Why Roll? Tension & Chance

William T. Thrasher

In yesterday's installment of Why Roll we discussed why we use dice in most role-playing games. But what of role-playing games that do not use dice? There are several, going all the way back to the granddaddy of them all, 1991's Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. Modern games have also been known to incorporate diceless options into their systems, such as Eden Studio's Unisystem, and Exile Studio's Hollow Earth Expedition. But when we move away from dice, what do we move towards?

In most diceless role-playing systems hard numbers become more important. A character with a higher strength stat will always win in a contest of strength over a character with a lower strength stat. When chance is removed the mechanics support a game of numerical comparisons rather than a game of measured probability. This has its advantages. In a diceless system such as this players never have to feel the frustration of their high-aptitude characters defeated by low aptitude schmucks because of blind luck. In this sense a diceless system could be seen as being more realistic. The fitter characters triumph over the unfit. The disadvantage of such systems is that much of the tension is removed. There is no moment of sweet anticipation as we roll the dice, knowing that no matter how powerful our character may be, it may still fail. In such a diceless system success or failure can be known long before any contest, barring any unknown factors or nasty tricks the GM may be holding in reserve, or some sort of randomizing element such as tokens the players or GM may spend to alter the outcome of conflict. There are other options.

Rather than remove the dice and leave it at that, one can replace the dice with something else, such as cards. The Unisystem, in addition to supporting diceless play, also supports card based play, as did the now defunct Tri-Stat dX system. And then there are purely card based systems, such as SAGA, the engine that powered Dragonlance: The Fifth Age and the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game. I find such card based systems to be a perfect compromise between dice based and diceless role-playing systems. More than that, these carb based systems are in many ways more suited to heroic fantasy and pulp adventure. When dice rolling or number comparison is removed and replaced with the playing of cards from a hand, the player has greater control over their character's success or failure in any endeavor. This level of control in the players hands introduces a new kind of tension. When the player can make an active choice regarding the victories and failures of their character, then those victories and failures take on a new kind of importance. Do I play for success now and risk defeat later, or do I accepts a series of failures now, holding my best cards in reserve to ensure victory at the adventure's climax? A player must ask themselves this question at every encounter. The cardplay also introduces a new level of strategy. It is a rapier, rather than the axe and club that are dice and pure diceless systems.

We have seen the legacy of dice, we have seen the promise of diceless. Where can we go from here? I see a discussion of hybrid systems in our future.