Why Go Diceless?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0302

A Brief Word From Johnn

Single Player Campaigns

I’m a big fan of single player campaigns. They’re so versatile. With only two people involved, they offer easy scheduling, opportunities for impromptu games, an opportunity to practice and hone GMing and playing skills for larger groups, and short game sessions. You can call up a friend, and if the timing works out, head over right away for an hour or three of gaming and have a great time!

A reader recently wrote asking for single player GMing tips, and I thought you might find these links useful too:


Game Of Thrones RPG Is Great

I picked up the Game of Thrones RPG the other week and have been thumbing through it. What a wonderful book! An obvious work of love by the Guardians Of Order team. High quality production, great art, and a cool modification of the D&D d20 rules to reflect George R. R. Martin’s low-magic, gritty world of knights, war, and politics.

More info about the RPG:

Kudos to Guardians Of Order!

Be sure to get some gaming done this week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Readers Respond

Last week I posted a reader request for information and tips about playing diceless RPGs. As usual, the Roleplaying Tips community responded generously with opinions, information, and advice. Thanks! Below are a few of the e-mails I received.

Almost Everyone Has Already Played Diceless

From Vitenka

Look at the Amber Diceless Roleplaying and Everway games. Both give lots of good guidance on the subject.

Why go diceless?

Ever had to fudge a roll to make the story go well? Ever known what should happen and found the rules you’re using don’t support it well? Then systemless resolution might be for you.

I’d also link to the long article “Everyone has played diceless,” but I can’t find the URL. The gist of it is that, whenever you’re just talking and planning, whenever you’re doing things that the system doesn’t cover, you’ve been playing diceless. Almost everyone has played that way at some time, and those bits are often the best part of the game.

After all, describing your mighty swing across the void, describing how you catch the falling princess, coming up with your plan to infiltrate the Baron’s airship posing as an aerial pizza delivery person…those are the main fun in a game.

What decision-making criteria to use?

My typical process is:

  1. If it’s player vs. the world or NPC, the player gets their way. There may be difficulties added, but the player gets to do their thing. NPCs don’t have feelings.
  2. Can I describe what happens in both branches? If not, automatically choose the one I can describe.
  3. Are both of them fun? Does something cool (for whatever value of cool suits your game) happen in both options? If not, choose the one players will enjoy.
  4. Does one player have more invested in this conflict than the others? They win about three times in four, unless defeat is part of their story.
  5. Is one of the choices freaking unlikely? Choose it one time in three. Otherwise, choose the likely one.
  6. Compare statistics.

How do I create suspense without randomness?

Tell different kinds of stories. The in-game question isn’t, “Can I do it?” The question is, “Should I do it?”

Moral dilemmas work fine. Mysteries work fine.

And remember, the player can’t tell the difference between “The GM has decided this dragon is a wuss and will run away,” and “The GM rolled a dice and the dragon failed its morale check.”

How do I eliminate predictability?

Personally, I don’t. The story will be obeyed. However, I think the question was more:

“How do I make a bad guy the players can sometimes, but not always, beat?”

The answer: sometimes, but not always, the players beat him. Follow the structure of novels, for example. A bad guy might be beaten, return in stealth, triumph for a while, and then be defeated again. You don’t need dice to decide that, and it’s often quite hard for dice to emulate that. With the GM in control, it happens every time it needs to.

How to avoid being arbitrary?

This one is hard. Try keeping track of your decisions. At the end of a session total it up. If you find you’ve been too harsh on one particular player, then try to be nicer to them next session.

How do I adjudicate success and failure?

Lots of ways. The systems split fairly easily into:

  1. Completely arbitrary. The GM decides. Perhaps with inspiration from the tarot, perhaps obeying internal dictates of the story. Perhaps trying to be fair, or fairly random.
  2. Yes – but. Always success. Whenever you can think of something interesting as a complication, throw it in.
  3. Investment. Players have a pool of points, and if they sink enough points into something then they triumph, though that leaves them with fewer points to triumph with elsewhere. (See the game Nobilis.)
  4. Ovation. The other players vote (perhaps formally, perhaps in secret) and if they all like the idea or the description then success.
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For D&D – Take 10 All The Time

From Keith LaBaw & Adrian Pommier

I’ve never tried to run an entire game diceless, but between tabletop sessions my group does a lot of interim scenes with an online forum. Instead of trying to do die rolls online or deal with the honor system, we just use the following guideline: all d20 rolls are a “take 10.”

Since most of our interim scenes involve contested skills more than actual combat (e.g. Bluff vs. Sense Motive) this works well. It can also be applied to combat for to hit rolls and saves. On the rare occasion that damage comes into play, we do a similar median approach (half the total possible damage)

Suspense is maintained by a bit of GM secrecy. Sure, you know you can hit AC 18 because you’re at +8 on your attack, but if you don’t know what the enemy’s AC is, there’s still an element of risk if you try it. Same applies for contested skills and saves…especially skills and saving throws where you don’t immediately know success.

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Listen And Craft Good Descriptions

From Jeremy Penter

I have used diceless gaming now for over 17 years, creating my own systems or using others. More important than any system I have used, however, is the DM’s ability to listen.

Much decision making, resolution, storytelling, and excitement can be gained by listening to the players. Extract information from them, such as how are they standing or the look on their faces when talking to an NPC.

With no numbers to go on, you will need to get more information from the players anyway. You will soon discover you are using the same triggers with your NPCs, descriptions, and general storytelling.

These small triggers can assist you in the resolution department. Does the player stand with hands clenched but smiling? What reaction does this create in an NPC who sees this duality of body suggestions? It can even come down to how intimidating a character is. A small child performing such an action has a wholly different subtext than a bulking half-orc.

Borrow from everything. Movie scenes, book scenes, scenes in the news. Pay attention to the underlying feelings and reactions. Slowly change up the scenes to your liking as you grow comfortable and adapt in-game.

Concerning decisions, I make them based on what I have seen in real life, read, and think is plausible or fitting for the story.

My decision for actions are based on the following:

  • Environment.
  • Previous action taken.
  • Action being undertaken.
  • Character’s general physical and mental well-being.
  • How it develops the story. Does it create suspense, action, drama?

With practice, I found decisions could be made in seconds, and much faster than rolling dice.

Eliminating predictability. Some people find predictability a painful thing; I find it a part of life. Many things in life are predictable, such as a character’s ability to cast a spell or hit a normal foe. The occasional flub occurs much less often than the predictable hit. What matters is changing up your descriptions occasionally, and making lively, breathing NPCs.

Therefore, when the goblin suddenly retreats down the tunnel but is careful to only walk on the right side, it becomes a sign that perhaps things aren’t as they seem. Everything from normal roleplaying can be used in dice less gaming to make your game more enjoyable. Embellish flavor text with an eye toward what is thought and perceived versus what is known with hard numbers. Trust me, the difference is noticeable.

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Hide The Danger

From Anthony Hart-Jones

Why go diceless?

The main reason for going diceless, when I have done so, has been to eliminate the rather impersonal nature of the D20. Most DMs will fudge rolls from time to time. Perhaps they have dropped your villain to a single hit-point and his final attack-round comes up three criticals on the party’s cleric. Their plan was perfect but maybe the party just kept rolling 1’s.

To me, diceless is about the planning and the details. There are no bad rolls, only bad tactics. Sometimes, your villain’s master plan will have a fatal flaw. Sometimes the players’ plan will have a small oversight that scuppers them. In this way, you still have luck, but you also have less randomness.

What decision-making criteria to use?

  • Logic. Is this likely to succeed?
  • Drama. If this were a film, would it work? The character (a skilled driver) wants to execute a hand break turn and come to a complete stop outside the bank being robbed. You let him because it is dramatic. In a gunfight, a character takes a risk and you have a bullet clip his shoulder.Humour, if applicable. Would this be funny?
  • Fortune favours the bold. Does the player deserve to succeed? The player character is outmatched by the swordsman and is bleeding from 20 cuts, but refuses to give in because the princess needs only thirty seconds more until the mice finish gnawing through her bonds. He is losing but that does not mean he must die.
  • Consider dramatic imperative. Is this necessary to the plot?
  • Punish idiots. Is this a bad plan or is it complete stupidity? In the middle of a pitched battle, the party’s fighter sheathes his sword and lifts his kilt to taunt the enemy. First offence, I will normally let them live, but a crossbow bolt is not always lethal, and just think what the most tempting target is going to be….
  • How do I create suspense without randomness?

To borrow from Lovecraft, hide the danger. The players will fear what they catch from the corner of their eye more than the hellhound in the same room. After all, you can fight something you can see. The creaking of floorboards behind them as someone moves on the stairs is going to create tension.

How do I eliminate predictability?

  • With variation. Even in a security force, you have better shots and worse shots.
  • Vary the styles of combat. The first goon might lead with a strong offense, the next might be defensive.
  • Vary your language. The first attacker might “thrust boldly at your unprotected flank,” while the second “tries to skewer you on his wicked blade.” Once the players start to think of NPCs as individuals, they stop expecting the same actions from each of them.

How to avoid being arbitrary?

Remain open-minded. Players will surprise you with their ingenuity sometimes, and shock you with their suicidal plans at others. React in-character yourself. They surprised you, so they probably surprised the villain. Give them their due.

How do I adjudicate success and failure?

Compare your image of the events with the player’s intent, then add a large dose of judgement. Does the plan have merit? Is it better than anything you expected from them? Would it serve an important purpose to break from the expected outcome?

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Diceless Requires Trust

From Bobby Nichols

Diceless role-playing requires a high level of trust between GM and players. You have to trust your GM to steer you away from encounters that are potentially deadly. You also have to listen to the GM and pay attention, for he might use detail and setting to tell you things that aren’t readily apparent.

For example, color description might be used to tell a player the black stone in this area is slippery. Then a combat starts and you have to remember this to maneuver your opponent into making a mistake, or use it to give yourself an advantage.

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Craft Interesting Encounters That Don’t Rely On Chance

From: David Saggers

I prefer an encounter to be interesting and fun, not reliant on chance. Paranoia is a great game for how I like to GM – just go with what fits the moment!

I tend not rely on dice much because, as a GM, I always roll well and this is bad for my players. By going diceless, I have also saved time and effort by not making and consulting charts, looking up stats and calculating modifiers, etc. If you need random, roll the dice – low is bad, high is good! You can override the result, but why not save game time and choose?

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Keep Rounds Short To Avoid Decision Difficulty

From Jim M.

Try this: without discussion, players and GM decide their plans of action. Then the players reveal their intended actions and the GM compares this to what he decided the NPCs were going to do. Then the GM decides and narrates the result.

Rounds or time increments during action scenes should be short to limit the complexity of the actions and to better gauge consequences.

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Fortune And Karma

From Eric Wirsing

The bulk of diceless systems are fortune-based (borrowing the term from Jonathan Tweet, from the Everway RPG). Fortune-based games are random, based on dice, cards, etc. The great disadvantage of a fortune-based game is the ridiculous things that can happen due to chance, like failing every roll, or having a grandmaster of lockpicking slip and break a finger (true stories).

The resolution systems of diceless games are many and varied. In Amber, it’s arbitrary Karma (to borrow another term from Mr. Tweet). I have a 20, you have a 19, I win. In other games, you might be able to positively influence outcomes with a pool of points (such as Nobilis, Active Exploits, Marvel Universe, and Dying Earth), all of which are Karma and resource management.

Drama is the third mode, where you narrate what happens, without resorting to numbers. For example, Theatrix uses flow charts to dictate the action based on the plot. It asks, does dramatic necessity require a specific outcome? Does the hero get away safely with the girl, or is there something more interesting and appropriate that needs to happen?

One way to avoid being predictable is to avoid the arbitrary systems. Something that is almost entirely GM fiat (or Drama) might spin out of control. “Uh oh, prepare for a bad night, guys. Jim had a hard day at work. Our characters are hosed.” Creating suspense is easy in a Karma/Resource Management game. Rather than “does my character succeed or fail” it now becomes “what comes next in the story, and are we up to it?”

Diceless systems that allow bidding add to the suspense. How many points can I throw in? Will it be enough? What happens if I need to spend more than I have? How do I get my effectiveness back? Do I risk it all in the hopes I win or do I hold back some points to use as a defense?

RPG.net is loaded with reviews of diceless systems. Dying Earth gets points for style, as there are multiple ways to achieve a single objective, and everything from Combat to Persuasion has different aspects that you choose. Nobilis is an ethereal game that takes combat out of the mix entirely. Active Exploits probably comes closest to a generic game, where you can play any style of game that you like.

If you’re looking into diceless, why not try free? The complete rules for Active Exploits are available. At 70+ pages it’s not light reading, but it will give you a good, solid introduction to diceless roleplaying.


If you want to know what Dying Earth is all about, visit their website:


Marvel Universe, as the name might suggest, is about gaming with Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc. I can’t find the official site anymore, but here’s a fan site: http://murpg.krabbit.com/murpg3.php

Nobilis is a strange gem of a game. To get a good idea of it, here’s a fan site for it:


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Quick Method For Creating Mundane Books

From Garry Stahl

How many times have we GMs decided a book was found as treasure, then struggled to answer, “What kind of book is it?”

There is no need to invent a method to roll this up. One already exists, and in an handy d100 format. It’s called the Dewey Decimal Classification System.

The rough categories are:

000 Generalities
100 Philosophy & psychology
200 Religion
300 Social sciences
400 Language
500 Natural sciences & mathematics
600 Technology (applied sciences)
700 The arts
800 Literature & rhetoric
900 Geography & history

The sub categories can be found here:

This URL has the suggested charts and the Dewey Decimal chart in RTF format, all ready for customizing.

Found Books System

Alternate site:

If you are running a fantasy world, some effort might be required to fit in magic and to change the geography and religion sections to fit your world, but the basic framework is done.

To create the subject of any book using this system:

  • Roll d10 and consult the main chart
  • Roll d100 and consult the appropriate sub-chart

Once you have the subject of a book, craft a quick title and an author if you so desire.

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Use Civilization Games To Build Maps

From Christian T.

In Issue #300 you mentioned you got Civilization IV over the Christmas holidays. That gave me the idea of using a randomly generated Civilization map as a basis for a campaign world map. I tried it out with Civilization III, but I figure it works with any of them.

You can use the map editor to generate a random map, which gives you not only the layout of a map, but also the location of resources. And the best part is you can play the game a little using your map (there are tools to export your saved game to a map) and you end up with cities and roads, not to mention ideas of war between nations and constructions inside cities (and all that while having fun).

The idea is to use it as a base for creating your world map on paper, while adapting it for your game perhaps switching resources and villages for your own exotic resources or creature hideouts, or, if you played the game a little, you could turn that monument you built for your city into the fortress of a major villain.

Unfortunately, you can’t print the map (unless you take several screenshots and paste them together), but that doesn’t stop you from using it as a base for your world (and drawing it by hand).

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The Black Deck

From Jon Thompson

This is something I used in my last session and it went over really well. The party was just making a foray into a neighboring monstrous kingdom (Droaam for the Eberron fans out there). A war is going on at the border, but the idea was that a single party could do more to help the war by going in and taking out the “lynch-pins” of the nation, rather than marching on the slavering hordes.

I was just planning on just having them conveniently run across some of these lynch-pins, but I was playing the game “Mercenaries” when I had a brainwave. In that game you hunt down a “Deck of 52” – playing cards with villains’ faces. In Mercenaries, it’s cool having a list of the top bad guys, seeking them out, and taking them down (and somehow tying them to suits and ranks makes it that much cooler), and I thought this would be great for roleplaying.

So, I made up 13 cards (the spades of the deck) to represent the top targets in Droaam. For those of you who know Eberron, of course the three hags are the Ace, King, and Queen. The rest of the cards were filled out with people like the Queen of Stone, the Captain of the Palace Guard, the head of supply routes, etc. All people who, if removed, would cause Droaam to collapse into chaos.

I also included a couple of enemies who tie into the characters’ back stories, but that was just icing. On each card I put the card’s rank and suit, the name, a picture, a brief (one sentence) description, and their last known location. I intentionally “uglied up” the images (making them black and white, blurring them, washing them out) to replicate the type of cards that could be produced in a fantasy world.

On each card I also put a bounty. Since I was using D&D, I simply used half the amount of gold they should get from encountering the person based on the target’s CR (they can get the other half from the actual encounter).

The whole process only took about an hour. When they were finished I printed them onto cardstock, and during the adventure a general of the Brelish (friendly) army gave them to the PCs, calling them the “Black Deck.”

The players loved it! Being a good party they aren’t super interested in bounties, but, having a list of the key players of the enemy nation they want to cripple is wonderful. The bounties are extra icing on the cake.

The PCs immediately started making plans of where they would travel to try and catch this one or that one. Since they already had a reason to be there, they started planning to “swing over” and catch so and-so on the way to where they were going.

In addition, the rank of the cards gives a good indication of the relative difficulty of the opponents. So, if the 3 of spades was a challenge, they should probably avoid the 7 for a while.

It’s also neat to have a large list (13) of bad guys who the PCs can decide to take down, rather than just running into a couple people whom the GM decides. It gives the players more choice – but a nice, controlled choice that GMs like.

Finally, simply having physical props – cards that they can flip through and ponder – is invaluable.

The “Black Deck” went over better than almost anything in my entire GMing history. I highly recommend it as a roleplaying tool. It’s quick to create a single suit, and you can always create other suits for other places.

[Johnn: Jon graciously gave me permission to post his Excel file so you can create your own Black Deck. All you need to do is paste in your own pics for your villains and minions, and modify the text to suit (pun intended :).

Download the file: Black Deck

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How I Prepare Campaigns

From Bryan Ray

I run three types of campaigns:

  • Linear (get the dingus and bring it back)
  • Episodic (fight the Evil Empire)
  • Freeform (here’s a world, have fun)

Linear games are fairly easy to prep for. I know what the PCs’ goal is and roughly what they’ll be doing to achieve it, so all I need to do is set up interesting encounters and figure out what the opposition is up to in the meantime.

Episodic games take a great deal of time, since I essentially write up a module for each session. I write up the intro–how the PCs got to where they are at the beginning of the scenario. Then I write up how I’d like the scenario to end–get the “money shot” as it were. I then determine the shortest point from A to B and try to manipulate the setting so as to make that the most logical path to take. Sometimes it even works out that way.

Freeform games take a lot of time in the campaign planning stages, but very little in session preparation. Generally, I’ll look at where the PCs were at the end of the last sessions, look for any dangling plot threads, bait some hooks, cover and simmer. For a freeform game, I already have a relationship map worked out, and I’ve already got most of the possible NPCs fleshed out, with motives and everything ready to go.

Here are the things I expect myself to have ready when the players arrive:

  • A handful of NPCs they are likely to meet.
  • Descriptions of places they are likely to go.
  • Some random objects they may pick up.
  • Some dialogue I can put into any NPC’s mouth to serve as plot hooks.
  • Combat statistics for each PC and any likely antagonists.
  • News items from the game world.
  • Some random NPC and location data I can insert at a moment’s notice when the group decides to do something unexpected.

I’m not sure I’ve ever timed my game preparation. I’m going to guess that I spend about four or five hours per scenario. Some scenarios will run for more than one session. I’ll probably spend an additional 20 to 30 hours in campaign preparation, most of it well before the first session begins.

I lift a lot of plot and story ideas from novels, movies, TV, and computer games. Actually, just about anything I encounter might wind up in a game. NPC mannerisms are frequently characters from television–I am bad enough with impersonations that no one has yet recognized a character. Not so much fun at parties, but great for a GM. If I am running a modern game, then a lot of my information will come from the Internet. I’ll get maps, news bites, demographics, and local color. I have quite a file full of information from Point Pleasant, WV that I am planning to use soon. Interesting place.