Wow, that article on systemless gaming is fascinating to me; like stumbling on an artifact from an alternate historical timestream, where the Aztecs colonized Europe or somesuch.
On the one hand, my friends and I would have been SO all over the "Australian style" gaming convention scene. A world in which there are whole conventions full of people dedicated to roleplaying character and mood, and in which they provide whole theater lab rooms with sound equipment and lights??? Good lord!
On the other hand, since we did develop separately and in parallel, much of it is alien. Connotations of some words are flipped topsy-turvy. The author of the article clearly has a negative association -- no, not negative, because he loves him some hack-and-slash adventuring as well, but let's say indulgently nostaligic? -- with "dice".
For him dice clearly go along with experience points, plot above character, and the rugged self-improving adventurer who always wins; where he mentions dice it's like "hell, even be prepared to throw in some DICE for the particularly clueless group!" This puzzles me because dice are just surprise-providers. They just enable stochasticity. There's nothing that says that the surprises have to be plot surprises, never mind I-kill-goblins-for-gold plot surprises. Dice enable the narrative to suddenly move in directions neither the players nor the GM anticipate. It can do that anyway, through the emergent unexpected qualities of the players' decisions, but dice introduce the unexpected decisively. They are a great help to a stuck GM -- they throw a curve ball, chuck you off your safe plan and into the unknown.
On the other hand, he has a positive association with the world module. Clearly understandable, but funny to me. If he associates dice with hack-and-slash adventuring, that's precisely what my gang associated with the word module, which is why it provoked our scorn -- or, perhaps, indulgent and affectionate head-patting amusement. A module was what you needed if you couldn't cut it as a GM -- if you couldn't ride the wave, follow your players where ever they had a mind to go, staying just ahead of them, carving story out of the creative chaos. Sure, you might make some notes, you might even start with a sort-of-a-plan (though good luck with it surviving a half hour of gaming), but the idea that you'd write down a scenario so extensive that people would play it twice? Or that you'd subordinate your creative powers of generativity, as GM, to some module designer who wasn't even present at the game? Heavens forfend!
Given this background, when I initially heard "systemless" I thought "demanding chaos". Because whenever we tried to play systemless, we were playing moduleless systemless -- neither the players nor the GM have any idea what's going to happen next. We did play this way quite a bit, but it's hellishly demanding and there's no guarantee of closure. But that isn't what Mr. Hughes is talking about at all.
It seems to me that there's an axis between game and play, and roleplaying game traditions are at various points along it. As the archetype of "game" think of tag, or chess, or basketball. What will happen in a game is utterly unpredictable, by definition; the resolution is totally emergent. Indeed the content of the game is emergent at every moment; you don't stop to narrate what's happening in tag (beyond "I got you!"). Although the ludic space of tag is fictional -- no one really needs to run away from It, her intentions are not malicious in real life -- it is also totally legible, and it is so because of rules. It's clear to everyone involved what you just did, when you moved the knight or dunked the ball or tagged Larry, because the gameplay is totally generated by, constrained by, and made comprehensible by the rules.
On the other end of the axis is Hamlet. Everyone knows how Hamlet ends. There is no need for "rules" because nothing is generated. Or, rather, what's generated is the emotional how -- the "performance". If tag is a ludic space without communication, Hamlet is a ludic space which is all communication.
Improv, of the sort where the audience shouts out a cue and the players do their scene until a predefined trigger is hit, is often structured as a game. It's often gamelike, even called, sometimes, "theater sports".
So the surprising thing to me about the Australian "systemless" tradition is how much like Hamlet it is: how much the GM is in control. You may not know quite where you'll end up, as per Hamlet, but there's a great deal of attention to guiding the players "through", at least plotwise? Much as in, you know, a module -- like "Keep on the Borderlands". You are even given your characters by the module! Scripted characters is a radical break (though a sensible one) from what I think of as the power-sharing arrangement between players and GMs, and not because I'm of the school that the character is entirely "rolled up" or has so-and-so many XP to lug from game to game; but because I think of who the character is as one of the things the think-on-her-feet GM is spontaneously reacting to.
Another divergence is how physical the Australian tradition seems to be -- as if the distinction between tabletop RPGs and LARPs were dissolved, or at least made a matter of degree. "[W]e donít roleplay with our minds, we roleplay with and through our bodies" -- really?? This is striking to me because even at 13, GMing my friend Ramin's ogre Cagaxia leading his fleet to the Southern Continent in pursuit of his archenemy Arkraven, we were doing half of it over the phone. It was all imagination -- all conjured up in the mind's eye. The idea that our bodies were involved would have been quite counterintuitive.
In any event, I'd really love to have a chance sometime to play one of these Ozzie Tradition games. They sound terrific.
There is also, as I mentioned on the skype-o-matic, a whole Norwegian school of gaming which is a bit like the Australian, but, i think, perhaps more spare and enigmatic and cerebral and open-ended? Like check this out... or this... and this thread... and these folks...