In March I wrote here about the death of Gary Gygax. Yesterday I heard about the death of another RPG designer: Erick Wujcik. But you're much less likely to know his name. (Or be able to spell it, but never mind that now...)
I have never been in the bleeding edge of RPG gaming, so I don't know everything that led up to Wujcik's 1991 diceless design. I do know that it spun my head around sideways. The nature of RPG gaming had been obvious to me since I was eight years old: you decide what you are going to do, you work out the odds of success (based on your skills and the nature of the task), and then you roll dice to see whether you succeed or fail. Hit or miss. Find the secret door or walk past it. Make your saving throw or turn to stone.
The Amber system offhandedly junked that whole idea. You're playing a superhero. (The characters in Zelazny's Amber books don't wear their underwear on the outside, but they are superhuman beings.) You don't have a chance of breaking down that door; you break down that door, because you are awesome. The guy standing next to you may be awesome at fencing -- that's his character role, not the result of lucky rolls.
Wujcik's insight was to set up a way to distribute these talents among the gaming group, via an auction system. And then to create stories which were shaped by the shifting alliances of the group (Amber characters never trust each other), and their manipulation of events. Once you come down to the attempt, you know how it's going to come out -- so all the fun is in scheming how you'll approach it.
I played in an Amber campaign, although it fell apart after just a couple of sessions. None of us were hard-core RPGers, except I guess for Eric. I think that actually made Amber easier for us. On the other hand, it meant none of us had the habit of making time for gaming, week after week. At any rate, those few sessions were wacky and interesting and difficult. Awkward, but interestingly awkward. Not at all the tedious awkwardness of my pre-teen D&D attempts.
Diceless role-playing did not go on to conquer the RPG landscape. It did inspire Nobilis, R. Sean Borgstrom's claim on the Most Stylish RPG Ever. Nobilis mixes up the pure diceless nature with elements that allow more scene-by-scene unpredictability. Again, you play a superhuman being -- the deity of some aspect of reality: sunlight, or zeppelins, or treachery, or what have you. The game rules give a very general guide to what you can do (creation is more difficult than destruction; destroying a zeppelin is easier than deleting the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality; etc). But it mostly comes down to applying your aspect cleverly. You're never walking into a battle that you're certain to lose, because there might be a way to bring zeppelins into it...
(And yes, Nobilis is a game where you can delete the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality by retroactively causing the Hindenburg to burn in 1937. I told you it was cool.)
As D&D 4.0 sloshes irrestistably towards us, the bulk of the RPG world remains in the old, pre-Amber, "roll to see if you succeed" model. The interesting fringe has moved beyond the diceless, into territory which seems even stranger. Imagine a game in which you decide what you want, roll the dice, and then decide what you are going to do. This is essentially the model of Dogs in the Vineyard, and it makes more sense than you think. You have leeway to use your rolled dice in different ways, or bring in the "cleverness" aspect by using your character history or traits. But sometimes you just roll crap -- and that makes for good roleplaying. Are you going to play this scene as failure, near-success, pyrrhic victory? Will it cost in reputation, self-respect, or blood?
These are the games for people who want their characters to have interesting lives, rather than to succeed at every challenge... and you can learn more about the topic than I know by Googling "narrativist games". I have no standing to give that lecture.
I have no standing to lecture about any of this. If that Amber game wasn't the last paper-and-pencil RPG I took part in, it was the second-to-last. I just find all this stuff neat, is all. And it's all grain for the "Can I do this on a computer? Why not?" mill.
Erick Wujcik: a man who fed the mill, for many of us. Keep the gears turning.