My aunt has an old favorite tabletop story. It goes like this:
When she was in high school, she once celebrated her birthday by having some friends over, and her older brother (my dad) GMed an epic space battle for them. The game went into the night, and they steadily got more and more tired, losing focus and getting a little bored with the heavy math. Pausing for a minute, my father took in the bored faces of teenage girls and paused the game.
“One sec,” he said, getting up and moving into the apartment’s small kitchen.
After a minute, he returned with a massive bag of popcorn, leftover from an earlier movie viewing. He then proceeded to clear the table they were playing at, take two massive handfuls of the snack, and scatter the popcorn over the table.
“Okay!” he said, “Slide your dice across – every popcorn you knock off is a spaceship that you’ve successfully taken out.”
What was previously a slowing and dull game became reinvigorated, filled with laughter and sneaking enemies into their mouths. It was terrific fun, particularly for the players who weren’t tabletop fans themselves, and had only agreed for my aunt’s birthday.
By the end of it, they’d beat a massive space battle, all without making a single roll.
Would a Dice-Free Campaign Work?
The brief innovation that my dad used was a lot of fun – but the fact is that it wasn’t terribly sustainable for a full game. The die rolling mechanics (and the randomization that it creates) are essential to not just Dungeons and Dragons, but the vast majority of roleplaying games.
The rules of tabletop games are almost always more complicated than success-or-failure mechanics. The convoluted mess of modifiers, bonuses, and situational changes are confusing at first, but they’re also a big contributor to the fun of the game. They give you a framework to act within, and a real sense of challenge that the entire genre is built around.
While it can be fun to use the occasional non-rolling mechanic in your games, it isn’t really feasible to make the whole game dice-free.
Give LARPing a Try!
If you are interested in non-dice roleplaying, you may prefer LARPing. Even if you’re not physically up to the running around in the woods with swords and costume – don’t worry! There are plenty of LARPs that you can run from home. And if you want a whole campaign in the LARP style, it’s easy enough to modify a party-LARP’s mechanics for longer use.
You can find various home LARP games here: LARP scenarios
Dice-Free Tabletop Options
There are a lot of jokes about children’s puzzles and riddles tripping up otherwise perfectly intelligent parties, but they can really bring a dungeon or a session to life. Puzzles and riddles are a staple of fantasy, and while you might grant them a hint or two off of a good intelligence roll, they can really get your players into the spirit of the game.
For larger, more realistic puzzles, referencing videogames is pretty popular. The Legend of Zelda and Tales of series both have “dungeon-esque” areas with maze-like and confusing paths that require either thought or trial-and-error to explore, which are perfect for your own dungeons.
Regular old brain teasers and logic problems, like you find in puzzle books, might feel a little out of place without proper set up, but they can be a lot of fun for groups that enjoy them. I try to include them as optional asides – a booth at a fair, a fey riddler, things like that.
Minigames and Alternate Combat
Things like the sliding dice that my dad came up with work well as “minigames”. These are fun little games that aren’t undertaken by the characters alone, but change the mechanics for the players themselves. They might be an alternate combat system, or just a fun game for players to engage in.
I’ve written an in-game ballad (using the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon) about a recurring joke for our bard to sing in the tavern, or worked with fellow players to come up similar little parodies and songs. If your players like to cook, you could get together and actually make something for a side quest.
For combat, I once gave my players a “Schrödinger’s panther” – an enemy that they didn’t get any dice rolls or modifiers to hit. Everything was a flat flip of a coin.
What is roleplay, if not the original non-dice game mechanic? Technically, a simple diplomacy or charisma roll should tell you whether or not you charm that cute barkeep, but it can be fun to act it out instead, and have the player’s natural charm have a little more impact.
After all, that’s what makes TTRPG different from just playing videogames alone in your room!
It isn’t uncommon for DMs to require a player to actually talk through their logic for diplomacy rolls or seduction, but if you have a particularly theatrical group it might be fun to forgo charisma rolls entirely and rely on the persuasiveness of your players. Of course, you’d have to have the right group for this. I play a lot with my family, and I certainly wouldn’t want to get descriptive about making a seduction roll while my uncle is DMing.
Do you have any non-dice mechanics or games that you like to include in your campaigns? Let us know in the comments if you do!