To paraphrase Tim Kask, “when historians study the cultures of the 20th century onward, they’ll have to give some attention to the ‘Dice Cults which arose in the late 20th century.'” Our hobby revolves around the use of dice to determine and interpret results.
Because in the end, aren’t we tabletop gamers just continuing the grand and ancient tradition of Divination? By the casting of lots and the interpreting of their symbols, we are essentially simulating the chaos of the real world. We are harnessing it, and seeking to control or predict it. Divination goes back to some of the earliest written records, and likely existed for long before the widespread advent of writing.
It is part of how the human mind is shaped, that we seek to order a chaotic universe into ways which make sense. The vast majority of human cultures practice divination in some form.
Such is the way with RPGs. We lay out the rules and the situation (“I am a fighter, who has certain prescribed bonuses, and I am attempting to leap across a gap, and the die result will tell me if I make it or not”), and then we cast the lots. We read the symbols (i.e. the numbers), and then discover our fate.
But not every system uses numbers. Just as with ancient divination tools, many fantasy adventure board games (such as Descent or Elder Sign) use dice which have symbols, and RPGs such as Star Wars Edge of the Empire use dice with no numbers whatsoever, relying on players to interpret the results in the same way as a diviner casting with runes or carved animal bones.
I was recently inspired by Fate of the Norns, an RPG system which uses sets of Norse runes as its “dice.” By pulling out runes and arranging them in auspicious ways, players determine degrees of success for their chosen actions. And this too, like rolling the now-traditional 7-dice set, is divination. In fact, it is closer to older methods of divination than the myriad systems which use the Seven Dice (hallowed be their names).
Because really, anything suitably random or chaotic can be used for divination or lots. Aeromancy (the reading of atmospheric conditions), Alomancy (by Salt), Oromancy (by mountains), Scarpomancy (by old shoes), Dream interpretation, Dowsing rods, Dictiomancy (by randomly opening a dictionary)… all can be used in some way to determine the results of decisions in an RPG (though you would be hard-pressed to easily use the reading of animal entrails, wild hogs, or the behavior of moles for quick RPG results). Just because an RPG takes place in the theatre of the mind does not mean that it is bound by different rules than our own world.
So I encourage new and interesting ways of determining outcomes. I’ve seen some RPGs make use of Tarot cards, decks of 52 cards, Jenga towers, and other, stranger things. Imagine an RPG which uses Myrmomancy, the reading of ants! Just keep an ant farm off to the side, and there you go!