PART III: Diceless Roleplaying

1) What is Diceless role-playing?
2) Does it work? 
3) How does the GM make decisions? 
4) Is it fair to the players?
5) Can it simulate "realistic" randomness? 
6) What difference does it make in practice?

WARNING: Most of the content of the FAQ was written in 1997, and has not been significantly updated since that time. Thus, much of the material here might not be relevant for current discussion.

1) What is Diceless role-playing?

Technically, diceless gaming would simply be a game that doesn't use dice (for example, Castle Falkenstein

In terms of this FAQ, however, "diceless" role-playing refers to usually minimalist systems where the GM decides on the results of actions without the help of randomizers, tables, or explicit quantified mechanics. There are a number of published diceless RPG rules systems, including:

Also, FUDGE by Grey Ghost Games has notes on how to run the game in a diceless fashion.

2) Does it work?

Yes. There are plenty of people who have been playing without dice even long before the above systems were published. At least for these people, it can be just as exciting as diced gaming, and at least competitive in realism with many diced games. It usually results in much more emphasis on player and GM descriptions, and much less emphasis on rules.

3) How does the GM make decisions?

That varies with the system, the GM, the group contract, and so forth. In general, action resolution can be based on a great variety of input factors. What follows is an outline of some of the factors which can go into action resolution -

[A] Reality/Genre: This is just the GM's judgement of what is the most reasonable outcome given the understood "reality" of the situation - including genre and setting-specific laws (like magic). This is actually the most common form of resolution in any game - if a character tries to walk through the woods, the GM just says it happens.

[B] Mechanics: This is game-mechanical constructs (which may represent the genre-reality, but which are more than just a general understanding). Note that this does *not* have to involve dice. CORPS and _Vampire_ both use some diceless, mechanical action resolution. Spending Plot Points (or Hero Points, Willpower, etc.) is also a mechanic.

[C] Description: In this case, _how_ the player describes his character's action has a big effect on the outcome. This involves the player heavily in the action -- but it also tends to emphasize player skill rather than character skill (i.e. if a given player is very good at describing combat tactics, then his character is better at combat).

[D] Plot: As _Theatrix_ describes it, "Does the plot require a given outcome?" The GM sets up a plot beforehand, and if a given result is required for the plot to work, he chooses that result. This is the factor most often associated with "railroading".

[E] Drama: This is a free-wheeling sense of drama or comedy/fun, as mediated by the GM. For example, a chandelier swing in a swashbuckling game may naturally succeed because it is dramatically appropriate. It has nothing to do with the written plot, but it fits.

[F] Meta-game: This is a catch-all category for concerns of the GM and players. A gamble may succeed because it is getting late in the evening and people want to go home. Certain issues may be avoided because some players find them offensive. A PC may disappear because the player can't show Etcetera.

[G] Group Consensus (from Sarah Kahn): This is a sort of combination of Reality and Description resolution, in which the entire group combines efforts to determine what the "expert swordsman's" best strategy really would BE when the player of the swordsman knows nothing of combat. It is often use to counteract the problems of "description" resolution. It often takes the form of "he who knows the subject best is empowered to define the reality."

[H] Dice: Technically dice will not be used in a "diceless" game, but I included them to be completist, and to show how they are just one among a large number of factors. Dice can be used as additional input into any number of resolutions. Mechanics often call for die rolls, but a mechanicless game can also use dice to represent random factors (The rule being, say, "High good, low bad").

Besides the variety of input, action resolution can be different in method or style of handling -- like how the results are presented. For example, even if two GM's use the same mechanics and die rolls: one might describe to players using only descriptive terms, and he keeps the character sheet and die rolls to himself.

4) Is this fair to the players?

Well, that depends. The advantage of diceless role-playing on this front is that it encourages greater feedback and communication with the GM. Yes, in principle, a diceless GM can shoot down whatever player plans he doesn't like by ruling that they fail. However, the idea is that it will be very clear to the players that he is doing this -- since the GM decides everything, he also takes all the blame.

Diceless play requires a large amount of trust in the GM -- but the theory is that it also makes it more clear when the GM has broken that trust.

5) Can it simulate "realistic" randomness?

That depends on the GM and the situation. Theoretically, a die-roll can certainly provide a more statistically random sequence than GM whim. However, within the context of most RPGs, there are very few runs of statistically-analyzable events.

The GM can take into account a wide variety of in-game factors for each individual decision which will differentiate them. Of course, unless he is a skilled expert in that field, common sense only carries you so far -- some of the choices will either be arbitrary, or be based on meta-game factors like Drama...

As an example: the PC's fire a volley of arrows at a distant enemy. The GM has to decide if they hit any vital spots, taking out some of the enemy. At a detail-by-detail level, the GM's choice is arbitrary -- but he can try adjust things to make sure that overall, the archers are about as effective as they should be.

Using dice is better able to simulate the randomness that often occurs in real world. However, the mechanics are only able to take into account a few of the relevant variables. In dice-using or diceless games, the GM can take into account far more of the actual (i.e. game-world) situation.

6) What difference does it make?

Well, I'll defer at this point to Alain Lapalme, who described in an article what he considered to be the diceless "paradigm shift" for him...

It is clear to me that I don't understand the dice/diceless paradigm shift (I used to think I did, but I'm no longer so sure). To summarize my views on the diceless shift:

  1. explicit trust in the GM
  2. can't hide behind bad/good rolls
  3. forces players to take responsability for their actions
  4. changes the player/gm communication style from mechanistic to more descriptive
  5. increases subjectivity
  6. changes the whole nature of combat

But this may be different for every person...


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Tue Jan 23 16:13:38 2007