Month: February 2015

Great Clomping Feet

In 2007 M. John Harrison indirectly upset Tolkien fans by branding world-building exercises as the “great clomping foot of nerdism”:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The text persists on Warren Ellis’ blog, although the original has been deleted. Of course you can use the Wayback Machine to get to the original including Harrison’s notes added on Dec 31, 2007.

I felt slightly conflicted about posting this here, because for whatever reason has been deleted, the end. I hope that’s because the point is simply no longer important to the original author; but since the essay still persists elsewhere and the point continues to be well made, I think there’s more value in repeating it than not. The deletion sort of mirrors Harrison’s point, though. Constructed worlds are permanent and take on properties of their own outside the intended fiction. Should they really be transient? Fan fiction authors will disagree, but then arguably fan fiction authors are building on realised canonical worlds; is a loosely defined secondary world fertile ground for fan fiction in the first place?

This post discusses the difference between Narnia and Tolkien, and argues “which one is more OSR” — this quote sums the article up:

OD&D isn’t Chainmail set in Middle-Earth, it’s Narnia plus dinosaurs and robots.

The broader tone of that article is the loose, undiscovered nature of Narnia compared to the fully realised Middle Earth – not far from Harrison’s essay.

More recently Jack Shear has compared Poe’s Philosophy of Composition with his own preferences for reading and implementing setting books:

Each one of those books is small; they’re all trade paperback format and the longest is under sixty pages. They’re calculated to fit within my personal preferences: concise over compendious, flavorful rather than all-encompassing, lots of “holes” to be filled in as you want instead of completely defined.

True to his word Jack’s essay is also short and perfect for one sitting.

For myself, I’m not keen on long RPG books, I like a strong premise that invites me to get on with the creative stuff here and now in the game. I don’t really like other people’s adventures, let alone campaign settings. And my principle issue with our habitual, sub-Tolkien world building that infests the hobby is this: when you flag to the players that the world is a massive construction by the mere presence of such monstrously detailed settings, it’s very hard for a character to start with the idea that “I am here, and this is all there is” and then be surprised by an unseen world and truly hooked into the adventure. This is why I like Beyond the Wall, and why I think the Lord of the Rings only goes downhill after the hobbits leave the Shire.

Addendum: I knew I’d seen Harrison’s essay linked to recently. The Torygraph linked to it last year.

Addendum: Brief Comment on Attributes

Addendum — after the last post a friend made this comment about why modern games still have attributes:

I think it’s something about the desire to simulate reality. We perceive that there’s an element of nature and an element of nurture to most people’s abilities, so the game needs to reflect that. Equally though, you can make an argument that if people want to be able to create a character who is generally physically competent without scattering their skill points among a few dozen physical skills, attributes can come to the rescue

Let’s say RPGs need a backup mechanism for any situations where the normal moving parts don’t apply (skills, class, saving throws, fighting, etc.). Attributes have usually filled that role — even if that’s not what D&D explicitly tells you to do, it’s the way things have evolved, and it makes sense. And it’s likely to persist — like a path through a field that isn’t on a map, but it’s there because people have trodden it down over years, because it’s where they want to go and the pavement 100 yards away isn’t.

So there’s a point where the player says “I’ll try this!” and the GM says “hmm, no point of reference or mechanic here, just give me a roll on…” and it all works.

The problem I specifically have with the stat+skill design, specifically dice pools (Vampire, ORE) is scaling. On the face of it, you split the competency between Attributes and Skills so that when no skill applies, you fall back on the Attribute. Good so far.

But in practice the way it scales means if you have no skill, you’ll have close to zero chance of success. This changes the tone of the game from “try something, we’ll see what happens” to “never attempt anything you don’t have a skill for”. Trouble is the game gives every impression that it’s the former when actually it’s the latter. So Vampire, ORE and others are lazily appropriating the Attributes motif from D&D, RQ and others without really thinking about what function they provide, and needlessly complicating their system in the process. That’s a bit crap.

Who’s Afraid of the OSR, part 2: clarifications

My last post on the OSR attracted a full-on blog post in reply from Chris Gonnerman, author of Basic Fantasy.

(I’m rather chuffed actually — very nice to know you’ve been read and made enough of an impression to get a considered response, irrespective of whether we agree or not.)

I wrote a few quick thoughts and then parked them on G+, and promptly got the ‘flu. I’m better now. The main quotes I want to pick out are:

Smiorgan provided a list of things he (I think it’s he) says could be changed to make D&D-like games more palatable to modern players

Trying to “fix” the classic rules is a mistake.  They aren’t broken… they’re just different.

It’s worth noting that Florian Hübner made a similar remark in the BtW community:

What I dont really understand is why its a problem to have different subsystem doing different things.

Then finally there’s Mo’s comment on that post:

my conceptual problem with the OSR is that I can’t see why anyone would bother spending the time and energy on that sort of thing once they’d experienced the wide variety of other types of game that are around these days

I’ve picked these out because I think each illustrates something about the cultural response to (perceived) criticism and advocacy of the OSR.

1. On Being Palatable (and Popular)

It’s true, I did sort of say you could change various moving parts to make it a better game for the modern audience; but stated like that puts a very particular spin on the message — namely that “this game has shortcomings which must change to appeal to modern gamers and make D&D a better game“. That framing is part of the broader edition-warring, blow-by-blow What’s-Wrong-With-D&D conversation which I’ll come to in a minute.

I was actually making the opposite point: namely there is a problem with the expectations of many gamers, based on game design over the last 20 years — skill-centric, unified mechanic, etcetera. The problem the system has is one of image — it’s a goofy-looking throwback with unsophisticated habits in play.

Refuting that was the point of this diagram:


Because a lot of traditional rpgs are (at the character interface) a mixture of Nature (or Gateway), Competency and Procedural stuff; and when you analyse it like that, I don’t think OSR is any better or worse that later modern designs.

Marwood: Give me a Valium, I’m getting the FEAR!
Danny: You have done something to your brain. You have made it high. If I lay 10 mls of diazepam on you, it will do something else to your brain. You will make it low. Why trust one drug and not the other? That’s politics, innit?
Marwood: I’m gonna eat some sugar.

(An aside about Attributes: why can’t we let these go? Rather than dying out the “(Attribute + Skill) Pool” has become the new unified standard of competency. Since it is a competency, why not just ditch Attributes and make Skills one louder? I think they’re a security blanket.)

2. On “Hacking”

The hacking section was really a separate point, although reading “this is why some people don’t like OSR” and “here’s how to hack it” in quick succession does lead to inevitable conclusions. But actually the point is that lots of people have already “hacked” D&D in the wake of the 3.5e SRD to get the game they want (DCC, LotFP, True20). This is directly evident in the post-3.5e SRD milieu, but it goes all the way back to… Runequest and Traveller, I suppose (those Attributes again). Of course if you chop and change D&D out of all recognition to get a totally different thing that’s not a hack, it’s a retooling, a dissection, a butchering. The OSR by comparison continues the tradition of house ruling but formally adds layers to tune its sub-systems; it’s still the same (comforting) language.

I do need to clarify this comment, though:

A lot of these changes are pretty disruptive; it’s fair to say that the end product you get will not be D&D, and that’s a good thing.

That sounds like I’m saying D&D is objectively a bad thing, which isn’t exactly what I meant. What I meant to say was these changes one can make, that the OSR “hackers” have already made, can tune the system to very specific purposes to satisfy a particular audience. In doing so they shed the generic sub-Tolkein dungeon crawling image of “D&D”, a singularity that only really exists in the collective RPG consciousness (as rallying standard for one half of the roleplaying community, and an unspeakable taint for the other half). And good riddance, I say.

3. “D&D Must Be Fixed”

Geeks argue, and they argue about minute and insignificant details, often on the premise that they will one day become significant (and eclipse the Sun, etc.). D&D is only one such argument, and I don’t really have a dog in that particular fight — I hope it’s clear that I don’t think the old rules need to be “fixed” or “homogenised”, but rather re-evaluated for functionality. (Do a cost-benefit analysis for your time, of course, or end up polishing a turd).

The thing is, “D&D is Wrong” is endemic to D&D. For evidence you only need to look (if you have patience) at the links supplied by Chris Gonnerman to Mark Hughes’ laundry list of What’s Wrong With AD&D?, and his own rebuttal; a textbook, blow-by-blow dissection of arguments in a very narrow field, the kind of thing that’s ideal forum fodder but swiftly becomes impenetrable and fragmented. It’s not surprising that any attempt to discuss re-shaping and modifying D&D is framed in the same adversarial way, and even less surprising if it’s in a tone of didn’t we have this conversation like ten years ago?

(I did chuckle at some of Mark Hughes’ stuff — and anyone who quotes Spider Jerusalem can’t be all bad)

This is geek culture’s oral tradition working; an assumption that the discoveries and traditions and tribal norms are common knowledge, even when the participants could not possibly have been there at the time and are quite bemused at suddenly having this extra context heaped upon them. Is D&D a special case? I’m not sure; I’ll hold up my hand as guilty of participating in similar cultures, though.

4. Why Bother?

It’s particularly strange for me to advocate OSR, given that I’m an outsider both to the US-centric culture and too young to have played back in the day; by the time I came to roleplaying there was Fighting Fantasy, and that tided us over until WFRP (and GW editions of RQ3, CoC, Paranoia, etc.).

So why bother if, as Mo says, you’ve experienced a wide and varied range of gaming?

Clearly it’s partly an academic exercise for me, but even so the way some OSR stuff is attempting to get back to literary roots is compelling. LotFP’s emphasis on Weird Tales, DCC’s back-to-Appendix-N ethos and (my favourite) Beyond the Wall’s focus on YA fantasy such as Earthsea are all fine. Note that these are not just varying the tone, but backing the tone up with mechanical reinforcement. A lot of the achievement is finding functionality and clarity of purpose where previously the base looked a bit messy and incoherent.

I’ve also got to think of what in OSR appeals to people ten or even twenty years younger than me. There’s this problem of inherited history, of course; but at the same time the map-making (check out the Library of Gaming Maps!) looks tremendous fun. But mostly I wonder if it’s just a countercultural rejection of shiny, corporate Dungeons and Dragons(tm). It’s a simple answer that makes sense.

Who’s Afraid Of The OSR?

A couple of weeks ago Admiral Rabalias asked

I saw some thread saying most storygamers also play OSR. Well, I don’t – but that’s mostly because in my mind OSR is synonymous with D&D clones. I’m just not that into OD&D or hacks thereof. Is there more to OSR than I realise? Anyone want to sell me on it?

Aside from some derailing around US-centric forum politics and the etymology of “Story Games”, there were a few interesting points raised:

  • Do D&D clones truly interorperate? Does everyone play D&D the same way?
  • What attracts Storygamers to the OSR and vice versa?
  • Why don’t my friends like D&D?

I. On Interoperability

The original G+ post is public, so I don’t see a problem with quoting some of it. Let’s start with the ideal of compatibility:

Adams Tower:

there’s an ideal of compatibility, that exists within the OSR, that does not exist within all RPG games. The intercompatibility exists because OSR game designers, and even more so OSR adventure and supplement designers, make an effort to be compatible with multiple OSR systems.

Ron Edwards:

I completely agree with you that there’s an ideal. I’m saying that’s exactly what it is, and that it functions at the level of subculture solidarity, not at the level of interacting game mechanics/experiences.

This point leads us to actual mechanical interoperability:

Ron Edwards:

I suggest that the systemic differences among many OSR games, even the retroclones, are so profound that they exceed the community ideal of compatibility, which then must be papered over by claims of some kind of homogeneity. The practice of mix-and-matching among the texts for your own table makes sense to me, but the claim that this is possible because the games are inherently compatible in system or fictional content is not.

Josh Fox:

is not OSR one of those things Wittgenstein would call a family resemblance? Sure, they may not be homogeneous, but you can recognise one when you see one, no? Or are you actually saying they’re so different that the term is literally just defined by someone saying it’s OSR?

Ron Edwards:

I don’t buy the “family resemblance.” I’m talking about hard-core mechanics, rewards, integration of parts, and play if you actually play them instead of having them sit on the table while you do something else.

I don’t feel confident to comment on Wittgenstein’s Familienähnlichkeit as it applies to the OSR, though there does appear to be some cross-communication here — certainly I think Josh’s point is upheld precisely because the OSR is an Ideal (q.v.).

Nevertheless the comment about actual integration of moving parts, intent and rewards is a good one. I think (as I said in the thread) the OSR games are like Linux distributions: they reflect the operability ideals of the designers, they’re essentially a diffuse package of commands that the distribution maintainer curates and forces to operate together according to what’s makes sense to them (though of course the OSR has no identifiable kernel maintained under a centralised authority).

II. D&D’s just this game, you know?

Several of my friends “don’t like D&D”. This could be for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s not what they grew up with. Some of us started on urban fantasy, others with alternatives to D&D (which in the UK included GW’s printing of RQ3, as well as WFRP).
  2. They don’t like “generic fantasy”, whatever that means — it could be the dungeon crawling that’s a turn-off, or it could be the sub-Tolkien melange of races and monsters in an overdeveloped faux medieval setting.
  3. They don’t like the system. It betrays a lot of the expectations we’ve built up around skills-driven RPGs (Storyteller system, GURPS, etc.). Often specifically they don’t like levels.

We excuse shortcomings in a lot of games we play on the grounds that the system is secondary to the group and the GM — yet some people have an overwhelming negative reaction to D&D when they’re simply indifferent to those other games. This reminds me of a throwaway comment from a podcast (I think it was from this Walking Eye podcast but I can’t be sure) that “people can’t discuss D&D and not lose their shit”. Quite likely that same fantatical culture that makes fans go to war over their favourite edition is also what turns other people off.

D&D is just another game, and can be turned to whatever campaign you care to run — but at the same time, while problems 1 and 2 can be overcome by the right social group problem 3 is the real killer. This is the “system matters” caveat, but it’s less to do with the suitability of the system in the abstract and more about the expectations players have. Vancian Casting, Armour Class, all of these just seem alien compared to the modern alternatives.

The good news is that OSR is like Linux, in that you can identify the parts you don’t like and strip them out, change their context or even make them interact differently.

III. The Moving Parts

RPG design in the last 20 years has trained us to expect point buy, skills at the forefront, homogeneous competency systems (e.g. to-hit, skills, magic, saving throws rolled into one system). I’m thinking about Storyteller, GURPS, ORE, Unisystem, etc — non-traditional designs (Apocalypse World)

Compared to those, the OSR model seems a bit arbitrary with lots of sub-systems that don’t interoperate much.

Let’s consider the building blocks of D&D-like retroclones:

  • Attributes
  • Armour Class
  • Hit Points
  • Attack Bonus
  • Damage
  • Saving Throws
  • Levels
  • Experience points
  • Spells, Skills, Feats

They flow together like this:


This is a functional mix, but a bit random in places. For example:

  • Attributes look like they’re central to the character, but really they’re a gateway to the class you want (whether it’s implied or explicit, “fighter” is synonymous with a high STR). They give a one-time bonus and then they’re overtaken by the character class benefits. Yes, sometimes they’re used for freeforming skill checks, but that’s about as relevant as they get. And players tend not to like this random gatekeeping anyway — leading to point-buy and UA’s absurd Method V character generation.
  • Saving Throws are just weird and arbitrary. They’re for negotiating hazards like spells and monster effects and traps, but not hazards like getting thumped with a mace — that’s what AC is for, no rolling there. The interpretations vary across different OSR games, and very few of them are geared to be used solely on GM judgement (Kevin Crawfords games are one exception). Mostly they just mesh with some very specific spell effects — that’s a big chunk of the character sheet to be held on a maybe.
  • Of course HP, AC, Damage and To-Hit are throwbacks from the original wargame — a lot of mechanics devoted to a very specific context. No wonder players think D&D is only about killing monsters…
  • …and finally, there’s the big messy bucket that is Spells, Skills, and Feats. There are two kinds of object in this bucket: some are very specific, self-contained rules with save conditions and consequences of use, and the rest are totally freeform and negotiated for whatever situation the player chooses to use them in.

So yes, pretty incoherent. It’s not surprising that a lot of people have looked at these elements and hacked the way they work together. That said, most of the OSR types take the base framework of stats, hit dice etc. and plaster on a skill and/or magic system of their choice and declare it their niche in the OSR.

I find it most useful to consider three areas:

  1. Statements of Nature. These are the starting points for the character, before the player chooses the class. In the OSR framework they’re attributes, and frankly if that’s all the attributes do, why not just skip them? There are a lot more useful things that can go in this area like statements of ambition, backstory and so on.
  2. Statements of Competency. This is where all the loose statements of competency go — from the specific but contextual Feats and Spells to the broad and qualitative Skills system (whatever that is). I put the Saving Throws in here too.
  3. Derived stats for Procedures. These are all about achieving a core activity, and the core activity is, make no mistake, fighting.



Now we know where everything goes and how the player views it, the hacking can begin. Some approaches:

  • Make the skills and magic system operate on the same currency (e.g. GURPS)
  • Ditch Attributes in favour of specific bonuses (True20/Blue Rose)
  • Make skills, not levels directly affect combat bonuses (most skill-based RPGs, e.g. RuneQuest)
  • Make AC and Damage interact (RuneQuest)
  • Make Saving Throws and Damage interact (True20/Blue Rose)
  • Make Saving Throws part of combat and only players roll the dice (Cinematic Unisystem)
  • Ditch levels in favour of incremental class gains for XP (pretty much every game that isn’t a D&D clone)
  • Roll different dice, or otherwise change the scale of dice effects (e.g. Scarlet Heroes’ handling of damage)


A lot of these changes are pretty disruptive; it’s fair to say that the end product you get will not be D&D, and that’s a good thing. Personally I like the idea of D&D’s isolated but promenent sub-systems that direct the players to a certain kind of game — e.g. I’ve always liked the way LotFP explicityly rewards gaining treasure and killing monsters in that order, and nothing else. I strongly feel that Beyond the Wall needs its Old School combat features to focus on the dangerous nature of going beyond the village; at the same time it’s lacking some internal community mechanics, and that’s a layer I intend to consider shortly.

Closing Remarks

There’s probably something to be said about what drives people to write Fantasy Heartbreakers, but I’m running out of steam. For now let’s sum up:

  • D&D’s system is a messy collection of systems that don’t work together seamlessly.
  • More to the point, the various interpretations of D&D vary in subtle ways that require you to think on the intent of the designer or hacker, and depending on how transparent the designer has made their thoughts this may be easy or difficult.
  • D&D’s different subsystems are simple enough to understand individually, and once you do that you can partition them to do different jobs in your own game — and this is clearly what some OSR games do.
  • There are good reasons to keep your flavour of OSR D&D looking like D&D, namely interoperability and familiarity with the various moving parts.

That’s it for now. I’ll write about my own hacks for Beyond the Wall some other time.

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