A Roll of the Dice by Matt Shaw (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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The prolific Matt Shaw previously played with non-linear storytelling in A Christmas to Remember, which was modelled on the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. With A Roll of the Dice, he uses a variation on the concept in which each branch of the story is decided not by the reader’s choice but by pure chance.

The narrative opens with the protagonist – a workplace pariah surrounded by the jeers of his colleagues – preparing for a date. But then he starts to have second thoughts, and he decides to roll a dice to choose whether or not to go ahead. This is where the book’s high concept comes into play: you, the reader, will need to roll a dice to decide for him.

Rolling one, the book informs you, will put the protagonist in a “no hope” scenario. Roll a two or a three and he will head off on his date. Roll between three and six, and the main character will settle for a quiet night home alone with his dog, telling himself that his date would “only be disappointed when she saw me.” Then the dog starts talking to him, and he pulls out some lubricant for a spot of bestiality.

This is just one of many vices possessed by the anti-hero. As you roll your way through the book, you will delve still deeper into his criminal proclivities. But while the protagonist is the single most reprehensible character in A Roll of the Dice, the supporting cast includes a worthy selection of runners-up whose less appealing traits range from sexual perversion to homicidal tendencies. Most of the possible endings involve the main character’s death – and not all are the result of his own self-destructive behaviour.

An appendix at the back of the book lists eight different threads that can potentially be rolled on the reader’s way through the book – each with its own title – although there are still other variations to be found. Only one of the multiple conclusions is the “true” ending to the novella, and this adds a new twist rather than an abrupt death. The odds are not always even (for example, one dividing point might give you a two-in-six chance of rolling path A and a four-in-six chance of hitting path B) so a reader inclined to see every possible twist will find themselves rolling not only for the true ending, but also for each obscure turn along the way. Just what was that one-in-six “no hope” scenario in the first roll…?

Of course, you could also read through the book chapter-by-chapter and see everything it has to offer in one go – a sort of French Lieutenant’s Woman/Run Lola Run multiple-ending affair – but this misses the point. None of the potential plot threads in A Roll of the Dice are particularly remarkable when viewed as linear, self-contained narratives. Aside from the comparatively novel detail of the protagonist’s zoophilic relationship with his dog (is it really talking, or is he just hearing things?) the subject matter is the same sort of sex, violence and general depravity that you would find in countless other extreme horror publications. The element of gameplay really is what brings it to life.

Tying together both the element of chance and the fictional world of the book is a single straightforward but inspired detail: the main character is himself rolling the dice that decides his fate. His habit of carrying a dice with him and rolling it to choose his next move means that the factor of real-world chance becomes an extension of this character trait. Perhaps this is an obvious extension of the roll-the-next chapter concept, and most authors would have integrated the gameplay into the plot the same way; but even so, the device does a lot to ensure that A Roll of the Dice – even at its most arbitrary – nonetheless has a plot that evolves naturally from its main character.

To go into more detail about A Roll of the Dice would be to risk defeating the object, given that the whole book is built on the reader’s exploration. Suffice to say that Matt Shaw has hit upon a good idea and executed it well.

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