Apologies… it took me longer to get this going than I intended. Anyway, here’s my first attempt at my exploration of diceless games – I’m starting with a clear favorite and I’d love some feedback on what you think I might do differently to make this endeavor as worthwhile as possible. Well – enough chat – thanks for reading.
I’m not really much of a LARP fan. I’ve done the big LARP groups – like the Camarilla – and I’ve done the little LARPs – the one-shots at cons – and really, as a gamer, I don’t get what I want from LARP-style play. But as I embarked on the idea of really exploring games without dice I knew I wanted to write about the original World of Darkness LARP system, Mind’s Eye Theater.
I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when the creative team was designing this game system. Who was the first guy who said, “Hey, let’s just have them play Rock-Paper-Scissors.” And how long do you think it took the rest of the team to stop laughing and realize this person was totally serious? And totally awesome.
Don’t get me wrong. Mind’s Eye Theater is not perfect in its execution of many of the WoD games. I know this is true but it doesn’t change the fact that this game blew my mind the first time I read it. Combining a trait system with a simplistic mechanic like RPS is a great idea. And the ways they created permutations to that system to allow it to be robust and engaging kept me reading and thinking about the system for a long time. Heck, I’ve given away almost every WoD book from my gaming collection – but I’ve held on to my LARP books just because I’m constantly drawn back to them.
A Quick Overview of the System
For those who don’t know the system I’m going to sketch a (very) brief outline of the main points and a few of the ways the system tweaks that basic system to make it do so many things.
Characters in MET are made up of descriptive traits in three categories: Physical, Mental, and Social. So your physical traits might describe your character as Quick, Agile, Wiry, and Tough. Each of these traits would also be given a sense of what type of tests they would be appropriate for. So when a physical test for a footrace was called for (for example), Quick might be appropriate but Tough likely isn’t. For a test that involves scaling a skyscraper? Maybe neither one of them really works.
Players initiate or respond to contests by bidding these traits. So a player who wants to run away from another character could say, “I run away. I’m Quick enough to run from you.” That player has now risked the Quick trait on this test. The responding character could reply with, “Well, that’s great but I’m Fast and I can catch you.” (And by doing so bid a Fast trait.)
Once both players have bid they play a game of RPS against each other. The winner accomplishes his/her intent and keeps the risked trait. The loser not only loses the contest but also loses (temporarily) the use of the bid trait.
Beyond the basic trait bid-and-test; skills, powers, and other miscellaneous factors can come into play. So, let’s say that the racer who lost test above had the Athletics skill. That player could call for a Retest (game term) because they have an appropriate skill. The two would play another round of RPS.
Powers often had greater effects. For example: Potence (the strength power of Vampires) allowed the use of the Bomb symbol in Rock-Paper-Scissors. The Bomb beats everything except Scissors.
There was also a fantastic concept of Overbidding – a way in which a powerful character who clearly should just blow away a lesser challenge could for all intents and purposes simply declare a victory.
Equipment and some other factors could play a role but that was the meat of the system.
Why It Impresses Me So Much
It’s a little difficult to explain why this impressed me so much. One part is the raw simplicity of it all. Another is the cleverness of a mechanic that doesn’t require a player to bring anything except a character sheet to the game – because their resolution system is done with their hands. I’m a huge fan of simplicity and mostly-empty game tables for sure, but my fascination goes deeper. When I read the game for the first time I was struck by how useful the trait system was – how powerful a tool for characterization this could be. Your character was defined by a series of descriptive words you chose based on the types of tests you wanted to be particularly good at while also allowing you to build a convincing image of your character. The descriptors did double duty as both game mechanic and fluff. Far too often in games I see the ability scores devalued as description, instead only becoming numbers and modifiers. This may not be a problem for some but it tends to make me a little crazy. In practice, I know that this idea of using the traits to describe your character didn’t always work out so well – there were a lot of reasons I didn’t enjoy my tenure with the Cam… but the idea is elegant and solid.
To turn those descriptors into resources was such a simple concept. I’m impressed by the way that resource management remains an aspect of the play – but without a lot of complicated tracking. Risk a trait, lose a trait. No fuss. And the concept allowed you to use the same resolution mechanic for any sort of contest. You didn’t need a complicated set of social encounter rules, for example. You just played your character and when it was time to test – you just did it and moved on. Additionally, that resource management allowed for concepts like “fatigue” and “second winds” to be abstracted in clever ways such that it all became a part of the evolving story. More than anything I think, this ability to blend the mechanical play and the story play is what makes MET stand out for me.
When I read Laws of the Night for the first time I was in my days of really exploring games beyond D&D and GURPS. I had entered my first phase of wanting to read and devour every game I could get my hands on – from Teenagers from Outer Space to Battletech to Amber and everything in between. I just wanted to know everything I could about this wacky hobby that still dominates my thinking most of the time. The combination of simplicity, fluff, mechanical cleverness, and unique play inspired me. Laws of the Night changed the way I thought about the hobby and my own gaming. And I think now, years later, I appreciate it more than I did then. Heck, when running WoD games, I stopped using the tabletop systems altogether and I just use the LARP system at the table. It works surprisingly well.
Does It Matter?
I’m not sure it does. I’m still exploring this whole concept of what I hope to accomplish with this exploration of games without dice. But MET is a truly elegant game at its core and is well worth tracking down and reading for anyone interested in diceless play or game design. There is a great deal to learn from this game even now, when it has been abandoned and replaced by the very people who created it.