Dice and Diceless: One Designer's Radical Opinion
by Erick Wujcik
It is with not a little pleasure that I've been reading some of the postings here on The Forge relating to the mixing of dice-based and diceless role-playing mechanics. All very interesting, all very insightful.
Still, I'd like to present a rather different point of view from those already posted.
Let me start by describing my first 'diceless' experience.
Long, long ago, back in the dim and misty past of role-playing, sometime before 1979, I had the pleasure of meeting a rather brilliant role-player/Game Master, a guy by the name of Mike Cuba. Visiting the "Weregamers" (the RPG club at Wayne State University; an organization formed when a flyer featuring the art of Kevin Siembieda was circulated around campus). Mike wandered into a meeting, knowing next to nothing about role-playing, and immediately became one of our favorite role-players.
No surprise that he turned Dungeon Master shortly thereafter, and that I was among the first role-players in his very first campaign.
I rolled up a Thief. With two (2 -- count 'em -- 2) hit points. It was pretty obvious from the very start that Mike wasn't the kind of guy to pull punches as a Dungeon Master. Neither his monsters, nor his traps, were lightweight, and most delivered damage very much in excess of my character's crummy duo of life pips (bear in mind, I was responsible for disabling the traps).
So I responded in the only way that seemed reasonable. I completely avoided rolling the dice. No close combat, and no taking chances. If I had to deal with a lock, or a trap, I learned that I could just keep asking questions, and Mike would keep supplying imaginative answers. The campaign went on and on, and I dissected every trap, every lock, every mechanism, and every arcane bit of machinery. I used every sense, every trick, and role-played my little heart out whenever possible.
Since I kept rolling ones and twos at level advancement (as I recall, at 7th level I had all of 11 hit points), I got better and better at avoiding the dice, avoiding combat, and pretty much being as cautious as possible.
The point is, I was already playing 'diceless.' And I was playing 'diceless' in very much a dice game.
Now back to my contrary point of view... Which is actually pretty simple.
If you are playing a dice-based role-playing game, you are already combining it with diceless role-playing.
My experience in Mike Cuba's fantasy campaign may have been extreme, but it's really the same as every other role-players experience, in every other dice-based role-playing campaign. Almost everything could be left up to a roll of the dice.
Consider, have you ever choked on a bit of food? Ever stumbled while walking on flat ground? Ever stuttered or fumbled over words? Of course you have. We human beings can screw up anything, at any minute. If you imagine that we're living in dice-based universe, it stands to reason that the dice are rolling millions of times every second, just to see which of your replicating cells are doing their job properly, and which are failing bad enough to give rise to cancer.
Of course in a role-playing game, you don't want to roll for all that stuff.
Even the most dice-heavy role-playing game around don't use dice for everything. Sure there are rules for conflict resolution that require dice, but Game Masters generally use diceless mechanics for the majority of the events in any RPG (conversions, common sense, movement, 'automatic' skills and abilities, etc.). Each role-playing session must, in order to keep things moving, pass over a multitude of dice-rolling opportunities.
I'm going to go a little further, and make up a set of three maxims:
One last note on the definition of 'diceless.' I take it to mean, quite literally, role-playing without dice, as well as role-playing without any other randomizer (no cards, spinners, coin flips, or whatever).
On the other hand, I'm always shocked to hear those who make the extravagant claim that 'diceless' somehow infers a kind of role-playing superiority. That's not how I see it. Yes, role-playing without dice seems to confer a different quality on a campaign... but every Thursday night in Detroit I'm happy to haul out my dice bag and roll with the best of 'em. Neither is a superior mechanic, nor represents any kind of purity, and having them both in the hobby assures a nice range of options for all the participants.
Erick Wujcik is the creator of Amber Diceless Role-Playing. Find out more at http://www.phagepress.com