That Diceless Feeling

Reading about and thinking about Amber DRPG — and the other diceless games I’ve experienced has really ignited my passion for going diceless again. It is difficult to explain how much I enjoy the experience of gaming without a truly “random” element, or leaving success and failure up to rolling. There is a freedom in that type of play that — having experienced it from both sides of the GM/Player line — it just works for me. And in a time when (to me) it seems that games are designed to mechanically reflect their purposes/styles/goals, I really appreciate the thought that a diceless game seems to be the perfect opportunity to do two things: make a system that relies on trust and investment for one, and also, a game that has the freedom to go anywhere and do anything — it’s all just a matter of building the right elements in. Please take note that for the rest of this post, when I say “diceless” I’m including playing cards, spinners, and any other randomizer used to resolve in-game actions.

That first issue is a thorny one for some. I remember the first group that I tried to convince to play Amber. When I was explaining Shadow and the Pattern and the way the characters were basically demi-gods — and that the system was diceless — they responded, “well, then I destroy everything.” When some of us groaned, the player simply responded and said, “look, if I’m a god and I don’t have to worry about dice, then I just win.” I realized then that this group was not the Amber group I was looking for. A diceless game does, it seems to me, require more trust and investment than a game with dice. Don’t get me wrong, the more invested everyone is the better any game can be — but I do think the bar is set higher initially by the choice to go diceless.

Why? Because to go diceless means that you can’t just rely on the dice. You can’t roll a lucky crit and blow away the monster — and you can’t just chime in to toss a d20, you really have to be involved in the session. Of course, this also means that you can’t roll a 1 on a skill you should be able to do with your eyes closed and still fail… so it’s a trade off. The trust issue heightens the need for investment. Without the random element to control/moderate the action, everything becomes much more narrative — and since you probably have a GM at the table who is the ultimate adjudicator of PC actions, then it becomes imperative to stay focused, stay involved, and be aware of what’s going on — especially since the GM may need help in making important decisions in such a wide-open environment (or may need reining in from time to time when all that freedom starts to get heady). We’re human, it happens.

One way to mitigate this process, of course, is to create appropriate traits and mechanics, such that even though there are no random elements interacting with PC actions, there is still a reliable and interesting way to adjudicate those actions. One very important point is the idea of tie-breakers. Another is a way to involve the players in the decision-making process in a manner where the decisions they make for their PCs can, not only be easily addressed but also makes their own decisions a part of the resolution mechanic. In the system I’m envisioning, I have a set of ideas to cover the first point, but only a partially formed theory about the second (and no I’m not really ready to share that yet…)

Along with giving PCs traits that make adjudicating their actions practical, these traits need to be meaningful. The only reason to have traits in a game (again, my opinion) is their value in defining a character. I think of this in terms of the constant “Character skill” vs. “Player skill” debates and how they relate to Charisma and things like Diplomacy rolls. When a player without a really high level of “player skill” wants to make a character with an 18 Charisma — then I’m really happy that a Diplomacy roll exists. And the same is true of the reverse. When a player with good player skills makes a character with an 8 Charisma, I want that skill roll in there too. My reasoning? That player who is shy or uncomfortable but is playing the shining and charming diplomat — I coax them out a little, make them say the words and talk to me, but I don’t over force it. And then I have them roll. And since they’re good at this, the roll is usually good. And that works for me interpreting the action, because let’s face it — with an 18 Charisma people just really like them, even if they don’t want to. So the player talks, interacts, but then gets to have their character’s actions judged on the basis of their character’s traits. When that 8 Charisma guy starts spinning a story and talking up a storm? They roll — it’s probably a bad roll. And their character gets judged the same way. We all have that friend we like, who is always talking, but we groan whenever they start to tell a joke. The Roll-play and the Role-play go hand in hand, interpreting and influencing one another.

With a diceless system these choices become even more important and more meaningful though — because you have no roll to use to aid in interpretation. So that becomes an aspect of building the traits as well, thinking about how they get used to interpret what PCs can do, or know, or understand in and about their world. I’m working on this, and I have some ideas. It still needs some ponder-time, but I’m working on it.

Thanks for reading — I’m going diceless for a while, so if you like this stuff, stick with me.

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