Apocalypse World agendas

The core of The Master of Ceremonies chapter involves three agendas and 11 principles, where agendas are the abstract goals of play and principles are means, or methods, that further the agendas. The three agendas apply 100% to OSR play (text of agendas from 2E, p. 80):

  1. Make Apocalypse World seem real
  2. Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring
  3. Play to find out what happens

If anything, the third agenda is the single most important aspect of open-ended, exploration focused play. Whether you are exploring a dungeon, crawling hexes, or even engaging in palace intrigue, the most rewarding OSR play for me starts with a setting backdrop, some situations in motion, some randomly determined events, and a sequence of player choices about what to investigate or ignore. Setting backdrop includes elements such as fictional locations and random encounter tables. Events include particular random encounters that happen, reaction rolls, and even the positive or negative outcomes of combats. Then, that mix determines fictional developments, alliances, and ultimately some form of emergent narrative. This requires some discipline, or at least trust that such juxtaposition will lead to engaging play. As Apocalypse World directs (2E, p. 80):

It’s not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around).

The other two agendas are also central to OSR play for me. Make the world seem real means that when adventurers retreat from a dungeon, monsters may learn. The same tactics should work less well the second time. Intelligent denizens will remember being wronged—or helped. Retainers will betray characters if poorly treated (with appropriate foreshadowing or communication between referee and players, of course). Developments occur offscreen, especially regarding threats telegraphed but ignored, such as unchecked goblin raiding leading to food shortages. And so forth. Making the world seem real drives adventures and makes player choices matter.

I can see the objection already: all this is just common sense, there is nothing specifically OSR about this approach to refereeing; there may not even be anything specific to Apocalypse World. But I disagree. These agendas do not apply to all games. If you are playing a Pathfinder Adventure Path, the game—the place where player choices matter—is not so much in playing to find out what happens. Instead, the game challenges player skill in crafting effective builds and in tactical battlefield teamwork. There exist other reasonable high level goals of play which diverge from these agendas as well. For example, there are some RPGs where maintaining the sense of a world in motion outside of the player characters is less important. In those games, the equivalent to make Apocalypse World seem real is less applicable.

The question then becomes, are there other abstract, high level goals of OSR play apart from these three agendas, or do these three agendas suffice? I think there are two potential candidates. The first involves exploration and the gradual discovery or revelation of wondrous landscapes. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. The inky expanse of an underground sea. The second involves navigating fictional challenges using creative problem solving and teamwork. The first potentially falls under playing to find out what happens and making the world seem real, though I can imagine a satisfying game of Apocalypse World never leaving, for example, a refugee camp. So even though some of the principles, which I will discuss in later posts, may naturally fit with exploratory play, the agendas do not in and of themselves demand exploration. The second also probably deserves a separate agenda statement, if one were to write the OSR referee equivalent of the MC chapter.

Panel from Berserk chapter 93

One final note. So far I have mostly been discussing the applicability of Apocalypse World methods structurally rather than in terms of content. Much of the fictional content presented by Apocalypse World may be absent from OSR settings, such as guns, vague memories of our present world, cigarettes, napalm, and so forth. That said, D&D is the apocalypse. A points of light setting, which describes many D&D settings, where danger and adventure surround small areas of safety, would be the natural outcome of life after an apocalypse. Examples of stories in other media that feel most D&D to me are often post-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic adjacent, such as The Walking Dead, early episodes of Lost, the Blame! anime, Vance’s Dying Earth stories, Berserk after the Advent, The Book of the New Sun, and all the Dark Souls video games. So while the cosmetic details might vary if your setting includes elves, knights, longbows, or riding velociraptors rather than bikers, automatic weapons, and Fury Road battle cars, there may be more similarities than differences once you get past the surface associations.

Reading Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World provides some of the best statements I know of regarding several aspects of play that I find particularly rewarding. However, Apocalypse World also has a reputation, especially around the dives I frequent, of prioritizing dramatic development and focusing on shared narrative authority rather than facilitating fictional challenges. While some of these assumptions have a grain of truth, the bulk of the text is, in my opinion, tremendously useful for OSR games, or at least the kinds of games I run, whatever you want to call them. So I plan to write a handful of posts highlighting some of the acumen I see in Apocalypse World.

Though Apocalypse World the text is for the referee (the subtitle is The Master of Ceremonies, which is the game’s term for referee), the order of chapters seems focused on players, perhaps in an attempt to build interest by sketching an evocative setting, barfing forth apocalyptica in the game’s own lingo. This ordering does the text no favors, because it buries the bulk of insight regarding running games under reams of character class descriptions and powers, the playbooks. So I will be reading the text here in my preferred order, beginning with the Master of Ceremonies chapter.

My interest in running a game where I do everything Apocalypse World directs and nothing else is relatively low. As with all game paraphernalia, I am looking for what I can use rather than a complete, perfect edifice. I treat all game products as tools rather than gospel.

Note on editions

Apocalypse World has two editions: 1st (2010) and 2nd (2016). For my purposes, the differences between the editions are minor, though the second edition’s physical book is nicer. The most notable difference is that 2E replaces fronts with threat maps, which serve a similar purpose but take a slightly different approach. I will be reading the second edition.

Additional resources

If you are curious, I would also read Vincent’s post about concentric game design, by which he means that Apocalypse World is designed to degrade gracefully as you progressively ignore the rules that are less fundamental. Finally, I want to provide a shoutout to Jason D’Angelo’s long series of posts on Google Plus, The Daily Apocalypse, in which he undertakes a close read of Apocalypse World. This volume of commentary would probably be overwhelming for someone with only casual interest, but I find it useful so there you go.

Sigils, sages, and libraries

Art of alchemy, cropped (source)

As a referee, I often place runes or sigils on items or locations. Such sigils can encode spells, clues, or other relevant local information. I have used several different systems for decoding sigils, including the classic read magic spell, time-consuming intelligence checks for wizard-type characters, and probably several other methods. Below is a generalized approach for handling sigils that reflects my current approach and should be broadly applicable.

Any sorcerer can interpret sigils by spending a dungeon turn, which reveals the domain of magic unfailingly. Sorcerers that know any spells of this domain interpret the sigil fully, but otherwise learn only the domain and a scrap of additional information. If the sigils contain a spell, sorcerers that fully interpret the sigil may spend another dungeon turn to cast the spell, if desired. Full interpretation entails general knowledge of potential spell outcomes, including any risks, though exact details may remain shrouded. Most enchantments, including those bound to objects, require sigils.

Given writing materials, a literate player character can spend a dungeon turn to record details of sigils, for continued investigation during a future haven turn. Rough tracing or copying is insufficient, so only literate player characters can record sigil details. If literacy is unclear, perform an intelligence test or save versus magic to determine if a given character is literate. Assume non-specialist retainers are illiterate.

Given records of sigil details, and access to a library or archives in a haven, a sorcerer can research the meaning of the sigils as a haven action. Roll 1d6 to determine if a haven contains a library or archives if this is undetermined, with 1 indicating the presence of a library. Access to the library may require payment (reasonable default: 1d6 × 100 GP) or subterfuge. Player characters other than sorcerers lack the knowledge to use a library effectively but can instead consult a sage if one is available.

Roll 1d6 to determine if a sage resides in a particular haven. If a sage is unavailable, in most havens elders will be able to direct player characters to the nearest haven with a sage. Sages can interpret sigils within their domains of knowledge fully, though they lack the ability to cast spells. By default, a sage has a 50% chance of relevant domain knowledge (note any domain known for future reference). All sages can determine basic properties of sigils, such as domain of magic. Sages charge 100 GP for basic information, plus a rider based on how valuable the sage considers the resulting details. Sages survive on their reputation, and so only charge for information they judge valuable. Sometimes, gathering local curiosities for sages from inconvenient locales (1d6 hexes distant) will suffice for part or all of the fee.

The sorcery rules in Wonder & Wickedness use sigils to manage semi-permanent magical effects. Such sigils can be interpreted as described above.

Whenever a player character spends a dungeon turn, remember to make a random encounter check (or roll the hazard die if using the Hazard System).

Random table format wars

In general I am wary of introducing technological prosthetics into tabletop roleplaying games. Often, I think such tools are patches over needless rules complexity. I would generally prefer to adjust the rules so that they can stand efficiently without machine crutches. However, one place where I relax my attitude in this matter is the combination of results from several random tables. Occasionally I appreciate the slow, ritual process of rolling dice, consulting a table manually, noting a result, repeating this process over and over again, and then finally reconciling the complete set of results. However, most of the time reducing a 20 minute operation to one that takes mere seconds is a trade I will take. So, what tools exist for automating the juxtaposition of multiple random tables? Ultimately, I will advocate using a simple spreadsheet, which I argue has benefits in terms of both flexibility and simplicity over many other more specialized solutions, but first I will survey the alternatives.

To my knowledge, the other major players are Abulafia, Chartopia, and Last Gasp Choose Your Own Generator. Abulafia is basically a wiki that supports syntax for random tables. Abulafia’s major benefits are the ability to reference tables uploaded by others and web sharing. Chartopia is a specialized web app for random tables that seems like a work in progress. Both use their own format for encoding data. Last Gasp will generate standalone JavaScript tables that you can store entirely in a bookmarklet but requires some external solution to manage and recombine lists of table data. All of these are good tools but none of them quite scratch the itch of blending results from multiple tables in a flexible and easy to manage manner, at least for me. Chartopia may have emergent potential from social media participation, but so far lacks the user base and requisite functionality, such as intuitive hash tagging. Chartopia supports uploading tables as CSV files, but the process of creating a full generator ended up feeling cumbersome to me.

Using a spreadsheet, once you know a couple simple tricks, is flexible and quick, and the social media aspect seems easily handled with Google Sheets, Dropbox, Google Plus, Twitter, Reddit, or whatever. The main benefit for me of using a spreadsheet though is encapsulation. All the other solutions I have experimented with involve a mess of files, links, or other elements, which end up difficult to organize or share. In contrast, the method I outline here keeps all the subtables together in a single spreadsheet workbook file, with one column per table in the second sheet. This ends up interoperating easily with the most natural format for storing random tables, which is a plain text file having one result per line.

Basic Excel random tables

These instructions assume that you have basic knowledge of spreadsheet concepts, such as cell addresses and formulas. That said, to make this accessible, I try to be as explicit as possible, and apologize in advance for boring those with spreadsheet experience. Spreadsheet files (the files with xls or xlsx extensions for Excel) are called workbooks, and each workbook can contain multiple sheets. Beyond these basics, all you need to know is how to name a region of cells and how to use one, admittedly ugly, function to select a result randomly from a named region. To create a multi-table generator:

  1. Create a workbook
  2. Enter the table data into the workbook’s second sheet, one table per colum
  3. Name the column regions so you can reference them by name
  4. On the first sheet, reference the named regions using the ugly function

As a basic example, I will automate Telecanter’s excellent Magic Item Spur, the content of which is released under a creative commons license. This is a roll all the dice generator, meaning there are six tables corresponding to the classic handful of polyhedrals: 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12, and 1d20. (The d10 table here is basically just the number, but I have left it exactly as Telecanter originally specified, for clarity of example.)

First, switch to Sheet2 within the workbook and enter the data. Check the lower left tabs to access the different sheets within the workbook (you may need to click the + button to create a second sheet). I left the sheet names Sheet1 and Sheet2 in this example so they match the Excel defaults. I use the first row for column names, but this is just superficial:

Excel example – enter random tables

Next, name the ranges for each column so that you can refer to them by name elsewhere. To name a region, highlight the column data and the type the name in the upper left cell address box—the text in the blue box below. Do this for all columns (there are six in this example).

Excel example – name region

Finally, switch to Sheet1, which will contain the randomly generated result. For each table, draw a result randomly using the following function, replacing TableName with whatever you named each column region:


You can organize Sheet1 visually in whatever way you want. I have the generated content in cells B2 through B7 here, with labels to the left and credits below.

The formula in cell B2 (which resolves to distance in the result) is:


The formula in cell B3 (which resolves to weapon in the result) is:


And so forth.

Excel example – Sheet1 generator with formula

That’s it.

Now, every time you recalculate the sheet, you will get a new result. In Excel, press F9 to recalculate the sheet. In Google Sheets, reload the page.

Share, or embed in blog post

Upload this to Google Sheets, and you can share it with others, or embed the result in a blog post or other web page using the following iframe code.

<iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1am-3-CfNcIV4ICCr6jysJckVr03iWBphdeIaeSOtEBY/edit” width=”600″ height=”600″></iframe>

Just update the URL. Every time you reload the page that includes the iframe code, you will get a new result, as you will see below. (Try reloading this page.) I have highlighted the random content area in red to make it clear for this example.

Use on phone or tablet

This approach is portable, both in the software compatibility sense and in the will work on your phone sense. I tested these sheets on the Google Sheets, Numbers, and Excel apps for iOS. They all work, even when offline, though there are some minor differences in the user interface, and the free version of Excel for iOS prevents saving. Generally, to generate a new result using a phone or tablet spreadsheet, close and reopen the document. The Google Sheets app seems to be the most full-featured and flexible, but really as a simple viewer any of these works.

Opening this file unmodified in the Google Sheets app on my phone presents this interface, which is just about perfect for use during play:

User interface on a phone

Deleting or editing names for regions

Once you have created one of these, it is relatively straightforward to make a copy the workbook file and edit the copy to make another generator out of different tables. To do this, you may want to delete or rename existing region names. I explain how to do this next.

In Excel, you can delete existing names for ranges using Insert > Name > Define Name, highlighting the name, and then clicking the minus button.

Excel – region name menu

Excel – delete region name

In Google Sheets (access via Google Drive on the web), the relevant menu is Data > Named ranges… and at the time of this writing looks like:

Google Sheets – Delete region name

(Just do a web search for “named range” and your spreadsheet software of choice if using another tool.)

Comparing solutions

Okay, now that you have seen a simple proof of concept example, how does this compare to the other solutions?

  1. It functions without the network
  2. It only relies on standard spreadsheet functions
  3. Easy to share by uploading to Google Sheets
  4. Easy to organize using folders in Google Drive
  5. Easy to copy one-per-line text files into columns
  6. Keeps a collection of related tables together in one file
  7. No reliance on domain-specific language
  8. No reliance on continued existence of whatever cloud service
  9. Easy to embed in a blog post using iframe (will regenerate on each page load)

That seems like a pretty compelling list of advantages to me. A while back, I considered and decided against using a spreadsheet, but I have now changed my opinion. For a few more examples:

  • The Vornheim aristocrat generator is one of the classic examples for me of this kind of multiple table generators. Here is an automated excel version (content used with permission). Buy Vornheim; it’s great.
  • Random Devilspawn from this post (note how easy it was to embed the generator at the bottom of that post as well).

The other solutions are mostly unitaskers, unlike Excel, which is a useful tool in its own right. And keeping all the subtables nicely contained in a single workbook file is extremely helpful, especially in comparison to the mess of files I have to automate, say, some of the chapters from Seclusium (such as this chapter that is basically a magic item generator).

Adding Functionality

Though the above example provides all the functionality most generators require, spreadsheets have almost unlimited flexibility, and you can make any particular generator as complicated as you want, if your time is worthless. I tried to keep the example above as simple as possible for ease of use and portability, but there are a few other functions that might be worth the effort.

RANDBETWEEN (for dice values)

For slightly more complex generators, two other functions may be useful. The first is RANDBETWEEN(), which can serve as a basic dice roll. For example, =RANDBETWEEN(1,6) yields 1d6. =RANDBETWEEN(1,6)+RANDBETWEEN(1,6) yields 2d6 (and so forth). Use this function to instantiate values for elements such as number of monsters appearing.

CONCATENATE (for joining two random results into one cell)

To join two or more elements so they occupy a single cell, use CONCATENATE(). For a simple example:

=CONCATENATE(“Number appearing: “, RANDBETWEEN(1,6))

I use this in my Devilspawn generator to join the number of attendants and the description of attendants into a single result (check the contents of cell B10 in the first sheet).

Ennies publisher guide

It can be difficult to keep all the game studios straight, especially with the proliferation of personal brands. Since it is Ennies season, and the voting page for publishers is awkward to use, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some publishers that I consider notable, along with my reasons. I have included a few big players as well that any reader of Necropraxis is probably already familiar with, that want to note for particular actions.

(Inexplicably, Lumply Games, Meguey & Vincent Baker’s brand, and the publisher of Apocalypse World, does not seem to have been nominated. What? Moving on.)

Chaosium Inc. deserves praise for reprinting classic RuneQuest titles in high-quality editions, keeping the back catalog available digitally, and reinvigorating Glorantha with a beautiful new edition of RuneQuest that builds on the classic version.

Cubicle Seven did a great job with the 5E Adventures in Middle-Earth line, though the art is a little brown for me. The mechanics are thoughtful in how they try to support the feel of Tolkien’s stories. I think the 5E Middle-Earth books would be a good mechanical base for a low-magic 5E game, even ignoring the setting.

Dolorous Exhumation Press is “Dungeonesque” Jack; I consider his first Tales free compendium an OSR classic and Krevborna is great.

E.M.D.T. is Gabor Lux, writing some of the best current AD&D style content, but more usable and with less verbosity.

Fria Ligan (Free League) is relatively new to me, but Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy, looks to be a promising fusion of old school mechanical goals with focused design principles. Not sure whether the final result will match my tastes, but worth keeping an eye on. (They show up twice for some reason on the list at the time of this writing. I hope someone fixes that.)

Goodman Games, along with work on DCC, deserves praise for keeping other old school classics, such as those by Judges Guild, in print and bringing them to the attention of the mainstream, such as with the 5E conversion of B1 and B2 (my review).

Hydra Cooperative is the non-commercial hobby collective behind Operation Unfathomable, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and many other key OSR publications. (The entity itself is non-commercial, but I think individual creators may earn profits.)

Jarnringen publishes the Swedish Symbaroum setting and RPG (see the Iron Pact fan site). The rules of Symbaroum are a bit mainstream for me, but the art is wonderful and evocative (I ran a short-lived campaign in the setting using my own rules). Symbaroum is also somehow associated with Modiphius, which I mention below.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess probably needs no introduction here. James still deserves support for being unwavering in commitment to quality of physical product and willingness to take risks. Frostbitten & Mutilated is also up for a number of awards.

Lampblack & Brimstone publishes supplements associated with or brand-adjacent to Dungeon World, but their pubs are just as useful for OSR play. Freebooters is a slick ruleset and I consider Perilous Wilds one of the classic hex-crawl supplements. Servants of the Cinder Queen is a short module worth checking out. The taste in art is impeccable too.

Lost Pages is Paolo Greco, fellow book snob, meticulous bookbinder, and the publisher of my own Wonder & Wickedness, along with games such as Into the Odd (my review) and his completely sui generis masterpiece, Cthonic Codex (False Machine review).

Melsonian Art Council: Undercroft zine, Troika, Fever Swamp, Crypts of Indormancy.

Modiphius Entertainment is assembling an intriguing catalog of what I might call hybrid mainstream-indie games… is that a contradiction? Mutant: Year Zero, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (an Apocalypse World derivative), and so forth.

Necrotic Gnome Productions is Gavin Norman and an always reliable source of good B/X style content and rules, such as Dolmenwood, B/X Essentials, Theorems & Thaumaturgy (my review). Necrotic Gnome has plans for expansion and fancy editions, about which I am excited.

Olde House Rules does Pits & Perils (my review).

Red Box Vancouver is Johnstone Metzger, of Metamorphica (classic edition is pay-what-you-want), innumerable trad-friendly adventure modules such as Evil Wizards in a Cave, the Nightmares Underneath OSR game, Dungeon Full of Monsters, etc etc etc. He has also done a lot of work on powered by the apocalypse style games and so may be slightly less well known among the DIY D&D crowd.

red moon medicine show does Vacant Ritual Assembly, one of my favorite zines, though it has recently been dormant. Issue one is one of my top used-in-play supplements, for the ghoul market (my review).

Schwalb Entertainment is Rob Schwalb, industry veteran, who has created the mechanically innovative Shadow of the Demon Lord (my review), which may be slightly heavy rules-wise for someone with B/X tastes but is nonetheless worth checking out.

Sine Nomine Publishing is Kevin Crawford, creator of many products useful for old school exploration-focused games, including An Echo, Resounding, which is a must-read if you are interested in new takes on domain play. Additionally, he has created several free publisher tutorial products, such as this guide to TSR layout and Exemplars & Eidolons, a playable old school game which is also an InDesign layout tutorial.

Squarehex is Peter Regan, of Oubliette, a stylish old school zine from the early phase of the OSR, and is also involved with the practical side of the Black Hack second edition Kickstarter.

Steamforged Games publishes the Dark Souls board game.

Swordfish Islands is Jacob Hurst, who has singlehandedly created a couple books with production values higher than Paizo or Wizards of the Coast and also happen to be fantastic old school hex crawl resources. Swordfish Islands is also up for product of the year.

Wizards of the Coast, despite managing Dungeons & Dragons, the Coke brand of tabletop RPGs, and needing no further promotion from me, deserves praise for making Fifth Edition D&D a versatile version that can be used for old school or new school play, and for keeping the TSR back catalog available.

State of the art

Old school, smooth ride (photo credit)

There are several rules trends that I have come to see as evolutionary improvements. That is, there are a few rules that seem to be simply superior approaches to solving certain game design problems, at least most of the time. Below is a list of rules I would place in this category. Improvements are always relative to some goal, so I have organized this post around the game design problems that the various innovations address. Many of these ideas have older pedigree, and the innovation may be in application to traditional fantasy roleplaying games rather than pure invention.

Though simply superior is a strong claim, and of course there are exceptions, I think anyone writing or hacking rules, especially for OSR or DIY D&D type games, should think carefully before ignoring these developments.

Goal: make chargen fast and easy

Even in games heavy on characterization, quicker character generation is advantageous. Who wants to spend a full session on character generation, especially if people must make decisions which will ultimately influence play minimally?

  • Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping. Ideally, the possible starting gear packages will be varied and evocative while still always being gameable. For example, a butterfly net made of silver thread for catching fairies rather than just bedroll and torches. This set of tables for OD&D starting gear by class could be more evocative, but for sheer utility are still one of the tables that see the most direct use in games I run.
  • Support fully random character generation. Players who prefer to make all the choices themselves can still do so, but random characters are invaluable for the casual player or the player who needs a replacement character quickly. For example, see the one-click total party kill online character generator.

Fast character generation also makes lethal consequences more tractable.

Goal: minimize bookkeeping

Resource management adds weight to a game, in both good and bad ways. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics. There are simple systems which yield benefits for gameplay similar to complex calculations of weight carried.

  • Approximate encumbrance. One significant item per point of strength or some flat limit are both well-tested. Abstract encumbrance rather than bothering with details such as weights, which probably requires players to use a spreadsheet or other computerized prosthetic. See the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance rules (2013 Rules & Magic, page 38, free no-art version; still too heavy for me, but usable) and Papers & Pencils (making encumbrance work) for the recent ground zero of usable encumbrance rules. Historically, Dragon Warriors (by Morris and Johnson), back in 1985, used a flat limit of ten significant items, with minor adjustments based on character strength.
  • Overload the encounter die or use a hazard die for timekeeping and event engine. Winter can be a potential downtime event outcome (with a nod to Torchbearer) as can various other events. This makes a setting live without requiring complex tracking or Tolkien-style world building on the part of the referee and builds such fictional developments into the core gameplay workflow.
  • Randomize the exhaustion of consumables, such as with a Black Hack style usage die, event engine outcome, or overloading an action test (such as attack roll or ability check). The illogical edge cases are easy to handle. Similar rules have been around at least since the Necromunda ammo roll1, and probably earlier, but have only become popular in D&D type games over the last few years (see archive of this 2011 intwischa post).

Goal: maintain tension at desired level of difficulty

Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games. One easy way to maintain this tension is to keep hit points low and have zero hit points mean death, as the rules of OD&D and B/X dictate. However, low HP and death at zero can be more punishing than many groups desire. Witness the wide variety of house rules to increase the survivability of first level characters, even among hardcore old school players. For example, max hit points at first level is a common house rule and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has minimum hit point thresholds (2013 Rules & Magic, page 7, free no-art version).

Goal: develop content that will see play

This includes character options, powers, and abilities. For player-facing rules, this generally means removing level gates on powers. In-fiction requirements, in contrast, such as locating an ingredient or seeking out a teacher, create concrete goals and prime adventure, as opposed to the more abstract idea of just get more gold and at some point 9th level will roll around.

Goal: minimize numerical inflation

(This has some relation to developing content that will see play, as flatter power curves mean balance violations are less mechanically shocking.)

Goal: keep content fresh

Are these referee techniques or house rules? Either way, I am including them here.

Thanks to people that suggested commonly used house rules when I asked on Google Plus (private share; opt-in here).

1. Thanks to Paolo Greco for mentioning this a while back.

Good reviews

A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.
—Murray Kempton

What makes a good review? This is my take, and is unapologetically opinion. There are plenty of useful reviews out there that fail to hit all these notes. But these constitute my ideal. This post was prompted and informed by several Google Plus conversations (here and here, at least).


Reviews of tabletop RPG products generally concern finished products, so why bother with thinking about improvement? The ship has already sailed. First, focusing on constructive feedback forces the reviewer to really think about why something is a problem rather than just following feelings. Second, writing constructive reviews helps avoid snark. Third, providing constructive feedback reveals reviewer priorities and biases concretely. Simple criticism is often underspecified. For example, if a reviewer says that the monsters were too generic or too simple, the reader has to infer the meaning of generic or simple from past experience or make their own best guess. If the reviewer says that the monsters would be improved by adding attack routines and combat weaknesses, then the reader knows that the reviewer is specifically looking for tactical complexity in monsters and can weight the review accordingly.


The best reviews use the review form to express a more fundamental idea, rather than simply evaluate a product. I imagine this criteria may be somewhat controversial. I understand preferring a focus on functionality and simple facts. However, reviews have audiences beyond just immediate buyers. They also inform future creators, including creators other than the original product’s author. For example, when I discussed Courtney’s Megadungeon zine, I framed my review around the idea of presenting a megadungeon piecemeal using the zine form. I make no claims about how insightful that particular thesis is, but that is what I mean by more fundamental idea. Someone else might run with the baton you provide. Reviews shape the form in addition to describing and evaluating.1

Focus on value

Price is what you pay, value is what you get.
—Warren Buffett

Apart from ease of use, which is in some ways a measure of future opportunity cost, when I review something, I try to pay attention only to the value. I do not see the role of a reviewer as to judge whether product X is worth Y dollars. First, who knows what the cost will be in the future? For example, maybe a product will get new pricing (such as becoming pay what you want), be included in a bundle, or go out of print and become scarce. Second, I lack the info to evaluate how the value I see might match up to any particular reader’s resources. One person’s extravagance is another’s impulse purchase. On reflection, while writing this post, I decided that it may be useful to include how much I paid, and when, for commercial products, as that makes it easier for a reader to make a judgment and also makes the source of the product clear. So when I get a chance I may go back through my reviews and include that information. And that serves as a nice transition to considering free copies for review provided to reviewers by producers, and the attendant incentives.

Absent conflict of interest

The best reviewers do not accept complimentary copies. I believe Bryce buys all the modules he reviews (“I bought this stuff and read it so you don’t have to”). Consumer Reports buys the stuff they test (“Our shoppers pay full retail and purchase all the products we test to generate our ratings from the same places consumers do; we accept no sample products for testing”). I would never review something I was given a free copy of for purposes of facilitating a review. A commitment to this principle has been in the about section of Necropraxis since before it was called Necropraxis. I think this helps to maintain editorial independence.

For a given individual reviewer, of course ethics can outweigh incentives, but in the ideal case the incentive will be absent. I need to know more about a reviewer to have a sense of whether the incentive will matter compared to a case where there is no incentive. Similar concerns justify why people often prefer to pay for a fee-only financial advisor, because conflict of interest is less likely. I don’t think this is a categorical taint, but it is a factor that must have an effect in aggregate. I believe a norm against accepting free copies for review would be beneficial.

The scene is small enough that there will always be some degree of nepotism in reviewing materials created by friends. This problem is different than the appeal to material self-interest inherent in free review copies, but is related, and is probably harder to systematically combat in a small hobby scene, but we can still try. I disclose in a review if I feel this is a potential factor. All I can say here regarding this principle is to do your best and perhaps try to put on a slightly more critical hat when reviewing something by a friend or acquaintance.

Absent numerical ratings

Numbers, or star ratings, when applied to reviews, are heuristics, designed to help the reader avoid deliberative thinking. Tabletop roleplaying products are way more complex than Uber rides, and Uber rides are about the most complex product or service that I think might benefit from using such heuristics. I prefer drawing attention to particular strengths and weaknesses, with explanations, rather than just providing numbers. Numerical ratings provide only an illusion of objectivity, unless they are tied to specific definitions, but even then I think ratings are more likely to get in the way of actual consideration.

Absent snark

Good reviews are entertaining, because who wants to read hobby material of any kind that is boring? Trashing someone’s work for the shit-stirring is the low road to entertainment, and can be particularly tempting when writing a review, as the mindset of reviewing is generally critical. As a writer, snark can be easily confused with wit. Unless you are Nietzsche or Wilde though, your snark is probably not witty.

Further, the Internet attention economy and social media feedback loops incentivize snarky reviews. In the short term, and maybe even in the long term, snark will probably get your blog more views. It might even be a road to low-rent celebrity. However, I would rather be respected by a small number of people for civility than known by a large number of people for being a clown. Of course, good reviews will honestly point out shortcomings or problems and avoid pulling punches, but there is always a way to do that without snark. Given the social dynamics and the technological affordances of the Internet, I am probably spitting into the wind here, but mean spiritedness and snark are the bane of thoughtful discourse.

Basis: play versus perusal

For RPGs in particular, it is also helpful to be explicit about whether the review is based on using the material in play or simply reading the product. Reading a product for inspiration or entertainment is a perfectly legitimate use of a game product, but the review reader may be looking for something else.

Consideration of format

I am a book snob. I like the physical objects, and poorly bound books make me sad. This means that, generally, I avoid print on demand books for anything other than small booklets or pamphlets. If it is hardcover, I want stitched bindings. I realize that others may have different concerns, but if I was reading a review, I would always like to know whether a hardcover book was produced using a traditional print run using offset printing and whether the book has a stitched or glued binding.

One of the more thoughtful professors I have had so far in grad school provided a template for writing reviews of academic articles in one of his classes. Though the task of reviewing an academic article differs from reviewing products in several ways, I think this template could still be a reasonable starting point. A functional review can often handle each of these points with a single paragraph.

  1. Description. Restate the core idea or main function of the work in your own words. Mostly avoid evaluation here. This ensures that you understand the author’s goal and potentially reveals misunderstandings earlier rather than later. In an RPG product review, it might be reasonable to foreshadow the overall evaluation either in a topic sentence or final transition sentence, but minimize judgment. If you have an idea around which you are organizing your review, here is where you provide an overture.
  2. Praise. List strengths. If there are no strengths, why are you even bothering? Deciding to review a product at all is a form of curation and publicity. There are no RPG products that are so bad that trashing them is a public service.
  3. Major shortcoming. Discuss the biggest problems. If possible, explain potential fixes. Keep this to one, or at most a handful, of issues, and prioritize.
  4. Minor shortcomings. Here is where you can unload on everything else. Again, explain potential fixes. This often works well as a list with bullet points.
  5. Conclusion. Tie everything together and summarize the overall judgment. Here is where you can best most effectively unfurl your opinion flags.

1. Tangentially, I think the same thing is true of good session reports. A good session report has a thesis beyond just a chronological list of what happened in play. Grognardia was particularly good at this. But that is a topic for another post.

Game designers are overrated

OD&D Afterword

At the end of the final OD&D booklet, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gygax and Arneson wrote: … why have us do any more of your imagining for you? There are several reasonable objections to that sentiment. When I want bread, I usually buy it from a baker rather than baking my own. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing, even within a creative hobby like playing old school D&D. While acknowledging the value and legitimacy of dividing labor, there is still something special about doing your own imagining for roleplaying games, which are particularly easy to customize, especially compared to other forms of art and entertainment.

This may be obvious conceptually, but gamers, even within our DIY-obsessed corner of the hobby, often behave in ways that belie an attitude valuing imagining things yourself. People, myself included, buy and read innumerable, often trivially different, takes on core rules, spell systems, adventure modules, and so forth. People also create, share, and hack, of course, but sometimes I still wonder about the balance between these activities. Why so much consumption and passive behavior, compared to play? The play is, after all, the thing. While some amount of learning and consumption may be required for play, the claim that people buy and read more than needed to play seems obvious and uncontroversial.

Black Hack v2 (this might be a mockup)—Kickstarter

This general tendency is one reason why I have been impressed by the community that has developed around the Black Hack, which is currently soliciting funds for a second edition. I can take or leave many ofBlack Hack’s specific rules, despite having similar design priorities. I value concision, ease of use, quick character generation, lethality, modularity, limited bookkeeping, and so forth. So does the Black Hack. However, I also already have systems that I like which solve most of these problems, so why bother with yet another system? For me, the Black Hack is like reading someone else’s collection of battle-tested house rules, maybe a few of which I might experiment with and adapt.

But that is exactly the point: the Black Hack has some useful mechanical ideas, for sure, but it also emphasizes, through its style, through its attitude, through its confidence, that designing these games and playing these games lie on the same plane. No pedigree, training, or extensive experience is required, once you have the basic idea. Traditional fantasy games, those in the DIY D&D or OSR traditions, are robust. There is minimal danger of breaking the game if you accidentally award too much XP, try out a new rule for shields, or replace spell memorization with magic points. Most of those dragons were unbalanced encounters anyways, so as long as you have good communication within your group, making sure that everyone is on the same page about game expectations and shared fictional reality, the rules only need to remain within very broad parameters perform their duty. And further, some adjustment will almost certainly make any rule set work better for your own group.

Is it hypocritical to plug yet another system, crowd funding for a second edition no less, in a post about doing your own imagining? Perhaps. Being a book snob, I am glad the second edition will be printed using offset printing rather than printed on demand1. Stitched bindings is a stretch goal, unlocked at 1200 backers, which is unreached at the time of this writing. So, back the project if you want to help create nicely bound books, or if you want more house rules to read, or if you want some more random generators. From my point of view, however, the most valuable return on the continued success of the Black Hack is an influential rule set and brand carrying the torch of making the game your own rather than following others and deferring to established creators.

1. “We’ve vowed never to do POD because of the quality issues, and our final stretch goal is to get stitch binding on both books – I think the regular hardback has a high enough print run to make stitch binding affordable at the moment, with the stretch goal to get the collector’s book stitch binding. We’re doing everything we can to get them as high quality production finish as possible!” (David Black, direct message.)

Share reviews

A couple days ago, LS/Beloch, of the Papers & Pencils blog, started a conversation (public thread) on Google Plus about what concrete, immediate actions people can take to foster a functional OSR community. People had a lot of ideas, which he then summarized. It is a good list, and worth checking out if you missed it.

I want to highlight one particular suggestion, and add to it. Specifically:

The number 1 thing the OSR needs is more reviewers. People who do the hard work of finding new stuff that nobody has ever heard of, reading that stuff, and getting into the nitty gritty of what is good and what is bad. Bryce Lynch of 10′ Pole is a great model for how to do this right, but there’s more stuff being produced than he can parse on his own.

Personally, I was surprised at the number of people that mentioned wanting more reviews. I write them sometimes, mostly as a systematic way to prompt myself to get familiar with a product, but I rarely feel like many people pay attention to them, especially since, I think, I am not primarily a reviewer and my blog is not primarily a review outlet. I post more about other topics, such as rules hacking, necromancers, and Dark Souls. This means that any readers I have probably come here primarily for things other than reviews. This is true for most gamers writing about, or evaluating, the content other people create.

I can only think of two dedicated review outlets for DIY D&D/OSR products: Bryce Lynch’s Ten Foot Pole and Ben Milton’s Questing Beast YouTube channel. Being so focused on a single topic or function is a good way to distinguish yourself, but it is also a lot of work and I doubt many other people will step up to create and regularly update comparable review outlets. There are, however, lots of people who post reviews with some regularity, either as G+ comments or on blogs, even if that is not the focus of their output. For example, Ram also regularly posts reviews, but that is not the main subject matter of his blog either. This means that people, especially those that might be most interested in many of these reviews, rarely see them.

There is something you can do to help make this situation better. If you come across a review someone else wrote that you think is useful, insightful, or impartial, consider sharing it to a relevant G+ community or other fan-specific outlet, such as a subreddit. I rarely share my own reviews this way because it feels like spamming someone else’s space. Such sharing will help people interested in the material find the relevant reviews and avoids the problem of ulterior motives in self-promotion. If someone other than the review author shares the review though, this serves as weak form of peer review. Just sharing a review to your own social media feed is probably less useful. People looking for, say, modules or supplements to use with DCC are more likely to see reviews if they are posted to DCC-specific outlets.

Unless the review is snarky clickbait. Burn that shit down and bury it in the poisoned ground.

(This is an expanded version of a comment I left on LS/Beloch’s original thread.)


Some time in the 90s, when I first went online looking for info about playing RPGs, I remember joining a listserv called something like world builder’s digest. Or maybe it was just called world building and I had digest mode turned on; I no longer recall.

The advice and work done on that list were mostly top-down, with little attention paid to directly gameable content. The ideal was to work out all the details of your world starting with fundamentals such as geology, cosmology, and history. Then, work your way into the specifics such as economics and ecology, making sure that everything made sense and would stand up to the stray player with a geology PhD.

With hindsight, I no longer think this is a particularly effective way of building settings for tabletop roleplaying games, to put it mildly. But it was a first exposure, and this sort of conversation flowed then more sluggishly online than it does now, and there was considerably less diversity of thought.

A particular creation that made an impression on me from the time I spent reading that list was a setting called Gehennum, designed by one Brett Evill. It was notable to me as a fantasy world that was explicitly designed to buck faux medieval expectations, which even then could sometimes seem bland. (I had no idea at the time that something like Tekumel already existed.) The focal area was an archipelago which drew more from the pacific islands than European mythology and expectations. The body of content Brett wrote about Gehennum also stood out as relatively well-written, especially by the standards of mailing lists about roleplaying games, as filtered through teen memories. In his own words:

In designing Gehennum, I tried to disengage players’ defaults. To do this, I rejected several of most conspicuous standard assumptions, and replaced them with vividly different premises. For example, Gehennum is tropical and oceanic, the Gehennese are not of a European racial type, there are no horses…. I have been different for the sake of being different, which is not in general something I admire. But I have also tried to make Gehennum interesting and good.

For whatever reason, this list and setting came to mind today and I did a few web searches to see if any of that material was still online. Indeed, it looks like Brett still has a site about Gehennum up (copyright mark 1991):


Unfortunately, the link to the map image on that site seems to be dead, but I am glad the work is still online, despite the lapsed time. I was unable to find any listserv archives, but I may just be misremembering the list name.