If You Want to Understand an RPG System, Remove the Dice

Reading over systems with all of those 'Add this, roll that' can give someone the appearance of a massive, complicated RPG engine, churning out all sorts of details and replicating various interesting minutiae of the gaming world. But sometimes what's really happening in all those tumbling pieces of plastic, and once the plastic's taken away, you get to see what's underneath. You get to see what really matters in the system - the options and the results. Meaningful options, ones which allow you to push the result one way or the other, are the totality of the game's engagement - the whole of what makes the game a game.

When we frame things in these terms, it's surprising how close World of Darkness can seem to D&D.

AD&D Diceless

Starting with my childhood favourite, AD&D, we can remove the dice elements by assuming the average result occurs at each point. Monsters attack first because weapons slow you down. If I remember correctly, an ogre will deal d6 (averaging 3.5) damage. Multiply this by its chance to hit which might total to 50%, would leave 1.75 damage. Not much.

The warrior with a 65% chance to hit and a +2 longsword, together with a strength bonus, will be dealing 5.25 or so damage. If they both have 30 hitpoints then after 6 rounds the ogre falls. In this time he's dealt 10.5 damage to the warrior. So as not to waste healing magic, the priest heals him up with only one 'cure light wounds' spell, which heals 1D8+4 (if the priest is 4th level) or 8.5 hitpoints. So there we have it - the adventurers adventure through the caves killing monsters as encountered. They can do this safely so long as there's healing magic, after that there's a limit. The only thing the A,D&D system added was a little randomness and a lot of faff.

White Wolf Diceless

A quick look at White Wolf shows us the same thing, but healing magic comes in different forms. Werewolves regenerate automatically, vampires feed on their enemies after the fight to heal damage. But essentially it's the same thing. There's as much agency in any of these combats as snakes and ladders.


A couple of games have mixed things up a little. Fate Core introduces some basic variance through Aspects - if you can convince the GM that your 'I always win' aspect is good for all fights then you get a pool of points to give you +2 bonuses. Hero points, as a limited resource, can add some basic real-world decisions, but in the end the same thing happens - it's easy enough to calculate in most situations whether you should spend your Hero points on avoiding Damage or dealing damage, and for the most part if you have 'extra damage' points to spend, you should spend them all at the beginning of combat to get it over with quickly. So Fate Core's basic system might be a series of exchanging damage while losing Hero Points instead of hitpoints, then losing hitpoints afterwards.

Attack Variations

One brief point about different attack types needs to be made. Many games have this ability - we sacrifice something in the ability to hit while gaining something in terms of damage, or vice versa. If, in D20, a 'targeted shot' gives +2 damage in exchange for a -4 to hit then that's simply -25% damage and +2 damage. The result will either be a net gain or a net bonus. Characters who deal limited damage should always use it (where their basic damage is less than 8) and characters who deal greater damage than 8 should never use this ability. After that, the standard image of a monster and a fighter smacking hitpoints off each other resumes.

One obvious conclusion from all of this is that since any two purely mechanical, choice-absent systems are effectively doing the same thing, whichever one is simpler, or completes combat quicker, should be preferred. More complicated systems should justify themselves in terms of real decisions and tactics.

If, at the same time, the enemy is doing the same thing, and both attacks are on a bell-curve, then interesting interactions between hit and damage could occur, though I've never seen any system do such a thing. In most systems these attacks are a strict penalty.

D&D 4th edition seems to have justified its tactical abilities by giving players a handful of cards to wield and some resources to spend. It looks like a step in the right direction, but abilities can also give the illusion of tactics where none are present. If a thief has the ability to attack people while moving past them, then it's clear they should use the ability at every opportunity. If a fighter can deal one large shot per combat, then it should be used on the first boss to come his way, and at the first opportunity - there's no question that dealing more damage later would be a better option.

Wrapping Up

The Slow Reveal

I'm guessing people would defend these systems by saying that they give a slow reveal, which helps dramatic tension by giving a build-up.

You say 'I hit the ogre with my axe', and the GM does some calculations, rolls a single die, then says 'okay, at the end of the battle the ogres are dead, but Gorthax has lost three hitpoints, and Ariadnel has lost 2 'cure light wounds' spells

The fight has clearly lost something.

However, these fights still require too much time. Short fights might take 20 minutes, longer ones take 40, and a full hour of rolling dice in a big fight is hardly unheard of. The build-up cannot possibly justify such a waste of a precious Saturday night, and if combat really feels so exciting, clearly we should want more combat encounters in that time.

The possibilities for adding dramatic tension are endless. For a very simple example, we could just ensure everyone has 4-12 HP, deals 1-10 damage, then perform a single round of combat and review options. A few obvious ones include:

  • Surrender
  • Flee (and select which direction)
  • Change target (to change which targets one is focussing on)
  • Continue

This or any number of systems allow a slow reveal, without demanding the length of a meal, just to hit some ogres.

Design Lessons

I think all RPG designers should remove the dice, and see what the system really looks like under the hood. If, at the end of the design process, your system is a process of hitpoint exchange with bells attached, it might be time to rethink the system.

When measuring player-agency through this lens, we should not allow just any decisions as a real decision. If a player can only use their 'might strike' feat once per combat, their best bet in most combats will be to use it as soon as possible, so we should assume they do so, and continue the analysis without pretending that the system presents a fork of player choice.