Diceless to “Now with Dice”

So, a project that I’ve been working on for a while is finally coming to fruition. In the next couple of weeks I expect to run my first playtesting sessions of a new game I’ve created. I’ll admit, the idea of doing it is kinda melting my brain – because I’ll never actually be ready, but that’s another topic.

Roleplaying games are (usually) a two part affair. There is the world stuff, the “fluff” that is going to be used as a basis for storytelling and sparking creativity. The other side is the mechanical stuff, the “crunch” that makes the engine of the game go. This is the stuff that you use to run combats and figure out if you can climb a wall and whether you can swim in plate mail.

I’m not going to pretend that the fluff stuff is easy – it isn’t – but it is usually the starting point for a new game. You want to make a game about X. It doesn’t matter if X is a world of mutant super heroes or a game of romantic fantasy played out between badgers and weasels. The fluff is often the idea you have that sparks the game’s creation. In some cases, the fluff is all that matters because the designer will then simply plug their idea into an existing system like the OGL, FATE, or Powered by the Apocalypse.

The mechanics though… man, those are hard. Not only do the mechanics have to support the fluff by making it work – the mechanics just have to work on their own. And you have to watch out for the “unintended consequences” where making a change in one place will likely wreck making a change in another place. Oh, and presumably, you want the mechanical bits to be fun. That seems important.

Some game designers are inherently better at one part of the process over the other. There are also a lot of competing philosophies over the role that mechanics should play in game design. Some designers think the mechanics should forcefully assert the specific actions of the game – while some want a more general mechanic that doesn’t get in the way of the game. There is also a lot of argument between unified mechanics vs. subsystems for everything. I tend to fall in the middle of most of these arguments. I know that I prefer “rules-lite” but even that is a loaded term.

But I’ve spent a lot of words in preamble to my original point about my own game. When I started working on it – the idea was to make it diceless. I adore the Amber Diceless RPG and I have sought out other diceless systems across my gaming career in the hopes of finding more to play. But diceless is a particularly hard beast – and one that seems to satisfy a pretty small niche of gamers. So I went back to the drawing board recently and started figuring out how to take the core of what I’d created and port it over to a system that used dice. I briefly considered cards instead of dice but those systems also have their own flaws to contend with which I feel outweigh the benefits. Dice are simple.

I also wanted to stick to using six-sided dice. While I never think about my games in terms of “this is something I’ll publish to the masses,” I’m still a firm believer that unless you are a company capable of selling box sets that come with your own funky dice, then you should make games that can be played just by raiding your granny’s Yahtzee set.

So that was my starting point: Don’t abandon all the work you’ve done so far, rules-light, and use only D6’s. I found that deciding those three things helped a lot in shaping my thinking. In my original diceless system – the amount of resources required to overcome a challenge was based on the level of the stat that you were using to overcome that challenge. So I’m experimenting with an idea where your stat sets the initial difficult of a roll. Then you apply modifiers to the roll and attempt to roll equal to or over the initial difficulty.

In my head, I like this set up. I think it can work. It still has a few flaws that I predict will come up – and I’m hopeful that playtesting will help me iron out. One of those potential flaws is my decision to allow extra margin of success to apply to “after the roll” decisions. Personally, I don’t like systems that allow for making decisions in the immediate aftermath of a roll (something I’ll discuss more in another post) but I’m going to give it a shot here and see how it goes.

That’s it for now. More to come. As always, thanks for reading.

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