Systemless Roleplaying: History & Definitions

Part One of ‘New Directions in Australian Roleplaying: Style and Innovation in Roleplaying Design, originally presented by John Hughes at the Second Roleplaying Forum, Sydney, May 1991and updated slightly for Arcarnacon X, Melbourne July, 1992. 

Examples, History & Definitions


Systemless roleplaying means different things to different people. Its also called cooperative dramatism or multiforming or ‘Australian style’ gaming.

Systemless gaming is just another set of  tools in our collective toolkit. Its about taking notice of basic roleplaying technique. The tools that it uses are basic to our hobby, and those tools will continue to develop as long as roleplayers trust their freedom to create.

Like all roleplaying, systemless gaming is about having fun, about being creative, about having the freedom to step outside the boxes that define you and for a short time be something different. Its about surprising yourself and the people with whom you share the experience. Its about collectively weaving a magic spell.

Commercial gaming (with some notable exceptions) seeks to free our imagination–but only so much. It seeks to channel our imagination along very narrow (and commercially lucrative) paths. It glorifies the teenager in us, because commercial gaming believes that (male) teenagers are its only viable market. I think they are wrong. However, until this situation changes, and commercial roleplaying starts catering to a universal audience, systemless gaming will continue to be a personal and convention orientated style.

In so far as there is a reaction to this in the Australian convention circuit–a reaffirmation of the basic creativity and imagination of true roleplaying–then there is such a thing as systemless gaming. That it came out of the Australian convention circuit is only natural, because in one sense Australian conventions have always rejected narrow interpretations of what roleplaying should be about.

Gaming conventions in the United States and the UK are for the most part trade shows organised to sell products rather than ideas, dominated by gaming companies and distributors. We have escaped that, and so we’ve had freedom to create. Our hobby is richer for it. Australian conventions have given us freeforming, and they have led us away from narrow interpretations of dice and table work and rule book into a realm of experimentation, creative freedom and theatre. These developments have sat happily side by side with more traditional forms, and both styles cross fertilise the other.

So I’m really talking about roleplaying, not systemless roleplaying. Please remember that. You can’t separate it out from the rest of roleplaying, you can’t draw neat boundaries and say that new wave gaming starts here and ends there. There is no sense of hierarchy, no sense of us and them. It’s basic to our hobby. When I say for example, that new wave roleplaying emphasises x, I’m not suggesting that other forms of roleplaying don’t cater to x. I’m stressing this cautionary note because I know some people do draw boundaries either in rejecting the more traditional approaches or in rejecting systemless approaches. All roleplaying is about creativity, about having fun.

Systemless gaming is very popular on the convention circuit. I’ve already mentioned the role of the Australian convention circuit in encouraging our imaginations. I believe there are other factors that account for it as well. Our roleplaying experiences, the lessons we’ve learned, the mistakes we’ve made, are not lost: our tradition is expanding and maturing.

Some (most?) of us here have already spent many years exploring certain types of gaming, and quite simply we want to explore new territory as well as continuing to enjoy the old. I can see myself relaxing with gratuitous Gloranthan bloodbaths when I’m eighty; however I also want to inspire my creativity with something slightly more challenging than new troll drinking songs. And there is always something to explore, to challenge, to master.

Not that gaming experimentation is limited to us dinosaurs. The brightest and the best players and designers are young, and fairly new to the hobby.

Finally, punters are becoming more sophisticated, and expect more from all their modules, be they adventure or thematic. I look back at the modules being offered in the early nineteen eighties–by myself and by others, and I get embarrassed. Today we have diversity and a degree of professionalism, we are all challenged, and we all have more to experience and enjoy.

Roleplaying as we know it, by some strange quirk of history, began in wargaming. Parts of that legacy are still with us, especially in commercial gaming. The emphasis on rules, dice and mathematics, the kill or be killed plots, the figurines and grid maps, the glorification of the adolescent male in all of us. It’s interesting to imagine what roleplaying would be like if it began slightly differently, with a different set of assumptions. What would it be like if it began as a development of impromptu theatre, or non-competitive theatre sports, or story telling, or live action playing, or New Age religious dramas, myths and rituals? All of these approaches have good points and bad points; all of them are very different from the wargaming model that has dominated our history. They emphasise different senses, different forms of presentation, different rationales. As a thought experiment, it helps us to imagine some of the aspects of roleplaying we presently ignore.

So what’s it about?

Systemless gaming is characterised by a certain style. Systemless modules tend to emphasise in-depth characterisation, atmosphere, and they concentrate on exploring emotional or moral dilemmas. Before I talk about this style of roleplaying in the abstract, let me give you a few concrete examples.

Creativity Plus

Before I do that I need to narrow the ground. Convention roleplaying is just too big. I personally see it pursuing at least four novel, equally exciting directions, and I think we need to differentiate between them. I speak from my Sydney / Canberra perspective: Melbourne may well have additional styles to offer.

  • There is the mainstream emphasis on character, atmosphere and theme-based roleplayingg. My talk will concentrate on this stream.
  • There is the ‘total theatre’ stream typified by the Epitaph workshops, with their video cameras, closed rooms and lack of GMs. I’ll come back to this.
  • There is the ‘two team’ (flexiform) format being explored by Tonio Loewald, Chris Wheeler and others.
  • There is the freeforming stream, with all of its ongoing developments.

Being There: Some modules to put it all in context

In originally preparing for this talk (May 1991) , I conducted an informal survey in Sydney and Canberra to determine what people considered representative `thematic modules’. Four modules topped the list, and they turned out to be surprisingly representative in terms of conventions, themes and designers–male and female, individual and group. Luckily, I’ve played or run all of them, so I hope I can talk without seriously misrepresenting the authors.

In chronological order, the four modules were;

  • Persons Unknown by the Cthulhu Collective – Arcanacon VII (1989)
  • Memory by The Wyrm’s Footprint (John Hughes, Philippa Hughes, and James Townley) – Necronomicon I (1989)
  • Sundowners by Glen Fraser and David Arthur – Macquariecon `90
  • What Price Liberty? by Robert MacLean – Sydcon `91

Other modules mentioned in the survey included Malformed Creations (Mark Morrison), Five Sort Out Cthulhu (Kathy Ho), A Whiter Shade of Pale (The Wyrm’s Footprint), Winners Don’t Do Drugs (Chris Wheeler), Shadows In the Rain (Gerry Huntman), Murphy’s Law (Russell Waters), Hotel California (Paul Eccleston), Something in the Heir (WF) and Grail Quest (Robert MacLean).

All of these modules were successful in what they set out to do, and each in some way have entered our collective memory.

Persons Unknown by the Cthulhu Collective

Three session Call of Cthulhu presented at Arcarnacon VII.

Five amnesiacs escape from an asylum to discover their past and eventually wish that they hadn’t.

Persons Unknown was a mixture of story elements, but parts of it, especially the first session, were intensely thematic. Five amnesiacs awake in a sanatorium to find that nobody has missed them, that nobody knows who they are. (1989 was a big year for amnesia and for flashbacks). In the first session they explore their characters and the tantalising fragments of memory that haunt them. The atmosphere is tight, claustrophobic and gritty. Chthulhuesque things begin to happen around them, and so in the second session we have an escape and a drawn-out tunnel of fun chase scene across the Scottish countryside. In the third session, a flashback, we discover the reason the characters go insane, how they are forced to deal with the otherworldly Celtic spirits that threaten them, and almost incidently, how they save Scotland from a nuclear disaster. The key thematic element of the third session is, in a display of cooperative dramatism, to engineer the origin of the phobias, character quirks and memories that were explored in the first session. Persons Unknown is a well balanced, tightly scripted module with a wide appeal.

Memory by Philippa Hughes, John Hughes and James Townley (The Wyrm’s Footprint)

Single-session, systemless, adult concepts.
A Short, Sharp Shock at Necronomicon I, October 1989.

Dead yuppies coming to terms with each other and with themselves. Five Sydneysiders bound into emotional triangles that become eternal. A traditional `haunted house’ ghost story.

Memory was the first explicitly systemless module. It formally introduced the ‘play in the round’ multiform format and ‘adult focus’.  It almost completely abandoned plot in favour of intense introspection and character interaction. It was self-consciously theatrical, involving sound effects, design notes, briefings and debriefings. Players were encouraged to build a seamless module–a short intense period of total immersion in their characters.

Memory also introduced and simultaneously exhausted a genre of total gamesmaster control. The players were dead (though they didn’t realise it) and could do only two things– explore the increasingly surreal house they occupied (with its mysteries, voices and ‘ghosts’) or recycle their memories. The module used the device of GM initiated flashbacks to set mood and atmosphere. The flashbacks explored good times and bad, marriage, birth, crime, hope, adultery, and death. It was up to the players to seek justification for themselves and their lives, and possibly to resolve their emotional minefields within the context of the flashbacks.

What Price Liberty? by Rob MacLean

A single-session, cap-gun-driven but otherwise systemless module run at Sydcon ’91.

What Price Liberty? is an excellent example of a plot-driven module that is strongly thematic, and probably the best example we have so far of a module exploring an emotional and philosophical issue as its main theme. It’s about the struggle for freedom, and the role and use of terrorism as an instrument in obtaining that freedom. Five IRA ‘freedom fighters’ of varying persuasions seek to unravel life, death, the nature of terrorism and the taste of Guinness while deciding whether or not to wipe out half of Britain with a stolen canister of Anthrax. The background presence of MI6 adds a gritty espionage feel to the module, and the use of cap gun props certainly adds to the tension of events. (You pull the trigger, then a player character dies).

The module proceeds from the characters, who were designed to present a variety of views on the nature of the struggle between Britain and Ireland, and on the appropriateness of acts of terror in that struggle. It features a variety of button events that encourage players to philosophise–a wake, a funeral, hiding out. They must give eulogies, make speeches on gravestones and generally immerse themselves in being Irish (with a little help from the Pogues). There is the option for them to construct their own flashbacks to explore relationships and past events.

Mostly, this module ends with a member or members of the party killing some / most / all other characters, in a situation where nearly everyone is at least thinking of having to kill some of the others. Which I consider to be a very accurate statement about the nature of terrorism. Pass the Guinness…

Sundowners by Glenn Fraser and David Arthur.

A double-session, minimal system module run at Macquariecon `90.

As France prepares to burn, five Anne Rice vampires flee from a powerful force that is trying to destroy them, and incidently seek to justify their existence to themselves and each other.

One hot module! Set in pre-revolutionary France, Sundowners is a tremendously rich evocation of the shadowy world of Anne Rice vampire novels;  sensuous, sexual and decadent. And long before White Wolf it was too…

The module itself is very short–only eight pages. The main work is done through Glen and Davids’ character descriptions –and what characters they are! A young actress recently taken as an undead; her materialistic lover / mother; a savant seeking to live on the blood of rats; a six hundred year old crusader priest; and a twisted sadist trapped in the body of a child. At times the module dips into a more traditional vampire genre–Van Helsings and alchemical spells and silver tipped crossbow bolts–and I think falters somewhat as it does so. However, these intrusions cannot stop the express train power of the opening vision, and the module ends with power, each character having to justify themselves and determine what makes their life worth living. Not surprisingly, some characters cannot. And so, Paris burns …

To demonstrate how wide the field is, I’ll briefly mention Epitaph, which was a direct result of the 1990 Roleplaying Forum, and Past Tense, a wonderful module written since my survey and the first draft of this paper.

Epitaph Workshop by the Epitaph Collective

A single session, systemless, GM-less experimental workshop run at Arcarnacon `90 and Necronomicon II.

Epitaph was a conscious bundling of ideas that grew out of the first Roleplaying Forum, and sought to explore a self-consciously theatrical style of gaming. Epitaph involved five ordinary people of diverse outlooks, ages and attitudes trapped in a subway train while the world outside prepared for an incoming nuclear attack. Or did it? It was after all, a ghost story of sorts. Some of the phone calls to and fro were very interesting. The implementation went something like this …

Firstly, brief your players about roleplaying in three dimensions, about the Roleplaying Contract–providing each other with cues, not blocking but building on responses, and about taking responsibility for each other. Put them in a room made up as a subway train, without a gamesmaster. Watch them on a video camera, use a pre-recorded ‘radio program’ as your source of plot hooks and use an intercom as a ‘phone link’ to the outside world.

In Epitaph, most plot cues were given via a prerecorded radio program featuring news, music and How Green Was My Cactus (an Australian radio political satire). Characterisation and character development were entirely in the hands of the players. The phone calls were mainly initiated by the players. Because of the possible tensions of the situation, we developed mechanisms for breaking mood in case things became too intense– which they didn’t. As we were using a video camera, teams received a tape of their performance.

Epitaph was an interesting and rewarding experiment, whose future was probably cut short by the theft of the video camera at Necronomicon II. For me, the most interesting thing of all was that while Epitaph was intensely character-based, the actual performances didn’t turn out to be thematic. There was just too much else going on.

Past Tense by Cathy Simpson

Single-session, systemless, adult concepts. A Short, Sharp Shock at Necronomicon III, October 1991.

Past Tense seems so natural, so seductive, that it is perhaps easy to overlook its essential brilliance and power. Until you play it, that is.

Take five roleplayers and a bottle of wine. Put them round a table at an imagined dinner party. Encourage small talk, introductions, a sense of friendship and intimacy. Gradually introduce the characters, and begin roleplaying, striving to maintain that easy and relaxed atmosphere. The characters are five everyday people — friends, lovers, rivals. One of them is interested in reincarnation, and is reading a book on the Christos Method. Why not try it? If nothing else, everyone will receive a relaxing massage.

And so one by one, the group, serious or humorous, credible or sceptical, attempt a past life regression. The Gamesmaster, performing one of her few inputs into the scenario, places a walkman over the head of the regressing player. Each hears a tape that describes a person and a series of events in fourteenth century France. No explanation is offered. The players must puzzle out the experience, accept or reject it, and decide how the experiences of the historical characters reflect on their own lives and relationships. There is a connection between the tapes and the characters, a connection the players are free to accept or reject.

Eventually the evening will run its course. In closing, the gamesmaster asks the players to summarise the effects of the evening on their ongoing lives, drawing together the threads raised in discussion.

Part of Past Tense‘s power stems from Cathy’s tapes, well scripted and professionally recorded, that detail incidents from past lives in a sometimes harrowing or graphic way. The module reflects on the lot of women, both past and present. It is an excellent example of a mood piece where story, tension and action flow from the characters themselves. To accept or reject, to follow through a thread or push it aside as too threatening or too personal — these actions all have meaning and import in themselves. Once the characters have been introduced, the gamesmaster has little to do except change tapes and hand out ‘image sheets’ which summarise the regressions.

How it Came To Be

We’re now in a position to offer some tentative definitions of sytemless and thematic gaming. Not to limit, or to include or exclude, but merely to explore some of the motivations behind it, and its particular strengths. Please recall my earlier comments–this is not ‘us and them’ – systemless gaming simply uses some of the tools available to all roleplaying and applies them in a certain way.

Historically, I think systemless gaming descended from horror gaming –and in particular Call of Cthulhu. In the early days it was synonymous with horror gaming. Of the twelve `thematic’ modules mentioned in the survey, only three are not horror. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The earliest RPGs were all power fantasies–they were about being respected, being your own master, acquiring material goods, power and reputation. They were a lot of other things besides, but basically they catered (and still cater) to our insecurities. They were about being a hero, being more than human–every day in every way I’m getting better and better, and I’ve got the experience points to prove it. They were combat simulations, pitting good against evil, centring on values of aggressiveness, confrontation and objectification. Unless the party turned on itself, no one lost, and everyone had the chance to succeed.

Enter Call of Cthulhu. Whatever else it did, Call of Cthulhu turned adventure gaming upside down. Players were victims–willing victims, but victims none the less. Rule systems, combat systems weren’t that important anymore. If you played to the genre, physical resistance was futile, and the only sort of victory was surviving without too much damage to life, limb and mind. Call of Cthulhu made fighting only a minor part of roleplaying. It encouraged different types of characters, with different types of skills. For the first time, atmosphere and a sense of tension became central to the game. You knew it was going to get you, but you didn’t know when. Since you were going to die anyway, it encouraged you to enjoy your character while you could. You couldn’t fight back, but you could roleplay. Later games including Pendragon and Trauma also emphasised the mind and soul of the character as being equally important as physical and mental skills.

Those characteristics – atmosphere and characterisation – are central to systemless gaming. They are important in all roleplaying, but in systemless gaming they have centre stage. After several years of Call of Cthulhu, and almost in reaction to that game’s gratuitous characterisation, there emerged a third characteristic of the systemless tradition –  realistic portrayals of everyday men and women. It grew out of mood pieces, and of the shift from Lovecraft to other forms of dark fantasy – ghost stories and psychological tableaus.

Certain types of traditional horror literature have always emphasised ‘the monster within’ and our eternal struggle to remain compassionate, loving… and human. Even when cloaked in traditional forms, the monsters of our collective imaginations resonate with very human fears and doubt. Werewolves and vampires challenge the civilised veneers of our sexuality, ghosts evoke our taboos against death and the awareness that we all face a final extinction, monsters of all kinds expose our animal natures, and the blind rage we often feel constrained within the demands of ‘civilised’ society. Horror literature invites us to take off our blinkers and look at ourselves.

So too with horror roleplaying. A hobby that began as an act of escapism was gradually turning back toward real life. From that emphasis grew the final notable characteristic of systemless gaming–its ability and willingness to explore real world themes and issues. Finally, because mood and atmosphere were so important to the stories we were creating together, we developed or borrowed a series of techniques and props – dark rooms and sound effects and multiforming and theatrical techniques–to increase the fun and the power of what we could achieve.

If traditional adventure gaming is about people affecting their environment

Character >>>> Environment

then thematic gaming is about the environment affecting people.

Environment >>>> Character

The five central characteristics of thematic gaming are


Escapism is basic to roleplaying, and it is a healthy activity. Systemless gaming has its share of escapism too. Yet in focusing on real people and real emotions, new wave gaming provides a sense of entertainment and challenge that is different to more traditional methods. Not better, but different.

So, systemless gaming is about freeing our senses – all our senses – to create an experience in cooperation with others. If roleplaying is about building illusions, systemless roleplaying (with other styles such as freeforming) is about building illusions in three dimensions. It encourages different approaches and it values different things to other roleplaying forms, but it shares the general commitment to creativity, imagination and fun. Rather than rescuing the princess, often the core goal of a systemless module is to evoke a certain atmosphere or tension, an emotional release or catharsis. Both of these different objectives can be challenging, both call on roleplaying skills, imagination and team play, and both produce a tremendous sense of satisfaction when we get it right.

An analogy I often use when discussing roleplaying is that of a bookstore. Bookstores cater to a wide range of reading tastes–from science fiction and fantasy to Mills and Boon to Virago to Penguin Classics. They offer wares of interest to men, women and children. Entering a bookstore, you can choose anything from a racy best seller to a book of poetry without feeling patronised or labelled. You have freedom to choose. You have freedom to enjoy. We all have our favourite styles of literature–be it Mills and Boon or Frank Miller comics or tracts on upper Tibetan nose flutes. Yet most of us can appreciate something different when it comes along, and appreciate it on its own terms. Books bring their own values, without a sense of hierarchy or ‘us and them’. Arthur C. Clarke is no more threatened by Joan Collins than he is by Jane Austin or L. Ron Hubbard or Willy Yeats.

I look forward to the day when roleplaying can cater to the tastes of all men and women in the way that a bookstore can. We have a long way to go. Systemless roleplaying has added one more shelf at the back of the store.

What is Play? A Brief Digression

Some people have observed that systemless roleplaying is ‘serious’ roleplaying. I don’t disagree, but for me, in systemless gaming we are starting to discover the ‘play’ in roleplaying. We have always known about the roles–and for a long time we had only a very limited number of roles to choose from–the fighter, the adventurer, the outcast. At last we are discovering something of ‘play’.

Systemless gaming offers us the time to take the material offered to us and twist it around, explore it, play with it. The time constraints of an adventure module means that other things are important–finding things, fighting things, doing things. Systemless gaming offers us ‘space to play’.

Play is a highly important yet elusive term in anthropology and psychology. Play refuses to fit in, to be bound by roles. It is a joker, a trickster. It avoids convention, it avoids being told ‘you have to do it like this’.

Playfulness is volatile and sometimes explosive – and cultures try to contain the spirit of play and pack it into a number of packages. Yet it keeps escaping from these packages – that’s how roleplaying started in the first place.

Our modern culture distrusts play and all that it stands for. I think the main reason for the attack on roleplaying from fundamentalist religion stems from this–it has more to do with the Protestant imaginatin than with devils and satanism. Our culture values ‘realism’ and ‘reason’, while looking down on ‘fantasy’, ‘imagination’, and ‘myth’.

Play is no longer forbidden on moral grounds, as it was in the Puritan Commonwealth, but is accepted less as an end in itself than as a means towards other ends. Thus professional sport and the entertainment business have become major industries, and games are encouraged among youth because they are seen as building character and teaching skills. But play for its own sake?

Play subverts the way things ought to be. It frees us to discover new ways of doing, new ways of experiencing, sometimes new ways of being. It is about disengagement, freewheeling, opening yourself to new experiences. The energies of play skip through our brains, sampling a little bit from here, a piece from there. Play can reveal to us possibilities, can help us restructure our views of what reality can and cannot be.

I believe that the challenge of systemless roleplaying is that we ask people to play when often all they want and expect is to enact a role. This is a subtle point, but it bears careful thought.

On to Part Two: Design & Presentation

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