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GameNerd: Diceless Design

ACUS is coming up, and I've been following a lot of the press about the upcoming D&D 4th edition (more on that later). All of this means that I'm thinking about RPGs and how they work, and wanting to run a game or two.

Specifically, I am thinking about putting together a diceless system for running games in the Caecern/Neren setting and the Nano-Victorian Future setting.

Since I'm an obessive nerd, I got to thinking about how I wanted to do it. I could just use the Amber DRPG rules and work out point values for whatever new powers I need. I don't think that would work out in the long run though; I think the mechanics would get in the way of the stories I want to tell.

I came up with a couple basic questions;

  1. What are my goals for my games?

  2. What are the basic components of a diceless system?

  3. How do I arrange my components to meet my goals?

I think I'm going to have to break this one up into at least two posts - I'm already courting the "TL;DR" problem (too long; didn't read) with just the first question.

My Goals

I've been playing in a semi-regular D&D game for a while. In GNS Theory, it's a pretty gamist-heavy game, lots of combat, tactics, etc. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, and I enjoy the game. D&D's rules encourage that kind of play (players are rewarded for combat with XP and treasure, which makes them better at combat).

I've been getting an itch for a different kind of game, though. D&D doesn't prevent people from having well-developed characters and compelling story arcs, so long as those story arcs include lots of combat with increasingly tough opponents. the way the rules and rewards are structured, though, the story is secondary to the action. Rolling dice and working tactics are where the excitement is in D&D.

I want to run a game where the story and characters are the main focus. If combat happens, it happens because it's important to the story. The best way to do that, I think, is to use a system where D&D style combat is boring; mowing down mooks, kobolds and orcs might be fun once, but in Amber, it gets old fairly quickly as the central theme. Strip away the reward system of XP and treasure. Without a metric to track those rewards against character actions, I hope that the players will find their rewards in the story - that it's more exciting to try to maneuver thier character onto the throne, or play out a tragic fall from grace. The reward for involvement in the story is having the story involve you.

I want to focus on the story and the setting, the characters and their world. I don't want the rules and mechanics to become a focus. I don't want my players to need character sheets, and I don't want them to have to do math to play the game. No math at character generation and no math during play. No dice, no lookups tables, I don't even want the players to have to think about point values, if I can avoid it.

There are still going to need to be mechanics for conflict resolution, and a system for making sure characters are balanced. I'm hoping I, as GM, can handle that well enough to let the players focus on other things. See, as I mentioned, I don't have a problem with the gamist side of role-playing; I thoroughly enjoy sitting down with a game and hacking out a stack of characters to see what kinds of characters I can build in the most optimized fashion. My goal is to have it be my problem to make my rules represent the character the player comes up with in a useful way. If the player comes to me and tells me that zie wants to play a blacksmith's son who is on a life-long quest to be history's most perfect swordsman, I want to be able to tell the player something like "Okay, you want to be the best swordsman possible at the start, done." and then work on details. The player shouldn't need to know what stats I'm using to do that.

I want my players to act like heroes. I don't want to have my players stop and spend an hour of in-game time sweeping a door for traps and poking floor tiles with ten-foot poles. Part of my planned solution to that is to work out a contract with my players in advance, covering what I expect of them and what they can expect of me. One of those details will be "I will not kill your character". In a dice-based game, death is necessary to keep the game exciting; you have to be able to fail for success to be interesting. Smart people will start to work the system, though, to minimize the chance of failure, and that blunts the story. It's still exicitng for the players, because they're finding ways to "win". By promising not to kill a PC unless they do something momumentally stupid against my warnings, they're free to try crazier stuff. Sure, I may end up giving the PC Dire Consequences to live through, but that's how stories go. If the player and I both agree that it would be more interesting to give zir character a dramatic, meaningful death, then we should all as a group help make that happen. No one, though, wants to read a book where the main hero dies because she failed her save vs. slipping on soapy water half way through. In a book, you know the heroes will survive to the end, or at least get to die in a dramatic, meaningful way.

It's not that one can't have a game with big story and deep characters, etc. in a game like D&D, it's that the system not only doesn't actively encourage it, it shifts the point of interest away onto other things.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
I think you've succinctly summed up what I'd like to create in a game as well. More often than not I've just gone for a free-form "players describe what they want" and then I just wing it and try to keep storyshare equal even if their powers are not exactly on par with one another.
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:23 pm (UTC)
Two other thoughts that come to mind:

- I already find D&D combat boring. ;)
- 7th Sea had a rule where you only died if it was dramatically appropriate. I think Mutants and Masterminds might have had a similar idea in the rules. Otherwise you were just horribly, horribly unconscious.
Mar. 5th, 2008 12:40 pm (UTC)
At the risk of giving away state secrets, that's exactly what I did for my PbEM game. There are stats, but I'm not telling anyone about them. I'm not even sure how much I'll rely on them. They exist, as you suggest above, primarily to create play balance.

But "play balance" is a bit of a weird concept. My mechanics are heavy on what I decided to call "resource points", and in the mid-1800s, as now, the resources are not exactly "balanced". Some people have a LOT more power than others. I've tried to keep it a bit more balanced between PCs, but clearly some are in positions of privelege and some are not. This is far from being a mathematical exercise, as these imbalances are a integral part of the theme of the campaign.

Okay, I'm going to stop before I give too much more away.
But more power to the "hidden variables" theory of gaming.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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