Earlier this week, we did a little review of a game called Phoenix: Dawn Command, the brand new RPG from Keith Baker, the designer of Eberron. The game is notable for a number of reasons, but one is how it uses cards instead of dice. A diceless RPG? Madness! Phoenix: is actually not the first diceless RPG, nor is it the first to use cards. There have been more than a few games with innovative mechanics to keep the game moving.
DRAGONLANCE: FIFTH AGE
Probably the closest equivalent to Phoenix was Dragonlance: Fifth Age, a card-based game set in the Dungeons & Dragons world of Dragonlance. This was a lot like D&D with a character sheet and much of the same mechanics, but in this game, cards were played from your hand and added to a base stat. If the card’s suit was the one tied to that type of action (i.e. swords for strength) then you could also add a card from the top of the deck. As you took damage, you would discard cards from your hand. As your leveled up, your hand size increased.
I actually played a whole campaign in the 90’s and remember its spellcasting system being a little freeform. It was really fun and it felt like a slightly more storytelling heavy alternative to traditional D&D. Sadly it never took off. The game would probably have done a lot better if it hadn’t come out just a short time before D&D 3rd Edition premiered.
The same SAGA system using “fate cards” was later used for a Marvel Heroes RPG but that also died. Shame.
You’ll be familiar with this game from an episode of TableTop. This game replaces dice with a Jenga-like block tower. You don’t have to take my word for it. Watch now:
Cards, blocks, how about dominoes? Macabre Tales is a streamlined game set in HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos universe. Whereas players might ordinarily roll dice, they instead use 1 of 3 domino tiles they have in their hand. The skill level in that ability determines if they use the lowest number on the tile, the highest, or both. Otherwise this played like a more story focused–and oddly less failure prone–version of Call of Cthulhu.
Speaking of dominoes, you can actually use two sets of dominoes and a bag to represent the same effects as rolling two six-sided dice. Take one set of dominoes and add duplicates of any tile that isn’t a double. Use one copy of 2:2 and two copies of 2:3 (because you could roll a 2 and a 3 or a 3 and a 2 on two dice). This image of the probabilities for die rollings also serves as a guide for what tiles you need:
If you want to add another level to the rolling mechanic, don’t put tiles back into the bag until you’ve drawn them all. Then you will only ever get one roll once and if you’ve already rolled/drawn a lot of the high numbers you won’t see them come up again. It actually forces the dice/tiles to roll exactly what the probability suggests.
This is a good trick for games where you commonly roll 2D6 like Dungeon World, or for board games like Settlers of Catan where some added clarity on probability can really change how people play the game. Thanks to Glen Whitman for that tip!
AMBER DICELESS RPG
This game, set in the world of the Chronicles of Amber novels, has exactly NO dice. No dice means no coins (2-sided dice) and no cards (52-sided dice), or really anything else. Instead the game simply assumed the characters could work out how events played out based on the states of each character and the dungeon master’s good sense. The game was also unique in that it had an attribute auction system in character creation. Basically you bid against your other players for higher stats.
While Amber is probably the most traditional RPG of the diceless options, there are countless games that simply remove randomizers altogether. Most of these games are more in the vein of collaborative storytelling than GM and player style RPGs, but they get the job done. Essentially any game can be diceless if you let the story drive the action.
There are a bunch of other games with unique systems to replace dice. Here’s one I’ve never even seen but found online and color me intrigued. I’ll admit it’s hard to hear about any system that might work even in the slightest and not want to try it out.
Darksword was a game published in a mass market paperback format. I’m sure a lot of these were shelved in the Fantasy section of bookstores then with the other RPGs. You can use a D10 to play this game, or you can play a fingers game with the DM. Think rock paper scissors but instead you choose a hand sign representing a number between 1 and 10. Then you total your number with the DM’s number. If you collectively go over 10 you roll back around so an 11 is 1 and a 15 is a 5. That becomes your “roll.”
I found an image of the hand signals page of the book on the blog: The Staging Point.
There are so many others, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The diceberg? (Boo!) Some games are trying to make their mark on the world by being different. Other games use alternatives to dice as a way to create a specific styles of play. There are actually a lot of diceless RPGs that tried to cater to players in countries where dice were much less common. Sometimes a deck of playing cards was easier to find.
What’s your favorite diceless RPG? Do you find dice add or subtract to your storytelling experience? Or try and invent a new innovative way to comment? Maybe dice?
Image credits: TSR Hobbies, Spectrum Games, Dice-Play.com, Phage Press, Spectra Books, The Staging Point