Today, I’ll be talking about the very small number of tabletop games I know of that don’t rely on dice for a resolution mechanic. Some are straight up storytelling games that rely on the GM’s decision-making capacity, such as Amber Diceless, while others – which I sadly know less about – use alternative methods, such as the card-drawing system of the “Age of Mortals” version of Dragonlance.
First up, there’s a simple question – why a diceless game? Dice, for most of us, are one of the defining characteristics of our hobby. When there was a rivalry between the players of games like Magic and Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and our own tabletop RPG hobby (there may still be, but I’m not part of hobby rivalry anymore), dice were a key trait – we were dicechuckers, much as they were cardfloppers. It’s a silly thing, but it reminds us that dice are one of the magnificent cores of our games. I should know; I have a duffel bag that has around six pounds or so of all kinds of dice in it, including oddballs like the D5 that is utterly useless as a rolled die and a couple of D30s I use to help move the party along.
There’s plenty to be said in favor of dice; they add randomness and excitement to the game that otherwise might not be there. They also add an impartial element that makes disasters somewhat more fair, and the chaos lets players feel that there always might be a chance. It also absolves GMs of the blame for the really disastrous situations that arise from the conflict of players and plots, and gives them a range to work with when it comes to possible conflicts.
Not so with diceless games; in the case of games like that old Dragonlance alternative, there are cards, and the randomness comes from what the players draw from the deck. It gives the game an air of resource management as well as random luck. How much effort are they willing to put into something to make it work? How much should they hold back in case the situation goes bad? How much can they hope for a future draw to give them what they need, and what should they risk to get there? It gives players a feeling of more control while still leaving them at the mercy of chance and luck; it can lead to increased investment in the game as they try to optimize their resource usage, but it can also wreck a game if they’re afraid to use their big cards for fear of needing them later.
Then there are the games that are utterly without randomness; the old Amber Diceless (and its modern inheritor, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow) relies entirely on the discretion of the person in the GM’s seat to make things work. Players have equipment, powers, and traits, but those are largely arbitrary and give them a sense of power in relation to one another. The NPCs all have power values set entirely at the discretion of the GM and the outcome of any conflicts are entirely at the whim of the GM. This takes a rare level of trust among the players and GM, and can lead to bitter feelings when someone feels the GM is deliberately screwing their player over just to screw them over.
These games can, of course, be tremendously fun; but they require a GM who is absolutely trusted or absolutely transparent, and who solicits the input of the players about the game’s future. Giving players ownership over significant portions of the game, letting them have a say in the adversaries for each other, and making sure they fully understand that if they’re getting screwed over now it’s a setup for their triumph later. In the Amber Diceless game the authors tried to pitch the idea of one player coming to session after session while the character is blind and locked up in the dungeon. This is nothing if not a perfect example of how to not run a game of this type; instead, jump to the point where the character has their chance to escape, handwaving everything in between those two points. If you must leave the character there, don’t leave the player sitting. Make a new character with them so that they can stay in the action; the game table is meant to be fun, not a dramatic reenactment of literary tragedy.
Diceless games can be fun, but they take a level of trust, bookkeeping, and investment not all groups will be able to manage. It doesn’t hurt to give it a try, however, and you may find that the play style either gives your group ideas to modify your regular games or even that you enjoy it more than the usual dice-slinging mode of play.
Give it a shot!