Monday, November 28, 2022

Yes, You Can Resolve Action Without Dice and Do It for Years

A few days ago on the OSR subreddit, a user asked "Why Play B/X?" in the context of many modern games like Into the Odd, Knave, and Mork Borg being excellent at what they do. I had no skin in the game as I have a high regard for B/X and Old School Essentials (though I don't run them), but I got involved in the conversation when the predictable "Sure but you can't sustain an actual campaign" criticism was leveled against the so-called ultralight games currently vogue in the scene. 

It continues to blow my mind how often I hear this about rules-light games.

The specific discussion began like this:
  • User 1: "OSE feels like it has more depth and is more suited for campaign play whereas stuff like Mörk Borg seems to struggle with anything that goes beyond one- or few-shots."
  • User 2: "I ran Mork Borg for three months."
  • User 3: "But can you run Mork Borg for 6 years, like our longest AD&D campaign?"
  • Me: "I've been running a diceless campaign for five."
I was met with skepticism:
  • User 4: "Rolling dice is one of the best parts of role playing though!" 
  • Me: "I don’t disagree, but you don’t need them (or much infrastructure at all) to facilitate engaging, meaningful, and long-term play." 
  • User 4: "How do you handle the aspect of randomness/chaos that dice offer? Or how do you facilitate as being impartial when things happen if you don’t use dice? Also how do players hit or not hit then?"
In response, I realize I wrote effectively a blogpost to cover these questions, so I figured, why not just memorialize the conversation as a blogpost? So here we are. Consider this a sequel to How I Run and Play an Ultralight Game.


A preface comment to your individual questions: My assumption is that when I sit down with interested players to play anything, be it a one-shot or a long form campaign, we agree on some basics together…
  1. We trust each other to act in good faith at all times.
  2. We rely on common sense for all options, actions, and outcomes.
  3. We look to the game world first for reasonable logic regarding plausibility of the above, and default to the referee second.
How do you handle the aspect of randomness/chaos that dice offer?

We tend to underestimate that players are very chaotic and input a ton of randomness into the game. I don’t know what they’re going to do until they do it. I might expect them to charge the goatman who is challenging them with his heavy armor and glaive. Then it turns out that one player bluffs an attack and the other runs from the side and bowls the goatman over, knocking him prone, disarming him, and attacking his weakness.

If I reasonably plan the tactics of the goatman expecting the first, then the second occurs, that’s input randomness that informs new output randomness. The thing is, it is simply described by impact of narrative, not numbers.

How do you facilitate as being impartial when things happen if you don’t use dice?

Per my preface points, the impartiality of myself and my players is rooted first in what makes common sense in the immediate context at hand, and second in our own judgments. If we establish, say, that player characters are of average human strength and ability, then it doesn’t take much consideration to judge if one player can knock over a surprised goatman who is described as just a foot taller or so than the attacker. The judgment changes accordingly if the goatman is replaced by a beholder or a fire giant. We look to the context and game world for obvious answers, and if that’s unclear, we extrapolate based on what makes sense.

If I can’t decide or my decision seems unreasonable, we talk about it as a table. More often than not, though, the judgment call is clear and not much adjudication is necessary. The longer the table plays together this way, the easier and faster these scenarios are resolved on the regular.

How do players hit or not hit then?

Again, context is king. If you’re a savvy and capable warrior or a cunning rogue, we should not doubt that you can connect your weapon or scheme with your target. If it makes sense, let it happen. If the enemy you’re facing is a fire giant, how do you expect to get close to it without getting burned where you stand? And if that fire giant, a literal titan of martial power, rushes at you for the attack, why should we expect you to survive getting hit by her massive sword? You don’t, you’re dead.

In this framing, every situation is grounded in lateral thinking, leveraging the environment, and coordinating resources, because creativity, leverage, and tools are tied directly to the internally-consistent fiction of the game world. Diceless gameplay or anything close to it is inherently not a numbers game. You can still have all manner of weapons, items, magic spells, and the like, but they are rooted in descriptive terms and common sense applications rather than radii and armor class and damage size.

I was having a conversation about this a few weeks back with a peer who I respect but who asserts that this way of running a game is impossible. For him, it boils down to his refusal to see my making a reasonable ruling as the foundational resolution mechanic as anything other than random, capricious nonsense that punishes players and plays “gotcha!” at all times.

In this view, the game is reduced to a tedious “guess what the referee is thinking” exercise in order to get a “yes” answer to a question or action. That is to imply, “GM fiat is arbitrary and cruel and is never fair.” To which I would say if you, as a referee, establish 18 as your target number for a test and the player rolls a 12, they fail. This is somehow more fair than my establishing a fictional “18” target and my player provides a “12” effort to describe and justify their action, and then I say “that doesn’t work.” In the first example, the player doesn’t interact with the game. Instead, they roll a die and interact with a number, even though the referee in that situation is just as arbitrary by saying an 18 is required as I would be in giving a clear threshold which is grounded in the game context we’re all looking at as a table.

In the same manner, I’d appeal back to the same social contract I laid out at the beginning of this post. It is not “me versus the players.” That is a recipe for RPG horror story “GM fiat” for sure. But that’s not what we’re doing. I trust the players to act in good faith according to the same game world logic which they trust me to repeatedly uphold as we converse back and forth about what is happening at any given time. They are being clever and consistent and interactive and if they pursue an avenue I will diligently show them the reasonable outcome of their pursuit. If this doesn’t seem to be working well, let’s talk about it, not chock it up to bad faith or false motives or adversarial GMs who are drunk with power. If the latter scenarios keep happening, we need to part ways, not add a bunch of rules and mechanisms which do not address the person problem which sits at the center of ongoing table strife.

As for rolling dice, I do it a ton at the table for morale or reaction rolls if I’m uncertain on responses, or random tables for generating content, or procedures for exploration turns and resource management. I also offer these rolls to the players so we all get to roll fun clackity clacks together. The bottom line is not that rules, rulings, dice, or randomness are bad or dumb, but that they exist in service to play, not the other way around, and are not necessary for building up a safety infrastructure to protect players from antagonistic referees.
The same user replied with a lot of excellent follow-up questions! There was also a bit of criticism regarding what it means to be truly diceless, and that I was being a bit cheeky or duplicitous in what I described. All said, the clarification was helpful, I think (hope!). The user's quoted bits from their response to what I wrote above are indented further below.
User 4: I would think subconsciously some part of you would get in the way and you "thinking" that you are impartial could never truly be without a fault impartial.
Absolutely! If you manage to achieve impartiality in an RPG setting which is perfectly impartial (literally no mote of personal preference or influence on a ruling), I think you will break new ground which has never been experienced before by anyone playing a roleplaying game in any format.

We're actual people sitting at the table bringing with us our pop culture tropes, worldviews, convictions, preferences, expectations, senses of humor, and ability to solve problems. Nothing is impartial-in-a-vacuum when running or playing a roleplaying game. When I speak to impartiality above (in answer to your question), my point is that the agreed-upon game world, framed by our agreed-upon social contract to act in good faith according to the context, and reinforced by our agreed-upon aim to trust each other's fidelity and integrity with what a person can do, what a class is, what the world looks like, what is plausible in the moment etc... these are the guidelines which promote honest play.
User 4: Do you feel like there are many hang ups? Or because your table respects you as arbiter, they don't pop up too often then?
There will always be hangups. We're human. We're frail and prone to inconsistency. To your second question here, however, I certainly find that if the table respects me as arbiter (and I respect them as agents!) then there are few issues in the course of play. I have been running this style of game for six years now, and if an introductory session or two are afforded with patience and trust to "see how this works" in action, it ends up paying out dividends over and over again. This is also why new players or kids are especially well suited for this style of play. They have no preconceptions that need to be challenged to adopt a freeform, common sense approach to the game.
User 4: And wouldn't dice almost create the safety of thought between players thinking of adversarial DM and non adversarial?
I'd also point out that there are a lot of hang-ups with games reliant on dice resolution. Appeals to a rulebook, appeals to un-called-for rolls, appeals to unfairly difficult target numbers or unreasonable barriers to information or outcomes... I've seen plenty of those, too. As I mentioned before, if you're relying on dice and rules to protect you from bad experiences, you're ceding ground to allowing difficult or antagonistic people to play with you in the first place and hoping enough glue will keep the ship from falling apart. Problem players and adversarial GMs cannot be solved with dice and rules.
User 4: ...reading the last paragraph where you say you do a ton of dice rolling does make me think that then your "diceless game" is not truly, absolutely "diceless" and that while I appreciate all you said and sounds like you create a cool, free-flowing immersive environment--one can not truly ever escape the great freedom that comes from rolling dice or the creative abilities they possess in their rolls--whether it is inspiration from an encounter for yourself from a random table... and that of a players' roll... for one roll could change so much and decide something-while seemingly inconsequential.
We've been talking about resolution ("how can an ultralight game support long-form play?" in the context of AD&D or B/X versus Mork Borg, Into the Odd, or diceless FKR stuff), which is why I've been talking about diceless resolution as distinguished differently than dice-forward resolution.

You can certainly run a game with truly no dice (no random generation or results for anything other than personal declaration). I've done that many times, too. It's not difficult. Pull from books you've read, stories you've heard, movies you've watched, conversations you've had. I commonly run games for my friends and family when we're driving around doing errands or going somewhere. No dice at hand and nowhere to roll them, even if we had them. It's a conversation, which is the inherent skeleton beneath any roleplaying game.

I do agree with you that there is no "escape" from randomness in inspiration. As I noted before, people are inherently random. You and I cannot predict what a player will do 100% of the time, nor will you and I, when running a game, reliably control everything that comes to mind if we're pulling from our experiences for insight in the given context of the game at hand.

So it was admittedly long-winded on my part, but I wanted to be thorough, especially on Reddit where the best anyone gets is usually a pithy sentence or two. The user's responses were thoughtful and probing. I hope they were sincerely interested and not just yanking my chain. Anyway, for posterity in the diceless or close-to-it vein of play, I hope this overall blogpost serves some use over the years. 


  1. An amusing (and accurate!) comment from Dysjunct for this post mirrored over on

    A fun false dilemma that always pops up.


    (a) games must have rigorously defined states, such that a repetition of the same state must always result in the same outcome. If your activity lacks this, it is not a game.


    (b) without appeals to dice or a rules text, an attempt to sneak into a castle is equally likely to result in success, or the castle exploding in a riot of flowers and all PCs turning into dinosaurs. Because any subjectivity is equivalent to just complete randomness with no internal coherence or logic.

  2. I found something with much LESS dice tossing (still is some) - just FATE dice and a basic chart. I've used it for wargaming, though not yet roleplaying. It has useful degrees of success and failure.

  3. The arguments against freeform play or light games or FKR or anything "that is not music" are usually shallow. Some questions I find more important are left aside, like: randomness is used to disclaim responsibility specially for inflicting something unpleasant. It's for a GM what the character is to *other* players: an alibi. Also, deresponsabilisation is a bliss when you are prone to analysis paralysis. Throwing dice literally says: "it's not in my hands".
    In a nutshell, let's enjoy our games anyway we like, and when we discuss, try to build a common understanding rather than cement walls of arguments.

  4. The way I see it, if a novelist can write an 800 page novel without rolling a single die, then surely a group of collaborative story tellers can play a long term campaign without dice?

    If you're more focused on storytelling than a numbers game, it seems incredibly obvious that you can make as long or elaborate a campaign as you like, playing diceless. It just prioritises different things.