Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.

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