Systemless Games: Design and Presentation

Continued from Part One: History and Definitions

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

Practical Design

I have an Orlanthi soul, I try to learn from my mistakes. And I’ve made a lot of them. The following suggestions are certainly not authoritative, but should serve as a basis for thought and discussion.

In systemless roleplaying, we are both performers for and audience to each other. A systemless game can be more demanding than a traditional module, and the risks of it not succeeding are greater. However, they can also be extremely rewarding.

A designer’s responsibility is not just to produce a good module. You should:

  • plan early, write early, playtest early.
  • take responsibility for what you create, and avoid sensationalism or manipulation.
  • playtest to an extent that most possibilities for the module have been covered.
  • respond to the suggestions that come up in playtesting.
  • provide trusted referees that have been fully briefed.
  • respect your players. Build in opportunities for them to provide their inputs into the story, be it action, characterisation, or emotion. Offer them opportunities to explore, but do not force them into pyschological or emotional places they do not wish to go.
  • structure the module so it can be used effectively.
  • advertise so that your audience knows exactly what to expect from your module.

Most importantly, you must trust in your own vision for the module. Write according to your own feelings, rather than by copying another module or transplanting a book or movie wholesale. We all borrow from each other, but trusting your own ideas is crucial in building an effective module. Write for yourself, rather than for the convention response sheet. Decide early on what is important to you–having forty teams or having one team who perfectly understands and fulfils your vision (usually its somewhere between the two). (Convention feedback is important and often helpful, but its not what writing is about).

Some Elements of Design

Balanced, realistic characters

The problem in describing the boy next door to the nth decimal place is that the character you’ve designed is as exciting to play as . . . the boy next door. Any character description is a work of fiction, designed to provide opportunities for roleplaying. Dramatic life is not the same as ordinary life. The most memorable characters from literature are anchored in real people, but posses something else as well. Even if your aim is to have a realistic flavour, your character should not be realistic. (Real people are so boring. That’s why I roleplay). Characters serve many functions–as symbols of some quality (e.g., courage, lust, resignation) as a foil or a complement to another character, as a vehicle for a set of ideas (e.g., a celibate Buddhist), as a source of skills or attributes (e.g., the gully dwarf thief with the lockpick). Think about what role you intend for your character, then think of what you will do if you find a player not coping or understanding the character. If the character is primarily a vehicle for an idea or attribute, ensure that the character has foibles or contractions to provide a sense of balance (unless of course the genre demands caricature). Ideally, IMHO each character should have a smattering of the following attributes:

  • Things to do – an objective.
  • Things to feel – an emotional goal.
  • Things to think about – a characterisation hook.
  • Unresolved emotional or other dilemmas that can be solved by party interaction.
  • A misleading idea about another member of the party.
  • A source of tension – a strong difference of opinion or rivalry with another member of the party.
  • Unique skills or knowledge; a clear area of expertise that is not duplicated within the party.
  • Freedom to change.
  • Freedom to make a stand.
  • A chance to survive till the end of the module, or die a damned good death.
  • Freedom to explore.

The main characteristic of systemless modules is that they provide opportunities for characters to test themselves and, if they wish, to develop or change in some way. It may focus on character, relationships, ideas or ideals. Rather than providing plot events to propel them along, often the prime goal of a thematic designer is to provide settings and props to spark discussion and roleplay. A lot of this can be done through the character sheets. You need to achieve that difficult balance between characterisation and plot, between pushing them on before they’re ready or letting them waffle and wander into boredom or into areas of no consequence to the module. And you need to have backups– action events or even dice rolling for that one team who had no idea what they were getting into.

Mood Redirection

Mood is a fragile thing. A good deal of the effort in a new wave module goes into creating mood. However, we need to be able to gently redirect it as well. Players must never be forced into confrontations or challenges they do not wish to face. If things are getting too tense, or too personal, or some of your players aren’t coping too well with the end of the world, you have to be able to gently balance things out. Encounters or other events can be introduced to change focus. A background intrusion such as music can also be very effective. (Music is surprisingly effective in creating its own mood).

‘What I aimed for in the module’

Many thematic modules have very ambitious agendas that are completely lost on some players. Most new wave games benefit from discussing your aims for the module before you start play. Include some design notes for the benefit of your other GMs. Write a short article for the handbook. Talk to your players beforehand. Brief them about your aims, and listen to their expectations. If you feel bold, you might even introduce yourself (I’m constantly amazed how many GMs don’t do this). A debriefing afterwards is always a good idea, and for complicated or emotionally draining modules, a must.

Playtest, playtest playtest! (and then playtest)

Have I mentioned this before? Do you detect a pattern? Playtesting is essential. Twice on Thursdays.

Careful with that blurb!

If there is one thing worse than finding yourself in a dungeon bash you thought was a multiform, its finding yourself in a multiform you thought was a dungeon bash. In these days of adult concepts and soppy emotional endings, it is essential that all your players know exactly what they’re letting themselves in for. And believe me, you have to try hard to get the message across. (In Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, despite strong allusions to Chairman Mao and political critiques in the blurb, despite background notes, character sheets and pre-game briefings explaining exactly what the module was about, some players expressed disappointment afterwards because ‘it was different to the Monkey TV show’. Lesson: never cross genres in an area where players have strong expectations.)

Tackling Serious Issues

Systemless modules often tackle ‘serious’ or ‘adult’ issues of choice, relationship and moral dilemma. It’s important to approach such themes carefully.

Just how much can you do in a game? Even serious modules have to be playable, and need to be enjoyable. Whatever else they are, they are first and foremost roleplaying modules.

General theories of the theatre tell us that it is not a function of art to make a statement but to induce an imaginative response; the recipient receiving not an answer to a question but rather an experience. The point here is, ‘don’t preach–outreach’. Pose questions to your players by all means, but let them come up with the answers. Give them the freedom to use their own creativity. They won’t let you down.

Sensationalism and Player Sensibility

Sensationalism is an easy way to get noticed, but its seldom an effective base for a successful player experience.

The roleplaying contract depends on GM and players working together, trusting each other, assisting each other. It depends on giving each other freedom to characterise, and if appropriate, to demonstrate a response. It is not about pressing single emotion buttons which say, be shocked, be scared, be outraged. Hitting players with an emotional sledgehammer is the thematic equivalent of a ‘Stone Wall’ (a badly designed adventure module). It doesn’t work, for it destroys the trust in each other necessary for a successful module.

Simply put, if you are touching upon any adult, violent or psychological realm, it is your responsibility to make sure that players know exactly what they are entering beforehand. Prepare a handout to distribute with the character sheets, or better yet, put a warning with your module’s blurb. Necronomicon uses a rating system that spells out module content.

These things are as important and basic as building a sound plot and giving your players freedom to explore. Both sides of the equation — the mechanics and the social — are equally basic to sound module design.


Pre-check your teams

If you think there is an expectation mismatch, go and talk to the players before their session. They may be surprised, and grateful. Then again, you may be surprised as well.

Fully briefed GMs are absolutely essential

Some lonesome referees are notorious for hanging around registration desks waiting for desperate designers to allow them to referee a game. ‘Just give me five minutes to read the module’. The quality of such efforts is, err, poor at best. It’s unfair on you, on the team, and even on the aspiring referee (who might be filling in with the best will in the world).

Find out from the convention organisers how many teams you’re getting. Don’t let them wait till three days before the con to tell you. Playtest your GMs accordingly. These days, its best to get GMs’ signatures in blood at least two months before the con, and then count on one in three dropping out, deciding to play, or revealing they’ve promised to ref three other games as well. Even at the con, you can guarantee at least one GM sleeping in or getting lost. Plan ahead. Be prepared. Have a backup. And then some.

The Physical Setting

Once or twice I’ve had the extreme pleasure of presenting modules in a drama lab — darkened rooms with built in sound systems, plenty of space, props and controlled lighting. I’ve also had to run atmosphere modules in a stairwell, or in a lift that had a constant stream of users, or with multiforming penguins bellysliding outside our window. Darkened rooms, controlled lighting, and no other games within cooee are a new wave GM’s dream. Any GM’s dream for that matter. Unfortunately, conventions are such that isolated rooms often are not available.

Again, plan ahead as much as possible. Most organisers will make special efforts if they know of your requirements beforehand. If things get desperate, you can do wonders with blankets, plastic garbage bags and masking tape (to the room, not the organisers). Look for hidden nooks and crannies outside the building. Put up threatening KEEP OUT — MUNCHINS AT PLAY signs. And if all else fails, tell the GM next door that you’re running a mood module. She’ll understand.

Try to set up your room beforehand. If players find a table with chairs, they’ll use them, so if you want to multiform move all the furniture to the side of the room. At the right moment, turn down the lights. Light your candles or torches (some venues don’t like puddles of wax on their floors–check beforehand). Relax. Enjoy. Now, can you read the module in the dark?

Dark and light can be powerful aids to atmosphere, but one needs to be practical. Players will need to reference their character sheets as they build up steam. Its best to leave the lights on till atmosphere demands their absence. Music can be a powerful aid, but too much simply detracts from other things. Sound effects are most powerful if they run for thirty seconds or less. Afterwards, they just become noise. Alternatively, chanting type sounds can be played at very low volume to get on players’ nerves. Increase the volume when players expect something nasty to happen.

Simple physical props can add wonders to a module. (I have wonderful memories of throwing cardboard bricks across a darkened ‘haunted house’). Paper handouts have their pluses and minuses. They are great as props, but the last thing you want in a thematic module is a table full of paper. Maps and other `god’s eye view’ aids should be avoided.

The Briefing

You can never do too much in a briefing. Introduce yourself. Ask your team how long they’ve been playing, and why they choose to play your module. Write all the players’ names (with their character names) on the blackboard so they can see it during the module. Talk about the module, what you’re trying to do, where the slow bits are, what the genre and system conventions are. If you’re multiforming, explain the conventions and gauge how comfortable your payers are with the style. How well do they trust each other? How much experience do they have in working as a team? If you want to use any form of physical contact as part of your gaming technique, ask beforehand. If you are awarding prizes, tell the players what the criteria are. Introduce the background, and then have the players introduce themselves in character. Getting everyone comfortable and relaxed is as helpful in roleplaying as it is in seduction.

Proceed slowly!

It takes ten or fifteen minutes for any team to find their feet, sort out character names, and size up their GM. Take things slowly at first and only gradually pull out the stops. Characterisation is usually difficult at first, and players need lots of cues to bounce around.

Roleplaying Magic

Remember that roleplaying is not made of words alone, but of sights and sounds, stillness and motion, noise and silence, relationships and responses. Something beyond words — the energy of the group — is paramount. Although imagination is very important, we don’t roleplay with our minds, we roleplay with and through our bodies. Use all the senses available to you as fully as you can. Never forget spacial values, the signals of movement and physical relationship. Encourage your players to act out every scene, to visualise every room, to imagine every smell. Ask them about what they are seeing, what they are feeling. Trust them to tell their side of the story.

Some things cannot be said, but only shown, and the good GM shows us her thought and feeling by embodying and impersonating it, not by reading it out from the module. Similarly, roleplayers can express themselves just as effectively through movement and gesture as through words. You don’t have to be a method genius; simple or melodramatic gestures and movements can be informative, effective and fun. Trust your sense of drama and storytelling ability. Trust yourself to have fun, and to create fun for your GM and fellow players.

Always consider and try to balance the three elements:

  • Action – gesture and movement, the prose and poetry of action
  • Visualisation – all that comes before the eye, costume, props images.
  • Voice – the spoken word and what it tells us about each other.

No single item is more important than another. Words support the eye, eye reinforces ear, and ear the rich and creative power of our imagination.

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