To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.
—Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
What follows is a roll all the dice apocalypse generator. I designed it primarily as a tool to help create atmosphere and structure challenges for a new campaign, but it could also be used for entries on an event table, if you like to watch the world burn and were so inclined. Just drop the 1d4 component, or replace it with some other determination, such as the changed color of sunlight in the brave broken world of tomorrow or the pattern of fissures spreading over the moon.
To sketch the outlines of an apocalypse, use the following six determinations. Since indicates for how long the apocalypse has obtained. Cause indicates what precipitated the apocalypse. Obtenebration indicates what conceals the ruined world from the view of mortals. Monsters indicate what still lurks in the wilds. Redoubt indicates where humanity endures. Doom indicates the immediate nature of destruction.
Or? Maybe your players found a portal. This is where it leads.
As long as anyone can remember
Terminating the previous cycle of empire
Three generations past
Yesterday and ongoing
Reckless wicked sorcery
Primordial monsters unchained
Divine judgment of human hubris
Smoke and noxious gasses
Extinguished sun and endless night
Storms of blood, slime, or ash
Snow and ice
Submarine: drowned world or under the ocean
Inhospitable void: wilderness is outer space or Ptolemaic firmament
Possessed animals, people, or objects
Fears and nightmares made flesh
Mass delirium, lunacy, or madness
Gigantic, fecund fauna and flora
Legions of hell
One final, fortified settlement
Arc designed to preserve humanity
One small village strangely untouched
Isolated walled towns
Dungeon level one: waste above and underworld below
Ship run aground
Small nomadic camps
Huts clustered around a lighthouse, bonfire, or hoard of lanterns
Restless fault lines
Ancient war machines unleashed
Colossal monsters rampage
Plague of locusts
Land of the dead annexes the realm of mortals
Invasion of extra-dimensional beings
Sky flooded by the parching rays of nine incessant suns
This post is for people that have played or discussed tabletop roleplaying games with Zak. If the context seems unclear, you are probably outside this audience. That stated, this reflection seems to belong here.
I am going to write about online aggression. Offline aggression has more substantial consequences, especially when embedded in professional or romantic relationships. I discuss online aggression because that is what I can speak to honestly, rather than to equate the two forms of aggression. While Zak’s behavior online and in his personal life may share some causes, the second deserves more severe condemnation.
I retained greater distance from Zak than some, but was close enough that I feel warranted and perhaps obligated to discuss my experiences. I have interacted with Zak online since around 2012. We played in a handful of online FLAILSNAILS games together as players. I defended Zak once proactively against charges of homophobia, when he was in the midst of some controversy, and more low key in many other instances. I met Zak and Stokely in person at Gen Con in 2017. I saved seats at the Ennies for him and some of the other Lamentations folks.
Not long ago, Zak preemptively blocked a friend of mine for associating with the wrong people, seemingly out of the blue. This was a person who had gone to bat for Zak against unfounded accusations repeatedly in the past. At the time, I assumed Zak must be lashing out to deal with something else going on in his life. This was the most recent instance of several where I found myself using back channels to warn others about potentially engaging with Zak. For example, in a direct message on January 11th I wrote:
“I know you already do, but probably best to take care around Z; I don’t know what’s up with him.”
There are others. In August 2018, in another direct message I wrote:
“I can’t entirely tell whether Zak just has a blind spot around Apocalypse engine games due to the way he thinks or if he is fighting against the style and framing more instrumentally.”
Other people recount similar experiences. Patrick (of the False Machine blog) wrote a book with him and ended up totally disavowing any relationship. All of which fits into a broader pattern.
My approach to discussion differs from Zak’s, but participating in his discussions to the degree I did was a form of passive assent. I disliked how his approach would spill over into adjacent spaces and how he would involve only tangentially related grudges whenever possible. His scorched earth tactics probably did discourage some trolls and prudes, but they also drove away many other valuable voices. The collateral damage was too high.
People who criticized Zak for whatever form of prejudice were missing the real issue. Zak was, as far as I can tell, an equal opportunity aggressor. I have been in his gaming circles ever since he encouraged people initially to join Google Plus, based on the promise Hangouts technology presented for Constantcon and other online gaming. Accusing him of prejudice, so absurd for anyone who knew him even in the slightest, provided cover for his aggressiveness and lack of compromise, which caused indisputable harm. People stopped engaging online to avoid having to deal with him. I wish I had been there more for friends and acquaintances that Zak assailed directly or for those caught in the splash damage.
People are, in general, uncomfortable with holding inconsistent attitudes toward related objects. Understanding every positive thing Zak did as a form of manipulation is almost certainly a mistake. People are complicated. Assuming people can easily be classed into worthy and worthless was Zak’s consistent conceptual error. I try to avoid this error, but being welcome in social spaces is contingent upon behaving well, on balance, over time.
Zak, if you read this, a few points. First, putting your statement on a separate blog was cowardly. It only makes sense as a search engine optimization technique, to help keep this dirt from sticking to other aspects of your online presence as much as possible. In contrast, Mandy and Vivka posted their statements on their personal social media accounts. Comport yourself by your own rules and do the same, even if you lack the sense to engage in further reevaluation or introspection. You may feel the urge to argue about this or some other tangential detail, but my opinion or belief is irrelevant in this matter. The only thing you can do is demonstrate by your actions a better character. I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to tell their story. Even people that have done worse things than those alleged. You have that opportunity elsewhere, however, and everybody knows your blog, or can easily locate it using a search engine, so I feel no obligation to host your response here or link to it directly.
People have developed a lot of systems to manage conflict, such as laws and courts. It is good that people can appeal to courts and other bureaucracies. Society would probably work poorly without that backstop. Explicit conflict management systems have some rather large downsides, however. “I am so happy this is going to court!”—said pretty much nobody ever.
The x-card is like a (mini) bureaucracy, designed to handle conflict that may be invisible initially to some participants. The x-card functions reasonably well as a tool (and works best if everyone is on board), but can suffocate play if allowed to metastasize. It is unsurprising to me that interaction with a club bureaucracy prompted this post by Emmy.
Most interaction between people occurs based on norms, including conflict management. The naive approach to managing conflict using norms in tabletop roleplaying games is the almost content-free “don’t be a dick” (almost content-free because it defers the work of creating shared understanding). For managing conflict between players, my opinion is that techniques such as writing play agendas and setting content expectations have greater promise and fewer of the downsides inherent in less-flexible procedural approaches (such as the x-card).
It might be useful to people that care about such things to come up with a catalog of approaches to managing conflict in games between players using norms. What techniques exist beyond written play agendas and signposting potential content?
(The proximate cause of this post was Scrap’s discussion here, soon to be lost.)
(This is part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)
Earlier, I reported the OSR ratings of various games (as in, level of agreement with the statement: I think the game ________ is OSR) and also which games respondents reported playing. As I noted in that post, these variables allowed me to score individual responses on degree of OSR play behavior. Respondents themselves, in aggregate, determined what OSR play behavior entails. In addition to being related to several other variables that you might expect (such as self-declared participation in the OSR, degree of identification with the OSR, and having bought an OSR product), degree of OSR play behavior also positively predicts blogging about tabletop roleplaying games generally and belief that the OSR welcomes diverse voices.
I came up with the idea of scoring respondents on OSR play behavior after designing the survey, so the set of games rated on OSR-ness differs slightly from the set of games respondents could indicate they were currently playing. However, there is a substantial overlap between the two sets. This set of overlapping games contributes to the OSR play behavior score. To create an OSR play score for each respondent, I calculated an average of play scores (playing = 1, not playing = missing value) weighted by game OSR rating, which ranges from 1 to 7. For example, a respondent that indicated playing Vampire: The Masquerade (OSR rating = 1.90) and B/X D&D (OSR rating = 6.14) would have an overall OSR play score of (1.90 + 6.14) / 2 = 4.02. One of the options for currently played games was Home-brew (OSR), which I decided should have an OSR game rating of 7. After all, what game could be more subjectively OSR than one the respondent categorized themselves as Home-brew (OSR)? I determined this scoring scheme prior to looking at any results.
1634 respondents reported currently playing some games for which I had OSR ratings, allowing me to score those responses on OSR play behavior. The mean rating of OSR play among these respondents was 4.41 (SD = 1.44, min = 1.75, max = 7). The distribution of this score was roughly uniform, though there were spikes around 2.87 (n = 198), which corresponds to respondents that reported only currently playing D&D 5E, around 4.93 (n = 64), which corresponds to respondents that reported playing D&D 5E + Home-brew (OSR), and around 7 (n = 96), which corresponds to respondents that reported only currently playing a Home-brew (OSR) game.
This composite play score is obviously imperfect, as respondents indicated play dichotomously rather than by degree, the set of games available to select was incomplete, and the measurement of game OSR-ness was itself imprecise (though derived empirically from the beliefs of respondents). However, the relevant question is whether the rating captures some meaningful variation in degree of OSR play behavior rather than whether it perfectly describes each respondent’s play behavior.
Within sample, the OSR play behavior score has some predictive validity. For example, OSR participants have higher OSR play behavior scores (t(1630) = -18.13, p < .001, MOSR = 4.68, Mnon-OSR = 3.26, using a two-sample t test with unequal variances). Looking at the same relationship another way, I regressed the OSR play behavior score on effects-coded self-declared OSR participation (omnibus F(1, 1628) = 283.61, R2 = .15, b = 1.42, SE = .08, t = 16.84, p < .001, 95% CI [1.25, 1.58]). In English, people who said they participate in the OSR (yes/no) do actually report higher OSR play behavior (the R2 = .15 value means that self-declared participation explains about 15% of the variance in OSR play behavior). Additionally, people with higher OSR play scores were more likely to report having bought an OSR product, according to a logistic regression (b = .51, SE = .07, z = 7.21, p < .001, 95% CI [.37, .65]). This is somewhat exploratory, but strongly suggests the score is capturing some meaningful variation in reported behavior.
Now for some of the more intriguing relationships, such as with blogging (Do you have a blog where you post about tabletop roleplaying games? Yes/No). OSR play behavior positively predicts blogging about any tabletop roleplaying games (b = .32, SE = .06, z = 5.55, p < .001, 95% CI [.21, .43], using a logistic regression). General play behavior, however, measured as the number of different games played, has no relationship to blogging (b = .09, SE = .06, z = 1.55, p = .121). The logistic regression equivalent of R2 is pretty low for this relationship, around 2%, so the importance of the relationship may be small, but the point is comparative: something about OSR play inclines people toward sharing long-form thoughts about tabletop roleplaying compared to just playing a wide variety of games.
Finally, respondents with higher OSR play behavior scores reported the OSR to be more welcoming of diverse voices (omnibus F(1, 1628) = 129.69, R2 = .07, b = .46, SE = .04, t = 11.39, p < .001, 95% CI [.38, .54]). The text of this particular item was: The OSR welcomes diverse voices (1 = Strongly disagree, 7 = Strongly agree; M = 4.79, SD = 1.70, n = 1823). There are a few potential interpretations of this result. Optimistically, people walking the talk (that is, respondents that actually play consensually-defined OSR games) have a more positive view of the degree to which the OSR is welcoming. Pessimistically, there may be some selection bias, as people who feel the OSR is unwelcoming may have been less likely to participate in the survey at all. Anecdotally, I did observe this reaction from a handful of individuals. As a crude robustness check, I arbitrarily changed 50 of the “welcoming” responses (around 2% of the sample) to be 1 (Strongly disagree), simulating absent negative responses, and ran the same analysis again. The result held, suggesting that this sort of selection bias would have minimal effect on aggregate beliefs.
Woodfall bills itself as a dark fantasy mini setting. I would describe it as a setting toolkit, inspired in form by Vornheim, but with less emphasis on content generation tools and much more emphasis on particular realized locales. There are more fish in this basket than manuals about how to fish or tools for fishing. I backed Woodfall based on the strength of the sample art, and if you appreciate the gloomy storybook aesthetic (which I do), the final product delivers on that dimension in spades. For the physical book, the format is roughly digest sized perfect bound (print on demand) softcover. Within are 32 pages describing the settlement of Woodfall, 11 adventure locales of several pages each, and nine pages of new monsters. There are also subsystems for harvesting resources from monster hunting and crafting items. The PDF is 96 pages including cover and everything. Overall, the writing is concise, though more functional than artful, and play usability looks high. The art is profuse and evocative. On the downside, Woodfall’s tone is saturated with unsubtle, somewhat distracting satire.
Though I described the writing as lacking artistry, the illustrations more than make up for any shortcoming in the prose, and on balance the writing is fine but unexceptional. In terms of visual style, I find Woodfall to be one of the more enjoyable independently produced RPG products to have come out over the past few years. Even just the map of the Woodfall settlement alone is a fantastic, memorable locale that faces off respectably against any other town I can bring to mind from other modules. Memorable settlements breathe life into hexcrawls, but remain scarce as supplements. Visual presentation grants elements that might otherwise be overly prosaic or tedious a gloss of game utility, such as a a diagram of economic resource flows, though proof of this potential will be in the play. The visual component of Woodfall was clearly a labor of love, and nothing feels phoned in. Woodfall’s second strength is unfailing attention to game utility, with consistently inventive and generally non-generic ideas. Much of the complexity lies in relationships between elements. For example, the presence of a particular non-player character in the wilderness dampens the danger from a particular monster. Players can learn about and make use of this fact creatively. Another, in the form of a wandering monster: gossip earfish lurk around the swamp listening in on conversations … have tiny mouths and communicate exclusively in very faint wispers [sic: caught a typo] (p. 74). These two examples only scratch the surface, and are the kind of thing that makes a module more than simply an exercise in stocking a map. The result is a rich, articulated framework that looks like it will respond in satisfying ways to player actions and choices.
That all sounds fantastic, but Woodfall does have one substantial weakness, which is a somewhat off key and inexpert sense of humor. Unlike Melan (see here for his review), I read Woodfall’s subtext as satirical rather than po-faced, more Addams Family than revolutionary vanguard. However, even tongue in cheek, the tone is a bit much and somewhat awkward. For example, the fairy liberation front—a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries (p. 31)—is the kind of charming nonsense that often (inevitably?) emerges from table chat organically. I consider this to be a true shortcoming, rather than just an expression of my taste, and independent of any particular politics, because the players at my table (or yours) will readily add this finishing noise themselves, and it will be funnier, tailored as it will be to events of the moment and the idiosyncrasies of your table. Noisms’ post about D&D as straight man expresses a similar idea in a more general way.
A handful of other points deserve mention, both positive and negative. The hex map is usable and attractive but lacks coordinate numbers. The secondary locales are evocative and well-illustrated, but only lightly detailed, so referees that prefer more complex puzzles or challenges may feel poorly served (though as noted above, the relationships between the elements are rich with potential for exploitation by creative players). The swamp factions matrix—which captures alliances and enmities—is filled with mostly game relevant entries, but would be more useful with text labels accompanying the faction icons. As written, the setting of Woodfall secularizes sorcery in the presented setting, which tilts the atmosphere toward disenchantment. Curiously, this is at odds with the evocative illustrations. A referee running a low magic game will need to adjust descriptions accordingly. Finally, there are few crafting systems available for classic/OSR games, and the approach here, fully illustrated of course, looks both tractable and fun.
Personally, I consider the overbearing humor to be a venial sin, especially given Woodfall’s many other strengths. Unfortunately, the increased reliance on associative rather than deliberative thinking in the current intellectual climate means that many people will likely tune out before giving it a chance. Put another way, the badge of humorless activist boyfriend (to mangle Melan’s stamp of disapproval) may ruin what seems like an otherwise useful supplement for readers with condescension detection meters dialed up to full sensitivity. Ultimately, I think using Woodfall’s framework with modified tone and references would involve minimal hassle, even improvising at runtime, and offer substantial payoff. Considering the strengths and weaknesses of Woodfall, I wonder if there is a place for the module equivalent of silent cinema, supplements having minimal text that deliver content primarily through illustration and graphic design. Inventory v1 (my review) or A Land Called Tarot (AV Club review) could perhaps inform this kind of product.
You are children of
the winds. At the beginning of time, the four great winds first gathered wanderers
into four primeval clans. Now, though there are many more than four clans, each
clan heeds first one of the four: the constant wind, the mountain wind, the
cloud wind, or the hidden wind.
The traditions of your
people are humble compared to the majesty of the great Citadel Principalities.
You hunt, you cultivate gardens, you trade crafts for tools from the Citadels, and
you guide travelers venturing on the plains of the great rivers. But also, you
watch. Because the children of the winds carry a secret.
You know where Satan lies.
The stories, only spoken by your people—for writing about demons is dangerous—tell how Satan fell from the world above, and how a mountain came in train, plummeting from the sky to seal the dungeon. Impossibly old now, the fallen mountain has been worn down by time, hunched, rising gently above surrounding hills.
For uncounted generations, the magicians and doctors of your people have performed the rites which hold the dungeon doors fast. The children of the wind have kept this secret from greedy adventurers seeking wealth, wicked sorcerers seeking the council of Satan’s imprisoned lieutenants, and prideful princes from Citadel Principalities, which constitute hard dominion, leavened only slightly by internecine struggle.
You have tolerated the capriciousness and cruelty of the magnificent Principalities, as sentinel legions require the riches of abundant fields. Strong armor and machines of war depend on towers of learning. The sentinel princes may water the plains with the blood of their brothers more frequently even than the flux of floods from the great rivers, but the legions also shield the great river plains from ignorant foreign kings. The Citadel princes’ role in the secret traditions is as custodian rather than sovereign, honing the blade of legions for times of exigency.
But depredations have worsened. A detachment of Citadel cataphracts descended upon plains settlements, executed those that resisted, and enslaved anyone unable to escape. The remants fled to the hills around the fallen mountain. Following the attack, Citadel princes scour the hills for survivors. The magicians have been unable to perform the rites securing Satan’s dungeon, and divinations reveal the gates are weakening. The only way to maintain the prison will be to venture within, repair the wards, and reinstate the rites. Alternatively, there have always been people, even among the children of the winds, who object to the taboo against entering the dungeon. Some have wished to venture within to vanquish Satan once and for all. Others seek the power and magics hidden below. Such aims, or many others, could be yours, as the doorway stands open and the taboo abandoned.
In a secluded glade, nestled in wild, rolling hills surrounding the worn, fallen mountain, lies the first doorway, the gate to Satan’s prison. The glade is the terminus of no path, but the children of the wind know the signs and incantations to find the way. The doorway is primitive, formed of three monumental, roughly-carved stones, two as post and one as lintel, set diagonally into the hillside, painted with white and red warding sigils.
Your adventurers belong
to a group of the displaced. You have constructed makeshift shelters, but your
camp is precarious. Each player should create one adventurer and two to four
other escapees. For each session, you may bring another camp member as a support
character. Replacement characters, if needed, will come from the camp. If a
total party kill occurs and remaining camp population is zero, you lose and the
developing your camp and crafting gear will yield experience.
Gear wears out. A few
clans, mostly heeding the hidden wind, have metallurgists, but copper or bronze
implements are more commonly trade goods from traveling princes. You will need
to repair and craft gear.
Within the high walls of the Citadel Principalities is foreign ground for children of the winds. Taking haven turns is impossible in a citadel. Entering a Citadel is equivalent to exploring a dungeon and will generally involve taking dungeon turns, as with other dangerous built spaces. Even communicating with the princes can prove challenging. Each Citadel speaks a different language, rather than the language that the children of the wind speak, which is an echo of the first language. Beware the princes, as their decadent ways have become inscrutable and Citadel panoply terrifies in battle.
I am somewhat averse to manifestos, in game design and elsewhere, but if I were to champion one manifesto for tabletop roleplaying games it might be this: No homework for players! This principle is implicit in many classic/OSR cultural traditions, but is rarely stated explicitly, even in the secondary commentary of blogs, forums, and other ephemera. But if you look, you can see the various traditions all working toward the principle of minimizing player homework.
Some such traditions include aversion to complicated character creation and aversion to canonical setting material (“lore”). Classic/OSR play culture tends to be relatively hostile to the idea of character builds, which really took off in D&D 3E with the profusion of character option (“splat”) books. Complicated character creation takes at least two forms, which I will call character optimization (similar to the older term min-maxing) and character backstory. (Character optimization seems to capture the idea better because min-maxing focuses on the competitiveness of individual players rather than the affordances of game or play instances.) Players optimizing characters engage with rulebooks rather than socially with other players. This is good for companies that make money by selling books, but character optimization moves game engagement away from play at the table. The mantra “we explore dungeons, not characters” captures the related aversion to extensive character backstory, prioritizing the definition or discovery of characters based on events that occur in play at the table. See the following discussions for representative examples: Hack & Slash on character builds, this wishlist for oldschool games, and Noisms’ Theorem of Character Generation Length and Player Cautiousness.
Forbidden Lands, which I have been reading recently, is one game that tries to communicate this principle directly in the text, and succeeds reasonably well, directing the referee to expose players to the setting only through play at the table: To convey the history and myths of the Forbidden Lands to the players in-game, you use legends. … In this way, the players build their own knowledge of the Forbidden Lands and its denizens (Forbidden Lands Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 6). Forbidden Lands also includes a fictional device, the Blood Mist, which functions like fog of war in a video game, obscuring both fictional geography and history: “The demonic Blood Mist that covered the lands for three centuries, draining the life out of anyone who dared to wanter too far from their village, has suddenly and inexplicably lifted. You, and other restless souls like you, are finally free to leave your homes and travel far and wide in the Forbidden Lands, looking for treasures and adventures” (Forbidden Lands Player’s Handbook, pp. 5-6). The Blood Mist works to identify the extradiegetic (player) experience with the diegetic (character) experience. What other games attempt to state this principle directly?
For a player that wishes to fictionally position their full engagement, the Blood Mist justifies lack of adventurer knowledge regarding locations and other details of the fictional culture. In effect, to use a buzzword, this kind of device mitigates metagaming through setting design choices. There is precedent for using similar strategies to kick off campaigns, such as adventurers in Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) beginning as barbarians fresh off the boat. Any establishment of setting truth independent of a particular play group (canonical “lore”) comes into tension with the no homework principle, because player-accessible lore affords extradiegetic learning (homework!), allowing players to discover the setting outside of play at the table.
Homework is engagement with a campaign outside of social play. Character builds, character optimization, and studying lore are all examples of player homework. Homework means that players can hone their effectiveness, what OSR jargon calls, somewhat contentiously, player skill (see Matt Finch’s primer), by dedicating effort on their own, apart from a gaming group. For clarity, I phrase the principle imperatively, but as with most aspects of gaming (and life), there is a continuum. One could see choosing a class in OD&D as homework too, but this would miss the broader point. The more a game or campaign affords or rewards player homework, the less engagement with the game will exist in play at the table, the social interaction between players.
(This is part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)
Along with beliefs about particular games, I also asked respondents about their attitudes toward several game elements and common approaches to rules. I chose things for rating that I thought might have a strong positive or negative association with OSR, such as random encounters (positive), 3d6 in order for stats (positive), and balanced encounters (negative). Some of these things are central enough that people use them to inspire the names of blogs. For example: save.vs.totalpartykill.ca, tenfootpole.org, and Ten Foot Polemic. Middenmurk writes: 3d6-in-order transports you into an entirely different world. Every single one of these attitudes differs significantly between self-declared OSR participants and self-declared OSR non-participants.
The predicted differences by group were more than a scale point for half of the items: 3d6 in order for stats (b = 1.48, 95% CI [1.29, 1.67]), Save or die (b = 1.31, 95% CI [1.11, 1.50]), Race as class (b = 1.26), Random encounters (b = 1.09, 95% CI [.95, 1.23]), Level drain (b = 1.03, 95% CI [.83, 1.22]), and Balanced encounters (b = -1.28, 95% CI [-1.45, -1.11]). In plain English, for example, this means that people who think of themselves as OSR participants on average Somewhat like3d6 in order for stats, while non-participants are on the dislike side of Neutral. The average attitude across all attitude objects was higher for self-declared OSR participants than for self-declared OSR non-participants, but this is unsurprising given that I chose more attitude objects relevant to my associations with OSR play. I am unsure how to make sense of the result that OSR participants like Ascending AC more than non-participants. Maybe the non-participants have negative attitudes toward anything associated with Dungeons & Dragons of any stripe. I am open to alternative explanations though.
Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), everyone, even OSR non-participants, seemed to be positive about Random encounters and Reaction rolls, which are mechanisms that weave juxtaposed outcomes into surprising sequence of fictional game events. This leads me to believe that positive attitude toward play designed to produce emergent (as opposed to planned) narrative is a broadly shared preference. It seems that Railroading, Alignment languages, and Dice fudging are universally disliked, with Railroading being solidly in full Dislike territory across all responses. Perhaps the title I gave to the second figure is an overstatement, as slightly on the Like side of Neutral for Balanced encounters is hardly a ringing endorsement, but relatively speaking self-declared OSR non-participants like Balanced encounters a whole lot more than self-declared participants.
I included one quirky item which I thought might represent a form of early D&D orthodoxy: attitude toward Alignment languages. The general reaction I have seen to the idea of alignment languages is either confusion or bemused contempt, with the occasional attempt to use the idea as a prompt for some creative (but almost always ironically satirical) world building. I rarely (perhaps never) have seen alignment languages actually come up in play any time recently. I am sure there are exceptions, but the point is that it seemed like a good candidate for looking at the attitude respondents might have toward something cumbersome but authentically Gygaxian. However, even self-declared OSR participants on average dislike Alignment languages. I interpret this reported attitude as some evidence that Gygaxian fundamentalism, or the regard for something solely based on the fact that Gygax did it, is less central to the meaning of OSR than many other elements in the constellation of meaning making up OSR. Similarly, while respondents generally agreed that AD&D was OSR (and to a greater degree among self-declared OSR participants: MOSR = 5.85, Mnon-OSR = 5.08), AD&D was rated less OSR than the games closer to Basic D&D in the set of games I presented.
Based on these comparisons, it is clear that a set of distinct attitudinal preferences toward game elements at least distinguishes OSR participants from non-participants, and perhaps underlies the division. However, the attitudes differ in ways that are somewhat counter-stereotypical. It seems that few respondents like the idea of experiencing a planned narrative, contrary to some assumptions I have seen in OSR circles, and old rules pedigree (or that related concept, nostalgia) is insufficient alone to generate positive regard among OSR participants, contrary to assertions I have seen outside OSR circles.
(This is part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)
Beliefs about the nature of OSR, according to previous exploration of the 2018 OSR survey responses, seem to cohere around three broad themes or aspects: OSR as rules tradition, OSR as commerce, and OSR as social scene. Of the three aspects, respondents overall agreed most strongly that OSR is a rules tradition. There was greater ambivalence around the other two aspects, with commerce rating lowest on average. This naturally leads to the question of what kinds of rules and which games seem most OSR. In this post, I will discuss which games survey respondents believed were most (and least) OSR.
According to respondents, the most OSR games, out of the games I asked about, are Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and B/X D&D, all scoring above 6 (Agree) on average, across all participants, with LL narrowly taking the top slot. The least OSR games are Fate, Pathfinder, and Vampire: The Masquerade, all scoring below 2 (Disagree) on average, across all participants. I think this set entails reasonable coverage, though there are a few unfortunate omissions in retrospect, such as the lack of OSRIC. Respondents seemed neutral about whether the classic non-D&D games counted as OSR, with Classic Traveller, Runequest, and Call of Cthulhu all hovering around the scale midpoint. I was moderately surprised to see how D&D 5E rated (less OSR than Dungeon World!), given the high regard many people in my circles seem to have for this edition. This is speculation, but I suppose this means that the dominant associations respondents have with D&D 5E remain mainstream trends such as adventure paths, character builds, and tactical set-piece combats. The games respondents rated as least OSR seem to have associations with narrative focus (Apocalypse World, Vampire, Fate) and D&D 3E (Pathfinder).
Near the end of the survey, I asked respondents which games they were currently playing. Respondents could select all that applied from the following list: B/X D&D, D&D 5E, Pathfinder, Home-brew (OSR), Home-brew (other), Vampire, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Other PbtA game, Other World of Darkness game, Labyrinth Lord, B/X Essentials, AD&D (1E), GURPS, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Fate, and Savage Worlds. Combining these reports of play behavior with the aggregate OSR ratings of games described above allowed me to compute an OSR play behavior score for each respondent. More on this in a future post.
On average, respondents reported currently playing 3.26 different games (SD = 2.51). 34 respondents (1.86% of N = 1828) reported playing more than 10 different games currently, including one respondent that checked all 18 game options, which seems implausible, but I am going to chalk that up to careless responding/measurement error and expect sample size to wash out that messiness. Without those 34, the average number of different games played drops to 3.08 games (SD = 2.16), but I keep them for all following results, as I predetermined all exclusion criteria.
Unfortunately, the survey lacked an option to indicate playing DCC, which I suspect would have a substantial number of current players. That was an oversight on my part. I did include an open ended item for other games played, and 142 respondents indicated playing DCC there. Additionally, the two World of Darkness related items were Vampire (or other WoD) and Other World of Darkness game, which overlap. (Clearly I should have proofread this set of options more carefully.) The headline results here are the popularity of D&D 5E (which indicates the power of the market leader) and the popularity of games genealogically related to B/X D&D. In fact, in terms of the games people are actually playing, based on these results one could view OSR as a vehicle for propagating the B/X vision of D&D.
For those unaware, the B/X D&D rules tradition started with the Moldvay Basic rules (covering character levels 1 through 3) and the Cook/Marsh Expert rules (covering character levels 4-14). It continued with the Mentzer-initiated BECMI line (covering character levels 1-36 and collected in the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia), which TSR supported in parallel with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line. The B/X line lineage is notable for simple rules and treating character class as a more general abstraction, rather than something closer to profession. For example, “elf” is a class in B/X. Arguably, the modern “playbook” trend derives from the B/X notion of class.
As always, let me know in the comments if anything is unclear, if you have any questions, or if you have any suggestions.
Like many, I make resolutions for the New Year. Unlike many, I avoid resolutions that entail deprivation or significant self-regulation. Instead, I choose some enjoyable activity that I want to be a greater part of my life. Previous resolutions include trying a new cocktail every week, making omelettes on weekends, and working toward a handstand walk (link is the original inspiration; I am still working on this myself). I look for an activity with relatively low bar to entry that I can pursue as a habit, where it is easy to mark progress by doing rather than by level of performance1. I required a resolution with modest level of time commitment due to a number of professional irons in the fire, so for 2018, this past year, I decided to read 52 short stories, on average one per week.
While short stories often lack the ambition and potential of longer fiction, I personally find the form aesthetically superior due to the necessity of tighter constructions and the limited scope for setup and digression. The short story respects the reader’s time rather than simply being a diversion, or, even worse, stringing a reader along extensively while ultimately failing to deliver.
I had an informal bias toward reading hard copies, partly because I have accumulated a number of short story collections. One of my materialist indulgences is the well-bound physical book, and for me reading a nice book facilitates attention and lends a ritualistic aspect to the activity. For fiction in general, my taste leans toward the fantastic and supernatural, as you can probably tell from the list of authors. A few of the 52 were rereads (several of the Leiber stories and Call of Cthulhu), but most were new to me. Ghost stories are heavily represented for whatever reason.
I let the authors themselves define what counts as short, based on the presentation of the story; length ranged from a handful of pages to several hundred pages. Stephen King’s The Mist, which was the longest, could easily have been published as a short novel.
As a further experiment, just after finishing each story I rated my satisfaction with the story, from 1 to 5, where the numbers have the following meanings:
5 Memorable, would surely read again
4 Enjoyable, something made it stand out
3 Decent, but one reading is probably enough
2 Not a total loss, but missing something or caused annoyance somehow
1 Probably would have been better off doing something else
From Green Magic by Jack Vance
Take no strong judgments of quality, originality, or influence from these idiosyncratic ratings. Looking back, there were a few surprises. The few Robert Aickman stories I read fared poorly, despite being one of my favorite short story writers, and Hodgson, whose House on the Borderland might be in my top 10 written works of prose fiction period, also fell short. On the upside, I think every single story I read by Le Guin was a 5. I knew I liked her work before, but that still seems notable. I think my standard for enjoyable stories in the adventure fantasy mode is lower than for, say, ghost stories, where my standard is relatively high.
If I had to pick a single work to spotlight positively, it might be Blackwood’s The Willows. Though Delany’s Nevèrÿon stories ended up mostly 4s, they are remarkable, being, if I had to oversimplify, something like Conan by way of Foucault, flawed only by occasional awkward didacticism. It seems fashionable to hate on Stephen King for his popularity, productivity, and tendency to retell The Lord of the Flies, but when he is good he is on fire2. The Mist is one of my favorite stories in the cosmic horror tradition, up there with Lovecraft’s best.
Here are the stories I read, sorted descending by rating. (Order within rating means nothing; consider, for example, Dragonfly and Number Fourteen, both 5s, to be rated equivalently.)
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (rating 5)
The Mist by Stephen King (rating 5)
Bones of the Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
Darkrose and Diamond by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
The Circle Curse by Fritz Leiber (rating 5)
On the High Marsh by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
Number Fourteen by Sarban (rating 5)
The Finder by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
Dragonfly by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
Green Magic by Jack Vance (rating 5)
Celephaïs by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany (rating 5)
The Tale of Small Sarg by Samuel R. Delany (rating 5)
The Border Line by D. H. Lawrence (rating 5)
The Door to Saturn by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti (rating 4)
Death Nymph by Arthur J. Burks (rating 4)
Odour of Chrysanthemums by D. H. Lawrence (rating 4)
Claws From the Night by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
A Tropical Horror by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
Jewels in the Forest by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
The Kith of the Elf-Folk by Lord Dunsany (rating 4)
Capra by Sarban (rating 4)
The Sunken City by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
Ringstones by Sarban (rating 4)
A Rendezvous in Averoigne by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen (rating 4)
The Miracle Workers by Jack Vance (rating 4)
The Tale of Gorgik by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
The Tale of Old Venn by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
The Seven Black Priests by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
The Tale of Potters and Dragons by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
Hand in Glove by Robert Aickman (rating 3)
The Goddess of Death by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
The Red World of Polaris by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
The Rocking Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence (rating 3)
The Haunted Pampero by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen (rating 3)
The Dust by Brian Evenson (rating 3)
The Mitr by Jack Vance (rating 3)
The Men Return by Jack Vance (rating 3)
Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany (rating 3)
Out of the Storm by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
The Rose Garden by M. R. James (rating 2)
No Time is Passing by Robert Aickman (rating 2)
Conversations in a Dead Language by Thomas Ligotti (rating 2)
Helping the Fairies by Lord Dunsany (rating 2)
For 2019, I have decided to play more video games, though I am unsure yet about the details.
…men of power do not swear, it is not safe… —Le Guin, The Bones of the Earth
1. There is some relation here to Carol Dweck’s idea of learning goals and performance goals. See: Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(1), 5-12. ↩
2. For novels, especially check out The Eyes of the Dragon and The Gunslinger, though I would say avoid all the other Dark Tower books with great prejudice. ↩