Dice? Our games are played online, in chat. We hardly ever use dice.
So let’s talk about playing without dice.
In a tabletop roleplaying game, dice are used to determine variable outcomes. That is, they’re used to avoid the “You’re dead!” “Am not!” “Are too! I shot you!” “You missed!” “Did not!”…. well, you get the picture. All games have ways of determining a character’s likely chances of accomplishing a given variable action (ie, hitting something, jumping from one roof to another, sneaking quietly past a dozing sentry, or even casting some kind of magical spell). Those percentages can be a calculated as a percentage (45% chance of crossing that ravine while balancing on a tree trunk without falling off), or averaging on a bell curve (rolling two twelve-sided dice and adding the results gives you a range of 2 to 24, but most of your results will fall in the middle of that range, ie, the average, but you could roll a 2 for a really less-than-impressive result, or a 24 for something more WOW, LOOK AT THAT result.) Game rules give you advantages by setting your percentages of success higher, or giving you more dice to roll to achieve a certain number that determines success. As your character develops and becomes more skilled, the percentages for some skills go up, you get more dice, etc. And dice settle the question: did you succeed or not?
It’s quite logical. Game developers put a LOT of effort into designing and testing those rules, after all.
They can also drive you absolutely bananas when it comes to storytelling. Because the dice are, of course, arbitrary. When the rules state your character has only a 15% chance of succeeding in his attempt to disarm the bomb before it goes off, that means there’s also an 85% chance he’s going to be blown to bits. Unlike in the movies and TV shows and novels, when the risk of failure is high but we’re all pretty sure James Bond is going to cut the right wire, just in time…. In a game? The dice are, of course, utterly impartial, which means you have a 15% chance of being James Bond, and an 85% chance of your scattered remains being identifiable only from your dental records.
(That’s why James Bond doesn’t use dice. Instead, he just makes sure the scriptwriter is on his side—for the record, chocolates and champagne can be very persuasive. And he gets much more satisfying results.)
Needless to say, what this ultimately means in game, is that players tend to be considerably less heroic and more reluctant to face those big edge-of-the-seat cliff-hanger, bomb-ticking situations. They want the odds to be MUCH more in their favor, and you can’t blame them. In game, you can lose your character – your protagonist – to a couple of bad dice rolls at any point in the story. Which never happens in the movies, but it happens in games, all the time. When this happens in a computer or video game, however, it’s not the end of the game. You go back to your last ‘save’, or you wait a few minutes for your character to ‘resurrect’ (different games handle this in different ways, but essentially, you just rise from the dead, and get to keep going – until you get by that obstacle, whatever it was). In tabletop, however…. You have to start over. New character, back to beginner levels in skills and abilities. That prophecy your original character heard in the tavern that started him on this fantastical quest… clearly it just wasn’t meant for you.
What we did—the Storyteller I started playing Vampire with introduced me to the idea, and I’ve continued it since then—was to stop using the dice for situations where a totally arbitrary outcome might actually derail the story. It was too much bookkeeping for one thing—we were more interested in playing the characters and creating a story together. Having to check stats and roll dice can kinda distract from the situation, and of necessity breaks you out of character. And more importantly, if you’ve built the storyline around a character’s personal quest to achieve or discover something that’s really important to him, but may not mean as much to anyone else–if you lose that character, you’ve lost the entire story. And much of the build-up, the hours of play you’ve already put into achieving or discovering that goal has just gone up in smoke. Which is kind of a big letdown for everyone involved (and not just the newly deceased).
So we decided that didn’t need to happen that way. We instituted a principle we now refer to as “Clause 13” of the player character contract: No protagonist character is in danger of Final Death, without the character’s player giving full consent. (For that matter, NPC fates were also often pre-determined as well, mostly to maintain storyline continuity.)
We mostly ignored the gameplay rules, in favor of just interactive storytelling. And since Heart of Darkness and the other stories we did were played in online chat, rolling dice was a bit awkward at best, anyway. We occasionally still used dice when the results were not dictated by dramatic necessity, but for the most part, we hardly used stats or dice at all. We looked at the skills, abilities and knowledge the stats were meant to represent, and used them as guidelines, but paid little or no attention to dice pools, blood pool, or generation. Humanity, willpower, courage, and other attributes depended on role playing, not on dots. We only worked out stats when we needed them; we knew where a given characters’ strengths and weaknesses were, in general terms. Discipline levels and exact abilities were interpreted loosely. Combat rarely occurred, and when it did, there was more emphasis on dramatic action than adhering to dice pools and die rolls. Experience Points were totally ignored (characters were ‘upgraded’ appropriately only in the long, undefined time between major chronicle sessions).
I don’t know how well our approach would work for other groups. (for some, I’m sure, it wouldn’t work AT ALL; so I’m not suggesting anyone else use our approach unless their group is ready for it.) It takes a lot of trust between players and storyteller. It takes cooperation, where a player is fine with putting her character at risk, or walking into a possibly dangerous situation without knowing how she’ll get out (but having some confidence that somehow, it will work out). It takes some thinking outside the box, being able to come up with spur-of-the-moment ideas, or ways to creatively use abilities and disciplines. Sometimes it takes planning the storyline in advance, so players understand where things are going to lead up to something bigger and exciting. It means that sometimes the player has more knowledge of what’s going on than her character does, and she can’t let the character act on knowledge the character doesn’t have. Sometimes it’s walking into a trap, KNOWING your character is going to be captured by the enemy, because that’s going to be more interesting and pro-active for the storyline (and because pitting your wits and gift of gab against a major adversary when you’re chained up on his torture table can make for a very cool dialogue scene.)
“And now we’re naked and staked with Vykos. Emphasis on naked, staked, and Vykos. These are not words you want anywhere near each other.”
—Sarah, (OOC) reacting to Etienne’s latest (and most serious to date) predicament….
There were still surprises of course. And sometimes I wasn’t sure what should happen, so I did pull out some dice (or if I couldn’t find them, asked Sarah or Myr to pick a number between 1 and 20 without telling them what the number meant).
But it did mean our game transcripts (and I have thousands of pages of them) read like a story, with few interruptions to check books, tables of stats, character sheets, or dice rolls. There are instead descriptive passages, a LOT of in-character dialogue, some action scenes, both in-character and out-of-character plot speculations and discussions on what the characters’ next move should be.
In our chronicle, the characters drive the story. Dice are used but sparingly, for unexpected seasoning.
James Bond should have it this good.