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[Actual Play] Role Playing Without Formal Systems

Campbell

Legend
Last week I was in a bit of a quandary as a GM. We had been playing Lancer for five sessions and really like the characters and setting, but were not crazy about the rules. I already talked to the other players and got the go ahead to transition are game over to Beam Saber. Unfortunately there was a good deal of stuff that we needed to do before we could really transition fully over to Beam Saber. The main characters were still in the middle of retrieving/rescuing some sentient alien mech babies. What we ended up doing was basically playing with no system at all for a full four hour session.

Basically I framed scenes, players responded, and we made up systems to cover stuff as we went. Mostly we used Blades in the Dark style dice pools when necessary (without position and effect) so we had something fairly transparent to decide conflicts. The focus of the session was more on long term consequences. Even though there were a couple fights the physical safety of the main characters was not really at stake (although most of that was fictional positioning).

After playing Lancer for 5 sessions it was amazing how frenetic the action sequences were. I am still a little reeling from exactly how much happened. I used a lot of experimental jump cuts and had parallel narratives going on through most of the session as one of the main characters negotiated the release of his parents from an alien prison ship (a pleasant surprise) while the others were boarding another ship where they confronted a group of humanity first terrorists who had recently split off from a separatist group.

The players of the two characters in the boarding party opted to do a ship to ship boarding which made their presence obvious. We did a makeshift engagement roll to determine the initial situation. They ended up in a tenuous position where the arrived to see terrorists (Transcendence) fighting separatists (Crimson Lotus). One of the main characters comes from a famous mercenary clan and was able to convince the separatists that they were on the same side (Rolled 2 6's on 3 dice so a critical). With their combined forces (the main characters had some allies with them) they were able to force their way to the main deck. I had ruled that the success meant they were able to fight well together and build comradery. Their presence shifted things in the favor of the separatists so there was no need to dwell on the combat.

On the main deck they confronted Deras Vertu, a known terrorist and brother to one of their close allies and classmates from the Academy, Kas Vertu (who was there with them). They ended up deciding to try to take Derras alive, even stopping an ally from shooting him in the head. There were some pretty tense moments here as Deras and Kas actually got to see each for the first time in a long time. One of the main characters (Kira) was able to coach Kas out of her plans to "punish" Deras. The main characters were able to convince Deras to stand down and give up the wraiths. Meanwhile their ship was gone.

While the boarding party was taking place Fulgen Vangelos (whose mech/wraith was out of commission do a tense firefight with some of their new allies before they were allies) was asked to respond to a distress signal from a sentient alien prison ship. This sequence happened in a series of jump cuts interspersed with the boarding party's efforts. Basically Fulgen was able to successfully trick the prison vessel into believing he was the original Ascendent Lord instead of one of many clones and use that to trick it into letting him "transfer" out prisoners, escaping with some separatists as well as his "parents" (who are the rogue scientists who made him). I had no idea how this was going to go. I was fully prepared for things to go the other way which would have resulted in them still being imprisoned after we jumped forward in time. This player is a really talented at fictional positioning and had a couple of really good rolls. Still was saddled with a group of seperatists.

After this the main characters were able to link the boarding ship and Ascends From Sky to Sky, an allied sentient ship together. They opted to go along to the Crimson Lotus summit although there was discussion of sending Deras Vertu away. They could have escaped if they wanted to, but Fulgen did not want to leave his parents behind who are part of Crimson Lotus. Kira was able to calm down one of the Crimson Lotus leaders who was furious about some internal beefs. She also convinced their Unbound (sentient independent mechs) allies that the wraiths should be given a choice as to which side they join (rolling 6 6 6 on 3 dice). "Choice? Choice!" became a refrain. This made Kira's player very happy.

At the summit we basically had a bunch of individual conversations. The Unbound gained 6 wraiths while Crimson Lotus gained 6 as they were able to choose for themselves. In the wake of a "massacre" at their academy Jasven Vertu implored Crimson Lotus to return "their children". Basically I wanted to give the players a choice to go back if they wanted to. They also had a choice to join Transcendence, the human first group. There was also a splintering within Crimson Lotus so they had their choice of sub-factions. When all was said and done they opted to join the more anarchist branch of Crimson Lotus instead of the part wanting to restore autocratic rule. There was also a bunch more personal story stuff.
 

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Campbell

Legend
This all springs from the fever dream of my memories. There was a lot more going on then I was able to really enumerate.

Basically playing without a formal system really got me to see what my natural tendencies are as a GM and allowed me to experiment with the form a bit. I am not normally so aggressive with my scene framing, but I really wanted to pick up the pace for what is basically the season finale of the first season. I wanted the focus on this session to be on players making decisions that would carry over.

I would not do this all the time. I think reward systems and a way to communicate and track consequences is important. I definitely changed my framing in a couple cases because of the lack of formal support.

I think having no guard rails and only having fictional positioning to depend on was a good experience for everyone. It really helped us nail down exactly what was going on in the setting.
 

pemerton

Legend
@Campbell

Some of that makes me think of Cthulhu Dark, which has very relaxed resolution (roll a D6 to see how well you do; if someone is opposing or otherwise thinks you might fail, roll an opposed D6). But I've never used that system to do the sort of kinetic action you describe.

I think jump cuts is a technique that is very important for RPGing but is under-explored at least in the texts I know. Did you weave together the themes and/or consequences of the "strands" you were interweaving?
 

Campbell

Legend
It often lined up that there shared thematic elements or contrasts in the fiction, but that was not really by design. In the midst of play I tend to be very focused on just like portraying characters, pacing, and just like basically doing what feels right according to the fiction. It's very instinctual and playful. My natural tendency is to just kind of try stuff, ask a lot of questions to players and internally to myself, be willing to take stuff back, and try to be interesting while playing with a sense of integrity. I lean a lot on my prep for setting thematic stakes (on both sides of the screen). That includes like some acting prep as time allows to try understand each character I am responsible for.

The parallel narrative largely came out of whole host of fallout. There was always going to be an assault on the prison ship due to promises Fulgen's player had extracted from Crimson Lotus elements in a previous downtime. He happened to be out of commission due to losing both of his wraith's weapons arrays in a previous fight. The jump cuts were largely built around keeping the pacing tight in a Bourne Identity kind of way. My prep has always been focused around issues of family, identity, and like power structures. To a certain extent it's the prep. To a certain extent it's luck.

I think one area where our natural GM styles differ is that left to my own devices I tend to do a rather massive amount of (highly enjoyable) prep that I am willing to leave on the cutting room floor if it does not feel right in play. I do my prep, but do not hold to it.

I kind of think about gaming in a similar way that Joaquin Phoenix thinks about acting.

 

pemerton

Legend
I think one area where our natural GM styles differ is that left to my own devices I tend to do a rather massive amount of (highly enjoyable) prep that I am willing to leave on the cutting room floor if it does not feel right in play. I do my prep, but do not hold to it.
I use to do a lot of setting-type prep. It would often stay on the cutting room floor in the sense that (for all the standard reasons) it didn't actually come into play.

These days my prep is mostly focused on mechanical elements (eg NPCs, worlds and ships in Traveller; stat blocks and maps in 4e D&D - the latter are a mechanical element as much as a story element given the way 4e works).

I lean a lot on my prep for setting thematic stakes

<snip>

My prep has always been focused around issues of family, identity, and like power structures.
I might prep some story elements that I think have resonance. But exactly how to work that in I'll tend to leave to play.

Can you say a bit more about what your prep here looks like?
 

Arilyn

Hero
This is really interesting. I did Firefly that way a few times, although it wasn't my intention. The Cortex rules are excellent, but they just fell away, as we focused on scenes and what just felt like, "should happen."

It ended up being very rewarding, and satisfying. Players told me, they just kind of forgot about the rules too.

I prep, but it's definitely subject to change, and lots end up on cutting room floor. Even if I'm grabbing up a D&D module, it's usually completely unrecognizable by the end. And, I definitely lean into characters over plot, as plot grows out of strong characters.
 

Wightbred

Explorer
This really resonates with the fiction-first hack with a minimalist player-side we have been playing. Players are saying they have more freedom with this approach, and it plays much faster.

Also, the approach to play by MAR Barker May be of interest: “After awhile, I began using the simplest possible system with my own gaming groups. As my old friend, Dave Arneson, and I agreed, one simple die roll is all that one needs: failure or success. The players don’t really care, as long as the roll is honest. Who cares if I hit with the flat of my shield, with the edge of my shield, or whatever? The story’s the thing!”

Source: M.A.R. Barker on Rules Lite
 

Campbell

Legend
@pemerton

I have touched on my default constellation approach a bit in some other threads, but not in too much detail.

If I am running game like Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Smallville or The Nightmares Underneath that demands a particular approach to prep I follow that.

My sort of natural approach to preparing for games is kind of a synthesis of techniques drawn from indie games that have specific prep you are supposed to do like Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Smallville, and Sorcerer. I also include Blades in the Dark and Lady Blackbird in the mix because they have largely already done the prep. I am also fairly influenced by OSR games like Nightmares Underneath and Sine Nomine games (Stars Without Number, Silent Legions, Godbound). I try to experiment with the form and treat needs of each game a little differently, but there are some general trends.

I tend to view Blades in the Dark as a high water mark in scenario design. My end goal is usually to have that sort of range of potential allies and enemies all with their own agendas that the main characters can assist, exploit, or find themselves at odds with. I generally want to be more personal so I like to do most of my prep after I have sense of who the main characters are and what they want.

My prep comes in a couple of different forms. For my personal use I maintain a set of relationship maps that I look at and add to between sessions. These detail possible connections between characters, factions, sub factions. This stuff is mostly unfixed. I also maintain a player facing campaign wiki that details the current state of the fiction for all of us to use as a reference when needed, Some of the stuff included are descriptions and some are brief fiction snippets. For each session I also do like a one pager of notes for the current fictional situation.

The most unusual thing (I think) about how I do my prep is I will do unwritten acting exercises for individual NPCs. I try to build enough here so I have like emotional tools to call upon and like a distinct voice and way of talking (not an accent) for each major named NPC. I do this for my own PC when I play in more character focused games.

I am still working through the right prep process for the current game. I try to keep it relatively, but I do have a somewhat more fixed view of the current situation and characters. There's a lot of fictional positioning play that is crucial to my enjoyment of RPGs. Some of this will change. Beam Saber has some of its own prep requirements (though not mechanical).

Here are my session notes for the last session. The stuff that I talk about that will happen is stuff happening in a different star system.
Jasven will blame Reinhardt Bravossi and Delphine Armiger for kidnapping the children. Will plead for return of Kas Vertu and other children.
The clone of Aurelian will be executed.
Aurelian, Delphine, and Reinhardt will be genetically purged from The Ascendency.

The Ascendency uses Kryptonian like genetic matching for development of most offspring.
Delphine Armiger used to be the Ascendent Lord's personal body guard.
Reinhardt Bravossi was the founder of the Crimson Lotus.

Exquisite Pain of Multitudes has Lohattsiel Vangelos, Tunepz Vangelos, and Runa captured.
Runa got captured on purpose.

Multitudes is being assaulted by Reinhardt Bavossi, Delphine Armiger, and Saren Grandst.

Some Wiki Stuff

Humanity has not always traversed the stars. Our feet used to bound to dying planets by cruel gravitational fields. We were running on the exhausts of fuels that were killing us. Our atmospheres were choking us. Humanity was dying. The Ascendency changed all that.

Back in those days it used to take years to travel from one system to another. Many of died in the process, vainly hoping to find verdant worlds to colonize. We harvested what we could, but we knew our species was doomed. We were desperate, so desperate we sought comfort from our greatest enemy.

In our attempts to seek survival amongst the stars we kept running into the forces of The Black City terrible machines that would kill us, torture us, and enslave us. In those days there was no beating them. They were so much more technologically advanced than us and worked together as a hivemind.

Vitellus and Aurelian Verdan would change humanity's fate forever. They led a small expedition to the heart of The Black City and reached an accord with the hivemind. They were changed. They came back not with warships that could traverse the stars bonded with sentient alien war machines. They lead humanity on a conquest. The Ascendency was born.

- Redacted.

The execution of Ascendant Lord Vitellus Verdan for high treason caused a splintering in the Ascendency. The imperial guard took up the blood soaked lotus as its new colors and defected from the Ascendency.

At first they hoped only to have High Lord Aurelian Verdan replace his brother as the new Ascendant Lord. Those hopes were diminished when Aurelian bent the knee to the Sol Fortuna and used all the might of Sol Invictus to quell the uprising. It would not be quelled.

The Crimson Lotus has stood in open defiance of The Ascendency for over 300 years. It has lost much of its original purpose and connection to the imperial guard although it still recruits heavily from Sol Invictus. Today the Lotus stands mostly as symbol of violent rebirth.

Runa.jpg

Runa is a wild card. She's officially part of the Lotus, but does not seem to take orders from anyone. Has penchant for chaos and destruction.

Led Fulgen Vangelos to a cloning facility once used by his parents. Downloaded information from the facility with the help of Rafiq. Uploaded a virus that freed all the clones in the facility with their memories intact (including 5 clones Fulgen).

Flirted with both Rafiq and Fulgen Vangelos. Has a history with Aurelian.

Kas Vertu.png
Kas Vertu is the daughter and heir to Jasven Vertu, a very important Senator. Her brother, Deras Vertu, is a known terrorist and assassin in league with the Crimson Lotus.

Kas was the best student in her class at the Academy, particularly in close combat and infiltration techniques. She consider Five Star her rival, but really wants to be friends. She does not have many real friends.

Kira was kind to her. Kas considers her a friend.
 

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Wightbred

Explorer
I tend to view Blades in the Dark as a high water mark in scenario design. My end goal is usually to have that sort of range of potential allies and enemies all with their own agendas that the main characters can assist, exploit, or find themselves at odds with. I generally want to be more personal so I like to do most of my prep after I have sense of who the main characters are and what they want.

The most unusual thing (I think) about how I do my prep is I will do unwritten acting exercises for individual NPCs.
This is how we do it in our multi-GM game. We strongly use fronts built on character beliefs, goals and actions and “wargame” what they (and their key NPCs) might do in various situations. Our goal is to make the fronts respond as realistically (in terms of the game world) as we can.

Even with more than one GM, there is still surprise, whoever is GMing. Llike @Campbell ‘s Joaquin Phoenix video, it rarely turns out the way you expect. The “wargaming” is just ideas to help us get into the “character” of the fronts.

Last session I knew a front would realistically make a decision that the players might not understand. So I stopped the game and had them play NPCs facing the same dilemma in a different time and place. When we returned, they understood why the front made that decision, because they played out the same decision themselves.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
My sort of natural approach to preparing for games is kind of a synthesis of techniques drawn from indie games that have specific prep you are supposed to do like Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Smallville, and Sorcerer. I also include Blades in the Dark and Lady Blackbird in the mix because they have largely already done the prep.
Like you I try to view the individual game text as definitive and not import additional assumptions. But if I were running a 'freeform' session it would likely end up as a mash-up of how I run Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel, Sorcerer and Blades.

My prep comes in a couple of different forms. For my personal use I maintain a set of relationship maps that I look at and add to between sessions. These detail possible connections between characters, factions, sub factions. This stuff is mostly unfixed. I also maintain a player facing campaign wiki that details the current state of the fiction for all of us to use as a reference when needed, Some of the stuff included are descriptions and some are brief fiction snippets. For each session I also do like a one pager of notes for the current fictional situation.
This is much more than me... for any game I usually have a big pad of paper (A1 or A0 size) and the group-created map/world will be on one sheet. As NPCs come and go they will get added, possibly near the place where they were first encountered, maybe with a sketch or note. This sheet becomes the campaign wiki, but a sort of heiroglyphic of names, places, sketches and notes rather than an encyclopaedia. Anyone can add to it during the game, and only during the game. It's a style which suits me and it keeps pretty much everything player facing. The only things I keep to myself are fronts, any pre-made little mechanic notes for unusual people / places / moves and some rough ideas on a starting scene for each player.

The most unusual thing (I think) about how I do my prep is I will do unwritten acting exercises for individual NPCs. I try to build enough here so I have like emotional tools to call upon and like a distinct voice and way of talking (not an accent) for each major named NPC.
Ha! I do the same, but only for one or two key NPCs where they have captured our collective imagination and I need to flesh them out. I'll ad-lib some responses to off-beat imaginary situations, just to check I can stay in character with them as part of my prep!
 

Wightbred

Explorer
... The Cortex rules are excellent, but they just fell away, as we focused on scenes and what just felt like, "should happen."

It ended up being very rewarding, and satisfying. Players told me, they just kind of forgot about the rules too.
I’ve been slowly shifting my games to fewer and fewer player facing rules to achieve more of this type of realistic and flexible play over the past few decades.

I just found the Free Kriegspiele Revolution is going on right now on Discord, and I wondered if others posting or lurking in this thread were interested. Basically, a group of people are trying to design and play RPGs with minimal player facing rules, which is intended to emulate the style that David Wesley (and earlier proponents) used to represent the fog and uncertainty of war games.

A good blog to start with if you are potentially interested:
 


This has happened in a few of my recent Blades in the Dark games. The players are Bluecoats and over the past few sessions, they've been more investigating than they have pursuing or subduing criminals, and so the rules have kind of receded to some extent as we just go back and forth with what they're doing, what they're saying, and I just respond. I've had to remind myself at times that a roll should be made to determine how successful they are and what happens next.

I've been really looking at ways to reduce rules or at least complexity of rules for. @Wightbred thanks for the link to that blog and the ones its referencing. Some really interesting reading.
 

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