Welcome to the sixth installment of Gayme Corner, a biweekly column in which I talk about games, all types of games, and the ways we play them. This week: an exploration of diceless RPGs.
Tabletop RPGs! The most called-upon gaming trope in cinematic history, complete with a bag of dice and nard-tastical jargon, shown enough to make a young, impressionable me (a kid who co-wrote several hundred pages of highly derivative fantasy fiction, in sparkling gel pens, no less) shy away from D&D and all associated types of gaming well into adulthood. Which is strange, because tabletop RPGs tap into two things that did take up a lot of my adolescence: stat-driven combat & loot browser-based games, and freeform forum-based RPing. But all that was done in secret on the internet, shared in small pieces with a few people IRL. Part of it was situational. I didn’t live in a big city. I didn’t know anyone readily available who wanted to play D&D or the spinoffs that I was interested in. Part of it was just accessibility. I didn’t know enough to look for games that were more portable, made for smaller groups, or set anywhere but in high fantasy. I never found that niche of online RPG players. I wasn’t finding, as my friend put it recently, the conversations that I wanted to have about the games that I wanted to play.
I’m older now, and I know a bit more about making friends and flagging for certain interests. I’ve found a good group of people to build worlds with, but now we have new obstacles. Everyone is busy all the time! We all have different side projects! Who wants to keep track of the materials this week/month/season? Person X isn’t invested anymore! It just so happens that everyone in the group is here but we don’t have any of our notes! And so on. As a result, I’ve been checking out more and more tabletop games that are playable in a single meeting, and also checking out diceless games for flexibility and accessibility.
That isn’t to say that diceless games are all that different from your average RPG. After all, a deck of cards works as randomizer just as well as a set of die. A game like Wizards of the Coast’s Everway requires specialized equipment (its deck of cards), and includes an intricate universe for players to explore. At the same time, using cards offers new ways to determine outcomes, which makes tabletop as a genre more accessible to people who aren’t sold on straight-up number-crunching as a way to resolve conflicts or advance the game. Some people are cards folks and some people are craps folks and some people are both or neither. Everway’s cards are loosely based on tarot cards. Dust Devils uses a traditional deck of cards and deals poker hands to figure out who wins a conflict. Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game is based on resource allocation, which is regenerated depending on the state of your Marvel Universe superhero (you can play as one of the more popular heroes with predefined attributes or one of your creation), as is Nobilis, which focuses less on whether your character succeeds at something and more on the consequences of their success. Nobilis is created by Jenna Katerin Moran, so it’s also full of genre humor and good fun.
Also, not all RPGs have to be high fantasy! The mechanics translate to almost any setting and narrative! Dust Devils was originally conceived for the Old West (which makes the poker part extra-apt), and now has a spy edition, a feudal Japan edition, and noir edition. It’s not all combat and looting, either, which is certainly fun, but gets a little rote and grind-y the more you play. I mostly play these days so I can voice certain characters and free-floating motivations that I’ve been thinking about. Solely story-telling games like Microscope can be a good outlet for that, but sometimes I just want to role-play these ideas around in a set universe.
As it turns out, there’s an indie card-based game for that, too: Montsegur 1244. Montsegur 1244 is an especially weird RPG because it’s based on an actual historical event, in which the Cathars of Montsegur were given the choice of renouncing their faith or burning at the stake. Over 200 of them chose to die for their faith. You play as one of the Cathars. From the start, you know the game will end one of two ways, but the actual play is in exploring why your character ends up making the choice they do. Additionally, certain story cards allow players to take over the narrative from someone, introduce new characters and motives, and resolve or further muddle some character questions. I am friends with history nerds. Montsegur 1244 is perfect for our role-playing, small-world-building needs.
Even when I do just feel like playing a few rounds of turn-based combat & loot these days, I end up with some variation of Munchkin, which is like a condensed, card-based D&D game. You draw your character, which has a specific strength. You draw your bonuses, your equipment, and potentially a class booster. You fight a monster at every turn. You draw cards and build sets that might help you defeat a monster. You can ask for help which may or may not be helpful, depending on what your fellow players’ characters are doing. You win treasures. There are also like 20 expansions and several versions of it, including an Adventure Time edition and a kittens expansion pack, so there’s really something for everyone.
What are your favorite ways to spice up your RPG life?