Monthly Archives: December 2018

52 stories

Like many, I make resolutions for the New Year. Unlike many, I avoid resolutions that entail deprivation or significant self-regulation. Instead, I choose some enjoyable activity that I want to be a greater part of my life. Previous resolutions include trying a new cocktail every week, making omelettes on weekends, and working toward a handstand walk (link is the original inspiration; I am still working on this myself). I look for an activity with relatively low bar to entry that I can pursue as a habit, where it is easy to mark progress by doing rather than by level of performance1. I required a resolution with modest level of time commitment due to a number of professional irons in the fire, so for 2018, this past year, I decided to read 52 short stories, on average one per week.

While short stories often lack the ambition and potential of longer fiction, I personally find the form aesthetically superior due to the necessity of tighter constructions and the limited scope for setup and digression. The short story respects the reader’s time rather than simply being a diversion, or, even worse, stringing a reader along extensively while ultimately failing to deliver.

I had an informal bias toward reading hard copies, partly because I have accumulated a number of short story collections. One of my materialist indulgences is the well-bound physical book, and for me reading a nice book facilitates attention and lends a ritualistic aspect to the activity. For fiction in general, my taste leans toward the fantastic and supernatural, as you can probably tell from the list of authors. A few of the 52 were rereads (several of the Leiber stories and Call of Cthulhu), but most were new to me. Ghost stories are heavily represented for whatever reason.

I let the authors themselves define what counts as short, based on the presentation of the story; length ranged from a handful of pages to several hundred pages. Stephen King’s The Mist, which was the longest, could easily have been published as a short novel.

As a further experiment, just after finishing each story I rated my satisfaction with the story, from 1 to 5, where the numbers have the following meanings:

  • 5 Memorable, would surely read again
  • 4 Enjoyable, something made it stand out
  • 3 Decent, but one reading is probably enough
  • 2 Not a total loss, but missing something or caused annoyance somehow
  • 1 Probably would have been better off doing something else

From Green Magic by Jack Vance

Take no strong judgments of quality, originality, or influence from these idiosyncratic ratings. Looking back, there were a few surprises. The few Robert Aickman stories I read fared poorly, despite being one of my favorite short story writers, and Hodgson, whose House on the Borderland might be in my top 10 written works of prose fiction period, also fell short. On the upside, I think every single story I read by Le Guin was a 5. I knew I liked her work before, but that still seems notable. I think my standard for enjoyable stories in the adventure fantasy mode is lower than for, say, ghost stories, where my standard is relatively high.

If I had to pick a single work to spotlight positively, it might be Blackwood’s The Willows. Though Delany’s Nevèrÿon stories ended up mostly 4s, they are remarkable, being, if I had to oversimplify, something like Conan by way of Foucault, flawed only by occasional awkward didacticism. It seems fashionable to hate on Stephen King for his popularity, productivity, and tendency to retell The Lord of the Flies, but when he is good he is on fire2The Mist is one of my favorite stories in the cosmic horror tradition, up there with Lovecraft’s best.

Here are the stories I read, sorted descending by rating. (Order within rating means nothing; consider, for example, Dragonfly and Number Fourteen, both 5s, to be rated equivalently.)

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (rating 5)
  2. The Mist by Stephen King (rating 5)
  3. Bones of the Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  4. Darkrose and Diamond by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  5. The Circle Curse by Fritz Leiber (rating 5)
  6. On the High Marsh by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  7. Number Fourteen by Sarban (rating 5)
  8. The Finder by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  9. Dragonfly by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  10. Green Magic by Jack Vance (rating 5)
  11. Celephaïs by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
  12. The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
  13. The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany (rating 5)
  14. The Tale of Small Sarg by Samuel R. Delany (rating 5)
  15. The Border Line by D. H. Lawrence (rating 5)
  16. The Door to Saturn by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
  17. The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti (rating 4)
  18. Death Nymph by Arthur J. Burks (rating 4)
  19. Odour of Chrysanthemums by D. H. Lawrence (rating 4)
  20. Claws From the Night by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  21. A Tropical Horror by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  22. Jewels in the Forest by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  23. The Kith of the Elf-Folk by Lord Dunsany (rating 4)
  24. Capra by Sarban (rating 4)
  25. The Sunken City by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  26. Ringstones by Sarban (rating 4)
  27. A Rendezvous in Averoigne by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
  28. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen (rating 4)
  29. The Miracle Workers by Jack Vance (rating 4)
  30. The Tale of Gorgik by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  31. The Tale of Old Venn by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  32. The Seven Black Priests by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  33. The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  34. The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  35. The Tale of Potters and Dragons by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  36. The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  37. Hand in Glove by Robert Aickman (rating 3)
  38. The Goddess of Death by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  39. The Red World of Polaris by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
  40. The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
  41. The Rocking Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence (rating 3)
  42. The Haunted Pampero by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  43. The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen (rating 3)
  44. The Dust by Brian Evenson (rating 3)
  45. The Mitr by Jack Vance (rating 3)
  46. The Men Return by Jack Vance (rating 3)
  47. Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany (rating 3)
  48. Out of the Storm by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  49. The Rose Garden by M. R. James (rating 2)
  50. No Time is Passing by Robert Aickman (rating 2)
  51. Conversations in a Dead Language by Thomas Ligotti (rating 2)
  52. Helping the Fairies by Lord Dunsany (rating 2)

For 2019, I have decided to play more video games, though I am unsure yet about the details.

…men of power do not swear, it is not safe… —Le Guin, The Bones of the Earth


1. There is some relation here to Carol Dweck’s idea of learning goals and performance goals. See: Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(1), 5-12.

2. For novels, especially check out The Eyes of the Dragon and The Gunslinger, though I would say avoid all the other Dark Tower books with great prejudice.

Aquaman 2018

Here are some disorganized thoughts about the new Aquaman movie. There will be some light spoilers, but who are you kidding? Nobody goes to this movie for the plot. More below the big image of Atlantis, in case you want to bail.

Atlantis (Image source)

There is a copy of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror on the coffee table that that camera ostentatiously caresses during the prologue sequence. You know that you will be getting a Hollywood take on deep ones or something along those lines. And you do. Deep ones and scary friendly Cthulhu beast.

There is a scene quote of a Tie Fighter dogfight pursuit, underwater, with Ocean Master standing in as Vader.

Ocean Master (Image source)

Speaking of Ocean Master, the actors are, how do I put this, visually enhanced using digital means. It was well done generally, and presented no distraction for me during the movie, but afterwards I went to see who played Ocean Master, and (no shade) but Patrick Wilson is not the blond I was expecting.

Cool helmet (Image source)

The plot is in structure highly similar to that of the recent Black Panther movie, but with Atlanteans rather than Africans, and an error of commission rather than an error of omission on the part of the wicked king. There is a kingdom with magical technology hidden in the modern world, a ritual gladiator challenge of kings, and a big battle scene at the end that I swear Peter Jackson stealth-directed. (I found the battle scene in Aquaman more entertaining than the one at the end of Panther, though.) There are, among other things, crab mecha, giant incendiary catapults that are also seemingly crabs, fish people in power armor, and what look like an underwater crustacean take on space marines. Ocean Master jousts to battle on a colossal caparisoned barracuda rather than use his underwater spaceships with lasers.

Atlantis, with more spaceships (Image source)

Yes, the movie is probably too long, and the plot is 90% predictable, and sometimes you can see it in the actors’ eyes—Do I really have to say this line?—but there are a few sequences of close to cinematographic brilliance, such as the descent into the trench during the storm with the swarms of deep ones, revealed by the light of a red flare, or the chase/fight over the roofs of Sicily. The architectural spectacles of old and new Atlantis are stunning at times as well.

Aquaman (Image source)

The scary friendly Cthulhu-beast is 90% Smaug. Which is fun, I suppose.

This Aquaman clearly checks the box for the “rugged” Grindr Tribe. I get the angle, and Jason Momoa pulls it off. I could do with the stylist turning down the Rob Zombie dial slightly for the next movie though.

And finally, if you ever wanted more Joseph Campbell in your superhero movies, Aquaman has you covered.

More Atlantis (Image source)

What about the R?

(This is one part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Respondents clearly preferred Renaissance (70% of responses) as the meaning of the R in OSR. Revival took silver, with about 20% of responses. After that was a long tail of many different alternatives. Third place was “Rules” (but at less than 4%). Consolation prizes for write-in snark go to: Fuck you, we won (okay dude but where’s the R?), R is for the R in OSR, Revanchist, Regurgitation, and (drum roll…) Reformatting.

Enough respondents wrote something close enough to Roleplaying that I created a category for that response. After coding a few of the Other values into existing categories when obviously warranted (such as when a respondent wrote in “rules” rather than selecting the offered Rules category), the final counts were:

Several people on Reddit suggested to me that question wording may have advantaged certain of the options. I attempted, to the degree possible while maintaining idiomatic English, to avoid reifying OSR as a social category in the survey up to that point. We avoided using the definite article (“the”) in the wording of the eight meaning questions that preceded the question about the R. We mentioned “the OSR” twice up to that point. The first was a mention in the landing page leading to the survey proper. The second was the participation question (Do you participate in the OSR? Yes/No), which would have been difficult or impossible to ask without the definite article. Additionally, we randomized the presentation order of the options, so Ruckus was just as likely to be first option as Renaissance. In retrospect, I might have avoided the definite article in the landing page also and asked the participation question on a following page, but this hardly seems like putting my thumb on the scale, especially given the overwhelming preference for Renaissance.

You can find the remaining write-in responses here, presented in alphabetic order without editing (n = 65). Also, for those interested, here is the exact presentation that respondents saw: meaning questions page 1, meaning questions page 2, and the page containing the question about the R. (Remember that we randomized presentation of the eight meaning questions across two pages in the actual survey.)

I also tested several categorical associations with tendency to choose Renaissance over other options. Of the categories I examined, only self-declared OSR participation had an association with choice of Renaissance. The number of observations varies slightly by test due to skipped questions.

    • Self-declared OSR participation: χ2(1, N = 1816) = 13.16, p < .001
    • Residence in North America: χ2(1, N = 1821) = .95, p = .329
    • Having published an OSR product: χ2(1, N = 1786) = .65, p = .419

(253 respondents reported that they had published an OSR product, around 14% of responses.)

Association between self-declared OSR participation and reading the R as Renaissance


OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & participation
  2. What about the R?
  3. Meaning respondents associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR attributes
  6. OSR play behavior

5E stat line basis

Unnecessary prolixity (from Basic Rules)

I am working on an adventure and trying to decide which system to use for stats. The potential options that have some currency in the collective psyche right now seem to be: the first gen retro-clones (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord), Lamentations, DCC, Fifth Edition, and B/X Essentials. A stripped down 5E stat line seems like it may have the greatest reach and functionality of these options.

For personal use, the choice is largely irrelevant to me numerically, as I am comfortable ruling and interpreting on the fly for the most part. However, ease of use and discoverability are factors I consider when writing for others. The clones of TSR games (first gen retro-clones and B/X Essentials) are all mechanically equivalent, apart from minor differences in magnitude assumptions (traceable largely back to the different dice used by OD&D, the basic line, and AD&D). I suspect that it might be less intuitive for a 5E referee to upconvert from an OSR stat line than it would be for an OSR referee to downconvert from 5E.

I would avoid using the official style stat block, which sacrifices page real estate to standardization. For example, only a totally inflexible rules drone would need text to tell them that a trebuchet is immune to sleep spells or that a suit of animated armor is immune to being deafened. (Seriously 5E designers, WTF?) It seems most functional to select key stats and use 5E terms when the choice would be otherwise arbitrary.

Assuming 5E stats make the most sense in some form, I see two possibilities: 1) present a stripped-down form of 5E numbers or 2) present both “old school” and “new school” stats explicitly, but still tailored for concision. I suspect option 2 would be more accessible, but also less elegant. An example of option 1 (5E numbers, implicit conversion) might be:

Goblin. HP 2d6/7, AC 15 (lightly armored), proficiency +2, STR -1, DEX +2, WIS -1, CHA -1, stealth +6, challenge ¼ (50 XP), disengage or hide as bonus action, see in the dark

This is actually almost 100% of the information present in the official stat block. Even with super-vanilla goblins, weapon details would vary and so I see minimal benefit to adding them in the actions section (and of course I would rarely use super-vanilla goblins). Option 2 would have two subsections, prefaced with Old School and New School labels respectively, and probably take 2-4 lines for the full stats of a monster with medium complexity. While I like the no-nonsense approach of just calling out that categorization, you can probably imagine yourself what it would look like. In the process of writing this out, I am leaning toward option 1, if using 5E numbers is a given. Just doing a simple Labyrinth Lord or B/X Essentials presentation also remains appealing. I do like the ability to use the DEX, INT, and other stats as easy ways to call out agile monsters, and so forth.

Guidelines for conversion

  • DCC. 5E constitution, dexterity, and wisdom saves can serve as DCC fortitude, reflex, and will saves.
  • Descending AC. To get a descending AC value, subtract 10 from AC and subtract that from 10. (So: 18 ⟶ 8 ⟶ 10 − 8 ⟶ 2.) Starting with 5E values actually yields pretty good results from this procedure, compared to 3E/4E, due to the bounded accuracy design principle. It is also worth remembering that even if numbers are off by 1, that just means differences of 5%, which is unnoticeable in practice.
  • Old school damage. Ignore proficiency when rolling damage. So the goblin’s 1d6+2 damage becomes a flat 1d6.

OSR survey: meaning

(This is one part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Over the past few years, I have been continually surprised by the degree of disagreement, confusion, and, occasionally, vitriol regarding the meaning of OSR. I think it is uncontroversial to state that the meaning is contested. It is unclear, however, whether there is any consensus and, more generally, what is the structure of underlying beliefs. Summarizing, the results of the survey support at least three main aspects of OSR meaning. Agreement about these three aspects varies by respondent age, with younger respondents seeing greater conflict between the aspects compared to older respondents. There are other variables to consider, but I will focus on age and self-declared participation in this post.

Age and participation might influence beliefs about OSR for many reasons. Considering rules, older participants might have played older games when they were originally released and so have a different frame of reference compared to younger players. Self-declared participants in the OSR may have different priorities, or more information, compared to self-declared non-participants. We asked respondents directly about participation. (Do you participate in the OSR? Yes/No.) We also asked five questions about identification with the OSR using a seven-point agreement scale (for example, I feel a bond with the OSR). Respondents who participate in the OSR also identify more with the OSR (by approximately 1.75 points of agreement, or the difference between Somewhat agree and Strongly agree).

Before I describe the associations in the survey between meaning beliefs and age or participation, it is worth first looking at the beliefs in aggregate, over all responses. Following are the means of the OSR is… questions, which I think of as the basic “meaning” questions. We also asked each of these questions in terms of respondent desires, so we will be able to look at the discrepancy between what people believe OSR is and what they want it to be.

OSR meaning across all responses

These averages tell a simple story, which is that respondents agree most that OSR refers to a play style and set of design principles. Respondents agree somewhat that OSR is a scene or movement and that OSR is a collection of aesthetics. Respondents are close to neutral, on average, about the commercial aspect of OSR. Looking at the text of each question, and the averages, three pairs seem to hang together conceptually, tapping into game design, social, and commercial aspects, with aesthetics and specific rules off in their own space. Formal statistical analysis1 leads to the same conclusion, so I averaged each of those three pairs into new scores for the game design, social, and commercial aspects. In the following figures, I color code aspects where possible, using black for rules, green for commerce, and blue for social interaction. I created similar scores for aspects as desired (that is, what respondents say they would like OSR to mean).

The following figure shows a box plot of the three aspects. Quartiles determine the look of box plots. The central line in each box shows the median. The diamonds represent outside values, which are values more than 1.5 quartiles away from the median.

OSR meaning and desired meaning based on quartile

One way to interpret the the greater number of outside values for the rules aspect compared to the other aspects is that there is more consensus around the rules aspect. The quartiles are tighter. Looking at a similar figure that compares OSR participants to non-participants yields similar conclusions, though participants seem to both perceive and want a greater social component. (The right pane below is OSR participants.) It is perhaps unsurprising that the discrepancy between perception and desire is greater for non-participants than participants on average, as that mismatch may be part why non-participants avoid participating to begin with.

Box plots comparing meaning for self-declared OSR participants with non-participants

Age provides a potential explanation, at least partially, for broader misunderstanding and disagreement, shown in the following figure. Younger respondents seem to have stronger beliefs about OSR meaning compared to older respondents (as in, positions more strongly held). Further, there is a stark divide between commerce and social/game design aspects for younger players. Older players seem to agree, relatively speaking, that OSR is more about rules than social interaction or commerce, but are basically neutral, on average, regarding OSR as commerce or social interaction. (The pattern looks similar if I plot a figure using years playing tabletop roleplaying games as the independent variable, rather than age.) I suggest only interpreting the linear predictions (the lines) for age < 60, as the number of responses decreases markedly for age > 60.

OSR meaning aspect trends over respondent age

This pattern is similar for non-participants compared to participants, though older non-participants have much stronger aversion to the social component of the OSR (see figure below). Though the left pane may look sparse compared to the right pane, 372 responses is substantial.

OSR meaning aspect trends over respondent age, separating non-participants (left) and participants (right)



1. A three-factor model fits the data best, with the three item pairs loading heavily on factors consistent with the three aspects explained above. For stats nerds, I used exploratory factor analysis with maximum likelihood estimation and oblique promax rotation. I chose oblique rotation because the latent variables are correlated above a conventional threshold, making orthogonal rotation less appropriate. I chose to score latent variables using averages rather than factor scores so that interpretation of the results in terms of the seven-point response scale is possible.


OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & participation
  2. What about the R?
  3. Meaning respondents associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR attributes
  6. OSR play behavior

OSR survey participation

(This is one part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

This is the first post of several where I will summarize the results of the OSR survey Ben and I ran. The survey was open from December 3rd through December 8th (2018). Given the high level of participation, and a handful of common critiques, after I have a chance to post some results I plan to ask for general feedback about how we ran the survey and what people might like to see in the future. For those who want a short summary, the TLDR of this post is that there were 2000+ responses (that is a lot), mostly from North America/Europe, and some basic demographics (such as age and country of residence) are similar for OSR participants and non-participants (based on self-categorization).

Purpose

A few people asked why we were running the survey at all. The superficial (but true) answer is that I saw Ben post a question on Google Plus about what questions people might like to see on a hypothetical OSR survey. I was curious too, and I have some experience running surveys so I reached out, and here we are. The slightly more involved (and also true) answer is that I have been, over the last several years, continually surprised by seeming confusion, misunderstanding, and disagreement surrounding the meanings that people attach to the term OSR. Personally, I am primarily curious about the degree to which there is consensus about this meaning, whether the meaning differs substantially between people that consider themselves to be participating in (the?) OSR, and whether the meaning people currently see matches what they would like. Secondarily, I am also curious about what content (at the game level) people consider OSR, the geographical distribution of people that participate in (the?) OSR, and favorite OSR products. Other questions may occur to me as I proceed (and feel free to suggest questions if you have any).

Responses

2018 respondents completed the survey (that serendipitous number is a coincidence). Based on some preliminary checks, I see no sign of brigading, bots, or similar threats to data quality. 134 responses failed the attention check near the end. 46 responses provided age greater than 100 and one response gave age less than 10. 9 respondents specified that I should discard their response entirely. None of these responses will contribute to my summaries. After exclusion, there were 1,828 responses. To the question Do you participate in the OSR?, 1450 respondents said Yes, 372 respondents said No, and 6 skipped the question.

Generalizability

Several people seemed suspicious about why we asked any demographic questions. The point of such questions is have some basis from which to generalize the results. For example, if respondents skew older, it would be inappropriate to assume results represent the beliefs of younger players. And so forth. Additionally, many people indicated, both to me directly and in the final “share anything” question, that they found the two items about political orientation insufficient to accurately communicate beliefs. Due to this feedback, and to ease concerns that there is some prior political agenda motivating the survey, we decided to avoid looking at those measures. Most obviously, these results speak more to the beliefs about people who talk about games online. Only people who frequent RPG forums or follow people who talk about RPGs on social media are likely to have heard about the survey at all, so that is a property of the sampling process. Put another way, we oversampled (heavily, perhaps close to exclusively) people who spend large amounts of time on hobbies online. That is, however, appropriate to OSR, which originated and developed online.

Figures

The first two figures show scatter plots of responses over time. The first plot shows how long participants took to answer the survey, in minutes. For ease of visual interpretation, I avoided plotting a handful of observations where respondents took an extra-long amount of time to submit the survey, though these responses still contribute to other results. The second plot shows respondent age, which drifts very slightly up according to the trend over time, though it is difficult to see. Plots such as these often show potential confounds or technical errors. Nothing like that jumps out at me.

Response Duration Over Time (the X axis represents about one week)

Respondent Age Over Time (the X axis represents about one week)

Responses by day (survey dashboard)

The mean response age was 36.81 (SD = 9.88, n = 1828) and the stats are similar for self-declared OSR participants (Mage = 36.58, SD = 9.87, n = 1450) and self-declared OSR non-participants (Mage = 37.64, SD = 9.90, n = 372).

Respondent Age Distribution

There was a mix of people that have been playing tabletop roleplaying games for a while and people that started more recently. My guess is that the frequencies by year shown below approximately reflect general industry fortunes.

Year Started Playing Tabletop Roleplaying Games

I categorized responses by rough geographic area based on country of residence. Yes, I know that “Asia” is an oversimplification, but look at the number of responses before you object. Participants that skipped the country item, or responses that were ambiguous to me, show up in the “Uncertain” category (as in, I am uncertain). The majority of responses are, unsurprisingly, from North America (65%), and 89% are from North America plus Europe combined (being relatively expansive about the definition of Europe). So when you are thinking about what kinds of conclusions you can draw from these results, keep that in mind. This survey should give a decently representative picture of people from North America and Europe who talk about tabletop roleplaying games online, but speak less to players living in other cultures.

Geography or responses (overall)

Geography of responses (self-declared OSR participants)

Geography of respondents (self-declared OSR non-participants)

The social media context in which people reside may be even more important, for purposes of measuring beliefs about OSR, than physical geography. Respondents indicated where they heard about the survey, and that seems like a reasonable, if imperfect, proxy for social media environment. The immediate takeaway here is that Reddit is huge. The secondary takeaway is that the survey represents a much wider swath of RPG players than those that I hang around, as my crowd is mostly on Google Plus and blogs at the moment. We also asked people about how often they used various platforms for talking about games, but I think that is enough for now.

Social media context


OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & participation
  2. What about the R?
  3. Meaning respondents associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR attributes
  6. OSR play behavior