Modes of Fantasy

What are the most influential works of adventure fantasy? If you consider, somewhat arbitrarily, the last 10 years, I suspect the list would be something like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones—all due to Hollywood and television. Recently, I was thinking about Game of Thrones, and how it seems in many ways to lie apart from other influential works of fantasy, despite sharing tropes both in terms of content—dragons, sorcery, undead—and narrative—sword fights, heroism, prophecy. So what distinguishes Game of Thrones? The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, but also updates the medieval form of tapestry romance1. The Harry Potter stories have many epic fantasy elements, drawing as well from coming-of-age Bildungsroman and mystery traditions. Acknowledging the futility of thinking about genre in terms of essences, Game of Thrones still seems to wander alone; I think this is because it draws more from a different major narrative tradition.

Game of Thrones is cynical regarding human nature, grim in aspect, and employs a soap opera chronicle, but none of these elements seem to account for the difference in feeling. Most works of fantasy live primarily within the narrative traditions of epic and romance. Game of Thrones, however, works more like a tragedy; the fantastic elements occasionally take center stage, such as with the dragons or the fight against the Night King, but then fade, with less influence on the broader story. Examining the patterns, the core conflict in the story is basically Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle (the eight play sequence of Richard II through Richard III), with the ending and ultimate theme of Julius Caesar—sic semper tyrannis. If the ending is unsatisfying, I think that is due to the joining of these disparate elements. People expecting the satisfying reveals and perpetual curiosity of a well-crafted soap opera were betrayed by the political moralism of the Caesar ending; adventure and heroism are taken up and discarded with little sense of cosmic resolution or advancement.

The epic tradition generally celebrates the deeds of a hero, possibly as prototype for a nation, such as the Aeneid (for classical Rome) and the Kalevala (for Finland), or a culture, such as, arguably, The Lord of the Rings (the Shire as preindustrial England). The traditions of epic, romance, and myth fit together more comfortably, compared to soap opera and tragedy. In terms of popular culture, Game of Thrones was one of the biggest shows in the US of 2018, number three after Big Bang Theory and Roseanne2. The rest of the top 10 are all sit coms, procedural dramas, and talent shows. This ranking is America-specific, but the popularity looks similar cross-culturally. For example, Game of Thrones is popular in China3, South America, and Europe4. Game of Thrones will probably shape for a long time how people everywhere think about fantasy.

I used to enjoy The Wheel of Time, another extended fantasy epic, though I never got past book seven, as at some point I made a personal rule to avoid unfinished multi-volume works of fantasy. After thinking about this, I was curious what my reaction now would be to Jordan, so I read the first part of The Eye of the World, book one in The Wheel of Time. One thing that strikes me now is the generic feeling of many aspects of the setting, common fantasy tropes through a lens of Americanisms, though presented with consistency using invented vernacular and mythic resonance, mostly with Christian apocalyptic eschatology. I also wonder how I could have seen Jordan’s story as so distinct. The first third of The Eye of the World shows a sorceress who comes to protect a farm boy of cosmic significance, pursued by riders in black sent by the Dark One. Apart from some minor variations, this basically recapitulates the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, and even back then I had already read The Lord of the Rings. I mean this more as description than negative evaluation—there are many worse things than echoing an effective narrative structure.

Part of Tolkien’s triumph was to make as few concessions to the modern taste for realism in narrative as was necessary to entice contemporary readers. Game of Thrones goes exactly the opposite direction; the aspects that hang together best make up the chronicle of who sleeps together and who gets betrayed or defeated. Sex and gangsters. So the realist mode of political struggle replaces the mythic cycle. Martin manages to avoid the bore of speculative fiction using magic as technology substitute; the magic and mythic backdrop of his setting is wondrous and compelling—winter is coming, the queen of dragons, and so forth. But none of that really seems to matter much in the end, which is more concerned with the Machiavellian heart of darkness. Realpolitik maneuverings could provide the basis for a game, but it seems like such a game would be far from the picaresque pleasures of discovering Vance’s Dying Earth or delving into Moria on the way to fulfill a mythic quest.


1. Thomson, G. (1967). “The Lord of the Rings”: The Novel as Traditional Romance. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8(1), 43-59.

2. https://www.businessinsider.com/game-of-thrones-compared-to-most-popular-tv-shows-of-2018-ratings-2019-4#8-americas-got-talent-tuesdays-nbc-2

3. https://daxueconsulting.com/game-of-thrones-china/

4. https://variety.com/2017/film/global/game-of-thrones-overseas-plaudits-ratings-1202541767/

Gateway Survey Items

Lighting a torch to explore (source)

We closed the gateway RPG survey today. Below is a brief description of the survey items, number of responses, and some questions we can ask based on the data. If you think of other questions that you are curious about, leave a comment below. I have yet to look at the data for the final set of responses beyond some descriptives.

Following are the items in presentation order. The bold text represents the concept, behavior, or whatever, that we were trying to measure. Italic text represents the exact item text participants saw. Parenthesized text describes the variable type (numerical scale with label, free-response text, and so forth).

I have also included descriptive stats for some of the items (N = number of responses for the particular item, M = mean value, SD = standard deviation). Keep in mind that for the seven point scales, 4 = Neutral, 5 = Somewhat Like/Agree, 6 = Like/Agree, and so forth. 2764 responses provided the correct answer to an attention check item near the end; the stats below only include responses that answered the attention check correctly.

So: ConceptItem text (description of variable type); maybe some descriptive stats.

  1. First RPGWhat was the first tabletop roleplaying game you played? (Selective list of options that we brainstormed, along with an “other” option permitting free-response text for anything we missed); N = 2549, top three: Dungeons & Dragons, any edition (n = 1658), Other (n = 508), Pathfinder (n = 120). 65.05% of respondents that answered this item started with an edition of D&D.
  2. Attitude toward first RPGThink back to the first tabletop RPG you played. How much do you like that game now? (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like)
  3. If first RPG was D&D: First D&D EditionWhich edition of D&D did you begin with? N = 1827, top three: 3/3.5E (n = 487), 5E (n = 382), B/X (n = 318).
  4. OwnershipDo you own any tabletop RPG materials? (Books, box sets, and so forth.) (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 2688, No = 76 (97.25% Yes)
  5. Still play first RPGDo you still play the first RPG that you started with? (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 1049, No = 1715 (37.95% Yes)
  6. Delay trying another RPGHow long (in years) after playing your first RPG did you try another RPG? (non-negative integer free-response)
  7. Attitude toward D&DHow much do you like Dungeons & Dragons? (For your favorite edition of D&D.) (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like); N = 2028, M = 5.27, SD = 1.63
  8. Belief about effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 1)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons attracts new tabletop RPG players. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2618, M = 6.25, SD = .94
  9. Belief about whether D&D crowds out other RPGsThe popularity of Dungeons & Dragons makes discovering other (non-D&D) tabletop RPGs HARDER. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1613, M = 4.16, SD = 1.88
  10. Belief about the effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 2)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons is good for the tabletop RPG hobby. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2676, M = 5.64, SD = 1.34
  11. Favorite edition of D&DIf you have played D&D, which edition is your favorite? N = 2348, top three: 5E (n = 1121), B/X (n = 440), 3/3.5E (n = 270). 47.74% of respondents that answered this item said that 5E was their favorite edition of D&D.
  12. Preference for designer authority (item 1)—There are a lot of house rules (customization) in RPGs games that I run or play in. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
  13. Belief regarding whether system mattersWhen it comes to tabletop RPGs, a well-designed rules system is an important factor in enjoyable play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2217, M = 5.86, SD = 1.13
  14. Preference for designer authority (item 2)—I prefer to play RPGs “as written” rather than adjusting, customizing, or hacking the rules. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
  15. Preferences in play styleFor satisfying play, how important are the following aspects to you? (Aspects included: In-game shenanigans, Generating a satisfying story, Acting in character, Hanging out with friends, Challenge Exploration and discovery, Creative problem solving, Character optimization, Improving my character, Meticulous plotting; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
  16. Preferences in game materials—How important are the following elements to you in tabletop RPGs? (Elements included: Fictional setting, Hackability, Mechanical innovation, Ease of use, Art, Genre emulation; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
  17. Pleasure readingI read tabletop RPG materials for pleasure, apart from intention for direct use in play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1300, M = 5.81, SD = 1.37
  18. Play usageI have played most of the tabletop RPGs (systems, modules, adventures, etc.) that I own. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1327, N = 4.16, SD = 2.08
  19. RPG play literacy/promiscuityI have played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64
  20. Attention check
  21. Age startedAt what age, approximately, did you start to play tabletop RPGs? (integer from the set [1, 200]; due to a typo, some respondents were only able to enter starting ages from the set [10, 200]); N = 2754, M = 15.93, SD = 6.79
  22. Year startedIn approximately which year did you start playing tabletop RPGs? (Drop-down menu with year options); N = 2721, M = 2002.04, SD = 12.25, min = 1971, max = 2019
  23. Other feedbackOptional: Is there anything else you would like to share with us? (free response text)

You may notice that we measure several concepts using more than one item. For example, presumably playing with lots of house rules and preference for playing rules as written should both tap into a preference for designer authority (and they correlate, as expected, at r(2437) = −.62, p < .001). Another: “D&D attracts new players” and “popularity of D&D is good for the hobby” (r(2550) = .46, p < .001).

(The number of observations for pleasure reading, play usage, and literacy/promiscuity seem systematically somewhat low: ~1300 compared to ~2700 for most items; I need to look into that.)

One (somewhat) surprising point that jumped out at me from the descriptives is that for people that started with an edition of D&D, 3E was the most common.

Some possible questions:

  • Do player preferences for game aspects cohere into conventional clusters? Are those preferences consistent with what you might expect? (For example, are people starting with 3E more likely to have a preference for character optimization?)
  • Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs), controlling for years played, associated with greater or lesser RPG play literacy overall?
  • Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs) associated with any of the preferences for aspects of play style or elements of game materials?
  • According to consensual belief, does system matter? (At least based on the mean, the answer here is yes: M = 5.86, roughly = Agree).
  • Is starting with an edition of D&D associated with preference for designer authority in rules?

What else would you like to know based on this survey?

Addendum: I just did a tally of referrer URL to see where respondents saw a link to the survey. To roughly summarize, about 30% came from Reddit, 30% came from Twitter, and 30% came from YouTube, with the remaining referrer URLs a smattering of other sites. In detail, N = 1167; the top five: YouTube (n = 363), Reddit (n = 358), Twitter (n = 311), survey.ascolais.com (n = 59), Facebook (n = 50). Referrer URL data only exists for some responses (1167 out of 2764), but preliminary checks indicate that referrer URL is missing at random (meaning it is probably reasonable to think of it as a random sample and representative of the respondent population at large).

Symbaroum Campaign Pitch

The great war, the hungry hordes of the Dark Lords—a nightmare that lasted for two decades … Twenty-one years have passed since the Dark Lords were vanquished and the Queen realized that her realm was dying. She was forced to lead her people to safer grounds … [venturing north of the old world, over the mountains known as The Titans] … they encountered a small barbarian settlement …

(Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p. 16)

In my take on Symbaroum, the scene opens earlier than as presented in the text. Yndaros, the name of the new capital settlement, is little more than an armed camp, crouched in the shell of a looted barbarian valley fortress. The Queen struggles to maintain cohesion among her people following a near death march exile, adrift in an alien land, threatened by barbarian tribes, hostile elements, and the lingering corruption that was the doom of the previous grand empire Symbar, the ruins of which remain blanketed by the seemingly endless forests of Davokar. This is Ambria by way of Roanoke; the winters long and mist-shrouded horizons mysterious.

In lost Alberetor to the south, the old, ruined homeland, dark magic, incautious industry, and terrible engines of war blighted the land. Were the “Dark Lords” true paragons of evil, crept up from the abyss to feast on the corrupt souls of men, or convenient wartime propaganda to justify the horrors of war and a conclusion that ultimately stranded the victorious Queen and her exiled people in a verdant but perilous new land? The Ambrians are simultaneously explorers, colonists, conquerors, and refugees, hardened and made ruthless by war, Queen Korinthia an unburnt, masked Joan of Arc.

The uncrowned king of Ambria’s treasure-hunters, Lasifor Nightpitch, established the town of Thistle Hold … a safe haven for Ambrians exploring Davokar [the great, haunted forest] … full of natural resources and rich remnants of long lost civilizations … and … rampant abominations …

(Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p. 17)
Not Thistle Hold (image source)

Here, Thistle Hold is a frontier boom town, a fantasy Deadwood with only a handful of muddy streets clustered around a beacon tower, the one building of any permanent aspect, all surrounded by wooden palisades and chevaux de frise, huge wooden and rusty iron stakes driven into the mud, angled outward against cavalry charges. Thistle Hold is as much barbarian trading post as colonial outpost and settlers have a deep ambivalence, torn between the untramelled freedom of the frontier, but also yearning and planning for the protection, certainty, and industry that would come from annexation by Yndaros and joining the young realm of Ambria.

When the Ambrians arrived in the region south of Davokar, thirteen barbarian clans were living in the area. … The barbarian High Chieftain, seated on Karvosti, is elected for life during a gathering at the Thingstead … not elected to rule. Instead the role of the High Chieftain is to arbitrate or, when necessary, act as a judge in conflicts within and between the clans, and only if requested to do so by the clan chieftains. …

(Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p. 27)
Image source from one of the Symbaroum books

The barbarian clans believe themselves descendants of the lost empire Symbar. Though the Ambrians’ weapons and organized ways of war generally defeat clan warriors in direct conflict on the battlefield, the barbarians see the interlopers as opportunities just as much as a threats. One clan already, through alliance with the Queen’s soldiers, annihilated their blood rivals clan Jezora, driving the few remaining survivors into the uncharted taboo depths of Davokar. When the curtain rises on the campaign, there has been no High Chieftain for generations. Many barbarians see the newly arrived people from the south as a means to solidify or advance their position, toward the ambition of claiming the High Chieftainship, perhaps even founding a regime of New Symbar.

Playing D&D with Muggles

I had the occasion to run a game for five players that, in addition to having never played a tabletop RPG before, barely knew about D&D at all. I ended up “running” 1981 B/X using Save vs. TPK pregens and The Tomb of Black Sand, with spells from Wonder & Wickedness—more on the scare quotes around “running” below. As it happened, I made the final decision about the ruleset and module about 15 minutes before leaving my apartment, and I have to say: OSR nerds, we have a grimdark problem. We have made strides toward more usable modules in terms of format, but perhaps there are more inviting introductions than reading out of a book called “Fever Swamp” for a casual Friday night game (great module, by the way).

There were five players, and from a stack of pregens they chose an elf, a fighter, two magic-users, and a thief. I explained the basic play loop—I describe the situation, you tell me what your character does, occasionally we roll dice to resolve an uncertainty—and the objective—recover as much treasure as possible without dying. A brief interchange was required to explain how the game was cooperative rather than competitive. Then I read a few sentences from the module about how Vincent Bine the necromancer was using foul magic in pursuit of immortality/ascension to set the stage and started the characters by the entryway of the dungeon, describing the blighted land around the heavy bronze doors.

The players fell quickly and naturally into heist mode, immediately treating the door as hostile ground, with the thief crouched above ready to drop down on any threat, the magic-users and elf arrayed firing-squad style behind the armored fighter, wands poised (because apparently all magic-users have wands, presumably Harry Potter style). Additionally, they immediately deployed ten foot poles to test for danger (be aware that 10”/10’ pole jokes are virtually unending with a table entirely composed of gay boys).

I scare quoted the word “running” above because, in terms of mechanics, the Moldvay book was little more than a prop (though a useful prop for communicating an aesthetic). The only rules that directly manifested during play were ability checks, spells, and thief abilities (which I ran as dexterity checks). Speaking of ability checks, the system I used for spell casting was unlimited spells, but to cast a spell without complication required passing an intelligence check. On failure, the intended spell still fired, but also came with a roll on the Wonder & Wickedness catastrophe table. I find this works well for a one-shot game because it pushes players out of the hoarding mindset that comes with having limited spell slots and also provides the temptation of a variable reinforcement schedule. After ability checks, the mechanic that saw the most table time was the output from the random appearance generator, which is built into Ram’s generator and is an amazingly useful tool for giving players some details to riff on. Bald magician, badly-dressed muscular fighter, and obese elf are immediately more engaging characters than a collection of abilities, and more immediately available than background details (failed careers are good prompts as well, but also have less immediacy).

Following successful entrance, there was some anxiety about the seeming shift in the room size, along with back and forth about whether to explore side chambers or go deeper right away (the initial determination was that side chambers were distractions). Casting rockspeech disarmed a spear trap in carved stone faces (with the faces coughing and sputtering as they vomited mechanisms and spear heads), though the the conversing spirit was greatly discomfited by the corruption caused by the festering tomb, and asked the adventurers to help remove the blight if possible. A spell catastrophe created a storm outside, however, and made it so that the magician could only speak by yelling, making further spells somewhat incompatible with stealth (so it goes).

The centerpiece of the next room was a pool, which of course led to a debate about whether the adventurers should strip down and wade into the pool or exercise greater caution. Despite discovering a bas relief of naked people frolicking in a pool, caution prevailed and one of the magicians dribbled a few drops of holy water into the pool. I rolled some dice to help with a ruling about how banshee tears should react to holy water, determining that there would be a non-explosive antimatter kind of situation, and had some of the tears hiss away into arcane steam. The players proceeded to boil away the rest of the pool with holy water and (totally on their own) discovered the hidden gold box. Somewhat wary due to the earlier spear trap discovery, the adventurers rigged the box with rope, taking care to avoid touching it, before taking cover above and pulling the box up from a distance, which in this case probably avoided a TPK given the resulting chain lightning detonation. (It still knocked everyone on their asses.) And additionally—I swear I avoided giving anything away directly—they found the double-concealed locket, which one of the magicians determined was a necromantic artifact of incredible power. (I only described the alcove with the box as set with a different kind of tiles, which were cracked by the chain lightning.)

At this point, the players decided to go back and explore a side chamber. One of the magicians cast read magic on some of the runes, in the process learning some details about Vincent’s ritual in progress. Some other spell (details of which I forget at the moment) triggered a consequence that the next door the magician would open would lead to a location determined randomly by a table in Wonder & Wickedness (keep that in the back of your mind for a moment). After determining to help the still-living “willing” sacrifices on the way out, the party decided to return to the (now-drained) pool chamber in order to explore more of the dungeon.

The thief broke her lock picks trying to unlock the big bronze double doors leading deeper into the complex, so one of the magicians decided to use his portal spell to connect one of the other doors in the room to the chamber beyond. Casting this spell led to (catastrophe) summoning an imp which stole the magicians eyes (meaning the eyes vacated the magician’s head, appearing in the imp, so the magician could see through the eyes of the imp rather than the now-empty sockets in the magician’s own face, without being able to control the actions of the imp). And, the adventurer that opened the now portal-linked door was the one that would trigger a random location, which in the event ended up looping back to the pool room itself. Then, the other magician lost his soul to a spirit (another spell catastrophe!) while trying to charm the imp that now controlled the first magician’s eyesight. I determined that the spirit in possession of the soul was the banshee, who the players encountered in the chapel room. The adventurers struck a deal with the banshee: the soul to be returned in exchange for the locket from the pool.

The banshee then tried to convince the adventurers to help Vincent complete his ritual, as she was sure that Vincent could help restore normal eyesight to the imp-afflicted magician in payment, and that is where we left the session.

Final note: with zero prompting, this almost perfectly recapitulated “you play Conan, I play Gandalf, we team up to fight Dracula”—except rather than Dracula it was Vincent Bine the necromancer and instead of Conan it was Thor. In particular, the five brave adventurers:

  • “Petit Gross” (obese elf)
  • “Thor” (muscular fighter)
  • “Kevin” (player not named Kevin)
  • “Gandalf the White”
  • (And I forget the thief’s name)

Symbaroum Primer for D&D Players

In preparation for running a Symbaroum game, here is an overview of the system, particularly the player-facing side.

First, an oversimplified summary in D&D terms:

  • HP = strength score (sort of, with little to no improvement over time)
  • Attack rolls are dexterity checks
  • Ability checks are roll-under (1d20 <=)
  • There are no classes or levels
  • Archetypes (and associated occupations) provide recommended packages of starting abilities (which are sort of like feats)
  • Spend XP to learn or improve abilities
  • Using magic causes corruption (basically: spiritual damage with varying degrees of transience)
  • Another ability score determines how much corruption a character can absorb before bad things start to happen (basically: spiritual HP)

There you go, if you have familiarity with some version D&D you should now have a working grasp of Symbaroum basics. Read on for more detailed comparison.

The system is mostly what I have called “monological” in the past. For example, players roll to defend rather than opponents rolling to attack.

Symbaroum formal game terms below are in bold. Though I have a few planned house rules, to improve the general usefulness of this post, all of the following info applies to the official rules as written, to my knowledge. I make no claim to completeness—for example, I have ommitted mention of races—but these are the most central rules in my opinion.

Symbaroum Correspondences

  • Ability Scores (⇒ Attributes)
    • Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, Vigilant
    • Generation: 2d6+3 per attribute, in order or arranged to taste (yields scores in the range [5-15])
    • Test: roll 1d20 <= score value (often adjusted by an opposed Attribute)
    • Test outcomes are generally binary (success or failure)
    • Adjustments are penalties or bonuses applied to the player character Attribute score rather than to the roll; for example, if a player character has a score of 12, a -3 penalty means that the player must roll less than or equal to 9 for success
      • Common oppositions:
        • Accurate versus Quick
        • Persuasive versus Resolute
        • Discreet versus Vigilant
        • Strong versus Strong
    • (The default attribute generation method is assigning values from a default set or point-buy, the numbers for which result in similar expected values)
      • Default set: [15, 13, 11, 10, 10, 9, 7, 5]
        • (M = 10, SD = 2.96)
  • AC/Armor Class (⇒ Defense)
    • Symbaroum uses Defense tests (performed by players) rather than opponent attack rolls
    • Defense test: 1d20 less than or equal to Quick
    • Modifiers: Armor (Impeding penalty), shield (+1 bonus)
  • Armor
    • Three levels of armor: light 1d4, medium 1d6, and heavy 1d8
    • Impeding penalty to Defense tests: light -2, medium -3, heavy -4
    • Roll the armor die to decrease incoming damage from physical attacks (opponent damage values are static, so rolling for armor replaces what in D&D would be the referee rolling monster damage)
  • Attack Roll
    • Attribute test: Accurate, adjusted by opponent’s Quick
    • Then you roll damage, based on weapon, just like D&D—see the weapons entry below—but for referee-controlled combatants armor is static damage reduction (no armor die)
    • Some Abilities allow the use of other stats in place of Accurate for attack rolls (this is one of the few bits of system mastery you probably need to maintain combat effectiveness, if you care)
  • Classes (as in Fighter, Cleric, Thief, etc.)
    • Rather than classes, Symbaroum provides a starting Archetype (representing the classic three of Mystic, Rogue, and Warrior), each of which is further specified by Occupations (such as Duelist, Theurg, Ranger, and so forth)
    • Initial Archetype & Occupation provide recommended packages of starting Abilities
    • Player characters start with one of the following two options:
      1. Two Abilities at Novice level and one Ability at Adept level
      2. Five Abilities at Novice level
  • Combat turn
    • On each turn, a player character may perform one of the following:
      • 1 Combat Action + 1 Movement Action
      • 2 Movement Actions
  • Dying (★ will be house ruled ★)
    • Zero Toughness → unconscious & dying
    • Each turn: Death Test, three failures → dead
    • Death Test: 1d20
      • 1 = recover with 1d4 Toughness
      • 2-10 = success (no change)
      • 11-19 = failure
      • 20 = immediate death
  • HP (⇒ Toughness)
    • Toughness = Max(10, Strong Attribute)
    • (So the HP equivalent is basically just the same as an ability score, but with a minimum of 10)
    • Toughness almost never increases—there are a handful of Abilities which will increase toughness slightly—so Symbaroum has a much flatter power curve in this regard compared to all versions of D&D
  • Initiative
    • Combatants act in order of Quick scores (highest first)
  • Levels & Advancement (★ will be house ruled ★)
    • There are no levels; player characters spend XP to learn or improve Abilities
    • Each ability has three tiers: Novice, Adept, and Master
    • Learning and improving Abilities:
      • Novice level (new Ability): cost = 10 XP
      • NoviceAdept: cost = 20 XP
      • AdeptMaster: cost = 30 XP
    • (So the full cost of learning a new Ability and improving it all the way to Master is 60 XP.)
  • Magic Items (⇒ Artifacts, p. 186; ★ will be house ruled very slightly ★)
    • Using an Artifact first requires Bonding, which imposes permanent Corruption (generally one point)
    • Activating an Artifact’s power imposes some temporary Corruption (generally 1d4 points)
    • (See Corruption Threshold below)
  • Shields
    • +1 to Defense tests
  • Spells (⇒ Mystical Powers, p. 119, p. 176)
    • Mystical Powers work much like Abilities—with Novice, Adept, and Master levels—but learning a Mystical Power outside of a tradition (also handled at the rules level as an Ability) imposes one permanent point of Corruption
    • Casting a spell (using a Mystical Power) causes 1d4 temporary Corruption
    • Advancing in the ranks of a mystical tradition can mitigate this cost (Corruption is the mechanical system resource that replaces spell slots or magic points)
    • See Corruption Threshold below
  • Weapons
    • Weapon damage works similarly to D&D
    • Damage: Heavy 1d10, Long 1d8, Single-Handed 1d8, Short 1d6
    • Projectile: crossbow 1d10, bow 1d8, sling 1d6
    • Long weapons provide an initial free attack versus opponents armed with shorter weapons
    • (There are a few other properties of specific weapons which work relatively intuitively)
  • XP (★ will be house ruled ★)
    • The text about XP is more guidelines than rules, but the expectation seems to be that surviving a scene involving challenge is worth 1 XP for each player character

Rules Without Direct D&D Analogues

Symbaroum also has a handful of rules which lack direct analogues in D&D:

  • Pain Threshold
    • Derived stat: Strong / 2, round up
    • Combatants that suffer damage equal to or greater than Pain Threshold in a single hit experience some additional deleterious effects
  • Corruption Threshold
    • Derived stat: Resolute / 2, round up
    • Capacity to tolerate Corruption is the primary player character resource that constrains use of magic
    • When total Corruption—permanent + temporary—equals or exceeds the Resolute score, the character turns into an abomination (worse than character death, because this essentially creates a new hostile monster)
    • Temporary Corruption dissipates at the end of each scene
      • (★ may be house ruled ★)
    • Tolerating Corruption also constrains the use of Artifacts as doing so requires Bonding with the Artifact, which imposes some permanent Corruption (generally one point)

There is also a free quick-start rules document. Post images are from the official site.

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.

Vulnerabilities and Breaking Opponents

I have been playing Octopath Traveler now and then recently on the Nintendo Switch. Octopath is a throwback to—or perhaps celebration of—JRPG style games with several particularities, one of which is a turn-based combat system built around attack type vulnerabilities and combatant initiative. Playing Octopath has prompted me to think about how to apply similar systems to tabletop roleplaying games without requiring overly complex mechanics. Below I first explain the Octopath combat system, in slightly simplified form, and then discuss how to apply a similar system to OSR (or what have you) style games.

Octopath Traveler Combat System

Image source: Sand Lizardman 2

Along with basic combat stats such as hit points, each opponent has two attributes that drive the combat dynamics: a shield score and a list of attack type vulnerabilities. For example, Sand Lizardman 2 has a shield score of 2 and is vulnerable to swords, knives, ice, and dark. Hitting an opponent with an attack type belonging to the list of vulnerabilities temporarily decreases the shield score by one for each hit. If the shield score falls to zero, the opponent breaks, which drops the opponent from the upcoming initiative spot and decreases the opponent’s defense while broken. A broken opponent regains all shield points and acts at the next point in the initiative sequences, meaning the best possible outcome, from the perspective of the player, is to force all opponents to skip every other turn. In other words, breaking an opponent effectively stuns the opponent through the end of the next round. Generally, the most effective offense involves breaking as many opponents as possible, because doing so decreases the number of overall opponent attacks and increases the player’s overall damage output. As such, doing a smaller amount of damage using a damage type corresponding to a vulnerability can be just as important as doing a larger amount of damage, especially if the hit is timed well.

The combat system is asymmetric between player characters and opponents. That is, player characters have no damage type weaknesses and never break, though opponents can, using special abilities, inflict a variety of status conditions—poison, silence, blindness, sleeping, and so forth—on player characters. Some conditions can limit player character action possibilities or temporarily prevent a player character from acting entirely, in ways that will likely be familiar to players of other JRPGs. For example, silence prevents casting spells, blindness decreases weapon attack accuracy, and so forth.

This setup is simple, but leads to surprisingly engaging gameplay and tactics. First, the system dashboard presents the upcoming initiative order, so the player can always see which opponents represent the most immediate threats and concentrate fire correspondingly. Second, the number of vulnerabilities per opponent is always apparent, but the particular vulnerabilities are only revealed (by opponent type) after being exploited, or revealed by using a skill (such as the scholar skill analyze). Third, maintaining party capacity to deploy a wide variety of damage types, and timing attacks well, greatly increases combat effectiveness. Missing the capability to deal one or more damage types risks confrontation with enemies that that will be unbreakable. The full list of damage types is swords, polearms, daggers, axes, bows, staves (the weapons) and fire, ice, lightning, dark, light, wind (magic, accessible via skills mostly).

Each of the eight characters starts with one of eight classes: cleric, scholar, merchant, warrior, dancer, apothecary, thief, or hunter based on particular character story background. For example, Cyrus is the only character that begins with the scholar class. Each class provides access to a particular type of damage through weapon proficiencies and skills that the player can unlock by earning and spending job points (a secondary form of experience points). For example, the hunter class can use swords and axes while the thief class can use swords and knives; further, the thief has access to basic fire magic early on through skills. The player can gain access to secondary classes through jobs discovered at various shrines hidden throughout the game world. At any given time, the active party can have at most four members, so the player can configure access to damage types by choosing the active party character roster and by assigning secondary classes to characters after discovering various jobs.

As a concrete example, at this particular moment my active party is Therion (thief), Cyrus (scholar), Ophelia (cleric), and H’aanit (hunter) with secondary classes assigned to Cyrus (as thief) and Ophelia (as hunter). This allows my party to deal the following kinds of damage, by member:

  • Therion: knives, swords, fire (skill)
  • Cyrus: staves, knives (thief job), Swords (thief job), fire (skill), ice (skill), lightning (skill)
  • Ophelia: staves, axes (hunter job), bows (hunter job), light (skill)
  • H’aanit: axes, bows, lightning (skill)

Here I have plentiful access to damage from swords, knives, staves, axes, bows, and most magic. This party lacks the capability to easily deal dark, wind, or polearm type damage. (I have ignored the boost system intentionally for the purposes of this post, though using boosts is quite important to tactics in Octopath due to how applying boosts allows the player to increase the number of hits for a particular damage type.) The following short video shows how this works for the video game in practice:

OSRoWHY Implementation

Below I suggest a number of slight system modifications for implementing a similar system for OSRoWHY games. After deciding upon the basic structure of rules to apply, most content details could probably be handled easily enough by rulings.

I would first assign each character and monster type a speed score to determine place in the initiative order. For player characters, this could either be by class, by dexterity, or by some combination of class and dexterity. For a game where ability scores are less influential overall—such as OD&D—I would probably start with class (magic-user ⇒ 1, cleric ⇒ 2, fighter ⇒ 3, thief ⇒ 4) and provide +1 for exceptional dexterity and maybe +1 for weapons that seem agile. For a game where ability scores are more influential overall—such as B/X, AD&D, or 5E—I would start with dexterity (12 or less ⇒ 1, 13-15 ⇒ 2, 16-17 ⇒ 3, 18 ⇒ 4) and provide a +1 for class competency (perhaps +1 for fighter-types and +2 for rogue-types). In this and all following examples, combatants with higher speed scores act earlier. Keeping the scale of speed scores around 6 will decrease the difficulty of manual handling. The referee could determine opponent speed by ruling, assuming an average of 3 or 4 and adding or subtracting a point or two based on whether the opponent seems like it should be quick (pixie ⇒ 6) or slow (ogre ⇒ 2). For a more predetermined approach, or for people who appreciate some degree of textual deference, the movement stat is available (1974 OD&D Monsters & Treasure, p. 4, Move in Inches; 6 ⇒ 1, 9 ⇒ 2, 12 ⇒ 3, 18 ⇒ 4, 24⇒ 5, 25+ ⇒ 6).

I can see several potential ways to accomplish the practical tracking of initiative order, including index cards with speed values or a simple sequential game board of 12 spaces—six spaces for the current round, six spaces for the following round—with tokens for each player character and type of opponent, numbered according to the current and following rounds—something like 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6. Using a game board in this way would more or less replicate the way Octopath presents the initiative order. The referee could also just perform a countdown from 6 for each round—perhaps a countdown would be easier if playing by video conference—but would need some way to keep track of opponents that have been broken. My guess is that index cards would work best overall, but it would require some play testing.

HD seems like a reasonable stat from which to derive something like a shield score. My first pass might be HD / 2 (round up). The division is simple enough to do mentally—HD 5/6 ⇒ shield score 3, for example—and ensures that enemies are likely to break before being defeated, all else equal. In a more involved system, such as AD&D or 5E, the HD or challenge rating might work as the shield score verbatim. Another approach that appeals to me given OD&D assumptions: encounter table dungeon level ⇒ shield score; this would maintain a rough connection between monster strength and shield score but also naturally scale up weaker monsters on lower dungeon levels without otherwise engaging in numerical inflation.

Finally, and perhaps most substantially, the referee would need to determine the types of damage and corresponding opponent vulnerability lists. There would be worse places to start than the 5E SRD damage types; I could also imagine many quirky taxonomies based on close readings of whatever your favorite game text is. Particular vulnerabilities could be intuited by ruling easily enough. Does an opponent seem to have some form of elemental affinity? Cold-related monsters are obviously vulnerable to fire. For some reason, slimes and oozes seem to me like they should be vulnerable to lightning. Skeletal or chitinous monsters seem naturally vulnerable bludgeoning. In OD&D, giant type monsters roughly correspond to the fair folk, so a vulnerability to iron could be mythologically appropriate. What about all of the weapon types? The vulnerability list could be a way to effectively smuggle in a weapon versus armor table, and would make weapon choice most relevant when confronting man-type opponents (to use the OD&D terminology). I imagine polearms or spears being particularly effective agains larger monsters and missile weapons particularly effective against flyers.

A ruling-based approach like this would probably be enough to get the system off the ground, and the referee could build up lists of vulnerabilities through play rather than trying to frontload it by taking a spreadsheet approach. Additionally, think about how you describe details of opponents to players and how your description can gesture toward vulnerabilities; this is a way to expose game surfaces to players through the diegesis or fiction rather than being excessively or indecently mechanical. You could let the players build up a deck of monster index cards representing what the player characters have learned through play, which then would do double duty as initiative tracking prosthetics.

Such a system could easily plug into various other subsystems. For one example, morale: trigger a morale check if 50% or more of opponents are ever broken, defeated, or captured at any given time.

Marketing Imagination

Many of us, where by “us” I mean people who discuss tabletop roleplaying games online, have decided to market aspects of our shared hobby. Whatever your attitude toward this development, I think few people would argue against the reality of this basic claim. If you are selling something on drivethrurpg, or a similar platform, you are marketing your work. Considering various hobby developments in terms of how they fit into the process of marketing, then, would, at the very least, probably help explain hobby dynamics.

Colloquially, people often use “marketing” as shorthand for either advertising or persuasion techniques. While advertising is part of marketing, it is a rather small part, on balance. A broader perspective will be more useful. (There is some business speak incoming, but stay with me.)

One framework for developing a marketing plan is the following:

A framework for developing marketing plans

Here are a few, far from comprehensive, examples of how this applies to tabletop roleplaying games, particularly the online part of the hobby.

Positioning is the conceptual space your creation occupies in the minds of the audience. Is it medicine—the way cocktail bitters were originally sold, for example—or narcotic enhancement? Is Silent Titans a campaign setting, an adventure module, or an art book? Consider whether you would be more likely to check out Anomalous Subsurface Environment if it were presented as yet another B/X-inspired retro-clone or as a dungeon module or as a campaign setting. If you start in your own head, looking at the product you have created, it might be obvious that Silent Titans is both art book and adventure module—at least. However, your audience—the people you would like to derive value from your creation—starts with their own concerns; you want them to end up at your product. If your audience would be happy with, or is seeking out, an art book, but you position your creation as an old school adventure module, there is less, maybe no, conceptual intersection.

The marketing mix is a classification for strategies used to get your creation into the hands of your audience—your choice of what to create (product), vector of exchange (place), and so forth. Ron Edwards’ heartbreaker essay can almost entirely be summarized as a critique of the mismatch between hobbyist writer hopes or expectations and some elements of the marketing mix—mostly product and price. He wrote that the market context at the time—which has changed substantially—would generally lead to failure for hobbyists publishing a certain kind of game in a certain way. He then used this claim to argue that designers, or at least designers in the orbit of the Forge at the time, would do better for themselves if they focused on the kind of games Edwards liked, which prioritized originality of concepts in mechanics and trope landmarks detached from mainstream Dungeons & Dragons. So, the heartbreaker essay speaks to concerns about the marketing mix.

How about a more recent example? Take SWORDDREAM. Superficially, SWORDDREAM bills itself as a social manifesto of sorts: be inclusive, facilitate consent, pay fairly, and so forth. A big part of what the principles do, taken together, is define a group of people based on shared values and, perhaps, by generational cohort. This is a form of segmentation and targeting, making SWORDDREAM a guerrilla—or collaborative—marketing strategy. Consistent with this understanding, one of the major venues of SWORDDREAM activity has been on a marketing platform—itch.io dreamjam—the page for which is currently the highest ranked Google search result that leads to a page explaining the SWORDDREAM principles. (Please avoid misunderstanding this point as some sort of veiled dunk on the content of any specific SWORDDREAM principle. I am analyzing SWORDDREAM functionally, looking at how it seems to be operating, rather than implying some ulterior or hypocritical motive.)

Aspects of hobby market engagement

One final example. On Twitter, I have seen several iterations of negative feedback regarding an upcoming official D&D Eberron sourcebook, culminating in the question: why are books like this successful?

https://twitter.com/rrmonroe/status/1172657106228588544
https://twitter.com/better_legends/status/1172872470946308096

The framework above suggests some reasons, even being agnostic about the aesthetic quality of the cover. First, place: Hasbro has these in distribution, and the retail channel both increases the likelihood that “new Eberron book” will enter the audience’s consideration set for entertainment expenditure and provides an avenue for purchase. Second, segmentation: based on past products, Wizards of the Coast has a group of loyal customers that will of their own accord seek out official D&D settings or new Eberron products. Third, positioning: D&D has a recognizable brand that immediately places the product in a conceptual space that already exists in the minds of a relatively broad audience. You might respond: of what relevance is D&D brand equity to me, a lowly hobby producer lacking the resources of Hasbro to buy a portion of the collective meaning space that already exists in the minds of potential audience? (That is what the D&D brand is, after all.) The lesson is, again, to get out of your own head and think from the perspective of the people you want to derive value from your creation. Have you created some, however limited, fragment of shared meaning that people other than you will understand? Actual successful communication between people is far less common than most people imagine. Reuse this established conceptual landmarks if possible because otherwise you will have to do that work again.