This section handles ways of resolving conflicts without resorting to the use of dice. There are reasons to do away with dice: some people find dice mechanics too intrusive for play; others may want to get rid of randomness altogether.
However, diceless action resolution is ill-suited to simulation-based gaming, despite the fact that the game can (and should) feel just as real as one with dice. Also, diceless resolution is usually more demanding of the GM than rolling dice to select an outcome. Even more so as there is no hard-and-fast rule for resolving conflicts without dice; instead, some creativity is required of the GM to fill in certain blanks.
The basic idea behind diceless action resolution is simple:
The GM decides upon an appropriate outcome, based on player input and the situation at hand. The details of this, however, can be more complicated.
The idea is to use cause and effect to convey the feeling that whatever happens to the characters is not due to whim, but occurs because of the logic of the situation and the relevant history of everyone involved. It is important that any event (with exceptions, of course) appears to a be a logical effect of the preceding events. There is usually not a single event that is the outcome. The GM has to choose between several possible outcomes which may vary wildly in terms of success and failure.
Consequently, the two most important parts in resolving an action are the reasons for a particular outcome and the consequences of that outcome.
Reasons are numerous. Foremost among reasons for success and/or failure is of course effective skill. However, a game where a sufficiently skilled character always wins and an incompetent character always fails would be quite boring due to its predictability. So we have to diversify these results, but in a way that doesn’t feel artificial.
We do this by accounting for other factors besides effective skill. These factors can involve the environment (slipping in a puddle), equipment (a gun that jams at a critical moment), time constraints (defusing a bomb before it goes off), NPC actions (a character stepping in the way), etc. The idea is not to account for all possible factors, just to find one or two reasons that make the outcome seem logical.
Detailed description is essential to diceless action resolution description not only of the environment, but also of the characters. Noting that a character has a Great fencing skill may often suffice, but it is better to add some details (ideally through a character history).
Describe style, weaknesses, and strengths, even though they may normally not show up on the character sheet.
The same is true for the description of important actions.
Sometimes a character’s perception (or lack thereof) may result in failure to notice why something happened. If, for instance, the floor suddenly gives way beneath him, he may not be certain as to what caused this to happen: Did he step on a trap, or was there an outside agent involved? In this case, the GM will hide some or all of the reasons.
In addition to reasons, we have to consider consequences: What impact does a particular outcome have on the situation as a whole? The more serious the outcome, the more the reasons for it happening need to be convincing.
As an extreme example, death of player characters should only occur with ample forewarning of the risks or with really compelling reasons. Of course, jumping off a skyscraper will most likely render a character dead the instant he hits the ground. This is acceptable, because the players understand the logic of the situation.
But slipping on a wet rock while crossing a stream which can be ascribed to just plain bad luck shouldn’t kill a character outright. While it’s true that slipping on a wet rock probably happens more often than jumping off a building, the GM needs to be careful in deciding the consequences of such an action.
There are many possible results for typical actions. So, lacking clear ideas as to which one is most appropriate maybe even torn between clear success and catastrophic failure how can this selection be narrowed down?
There are a few ways to approach the problem, and it is a good idea to reach an agreement with the group before play commences as to what factors will be used.
The following list is far from complete, but gives some possibilities:
1. Realism: A master archer will hit the target most of the time. But sometimes even he will fail, or even have a streak of bad luck. This is important for maintaining a feeling of realism in the long run. It should also be noted that realism is relative to genre. Chandelier-swinging is likely to succeed in a swashbuckling romp, while it is at best a risky endeavour in a gritty game.
2. Drama: Sometimes certain outcomes are dramatically more appropriate than others. This unfortunately depends to a great degree upon individual gaming style and can only be handled briefly here.
3. Characterization: Sometimes, a character’s success or failure at a particular task can help to reinforce or develop his character story.
4. Theme: By assigning a certain “theme” to each scene in the game as it is encountered, actions can be resolved in a way that emphasizes that theme.
Example: [The theme is “Combat is dangerous”]
GM: “Suddenly, you hear a rustling in the underbrush, and then, out of it, a boar emerges, charging at you.”
Player: “I’m not armed! I’ll jump for the branch of the oak next to me and pull myself up to safety.” [While the avoidance of a fight supports the theme, “Combat is dangerous,” there are other possibilities that emphasize it better.]
GM: “You get hold of the branch, but as you start to pull yourself up, you hear a loud CRACK, and all of a sudden the ground rushes upwards to meet you.” [The situation is now much more dangerous.
However, with a bit of luck and the help of the other characters in the group it is still possible to handle it without killing the PC.]
All of the above factors are meta-game issues. This is intentional. These factors contribute towards an interesting game, and one of the points of role-playing is to have an interesting game. Besides, we are already using the in-game factors as cause and effect to convey a natural flow of events so we have to resort to the meta-level here.
It may look as though there is a lot of arbitrariness on the part of the GM. This is correct to some extent. Some individual decisions will be arbitrary. In the long run it should balance out, especially if the players possess even the slightest creativity.
Note also that the GM should always respect player input. If something is going to fail that should normally work, failure should still reflect player input. (For instance, the example above with the breaking branch, where the character technically succeeds, but the branch does not cooperate).
Balance Of Power
There is no need to encumber the GM with all the decisions.
The easiest way to hand some power back to the players is to give them a (limited) voice in the decision making process. For this purpose we employ Fudge Points.
By spending one Fudge Point, the player (instead of the GM) can decide the outcome of an action his character is involved in, provided the action is possible and not abusive to the game. (Blowing up an entire building with a cup of gunpowder is implausible, and possibly abusive to the plot). If the action is far beyond the normal skill of the character (given the circumstances), the GM may require expenditure of two or three Fudge Points instead.
Notice that using Fudge Points also gives the GM more leeway; she need no longer worry too much whether letting a character fail is too harsh, as it is within the power of the player to help his character if need be.
Diceless combat is action resolution with two added complications: The high risk of character death and a considerable amount of action that needs to be synchronized.
The synchronization part is fairly easy: as in resolution with dice, you can divide the entire combat in rounds of appropriate duration, cycling through all participating characters each round, or use story elements. See Combat Pacing Options.
Character death is trickier because players dislike losing their characters due to bad luck (be it because of an unlucky die roll or GM whim). The key here is to “post warning signs” before dangerous situations occur. These warnings should be subtle, such as the maniacal gleam in the opponent’s eyes just before she launches a wild flurry of attacks. (Hopefully the player will say his character is on the defense, or announce some trick to counter a charge.) A description of the blood dripping from a character’s wrist should warn the player that there may be a slippery puddle on the floor. In other words, prepare reasons for outcomes in advance and most important announce them to the players.
If the players maintain some maneuvering space for their characters after such warnings, that should be sufficient to prevent PC death though not necessarily PC failure.
Character death and any other drastic result is usually due to a series of failures, each pushing the character a step further towards the edge but always with opportunity to find a more favourable course of action in between. Unfortunately, in some situations this entire series of failures takes no longer than a few seconds.
The details of combat interaction are now fairly easy to handle, as they are an extension of normal diceless resolution. However, particular care should be taken to describe actions fully, especially in melee combat. The statement “I attack the pirate” is infinitely less informative than saying, “I assault the pirate with all I have, even if that means taking a blow or two myself. But I have to get out of here, and that means getting by her and at least wounding her so she can’t follow quickly.“
The object is to give the GM enough data to work with, such as, “I’m going to feint towards the left, and if she goes for it, I’ll try to use the opening created to end this business quickly,” or “Now that she’s wounded, I’ll play it safe, trying to wear her down.” Statements like these help the GM decide how combat should be resolved much more than a simple, “I attack her.”
The key here is to be creative. Everything is possible, so everything should be considered, from a simple rugby tackle to complex tactical maneuvering.
Bloodshed is an unfortunate but largely unavoidable side effect of combat. Wounds are also important because they may become major factors in the future course of the combat. Thus, wounds must be described and their effects detailed. For example:
“The ball of fire explodes in the centre of the room. You feel a wave of searing heat washing over you, burning your clothes away and scorching your skin. The heat gradually abates, but you still cannot see anything, as the incredible brightness that hurts your eyes is only slowly receding.“
The player should gather from this that his character is temporarily blinded, in severe pain, needing medical attention, in a state of dishabille, and in grave danger if enemies are approaching. (This is of course appropriate for a high fantasy game. In a more realistic game, the character is probably charred and dead.) Another example, this time a sniper’s bullet hitting the character’s arm:
“Something very hot and painful pierces your left arm. It also jerks you around abruptly, making it hard to maintain balance. Worse, your arm feels totally numb and is probably fairly useless right now. The good news is that they (whoever they are) apparently missed your heart by a few inches.“
And so on. There is no need to be too graphic in describing wounds, though. More important is the description of how the wound affects the character.
Fudge is ideally suited to diceless action resolution since it’s already simple and word-based. This can set the tone for the amount of description necessary for a diceless game to succeed. Once players and GM get used to diceless Fudge, they’ll find themselves describing their characters and actions in ways they never thought of before and the game can be richer and more entertaining for it.