This is the eighty-first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
The random number generators have whirred to life once again, plucking a random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. This time it’s Rosette Diceless, by Future Proof Games. Its tagline in the bundle reads:
Consensus-based, story-focused, improvisational roleplaying
Well, reader, you’re about to hear my consensus on Rosette Diceless. A consensus of one.
I was surprised to learn that Future Proof Games also made (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors, a short and affecting web game that got a lot of attention on release back in 2008. Well, technically, that was made by Gregory Avery-Weir (just Gregory Weir at the time), but he now runs Future Proof games with Melissa Avery-Weir, and hosts The Majesty of Colors at the Future Proof Games site. Rosette Diceless is almost completely unlike it.
The tagline is accurate: Rosette Diceless is a tabletop role-playing game system that eschews dice and emphasizes improvisational storytelling from players, ideally acting in character as much as possible. Like most other tabletop role-playing games that have come up so far in this series, I cannot play it myself, since it requires a group of people. But I can — and indeed, have — read through its rulebook and tell you what I think.
That book comes in at a whopping 71 pages, and serves as an interesting contrast to the last entry in this series, Mausritter. In my post about that game, I discussed how it falls into the “Old School Renaissance” (OSR) of tabletop role-playing games, which return to early games such as Dungeons & Dragons for inspiration. The OSR label helps distinguish these games from others which instead aim for collaborative and improvisational storytelling, with players acting out scenes together, often with very light rules. Rosette Diceless sits somewhere in between, as it heavily emphasizes acting out scenes, but offers a robust set of rules and a ton of guidance for how to set up and resolve these scenes. It’s also intended for long multi-session campaign play, rather than one-off games as many lighter titles are. I could see it as a way for players used to OSR-style games to try their hands at a more story-focused, character-led style.
In fact, Rosette Diceless isn’t really a game itself, so much as a system for playing games. It has no pre-defined setting, and the authors claim that the rules work equally well for large groups of players engaging in a full live action role-playing game (LARP) as they do for players sitting around a table. Up front, the book states the most important core rule: nothing happens to a player’s character without their consent. The rules may dictate that the character failed at some action they attempted, or succumbed to a hostile action from an adversary, but precisely what that means is up to the player in question. Lose out in a public debate against an opponent? Perhaps you were simply outclassed, or maybe the debate recalled an old trauma that left you unable to continue. Did an enemy successfully fire a gun at you? Maybe they hit you and you’re injured, or maybe the bullet whizzed past your head and you frantically ducked behind cover, cowering in fear and unable to continue the fight. It’s up to you.
The rest of the rules are designed to keep this story going. At first, the rules seem like a lot, filled with all sorts of special terms. Every character has three core attributes which determine their ability at physical, mental, and social challenges. But then they combine two of these when defending against a hostile action, so there are three new stats for defense. Then every character gets some Traits, Quirks, a bunch of Skills, Ties to other characters, and at least one Secret. And then there are Resources, which include carried items like weapons or passports, but also abstract things like holding a position of authority in an organization, or possessing important knowledge. Any of these can be used to Boost during challenges, or they might provide an Edge.
It wasn’t until I read about Edges that the whole system started to make sense. As the title implies, there are no dice in Rosette Diceless, and the only semi-random thing in the game is the player turn order. During the Conflict scenes which are the heart of the system, players will work cooperatively against an Adversary, which may be literal other characters (controlled by whichever player decides to Narrate that scene; there is no set gamemaster (GM) and therefore no inherent conflict between players), or some abstract Goal like curing a disease or cheering up a potential ally. Players describe their actions towards the Goal each turn, usually resulting in an “attack”, which once again does not need to be a literal attack but rather any action taken towards realizing the Goal. This action will lead to a Challenge, resolved by lining up the character’s appropriate attribute against the Adversary’s appropriate defense. Both attacker and defender get a chance to Boost if their Traits, Skills or Ties allow them to do so, which will double their numerical value. But then it’s just a straight comparison of numbers. If the attacker’s number is higher, they hit, if not, they miss. Any character that gets hit by an attack takes a point of Stress, and describes what happens. Take enough Stress and they’re out of the rest of the Conflict. That may sound too simple, but there are two rules that add spice to these encounters. First, Boosting attacks can inflict Wear on the defender, gradually reducing their defense. Second, players can employ Edges to inflict extra Stress with their attacks, or block Edges used against them.
Edges are so important that they get their own separate box in the book, headed with the question “How frequently should I use Edges?” The answer is: every single attack, if you can. Edges come from any unique circumstance, Skill, Resource, Trait, etc. that might conceivably give a character an advantage at the type of attack they are attempting (or are defending against). There’s a list of general ones that any character can use, in the right situation. For example, in a physical challenge, players can use Concealment or Cover as Edges, or in a social challenge they might use Credible Threat or Obligation to really put pressure on the other character to help them out. But each character can only use a particular Edge once per scene, which means Conflicts are all about coming up with narrative ways to get Edges. Maybe reminding someone of their obligation isn’t quite enough to convince them, so next turn you use your Authority within the organization to pressure them further. The system incentivizes players to come up with new Edges constantly, which means coming up with an interesting bit of story on every turn. The more imaginative their story is, the better they’ll do in the Conflict.
I should state that this style of game, in which players are all acting in character, is very much not my thing, so I’m likely a poor judge. But I can imagine this system working really well. For a group of players who like improvising, every scene could become a rollercoaster of crazy events as each player adds their own twist. The rules are robust enough to keep everything on track and avoid anyone being at a loss as to what to do on their turn, and there’s clearly a lot of thought put into balance, such that every character has strengths and weaknesses, and enough Traits and Quirks to let them make unique contributions to the adventure. I’m less convinced by there being no dedicated GM, though. It’s hard to understand how a Conflict scene — as opposed to a simple story scene where the players just do some stuff without opposition — could work without someone Narrating, and the section in the book on Narrating makes it sound an awful lot like a standard GM role. I understand that the authors didn’t want to saddle one player with a bunch of preparation up front, but it seems inevitable that whenever the party decides to undertake some major task, there will be an awkward “who’s going to Narrate?” moment.
Also, for all of its talk of abstracted Conflicts and challenges, it’s telling that the term “attack” is still used. And telling that the two example settings given at the end of the book are for fantasy or science fiction campaigns. In fact, I was dismayed to see that for the fantasy setting, some Traits are determined by characters’ races. That of course goes back to Dungeons & Dragons tradition, but it’s something that game has come under criticism for, and is particularly egregious in a bundle about racial justice. At least the example fantasy setting in Rosette Diceless plays around with established archetypes, modeling its dwarven society after an insect hive, complete with a Queen, Drones, Soldiers and Workers, and orcs as extremely sociable creatures that excel at persuasion and camaraderie. But these examples strengthened my conviction that Rosette Diceless grew out of OSR games, and aims to adapt those types of adventure campaigns into an improvisational storytelling structure. If you’ve felt daunted whenever you look at an improvisational game that offers only lightest of rules and tells players to run with it, then Rosette Diceless may be the perfect introductory system to help you branch out of OSR and into some serious character acting.
If you missed it in the bundle, Rosette Diceless is sold for a minimum price of $9.99, including both PDF and MOBI (e-book) formats. There’s also a free demo (which I didn’t look at) if you want to try before you buy, and some supplemental writing and resources at the official site.
That’s 81 down, and only 1660 to go!