A friend of mine made a shortish Pokemon RPG module for one-on-one play. The module turned out incredibly well and everyone in our extended RPG group has now played it (and each time the supplemental GM notes for the module grow... I hope to one day complete the Pokedex of non-human cultural spectrums I'm compiling via second hand reports for her, but we'll see).

Unfortunately, I've now been tagged to run a variation of this game for multiple players at the same time. This is a problem because the module lacks rules of the sort I'm used to using and instead provides broad descriptive regulations like

Each Alakazam is best at something different, though they are all capable of teleportation and communicating with humans. Will's Alakazam is the best at dealing with large amounts of information, for example searching the minds of a city's population for memories of interactions with the player, or getting useful prophecy from the Xatu festival. Sabrina's Alakazam is best at mind control stuff, like making people not notice that they're being mind controlled, despite radical alterations to their perception of reality. Lord Zumzibar (Tequila's Alakazam) is best at hiding his presence from psychic detection and resisting other people's psychic powers.


If the Player is friends with the Rival, he gives them the stone when he finds it, at age 9. Otherwise, Mom gives it to the player at age 12, just before the game starts. If something prevents the player from finding or knowing about the stone, Tequila still knows she needs it and will take steps to locate before or while she kidnaps the player.


Each use of the Player's Rayquaza powers causes the world to end a little sooner. Furthermore, the player's connection with Somethingness is strained, and they lose a bit of their humanity. As the player uses these abilities, the GM should increasingly restrict the ways in which they are allowed to respond to situations and the kinds of feelings they have, until at some point the GM assumes control of the Player.

These rules are useful and have worked fine for the one-on-one campaign, as given any particular task the Player attempts what the outcome should be is pretty clear (and if it's not clear "Rule 0: The Player always wins" applies). Unfortunately, not that there are multiple players, they may cause their PCs (The Players) to come into conflict, and then Rule 0 no longer applies and what should happen is pretty unclear.

Now, I have some significant experience running diceless games, so I think resolving these conflicts will be mostly possible to do in a satisfying manner. However, I have found that diceless conflict resolution (at least the way I've been doing it, inspired by my experiences with Amber Diceless) tends to benefit people who are good at speaking (or in this case, writing, since the game will be online).


Inarticulateness is the opposite of eloquence.

The two players I have been tagged to run this game for have vastly different skill levels at literary creation. One of them is a low-level editor/reviewer for a small literary journal, has kept up a weekly blog post for more than 18 months (though it just went on hiatus for the first time a couple weeks ago), writes at least one 1000 word short story every day, and a 500 word opinion piece once a week, and is generally a professional writer, minus the part where she gets paid. She also has 3 years of experience in online RPGing via chat, with a year of experience on the platform we will specifically be using.

The other player suffers from mild dyslexia, is terrible at writing both in terms of fundamentals like grammar and spelling and in terms of things like style and eloquence, has no positive experiences with chat-based RP, and didn't play Pokemon as a kid (but has, obviously, played the module/system this game will be based on).

Losing all the time is no fun, and the massively-less-skilled player here usually feels the need to create PvP conflicts, especially when they find themselves consistently losing in said situations. I'd like to arbitrate the task resolution in a manner that doesn't favor the literarily inclined person involved to the exclusion of the other. Normally, this isn't a problem because we normally play systems with more rules-based character creation, and the latter player is much better at building and using characters in such systems than the former, so things kinda balance out.

What can I do to bias things the other way, towards the person who is less good at talking?

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    \$\begingroup\$ There doesn't seem to be a good, agreed-upon definition of ignoramity just yet. Can you clarify what's meant by the title? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2017 at 23:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan noun form of the property which causes one to appear an ignoramus when one attempts to communicate. Like, one person says things that sound cool, and one person says things that make them look really dumb, and then we have to figure out what they meant to be saying instead of that. I want to avoid the person presenting their ideas in a manner that makes the ideas look stupid succeeding less often for that reason than the person who makes their ideas sound brilliant by means of presentation. Feel free to change the word. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19, 2017 at 0:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am for now pretty convinced that you just can't have both a dice-less simple system and the ignoramity. Let's hope a good answer will prove me wrong! \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19, 2017 at 7:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you have a problem with somebody who's dyslexic, help them out with what they're trying to say. It'll take a bit of extra time, but you'll figure out what their character is saying, which I think is an important distinction. While it's RP, ultimately what happens in-game depends on what the character says, not what the player says, and what a character says can be planned / updated before it is committed to the game. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19, 2017 at 16:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is "problem players" a good tag for this? I know that the tag describes problem players as those who, "for whatever reason, contribute to difficulty running the game". But really - whatever reason, even those which are outside the choice and control of the player? \$\endgroup\$
    – Beanluc
    Jul 19, 2017 at 17:25

1 Answer 1


"System-less" games


I run all my games system-less, so does my extended circle of friends, for several decades now and across a large (and expending) spectrum of settings. I do sometimes use dice (mostly fudge/fate because it has a nice Gaussian probability curve) to colour actions with some sense of randomness.

There are two crucial things that underpinned those games:

  • A trust that the referee (GM/DM) is fair.
  • A clear understanding of one character's abilities and where those sit within the setting.

Referee is fair

The referee needs to be fair in the sense that they are the arbiter of what happens. What should happen is nearly always what makes for a better story, whatever that is. This is, to be honest, no different to any other RPG. However, in most games the referee is bound by the same rules that the characters are. Since there are no rules, the referee is unbound and free to do whatever they wish. The players need to trust that the referee will make those decisions fairly, even if the players/characters do not have the information (yet?) to see that the decision was fair.

As an example, a group of investigators discovers that a man those family had died in a car crash raised them from the dead. Instead of his loved ones, there are not a few zombies. The investigators find the spell book and decide to use the "summon the raised" spell to get the zombies to come to them. Little do the investigators know, that doing so in Arkham is not a good idea™. The referee is, of course, free to run the last scene of the game as hordes of undead converge on the hapless investigators. This is both fair and a good story ending.

Could you do the exact same game with the CoC system? Sure. The only difference is that no dice roll are ever made: the referee decides what succeeds, what does not, and the implication of both.

Part of the referee being fair is also giving (more or less) equal camera time to all the players. Sometimes, it means encouraging the aloof ones, sometimes it means reigning in the over bearing ones. This means that asking leading questions such as "how would super charge the ship's engines?" or giving the player options "You should be able to scout the enemy goblin camp without being detected".

Again, none of that is radically different from running a system game…

Abilities and context

Players do need to understand what their characters can and cannot do within the setting. Most games use rules and character sheets for that: you have a firearm skill of 78%. That tells you most of what you need to know. Or does it? Are we in a John Woo or John Wick type setting or are we in a gritty Reservoir Dogs or The Wire? Context matters, just like it does in any system game. Instead of numbers, systemless uses woolly words such as "really good" or "amazing" or "rubbish". Of course there is no skill list either: just description of what one can do: think of your CV, you rarely say "I have C++ at 67%", don't you? But you might say "I am experienced in object oriented programming using C++".

When the player knows what they are capable off, they can easily make an educated choice as to what action they can perform, what is risky, and what is impossible for them. Clearly, the referee needs to have the same understanding. This is achieved by asking questions and sometimes retrofitting things.

As an example, let's take Bob and Alice in a realistic horror setting a la Walking Dead. Alice is a twenty years veteran of the foreign legion armed with a 9mm pistol. Bob is a software engineer those knowledge of combat is gleamed from the many hundreds of hours playing Call Of Duty. Bob is armed with a FAMAS rifle. Both stumble from opposing doors into a house those half dozen inhabitant have been turned into zombies. Guess what happens next?

While it is easy to abuse such a setting, Wheaton's law applied to the players as well as the referee. I chose to role play only with responsible adults.

The answer, finally.

How can a player without player ability at free-form improvisation play a competent character.

Trust the referee and know what their character can do within the setting.

That is it. In the fullness of time, they will learn to be more confident, more daring, and get better at free-form improvisation. It is a skill that can be learned. In the mean time, all they need to do is be willing to try.

Take this example: Bob and Alice are both spacer responding to a distress call from an unknown freighter. Both make their way to the bridge.

Bob (who is passable at computer hacking): I try to login, using most common passwords. If that does not work, I will get my network scanner and see if I can get version of software. Hopefully, I can find something that has not been patched and has a vulnerability I know about.

Referee: Passwords do not work, as expected. You get some answers form the scanner but they make little sense to you.

Alice (who is an expert hacker): I try to hack it by cutting some wires, maybe?

When someone (like Alice above) gives me woolly directions ("I shot it!"), I tend to ask them more questions to refine it. I even offer suggestions as to what I think a competent character would do.

Referee: Do you want to look at the wireless connections, the hard wires, or try to brute force passwords? Or were you thinking of something else?

Alice: Err… Which one is better?

Referee: All have their good points. However, having seen the sensor data from Bob, you would rate the hard wire a little better.

Alice: Okay, I can do that as I have a tool kit with me.

Referee: Alice looks over Bob's shoulder at the scanner and recognise a RS45 encryption protocol. Thank fully, you (Alice) know that there is a public access key you can use to see things. After a little time looking at the results, you do find an unpatched access panel where you can wire a relay. You can use that relay to mimic the captain's handheld. After a little messing about, you are in. What do you do next? …

First, Alice's player now knows that their character is indeed good at what they do. Second, they learned a little about how hacking works from both Bob's player and the referee, something they can try to weave in the next time they attempt a hack. Thirdly, they gain confidence in talking about stuff their character does even if they have no idea how to do it themselves.

The latter is very important indeed: the player must know that since their character is good at what they do, the referee will make sure that their actions will succeed with gusto however poorly they describe them. This build self confidence which in turns, supports trying new things with the fear of being ridiculed. Over time, the player should get better at improvising things.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe this is too long and rambling… IDK… \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2017 at 8:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ So, the question is about what happens when Alice and Bob get in a fight. Neither player lacks confidence, but one of them lacks skill. Your example with the vetran with the 9mm pistol and the software developer with the assault rifle is a good example case, except lets say that instead of the zombies, they are shooting at eachother. My problem is that one of the players is gonna say 'i shuut it lol' and expect that since their character is a veteran obviously I should understand that to mean that they carefully take a shot from a position with cover... \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2017 at 9:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wheaton's law applied to the players as well as the referee. "I shuut it lol" violates it. However, if a fit veteran trained special forces fights an untrained unfit person, it only ends one way… To be honest, I find that PvP makes for great computer games and terrible RPGs . \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2017 at 9:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ When someone gives me woolly directions ("I shot it!"), I tend to ask them more questions to refine it. I even offer suggestions as to what I think a competent character would do. In your case, I would suggest suppressing fire, cover, and even suggesting that Alice could disarm Bob instead of killing them… \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2017 at 9:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Alice's player now knows that their character is indeed good at what they do" seems like a terribly important factor to emphasize while GMing in general - especially given how a lot of systems tend to give each player a list of character skills and then leave them to make an argument about how a favored skill applies to a situation in question. I will take this to heart in my future GMing. \$\endgroup\$
    – recognizer
    Sep 28, 2018 at 21:45

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