was fancy-ass tables, and this year it was all about dice. At least two vendors — Dispel Dice and Level Up Dice — were hawking sets of polyhedrals that were nearly as expensive as some entire games, and people were standing in line for the opportunity to buy them. The biggest name on the floor was Karen Wang, whose $2.3 million crowdfunding campaign for sharp-edged dice packed with creative inclusions turned heads in 2020. Level Up Dice was also present, its wide selection of semi-precious dice unlike anything else in the hall. Every vendor was at the top of their game, energized by the interest and the momentum of the crowds at tabletop gaming’s Super Bowl.
But it took quite a lot of work to get to there. Wang, for her part, struggled through the pandemic with manufacturing, workflow, and import issues. Level Up CEO Alex Abrate said that many would-be dice makers have simply gone out of business during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The problem is that it’s a niche market,” he said, his voice muffled by the mandatory face mask that guests were asked to wear this year. “The problem is that it’s a niche market with very feverish [...] customers. So suddenly, we had all this new generation coming in, looking to monopolize [and] capitalize on the dice industry. And then COVID hit, which meant that there wasn’t the avenue to get out of there. So there are places with [literally] tons of dice that they’ve been sitting on for two years. [...] They’re dropping their prices everywhere.”
Abrate and Wang both stand out from the crowd because of how they make their dice and what they make them from. Wang relies on liquid resin — sort of like the two-part glue you can buy at the hardware store — and novel inclusions to give her creations depth and sparkle. There’s also the branding that comes along with their names: Crimson Nebula, Eldritch Fire, Magenta Inferno, Faewater — each one an opportunity to connect with the fan of a certain kind of role-playing game or campaign.
Abrate’s niche is semi-precious stones and incredibly rare materials. “What you see here isn’t the only kind of things we work on,” Abrate said. “We work on things in four figures, five figures. We just finished doing a set of dice out of a Tiger I from World War II.”
Indrani Ganguly was representative of another cohort of dicemakers at Gen Con this year — independent crafters who sell their wares online. As the first modern dicemaker in India, known as Nonagondice, her troubles during the pandemic came from finding the tools and materials to even get started. Her biggest challenge: the air bubbles that were ruining her sets.
“A pressure pot is basically an air compressor tank which compresses any air bubbles in the resin once you put it in there,” Ganguly explained. “So it cures while it’s inside the pressure pot, which means that there’s no bubbles or no little voids in the dice. And that sort of stuff isn’t just available at a Lowe’s or Harbor Freight or stuff like that back home [in Mumbai]. I have to go hunt down these industrial-grade ones and be like, ‘Listen, I don’t want 20 of them. I just want one. Can we please figure something out?’ And it was a lot of that for me.”
She says she loves the work — even when a single set of dice can take hours to perfect.
“It takes a lot of work and effort to be able to get it to the point where people see it online,” Ganguly said, “where it’s super glossy and beautiful without any scratches or marks. And that’s hours of work — usually five to six hours of work per step in my seven-step polishing process alone.”
Ganguly says she also makes bespoke dice on commission. One client wanted raven feathers — a nod to Critical Role’s Vax’ildan. But what about dice with Mountain Dew inside?
“I aim to make aesthetically pleasing dice,” Ganguly said. “I’m not necessarily wanting to make the most cursed dice imaginable.”