Forbidden Lands first look

Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 5

Forbidden Lands is a recently translated Swedish RPG that has many elements, both mechanical and aesthetic, placing it in the old school rules/hexcrawl tradition. The crowd-funding effort billed the game as retro open-world survival fantasy. The text focuses on exploration, emphasizes that player choices should drive the narrative, announces that player character death happens, and offers many random tables to help generate content.

The art is all black and white. It reminds me of Mentzer’s edition of Basic D&D in terms of style. The tone is, at first glance, quite vanilla. There are humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, goblins, ogres, dragons, and so forth. However, details sometimes tell another, often deliciously wicked, story. For example:

Teramalda had been taken prisoner, but her armor could not be opened. The hot-headed dwarven lord Garmar Four-Beard, drunk on power and alcohol, had the priestess thrown on a bed of hot coals during the victory banquet at Lumra, to bake her like a shellfish. He swore to eat her heart himself after it had been tenderized into submission. Perhaps the god Rust chose to heed Teramalda’s prayers for martyrdom, because the armor with her scorched body suddenly tore free from its shackles, rose from the fiery coals, and killed Garmar and his bodyguards. Since that day, this creature, a rusty suit of armor, roams through Ravenland hunting for enemies to slay. (GM Guide, p. 24)

And:

Zygofer’s daughter, Therania, had taken to the young king and offered him to be her husband and slave in return for his life. When he turned her down, she had him killed, brought him back to life with her necrokinetics, and took his dead body for a lover. (GM Guide, p. 30)

On dwarves:

They claim that since the age of myth, they have built and expanded the bones of the world, a sphere so large you can barely see it curving at the horizon. The sun and stars are hearths in faraway forges the god has placed to entice the builders until they can use them when they have built their way there. … There are massive ruins across the Forbidden Lands, seemingly useless constructions the dwarves claim are the foundation for the next layer of the world. (GM Guide, p. 56-57)

On whiners:

The so-called “whiners” are small, skittish humanoids who are hunted by both orcs and humans, since they are said to have “sweet meat”. It is said their living flesh has a healing and fattening ability, so infected or deep wounds covered by parts of a whiner heal quickly. … For all these reasons, whiners are caught in traps and held in cramped cages thus allowing them to be “harvested.” This process is, of course, very painful and in the end lethal to whiners, which is why they hate all other kin … (GM Guide, p. 69)

Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 10

That’s a whole lot of fantasyland names, but it’s memorable enough that I don’t even care. It feels a little bit like paint by numbers (so what are my orcs like?), but then the result ends up being creative more often than not. Undead are apparently a fact of life, just because, but “restless dead are rarely aggressive” and people often “go to the burial ground to sooth the restless dead with music and simple conversation, speaking to them as if to a child” (GM Guide, p. 45). Of course there are liches and so forth to destroy also, but these sorts of details give some parts of the official setting a pastoral, mournful air.

It is a quirky mix of precious campaign world with procedural generation and dynamic events. History, gods, and kin (what would be races in mainstream D&D lingo) take up a full 54 letter-sized pages near the start of the Gamemaster’s Guide. The setting has some elements that I would probably jettison, but I did actually read all of that material, and I usually end up bouncing off setting prose pretty quickly. I would probably replace the blood mist with something else, for example.

I will leave most discussion of game systems and mechanics for another post, but I will note that a great deal of care on the referee-facing side of things has been paid to providing functional tools that produce concrete results rather than just principles and platitudes. I have nothing against principles, but some meat on bones is nice too. The final few sections of the GM Guide (approximately 80 pages) are dedicated to guidelines for creating adventures sites, including a host of random tables, and three worked examples representing a town, a dungeon, and a castle (about 20 pages each). Some of the table entries are relatively pedestrian. The oddity of the village inn is… drum roll… a stomped floor! And the village is famous for… delicious bread! And the village oddity is… full of flowers. Wait okay that is kind of interesting; I can work with that. To conclude this overview, here is the map for the worked “castle” adventure site, Weatherstone:

Weatherstone—Gamemaster’s Guide, pp. 218-219

The Forbidden Lands official site is here.

Decomposing play experience

Oversimplified schematic

A longstanding fault line in thinking about the design of tabletop roleplaying games is belief about the influence of system on resulting play experience. The System Does Matter manifesto, and other discussion centered on the Forge forum, argued that game designers could shape play experience systematically by focusing their design on theoretical concerns, communicated to players through language in game texts. Though this approach has undoubtedly influenced mainstream and niche games, the most successful games remain stubbornly unfocused and the experience of play using a given system seems highly variable. Considering the approaches different schools of psychology take can help provide an explanation. Both game design and game facilitation are, after all, forms of applied psychology. Particularly, it seems to me that the various influences on resulting play can be understood as play culture, referee, text, and player engagement.

For my purposes, a rule is a procedure that guides play. Guidance can either call for player behavior, such as to roll a twenty-sided die at a particular time, or clarify some aspect of the shared fiction players collectively imagine, such as whether a monster falls into a pit. A system is the collection of rules that players endorse and use, either by heuristic (“it is in the book”) or explicit. It is impossible for any system to completely determine the experience of play in the same way that it is impossible for a legal code to completely determine the behavior of people in a state. Similarly, the system must have some effect on the experience of play if players ever look to the rules for guidance regarding appropriate behavior or to determine the state of shared imagination.

The influences described above break down into causes involving culture, individual people, and situations. The effects of referees and player engagement are both influences of individuals. The referee, for games that have such a role, tends to be comparatively more influential between these two factors, even though the number of players is usually greater, as the referee has more wide-ranging responsibilities for facilitating the play experience.

Personality psychology studies the influence of stable individual differences on psychological outcomes. For example, a referee that can do entertaining voices will likely bring this ability to any game they facilitate, from D&D to Dark Heresy. Referee preference for extensive preparation is another example of referee individual difference affecting play experience. Presumably, many more general personality differences, such as extraversion and optimism, will also affect the play experience systematically.

Social psychology studies the influence of situations on psychological outcomes. Incentives, norms, and goal cues are examples of ways situations can influence psychological outcomes. In the roleplaying context, the structure of experience point rewards is a situation effect. Game texts, and other table paraphernalia such as maps, are features of the situation in these terms. Every time players look to the text, the situation affects the play experience. It is worth noting that texts are made up of more than language, also including art, layout choices, and so forth.

Play culture differs from situation in, among other ways, that culture is more diffuse, less immediate, and more persistent. A group can run a B/X D&D game for some time and then start a new Call of Cthulhu game. This changes an aspect of the system, but may affect play culture minimally. It is possible for people to move between cultures, such as when a person moves from a family context with particular ethnic assumptions into an institutional culture, such as school or a company office, but it is generally harder to move between cultures than it is to affect situations. Unlike situations, cultural influence generally requires socialization, distinct symbol systems, and deeper, often unexamined, assumptions1.

The ranking of influences presented above helps explain the diversity of play experiences. For example, in one play culture, Burning Wheel is a comedy engine. In another, it is a genre emulator. In one play culture, Pathfinder is a carefully tuned tactical teamwork engine. In another, it is a competitive exercise in character optimization. The Pathfinder Core rules explain some shared variability in the play experience, such as how numerical character ratings affect aspects of the shared imagination. This kind of character has a greater chance of hitting in combat than that kind of character. This monster will behave in a particular way if player characters take certain actions. However, the play culture shapes when and how elements of system take the stage. To accept this neither dethrones the influence of system nor casts players as pawns of innumerable, clever system nudges.

This way of thinking about games leads to several conclusions. First, the play culture likely shapes play experience disproportionately because the influence is less immediately visible. This is why dropping into a group using ostensibly the same rules can feel so disorienting. Consider the slightly stylized example of a fifth edition D&D game using Curse of Strahd in the mainstream game store play culture compared to a fifth edition D&D hex crawl in an OSR culture expecting emergent narrative and diegetic problem solving. Similarly, groups participating in the mainstream Pathfinder play culture are likely more similar than different, in terms of play experience. Participating in a Dragonsfoot-style Grognard culture, whether running AD&D or some other set of rules, probably leads to a more similar play experience than looking at the AD&D text independently, as a primary source of system, or the particular referee. This suggests that roleplaying game designers should pay more attention to exploring and understanding play cultures if the goal is to affect the experience of play.


For statistics nerds

Y = Xculture + Xreferee + Zsystem + Xtext + Xplayers + ε1

Zsystem = Xculture + Xreferee + Xtext + Xplayers + ε2

Where Y is play experience.

In the figure below, I have highlighted the effects that I think are particularly important:

There should really be subscripts on those error terms, but you get the idea

There are probably some edge cases, which would show up as error in the above model.


Alternative models

Referee primacy

Y = Xreferee + Xplayers + ε

This is play experience being primarily determined by group (coordinated by referee), as argued in Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (2002):

What really makes a difference in the success or failure of a roleplaying session is you [the referee] … Our biggest task as GMs is to direct and shape individual preferences into an experience that is more than the sum of its parts.

GNS

Y = (Xsystem × Xplayers) + ε

GNS (gamism/narrativism/simulationism) hypothesizes a fit effect interaction between system type and player priority. The System Does Matter article is from 2004.

PIG-PIP

Y = Xparticipants + ε

The 2018 PIG-PIP formulation (Participants Invent Games-Participants Includes Paraphernalia) gives system a metaphorical seat at the table:

7. The Basic PIG-PIP Claim: Participants determine the character and quality of a game experience. In addition to the players and GM, “participants” includes paraphernalia used during the game and preparation for the game–game texts, house rules, miniatures, tables, chairs, the physical or virtual space the game is played in, snacks, etc.


1. I am mostly ignoring cognitive psychology. Though it is one of the major schools of psychology, it seems less relevant to the play experience of tabletop roleplaying games. This could be a bias on my part. However, the minimal influence of cognitive psychology on tabletop play experience seems like a key way in which tabletop roleplaying games differ from the more passive, less creative experiences evoked by video games and audience media such as movies and novels.

Mewe’s missing feature

As any reader of Necropraxis is likely already aware, Google Plus will be closing shop in August 2019, and people who like to talk about tabletop roleplaying games on G+ are looking for a replacement. Mewe, a privacy-focused non-Facebook social media platform, seems to be one of the main contenders. The day of the G+ sunset announcement was the first time I had ever heard of Mewe, but I created an account and have been moderately active over the past week or so. Mewe seems reasonably functional, and even offers some improvements compared to Google Plus, but it is currently missing a feature like collections, which supports the ability for site users to categorize their own posts in a way that allows readers to opt out of seeing posts from particular categories.

Other than that, Mewe fits the way I want to use social media pretty well. Certainly better than a twitter-alikes, forum-alikes, or IRC-alikes, which seem like the only other real options so far, apart from Facebook, which is a nonstarter (for me). I have been blogging and reading blogs regularly since… 2011? so a “new blog renaissance” actually seems like the status quo rather than a substitute for a social media platform. I appreciate that the Google Plus sunset announcement has spurred some people to start new blogs, but as long as I have been participating in the blog scene, there is has always been a regular churn of new voices, and people who move on, including over the last few years when conversation on Google Plus was at peak.

Some people have noted the lack of capabilities to post publicly and the need to login to the site before any content is viewable. The peer to peer and default-private design of Mewe is actually what I prefer; unlike others who seemingly want everything public to increase readership, visibility, and marketing reach, I don’t really care about those goals one way or the other. Anything that I want more public or generally searchable goes on the blog. If it is useful to others, great; if not, no skin off my back.

I do miss the lack of a feature such as collections though. On Google Plus, most of my activity was about tabletop RPGs, or adjacent topics such as manga, which could reasonably coexist in a single feed. Occasionally, however, I like to post about cocktails, fitness, and other unrelated topics. I don’t want to deposit all that on a single feed. And I don’t want to create a private group for it and invite others, or participate in some general group, which is basically just a forum with a more proprietary interface, and those are the two workarounds supported by Mewe’s current feature set, as far as I am aware. I want a way to curate what I post and curate what I read, at the level of individual connections.

The way I use Google Plus, I have three main circles which organize my connections. Once circle serves as an inbox, grouping the people that I want to see content from. This is the feed I browse. (You can browse the feed from specific circles under “Circle Feeds” in the G+ user interface.) Browsing my inbox feed directly allows me to avoid Google’s spam-laden algorithm-sorted default home feed, which I loathe. Mewe allows users to selectively remove a user’s content from the home feed, while retaining a connection to the user, which serves this same purpose. The other two circles control access to what I post. One, which I call outbox, allows access to any content related to games or adjacent topics. The other, which I call ephemera, is for the secondary topics. Then, I associate various collections, such as Dungeons & Dragons, movies, cocktails, and so forth, with either outbox or ephemera. That allows anyone in, for example, my outbox to opt out of my manga collection to avoid seeing Berserk panels or whatever.


(Somewhat related, If you want to see me talk, I participated in a YouTube panel that Matt Finch hosted last week discussing some of the options. Matt also interviewed Jason Hardy, product director at Mewe, who has been quite engaged with gamers from G+ recently.)


(This post is just about the technology. Any discussion about politics around the site is off topic for the purposes of this post. There are some real concerns, but they deserve a separate post. I am unaware currently of any blog posts on this topic, but Martin R. lays out some of his concerns in a public Google Plus post if you want to read about it.)

Economical zine storage

To state that I am not the biggest fan of Ikea would be… let’s just say an understatement. However, I try to regularly question my biases, and while making another expedient purchase, I decided to look for some boxes to use for hardcopy zine storage. I found FJÄLLA, which looks relatively attractive on the shelf, is perfectly sized for zines, and is $4 USD per box. I ordered a few (7×10¼×6 dimensions, article number 703.956.73), and they arrived today.

The quality is reasonable, especially given the price. The apocalypse will probably do FJÄLLA in, but as long as you avoid sitting on them, I suspect they will do a satisfactory job of holding your zines. If you are curious how the thing assembles, check the goofy instructions. I have been on the lookout for something like this for a while, so I thought it might be useful information for others as well.

For transparency (following my recent thoughts on good reviews), the purchase details were: order placed 2018-09-06, price paid $23.96 CAD (four units), and shipping $17 CAD (but that included a small hanging wall cabinet too).

(This kind of review post is rather uncommon for me, so I want to draw attention toward my policy regarding reviews: Any reviews I post here are based on purchases, not free review copies. Not that Ikea would solicit my publicity, but it is the principle of the thing.)

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

Supernatural magnitude

(This post has a soundtrack: Ligetti’s Beyond the Infinite—link opens YouTube in new tab—used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also: click any image to expand it in a new tab.)


Much too big (Berserk 1)

In the dark fantasy manga Berserk, the protagonist Guts wields a weapon called the dragon slayer. It is: too big to be called a sword, like a heap of raw iron. Preternatural versus mortal limits is a recurring theme in Berserk. It is a story of humans consistently transgressing cosmic boundaries, both of ability and morality. In this context, the name of the weapon, dragon slayer, has a certain literal meaning which may not immediately be apparent given the somewhat mundane rendering in English and the naturalism of many modern fantasy stories, where dragons are more like powerful, possibly intelligent, carnivores with strange biology. In Berserk, Dragons are dragons because humans can’t beat ’em. Dragon here is shorthand for higher being, creature beyond or outside of complete human understanding. As with narrative fiction, tabletop roleplaying games have a challenge regarding how to confront the supernatural. The two most common approaches, naturalizing the supernatural or protecting it from players by fiat to maintain danger and mystery, have drawbacks. Using fiat threatens the integrity of the game at a fundamental level, at least for the kinds of games I find satisfying, so I will dismiss that option immediately. I will argue that there is another way to approach the supernatural, though it may rely to some degree on referee artistry, perhaps being impossible to entirely systematize.

If there were any (Berserk 14)

What kind of weapon could damage impossible beings? An impossible weapon, or a weapon that would be impossible to use, might have some chance at harming an impossible being. Q: Could… this really kill… a dragon? A: If there were any… dragons. But you know, this ain’t even what you’d call a sword. It’s a meaningless slab of iron you can’t even lift… for killin’ dragons and monsters that ain’t even real. In this way, grasping the imaginary is the first step toward taking on monsters.1

In exploring this tension, Berserk seems to implicitly advocate for the possibility of transcendence. After all, time and again Guts triumphs over demonic, superhuman apostles using only human faculties and ingenuity, apart from the occasional dose of healing elf dust2. There is clearly some sort of categorical separation between the natural and supernatural in the world of Berserk, but humans, or at least some humans if you want to take an aristocratic stance, can, through enduring pain or sacrificing others, break through this barrier. Berserk is in this way metaphysically optimistic, with the caveat that the story is so far incomplete.

Dragons and humans (Berserk 14)

Traditional Dungeons & Dragons models the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural, at least in terms of combat, by differentiating categorically between magical and mundane weapons. The immediate system benefit of a magical weapon is a numerical bonus, leading to the sword +1, but what makes a magic weapon truly magical is the ability to damage creatures from the lower planes or insubstantial undead which are otherwise immune to mundane, physical attacks. Other systems apply hierarchies to damage. Rifts, to model the conflict of different tech levels, has mega-damage, which equates one point of mega-damage with 100 standard damage points. Lamentations of the Flame Princess introduces a hit point system for vehicle integrity, which equates one ship hit point with ten normal hit points. Plus-style magic weapons are unsatisfying due to ubiquity in mainstream D&D, coupled with general aesthetic blandness. Additionally, plus weapons completely fail to capture anything of the tension between mortal and supernatural in Berserk—and, I would argue, some of the most effective weird fiction.

Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)

The ship hit points approach has more promise. Humans can affect the supernatural, but only by dealing damage beyond some threshold barely attainable by human standards. This uses numerical order of magnitude to model supernatural hierarchy. However, using a system based on damage threshold is interactive in that it depends on many other system details, such as whether weapon damage is flat—like in OD&D where all weapons do 1d6 damage or whether a bonus from strength augments damage. The variability of damage available to adventurers will determine how accessible the supernatural becomes to a Guts-style assault. In OD&D, I might make one supernatural hit point equal to six normal hit points, which would make damaging the supernatural attainable to any mortal, but only with low probability, unless players can even the odds through creative play. This would be in keeping both with the themes explored in Berserk and the nature of OD&D.

Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)

In a game like B/X with variable weapon damage and the strength bonus applying to damage rolls, a threshold of 10 might be appropriate, though a damage threshold would make having an average or low strength score that much more of a disadvantage, a game feature which draws attention back toward the character sheet and away from creative problem solving. Additionally, increasing the importance of the strength score could create fairness concerns, though that is at most a minor problem for me. This might be an issue in a game that pushes 3d6 in order while punishing player mistakes lethally. Lamentations of the Flame Princess operates on a similar numerical scale without applying the strength bonus to damage, giving only the largest weapons—and firearms, possibly—any chance of wounding supernatural entities.

Using a damage threshold for affecting the supernatural has some other game benefits. First, it is in line with a general trend toward removing level-based gates on character abilities, such as spells without levels and finding ways to make the endgame, such as building strongholds, accessible throughout play.  Second, a damage threshold increases the potential contributions of fighters in supernatural challenges without relying on semi-magical special move powers, facilitating a less super-heroic, or low-fantasy, tone.


1. There is a parallel here between Guts’ impossible sword and Griffith’s shining castle, an impossible goal for a gutter-born urchin.

2. At least, up until he acquires the Berserker armor, which is arguably supernatural, but Guts pre-armor serves my purposes here.

Down in it

My new home workspace is approaching its final form; this configuration exposes the great white tower of D&D—see included image. (Previously, the great white tower was in my closet.) Because of this, I end up looking at all these DCC books on my shelf every time I enter the room or sit down at my desk. This makes me want to run some DCC. Following is a campaign brief, which I plan to run online and probably in person (primarily Vancouver).

Setting

DCC in the great white tower of D&D

A long time ago on a planet far away, some inconsiderate wizard opened a gate to hell, or somewhere so unpleasant as to be indistinguishable. The monsters that emerged from this gate proved greatly inconvenient. To avoid all that nonsense, a conclave of magician magnates built a sky-arc. These magicians took their disciples, drudges, and minions up into the sky, to live in a superterrene approximation of safety. Up above it, they look down relatively securely and smugly from their celestial refuge.

When a lower-caste superterrestrial misbehaves, the punishment is either temporary or permanent exile. Sometimes, the miscreant must complete some task or recover some object on the surface before being permitted to return. When this happens, the magnates send a prison barge to the surface to deposit exiles. The campaign begins when a prison barge crashes mysteriously. The crash survivors will provide characters for the starting funnel and the prison barge wreck will function as a starting base. The immediate concern will be to survive on the hostile, savage surface world. I see the style as lurid and fantastical, esoteric rather than veiled technology.

Ned Dameron (Kull,1985 Grant edition)

To create the campaign world, I plan to draw from some official DCC modules, using elements to build up a sandbox. I will salvage background and world details based on module implications. I have few other predetermined ideas about the setting, which factions are villainous, or really anything else. We will discover those elements together through play. I will continue to flesh out campaign details based on what players attend to.

I will make content from modules of vastly different levels accessible from the beginning of the campaign. Though I will endeavor to provide clues and warnings regarding danger level, I will make no effort to ensure that challenge is proportional to adventurer capabilities. Proceed at your own risk.

Rules

Stephen Fabian (Dream of X, 1977 Grant edition)

I will be using the core DCC rules as written, including the zero-level funnel, with the following adjustments and clarifications.

Funnel. Following a funnel, players must choose one adventurer for promotion to first level. Any additional surviving zero-level characters will become retainers.

Encumbrance. You can carry one item per point of strength without penalty. Some items stack several per slot, usually 6, such as torches, throwing knives, flasks of oil, and so forth. If uncertain, ask. Each additional item carried beyond the limit provided by strength rating imposes a cumulative -1 to physical d20 checks (such as attack rolls and saving throws).

Time. I will use the Hazard System to track passage of time and resource attrition. I may use some additional event engines on the back end to keep the gears turning as well.

Ned Dameron (Kull, 1985 Grant edition)

Recuperation. To recover lost HP, adventurers must take a haven turn to rest and recover, following the Hazard System rules, rather than reckoning HP replenishment based on measured time passage.

Experience. Experience will only accrue to adventurers that return to base by the end of a session. Any experience earned during a session where an adventurer fails to return to base will be lost. Additionally, the players must roll on a table to determine the method of return, which may have deleterious outcomes similar to the triple secret random random dungeon fate chart of very probable doom, though likely somewhat less punitive. This rule is to simplify bookkeeping and facilitate variable player groupings. I will provide 30 and 15 minute warnings as the end of a session approaches.

Fictional epistemology

When an Apocalypse World character makes the read a sitch move, they ask the referee some questions (from a list; for example: where’s my best escape route?) that grant some information about the immediate situation. The player rolls +sharp, which basically means makes an intelligence check, and gets to ask a number of questions proportional to degree of success, with misses triggering complications or hazards. Superficially, the implementation of this move seems in line with the fictional perspective of the character, especially taking into consideration the low bandwidth of information flow between referee and player. That is, it gives the player character the benefit of the doubt regarding an ability to—sometimes—accurately assess, for example, which enemy is the biggest threat. So far so good. However, read a sitch leans subtly away from the norm in traditional play, which involves the referee first sketching a situation and then the players focusing in on particular aspects and requesting elaboration.

Consider the following traditional play conversation. Referee: The room is drenched in preternatural gloom and formed like an inverted square pyramid, with four tiers descending to a central pillar which stretches to the ceiling and is hung with mouldering but detailed tapestries. Player: I look more closely at the tapestries; what do they depict? Referee: They depict symbols that look like funnels, and spidery—probably arcane—script that… (make an intelligence check since you know some magic—okay, success?) …binds a curse to the buried structure. What do you do?

Now consider the read a sitch approach to information exchange. Frame the scene as above, interpret preternatural gloom as a charged situation, and call for the move. The player succeeds to the degree affording a single question and asks who’s in control here. The ref explains about the tapestry and the curse (the person in control is long dead, but the curse legacy remaining is close enough). I’ve truncated the description the second time around, but assume the Apocalypse World play interaction is similarly evocative—as it easily could be.

There are still some subtle differences between the two approaches. First, the menu of questions gently nudges players to think about a particular set of possibilities. This has some similarities to declaring skills on a character sheet such as hear noise or find traps, though with a finer grain and more social quality. Second, and more of a departure from the traditional query loop, answers to the Apocalypse World questions provide less ambiguity regarding the import of the details. Rather than describing a curse and letting the players decide what they want to make of it, the referee might say the curse represents the greatest immediate danger. Rather than describe a storm drain, the referee might tell players that the storm drain would be the best escape route. That is, the referee ends up presuming the meaning of details rather than describing concrete aspects of the fictional world.

The information is still from the perspective of the characters, and the move avoids providing the player with details that would be unavailable to the character in the game world’s immediate fictional context, but the move pushes the referee and player to interact on a level of meaning separate from immediate concrete fictional details. One might be tempted to see this as advancing a particular plot. Instead, I suggest that the difference has to do with fictional epistemology, by which I mean the degree of certainty a player has regarding the shared conception of the fictional world. Like most dimensions of play, rather than a simple either/or dichotomy, this is more of a spectrum, with the norm in trad play biased toward concrete details and the move under discussion here injecting more unambiguous meaning.


Here’s the text of the move, if you want to do your own close reading:

Read a sitch

When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp. On a hit, you can ask the MC questions. Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers, take +1. On a 10+, ask 3. On a 7–9, ask 1:

• Where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• Which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• Which enemy is the biggest threat?
• What should I be on the lookout for?
• What’s my enemy’s true position?
• Who’s in control here?

On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.

Reading a situation can mean carefully checking things out, studying and analyzing, thinking something through, or it can mean a quick look over the wall and going by gut. Depends on the character.

As MC, sometimes you’ll already know the answers to these and sometimes you won’t. Either way, you do have to commit to the answers when you give them. The +1 is there to make it concrete.

Spring sudden unhappy revelations on people every chance you get. That’s the best.

A character can’t read the same charged situation more than once.

(Apocalypse World 2E, p. 144)

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).