Dice play an important role in Dungeons and Dragons. They provide a random chance to events. They leave certain actions in the game to fate. Rolling well feels lucky and rolling poorly feels unlucky, but no one argues these rolls. While dice are a wonderful and an integral mechanic to the game, you as a dungeon master shouldn’t need them at all. Let’s learn how to run diceless games.
Narrative and Rolls
As a dungeon master your job is to maintain the game, ensure that everyone is having fun, and keep things moving along. Your role is really about outcomes and narrative while the role of the players is about action and agency. The players decide where the story should go and you facilitate that story.
What might surprise you is that your role does not strictly require rolling dice.
If you are maintaining the game you are going to tell a story no matter how your dice rolls go. Regardless if the roll is high or low, you’re still going to try to tell the best story and make the best experience you can. The only role the dice serve in a game for the dungeon master is to force you to be impartial.
This might sound crazy to some readers, but the dungeon master should worry more about narrative than rolls anyway. A roll does not really change the duty and responsibilities you have as a dungeon master. If you take the roll away, if you were forced to play a game without any dice on your side of the table, you only need to ask one question:
Could you still make your game fun?
How Much Do You Rely On Dice Really?
Let’s assume for a moment that your players didn’t know what you were doing. You’re playing online or behind a DM screen. If you had nothing, no stat blocks, no dice, no predetermined story, could you still make a fun game for your players?
Of course you could.
Dungeon masters have to wing it all the time. Your players go “off script”. Your monster encounters end up unbalanced. A string of unlucky rolls leads to serious misfortune. In all of these cases you intervene as the DM to keep the game going. It might not go the way you initially imagined, but nothing ever does, and that’s part of the challenge of DMing.
You have to improvise a lot and often.
If you had a game without any dice, at any point where you would normally roll you instead ask yourself: what is the most fun scenario I can make here? By following the fun you can end up with some fantastical outcomes.
This isn’t as easy as I’m making it out to be. You have to consider tension, difficulty, and dramatic timing. You need to know if your players are feeling an appropriate challenge at all times. And most importantly, you need to be able to read your players and adapt to them. This is the challenge of DnD and none of that relies on dice at all.
The Illusion of Impartiality
So, where does this whole diceless game break down? In letting your players know you’re running without dice. The illusion of impartiality is the primary value your players gain from knowing you’re rolling dice.
By rolling dice you are saying that you will let fate decide. But in actuality, that rarely happens. No matter how “fair” you are, the story always shifts based on the actions of the players and the outcomes of the dice. If you are not stepping in to some degree to ensure your game stays on track, your game will likely be harsh, stale, and unfun.
All this being said, many players like knowing that the DM is bound by the rules of the game. You should be to some extent. You shouldn’t save every player from lethal damage and you shouldn’t fudge every number in the name of balance. But the game rules are a framework of guidance.
The reason dice help is because they lower the burden of decision on the DM. They allow players to think that the DM is impartial and that you didn’t decide to kill their player, the monster just got lucky.
Heck, this could even be taken further. You don’t need to know how much health a monster has; you could just decide when your players defeat it. But most players don’t want to think that the outcomes of a game are decided purely on the whim of someone else. They feel much better thinking that DnD runs more like a video game than a narrative.
No Dice, No Problem – On Both Sides
You might not believe me that this can work and to that you might be right depending on your group. However, I’ve run diceless games where I improvised everything on the fly and narrated through the entire experience. The players had a good time with this and had no clue the whole storyline was made up on the spot.
This takes a lot of trust and a lot of work on the players’ side as well as the DMs, but if you are all committed to a story, dice are not needed for combat at all.
When running a diceless game, the outcomes are narrated by the DM and the players simply narrate their actions. When you take dice out it can be hard to adjust. But once you get used to it and the players feel comfortable with the DM deciding how the challenge progresses, you end up with an amazing flow and great narration, because it’s all narration. There’s no pausing to roll dice or calculate a number. The game just flows.
No Dice, Some Problems – Who This Won’t Work For
There are players that diceless games will never work for. If they know you’re running without dice they will not have it. I have friends who even refuse to play 5e because it doesn’t have enough hard set rules. They only play Pathfinder and they spend hours trying to exploit the rules as written. I cannot play diceless with them. They are munchkins, and that’s okay.
The point of TTRPGs is to have fun and everyone has fun differently. If you want to be a great game master the point is to learn how to facilitate the game with the players you have. You have to be adaptable and empathetic to the needs and wants of your players.
You also have to balance your empathy with the game itself. You can’t tip the game too far in favor of any one person’s fun. These are the challenges that every DM and GM face no matter what game you’re running.
Diceless Games are Possible
If you want to get better at improvising, give a diceless game a try as a DM. If you have some really cool friends and want to try a different experience, give a game without dice on both your side and the players’ side a go as well.
The main point is to understand that an overreliance on dice and rules as a dungeon master is not always going to make your game better, just as an under reliance on the rules can make your game too soft. Everything you do as a DM is a balancing act and knowing your game and your players will help you be a better DM.
As Always, Happy DMing!