XP Potential as Inverse Encumbrance

Men & Magic, p. 15

Back in March, prompted by a discussion on Discord, I was perusing Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World to see if there was any discussion of rerolling HP on level up. Sadly, I was unable to locate anything about this topic, but reading several sections about XP did prompt another idea: what if the amount of XP a character could earn during an adventure excursion was inversely related to their encumbrance? That is, the less gear you carry, the more XP you can earn. There are several reasons that this might make more sense than is apparent at first glance.

The passage that prompted my line of thought follows:

The maximum encumbrance that a character can carry is 3,000 gold pieces worth—the choice of the gold piece as the base unit of weight measurement is certainly a wise one, given the expected course of gameplay. At any encumbrance above 1,500, characters must move at half their normal speed. This threshold is surprisingly easy for a Fighting-man to reach; an example in Men & Magic of a character with plate armor, a helmet, a shield, a flail, a dagger, a bow with a twenty-arrow quiver and a few miscellaneous sundries already wears 1,200 gold pieces worth of encumbrance, and thus can pick up only 300 more without incurring a penalty.

Peterson, 2012; § Endurance and Mitigation

The original game rules can be found in Men & Magic, page 15; see post image. Gold pieces are the currency of advancement if using some form of XP awarded for recovering treasure. Measuring and tracking encumbrance using such a high-resolution unit has up until now generally struck me as a particularly masochistic form of bookkeeping with few, if any, redeeming qualities. However, if encumbrance limits advancement, players can see the open “XP slots” in the unit of potential advancement. In essence, this approach puts a clear price on preparedness and, more to the point, provides an incentive for adventuring on various forms of hard mode. Conan in a loin cloth and carrying only a 50 GP-weight broadsword can earn a lot more experience than a tanked up fighter in plate dripping with armory and utility belts.

How would this work, exactly? According to Men & Magic, the maximum load at half normal movement is 3000 GP. This could be the excursion XP limit. A character who sets out with no gear could earn up to 3000 XP on the excursion while a character who sets out equipped with plate armor (weight: 750 GP) and battle-axe (weight: 100 GP) could earn up to 2150 XP (3000 – 750 – 100 = 2150). Note that throughout this post I am using the term excursion to denote adventuring time between downtime (what I call haven turns in my hazard system terminology). A single game session could involve multiple excursions (going back to town and setting out again). I can see a case for other potential limits as well, perhaps also keyed to the amount of XP required for next level. A 3000 XP per excursion limit would clearly break down at mid to high levels, so how to handle the upper range of levels requires some additional thought. Perhaps this would be a rule for “basic” level play (up to level 3 or up to level 5).

This approach could also help players pace the advance/retreat (risk/reward) cycle. One dynamic I have noticed over many years of play using treasure XP is that the ideal of matching adventurer excursion to game session (that is, ending each game session in a haven), is not realized as often as I might like. This is not the worst thing in the world, but ending in town does have some benefits. There is no need to remember exactly the circumstances of ending in the middle of action and it facilitates drop in play. The “XP potentiality” number, clearly reckoned, also would serve, I imagine, as a play goal, indicating clearly when it would make sense, at least in terms of XP reward, to retreat and bank XP.

What prevents players from loading all their gear onto retainers in town and venturing into the unknown wearing nothing but a loincloth with full XP potential, only to gear up on the road? Well, remember that retainers, though often controlled by players for practical gameplay reasons, are still NPCs at base when it comes to particularly weighty decision points, such as morale checks. Such an exploit seems like the kind of ridiculous Vancian situation that might test the loyalty of a long suffering retainer. Many other ways around the rule, such as taking gear from enemies, seems like exactly the kind of creative and varied solution that makes gameplay interesting.

My misgivings regarding heavy bookkeeping have not been completely erased, and some prosthetic or shorthand might still be required to make the above idea fluent in play, but writing down the game logic makes me think it might be worth giving a try.

The Blade Itself

I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Blade Itself, volume one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. This was my first exposure to his work. The associations I had picked up over the years was dark and gritty, so I was expecting something like Hobbesian low fantasy (Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle is @LordGrimdark, after all). It took me some time to warm up to the story. In fact, a few hours in I was on the verge of cutting my losses and moving on. It struck me as something like a fantasy version of The Sopranos, at least in style, Logen Ninefingers some discount bin Conan, Inquisitor Glokta a caricature of petty tyranny. Why should I care about these characters, this relatively generic fantasy world with its savage northmen and bestial humanoids? About 25% in, however, my reaction had shifted diametrically.

It helped that the performance (narrated by Steven Pacey) was excellent, but in any case I am glad I persisted.

In some ways, The First Law seems something like what A Song of Ice and Fire could have been had it reached its potential, in the rough subgenre of low fantasy that assumes the worst about human nature. This is probably an unfair comparison, because I did enjoy the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire, before I lost patience with the pace of releases, and I have yet to see how The First Law concludes. But I think Abercrombie has a reputation for satisfying endings (and it is already done). We will see.

Most important was the handling of the characters, both how Abercrombie gradually brings them together in the narrative, and how they begin to rise above their initial caricatures. Abercrombie seems like he actually cares about his main characters, even those that are unpleasant, and is disappointed and sympathetic (if not surprised) when they stumble and suffer, though he does have a tendency to revel ghoulishly in their flaws from time to time. I also found the story funny. One example of many: the chapter where Glokta first meets Logen and the wizard Bayaz—the juxtaposition between the seemingly basic honesty of everything Bayaz and company say with the totally reasonable but wrong distrust of the obviously intelligent, but rather repulsive, Glokta—is some solid writing. Pleasantly anticipating volume two.

Over the past few years, I have been catching up with a few of the popular genre fantasy authors that I had, for whatever reason, not gotten around to reading. Among that crew is also Brandon Sanderson, of whose work I’ve now heard the first three volumes of The Stormlight Archive and the first Mistborn book. More on that at some point in the future.

Sacrifice of the Bulls

Above the summit of Le Bonnet de l’Evêque, dentelated with scaffoldings, rose that second mountain—a mountain on a mountain—which was the Citadel La Ferrière. A lush growth of red fungi was mounting the flanks of the main tower with the terse smoothness of brocade, having already covered the foundations and buttresses, and was spreading polyp profiles over the ocher walls. That mass of fired brick, towering above the clouds in proportions whose perspective challenged visual habits, was honeycombed with tunnels, passageways, secret corridors, and chimneys all heavy with shadows. Light, as of an aquarium, a glaucous green tinted by ferns already meeting in space, tell above a vaporous mist from the high loopholes and air vents. The stairways to hell connected three main batteries with the powder magazine, the artillerymen’s chapel, the kitchens, cisterns, forges, foundry, dungeons. Every day in the middle of the parade square several bulls had their throats cut so that their blood could be added to the mortar to make the fortress impregnable. On the side facing the sea and overlooking the dizzying panorama of the Plaine, the workers were already stuccoing the rooms of the Royal Palace, the women’s quarters, the dining and billiard-rooms. To wagon axles mortised into the walls were attached the suspension bridges over which brick and stone were carried to the topmost terraces, stretching between inner and outer abysses that filled the stomachs of the builders with vertigo. … Hundreds of men worked in the bowels of that vast edifice, always under the vigilance of whip and gun, accomplishing feats previously seen only in the imagined architecture of Piranesi. Hoisted by ropes up the face of the mountain, the first cannon were arriving and being mounted on cedar gun-carriages in shadowy vaulted rooms whose loopholes overlooked all the passes and approaches of the country. There stood the Scipio, the Hannibal, the Hamilcar, satin smooth, of a bronze that was almost gold in hue, together with those that had been cast after ’89, with the still unproved motto of Liberté, Egalité. There stood a Spanish cannon whose barrel bore the melancholy inscription Fiel pero desdichado; and several of larger bore and more ornate barrel, stamped with the seal of the Sun King insolently proclaiming his Ultima Ratio Regum.

— Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of this World, pp. 66-67 in my copy

To infuse a fortification (shield, cuirass, wall, gate, citadel, or other similar fortress) with the resolve and quintessence of a beast, sacrifice the beast using a ceremony of fabrication. The sacrifice must be proportional to the scale of the fortification. Prior to the completion of the ritual, the referee will indicate whether the scale of sacrifice is insufficient, uncertain, or sufficient. If the sacrifice is insufficient, and remains unbolstered, the ceremony is unsuccessful and the shaper must save to avoid curse or haunting. If the sacrifice is uncertain, the shaper must save to determine whether the sacrifice is sufficient, thus rendering the ceremony successful.

If the ceremony is successful, the character (both strengths and weaknesses) of the beast is shared by the fortification. The fortification will not fail when facing a challenge against which the beast would be strong.

If the infused fortification is subject to a supernatural challenge, there are two options. In the first option, the spirit of the beast defends against the threat in a spectacular fashion, but then departs the mortal world, leaving the fortification bereft and mundane, but standing and solid. In the second option, save versus the threat to see whether the spirit of the beast remains. On success, the spirit defends against the threat and remains. On failure, the spirit is overwhelmed, flees, the threat is unturned, and the fortification is greatly damaged, near collapse. A save is required to avoid curse or haunting. Player chooses which option to deploy.

Saves depend upon the active underlying system chassis. Something like a save versus magic would be a reasonable default.

Citadel La Ferrière, Haiti (unsure about original photo source)

Reflection and Formation

There are many broad functions that rules can have. Here is one: representing the details of a broader fictional world. The fictional world might not work exactly like the world of day to day phenomenological experience that we inhabit and experience as the real world, but it nonetheless makes sense, loosely speaking. Sure, monsters might exist that we have never encountered and sorcerers might be able to, with long study, cast spells to open portals. But there remains the basic assumption that behind the scenes there is a living, breathing world that both shapes and constrains the shared imagination of play.

Call these reflective rules. Rules as the physics of the imagined world. That is, the rules reflect the imagined campaign. In reflective rules, the cause is (conceptually) outside the formal game elements. A rule is a good rule if it produces logical and realistic outcomes, relative to the shared understanding of the campaign setting. This is a common-sense vernacular approach, and it has had a wide currency, arguably undergirding most mainstream tabletop roleplaying games from varieties of TSR D&D to Rolemaster to D&D 5E. The assumption that rules should reflect the campaign world is something like the equivalent of Literary Realism for tabletop roleplaying games. It is the equivalent of what you get most of the time if you watch a serial drama on Neflix or pick up an airport novel.

Basic D&D (1981), p. B52

Here is another function rules can have: determining the situations and details of play. Call these formative rules. The results may or may not make sense fictionally, but they are the rules, so you execute them and then interpret the outcomes as best you can. The fireball might detonate in a square. The random encounter generates a dragon one hex outside of town, three times in a row. The rules form the situation of play. In formative rules, the cause is (conceptually) the rules themselves and interpretation happens (if at all) subsequently. When one stocks a dungeon using the B/X procedures presented on page B52, the outcome is not really intended to model any kind of naturalistic situation. It might, but the goal is not logic or naturalism. You need monsters and treasures and traps in some rough distribution for the game to work, so the rule does that. Consider traditional spell slots. Sure, there is some very loose Vancian inspiration, but really original style D&D spells need limits of some sort to support challenges. Fire and forget is a way to do that. If one adopts the approach of assuming D&D is always right, that is in the mode of formative rules.

The most effective formative rules are designed to generate the dynamics and situations necessary to a particular game. They create satisfying tension and result in outcomes where player decisions matter. They can provide oracles into the imagined world. They might facilitate complex tactical contests or generate genre-appropriate thematic outcomes. Formative rules can also provide practical support for simplifying or abstracting elements of an imagined world which might be impractical to model explicitly. Additionally, the interpretation and reconciliation required by occasionally illogical results can serve as an engine of creativity. What might explain three dragon encounters in a row, so near to civilization? However, thoughtlessly designed or applied formative rules can be a straitjacket or procrustean bed, trapping players in abstract or solipsistic formalism, rewarding optimization and homework.

Does this matter, or is it just semantics, another arbitrary taxonomy to create more specialist language? It seems to me that the potential of the form, what tabletop roleplaying can uniquely provide compared to other forms of entertainment, media, and art, involves a fusion of these two modes.

If one leans too heavily on formative rules, where players weave results into some shared narrative fabric unrelated to any ideal of living breathing world, one risks losing the richness of possibility inherent in the idea of a campaign with integrity. Pathologies of formative rules include repetitive outcomes and the peasant railgun. That idea of the campaign world as external, causal source, along with some degree of shared commonsense understanding of how things work, is what enables principled and flexible rulings at the table.

If one leans too heavily on reflective rules, where logic and verisimilitude dominate, one gets lost in minutiae unconnected to the experience of play. Pathologies of reflective rules include, in the D&D context, Shopkeepers & Spreadsheets and fixation on realistic fictional economies at a level of detail far exceeding relevance to play. The OSR etc aversion to extensive fictional histories and backstories is not just a practical norm, nor is it just a rejection of tabletop roleplaying as a thespian concern; this aversion is also a recognition that the most useful elements of setting are those that provide contact surfaces for play at the table.

Ideally, a campaign is both internally consistent and makes sense on its own terms, broadly speaking, but simultaneously provides a stage for play with all of the concerns that entails. The reflective and formative components can feed back into each other, providing mutual enrichment. Some idiosyncratic element of a campaign setting might emerge from a seemingly illogical random stocking result (formative) later interpreted and explained in the logic of the setting, informing later concrete details and rulings experienced by players in play (reflective).

I tried real hard to avoid bogging this post down with technical jargon. However, to give credit where credit is due I will note that these ideas are related to formative and reflective constructs in the philosophy of science. This article is a good on ramp:

Edwards, J. R., & Bagozzi, R. P. (2000). On the nature and direction of relationships between constructs and measures. Psychological Methods, 5(2), 155–174.

The Confucius Maneuver

Image sources: HobbyLark / NatGeo

Is there a “founding myth” of OSR? Here is one proposal:

The founding myth of the OSR, that it is based either in an original play style or in the Gygaxian style, … My view is that many of the communities, past or present, which identify with the “OSR” are based on that myth despite it being inconsistent with the multi-various ways in which hobbyists played in the 70s and 80s, as well as with the specific vision of D&D which Gygax propagated.

— Marcia B., Addendum

At first glance, it does seem like discovering an original play style, or original authorial intent (and perhaps design principles) is an attractive project. For example, here is James of Grognardia writing in 2008:

… “D&D is always right,” by which I mean that the ideas and concepts we got in OD&D, whatever their origins, must be the standard by which we judge everything else. Enough things weren’t added to OD&D that I can only conclude that, if they were there, they were there because Gygax and Arneson both signed off on them and deemed them a good fit for the game they’d created. … In the end, though, OD&D was written according to a certain vision and I think that vision is both recoverable and worth investigating.

— James M., June 2, 2008 comment

However, in the context of other discussion around that time, and in further recent conversations, I think it is clear that the goal (here at least) is not to recover some pure Gygaxian canon, brilliant and untarnished, but rather to assume that there may be some value in a rule or game element, whether or not it was an intentional creation, and see where that assumption leads. This was certainly the approach I took when, inspired by Dwimmermount session reports, I started my Vaults of Pahvelorn campaign taking only the 3 LBBs (core OD&D) as base rules chassis. This necessitated substantial interpretation and invention given the patchy disorganized nature of the game and text, but for me was more about personal creative constraint than about traditionalism for the sake of tradition or about nostalgia (I didn’t even know OD&D existed until around the time I discovered Grognardia).

Many strands make up artistic or hobby movements and scenes, arising from the various and idiosyncratic priorities of participants, so it would be surprising if one could come up with a simple explanation or single goal that unifies a scene. While some of the impetus might have been exegesis, other motivations might have involved connecting with old friends or (as Richard writes) resisting the then-current dominant practice that was being marketed by Wizards of the Coast. That is by no means an exhaustive catalog.

Trying to distinguish between genuine cultural genealogy and founding myths has led to claims about the invention of tradition, where someone (or a group) takes a novel idea but frames it as traditional in order to increase legitimacy. One can find many examples of this in the history of ideas. Here is one that approaches prototypicality. In ancient China, explicit innovation was not a winning rhetorical strategy. Instead:

Authorship as an act of creation was a fraught notion in traditional China, since true “creation” (zuo 作) was reserved for sages. Already Confucius embraced instead “transmission” (shu 述) as a weaker form of agency indebted to an imagined higher authority.

The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature, p. 344

That is, Confucius (and the others associated with his school of thought) presented his ideas not as invention or even synthesis, but rather as transmitting the already revered wisdom of sage kings, the original culture heroes of China. Though I am curious about the historical development of play styles, I am not sure Sage Gygax has much cultural currency in this manner. Maybe someone could find some forum scenes that lean in this direction if one looked hard. And many OSR norms and assumptions do not seem to reflect past practice or texts. For myself, as grab bag of inspiration and techniques, how people actually played (or what is written in old texts) seems potentially useful, but not as prescription with sacred imprimatur.

Towards Objective Prosthetics

Source: Berserk

Sometimes I think about all game rules and supplements in terms of prosthetics. Broadly speaking, a prosthetic is an artifact to replace a missing body part or remediate some deficiency. Some prosthetics are useful to almost everybody sometimes (stepladder) while some remediate a common deficit (glasses) and others are highly idiosyncratic. Similarly, the tasks referees and players need help with when playing a roleplaying game are various. Some seemingly common prosthetics include procedural systems to resolve fictional violence and guidelines to come up with fictional people having inner lives with some degree of complexity (such as non-player characters). Or how to decide how much fire a wizard can conjure.

So how does one decide what aspects of a game deserve elaboration and which can be left for the imagination of the players? What counts as design that punts where it should run? There is an essentially relativist objection to general standards for what deserves elaboration. It is hard to get beyond this subjective hurdle to make truly general recommendations without doing extensive observational research that people have not so far seemed interested in or resourced to do, especially for tabletop roleplaying games specifically.

For example, I have a low tolerance for certain kinds of hassle in rules, so I designed a lot of my mechanics as a prosthetic for that. Who knows what proportion of players are happy to track coin weight encumbrance exactly with spreadsheets or whatever? And might even enjoy it? I suspect that proportion is lower than players for whom slot based encumbrance would be more functional, but I lack the data, and I doubt anyone has much evidence relevant to this question beyond common sense platitudes and personal anecdotes.

The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros is a proto-fantasy (the in the genre sense) novel by E. R. Eddison, originally published in 1922. It is an amalgam of mythological traditions, Greco-Roman epic poetry, and invented fantasy worlds. A historian of fantasy literature could probably draw a line of influence that ran from Dunsany, through Eddison, and to Tolkien. I am not going to talk much more about the story here, though if you are curious Patrick wrote a lengthy post over at False Machine that is worth a read.

The pacing and characterization are occasionally rough going for someone used to contemporary fantasy novels, or even contemporary novels of any kind, but the overall effect is something like if Homer wrote an adventure epic in the early 20th century adventure novel vernacular based on the fever dreams of a five year old.

The real point of this post though is to spotlight a recently released edition of this book by Easton Press, one of the publisher’s 2021 “Reader’s Choice” titles. I do not usually care for the Easton Press house style, which involves aggressively conventional leather binding, extensive gilding, and overly literal cover designs. In this case, however, the style fits the title reasonably well, and Easton Press does at least put out durable products (real leather, stitched bindings, acid-free paper, and so forth). The interior is a facsimile of an earlier (perhaps the first) edition, and includes all the original illustrations by Keith Henderson, which, as black and white line art, also come out tolerably well in reproduction. Given the strangeness of the story, this might end up being the only game in town for someone that wants a more substantial edition. I lack much experience buying from Easton Press directly (this is actually the only book from them I own at the moment), but my understanding is that the Reader’s Choice titles are only available for some unspecified but limited period, and then rarely reprinted.

A Wilderness of Building

frus·trat·ed fan·ta·sy nov·el·ist, n. A caricature of a tabletop roleplaying referee who has developed a complex imaginary world, or particular plot, and would really much rather show players around or tell a predetermined story than play a game.

From Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione

The frustrated fantasy novelist approach has rarely, if ever, tempted me. Perhaps, though, there is another loosely related set of motivations that might apply to some degree: frustrated fantasy architect. By architect, I mean specifically a planner of built spaces. I find few things as compelling as exploring, or watching players explore, the remains of a vast buried city, or derelict spacecraft, or lightless underworld. This thought occurred to me many times as I was listening to Susanna Clarke’s 2020 novel Piranesi. Though the setting for the novel is primarily a stage upon which to present the protagonist’s experience rather than an unknown expanse to explore in a cartographic sense, the end result brings to mind the mysterious otherness of the best tabletop roleplaying game dungeons.

I will avoid talking much about the plot, both because part of the pleasure in the story is gradually realizing the nature of the situation along with the protagonist and because I want to focus more on the evocation of imagined space. What drew me in was the limited viewpoint that grows to slowly encompass greater realization, and the sense of destabilization and shifting beliefs that accompany the expansion of knowledge. The story begins in a labyrinth, which is also the world; it is a tangle of architecture, tides, and uncountable statues; an endless expanse of halls. If you have seen etchings by the historical Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Venetian artist, you probably already have some approximate image of this space in your mind. The Piranesi of Clarke’s story knows of 15 people, and for Piranesi the labyrinth is the whole of existence.

From Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione

In a roleplaying game, satisfying architectural exploration for me requires some degree of concreteness and detail, akin to procession through a region in Dark Souls or a creatively designed stage for a first person shooter. Different areas must relate with a strict spatial logic. Though this logic need not by conventional or Cartesian, it must involve more structure than a narrative sequence. As a tangential point, practical architecture that is suitable for use in the prosaic world is too repetitious, predictable, and symmetrical to be ideal for exploring as a dungeon. The most effective and interesting dungeon spaces are like expressionistic recasting of identifiable architectures. The labyrinth in this story is too abstractly depicted to be a good example of a roleplaying game dungeon, being loosely sketched to evoke the feeling tone of the story protagonist. Though Piranesi often mentions specific halls by name, and describes distinctive features in detail, the spaces are floating vignettes that emerge and fade away to support scenes rather than spaces of complex relation. I intend this not as negative judgment, since the depiction works well in the context of the story, but instead to make it clear how the story communicates the feel of a dungeon-like space without taking the audience through a process of exploration.

The story was not what I was expecting, though afterwards I can see similarities to Clarke’s other work. Though much shorter than her more well-known novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Piranesi still reaches a length that I think most people would say “counts as a novel” (a web search tells me 272 pages). Despite this, it feels like a short story, and I mean this in the best possible way; the story is tightly crafted, with few extraneous events or digressions when seen as a whole, and though the pacing is languid on the surface, I found the story to be enthralling, even riveting. It is without question one of my favorite novels published somewhat recently (recently in the historical sense; say, after the year 2000). Despite that acclamation, Piranesi is a concept album of a book, and while Clarke avoids ostentatious experimental literary technique, the approach is still something other than conventional third person realism. I could see how this might lead some people to come away feeling like the book is somewhat contrived or affected, but the approach landed for me.

From Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione

The version to which I listened, from Audible, was read by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It may be the best audiobook performance I have come across, and I have listened to quite a few audiobooks since covid began. (Also, one of my parents worked in audiobook publishing for a stretch, so I heard many when I was younger. Even considering all of those, and with the caveat that it has been a while, this may still be the best reading I have heard.) The publisher has made available an excerpt you can listen to on YouTube. Chiwetel reads slowly, very clearly, in a way that perfectly captures Piranesi’s curious demeanor but also his fundamentally strange and alien beliefs about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, I see only a few other audiobook performances by him, but at least one of them is an audio dramatization of Othello (along with several other performers), which I am now anticipating.

I conclude with a brief nested quotation. What follows is Thomas De Quincey quoting a section from book two of Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. Before this quoted section, De Quincey described (with considerable creative license) Coleridge recalling a plate from Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione.

With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds. From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:

The Appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty City—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendor—without end!
Fabric it seemed of diamond and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires;
And blazing terrace upon terrace high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright,
In avenues disposed; there, towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified; on them, and on the coves
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded, taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky., &c. &c.

De Quincey (1986). Confessions of an English opium eater. Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1822)
Piranesi (1761). Carceri d’invenzione. Rome.
Wordsworth (1814). The Excursion. Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.

You Died

You Died is a book about Dark Souls, written by a pair of game journalists. It was first published as a simple paperback and then reimagined as a deluxe hardcover funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The book is printed offset in Italy on 140gsm Magno Natural uncoated paper and plentifully illustrated. In keeping with the profession of the authors, many of the chapters have a journalistic flavor, describing the origin of Dark Souls and vignettes about its reception, often via experiences reporting about the game. However, the book also includes thoughtful chapters on game design, player motivation, and creative influences. The chapters alternate through essays, brief discussions of locations within the game, and there is a brief appendix discussing the setting and important characters. This book was clearly a labor of love, attested by the attention paid to sturdy construction, the careful design, and the reverential art direction. I think it should be obvious that the text itself will contain many spoilers, but I think I have kept this post free of spoilers.

Let’s get the discussion of weaknesses out of the way. While the binding and cover are excellent, the black inks could have greater depth, and this is especially noticeable on the pages with white text on black background. In keeping with the celebratory aspect of the work, occasionally the prose shifts into a sentimental register noticeable even to me as a fan of the game. Jason also has a penchant for punchy wordplay, which I suspect works slightly better in short form web writing compared to a longer text (sample chapter titles: You’ve Got Chainmail, Knight & Subscribe). Along similar lines, while the layout is excellent in general, there are a few flourishes that would be more at home in a magazine or web site, such as the occasional pull quote. Honestly though, taken in perspective, these are all minor issues. The book as a whole is an impressive accomplishment; as a physical artifact, as a thoughtful discussion of game design, and as a consideration of the play culture around Dark Souls.

I enjoyed all the chapters, even the human interest features which tell stories about the importance of Dark Souls to various individuals, but my favorite parts were the interviews with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the game’s director, whose words are rubricated within the text. Just about everything Miyazaki says is revealing or insightful in some way, but I will highlight two quotes as examples. The first is about respecting the accomplishments of players, even those that might be considered exploits:

During lunch with Hidetaka Miyazaki in London in April 2012, I asked him if his team had designed that … spot especially for grinding. He assured me they hadn’t, but since players had discovered on their own how to manipulate it for their gain, he didn’t want to patch the AI behaviour and steal away something that now belonged to the community.

You Died, p. 60

The second is about the interplay between exploration and ambiguity in design:

This philosophy of ambiguity derives from Miyazaki’s teen years reading fantasy novels in English. He had a particular fondness for the Fighting Fantasy series, written by UK game-industry pioneers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Because of the language barrier, much of these stories remained mysterious to him: he was left to fill in the blanks with his own imagination.

You Died, p. 311

Considering 1974 D&D, there is a case to be made that slightly incomplete rules prompt (or demand) some degree of customization or finishing on the part of the referee. While this might be a flaw for some purposes, it also creates a degree of investment and uniqueness in the realized game. There is also the more general idea that a void can be fruitful. The ambiguity and obscurity of what is ultimately going on in Dark Souls works similarly, creating both curiosity about the details scattered throughout the game (encouraging exploration) while also creating a space for the player’s own idiosyncratic interpretation, given weight and shape by extensive mythological symbolism.

The illustrations are a mix of digital pieces, which I think might be processed photos of actual gameplay, small sketches placed at chapter headings, and whimsical line drawings skillfully caricaturing various experiences of gameplay that will immediately be recognizable to longtime players. These small line drawings especially work to soften the seriousness of the text both in terms of the bleak themes running through Dark Souls the game and the risk of pomposity inherent in giving a book of game journalism such fancy clothes. This is in keeping with the tone of Dark Souls itself, which breaks the somberness with occasional levity. The book is adorned with religious imagery, such as the blind stamped cathedral window cover motif and the title lettering in the form of a cross, not to mention the aforementioned rubrication. The book looks and feels like a psalter from the outside given the cover design, ribbon marker, and gilt page edges. It is no exaggeration to say that obsession runs through the project and text. I know, because I recognize aspects of my own interest reflected back to me. But, like the caricatures throughout, the text is self-aware, and pays respect to the game without taking itself too seriously, most of the time.

As noted above, the book does contain some spoilers, including a few details I have missed in my own playing so far, and some of these made me curious about the online play component, which I have so far totally avoided, being primarily interested in exploring the worlds of Dark Souls on my own terms and through the interfaces the game provides. In a similar vein, apart from occasionally browsing Fashion Souls, and reading a handful of guides about what stats to level or how weapon upgrades work, my primary social engagement about Dark Souls has been limited to discussions with a small coven of Google Plus exiles that I met playing old school D&D and related hacks. Now I am more curious about some of the other culture and cottage industry that has accreted around the game, such as VaatiVidya’s YouTube videos interpreting the morsels of setting detail or the “Kay Plays” of Dark Souls, which chronicles the journey of a novice through the game.

Though I suspect the writing would be engaging for someone who is interested in video games or game design more generally but has minimal experience with Dark Souls, some of the references are obscure and others might seem trivial without the echoes of personal game experiences. You Died is first and foremost a scripture for those initiated in the tribe. Praise the sun! Or the dark, as per appropriate allegiances.

I will close with some additional details for fellow book nerds. When I emailed Jason to ask a few questions about the book’s construction (yes, the binding is stitched), along with answering my questions he sent back links to several videos of the production process:

And here is a photo of the red letter treatment:

More About the Publisher

Purchase Info

  • Order Date: 2020-12-16
  • Price: $127.00 CAD + $31.56 CAD shipping = $158.56 CAD total (approximately $125 USD including shipping)
  • Details: You Died deluxe hardcover (note: I think I ordered the cloth-bound edition but it looks like I received the Skivertex simulated leather edition, which would be a small upgrade)

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


Chronological Vampires

Interview with the Vampire, p. 226 (1976)

One of my pseudo-quarantine entertainments has been to read or reread most of the vampire stories I have on hand. So far, this has included I Am Legend, Interview with the Vampire, and Let the Right One In, with Dracula waiting in the wings. Along with providing an effective symbolic or allegorical nemesis, the vampire story seems particularly well suited to tell a story with extended historical sweep. To my surprise, when I went looking for examples of vampire stories that take this approach, Interview with the Vampire (along with Rice’s other work in this fictional continuity) was the only obvious example, though Interview goes all in, with a narrative that spans several hundred years and themes of change and adaptation.

I brought this up elsewhere, and someone mentioned the “Anno Dracula” collection of novels by Kim Newman, which is set in an alternative history where the events depicted in Stoker’s Dracula occur, but imagines what might happen were Dracula victorious. Though this series does include entries that occur in various historical time periods, the stories themselves seem to be more like a collection of separate historical vignettes (based on a quick wikipedia dive). For example, it looks like there is a Jack the Ripper story and a modern Japanese schoolgirl story. I have heard some of these works are enjoyable, so this is not meant as a criticism, but they seem to have a focus different from what I describe above.

There are several tabletop games that use vampires as protagonists which feature the longue durée as a core design element, none of which I have played. (I have played Vampire: The Masquerade, a long time ago, but that is very much histoire événementielle if it has any particular temporal disposition.) There is Undying, by Paul Riddle, which applies the Apocalypse World design formula to vampires. I read this a while back but have yet to see it in play. This is how the game describes itself:

Game play revolves around brief periods of intense conflict, where old rivalries and new slights spark an inferno, and long stretches of intrigue, where intricate plots are set in motion. … Then, the long years unfold and selfish aims ferment. Plotting and scheming over long periods of relative calm are summarized so that the narrative focuses on decisive events across the gulf of time.

Undying, p. 12 (2016)

There is also Thousand Year Old Vampire, which I have not read or played. This is a single-player journaling game, however, and I am mostly uninterested in solo tabletop play.

Though I am moderately-read in this area, I am hardly a connoisseur. It is likely I am missing some good examples of vampire stories that make use of historical narrative sweep. Does anyone have any recommendations for other hidden gems? In terms of style, I am more interested in works with kinship to the novels I mention above and less interested in urban fantasy or supernatural drama. So, more like Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive and less like True Blood or The Vampire Diaries.