Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Diceless Roleplaying Games

I want to talk about diceless roleplaying games. The first paragraph on Wikipedia describes them this way:

"A diceless roleplaying game is a roleplaying game which is not based on chance: it does not use randomizers to determine the outcome of events in its roleplaying game system. The style of game is known as "diceless" because most games use dice as their randomizer; some games such as Castle Falkenstein use other randomizers such as playing cards as substitutes for dice, and are not considered diceless."

Diceless doesn't really mean "without dice." It means "without a random element." This element would include dice, cards, flipping a coin, casting runes, shooting tiddly-winks into a cup ... whatever.

RPGs evolved from wargames. Dice in wargames introduced an element of chance for the outcomes of combat. That is retained in nearly all RPG products, because nearly all RPG products contain a strong combat element. Randomness creates a sense of suspense in these combats. The combats in RPGs are a strategic mini-game. They use dice and math to create a playable simulation of combat.

But what about a game where combat is minimal or non-existent? 

This past Saturday, my friend Dave ran a session of Dungeons & Dragons that was very nearly devoid of combat. (I say "very nearly" because a single attack roll was made. Yup, just one.) This session was great. I loved every minute of it. Dave is an incredible DM. He has a knack for presenting the players with a conundrum and then just getting out of the way.

He once presented us with a huge and ancient red dragon who was chained and trapped in eternal agony at the center of an active volcano. What did we do? We figured out a way to set the poor trapped monster free. (Nothing deserved to exist in such torment.) How did we do it? If you learn anything when DMing D&D, it's that players can be surprisingly inventive. That's why the best DMs just create an impossible problem and wait. (Dave is a master.)

Solving problems is about creative thinking, not rolling dice. Dice are part of the "legacy" of role-playing games. If you don't feel like you have "played" a session of D&D unless miniatures have hit the table and initiatives have been rolled, then you are sitting at the table for the wargame. That's okay. There are many folks like that. I am one of those players who sits at the table despite that.


So, maybe diceless roleplaying games are for me?

The idea of diceless roleplaying tabletop RPGs has been around for awhile. Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game by Erick Wujcik was first published in 1981. Yet, I have never played in a diceless game. The sad truth is, as I pointed out in my "everyone just wants to play Dungeons & Dragons" rant, the RPG general player base seems to be largely inflexible. If trying to get players to try something other than D&D is difficult, getting them to play a game without a random element is nigh impossible.


Not long ago, I read and reviewed a diceless RPG called, Golden Sky Stories. I really love the idea of this game. It is because of Golden Sky Stories that one of the first things written in my latest RPG design (Little Colony on the Big Moon) is a declaration that combat is not part of the game. 

This statement met with immediate push back from my play-testers. I mitigated this resistance by explaining that combat isn't strictly prohibited by the rules and would be allowed should the story demand it. We played the game, and everyone had fun. 

There was no combat. 

There was no combat because contrary to what D&D may teach us, physical violence is not the default method of solving problems. In fact, deadly combat is and should be at the bottom of the problem solving list. Endangering your life is a last resort. When faced with this eventuality, running away is the preferred course of action. Despite this, my players were angered by the idea that they may not be able to fight.

After my resolution mechanic failed me during my recent play-test of Little Colony, I am considering a diceless approach for the game. I feel pretty confident that this approach will serve my game very well, and "get out of the way" allowing the role-play to take center stage. So, my question is, "Should I do it?" Should I choose a mechanism for my game that means that I immediately eliminate 99% of my possible player base?

Objectively, the answer is, "No." 

If I want to create a commercially viable product that other people in the RPG space will play and review and talk about, then I need to "tow the line" and create something that the larger community wants to play. 

Sadly, doing that breaks my heart a little. I feel like, just as in my example of "no combat" above, if players try it, they will like it. But, as I mentioned in my D&D rant, most new RPG systems are read but never played.

What should I do? 

The other school of thought is to, "Create the game that you want to play."

That's the path that I am currently walking down. Who knows where I might be after a few more play tests. For now, I am going to feed my passion and hope that if I am true to my dream, others will connect with that passion and get caught up in it.

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