Monthly Archives: August 2018

Down in it

My new home workspace is approaching its final form; this configuration exposes the great white tower of D&D—see included image. (Previously, the great white tower was in my closet.) Because of this, I end up looking at all these DCC books on my shelf every time I enter the room or sit down at my desk. This makes me want to run some DCC. Following is a campaign brief, which I plan to run online and probably in person (primarily Vancouver).


DCC in the great white tower of D&D

A long time ago on a planet far away, some inconsiderate wizard opened a gate to hell, or somewhere so unpleasant as to be indistinguishable. The monsters that emerged from this gate proved greatly inconvenient. To avoid all that nonsense, a conclave of magician magnates built a sky-arc. These magicians took their disciples, drudges, and minions up into the sky, to live in a superterrene approximation of safety. Up above it, they look down relatively securely and smugly from their celestial refuge.

When a lower-caste superterrestrial misbehaves, the punishment is either temporary or permanent exile. Sometimes, the miscreant must complete some task or recover some object on the surface before being permitted to return. When this happens, the magnates send a prison barge to the surface to deposit exiles. The campaign begins when a prison barge crashes mysteriously. The crash survivors will provide characters for the starting funnel and the prison barge wreck will function as a starting base. The immediate concern will be to survive on the hostile, savage surface world. I see the style as lurid and fantastical, esoteric rather than veiled technology.

Ned Dameron (Kull,1985 Grant edition)

To create the campaign world, I plan to draw from some official DCC modules, using elements to build up a sandbox. I will salvage background and world details based on module implications. I have few other predetermined ideas about the setting, which factions are villainous, or really anything else. We will discover those elements together through play. I will continue to flesh out campaign details based on what players attend to.

I will make content from modules of vastly different levels accessible from the beginning of the campaign. Though I will endeavor to provide clues and warnings regarding danger level, I will make no effort to ensure that challenge is proportional to adventurer capabilities. Proceed at your own risk.


Stephen Fabian (Dream of X, 1977 Grant edition)

I will be using the core DCC rules as written, including the zero-level funnel, with the following adjustments and clarifications.

Funnel. Following a funnel, players must choose one adventurer for promotion to first level. Any additional surviving zero-level characters will become retainers.

Encumbrance. You can carry one item per point of strength without penalty. Some items stack several per slot, usually 6, such as torches, throwing knives, flasks of oil, and so forth. If uncertain, ask. Each additional item carried beyond the limit provided by strength rating imposes a cumulative -1 to physical d20 checks (such as attack rolls and saving throws).

Time. I will use the Hazard System to track passage of time and resource attrition. I may use some additional event engines on the back end to keep the gears turning as well.

Ned Dameron (Kull, 1985 Grant edition)

Recuperation. To recover lost HP, adventurers must take a haven turn to rest and recover, following the Hazard System rules, rather than reckoning HP replenishment based on measured time passage.

Experience. Experience will only accrue to adventurers that return to base by the end of a session. Any experience earned during a session where an adventurer fails to return to base will be lost. Additionally, the players must roll on a table to determine the method of return, which may have deleterious outcomes similar to the triple secret random random dungeon fate chart of very probable doom, though likely somewhat less punitive. This rule is to simplify bookkeeping and facilitate variable player groupings. I will provide 30 and 15 minute warnings as the end of a session approaches.

Fictional epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read a sitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Apocalypse World 2E, p. 144)

Apocalypse World agendas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel from Berserk chapter 93

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

Reading Apocalypse World

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

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

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

Note on editions

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

Additional resources

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