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Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Moving the blog

I am moving this blog to a git-based version at

For your convenience, here is a link to its RSS feed.

I have migrated many of my old posts there already. I am leaving this site up for the time being, partly because I haven't yet figured out if I can migrate the comment history. If I figure that out, I will shut down this site in short order. I may delete it eventually anyways.

UPDATE: It looks like I've successfully migrated the comments!

It looks like some of the comment metadata got lost in the import to Disqus, so the thread data has been lost. That's a shame as it makes conversations harder to follow. 

I will leave this blog online for now, but am shutting down any new comments.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Another Shot at Theorizing the OSR

Some interesting conversation recently around the "nature" of the OSR. This topic waxes and wanes, and will probably never really be settled, but for what it's worth (almost nothing) I'd like to share a thought that occured to me as I was reading Brendan's post on the topic.

Like Richard, I have my attachments to the term OSR. I'm not convinced by Marcia's positioning of that attachment along the axis of an originary myth, accurate or otherwise. As Brendan notes in the post linked above, such originary claims can be made after the fact. In other words, they might more accurately be interpreted as speech or textual acts that mediate an ongoing social formation, rather than telling its history.

But that's beside the point. If we want to talk about what the OSR is, without questionable historicizing[1] or appeals to beliefs that others may not share, we could do worse than to look at its material culture. In other words, we can think of the OSR as a scene organized around a collection of quasi-canonical texts. We don't have to look very hard to identify these texts: the LBBs, the Basic D&D line, and to a lesser extent AD&D, as well as their retroclones -- in other words, the textual heritage of early D&D -- have been extensively analyzed, debated, and mined by people putatively affiliated with the OSR.[2] We might frame the OSR as a kind of tradition, or network of traditions, of working with those foundational texts.

We engage with these texts in different ways. Some folks are interested in learning more about the culture that produced those texts, others in reenacting that culture, others in searching the texts for principles which may or may not be intended or reflective of that culture. Others don't care much either way and use them out of preference for certain aspects of the text itself (rules lite, fiction-forward, etc.).[3] Some of us still engage with these texts directly, whereas others are happy to build on the interpretive work of intermediaries who have begun to spin these texts into their own trajectories. (Into the Odd and FKR strike me as good examples of OSR "offshoots" that have gone on to generate their own tradition.)

When I shared a draft of this post with Brendan, he raised a very good question:

What do you think of the risk that emphasizing material culture leads to the blind spots of the Forge? That is, people doing hardcore textual analysis and actual play analysis without acknowledging that a lot of the actual game resides in the culture and non-textual norms?

I don't know enough about the Forge to stand behind the part about "blind spots"[4] but the question is valid regardless. I think for me the difference lies in those texts' function as a source of common ground -- a common font of products, play objects, rules, adventures, histories, etc., that we can look at together and talk about. That is, the OSR doesn't all have to have the same relationships to those texts nor the same ideas about them, for them to act the basis for a kind of shared experience. I emphasize the texts here in their status as objects in common, not as containers of authorized meanings.

As a closing conceptual note, I'm flirting with a couple ideas from the philosopher Jacques Rancière and I'd like to give credit to his work. Rancière is interested in questions of how things like art and knowledge give rise to forms of "being in common". I'm not working closely with him here, but half-digested recollections of his writing, particularly on art in Dissensus (2010) and on education in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991), have fed into my thinking in this post.

  1. Although, I want to note, Marcia's historical analysis is excellent ↩︎
  2. You could argue that some subsequent intepretive works, eg. influential blog posts or publications, have themselves become canon. I suspect arguing either way would require a more detailed sociological analysis than I have time for here. ↩︎
  3. For what it's worth, I started off in the final category. ↩︎
  4. Don't @ me. Also, don't @ Brendan, probably. ↩︎

Monday, May 30, 2022

F**k-You Design

I want to talk about a long-standing tendency that's been bothering me in OSR-inflected design spaces.

I'll start this off with a working definition of good game design for OSR play. Piggybacking on a recent post by Ram, I believe an essential function of good OSR design is to trace out the limits of a negative imaginative space that is filled out in play through GM stage-setting and player action.[1] When I say the rules trace out the limits, I mean they identify the areas of that space that are ambiguous, complicated, and/or not interesting to imagine, and provide structures that shortcut some of the cognitive work they demand. XP, for all its flaws, is a good example of this: The gradual process of skill development through practice and training is both difficult to represent fictionally and not of interest to most old D&D-derived games except as a sort of background pacing mechanism for character growth; XP abstracts away that fictional murkiness and replaces it with a tidy if idiosyncratic point system.

Equally important for a fantasy game, rules help define areas of the imaginative space where a lack of grounding in familiar concepts makes it difficult to reach consensus through pure narration. In other words, it is easy to imagine a door and the various things it can do, because we are quite familiar with doors. A little more removed from our common experience is something like hand to hand combat, but combat rules help break down the chaos and complexity of a skirmish into a set of graspable concepts and procedures. And none of us have any real experience with the kind of magic common to your average fantasy game. We can't talk about manipulating magical forces the way we talk about manipulating a door, without some common frame of reference. This is why the old D&D magic system is, if not excellent game design, then at least good enough: it tells us in more or less concrete terms what effects a magician can produce, and under what circumstances.

In contrast to good or good-enough design, I want to talk about something I call fuck-you design.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Doing the Impossible

Lately I’ve been riding the bandwagon of interest in FKR-inspired design. I’m especially intrigued by diegetic advancement. This is a concept that holds a lot of promise in terms of replacing my least favourite legacy system: XP. However, I’m not convinced diegetic advancement has quite arrived in terms of implementation.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

My only take on AC

I can't believe I'm even writing about ascending/descending AC. Blame Marcia, who's doing some fascinating work with the old Chainmail tables.

Look, here's my only take on ascending AC:

If you're using AC to reference a table, don't express AC as a number. You can use letters! Letter grade AC! It makes it so much less confusing when the number on the sheet is separate from the number you're rolling against.

So here we go: Unarmoured = D, Leather = C, Chain = B, Plate = A

If there's a shield, you get a +. So Plate + Shield = A+.

That's it. That's the take.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

D&D Theology in The Raven Tower

Ann Leckie's The Raven Tower is a short fantasy novel told from the perspective of a demigod. Like all her other novels, it is a deft and thoughtful exploration of a way of being fundamentally different from our own. More relevant to this blog, it is also a compelling account of how deities (and their clerics) in your standard D&D setting might work.

In this article I'm going to try and summarize what gods in The Raven Tower are, and how their powers work. While ultimately I'd suggest you just go read the novel, I understand that not all readers have the time, money, or interest to do so. Still, I recommend it, especially if the breakdown in this post is interesting to you. The post will contain some minor spoilers, although I am confident it will not give away any critical plot details.

Also note that I listened to an audiobook of The Raven Tower, to which I no longer have access, about two years ago. Therefore, my recollections on some points are hazy, and I am unable to go back to the text to clarify.

The nature of gods

Gods in The Raven Tower are beings of pure mind and will. They occupy a particular point in space and can inhabit some physical body (examples include a rock, a dog, a swarm of mosquitos, a skull) but do not need to. Their exact origin, and relationship to the wider cosmology, is left ambiguous in the book. Gods are not omniscient and their awareness, while not strictly limited by senses as we know them, appears limited to their vicinity.

Everything a god says is true. This does not mean that gods cannot lie, but rather that if it speaks an untruth, the god wills that untruth into being. If a god says "that tree is on fire", the tree must either already be on fire, or it catches fire as soon as the sentence is uttered. Gods' speech is not verbal, so much as a pure expression of intent. In this regard, willpower and physical energy appear to be interchangeable, and speech alters the world largely through the application and manipulation of physical laws. Converting one substance into another means rearranging it at an atomic level; causing it to float means applying sufficient force to counter the pull of gravity. I do not remember whether the law of conservation of matter applies in The Raven Tower, but either way, it is certainly easier to manipulate existing matter than to create it fresh.

Speaking into being in this way expends a god's limited supply of consciousness, and so they have to be careful about what they say. Using up too much of its power robs the god of its essence and ability to think or act. I forget whether gods can truly die, but they can come very close by speaking something that exceeds their capacity. For instance, a god can speak a storm into being for a moment, allowing the storm to dissipate naturally afterward; but if a god says a storm will rage on forever, its power will permanently be funneled into keeping that storm going. Thus, the best way to "harm" a god is to trick it into saying something can't afford to make true.

The sociology of religion

Much as gods can expend energy through will, they accumulate energy as it is given to them. Acts that direct energy to a god nourish them; things like prayer are like a little snack, whereas a mass sacrifice, which gives matter and life over to them, is like a hearty meal. The exact mechanics of this exchange are not explored in depth, but the relationship between the direction of energy and the nourishment of gods make for some of the most interesting moments in the novel.

Something like religion, then, tends to emerge in historical relationships between communities of humans (there are no demi-humans in The Raven Tower) and gods. Humans can provide a steady diet of worship and sacrifice, in exchange for various boons, blessings, miracles, etc. At the same time, gods are cautious about what promises they make their worshippers, and often attach terms that allow them to balance their own resources and avoid overcommiting. For example, a god may promise that so long as certain observances are kept up according to its specifications, it will continue to protect a community from eg. drought, or some other narrowly defined threat.

Because gods' awareness is limited, they sometimes make their power "portable" by attaching a promise to a certain person, object, and/or action. This canonically leads to conditions where a blessed object -- a "god-spoken thing" -- will enact some miracle when a command word or gesture is performed, but only once a day.

(I'm extrapolating now, but you have here the basis for your traditional D&D cleric: A person who has adequately demonstrated their fealty is allowed to ask for a certain number of favours per day. Those favours are pre-defined, ranked according to how costly they are to grant -- levels -- and meted out in limited quantities per day. As they continue to prove their worth, clerics are given access to more and better favours.)

Gods have individual personalities and skills. Gods gradually develop techniques to more efficiently enact certain things. The difference could be between, say, a god that provides better crop yields by learning about and subtly accelerating plants' natural growth processes, and one that isn't as knowledgeable about plants and obtains the same effect by providing good weather all year (the latter presumably being a lot more costly). While their relationships with humans can be quite transactional, gods can also grow attached to humans -- or at least their communities, as individuals don't live very long.


The Raven Tower presents a world where gods live in evolving relationships with humans and one another, and where those relationships are embedded in a kind of pseudo-material economy of willpower. The nature and limitations of Leckie's take on fantasy deities corresponds closely to the way they're instantiated mechanically in D&D, making that novel's theology an excellent fit for your kitchen-sink D&D setting.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Ideating City Adventures, or 12 Ruinations of Pumpai

A Preamble

This post represents an intersection of a number of recent inspirations: For one, Patrick is blogging about Gormenghast, and Nate is sharing his incredible megadungeon lore, which have me thinking about the stories behind huge, beautiful, ruined, dreamy places. Second, I haven't run D&D in a while, and having started to miss it, I've been wanting to work on game material. So I've been thinking about Pumpai, a city I first started dreaming up in around 2014, and have fiddled with intermittently over the years. Some inspiration images:

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens (1947)

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain II (1941)

lokorum (2020)

I'm not going to get into a bunch of detail about Pumpai now, because the point of this exercise is kind of not to do that. In the past I've struggled to flesh out Pumpai for play, so I went back to Joseph Manola's excellent posts about adapting his own city setting to something he can run at the table in his City of Spires game (parts 1, 2, and 3). I was particularly interested in his calls to condense and shrink the setting, as Pumpai has always existed in my mind as something vast and nebulous -- a vibe with infinite potential for specification and variation, rather than something actual and concrete you can put characters in. At the same time, it's important to me that Pumpai be a place that feels old, a place steeped in its history. So I wanted to do some work with it that would both develop it as a place for adventuring and help flesh out its past...