Life Without Dice

Diceless games are hard. I’ve written about diceless games before – I love Amber DRPG – and explored other games that don’t use dice (or cards, or any sort of randomizer). I tend to very much enjoy games without randomizers, without the disturbance of dice. I’ve tinkered with trying to create such a game several times. But trying to work on a diceless game (games) has led me to a couple of realizations that I thought I’d share and see what kind of feedback I get. I’m going to use the term “diceless” a lot in this post. Please remember that when I use that term, I mean – “no randomizer” so I’m including cards, etc. in that as well.

The Resource Wars

Diceless games tend to fall into three general categories:

  1. The first is what Amber attempts to do, which is establish hierarchies of ability, keep the powers vague, and then let each group work out for themselves what their tolerance for GM fiat is. It involves a lot of trust in the system and the GM.
  2. The second category is a more hard-coded version of the first where your character has abilities and those abilities are hard caps for whether or not you can do certain things… they create a pass/fail mechanic. I first encountered this in Cthulhu Live (not sure which edition) but even though my initial reaction to it was negative, over time, I started to think that such a mechanic had solid merit in a LARP setting because it answered the question of “how does my character do?” very succinctly. It also establishes strong niche protection because, hey, if your EDU stat isn’t high enough, you can’t just luck out because you rolled a natural 20. It has the downside, of course, that you can find yourself in situations where no one in the group can accomplish a task. And even though it works well for static, one-off kinds of ability tests, it is not as useful for fluid, extended situations such as combat.
  3. The third kind – and the one I’ve been trying to build around – is resource-driven. Characters have abilities like in the previous two styles – but they also have some sort of resources that they expend to help them shape the narrative somewhat. There are many incarnations of this style of game. One of my favorites is the Marvel Universe RPG which used “stones” and had some interesting “Fate-like” mechanics baked on to it. It was a short-lived game and it needed some tweaking but the core idea was pretty solid. (I think that stone regeneration should have been based on an edge-like mechanic – from the Marvel Saga game – rather than a character stat, for example). Unfortunately, games based on licenses are problematic because once a company loses the license, the game just disappears.

I digressed a little there… But yeah, it’s the third category that interests and vexes me. Obviously, the Amber DRPG method is something I love, but it only works so well in Amber because the system is built around the fluff. It cuts corners and avoids certain pitfalls because player expectation is already shaped around the understanding that “this is just how stuff works” in Amber. The auction-based character creation mechanic, while brilliant, only really works when your characters will be the only ones in the Universe that it really matters to. And the “stakes” in Amber are often not about life-and-death in the sense that a traditional D&D game are… they are usually more abstract. Amber DRPG is a soap-opera with cosmic powers. D&D is a reality TV show with eliminations every week.

But some people (like me) want to play a more diceless-style of game that isn’t based around the lives of virtual deities. We want to play that diceless game with the struggles of superheroes, or shadowrunners, or fantasy adventurers. And in those games the stakes are much more direct. Combat is often a big part of those games because the heroes in them are often striving against their enemies in direct confrontations. They often involve more “nitty-gritty” details like ammunition and money (Amberites don’t worry about such things) and striving against the elements. These games often involve a need to be more “zoomed in” on what characters can do (skills, attributes, etc.) because they don’t have the advantage of being a couple thousand-year-old immortal who took a eight years to become a surgeon just because they had the time…

And because these genres need to hone in on those details, it also becomes more important to track things like, “hit points” (that is, how healthy is your character at any given moment). Amber’s method of handling combat and injury is absolutely brilliant (!) but again, is very difficult to lift out and use elsewhere because it relies so much on other aspects of the game and setting.

All of the above has led to attempts to use resource pools to provide some control over the stakes and outcomes of character actions. Where these systems often seem to run into trouble though is how to balance the resources so that expending them is important, and means something but also balancing them in such a way that characters have access to them without having too many. It also requires a careful decision of how GM’s are allowed to use resources for NPCs. In other words, it is very hard to implement in a way that feels meaningful without also being frustrating. The Marvel game I mentioned above was an excellent example of how a system could work pretty well but the exact minute that a major combat started (something that happens a lot in comics) the resource pools would skew badly and the game became more about micro-managing your stones than playing your character.

All of this discussion so far has been largely about more traditional gaming structures and genres… there is a whole dimension of so-called “story games” that have their own takes on diceless play and resource use. I’m fascinated by these games and how they are built but this is long enough for now. So I’ll save that for another post.

If you’ve made it this far, let me apologize and say that you’ve really been subjected to this post because I’ve made a commitment (in public) that by the end of the year I intend to have a fully-workable prototype/playtest version of a diceless game ready to go. And so I’m back in the intellectual salt-mine of trying to parse it out and you got to come along for the ride as I discussed the various options with myself.

As always, comments are welcome and thanks for reading.

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