Author Archives: Brendan

OSR survey participation

This is the first post of several where I will summarize the results of the OSR survey Ben and I ran. The survey was open from December 3rd through December 8th (2018). Given the high level of participation, and a handful of common critiques, after I have a chance to post some results I plan to ask for general feedback about how we ran the survey and what people might like to see in the future. For those who want a short summary, the TLDR of this post is that there were 2000+ responses (that is a lot), mostly from North America/Europe, and some basic demographics (such as age and country of residence) are similar for OSR participants and non-participants (based on self-categorization).

Purpose

A few people asked why we were running the survey at all. The superficial (but true) answer is that I saw Ben post a question on Google Plus about what questions people might like to see on a hypothetical OSR survey. I was curious too, and I have some experience running surveys so I reached out, and here we are. The slightly more involved (and also true) answer is that I have been, over the last several years, continually surprised by seeming confusion, misunderstanding, and disagreement surrounding the meanings that people attach to the term OSR. Personally, I am primarily curious about the degree to which there is consensus about this meaning, whether the meaning differs substantially between people that consider themselves to be participating in (the?) OSR, and whether the meaning people currently see matches what they would like. Secondarily, I am also curious about what content (at the game level) people consider OSR, the geographical distribution of people that participate in (the?) OSR, and favorite OSR products. Other questions may occur to me as I proceed (and feel free to suggest questions if you have any).

Responses

2018 respondents completed the survey (that serendipitous number is a coincidence). Based on some preliminary checks, I see no sign of brigading, bots, or similar threats to data quality. 134 responses failed the attention check near the end. 46 responses provided age greater than 100 and one response gave age less than 10. 9 respondents specified that I should discard their response entirely. None of these responses will contribute to my summaries. After exclusion, there were 1,828 responses. To the question Do you participate in the OSR?, 1450 respondents said Yes, 372 respondents said No, and 6 skipped the question.

Generalizability

Several people seemed suspicious about why we asked any demographic questions. The point of such questions is have some basis from which to generalize the results. For example, if respondents skew older, it would be inappropriate to assume results represent the beliefs of younger players. And so forth. Additionally, many people indicated, both to me directly and in the final “share anything” question, that they found the two items about political orientation insufficient to accurately communicate beliefs. Due to this feedback, and to ease concerns that there is some prior political agenda motivating the survey, we decided to avoid looking at those measures. Most obviously, these results speak more to the beliefs about people who talk about games online. Only people who frequent RPG forums or follow people who talk about RPGs on social media are likely to have heard about the survey at all, so that is a property of the sampling process. Put another way, we oversampled (heavily, perhaps close to exclusively) people who spend large amounts of time on hobbies online. That is, however, appropriate to OSR, which originated and developed online.

Figures

The first two figures show scatter plots of responses over time. The first plot shows how long participants took to answer the survey, in minutes. For ease of visual interpretation, I avoided plotting a handful of observations where respondents took an extra-long amount of time to submit the survey, though these responses still contribute to other results. The second plot shows respondent age, which drifts very slightly up according to the trend over time, though it is difficult to see. Plots such as these often show potential confounds or technical errors. Nothing like that jumps out at me.

Response Duration Over Time (the X axis represents about one week)

Respondent Age Over Time (the X axis represents about one week)

Responses by day (survey dashboard)

The mean response age was 36.81 (SD = 9.88, n = 1828) and the stats are similar for self-declared OSR participants (Mage = 36.58, SD = 9.87, n = 1450) and self-declared OSR non-participants (Mage = 37.64, SD = 9.90, n = 372).

Respondent Age Distribution

There was a mix of people that have been playing tabletop roleplaying games for a while and people that started more recently. My guess is that the frequencies by year shown below approximately reflect general industry fortunes.

Year Started Playing Tabletop Roleplaying Games

I categorized responses by rough geographic area based on country of residence. Yes, I know that “Asia” is an oversimplification, but look at the number of responses before you object. Participants that skipped the country item, or responses that were ambiguous to me, show up in the “Uncertain” category (as in, I am uncertain). The majority of responses are, unsurprisingly, from North America (65%), and 89% are from North America plus Europe combined (being relatively expansive about the definition of Europe). So when you are thinking about what kinds of conclusions you can draw from these results, keep that in mind. This survey should give a decently representative picture of people from North America and Europe who talk about tabletop roleplaying games online, but speak less to players living in other cultures.

Geography or responses (overall)

Geography of responses (self-declared OSR participants)

Geography of respondents (self-declared OSR non-participants)

The social media context in which people reside may be even more important, for purposes of measuring beliefs about OSR, than physical geography. Respondents indicated where they heard about the survey, and that seems like a reasonable, if imperfect, proxy for social media environment. The immediate takeaway here is that Reddit is huge. The secondary takeaway is that the survey represents a much wider swath of RPG players than those that I hang around, as my crowd is mostly on Google Plus and blogs at the moment. We also asked people about how often they used various platforms for talking about games, but I think that is enough for now.

Social media context

Hack the meme: 20 movies

Far be it from me, that I should tell anyone else how to social media. But here is a mutagen that can transform diversions of self-disclosure into game fuel. The input: 20 films that had an impact on you, for the next 20 days. The catalyst: …related to how you game. The result: Show me 20 moving pictures that influenced how you play tabletop RPGs. Presto! There, much better. (No judgment regarding self-disclosure, but this is a game blog.)

  1. Die Hard and every other complexcrawl action movie. The Rock (Die Hard on Alcatraz) comes to mind, but I honestly can’t recall if it is any good. See also: Dredd.
  2. Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy. Honestly, I think I want this series to influence my games more than it actually has, which is why it is up here at number 19. I have come to appreciate the structure of Westerns for adventuring far more as an adult than previously. And, borderlands-style D&D is basically the wild west with swords and spells:
    “People want to play in a historical setting like the dark ages, but they don’t want serfs, they don’t want an all powerful Church dictating the rhythms of daily life, they don’t want any social constraints on free movement and agency. They want to play Vikings and still let that one guy in the group be a ninja. They want the wild west, with swords.”Beedo paraphrasing Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean involves more swashbuckling than tends to happen in my games, and I find pirate tropes somewhat tiresome, but Sparrow is a wonderfully Vancian character and there are skeletons. Maybe the best skeletons in any movie? I also have a weakness for Depp. (Only the first movie is really worth it though.)
  4. This is really a placeholder for some other post-apocalyptic movie, though I am going to go with Waterworld for now, because that is what comes to mind despite all its weaknesses. The original Mad Max is a greater cinematic classic, and Fury Road is the genre masterpiece, but neither have substantively influenced the way I game. That said, D&D is the apocalypse, and Waterworld would make a much better D&D campaign than it did a movie. Here is Wayne R. on the implied setting of 1974 OD&D:
    Cities in such a place are probably small affairs. This is not the world of grand cosmopolitan wonders; it’s downright post-apocalyptic and probably has a few thousand people per city. Trade is downright perilous, given that you’re likely to run into dragons, or giant crabs if you follow the river, or many other horrid things.
  5. Blame! is an anime technomegadungeon based on the aesthetic vision of Tsutomu Nihei.

    Image by Nihei (source)

    Do I need to say more?

  6. Season of the Witch owns exactly what it is without any ironic dodges, and is not badly made either. Inspirational for Lamentations of the Flame Princess style fantasy.
  7. Brotherhood of the Wolf is also Lamentations relevant, as pseudo-historical dark fantasy, and is medieval European wuxia (“action horror” according to Wikipedia, for whatever that is worth). Monica Bellucci plays a significant role, and the biggest badass is Mani, an Iroquois martial artist brave. Obviously an adventuring party.

    Mani (from somewhere on the Internet)

  8. Trigun. The emo vibe is somewhat adolescent, but the setting would be pure gold for adventuring. It is an archaeofuture wild west of mostly isolated settlements on a desert world where energy and water are scarce but bullets are plentiful. Trigun would probably rank higher if the tone was less goofy, though I do appreciate the cleverer touches of absurdity: the reward for Vash’s capture is sixty-billion double-dollars $$, the supporting protagonists pursuing Vash are insurance company functionaries whose company is sick of paying out for Vash’s disasters, Wolfwood’s cross bazooka, and so forth.
  9. Star Wars: A New Hope. Rebellion against an oppressive empire remains one of the better starting scenarios and is a welcome alternative to buccaneers meeting in a bar to plan dungeon heists (though I do love dungeon heists). See also: Final Fantasy VI for a similar setup in another medium.
  10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the paradigmatic dungeon heist, with traps and everything. I would still like to find a way to turn it belongs in a museum into an XP incentive mechanism.
  11. Masters of the Universe (cartoons). Some brief, disorganized observations. Summon He-Man is a spell, cast by the power sword, that binds an extradimensional entity into your body, transforming it in the process (credit to Roger B. for that particular recent insight). Hordak is a cosmic space cyborg vampire dictator. By my preferences, the best Carcosa so far is through the lens of Eternia. See the gallery of Earl Norem Masters of the Universe art at Monster Brains for associated inspiration.

    Art by Earl Norem

  12. Vampire Hunter D. Monster hunting in a cyborg gothic future. Quoting Wikipedia: western, science fiction, horror, high fantasy, H. P. Lovecraftian mythos, folklore and occult science. The visuals were also inspired by Yoshitaka Amano’s art. Cousins with Castlevania and Bloodborne.
  13. Stargate blended genres into a sci-fi action movie which could serve as a workable adventure sandbox or collection of adventure sites. It avoids submitting totally to the tyranny of Chekhov’s Gun logic, where the only point of anything is narrative development, which I find unsatisfying. I may have had a fantasy campaign with esoteric stealth bombers shortly after seeing this the first time.

    Jaye Davidson as ancient astronaut demon Ra

  14. Lost is a low level adventure party shipwrecked and building a stronghold to survive while confronted with mysterious supernatural challenges. Good settlement development systems remain an open challenge for OSR designers. I would stop at the first season now.
  15. Jurassic Park is still one of the better dungeon crawls committed to film.
  16. Alien & Aliens. See everything I need to know about GMing I learned from Aliens. The fireteam in Aliens maps slightly better to a D&D adventuring party, but to me Alien is a tighter construction overall. John Carpenter’s The Thing is another relevant survival horror monster crawl, but it influenced me less.
  17. Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (& most of Miyazaki’s other output, which is aesthetically and structurally similar) is unparalleled for evocative, wondrous adventure setting. Miyazaki’s work is occasionally flawed by didacticism and transparent messaging, but Nausicaa is about as perfect a final creation as I can imagine. Some specific highlights are the fungal grotto underworld, the airship invasion, and the monsters. Hideaki Anno, who later gained recognition as the creative impetus behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, animated the god warrior sequence. For me next in line would be Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (for all the wonderful kami), but no Miyazaki is quite as inspirational for games as Nausicaa.

    God Warrior (source)

  18. The Walking Dead is one of the better depictions of an adventuring party exploring a dangerous, monster-haunted world, struggling to survive, and, if possible put down roots, though there is too much soap opera for my games. The development and periodic loss of settlements also presents a challenge to developers of OSR systems to manage stronghold developments. Most of the existing approaches to building settlements realize Strongholds as culmination, unlikely to be reversed, and a shift from exploration into a domain game. This has some appeal, but I would like a system which remained closer to boots on the ground, a Batman-level system rather than a Superman-level system, to misappropriate the metaphor from Finch’s Primer.
  19. The Abyss. Trapped in an underwater complex. Threatened by mysterious entities that are both terrible and wonderful. The darkness of the deep in The Abyss is the darkness I want to evoke in the fantasy underworld. That’s why nonsense like torches and resource management matter.

    James Cameron’s The Abyss

  20. Berserk: Golden Age Arc because Berserk is the foundation of my dark fantasy trinity (along with Dark Souls and Kingdom Death). It effectively calibrates mythic resonance with novelty and brings intensity without ever descending into parody or ironic detachment.

I can extract a few trends from this list. The first is that exploration and survival horror inform my gaming far more than the trappings of fantasy. A good sewer crawl with monsters in modern LA would probably get me more in the mood to game than some epic fantasy. Jackson’s Fellowship is almost there, but feels too linear, and the characters are too reactive, to be particularly inspiring as a D&D adventure to me. (That said, I am fond of the movie as a realization of Alan Lee’s visual imagination of Middle-Earth and it is hard to imagine a better casting for any of the characters.) I prefer the aesthetics of fantasy for gaming compared to science fiction or modern settings, but some large part of that preference is the constraints provided more naturally by the narrow horizons of a fantasy world.

The second trend is the presence of a wondrous, distinctive setting which begs exploration, with aspects of the frontier or points of light, which means that civilization exists in isolated outposts scattered throughout a dangerous wilderness. … Between outposts lies only monster–haunted wilderness dotted with the ruins of a once glorious past and darkened by the ever-present shadow of the unknown (Rob Conley’s 2008 Points of Light supplement).

The list here only overlaps slightly with what I would say are my favorite movies. The Berserk Golden Age Arc, The Abyss, the two Alien films would be favorites, and probably Nausicaa, but that might be it.

Signs of practice

Newcomers are the primary beneficiaries of organizing labels, which make sense of as yet unmapped territory1. It is possible to take a scenic route to the same semantic destination by reciting minor arcana: resource depletion, lethality, creative problem solving, exploration-focused play, location-based design, and so forth. However, doing so is a cumbersome and awkward method of evocation, perhaps occasionally justified by greater precision, but suboptimal for widespread comprehension.

I run mostly old school rules. That is, I draw from a school of thought based primarily in the original 1974 D&D and Moldvay’s 1981 Basic D&D. I participate in a renaissance. That is, the explosion of creation2 and discussion3 informed by old school gaming traditions. This continues, at a constant or accelerating rate.

So, there was and is a renaissance of tabletop roleplaying games with old school genealogy. What is in a label? Without a label to organize and bind the concepts in these traditions together, it is unlikely that playing tabletop RPGs would be on my radar at all at this point in my life. I got into gaming back in 2011 only because a coworker invited me to a fourth edition D&D game, and that led me to OSR conversations online. If all I experienced then was mainstream fourth edition D&D, I doubt I would have persisted.

Rather than helping a marginalized group or suffering individual, polarization4 weaponizes substantive political concerns to sow divisions and play status games, sometimes to bolster egos, sometimes to build name recognition in service of selling products. I am not the neighborhood watch, or, even worse, an officer of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. But my conversations, are, I think, pretty chill.

I choose to focus on similarities rather than differences. I choose to ignore the changelings, those malevolent intelligences consciously or unconsciously adapted to coopting your attention, generating social reinforcement, and harnessing your emotion. That is my perspective. I doubt it will change any time soon.


1. Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Principia Apocrypha

2. An incomplete and idiosyncratic list in approximately reverse chronological order: Blasphemous Roster, Mothership, Dead Planet, Echoes From Fomalhaut #1, Echoes From Fomalhaut #2, Thousand Thousand Islands, Frostbitten and Mutilated, Through Ultan’s Door #1, B/X Essentials: Classes and Equipment, Krevborna, B/X Essentials: Cleric and Magic-User Spells, Kidnap the Archpriest, Operation Unfathomable, Gardens of Ynn, Megadungeon #3, Epochrypha, Eldritch Cock, B/X Essentials: Monsters, Faux Pas, The Dolorous Stroke, Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom, Knave, B/X Essentials: Adventures and Treasures, Witchburner, The Stygian Library, What Ho Frog Demons, Umberwell, XQ1 The Castle that Fell from the Sky, Ultraviolet Grasslands free extended intro, Field Guide to Hot Springs Island, Dark of Hot Springs Island, Veins of the Earth, Hyqueous Vaults, Tomb of the Serpent King, Macchiato Monsters ZERO, Mageblade! Zero, Marvels & Malisons, Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow, B/X Essentials: Core Rules, Dungeon Full of Monsters, Fever Swamp, Nameless Grimoire, Megadungeon #1, Maze of the Blue Medusa, Broodmother Skyfortress, A Market in the Woods, World of the Lost, Black Hack, Misty Isles of the Eld, Perdition, Nightmares Underneath, Maze Rats, Hubris, Do Not Let Us Die In the Dark Night of This Cold Winter, Comes the Mountain, Black Sun Deathcrawl, Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Yoon-Suin, Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Hearth of Hell, Into the Odd, Lusus Naturae, Castle Gargantua, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, Wizard-Spawned Insanities, Perilous Wilds, Wormskin, Troika, Dread Machine, Along the Road of Tombs, Wreck of the Anubis, Lone Colossus of the Akolouthos Sink, Cthonic Codex, Vacant Ritual Assembly, Warband, No Salvation For Witches, Red and Pleasant Land, Excellent Travelling Volume, Adventure Fantasy Game, Terrors of the Ancient World, Dungeon Dozen, An Illustrated Bestiary of Fantastic Creatures, Deep Carbon Observatory, Undercroft, Sleeping Palace of the Feathered Swine, Servants of the Cinder Queen, Barrowmaze Complete, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Goblin Punch Book of Tigers, Pergamino Barocco, Hexenbracken, Teratic Tome, Hulks & Horrors, Beyond the Wall, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Rules & Magic, On the NPC, Better Than Any Man, Seclusium of Orphone, Evil Wizards in a Cave, Pits & Perils, Space-Age Sorcery, Corpathium, Prison of the Hated Pretender, Tempus Gelidum, Obelisk of Forgotten Memories, Red Demon, DCC RPG, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Dungeon Module ASE2-3: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Hamsterish Hoard of Monsters, Other Dust, Rappan Athuk, Grimmsgate, Barrowmaze, Theorems and Thaumaturgy, Tales of the Dungeonesque and Grotesque, “An Echo Resounding”, Dwarf-Land, Small But Vicious Dog, Carcosa, Vornheim, Dungeon Module ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Demonspore, Challenge of the Frog Idol, Tome of Adventure Design, Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, Realms of Crawling Chaos, Red Tide, Shadowbrook Manor, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Deluxe Edition, Tower of the Stargazer, Dyson’s Delve, Stars Without Number, Death Frost Doom, One Page Dungeon Codex, Cursed Chateau, Stonehell Dungeon, Eldritch Weirdness Compilation, Knockspell, Spire of Iron and Crystal, Miscellaneum of Cinder, Tomb of the Iron God, Fight On!, Random Esoteric Creature Generator, Philotomy’s Musings, OSRIC, Mines of Khunmar

3. OSR blog list in OPML format, Links to Wisdom wiki

4. OSR logo controversy

Final Fantasy Ultimania Volume 1

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1 covers the first six Final Fantasy games, only three of which were originally released in North America. Physical quality is high: the binding is stitched and the paper quality is worthy of an art book. Props to Dark Horse. The overall content and layout is geared toward nostalgia, but that takes nothing away from the beautiful artwork. See the linked video for my full review (duration two minutes & 36 seconds).


Gallery

Final Fantasy Ultimania Volume 1 on a bed of blue velvetFinal Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-10-17
  • Price: $44.70 CAD ($22.84 USD on Amazon.com at the time of this writing)
  • Details: Amazon.ca (product link)

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

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.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-31
  • Price: 799 Swedish Krona (approximately $90 USD)
  • Details: pledge manager preorder, includes shipping

Contents:

  • Forbidden Lands Boxed Set – English
  • Raven’s Purge – English
  • Forbidden Lands Custom Card Deck – English
  • Forbidden Lands Custom Dice Set
  • Soundtrack
  • PDFs

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

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.