[Runequest] Drastically simplifying RuneQuest

Peter Maranci pmaranci at gmail.com
Wed Oct 17 04:43:10 EST 2012

I didn't expect so many responses! I guess it's better to do one LONG
response, rather than many individual ones?

Gary Sturgess wrote:
>It really comes down to what you want to play. Some players, in some
>games, treat RPGs as a tactical exercise - and there's nothing
>actually wrong with that (as the success of D&D4e demonstrates, this
>is hardly a tiny market).

Oh, sure. I wasn't calling for a jihad against the wargaming style of
gaming, or anything like that. But from my experience with relatively
younger gamers in the last few years, it does seem that the hack and slash
style of roleplaying is still dominant. And many younger gamers haven't
been introduced to other styles of gaming.

Alban de ROSTOLAN wrote:
>Do players know their initial characteristics and skills ?

Not in terms of numbers. They do know their character in terms of personal
history (assuming they don't have amnesia, of course!), abilities, and
personality - but only in descriptive terms.

>In my view, numbers are not only statistics, but also a mean through which
players can have a better understanding of their character.

But they are not the ONLY means by which a player can understand their
character. Words are often less precise, yes. But numbers do often have a
distancing effect between the player and character. I'm speaking from
personal experience, and I'm not saying that this necessarily applies to
every gamer or every game. But in the six sheetless campaigns I've played
in or run, the results have *always* been games of surprising intensity and

Tomas Björklund wrote:
>It sounds to me that you are trying to design a new game, a narrative
>roleplaying system, and what you call sheetless RPG is to my ears
>another word for narrative, possibly freeform rpg play.

Actually this style was developed back in the 1980s. I've played in two
campaigns of this style (a friend of mine developed in in college), and
have run four in the years since. They're not casual campaigns; they
usually take at least two or three years. The article is my attempt to
explain how it's done. Unfortunately it does seem as if I didn't entirely

>I would recommend you go in that direction instead of trying to adapt
>RQ into a role I think it ill suited to fill.

Actually it worked quite well in my campaigns. Of course, it's such a
minimalistic version of RQ that it's arguably not RuneQuest at all -
although it still falls within the BRP family of systems, of course.

Greg <grogthing> wrote:
>I don't see this as an attempt at narrative roleplaying, a detailed
simulation can still go on behind the curtain, out of sight of the players.

Very true. I tried using the full RQIII system for my first sheetless
campaign. The game went well, but it was a LOT of work. That's why I
progressively simplified the system for later sheetless campaigns.

>Players looking at hard numbers to crunch their odds, is not how real life
decision making works.

Exactly! Well, unless they're professional gamblers or scientists...or
possibly professional athletes. But nobody sane goes around thinking of
themselves as a primarily a collection of statistics.

Okay, I suppose most roleplayers have tried representing themselves in game
terms for fun. But the point I was trying to make is that *in my
experience*, when the system is removed from the awareness of the players,
they are invariably amazed to discover how much more involved they become
in the personalities of their characters, and in the game itself.

It does seem likely that this also depends on the personal qualities and
strengths of the individual gamemaster. But I've known two GMs who've done
sheetless games (the originator of the style, and myself); we had very
different approaches to GMing, but the effect on the players were much the
same for both of us. Fascination, and in some cases virtual obsession.

>Only the gm would see the hard numbers, the players could still roll, but
with no knowledge of what number they need to hit, the player just makes
decisions on character knowledge and observable data.

That's right. And it does work. As a player, I never felt deprived of

In fairness, though, I will admit that I did encounter one player who did
seem to have a problem with it. He tried to derive his skills from
observations of his success and failure results on rolls, and then started
*arguing* with me about his imagined numbers. But he was seriously messed
up, to the point that he not only tried to kill all the other PCs in the
game, but actually took his anger out on us all outside of the game as
well. Ultimately, I had to boot him out of the campaign.

As I've said before, the intensity of the style does seem to put more
psychological pressure on many players. And some of them just can't take
that pressure.

Tomas Björklund wrote:
>Indeed the GM could toss the entire system out the window and
>only make rolls now and then behind the screen, and make things up as
>he goes, and it would be all the same to the players.

Yes, but that would take great skill on the part of the GM, AND great trust
from the players. Personally I've never gone that far. A minimalistic
RQ-based system helps keep things neat and consistent, both for the players
and the GM.

Phil <snarks at gmail.com> wrote:

>The player is not the character. I see this extra knowledge as part of the
balancing for the extreme sensory depravation that players necessarily
suffer in a roleplaying game.

Yes, but it's a different KIND of knowledge - and that has implications for
how the player experiences their character. All I'm saying is that going
sheetless DOES make a difference, and that difference was mostly very

Perhaps this article was a futile attempt on my part; or perhaps I'm just
not skilled enough to impart the experience on paper. All I can say is that
I have yet to meet a player who wasn't extremely impressed by the impact
that playing sheetless had on their game experience. I'm not saying that
everyone should do it, nor that it's necessarily better. I wouldn't use
that style for a casual pick-up game, nor for an inexperienced group, nor
if I wasn't willing to devote more time and effort to the game than I would
for a normal RPG campaign. I was just trying to post a description of the
style and enable others to try it - if they want to.

Greg <grogthing> wrote:
>Instead of looking at numbers on the sheet, you ask the gm questions about
what you observe and sense, filling in the sensory deprivation you speak of.

Yes! That's exactly right. And the GM also lets players know how the task
looks to them up-front. For example: "The lock is bigger than you're used
to dealing with, which makes it easier. But it seems well-made, and you're
not familiar with the manufacturer. Go ahead and roll."

When running a game like this, you soon get into the habit of presenting a
skill-use situation with context and impressions. Before long it's second
nature. It gives the game more flavor than just saying "Roll your devise
skill to pick the lock." Believe me, that personalized element helps make
the game more involving!

>Prior to any actual attempt at a skill .. a skill roll should be made to
analyse the situation to see how accurately you judge the situation, giving
you a good guesstimate at weather the goal is within your range.

That would work. Personally as GM I wouldn't roll before EVERY skill use;
only for the ones that had some *reason* to have a misleading appearance to
the player. Minimizing the amount of work in the game becomes pretty
important for the GM. Otherwise, you risk burning out.

>In real life I am familiar with my abilities and limitations .. within
broad strokes .. when given a task to accomplish .. my first step is to
analyse the task .. have I done this before successfully? Do I have all the
>required tools? The necessary time? Can it be broken into smaller pieces?
Do I have access to research material, for unfamiliar aspects of the task?

Yes, yes, yes. All of these elements give MORE information than the raw
numbers, and far more depth.

>The character is presented a task .. he should roll to analyse .. ask the
gm what he sees and what his experience tells him his chances are .. the
player should make his choice to attempt the task based on the >input he is
then given by the gm.

That's one approach, but a GM would probably want to reduce the number of
rolls and simply present the initial task as the character observed it.
It's a step towards a narrative approach, but the underlying system allows
a greater sense of balance; it makes the experience more of a game, rather
than a collaborative story.

Lawrence Whitaker wrote:
>1. It imposed a helluva lot of work on me as GM, even though the
>system was relatively simple. In the end, it ceased being fun; it was
>taking far too long in terms of upkeep and in-game book-keeping and

It definitely can be a lot of work, no question about it. That's why my
goal has always been to try to simplify the system while retaining enough
of the core mechanics to make the game work.

>2. The players were mature and accepting, but they missed having a
>character sheet and some interaction with the mechanics. For them this
> was what made the game the most fun; the transparency and direct
> interaction with the rule system.

We missed sheets a little bit initially in the first sheetless game. But
soon we were so involved in the personalities of the characters and the
various adventures we were having that characteristics and numbers didn't
seem to matter. I should probably have noted in the article that players
are welcome to keep detailed notes, and to write down (for example) their
inventory and such - along with anything else that they want to record.

>3. They especially missed skill advancement. Being told they'd 'got
>better' in one skill or another simply led to the question 'Well, how
>much? How can I tell?'

Hmm...interesting point. This wasn't particularly a problem in any of the
games I've witnessed, but it's probably a matter of different GMing styles.
We generally knew that we were getting better from a combination of our
experiences and direct feedback from the GM. Not the same as having solid
numerical data, true...but apart from standardized testing, grades in
school, and weightlifting, none of US get numerical data on our
improvements in skills and abilities in the real world.

>One point in Peter's article that made my eyebrows raise was the
>recommendation to take weeks to create the characters ...

If anything I understated this - really. And again, this is based on my
observations, not theory. When players lack numbers for their characters,
their personal narrative, history, personality, etc. become far more
detailed and important to them. Call it the "Slow Food" approach to
roleplaying; the extended creation time and the breaks between discussion
almost always lead to interesting and surprising developments in character
design. The initial concept and the final character are almost never
exactly the same, and the changes that develop over the extended
conversation are usually substantial improvements. They also are a HUGE
help to the GM in creating a campaign that feels far more personal and
immediate to the players, because their personal backgrounds tend to be far
more interwoven into the game.

I don't know if this is true for everyone, of course. Maybe it worked out
that way for the two GMs I know who've taken this approach because that's
just how we were. But there does seem to be logic behind it. When you take
more time to work on ANYTHING, it often turns out better. And when you've
invested more time and effort into something, it becomes more important to

>... It seems to me that whilst
>weeks spent in one-on-one discussions might be fun for one or two
>players, take that up to five or six and the GM already has an
>absolute ton of work to do before the game even starts.

Yes. Absolutely. You're right. A sheetless campaign is a huge commitment
(which is why I personally am reluctant to start another one at this time).
It's a lot of fun, but the players get more out of it than the GM does. I
find them more fun to run than a normal campaign, but that's purely because
the players get so involved and excited. Proportionately, a sheetless
campaign is more fun for the players than for the GM.

>Furthermore, if you have to vet your players as part of the
>process, you run the risk of ending up with... [snip]

That depends on how many players you have to draw on, and your relationship
with them. But players who enjoy spending a lot of time arguing about the
rules, or who show signs of treating the GM as an antagonist rather than
the *gamemaster*, are poison for a sheetless campaign. I wouldn't wish that
on anyone.

Ravi Desai <rdesai at chartermi.net> wrote:
[Many good points, actually.]
>1. Nobody ever remembers how much money they have.

LOL. True. On the other hand, I normally let the players deal with that
themselves. Since their characters would be able to count their money, it's
up to them (the players) to track it. Hiding the system only applies to
information that the characters themselves would actually know. Or rather,
not know.

>2. If some encounter requires the players to make a decision about who
should perform some task, they invariably want to know which player would
be best at it.

I usually try to build some degree of specialization into characters for
this sort of a game; not classes, as such, but it's a good idea for each
character to have something that they are better at than anyone else in the
group. That helps each of them to play an important role in the party. That
said, the GM can compare skills for them in conceptual terms, as in "he's a
bit better at singing than you are, but you're a much better dancer".

>5. This style of gameplay cries out for an iOS (or android) app to manage
the character sheets.

Oooh...I hadn't thought of that. Yes, good software could be a huge help in
such a campaign. I'm not familiar with any gaming apps or programs, however.

I will say that players in my current campaign are making heavy use of
texting. It replaces physical notes to the gamemaster, and two of the
players who have a permanent telepathic link use it to talk to each other
without letting the other players in on their conversations. But that's not
a sheetless campaign; I'm using RQIII adapted to a multi-genre setting. I
also use Google Drive to access various game data and reference material
(such as Wikipedia, for example). I'd love to see a unified tool for
dealing with all these elements. It would take quite a redesign to create a
RuneQuest character sheet that would be legible on a smartphone display,
however, even on my 4.65" screen.

All that said, I wish I could demo the sheetless style for everybody on the
list (well, those who'd want to try it). I considered demoing it at the
upcoming Arisia convention in Boston next January. But it's not well-suited
for a one-shot. I may run a RuneQuest one-shot, if an interesting plot
comes to mind.

Oh, and that reminds me: the simplified RQ I started sketching out might
also be a good starter system for children and newbies. I used such a
system (slightly more complex) in a one-shot I ran about ten years ago.
People seemed to like it.


On Sun, Oct 14, 2012 at 10:58 PM, Peter Maranci <pmaranci at gmail.com> wrote:

> I recently posted an article on my website about sheetless roleplaying -
> that is, running a roleplaying campaign in which the players don't interact
> with the game system directly, but instead play their characters as people
> rather than statistics while the gamemaster handles all the numbers. It's a
> pretty advanced and hardcore approach; it does seem to carry a greater risk
> of psychological breakdown for some players, but the games are incredibly
> intense.
> Any system can theoretically be used for a sheetless game, but RuneQuest
> is particularly well-suited to it because it maps so well to the real
> world. You don't want to have to justify limitations on action which are
> based solely on issues of system design or game balance during such a
> campaign - it ruins the suspension of disbelief! And with RuneQuest, such
> limitations are rare or nonexistent.
> That said, since the gamemaster handles ALL the paperwork in a sheetless
> campaign (including the paperwork which would be handled by players in a
> normal game), it helps a lot to reduce that paperwork as much as possible.
> I've tried to do this by using a greatly simplified version of the
> RuneQuest system for such games. Since the players aren't aware of
> mechanics, and in fact are encouraged NOT to think about the game in terms
> of numbers and rules, the GM has much more latitude for handling issues by
> fiat and off-the-cuff decisions - as long as they can do so in a
> reasonable-seeming manner, so as not to strike a false note for the players.
> Skills are collapsed into the seven skill categories, with the possibility
> of breakouts for skills which are defined during character creation or play
> as being exceptionally bad or good. A single combat skill replaces the
> usual attack/parry skills (for all weapons); players get a compensatory
> degree of control over their actions in combat by intelligent use (or not)
> of terrain and other tactics, along with a set of five differing approaches
> to combat which can be changed every "round": all-out attack (attack skill
> doubled, no defensive actions possible), aggressive stance (50% bonus to
> attack chance, defensive chance halved), neutral stance (obvious),
> defensive stance (attack skill halved, defensive skill +50%), and all-out
> defense (defense skill doubled, no attack possible).
> Just curious, has anyone else experimented with anything like this? Here's
> a link to the full article. I'm pretty sure that I'll continue to revise
> and expand it now and then. If anyone has feedback on it, I'd quite
> interested to hear it!
> http://www.runequest.org/sheetlessrpg.htm
> ->Peter
> --
> Peter Maranci - pmaranci at gmail.com
> Pete's RuneQuest & Roleplaying! http://www.runequest.org/rq.htm
> The Diary of A Simple Man: http://bobquasit.livejournal.com/

Peter Maranci - pmaranci at gmail.com
Pete's RuneQuest & Roleplaying! http://www.runequest.org/rq.htm
The Diary of A Simple Man: http://bobquasit.livejournal.com/
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