Diceless Warfare

Lest we forget, fiction is diceless.

Books, movies, radio dramas. They tell stories of problems that have the Upper Hand (which we talked about last time). The protagonists must then find solutions that give them the Upper Hand:

  • 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. They find the Death Star plans to exploit its weakness.
  • Katniss Everdeen is the girl on fire versus the government that could burn her and everything she loves. She leverages propaganda to start a revolution to topple said government.
  • Paul Atreides is exiled by the treacherous Harkonnen. He uses desert warriors, the power of belief, and DRUGS to win back his place in Arrakis.

But after talking about violence on a small scale and resolution in general, let’s get to warfare. And let’s use one of the best examples in storytelling: Lord of the Rings.

(Apologies to apologists of the books. I’m using the movies as the nerd culture touchstone here. I know, Dad.)

What’s cool about the battles in the Lord of the Rings, apart from the obvious, is that the big, dynamic battles use the Upper Hand in the form of new elements, usually army entrances. Here’s an example:

Helm’s Deep

Men of Rohan (Theoden, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli) in Helm’s DeepUruk-hai (massive army)
Elves from Lorien arrive, bringing hope to the good guys. Maybe they have a shot after all.
Uh nope. Siege weapons come into play. Ladders, giant crossbows, and explosives allow the Uruk-hai to get past the walls and kill tons of people.
Gandalf, Eomer, and the Rohirrim arrive, blinding the Uruk-hai and chasing them all the way to Fangorn Forest. The orcs are destroyed.

A big battle in a few phases, each phase punctuated by the introduction of a new element that turns the tide. Each new army or weapon shifts the Upper Hand from one to the next. And it’s dramatic!

Made concrete, the process of warfare almost like two people stacking their hands one by one in the middle of the table: whoever is on top wins.

We have a winner!

Let’s break down the Battle of Pelennor Fields:

Battle of Pelennor Fields

Men of Gondor in Minas TirithOrcs and Nazgul and Siege Weapons
Theoden leads the Riders of Rohan. “Death!”
Mumakil and Haradrim arrive and lay waste to the Riders.
Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the Army of Dead arrive (instead of the Corsairs of Umbar)

This also clearly highlights that if Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli HADN’T defeated the Corsairs of Umbar and shown up with their army that the good guys would have certainly lost. Imagine if Tolkien had been using dice here. There still would’ve been a chance for the good guys (albeit a low one), but it would’ve been sheer, dumb luck that saved them, not skill or ingenuity. This idea of Upper Hand feels a lot more certain than dice, where the results are tied to ACTIONS not randomness.

This style of warfare revolution fits into the theme of “we all need to come together to fight evil” so well. Think of how many times did factions needed to be convinced to join a fight only be the very ones to turn the tide of battle. Beautiful.

It also does dramatic timing so well. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when Gandalf and Eomer show up to save the day? Or when Theoden charges to save Gondor?

These examples above also highlight why other battles in LotR aren’t as memorable. For example:

Ambush of the Wargs (the fight on the way to Helm’s Deep)

Riders of RohanWarg Riders
…and nothing else.

This battle basically comes down to “they fight.”


A good, dynamic fight has that “back and forth” “tug of war” piece to it.

Because these battles are fiction, they’re diceless. But they still have a way to resolve the battles in ways that feel grounded, certain, and believable. Lord of the Rings use the Upper Hand, and they use it quite well.

Look for the Upper Hand. Then pose it as a problem to the players.

“If you don’t do something about the bad guys that have the Upper Hand, then XYZ will happen…”

Time to call in the Eagles.

7 thoughts on “Diceless Warfare

  1. Recently I played as GM a diceless war between the PC’s army and the villain’s one. I used dices just for smaller combats (we use the d20 system), but the large scale battle was solved using only the story telling.
    It was a wonderful experience, the diceless RPG systems gave me a lot of really good insights!

  2. Really cool stuff, I love any idea for simplifying mass combat. Is there a way for game rules to still step in and adjudicate difficulty for the bad guys? i.e. some scaling factor unique to an enemy force that determines how many times the bad guys get to put their hand back on top?

    Maybe trying to game-ify this system further undermines its strengths 😛

    1. Size of the force, general skill of the soldiers, morale? You could probably think of many factors. If it’s more granular, you make unit type matter (archers, infantry, cavalry).

      But yes, too much gamification ruins it precious. hisses

  3. Excellent insights as usual.
    Although, to be fair, the brief skirmish on the way to Helm’s Deep hardly can be considered as a climactic/decisive scene for the article purposes. I think its sole narrative purpose was to give a clear sign of the menace Rohan was facing — and maybe to create some tension from Aragorn’s apparent demise.

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