Guest Author - Jay Shaffstall
Subject: Diceless RPG Systems
Description: Heard about diceless RPG systems, but weren't sure what they're all about? Here we'll take a look at a few systems and see how they work.
The term "diceless RPG system"doesn't mean a system that just doesn't use dice. After all, a system that uses playing cards instead of dice still has the same elements of randomness that using dice gives. The term has a broader meaning, that of a system that doesn't use randomness as a way of resolving actions.
Not using randomness? How else can you resolve actions? Let's look at the way some diceless systems do it.
This system replaces dice with a rating for abilities. The rating goes from -1 to +5, and represents the amount of effort that can be expended for that ability. For example, a character with a Fitness of +2 is very talented at physical activities, but a character with an Awareness of -1 is so self-involved they hardly notice anything else going on around them. There are also special abilities, gimmicks, skills, etc, but we'll focus on the diceless resolution. The rules are available for free at the link at the bottom of the article if the system intrigues you.
A particular task your character wants to perform is rated by its difficulty, from 0 to 8. You can expend effort based on the rating of whatever ability applies. If you meet or exceed the difficulty of the task, you successfully perform the task. Exceeding the difficulty is called "overkill", and represents a better than normal success.
Effort expended is recovered in time, depending on what you're doing, so this becomes a game of managing your available effort. Do you expend it now to succeed at an important task, only to find that you don't have any later when you need it? You, as the player, choose how to manage that effort.
The Freeform Games LARPs do have a bit of randomness in them, but the vast majority of actions resolve without it.
Their system works by each player having skills, and each skill having a prerequisite to being used. For example, a skill might be, "Convince another player to tell you one of their secrets", and the prerequisite might be "Talk to them for two minutes".
Fulfill the prerequisite on the skill, and success is automatic (unless the player you've targeted has a counter-skill).
The bit of randomness added in for actions that aren't covered by skills is Rock Paper Scisscors.
This was the first diceless RPG system I ran across. It was written as one of the 24 hour RPGs I've written about before.
Character creation is free form, as you create "descriptors" that tell what your character can do. For example, a character might be a "Learned Scholar", or a "Dead-eye Shootist". Descriptors are pairs of words, and each word is rated based on how strong it is in the character. The total is always 7, but can be split up during character creation however you like.
Actions are resolved two ways.
First, if you try something you are good at (based on your descriptors), you succeed. But if you try something you are not good at, you fail.
Second, you can spend pips (represented by some physical token, like a piece of candy), one pip per success. Buying up to higher levels of successes allows your character to succeed with style.
You gain pips by deliberately failing at tasks, or as a reward for good role playing or an ingenious idea.
So the game becomes a balance between failing enough to have the pips when you need them for the big confrontation, but not so often that your character is disabled by the time you get there (since failing in that way gets you a failure card that represents some handicap).
I've often thought that Pace would be perfect for playing in airports while waiting for a plane, by using a notepad to keep track of pips.
In general, diceless role playing games take the dramatic tension away from the dice, and put it in the hands of the players. You get to make the choices about when your character succeeds or fails, by carefully managing whatever resource it is that allows success.
You can download Pace here, and Active Exploits here. My own page about Murder Mystery Party Ideas includes info on Freeform Games games.
A far larger collection of diceless role playing games is available here.