Month: July 2016

Inky Flush

This is a bit of fun using the straw technique as used by Ian Hedley on his ink reviews e.g. Diamine Red Dragon. I was cleaning out four pens:

  • Lamy Safari with Cult Pens’ Deep Dark Purple
  • Parker 51 with Diamine Graphite
  • Noodler’s Ahab with Cult Pens’ Deep Dark Orange
  • Another Ahab with Diamine Evergreen

All I did was blob the remaining ink onto the paper and push the blobs around with a drinking straw. Anyway, pictures:

corner 1

forest detail

graphite splash

the forest



corner full image

Full image

Photos were taken with both natural and artificial light (with a Panasonic Lumix and a fixed-focus lens) and some of them are a bit yellow. Still, I like the way the sheen comes out in some of the pictures.

Demanding Bad Game Design

This is quality trolling:

So, as far as I can tell, the Old School Revolution is about demanding bad game design. Can anyone give me a counter-example?

Hah. Hah hah. As if the OSR is a single, homogeneous body — the “members” can’t even agree what R stands for. Note that the request for “counter examples” isn’t an invitation to challenge the premise; by inference any such examples are marginal cases.

Bad Design

Forgetting the “demands” of your strawman, what do you mean by “bad design”? When someone looks at a specific example and proclaims “this is a bad design” they can mean one of three things:

  1. Bad foundation theory (someone is designing on a basis — sociological, scientific, factual — that is wrong)
  2. Bad implementation of good theory (the basis is fine but the implementation is a mess)
  3. Bad product (actually the product is on spec, but you just don’t like or want it)

Coming from Chem Eng we have design standards. These form the basis for actual designs of chemical plants including vessel shape, flow rate, heat transfer, pressure relief, etc. so what you build will make product consistently and not blow up and hurt people.

This is a big toolkit that forms the basis of any design — and when people draw on that toolkit to make a specific thing, that’s their implementation of the standards. They can still foul up by implementing them badly, but if they don’t then the finished reactor should make what they set out to make, reliably and safely. But even when you’ve done everything right you can still fall foul of a customer who doesn’t like the thing you’re making perfectly (for reasons).

So anyway, part of the problem with saying “it’s a bad design” is it’s hard to tell whether the person saying it is talking about foundation, implementation, or personal taste. Take this (from my namesake):

You have six standard attributes so poorly defined as to what they’re supposed to represent that the very first change most subsequent fantasy RPGs did was clarify what attributes covered

Maybe the very first example of six attributes was a bad implementation; but if subsequent derivative works immediately clarified the attributes, this problem is functionally solved for all later works, i.e. the ones in use (including Dungeon World).

None of it suggests a bad foundation. Six attributes obeys my personal design standards for working memory, for example; it’s easily sub-grouped to reduce cognitive burden. And there will always be a need to interpret abstract terms — speaking of which:

You have a play culture that encourages simulations thinking and a rules structure that is so abstract there is no simulative value to it whatsoever.

Abstraction is the freedom to interpret and make cognitive leaps that connect the objects to the thing being simulated. Some rules do this interpretation explicitly, some defer the interpretation to the group and their tacit assumptions. In either case, this interpretation is all the effort needed to confer “simulative value”.

The inference is that the OD&D foundation is a poisoned well and nothing good will come of it. This is bias, and unproven.

I reckon the OSR foundation is technically functional — you have clear divisions based on class, attributes, and ancilliary properties (like armour, hit points, etc.). Clear divisions where the players can recognise each moving part without ambiguity makes for a lower overall cognitive burden, i.e. less time negotiating the system, more time roleplaying (see here).

Good Design

As expected the thread has prompted some examples of “good OSR design”. These are mine:

  • Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions does a great job of deconstructing the genre and providing a complete world building and faction management system for the GM
  • The Black Hack for usage dice
  • Beyond the Wall for the vast amount of player-facing material (playbooks, scenario packs, threat packs) and the way it incorporates rumours into the landscape in Further Afield

These are design implementations of the foundation rules framework. They each have moving parts that are designed to be interacted with.

Then there’s the other things the OSR does well, like really well designed books with economical text and high utility, high signal-to-noise, like Scenic Dunnsmouth (compare that to reams of overwritten, fluffy White Wolf supplements, or even CoC adventures).

The problem is that some people don’t value these as design goals. They are the customer who doesn’t like the finished product.

Youth and Experience

Now comes the rant.

No-one under the age of 40 gets to lecture someone whose (sic) been gaming since the mid-70s on not understanding Old School. Us old timers get lots of laughs listening to 30 somethings try to tell us what gaming was like back in the day.

I’ve been getting a fair amount of this lately. Being new parents we’ve been inundated with unsolicited advice, most of which is highly subjective and/or out of date, couched in the bias of a previous generation or two.

Then there’s the EU Referendum — and I won’t deny there are strong left-wing arguments for Britain having never been in the EU (neoliberalism, etc.) — but a lot of the Leavers are the older generation who are voting “for the younger generation” on the basis of decades-old cultural bias, and seem oblivious to the cultural and financial hurt it will cause the youngest generation who voted strongly (and with a pretty high turnout, actually) to Remain. I guess the millenials will have the last laugh when the Tories do away with our bill of Human Rights, and people over 70 will automatically be fed into the municipal biodigester as part of NHS cost-cutting.

And I’ve had my fair share of martial arts masters holding court, while their students buy the next round. When you’re young it’s hard to look at your elders and think “no, sensei, you’re wrong”.

But here’s the unpleasant truth about age and experience. First, expertise does require age and repetition, but skills also decay. This means that if you’re not continually refreshing your skills, be they technical, oral, or critical thinking, you can and will be superseded by people younger than you. And if you wrote off a culture as a waste of time years ago, you’re probably not engaging with it. (see Accelerated Expertise by Hoffman et al.)

Second, once an “expert”, by which I mean someone who has been practicing a thing for 10,000 hours or whatever gets up to speed, there isn’t much difference between practicing experts after that stage.

But very few people are actually experts; most of us are spread over a range of transferrable skills and we don’t achieve true expertise (speed of decision-making in the given field, tacit awareness, deep knowledge) in any one area. And in those examples, there’s not much difference functionally between a 30 year-old and a 60 year-old. The 60 year-old may have worked in a lot more places, but for any one task they may be worse than the 30 year-old thanks to lack of practice and skills decay.

What does increase with age are the heuristics and biases in decision-making. So if you’re part of a culture that continually devalues certain ideas then you will develop biases against them, and heuristics that exclude them. And that will only get worse as you get older.

City Hierarchies

Some history: in late 2012 I had the idea for the City Accelerator, wrote down a few blog posts and then wondered how to turn it into a generic RPG tool. That tool is now getting used after a fashion in Black Mantle, but on its own it’s only really worth a couple of blog posts — which is what I’ve decided to do here.

A few months ago I wrote this minigame for exploring the high-level details of the City — putting it in the context of the country and surroundings, deciding on what the barrier(s) between the Outside and Inside look like, etc.

I’m considering the City in the most abstract, setting-agnostic sense — it’s an area defined by Outside and Inside, with an interior set of features and an interior population. And this next part covers the City’s hierarchy — the people and the factions.

The Three Tiers

There are three tiers to the City’s hierarchy:

  • the Upper Tier, occupied by the King and Queen; the ruler, law-maker, head of state, dictator or autarch
  • the Middle Tier is for Bishops and Rooks; these individuals lead bodies of people — corporations, pressure groups, unions, economic and political interests. They are accountable to the Upper Tier.
  • the Lower Tier is for Pawns and Knights. These are individuals with no direct authority, accountable to the Middle Tier

The Exchange

The Pieces are positions, not Citizens. Individuals can transition between the roles in any direction — laterally, upwards or downwards. The normal progression is upwards, tier by tier — so an ambitious Knight in turn becomes a Bishop and ultimately Queen or King. But sudden transitions are just as possible — a Pawn is elevated to the King position, a Queen falls to the position of Knight, and so on.


The King

The King is an Upper Tier piece. It represents the overall vision of the City, the ideals and principles on which it operates, and even the connection between the City and higher powers. The King could be an actual person (a regent, a philosopher, a prophet, a god-king) or could be a set of principles (laws or history handed down, a connection with the past or with principles) or some thinking but inhuman force (a vast computer, a captive god, a source of magic).

On its own the King is powerless; it’s a figurehead that others look to for direction. It needs the other components beneath it to take any action. If the King is ever deposed (the Regent is replaced by a republic; the Computer is smashed by luddites; the Sacred Scrolls are burned in a revolution) then the whole tone and principle of the City will change to suit the new King. This may be reflected by thematic changes in the Heart of the City.

The Queen

The Queen is an Upper Tier piece representing the authority of, and acting on decisions of the King. It will never be abstract, always a person or group of people (a Prime Minister, a Vizir, a Council acting on certain principles of law, etc.) but it could be obviously separate from the other citizens — an elite priesthood, a cabal of magicians, undying robots or clockwork automata, etc.

The Queen has absolute authority and power in the Heart of the City. Outside the Heart they have no direct authority, but instead need the support of their Rooks to impose city-wide order.

The Bishops

The Middle Tier Bishops are individuals who lead bodies of people — including unions, political factions, cults and religeons, and corporations. Technically the Bishops are answerable to the King, and are kept in line by (but not accountable to) the Queen.

Bishops are the primary players of the great political game. Most Bishops pursue power, with intent to grow. Some Bishops will be content to grown within the Middle Tier, and others will have their eyes on the Upper Tier, their ambitions including the Queen’s throne, or even the King — and this takes a lot of power. There are several ways power can be acquired:

  • by outright conquest of another Bishop or Rook
  • by forming alliances or otherwise securing the backing of another Bishop or Rook
  • by getting power from some external source (e.g. Outside the City)

For City design there is typically one Bishop per District — if the Bishops are forced to share then they will tend to be weaker as a result, and if a District has no Bishop then something will move to fill the vacuum.

The Rooks

Since the Queen can’t exercise direct power outside the Heart, it needs proxies to carry out its will throughout the City’s districts. This is where the other Middle Tier pieces — the Rooks — come in. Functionally these are similar to Bishops in that they represent bodies of people — in this case police forces, a standing army, or other peacekeeping body. They’re not necessarily so overt, though — they could also be a secret police force, or even enforcers for organised crime.

In exchange for enforcing the Queen’s directives on their District each Rook enjoys some privileges (like the power to imprison or impose fines, immunities, etc.). These privileges mean each Rook is functionally on a similar power level to the Bishops, though unlike Bishops the Rooks don’t need to look to conquest or alliances for expanding their power — if they need to defend their position (or attack a Bishop) they can sanction resources from the Heart of the City.

Note that resources granted by the Queen are ultimately traceable back to that source — so if your Rooks are a shadowy organisation or deniable asset this could make for an interesting mystery game. Rooks might pose as Bishops, Bishops pose as Rooks, etc.

For the purposes of the Lower Tiers there’s not much difference between Rooks and Bishops — both represent employers of some kind, with internal drives and interests (primarily self-preservation, and growth). And indeed, some Bishops become Rooks, and some Rooks become Bishops. The main difference is where their power comes from.

The Knights

Knights are individuals with no political territory; they may have personal holdings and affiliations to others, but they don’t represent any kind of organisation. Like Pawns, they will work for a Rook or a Bishop; unlike Pawns they’re not fixed in place, and instead free to make contracts with whomever they choose.

In the most common RPG formats the Player Characters are all Knights — free agents with personal power who make their way on their own, forming short-term alliances with Middle Tier employers.

The Pawns

Like Knights, Pawns are individuals. Unlike Knights they are fixed in place, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. They will tend to belong to a particular workforce (headed by a Rook or a Bishop) and will be slow to change their working situation. Pawns are content to be where they are, forming deep links with their community, family and culture. This is the one thing an itinerant Knight doesn’t have; nor does the Bishop or Rook, even if they otherwise represent a community.

Pawns are most interesting when you consider what might cause them to transition from their current, comfortable position to another piece. What happened in their life that they suddenly became a Knight, a Bishop or even the King? All of these should be considered a “Kicker” — the Pawn character has been suddenly outlawed, made an offer they couldn’t refuse, or changed direction of their own life because something happened to disrupt their world (a death, a loss of position, an encounter with something or someone magical or mysterious, etc.).


This isn’t intended to be a game — there are no mechanics here. If you were designing a game using this template — with the view to having your citizens moving up and down the greasy pole, you might consider a currency to work out

  • how much power each Bishop has in their District
  • how much power it takes to knock over another Bishop or Rook
  • how much power it takes to depose the King or Queen
  • what alliances might look like when deposing a King or Queen (who gets to be the new King?), or conquering a Bishop (how do you divide up the previous territories? Does a District get broken up and its locations absorbed into other Territories?), etc.

Afterword: City Accelerator Manefesto

This is the point of the City Accelerator:

  • In overbuilt settings like Irilian a massive amount of effort goes into designing the location, but only a fraction of the content gets used…
  • …and because it’s so vast, it’s hard for the GM to focus on details in any useful way without extra work…
  • …and it’s also hard for the players to get an holistic sense of the city, because they’re overwhelmed with details…
  • …also, Great Clomping Feet

So the idea of the City Accelerator was

  1. focus on what’s interesting
  2. leave space to grow; write what’s interesting right now, play that, and avoid distractions from unnecessary details
  3. most importantly connect the player characters to the city — not only factions, but the actual, physical places using a system of locations and districts

There are a few other philosophical points like the benefits of Messy Design and the limits of Working Memory. TL;DR the harder it is for your players to view the City conveniently, the harder it is to get across the scope, scale, culture, or actually interesting details — they all get lost.

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