Buddhist Saving Rolls


An icosahedral die with the Chinese/Japanese character mu 無 — meaning “negation”, “emptiness”.

A friend of mine wrote me the other day with a story I thought was informative. It’a a touch long, but I think it’s worth it; it’s lightly edited to make it fit.

A few weeks back my eldest daughter was having a bad day. It revolved around the typical teenage issues, which she generally doesn’t have problems with. However, I tried to comfort her by saying it was perfectly normal to feel the way she did because everyone wants to be liked and feels bad when they aren’t liked.

Well, that’s when my son chimed in (unhelpfully but innocently) “I don’t”

Now while this wasn’t exactly helpful while I was trying to console my daughter it is true. My son is amazingly centered. I’ve seen him been insulted directly and refuse to be baited and just shrug it off and be fine. So after I had resolved what I could with the daughter, I sought out my son and explained that what he said, while true, and admirable, was perhaps not helpful at that moment. But then I thought to compliment him on his evenness. That’s when I said he was practically Buddhist.

That sparked the question. “What’s Buddhist?” So I tried to explain how the Buddha taught that suffering is caused by desire, and that a lot of frustration is caused by our desires and expectations, and that if we surrender our expectations we actually are happier, less harried. I told him that even though we weren’t Buddhists we could learn a lot from this premise.

So to set up what happens next I have to tell you that recently my son has discovered Dungeons and Dragons, after he was introduced to it by his uncle. He has bought his own dice and is pouring over the manuals. All the conversation lately has been about critical hits, armor checks and saving rolls.

Well tonight we had a minor church event we had to go to. My son went early because he had some responsibility with our young men’s organization which was setting up. When I came later and met up with him his usual calm resolve was disturbed. He had said something to the other young men that had embarrassed him, and he was upset about it and upset that it had upset him. I said nothing. We had to sit as the program was about to start, and he usually works these things out. After a moment of silence he said. “Buddhist Saving Roll” and made a gesture like he was throwing dice. I burst out laughing. Right in the middle of church. He laughed too. People stared, and we quickly composed ourselves, but we smiled at each other and he was fine, and no longer upset.

After the event was over we joked about it. What die do you use in a “Buddhist Saving Roll?” Perhaps a twenty sided die where every face is a symbol of Mu?

At any rate, I was pleased that he had internalized the lesson and made it into a joke with his hobbies and D&D. I will never think of D&D the same way. I hope it becomes an inside joke between us.

And every time I’m frustrated with something, I hope I think “Buddhist Saving Roll” and just move on.


This is such a good story I’m tempted to call it a guest column and go to bed. For those of you who don’t or didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons, basically the whole game is done with a combination of three components: a map created by one player called the “dungeonmaster”; characters created by the players with various characteristics like strength, dexterity, and endurance; and game play that is (at least partly) controlled by random numbers generated with dice.

Yes, yes, real physical dice. What’s more, in order to have some different distributions, you use dice in the form of all the Platonic Solids, giving you uniform distributions of 1 in 4, 1 in 6, 1 in 8, 1 in 12, and 1 in 20, corresponding to the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron respectively.

A saving roll or saving throw comes when something bad is happening — say your opponent has tried to use a sleep spell on you. The rules of the game say, essentially, that the spell has some probability of failure; you roll one of these dice to determine if it actually failed. Roll a 1 or a 20, and you get 1 chance in 10, a 10 percent chance of failure.

(A good dungeon master can use these failures to amusing effect. A friend of mine operated on the assumption that the failure of a spell was like a typo — so a “sleep” spell might become a “sleet” spell or a “sheep” spell. Of such things are a geeky adolescence made, except I didn’t actually discover D&D until I was already 20 or more.)

What my friend’s son realized was that any time you are being hit by duhkha, by the frustrations that lead to suffering, your frustration is arising from the roots of duhkha — from dwelling on craving for fun stuff, or from dwelling on your aversion to unpleasant stuff, or by simply dwelling on how this time you’re going to make everything come out right.

Remembering that is your opportunity to make a “Buddhist saving roll” and free yourself from suffering, right at that very moment, no waiting.