Copyright 2012 Peter Maranci
I started trying to write this article shortly after 1986, at a guess. I finished it last night: October 10th, 2012. Twenty-five years is a long time. And I'm still not sure that I'm satisfied with it.
If you have feedback on it, I'd very much like to hear it (well, unless your feedback is "You suck!" ). I hope that I've managed to convey the incredible intensity and fun of sheetless roleplaying, along with a sense of the risks that such a campaign entails. I'll probably end up expanding the article, over time. Oh, and if you run a sheetless campaign, I definitely want to hear from you.
Sheetless roleplaying is an advanced technique for traditional face-to-face table-top roleplayers. It should not be attempted by novices. However, a well-run sheetless roleplaying campaign can create a far more immersive and exciting experience than the usual RPG.
The key concept behind sheetless roleplaying is this: players should not know anything more about their characters than any person knows about themselves. No characteristics, no abilities, no statistics as such; they know of their competencies and abilities, but only in descriptive and comparative terms (for example "As the apprentice of the village blacksmith, I'm stronger than most other men in the village."). The gamemaster handles all the mechanics of the game system, all the number-crunching, leaving the players to focus exclusively on roleplaying. The result is a far more intense roleplaying experience...one that players will remember for a lifetime.
First things first: the players should not know what the system is. You want them thinking in terms of motivations, personality, and their situation in the game-world, not numbers. Beyond that, the choice of system is totally up to the gamemaster; after all, he or she is the only one who will actually be USING the system! However, there are a number of points to consider:
Simplicity. The average campaign has four or five players. In a normal game, each player takes care of their own paperwork, although usually the GM maintains some oversight. In a sheetless game, all that paperwork rests on the GM. The more complex the system, the more work the game becomes! And that can slow things down...which is not a good thing. Choosing or creating a simple system saves the gamemaster huge amounts of work down the road.
Tells. Some systems include design elements which are dead give-aways. Levels. Character classes. Special powers gained at certain points in character development, or whose number of uses per day is limited by some purely systemic factor. If your players can guess what system you're using, some of them may be tempted to try to guess at the specific numbers involved, or even try to argue with you about the numbers. You don't want that. It's poison for a sheetless campaign.
Congruence with reality. This is an extension of the previous point. You are asking your players to think about their characters and the game itself in non-game terms. So don't use a system that relies on artificial limitations for balance. If only fighters can use swords, for example, you'll have to come up with a reasonable explanation why a non-fighter can't pick up that sword on the ground and use it to defend themselves. The more closely your game system maps to the way that the real world works, the less time you'll spend trying to rationalize any constraints placed on the game by the system.
Comfort. One of the advantages of a sheetless campaign is that the GM will never (or almost never) have to justify a decision or outcome based on the rules. On the other hand, they're likely to spend more time working with the rules. Stopping to look up a rule slows down the game as well as being is likely to give away the game system to the players. Pick a system that you know well enough to handle without reference to books.
If you're comfortable enough as a gamemaster to create your own system, more power to you! It's even conceivable that a really great GM could run a campaign with no roleplaying system at all, although it might not be wise to let the players know that that was the case. But a good game system is a useful tool.
Combat and magic are both special cases, and are detailed separately in later sections.
Personally, I find that a simplified version of the classic RuneQuest III system works well. It's a very clean system, integrated around a few key concepts which are quite logical and clear. It's skill-based, with individual skills improving through use, just as they do in the real world. And it lacks levels, experience points, and character classes, all of which tend to expose the underlying system to the players.
I retain the standard characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Dexterity, Power, and Appearance), and calculate the category skill bonuses in the usual way. Rather than using the more specialized skills, however, I use the skill categories as skills: Agility, Communication, Knowledge, Manipulation, Perception, and Stealth (I also add Magic if it's appropriate to the campaign setting). These are represented by percentile values. If the character has some special skill which is better or worse than the rest of the skills in that category, I break it out separately; for example, if a character is known for their skill with rope, I might break out a separate Use Rope skill from their Manipulation skill.
Likewise, rather than using separate attack and parry skills for each weapon, it's easier to assign a single Combat skill and use it both for attack and parry, and for any weapon which the character knows how to use. Again, if there's some particular weapon or skill which the character is supposed to excel at, that one skill or weapon can be broken out and tracked as a separate skill.
As for skill improvement, it's true that using rolled-up skills in this way does make any improvement in a skill far more significant often equivalent to an increase in five or more standard RuneQuest skills. For example, an improvement in the Agility skill would affect Boat, Climb, Dodge (although this should always be separately tracked, as it's a vital skill), Jump, Ride, Swim, and Throw. This is not a problem, however, since all mechanics remain in the hands of the gamemaster so improvement rolls can be spaced out appropriately, to slow or increase the rate of character improvement as desired. The players won't know!
Nonetheless, improvement should be allotted to correspond with actual skill use. That's logical and fair.
I should note that there have been dozens of different iterations of the RuneQuest rules produced over the years. Some are currently available for purchase and/or download, such as Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying, OpenQuest, and RuneQuest 6 (and there are several others). Any of these can be easily adapted to a sheetless campaign.
It can also be helpful to use a system which the players aren't familiar with, as some of them become quite relentless sleuths in trying to ferret out system details; the timing of certain types of rolls (initiative rolls, for example) can give a lot of information away! That said, almost any system can work.
Needless to say, numbers should never be given to the players well, not game-specific numbers, anyway. Obviously if the players see three black doves flying overhead, they need to know how many doves they see! But if a player takes six points of damage, the injury should be described as they perceive it: The creature dodged your sword-strike and gets a claw past your defenses. You take a bad slash to the left forearm. You feel warm blood running down your arm, but it doesn't hurt too much...yet. You're a little light-headed, but you can still fight.
A wound which would be laughed off in a standard sheeted campaign seems much more meaningful in a sheetless one. Be ready: some players become much more cautious under those circumstances!
Dice are difficult to replace. They are the classic means of determining random outcomes; as such, I recommend them strongly to the GM of a sheetless system. For example, when presented with a situation in which a non-player-character might make one of two or more choices, I quickly assign probabilities based on what I know about that NPC, and then roll percentile dice to determine the result. The use of dice by the GM also tends to reassure players that they are not simply being railroaded or puppeted by the GM; sheetless campaigns tend to inspire that sort of thinking.
But should players be allowed to use dice? This is up to the GM, of course. In general, I recommend allowing the players to use dice, but only to a limited extent. Dice-use should be neither too frequent, nor too specific. It's far better for players to describe their approaches and tactics than for them to rely on the dice. Nor do I recommend giving players specific dice to roll for specific weapon damage, for example; it's better to have them stick to, say, percentile dice and base damage on that. It would not be unreasonable to use the first digit of the roll as damage for a weapon which would ordinarily use a D10, for example. Or if a weapon normally does 1-8 points of damage and the player rolls a 50 (out of 100), simply assign a damage of 4 or 5. Since the players will NOT know exactly how much damage they have caused or received, don't sweat it! But try to be fair, of course.
Combat is perhaps the single most critical element in a roleplaying campaign. It is, after all, a matter of life and death. And there's no denying that it's one of the most effective tools in the gamemaster's arsenal. I don't use it much myself, but I have to admit that nothing gets a group's attention like an interesting combat!
But dealing with combat without giving away the system to the players is a challenge. It's also important to give players a feeling that they have control over their character's fate, that their choices matter. Fortunately, there are ways to handle combat in a sheetless campaign that can actually produce more memorable combats, ones in which the players are far more directly involved.
Encourage players to think about their situation during combat. It doesn't need to be a toe-to-toe hack and slash affair. Terrain and surroundings matter for example, a smart character might find a way to maneuver to put the sun in their opponent's eyes, or to get to a position of high ground. Combats of necessity must be described in basically the same terms as might be used in a novel, whether or not dice rolls are being used; make that work for the game! Once the players understand that good thinking and preparation pay off, they'll spend more time actually strategizing.
Combat may be described in as much or as little detail as desired. Generally some detail is desirable. Avoid numbers, but a player should be allowed to state what sort of attack he or she is using (I'll feint to his left and then thrust for his eyes!) and what sort of defense (a weapon or shield parry, or a dodge). It's reasonable to allow one attack and one defensive option for each player in turn. Be careful not to allow more talkative players to take over the combat and shut out the quieter ones!
Beyond that, I recommend a simple mechanic: allow the players to decide what sort of general approach they are taking to a combat as it progresses. You might allow five different options, for example:
A player can change stances during combat, but not between each paired attack and defense. That is, they can't be on all-out attack for their attack, and then switch instantly to all-out defense for their defense; it takes time to switch their approach!
This system, combined with dice rolls and the strategy of the players or even with strategy alone if a diceless approach is preferred, should provide enough control and variety to satisfy the players.
Magic tends to be very system-specific, and as such represents a particular point of vulnerability for a sheetless campaign. If players can use magic in the campaign, it's important to change the magic system sufficiently to make it unrecognizable because once they recognize the system, they are at risk of falling into old habits and a number-centered approach to the game. So for this one area, I do recommend putting in a bit of work up front and either adapting the magic system from some other system to your game (with luck, from a system that your players aren't familiar with), or actually creating a new magic system from scratch. If that prospect is too intimidating, you may want to reconsider running a sheetless campaign!
But creating a new system needn't be that much work. Nor is knocking off the corners of a pre-existing system; just make sure to avoid ANY spell names or effects which would give away the system, and try to change any tells that might be revealing. Remember, the players will know less about the details of the magic than players normally do; they'll only know what they actually perceive. This will actually make the magic seem far more magical and real.
For an example of a new magic system which was created specifically for a sheetless campaign, see Runic Sorcery. It's derived from a system used in the original sheetless campaign of the type I am describing. The GM described the magic to the players purely on the basis of what they felt and perceived; no numbers were given. It worked wonderfully.
Settings and Genres
Any genre or setting may be used for a sheetless campaign. Modern or futuristic settings may be slightly more problematic, since the settings offer the characters in-world options for determining their personal statistics; weight-lifting and intelligence tests, for example. However, these are not insuperable issues.
Generally speaking, original worlds and settings seem to work best. However, it's both possible and practical to include elements from other sources, if desired. In one sheetless game, the group met and fought their first demon; it was a terrifying battle. It wasn't until after the combat that the group realized that it had been a demon from standard D&D, and the weakest type to boot! Had they encountered it in a standard D&D campaign, they would have yawned. As it was, it gave the group an entirely different view of just how frightening even a minor demon could be. It turns out that familiarity does breed contempt and inversely, mystery and the appearance of newness can impart respect and awe.
There are many different patterns that a roleplaying campaign can fall into. The most common ones are the endless or soap opera structure, in which the party continues having adventure after adventure. Better suited to the sheetless campaign, however, is the arc form; in this form, there is a definite beginning, middle, and end, with both long-term and short-term goals for the party as a whole and for each individual party member.
You can read more about campaign structure in a two-part article I wrote some time ago, here and here.
Of course it's important not to railroad the party. Outcomes must be left open, and the world should change in response to their actions. But determining the essential problem that the party faces, as well as the primary movers and elements who are involved in that problem, gives a gamemaster a good core structure on which to hang plot-hooks and maintain a basic flow to the campaign. The end of the campaign should never be predetermined, but it's wise to consider possible outcomes early and evaluate them for changes regularly as the campaign progresses.
Reaching an ending needn't mean that the campaign is actually over, of course. There's always the possibility of sequels - if not with the PCs themselves, then with their descendants!
Time spent on character creation always pays off. And since a sheetless campaign is usually a serious one, in the sense that it's likely to be particularly memorable for all involved, it's a good idea to devote extra time to that process.
Of course numbers can't be used. Even if a player offers to provide a write-up of their character in game terms and numbers merely as a guide, that offer should be refused. Instead, players should conceive of their characters as if they were someone from a book, or a movie, or even a TV show as someone with a history, with drives, desires, and fears. The more depth that the character has, the more it will blossom during play.
Now, this may sound extreme. But I recommend taking several weeks to create characters. Begin with a private discussion between the GM and each player, to work out the basic concept. The character concept doesn't have to be complex, but it needs to be something that A) the player is interested in, and B) will fit well into the campaign setting. Don't try to finalize anything in the initial discussion, but DO keep notes of any key points.
The process is a two-way one. The GM learns what sort of person the player is interested in playing, and the player learns more about the world that the game is set in. As ideas get kicked back and forth, the character may actually influence the world-design to a surprising extent!
Take down-time between discussions. Give it a few days, and then kick the ideas around again. Often, there will be surprising new developments and twists. And assuming that the GM is also talking to each of the other players, interesting synergies often take place.
The conversations needn't all be face-to-face, by the way. Conversations by phone, email, or text are perfectly fine and often helpful. Mid-way through the process, players may wish to discuss their characters together; if their characters are beginning the campaign having already known each other (a good idea), they may want to work out some of their mutual past history and interactions. It's even possible that the GM may want to run a prequel session or two, allowing the developing characters to interact during events long before the campaign proper takes place!
After at least a two-week period (three or even four weeks would not be overkill) and many hours of discussion, the GM reaches agreement with each player on finalized characters. Using the information and notes taken from those conversations, the GM then creates each character in whatever system he or she has chosen to use. These finalized characters are, of course, never shown to the players although there should not be any real surprises for the player in terms of their character's abilities and possessions, unless some sort of surprise was requested.
A brief example: a player began with the idea of metamorphosis. His character would begin as a sniveling, contemptible person, despised by all or nearly all, and would eventually be radically transformed into something very different. Through weeks of discussion the character evolved into something of a rogue and sneak-thief, puny and generally disliked. During the campaign it was discovered that he was the last lost survivor of a noble family, and had been cursed as a baby. Half-way through the campaign, the curse was lifted. He grew tall, handsome, and strong, but never entirely got over feeling weak, small, and ugly inside.
Another example: the starting concept was a mage who specialized in water magics. The character ended up with an interesting history: as a young child, he'd fallen into a river. He would have drowned, if not for the intervention of a water elemental. The elemental and child became friends, and as the years passed, the boy learned the ways of water; how to invoke it, shape it, and use it in mystic arts. The water elemental became his companion; in fact, in many ways it acted as his familiar.
In some games, there's a lot of out-of-character chatter; jokes, discussion, banter, and gossip. This can often be fun. It's not good for a sheetless campaign, however. Since the primary activity of the players in such a game is to be their character, to feel as much like their character as they can, anything that takes the players or the group out-of-character should be discouraged. Emphasizing that point when the campaign begins certainly wouldn't hurt!
Encourage your players to speak in first person, as their character - i.e. "I try to maneauver the guard toward the edge of the cliff. I'm trying to make it look as if I'm attacking all-out, but in fact I'm fighting defensively." Likewise, players should only speak to each other in character when their characters are actually speaking - and should be discouraged from speaking out of character about in-game events. Unless they're playing telepaths, of course! Otherwise, restrict them to the limitations that their characters face on communication. If they're talking to each other and an NPC is close enough to overhear, they'd better whisper so that you (as GM) can't hear them!
Players should be allowed to keep all the notes that they wish, of course. Some may even decide to write up their adventures in story form - in fact, that's not uncommon!
There are a few potential issues with a sheetless campaign that must be noted. As mentioned earlier, it does require the gamemaster to shoulder a larger portion of the paperwork. It also requires a good deal of confidence and skill on the part of the GM. Vetting the players before starting the campaign is critical; some players simply cannot handle a sheetless campaign. They need to have a rule system, something that they can argue about and debate. Without it, some players simply crack.
Beyond that, the sheer intensity of sheetless roleplaying puts unusual pressure on some players. It used to be a minor rage to suggest that roleplaying games tended to make some players get confused about the line between fantasy and reality; that idea has mostly passed out of vogue (or is applied to MMORPGs instead), but the fact remains that some roleplayers do blur that line, or become too emotionally involved in their characters. The risk of such breakdowns is substantially magnified in a sheetless game. Something about the immediacy and intensity of the game tends to throw vulnerable players off-balance. In the past I've called sheetless roleplaying the "crack cocaine" of roleplaying. Hyperbole, yes, but it is an uncommonly intense experience, and I have personally seen several experienced roleplayers completely lose their equilibrium (emotional, not physical) in sheetless campaigns.
It's also vital that the players have confidence in the gamemaster. If they do not trust the GM to be fair, it's very likely that problems will develop down the road. Without the usual tools in their hands character sheets and the rules system some players are more likely to be particularly touchy about perceived issues of fairness. . Please use your best judgment when selecting players for a sheetless campaign. Look for mature people (emotionally mature, not necessarily chronologically mature) with a good sense of humor and balance. And if things get too intense, be ready to insist on a break!
Sheetless roleplaying has been independently created by many different gamers over the years, and comes in many different flavors. Some work better than others. The type that I've described was created by Bill Moody at Allegheny College some time around 1984. I played in his first sheetless campaign, and ran several sheetless campaigns myself over the years.
Thanks, Bill! It was a hell of a game.
Copyright 2012 by Peter Maranci. Revised: October 11, 2012. v.1.0