Throughout the history of roleplaying as a hobby, there have been attempts to remove the dice from the games. The argument usually goes something like this: real life isn't random, at least not on the scales at which humans act in day-to-day life. Events have causes. So why do we roll dice to see if a skilled warrior can hit someone with a sword?
A second argument comes from storytelling: if the events of the story are determined randomly, then what's the point? (Signor Calvino, please sit down and stop trying to interrupt!)
So ever since the 1970s there have been attempts to create "diceless" roleplaying games. They have met with mixed success. The Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game system works pretty well and has a dedicated fan base, but even fans of the game agree that its system is tied to a specific type of fictional subgenre (fantasy intrigue), and wouldn't be as useful for something like Conan-esque sword and sorcery adventures.
The big problem is overcoming the inherent determinism in a diceless game. In the Amber books by Roger Zelazny, the character Benedict really is the greatest warrior — not just in the Universe, but in all possible universes. So in that setting, it's perfectly right and proper for the Gamemaster to resolve a battle between anyone else and Benedict with "You fight. He wins." Contrast that to the duels between equals or near-equals in The Three Musketeers: the question of who will win is always in doubt, a source of tension. Having the GM simply state "Rochefort has a higher Fencing rating so he beats you" would be unsatisfying.
So the big question for game designers is how to create a diceless system which still preserves uncertainty and tension? Well, that question was answered more than twenty years ago in 1995. It's called Epiphany, by Greg Porter.
Epiphany looks like a throwback to the first generation of roleplaying games. It's a 48-page stapled softcover with decent interior art (though more nipple-rings are on display than one would have seen in the original Dungeons & Dragons). The typeface is slightly goofy, in the tradition of mid-1990s desktop publishing, but one can actually read it, so no points off there.
The setting of Epiphany is pretty neat: it's set in the warm Arctic lands surrounding the giant hole at the North Pole which leads into the interior of the Hollow Earth, at some time during the last Ice Age. The entire region is called Hyperborea, and encompasses the kingdoms of Atlantis (inhabited by sorcerous quasi-Aztecs), Lemuria (Vikings), Mu (kind of intermediate between the two). All of them have a mix of pulp-fiction super-science, magic, and steampunk technology. Adventurers can travel to remote regions in their flying machines, but defend themselves with swords and muzzle-loading firearms.
Given the small size of the game book, setting information amounts to only ten pages or so, and is necessarily done in broad strokes. To actually run this game one would have to borrow liberally from Phil Masters's GURPS Atlantis, M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne, and Jeff Combos's Hollow Earth Expedition.
But that's not where Epiphany really shines. The strength of this game is in its diceless mechanics.
Characters start with one Attribute and two Abilities, and can gain more by taking Burdens. Attributes are chosen from a list of a dozen, grouped into Physical (Strength, Physique, Agility, and Endurance); Mental (Perception, Intelligence, Charisma, and Will); and Spiritual (Aura, Insight, Faith, and Serenity). These are not at all "granular" — if you have even 1 point in the Strength attribute that means you're notably stronger than other people.
Abilities are more free-form, like "Good Looks" or "Swordplay." The player relates his Abilities to an Attribute, though it's up to the player to justify which Attribute controls the Ability: a cunning thief could have the "Lockpicking" Ability linked to Intelligence, while another rogue could attach the same Ability to his Agility.
Characters can also have Boons, which are either social advantages or supernatural abilities, and can have Tools, which are pretty self-explanatory.
When resolving an action, the player totals up the Attributes, Abilities, and Tools his character is using. If that total is higher than the difficulty of the task (as set by the Gamemaster) then the character succeeds. Simple enough.
But when there's someone opposing the character, then it's a Challenge, and that's when things get interesting. Combat is an obvious Challenge: the players both total up their relevant advantages (Strength, Agility, swordsmanship, armor, a sword, and perhaps some situational advantages like "fighting with the sun at my back" or "ambush").
The two combatants allocate their respective advantages between attack and defense. This is done secretly, then both sides reveal at once. If one character's attack is greater than the other's defense, he scores a hit and the loser must abandon one advantage. So if my character is using his Agility, his Fencing ability, and a sword, I must decide which one to lose. I sacrifice Agility (the fight is wearing my character down), so the next round the character only has two advantages to use instead of three.
What makes it interesting is the secret allocation step: you don't know in advance if your foe is going to fight defensively, go for an all-out attack, or try to balance between the two. And he doesn't know what you're going to do, either! So an incredibly good fighter, with all the personal and material advantages, could still get hit by a novice if the rookie puts all his advantages into offense. Sure, the rookie's going to get hit, too — ability and equipment do give one an edge, after all — but the outcome isn't preordained, so there's still a place for tension.
It's a really neat system, and would adapt very easily to live-action roleplaying games as well, especially games where one-on-one combats are an important element, like The Three Musketeers or feudal Japan. Unfortunately, I've never seen any copies other than the one I bought directly from Greg Porter one year at Gen-Con. It's one of the greatest advances in roleplaying game mechanics and nobody's ever heard of it.
Maybe this 'blog post will change that. Maybe people will suddenly wake up and realize what they've been missing. Maybe they'll have an . . . Epiphany.
If you want to see my own works about strange creatures in exotic lands, buy my new ebook Monster Island Tales!