This is a post about Man, Play and Games by Roger Callois.

I haven’t read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, but Callois mentions his work directly in the first chapter and also challenges his fixation on the competitive nature of games (and I believe the exclusion of gambling. Callois’ theory on play is summarised here).

Note that I haven’t really touched on chapters 3 or 5, which are both good reads but relate more generally to the cultural need for and the sociology of games. I’ve also very much glossed over the second part concerning the interplay of simulation and vertigo (chapter 7) and competition and chance (chapter 8) because the main area I want to consider is the conditional relationship between AGON and MIMICRY.

The Definition of Play / The Classification of Games

Note: the first two chapters are reproduced in the Game Design Reader):

  • The Definition of Play includes the six core characteristics (free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe)
  • The Classification of Games covers the four categories (Agon, Alea, Mimicry, Ilinx) and the progression from chaos to order (paidia to ludus)

Mimicry is directly (and obviously) applicable to role-playing:

Mimicry. All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one’s fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving.

The “closed, conventional, imaginary universe” is I guess the magic circle.

The interesting part of these first two chapters is the interplay between the four categories. One, Agon and Alea represent two ends of a spectrum; at one end is complete mastery and the other is complete surrender to chance.

Agon and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes, but they both obey the same law — the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life.

The notion of equality is has always been the subject of hand-wringing with role-players; here it’s not game balance that matters but the ability to engage with the game on equal terms. Also game options may not be balanced, but if the freedom to make choices is there then equality is preserved. This is true if the game is largely random or has some strategic (i.e. skilful, competitive) element.

Two, there’s the interplay of Agon and Mimicry as pageantry accompanying sport:

In fact, bicycle races, boxing or wrestling matches, football, tennis, or polo games are intrinsic spectacles, with costumes, solemn overture, appropriate liturgy, and regulated procedures. In a word, these are dramas whose vicissitudes keep the public breathless, and lead to denouements which exalt some and depress others. The nature of these spectacles remains that of an agon, but their outward aspect is that of an exhibition.

This raises a question: where agon is present in the game, is mimicry always subordinate to it? I am not sure of the answer. But, let’s say you have two schools of RPG thought; one is based on boundaries and the consequences of action/reaction, and the other is based on narrative threads and the need to progress through a narrative arc, at any cost. If mimicry must be subordinate to anon, then the latter must by definition avoid all manner of competitive or strategic play. This leads us to…

Three, going from informal paidia to formal ludus, these four categories start becoming exclusive:

as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate.

So, to unpack this in terms of our simulationist vs. narrativist argument, any game which purports to “maturity” (ludus) must choose one approach and not the others. It’s easy therefore to see how ideas like exclusionary Gamist (alea) / Narrativist (mimicry) / Simulationist (agon) emerge; and the need for conventions and techniques to steer the players in one direction or another becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Note that paidia and ludus are not exclusionary notations but form a continuum of unstructured/informal to structured/formal, and there are examples of both in the four categories, which Callois lays out like this:

AGON (competition) ALEA (chance) MIMICRY (simulation) ILINX (vertigo)
PAIDIA Unregulated contests (wrestling, running, etc.) Dice rolls and coin flips Initiation, hazing, “games of illusion” Dancing, horseback riding, “children whirling”
LUDUS Regulated competitions/sports Betting and lotteries Theatre and spectacle Skiing, skydiving, mountain climbing

Callois places “games of illusion” which might be our immersive, emotional roleplaying towards the unstructured and informal end of the spectrum.

In such an instance MIMICRY coexists perfectly well with AGON. The need to switch between roleplaying and competitive/rules based play is unspoken and in the mode of play I’m familiar with, the timing for the switch is tacitly appreciated by all players. There is no need for fundamentalist declarations of play towards one category or another; rather this mode switching is done on the fly by unspoken agreement.

Thus far from being an immature vs. mature relationship the relationship between PAIDIA and LUDUS is one of tacit vs. explicit knowledge. And with my knowledge management hat on, this leads to a pretty important idea, which is that attempts to formalise roleplaying games into different categories may be doomed to fail, due to the prevalence of the tacit in all learned activity — learned activity being a social construct.

The Corruption of Games

“Corruption of play” has a couple antecedents in roleplaying; the first is the need for immersion or verisimilitude:

Where the problem is to enumerate the characteristics that define the nature of play, it appears to be an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) regulated, and (6) fictive, it being understood that the last two characteristics tend to exclude one another. These six purely formal qualities are not clearly related to the various psychological attitudes that govern play. In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the inference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature.

Second is the need to remove “cheating”. From this we get all manner of GM advice, contingent rules to stop certain behaviours, etc.

The principle of play has become corrupted. It is now necessary to take precautions against cheats and professional players, a unique product of the contagion of reality. Basically, it is not a perversion of play, but a sidetracking derived from one of the four primary impulses governing play. The situation is not unique. It occurs whenever the specified instinct does not encounter, in an appropriate game, the discipline and refuge that anchor it, or whenever it does not find gratification in the game.

The dilemma is that the player is still playing within the rules as written, but not in the “spirit of the game”.

The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical. He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules. If he is caught, he is thrown out. The universe of play remains intact.

The third is bleed which is a buzz-word du jour in narrative circles.

Superstition therefore seems to be a perversion, i.e. the application to reality of one of the principles of play, alea, which causes one to expect nothing of himself and leaves all to chance. The corruption of mimicry follows a parallel course. It is produced when simulation is no longer accepted as such, when the one who is disguised believes that his role, travesty, or mask is real. He no longer plays another. Persuaded that he is the other, he behaves as if he were, forgetting his own self. The loss of his real identity is a punishment for his inability to be content with merely playing a strange personality. It is properly called alienation.

There’s not much else to be said about corruption except that it is and will continue to be endemic. But the table at the end of the chapter is interesting:

Cultural forms Institutional forms Corruption
AGON (competition) sports economic competition, competitive examinations violence, will to power, trickery
ALEA (chance) lotteries, casinos, etc. speculation on the stock market superstition, astrology, etc.
MIMICRY (simulation) carnival, theatre, cinema, hero-worship uniforms, ceremonial etiquette alienation, split personality
ILINX (vertigo) mountain climbing, tightrope walking, skiing, sky-diving professions requiring control of vertigo alcoholism and drugs

I wonder if (given its susceptibility for bleed and its otherwise tacit nature) roleplaying is unusually vulnerable to corruption, which is why we get so much contingency built into games.

Conditional, Fundamental and Forbidden Relationships

Chapter 6 covers an expanded theory of games, and starts with six relationships:

  • competition-chance
  • competition-mimicry
  • competition-vertigo
  • chance-mimicry
  • chance-vertigo
  • mimicry-vertigo

Competition-Chance and Mimicry-Vertigo are Fundamental Relationships; they are “parallel and complementary”. Competition-Chance relies on equality, and in games are regulated. Mimicry-Vertigo lies at the opposite extreme and “equally presume a world in which the player constantly improvises”.

Competition-Vertigo and Chance-Mimicry and Forbidden Relationships. This is self-evident — you can’t have a strategic game which at the same time destroys judgement and distorts truth; and you can’t have a game where reality is simulated based on internal logic, but at the same time random. BUT in the latter case you could design a game where one is subordinate to the other, e.g. the randomness creates a set of conditions in the illusion that the players respond to (which is a cornerstone of RPGs).

Last, and most interesting IMHO, are the Contingent Relationships of AGON-MIMICRY and ALEA-ILINX which “may be associated harmlessly.” Callois again goes back to the spectacle:

I have already had occasion to stress that every competition is also a spectacle. It unfolds according to identical rules, and with the same anticipation of the outcome. It requires the presence of an audience which crowds about the ticket windows of the stadium or velodrome just as at those of the theater and cinema.

On the Narrativist vs. Challenge (“OSR”) modes of design: logically if you characterise the aim of Narrativist games to induce sensation or vertigo, then this is incompatible with strategic, “challenge based” or “boundary based” design. Of course if we’re using these terms then the use of MIMICRY to denote simulation is going to cause some confusion.

Modern Revivals

I’ll finish this with a couple of quotes — which are interesting although not specific to roleplaying.

From Chapter 8, concerning Competition and Chance:

The reign of mimicry and ilinx as recognised, honoured, and dominant cultural trends is indeed condemned as soon as the mind arrives at the concept of cosmos, i.e. a stable and orderly universe without miracles or transformations. Such a universe seems the domain of regularity, necessity, and proportion—in a word, a world of number.

From Chapter 9, concerning “The Mask and the Uniform”:

modern society is scarcely aware of the two survivals of the sorcerer’s mask: the black mask and the grotesque carnival mask. The black mask, the mask reduced to its essentials, elegant and abstract, has long been associated with erotic fetes and with conspiracies. It characterises equivocally sensual intrigues and mysterious plots against the powers that be.


Further Reading

Unsurprisingly other gamers have already done this analysis: this article cleans up the table and covers the six pairs of categories very neatly.

Going further I found this article by Jesper Juul from 2003, which goes beyond Callois’ classifications and argues that RPGs are a borderline case between GAMES-NOT GAMES. This is outside the scope of what I’ve written here but worth reading.

Finally this appears to be someone’s entire thesis which is a bit much for a casual read-through but it includes a nice pictogram of the relationships (which I reproduced above).

Bothered by the new Vampire 5th Edition Alpha? Here are five games you can play instead:

Don’t Rest Your Head

If you want to really focus on Hunger Dice-like mechanics — which are a really good idea — try Don’t Rest Your Head which is just waiting to be hacked into a Vampire-like game. For example, just rename Exhaustion dice Hunger and use Madness dice for Disciplines. There’s some conceptual massaging to be done (when Madness dominates it’s clearly Frenzy, but Frenzy should come about from Hunger, etc.) but iron those out and you’ve probably got a very tidy system.

Nephilim

If you want to play a supernatural arsehole who basically hijacks a mortal body and rides it like they stole it, play Nephilim. Use it for long-lived vamps who’ve endured periods of torpor between their “past lives”. There are secret societies galore. Granted, the system and setting need some full-on reupholstering but it goes back to a VtM 1e conceit — that basically all mythical things have their roots in Vampires (you know, Baba Yaga is a Nosferatu, etc.). Use the Transformations for revealing the vamp’s monstrous nature (a bit like the woge in Grimm, maybe).

Silent Legions

If you want to play in a vast, world-spanning conspiracy of vampire society, maybe built it from the ground up with Silent Legions. For “Elder Gods” read “Antediluvians”. Then build all of the descendants and followers as magical secret societies etc, and have them play a sort of “great game” of politics and nonsense. Use the Kelipot rules for special areas like Elysium and vampiric domains. Yeah, I know they’re like magical other dimensions — re-imagine them as areas outside normal human space, the underbelly where the natural order is reversed and the vamps have control, etc. And sure, you need to do something to make vampire PCs — my best bet so far is to do something with sanity rules and make the pursuit of sanity the same as the pursuit of blood, or something.

Over The Edge

If frankly you’re not bothered about actual rules, which let’s face it we never really bothered with them back in the 90s, you just want to free-form through the game and you need the bare minimum of a framework to support it — why not use the WaRP system? I’ve been thinking about this on and off for some time. And honestly it’s got most of what you need — the Fringe Powers work, and the Psychic Pool and/or Experience Dice work for a temporary resource you can spend when you really need it. Maybe just make a Blood Pool of dice to power your Fringe Powers and otherwise use for Blood Buffs, and replenish it by roleplaying the hunt. Job done.

Vampire the Masquerade, 1st Edition

Back in the 90s before all the splatbooks, before Werewolf and the others, before being collared in goth clubs having your ear bent about metaplot, there was only one rulebook with messy layout and inconsistent rules and a pretentious goth bibliography/soundtrack. If you’re not so bothered about Rules as Written (we weren’t) Vampire the Masquerade First Edition is as worthwhile as any version. For me it’s the best; VtM 1e left a lot of blank space to fill in (lupines, cities, etc.). I also liked the non-glossy pages and the understated fonts and understated clans and the many ideas for chronicles. Yeah, OK, we’ll never get that back, but at least we were free to create our own incongruous scenarios and sophomoric characters

An update to the SRD mini-document for StormHack. What this includes:

  1. the “Drama game” which is how you play in downtime or flashbacks, for dramatic scenes/origin stories etc.
  2. the “Adventure game” which is basically an OSR game.

What it doesn’t contain are details on the Demon Ladders which just wouldn’t fit, but those will come shortly in the complete SRD. But it should give you sort of an idea on how to play.

Here’s the two sides. Print them on one sheet of paper, and make the little booklet as previously shown; when you open it up you should have the two modes of play in there.

Here’s the thing in PDF, which may be useful if you’ve got a printer that does double-sided printing.

Working on the SRD for StormHack. I’ve changed the system a bit since the playtest at Concrete Cow. The revised version has an “interior game” and an “exterior game”, something I’ve been noodling with the idea for nearly 3 years in Beyond the Wall (character sheets here). Basic idea:

  1. The Adventure game happens outside the “village” (the settlement, city, etc.). Play this like an OSR game (e.g. WhiteHack or Beyond the Wall).
  2. The Drama game happens either in Downtime (i.e. “back in the village”) or as Flashbacks between the adventure scenes. Run these as you would Dramasystem by playing out the character’s relationships (“Bonds”) and possibly with another player roleplaying the other end of the relationship. The outcome generates tokens that can be spent in the Adventure game.
  3. It’s up to the players and GM how much you play flashbacks vs. the adventure portion.
  4. (Yes, similar to Night Witches although note that I had this idea back in August 2014…)

Anyway, I went from writing a monolithic document to trying the SRD on a single page and from there a little 8 page A6 pamphlet (made like this).

Here’s the image file:

The margins are screwed up at the moment. The reverse side will be instructions for the Drama and Adventure games but I haven’t written that yet. The plan is to use this for both an Eternal Champion type game, and Black Mantle.

More to come.

This rough game sketch follows some ideas laid down in the latest Fictoplasm podcast about Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

The General Idea

First, influences, a bit of this and that:

  • Books: Pale Fire (Nabokov), The Land of Laughs (Carroll), Weaveworld (Barker)
  • Film and TV: Twin Peaks, Riverdale, It Follows
  • Comics: Planetary issue 9 (“Planet Fiction”) (Warren Ellis)
  • RPGs: Mage: The Ascension, Over The Edge, Unknown Armies, Changeling: The Lost

In summary, a lot like a contemporary game, a liminal fantasy, magical realism, a setting that looks like the real world but with weirdness.

Second, the pitch.

The characters are exiles from “Ruritania”, a.k.a. The Old Country. This is a place that (mostly) exists outside the game area.

Most of the time the characters have settled in a “Ruritanian colony” in The New Country. This colony isn’t really a real place, but it’s close enough to all the real places in the New Country that most non-Ruritanians, or “normal people” could not tell the difference. It fits right in with their world, they can easily travel to it, etc.

What do the PCs do in this place? Well, any kind of modern drama/investigative type of game. The world looks like our world, and the people inside it behave accordingly, and most of the time you follow the characters around and see how their lives link up.

But at some point, Ruritania intrudes on the real world. Ruritania is the exotic, the weird, the magical. It’s also subjective; Ruritania means different things to different characters. And it’s possible to hold a personal view of Ruritania and experience someone else’s version. Ruritania is a single place but viewed from many different perspectives.

The default setup is that assassins from Ruritania are stalking the characters. The game should play out episodically like a drama, soap opera, police procedural, etc. with a weekly (well, short) story arc. But the Ruritanian arc is long-term. As things get stranger, the assassins get closer to where the PCs are; and when they are close enough, they strike.

System Approach

The goal is to run a game like Twin Peaks with “real” people and their personal interests and drama. Most of the time things are perfectly mundane but at points the strangeness intrudes.

Dramasystem should work very well for setting up the web of relationships. Where Dramasystem fails for procedural bits, consider the procedural approach in Malandros.

Also consider the WaRP system, which works nicely for very light characters. WaRP is very neat looking with the Central Trait, Side Traits and Negative Trait.

Consider the involvement of NPCs in Dramatic and Procedural scenes. A lot of Dramasystem supposedly focuses inward; but a game like this needs external characters to come from outside and connect with the interior characters.

Use a sort of location tagging system. Rate this numerically:

  • 0 for “real world”
  • 1 for “almost real world”; the default state for a Ruritanian colony
  • 2-3 for “intrusion”, that is any strangeness, alternative reality
  • 5 is full-on Ruritania; the magical or weird reality that is stalking the characters.

Locations in the game world can have ratings that go up and down. These ratings represent difficulties for passing into certain areas. See the Boundaries bit, next.

During the game, each character will have a clock which goes up or down. As their rating increases they become more sensitive, more connected with the secret world (criminal underworld, psychic world, dream world, etc.). If this is handled using an Apocalypse World style of “hard moves” then above a certain threshold on the clock certain options are opened to the GM to take hard moves on behalf of the Ruritanian assassins, representing their progress towards the characters.

Additionally when the characters are “in Ruritania” (i.e. in the psychic landscape) they may have restricted actions depending on what permission they have to be there — this fits with e.g. a dream world where certain moves simply aren’t available owing to dream logic.

What is Ruritania?

“Ruritania” represents somewhere far away, magical, normally separate from reality; a higher world, a dream world, an idealised state, a place yearned for. It’s the Black and White Lodges in Twin Peaks, the higher universe of Yesod in the Book of the New Sun, the dream worlds of Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm St, and so on.

Ruritania in the game is an unattainable state — and it’s normally a place the characters are fleeing from, and from whence they are pursued with lethal intent.

But there are Ruritanian colonies for the exiles; decide whether these are created consciously or happen spontaneously. Maybe they are necessary for survival; the Ruritanians can sustain themselves for a short while in the real world as vampires by feeding off individual dreamers, but for long term health they need to be in a place of stability. Maybe Ruritanian exiles gathering together in one place is a risky strategy since it attracts attention, but they’re forced to get together to survive.

What happens when normal people who are touched by Ruritanian unreality leave? Are they haunted? Are they infected? Is Ruritania a transmissible condition?

Drawing Boundaries

  1. Use a location tagging system to map out the play area
  2. Partition the areas in the map with clear boundaries, and rank these areas according to the previous scale: 0 for real world, 1 for not-quite-there, 2 for magical realism, etc.
  3. Consider that some of these areas can be reached normally, but the magical or secret or mysterious part can only be accessed with certain permissions. Draw these as circles with cross the main boundary.

See the example for Twin Peaks:

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks as an example:

  • “Ruritania” is the Black Lodge
  • The Assassin is Windom Earle
  • Twin Peaks is a colony for Ruritanian exiles, some of whom are magically attuned e.g. Laura Palmer, Sarah Palmer, the Log Lady, Agent Cooper, Garland Briggs, Hawk
  • The Red Room, Agent Cooper’s dictaphone messages to Diane, Tibet, the Log Lady’s log, the owls in the forest, visions by various characters (e.g. the one Garland Briggs relates to Bobby) and possibly even the FBI represent higher states of consciousness

The Map

Several locations. Rating indicates how far they are removed from reality:

The Game

If you were playing Twin Peaks most characters would be drawn together by Laura Palmer’s murder. Agent Cooper travels in from outside but the other characters are already in the location.

The law enforcement characters and indeed everyone affected by Laura Palmer’s death will be interested in getting answers. This would be the arc plot; over the course of the game the Assassin will draw closer and the Black Lodge exert more of an influence.

But there should be episodic drama too, and that’s what the characters should be doing week on week. Dramasystem offers a nice structure to let players frame scenes so they each get spotlight. Consider the balance of incentives in pursuing individual dramatic poles vs. the arc plot.

Ruritania, Magic and Unreality

Agent Cooper’s actions are restricted in the Red Room, and early on he’s only allowed to be a spectator and only to receive cryptic information. He only accesses the room in dreams. All of these point to the level of permission he has to act freely in the Red Room (and the Black Lodge), and (in game terms) the moves he can make in that environment. Furthermore the advent of his dreams is a result of ramping up of weirdness and the psychic world penetrating the real world when he’s in Twin Peaks.

You probably already know that Everway has three different ways of resolving tasks: Karma, Drama and Fortune.

Did this come before or after Threefold theory? Certainly they were adopted by GNS theory but seemingly as mutually exclusive goals.

But that’s not what Everway’s system did. Not only was the GM free to use whichever method of resolution suited them at the time, these methods form a continuity.

Graphic:

All Tasks start in the middle with a player wanting to achieve something. It may or may not be articulated as simply as “I want”; it could be implied, it may be teased out with conversation, there may be context and conditions. But a combination of Karma, Drama and Fortune can be used to negotiate what the player wants and get to some kind of outcome.

The graphic assumes a couple of things:

  1. As soon as we know what the task is, the GM can move to any one of the three options.
  2. Once you’re at one option, you’re free to switch to another option.
  3. However it’s most likely that people will start at Karma and then move to Drama or Fortune (directly, or via Drama). The reasons for this are below.
  4. The three approaches arrive at the end states in three different ways; one by dice, one by GM adjudication, and one by either a consensus between players or by the GM imposing plot on the players.

Karma

This is what the Everway playing guide says about karma on p124:

When applying the law of karma you, as the gamemaster, assess the difficulty of the task, judge the capability of the hero attempting the task, and rule on the result. The hero succeeds if, in your judgement, the hero has the abilities necessary to meet the challenge of the task. The hero fails if, in your judgement, the task is too difficult for the hero’s capabilities.

Going in, karma is a short-cut. If a PC is up to a task then let them have the outcome they’re going for; and if they’re not, don’t waste their time with making them roll dice — especially if the fail outcome is simply “you don’t get the thing” without any other consequence.

This is why karma is often good as an opening position for resolving any task. Drama may be all about what benefits the plot, but karma is in some ways about cutting out what doesn’t benefit the plot and just slows everything down.

If there’s no clear-cut Yes or No what happens next will probably be a bit of negotiation — either prompted by the GM asking how they achieve that, or more detail volunteered by the player. These start to become blow by blow plans, etc. This can go one of two ways: either a lot of back and forth between players and GM (drama) or going to the dice (fortune).

Drama

From the Everway playing guide, p126:

When applying the law of drama you, as the gamemaster, the needs of the plot determine the outcome of events. As in a novel or play, events proceed in such a way as to make the plot and story more engaging and enjoyable. The hero succeeds if doing so helps the plot. The hero fails if that helps the plot.

The role of drama is to make sure things happen that are interesting and everyone engaged and invested in the plot.

The problem with drama is… how does the GM judge that to be the case? Occasionally it’s easy, e.g. drama says the PCs must find a clue here to keep things moving. Sometimes, the GM will be working from a script and have prepared set pieces or bangs. Most of the time though the plot will arise from a back-and-forth conversation, etc. And specifically for task resolution, some players love to talk their way through their plans and every step of their actions — a process of exposition that’s dramatic.

Effectively you have a natural progression from karma into drama. At the start when a player says “I want to do XXX” and the GM asks them “how?” they’re starting a conversation and inviting a whole load of dramatic play.

So, when does the GM go straight to drama without going through karma first? Usually when there’s an obstacle but it’s not quite clear what the task is — prompting the players to talk around the situation until they get what they want.

To truly resolve by drama one of two things happen: either the players agree how the plot is going forward, or the GM imposes plot on everyone. This isn’t really the same as the GM judging the outcome based on ability, and in general it can feel anticlimactic (either because everything ends in agreement, or because the GM just narrates an ending).

What’s much more likely to happen is that the drama comes to a head and calls for a dice roll, so moves into the realm of fortune. It can do this naturally because all that conversation is setting stakes and bringing everything to a head.

Fortune

The Everway playing guide, p128:

When you, as the gamemaster, apply the law of fortune, a card from the Fortune Deck determines the outcome of an action. If the card’s meaning is positive, the event in the game world is positive for the hero. If the card’s meaning is negative, the event or outcome is negative.

Everway suggests drawing cards for an immediate yes/no judgement, and also for Tarot-like long-term interpretations, and also to improvise results or developments.

You can arrive at fortune from three ways:

  1. Start at karma; the task is clear but there’s no clear yes/no answer, in which case call for a dice roll.
  2. Start at drama; talk until things come to a head and the need for a yes/no, then call for a dice roll.
  3. Go straight to fortune.

I’m going to argue that many times a dice roll is called for the thought process of GM and players have gone through karma and or drama first, setting up the context for the random roll. So the times when people go straight to fortune without thinking about karma/drama is when they’re not really invested in the balance of power or the outcome; they just want something new and interesting to happen that isn’t directly coloured by player or GM invention. Sounds counter-intuitive, but this is exactly what random tables are for, and they work.

Final Remarks

The argument above is that karma, drama and fortune form a continuity rather than three separate techniques. I don’t think this is revelatory — more I’ve just said aloud what any good GM with experience has internalised by trial and error. But there are some essential learnings for me at least.

First, always assume the PCs have competence, even if they lack expertise. So if you’re applying the law of karma, assume the PC is judging the situation rather than committing to it. This means that if the task is beyond their abilities they don’t even attempt the task — so they either succeed or they don’t attempt it.

Second, try not to waste people’s time. Don’t roll dice when there’s no real risk. Don’t have players grubbing in the dark for clues when they will inevitably find those clues anyway.

Third, the players will tell you which direction they want to go. This is part of the big drama conversation. The conclusion to that conversation can be one of three things: agree with the players and go with their plot, or disagree and impose your own, or set stakes and go to the dice.

Fourth, do not neglect the power of a random table, card draw or dice roll from a completely neutral position.

OSR games often feature rolling under attributes for pass/fail task resolving; it’s simpler than calculating bonuses from attributes, setting target numbers, etc.

Here is a mashup of OSR roll-under-attribute (specifically something like Whitehack) and PbtA pass/pass with consequences/fail with MC move.

When you take an action and the GM says you need to make a roll, it will be against one of your attributes. Roll a D20 and compare the result with the attribute number.

  • if the result is higher than your attribute, you fail with consequences
  • if the result is below your attribute and 10 or above, you succeed
  • if the result is below your attribute but 9 or lower, you may succeed at cost
  • if the result is exactly your attribute it’s a critical success

Cost or Consequences

Consequences happen when you try and fail (if there were no consequences, ask why you needed a die roll in the first place). Consequences can be made up by the GM on the spot or picked from a list (much like a MC move in Apocalypse World).

Success with a Cost is like paying Consequences to get the Success you wanted. The Cost of Success could be the same as the Consequences of Failure, or it could be different (usually less).

Difficulty

There are no numerical changes to the die rolls (either bonus or penalty). So how does the GM make the challenge easier or harder?

First, by changing the Costs of success for rolls below 10. If the Cost is a slider then setting it to zero means that a success with a roll below 10 is the same as a full success; alternatively if it’s set to “high” then it makes the chance of a Cost-free success lower, but also pushes a decision onto the player — take the hit now, or wait until the next opportunity to roll in the hope that you get a 10+ next time.

Second, by changing the Consequences. OK, this doesn’t affect the actual probability, but it does affect the perceived difficulty and pushes a decision onto the player. This only happens when the GM informs the player of potential Consequences in advance. It could even be phrased as “if you fail, XXX will happen” to set the stakes.

Third, by forcing Whitehack-style Disadvantage on the roll — so the player rolls 2 dice and keeps the lower result.

And fourth, by requiring more than one roll. You could demand a succession or rolls (for time passing and ticking bombs) or that all the rolls are made at once.

Skill and Expertise

That’s all well and good, but how does my character’s abilities affect this roll if there are no numerical modifiers?

The obvious one is rolling with advantage as used in Whitehack and D&D5e. You get to roll two D20s and keep the result you like.

The less obvious one is mitigating a Consequence or Cost. If you have a hierarchy of Costs, you could move the cost one rung down the ladder. Alternatively you could say the PC’s skill means they can defer one Cost per scene (or two, or more… though I’d stick with just one).

One thing this allows you to do is then ask the player how their PC is mitigating the cost — e.g. if they’re using an ability that lets them ignore this cost, where did this advantage or training come from? The approach should be (again) similar to Whitehack.

What about combat?

Since OSR has a whole subsystem devoted to fighting with AC, HP and BAB I guess you need to decide whether to keep this subsystem, or convert it.

If you convert it then you need to decide things like “does the GM roll dice, or just the players?” and how armour works, e.g. does it offset Cost or Consequence of a bad attack roll? I haven’t worked those out just yet, but I’ll get to them shortly.

Ladder of Costs

Finally, here are some PbtA style Costs aka MC moves:

  • Take damage or trade damage (Cost can be mitigated by armour, hit dice, etc.)
  • Put them on the spot
  • Take their stuff
  • GM advances a clock (or clock die)
  • GM takes a pain token (Don’t Rest Your Head style)

Taking or trading damage can be according to a damage ladder, which is really just a way to differentiate between things that do some damage (e.g. a weapon in the hands of an average person) and more damage (a weapon used by a trained person, a bear, a dragon, etc.).

More generally some costs will be more onerous than others, hence the need for a “ladder” which will also allow the GM to tune the level of difficulty/consequence (q.v.). This is a WIP, so more later.

This is part of a series of documents about the development of the game Deep Season, a game based on the Fugue mechanics developed by James Wallis for the forthcoming game Alas Vegas.

Chapter: Player-Facing Documents

These are techniques that aren’t covered in the core Fugue rules, but nevertheless I think they’re necessary in order to get a “proper” Fugue game with rotating Dealers to work. There are three documents here, and they’re all “player facing” in that they exist on the table in front of the players, and may be expanded by the players during the sessions. They are:

  1. The Setting Brief
  2. Facts and Observations
  3. The Cork Board

The Setting Brief

Alas Vegas has a whole setting chapter including some elements that won’t be immediately known to the characters (since they’ve just emerged from shallow graves in the desert, with amnesia). Nevertheless this chapter is important for all players to read before the game. Why? Mainly it’s because thanks to the shared nature of the game the players need to be on the same page regarding tone, how the environment looks and feels, and the common knowledge shared by the game characters (tourists and locals).

The setting brief is a metafictional document; it relates to the various setting elements that the personas will experience, but it’s written as a direct contrast to player knowledge about the real Las Vegas. If you think about it, you wouldn’t expect the game characters to draw those comparisons — they have amnesia after all, to the extent that they’re unable to perform some tasks we take for granted and we’d expect a typical resident of Vegas to know (e.g. driving a car).

Of course through use of flashbacks some personas might claim real-world knowledge. That’s OK. The players should still absorb the setting brief so they hit the ground running as personas in the world (there are only four sessions, after all).

Facts and Observations

This sheet of paper is a living list of things the personas have witnessed or otherwise agree upon. It’s inspired by the Facts and Reassurances sheet from that other “Hollywood amnesia” game, A Penny For My Thoughts.

At the start of the game the first Dealer will present the partially filled Facts and Observations sheet, and place it in the middle of the table. From then on anyone can add to the sheet, although it’s mainly the Dealer’s responsibility because subsequent Dealers will uncover further facts about the world based on the briefing in their Act, which they will then convey to the players.

Facts and Observations will generally be high level, for example

  • This place looks like Vegas from the 70s
  • There’s something wrong about the street signs, and no-one will sell us a map
  • There are five casinos here called the Star, Swords, Wands, Coins and Cups

Each Act should be written to make it clear to the current Dealer when they must add lines to the Facts and Observations sheet. At any other time they or another player may add a line to the sheet. The end of each written Act should include a run-down of the things that should be on the sheet.

Why go to this trouble? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. Humans have limited working memory — the typical figure is 7 give or take 2 things that they can keep in mind at one time. Asking all the players to have perfect recall over all the facts is a lot, and can lead to inconsistency, some things being forgotten, the wrong assumptions, etc.
  2. Writing the Facts and Observations down is a contract that the Dealer has to abide by. Of course the Dealer may introduce elements that look contradictory, or even cross out Facts and Observations that prove false — but they can’t just do that on a whim. If they write something down, or cross something off, they do it in full view of the other players. This is a method of keeping things fairly consistent between Dealers.

About that second point — yes, Dealers can contradict earlier established Facts, or at least appear to. This appears to violate the “accept, include, don’t contradict” maxim of improv. However, David Lynch’s scripts are full of apparent contradictions, coincidences and unexplained happenings; so I’d take any contradiction as an opportunity to question, rather than shutting the previous Dealer down. If two facts appear to be mutually exclusive, are they? Or is there a set of circumstances which permit both facts to be true?

The Cork Board

The third tool for getting the players on the same page is the Cork Board. It works like this:

  1. When you introduce a new character write their name down on an index card.
  2. Also write down important information — mostly this will be who they are affiliated to and/or who is reporting to them. Since Fugue revolves around the Tarot, this may often be one of the four Suits (as in-game factions) although that bit is optional.
  3. Pin the index card to the cork board.
  4. When the character comes up and new information is learned about them, add it to their index card.

Now, here’s the optional but interesting technique. If you’re the current Dealer, you’re managing the behind-the-scenes game stuff. You know what the NPCs are planning, what actions they intend to take next. You need a way to communicate this to the next Dealer, without giving it away to the other players, right?

So, write it on the back of the index card.

When you hand the Cork Board over to the next Dealer, they should look at all of the characters as written down, and check the back of the cards for instructions. That Dealer is not at all obliged to make anything of those plans; but in the interest of “accept, incorporate” it’s encouraged. It’s nice if the outgoing Dealer can set something up, and the incoming Dealer can feed off those cues.

Of course, the outgoing Dealer is limited by how much space there is on the index card. No problem; just attach a second card to the first with a paperclip and use that space.

It does mean that your handwriting has to be legible, of course.

You can do this for locations, too. I’d encourage writing down major locations on index cards, with distinguishing features and connections to characters (X was seen here in Act Two, etc.). And you can write secret advice on the back of those cards.

If you’re going to use Locations as well, I recommend either a second Cork Board or some way of marking the two different kinds of cards (different colour card stock, etc.).

It might be easier to gather the index cards up at the end into a single stack, with a big bulldog clip or rubber band to hold them together. That may make handover easier. But I recommend cork boards and pins during play as they can lay out the cards so the players can see them easily.

(I bought my cork boards from a well-known national chain of bric-a-brac stores for just a couple of pounds)

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.

Once the darling of RPG theory, the Threefold is barely tolerated these days. A lot like Ben Elton. Unlike Elton they didn’t sell out, they were just too abstract to begin with — so they ended up needing a lot of additional qualification and just sounded pretentious. The problems with the threefold, and specifically GNS, are/were:

  1. The tenet that you must play one to the exclusion of the others, or your game is incoherent
  2. The idea that the output is “story”, which is a loaded term…
  3. …which then elevates Narrative over the other two styles/modes
  4. Game, Narrative and Simulation don’t have easy real-world examples of products; instead they’re supposedly behaviours leading to certain outcomes…
  5. …which supposes that not only is one outcome more favourable than another, there are correct and incorrect behaviours.

M-A-D

Rather than using abstract terms, let’s take genre examples:

  • Mystery: a game in which the characters seek clues and are rewarded with an overall truth
  • Adventure: a game where the characters overcome obstacles, usually with an element of risk or time pressure, and are rewarded by either gaining power, or succeeding in opposing an enemy
  • Drama: a game where the characters interact verbally or physically in a series of conflicts, that progressively define their relationships with one another

The Markers

Each of the three genres can be classified with four markers:

  • Relationships: whether the relationships are dynamically changing or mostly static; whether they are between PCs, or PC-NPC
  • Landscape: is the environment a fixed backdrop, or does it change as the game progresses
  • Obstacles: why obstacles exist and what we get from overcoming them
  • Effort: where the effort is in preparing to play the game

Mystery

Relationships Static and assumed benign between PCs; unknown and developing over time between the Party and various NPCs/antagonists. This is the “squad fallacy” that assumes the PCs will work together (which becomes part of the unspoken agreement between players).

Landscape Used to frame a source of clues, therefore usually changes progressively following a predictable, ordered path (e.g. from the Mansion to the Well to the Mill to the old Factory) but sometimes retreading previous locations as the relationship with NPCs develops (q.v.)

Obstacles Exist to serve up clues, and balance the gain of clues with a certain risk or cost.

Effort A great deal of effort up-front to construct a mystery. A coherent back-story, with well-paced clues that aren’t impossible but don’t give the game away too early. This is the basis for Cthulhu product lines (CoC, ToC, etc.) where you’re playing for an experience in play (rather than just another splatbook).

Adventure

Relationships Like the Mystery, the PC-PC relationships are often static and benign, “squad-like”. Unlike the mystery the PC-NPC relationships are often known from the outset, with NPCs as antagonists, allies or neutral service providers.

Landscape Used to frame encounters; investigated as a sandbox, so progressively explored but in a non-predictable manner.

Obstacles Exist to make the act of exploring dangerous (with location encounters) and provide gains in power/wealth and/or neutralising opposition.

Effort Effort to construct a location-by-location sandbox, with encounters and a back-story. No requirement for pacing of plot/clues, but may need to keep track of events or the progress of antagonists (e.g. in Deep Carbon Observatory, if they arrive at certain locations before or after the characters)

Drama

Relationships Main focus is PC-PC and will change dynamically; there may be in-game currency (drama tokens, strings) that regulates this. PC-NPC relationships may be secondary.

Landscape Fixed set of locations that are usually directly connected to, and known to the characters (i.e. not much scope for exploration)

Obstacles Obstacles are usually in the form of tensions between two characters that must be resolved; and resolving them (or failing to) creates further drama and fodder for the next scene. Apocalypse World does this really well but in a very specific way with moves, etc.

Effort Effort is in up-front creation of the structures — including tension, wants, etc. — which will then be fodder for scenes. This effort is further delegated to the play group in the first scene, e.g. following the PCs around to see what they do (PbtA) or talking specifically about what they want from each other (Dramasystem). Of the three this is possibly the least effort for individual games.

Closing Remarks

I have my own reasons for looking at the games in this way but I’d argue that there are two benefits. First, each corner of the threefold relates to an actual genre that players can articulate a preference for and you can pitch in e.g. a convention game.

Second, rather than being exclusive you can mix and match the approaches. In fact I don’t think many games are purely M, A or D. A lot of trad games are Mystery-Adventure with components of both survival/risk and obtaining and following a trail of clues, scene-by-scene exposition with some Drama, etc. And Silent Legions is a really excellent sandbox Mystery game, removing a lot of the effort needed for Chaosium-style modules and replacing with the tag system.