Diceless Apocalypse

ScoundrelI have occasionally remarked that Powered by the Apocalypse games work best for me when I view them as diceless games that sometimes go to dice. This is, from a certain perspective, absolutely terrible. It posits a strongly empowered GM as the primary driver of fun with system in a back seat, and that is totally not to everyone’s taste. But it’s my jam.

Ok, so bear that in mind while I add a second data point – one common complaint of PBTA games is that they do not offer a mechanical representation of difficulty. If I’m swordfighting a kobold, I make the exact same roll I do do when I’m swordfighting a dragon, with identical probabilities. Now, the reality is a little more complicated than that, and there’s a strong element of bug or feature, but I think it’s fair that it’s an issue to address.

So put a pin in that and let’s move to the third thing – diceless stats. I’m going to use the Amber DRPG as an example here. For the unfamiliar you had a stat like Warfare, which covered fighting and such. You spent points on it, and that’s how good you were – If you had a 45 warfare, then you were better than a 44 and worse than a 46, and all things being equal[1], that would determine the outcome of a fight. Simple as that.

This worked ok, but there were some further complications – in theory the levels that players bought at established the “tiers” of the game. So, if the highest Warfare in the party was a 50, then that was the Apex of warfare for that generation, and the levels other people bought at represented the tiers below him. In practice, this quickly broke down because new characters came in, NPCs had their own stats and so on.

But I liked the idea of tiers. It matched the source material very nicely. If you’ve read the books, Benedict is the apex warrior and in a tier by himself. The next tier down are the best swordsmen in the family (Corwin, Eric, Maybe Bleys). Next tier down are the competent soldiers (Julian, Caine, Gerard, Deirdre) and the next tier down are the scrappers (pretty much the rest of the family). If people from two different tiers came into conflict, then there’s really no question about how it plays out – higher tier wins without some SERIOUS cheating. But within a tier, things are close and uncertain.

So take all three of those points and I think you may see where I’m going. Start with a tiered diceless model, and use it for everything except conflicts within a given tier. For that, go to the dice, PBTA style.[2] And I note, I’m not really proposing the use of moves, just the three tiered resolution mechanism.

For me, it gets that little bit of randomness into diceless play and also removes the entire question of difficulty from the roll – difficulty is what determines if you even roll at all (which is not hugely removed from PBTA itself, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Anyway, I’m filing this away for when I write my big Lords of Gossamer & Shadow hack. 🙂

  1. Which is why a lot of Amber play revolved around pre-conflict positioning to ensure that all things were as unequal as possible.  ↩
  2. I figure a modifier on the roll based on the situation, probably from –3 to +3. You could build a whole subsystem for this, but for the moment, I apply handwavium.  ↩

5 thoughts on “Diceless Apocalypse

  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Thanks, Rob.

    Further, “Hard Moves” by the GM, which aren’t ever rolled, are completely a diceless mechanic in action.

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  3. Rp Bowman

    The significant point you make here but then move past quickly is “significant cheating.”
    I think it reflects the need for unpredictability in games and the knowledge that player creativity can easily make things unpredictable. But you don’t want people to feel cheated, even if someone is “cheating” (within the rules or without.)
    That’s where you could take a page from the levels of success in PbtA.
    Defeating someone in a lower tier is obviously a full success. Getting it over on someone in higher tier would mostly likely require choosing a half-success (which means you needs some of those lovely bullet-point lists, which I think are rather nice both for setting the tone and giving players a sense of empowerment.)
    But how do you encourage players to want to fail, especially in a high stakes environment like Amber?
    Remember, Corwyn starts out in a mental institution, he makes plenty of blunders along the way including one that costs him an eye… and the loss of that eye leads to more revelations about Amber.
    What rewards can you give someone when they fail in the Amber world that don’t make them want to fail all the time, but at least initially?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      That is the killer question for almost every reward system. 🙂 The practical answer (“Keep escalating until the choice is hard”) is a little tricky to systemize usefully. PBTA is absolutely a good tool in this space, but if anything it’s too primitive. It’s a fantastic move away from binary success/failure, but consider that Amber really viewed things through the lens of a half dozen levels of outcome or more.


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