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.