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No System? No Problem!

Alex Loke


system n. set, organized body, of connected things or parts forming complex whole.
less adj. smaller; of lower rank or degree.

I usually think a dictionary excerpt is nifty and helpful when explaining an esoteric concept. I was wrong.

A few years ago, I encountered something known as the systemless game at a convention, something I'm told is a trend in non-US conventions. A contradiction in terms almost, considering the madness requires a method. It might also be a convenient term for 'empty mechanics' though I'm sure the makers of Pokemon the Roleplaying Game will corner that market. In truth, there is a structure. The system is simply minimal. Bear with me, I do have a point.

For the terminally confused have a look at this glossary.

Right. A systemless game is just like a normal every day RPG except that at some point the games master has made the decision to conveniently dispose of the rules, in favour of a system of judgement calls and estimates. Back to the actual game I played then.

I gave it a little thought and put down my five bucks.

"Impress me," said I, furrowing my thin eyebrows at the convention writer/GM monkey. I can be especially offensive after one or two Mountain Dews. She wasn't offended, but I think she thought I was trying to pick her up. I shouldn't have used the Shaft voice.

I'll refer to the aforementioned convention writer/GM monkey as the CWGMM. The absence of vowels, make the word sound celtic and mythical, or like you have a mouthful of gazpacho. I wonder if White Wolf would like to buy some of my pretension.

She got a room in the upper floors and plonked down the meaty sack of gaming freebies that GMs are often offered in lieu of payment.

"Clear a space. We're going to need lots of room."

We moved the tables aside like obedient little helper monkeys, which seemed to satisfy CWGMM. By 'we' I mean an assortment of role-playing allsorts. Role-playing really isn't like satanic ritual, since it doesn't have such a wide appeal. You see role-playing lures a very specific crowd. Don't think yourself special for this, despite what your therapist tells you.

Das uber-goth 'Lestat' and his vampire-ess 'Raven' gave me a disdainful look, though I imagine that one with that many piercings only has a disdainful look. They even clanked in unison.

The rush from the dew had burnt itself out and I was kind of sluggish. I was the last one in the queue so I didn't get a choice in character. Usually I have to fight the quiet guy for the better of the last two characters. Usually, you don't fight a quiet guy he just accepts that he's lost without so much as a word. The quiet guy in this group made his choice first, so that he could get back to his deep thought. CWGMM handed me the sheet with a distinct 'try not to eat it, stupid' look. I can demonstrate that look sometime in exchange for more gazpacho.

I was an ex-CIA/ex-FBI/ex-NSA something or other ("Again? Aww man.."). For such a rear-end kicking character (I'm choosing my words carefully...don't want to use dem bad words), there was not a number in sight. I pressed for an explanation of the rules, to which CWGMM shrugged and said simply.

"If it sounds cool, then it works. Nothing could be simpler."

Stupid 'forcing me to think'. Asking John the Uber-nerd to do something cool is kinda fruitless. I suppressed a chortle. The chortle fought its way up anyway. Stupid chortle.

The quiet guy was a disaffected member of the British aristocracy. Isn't that redundant?

Lestat and Raven were a pair of 'vampires'. In the game I mean. At least they had the pretend method-angst down.

CWGMM set the scene and began to throw a set of scenarios at us that began to form a storyline. Perhaps, there wasn't a storyline, I might have just been finding tenuous correlations (that'll teach me to suffer from insomnia). We did some crazy running around, and meanwhile CWGMM played all the other people we met, while driving the 'story' forward. Strangely enough, we never met more than one person at a time. I forced the situation, and I eventually had CWGMM playing four characters at once. I then started an argument between them. I was almost sure I could have left at that point.

When we would normally use dice, we thought up things that sounded suitably cool, and usually they worked, depending on the mood of the CWGMM. I figure this system doesn't teach one much about real life since when I do something cool, no one is watching.

Somewhere around the end we were delightfully coerced into a van, due to the fact that two of the members of the mismatched party were unable to travel in sunlight. We then got pulled up by a street cop who was a might suspicious of a van with blacked out windows and a machine gun mount speeding away at 200kph from a burning building. Raven had introduced herself by baring her fangs and snacking (or at least attempting - obviously this wasn't cool enough for CWGMM) as the officer leant into the car to give us a ticket. Why we stopped, I'm still unsure. He called for backup and I got out of the van and ran for the hills. No thought necessary there, I figured I wanted to be out of the car with the irrational people. Having no effective engine for evasion in a small convention room I was forced to run on the spot.
"You're ex-FBI!" Lestat cried desperately, as if he had any real hypnotic power (though I admit his jingling was soothing). "Come back and save her!"

In the words of Larry Barnes, ex-FBI/CIA/NRA/ABC/NRA et al: "Nuh-uh."

The others soon came around to my cowardly way of thinking. I think at this point CWGMM was getting upset, so the main bad guy decided to come to us. He was an ancient vampire, 10,000 years old and all. He laughed maniacally and posed for the camera a few times. He paced and ranted in front of us and then gave away the entire plot before he 'killed us'. Apparently we were pawns in an international conspiracy to plunge the world into darkness ("Glad to meet you Mr. Gates."). I waited patiently.

The quiet guy chose that moment to speak.
"Umm...didn't you say it was daylight?"

He may have been quiet but his sense of timing was impeccable. I'd be the quiet guy if it meant when I spoke I could come up with stuff like that.

CWGMM tried to argue some, but I pressed. Quiet guy pressed. I accede that a 10,000 year old vampire is unlikely to take a stroll on a sunny LA afternoon. We really just wanted to get the heck out of there - and that I did.

Man, I got so burned. I'd learnt a valuable lesson that day. My first systemless game experience would be something I would relate, Wonder Years style, to a therapist some time in the future.

Systemless games aren't bad things. Eventually I got over my dislike of them. In fact, I even ran one. Like any other RPG form, they're good, depending on who runs the game, and who you play with. The only difference is that they don't rely on the rules to make the game. Role-playing (as in playing the role of a different person) becomes more integral.

My advice? Try to take the game seriously (I was well within my rights to not take an 'ex-everything guy working with vampires' seriously). There really isn't all that much difference between systemless role-playing and it's complicated counterpart. I also find that one needs a certain degree of experience in 'makin stuff up on the spot'. The lack of definitive rules usually doesn't allow players to fall back on the standard set of responses that a player with specific rules can ("I hit the monster with my sword."). Without an idea of the limitations of their character, they're more inclined to try things well outside typical rules systems ("I backflip over the monster, draw my guns and John Woo him, and the guy standing on the balcony while smoking a cigarette AND looking cool!"). Judgement calls really do much of the resolution, though some people like paper-scissors-rock. You might even be inclined to call it LARPing at that point however.

It's not for munchkins, since all the reward comes out of playing a role, not accumulating treasure or carcasses. I might even go as far to say I like systemless gaming. I've even tried chess in systemless mode, but the other players tend to disapprove of my super mecha-pawn which destroys castles like they were Tokyo. I still game with quiet guy, but he's not so quiet any more. I've upgraded him to moderate guy.

Try not to git et by nuthin'

Alex is a 22 year old, living in Melbourne, and has been gaming for 12 years. He has no concept of good or evil. He makes the impossible seem possible to the naive, for my own viewing pleasure. He is currently planning a solo round-the-world tricycle trip, once the logistical porblems with riding over water are overcome.

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