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Game Design Masterclass: Going Diceless

While they are pretty (oh so pretty) you don’t actually need dice to play a role-playing game. If we don’t mind the Gamemaster fiddling with results to improve the story (when players do it, that’s just cheating) how much do we really need to roll something? Some GMs say they only roll as they love the sound the dice make. So if you are fudging anyway, why not go the whole hog and be open about not using dice at all?

amberdicelessrpg.jpg

In 1991Eric Wujcik went that far with the Amber Diceless RPG, a game that blew my mind when I first came across it. Amber is based on the series of novels of the same name by Roger Zelazny. In the setting, only the feudal castle Amber and its lands are truly real, and the many other worlds (ours included) are mere reflections of it. The noble family who rule compete constantly for control of Amber, as nothing else in the multiverse truly matters.

While there are no dice used in Amber, it’s not entirely fair to call it systemless or entirely narrative. Resolving conflicts is done by comparing the attributes of those involved (Warfare, Psyche, Strength and Endurance). But these are not usually rated by a number. For the most part they are rated between the player characters as who is the best. Unless someone cheats in some way, the best person will win any conflict. When it comes to NPCs the GM simply decides secretly if the NPC is better or worse than the PC in question.

It’s quite common in narrative games for players to get stuck for ideas. One thing dice are good at doing is forcing a result. But Amber offers some basic options players can use to get clues about how good their opponent is. For instance, in a sword fight you might begin by declaring you are going all out to defend yourself. If you seem to be holding your own you might be pretty evenly matched. If your opponent is still landing the odd blow you are clearly in trouble. Every scene is a back and forth between players and Gamemaster until a conclusion is reached.

While Amber can be a little tricky to find these days, the system was revised by Rite Publishing with a new setting as Lords of Gossamer and Shadow. But another well known adaptation of the system is Jenna Moran’s Nobilis where each character is the embodiment of an aspect of the universe. Nobilis takes the system another step further by putting some points to the character’s attributes. This lets you ask a simple question each time they face opposition – ‘do you want to win enough to spend a point?’ Doing so is pretty much a guarantee of a win, but you only have so many points to use. There are also elements of diceless play to be found in many other dice-based RPGs that tilt towards the narrative like Smallville and Invisible Sun.

You may have noticed by now that the characters in most diceless games are a little more powerful than most player characters. They are often Gods or Lords and Ladies of the universe. It’s this level of play that suits diceless best as it allows you to ignore all the small stuff. Scenes are about shaping the universe not picking a lock. You can assume the characters are all potent enough to just worry about the big issues where it is worth spending their points or working out how to deal with the bad guy.

While a diceless game is a lot of fun, it will test your imagination whether you are a player or a Gamemaster. It can take some getting used to. In most games the players are used to the dice defending them from the Gamemaster. The GM sets a problem and the players escape it by succeeding at a dice roll. While it might not always look like it, dice are the player’s only defense.

When you first play a diceless game it is easy to fall into the trap of playing as you would with dice, and just making up what happens. This generally leads to the GM doing all the talking and trying to figure out results for everything. If a pit opens up in front of the characters, who falls in? You can’t roll so it’s the GM deciding to potentially kill your character off. There are no dice to protect you by making a Dexterity roll or the like.

So the key to running a diceless game is actually player input. Instead of waiting for the GM to interpret the dice roll the players should be the ones to decide what happens to their characters when presented with a situation. When presented with a pit, one might describe leaping across, but another might decide they’ve almost fallen in and are clinging onto the edge for dear life.

It’s a tricky style of play to master as it goes against a lot of habits you never knew you’d picked up rolling dice. For this reason alone it is a good idea to try it at least once and see how your group reacts. It can be liberating but also a lot of hard work. Without any clues from the dice as to how you’ve done, you have to make those decisions yourself.

While diceless might not be for everyone – and I’m not suggesting it’s innately any better than using dice – it is also a good way for a player to train as a GM. It lets the player invest in the story and make decisions about their character’s adventure that are usually left to the GM. Essentially it teaches how to play with everyone writing the story as a whole, rather than just their character’s part in it. As a final note, it’s also a pretty good way to play an RPG on a long car journey where you don’t have a surface to roll dice on and the driver can’t keep looking at their character sheet.
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Doug McCrae

Legend
One thing I like about Amber is that it's very easy to shift between different levels of abstraction. Events can be described in any level of detail desired. I can zoom in to describe a duel, out a bit to describe a squad-level engagement, or out a lot to describe a battle. This is very hard to do in most systems which typically represent combat and skill use at only one level of abstraction.
 

You may have noticed by now that the characters in most diceless games are a little more powerful than most player characters. They are often Gods or Lords and Ladies of the universe. It’s this level of play that suits diceless best as it allows you to ignore all the small stuff. Scenes are about shaping the universe not picking a lock. You can assume the characters are all potent enough to just worry about the big issues where it is worth spending their points or working out how to deal with the bad guy.

This part is something I'd never considered but it makes so much sense. I learned something useful about diceless games and I appreciate that! Excellent piece, Andy!
 



atanakar

Hero
I never fudge the dice. Everything is rolled on the player's side of the screen for everyone to see. All AC, DC, initiative values and HP numbers are open information at my table. I don't roll damage. I use average.

What I do want from a system is to lessen the number of things I have to manage during a game. With Numenera the GM almost never roll dice. Damage are fixed values and the PC «defend» against attacks instead of the GM rolling for attacks.

I've never tried diceless. I want to. Just no opportunity yet.
 


Mournblade94

Adventurer
How is this any different from sitting around a fire as we've been doing for millenium and just telling a story with other people?

I admittedly never opened it up, but I definitely prefer random factors in games. Though Amber doesn't seem like a game as much as a formal codifying of old storytelling.
 

How is this any different from sitting around a fire as we've been doing for millenium and just telling a story with other people?

I admittedly never opened it up, but I definitely prefer random factors in games. Though Amber doesn't seem like a game as much as a formal codifying of old storytelling.
Some people hate the randomness that dice offer to a pre-planned story arc. Especially some of those GMs who hid dice results from Players, are probably the sort who want to steer the story in a particular direction (sometimes even to the Player's benefit) and cannot accept the randomness of dice to throw a spanner in the works.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
How is this any different from sitting around a fire as we've been doing for millenium and just telling a story with other people?

As far as I know most of those campfire stories were one storyteller narrating the myth. Amber is more collaborative.

And when introducing the game, it's oversimplified because part of the interplay is the tactics and different areas of expertise and how those at the table strategize to use it. Quickest example is Warfare and Endurance. If two foes are fencing and all things being equal the higher ranked Warfare will win. The bigger the gap, the faster the win.

But if the lower Warfare character knows they have higher Endurance, they should go all defensive and drag the fight out until the higher warfare/lower Endurance character is worn out. And try to avoid having characters with either higher Strength or Psyche get a literal hold of you.

And when you consider D&D is about leveling up characters to the point that outcomes related to your class theme/focus become highly predictable, it not really about "enjoying" randomness.

It's about overcoming that randomness.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!

My copy of Amber is in pristine condition still...because we never played it. The reason was simple; "he who is the smartest...wins"; and in the case of a system like Amber, that MUST be the GM. The GM simply MUST be the most intelligent, well-red, best educated person at the table...at everything. Why? Because the entire mechanics resolve around "The Player explains what their PC is doing, the GM thinks about the likelihood of success and decides the outcome". If a Player knows all about some particular subject, that Player will be annoyed at the 'dumb' decisions and reasoning of the less-educated GM; and, worse, won't bother explaining what they are trying to do ever again in any detail because all the nuance will be completely lost on the GM. It will boil down to "Oh, we have to climb again? sigh Fine. I grab some rope and climb", in stead of the expected/needed/desired detailed description of just what the PC is doing with the rope, what kind of rope, why, etc that fuels the entire narrative system. There's simply no point in being "accurate and descriptive" of your expert PC's (and the Players) knowledge of climbing because all that is going to go straight over the GM's head.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Proud owner of Amber Diceless, here. I would argue that there are particular reasons why diceless works for it.

First of all, the characters are really, really powerful, which means they can essentially do anything they want unless challenged by somebody else. Secondly, the system is based on Ranks, rather than regular interval measurements. You start the game with an Attributes Auction and, if you bid higher than anybody else you will be ranked above them and always win a contest against that opponent in that Attributes field. The trick in gameplay is that players don’t know how good the Attributes are for GM-Controlled NPCs, and so they have to use probing questions or testing tactics (feints and so on) in the descriptions of their challenges in order to work out what to do.

A few other brief mentions: Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) also had optional diceless aspects in play, and it was this reason that allowed the game to progress to Live-Action play seamlessly. Its also the case if you go way back to the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG (1984), although it didn’t make a big thing of it, the approach of using nominal names for Ability levels meant that it could, in theory, be used for diceless play too.
 

Qixotl

Villager
The GM simply MUST be the most intelligent, well-red, best educated person at the table...at everything.

Nope. In that situation the GM just defers to the player's expertise.
"OK, describe your climb to the top."
As a player I've described my own cyberpunk hacking attempt because I was more computer-literate than the GM. He listened to the style and tone I set, noted the threats I described avoiding, and brought them back into the narrative at an unexpected moment to challenge me.

In Amber the players usually succeed at whatever they try to do, so the narrative is not about "can you succeed at this challenge?". It's about how you go about it. You get mugged in an alley, fine. You can beat them. Do you humiliate them and send them away? Do you subdue them and call the police? Do you outright murder them because you can? Do you wonder why this person is mugging people on the street in the first place? What does your choice reveal about your character?
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
How is this any different from sitting around a fire as we've been doing for millenium and just telling a story with other people?

I admittedly never opened it up, but I definitely prefer random factors in games. Though Amber doesn't seem like a game as much as a formal codifying of old storytelling.
It’s the gaming equivalent of shifting from a game of Risk, with a calculated probabilities, to Chess where the outcomes of each challenge are absolute. If you take a piece in Chess, there is no need to roll dice to determine the outcome - but the strategy of taking that piece becomes all important. In Amber, you have different traits that are better or worse than your opponent - but the situation you are in can put you at an advantage or disadvantage accordingly.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
My copy of Amber is in pristine condition still...because we never played it. The reason was simple; "he who is the smartest...wins"; and in the case of a system like Amber, that MUST be the GM. The GM simply MUST be the most intelligent, well-red, best educated person at the table...at everything. Why? Because the entire mechanics resolve around "The Player explains what their PC is doing, the GM thinks about the likelihood of success and decides the outcome".
Yeah, it’s just a misinterpretation of how it works.

In diceless play, you establish what a character can do or not do - and its fixed. If decide to pick up a cup, I can pick up a cup - there is no doubt in the outcome. When you have a game like Amber, the godlike power levels of the characters are such that they can basically do whatever they want - up until they meet with a challenge from somebody or thing that resists them. In this case, whoever is better wins. However, strategically, what you try to do is manipulate the situation so that you have the advantage over your opponent.

For example, if somebody is better at Warfare than an opponent they would win - and would be able to describe how they would win in a contest. There is no need to roll, or work out probabilities - they just win if they are better. However, if their opponent ran away and turned the contest into a chase, then they may have a better Endurance - and so they would win instead. You could add complexity here if you don’t know what the capabilities of your opponent is - and have to use the information given to work it out. So, you have to strategize to get more information, and this is where the game becomes interesting.

So many people could do with educating on the merits of diceless play. It makes you think a lot more than just relying on random rolls.
 

One of the games my groups enjoyed most in high school was when we played Amber, I still have both the books for it. It was very different but they got to do crazy things that would never happen in other games at the time.
 


Mournblade94

Adventurer
Some people hate the randomness that dice offer to a pre-planned story arc. Especially some of those GMs who hid dice results from Players, are probably the sort who want to steer the story in a particular direction (sometimes even to the Player's benefit) and cannot accept the randomness of dice to throw a spanner in the works.
Then this sounds perfect for them. I've always been of the camp the game comes first otherwise we're jsut telling stories. That's probably why I like WEGS d6 Star Wars over the FF version of Star Wars.
 


Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
One thing I like about Amber is that it's very easy to shift between different levels of abstraction. Events can be described in any level of detail desired. I can zoom in to describe a duel, out a bit to describe a squad-level engagement, or out a lot to describe a battle. This is very hard to do in most systems which typically represent combat and skill use at only one level of abstraction.
Oh exactly a wonderful tool It's somewhat possible in other games perhaps ironically even like 4e D&D where a combat can become a skill challenge or a Skill challenge can contain a bit of combat but Amber took this as a foundational scalability of detail.
 
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