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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.

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,[2] 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.

  1. As a working definition, please regard this as non-exhaustive and instrumental to the present argument, rather than a complete theory of design.↩︎
  2. Or, since the last thing I want is for this post to turn into a conversation about RPG monetization ethics, let's just say you "get" or "have" a car.↩︎

Edit history

  • 2022-05-31: Added footnote 2 and clarification in final paragraph re: authorial intent.


  1. I prefer Whitehack's magic system over almost all other D&D types precisely because of its vagueness. Casting Fireball or Sleep in D&D doesn't feel like magic, it is too confined and predictable. Deliberating the effect, scope and duration between GM and player in Whitehack does feel like crafting a spell. Also, there are some guidelines about the amount of HP (between d6-2 and 2d6+2) it costs: "... the player can negotiate a lower cost by including rare ingredients, drawbacks, extra casting time, drugs, etc."

  2. Great post! I have had similar thoughts when reading many minimal games, from OSRish pamphlet games to one-page RPGs like Lasers & Feelings. Also more than one OSR game has declared that bestiaries are boring and GMs should just invent their own monsters, without even giving any guidance on how to make good opponents.

    As for Whitehack, I love its magic system because I find that process of building spells really engaging, but it is Work and I don't run Whitehack for all my groups and when I recommend Whitehack it's always with a qualification that the DIY magic is not for everyone.

    1. The lack of bestiaries is really sad because monster books are the most interesting part of the book for people who aren't rules-heads. I imagine they're time consuming to write and expensive to illustrate, which might make them less desirable to produce?

  3. I think this is a solid critique, but you may have perhaps lumped Cairn into something it's not.

    I much prefer the type of narrative growth indicated by the system, and personally don't find it difficult not taxing (of course not it's my game!). But I do think it is lacking solid examples and procedures to help folks with it, which is why I added a section in the FAQ, and plan on expanding on it in the next release. The reason I don't have it in the original book is not to say "fuck you" (and anyone interacting with me in this space knows that isn't a thing I would ever say) but more that I wanted a tool to run the games I like, and as a non-professional designer I accepted that there would be all kinds of missing chunks in the rules (otherwise I would never have finished it).

    Anyway here is the bit in the FAQ (including a section on trainers):

    In the end, I think your criticism is solid (though perhaps you weren't aware of the website?) But I really don't appreciate you calling it "fuck you" design. That isn't what I'm about. Hell the game is free and POD. The last thing I want to tell people is 'fuck you " about anything.

    1. Hi Yochai, thanks for these comments. I've run Cairn a few times and have read the FAQ. The examples of training are appreciated but still without some indication of underlying principles (as far as I can tell the examples given contradict the principles outlined for growth?) they're of limited use -- or at least require more interpretation than I have time for.

      I had mixed feelings about calling out specific games and still do, especially as I like your work, but I needed examples and the training stuff is the freshest and most recent example I've encountered. For what it's worth I don't mean to frame the "fuck you" as a reflection of a game's (or its author's) ethos.

    2. I don't mind the criticism, but I think the assumption of authorial intent is off, that's all. There are huge gaps in Cairn (if there weren't, it would never have been published). I can understand why someone would struggle with some bits, especially if they were used to better scaffolding.

      There was one goal in mind when writing Cairn: Into The Odd, but Fantasy. ItO doesn't have levels and relies on foreground growth (and Chris notoriously is a bit mum about how it all works). I've never had issues with this kind of narrative advancement, but I understand the difficulty it might present (hence the example of play in the FAQ).

      The problem I have with your analogy of the car is that I have never sold the game to anyone. You can get it free or PoD. There is no bait and switch.

      You can write all you like about how rules lite games are missing important chunks (and I agree, Cairn is that!) but the framing and title here is not only offensive to a minor degree but implies an intent that could not be further from the truth!

    3. Again, I am not trying to speak to intent, which I was I meant above about not wanting to reflect on the author's ethos. And I'm not trying to start a conversation about the ethics of charging or not charging -- I may as well have said the car is given freely. I regret that it has come off that way.

    4. I really appreciate that you mentioned specific games because I wasn't sure what you meant by your critique until you did. Ironically, your critique made Whitehack and Cairn more appealing to me. As a GM, I don't feel put-upon if a game asks me to make stuff up, even if it's magic or training, since that's my kind of fun.

    5. I think coming from a storygame background really helped in this respect; the assumptions around collaborative worldbuilding and such made this sort of thing easier for folks like me, I think. Much as the familiarity of levels and XP help orient folks from other backgrounds.

    6. The impression I got of Cairn's "authorial voice" is very collaborative, welcoming, and kind. I did think that the entry on diagetic advancement in the rulebook felt like a punt, however. The expanded section in the FAQ is very helpful, in that it gives example effects ("ok, this game wants enhanced/impaired rather than bonuses, use becoming deprived as a balancing cost, got it") and some guidance on what sources of training look like. I think you can get away with a "make it up" ethos, even in some load-bearing parts of a game, as long as you've included the right tools/framework to help the referee improvise the right way for the game. For another example, Lair of the Lamb doesn't have a bestiary but it does have a section for how to convert/invent monsters so that they work for that system and the adventure includes some monsters as examples.

  4. This is an excellent analysis, and helps me put my finger on why a lot of rules-light games I've looked at have left me cold.

    An interesting corollary: the more familiar a given group is with a certain aspect of play, the less they need rules to shortcut those areas. For example if everyone in a gaming group does HEMA, they will be much more able to think through what happens in combat fictionally, drawing on their shared expertise, and need the abstracted combat system less. They may even find that the abstraction of the combat system starts to chafe. I haven't looked deeply into FKR spaces, but I get the impression that they try to trade on this dynamic a lot -- substituting research for rules when it comes to aspects of play one doesn't encounter in daily life. I wonder if the storygame background assumptions about collaborative worldbuilding that Yochai Gal mentions serve a similar function in a different way; letting those unfamiliar areas be covered smoothly in the course of play versus cutting them out of the negative space of normal play by explicitly covering them in the scaffolding rules.

    1. This is a great point. In the post I take aim at "design" issues but perhaps a more accurate framing would be "writing conventions" (interesting question: in RPGs, where do you draw the line between those?). I suspect, as you and Yochai have both noted, that I might find these ideas easier to work my way into if I were better acquainted with some aspects of the context and subtext.

      But then I think back to Whitehack and remember that sometimes a game just tells you to assign an arbitrary number to a thing. Editions of D&D have done this exact thing for years and, for all their flaws, have put a lot of work into making the calculation of such a number into something communicable and more or less rational. Which returns me to the question of what is or is not reasonable to expect from a game text. (Again, I notice I'm talking about text now and not design. Hmm...) Whitehack does a pretty poor job of telling you how to derive that number while also placing it near the center of its design (aha! There's the design!). This means that players will eventually need to derive some functional (and presumably consistent) way of answering that question.

      My question, which I would love an answer to (in general, not from you in particular) is why it's preferable to leave that answer out of the text. Why is it better for each group to derive their own method for doing this kind of abstract quasi-math? What, besides a slimmer volume, does a group stand to gain from developing that procedure themself? What does the game lose when the author provides their own answer?

  5. Imagine you buy a pair of shoes, only to complain that the steering column is missing.

    If you don't like Whitehack or Cairn, play something else. Lots of people on the other hand like them and play them successfully. Maybe they don't need - nor want! - a steering column after all.

    >If we agree that certain elements of the game design matter and need definition for the game to work well

    We don't agree. That's the point you're clearly missing. If you disagree with the premise/ethos/goal of FKR, don't play FKR, it's not for you.

    > It doesn't bring me any joy to dunk on other people's work like this

    Then don't do it? You could've worded your thoughts in many ways, and you went with the offensive one.

    1. Hello! Apologies, blogger doesn't notify me of comments so I'm only seeing this now.

      Sorry if my language offends. Again, I'm not trying to accuse anyone of bad faith. I would appreciate if people allowed me some leniency with my tone. The dunking I refer to is the actual criticism, not swearing, a thing I figured people in this space largely have the stomach for. I'm annoyed the tone is the thing people are honing in on, but I guess I made my bed there.

      If I'm following the gist of your comment correctly, your argument is that I'm misapprehending the ethos of FKR. This is entirely possible as I've lurked those conversations more than engaged. However, are you saying the FKR puts no value on game design whatsoever? That there is no need for any structure of any kind, ever? If so, why not just play pretend? I mean, true Calvinball-style make-it-up as you go pretend, with no framing, no mechanisms, no precedence?

      I've always understood FKR design to be oriented at distilling the minimum sufficient amount of structure to support a certain type of game. If that doesn't touch on matters of game design and definition, then what is it? What am I misunderstanding here, and what is a more correct formulation? If I'm missing the point, what is the point I'm missing?

      I'm also, again, really not taking a categorical dig at FKR. I've been following it for years and think it's full of good ideas. If anything I am trying to speak back to where I see persistent issues in both FKR and OSR work (Whitehack predates FKR by a number of years!). I also emphasized in the post the way fiction-first framing and "worlds, not rules" can potentially remedy address some of the holes I'm taking about, although I have yet to see a persuasive proof of concept.


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