Diceless combat, in five easy steps

Over on our FKR Discord server, we’re talking about “initiative” in FKR games, or more specifically: diceless FKR games.

In 1991, Amber Diceless was the game that got my group and me playing diceless rpgs and settings exclusively, till about five years ago or so. We then got into freeform OSR gaming with occasional dice rolling. Now, we’ve come full circle, and we’re (finally!) playing without randomizers again. (Correction: I still use dice, but for random tables, not to determine the outcome of any character’s actions).

One of the major milestones in diceless rpg design is Theatrix, written by Dave Berkman, and published in 1995. It still has a huge impact on me and my style of refereeing games.

My third big influence is Everway, an rpg written by Jon Tweet, also published in 1995. It DID have a random element if you decided to use it: the so-called “fortune cards”. Those were tarot-like cards, with a “good” side and a “bad” side, and the referee was invited to interpret in-game actions with their help. The Everway fortune cards will be a topic for one of my later posts on diceless gaming.

Let’s get back on track: initiative and diceless combat.

Here are my five steps to create exciting and suspenseful combat scenes in diceless games.

1) Always work with mental images. Never stay on the abstract level of words.  Be IN the scene, don’t just describe it. 


2) If combat ensues, gather information from your players, clarify intentions, and always address them with the names of their characters: 

Ref: “So, Morthorr, what are you doing?”

Steve (playing Morthorr): “I point the tip of my sword at his face and wait till he leaps forward to attack me.”

Ref: So you’re waiting?

Morthorr: Yes. I’m patient, and I think I can take him.

Ref: Okay. Hamzun, what are you doing?

Mike (playing Hamzun): Is that guy moving already?

Ref: You mean Morthorr’s opponent? Not yet…

Hamzun: I wait for him to m…

Ref (pounding on the table): NOW! He’s running towards Morthorr!

Hamzun: I slide in, low, with my ax swinging!

Ref: You wanna hit him in the knees?

Hamzun: Damn right I wanna hit him in the knees! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Ref: He’s fast, really fast! But you manage to get that hit in. With a sickening crunch, your ax buries itself in his left knee. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH he’s screaming, AAAAAAAAHHHHHH, down on his knees, holding his knee. Blood everywhere, but he tries to g…

Morthorr: Diiiiiiie! DIIIIIIEEEE! I shove my sword in his face, with all I’ve got! DIIIIEEEE!

Ref: You… impale his face on your sword. It feels like you cut the strings on a puppet: He goes limp, and he is suddenly very heavy. Then, he sighs: “Hah”, and closes his eyes. His face looks peaceful now. 

3) Initiative: We all grew up with books, comic books, movies and audio plays. We know, instinctively, how combat, dramatic or not, looks like. Evoke the spirit of those media. Build a mental movie with your players’ descriptions. 

Take into account the capabilities of their characters. Does it make sense that Hamzun, in the example above, hits the opponent, even though he’s “really fast”? Yes, it does: His attention is on Morthorr. Hamzun’s attack comes out of the blue, it surprises him. And Hamzun is not a bad fighter, either.

Does it make sense that Morthorr is able to kill the opponent? Absolutely: He’s severely wounded, can’t walk, is on his knees, probably overwhelmed by pain.

4) Don’t be afraid to make hard decisions. Diceless gaming forces decisions on you, decisions that, in other play styles, you conveniently shift on the dice. You already have a general impression of what the characters involved in the game are capable of. An author writing an action scene does not need to roll dice, and you don’t need to, either. Picture the scene. Use the power of imagination. See the fight happening. The order of events flows naturally from there. Trust your instincts.

5) Play without dice often. Practice makes perfect.

Have fun!

4 thoughts on “Diceless combat, in five easy steps

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