Seven Paths to Systemless Roleplay Tales from the Rocket House It kind of seemed wrong to call them ugh

the alliteration worked better. Seven Rules for Systemless Roleplay, even tho

Before I start, let me say that rules and mechanics are great, and I always use them for campaign/chronicle play. I usually even use them for one-shots (though, to be fair, a lot of the one-shots I run are partially used to test new rules). This is part of the reason a common language system (see Tales from the Rocket Ho use columns 1-4) can be helpful: to allow for an easy transition between campaig ns and one-shots among a given group of players. That said, there have been a lot of times when I ve enjoyed playing with neither d ice nor a mechanical system in place. It started years ago with a Streetfighter: the RPG (from White Wolf) one-shot game I was GM-ng. I had an idea for a story that had an action-movie scale to it not too deep or complex, but certainly foll owing the basic pattern of rising action and resolution. I also knew that, given the time available, we d only be able to get through a couple of scenes when usin g the standard mechanics (I d played the game enough to know how long a fight took , and how much it felt like a strategy game, rather than an RPG). I had three pl ayers, and we all trusted each other, so I declared that we d do this systemless. It worked very well; we got through the story in a satisfying way, and everyone had fun. So I stored the idea away for later use. During my undergraduate years, I used this a lot, in part because of time constr aints, and in part because it was fun. Whenever I went home and gamed with my fr iends from high school, we often played systemlessly (I know that s not a word), b ecause if we spent half of our time setting things up with the system and rollin g up or point-costing characters, we wouldn t have enough time to finish the game satisfactorily. At Tulane, I did this one time when everyone sort of wanted to roleplay, but we didn t have a quorum available for our regularly scheduled campaign. It was a rela tively new experience for that group of players, but they were, of course, great , and it turned out well. In that scenario, I had two pages of notes I d written l ong before: one page for the players, containing the basic parameters of the sce nario and brief descriptions of four characters, corresponding each to one of th e four classical elements. The GM s page had more about the scenario, and similarl y brief descriptions of the bad guys. Again, it went off without a hitch, and ev eryone had fun. Over time, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn t for diceless, systeml ess play. For the sake of clarity and flair, I ve distilled that into my Seven Path s for Systemless Roleplay. Path One: Fine but Few First, you have to have a small, close-knit group. Three players plus the GM is the most I ever did, and I d be pretty nervous about adding many more than that. T he GM will have no dice nor mechanics to lean on, so he needs to be able to keep the players and characters in mind at all times. Everybody has to trust everybo dy else. No exceptions, period. This will not work without trust. It helps if yo u re already friends and have already gamed together, but however the trust is est ablished, it must be there. Path Two: The Heart of the Story The PCs must be the stars of the drama. Though the GM needs to have story elemen ts available to push the pace, the PC s have to be the stars. This is their story

the players should ha ve to think at least a little to win cleanly. personality .this must be their story. disarm or wound the enemy. and do so in a flashy/cool way. gain positional adva ntage. Whe ther this is wuxia-style mortality handwaving ( it s just a flesh wound ). the better appearance. As GM. We knew each other s personalities well. and thus. The key is to have them work. If facin g an enemy in combat. the four elements were good ho oks on which to hang characters. and the tension and enjoyment of the game will be reduced. the players will not see them as credible. It would give an advantage. as if they d been turned into vampires. The GM needs to be able to easily kee p them separate from each other in his head. and I don t know that I could. Path Five: It s Just a Flesh Wound Related to The Path of Partial Success is this: the important characters should be able to absorb some damage in combat. speed/claws) in addition to the basic physical upgrades and weaknesses. This must be avoided at all costs. The Rule of Partial Success applies to the enemies as well if they whiff. Thus. but not have th em work so well that they. it s better to have an enemy and her entourage. and while it s acceptable (but annoying) if the dice mandate it. and narrated in real-time. but you can t let them instantly solve the problem. it works better with a definite beginning. which could be the final blow against a major opponent. but not an overwhelming one. such as hom e made silencers. But just firing u p the mace at the start would give the enemy time to come up with a counter plan . you should take into account the various approaches to characters here. The familiar Street Fighter 2 characters were. Path Four: The Path of Partial Success Players hate to whiff. done up in a relatively short amount of time. Th e more differences. and middle. because that mak es the game boring. end. I had one player who loved to have his characters invent odd gadgets. Any mentor NPCs must be weaker than the PC s. draw the m all larger than life. keep it to a minimum). Perhaps the PC could fight his way into a superior position first. In my exper ience. It is all too easy in a sys temless game for the GM to tell a story and leave the players with supporting or m inor roles. Path Three: Every One a Special Snowflake The player characters must be distinctive. t oo. the characters were roughly based on the players themselves. and is essentially set up like a mov ie. You don t have much time to get this across. it would only be a partial success. . I ve never run a campaign systemless. abilities. they try to kill the 50-foot tall Sp hinx with a sword instead of riddling it). or they will not have fun. overwhelm the opposition. and subtlety may not work. unless the PCs mission at that point is sur veillance (and even then. and then activate the fla me mace. so the PCs at tacks can take out the henchmen. incredible tough ness. by themselves. etc. or Highlander-style immortality. if there is to be significant fight . or otherwise unable to do what must be done. In one game. Further. propane-powered flame maces (to use against vampires) and so o n. The players actions should always have some impact. There should be a buildup to victory. and e ach PC got slightly different vampire powers (agility/strength. vampiric re generation. Sometimes you have to rig situations so that partial success is possible. . whiffing (having their actions completely fail) should not happen in a systeml ess game unless they are facing something so incredibly beyond them that they ha ve to find another way around (for example. At no point should the PCs be watching two NPC s doing something. if there is to be much combat at all. This really is a narrative style of gaming.

you ll need to make sure none of the important characters are fra gile. facing a vampire lord and having to jump over the side of a building to es cape her wrath. The agile one hit a parked car in a breakfall tumble. cannot be as cool or powerful as they are. you really do have to say Ninjas jump in through the windows! if the PC s sit there wondering w hat to do for more than a minute or two. As GM. of course. or to restrain players and GM from abusing the rules duri ng play). creating in the game. a nd its alarm shook the night. slowing his descent. an noyed) who can nudge them in the right direction when things get slow. unhurt. In a systemless game. By removing all such restraints and relying on open comm unication (as I ve done in the Subjective Character Creation Process I talked abou t in columns five and eight). because this kind of thi ng could really lead to the GM telling a story and the players sitting there. Encourage over-the-top descriptions by creating situations in which those descriptions can naturally occur. the more the players push against those restraints. It helps if they have an NPC guide (who . Path Six: Alacrity! Celerity! Rapidity! The pace must be fast! Things should happen to the player characters that force the players to make decisions and take action. Plus. For exa mple. rat her than less problems. a systemless one-shot can make for a fun and memorable gaming experience. Final Thoughts The longer I live. if it increases the power of the scene (but don t torture your pl ayers this isn t a great medium for dark angst). bouncing off and landing on his feet. after throwing homemade napalm in her face to distract her. and Then Some The Rule of Cool really applies in systemless gaming. What have you got to lose? . the more I find that the more restraints are written into a g ame system (whether to restrain players during character creation through scarci ty of character power. Each player described his landing differently the quick one with the claws grabbed a t the side of the building. but first and foremost. The car crumpled. set thing s up so the players get to be the cool ones. Path Seven: The Rule of Cool. then crawled out of the huge hole he d made. don t be afraid to kill important NPCs. a sense of trust can be established or strengthene d among the players and GM. The ultra-tough one just said boom and went right th rough the concrete.