I was visiting my local game store and saw an art book featuring the work of Ana Polanšćak, the woman behind the incredible blog Gardens of Hecate. As part of the Inq28 scene, Ana produces some really unique and moody miniatures and war gaming ephemera. The art book chronicles her journey through the hobby, and is a real deep dive into her whole process when it comes to producing her work. A lot of the book is about how she thinks about world building, and is likely of interest to RPG nerds. There is a lot of overlap between narrative war gaming and RPGs, and Gardens of Hecate is the perfect example of that.
These notes and Arneson’s would ultimately become Dungeons & Dragons, but only by being codified could the game really be propagated and begin to gather a following. This same problem persists for designers today.
An idea I read on James’s blog Grognardia long ago, which I quite liked, was what he called “D&D is always right”. Rather than assume the idiot choices the designer of some old module from the 80s made are incorrect, give them the benefit of the doubt! Try and work out how the oddly placed monsters, treasure, and traps fit into a coherent whole. Treat it like a creative exercise and you’ll end up with something good. Wayne Rossi reverse engineering the OD&D setting based on the rule books is a similar pursuit. My dilemma is I can’t actually find this blog post, though i’m sure it exists! Do any of you remember this mythical post?
[Regarding the phrase “D&D is always Right”,] my point has never been, so far as I can recall, about “recovering” the original, hidden meaning of D&D. I’m not sure there is one in many cases. Rather, my point was simply akin to Chesterton’s fence: don’t assume a rule you don’t understand isn’t workable. Assume it is and see where that takes you. — James Maliszewski, 2022, who sadly also has no idea what post i’m talking about.
Update: Thanks to Lucas in the comments, we stumble on this post, which is likely the one I was thinking about: The Glories of Incoherence.
Jason Tochi of 24XX fame wrote a great post a little while ago about what he calls the three layers of rules: social, fictional, and abstract. If you’re interested in game design it’s a great way to think about things, especially in more rules light games. Where do the unspoken rules go? Probably to the social and fictional layers. This post is in the news again as Jason shared a version included in the rules for his new game, Alight.
As I have discussed in the past, I got started with D&D playing with the Rules Cyclopedia. When I went to buy my own D&D books I ended up grabbing the AD&D 2nd Edition Players Handbook instead. I didn’t realize the games were quite the same, and assumed I’d want the “advanced” version anyway. I’ve wanted to track down the Rules Cyclopedia for ages, but they are often hard to find or collectables. Alex, a player from my recent Torchbearer game, was given two copies by a friend of his. He asked the group off hand if anyone wanted one. Of course I do! So he mailed it off to me. What a lovely thing to do. And it’s here now, and I am awash in nostalgia.
My friend Alex discusses Fuck You Design, an interesting response of sorts to my post about negative space in RPGs. His post in turn has me wanting to write more myself. I love simple systems, so I am always looking for a good minimalist one. The problem is so many miss the mark. It takes a lot of care to make one that isn’t just you filling in all the holes with D&D as you remember it. Carcosa is a good setting in my mind despite missing a lot of details because what’s there is enough to help get you the rest of the way. Some adventures lean so far into terseness you run them and realize you are doing all the work. OD&D doesn’t tell you what a helmet does, but there is enough to the game you can house rule something coherent. If it didn’t tell you what armour did that would be way more annoying. Anyway, this is enough for now. Read the post, it’s great!
I just finished playing four sessions of Torchbearer. Jesse ran the game for a small group of us. I will write more about Torchbearer later, it was a very interesting game. Today I simply wanted to write about rules and how players engage with them.
In OSR play, I think it quite common that players are doing their utmost to avoid engaging with the rules of play! They often exist to model some sort of failure state: saving throws, combat, etc. The odds are in the house’s favour, so play becomes about fictional positioning to avoid leaving things to chance. OSR games are about overcoming challenges, and clever play in this space is all about stacking the odds in your favour. Of course, the best odds are the ones where you aren’t rolling any dice.
I play with people who regularly don’t know the rules of the game we’re playing. If they need to know something the expectation is the DM will tell them. Torchbearer sits in stark contrast to all of this. You need to know the rules as a player and as a GM to play effectively. It’s an interesting game of resource management. Just like B/X, but you have even more to manage besides your food, light, time. You also have to worry about your conditions, checks, etc. Playing the game is about engaging with the rules. Clever play comes from understanding the mechanics and bending the game to your favour.
When chatting after our last session of Torchbearer I brought up some of the above and one of the player’s thought it so odd: you are just playing pretend, the game is rudderless. Players choices don’t mean anything, because nothing really means anything. A fair assessment, for sure. But I suppose how I have described things above isn’t the whole story.
OSR play feels like it’s about engaging with the negative space of the rules. The rules layout the guardrails for play. This is a game about exploration and adventure. You might need to Save vs. Magic, it’s written on your character sheet. You might need to fight a monster, you have hit points and to hit bonuses. The game tells you what it’s about, and where you need to worry, and play then is about trying not to worry. OSR play isn’t simply playing pretend because the game frames what your pretend looks like—like all role playing games.
Games that work well provide support for play through their rules, GM advice, player advice, etc. This is true regardless of the model of play as described above. When making a game, especially a rules lite game, you should think about how players will approach the rules of play, and if there is enough there to encourage forward movement and interest.
This is a little bit of an experiment. This post is what some might call micro blogging. If you’re reading this in an RSS reader it’ll look the same, but on my website this post is displayed a little bit differently. It should look a bit demure next to a bigger grown-up blog post. 20 years ago a lot of blogging felt short and casual. Nowadays it feels like people feel the need to say a lot, and find friction in the format. People move their casual messages to sites like Twitter or Facebook. But the ephemera you post online should belong to you as well. With the death of G+ I saw so much great stuff just vanish. So many messages from friends, interesting discussions, etc. Some of it lives in an export on my hard drive. A lot of it’s likely gone forever. I should blog more, but blogging doesn’t need to be long essays and deep discussions. Sometime it can just be sharing for the sake of sharing. Someone takes a small idea you have and turns it into something wonderful.