Saturday, March 26, 2011

Narrativist Roleplaying, or "Fuck Dice"

I just noticed this is my 21st post this month, surpassing my previous two years output in toto. I had decided I was going to, at minimum, post something every weekday from now on, just to get in the habit of writing again. Looks like I successfully accomplished my goal; I like accomplishing goals.

Inspiration comes in strange places. It was this thread over at the OD&D forum (which I've been reading for around a year and just now got around to registering for) that prompted this post, specifically the part where the DM does all the die-rolling. It wasn't the thread itself that gave me any of these ideas, instead it made me remember some stuff from a long time ago, how we used to do things, and I felt compelled to write it down just so I could revisit the concepts at a later date.

Anyway, narrativist roleplaying...I'm not advocating douchey Vampire-style gaming. Far from it. Instead, this is more of a recollection from an earlier era when I didn't have any resources other than time and my own brain. I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating so you don't have to sift through a bunch of crap to find out what I'm talking about: I started playing D&D in 8th grade. I remember vividly the day when my friend David brought his Mentzer Red Box to science class. He sat right behind me, perusing its contents. I knew about D&D through Intellivision and other video games, the cartoon, saw it in Toys R Us, etc. D&D was a fairly ubiquitous part of pop culture during the early 80s, but I never played it. This was my first chance to really get a good look, and I was instantly enthralled. That whole class I copied down the mapping symbols, for no real reason. I drew up a map completely unlike anything I've ever seen published that night, probably because I had no idea what I was doing. The next day, David let me read the player's book at lunch and I was addicted. That weekend, he stayed over and we played my first game. David was the DM and played an NPC, a chaotic dwarf. I played a fighter, as did my brother. Straight out of the DM's book, we conquered the dungeon to David's chagrin. He started making up crap to throw at us, and for whatever reason my character was unbeatable.

Unfortunately, the Red Box wasn't free, so I started saving up to buy it. Over the course of about a month, I surely couldn't NOT play D&D simply because I didn't have any rules. So I made them up. My parents had a party a few weeks later, and some cousins and friends and I were hanging out (as an aside, being a kid sure was fun). I mentioned I had played D&D and how much fun it was. Well, the next thing I knew, they were all asking to play. There were no rules, no dice, no paper, pencils, anything. That night we played D&D for around six or seven hours with absolutely nothing. I was the DM and used my extremely limited knowledge of how the game was played to come up with a scenario for everyone. My cousin was enthralled, and when I saw him again a week later, he insisted we play again. Another marathon session followed that night. And into the next day. We played D&D at the swimming pool, during lunch, riding our bikes, at the park. Pretty much wherever we were, around three or four kids and I were playing D&D. After around a month and a half, I finally got the Red Box. And DICE!

Funny thing about those dice...we really didn't use them much, if at all. Roll to attack, sometimes...roll for damage most of the time. But honestly, the dice were almost insignificant. I don't think I even had read more than 1/3 of the rules. No one else even bothered to look at the books, they relied on me to do that. Morale, I really didn't understand. Nor initiative or hit dice or 90% of the stuff. And yet, we had some fucking kickass sessions. Characters died and triumphed, kingdoms were won and lost, gold found and spent. The idea of the game was infinitely more powerful than the implementation. The dice were nothing more than a reminder that it was still only a game and sometimes randomness needed to be interjected. The players explained what they wanted to do, I decided if it seemed reasonable or not. Isn't that really what D&D is? The referee's job is to determine if things make sense, if there is success or failure. The dice aren't a hinderance, but they certainly aren't infallible, either.

I wonder if the diceless, rules-less D&D we were playing was better than after we got the rules and dice. I wonder if perhaps not having those things actually leads to better game play simply because the players have to use their brains and not rely on external factors, if the DM does a better job because he has to keep a consistent environment completely independent of anything he might have written down earlier. I know for a fact that my dungeons were vividly detailed; they had to be. The descriptions I gave were completely off-the-cuff, yet fully realized. Does the act of writing down a dungeon's contents lose some of the wonder? Perhaps it ceases to become a place of mystery and instead an exercise in spelunking.

The narrativist gaming we did was completely dependent on our situation, not on any conscious decision to get rid of the rules, and that, I think, is why it was such a magical experience. Written rules inherently limit you, even if they are excessively liberal. What character classes were the players in my game? I have no idea, probably wizards and warriors and priests and whatever else. Did it matter? They adventured just the same, with or without a definitive hit point total or armor class. The warriors swung maces and clubs, not caring that swords did more damage. How could they know that? There weren't any rules telling them that was the case. The characters had unlimited options because we had unlimited imaginations.

I suppose it's possible someone might read this and say, "You really weren't playing D&D." In response I say, of course we were. I've read the original D&D books, those things are sparse as hell. Attributes are essentially meaningless, everything does 1d6 damage, spells are nothing more than names, etc. If you read enough fantasy novels, you can come up with enough ideas to fuel a narrative-based game without ever having read D&D. And yet, the IDEA of D&D is the important part. Without the Red Box, I wouldn't have known the context in which to put my notions of swords and sorcery. With just a simple read-through, however, I was able to create a virtually limitless campaign far more fun than I've had ever since. The rules and dice are meaningless to the game once you decide you want to play. It occurs to me that as people grow older they require more codification in the games they play. Kids do not need this whatsoever. The funny part is the kids are the ones having all the fun.


  1. "One thing, Dude: do you have to cuss so much?"

    "What the fuck are you talking about, man?"

    I think every D&D player of around our age "played" diceless at one point. I remember a buddy DMing me one-on-one as we rode back from a camping trip. It was just me telling him what I did and him telling me what happened. Brings to mind those old text adventure games like Zork.

  2. We played a lot this way in our first six months too--mostly because I didn't own any dice! We kind of used those damned chits that came with the Holmes Basic set in 1979, but mostly not.

    Eventually about six months I bought a set of dice and we crept into AD&D over the next year--but like Mack on trips or at school we'd continue playing narrative style for a few years.

  3. I riffed off your post with something somewhat similar, thanks for the inspiration.

  4. I forgot about those damn chits. For the longest time, the only dice I had were the three red attacking player's dice from the family Risk game. It was simple rolling up characters, but for anything else, I had to draw the damn chits!

  5. Beautiful article, Brad. Reminds me of our old days in the early 80's when we played/freeformed the first big German rpg. Didn't need (many) dice back in the days, and still play that way.

    Thanks for that trip down memory lane.