If you are a long-term reader you have read posts by me talking about diceless systems. Specifically Lords of Gossamer and Shadow which is based on the Amber diceless system. You may be someone who can’t abide by the idea of not rolling dice in your role-playing games (RPG). Maybe you are just curious and always thought you want to have a go at one. What I am endeavouring to do with this post is give you a general idea of how this all works. So let us get started.
Diceless does not mean stat-less
Just because these games do not roll dice in play does not mean it is just a collaborative storytelling game. In fact, there is a game master (GM) who controls the NPC’s and the like. In fact, it is very similar to other RPG’s in this manner. Your character is built on a basis of statistics and abilities. Perhaps they even start with some cool artefacts, powerful friends or their own place. There are a number of systems around that are diceless but most of them use the key struggle mechanic that surrounds statistics.
The key to this struggle is the value in the particular statistic. If your statistic is better than your opponents and all other things are equal then you will win the contest. For example, if my Map Making statistic is 31 and yours is 27 and we both have the same materials and time my map will always be superior to yours. The overall arbiter of these results is the GM of course.
How do I beat a superior opponent?
By role-playing! Maybe in the above example, you sneak into my room and add water to my ink. You put super glue in my brushes and tear the paper left for me. Then we both enter the map off and the sabotages you have put in place causes the judge (played by the GM) to award your character the win. In combat this may be achieved by preparing the battle arena, hiring mercenaries or friends to gang up on the opponent and the like. It is the interplay of variables and statistics that determine the outcomes of struggles and actions. That is why the role of GM is solidly in play here. There has to be the independent review to decide on these things.
Life and death
The diceless systems that I have been exposed to have very little character death. Non-player characters (NPC) excepted of course – they die by the droves. The advice surrounding death is that it must be meaningful to the story as a whole. Often times if death is to occur the player is often likely to agree that it is appropriate. When dealing with this as a GM though I am more likely to leave the player alive. It makes for a great moment of building a nemesis. But say a player wants to stop the evil lord so much by making the greatest sacrifice the GM will almost always oblige them. It makes memorable moments in the game that stay in the memory of all involved.
What about injury and wear and tear to a character?
Injury to the characters is something that will often come up. The GM is likely to advise the player the type of injury and it how it may affect the character while they carry it. Very rarely does injury transform to permanent incapacity as the characters’ statistics are so central to the game. Also, destroying artefacts and items is extremely difficult as they are also considered core to the character.
Diceless Games truly rely on the GM role
I feel longer term that the idea of the GM having so much power is the reason many people do not play diceless systems. Being a GM of these games can paralyse you with analysis paralysis! There is no rolling a dice behind a screen, fudging the result and saying what you want here. The player states “I add water to his inkpot” and then if I as the GM award it to the sabotaged player the player has the right to ask why? The first three games that I ran on my diceless system made me nervous because I could not hide behind a die roll. It makes you responsible being the GM because you only have the statistics and circumstances to take into account.
Many people have asked me why have players? It is just the GM making it all up. Well, no it is not. You will note above that I mentioned the fudge of a die roll behind a screen. Is that not the same thing? In this instance, the GM has to be more open. The factors are mostly in the open, and if they are not (e.g. your opponent sabotaged your map making equipment) then the players must uncover this after the result. It is still the players driving the game and responding to the triggers provided by the GM. The GM is learning the story in a much more honest way when you remove dice.
Where these systems can fall down is in the human relations department. If one of the players does not trust the GM then nothing they can do will make them satisfied. The GM says the opponent slices their hamstring with their sword and the player will think it is because the GM does not like them. The opposite is true of the GM. If they do not like a player then they must deal with it or otherwise their decisions will be coloured because of that. Still, I believe this is true of every game, diceless or not.
Don’t be frightened and give it a go!
Overall, my advice is to give a diceless system a go. If someone approaches you and says they want to try a game of X but it is diceless – just say OK. I do love Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, so of course, I am going to suggest it. That given, take a look at the system. Sometimes the setting can be a bit unusual and if you are entering a game that has been running forever by massive fans of the Amber books then perhaps it may not be the best. Even I would baulk at that and I have read them. If you have any other questions shoot them to me in the comments and don’t keep rolling!