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Look Ma! No Dice, No Rules!

 

LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) and DRPGs (Diceless Role-Playing Games) are the next step up in the world of role-play. Breaking away from the dice forces the player to study his actions and play more in character. There's no room for munchkins in a LARP or DRPG. ...At least, those are the theories. In practice, however, current LARPs and DRPGs are more trouble than they are worth.

First off, when I say LARP I am not including the SCA or SCA-esque organizations whose members beat themselves over the head with asbestos-laden PVC weaponry. Nor am I including the box-set "Interactive Murder Mysteries", in which everybody points fingers at everyone else for the evening over a dead body while enjoying a fine dinner. No, in this case and henceforth when I refer to a LARP, I am referring to a game in which people mingle about a building or area of some sort, pretending to be their characters.

If you've ever been to a gaming convention, you probably know what I'm talking about. They're the people playing "Paper, Rock, Scissors" and crossing their arms over their chest, walking around. Or, perhaps you've seen two people in odd costumes, talking to each other when suddenly one of the people rolls some dice and the other falls over, playing dead. Yep. LARPs.

Secondly, when I talk about DRPGs, I am not talking about those nights where you get so tired yet don't want to stop gaming so you let the GM assume for a bit, although it's not too far off from what currently exists. Nor am I including the "car-trip" games where dicing is impossible. Nope. I'm talking about the games that actually describe on their box or book, Diceless Gaming. No doubt you've seen them in your favorite store where you procure your RPG accessories. These are the games that leave all the results up to the GM completely, or use another method of divining results, like cards. That's right. DRPGs.

You may have come to the assumption that I don't care for the current state of LARPs and DRPGs. Very good. Move to the head of the class. The two styles of gaming are actually very similar. In fact the largest difference between the two is that one is played sitting down, the other walking around. Although, not exclusively sitting down or walking around; I'm sure that people playing a DRPG will walk around as well... over to the bathroom, to grab a soda, pay for the pizza, etc. Likewise, a person in a LARP is allowed to sit down when their character is sitting, in fact it makes more sense to do that than say, putting your hands on your hindquarters to emulate that you have a chair there.

Why don't I like LARPs and DRPGs? Glad you asked. It is after all, the reason I wrote this month's column. I mean, you might have asked, "What's for dinner?" Sorry friend, can't help you there. There is one simple reason that I don't like LARPs and DRPGs: the resolution system. That's a pretty big reason. In fact, I think you'll agree that that's reason enough not to like a game. Since 3% of the readers of RPGnet can't read (see Sandy Antunes' May 99 Column), I'll reiterate. The reason I have a problem with current LARPs and DRPGs: The resolution system.

When I have a chat with someone about DRPGs there are three titles that almost always come up. To me, these three are perfect examples of DRPGs and pretty much encompass the others, at least as examples within this article. I am by no means stomping the DRPGs collectively. I am stomping them one by one, crushing them over and over... But, I digress. Amber (Phage Press) is, by far, the most well known DRPG out there, it's followed closely by R. Talsorian's Castle Falkenstein. And let's not forget Everway, whom last I heard was owned by Rubicon Press. Each of them uses their own, unique, style of resolution.

During the initial character development of Amber the characters have a bidding war on four obscure stats, trying to spend an allocated amount of points great enough to beat everybody else, but enough for the next stat. If the players have not spent all their points bidding on the stats, they can purchase additional powers, such as shape shifting or conjuration. The stats determine if you can beat another.

Say, for instance in a contest of strength you have a Strength of (A)155 and your opponent has a paltry (A)157. Your opponent will win every time. There is no luck involved. The only chance you might have is to pull some sort of devious stunt, and that's the name of the game in Amber. With dice-based RPGs, skills might take a turn-for-turn description, with each player gaining the upper hand, adding a sense of drama to the escapade; not so with Amber. The GM has full power. Granted, the GM always has a sort of power, but that was the point of dice, to help keep the GM in line. An issue of Knights of the Dinner Table (Kenzer & Co.) once gave a pretty good description of a game of Amber. The players sat around while the GM told them what they were doing and how well they did it. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but that is what it feels like.

Castle Falkenstein does allow for a non-dice moderator, playing cards. Using a deck of playing cards did allow for some randomness, allowing the players to either be kissed by Lady Luck or spurned. However, rather than using stats or skills, the players make up a diary for their characters, giving verbal descriptions for their abilities. This can have a tendency to throw the cards out of balance if a skill or adjective for the skill is obscure enough. A craftily written diary can almost always throw a game out of whack. The system almost works, but not quite.

Everway also uses cards as a non-dice moderator. However, these cards are not playing cards, rather they are a tarot-esque deck of cards each symbolizing a trait. For example a card might symbolize the trait of courage, if pulled and the picture is right side up then courage has won. However, if when pulled the picture is upside-down then courage has lost. The problem with this, as you may have already guessed, is the completely arbitrary nature of this, not to mention the obvious win-lose draw of the cards. After all, if a resolution has nothing to do with courage where does the courage card come into play? The GM of course, also decides exactly what the effect of the card was, once again giving the GM perhaps a bit too much power.

LARPs on the other hand use such randomizers as "Paper, Rock, Scissors", or any of the DRPG resolution systems. There have also been one or two LARPs that do utilize dice, however this is not only cumbersome, but also very distracting from the overall feel of the LARP. Although, I feel that playing "Paper, Rock, Scissors" a bit out of character as well. Moderation in LARPs is a little more difficult as well, as there are many conflicts that may come about that the staff of moderators have no time for. Resolutions within LARPs are plagued with the same problems that plague resolutions in DRPGs.

LARPs are also hit with a problem that is a lot milder in DRPGs or RPGs. Race, sex, looks, et al that are different from the players are much harder to convey and immediately recognize. For example, a female has very little problem playing a male vampire in White Wolf's Vampire. However, when the same female tries to bring her character over to a live action game, getting people to realize that her character is a male can be a little more difficult to convey, due to the large groups that a LARP seems to require. Gender switching aside, suppose people wanted to play a LARP in which anthropomorphic animals were the norm. How would people assume the shape of the animal they wanted to represent? Those nifty little animal noses are getting harder and harder to find.

Despite the flaws within current LARPs and DRPGs, I do think that they are the next step in gaming. Not only that, they are probably the best way to introduce newcomers into gaming; for the most part they're rules-light (most a little too rules-light, though) and the lack of dice is a little less intimidating. Face it, to the neophyte anything beyond a six-sider is a little weird. The lack of dice also encourages a little more character development, which is good for gaming.

However, for LARPs and DRPGs to rise to their true potential better systems of resolutions will have to be developed. The system should not only flow well, but also have either a good randomizer or a sturdy rule-system for GM moderation. Also, the rule system should fit the feel of a game.

Having no dice is not a bad thing. Having no rules? Well, that another thing entirely.

Roll saving throw (er, draw card or use stat) Vs. Bad Gaming!
Erich S. Arendall
(Shadow Sprite)

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