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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

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
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.
It is indeed potentially way more complex in fact if characters are close in ability I think there needs to be more roshambo elements to the shakem up which establish less predictability and strategic elements like luck points or fate points Theatrix was a source of the latter at the time.
 

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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Human choice can be quite a randomizer. I think Amber needed more mechanics around expressing what are you willing to risk at this point in the conflict and more language around the rock paper scissors aspects of your gambits to succeed (though it did have some which were not all swapping out the arena of conflict)
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Diceless does not need to be about "gods" or superheros (like the diceless MSHRPG) either utterly doable at any tier. Theatrix I think was killed as much by poor choice in setting not by the scale of the protagonists. One of the examples from it was a train scene and it was an introduction to a newbie (more gumshoe detective class characters if I recall)
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
It's "story' vs. "game".

If you want to tell a story, write your book. No dice needed.

Want to play an RPG, randomizers like dice inform the group regarding actions.
Well, evidently, an RPG can exist without randomizers.

What dice do is provide a mechanism of adjudication. However, it is also a method of adjudication to simply establish what characters can or can’t do before play begins. To use the Chess analogy again, everybody knows how a Knight, Rook or Queen moves - so you don’t need a randomizer to determine whether they will be successful or not.

To shift tack a little, another notable diceless RPG is Puppetland. This is not a high powered game, like Amber, but operates on the basis of establishing precisely what it is a puppet can or cannot do. And this becomes your limitation in play. There are also other limitations - like you have to describe your actions as if they are first hand and your puppet’s dialogue is exactly what the player says. You also have precisely 1 hour to complete the scenario presented. Its a great RPG, but its diceless. No randomizer required.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Well, evidently, an RPG can exist without randomizers.
Since games exist without randomizers I think that is pretty definite... all we need is a role within such context and ways of expressing character.

Amber didnt use it as much as I would like or perhaps as formally as I would like much but Implicit randomizers are also involved sometimes I would argue could always be involved (though they did use pretenses of superiority/inferiority and similar).
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
While I love narrative style play, Amber went to the extreme end of diceless narrative and was perhaps too abstract for me, I prefer at least to have systems that require bidding/spending a point to create or change a scenario which the characters can then react to according to their traits.
Randomisation comes from Player choices but it is gamified and moderated by management of limited resource. Dice just add another level of randomness to the use of action resources
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
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.
Diceless is not the same as system-less. In my own game - Masters of Luck and Death - I used a ranking system to decide what should prevail in high-noon situations. For example, powers with narrower application ranked above powers with wider application... albeit were relevant less often. And there were about four other factors that input into ranking.

So this is system-light, but not systemless. What I found is that the game was enthralling for players, as they had a unique freedom, and leaned into high-fantasy, perhaps just because player leverage over the narrative was in such broad strokes. It was difficult (for me at least) to run for more than two players at a time.

Seeing as players were highly empowered, I took the gloves off at the most fundamental level. Remembering that the DM is the source for what players know of the world, so if the DM distorts at that layer it threatens players through distorting what they know of the narrative. An example is where an NPC lies exactly as if they were not lying. It can be very hard for players to know what to believe if the DM refuses to give cues. Of course you must have a strong feeling for your world to maintain consistency - who might pull off such a lie, and who might not. The DM needs to know their world and NPC motives and capabilities very deeply as those are huge drivers of the unfolding of events, once dice are absent.

The reason I mention that is that I found that not only could the players take it, they loved it. I think the reason is that if you aren't rolling dice to decide if life or death actions succeed or not, real excitement can be created by making the right choice of actions a dreadful challenge. It can be enthralling: probably the best RPG I ever had the pleasure of DMing. If there is any interest I can post my system to the thread. It predated Amber and to be honest I preferred it. I loathed the Amber character-gen system.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
It is indeed potentially way more complex in fact if characters are close in ability I think there needs to be more roshambo elements to the shakem up which establish less predictability and strategic elements like luck points or fate points Theatrix was a source of the latter at the time.
Yes, or more generally speaking, ordering principles. Roshambo can play a part in that (this element trumps that element) but also one can use methods like resource expenditure and ranking attributes to help decide.

What also counts strongly for me in diceless is appropriateness and alacrity so a DM must have a very good idea of what matters in their world. Alacrity is interesting, because I found that it worked well to favour the quicker act, because it would be the least well considered. In what I will characterise as system-light diceless, if you favour the slower act then that pushes out the play in a direction that I think can be a lot less fun. Less exciting anyway, though perhaps very satisfying if a group were to be thinking of a more strategic campaign.
 

dustfather

Villager
Speaking of diceless games, Everway has a soft spot in my heart. Ran a lot of it back in the late 90's. Still own the boxed set and a copy of the Spherewalker's Sourcebook. Heck have a ton of the cards in a deckbox too!
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
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.
While I agree that the key is player input, I find the example makes a pretty big assumption. One way to play is that players decide what their characters want to do, and exercise fiat over the outcome. Another way is that players just decide what their characters want to do. It would be strange for a character to want to almost fall into a pit (except as some outlandish gambit) so I would say that the norm for RPG is that the player chose that they wanted to cross, and it is something the DM knew about the pit that sucked them into it.

We might not be speaking about the norm, but then we are talking about a game that is not just diceless, not just system-light, but also shared-fiat. Which is fine, but it should not be necessarily conflated with diceless. It is one option.
 

timbannock

Explorer
When my cousin and I published DeScriptors we began with a one page "word-bidding" diceless game and loved how the wordplay involved encouraged creative description and put a lot of the ball in the player's court for driving the story forward. More importantly, it ensured a story arc: a player character won't end a session with the same descriptive traits they started with.

But for those who think diceless means a simple system, or something that can't be made robust, we were able to build in dozens of expansions, options, and variant rules in DeScriptors: Definitive Edition. We were actually really surprised how much the word-bidding system could be flexed to come up with separate systems for things like magic, one-use items, and escalating contests.

If you wanna see something more than just uber-powered characters in diceless games, give it a look. There's a PWYW version so you can get the base system free. Definitive adds something like 20 pages of options, a full example of play, and a FAQ-style GM advice section that take about improv.

There's also an Actual Play for several sessions on the Worldbuilder's Anvil podcast.
 


Von Ether

Adventurer
It's "story' vs. "game".

If you want to tell a story, write your book. No dice needed.

Want to play an RPG, randomizers like dice inform the group regarding actions.

Reading about all the complaints of railroady adventures or how some GMs simply have a line of encounters that happen in order regardless of the direction the party took in a dungeon, it seems that randomizers give the group the illusion of a choice of actions.

As a side note, I frequently run Cypher/Numenera where the dice are fully in the open and the rolls are all by the players (on the enemy turn, the players do defense rolls instead of attack rolls.) Which to some would seem to be the complete opposite of Amber, but they share some of the same GMing skills. Both work and my players in both games had great times.

Some days I'm tempted to make D&D have all player facing rolls.
 
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Corone

Explorer
While I agree that the key is player input, I find the example makes a pretty big assumption. One way to play is that players decide what their characters want to do, and exercise fiat over the outcome. Another way is that players just decide what their characters want to do. It would be strange for a character to want to almost fall into a pit (except as some outlandish gambit) so I would say that the norm for RPG is that the player chose that they wanted to cross, and it is something the DM knew about the pit that sucked them into it.

We might not be speaking about the norm, but then we are talking about a game that is not just diceless, not just system-light, but also shared-fiat. Which is fine, but it should not be necessarily conflated with diceless. It is one option.

In my experience you decide to fall into the pit because you think that would be an interesting result for your character, or that it is just what you think would happen (they are such a clutch there is no way they get out of it). Each player becomes the GM of their own narrative to a large extent. Its this gear change that is the key, and its a very different style of play.

You can play with everyone looking to the GM to decide what the non existent dice would have rolled. Its how I first played these sort of games. But I found that exhausting and not very collaborative as the GM sets the scene and then told everyone how it worked out.

I think 'diceless' isn't quite a fair title for these games as they do more than just take away dice. But they aren't systemless by any means either as there is still a lot of rules and guidance for how to decide any outcome. As its the name Amber took I feel it only fair to go with Eric Wujik's title as he knows more than me :)
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Yes, or more generally speaking, ordering principles. Roshambo can play a part in that (this element trumps that element) but also one can use methods like resource expenditure and ranking attributes to help decide.
The Roshambo elements I think of as just one factor (not absolutes).. but rather added to whatever other resource expenditures or ability factors. In MURPG ability determines the stones you have to allocate and you spend stones to perform actions ie its an immediate effort expenditure divided up on things you want to accomplish or pay attention to ... modify with some roshambo effects like in the following and its a lot richer.
.
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
I think 'diceless' isn't quite a fair title for these games as they do more than just take away dice. But they aren't systemless by any means either as there is still a lot of rules and guidance for how to decide any outcome.
I like the term "Decision Driven Gaming" - that way you describe it based on what it is instead of what it isn't.
 


TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Never got the chance to play Amber, but I love Everway too. Very evocative game.
I have Everway too, and love some of the concepts although it always felt a bit underdeveloped to me.

Its worth noting that while the Tarot-like cards make the game diceless, certainly, they are still usually distributed randomly (shuffling the deck). While the reading of the cards (Fate) can be interpreted subjectively and you could just adjudicate situations without cards by comparing stats (Karma) or GM fiat (Drama), the game is still basically set up with an inbuilt randomising process.

Having said that, I have often used the Everway deck in conjunction with other systems -you simply distribute a number of cards, face down, to each player at the start of the session and allow them to turn over a card at any chosen event. The interpretation of the card - which is still either positive or negative - can then be used to aid the description of the outcome or change of circumstance for the player. Just like a tarot-reading in a sense.

Amber also had a reference to this sort of thing with it’s ‘Trump’ power, which involved the character having knowledge and power from interpreting cards. Other games that used cards in their system too include Ars Magica (Whimsey cards), Lace & steel (for dueling), Castle Falkenstein (for everything), TSRs Marvel Superheroes and Dragonlance games (from the 1990s), Deadlands (for initiative and magic), and also later games like Fate that also can use them as an option.
 
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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
In my experience you decide to fall into the pit because you think that would be an interesting result for your character, or that it is just what you think would happen (they are such a clutch there is no way they get out of it). Each player becomes the GM of their own narrative to a large extent. Its this gear change that is the key, and its a very different style of play.
I do understand that it can be satisfying to play that way. What I am saying is that it is not inherent to diceless games that they must be played that way. A group could play a diceless game with player fiat over narrative outcomes, or equally they could play it in the more traditional fashion of DM fiat over narrative outcomes.

You can play with everyone looking to the GM to decide what the non existent dice would have rolled. Its how I first played these sort of games. But I found that exhausting and not very collaborative as the GM sets the scene and then told everyone how it worked out.
I feel like those are reasonable motives. For me, it was not at all exhausting to exercise fiat over outcomes. As a DM one does feel a sense that too hesitate is to be lost! As for if it feels more collaborative, what I found is that my players' actions inspired the narrative: they drove it forward. Not because they decided the outcome of their actions, but because they took a lively interest in choosing those actions. As protagonists, they don't decide the world they find themselves in, but the crucial thing about protagonists is what they try to do. That forcefully propels the plot.

I think 'diceless' isn't quite a fair title for these games as they do more than just take away dice. But they aren't systemless by any means either as there is still a lot of rules and guidance for how to decide any outcome. As its the name Amber took I feel it only fair to go with Eric Wujik's title as he knows more than me :)
I agree. Diceless is one attribute among others that include system-weight, player-fiat and fantasticality.
 

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