Low-prep dungeons — problems and goals

Problems that trouble me underground

  1. Detailed dungeon prep (e.g. room-by-room topological map with full brief keying) is impractical for Immergleich. There are thirty-odd districts and each has at least one conventional dungeon. Many houses are basically small dungeons. Meanwhile my “maybe do” list is ninety items, and most of those aren’t dungeon mapping.
  2. When I do some dungeon prep, I often feel that I’m getting very low ROI, especially given the dungeon may never be entered. I’m not confident that I’m using my time well — if I have thirty minutes, I want to spend it in a high-yield way, not pacing out three miserable rooms1.
  3. I am mighty in improvising. I see places in my head and you can follow my voice into them and be metatasized by a slime. But when I do this, I worry that:
    • I’m using only a narrow subset of the possibilities of dungeons.
    • I’m arbitrarily deciding how large the dungeon is, where important things (e.g. quest objects) are. It is harder to see where player skill fits into this, at least player skill of the dungeoneering kind valorised by the OSR.
    • I am also haunted by the Quantum Ogre. I am not sure I care about him, but i see him crouching over there by the old fireplace.2
  4. Because players often enter dungeons in response to jobs from the Immergleich job list, I often need to seed job goals into dungeon spaces.

Continue reading “Low-prep dungeons — problems and goals”

Vincent Baker’s key writings on how games work

“Periodic Reminder” — System, rules and principles

“How RPG Rules Work” — fiction, players and rules

“Rules vs Vigorous Creative Agreement” — Rules exist to force outcomes that no-one playing would have chosen

His use of “system” in those follows the Lumpley Principle / Baker-Care Principle — “System (including but not limited to ‘the rules’) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.”1

NB I generally don’t use that definition — it conflicts with the much more general use that I’m familiar with professionally, and it is unhelpful as a jargon term because it’s too easily confused with “rules” or “ruleset”. So I use a much more generic definition as sketched in Some meanings of some terms.


1. http://big-model.info/wiki/Lumpley_Principle

Some meanings of some terms

My previous post has attracted some discussion on /r/rpg, Story Games, and rpg.net. Some commenters have asked for the definitions I am using. So:



A set of parts that interact so as to give rise to some kind of interesting higher level behaviour, with a configuration that is somewhat stable over time. E.g. a car is a system – it’s made from parts that interact so as to exhibit movement behaviour. It can be stable over many years, if maintained.

A key property of systems is that they self-regulate to some degree — they keep their key properties/state variables within tolerable levels. E.g the engine of a car regulates its temperature, speeds of key moving parts, timing of the pistons. Stability over time usually depends on this self-regulation.

(The easiest models of self-regulation to understand are the thermostat and the steam governor)

Complication — there are no systems:

Continue reading “Some meanings of some terms”

A Ruleset is an Intervention Tool

Status: messy. There is a valuable idea here, but it is awkwardly expressed. The examples are relevant, but mediocre.

A friend comes up to you, careworn and unkempt. She says “I’m tired of my Pathfinder campaign. The fights take too long, the prep is too arduous, the players just follow my lead, and I’m bored of fantasy as a genre.”

“No problem” you say, “I have a remedy for you”. You pull Apocalypse World from your battered messenger bag. “Play this instead. It will solve your problems.”

“Oh!” she says, smiling for the first time in seven months as she leafs through the pages, “I think this what I’m looking for”.

You ride off on your low-seat BMX, pleased to have given her the new game system she needs.

But you should not be so self-satisfied. You did not give her a new game system; you merely gave her a tool to help her intervene in her group’s social system. She should not be smiling. Her work has only just begun.

When you intervene in a social system, your goal is to change behaviour

Continue reading “A Ruleset is an Intervention Tool”

Do I even want system collage? And do I need it?

Talking on Story Games about my earlier post on system collage, Eero Tuovinen asked me:

What kinds of games do you two play, where these matters become a concern? I know that [other person in thread] plays modern D&D, and I can sort of see how programming-like version control could be marginally useful if I was crazy-strict about RAW, played with rabid rules lawyers, and played with a lot of different people all the time and I absolutely had to be able to produce and publish an official-looking alternate game text with my homebrew additions so new players could precisely pinpoint how I’ve rejiggered light radius and missile combat penalties in my campaign, alongside other rules. Is it like that for you as well, Rob?

No, it’s not, and that’s interesting.

I’ve run 5e, and I’ve run BW as well, but mostly I run mechanically simpler things. I’ve run a lot of DW (although not for a while), and currently I run a LotFP hack. The vast majority of my past and current players leave it to me to police the rules. (You can see this in the Same Page Tool for Immergleich — I’ve told them I’m hacking all the time and often just making things up)

So, why do I want this system-collage community? Do I actually want it? Maybe, and maybe because:

  • I have had good times strictly applying complex rules, particularly BW but also 5e.
  • It’s been a while since I wanted to use a whole system as-written by someone else. I want to run exactly the game in my head, to learn about game design, and thus how to make that game happen better in future. Hence either I must design from scratch or I must hack.
    • (That said, I don’t usually hack as much as I have done with the LotFP rules. I’m hacking them so much because they do very little that I want.)
  • I sometimes use complex subsystems in simpler games. When I do, I want to run them as written. If I don’t run them as written, then why bother with the complexity?
  • I want the game to support me, so if I find a mechanism on the web I want a good version in front of me, neatly integrated into my other materials. I don’t want a printout of the two blog posts that contain have half of it mixed with with design commentary and the designer’s autobiography.
  • … at the same time, I’d want the option of having design rationale mixed right into the rules. Hacking is much easier when you know the why. Markup systems (like Markdown and Latex) make this practical; precise-layout tools (like Word and InDesign) don’t.
  • I want to be able to tell my players “This is what I am doing. This is the ruleset I am applying.” and give them a document. They don’t have to read it (although I will probably insist that they touch it, nod, and say “yes”).
  • I want to be clear with myself what I’m doing. Clarity leads to better learning, and thus better future practice. Self-awareness is powerful. And if I know what I’m doing, I can explain it to others.

Looking over that list, I wonder if the problems I actually experience, whether at the table or while doing specific prep) are not much to do with what I’m asking for in the OP. It could be I am looking in the wrong place.

Feedback on feedback

Immergleich players may remember being asked for feedback some time ago. They may remember a form with the headings below. They may remember having views. Two months is long enough to wait — I respond!


This varies too much for meaningful analysis, except that there were five names, all unique. Some were plausible, some were not.

Roughly how many sessions have you played (of the 16 I’ve run at the time of writing)?

Between 4 and 12, with a mean of 8.

How much does Immergleich rock your world?

Continue reading “Feedback on feedback”

Design-aware System Collage, Part Two

Let me weaken my earlier position on OSR design:

The OSR is clear that that (1) is indeed the norm – the assumption is that every OSR GM is hacking a lot. And not just minor details – lots of people are radically changing core classes, skill systems, initiative order (see the comments on Troika’s here in Patrick Stuart’s comparions of British OSR games), …

We can split up my intent with (4) to get:
4a — A good game scene produces dozens or hundreds of small composable game chunks – e.g. classes, abilities, spells, monsters, all ready for GMs to put quickly into their games, even though said games aren’t all using a common rule base.
4b — In this scene, the norm is that changes and new material, especially those, are presented in a form that’s easy for others to make concise new documents with.

The OSR is strong at (4a), partly because RnR tells the GM that they need to be actively maintaining key game properties, live, all the time. Many things (in particular verisimiltude, as in your example, and handling time) are thus the clearly responsibility of the GM. GMs thus know that they can’t rely on their source documents (especially when they’re making a collage from two games and five blogs) to guide play in those respects.

The OSR is weaker at (4b), because printed books and PDFs are still the primary form of game artefacts. There are some nice things to fork-and-edit (e.g. the ACKS SRD in Markdown in a Git repository), but they’re the exception, not the rule (and I don’t know if there is much activity around that ACKS version – there seem to be no active forks).

The “weakest at 4b” has two effects I can see:
* Composing rules to make “my version” is messy – copy-pasting, thinking about formatting.
* When I do compose-and-change, it’s not obvious how to feed changes back in a form that others can use.

I suspect that it also reduces the number of minor tweaks and fixes that are published in an accessible form – things too small for a blog post, that might make it into a forum comment, but most likely will just hang around in someone’s house rules.

The OSR is also weak at (not listed), in that its heavily focussed on OD&D and close derivatives. Although I have enjoyed D&D, and my current game is on a LotFP base, I don’t have very much affection for the D&D rules, nor that many of the prominent play assumptions. I am looking for something different.

News in Immergleich around 25 March 936

In the Walled City Gazette

“Traum Baues, always a strange and controversial figure, has made a final addition to his mystery by being found dead yesterday morning at his home in Rock End. The Rock End Collective have refused press access to the body, but an inside source say Baues was “all wrinkled up, like a paper bag”, and an alleged eyewitness spoke loudly of a “great flying shape, like a bat that’s been run over by a cart” before throwing herself into Corpse Flow.

Baues, whom rumour suggests told fortunes by inserting living beetles into living entrails, had been living in Rock End since he was forced by …”

(job J12 is no longer available)

In the Bleak Herald —

“… the removal of this longstanding job advert was done without fanfare, but it was not lost on observers that it constitutes a significant admission of defeat. After all, as the major grain merchant Chancia Freels said yesterday “Seeing the Grain Authority effectively cede its sub-basement to the Rat Cult is rather like seeing a cat surrender to a mouse. What hold do the Rat Cult have over them? And should I take my grain somewhere else?” “

(job J11 is no longer available)

And in the Panick


A medium-sized EXPLOSION last night shook the HOUSE VERDUN estate. Two stable boys and a bricklayer were KILLED, and a large wooden block hit Petunia Verdun in the BREASTS. Experts on house politics say they really don’t know who was behind it, but it’s possible that IT WAS THE NOTORIOUS DR BOOM-BOOM. It is not clear what he wants, or IF EVEN IF HE WANTS ANYTHING AT ALL, and even though he’s was probably paid to do it by another noble house, it could be YOUR HOME next.”

An rpg scene around design-aware system-collage

Over on G+, Abstract Machine asked:

If you could change one thing about the RPG scene what would it be?

To which I replied

A significant subscene where assumptions are:
1. The norm is that a GM hacks games a lot – that every GM is a designer in search of a few unique games that they and their players like
2. Design matters – good game design can lead to better games, and in particular to different games
3. Published materials are permissively open-licenced and available in a form ready for hacking and collage
4. The natural form of a ruleset-in-play is a collection of components put together by a GM – not a printed book with a fixed layout.

…and somehow they’ve found a way to ensure that despite the above:

5. People get credit for their contributions, often financially.

The OSR is very strong at (1), but often rejects (2) and is not ideal on (3) because it’s often under the OGL (which is quite restrictive in places and is an obscure niche licence that no-one outside gaming understands).

The post-Forge scene is often strong at (2), but often rejects (1) as a consequence. Indifference to (4) follows from that.

Everyone seems obsessed with the “not” of (4). I get that, but its not always helpful.