Creating uncertainty without randomizers

How do RPGs without randomizers nevertheless do a good job imparting a sense of tension and uncertainty in play? I’m not sure if I’ve ever played such an RPG, but my understanding/guesses from ones I’ve read include:

(1) GM prepares challenges and surprises and then respects that prep in play, so that it doesn’t feel to players like they’re just making stuff up (e.g., Diceless Dungeons, Amber, STALKER).

(2) GM manages resources in the same way or s similar way that players do, which again requires some prep, plus significant effort at the table (e.g., Undying).

(3) Use a test of skill instead of a randomizer (e.g., Jenga in Dread—which I have played, but this still felt pretty close to a “randomizer” to me).

What other kinds of approaches have you seen?

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There’s a bunch of ways. I recommend grabbing inspiration from boardgames, which by necessity need to create tension and uncertainty to create their gameplay.

One common answer is hidden information. If a player is hiding a secret, you know someone could be a traitor, or similar then this creates tension and uncertainty. Mechanically this can take the form of people committing to actions in advance. Robo-Rally is a boardgame where the tension comes from people planning out several turns at once, and committing to each of those turns in advance. Naturally their plans interfere with one another and create chaotic results, despite there being no actual randomizer via dice or similar.

Netrunner has the corporation (DM equivalent one could say) play their agendas and defenses facedown, and the runner has to figure out where the traps are, what those defenses might be, and where their hidden agendas (victory point conditions) are placed. This is a cardgame so there’s a randomizer element as well, but the hidden information portion works on its own.

Another related answer is simultaneous decision making. Rock/Paper/Scissiors is a game where people simultaneously make a decision based on what they think their opponent will do. This has an element of hidden information, but it executes differently. Some games are mixes of hidden information and simultaneous decision making (robo rally is a good example of this).

Another answer is creating enough branching options that it isn’t possible for players to predict a line of action and they end up responding to one another. Chess works this way, no randomizer involved but also games full of tension and uncertainty (unless you’re so experienced you’re familiar with all the lines of play). Improv Comedy also works this way! The audience calls out a suggestion and then people have full freedom of action in building a scene, responding to one another to create the story. The interplay of DM/Player works like improv (one reason so many low prep games often tend towards comedy).

To your point of feeling like the DM is just “making stuff up”, that’s not really an issue in my experience. We all expect the DMs to make stuff up when they write adventures. The trick is delivering the feeling that the world the players experience is real and, above all, consistent. Once a dragon is conjured into being, it needs to remain part of the setting. Once a certain technology level for the world exists, it needs to stay consistent unless there are good reasons a certain region would be dramatically more or less advanced (there are, you just need to be clear about them).

So the issue is more about creating a believable setting that feels like it has a logic the DM is following, not that the setting changes based on the DM’s whims. This doesn’t have to be high prep at all, the easiest way to do it is just to set your adventures in a small little focused setting you can get a strong understanding of (a single village and a few surrounding areas), then draw inspiration from some cool movies or books that do a great job building that atmosphere. When creating characters, give them their own motivations and added details that make it clear they have lives outside the PCs. Once you nail this the world feels believable and you can improvise with impunity.

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My favorite methods are:

  1. a version Rock - paper -scissors - I am trying to create a game with this as the primary mechanic - trying to guess what your opponent will do is a powerful way to create uncertainty and keep players engaged (e.g. Burning Wheel)

  2. Similar to the branching options, using a deck of premade questions to prompt different responses (e.g. For the Queen) seems to work very well. The deck can be randomized but the choices are not random

  3. I would love to see more hidden roles / agendas in rpgs. There has been an explosion of these in card games

  4. Bidding is one of my favorite boardgame mechanics. I know Dogs in the Vineyard does some form of this but I have not played it. Bidding can be done for narrative control or results.

  5. I think gambling could be incorporated into rpgs for either the results or narrative control.

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If you haven’t seen Dream Askew / Dream Apart I recommend taking a look at them. These games don’t use dice, instead their moves interact with a pool of tokens (which starts at zero). Strong moves cost a token (but tend to remove complications), weak moves gain a token (but tend to introduce complications), and other moves are neutral.

In my experience this does produce interesting stories where it’s not totally clear what’s going to happen (e.g. “Is A going to resolve this complication or make it more complex? Or is B going to intervene in some way?”). It also has the effect of dividing narrative agency between all the players at the table, which is something other games don’t necessarily do.

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Mortal Coil uses a stats + bidding approach.

You have a number of “tokens” available, and if there’s a conflict, you set the stakes and commit 1 or more action tokens. The number you commit is blind, but added to a stat and skill (basically). The GM does the same for NPCs (though I can’t recall exactly how the GM decides to allocate tokens and skills). Everyone reveals, highest total wins.

There are different currencies and effects for spending different types of tokens, but if I recall correctly, the uncertainty comes from a plethora of options and the players all deciding how much they want to “commit” and risk on certain actions.

I haven’t played it, but I recall being very intrigued when I read it. There’s a pretty in-depth review here.
https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/12/12403.phtml

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Thanks for all these comments! I should confess I’m especially interested to hear about diceless, token-based games. I’ve been working on such a game, and disappointment with it is what led to this post. I’ve read Mortal Coil and Dream Askew, but it’s probably time to do refresh my memory about how they work.

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It has an RNG mechanic (I think RNG mechanics are great) but Ragnorok: Fate of the Norns uses runestones rather than dice. You draw them from a bag and use them as resources to take actions and use your powers.

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@Brennan_Taylor might have thoughts on Mortal Coil…

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I’m designing a game that uses RPS and blind bidding.

https://github.com/koeninger/iron-triangle/blob/master/book/iron_triangle.pdf

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I wrote this over at Story Games, but because the site is going to disappear, I will copy paste what I wrote there to save this for future references. Down below are different kinds uncertainties put into categories. When creating a game, I pick one or two categories and think about how I can use that in play. Social contingency is something I use in all my game designs though. It’s hard to avoid because of how roleplaying games works.


Chris Bateman writes:

It is oft said that “stories are about conflict”, but this is a gross simplification. /…/ What is common to all well-regarded stories is uncertainty, the desire to discover what happens next, and conflict (i.e. competition) is just one of many ways that uncertainty can be generated.

One thing I can add is that stochastic randomness, such as using dice, is decreasing the choice from the participants. That’s bad! (Hello, Chess! Good bye, D&D!) It’s good, however, to blur the outcome for a participant. What I mean by that is that others can give input to change the outcome. To cut in and build on another person’s narration. You can also create an emergent complexity, where the outcome is hard to predict due to the many possibilities that the system gives. Remember, system in this case consist of several components, where game structures and participants are only two.

You can also create uncertainty by having hidden resources. In Lady Blackbird , each role got a secret to be used once over the session. In Det sjätte inseglet , all participants write secret truths about the setting that will be revealed while playing. Thomas M Malaby and Marc LeBlanc has given us a list of different kinds of uncertainties:

MALABY
Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games

Stochastic Contingency : stochastic is just a fancy word for “random”.

[see Randomness below]

Social Contingency : about never being certain of another person’s point of view.

having someone other than you in charge of saying what happens…
…a strong GM role with great control over the world / plotline…
one participant’s interpretation, perhaps having a rule system with open-deterministic results or using cards that are open for interpretation.
enforcing of people’s opinions, like voting for outcomes or making pacts.
using different techniques or rules during a scene, which may steer the story in a certain direction. “What? Is someone going to fall in love?”

Performative Contingency : you either succeed or fail at a task.

one participant’s effort in succeeding. (performance uncertainty)
two or more participants against each other.

Semiotic Contingency : the outcome is open for interpretation, changing the meaning of all the previously actions.

The good person was the bad person all along.
The game Train, where you discover the theme of the game while playing.

LEBLANC
Lecture at NYU

Incomplete Information : if you don’t have all the pieces, you don’t know where it’s going.

…players pick elements of the story that other players must include in other characters’ storylines.
…picking a different oracle and elements for each session inspires the players to create an interesting history full of twists
…hidden or undefined knowledge about something the players /…/ care about.
…exploration and mapping…
I would see Exploration and Mystery as two genres / elements that use curiosity at their core.
…Hexploration genre, where you can travel to each place in a sandboxy way…
one participant adding something that isn’t obvious what it’s for.

Randomness : the general solution in roleplaying games.

conflict resolution /…/ task resolution
…a random table or a deck of event cards or a stack of map tiles.
the use of real world happenings, like having the weather or certain events in the newspaper affect the session.

Emergent Complexity : the interaction between the pieces of information or the overflow of information makes it hard to predict the outcome.

parallel stories with one ending. How will the stories change each other?
telling a story with a fixed ending. Now you know how it’s going to end, but not how the story will travel to the end.

Escalation : early points of the game doesn’t matter as much, because the stakes are increasing all the time. Like the three rounds in Jeopardy.

I think that the games people really like have good conflict escalation mechanisms (either formal mechanisms like in AW or Polaris or in terms of initial set-up like in Poison’d.)
…strong characterownership where you can keep and reveal a secret about a character under your control.

Potential Barrier (Decelerator) : you don’t know if you will overcome them. They are there to change the scale and the pace and to make the end seem closer than what it is.

Sometimes you want to put out hints, create an expectation by having set up scenes and finally a big reveal that might lead to new questions.

Hidden Energy : saved up resources that may come in handy later.

Cards on hand.
Turned down tokens and other fog-of-war mechanics.
Secrets. Information, powers and more.

Cashing Out : the game score (or resources) resets so everybody starts at the same level. Anybody can win.

From one combat to another in D&D4. Who will be standing the next time?

(Examples are taken from this thread.)

COSTIKYAN
Uncertainty in Games

Performance Uncertainty: [see Performative Contingency (Malaby) above]

Randomness: [see Randomness (LeBlanc) above]

Analytic Complexity : [see Complexity (LeBlanc) above]

Player Unpredictability: [see Social Contingency (Malaby) above]

Hidden Information: [see Hidden Energy (LeBlanc) and Incomplete Information (LeBlanc) above]

Solver’s Uncertainty: finding out the solution given by the designer.

Discovering the algorithm behind the game, like figuring out how the AI works.
Resolving a murder mystery.
Doing things in the right order.

Narrative Anticipation: to awaken a curiosity of what to come.

Knowing the end doesn’t mean you know the way to reach that end.
Learning more about the characters over time.
Twists in story.
Creating tension within the setting.
You wont understand the story unless you puzzle the bits together. (ex. Kishotenketsu)

Development Anticipation: when the developers add more stuff to the game.

Release of expansion sets.
Updates, changes or corrections of the rules.
Change of playstyle or genre.

Schedule Uncertainty: resources limits the amount of time the player can spend on the game.

Energy in social games.
It takes a long time to build a certain element, where the player can’t do anything but wait.
Resources to build things are generated over time but runs out quickly.
A cap on the internet restricting the time for the player.

Perception Uncertainty: difficulty to perceive what’s going on.

A clogged up interface, like in Nethack.
Scanning the playing field, like the pieces in Tetris.
Finding the rhythm in, for example, dancing.
Jigsaw puzzles.
Trying to search a room to find more about what’s in it.

Malaby’s Semiotic Contingency: [see Semiotic Contingency (Malaby) above]

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Ooh this reminds me: I recently discovered a set of three six-sided dice with slot machine symbols (Bar, Cherry, Lemon, Plum, Orange, Bell) from an old casino game set my parents had from back in the 1970s. I’ve been meaning to try and come up with some way to incorporate these into a game.

I love that they have the same probabilities as 3d6 rolled for D&D stats BUT there’s no inherent order of increasing magnitude to the sides as there are with the numbers 1 thru 6.

I wish the other pieces of that game set still existed, particularly the roulette wheel. :frowning:

Similar dice are still available though: https://www.amazon.com/Koplow-Games-10637-Slots-Dice/dp/B0013D2038

This is a very interesting concept that I’m glad you brought up. I suppose you theoretically tie each symbol to a skill and then create fail/partial/total success based on how many you roll from Xd6? The only issue I see is that you can’t really influence odds other than adding more dice

Unless you use playing cards

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This stuff is helpful. Thanks, folks.

I think I’m going to try making the token-based game I wasn’t sure would work due to lack of randomness. I wonder how I can best explicitly encourage other kinds of uncertainty…

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I definitely want to build an rpg about gamblers using poker hands

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And then I found this…The Deal

I am very curious how this works.

In my experience, “the GM just making stuff up” is an independent problem from “does this game have a randomizer”; Don’t mistake “this game has no randomizer” with “The players’ decisions don’t have any impact” – they are unrelated. In much the same way that player decisions can impact the story in a dice-based gamed, they can do so in a diceless game. In fact, the actual DECISIONS the players make probably have MORE impact, because if a player spends his ‘points’ or whatever to succeed at a task, that spend is a decision. They have chosen to spend those points to succeed at that action – whereas in a diced game, they can only choose to attempt that action and hope for the best.

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I was less worried about players feeling like they have no impact, more worried that players just wouldn’t ever feel surprised. This is a complaint I often see against Fate Core, where you can effectively spend tokens to get what you want, dice or no. I see this as a reasonable difference in play priorities; I just happen to want the game I’ve been working on to leave room for surprise, and I was nervous I might need dice, cards, rock paper scissors, or the like, on order to do so. I’m going to give it a shot with just the token system and see how it goes, though.

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I’m not really sure I understand.

Do you set the stakes before you roll dice? Because to me, doing so removes the same amount of surprise. You know what you’re going to get if you succeed and you know what you’re going to get if you fail. Instead of making a decision of “Can I afford what it takes to succeed here?” (Which is definitely uncertainty) you have the luck of the dice, but neither result is likely to be ‘surprising’?

I guess you have the surprise of the result, but that’s to be weighed against the inherent suspense of a resource spend.

Yeah, I said “was worried” (past tense) because since then, replies in this thread have helped convince me there are other sources of uncertainty that might work all right for my purposes. I do think the uncertainty of “will I succeed at this action right now?” or “what will go wrong if I fail?” (in games where you don’t telegraph that) is qualitatively different from the uncertainty of “will my decision prove to be wise in the long run?” But the latter may work out just fine.

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Look to board games. In Pandemic you always know exactly what will happen on your turn, the tension comes from what might happen during the epidemic’s turn.

But also just hidden information can work great. For example, in Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation players have hands of numbered cards. They play them facedown then reveal simultaneously to boost their combat strength. So a 3 strength unit might be fighting a 1 strength unit and then both players play a boost card facedown. Once the cards are revealed, the unit with the higher strength wins. So the 1-strength unit can choose to invest one of their +3 or higher cards to maybe sneak a win, or else play a weak card to take this loss on the combat while conserving future resources. Even better if the 3-strength unit’s player invests as +3 or something while the 1-strength player only invests their weakest card, a +1.

Once all cards from their hand are played, they pick them all back up again. You HAVE to use your weaker cards at some point. The question is when?

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