12/04/00: Roll the Bones
by Pieter van Hiel

"I'll tell ya what happened to Freddie. He plays some free-style RPG now. One of those MUDs on the Internet. They say he just sits at his keyboard all day long, rocking himself in a dazed stupor. You guys could end up the same way."
-'Weird' Pete Ashton, Knights of the Dinner Table #43

When I first started online role-playing, it took me a long time to come to grips with the freestyle nature of the activity.

You see, the common perception among table-top gamers like myself is that diceless is akin to dickless. It's unmanly, sissy boy stuff. I know the overall opinion of the folks I game with can be summed up thusly - "Diceless players only want to indulge in toucy-feely romance role-play, and LARPer's are simply spotty poseurs who hang around basements pretending to be vampires."

I know, I know. Stereotypes. I renounce them, intellectually, but still find myself uneasy with the idea of freestyle role-play on occasion. I know others in the same boat.

There's the belief that diceless role-players are unwilling to put their character creations in the hands of luck and the Game Master. That they, in short, are cowards. Now, I know many seasoned LARPers and diceless players will roll their eyes at that, and dismiss it as the sour grapes of a few old wargamers who refuse to treat RPGs are more than a exercise in looting and killing. But that's not entirely true. Some of the best role-players I know refuse to part with their dice. There is a definite division among players. While I have successfully crossed this great divide into the world of diceless role-playing, my sympathies still lie with the dicers.

I'm not sure when the division could properly be said to have it's genesis. I know the first diceless RPG I ever saw was "Everway," back in 1992 or so. It squatted on a high shelf at the Hamilton branch of the "Silver Snail" for months, above a rack of unsold 1st edition Marvel RPG adventures.

A few weeks after it appeared, my friend Dan and I took it down from the shelf and examined it. Nice production values. It was in a box too, which was important. In our opinion far too many RPGs were being released in the one book format. Boxes held all sorts of goodies and looked good on a shelf. Heartened by this, we read the text on the back of the box... and our interest faded. Diceless role-playing? Unlikely. Tarot Cards instead of dice? Might as well use a Ouija board, or read tea leaves! We toyed with the idea of buying it as a curio, then put it back. Diceless, we concurred, was dickless. Unmanly. Sissified. The concept was surely not long for this world.

However, the concept of diceless role-playing did not die. As the Internet took off, it took root in chat rooms and on email lists. Live action role-playing boomed in popularity. I know for a fact that many LARP groups don't even use the "paper-scissors-rock" method of adjudication. I became a part of that world myself, role-playing on local bulletin board systems, and later on WBS. Most of the time I had fun... yet I couldn't help be annoyed by the players with no sense of balance or fair play. Players who always succeeded when it counted, or who had trouble letting others work into their role-play. It seemed to me that the best players I met were the folks who had a solid grounding in stat-based table-top games.

In my opinion, the reason for this is that diceless and freeform games are far too organic. Their plots unfold according to the willy-nilly dramatic urges of the players. This is fine in and of itself, and great when done properly, but in reality we are exposed to the whims of a thousand forces beyond our own egos. Dice add that random element.

We roll the bones, and we turn our creations over to Fate. We become one with the desperate gambler squatting in the alley, hoping for a seven to save his life. We become one with the soldier, turning his life over to the Will of God. The dice roll, and we surrender our control to Lady Luck. The strongest man may be felled by a single blow. So too the mightiest character, who's fate may hinge upon a single toss of the dice.

Freestyle role-players, diceless role-players, never have to face this random element. They face each other as equals. They can refuse to die. They can direct their character down any path they like. They can run. They can avoid the final death. They are nothing beside us, nothing beside the cold gray warriors with taped glasses and bad hygiene. In this case, it is the heroes who choose to die a thousand times.

I greatly enjoy the time I spend on IMC (admittedly not much of late), but I still have trouble with the largely ruleless and chaotic role-play that takes place here. I gravitate to the more structured rooms, because I generally end up being frustrated otherwise. I'm not knocking the fun other people have there, I'm just telling you what my gut response is. It's irrational, I know. May as well toss reason to the four winds and tell you more!

I don't what it is... a call... the call of my race, perhaps. The race of antediluvian role-players that sit huddled around their cave campfires... rolling... rolling... rolling... (Ed. Note: Please disregard the froth spewing from the writer's lips at this point.)

I stand on the cliff side that faces the green and fertile valley of a diceless future. I smell the fragrant perfumes that bespeak distant dramas played out, romances portrayed and daring duels posed.

And I turn my face from these things. I turn my face from the effete gamers of the online valley to the acrid smoke of the fires, to my brethren in the caves. They greet me without friendship. They greet me with the grudging respect that is due to the Master of the Game. I love them as brothers, I honour them as worthy enemies. I sit down on the beaten earth and take up the dice once more. I tighten my grip on four-siders, and the pain lets me know that I live. One of my brothers throws a sheaf of grid paper on the fire, and the game begins with a roll of the bones.

Their clatter is the clatter of spears in the forest of the mind. Their rumble, the sound of thunder that echoes across a vast plain of bleached ribs and carrion, a sound that is a link to a thousand past glories. The dice roll, and the glories live again in our minds. The sound means so much to us who have heard it ten thousand times over the years.

To us, it is the lonely bass purring of a scout ship's star drive as it explores the Horse Head Nebula. It is the sound of tank treads in Stalingrad. The tinkle of silverware at the General's table. The crack of rifle-fire on a Martian steppe. The burble of the Brandywine as it flows under a bridge in the Shire.

Perhaps we are a dying breed. We wouldn't have it any other way. Ours is a hobby of Darwinian Imagination. Roll the bones, or get out. Only the strong and the quick witted survive. Stupidity is crushed by the terrible vengeance of the Game Master and his creations.

And that, gentle readers, is why I will never give up my dice. He who wants my ten-siders can have them, when he plucks them from my cold, dead, fingers!

Yes, Pieter is a bitter old coot. :-)