Saturday, 10 December 2016

Karma, Drama and Fortune redux

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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

7 Ages of Magic

Reworking a thing I did a couple of years ago. Originally it was inspired by The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, but considering society as a vehicle for magic.

The seven ages are:

  1. Age of Reclusive Sorcerer
  2. Age of Itinerant Sorcerer
  3. Age of Folk Magic
  4. Age of Regulation
  5. Age of Revolution and Innovation
  6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance
  7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

The graphic.

7 Magical Ages

1. Age of the Reclusive Sorcerer

Magic is feared/forbidden/evil. Magicians are separate from human civilisation. The Divine is separate from Earth. Humans pay dearly for venturing outside.

Thematic Elements: hidden horror, secrecy, things humanity was not meant to know

Games: Wraith, Kult, Call of Cthulhu

2. Age of the Itinerant Sorcerer

The magician walks into the Earth to connect with human communities, seeking disciples. Magicians as Gods/Divine Spark on Earth.

Thematic Elements: magicians as deities, ages of myth

Games: Exalted, Stormbringer, Barbarians of Lemuria, Everway

3. Age of Folk Magic

Human communities in balance between their civilisation and liminal elements of their community (fair folk, ghosts, myths). Wise women and cunning men.

Thematic elements: village magic, fairies and ghosts, walking legends, small communities

Games: Beyond the Wall, Runequest (Spirit Magic/Primitive cultures), Everway

4. Age of Regulation

Human civilisation realises a taxonomy of magical and Divine elements; seeks to categorise, gain control over. Humanity divided between minority of powerful sorcerers and majority of peons. Humans, not the Divine, decide who is worthy of Magic.

Thematic elements: secret societies, initiation rites, religion, vampires

Games: Ars Magica, Vampire, Runequest

5. Age of Revolution and Innovation

The human majority take back power from minority gatekeepers. Individuals find new ways to do magic outside prescribed methods. Freedom to conjure. 

Thematic Elements: personal empowerment, meritocracy, superheroes identified as ordinary humans

Games: Wild Talents, Unknown Armies, Mage, D&D, Ghostbusters, Spirit of the Century

6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance

Magic becomes commodity, weaponised, mass manufactured, disposable

Thematic Elements: technology and science, greed, separation from the Divine, spiritual listlessness

Games: Cyberpunk, the Bret Easton Ellis RPG, Changeling

7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

Humanity mistrusts magic. Earth is purged of self-serving magic. Magicians withdraw wholly to the realm of the Divine.

Thematic Elements: the Apocalypse

Games: Apocalypse World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Werewolf

Sunday, 15 November 2015

RPG First Look: Whitehack

I’ve said before that the OSR is like Linux:

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

These little differences between distros (package managers, system tools, desktop environment) form the basis of preference for Linux enthusiasts, but… they’re completely irrelevent to outsiders who make computing decisions on a completely different set of criteria (ideology, need for apps, shiny hardware).

And the OSR is like that. Outsiders can’t grok the difference between the retroclones, even if those differences are fairly significant. Their decision to look at OSR products comes from a different set of decision-making criteria (ideology, community they play with, style, genre, etc.).

In Decision Behaviour, Analysis and Support (excerpt here) Prof. Simon French discusses the “Strategy Pyramid”:


(also, another strategy pyramid — for another time)

The decision for “which OSR” or “which Linux” is Operational/Instinctive — it comes down to a set of low-level activities (which dice, ascending/descending AC, which commands). The decision to use or not use Linux in favour of Windows, or an OSR game in favour of, say, GURPS, is a strategic one with completely different criteria. For the RPG choice you’ll be thinking

  • What do my friends play/like?
  • What products are available in the shops?
  • What settings appeal to me?
  • What community do I identify with?

And so on. Yes, some of these have nothing to do with system — but they’re fair, high-level strategic decisions on which game to invest time in.

By now you’re thinking: what the hell has this got to do with Whitehack?


Christian Mehrstam’s Whitehack speaks the language of OSR — “zero edition roots”, streamlined rules, implied conversions from other OSR sources. Those markers help the OSR types identify this game as part of that family of games, and therefore something to be curious about. If that’s you, check out Sophia Brandt’s 7-part study where you can get the information you need to decide how Whitehack differs from your favourite OSR beast.

For the wider RPG audience for whom Whitehack is “just another D&D game” there’s not much reason to seek out those differences, and that’s a shame. So here’s where I break it down. Because this isn’t only an OSR game, it’s a conduit between the OSR and 90’s minimalist designs which also understands the indie drive towards emergent setting.

Founding Principles

In play Whitehack appears to be built on two very important principles:

  1. You can negotiate for advantage at any time.
  2. When you negotiate for advantage, you explain where the fictional source of that advantage comes from.

The first principle is dear to my heart and core to playing light freeform-style games such as Everway and WaRP/Over the Edge. But it’s the second that drives the emergent setting, growing the world over time. That same principle lies at the heart of indie darlings Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel.

Genre Aware

The genius in Whitehack is not just in its re-treading of the OSR mechanisms, though these are certainly innovative and sleek — it’s in the game’s awareness of genre and setting as they pertain to “adventure”. From the beginning Referees’s section, p.24:

Nobody ever comes “clean” to a game or a genre.

Then from “Hacking Your Notion of Normal” (p.25)

The expression “normal fantasy” may sound contradictory, but it isn’t… if you want to hack your group’s notion of what is normal, concentrate on a select few important aspects of the setting and leave the rest

and from “Switching or Mixing Genres” (p.25)

Genres are formalised answers to historical social needs, not just containers for stereotypes, tropes and typical trappings… Genres run much deeper. For example, science fiction answers the need to shed new light on common beliefs and conceptions.

From the outset Whitehack makes the correct assumption that the reader has their own biases and experience with the genre; it doesn’t work against that, rather provides a framework for emergent setting.

Fluid Framework

I’ll mention one aspect of the mechanics, which is the interaction of the Classes and Groups. Much like Numenera’s characters which are typically

adjective noun who verbs

Whitehack’s character classes are not vocational but only imply a core activity (Deft, Strong and Wise). The book encourages the creation of e.g. Deft Magicians and Wise Warriors with different interpretations on their vocation (a Wise Warrior is a strategist, for example).

Combining this with the different Group options — everyone gets two groups, which can be vocational, affiliation or even species — the result is almost the antithesis of D&D’s rigidly imposed class structure. Instead the classes are a starting point and a means to diverge from the traditional classes, while retaining the usefulness of D&D’s experience reward system.

The Booklet

Whitehack has a clear message to deliver, and is uncompromising as it is clear. It’s not available as an electronic version — it’s POD only, and the hardcover editions don’t ship outside North America. It’s also completely lacking any artwork — the cover is the character sheet, and the interior is 64 pages long with a few tables and diagrams but otherwise just text. This is a very interesting design statement about both the neutrality of the content (your genre, your emergent setting) and the way the content is to be consumed.

Closing Remarks

If you have a reason for buying something from Lulu and you’re even remotely interested, I would recommend Whitehack. In many ways it’s a deconstruction and reconfiguration of OSR mechanisms that empower both the GM and the players in owning their setting and exploring it in emergent fashion. But even better because it has the trappings of OSR it’s “compatible” with a broad range of sources, and has the potential to plug into other games. Mixing and matching Beyond the Wall/Further Afield (Threat Packs, Playbooks, Scenario packs) with Whitehack seems a distinct possibility with a bit of care.

I get a similar vibe that I got with Sorcerer and Sword — and while the latter is more genre-prescriptive, the same principles of ownership of one’s own world, and embracing the emergent nature of that world hold true. At the same time this feels as much like Everway and Over the Edge as it does D&D; and it’s a true “hybrid OSR” approach that marries a player-led narrative with traditional GM oversight.

I am truly excited.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

RPG Third and Final Look: Sorcerer

Sorcerer Concept Art

This is my third and final attempt to read Ron Edwards’ Annotated Sorcerer which I backed in 2013, wrote several posts about it, then ran out of steam. I was pretty positive with the original 2001 text, but when it came to the annotations I made a couple of posts and then quit abruptly.

I was a bit harsh. And while I stand by the thoughts and ideas I had at the time, I do feel a bit bad about leaving it like that, for a few reasons:

  1. I hadn’t even touched the supplements.
  2. I don’t like being negative in general, and if I’m talking about a product it’s because it something good to offer.
  3. The posts are way too focused on details, not enough of a high-level or holistic view.

Also, I’ve since talked with Ron Edwards on social media (not about this game). Maybe it’s foolish of me to admit to that bias, but a lot of my communication for work is impersonal. I don’t want to be impersonal, even if I am a misanthrope. Ending on a low point didn’t feel right.

OK, so why didn’t I take to the annotations first time around?

Part of the problem was reading the file on my iPad — OK for the original text, but once I started on the annotations it was no good. You need to read the book in the intended print format with the orignal on the left and the annotations on the right. I bit the bullet and killed a tree printing out the text and supplements in A4 landscape, then went through the whole thing making margin notes. I won’t say it transformed my opinions but it removed a significant barrier to the reading process.

So, this is my full and final impressions of the original, annotations, and supplements. Here we go.

Sorcerer, 2001


I tend to treat RPG manuals like other procedures, test methods and papers; I’ll scan the whole document looking for patterns and then prioritise my reading of different parts based on the information I expect to get. For a game manual my priorities tend to be:

  1. core concepts, objects, definitions
  2. procedures
  3. examples of those procedures
  4. lists of powers
  5. author spew
  6. setting fluff

By “author spew” I mean those essays in Vampire and the like that talk vaguely about principles and techniques but don’t offer any real instructions. In truth 5 and 6 change position depending on my mood.

I know this is at odds with some designers who say you need to read their book cover to cover. I’ll tolerate that as long as their priorities in writing are the same as mine in reading. The order above is what you need if you’re learning the game as a new skill to be practiced; and yet very often those priorities are reversed. World of Darkness and Nobilis are particularly tedious. I probably have a strong unconscious bias to ignore anything dressed as fiction in a RPG.

OK, rant over. Sorcerer gets a lot of the learning priorities right, even in the 2001 form. There are parts where the text gets ahead of itself (e.g. the dice mechanic, which the annotations admits is premature) but overall it does the job. The first three chapters give us premise, how to generate the sorcerer, and how to generate the demons. I know from the outset that this game is about people, and people who summon demons, and that’s all I ever really wanted from my urban fantasy games — because the rest of it, the city landscape and the implied connections with other sorcerers (or vampires, or whatever) are things that I can and want to work out on my own.

Here are some high points, some of which I’m reiterating from previous posts:

  • The system is light and functional; what I would call “mid nineties lite”, not surprising as Edwards cites Everway, Over the Edge and Zero. On the Myers-Briggs N-S axis it’s N (that iNtuitive, not Narrative).
  • I strongly approve of Stamina as a physical trait (I wrote this a couple of years ago) and Will as a mental/social one. Doesn’t change function, but does challenge preconception about where physical and social competence comes from, and feels particularly appropriate for the sorcerer.
  • Sorcerers aren’t point-and-click sorcerers, they need containers for their powers. I’ve been in love with this idea since I read the Stormbringer RPG (1-3e, not 4e, and yes, I know the game deviates from Moorcock’s books, I’ve read those too).
  • Demon binding is non-binary. Other games will either have you bind the thing and use it like artillery, or fail and it uses you like a suppository. Here, it’s all about the relationship, and what Needs are satisfied.
  • The four-corner Lore-Kicker-Cover-Price diagram is fantastic. I’m a sucker for a good diagram. Some of the fan character sheets morph the rectangle into a circle (e.g. here). Looks familiar? No bad thing, IMO.
  • Story Now, Kickers and Bangs: I don’t think these anti-railroading principles were ever new to me, I internalised them a long time ago. But good to see them in print.

four corners

There are other innovations which are easier to overlook — where something looks like a list of powers it gets mentally filed in the further reading section next to the scenarios: not critical for understanding right now. When there’s something useful mixed up with that content, it will get filed too.

I never expected Sorcerer to be flawless; what I did expect, and what the original delivers, is an answer to the World of Darkness’ disconnect between the game-as-written and the game that we actually played (see here)).

The Annotations, 2013


Now, the annotations seem to fall into one of three kinds:

  • rules clarifications / amendments
  • better examples
  • places where Edwards says yes, I really meant this or no, I got this wrong or other bits of historical context.

If it’s not already obvious, you need to read the annotations in the context of the original text; this is why you need to read the book in the layout suggested. But then I found the whole thing a bit jarring to go from one side to another. Not terribly, for the most part, but not a smooth reading experience.

Some of the annotations are great, for example the diagram that faces the start of each chapter and discusses the transition from initial discussion and characters to Preparing Play; this fits really well with my learning expectations (q.v.). The diagram is discussed on p40. The Four Big Outcomes are talked about further. There are the places where we’re told not to wimp out, which is useful and necessary because left alone we will tend to do this (Chris McDowall addresses this for Into the Odd, and of course Apocalypse World tackles this with hard moves; it’s endemic and pernicious).

But I did get frustrated more than once. Some annotations are terse where I want more exposition, others are long when I feel the point has already been made. And a few times, the advice that’s needed is everywhere but the one place it should be. For example on page 14 of the original, Edwards says:

they do not “cast spells.” Instead, they break the rules of reality to summon beings that are Not Supposed to Be Here.

Sounds like the usual spooky things-that-should-not-be fluff, but I know that it’s more significant than that. The key is that it’s not our world’s laws that the fiction breaks, it’s the fictional world’s laws that are broken by the existence of demons. I know this from a podcast interview (I forget which one, it was somewhere noisy, talking about a super-socialist with a demon factory). That annotation belongs right here, it’s important. There is something but it’s much later, in the closing remarks on p61. Easily overlooked, and I found it because I was hunting for it.

I got more from the annotations second time around, but even with the printout I was suffering cognitive dissonance on going from one side of the page to the other. Maybe there’s a benefit there, because it forces more careful reading, but I honestly think it hurts comprehension of the game for people who were never there first time around.

What the annotations do is illustrate Edwards’ changing views of his own game and the climate that came out of it. I wrote a couple of times in my own notes “has he changed his mind?” The tone of the original game taps into the hermetic scholar archetype (safe, draws comparison with Mage, etc.), but the annotations show the true intent in using “demons” and “magic” as placeholder terms for a particular type of story about relationships and power. Take the “live by the gun” setting in the Playing Sorcerer chapter — if you have a sophomoric robes-and-candles impression of what this game is, that example challenges it forcefully.

The Supplements


There was always a risk that the supplements would be treated as an afterthought. As it says in the “Indie Manifesto” in the appendix to Sorcerer and Sword:

“Support” is a myth – supplements may be good in and of themselves, but their existence is not required to make an rpg good or to validate its existence.

The irony is that while you don’t need to read Sorcerer’s supplements, they massively improve the overall impression of the game. They help make the conceptual leap from this game as rooted in urban fantasy and horror to a framework where demons are an allegorical tool. Edwards’ writing is incisive and focused, getting to the heart of each subject.

This is my theory: the original Sorcerer has some radical notions (at least radical on page, if not in the actual minds of players) that require some re-orienting; the Annotated Sorcerer spends a lot of time placing those ideas in context, defending and reinforcing them.

But when it comes to the supplements, Edwards is no longer fighting to establish principles and common language, and all that energy can be turned to genre exploration — which incidentally is something he does very well, as well as being right up my street.

I do wonder how these supplements benefitted from momentum at the time. I can imagine Sorcerer being the new hawtness, and the supplements benefit from a number of ideas arising from the Forge. Clearly there was a lot of energy for that kind of discussion.

Sorcerer and Sword

This book transitions Sorcerer to a pulp fantasy genre. There’s a fantastic bibliography where Edwards name-checks the usual suspects, and crucially divides it into three eras of fantasy publishing (‘20s to ‘50s pulp including R.E. Howard and Clark Ashton-Smith, ’50s to ’70s pulp fans including Leiber and Moorcock, and the late ‘70s where heroic fantasy was “betrayed” and mostly vanished).

Basically this is fantasy collaborative settings and emergent play, with a method for how to adapt the core rules to take care of necromancy, natural creatures, etc. The genre deconstruction is good, if a bit uncomfortable at first glance, for example the admission that the worlds are typically both objectively racist and sexist and with few female heroes. That’s not endorsement, it’s something to be sensitive to and work with.

Three examples of emergent shared worlds run through the book (Xar, Black Forest, Clicking Sands) and are used to demonstrate the grounding principles for Lore, Humanity, colour and tone that you need to think about. All in all this is my favourite of the three, the supplement I read and thought “hell yes, I want to run this”.

Other features: a discussion about destiny and knowing the future, and the analysis of “stance” (actor, author and director) which I read in isolation as a Forge essay.

The Sorcerer’s Soul

This is the in-depth treatment and interpretations of humanity (as sanity, etc.), and the modern investigative genre. Here, Edwards is going after both Call of Cthulhu and Vampire. There’s a lot of discussion about transformation and growth of demons, human-demon hybrids (in the sense of transitioning identity, not in the “I’m half fairy in our twee urban fantasy” sense). The section on Angels where the binding relationship is reversed (it’s the Angel meeting the Needs of the sorcerer) and where Angels can intercede and bestow “grace” is also great.

Edwards also deconstructs some investigative novels for the relationships within as a means of mapping transgressions. While I only skimmed this part (it’s a scenario exercise in my priority ladder) it was a useful point.

With the demonic transformations, the primary use I considered was to retool it to run Nephilim. The spirit inside begins as a parasite, then posesser, and finally passer, with an increasing number of telltales.

Sex and Sorcery

This last one is a bit difficult to get to grips with in a way that won’t give a negative impression. It’s about a number of topics — gender and gendered stories, transgressions, dysfunctional relationships. It also explicitly discusses Lines and Veils which tends to be a commonplace term whose origins are not well known — I assume it came from the Forge and was then clarified here.

OK, the big controversial things: “male” and “female” type stories, and separate rules for male and female players:

When I first began hinting about this on-line, oh, you wouldn’t believe how many people clutched their hair and alternately grieved and swore how intolerable and insupportable any such thing would be. They had immediately assumed that these rules would dictate what either gender of player, especially the female one, would not be permitted to do. However, the goal is exactly the opposite. I’m aiming at more attention and enjoyment to various options during play, not less, as only cross-character interactions among players of different genders will reveal the full range of the rules.

Now, concerning “male and female stories”:

what I’m presenting are not the male and female story types, and frankly, they have nothing to do with Jungian or similar “archetypes.” They are, instead, just two types of stories, plucked out of the myriads of potential types. They typically have male and female protagonists, respectively, but even this is not a given, and I see no reason to think that each story type “validates” the gender of the protagonist.

Using more neutral language, “male” stories are focused on power through social contact, and “female” stories are power through affirmation or rejection of reproduction. Also, the gender of the hero in each type of story has significance, and reversing the gender has an influence.

What turns these from story themes to a game is how you interpret the humanity check — as is the general case. I think I’ll leave it at that, and encourage anyone who is interested to engage with the text first, then discuss.

Closing Remarks

I encourage you to read Sorcerer and if you do, I really recommend reading the supplements as well. I think I would print and read the original (a pain to set up the printer, but OK), then the supplements, then come back for the annotations. Trying to read the annotated version as a complete document from a standing start was two different authors speaking to me at once.

Now, the question is, who are the annotations for? Primarily I think it’s Old Forgies, who were there 10-15 years ago when Sorcerer was a hot topic; they’ve been through the process of dissecting and interpreting and crucially playing the original. While Sorcerer railed against the cultural inertia in RPG design (over-focus on setting, metaplot, product line support) the trend of here and now persists in Indie RPG culture, particularly where Kickstarters include an active playtesting component with community involvement. That’s a statement of fact rather than criticism. Those games will go through a peak of activity where the game is both explicit (rules as written) and tacit (game as communicated), and over time the tacit understanding is lost as players diminish, and all that will be left is the written word.

The Annotated Sorcerer captures at least some of that tacit, behavioural stuff. That’s its value, as a thing, a roleplaying cultural artefact. But Sorcerer IMHO needs complete reading in chronological order to be fully appreciated. Am I glad I made the effort? Yes. I expected it to tick all of my post-WoD, 90s minimalist system, intense urban fantasy boxes, and it does, and more. This is a game I would run, which I don’t say often.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Great Clomping Feet, part 2

Cutting Up Museums is the latest Smart Party podcast.

Creating your own setting at the table through play might be all the rage, but nothing beats a good published setting.

According to Baz and Gaz there hasn’t been a decent setting this side of the millennium (discuss); so by “setting” we presumably mean the monolithic, supplement-driven mid-90s titles — in this case Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and Over The Edge. Although they do pay lip-service to Apocalypse World and at least mention Shadows of Esteren. I’ll get to those later. First I’ll get my personal prejudices out of the way:

  1. Worldbuilding is the great clomping foot of nerdism. The fictional power of a setting is diminished by definition. Other people’s settings are boring.
  2. More to the point, other people’s settings are overwhelming. If you’re a fanfic type (and one of those great clomping nerds) that’s not a problem — you’ll probably welcome the crush of the canon. But being a reader of Moorcock has meant that I could never really bring myself to run Stormbringer, at least not without seriously dicking with the setting to make it my own.
  3. In order for a setting to be good, the group has to own it. And the gents do say that the very best examples of setting are ones where they engage the world but make the campaign their own — which is surely the aim of all groups using published settings, but clearly doesn’t always come off. So here’s my main point: Having the group own the setting should be a design goal.

It’s interesting that Baz (I think) mentions Apocalypse World as having a “setting”. With respect, I don’t think that’s a setting. It has a premise, it has a genre, it has a theme. But nothing approaching a good old spoon-fed 90s setting. What it does have are mechanisms for both the players to own their characters (thanks to playbooks, the decisive nature of moves, etc.) and for the GM (sorry, MC) to own the environment via Fronts and Threats.

Similarly (and I know I keep going on about it) Beyond the Wall embraces the ownership principle — IMHO even better than Apocalypse World and its children thanks to the focus on genre, the cohesive way the Village is built from the ground up, and the support for campaigns in Further Afield. Recently the question “should I run with the playbooks at a convention, or start with pre-gens?” was asked on the BtW community and the overwhelming response was playbooks, for one reason — the amount of buy-in you get from starting the players off with the playbooks is huge.

Let’s take another OSR example, Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions. Here you have a mechanism by which the GM can design and own not only the mythos, the locations and the plot hooks, but the dynamic workings of the antagonists as well. They call this a sandbox but that’s a disservice — a sandbox would be static, waiting to be discovered (like so many other hexcrawl staples of the OSR scene). This thing moves and breathes and reacts. It’s Apocalypse World’s Fronts in a more traditional (and IMHO, functional) package.

It’s not all new-school games, either. Everway is contemporary of those 90s titles but it’s a game with a premise rather than a setting — one of many reasons why it turns up over and again in later RPG theory. It’s a toolkit game that guides both players and GM through owning the game they play together.

This ownership, like much of the “good GMing” craft and knowledge that we like to waffle about (on blogs and in podcasts, natch) is always implied as a good set of principles in the 90s-era games. 50% of White Wolf’s stock in trade was essays about how to engage with players, and pretentious as that was/is it did suck some people in, myself included. Despite owning a silly number of oWoD supplements I never ran with anything other than the rulebook, and (thanks to the system being made of cheese) most of that was hand-waving anyway. But those essays were at least an attempt to get the GM to own and lead the game.

So here’s the thing that we should take away from M. John Harrison’s Great Clomping Feet. Settings need to start small, and grow. This is a principle of decent fiction, and decent campaigns. GMs who embrace a vast published campaign setting still know this; they know full well to drip, drip, drip the setting onto the party and otherwise, let the party get on with their thing and react. That’s a time-honoured method, with the GM as the gatekeeper of information, for better or worse. (Although harking back to the chaps’ podcast on problem players, be wary of the players who know the campaign world better than you.)

But even though it’s a method, there’s precious little support for GMs to start small and grow their world other than doggedly following published material. Instead these huge settings rely on the GM first digesting and then filtering the bits they don’t want the players to see just yet. To me, this is a colossal waste of time. Why not instead start from a really strong beginning, and give the GM the tools to expand where the party goes?

Growth can be outward (beyond the village, exploring new lands) or it can be inward (confining the characters to a city, and building layer and layer upon that closed environment — the next game I’m working on). But either way, since it’s a game the absolute best practice must be for the GM to grow only slightly ahead of the players. Why buy into a whole world you’ll use only 1 percent of? And why needlessly constrain yourself?

That’s it from me. The gin has helped. Thanks to Gaz and Baz for another great podcast. But also I recommend this Canon Puncture “Game Advocates” podcast that also covers Earthdawn — because as monolithic as the setting is, Earthdawn really is a thing of beauty. I think Baz got that right.