Zedeck Siew on the beauty in the OSR

Zedeck Siew just wrote a blog post that I really like. It captures what I, as well as him, see as the beauty in the OSR, and what has made it the centre-of-gravity of my gaming universe for years. Not the grognards obsessing over how Gygax ran things, not the fascist-adjacents and the abusers, but the people who embrace rpgs as their own genre and who bring their own weird everything into the game.

My favourite quote:

So, yes: Dark Souls and metal music. But also references weirder, personal, and as-yet-untapped: Zomia, punk zines, walks in backyard forests, Birkenhead folklore, the Permian Period, Moebius, East Malaysian myth – Composted together to the point they become game things utterly unlike anything else, and the stories / experiences you can have in those game things you can have nowhere else.

https://zedecksiew.tumblr.com/post/661198838065922049/sentimental-thoughts-about-the-osr

…but I’d recommend you read the whole thing. It’s not long.

The Bleak Holdfast of the Heartless Queen – out at DTRPG

I’ve just published my second adventure module — The Bleak Holdfast of the Heartless Queen. It’s currently $4 at DTRPG.

Back cover blurb:

“High above the snow line there is a castle on a crag. It is an object of fear and hatred, because the Heartless Queen holds court there and she is pitiless in her anger and host to terrible friends. Between the Frost Wyrms, the Ice Harpies, and the Frozen Thing that Guards the Bridge, even getting in is difficult.

Most locals stay as far away as they can, but between courage, pride, and burning vengeance there are always some willing to take a shot at it. And travellers from the soft, warm south might hear stories of the Queen’s fantastical treasures and be oblivious about the horrors that protect them.”

It’s built using Old-School Essentials as the rules reference, and I’ve roughly tuned it for 5-6 PCs of 3rd level or slightly fewer of 4th.

(added 26 April) Some prosaic notes for the prospective DM – the module features:

  • A 70  location adventure site with a complex multi-path (‘Jaquay’d’) layout
  • Several goals the PCs could have within that space
  • An unusual environment (a castle made largely of ice)
  • Several detailed NPCs, some of whom can be set against each other
  • Several distinctive creature and minor NPC types
  • An adversary roster to help you predict the castle’s response to disturbance

(if you’re intimidated by my recent productivity, it might help you to know that I’ve been working on this, and The Pit in the Forest, on and off since January 2020.)

I don’t like reading rpg books

I value playing rpgs over reading rpgs, and that’s partly because I have very limited interest in doing the latter — reading most rpg books doesn’t feel like something that’s worth my time. Recently I’ve been thinking about why? Why don’t I enjoy this?

Primarily, it’s because I don’t have that much time I want to spend on reading. So I don’t need volume; I want impact. And by going to wider-interest books I can get:

  • Fiction that’s much better written (recent example — Gabrielle Squailia’s Viscera)
  • Non-fiction that’s of much greater value because it tells me about the real world (current example — Abulafia’s The Great Sea)

I.e. the payoffs are just much higher.

The Pit in the Forest – out at DTRPG

I’ve just published my first actual adventure module — The Pit in the Forest. It’s currently $2 $3 on DTRPG.

Bryce quite likes it.

Back cover blurb:

In Claine Forest near Padduck Village there has appeared a pit. No-one knows where it came from, it just did. It is not so deep that you cannot see the bottom, but people fear it and avoid it. No-one who has climbed into it has come back, having been dragged beneath the surface by unseen hands.

A necromancer has come to the forest, seeking the pit. She does not quite know what she expects from it, but what she hopes for is protection from death.

It’s built for 5-6 PCs of levels 2-3, and to run under most OSR rulesets.

Immortal levels in A Broken Candle

In A Broken Candle, normal xp will only get you to level 6. To go any further, you need to be more than human. You need to be an immortal, a being that defies death, a being that spits in the eye of normal causality.

There are several ways to do this.

Ascent by murder

Learn the Ritual of Spiteful Ascencion and kill an existing immortal as part of it. If you’ve spent a season working closely with them, and learning their heart, you can be confident that it’s you, not them, who will be the one ascending. What you can’t guarantee is that you will ever quite be rid of them.

Ascent by devotion

Identify a god who is able and willing to accept saints, and do a penance of the god’s choosing. If you you precede this with a season doing the god’s mundane worship and propitiation, you can be confident they won’t just make you a god-beast in their image. What you can’t guarantee is that the things the god later makes you do are palatable, legal, or safe.

The God of the Church of the Lowlands is not accepting applications at this time. But there are other gods in the forests and the hills.

One further concern with this method is that the Church does not like living saints, and is often assiduous in its attempts to canonise them.

Ascent by loci

Identify a place of power of a suitable type, and take control of it. If you spend a season or so getting to know the place and its cycles and its history, you can be confident you won’t just be a genius loci, and thus will be able to leave. What you can’t guarantee is that someone won’t attack you through your locus while you’re away.

Ascent by contempt of death

Master, or gain the services of someone who has mastered, the great necromancies. Then die, and rise again. If you premptively bolster your spirit with the minds and bodies of three unlucky mortals, you can be reasonably confident you’ll get past the comma in the previous sentence. What you can’t avoid, however, is that after you ascension you will be fucking terrifying and will smell bad.

Ascent by elevation

Rumour has it that the Risen Men have a way to raise you up. It’s reliable, safe, and makes you more yourself than you have ever been before.

I mostly care about rules that help me shape the narrative

I’ve often been confused about how rules matter in traditional GMed games. But over time I’ve got clearer that explicit, formal rules are:

  • Huge for GMless games (there’s a huge space to play with there, with all kinds of interesting effects possible)
  • Nearly as huge for weak-GM games (think of Inspectres or Swords Without Master)
  • … then progressively less important as the GM role gets stronger.

Justin Alexander then clinched it for me — “most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry.” (source). Most rpgs, at least those of a “traditional”, “mainstream”, big-book kind, are very similar to each other, having rules that cover much the same space of substantive rules about how the major game events develop. They often have huge fine-detail subsystems, but they don’t fundamentally change how the game plays out — they don’t change the kind of larger-scale narratives that it produces.

And it’s those large-scale narratives that I care about, whether as player or as GM. I care about how we shape the emerging story in meaningful ways. I can’t care much, any more, about fine details of how fireballs work or how magic recharges. What I care about is the big-picture shape of how the story develops, and whether I (as a player, as a GM, whatever) have control and/or responsibly.

The best explanation I’ve seen of this is Vincent Baker discussing the diceless core of Apocalypse World (see my post on that). AW’s agenda, principles, and “always say” lay out rules for conducting yourself as an AW MC. They have you hand over a lot of responsibility to the players. They are not rules in a narrow mechanical sense, but rules of conduct that require human interpretation. If you follow a reasonable interpretation of those rules, they will shape how you GM. They will rule out railroading, rule out forcing the players to listen you, and rule out several other pathologies.

It’s those kind of fundamental rules that I find interesting now — those rules that have real power to meaningfully shape play.

The AW MCing rules are similar to broad-strokes GMing guidance like McDowall’s ICI Doctrine. That’s not presented as rules at all, but it can be interpreted as such, and if followed it can have a powerful shaping effect on play. It certainly shapes how I GM at the moment, in the way that e.g. a particular combat system wouldn’t have.

To summarise — the vast majority of rpg rules changes don’t change how the game plays in terms of the high-level things I care about. If the rules hand the GM arbitrary narrative power, and give them no specific responsibilities or principles, then the other rules details don’t much change how players can shape the narrative. And to me, that’s boring. I don’t want to think much about those unimportant details — I want to get straight to the substantive agreement about how we will really play.

Collected resources for interesting magic items

I often find magic item ideas online or in books. I quite often want magic item ideas when running or prepping games. I often can’t find the magic items I found when I want them

So I am going to keep lists of them here.

I value playing rpgs over reading rpgs

A while back, David Perry said on Twitter “… I think we should not place the act of playing a game/content on a separate, higher plane of value than the act of reading and appreciating it on an individual level.”

I understand the various impulses behind this, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea.

I associate writing-rpgs-to-be-read with the hobby’s nadir in the 1990s, when non-gaming writers churned out splatbook after splatbook with no understanding of play implications. It lead to a hobby with little value to me. I don’t want to see that happen again. The world is different now, of course, with online play and online ways to meet potential players, but the structure of the problem remains.

(One factor in my view of this — I get very meagre enjoyment from online play, even with offline friends. It just doesn’t give me the same payoffs as face-to-face does.)

And this is a risk, because the reading-rpgs hobby is naturally robust, while the playing-rpgs hobby is much more fragile. It’s easy to buy and read rpg books; it’s hard to find good players, harder to find good GMs, and hard for busy adults to find time and space to play. Anything that moves rpg materials away from supporting the act of play is, consequently, risky to the playing-rpgs hobby.

Another problem is that people who read and theorise about rpgs, but don’t play them (or don’t play the kinds of rpgs they theorise about), can also damage the online discussion of rpgs. It’s very easy for them to get lost in theorising, compared to people who encounter the reality of actual play on a regular basis. And they might have good ideas… but odds are they will have an unusually large number of bad ones.

It follows from the above that we might need to place the playing-rpgs hobby “on a higher plane” in order to protect it.

I’m sympathetic to people who might be excluded from the discussing-rpg-online hobby because of this, because for whatever reason they can’t play with any regularity, but in the end I discuss rpgs online, and read online discussion, for my purposes, not theirs.

(Edit: A good related article, which Pandatheist on Twitter reminded me about, is Jason Manola’s RPG books as fiction.)

What next for prep guidance goal-method cards?

About a month ago, I started talking about structuring GM prep guidance using goal-method cards. Those ideas had a more positive response, in multiple forums, than just about anything I’ve come up with before.

I’m not sure where to go with this next, though. Some people have suggested crowdsourcing a very large set, but at the moment I’m more interested in slowly refining the set that I actually use. That way, I can vouch for any examples I put up.

Nothing to stop someone else crowdsourcing such a collection, of course.