Sitting next to James Ernest during a game design panel. Earlier in the weekend, I played one of his newer games. I paused, looked at him across the board and said, “James, your game is smarter than me.”

He chuckled and made some comment about how I just hadn’t figured it out yet. “You’ll figure it out,” he said.

But here I am, sitting next to James Ernest on a game design panel. Sure, I’ve worked on collectible card games and board games, but always as “the flavor guy.” Game designers a lot smarter than me—like David Williams and Dan Verssen—were always in charge, making the big decisions. I’m an RPG guy. And there’s a lot of hand-waving in RPGs. A lot. More than you can do in a board or card game.

Someone asks a question and James does what he always does: he answers the question he wants to answer rather than the question that gets asked. Mostly because, I think, he’s bored of the standard questions you hear at game design seminars.

“There are really two kinds of games,” he says. “Move and roll,” he pauses for effect, “and roll and move.”

I immediately understand what he’s saying. That’s because James is really good at explaining this stuff.

Warhammer is move and roll,” I say, trying to jump in on the action. “You make your choices, move your dudes, then roll dice and pray your plan worked.”

James nods and stays silent. He’s letting me explain.

“Roll and move is like Clue. You roll dice, look at what you’ve got, then use them as resources.”

Recently, I’ve discovered Dead of Winter, which is also a “roll and move” game. You roll dice, then use them as actions for your zombie apocalypse survivors. The game does a very good job of giving you the chance to use all the dice you roll… but not always in the way you wanted.

This little conversation stuck with me for a long time. James and I talked about it a little while after the seminar when I told him I wanted to design a “roll and move” strategic miniatures game. I expressed how frustrating most miniatures games are for me. “You know me,” I told him. “I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in ghosts or faeries or even gods.”

James nodded sagely.

“However,” I told him, “I’m certain that dice hate me. They hate me. That’s why I want to make a roll and move miniatures game. It just seems like if I have choices, my rolls aren’t so… traitorous.”

“Why don’t you?” he asked. “Make a roll and move miniatures game.”

I gave him the “flavor guy” talk I just gave you and we chatted about something else.

Many months later, I’m designing a system for an upcoming project and I stumble on a realization.

The typical RPG is “move and roll.”

You tell the GM what you want to do, roll dice and pray your plan works.

I’ve been playing RPGs since 1981 and this never occurred to me. Not until a few weeks ago. No wonder I fell in love with Jared Sorensen’s octaNe and Inspectres. So much love that I stole the core idea for the mechanic for Houses of the Blooded.

Roll high: the player gets to say what happens. Roll low: the GM says what happens.

Success and failure don’t even enter into it. The dice determine who narrates the outcome. That’s it. Players can narrate their characters’ failures and GMs can narrate their successes.

Narration rights. That’s all the dice determine in those games. Success and failure are up to the players and the GM.

And, let’s face it, if we’re honest… they always were.

Say “Yes” or I Call Bullshit

Say “Yes” or Roll Dice.

I’ve always had a problem with this. I mean, I really liked the sentiment, but something stuck in my craw. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

But then, it occurred to me. What that phrase is really saying: “Say ‘Yes’ or tell the players to roll dice so you dodge the blame of saying ‘No.’”

In other words, tell the players “Yes.” And when you want to tell them “No,” have them roll dice. You can set the TN really high and when they fail, you can just point at the dice, blame them, and get to say “No” without really saying it.

And that’s the real secret about any RPG with a GM. The Game Master is the real author of success and failure. I’ve known this for years. Espoused it in Play Dirty.

The GM makes every NPC, fills out the character sheet, gives him stats and skills, motivations and weaknesses. Designs the NPC specifically for the players.

He narrates the outcome of every roll (in most games), pushing the players in a specific direction. He may be subtle about it, use a bit of nuance, or just be a big, heavy plot hammer and “Choo! Choo! Everyone on the Plot Train!”

But in the end, it’s the GM who decides.

The GM decides when to fudge dice.

The GM decides when the villain uses his Death Spell when he knows the PCs won’t make the saving throw.

The GM decides how many shots the villain has left in his pistol when he puts it up against the fallen hero’s head and squeezes the trigger.

The GM decides every tactic, every strategy, every decision villains make. Are they merciful? The GM decides. Are they clever enough to see through the hero’ ruse? The GM decides. Do they spare the pretty elf maiden because they’ve fallen in love with her? The GM decides.

In every RPG…

… wait, I’m going to put this in big bold letters so you don’t miss the point.

In every RPG that has a GM, the GM is in complete control of whether or not the PCs live or die.

 

Some GMs are good at hiding this fact. Others are not. Like magicians, we try our best to conceal our tricks, but the fact of the matter is, there are some really bad magicians out there.

Many RPGs create mechanics to “protect” the players from the GM’s whims. They’re so cute. And so utterly full of shit.

When you sit down at the table, the GM can kill your character at will. At any time. (Unless, of course, the game specifically states the GM cannot kill characters, and in that situation, I can just make your character wish she was dead.)

No system can protect you from me. None of them. Don’t believe me? You haven’t read Play Dirty.

The Illusion of Peril

So, this is where I’m getting to. The illusion of peril.

Many players think dice create a sense of danger, dread and excitement. Rolling dice at a stressful moment, unsure if your character will live or die… you roll the dice and… !

Let me tell you the truth. The reason you’re in that situation in the first place is because I (the GM) put you there.

The dice don’t even enter into it. My choices. My direction. And, yeah, your choices too, but the biggest factor in why your character is in such a screwed up situation in the first place is because I put you there.

Slight tangent.

When I hear criticisms of diceless RPGs, they’re always the same. “There’s no drama without rolling dice.”

Son, you’re forgetting something. Dice can damn you, sure. But dice can also save you. And when you don’t have any dice to save you… yeah. Think about that for a second. Twist that catchy little phrase around and think about it.

Say “No” or Roll Dice.

Try that one on for size. In a diceless game, you don’t have random chance at your side. You can’t pick up a d20 and know that if you roll 10 or better, your character gets out of the fire. Nope.

In a diceless game, the dice don’t damn you, nor do they save you. It’s all narration. That’s it. And if you aren’t clever enough to get out on your wits alone… you’re screwed.

And people tell me there’s no danger without dice. Puh-shaw.

Anyway, let’s get back to the subject at hand.

I put you there.

And once I’ve got you in the trap, I can make it so you can’t get out. I can kill your character whenever I want, regardless of what kind of stats or skills or spells or dice you’ve got.

“Okay,” you’re saying. “That’s fine, John. But… what’s the point?”

The point, Dear Friends, is that dice don’t create drama. The GM creates drama. Whether you roll well or roll poorly, it’s still up to the GM (or another player or even yourself) to interpret that roll. And I can screw you over with a success just as easily as I can save you with a failure. Just one Improv 101 class will show you how.

Why do you feel like the roll is important? Because I created NPCs and situations that make the roll feel important. Ever been in an RPG where the GM made you roll for everything? And after a while, you were so sick of rolling dice because the rolls you made really didn’t feel important?

Yeah. Right there.

It isn’t Say “Yes” or Roll Dice, it’s Why are we rolling in the first place?

The Whiff Factor

I am no longer interested in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.

I first heard Jared Sorensen use the term “the Whiff Factor” to describe that moment in an RPG when you make a roll your character is supposed to succeed and you fail instead. You roll a “1,” you botch, you fumble, you critically fail, whatever. And when I heard it, I finally had a name for the one thing in RPGs I hate the most.

Random failure—as dictated by arbitrary pieces of plastic—is something I’m honestly done with. No interest. I also have no interest in a game that perpetuates it.

Second tangent.

I’m not fond of the “Powered by the Apocalypse” engine. I don’t like how dice rolls amount to, “You suck” or “You suck, but not as much,” and “You’re adequate.”

At a recent convention, I told Mark Diaz Truman about a plan for an Apocalypse World hack.

“You roll 2-6, you’re awesome,” I said. “You roll 7-9, you’re even more awesome.”

He started laughing.

I said, “You roll 10-12, you’re the most awesomest!”

Mark laughed and told me, “I want to see that game.”

When a game tells me, “You’re awesome at this!” I don’t want the dice disagreeing with the game. Remember, dice hate me. And if you talk to anyone who’s played with me, they’ll concur. So, it doesn’t matter how I build my character. I could be playing any iteration of d20, have a character who has +234 in my chosen skill, and that d20 will still roll a “1” every time. And then, it doesn’t matter what my Dex is or my Reflex Save or my hit points or armor class or anything else. I fail. I botch. I die. Doing the thing I’m supposed to be the best at.

Whiff Factor.

And so, I’m finished with random failure in games. Instead, I’ll be designing games that only measure how much the character succeeded.

“You’re awesome.” “You’re awesomer.” “You’re the awesomest.”

“But John!” I hear you shouting. “What about failure! Characters don’t succeed all the time!”

They also don’t fail at random intervals determined by arbitrary pieces of plastic.

No, in literature—something we’re supposed to be emulating with these games, remember?—our heroes fail for a reason. And usually, that reason pays off later in the story.

That’s why I’m writing in mechanics that reward players for failing.

Indiana Jones hesitates as he switches the idol for the bag of sand… he makes his move with perfect skill… and…

Indy’s player says, “Yeah, I misjudged it. And the temple begins to shake as I activate every single trap in the place.”

And when Indy’s player says that, I throw him a Hero Point. Or whatever.

Your character succeeds until you decide he fails.

Or, he succeeds until I provide a sufficient reason/bribe for her to fail. “You want two or three Hero Points to fail that roll?”

And Finally, Tynes’ Law

John Tynes said it. I heard him say it. That’s why I call it Tynes’ Law. You’ll see it when it comes by. Trust me.

Now, there are some of you out there who disagree with me. Wholeheartedly disagree with me. I hear you. You’re saying that you like the uncertainty of dice rolling.

That’s fine. There are about ten thousand games out there that do exactly what you want.

I think there’s room in this industry for a game that just assumes your hero succeeds until you choose she doesn’t.

Back at the game design seminar, I finish off by giving people this advice.

“Make the game you want to play and @#$% everything else.”

You can’t make games for other people. That’s stupid. Not only that, it’s impossible. You don’t have a mind reading machine. You can’t design a game from marketing. People say they want one thing then demand the exact opposite.

And when I give them Tynes’ Law, the audience generally nods, smiles and writes it down. They take it to heart. Then, they go home and make a game that looks a whole lot like Dungeons & Dragons or Cyberpunk or Shadowrun or octaNe. You can’t win ‘em all.

Well, the game I want to play assumes my character succeeds until I decide she fails. That’s the game I want to play. So, I’m making it.

And @#$% everything else.

 

 

No Dice

30 thoughts on “No Dice

  • I’m with you. Have you looked at Daniel Bayn’s Wushu? I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it’s sort of next to the idea you’re describing. What the players say happens, they get dice based on how detailed their description was, then the roll determines how the next round goes. Roll and move. No critical hits or misses.

  • EXCELLENT article.

    James is a bit off, though – there are no-roll games, and roll-only games.

    For no-roll, we’ve got Chess, Go, and if you accept only a touch of luck, games like Puerto Rico, Civilization and many of the Uwe Rosenberg games; and RPGs like Amber.

    For roll-only, you have “games” like Candyland, War, Chutes & Ladders… and maybe single-player D&D (which, at least once upon a time, was a real thing).

    The best advice I received in game design came from a computer game developer’s conference: You want players to be constantly making small but important decisions. If the decisions aren’t important, then cut them out.

    I think the same thing applies to “rolls” as to decisions.

    In the one RPG system I actually did work on, I argued hard to add a rule that, if a player had the skill to ever succeed and had no time pressure, they should automatically succeed at a level equal to the maximum possible roll. Rolls were for being under pressure or actively opposed, where mistakes mattered.

    But I really like the idea of a system where you instead roll to determine how much you can accomplish, and then its up to you to decide what gets done. And I also really like the idea of a GM asking the player to accept a significant setback in exchange for a future success.

    1. David, when you say I was “a bit off,” you’re implying that I actually meant “there are no games except for these two types.” Think for a moment about whether I might have actually meant that.

      The context was the use of randomness in strategy games, and one of the many ways you can divide those specific games is between mechanics where you roll before the decision, and those where you roll after.

      I am fully and completely aware that there are no dice in chess.

      Thanks for your perspective,

      James Ernest

      1. No insult intended. Context isn’t always obvious second hand and thinking about the universe of possibilities it makes sense to explore options.

        Personally, I am fascinated by games with little to no direct luck but which take on the appearance of randomness or at least unpredictability through complex interactions.

        Sorry if I offended you.

  • We’ve been working on a game with a similar premise. Failure is a choice of the player, and the rolls dictated how amazingly successful you get. So far, in playtesting, we weren’t too happy with how it felt like there was no risk. There was drama, yes, but a huge lack of risk.

    We’re not sure what direction to take to change that. Or if we should try to redefine what counts as risk in the game.

  • Somebody’s gonna hurt someone
    Before the night is thru.
    Somebody’s gonna come undone.
    There’s nothing they can do.
    Everybody wants to beat somebody
    If it takes all night.
    Everybody wants to take a little chance,
    Make it come out right.
    There’s gonna be a die roll tonite,
    Die roll tonite I know.
    There’s gonna be a die roll tonite
    Die roll tonite, I know.
    John, I know.
    There’s gonna be a failure tonite,
    Dice just ain’t right,
    Turn out the light,
    We’ll be alright.
    There’s gonna be a die roll tonite
    Die roll tonite.
    I know.
    –Ken St. Andre

  • John, I’m not sure if you noticed this, back in the day (on The Forge), but this is how Scattershot worked. If it was on your character sheet, you just did it. If you needed experience dice, you imperiled yourself and rolled for it. Theatrics got them for you too. As the Forge closed I was working on a system for you to invite others to offer challenges. Since then I’ve added a gamemaster character sheet, to blunt the effects you’ve described. Contact me for details.

  • This is one of those things where the Amber GMs in the audience are just nodding and saying “Duh”. Being diceless doesn’t kill the drama, it brings it front and center. And frankly, I gave up doing significant planning for games about 17 years ago, because the players always surprise me, and usually find a better story than I would ever have dreamed of ahead of time.

  • I am not sure what the point of all this is. I think most of it is saying you don’t like using dice anymore because it is a false story element or mechanic. If you are using either Play Dirty books it certainly is.

    One thing you said though I got from Play Dirty that I think you should think about. You once let your players create the NPC’s and the City. I have used that Idea and Mechanic and think it is brilliant and usually it comes back to bite them or reward them. It always makes for great story as I have the same person play the NPC most of the time.

    I am looking forward to the game you come up with John. Your designs are the ones that seem to interest “ME” and my group the most.

  • I also hate whiffs. I’ve addressed it a number of ways in various designs, including
    1) You tell me what you want to do, I’ll tell you what it will cost, you decide if it’s worth it.
    2) A modification on the “AW” scale where total failure is only on a 1, and everything else is “you succeed at cost” up through “overwhelming success”.
    3) A Risk vs. Caution mechanic where you can choose how many dice from your pool just default to half, and how many to roll (meaning if your average result beats the target, you don’t even have to roll, you just succeed).
    4) Health tracks where you get more bonuses the lower your health is, because of course you get more awesome the more beat up you are.
    5) Hero Points that are just automatic crits, because bennies that might not work are bullshit.
    6) Variants on the “Otherkind” stakes setting mechanics where the player gets to decide how to assign their successes and failures.

    and probably a few more I’m forgetting.
    Whiffing is bullshit. I’m perfectly happy to make my character fail at interesting and dramatically appropriate times, if I want to randomly suck at thing

  • Hm, cut me off. As I was saying, if I wanted to randomly suck at things, I don’t need games for that.

  • I can think of only one time in which the ‘Whiff Factor’ actually, on some level, enhanced a game I’ve played.

    The concept was that we were all students in an alchemy school, when a magical phenomena ripped through the world destroying every common magical convenience and creature comfort, and killing every full fledged magician.

    Basically a; what if the Harry Potter gang had to figure out magic and survival on their own, rebuilding in the wake of all the adults vanishing forever. Standard sort of young adult, inspiring coming of age set up.

    But the Gm insisted that everything in the area be determined by random encounter tables. Crit worst possible after crit worst possible.

    It soon became apparent that we weren’t pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in a world that had just been reset. This was the end of days. Every terrible thing that had ever been magically sealed away was loose all at once, and all the epic heroes, and all the creatures of light and gods of good were absent or dead.

    Enemy armies marched on our starving university town survivors, slowed only by the slavering abominations in the woods that kept us from being able to flee.

    None of this was anyone’s plan. The GM was just as surprised at the game we ended up playing. For better or worse, we unceremoniously and informally moved on to another game after my character (the doctor and stoic moral core of the party) starting making sanity checks to avoid killing himself as it become more and more impossible to save anyone.

    1. Completely random games like that do have a certain charm to them, but, for my money, only if everyone starts out on the same page about it.

  • Great article, John. Go and do that game. And maybe put it on Kickstarter where I can support it, please. „smile“-Emoticon

    Anyway, I’d like to point out some other effects of dice rolling. It provides opportunities to raise or lower the chances. So the archer character is trying to solve her problems with archery, and appreciates other specialists like the diplomat when archery there’s no chance for an archery solution.
    It also helps getting the players to recognize their characters situation. Like GM: “You are hurt” or “You are intimidated”
    Player: “And?”
    GM: “That gives you 50% less chance to succeed”
    Player: “Oh, in that case …” => action
    Also chance might help to make moral decisions mkore dramatic. In example, avoid trampling that farmers acre with a 20% penatly to catch your villain now or don’t, and then roll. And your character will never ever get to know if you would have succeeded without the moral decision or just still failed with.
    Also, with a chance characters can be just good at something, succeeding sometimes and failing other times.

    Back to the idea to not use dice, how about if a success would cost points, the less able the character is, the more difficult the challenge, and the higher the stake, the more it’ll cost. And you’ll never have enough points to always succeed. In fact, you’ll never have points unless you decide to fail in your plans and action where you are totally competent, the challange is easy and the stakes are high. Maybe because you just botched (on players decision) or because you were arrogant, or whatever narrative problem you had, like an enemy having successfully schemed against you. And isn’t that where all drama starts? After that blow in your crotch, get back up and use your competence and points to solve the drama. By second thought, you also earn points by making the other players look awesome, providing them chances to shine, challenging their beliefs etc. etc.

  • I’d say “Yes!” to everything, if and only if I’d agree with this:

    <>

    But, you see, I don’t think RPGs are supposed to emulate Literature. RPGs SUCK at that, and they suck SO MUCH, especially when you follow every rule written in the book.

    But I’ve found out, RPGs (traditional ones, at least) are supposed to let you have a great time while doing two things:

    1) Playing a game…
    2) …by taking decisions for a fictional character if you’re a regular player, or by taking decisions about (almost) everything that isn’t part of the other player’s characters.

    It’s primarily about taking decisions. But, you see, decisiones by themselves aren’t anything. They only matter if we consider the consequences they trigger.

    ***Decisions are just AS important AS the consequences they trigger.***

    The great thing that differentiates RPGs from almost every other kind of game? That it is a human being, probably a friend of yours, the one who dictates those consequences. So, those consequences are ADAPTABLE to the fictional and social situation at hand. The social thing, all games can claim; the fictional thing, only tabletop, live action, play by post and those kinds of RPGs (and Sleep is Dead, an excellent videogame) can.

    As I found out, this perspective lets me enjoy a LOT more of RPGs than the literature-emulating one. Even when my character randomly fails some roll (and, with this perspective, the GM’s job is not “the caretaker of drama”; it is “engage the sense of drama/whatever the group has, and responding to that sense with my own, using the privileges I have over everything that isn’t part of the other player’s characters”, so rolls really ARE important).

    1. Oh my, someone’s chugged the Traditional RPG Kool Aid, haven’t they?

      Traditional RPGs are all based on the War Game Model. So yes, they are going to suck when you attempt to use them to simulate any sort of story. They are meant to simulate combat, and that is all they are good for.

      John has outlined some of the principles needed to create an actual Roleplaying Game, with an emphasis on story creation and drama instead of killing things.

      1. Yeah, so you’re a condescending ignorant, boo, boo.

        There are a LOT of Roleplaying Games that are designed to build an interesting story, but that won’t be like literature’s stories. RPGs are a unique medium, so they will produce their own kind of narrative, just like any other medium.

        And, obviously, you’re not familiar with any game that got some influence from norse jeepform, nor with games that got influence from The Forge, nor with any game that isn’t directly inspired by D&D. Also, you don’t accept that D&D itself is an “actual” RPG, so you’re just buying that “combat is the only thing D&D does well”, when the combat rules typical of that game are based in the most awful alternative possible to wargames. Have you ever read the D&D edition published in the ’74? I’m pretty sure you didn’t. Then you will be shocked to know that every edition of D&D pre-2000 wasn’t about killing things, but about to get richer and surviving the death promise a dungeon signified. And, my friend, an ACTUAL story WAS indeed generated from playing the Moldvay edition of that game AS WRITTEN (BTW, it is one of the best examples to follow if you want to write rules for a roleplaying game: the gameplay structure is so clearly explained it’s almost a masterpiece of RPG design). It was always a story about surviving, about risking everything in order to get richer and more experienced, about preparing for random events, monsters and traps, about to explore the history behind that seeming randomness, about getting more and more powerful and dealing (in the higher levels) with the REAL S*** and Powers That Be in the game world, and the story was about that because the GAME was about that. It was NEVER a game ABOUT generating stories, but it generated them nonetheless, and it did that in any edition (although none was as well designed and presented as Moldvay’s red box, and not all editions were about the same things).

        That may not sound a lot for you, but, well, that doesn’t mean the game isn’t a RPG. It means it is not a RPG you would ever like to play. Don’t be a d*** about it, dude.

  • The thing between quotes should’ve been:

    No, in literature—something we’re supposed to be emulating with these games, remember?—our heroes fail for a reason. And usually, that reason pays off later in the story.

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  • A side note, really, but I want to throw this in: Dice, and RPG systems in general, are more necessary the less able the GM is. The converse is also true.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that some players just love the numbers, and the dice, and piling up victories and treasures. For them story is just something that slows down the action. Those folks tend to end up playing electronic RPGs.

    For the story-loving players and GMs, the dice sometimes can help generate plot, and interesting choices, and drama, when the GM doesn’t have a strong direction in mind. Or it can just hijack things into a different track. The random element can keep things more interesting… it can get annoying if the GM just has a particular plot to follow regardless of what the players do.

    Hey, if there’s a particular story you want to tell, write a novel. RPGs for me are about collective story-telling… and sometimes taking random turns can be fun. (Other times you have to work around the bad die rolls…)

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  • I see a weak point here: What can game mechanics be if there is no place for character’s “cans” and “can’ts”? If character can do anything he needs, then there is no need in stats, (dis)advantages and so on. What will Indiana use HP he received for? Such way of playing is also fine, but it does not need a game system at all.

  • There are some degree of social contract in RPGs. While the idea of “not my fault the dice decreed it” is accurate, but it’s also important mechanic that keeps group cohesion to an extent. The dice give a sense of fairness to the table that some groups need. My group and I are good friends at and away from the table, and this is an important part of the play process.

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