I recently posed a question for my regular group:
Would you play in an RPG where you don’t know any of the rules whatsoever? You know who your character is, their background, what they’re carrying, what they’re good or bad at, but all through qualitative descriptions rather than numbers. All the mechanics are handled by the GM.
When they all responded positively to the idea, I got started putting the idea into motion.
There was a conversation on Discord a while back about different GM styles, and in particular to what extent we expect players to engage with game mechanics. While I don’t hide the rules from players (until now), I also prefer that they take a back seat so that players can engage with the fiction rather the system. (See Tomb of the Iron God: Post Mortem for an example.)
I arrived at this approach for fairly practical reasons: I run games for a lot of new players, and I don’t want to scare them away with giant rule books, so I make the rules officially not their problem. Just tell me what you want to try to do, and I’ll let you know what happens. Until it was pointed out to me, I hadn’t really considered that it can also increase immersion for the players.
Not long after, I started reading Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, which covers many of the debates about the nature of roleplaying games and the role of the GM in the early days of the hobby. Those conversations, which played out in the pages of a number of different fanzines, had a lot of parallels with the ones happening on the Discord server, and no doubt in countless other gaming communities as well.
One of topics that was discussed surprisingly early on after the initial publication of D&D was the impact of rules knowledge on player immersion:
Sandy Eisen, a D&D player at Cambridge University in 1975, reported that as a beginning player, he felt like he was really “living the part” and that through “willing suspension of disbelief” he found himself “in the dungeon.”
Eisen did not have any particular word for this property (no one was even saying “role playing” then), but he found it compelling enough that he vowed that when he ran D&D for new players, he would not tell them the rules – he found that understanding the system bogged him down in “wargame mechanics,” rather than focusing on the “real-life considerations” that a person in the game situation might.
Well, that’s interesting. What kind of game results from keeping the players completely in the dark about the mechanics? To find out, I started putting together a system and setting for a fantasy sandbox game, with the intention to keep 100% of the mechanics on the GM side of the table. Since the idea came in large part from “Eisen’s Vow”, and it’s a homebrew game, I’ve been calling it Eisbock. Sorry, not sorry.
I gave the players this prompt, along with a bit of detail about how I expect the game to work:
Five weeks to cross the desert before arriving at the mountains, sand-caked and sunburned, delirious with thirst.
Another two weeks to find a pass and traverse the range, freezing and starving.
And before all that, nine years in the service of Azuleus the Stargazer, building his tower to the heavens.
Nine years under his sway, until his tower was finished and he stepped out into the sky, hoping to soar up to the stars … only to come crashing down into the sand. The spell broken, the slaves of Azuleus scattered across the desert.
You went west, hoping to make your way back to a home you’d nearly forgotten.
- We’ll be playing in a fairly typical medieval-ish fantasy setting, though I’ll probably throw in some weird pulp horror/sci-fi stuff from time to time.
- The PCs are all humans.
- Magic exists, but it’s rare, dangerous, and its practitioners are deeply mistrusted.
- Your characters are starting off as wanderers a very long way from home, and (at least initially) trying to get back.
- This is a sandbox game, and I’m pretty much making it up as we go along based on what you all try to do.
Yeah, I went full Dio with the premise. No regrets.
I’ll keep updating this thread with more details about how I’m setting things up, and how it goes once we get it to the table (the first session is this Wednesday).
Next time: an outline of a rules system.