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. 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.Fuck-you design uses the OSR's imaginative, DIY ethos as justification for big honking holes in its design structure. Specifically, it leaves gaps around important processes or concepts whose real-world counterparts are abstract, complex, or nonexistent. HP, XP, and magic rules are examples of systems devised to provide grounding for such matters, that fuck-you design often omits in the name of minimalism. Fuck-you design will proudly frame its ruleset as a "starting point" or set of building blocks to create the game you want to play, leaving to the reader/player some of the most challenging and essential design tasks. It will incite the reader to follow the fiction and use their imagination. Naturally, why else do we play if not do just that? To those who ask, but how do I situate these question in the fiction? What am I meant to imagine here? These are difficult game design questions, and this design proclaims: Fuck you, figure it out.
Imagine you buy a car, only to discover a big hole where the steering column should be. The owner's manual includes a section on steering that indicates that cars should be able to turn left and right, and encourages you to find a steering solution that works for you and the streets you drive on. It also includes an Example of Driving in which the driver has built their own steering column and uses it to avoid a collision. What it does not include is instructions on how to build a steering column. This is, I believe, not a great way to make a car. Nor is it my favourite way to make a game.
I contend that a lack of desire to invent a magic system on the spot as you play is not a symptom of an impoverished imagination. Rather, it is an entirely reasonable demand by those who would rather play a game than design it. So when Whitehack tells you that your average spell costs 1-6 HP depending on the desired effect, with only the scantest framework for determining that number, it's telling you to stop the game to figure out how to convert a non-real concept into an abstract number every time someone casts a spell. When Cairn tells you to give PCs weapon trainers without much indication of what weapon training entails, how long it takes, or what it means to have such training, that's fuck-you design. The weapon trainers are a tax on the GM, who needs to invent a bunch of bespoke effects and NPCs to teach them, determine what it takes to access that training, and plant those things in the world. Why? Because it is a pretty established expectation of the fantasy game that characters develop and deepen their abilities over time, but Cairn has no structure to simulate people learning things.
A common line of argument in FKR spaces is that this kind of design substitutes trust and communication among players for formal structures. That makes sense, but why is it desirable? Why does playing an RPG need to be shoehorned into a trust-building exercise? If we agree that certain elements of the game design matter and need definition for the game to work well, why is it preferable leave it up to relations between a group of players to fill that gap? As opposed to, I don't know, designing the game? I am all for trust and good relations between players, but I get about three hours with my group on a good week and most of us are already half exhausted. The last thing I want to do with my precious play time, or indeed my equally scarce prep time, is finish making the game.
(Incidentally, this is not a categorical knock against FKR design. One of the better insights of FKR thinking is that you don't need mechanics for something if you can think your way through it fictionally without too much trouble. Fuck-you design treats one or both of the mechanics and fiction as obvious, when they aren't. I have more to say about this distinction, but perhaps it's best left for another post.)
It doesn't bring me any joy to dunk on other people's work like this, and especially not to single anyone out. I also want to underscore that I don't see it as a question of authorial intent or negligence -- I don't know what the author actually meant, felt, or thought, because all I have is the text. But I am also very tired of hearing the same appeals to consensus and "rulings, not rules" in areas where OSR design would most benefit from some real innovation. Fuck-you design protects the designer from the work of making decisions about aspects of a game that are most subject to disagreement and leaves to players at the table the most difficult parts of game design. I hope this post can start a conversation on the value of making some gesture, even if flawed, tentative, or idiosyncratic.
- 2022-05-31: Added footnote 2 and clarification in final paragraph re: authorial intent.