Gayme Corner: A Foray into Diceless Tabletop RPGs

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.

nobilis

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.

montsegur

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.

munchkin

What are your favorite ways to spice up your RPG life?

Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

Robin has written 43 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Who doesn’t enjoy a good game of munchkin? Montsegur 1244 sounds AMAZING. Have you played it a few times? How does it hold up through multiple plays?

    Dice are definitely one of my favorite parts of table top gaming, though; I’ve got a nice little collection–I like to use different colors/sparkliness for different situations. All my battle dice are various reds, to symbolize the blood of my enemies obvi.

    I’ve found some really good one-off campaigns online that only take one or two sessions to play, and I’ve been blessed with creative friends and DMs who love to world build outside of Middle Ages High Fantasy Europe, so maybe I’ve just been lucky. One of my favorite ways to do one offs is simply to play in a little sandbox. Back in college my D&D group had a small but dense island to explore, and it was the perfect universe to roam around in for a couple of hours, with as many or as few people as were around to play!

    I once ran a single session campaign based on dice+booze, where you had to take drinks if your character was hit/rolled badly/etc, and it was preeetty great. Part campaign, part drinking game, part party! Final boss was Kesha, plus her guardians LMFAO and the Party Rock Zombie Army. I AM STILL SO PROUD.

  2. My girlfriend and I have got a really fun gaming group going.
    We haven’t been playing a pure diceless game, but we have been incorporating dice alternatives.

    Our most recent game has been a pulp-horror-action-comedy-time-travel game using mostly Risus (simple free d6 based system), but using a combination of tarot cards and Dread (jenga based system, must draw a certain number of blocks to do an action, Bad Things happen if the tower falls) for certain riskier actions and items.

    Right now we are putting together a Pokemon survival horror game based on Pokethulu (simple free d12 based(what barbarians)) rules with the ‘thulu part removed. My girlfriend and I are doing most of the worldbuilding but we are going to have different players take turns GMing since the story will follow the standard Pokemon show/game formula that all players know. We will almost certainly involve the Dread mechanic.

    I have a game planned after that which will use the same setting and mechanics (a bit more polished) as the first game but focus more on high school related tropes (taking from kids shows, anime etc) and focus a bit more on character interactions rather than pure hack-n-slash (there will still be hack-n-slash, don’t worry any players reading this). Something of a parody of visual novels/dating sims in an eclectic SF/fantasy/horror setting.

  3. My favorite rules-lite system lately has been Fate. Unlike a lot of rules-lite systems, it still has enough system to cover all the little corner cases that crop up in play. The main downside is that it really takes the right sort of player (internally-motivated, narrative-driven,…) in order to work. Granted, that’s the sort of game I’ve always run; but unlike crunchier systems, Fate doesn’t leave much to push players who’re expecting to be spoonfed their quests/plots.

  4. I’m still rather inexperienced with Role Playing, so I still appreciate rule and narrative driven systems like D&D/Pathfinder. I’ll definitely keep these options in mind when I get a better feeling for RP.

  5. One word: FIASCO. (Okay, technically there are dice involved- Only d6’s and definitely not in the usual tabletop way) but you can get a game done in one sitting and it is all collaborative story telling and roleplaying. You make your characters, you pick your playset, roll some dice to determine a couple plot lines and you’re off to the races.

    http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/games/fiasco/

    I don’t really have the stamina for full out campaigns any more so I’m really glad to have found this article!

  6. These aren’t rpgs but I enjoy them in place of rpgs – Thunderstone Advance is a D & D themed deck builder. It plays well as a solo game, too. And for after slayage there’s always Red Dragon Inn. RDI is one of my favorite board games due in part to a slew of female characters.

  7. I feel like A Place To Fuck Each Other needs at least mention here. It’s diceless, though not fantasy/supernatural/sci-fi in any way (though I guess you could make it that way?). It’s billed as being about queer women and construction relationships – your “stats” are your name, your sign, your hairstyle and either a tendancy you have or something you’re coping with. It’s a pretty neat and fun little (free!) game.

    Here’s their website: http://buriedwithoutceremony.com/aplacetofuckeachother/

  8. 1. Thanks for this, I also used to play more extended D&D but now all of us are busier than we used to be and can’t commit 8 hours every other Sunday (I’m still not sure how we ever did).
    2. I know this article is specifically about dice-alternative games but what is the source of the thumbnail image? That d20 is awesome and I want one.

  9. I realize I’m late to this party, but we really enjoy Avalon as a group. We play enough that we usually end up playing in groups of 10 (max party size), with as many special characters as we can logically fit in, so we have no idea who the good guys are versus the bad guys. They end up switching so much that by the end we’re going “wait, what just happened?”. If you’ve never played, it’s essentially the knights of the round table – there’s good guys and bad guys, players take turns choosing who goes on quests, and based on the results you have to figure out who’s good and who’s bad. The good guys want three quests to pass, the bad guys want three quests to fail, and it only takes one bad seed to play a “fail” card and loose a quest for the group. It’s crazy, it’s fun, and I usually hate my friends by the end of the night.

  10. Great article, I didn’t know there was an Adventure Time set for Munchkin!

    I have been using Tarot cards as both a conflict resolution/task system and for adding an extra layer of story to everything. I ended up creating my own game around it, Fortunes Wheel.
    http://www.fortuneswheel.co.uk
    We have a Kickstarter ending Nov 11 2015 but it looks unlikely to be funded alas – on the bright side there is a fully playable (though slightly cut down) step-by-step guide to play on the website for free if anyone wants to try it out…

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