Monday 16 August 2021

HUDLESS Adventure Gaming

Over the past 12 months it has been interesting to observe the rapid growth of the FKR: the reinterpretation of Free Kriegsspiel wargaming conventions in the indie RPG/NSR/OSR roleplaying spaces. Free Kriegsspiel  is a mode of wargaming whereby players are encouraged to immerse themselves more thoroughly in the "game world" by detaching themselves from the games' mechanics. Instead, an umpire or referee decides the outcome of the players' actions, cleaving as closely as possible to what they believe would be the "real world" outcome of such an action.

Giving a) the predilection for rules-light gaming/rulings not rules in the OSR and b) the preference for narrative over mechanics in many parts of the indie game scene the attraction of these 2 RPG "blocs"  towards free kriegsspiel is unsurprising. How such an approach is interpreted varies a great deal: last year I had the opportunity to speak at length to friend-of-the-blog Jim Parkin of on my very occasional podcast. He did a great job of explaining how such a philosophy might be applied, and it's well worth a listen if this stuff tickles your fancy:

..actually it was an off-hand remark Jim made about FKR on the NSR server he runs with Yochai Gal (  which prompted this post.

Player Facing Complexity

Jim's remark  was that behind the "curtain" he operates a whole host of levers and mechanisms to keep the game world ticking along. Whether these are procedures or rules is another discussion entirely, and perhaps not one that has much value (to me at least), but it affirms the intent of FKR (and indeed the original Free Kriegsspiel wargaming philosophy): to encourage player engagement with the world rather than the "game".

In a nutshell, while a game might feel "rules light" or "rules non-existent" to the players controlling characters, the umpire/referee./conductor/(dare I say it) DUNGEON MASTER might actually be operating a fairly complex piece of machinery.

Emergent Storytelling & Staying Honest

The attraction of sandbox and old-school play (to me at least) is the notion of emergent storytelling: the purpose of the game is not to create stories, but stories emerge as other game objectives are fulfilled. Now, this is not to say that players should feel bound to commit actions which are entirely in keeping with the fulfilment of the game objective (and what are they, anyway) or only do stuff that their character would conceivably do. Players will often do stuff just because it's cool or because it will move the narrative in an interesting direction. This is good and part of what makes these silly games so much fun.

However, I would tentatively suggest that in a classic old-school game such actions are judged on the same basis as any other action: the dice decide, the rule of cool does not apply.  

I am not saying that this is the only way to play games, just that what makes the old school genre fun is failing, fucking up, and things happening that nobody foresaw, GM included. I love storygames, I can even be persuaded to join a trad game with "builds" and hour-long combats on tactical grids. I won't LARP though: I do enough of that in real life. 
Crunch, for all its sins, does take a degree of agency out of all players' hands (GM included) and create a degree of objectivity. My issue with ultralight games is that of GM fiat inevitably falling into a kind of "narrativist trap" and subconsciously pushing the game into the GM's top-secret film script. On the flip-side, I'm not sure that turning every actions into a player-GM debate about outcomes is in keeping with the notion of classic/old-school play. Again, not saying it's wrong, just that if the play experience is about interacting with a living world, one shouldn't feel like the fiction is malleable (at least in ordinary circumstances: what is magic but a device for controlling the meta-narrative?).

Of course, as is well established, crunch also has the effect of "breaking" immersion by presenting non-diegetic levers and buttons for players to push-and-pull, for them to stop making decisions as sapient entity in a real world, and start to think like someone playing a game.

Conscious now that maybe I'm making sweeping statements, because we could be debating two or more separate "tiers" of play: clearly there's a world of difference between the immediate action resolution and the ebb-and-flow of weather systems, economic forces, ecology and invading armies that might colour the content of the world the characters inhabit. But let us (for the sake of hot takes) just move forward with two objectives:
  1. Remove player interaction with the rules.
  2. Replace with player interaction with the world.
  3. ...apart from one player, who describes and generates the world according to established (but obfuscated) procedures 

The Answer is Not on Your Character Sheet

Number "8" on this list:

It's a very good list, though I hate the application of the term Art Punk in this context: this isn't early 80s New York, Basquiat and the Bush Tetras, though I can see some aesthetic crossover with Scrap's work.

A character sheet often ends up like a Head-Up Display, a layer between the pilot and the world beyond. Tenuous argument incoming: mightn't a degree of separation enable fighter pilots to execute lethal actions with fewer moral qualms? Regardless as to whether a real-life HUD "gamifies" aerial combat, the character sheet insures that the player is reminded of the avatar's status as game-object, a collection of numbers dictating how it performs in the game environment.

This is not accounting for editions of Traveller which turn stats into a diegetic feature, nor the 4th-wall breaking fun of Those Dark Places and its CASE file chargen system. (BTW, I think I will have to review Those Dark places on here soon... in the mean time, here's its page on Osprey Games: 

Since the earliest days of the "modern" roleplaying hobby (which, let us not forget, has its origins amongst a small group of American wargames hobbyists), there have been HUD-less approaches to the game. Arneson's Blackmoor game was (apparently) often played without the players having any idea of the rules. There's some interesting accounts in this 2-year-old Reddit thread:

The Point of this post?

I think a lot of GMs worry about how they might respond to an absence of visible game structure. They can fully appreciate how stripping out game elements can make players respond to the world in a manner more conducive to the principia apocrypha but are concerned that they might not be able to make valid judgement calls, and would either lean in to the narrative (and subconsciously steer the game towards a story of their own preference) or otherwise hinder emergent narrative.

The notion of hud-less gaming doesn't mean that there's not a powerful engine driving the machinery, just that could be furiously working away, out of sight (much like the analogy of restaurants and water fowl: surface grace is enabled only by frantic activity hidden from view). Of course, it might not be at all, but something to consider.

Eagle-eyed readers who followed up the link above will note that I left a comment on the thread regarding a game I played with my EFL students (for my sins I was once a part-time EFL/ESOL teacher) to develop language skills: a kind of free-form roleplaying game. Since then (and that thread) here are a couple of further hud-less experiments I carried out:
  1. Module B4, the Lost City, using my BX/BECMI house rules. My one player controlled a party of 4 characters, initially without any character sheets. He was given a selection of item cards (also used to calculate encumbrance) and, when his cleric levelled up, spells. It worked fine but eventually I surrendered the character sheets as he was struggling to keep track of who was who. Probably would have worked better one  one player, one character basis.
  2. Gardens of Ynn with some friends from Vietnam. This was my first foray into online, audio-only gaming. I think we played as many as six sessions as a group of 3 young people navigated the garden in search of the legendary silver pear. Though I used 6 stats and 3d6 to get an impression of each character, I mainly used these to describe the relative weaknesses and strengths of each character to the players. I tracked wounds instead of HP but otherwise described the world, asked them what they wished to do and told them to use dice to resolve the problem/obstruction. Pretty much using B/X and my own judgement. Easy to manage because I was remote and could keep my tools out of sight, so players were not distracted by my dice rolls etc.
  3. Lair of the Lamb Loved Arnold kemp's introductory GLOG module so much, but also wanted to test out some variation of the PARIAH mechanics while also keeping things hidden from the players. This was probably too much (especially my attempts to reconfigure the dungeon in a Neolithic setting... though I appreciate my notion of Neolithic is probably more Sword & Sorcery/Sword & Sandals than most people's). Probably the least successful thing was that "conversion" and it made my efforts to keep it hud-less hard to judge. Another failing was my "extra-effort" mechanic which I don't think made any sense to the players and removed them from the moment for a bit by presenting them with a "mechanical" choice. Still, great fun.
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This post was featured in Issue #19 of the Glatisant:

My new procedural hexcrawl adventure, Heart of the Primal Unknown, is currently available (PWYW) on DTRPG:

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  1. I’ve no doubt that some players cannot accept HUD-less play, just as some referees cannot accept that their “fiats” may actually be well inflected and kept consistent by the context of the game world, but from my own experience, every time I propose HUD-less gaming to unfamiliar players, they overcome their hesitation within ten or fifteen minutes and get on with it wonderfully.

    1. No doubt! I definitely feel that the biggest resistance is from GMs, so I was hoping a different angle might help them overcome their fears.

      On the player acceptance note, I think it's a superior way to approach RPGs as a first-time player. The less information there is to process, the better. I remember seeing a tweet from someone saying how they "really had to learn D&D so they can get involved with the hobby": people genuinely see learning rules as a barrier to entry, and I think that's a shame.