Category Archives: Speculations

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.

Streaming matters for trad play

Midcentury, many educated people thought that hanzi, Chinese writing, was an albatross holding back Chinese modernization and economic development. This included many Chinese, in official capacities. Imagine, prior to modern computer character set support and fonts, how difficult it must have been to transmit documents written in Chinese efficiently. Mao himself, in the early fifties, directed that the government should begin a process to transition written Chinese into some sort of phonetic system 1. This attempt was unsuccessful for a number of reasons, but some historians have argued that it was actually the fax machine, with its easy transmission of complex visual printed material, that helped preserve written Chinese as a practical, everyday means of communication in the modern world. (More citations to be added the next time I am near the relevant books, if I remember.)

What does this have to do with tabletop gaming and streaming? I have previously written that games can be transmitted through both culture and text. Earlier, Jeff Rients made a related point, focusing on personal creativity rather than cultural transmission:

My advice to anyone currently fretting over which edition or retro-clone or whatever they should use is to just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one. No matter which one you pick D&D isn’t there. It’s your job to take that text and turn it into D&D.

As it would be unreasonable to expect new players to turn such a text into D&D completely unassisted, where did they look? Older game texts are weak when it comes to explanation of what people actually do when playing a roleplaying game, especially when gameplay has many emergent properties, so in practice new players have historically learned from experienced players. That is, they tap into broader cultures of play.

Once people started to talk extensively about games online, this provided a vector for communicating methods of play. Easy sharing of recorded videos and streaming provided another, even broader vector of transmission. Literally: broad-casting. Whether or not you in particular enjoy getting information from YouTube, Twitch, and similar platforms, or think that watching people play D&D marks the decline of civilization, it should be clear that the medium has enormous cultural penetration and influence, especially when it comes to learning how to do something. If you are as yet unconvinced, just look at esports and video game streaming: League of Legends (check out those sportscaster voices!), PewDiePie (who reportedly earns more than $10 million per year from entertaining people by streaming video games), and so forth.

I am uncertain how causal the fax machine was in helping preserve traditional Chinese writing, but the principle of technology facilitating the transmission of complex cultural practice should be clear. Streaming affords a unique opportunity to broadcast cultures of play. Such transmission should be, based on historical experience, especially valuable for games that live more in cultures than in texts, such as OSR games (or whatever your preferred term is).

Online traditional roleplaying culture has unlocked the unboxing/reviewing and opinionating video achievements. Those are useful. There are even some recorded play sessions with nontrivial production values, such as I Hit It With My Axe.  But they lack, at least so far, the communities of enthusiasm that surround successful streamers. Where are the MissCliks, Critical Role, and Adam Koebel of the OSR? Where are the trad entertainer-educators?


1. Mills, H. (1956). Language Reform in China: Some Recent Developments. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 15(4), 517-540.

Mechanical audience

The audience determines how your work is received and evaluated. Similar to perspective in photography, it is impossible to be neutral in this regard. You must decide the audience you wish to address to have any idea what successful communication would look like. This is true because the knowledge an audience already possesses will constrain how you can communicate and shape how they will interpret your work. Some obvious examples include jargon (hit points, tactical infinity, carousing), cultural landmarks (orc, cosmic alignment, tiefling), intended use (self-contained game versus supplement), and received wisdom (XP for GP incentivizes creativity, XP for GP is unrealistic, extensive prep leads to deep fictional worlds, extensive prep is the sign of a wannabe novelist). Jargon can be redefined, new landmarks introduced, and received wisdom challenged, but only if you have some idea of your starting line.

I want to highlight one particular dimension of audience knowledge that seems to often be invisible to both creator and audience. This dimension is whether the audience is expecting a procedure that will yield content or expecting fully instantiated content. That is, does your audience expect a monster generator or a monster manual? Reusable tool or catalog of content ready to use? This also corresponds to the parable of teaching a person how to fish or giving a person a fish. More generally, the tension here is between flexibility at the cost of incompleteness and completeness at the cost of builtin assumptions. A tool without a catalog may seem unfinished while a catalog without a tool may seem inflexible or imposing unwanted world-building. An audience will often evaluate your work based only on the dimension they care about.

This may seem straightforward at some level but can manifest in subtle ways. For example, what determines whether an audience responds favorably to a freeform magic system? Such a system is generally a set of rules or constraints which players must use to create spell effects during play; this places players of magic-using characters into the role of spell authors. However, many players may just want some spells and would rather avoid being put into the role of spell author, at least for that kind of content in that context.

One practical takeaway from this principle is simple. To broaden the utility of a game product, make sure that it is useful for players that want a cooked fish dinner and for players that want manuals for how to go fishing. That is, if your product is a generator, such as a method for creating monsters, take that generator and flesh out a catalog of content. Do some heavy lifting for those that want something off the rack. This will have the side benefit of testing your procedure more than I suspect many tools, at least in DIY land, are actually tested. And, if your product is a catalog—bestiary, spell list, populated dungeon with backstory—think about the principles or sources of inspiration that you used to craft that catalog and create a procedure that can help others create similar content.

As a concrete example, my own book, Wonder & Wickedness, is primarily a catalog—spells, sorcerous catastrophes, and enchanted items. Though I do discuss principles briefly, I could probably improve the book by adding more explicit procedures for building spells and so forth.

Deadlift playtesting

The DIY D&D scene has many strengths, but there is notably little discussion about playtesting. This is particularly surprising when viewed abstractly, as people pay a great deal of attention to usability concerns such as layout, stat block efficiency, and creating procedures that, in isolation, are easy to use. The one page dungeon contest exemplifies this concern. When I write about playtesting here though, I mean testing the effectiveness of a more extensive product, such as a larger module or ruleset, rather than an isolated mechanic, procedure, or bit of content such as a player character class. In particular, I am most interested in intermediate level products, such as adventure modules or significant subsystems, rather than rulesets or retro clones, which in the context of the community most players are already relatively familiar with. The definition of adventure module should be relatively obvious, but for significant subsystems consider the supporting rules in Veins of the Earth or Cecil H’s Cold Winter.

This came home to me again somewhat recently when I decided to run a large module by an experienced traditional D&D adventure writer that had been written within the last few years. The identity of the module is unimportant here; the main point is that it was written with access to recent collective community knowledge. I like the content of the module, which while somewhat vanilla is creative enough to be inspirational for me, and the game itself went well, but throughout I felt like I was fighting the product, often unsure where to find the info that I wanted. This was despite being a reasonably experienced referee and spending a couple hours beforehand skimming the module and making some notes for myself.

A while back, I noticed that Vincent Baker’s Seclusium claimed that the product could, with 30 minutes of use, produce a wizard’s tower significant enough to do honor to Vance as inspiration.

I actually like Seclusium quite a bit as inspiration, and want to avoid making this about criticism of that particular product, but I think that the best products should aspire to that level of usability, assuming a reasonably competent operator.

These two experiences together suggest to me a kind of instrumental playtesting that I think may be particularly effective in improving the usability of game products for gaming, which is timed prep starting with minimal specific product knowledge but assuming general familiarity with the base game or style of game. This is in contrast to what seems to me as the ideal of the indie scene, which often focuses on beginners and whether a game can stand alone from roleplaying culture in general, explaining itself to a completely naive reader; hence, the ubiquity of sections on defining a roleplaying game. While that general pedagogical focus has a place, it does not solve a problem that I have, and further I think there is a good case to be made that the larger, more mainstream games introduce the basic idea of imagination-driven fantasy gaming reasonably well and are also more likely to be a new player’s entry point. Instead, what is more relevant to me, and I suspect others consuming such intermediate-level content, is whether this particular dungeon (or whatever) will be easy for me use use as a busy person with a pretty good handle on B/X D&D (substitute your favorite flavor).

More concretely, I suggest that to playtest a product, find someone willing to run it from a dead start, strictly limiting prep time to one of 30 minutes, 1 hour, or 2 hours. Then, get a list of the questions the playtester had of the product that went unanswered. This kind of info is mostly separate from issues of creativity, inspiration, or aesthetics, which the community is already effective at criticizing and fostering (see 10 foot pole reviews, etc). For easy shorthand, call this the deadlift approach to playtesting: start from the ground, do the thing without the blue sky assumption of perfect conditions, evaluate the outcome, and report back.

Text versus culture

I contend that one of the major causes of misunderstanding in discussions of tabletop roleplaying games is differential prioritization of where rules should live. At base, games are bundles of practices that can be stored and communicated in various ways. For example, baseball in the United States started as a game played by amateurs using informal rules that lacked textual basis. A social club wrote the first baseball text in 1845: the Knickerbocker Rules. Tabletop roleplaying game rules can also reside ultimately in culture or in texts.

The community that developed around the Forge in the early 2000s is one influential example of prioritizing texts. The games developed by designers from the Forge and the subsequent Story Games forum tend to have clear, explicit procedures and written creative agendas. Critique often focused on potential disconnect between what a game text promises, either explicitly or implicitly, and what the game delivers. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade promised “struggle for humanity” but “always ended up as emo superheroes” (ref). This disconnect tends to be framed as a flaw or a sign of broken rules. In this tradition, to understand games one returns to the original text, tries to follow the procedures carefully, and then evaluates the outcome. For example, here is Luke Crane on Moldvay D&D and Ron Edwards, quite recently, on 4E D&D. A different community that exhibits strong textual fundamentalism in a different way is the portion of Pathfinder players concerned heavily with tactical game balance and character build optimization.

In contrast, some tabletop roleplaying game traditions deemphasize singular texts and are more likely to prioritize norms and expectations communicated informally. The community that developed around the old school renaissance seems closer to this approach on balance. People seem perfectly comfortable with a more distributed storage of practices, drawing from resources such as the old school primer, assorted blog posts, and recalled experiences. In this approach, no single text contains the full game and various aspects may lack textual basis completely. This is not just house rules, where players modify a canonical text to suit local group preferences, though house ruling is a part of how rules evolve culturally. Instead, the full game is more like a cultural tradition rather than a solid, defined, bounded artifact.

In terms of game design, both approaches have pros and cons. A strong textual basis serves as a shared landmark. People or groups that differ in expectations but share a specific, relatively explicit text, such as Apocalypse World, Pathfinder, or 5E D&D, might be able to communicate more effectively compared to people that lack such shared singular text, all else equal. Culture, however, is extraordinarily effective in social coordination, requiring little explicit deliberation to function. For example, norms are more influential in directly coordinating social behavior than laws, and when laws do come into play, few people other than judges and lawyers are familiar with legal details.

The major misunderstanding, as far as I can tell, is the idea that the choice is between system and individuals making things up rather than between prioritizing text and prioritizing culture. For example, in a classic Forge document, Ron Edwards writes, to characterize an objection to the importance of well-designed systems: “It doesn’t really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players.” And, from a DIY D&D perspective: “sometimes people just suck and redesigning the game won’t fix that” and “Reading the book is not and never should be essential.” Now, of course there is also an effect both of well-crafted procedure in text and individual creativity, but players (and cultures of players in aggregate) can differ on preference for textual versus cultural embodiment of rules.

Personally, I see the benefit of both approaches. I spend a lot of effort trying to effectively proceduralize rules that I develop, particularly for many of the less fluent aspects of traditional fantasy games, such as encumbrance, resource management, and bookkeeping, with the Hazard System being a more involved application of this kind of thinking. However, insisting that individual texts be highly pedagogical and entirely self-contained both creates strangely unmoored documents, seemingly unaware of their likely audience, and ignores the massive, brilliant social fabric to which we all belong.

That said, this post is more about facilitating communication than advocating for a particular approach to game design. People with a strong focused design bent might want to consider that games can be stored culturally, similarly to the way traditions develop and propagate more broadly. And, people who feel like they already know how to play and just want the text to get out of their way may find that trying to play some innovative or experimental games may suggest new techniques or even be enjoyable as completely self-contained games. At the very least, recognizing that people may differ on this preference might help prevent misunderstanding.

Credit to a post by Dan M. that helped me crystalize this idea and provided some useful language.

See also: game design as common law, though that post concerns a method to craft rules in the context of a particular group, rather than broader cultures of gaming.

Considering short campaigns

Apocalypse World agendas (2nd edition, page 80)

In my experience, people tend to play tabletop roleplaying games as either one-shots or with the expectation of a perpetual, extended campaign. I have thought off and on about running games aimed explicitly at a midpoint between these extremes. The television analogue here would be the mini-series. Something like True Detective season 1 or a self-contained anime series like Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet.

The challenge would be to serve the agenda of play to find out what happens while also drawing the set of sessions to a close in a way that is satisfying. That is, how can one ensure the freedom necessary for fulfilling exploratory play while avoiding the mirror-image dangers of aimlessness and railroading?

Here is a first pass at how I might think about setting up such a mini-series game. First, determine a handful (say, three) of questions regarding the fictional situation, for which an answer (any answer) would constitute a satisfying arc outcome. Maybe one of these could explicitly be a win/lose condition, as in some tournament modules, but that seems like the easy way out. Then, lay these questions out explicitly before play so the players are in on the particular enigmas. Second, gear preparation entirely toward the details around the enigmas.

If other priorities emerge through play, or players end up more interested in other, unpredicted conflicts, that would be fine too. In my experience though, imminent uncertainty provides gravitation even without any other mechanical support, so just having a few big unanswered questions, such as the outcome of whether an invasion is averted diplomatically or by force of arms, may be sufficient. I might also consider something like building XP reward into advancing a countdown clock, but probably only after trying to run a something like this using an approach resting only on shaping player expectations.

Finally, it seems reasonable to work with the assumption that while some or most such mini-series arcs may connect to nothing else, they also may be continued in subsequent seasons if everyone is enthusiastic, allowing characters to sometimes persist. To have integrity, one would need to sometimes follow through on the promise of continuity, otherwise I suspect everyone would revert to mentality more characteristic of one-shots, which would not quite reach the potential I see for this kind of play. Depending on the particular rules, Flailsnails would be another reasonable approach, but that only works for some types of games.

Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

Narrative control is the degree to which fictional authority is shared between referee and non-referee players in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is one of many properties useful for categorizing and understanding games. Traditionally, narrative control is centralized in the person of the referee but can also be shared either informally based on social norms or formally using game systems. For example, in the Fate engine players can spend fate points to establish facts in the fiction of the game world.

Spreading fictional authority over multiple people can lead to greater recombinant fictional potential. However, delegating authority also decreases puzzle complexity, challenge, and potential surprise (see Zak quote below for more on this dynamic). Spending a point abstractly to make a door be unlocked does not require any creativity or lateral thinking.

At one level, moving along the dimension of narrative control in game design caters to different player preferences. Some players are more interested in being challenged and solving problems while others are more interested in formally structured shared storytelling. Given a set of clear preferences, groups can tailor systems and practices. However, authority in games, just as in the broader social world, is continuously negotiated, even when formally addressed by laws or rules. That is, there are more settings or levers available for games regarding narrative control than simply picking a point on the spectrum.

Anecdotally, while I am generally more in the traditionalist camp of centralized referee narrative control, on reflection I have noticed that I often both explicitly and implicitly delegate fictional control to non-referee players. For example, see how ratlings became part of my Vaults of Pahvelorn. However, the way I find myself delegating fictional authority entails implicit veto power. Though all players, referee and otherwise, contribute to fictional game outcomes, the referee acts as steward. The responsibilities of stewardship in my games include balancing present play against future play and attending to the engagement of individual non-referee players. While this does not mean I adjust outcomes based on what I predict will give particular players more pleasure, it does control whether I linger on a particular fictional experience or work out fictional imperatives quickly.

Based on this understanding of stewardship, as referee I might ask a player what kind of farm a character grew up on or whether they might have relatives in the current town. It is not against the spirit of the game for a player to use this opportunity to gain some present problem solving advantage. However, the player has an incentive to restrain themselves. The more ambitious, far-reaching, or obviously self-interested the interpretation is, the more likely the contribution is to fall afoul of the referee’s steward responsibilities and be rejected. To clarify, this is not at all about protecting a static, perfect setting from the grubby hands of players or ensuring that a plot conforms to a desired narrative arc. Instead, the approach attempts to harness shared creativity while not sacrificing exploratory potential or challenge.

This process works like the ultimatum game in game theory. In the ultimatum game, two players divide some resources between themselves. Player A proposes how to split the resources. Player B decides whether to accept or reject the split. If B rejects the split, both get zero. Empirically, people in the player B responder role are more likely to reject inequitable splits even though such rejection entails personal monetary cost. After all, even one penny is greater than nothing. Because of this empirical fact, proposers have an incentive to not be perceived as too greedy, even though no proposal is formally defined by the rules as invalid.

Mapping this structure to gaming, non-referee players take the proposer role while referees take the responder role. Even this description oversimplifies, as in practice non-referee players may iterate proposals following referee rejection. That said, potential negotiation is limited in practice as groups will not tolerate perpetual renegotiation. Further, once new facts settle, offhand details may lead to surprising fictional consequences, potentially both advantageous and disadvantageous to player goals. This adds to the richness of the game as players incorporate the fictional logic of more inputs. Like butterfly wings shifting weather patterns.


Comment from Zak on the effect of narrative control locus on challenge:

the problem for me with a lot of player-created content ( as a GM ) is the fact that what I then give them then has less of a chance of being a surprise and less of the character of a puzzle. If what’s there has even a 25% chance of being what they decided would be there every time then that’s 25% less fear and dread and giddy anticipation.

The problem for me as a player is that I don’t get surprised, it’s less of a puzzle, it’s less challenging for me (the more info I have, the easier a challenge is), it bores me (I can create content whenever I want when I run a game, why should I do it when I’m playing?) and it robs me of the specific challenge of “If I want something to exist in the game I have to find a way to build it”.

When I’m asked “so, Zak’s PC, what’s over the ridge” my immediate response is “all the treasure int he world and the big bad’s head on a spike”–not because I don’t like making stuff up but because when playing I am conscious that I am trying to direct all my mental energy to exploiting every affordance to get specific goals done that could take years . Asking me to then turn to Author stance is just asking me to do a much easier job with much lower stakes that is consequently less fun.

(Click this link to return to pros and cons paragraph above.)

References

Forber, P., & Smead, R. (2014). The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1780), 20132439.