Referee’s Bookshelf: Two Old School Manifestos

RPG theory and discussion is prone, like a great many other online discussions of angels dancing on the head of a pin, to people issuing little manifestos – or, indeed, for folks to find that their humble essays have been latched onto and invested with more importance than they ever intended to ascribe to them.

The Forge, in its day, was a hotbed of this sort of stuff, particularly with Ron Edwards’ essays being given extensive exegesis on the theory forum. But the OSR (Old School Revival/Renaissance) is not immune to this. A lot of people looked to James Maliszewski’s Grognardia as a hub of OSR discussion, before the sorry disaster of the Dwimmermount Kickstarter prompted people to reassess his work, and Zak of Playing D&D With Porn Stars was singled out by The Escapist for a web video series about his D&D campaign, which I suppose makes him the OSR dude whose game-related activities have gained the most attention outside of the small corner of the RPG hobby that pays attention to online discourse. Neither of them wrote a manifesto for the OSR, though James Maliszewski’s tone always had me thinking he was on the verge of doing so.

However, when it comes to statements of intent, two sources keep getting cited in OSR discussion. One of these is A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch and put out via Mythmere games, and Philotomy’s Musings, a compilation of significant posts from Jason Cone’s (now vanished) blog compiled into booklet form by Jason Vey. As a measure of how central they are to the OSR in-crowd, it’s worth noting that when Bundle of Holding did an OSR-themed bundles recently they included the PDF of these products as part of a collection of material which, whilst freely available elsewhere, they still considered useful (or even essential) for playing with some of the commercial products they’d included in that bundle. Of these resources, I find one far more useful than the other.

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Excellent Search Queries Episode 2

Subsequent to this: today somebody got to the site by searching “what does one feel with insertions and fists?”.

Can’t help you, friend; it varies a lot depending on which supplements you use, what tier the Marines are at, what career paths people have chosen in character generation, which (if any) prewritten adventures you use, how seriously you and your Fisting partners take the whole thing, how well you know the other participants, how much you trust each other and feel safe in each others’ company, how relaxed you are and which and how much lubricant you use. There’s just too many variables!

Herding the Cats

Over on ST Wild Shannon asked about the tricky process of getting all the players on the same page; I was going to comment but my comment rapidly bloated, so I’m posting my thoughts here instead.

Shannon was specifically talking about a situation where all the players in her Flashpoint campaign seemed to have very mildly different takes on the game’s concept. I’ve been there before. The most trouble I’ve had with this in a campaign wasn’t one I was refereeing, in fact, but one I was playing in: it was pitched as an X-Filesy sort of paranormal-investigation-and-espionage game, in which the PCs were operatives of an obscure, underfunded, and politically unpopular arm of the British intelligence apparatus – a spy agency which most of the major agencies had basically forgotten about and which spent its time chasing up cases the other outfits wouldn’t touch.

In this case, half the players took that brief as a cue to create characters who were rubbish spies, though they had competencies in other areas, and who’d been shuffled into this department because it was the only one which would take them  (I exaggerate a little, but not a lot), whilst the other half generated characters who were entirely competent spies who had been justly or otherwise cast into this bureaucratic black hole for perceived infractions by their superiors. This caused a number of issues (not least being that, once the campaign began focusing more tightly on espionage skills and occult terrorism, the bumbling cardigan-wearing contingent of the PCs ended up feeling a little useless), and in retrospect the referee in question did say that they regretted not doing better expectations management at the start of the campaign.

So, we have a real issue on our hands, and Shannon specifically asks how to get everyone on the same page at the start of the campaign. My knee-jerk response is to say “get them together for a group character generation session rather than having them go off on their ownsome to do it”, because I genuinely believe that is the best and most efficient way of getting a quick read on what people’s expectations of the game are, as well as giving you a chance to either say “uh, the game isn’t actually about that” or “well, the game wasn’t actually about that when I first planned it, but it can be” when people start going down tangents you hadn’t envisaged.

However, Shannon also says that group character generation hasn’t worked for her players before because they tend to arrive with character concepts they are already attached to and don’t want to let go of, or just make characters in their own little bubble during the session without really collaborating, or straight up ignoring the fact that a character gen session is happening and doing it on their own later on. This is a problem in coming up with an answer to Shannon’s query because it takes away what I think is genuinely the best and most natural solution.

(Shannon also details behaviour from players which would make me absolutely livid – if I ran a character gen session and a player was overtly “ignoring the whole thing in favour of out-of-character chit-chat so that they can sit down later on and develop their characters in peace” I’d be directly asking them whether they really wanted to participate in the game at all. If I’m running a character generation session for you and you don’t actually have a character at the end of it then I’m sorry, you’re not going to be in the campaign, because if you’re not going to respect the time I’ve set aside for the character gen session I don’t see how I can trust you to respect people’s time in the session itself. I consider myself to be reasonably tolerant of OOC asides during games, and am responsible for a fair many myself, but if you spend an entire session on OOC chatter and never engage with actual game business then I’m going question your reasons for showing up. Not sure where I’m going with this tangent save to note that Shannon’s players have the good fortune to have a more patient referee than me running games for them…)

So I guess that, unless Shannon is willing to get out a squirt gun and her your players like badly behaved cats when they break away from the group gen session, it’s probably time to brainstorm ways to either make group character generation more appealing or at least encourage people to collaborate more on character generation before game start. Here’s my strategies.

1: Lone Wolf Go Home

Emphasise tighter, more compact character backgrounds, both individually and in terms of intra-party connections. If you need to go away and write up your full character background at home there’s a natural scope to drift there. I tend to take the stance that whilst character background is useful for context and occasional plot ideas, at the same time the most interesting thing about your PC should be what they’re doing now, in the actual campaign, not what they did before the campaign started, though if your players balk at going that far you might again want to consider at least working in incentives for tying in backgrounds together – which would, naturally, tend to make it advantageous to do character generation collectively for that precise purpose. I find that groups whose character backgrounds are tied in together tend to be more cohesive both IC and OOC – it helps set everyone on a comparatively similar trajectory, and even if that isn’t quite the trajectory you envisaged, provided it’s a trajectory you’re interested in and is broadly appropriate for the campaign it’s all good, right. Lone wolf PCs without prior connections to anyone else in the party can fuck right off.

2: Background Mechanics

Find game mechanics which support or incentivise #1 and swipe them. For instance, FATE has specific steps in character generation where you dream up past adventures you had with the other PCs, and Mongoose Traveller gives you bonus skills for tying your background in with the other PCs. (Mongoose Traveller is also really fun for group character generation because you get to watch people’s crazy career progressions.) If you can’t finish character generation on your own then suddenly participating in group character generation makes a lot more sense.

3: One For All and All For One!

To further reiterate that character generation should be a group process, incorporate aspects of group generation. If you’re running a game where the PCs are literally a bunch of friends thrown together by blind chance, then disparate PCs who don’t necessarily fit sensibly together might support the concept; conversely, if they are an established cell of a secret society, or the leaders of an organised band of mercenaries, or the masters of an enclave of magicians, or whatever then before gameplay begins they don’t just need to come up with a character – they also need to come up with the details of their specific group. This could just be flavour stuff (“So, how did you guys get together and start investigating paranormal mysteries?”), or it could involve actual game mechanics which determine group resources and characteristics. Reign is built around this concept, as was Ars Magica, the Song of Ice and Fire RPG had nice rules for House creation. I’m sure you can think of other examples. If you end up doing group generation after character generation, then it’ll rapidly highlight which characters don’t belong with the others, if you do it before character generation it’ll prompt the players to make characters that fit the group ethos, but more importantly than either of those considerations is the fact that a group creation process prompts the players to sit down and talk about what they expect the group to be like and what they expect it to do, and if you can get them doing that then that’s half the battle.

Again, if you tie in group generation to character generation thematically and mechanically, so that you can’t complete (or maybe even can’t begin) character generation without group generation, then a character generation session becomes much more attractive.

4: Don’t Feed Their Imagination Until You’re Ready To Harvest It 

Separately from the rest, limit the extent to which players can get ahead of themselves and dream up character concepts they get attached to by limiting the extent of the information you give out about the campaign concept. Go with system, broad themes, general focus of play (“It’s Vampire: the Requiem set during a historical period of tumultuous social change, with characters manipulating mortal politics in order to protect their positions of entrenched privilege from the ravages of the mob”), underscore the point that the fine details will be hammered out collectively as a group (“I’ve not yet firmly decided on which historical period and which city to go for, so I’ll want people’s input on that at the first session”), and handle the detailed nitty-gritty at a campaign planning session which can also include character gen – and go into it with some areas of flexibility yourself, so if the player group decide that it’d be more interesting to play such a game set against the backdrop of the French Revolution as opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution then you can compromise there and the players feel that there’s some give and take going on. The more specific you get with the details, the more specific a character concept the players can dream up before they sit down with everyone else – and the further down their particular rabbit hole they can go – whereas if you don’t actually have the campaign premise solid until the players are all together then you can get a consensus at that point and then people’s character concepts will grow out of that consensus.

5: Don’t Give Sneak Previews

On a related note, don’t get into extended discussions with players about the campaign before the campaign planning meetup, if you go for such a thing. One of the best ways to make sure people have differing expectations of your campaign is to tell people different things about it, and one of the best ways to do that is to let individual players interrogate you. Don’t put your players in the position of those blind fellows in that parable about the elephant where one of them is groping its trunk and one of it is patting its butt and so on; if you make sure you’re telling everyone the same stuff about the campaign, at least when they’re going into it, then you’re not going to have them coming in already on slightly differing pages.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Dungeon World

I’d seen Dungeon World cited in discussions of Numenera as a game which also touches on Dungeons & Dragons-like stuff without having especially D&D-ish game mechanics and which delegates all dice-rolling to the players, so I decided to investigate it since it’s readable online for free.

It’s interesting stuff. I think it’s a somewhat more successful game than Numenera, but equally I don’t expect that I personally will ever have a use for it.

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Referee’s Bookshelf and Session Report: Numenera

Being very fond of isometric RPGs of the Infinity Engine era and prone to Kickstart things, I ended up piling in on the Torment: Tides of Numenera Kickstarter. In fact, I was so excited about it that I ended up pre-ordering Monte Cook’s Numenera tabletop RPG that the setting is licensed from. I now have a regret or two about this decision.

First off, the experience reminded me that pre-ordering anything which is going to be appearing in shops anyway is a mug’s game unless you’re going to get some exclusive goodies out of pre-ordering. Due to various delays Monte Cook Games didn’t start mailing out the UK’s pre-ordered books until a good month after the book hit the shelves of UK game shops. This is frankly absurd. Various excuses for the delay in postage had been offered some weeks in advance by Monte’s customer relations minion, the main one being that Monte’s dad had died a week before the release was due, but this is bunk – in a project of this size if your life turns upside down a week before project completion then it shouldn’t actually matter because you should have had all the arrangements in place anyway. This goes double for an operation like Monte Cook Games, who a) apparently have employees to help with the administrative side of things and whose parents presumably did not die at the same time as Monte’s and b) is trying to present itself as a professional operation rather than a solo self-publishing gig.

Doot-doo do-do-do

However, all that is in the past and the book is now mine. Having run one of the introductory adventures in it, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a keeper. Dan and Shimmin (1, 2) have already given their thoughts, but here’s mine.

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Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer

I’m of the view that a lot of the work Ron Edwards and other theorists did at the Forge, back when that place had an active RPG theory discussion forum before Ron Edwards declared the theory complete and shut the board down (one of many things Ron has done over the years which convinces me that he’s a really terrible academic), had a net negative effect on RPG discourse. The biggest achievement of the Forge, I think, was to provide the networking opportunities, pooled resources, mutual encouragement and exchange of advice necessary to cultivate a new wave of small press and self-published RPGs, but that has everything to do with logistical and commercial know-how and nothing to do with the RPG theory ideas they popularised.

Whilst some Forge ideas are useful in a very few contexts (usually when talking about the failures of Forge theory, but occasionally for other purposes), equally a lot of it is quite jargon-heavy – and worse, it’s a jargon which is primarily engineered by someone (Ron) who makes it quite clear that there are some types of gaming experience he specifically wants to promote and be partisan towards, whilst there are other (commercially successful, critically successful, and enduringly popular) models of gaming he is actively and overtly hostile towards. This terminology obfuscates a lot of Forge rhetoric, and in addition if you buy into the terminology too much it becomes difficult to impossible to even talk about certain kinds of game.

If you’re using Forge talk to talk about Forgey games, then it sort of works because the designers of said games tended to refer directly to those ideas whilst designing them; you can easily find the Creative Agenda because the designers made damn sure to include it prominently, for instance, In other cases, when discussing games designed by people with an entirely different outlook, using Forge jargon at best it feels like discussing Buddhism using exclusively definitions and terminology from Catholic doctrine (the jargon doesn’t even relate to the material in question), or trying to discuss which variety of socialism is better whilst exclusively using definitions from anti-Communist literature (the jargon is actively hostile to even contemplating the sort of ideas you’re trying to express). This is a shortcoming when you want a terminology to talk about RPGs in general, but I suppose it’s a boon if you want to encourage the development of a particular type of game which isn’t well-served by major publishers (due, in part, to the necessity to go for a big tent approach when you get past a certain scale).

One of the few bits of Forge jargon I think is sometimes useful to use in other contexts is the whole Story Before, Story Now, and Story After deal. For those of you who aren’t aware of it, this is a way of looking at how a roleplaying game offers the experience of a “story”, which is something a lot of people in the hobby say they want but equally is something a lot of people disagree about when it comes to actually defining what it is or how to achieve it.  Roughly defined, these terms mean the following (note that this is not a chapter-and-verse quotation of Ron’s definitions, which evolve regularly as he updates some parts of his theories and disowns over parts, but a rough summary of the terms as they are most commonly used):

  • Story Before play is exemplified most obviously by prewritten modules and more or less all the refereeing advice White Wolf has ever written: the referee devises a prewritten plot before play commences (whether they do it for the entire campaign in advance, or immediately before each session). Here, storytelling is an exercise in planning out a plot arc for the campaign to follow.
  • Story Now play uses overt system methods to drag the process of telling stories into the context of the session itself. People have raging arguments about what this means because they often are working from different definitions of “story”. For example, if you define “story” the way Ron does, it’s “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”, then game mechanics which hardwire in a premise and steer the process of play towards presenting, heightening and resolving it are Story Now mechanics. (Dogs In the Vineyard was a good example of this, though I confess I sold my copy ages ago so I may be misremembering.) If you don’t agree with Ron’s definition of story, of course, the same Story Now techniques which tickle his pickle will set your teeth on edge and make your palms itch. Games gunning for Story Now generally try to minimise the distinction between “telling a story” and “playing the game” as they humanly can.
  • Story After play looks at story in retrospect. There’s no pre-planned plot from the referee, and there are no game mechanics to hardwire in a particular type of narrative. The game session is a series of things that happen; in retrospect, after the session, you can see about piecing together a story by looking at the events of the session in retrospect and identifying a narrative in that. (Note that if your definition of “story” is “a series of things that happen, told in order”, then there’s literally no difference between Story Now and Story After – they’re only two distinct types if you have a particular narrative theory about what a story is that is different or more narrow than “sequence of events”.)
  • Since the easiest way to understand the concept is as denoting when the bulk of the work of story construction happens, you could propose a fourth type of play: Story Never. This would be almost indistinguishable from Story After, except the effort to construct a story based on what happened in the game never actually happens: the RPG is approached not as an engine for creating stories but as a simulation for exploring worlds, and the stuff that happens in a session is, like the events of real life, just a bunch of stuff that happens rather than part of a cohesive story. Ron never talked about Story Never, mostly because he was working on the basis that nobody would ever dream of playing an RPG without thinking about story.

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