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Worlds of Design: “I Hate Dice Games”

When I first saw D&D, I was in my Diplomacy playing phase. That’s a game with no dice, no chance mechanisms at all, but with lots of uncertainty owing to 7 players and simultaneous movement (which can involve guessing enemy intentions). I said, “I hate dice games” and that was it. But not long after (mid-1975), I played D&D at a game convention and loved the possibilities despite the dice.

Can something like Diplomacy’s lack of randomizers be arranged for RPGs? I see an RPG as a microcosm of life, where you try to minimize the times that you have to hope to get lucky (as in life). Inevitably, as with life the game involves much chance. BUT what if you do hate dice games, how do we make a diceless RPG that is a game rather than a story?

When this question came to me I was not familiar with diceless RPGs, but my Twitter correspondents named several. Whether these are actual games (competitions), or storytelling aids, is open to question. I’ve discussed this in detail elsewhere: games involve opposition that may result in failure, as they have for millennia; storytelling aids do not, they’re essentially cooperative and lack failure, though the result may not be particularly satisfying for all. Diceless or even randomless storytelling-aids are not as hard to make as games of this type, because the participants are collectively writing a story and will do it as they wish; the uncertainty comes from the participants alone.

Diceless can mean several things:

  1. No dice are used, but some other randomizer is involved (usually cards)
  2. No randomizer of any kind is involved
  3. No randomizer directly involves the players, but randomizers (dice or otherwise) can be used by the GM when setting up (for example, rolling for number of monsters appearing)
Version #1 is fairly easy to implement. Cards can directly substitute for dice (cards numbered 1 through 6 for a d6), or you can devise indirect methods using “battle cards” and the like. James Wallis’ RPG Alas Vegas [sic] uses Tarot Cards as randomizer, or you can make up your own deck of cards. I use my own battle deck in board game prototypes such as Germania and Frankia.

Version #3 is easier on the GM, but is otherwise like #2.

Version #2 is the most challenging. Games depend heavily on uncertainty; many things we call games, without uncertainty, are actually puzzles, e.g.: Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, Checkers, Go, though three of these four are too complex for humans to entirely solve. Notice, the “games” most subject to computer solution are in this category. Computers now play the last three games listed much better than any human. Tic-tac-toe is simple enough that humans can match computers, and the game is always a draw.

Amber: Diceless Roleplay (and its successor Lords of Gossamer & Shadow) is one of the major diceless games, and if you're familiar with Roger Zelazny's Amber series you know that there are innumerable options available to the only characters that really count, the immensely capable royal family, who can shape reality to their will. A diceless system fits the setting, dice would be inadequate.

We also might think about what we’re resolving: combat, “skill checks” (other than combat, which is just a form of skill check that's often separated from the rest) - and what else? Contents of treasures? Number of monsters?

There are ways to avoid dice: in some rules, the number of monsters is more or less set by their Challenge Rating (or something like it). Some games don't use skill checks, preferring to be based on the actions of the player characters. For example, instead of a "negotiation" skill, you judge from the skill of the player to negotiate in the particular situation. I've not seen combat resolved in non-randomized way, but surely someone has come up with a method. You can use battle cards of some kind to avoid using dice, of course, but there's still a randomizer involved.

Likely some of the readers have tried diceless RPGs and can report their experiences.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

dwayne

Explorer
It would be kind of hard, but having players have a set number of actions in a round and a set reaction would be a way to start. The GM would have to determine the foes actions basted off what the player does and the motives of the foe. Attacks would be based off the actions and how quick and perceptive you are at predicting what might or might not happen. It would be easy for the gm to just wing the actions but he would have to know the foes he is using like him self, and would be easy for him to fudge things which i hate doing as i see it as unfair to the players like cheating in a way.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
Amber Diceless put so much on the shoulders of the GM in many aspects, including that of not just being but appearing impartial when the players had incomplete or incorrect information.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
Diplomacy has uncertainty inserted by having many players each with their own agenda trying for a win. And players strived to achieve their goals within that uncertainty generator. In a non-competitive game like most RPGs, if the players aren't working at cross purposes where does that uncertainty come from? Dice or other randomizers. If you take them out, where does it come from?

Now, we do have some solutions. Gumshoe is a detective game, and if will always find the clue if you invoke the right Investigative ability. And character creation is set up depending on the size of the group to ensure that between everyone the Investigative abilities are covered. There's no randomness to it - it's a game not of "if you find the clue" but "what do you do with it?".

But, to get special benefits from your clues, you need to spend per-session resources. So the uncertainty is when and where the characters will spend them. Perhaps a combat system could work like that, where you have a long-term resource that slowly refreshes over days, and combats put in uncertainty by bidding resources and consequences.

There needs to be a source of uncertainty, and without the Diplomacy model of it coming from competing players, I don't think it's something that can all be shouldered by every DM. It needs to come from somewhere, and if it's not a random result generator like dice or cards then it needs to be carefully planned what will generate that uncertainty.
 
A significant amount of classic D&D is diceless - the GM simply adjudicates the fiction, and the players' play of the fiction.

Ron Edwards, following Jonathan Tween in Everway, divides resolution systems into [urk=http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/5/]fortune, drama and karma[/url]. The above-mentioned GM adjudication of fiction is an instance of "drama" ie someone simpy says how things are.

Karma means "referring to listed attributes or quantitative elements without a random element". Resolving an arm wrestle in D&D by comparing STR scores is an example of karma-based resolution. A karma-based combat system would probably be a variant of rock-paper-scissors (ie blind declaration and moves compared). I think the Jousting Matrix in Chainmail is an example of this, although a fairly simple one as it doesn't involve any ratings in the different moves.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
But, to get special benefits from your clues, you need to spend per-session resources. So the uncertainty is when and where the characters will spend them. Perhaps a combat system could work like that, where you have a long-term resource that slowly refreshes over days, and combats put in uncertainty by bidding resources and consequences.

There needs to be a source of uncertainty, and without the Diplomacy model of it coming from competing players, I don't think it's something that can all be shouldered by every DM. It needs to come from somewhere, and if it's not a random result generator like dice or cards then it needs to be carefully planned what will generate that uncertainty.
A lot of the uncertainty would come from players not knowing how long they have to budget resources - can they blow more of it in this encounter or should they hold more for a more significant encounter/situation later? But if there's too much uncertainty, too many players will hoard their resources rather than spend them and that can lead to unsatisfying gameplay as well.
 

Lord Shark

Villager
A lot of the uncertainty would come from players not knowing how long they have to budget resources - can they blow more of it in this encounter or should they hold more for a more significant encounter/situation later? But if there's too much uncertainty, too many players will hoard their resources rather than spend them and that can lead to unsatisfying gameplay as well.
To note one other diceless game, Nobilis works on the same system: players have a limited fund of Miracle Points, and an important part of gameplay involves deciding when to spend your MPs for extra effects or to overpower your enemies' attempts.

Of course, you can still play the game without constantly worrying about your stock of points -- you can still do godly stuff without spending points, just like a doctor in a Gumshoe game wouldn't need to spend points to diagnose a case of the flu.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
Randomness accounts for the aggregate of all other factors not represented. It may not be necessary in a game (or contest), but it's vital to any simulation that is less detailed than the reality which it is attempting to model.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I was also playing Diplomacy in Chess club in the late 70's, so a little younger than the OP, I never said I hated dice games though; we were heavy war-gamers with Squad Leader etc., which also had dice. We did sort of look down on RPG's early on, which was wrong, and regrettable now.

My feeling about dice in general, is that the are a good randomizer, esp when you are used to counting odds.

Diceless games are cool, though it seems that with many that work off of points, there develops a "point economy" which is back to counting odds at least.
 

trancejeremy

Villager
It's funny though, when I was a kid, my friends and I actually introduced dice to playing with toy guns, because otherwise it always devolved into "I hit you", "No you didn't"
 

Hussar

Legend
Is there any particularly cogent reason for trying to distinguish "games" from "puzzles"? If we're going to say that, say, Chess isn't really a game, well, the definition of "game" becomes kinda hard to use.

Sorry, but, if you have two (or more) players doesn't that make it a game? What is gained here by sectioning off game from puzzle?

And, if it's randomness that determines whether something is a game or not, wouldn't that make virtually all sports a puzzle? There's no randomization in, say, snooker. Or darts. But, we do call these things games. If chess is a puzzle, wouldn't that make the vast majority of things we call games, puzzles?
 

Jhaelen

Villager
Is there any particularly cogent reason for trying to distinguish "games" from "puzzles"? If we're going to say that, say, Chess isn't really a game, well, the definition of "game" becomes kinda hard to use.

Sorry, but, if you have two (or more) players doesn't that make it a game? What is gained here by sectioning off game from puzzle?

And, if it's randomness that determines whether something is a game or not, wouldn't that make virtually all sports a puzzle? There's no randomization in, say, snooker. Or darts. But, we do call these things games. If chess is a puzzle, wouldn't that make the vast majority of things we call games, puzzles?
In a discussion about randomness and chance in games it makes sense to use the term 'puzzle'. In this context, puzzles are a very specific type of game that have no source of randomness apart from the players' actions.

If you choose to apply that definition to sports, then, yes, they also qualify as puzzles. I'm not sure, though, if sports is relevant for this discussion.

Edit: After thinking some more about it, sports don't qualify as puzzles. Here's why: One important feature of a puzzle is that you can exactly reproduce a game by following the same sequence of moves. That's effectively impossible in a game of sports. E.g. the source of randomization in snooker is a player's inability to exactly repeat a strike with the cue. And while the setup appears to be identical for each game, in fact it's not. Even the tiniest deviations in the starting positions of the balls will result in a different outcome given a theoretical, absolutely identical strike.

I.e. if it makes you happy: puzzles _are_ games with a specific set of properties.

In case you're interested: Here's a link to Richard Garfield talking about 'Luck in Games': https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=av5Hf7uOu-o
 
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Jhaelen

Villager
Strangely enough, while I enjoy rolling dice in RPGs, I rather detest it in board games. However, I really like board games that offer great variability.

And that's where an important distinction enters the equation:
Is randomness a factor in the outcome of your actions or is it only used to change the situation you find yourself in?

E.g. the American Chess Grandmaster Robert James Fischer came up with a chess variant that randomizes the setup: Chess 960

It still plays exactly like a regular game of chess, except every game represents a slightly different puzzle.
 
I'm sort of in the middle of developing a deterministic (ie. non-random) tactical table top role-playing game. I say tactical, because a large emphasis of the mechanics and gameplay will be surrounding tactical combat encounters, similar to the way D&D and Pathfinder are generally constructed around combat encounters. I also intend to design non-combat systems with tactical decision-making in mind, in which each decision carries its own weight and incrementally leads toward success or failure.

There are a number of factors that make the task difficult that spring to mind:

1) Randomness provides a long list of potential mechanics to play with and dials to tweak. It opens up a LOT of design space. Off the top of my head: rerolls, die swapping, die storing, crits, randomness mitigators.

2) I'm concerned that randomness is a necessary component to providing a 'fair' but reasonable chance of defeat. Combat encounters in D&D and Pathfinder are generally designed with the creatures being somewhat weaker than a group of PCs. This allows the PCs to overcome the encounter. Through poor decision making and/or bad rolls the PCs may be defeated by inferior opponents, so the threat of losing is always present. Further, the random aspect probably helps to obfuscate the natural superiority of the PCs and makes victories feel more earned. Without randomizers, the superiority of the PCs may be too apparent and the absence of poor rolling may lead to players seeing each encounter as a foregone conclusion. In which case, why bother?

3) Lack of randomizers affects the 'feel' of certain aspects of characters. For example, a creature with lots of DR feels different from a creature with a high AC, even if, in a particular situation, their defenses work out to functionally have the same value. I have contemplated mechanics for a deterministic system that reflects the different feel of, say 25 damage with 50% accuracy vs 50 damage with 25% accuracy, but given my self-imposed design constraints I don't believe I have come to a wholly satisfying solution.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
Hmm, in FATE the dice give you a +2/-2 bell curve over +0. I wonder if you could play FATE without any dice, just if you want to spend Fate points to invoke Aspects.

In what ways does having it deterministic like that (for both players and foes) add to the gameplay? Subtract from it?
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
IMO puzzles are games, though not all games are puzzles. Puzzles are also the sort of games that can be done by oneself, and do not need a group to do so.
 

InVinoVeritas

Villager
It's funny though, when I was a kid, my friends and I actually introduced dice to playing with toy guns, because otherwise it always devolved into "I hit you", "No you didn't"
Incidentally, I always considered the vast majority of mechanics in RPGs specifically to deal with the "I hit you," "No you didn't" problem.
 
Hmm, in FATE the dice give you a +2/-2 bell curve over +0. I wonder if you could play FATE without any dice, just if you want to spend Fate points to invoke Aspects.

In what ways does having it deterministic like that (for both players and foes) add to the gameplay? Subtract from it?
I haven't played fate, but my understanding is that invoking aspects gives a bonus to dice. Maybe invoking aspects to determine margin of success/failure on a task would work.

When I started working on the system it was mostly as a challenge to myself. It was also because as far as I could tell, there is no deterministic tactical tabletop RPG so there was a possibility for the system to exist in a niche if I decided to try publishing it.

I think I covered a good deal of what determinism does to subtract from gameplay, although I didn't mention the tension that can come with an important die roll. The flip side of that is frustration when things don't pan out despite a good plan.

Determinism adds certainty. When a player chooses an action they can be sure of its -immediate- results. It could potentially make gameplay a lot faster as well by removing die rolls and consistent need for arithmetic. Alternatively, the extra time found by removing die rolls and arithmetic may allow for complexity (and hopefully depth) elsewhere.

In the right circumstances determinism may help players feel like they really earned a victory rather than getting lucky. Those circumstances would be: The opposition is equal in strength to the PCs or the PCs BELIEVE the opposition is equal in strength.

In a deterministic game where PCs are generally facing weaker opposition, it would likely be a good idea to have objectives in every encounter that do not hinge on the survival or defeat of the PCs. Thus, even if PCs defeat their opposition it would be possible for PCs fail to meet their objective despite inferior opposition. Ideally these stakes would need to be things (narrative or mechanical) that PCs care about.
 

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