How I Run Diceless Conflict

Unlike most other procedures for handling diceless conflict, I do not use any numbers. Partly influenced by matrix games and referee’d wargames in which a player states a case, I gauge the advantages of both opposing sides, favoring results in which both sides get part of what they want.

Simply put, I take a lot of principles regarding success at a cost, and commonly find this as the baseline of success. There’s almost always some complication when succeeding, unless the advantages are truly stacked in one’s favor. A major pro for me with this form of diceless conflict I employ is that it’s relatively genre-neutral. I run a lot more than just OSR dungeon crawls, and so I sometimes need some guidelines for something like magical girls fighting Godzilla.

By weighing certain types of advantages over others, or simply favoring one side over the other, it becomes very easy to lean into the tone of the game without having to worry about tracking anything. In order to fully utilize this leniency, it is important to understand the stakes of a given battle. For example, in the aforementioned OSR dungeon crawl game, the risk is almost always death. While this may seem standard, I often find the game is more interesting for players when the implication is that death is off the table, and that, while you need to be smart to win, you don’t have to get too caught up in maxing out your narrative advantages. It becomes more fluid this way, whereas in OSR-land it can surprisingly become more game-y than a normal mechanic when the players are actively trying to utilize anything they can to get an advantage. It just feels meta for something that should be natural.

Once you understand the stakes, you can pretty easily figure out what the tension is derived from. For example, in a game with the stakes more socially, like a magical girl fighting Godzilla, where the stake is that you might be late for class, the tension is not about getting hurt, it’s about the time spent flying through buildings while remembering that pneumonic for your test. Often, there may be multiple stakes at play. For example, in a long-running play-by-post game using my own Pokemon Zero, there is not only the risk of harm (though notably not death) but also the risk of their massive sand castle getting destroyed during their beach episode! With these stakes at play, you have direct access to the drama center of a player’s brain. You can create as much drama as needed for your story by advancing these tensions through success at a cost or failing forward.

What you may be here for is how exactly I determine how steep of a cost should be implemented on either side. However, I don’t have a great answer for you. It is massively determined by your own GMing style and the setting at hand. In fact, I attribute it to something like a one-page RPG that is vague about something. I want you to make it your own! If I tell you how I do something, that might influence you to do it that way when it might not fit. I find that the way I do it is primarily to get through conflict at a brisk pace, but you may have different agendas that I heavily encourage you to lean into with this approach to diceless conflict.

In summary, though, I’ll leave with this:

  1. Utilize the stakes of the conflict’s medium to drive up drama and tension
  2. Use success at a cost and failing forward to make both sides feel important
  3. Begin to resolve conflict when a side cannot fully recover, or when it stops being interesting

Sweet! This might be useful to me to implement in class games. No dice might mean faster play, which is handy if your game-session is only supposed to last for 30 minutes.