Aug 13

I Was A Goblin: No Dice

FT4 comments • 860 views

broken_dice__1_ One of the most important things I ever read was a tiny RPG fanzine called SNOWED INN. Actually it wasn’t even a fanzine in its own right. It was a bonus edition of a zine called ASLAN, which was – or so I was given to believe – the most controversial and groundbreaking RPG zine of its day.

By the time I saw Aslan its existing reputation as a thoughtful, warm RPG zine had been overlaid by its support for and love of “freeform” RPGs. Snowed Inn was a write-up of one of these – the first time I’d really come across writing which was a description of a game that had been played, not a scenario, or a debate about how to game well or just tinkering with rulesets. Snowed Inn was set in, yes, an inn, and was a kind of multi-player fantasy farce with tens of characters. It sounded as intoxicating and strange as the first RPGs I’d ever played.

But what were Freeforms, anyhow? Even at the time there was a lot of bickering over what counted or not. Discussion of the ‘proper’ Freeform games I played in – if they really were – will wait till next post. But Snowed Inn represented a kind of ideal for me – where you have as many people as you have characters, and your location stands in for the real space those characters are in, and you establish a situation instead of a plot, and take it from there.

Freeforms were hard to set up and play. But their ideological cousins were the diceless RPGs, and these were a lot easier. It’s not a hard name to figure out: diceless games were games with very limited (if any) rules and no dice.

No dice! To adopt this credo would surely be to mark oneself out as a gaming anarchist, a dangerous individual who had rejected society’s code and sought a truer life. But honestly it was how most campaigns I played in had developed anyway. The best games were an act of collective magic – using the dice to resolve situations was part of the ritual, but the rattle of D20s in a dice cup also broke the spell, made you rematerialise into your mate’s bedroom on a Sunday afternoon. So the arc of play tended to move away from combat and into the diceless gaps around it – investigation, conversation, threat, crappy jokes. No surprise people wondered about losing the dice completely.

There was, obviously, a lot of debate about what you did instead of dice – some people developed card games for storytelling, which is still a popular idea. Some used points systems, or encouraged bizarre theatrics: my memory is dimly telling me one game required some kind of miming competition to resolve issues, but surely I am wrong. In any case I was always attracted to the purist diceless ideal: no rules, no dice, just a situation and some characters and a referee to help tell the story.

The disadvantage, of course, was that without dice or a substitute, problem resolution was entirely in the gift of the referee. Should a life-or-death event occur, it was up to them to decide which outcome would suit the story best – and usually this meant not killing a working character off. Characters rarely died in diceless campaigns, though they might retire or change. Not having rulebook-based markers of progress or ability freed you up to actually develop your character – for whatever value of ‘develop’ your adolescent brain might accept.

This happened to me in the first mainly diceless game I played in – a loose adaptation of the famous Arthurian Britain game, Pendragon. Pendragon’s beautiful central idea is that a campaign would span several generations of characters, across the whole mythic arc of Arthurian legend. The group I landed in were taking a less legendary approach – our Knights were a more realistic bunch of medievals, scrapping and bickering across a mostly lawless landscape, trying our best to avoid getting either killed or too involved in political and religious intrigue. My Knight, good in a fight but annoyingly devout and morally rather shrill, found himself increasingly on the outs with the others, and eventually quit the group – returning several sessions later as an enemy played by David, our excellent GM. It was a thrill to see him again, a reminder of a character I’d taken to some kind of conclusion, not just levelled-up until I was bored of him.

I’d left school by then, fallen in with a bunch of mostly new friends, and gaming was one of lots of things we did. Most of the group hadn’t really played RPGs before – they were musicians or programmers or videogamers – and they didn’t bring any preconceptions, which is probably how diceless and freeform games became so accepted in our group. Why mess around with character sheets when you could get on with telling the story? Pendragon, the first game I played with them, was also the most trad. David lent me his zines – Aslan and the Freeforms it described were the ones that grabbed our imagination. We had to try some of this stuff – push things further, lose dice for good. We were 18 and 19, self-consciously hungry to experiment, and role-playing games would be the venue for it.

In the next I Was A Goblin I’ll talk about the Freeform and experimental games we actually ran, and then it’s the FINAL EPISODE unless I can think of something else to mention.


  1. 1
    @alantrewartha on 8 Aug 2013 #

    Hurrah for goblins http://t.co/T6RqMAuOFu

  2. 2
    David on 16 Aug 2013 #

    It is great to read your recollections about the games we ran and played in 20 years ago! Looking back, it was a very creative time for RPGs, with many innovations emerging on the margins over the late 1980s and then gradually becoming more mainstream through the course of the early 1990s. Back in the late 80s, fanzines like Aslan described and promoted kinds of gaming which seemed avant garde because they were so different to the styles of role-playing that dominated the hobby at the time – some gamers were trying to shake off the roots of the hobby in skirmish wargaming which many others still enjoyed (the dungeon crawl which is how most of us started playing) while at the same time there was the perception, and probably the reality, that the sudden demographic explosion of role-playing through the 1980s, with lots of people like us entering the hobby as children rather than young adults, was holding role-playing back from developing into a more mature, sophisticated cultural pursuit. I think my attempts to ‘improve’ my role-playing in my late teens were partly driven by a perception that what I had previously been doing was looked down upon by older role-players whom I admired, whose games I read about in fanzines.

    The climate in the hobby is now quite different, with far fewer younger people coming in, and the wargaming roots quite deep in the past. Role-players recognise a variety of styles and a liberal ethos largely prevails that it is wrong to claim that one style is better than another. There are experimental games and thriving indie games, but also a retro old school D&D revival scene as well. Overall the hobby is probably more diverse than it was 20 years ago, but it is not now developing nearly so fast it was then. As it changed from schoolboy craze to niche adult hobby, it has settled down a lot – and you would still recognise many of the main games and most of the role-playing practices and gaming mechanics from 15-20 years ago.

    I played intensely through my late 20s and early 30s, but less so in recent years now I have children. But now those children are getting to an age that they can play games I am beginning to run games for them. I have tried an intriguing indie game or two, but what really engages them is a pared down D&D clone written for children. The fact is that a dungeon crawl based around a series of combat encounters presents a very clear environment for gaming, while interacting in a complex social world is beyond young kids (and probably many teenagers too). With floorplans and miniatures kids get important visual cues as well. So having not played D&D since the age of 14 or 15, and having felt myself far beyond it by my late teens, I now find myself looking back at old D&D modules wondering if I can adapt them to play with my children.

    I look forward to the next installment!

  3. 3
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  4. 4
    slideyfoot on 16 May 2020 #

    Cool! I haven’t yet entirely abandoned dice, as I like the way it’s a great generator for randomness, but as I said in an earlier comment, I have improvised plenty of DnD games before (I still like the DnD framework, for both sentimental and mechanical reasons). It’s my favourite way to run ‘beginner games’, as then players don’t have to know anything about the rules or both with a character sheet if they don’t want to.

    I’ll ask them for a setting, then their character names and why they are there. From that point, most of the game tends to be them talking to each other, while I get them to roll at certain points (in the hope somebody rolls a 1, so I can throw them out of a window or something like that). Often goes places I wasn’t expecting, like the game where an axolotl, a deer and an ‘Australian with great hair’ spent most of it dance battling. :)

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