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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.