Rock Paper Scissors, the role-playing game

Diceless role-playing games are (thankfully) few and far apart, and with precious few exceptions, they all suck. Only Amber sticks in my mind as being one that was pretty good. The rest – not so good. So here’s another one to add to the pile!


Rock Paper Scissors (abbreviated to RPS from hereon) is a game that’s been around since the dawn of time itself. Or at least, since the day they invented scissors. Presumably before that they played Rock Parchment Spear or something. I dunno.

But anyhow. It’s a simple resolution system which is near-as-dammit universal and seems tailor made for handling in-game conflict resolution – in other words, it’s a role-playing mechanic!

Disclaimer: This idea is neither clever nor original, but I like it.

Just to be clear, here’s how RPS works. Two players square off, count to three then make a gesture with one hand: a clenched fist represents Rock, two fingers pointing is Scissors and a flat palm is Paper. Who wins is decided by this little mantra:

Rock blunts Scissors

Scissors cuts Paper

Paper covers Rock

To turn this into an RPG we just need to replace the words with something appropriate to the genre and assign ranks.

For a Fantasy setting (and taking a leaf from 4e D&D’s Power structure) we could use:

Martial thwarts Arcane

Arcane corrupts Divine

Divine humbles Martial

If it’s a Superhero genre, how about:

Brick clobbers Blast

Blast targets Speed

Speed outruns Brick

Allocate 5 points across the three elements with at least 1, and no more than 3 in each one. This means the valid combinations are either 3/1/1 or 2/2/1. NPCs can have any number of points as appropriate, from Minions with 1/1/1 to high-powered Demons, Dragons and Cosmic Beings with 10/10/10. Good luck against those.

Here’s a few example PCs:

Borys the Axe
R:Martial 3, P:Arcane 1, S:Divine 1

Lady Minerva Elfhart
R:Martial 1, P:Arcane 2, S:Divine 2

Captain Bold
R:Brick 2, P:Blast 1, S:Speed 2

Lightning Rod
R:Brick 1, P:Blast 1, S:Speed 3

Note that having Blast 1 in a Superheroes game doesn’t necessarily mean he’s got a really crummy blasting power – it might be that he’ll throw something at his opponent such as a manhole cover, pickup-truck or passing Wolverine.


Here’s how this works. Anytime there’s a conflict (which might be combat but in the best RISUS tradition doesn’t have to be – it could be anything from a diplomatic discussion to a race to bake the finest cake. Coming up with cool and clever uses for your talents is all a part of role-playing!) play Rock-Paper-Scissors against your opponent (usually the GM, but it could be another player). Loser deducts one point from the attribute they played. If that attribute reaches zero they can’t use it again in that conflict. When all attributes reach zero, it’s a defeat.

The key here is to describe your actions after each turn, whether you won or not. Heroes always get to describe their actions before their opponents and the GM is encouraged to bounce off a players’ ideas as much as possible.


It’s High Noon in the Old West, and Lucky Larry is facing off against Whiskey Joe, leader of the Liquor Gang.

Lucky Larry
R:Aim 2 , P:Cool 2, S:Speed 1

Whiskey Joe
R:Aim 1, P:Cool 1, S:Speed 2

Aim outguns Speed

Speed outdraws Cool

Cool unnerves Aim

Round 1 – Larry:Scissors, Joe:Paper
Larry goes for his gun while Joe is still bragging about how he’s going to take down this do-gooder once and for all. Joe dives for cover and all semblance of cool is lost as he eats dirt (Joe’s Cool is at 0)

Round 2 – Larry: Rock, Joe:Scissors
Larry takes careful aim and lets off a shot just as Joe tried to dive between some stacked barrels. He’s winged in the leg for his trouble. (Joe’s Speed in now 1)

Round 3 – Larry: Rock, Joe: Rock
It’s a draw as they trade gunshots, but the bullets do little more than shift air.

Round 4  – Larry: Paper, Joe: Rock
Larry shouts out “It’s over Joe! Come out now or I’m going to have to kill you!”. Joe is unnerved, and misses widely. (Joe’s Aim is now 0; he’s only got Speed 1 left)

Round 5 – Larry: Paper, Joe: Scissors
”You got one last chance!” Larry calls, then lets out a yell as Joe’s bullet hits him in the arm. He switches gun hand. Now he’s gone and done it. (Larry’s Cool is down to 1)

Round 6 – Larry: Rock, Joe:Scissors
Larry takes careful aim, waiting. Joe pushes the barrels over he’s hiding behind and Larry dives and fires. The barrels bounce over his head and when the dust settles Joe is on the floor, shot clean through the heart.

Healing and recovery
All of the PC’s attributes are restored to their full values at the end of each conflict. If any hero reaches 0/0/0 in a conflict they may be dead, captured, unconscious or at –1 to one of their attributes for the remainder of the session, depending on the nature of the conflict and the whim of the GM. You have been warned.

Multiple opponents
Either have the heroes square off one-on-one against multiple foes or (preferably) total the stats for multiple opponents and treat them as one larger foe.

For example, five Goblin Minions (1/1/1) could be represented as (5/5/5). Simply reduce the number of surviving Goblins as dramatically appropriate.

After each successful session, add 1 to any one attribute. No attribute may be more than 2 higher than the rest (i.e. 3/1/1 is ok, but 4/1/1 isn’t – raise one of the lower attributes first).

And that’s it – a quick and slightly silly system for those times when you’ve left your dice at home, or are stuck in the middle of a field somewhere.

Comments welcome, as ever.

8 Comments on “Rock Paper Scissors, the role-playing game”

  1. Back in my day, we used to call this ‘Minds Eye Theatre’.. or just ‘The Vampire Run’.
    The best part was when you got to mid levels of Potence you could throw ‘The Bomb’.

  2. I have to agree, I’m pretty leery of diceless games. They mostly just boil down to resource management, and that resource management usually isn’t complicated enough to produce an interesting player experience. (Obviously, a good GM with a good story can make any system fun, but we can’t all be super-GM all of the time!)

    Suggestion: check out Dread. This diceless game has knocked my socks right off. Its mechanic is so simple, yet so spot-on for the genre it emulates (dramatic horror.)

  3. Gotta agree with DeadGod on Dread. After playing it at the DC game Day I went out and bought Jenga. I’m still itching to find a way to bring the mechanic into my regular games (even if only for special sessions).

      1. Interesting system, and in my mind a fair amount tactical without getting overblown. My only question: in your example, by the end of round 4, Joe only has 1 Speed left – no more Aim, no more Cool, right? Wouldn’t Larry just play Aim, since he knows that Jow can only play speed? Might there need to be some sort of recovery mechanic or “switcheroo” mechanic or something?

        1. Aoi, thanks for the feedback. I put that in intentionally so that there’s a reward for good tactical play – there’s a route to a “no lose” final show-piece attack.

          Alternatively, if the GM wants to keep the tension all the way, don’t reveal the stats and remaining totals to the PCs. In the example I showed all the cards on the table. I wouldn’t necessarily do that in a real game :)

  4. You know, I have no problem with Diceless games. Marvel saga was rockin (once it got a little homework) and everway was a really interesting way to destroy rules lawyers

  5. The last diceless RPG I played was Cops and Robbers… no wait, it was Cowboys and Indians. I simply can’t imagine going diceless.


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