Diceless Violence

Bring a boulder to a fistfight. Shipwright.

I saw hints of this in the Maze Rats campaign I ran, but this is typical of many, nearly all fantasy role-playing games. In that game, the players were often against overwhelming forces, but would continue to run into the fight and make Attack Rolls, with or without advantage. It didn’t matter matter to them how bad their odds were.

When I asked why they did that so often, the common answer I got was “because there was still a chance.” The dice made the option of just running up and hacking away viable, even though it was terribly inefficient and risky.

Just as the players would roll dice and hope for the best, they would hope for the worst whenever I would roll the dice. Lots of them coming from the D&D 5e tradition, they were used to waiting for that critical hit that would alter the tide of battle in their favor. All they had to do was last enough turns. 

Dice can cheapen victories and deliver cheap losses. If you only won by rolling boxcars, that can feel like you did it only by the skin of your teeth, but you had nothing to do with how close it got. If you lost because the enemy got a crit at the right time, that feels terrible for everyone. Everyone has a story like that. 

(Another reason they would charge in all the time was because players felt they could die without any *serious* or long-term consequence. I fixed that, stay tuned for a future post.)

So I have been attempting to reduce the roll of dice in the games I’ve been running, especially during combat.

Any Planet Is Earth (great sci-fi sandbox game) uses hits. Normal people have four hits, adjusted by damage-reducing armor. Weapons have a rating of one to four in terms of lethality, which matches how many hits they deal on a turn. Combat is simultaneous; you deal your hits and the enemy deals theirs. Run out of hits, lose the fight.

Simple enough, right?

There’s a straightforward criticism of this. It’s one I’ve thought to myself and have now seen again recently: Having players be absolutely sure what the results of a fight will be is a problem. If you know how many hits you and the enemy deal to each other and how many hits you (and maybe even the enemy) have, you can figure out the results of a fight. Pretty easily.

Fights lose their chaotic element. There’s no drama, right?

That depends on which way the fight is stacked.

One of the easiest ways to make a situation dramatic in any story, role-playing or otherwise, is to make the protagonists at a disadvantage. Or the antagonists at an advantage.

  • The rebels are a rag-tag bunch of fighters with rusty X-wings against the armada of the Empire, the ruling force in the galaxy.
  • The fellowship of the ring is comprised on nine guys sneaking through the wilderness, avoiding any and all fights with the hordes of Sauron’s orcs whenever possible. 
  • Katniss Everdeen is the girl on fire versus the government that could burn her and everything she loves.

All of these feature a power imbalance. The enemies are stronger, in greaters numbers, or have more resources at their disposal. These heroes CANNOT just engage the enemy head-on, or else they’ll lose. They need to act on those stolen plans, or destroy that magic item, or manipulate the crowd’s favor to topple the government. That’s how they survive. That’s how they win against a stronger foe.

Let’s shrink that down to a skirmish.

In diceless combat, the players always start on the path to losing. When they do the math, they should look at each other and say: “Okay. We can’t just charge in and wish for a good result. Time for a change of plans.” The real source of drama in a diceless fight comes when players must do something clever to “cheat” their way (in the world not the rules) in order to win. 

The players are John McClane, stuck against a greater number of foes. The players are David, fighting a giant that could squish them if they don’t get serious help. The players are Jack Sparrow, dueling a superior swordsman and having to resort to the classic “sand in the eyes.”

Example: One player with four hits left armed with a sword (2 hits) versus a demon with six hits left and armed with a massive club (3 hits). If the player just runs up and does single combat in a vacuum, they lose. The player has to, by some method in the fiction:

  • increase their damage output
  • reduce the amount of damage dealt to them
  • negate the damage dealt to them entirely

Combat has become a puzzle with many solutions, not just a dice-fest.

They could drown the demon, trip them, disarm them, use the environment, attack from above, stun them, set them on fire, put something between them and the demon, attack from a distance, flee the situation altogether, blind them, bind them, poison them via weapon or ingestion, send them down a pit, bring more friends, grapple them, set up a trap, restrict their movement, and finally, send in a wild goose.

So many options of things that could be done in the world of the game. None of them arose from the mechanical option of: “now roll this and hope for high.”

Application homework:

Play Dark Souls. You can’t charge everything you see.

Watch Attack on Titan. A direct assault on the titans is suicide.

Play Into the Breach. You absolutely know how much damage enemies do to you. The problem solving is in your court.

Play on.

11 thoughts on “Diceless Violence

  1. “ Another reason they would charge in all the time was because players felt they could die without any serious or long-term consequence. I fixed that, stay tuned for a future post”

    Which other post continues this thread?

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