Monthly Archives: July 2020

Missing Manuals

Every once in a while, but with some regularity, someone will ask for module recommendations, often as a way to get into old school or classic play. I am somewhat conflicted regarding the best response to such requests because, while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with modules, and they have some particular utility, modules are also limiting, often have poor handling, and are poor examples of the form’s potential.

My inclination is to instead suggest that referees, even new referees, create a simple custom scenario. This is unnecessarily intimidating, partly due to some unfortunate ingrained assumptions, including seemingly upward comparison to professional offerings with illustrations, cartography, edited prose, and so forth. In reality, crafting a satisfying classic scenario is often less complicated than the process of building a player character in a contemporary system, but has become obscured by a shroud of world building complexity and the detritus of expectations related to literary story structure. There are a few examples of procedures that a referee can follow to create a scenario, such as Moldvay’s double spread in 1981 Basic D&D (pp. B51-B54) which explains how to create an adventure. The recent Old School Essentials SRD provides similar information, available for free online (adventure scenarios, designing a dungeon, designing a wilderness). Other resources exist as well, though often buried in other materials.

These resource are useful, but still often seem to be pitched at the wrong level, lacking sufficiently concrete set of recommended actions, or attached to bland thematic content. As an example of the kind of referee rules that I think would be an antidote to module recommendations, I want to highlight two recent blog posts about crafting megadungeons:

The Two Week post in particular is a practical and clear example, though perhaps still slightly intimidating for a starting referee. Unfortunately, the trappings of a megadungeon is probably mildly counterproductive, despite the likely truth that following Nick’s megadungeon building guidelines would probably be easier and more enjoyable than skimming B2, or just about any published module scenario. (In reality, the observant and experienced reader will also note that a megadungeon is really just a series of linked scenarios that happen to be subterranean.)

If you are aware of any other similar scenario building procedures worth highlighting, drop them in the comments. Procedural rules rather than something like a collection of tables would be most useful. I am sure I am neglecting some other good resources. This is also a call for what to include in a game’s referee book or section.

Waltz of Souls

Dark Souls encodes a number of fundamental play dynamics that produce a particular kind of satisfying play. In this post, I am going to discuss a way the game supports and rewards an enterprising but focused player stance toward the unknown.

First, the game penalizes both reckless and overly cautious play. A player of even a relatively high level character can still be messed up substantially by some of the weakest and simplest enemies if the player fails to pay attention and take the threat seriously. In contrast, a player that is too cautious will always be on the back foot, and less able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. In this way, courage in the face of danger and a spirit of enterprise serve the player best for developing their own skill, improving their fictional avatar, and deepening the complexity of the imagined world. In short, the game entices player engagement and rewards persistence in the face of failure (amplified by many other design decision that are beyond the scope of this post), rather than providing participation trophies for just showing up or presenting a passive media entertainment experience. (Post continues after 80 second video fighting an Old Knight in Dark Souls 2.)

Knife fighting with an Old Knight

Second, this reward and penalty structure creates a cybernetic feedback loop. Feedback loops are powerful, but can also topple into degenerate cases. The most engaging forms of feedback loop for gameplay involve adaptation rather than return to static equilibria. The system improves itself. If a feedback loop reaches a static equilibrium, the “game” ends, even if the players continue to engage due to habituation (perhaps analogous to how a thermostat maintains static conditions). If the feedback loop is negative, at some point the game ends because the activity as pattern destroys itself (similar to how a democracy can collapse into tyranny, a market bubble can pop, or a virus can burn itself out by killing all the hosts). In an adaptive feedback loop, each iteration of feedback produces a more complex, satisfying, resilient whole.

The play iterations of a tabletop roleplaying game can manifest similar dynamics. In one example of a degenerate case, players learn to avoid play by creating elaborate scripts to mechanically deploy when presented with any challenge. In OSR/etc. games, this sort of script may manifest as something like: always look at the ceiling, tap the floor with a ten foot pole, listen at the door. Disconnected from any context or cost, such scripts represent rote mechanization rather than adaptive learning. Players indicate by such behavior a way that their own motivational architecture is to some degree incompatible with or in tension with the game mechanisms or the particular campaign instance.

In the adaptation case, players learn how to navigate challenges by developing skills, along with the contextual knowledge of when to use the skills, and in so doing increase competence. This allows a player to face more complex challenges that incorporate, but move beyond, the existing skill. A simple example trajectory of several iterations might be fighting one troll successfully (to learn troll weaknesses), then fighting many trolls, then tricking other opponents without access to troll weaknesses into fighting trolls, and so forth. Ideally, the player would learn such details through play rather than outside of play by memorizing facts from an official rulebook.

Dark Souls, being a computer game, might be a purer example of this dynamic compared to a tabletop roleplaying game, since options are more constrained, but the template applies to some kinds of successful tabletop roleplaying games. The various versions of Dark Souls, and specific challenges within each, embody this ideal design to greater or lesser degrees; sometimes the game misses the mark. Though Dark Souls rewards certain kinds of creativity when approaching challenges, it has a basic combative frame which limits the learning potential. Additionally, sometimes the challenges degenerate into tedium—such as some long approaches from bonfires to bosses which require the player to pay a relatively boring tax to attempt a previously failed challenge again. But the abstraction is still clear enough to be a useful exemplar. (Post ends with 112 second video fighting The Lost Sinner in Dark Souls 2.)

Fighting the Lost Sinner

(Videos are personal play recordings, all Dark Souls 2I apologize for inflicting my poor technique on the viewer.)

Ethos of Play

DistemperedGus (of All Dead Generations) recently posted a series of Twitter threads on alignment, reaction rolls, morale, asymmetric encounters, and faction intrigue, all classic rules subsystems and approaches that he argues contribute to a particular classic “ethos” of play.

Because people talking about classic tabletop roleplaying games have become balkanized over various social media platforms, and Twitter is a hellscape, and I may want to link or refer to this collection of threads in the future, I am spotlighting them here. I also used Thread Reader App to create thread pages so that the threads can be read in a more bloglike format, for those that so desire:

Dark Souls 2 Rat King Covenant

It is probably worth noting, since this is the Internet, that my spotlight means “useful and worth reading” rather than that I agree with all threads on all points and in all particulars. For example, I would say that alignment as adventurer allegiance (rather than adventurer moral commitment) can function quite apart from moral essentialism, to say nothing of less savory interpretations. Law and Chaos as depicted in OD&D (and the refined “Basic” rulesets) is fuzzy in this regard, easily pushed in either direction. To be more explicit in notion, consider using alignment categories such as Unseelie, Neutral, Seelie, or Rebel Alliance, Neutral, Galactic Empire rather than Chaos, Neutral, Law (or, God help us all, the baroque murk that is the AD&D 3×3 matrix).

In case you want to create similar thread pages using Thread Reader App, here is how to do so A) without cluttering up someone else’s thread and B) without cluttering up your own timeline.

  1. Quote-retweet the thread in question with only the text:
    @threadreaderapp unroll
  2. Wait for the @ reply from @threadreaderapp (which in my experience takes a few seconds)
  3. Save the URL provided in this reply (which you could also derive from the original Twitter thread URL based on the tweet ID)
  4. Delete your quote-tweet that was originally addressed to @threadreaderapp
  5. Now the unrolled thread page persists for future reference

(You may need to follow @threadreaderapp first as well, but I am unsure.)

You can also easily print the unrolled thread pages to PDF, perhaps with the help of extensions to exclude distracting images, and so forth.

Dark Souls 2 Rat King: Rejoice!

(All post images are personal screen shots.)