Game Mastery

Diceless Mechanics

by on Aug.25, 2008, under homebrew, NoDice

So, this is a little abnormal for me, but I’d like to discuss mechanics for a new RPG system I’d like to write up. I think the idea has a lot of potential and I’d like to get the ideas on paper (err on wordpress) with my name and a date attached, just in case I end up looking to publish things.

I’ve been playing some Deadlands lately, and the thing that I really like about the system is the fate chips. PCs gain a number of these chips each session and they can be traded in for rerolls, or to block wounds, or for other effects. In the past, I’ve adapted them to D&D and feel that they add a lot to the game. The way they usually work in Deadlands though, is as a buffer between PCs and death in combat situations. The game has some harsh wound penalties and once a character gets hit hard they stop contributing and go down fairly quickly. The way combats usually go is that players and GM alike wear down each others chip pile and then the real combat starts. Players can pass chips to each other, but it’s expensive. With a max of 10 chips per player, chip management becomes a huge part of the game.

Anyway, I was thinking of a system that did away with dice and worked entirely off chips. It’s always bothered me that in D&D making a check that you really care about is the same as one that’s inconsequential. Players should have the ability to say “hey, my character gives a shit about this and it makes sense that he succeed for storyline purposes.” (Note that I consider roleplaying to be collaborative storytelling first and a game second). But in D&D a d20 is a d20 and you use it for all your skill checks. World of Darkness is a little better, in that players have will power which can be used for automatic successes.

What I’d like to attempt is a system that throws out the dice and runs entirely on willpower. This works best with opposed rolls. As in WoD, players would have the option of spending willpower before they would roll, but it would be done secretly. Instead of rolling dice, players simultaneously reveal how much willpower (if any) was spent and add that to the appropriate ability score. It ends up being like the Game of Thrones board game power bid mechanic, but with different bonuses for each character (which ends up being a lot like Game of Thrones combat mechanic but with variable amounts of chips instead of preset cards). I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones so I’m biased to think a system like this could be a lot of fun.

The problem I’m faced with is what to do with non opposed skill checks. My immediate reaction is to go with the simple answer and leave non opposed checks with a flat DC which is compared against the skill value. It seems boring at first glance, but I think this could work. Non opposed rolls rarely affect the story. A rogue can either pick a lock or not. Often he just tries again. Players with points in athletics should be able to climb trees. A character with a driving license can drive down the street without incident. These are all things that can just happen.

Let me simplify. At it’s heart, roleplaying is an extension of playing make believe. No really, it is. The extension is that it includes rules for handling conflicts. Kids player cops and robbers degenerates into a stream of I-hit-yous and no-you-didn’ts. D&D doesn’t. What I’m getting at is that the rules that are imposed resolve conflicts between two in game agents. Not between an agent and a tree. Let the interesting mechanics work between players and NPCs, and keep the rest of them simple. Of course, you do need some sort of mechanic for non opposed conflicts in a table top game, so let characters with 9 points in climb can’t climb a tree, characters with 10 can. End of story.

Furthermore, I’ve always believed that certain players are drawn to interesting mechanics. D&D combat is interesting. Players who want a rulesfest will be drawn to combat in D&D. Yes, D&D does support pure roleplay, but it’s not what the system encourages. I’d like to encourage interaction that results in opposed rolls, so I’d like to see a system that makes that more interesting than non opposed rolls.

Anyway, my free time is limited. I don’t want to develop a game system only to find that nobody wants to play. So I took a peak at the netterwebs and posted a question about this sort of system on a forum. Here’s the post if anyone is interested. It came out badly. I didn’t do a good job explaining that the flat DCs were only for non opposed checks. And some players thought I was talking about modifying D&D or that I was criticizing its copious dice. I wasn’t. At any rate, the result seemed negative, but I got some useful stuff out of it.

One player who liked diceless said that willpower points were a must. I cackled a little inside because I think I’ve got that covered and then some.

Another player pointed out that boolean success isn’t useful and sometimes you need to know degree of success. Those weren’t his words. His were more along the lines of picking a lock before a guard came by or climbing a tree to evade attack. That got me thinking.

Since the strength of this system is opposed rolls, maybe there could be options for different skills interacting in opposed checks. So, climb could be used to evade a melee attack. It’s not the skill’s normal use though, so give it a penalty. Enumerating all these options might suck some of the elegance out of the system, but the idea is certainly interesting.

Picking a lock isn’t really something that can be made opposed though. The lock should have a set difficulty. Its owner cannot will the lock to function better than it already does (a lockmaker could spend will on creating a better lock though). I’d already been thinking of letting players spend will on these flat checks. What if success could earn different effects? Let’s say a player tries to pick a lock and beats the check by 2 points. Those points could be spent on things like picking it silently, doing so quickly, locking up afterward, not leaving a trace that the lock was picked, etc. Depending on what the player needs to achieve and whether he knows the difficulty of the lock, this makes figuring out how much will to spend very interesting. The success effects could also be interesting with regard to combat. Left over points could go to damage, location, wounds, disarming, knockback, or something else entirely. Cost values for each of those could vary from weapon to weapon. Maybe they could even do reach too. Each extra yard away requires 2 more points.

Even if a player has the opportunity to keep trying a skill check, how much will to spend becomes an interesting problem. On the first attempt you don’t spend any. If it fails, what then? You don’t want to spend 1, then 2, then 3, then 4 since the first 6 points went to waste. Should the GM later let out what score was needed for the other players’ advantage?

At any rate, I still think these diceless checks have the potential to be interesting enough. But I’m biased and want other opinions. Maybe I should get some readers first.

A couple other points. The will pool should refresh periodically. I think it should also include more chips than Deadlands. Deadlands gives 3 or 4 chips per session. They’re for use in case of emergency. Clearly that’s not enough. Maybe there should be specific die pools for specific purposes? Like a combat pool of 10 is given out at the beginning of each encounter, but that can be supplemented by a character’s daily pool? I don’t want to rip off D&D 4.0, but at-will/encounter/daily works very nicely for refreshing the will pool outside of the freebies a DM gives out. Number of chips and how often they’re given will make or break this system.
A magic sword doesn’t have to be a static +1. It could be +1 to a specific will pool. Or +3. Getting a +3 once per day may or may not be better than a constant +1. Or maybe some weapons have a discount. Like, reaching with a bastard sword is less expensive than with a shortsword.

Players could also have abilities that effect bidding. Like a once a day bid token that doubles the number of chips bid. Or one that swaps chips (obviously played with 0 chips, but opponent gets the swapper chip).

Chips spent per bid must be limited. Maybe to twice the base skill? Maybe there could be ways to increase or decrease the max allowed.

Flaws and merits can do interesting things with chips too. A flaw that cuts in half the number bid on a particular skill is pretty rude without being debilitating.

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7 comments for this entry:
  1. Jeff

    It’s a bit of a confusing concept but I think I can see what you mean for the most part. Hopefully you manage to get a working beta alive on it. Would be interesting to try out.

  2. sagotsky

    Glad you’re intrigued. I admit this writeup isn’t the best, as it assumes you’re already familiar with the bidding mechanics I’d like to use.

    As far as a beta goes, I have plans but they’re a ways off. I’d like to run a combat test with some friends here. First I need to make sure the mechanics are fun. If they aren’t, there isn’t much point in continuing. If they’re fun, I have to make sure they’re elegant (some friends think bidding is too slow and that defeats the purpose in going diceless). And if they’re elegant, then I get to balance them.

    Once that’s done I’d like to try a one shot game. If that goes well I’ll write up the adventure for people to download and post it on a variety of forums.

    If that ever happens, then I get the task of figuring out how much abilities should cost and how characters level. I have to admit I’m not looking forward to this part. But it comes after the public beta, so rejoice!

  3. Tmow

    Hi and thanks again for the answer at http://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/5840/diceless-math-driven-rpg

    Intriguing and interesting!

    I’d like to continue the discussion and maybe find some ideas to simplify and improve it, maybe we can “merge” our thought.

    It’d be nice to simplify the article, making it more schematic, with some images, schema, tables and examples, it’d be possible for you?

  4. sagotsky

    @tmow

    So this article was just my initial reaction to the idea. I wanted to get all my thoughts down where I wouldn’t lose them. I have a pdf I’ve been working with off and on for presenting the system in a more useful fashion. It’s nowhere near complete and likely much too rambly, but you can check it out here: http://files.sagotsky.com/mindovermatter-012511.pdf I’ve been going with Mind over Matter as a working title to emphasize that role that a character’s willpower plays in the system.

    What I’m stuck on ATM is enumerating skills and weapons. I’m having a hard time figuring out the level of detail for skills. Physical ones are straightforward, but some of the social ones are trickier.

    I’m also stuck figuring out how damage works. I’m leaning toward removing bodily HP and just going with limb damage. Can’t decide if that should be a separate experiment or if it should be part of this one. Basically if an attack hits, the difference between attack and defense becomes damage. That damage becomes a penalty whenever the associated limb is used. I still haven’t decided if I like this idea, but I haven’t come up with anything better yet.

    Anyway, I’m open to suggestions. Not sure how much I can collaborate on it though. This is the sort of project that I ignore for 6 months and then spend a weekend refining. It’s on the backburner until my D&D game finishes.

  5. Tmow

    Really well made, congratz!

    However I’d like to remove as much mechanics as possible, but still leaving the master/player choice, I’ve update the question…

    What about to put in place a wiki (using creative commons license), involve as much people as possible and put in place Our Best RPG… It’s challenging, it’s interesting and may be profitable as well.

    In the case, who is interested, can contact me at antenore ( at ) gmail dot com

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