The Eisbock Experiment

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.

Wait, why?

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.

The Game

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.

True facts:

  • 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.


You mean you tossed them immediately into the desert, not giving them a chance to explore and loot a wizard’s tower? Oh, I expect they at least, even in the desert, each have some wondrous item taken from the tower.

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I actually tossed them into a new and unfamiliar land beyond the mountains, nearly two months after Azuleus’s fall.

Oh sure. That’s what I’m getting. But the set up is so cool that, were I the referee, I’d want to start right at the fall and the release of the spell of binding.

Some canny players may not want to leave, though, but become the new lords of the tower. Unless you gave them an unavoidable reason to leave.

I get it, though . Your illustration is the inciting incident. But I haven’t had much luck providing a solid “reason” for why folks are where they are.

Take our current Conan adventure. One time I ran it, I said the PCs had been drugged and left there by a merchant who didn’t want to pay their wages as caravan guards. And one player inevitably said, “Oh, I’m going after that merchant.”

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In. I totally agree with the system being the First Failure of immersion. But, there is something to be said for System Mastery. I guess?


Outline of an RPG System

I was going to describe the character creation process, but this post got a bit long, so I’ll get to that in the next one.

Not having access to the rules means not knowing any of the data that are on a typical character sheet: class, attribute scores, hit points, skills, etc. That stuff matters because it:

  • acts as a sort of “HUD” for the player to monitor the character’s mechanical resources (thanks to @Harrigan for this analogy)
  • provides the player with a rough idea of who their character is, especially their strengths and weaknesses
  • helps to determine whether they succeed or fail at certain tasks

The first point will necessarily have to be handled through descriptive language and occasional reality checks, e.g. “That guy looks tough, and you’re still pretty beat up from the bar fight you got dragged into a couple of hours ago - are you sure you really want to take a swing at him?” I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it once we’re a couple of sessions in.

To take care of the next two points, I came up with a guided process that simultaneously helps the player figure out who their character is, and me fill out a hidden character sheet with all the mechanical details that I’ll need during the game. I’ll describe the process, but first I need to say a bit about the system that I’ve hacked together.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, both because I can (and certainly will) change them as the game progresses, and because I’m the only person who needs to really care about the rules. As long as I find them comfortable to use, and they’re supporting the type of game I’m trying to run, that’s all that matters. The players will never see their character sheets, or know what checks are being made, even if I sometimes ask them to roll the dice.

To that end, I’ve pulled bits and pieces from White Box D&D, Warlock!, The Vanilla Game, and just a bit of Traveller.

White Box

Characters have the usual set of 6 attributes, with scores from 3-18 and +/-1 modifiers at the extremes. I assign these from a standard array that has 1 high, 1 low, and 4 average scores.

They also have a level and experience points, but I expect advancement to be slow and low, meaning that the characters start off fairly competent, and will become slightly more so over time. Not the usual zero-to-super-hero trajectory of most D&D games.

I haven’t decided what XP awards will be based on, beyond “making progress towards a goal”. No XP-for-GP here; it’s not that kind of game.

Combat is d20 based with descending AC and THAC0 numbers, because I can, and I’m using a Swords & Wizardry-style single saving throw.

Warlock! and Traveller

Characters had a life before they were caught up in Azuleus’s building project. I’m completely ripping off the list of careers and accompanying background tables from Warlock!, with only minor edits to remove references to demihumans (the PCs are all humans, and this isn’t a vaguely Tolkien-esque world of elves, dwarves, and hobbits).

I’m also using the skill list, but with a 2d6 resolution system that’s similar to the one from Traveller. Each character has two major and three minor skills based on their careers, which reflect a lifetime of experience prior to becoming adventurers. Major skills get a +2 to the check, minor skills get +1, and other skills get no modifier. Attribute modifiers may also apply. A result >= 8 is a success, and the difference above or below 8 may indicate degree of success or failure.

I don’t want the game to be about the accumulation of mountains of coins, so I’m using the money and equipment rules from Warlock! as well.

The Vanilla Game

I’m using grit & flesh instead of a single pool of hit points, to reflect the difference between being slightly beat up and winded, and being seriously wounded and in need of healing.

Grit and Flesh

When you take damage, subtract the damage from your Grit.

If you have no Grit remaining, subtract the damage from your Flesh instead.

If you have no Flesh remaining, Save vs death. If you succeed, you pass out—wake with 1 Flesh after 1d6 Rounds. If you fail, you die.

I’ll also use something similar to the rest and healing rules, where resting will restore some grit, but only if you haven’t taken any flesh damage. Healing flesh damage requires a trip to the healer.

There aren’t any magic-using characters so far, but if one turns up we’ll use something very similar to the Vanilla Game’s magic system (scroll to the bottom), but with Incantation skill checks taking the place of saving throws to control spells cast in combat. Anyone can attempt to use a scroll, but failing the check causes a mishap.

The important part

The specific rules that I’m using don’t really matter. If you decide to run a game like this one, then you can and should pick ones that suit you and the type of experience you’re trying to provide for your players.

Next time: Who is this strange wanderer?


Love all this, Jim. Really want to see the next installment, wherein you reveal just what you’re giving to the players – what they have as a reference point. It smells a little it might resemble some early FUDGE builds, where numbers were more or less hidden and adjectives were used for all the attributes and skills in the game. (Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, Superb)

I think with a White Box base you could easily get away with just Below Average, Average, and Above Average. But we’ll see.

I’m also reminded of a vaguely similar thing I did back in a GURPS one-shot where the group all played PCs who woke up on operating room tables. None of them initially knew it, but they were a bunch of androids in the middle of be reprogrammed by EvilCorp. The base was attacked at just the wrong time, and they all woke – and had completely blank memories… and character sheets. I had all the numbers and skills and such, and they filled them in as they tried things and discovered their abilities.

Come to think of it, I tried a bunch of weird shit with GURPS in the 90s. Ran another game where all the PCs were Norsemen competing in Scandahoovian games to earn a place on the raiding ship about to leave… and another one where the PCs were all gladiators and had to defeat one another to advance in a tournament. Weapons were littered all over. Was nutty.

Anyway – back to Esibock.

I really do think there’s something to this theory that some people like to engage through the mechanics. I suspect I’d enjoy playing in Jim’s game (in fact I know I would, having played with Jim before, loving the setup, and being comfortable with a character sheet lacking anything mechanical on it), but some folks really really want that ‘game’ bit more visible. I’m seeing it with my son’s girlfriend in the White Box game I’m running for them. She is hugely invested in the game (I think she’s made 10 characters now, “just in case” she needs them) and tracks every mechanical tidbit I drop in writing. How much damage it took to kill something, ACs, who went first in each combat round, etc. Interestingly, when she asks if her PC can try something and I say ‘certainly – try,’ she jumps right into character and engages directly that way, mechanics be damned. There’s no “I swing my axe,” from her, there’s “I want to cut the tail off the Imp so it can’t sting us!” It’s great. And here, Jim – without supporting mechanics visible, be ready for the players to hit you with all sorts of things you won’t be ready for. This might end up being the most seat of the pants thing you’ve ever run – which I think is part of what you’re after.

I’ll say this: White Box and games of its ilk have enough jank in them for brand new players that I -fully- understand the desire to hide the mechanics. =]

Some specific items:

To take care of the next two points, I came up with a guided process that simultaneously helps the player figure out who their character is, and me fill out a hidden character sheet with all the mechanical details that I’ll need during the game. I’ll describe the process, but first I need to say a bit about the system that I’ve hacked together.

Can’t wait to see this!

Characters have the usual set of 6 attributes

Manwhat, why? Now is your chance to change them! :slight_smile:

Combat is d20 based with descending AC and THAC0 numbers,

because I can

Who hurt you, Jim? What terrible game or gamer hurt you so?


I haven’t decided what XP awards will be based on, beyond “making progress towards a goal”. No XP-for-GP here; it’s not that kind of game.

Woohoo! I hate XP for gold, and already see it becoming a problem in my home WB game.

I’m also using the skill list, but with a 2d6 resolution system that’s similar to the one from Traveller .

Have you seen Kevin Crawford’s OSR work – Stars Without Number, Worlds Without Number, etc.? Has this kind of mechanic for skills.

I don’t want the game to be about the accumulation of mountains of coins, so I’m using the money and equipment rules from Warlock! as well.

I love this part of Warlock! too, the (highly) variable prices, broken into the three tiers.

Summing up, bravo! Looking forward to the next bit.


Starting at the tower would be cool, but it’d lead to a pretty different game. Seasoned D&D players especially would want to loot the tower and make it their stronghold. I’m going in another direction though.

Outside the fiction, I have a map of a large region that I want the characters to explore, and I needed some setup to get them there, explain why it’s unfamiliar to them, and give them some reason for being together in the first place.

I also want to explore “going home” as a theme, along the lines of the Anabasis or the Odyssey, combined with being separated from the world you knew and placed in a new and strange one, like Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away, or more recently, Over the Garden Wall. In that context, wealth and powerful magic are instrumental goods that might help the PCs achieve their goals, rather than intrinsic goods to seek out for their own sake, but they might also be dangerous to the wielder.

So I’m happy in this case to say “This is where we’re starting. Everything that happened before is already in the past. Once you leave this part of the world, in whatever direction you choose, the game is over.”

In game, I think the tower collapsed when Azuleus died, and there was pandemonium as the binds broke. People started looting, and the most canny took what they needed for survival before setting out across the desert, while the more foolish fought over magical gewgaws and baubles that they had no chance of understanding let alone controlling. What’s there to go back to?

There’s a lot to be said for system mastery. I think this type of game wouldn’t work at all for players who really want to dig into the mechanics of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that approach either.


Who is this strange wanderer?

If you take away all the numbers and other mechanical details from the character sheet, what’s left is what’s usually treated as background or flavor - all the fluffy bits of information that (ideally) would help a player to know who their character is, or at least who they were before they started adventuring. Sometimes this gets glossed over or ignored, particularly in old-school D&D games, so that players just start with stats and class to guide them. But if you all you know about a character is the “fluff”, then it becomes very important.

The players in this game have gone through a guided process to determine basic facts about their character, which they’ll use during play to get a feel for what sorts of things they’ll be good at, but also (hopefully) to help breathe some life into the character and make them feel more like a real person who lives and acts in a real world. At the same time, I as GM can use the players’ answers to assemble a more traditional character sheet that I’ll use to adjudicate situations in the game. I won’t claim that this process is perfect, or even very good, but I think it’s a reasonable start.

Let’s first go through each step as the players did.

Step 1: Careers

The careers and background tables from Warlock! are just too good not to use, so I’ve stolen them. I asked each player to roll 4d6, and then in a private chat shared a list of 4 different careers to choose from, with the descriptions from Warlock!. Here’s an example of that message:

Before serving Azuleus, what was your career? Remember, this was all a long time ago, somewhere far away. (If you don’t like any of these, you can roll another 3d6 for a new set of options.)

Agitator: You spend your time stirring things up, digging into the psyche of the mob and twisting it to your ends. You are a good speaker, good at manipulating people, and at prodding the sore spots. That grain riot in Galdenback? That was you. You had some thing to do with the burning of the warehouse on the shores of the river Eld, some say. You don’t comment.

Gambler: A fool and his money are soon parted. You’re no fool, but the gambling pits of the Kingdom, be they back-street dens or aristocrat casinos are awash with them. You’re good at finding a mark, and playing the odds in your favor so that you get what you need. And if you make a few enemies on the way, that’s life huh?

Raconteur: You can tell a good tale, that’s for sure. Weave narrative like your life depended on it, and you have a good eye for what you audience wants to hear. Is it all true? Well, not exactly true. Like all great stories it has a life of its own, so does that really matter? It seems to some, yes. Which is a shame, but there you go. Have I ever told you of the time I…?

Rat Catcher: In the cities and towns, there’s vermin aplenty, and people who’ll pay to get rid of it. Though it might not be the nicest job, someone has to do it, and you can always sell what you catch for a few coins. People always want meat, and as an added bonus you now know the places to avoid when you’re after a pie…

None of them took a mulligan, so they all chose from their original set of options. Coincidentally, they all rolls “Raconteur” for their third option.

Step 2: Background

This player happened to choose Gambler, so I gave him the two background tables:

Who have you fleeced?

  1. Anise, arrogant mistress of Fulbeck.
  2. Your father. Needs must.
  3. An aspiring priest of his last coppers.
  4. The mercenary Jagar. An error.
  5. The gullible son of Lord Vech.
  6. Who haven’t you fleeced?

Who wants revenge?

  1. The casino owner, who’s on to you.
  2. Your partner. Well, one-time partner.
  3. Your lover, who you gambled away.
  4. That princeling, who knows you cheat.
  5. Your father, for your dissolute ways.
  6. Who doesn’t want revenge?

You can choose or roll, or come up with different answers if you’d like.

He opted to roll, and got 3 & 5, which he was happy with. I asked him, “So, you fleeced a priest and your father wants revenge?” “Yeah, I never cared much for religion, but the old man is a high priest.” Okay, now there’s a bit of backstory in place. The character is starting to take shape…

Step 3: Strength and Weakness

Next, I asked each player two related questions:

What strength has everyone you’ve met noticed about you?

  1. Your incredible physique.
  2. Your keen intellect.
  3. Your insightful counsel.
  4. Your swift feet and nimble fingers.
  5. Your indefatigable robustness.
  6. Your magnetic personality.

What about your weakness?

  1. Your scrawny physique.
  2. Your dull intellect.
  3. Your lack of awareness.
  4. Your abject clumsiness.
  5. Your decrepitude.
  6. Your off-putting personality.

Choose or roll, either way is fine. If you get two opposing results, you’ll need to reroll or make a different choice, of course.

Yeah, it’s an unsubtle tell that the underlying system is D&D-based. Oh well. This player rolled for these questions as well, and got a 4 and a 3. Swift feet and nimble fingers is fitting for a gambler, but “lack of awareness” needs some explanation. After talking it over, he decided that his character sometimes makes poor choices because he enjoys taking risks too much.

Step 4: Final Details

For the last step, I give the players a few open-ended questions to help flesh out their character, and give them the option to start over if they don’t like what they have:

  1. What is your name?
  2. What do you look like?
  3. Do you have any odd habits or traits?
  4. What’s waiting for you back home?

And the final question: How did you end up under Azuleus’s spell? (I have some options if you need them.)

There’s no hurry if you want to think about it for a while. And if you decide you don’t like this character, we can always start again.

Two of the players are still thinking about these, but the Gambler knows what he’s all about:

  1. Angelo Martini

(The wayward son of Monseigneur Martini? :joy:)

  1. Short (5’6") - Long, somewhat greasy hair, receding hairline, slightly overweight but not fat
  2. Just the gambling, trying to make wagers on things that most people wouldn’t bet on. have a lucky coin that I always carry
  3. Hopefully not my father, right? The coins I stashed before my final stupid wager (not a lot but enough to gamble with).

As for how he ended up serving Azuleus:

A dark stranger approached me as I left an inn and offered me odds I couldn’t refuse. I lost the bet and woke up enslaved.

Good enough. This process was all done in private chat, and the PCs only know each other from their mutual indenture, so the player decided to tell everyone else that his character’s name is Giancarlo Sazerac, and he has no idea what happened to get him into that situation with the Stargazer. Nope, no idea at all.

So what’s on the character sheet?

Based on his career, Angelo has Lie, Persuasion, and Sleight of Hand as major skills (+2 bonus to checks), and Bargain and Spot as minor skills (+1 bonus).

Based on his strength and weakness, his stats are STR 9, INT 11, WIS 6, CON 10, DEX 15, CHA 12, meaning he gets a -1 on WIS-based rolls, and +1 on DEX-based ones.

The only two character classes are Fighter (more like “Adventurer”) and Magic-User, and he’s not a magic-user. He could be a Thief if I was using that class, but I’m not. Anyone can try doing sneaky things. Angelo (Sorry, I meant Giancarlo. Who’s Angelo?) gets grit/flesh, save, and THAC0 numbers accordingly.

The only things left are starting equipment, which are TBD. I’m using the basic and career equipment as a guide, but taking into account several years of enslavement followed by an impromptu desert journey.

Next time: first impressions.


The more I read, the more exciting this becomes! I’m starting to think that this is quite ingenious.

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That sounds awesome!

Oh, for sure. This group is into the idea, but not everyone would be. I got their buy-in for playing a game without knowing the rules before even giving them the full pitch.

She sounds like a great player. And yep, that the sort of thing I’m expecting, and not just in combat. I’ll probably be working my ass of during the sessions keeping things flowing along. Good thing they’ll just be a couple of hours, once a week.

Yeah, but for that case I’d probably go with my usual approach of not hiding the rules, but not making them the players’ problem either. That way if they need a peek at the mechanics to get their bearings, they can, or they can continue to ignore them.

This game’s a bit more intense. The group has two GMs, and we’ve played Pathfinder, Swords & Wizardry, 5e, three different Roll For Shoes scenarios, and a few other systems as one-shots. It’ll be an adjustment for them, but they’re already familiar with role playing, and a couple seen to prefer rules-light systems. I think they’ll all have fun with it.

Yep, though I’d forgotten about that part until you mentioned it. It makes sense, because SWN is basically a B/X + Traveller mashup as far as I can tell.

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First Impressions (Briefly)

My last post got eaten by the Langoliers, but it was a brief recap of the first session, with particular focus on the sole combat encounter, and how it compared to a more traditional game sessions with the same group. I’m not going to retype the whole thing from memory, so here’s the bullet list version:

  • It was a short session (under 2 hours), but there was no dead time while waiting for rolls or looking up rules.
  • The players mostly stayed in character the entire time, so all the up-front character creation work paid off.
  • Combat was fast and tense, and was the part that felt most different from other games this group has played. More on this later.
  • The group had fun role playing their first encounter with a “normal” person after years of captivity and weeks of crossing the desert and mountains.
  • After the session, but before I could even ask for feedback, the players started talking about how much they enjoyed the game.
  • One player is expecting them to spend more time on role playing than exploring going forward, but I’m hoping for plenty of both.

Combat as survival

Early in the session, the PCs were walking through the woods towards some smoke that looked like it was coming from a chimney or a camp fire, when they crossed paths with a pack of wolves. Here are excerpts from my session notes with commentary.

Angelo takes point as Cap’n and Lee follow behind. After about an hour, Angelo stops and waves to his companions, as a wolf emerges from some brush and bares its teeth at him. As the wolf paces and snarls, Angelo fishes in his pack for some meat to offer the beast. The Captain approaches slowly, but notices a second wolf off to his right, flanking the party. Lee slips away to hid behind a tree, where he hears movement in the brush over to his left.

Angelo (a.k.a Giancarlo) is a gambler and compulsive risk-taker, which might be why he decided to be in the front. The Captain is a grizzled older man with failing memory who survived a lot even before the ordeal with Azuleus. Lee is a young kid who is better at telling stories than living them.

Angelo throws some meat that the first wolf chases after, and he proceeds down the path trying to put some distance between him and the wolf, unaware of his companion’s predicament. Cap’n starts shouting and banging his club on the ground, trying to scare away the second wolf. Lee tries to call out a warning when the third one rushes out and leaps at the Captain’s back, but he’s too late. The Captain is staggered by the blow, and misses when he tries to brain the assailant with his club.

There wasn’t any formal transition into “combat mode”. We just narrated things like we had been before, but at a shorter time scale. I made dice rolls as unobtrusively as possible, while jumping between participants and narrating outcomes. The players approached the situation as their characters would: a struggle for survival.

Lee sneaks up and slashes the third wolf with his knife, but is then bitten on the leg by the second one. The Captain in turn cripples the second wolf with a mighty blow from his club, and Angelo, having become aware of the melee, sneaks in for a coup-de-grace with his dagger. The bleeding third wolf slinks off towards its remaining companion, snarling and whimpering, and they both depart.

The encounter was tense, with no breaks in the action to consider mechanical alternative or tactical positioning. It felt very natural, and I think more exciting than if it had been presented in a more traditional manner with initiative and attack rolls, or tokens on a battle map.


Overall, I consider it a successful start. The game’s setup seems to be having the desired effect of increasing immersion and encouraging role playing. The pace was leisurely (except in combat), but the focus stayed on the fiction and not on the mechanics of resolving actions.

Another group might have struggled with that, but this group took to it right away. Hopefully that will last when things inevitably don’t go so well for their characters, which is when the lack of transparency might make harder outcomes seem arbitrary or unfair.


We had the second session last night, which also went well. The PCs made it to the village of Samara, met some of their benefactor’s relatives and learned about problems they face, bought some provisions at the market, annoyed a few merchants, got a glimpse of a map at the scribe’s shop before he asked them to leave, ordered some new clothes from the tailor, got rooms at the inn, and witnessed a crooked card game. In between, they got snippets of setting information and continued to figure out who their characters are.

I don’t have a lot to say about it that’s unique to this game’s setup, because it was a heavy role playing session, and I don’t tend to use skill checks or other mechanics very often for that sort of play. However, I do have a few observations:

  • I never really appreciated that rolling dice and invoking rules gives the GM a bit of time to breathe. When everyone is in character the whole time, it can get exhausting.
  • This group is really enjoying all the “town stuff” that often gets rushed through or glossed over. Running these types of mundane encounters is not my forte. Dungeon crawls are so much easier.
  • Related to that, they ended up talking with 8 or 9 NPCs, and witnessing a few more. That’s a lot for less than 2 hours of play time, and I only had minimal notes for about half of them.
  • I don’t regret doing this experiment with an undeveloped sandbox setting, but I’m having to do a lot of thinking on my feet, particularly when the PCs start asking NPCs for information.

Enjoying reading about your journey here, Jim. I can easily see how this kind of emergent game would be exhausting for the GM with all mechanics and setting balls in their court. One thing that struck me in reading this is that you’ve gone in a very non-traditional direction in one respect (hide the mechanics and stats and all the rest), and towards the uber-version of the trad angle of ‘GM as god’ in another. That puts an awful lot on you – contrasting, say, with indie and small press games like various PbtA RPGs, Fate, the Belonging Outside Belonging games, etc., where mechanics can be less in the player’s face, but where the storytelling (e.g. setting details, NPC names, what locations are like) is super collaborative, all sourced from the whole table… -explicitly- to reduce the cognitive load you’re experiencing.

Curious to read more as this progresses!