Category Archives: Speculations

Varieties of Roleplaying Experience

Reenactment: Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011)

Roleplaying, taken descriptively, is a means, which can be applied to a wide variety of ends. Before proceeding to expand on this claim directly, consider the following analogy with another activity, in the physical domain, that is also a means: running. Apologies in advance for the exceedingly literal discussion that follows, but it will be useful later. First, descriptively: running is locomotion which includes an “aerial” phase during which all feet are above the ground. The activity is recognizable on a treadmill, in a forest or alley fleeing a predator, on an athletic track, in the context of a competition, alone or in a group, on a sidewalk toward a bus leaving soon, in quadrupeds, and so forth. Learning how to run well in one context likely translates to others, though perhaps incompletely. Varieties of running exist, such as sprinting and endurance running, which activate different biological energy recruitment and waste management systems (aerobic and anaerobic respiration, for example). Running well can include both comparative performance, such as speed or duration, but also technique, judged on aesthetic other grounds.

Descriptively, roleplaying is taking on the role of a fictional character, either through direct narrative acting—speaking “as if” the player was the character or pantomiming, perhaps incompletely, physical actions that a character performs. Or, with reduced immersion, through explanatory puppeteering—my character opens the door, my character reacts with surprise. The activity can be recognizable in a military war game exercise, a mock trial, the behavior of a digital game avatar, acting in a play, as an exploratory or practice exercise during a therapy session, and, of course, playing a tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D. Similarly to running, roleplaying well can include both performance, such as inflicting damage, recovering treasure, or solving puzzles, but also technique, judged on aesthetic grounds—coolness, sincere and expressive performance—or in the quality of tales recounted after the game between human players.

Reenactment: Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

I suspect this is so far noncontroversial, but consider the different kinds of satisfaction that people can experience by means of the same activity applied to different ends. For example, compare a 20 minute sprint that raises the heart rate to a specific point and proceeds at a given pace, in one case pulled by a bus schedule and in another case pushed by a pursuing mugger. The physical description of the activity in terms of vital readouts, shorn of context, might be identical. The difference, then, comes from, at least: contextual constraints, situational expectation, and personal goals. Another: running across a room to meet a loved one returning from a long trip compared to running across a room to catch a teetering vase.

Now consider a roleplaying example where the agreed end would be to play through the events of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps with minor variations, but hitting all the major movements of the story. Especially within the OSR (or what have you) tradition, this may seem unsatisfying, perhaps barely even roleplaying, due to the highly constrained, almost entirely predetermined, set of narrative outcomes. Yet, the activity is still descriptively roleplaying, obviously so, despite the lack of playing to find out what happens. Considering the prospect of playing such a game incites little enthusiasm from me, but if I take a step back I can see how someone might experience satisfaction through reenacting The Lord of the Rings by means of a tabletop roleplaying game framework.

Reenactment: Kurosawa’s MacbethThrone of Blood (1957)

The term “reenacting” is perhaps a clue; why might someone take pleasure in putting on a production of Hamlet? Wages are one reason, but other motivations also likely exist. One might object that reenacting The Lord of the Rings might be roleplaying but that doing so lacks some sense of game since failing is by hypothesis difficult or impossible. It is easy to modify the case to handle this objection by, perhaps, awarding points for remembering textual details, persistence attainments for reaching milestones, creative reinterpretations, or clarity of self-expression through the constrained vehicle of Tolkien’s plot (notably distinct from Tolkien’s literary accomplishment). Is Super Mario Brothers any less of a game because all players must proceed through the stages following broadly the same sequence?

Could reenacting Rise of the Runelords, or Gygax’s G-D-Q modules, provide a similar form of satisfaction? Would introducing the possibility of character death and replacement substantially vary the experience, or would it remain reenactment even if particular details of how the players proceed from episode to episode varied? I pose these questions less to express my personal interest in playing or running such a game and more as a thought experiment to understand unknown pleasures. Many players seem self-evidently to enjoy compartmentalizing the game elements of roleplaying games in different parts of the activity, whether in the deck-building subgame of character build optimization, the tactical chess of 4E grid combat, the accumulation of loot, the collection of relationships with non-player characters, the exploration of bonds with other player characters, the uncovering of campaign secrets, the skillful, entertaining performance of character acting, or another accomplishment of your own devising.

Answering and Asking

Cavegirl posted about the function of dice resolution and stats in a certain kind of tabletop roleplaying game. In her words: we use dice rolls and game mechanics to make a decision on the GM’s behalf when the outcome is otherwise in doubt and hard to adjudicate. I agree with the value of all the functions she lays out for using dice. However, there is another substantial use for dice in this kind of game. As resolution systems, dice provide answers, but they can also provide questions.

The principle that dice come out only or primarily when the referee is at a loss or resolution is difficult excludes or deemphasizes pursuit of oracles, when the referee or players consult dice for inspiration or to expand the set of possibilities. The invocation of fairness suggests that dice exist for determinations that might otherwise seem impartial or unfair.

Framing the process as adjudication imposes or implies a set of juridical assumptions. Jurisprudence relies heavily on the idea of precedent and extrapolating future outcomes from past examples. In the context of roleplaying games, the precedent or fact of the matter is the campaign setting, the scenario, the dungeon map, relationship matrices, the personality of non-player characters, and so forth. Following the above principle, the dice come out in the moment of play when the interaction of those elements with player characters is unclear or fraught with potentially deleterious consequences.

Many of the ways in which I find that dice contribute most to the richness of play fit uncomfortably within the adjudication frame. For example, the random encounter check seems more about varying the pattern of experience than about resolving any particularly difficult determination, even though it does represent an immediate moment in the game world. Similarly, stocking the dungeon functions to help a referee create unstable equilibria rather than resolving an outcome. Other examples include many multi-table generators, in the mode of Appendix D: Random Generation of Creatures from the Lower Planes from the original Dungeon Masters Guide, or the procedures in Gardens of Ynn (automated version), or my apocalypse generator. Telecanter’s “Generating” blog tag provides many more examples.

Randomness in the generation of player characters can also be about providing inspiration. There may be an aspect of impartiality to rolling for, say, ability scores, where there is at least a superficial sense that players may want one outcome more than another (though to be honest, having good or bad ability scores makes little difference in the kind of games I like to run). However, determining other parts of characters randomly—such as class or appearance—is less understandable as maintaining a fair playing field and seems more about facilitating creativity by expanding potentiality that might remain otherwise unexplored by players. While less common, I have also observed non-referee players turning to the dice as oracles occasionally at the moment of decision during play, such as rolling to determine a character’s motivation rather than deciding based on character personality as established or situational imperatives.

In terms of dramatic structure, dice can contribute to exposition and rising action, as well as falling action and denouement.

In terms of complexity, dice can expand the set of possible situations as well as contracting a set of possible outcomes into a consensually established single fictional outcome.

Breathing in, breathing out.

Adventurers are the Measure

φησὶ γάρ που ‘πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ ἄνθρωπον εἶναι, ‘τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστι, τῶν δὲ μὴ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.’ —Plato, Theaetetus

When designing a scenario or adventure, writers and referees often create allies and antagonists, by which I mean entities that the designer intends to have some degree of predetermined disposition toward player characters.

When I created my initial materials for Vaults of Pahvelorn, I explicitly attempted to avoid this tendency. I tried to create factions, monsters, and personages with particular motivations, rather than antagonists, and let players decide which would became enemies during play.

This was a game of D&D, so I was expecting adventurers to engage in conflict with at least some of these imagined creatures, but I wanted to avoid predetermining sympathies. Superficially, this may seem like some form of moral relativism. However, I also tried to retain my judgment of particular motivations. Some groups of non-player characters were wicked, or greedy, or ruthless, or principled.

I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?

I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.

This approach led to, from my perspective, particularly engaging play outcomes. Due to a potential flood of undead released from the module Deathfrost Doom, one of several modules I inserted into Pahvelorn’s wilderness, a tyrannical, inscrutable necromancer king became a particularly valuable ally, and also key for the strategy players chose to thwart an invasion of borg-like demons. Earlier in the campaign, players ended up taking the side of a resurgent snake cult operating clandestinely beneath the scenes of the starting town against a number of hermit magicians engaged in variously curious and unwholesome activities.

In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.

Σωκράτης: οὐκοῦν οὕτω πως λέγει, ὡς οἷα μὲν ἕκαστα ἐμοὶ φαίνεται τοιαῦτα μὲν ἔστιν ἐμοί, οἷα δὲ σοί, τοιαῦτα δὲ αὖ σοί: ἄνθρωπος δὲ σύ τε κἀγώ

More generally, I think this stance toward refereeing exposes a general affordance of roleplaying games which can be easy to overlook: Any potent inimical force can become a tool. It is this realization which makes balancing scenario threats limiting; balancing threats deprives players of potentially the most potent implements. Adventurers can lure enemies into a devious trap as well as falling into the trap themselves.

Theater of Shared Working Memory

Figure from Baars & Franklin (2003): How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends in Cognitive Science.

Players in a tabletop roleplaying game themselves constitute some of the hardware that makes up the game. This is a substantial part of what distinguishes tabletop roleplaying from other mediums and activities. It seems to me that designers and players too rarely consider directly the constraints or affordances of these human details, despite the centrality of human capabilities to the activity. Consider theater of the mind, where players collectively maintain the details of an immediate fictional situation through conversation. Collectively maintaining a dynamic situation is complex. People have limited thinking powers, so theater of the mind constrains the complexity of potential fictional situations. In terms of benefits, conversationally maintaining a collectively shared fictional reality allows imaginative flexibility, compared to more concrete tactical representations, so theater of the mind affords continuous creative reinterpretation.

The entire theater of the mind needs to fit in the working memories of current players. This is a small workspace. Experimentally, just rehearsing a phone number can effectively induce cognitive load. Even assuming some division of labor between players, such as player one tracking lava locations and player two tracking the anger expressed by goblins, the amount of information available is highly constrained. Further, in practice, such division of labor is mostly impractical, due to the nature of the task, which is to collectively keep as much detail alive continually for as many players as possible. This task is orders of magnitude more complex than, say, watching a Peter Jackson action scene—and there is a lot of chaos in a Peter Jackson action scene.

Unlike competitive games that involve shared imagination, such as chess, the success of the endeavor is collective. One player, or a subset of players, can take on more responsibility for coordinating communication and resolving ambiguity. Traditionally, this will be the referee/dungeon master. However, the activity itself, the actual unfolding of play, lives or dies only as it persists richly in the experience of all participating players. In this respect, roleplaying ability involves facilitating collective shared experience—this goes for players just as much as referees—rather than procedural knowledge extracted from rulebooks. Success remains collective at the level of maintaining shared fictional understanding even if the game has competitive elements, such as constructing the most effective character build or keeping your character alive the longest. Unlike games of physical sport that similarly rely on shared abilities to successfully realize the performed activity, most roleplaying game designers and players seem unaware of how their own abilities and limitations shape and constrain the experienced game.

Due to these constraints and affordances, hybrid practices partway between the extremes of purely conversational theater of the mind and highly structured battle grid seem to offer the greatest potential. Building too much structure out explicitly risks constraining imagination. However, expecting everyone to be able to track everything in their head is unrealistic, and is probably part of the reason why play sometimes devolves into sequences of rule following activity with low player involvement and minimal imaginative texture. Anyone with a modicum of roleplaying experience can probably recall examples of play degrading in this way. Rather than thinking about rules and techniques as methods to attain a desired distribution of outcomes—for example, the dungeon turn in B/X D&D or the 2d6 +stat roll in Apocalypse engine games—or ways to ensure particular kinds of mechanical progressions—such as XP incentive systems in D&D of any edition or baking genre into procedures for narrative games—perhaps it is worth thinking about the purpose of systems or techniques as keeping the game alive in the minds of players, where it actually exists.

This post has been brought to you by pages 10 and 11 of Silent Titans—which has useful thoughts about evoking memorable environments and situations from the perspective of the referee—and Scrap’s post about moving beyond fictional positioning as an abstract ideal.

Signposts and x-cards

Signpost: “Prepare To Die” (source)

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.)

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.

Fictional epistemology

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

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

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

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

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


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

Read a sitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Apocalypse World 2E, p. 144)

Apocalypse World agendas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel from Berserk chapter 93

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

Reading Apocalypse World

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

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

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

Note on editions

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

Additional resources

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

Good reviews

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

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

Constructiveness

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

Thesis

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

Focus on value

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

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

Absent conflict of interest

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

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

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

Absent numerical ratings

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

Absent snark

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

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

Basis: play versus perusal

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

Consideration of format

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


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

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

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