Friday, August 23, 2019


Consider the following.

The year is 1972. OD&D is almost two years away. We’re playing a game called “Blackmore” (or Greyhawk or Tekumel or Braunstein) where we have these great fictional characters exploring a great fictional world.

The characters have personality and appearance. We write down one or two cool things about them and maybe a weakness. Some stuff to make them human.

There is a setting. Perhaps it's the dungeon of a castle. Perhaps some expanse of foreboding forest (since every forest is foreboding and accursed.) You describe what you're going to do - no skill checks! And your referee adjudicates and describes what is happening.

The referee helps to narrate what happens at moments of conflict and uncertainty. Sometimes he asks for die rolls - generally, low is bad, high is good, and in the case of conflict, ties or near-ties require negotiation. But the results are really loosey-goosey and handwavey by the standards of our real decade. “Rulings, not rules” turned up to 11.

Are there rules? Game mechanics? Yes. But there’s no rule book (yet) so only the ref really knows what the game mechanics are. You have to trust the ref.  It’s a lot like the first time we all played - before we knew what the dice and tables meant.

Without hard stats, without hit points, without definite rules to lawyer over, you’re just this cool character exploring the world with your friends and perhaps rivals. The fiction is draped in front of the scaffolding of game mechanics. You just... play.

As you go along and things happen, you and the ref decide what numbers to write in, and even what categories there are: brains, guts, sex appeal, foot speed? It all depends on what’s been important so far. Who knows what “stats” you will think up.

The ref counts on you to direct the action. The world is alive and it’s turning whether you want to engage with it or not. It’s your show, not the ref’s. There’s no modules or story paths. They don’t even exist. Nobody’s standing there handing out quests when you click on an icon over their head. You gotta go hunt for adventure.

Would you like to play this way? Would you try it and try to get used to it? Would you turn your nose up?

I would like to play this way. Maybe not all the time but it would be a fun change of pace.

Incidentally, this isn't how I'm running my upcoming Port campaign. There is already enough of a gap between the new-school game the players are used to and the old-school game I'm going to run to make them try to make this mental leap as well. Maybe in a couple years we can try :)


  1. I've come to close to this twice. Both with homebrewed rules and small groups. It can be a great change of pace.

    1. Hi thanks for coming over. I appreciate it a lot. The players and DM would have to know each other very well and have a level of trust to do it this way. And not everyone wants to play this way either.

      This generation - the 5e kids, Milennials, whatever - seem to be the most by-the-book/conformist people. They want to know The Right Way To Play and to play that way. The way video games and Adventurer's League are structured reinforces this tendency. So you would have to play with only really old players (45+) and brand new players to make this work IMO.

  2. This is how I try to run my games, not referring to books at all during the session. It's easier with new players, they don't know the rules so when they want to do something I tell them to roll a die and then tell them what happens, in the beginning most players don't really care about the specific rules. This only works if you as the DM have the players in front of you so you don't have to ask them to roll to hit or what their thaco is, just ask them to roll a d20 and you have all the numbers needed to determine the outcome, so the player never has to worry about all the specific fiddly rules.

    One of my best friends was great at running this way. He wasn't super familiar with the rules, but was great at improv so when he asked us to roll a die for something that wasn't in the rules or he asked for a different die roll than was in the rulebook, we accepted it because he was confident in the way he ruled on our PCs actions. We were so caught up in the experience of playing we didn't care about the rules.

    1. Hi Lance, thanks for the vine.

      Yes, this way takes a lot of trust. It works best with people who don't know any rules or people who are very adept at the rules and are in on the plan.

      You're right about improv - very important. In my own case, I keep a ton of procedural content generation tools at hand to facilitate that.

  3. In the 1st paragraph it should read *this only works if you as the DM have the PC stats in front of you