New on Desk #22 — The Neo-Formalist School

Our condolences for the on-going race riots in the United States. I hope the events will at least help crystallize the country’s demands of social justice into organized action; whether opposition or resistance, it’s the first step towards political equity.

My week, on the other hand, has been all-around amiable. The forestry thing went on hiatus mid-week and left me on loose ends for several days. A bit of writing, a solid start on the summer swimming, exploration of hot dog grilling and the close of the spring season in gaming rounded out the week.

Movements, schools and playstyles in roleplaying

“Artistic movement” is the generic name for a socially circumscribed group of artists working in the same direction; one might consider it a technical term in the study of cultural history, although the concept gained great credence in the 20th century as a marketing label as well. A movement sits sort of midway between a theory of art, a genre, and a social circle. It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon in the various arts, and sometimes movements cross mediums.

Roleplaying has had its history of artistic movements as well. Let’s see, something like this maybe, for a dash of hilarity:
Lake Geneva scene was the ground zero movement that’s generally credited with starting rpgs in the first place.
The west coast realists (Chaosium, etc.) were influential in advancing roleplaying into the ’80s.
’80s charts & tables hellscape (Rolemaster, Twilight 2000, etc.) was a movement that brought “realism” in rpgs further than ever.
Point-buy structuralism (Champions, GURPS) was distinct from the above with its own structuralist philosophy.
Storyteller movement (C2020, WW of course, etc.) in the early to mid-’90s emphasized immaculate world-building.
Formalist proge (Hogshead, Forge, etc.) emphasized bespoke progressive design distinct from the prior tradition.
Nordic freeform was about character immersion, rule-less GM fiat scenario gaming and deconstruction of the geekiness.
Neo-trad (Exalted to Fate, basically) is a ’00s reactive movement to the prior, building on the 20th century traditions.
Old school renaissance is a Lake Geneva revival movement, basically.
Structured freeform combines Nordic freeform with Formalist proge.
(I’m sure there are others as well; that’s just off the top of my head, focusing on the larger and more familiar ones. The pre-Internet days in particular aren’t exactly trivial to culturally historioritize.)

Movement analysis is an interesting and useful thing in cultural history studies, I think, as it’s based on the entirely real phenomenon of artists talking and working together, taking influence and naturally “herding together”. So we know that it tends to happen, and we see the signs of it in the publishing detritus of the medium’s history, and by understanding who shared concerns and worked together, plenty can be learned.

In this context an “artistic school” is sort of a slightly firmer and more formal type of movement, or the hard core of a movement. Whether you call a given movement a school or not should basically depend on whether it has a predominant artistic theory that artists either embrace or refute. In this way we can further distinguish that e.g. Neo-trad, while important and influential and, I think, a real artistic movement in roleplaying, is not a school, while Nordic freeform, OSR and even Formalist proge are.

It is also interesting to note what is not an artistic movement: a genre is not a movement, nor is a social group, or a theory of art or playstyle. For example, “cyberpunk games” is a genre in roleplaying, but it’s not an artistic movement because cyberpunk games have been authored at various times by people with no artistic connections or unifying style. “Dungeons & Dragons” is similarly not a movement; rather, it’s a gaming vehicle that has put forth several movements over time. “The White Wolf phenomenon” in the early ’90s, on the other hand, is a movement (which I call the “Storyteller movement” on the list above), as it combines an artistic program with a socially cohesive scene of practitioners.

A neo-formalist movement?

So anyway, the reason why I got inspired to discuss artistic movements is that I’ve been recently thinking about how happy I’ve been with the little Forge diaspora scene that we’ve been enjoying here in Finland over the last decade. What we have here is, in fact, a small artistic movement, which I personally like a lot. I’m toying with calling it “neo-formalism” (“Finnish neo-formalism”, I suppose) due to the gaming style that defines the movement.

To be explicit, I’ll make a list of some core examples of the movement I’m seeing:
Sami Koponen with Pyöreän pöydän ritarit
Tuomas Kortelainen with Subsection M3 (in development)
Petteri Hannila with Tales of Entropy and Varangian Way (in development)
Tommi Horttana with Flame/Star/Night (in development)
… and various recent stuff of my own, ranging from Eleanor’s Dream to Hung to Dry, all unpublished at this writing.

(If I didn’t mention you on that list, it’s not because you’re not welcome to join the knitting circle; it’s just because we haven’t talked enough recently for me to realize that you’re moving with the herd here. I could totally see e.g. Jii, Eero Laine or A-P Lappi making some noise at some point. Remember, this isn’t a list of interesting Finnish rpg projects, it’s a rough description of which people I’m observing to be forming this little movement, sociologically speaking.)

So that’s a bunch of game designers who talk to each other (and particularly they talk to me, from my viewpoint), take influence (more on this below) and work in parallel. Sounds like an artistic movement to me! I’m also happy to report that we’re cooking with fire here in terms of artistic merit: my completely biased opinion is that all of the above games are relevant, unique and powerful designs. We just need to get more of this stuff out of the development hell to bedazzle the public as well.

The reason for why I’m not just bragging about how my online circles involve the coolest dudes is that we don’t just talk with these guys, but we also seem to be doing some pretty similar things gaming-wise, which is interesting. There’s a joint influence we’re taking from the Forge movement in general, filtered and matured over time into something subtly next-generation. The substantial similarity I see in all of these separate gaming projects is that they’re technically intricate and consistently formalist (utilizing structurally oriented rules design), except with considerate structured voids and a lightness of hand that marks them as a more mature stage of some prominent design lines popular at the Forge some 15 years ago. There are various superficial technical traits that are getting rather distinct as the movement develops consistency, too, like the dicing mechanics that are aligning so much that I bet I can recognize your new neo-formalist game simply from its dice pool mechanics.

To summarize, though: the reason I’m so happy with this movement is that it’s nice and inspiring to have like-minded folks to talk craft with. Looking back on the spring season, we had a generally productive series of games all around; the only project highlighted above that didn’t progress much over the spring was Subsection, but that’s something I worked on a lot last winter myself, so I’m fine with it being on the sidelines a bit for a change. The other projects all prospered in various ways over the last few months.

(Also: yes, guys, our old school D&D network forms an artistic movement in this sense as well. We have a half dozen GMs who talk and share significant amounts of doctrine, and have distinct ideas not shared by the OSR movement at large. Perhaps I’ll write a little bit about that at some point, too. Just needs a nice name, I can’t call us the “Bextropolis movement” or “Habavaara movement” with a straight face.)

Monday: Dragon’s Castle finale

We finished our Mountain Witch Castlevania game on Monday! The game ended as Mountain Witch does, in a crescendo of personal issues as the player characters all got together to face Dracula and listen to him philosophize. The big reveal of the session was that Dracula was Nathan Summers all along; he didn’t even wear a mask, it just happened to be the case that nobody who’d met Nathan Summers had ever met Dracula, or the other way around.

When all was said and done, Dracula hated all the player characters:
Victor “Charles” Summers was the boy who once pretended to Nathan to be his son Charles, when he actually was the boy who’d shot Charles dead. Nathan/Dracula took the boy on grimly as an apprentice, teaching him the ways of the Macabre underworld, just in case he might grow into greatness. No such luck; from Nathan’s perspective Victor’s choice of ending his feud with Charles was the act of a coward who refused to serve his fate.
Abraxas Wilde was graciously offered the unprecedented gift of getting his long-dead wives back, but the man attempted to have his cake and eat it too by opposing Dracula, and consequently lost it all at the hands of the aforesaid Victor. Wilde was a sniveling coward as well, failing to take vengeance on captain Summers and insisting on violence against the magnanimous Count.
Dragoslava of the Dhodoru proved herself a petty soul and easily distracted, as all the vapid witch cared about after her close brush with Death was canoodling with doctor Wilde.
Eric LeCarde, or rather, Charles Summers, was the greatest disappointment of all. Here was the Count, finally revealing his identity as Nathan Summers to the boy who’d never met his father. LeCarde had long known that the Count had graciously revived him from beyond Death’s embrace by wholly unique means, and now he also knew why: the man was his father, and desired him to take his true place as his heir by finally repeating the duel and defeating his brother Victor. But no, the ungrateful son would rather turn against his father!

When the Vampire Slayer whip touched upon the corporeal form of the Count, the bindings of his mien were torn loose and the boss fight went into the climatic chaos realm thing that Castlevania games sometimes do. The fight went to and fro for a bit, but ultimately the slayers sorted out their differences and managed to build the combo attacks they needed to take down Dracula for good.

As the heroes all got out of the Dragon’s Castle while it was crumbling down (very dramatic, that), the overall outcome of the story ended up relatively optimistic. Of course, the outcomes were bittersweet all around: the Summers brothers would have to live with the death of their father, doctor Wilde with the near-miss of his reunion with the women he loved over everything else in the world, and Dragoslava with the loss of an essential and potent part of herself.

All in all I was very happy with the game, so big thanks to all the players for taking this second journey to the dragon’s castle with me. Mountain Witch is still a magical game, and it’s a shame what happened with the new edition. I’ve thought a bit about publishing Dragon’s Castle as a standalone thing just to keep the TMW spirit alive, but we’ll see how that develops — there are pros and cons, and I’ve plenty of other projects to consider, too.

Thursday: Flame/Star/Night

We had a second playtest session of Tommi’s F/S/N this week as well, and it didn’t disappoint: the game’s core content activity is having your character putz around an iron age village, farming and fishing and stuff, trying to keep the village afloat through the nasty winter. I’ve been playing an annoying 8-year old kid who doesn’t care much about the survival thing and mostly just tries to impress the other children. The setting (iron age fairy tale Finland, basically) is perfect for the concept, and we found it easy to both generate all kinds of fictional detail and hook emotionally into the questing mechanics.

The game’s all about quests with progress bars, basically, that’s the core mechanics. Tommi himself is very invested into this dice pool thing where your character has physical/mental/spiritual stats and points are moved between them as the character ages, which is neat, but the real fire here is in the straightforward way the game construes of achievement: you want to accomplish something, you get a progress track, and start rolling, pushing effort into it, until at some point you finish up the job and achieve what you were trying to do. And because of the survival goals (mandatory goals that you better fulfill on schedule if you don’t like starving) it’s not like players can just sit around dumbly; there’s always plenty to do around the village, and it’s actually something of a privilege if you get to set a few dice aside for your own stupid personal projects like gathering rocks for your dead wife’s tomb/monument or whatever.

The game’s got a bit of thinness and formalist choke all around, but it’s nothing that sufficient playtest and honing won’t fix. I’m thinking myself that the more streamlined and expressive the game can get around the “push effort into the progress bar” part, the better it’ll run. We definitely should continue playtesting, and will, I understand, a bit later in the summer.

Tabletop season break!

I’ve been playing a lot despite the corona thing over the spring, all thanks to rpg Club Hannilus! As you can see from the newsletters, my spring’s been featuring Fables of Camelot, Dragon’s Castle and playtests of Varangian Way and F/S/N, all resounding successes. Twice a week for several months now, in fact, which is more play than I usually shoot for outside plague conditions.

The play’s been intense enough that I’m looking forward to a break week next week, as Petteri, the club host is on vacation. I’m hoping to convince the club to take a second week off, too, in fact. It’ll do good for my writing and enthusiasm and such to vacation from the gaming a little bit, too. Absense makes the heart grow fonder, plus remember what we learned from Carl Jung: an introvert regains mental energy by taking a break, enabling their inspiration to reignite. So let’s do that.

Considering the past, I find that my gaming often adopts a natural two- or three-part flow over the year: spring season, summer season and winter season, basically. We’ll see how it goes this year, but from talks with friends and some ideas I’ve been having I predict that even if the Bloodbowl rpg campaign we were planning before corona gets stuck in the development hell, there’s plenty of other stuff in the pipeline for the summer season.

Gentlemen on the Agora

The gentleman’s choice of cultural saloon, with on-brand Finnish desperation, has been productive again:

  • Speaking of Varangian Way, the in-development game I’ve discussed on occasion, does it actually even need to be published? Petteri, the creator, learned from Tales of Entropy that practically nobody is actually interested, so why bother? Put up a website of some sort at most, but mostly it may be the that the benefit of game design for a person who isn’t interested in doing any marketing may well be in the satisfaction of having finished the project and gotten it out of the brain basket (and into the desk drawer). As a follow-up idea, consider the motivations in publishing game texts for people with internal artistic motivations and those with external social motivations: for the former it’s not a necessity to publish your findings in gaming, while the latter will care about improving the scene for everybody. While Petteri is pretty clearly one of those “ars gratia artist” types, I know other people who indeed don’t even need personal project passion to publish; the distribution of knowledge is its own reward for them.
  • In completely different news, we had a versus debate inspired by a web forum: I was dissatisfied with the analysis of a scenario on a forum and told the agora about it, which quickly inspired the contributors to debate it with me. The fight was “Beatrix Kiddo vs. Geralt of Rivia” (the Kill Bill protagonist vs. the Witcher), and the question was who would win a sword-fight. I entered the debate on the position that Geralt was the obvious winner due to his much greater strength and reach, but was schooled by the gentlemen, who suggested that swordfighting as a discipline involves less strength at higher levels, and therefore the two (accomplished swordfighters both) would resolve the bout with technique and speed. Geralt still takes it, of course, due to being superior in every possible (and impossible, being a fantasy figure) factor with the possible exception of skill, but the discussion of why exactly he wins was illuminating. Good versus stuff.
  • Laughing at the game design in old D&D products is a favourite pastime, which continued with a review of the AD&D Cavalier from the Unearthed Arcana: weird attack bonuses, unique class progression (commoners start in the class -15k xp in debt, for instance) and a clinically insane code of behavior (“death to all who oppose the cause”, anyone?) are just some of the highlights.
  • Related to the cavalier: the creative agenda of Chainmail, Gary Gygax’s fantasy wargame. The game features knight units that behave a bit like AD&D cavaliers in that they have this inexplicable need to rush the enemy whenever and wherever, whether ordered or not. The observation led to an interesting discussion about how the creative agenda of the game is sort of boardgamey; it’s less concerned with real warcraft and more concerned with the entertainment inherent in the accidental charging. Which begets the question: shouldn’t you build the entire wargame around the idea of order-inhibition control mechanisms such that the main challenge of planning an order of battle for these crazy companies and silly squadrons regards planning the unit psychology interactions in a way that plays to their strengths. Could be an interesting game, that.
  • The toy discussions continued, expanding into general observations about the Masters of the Universe franchise. There are a few roleplaying games and such that would easily work for the topic — Simulationist princess play, setting exploration stuff. Also created some new MotU characters: “Vendor” is a good warrior with a mercantile theme, accompanied by the evil “Debtor” and neutral “Auditor” (or “Auditra”, jury’s still out on that one). We clearly should do something with He-Man (or She-Ra, which agora seems to like now that it’s got a fresh remake).
  • Ever since we started talking about possible new publishing plans at Patreon last week, the gentlemen have been pestering me about writing that old school D&D book. We’ve been going over some basic precepts of the project; it’s pretty daunting in some ways, but everybody seems to think that there’d be market for a DMG of sorts here, so I don’t know. Maybe.
  • What’s the social class of the “cyberpunk”, the typical player character of a traditional cyberpunk roleplaying game? It would be a simplistic class analysis to call them working class when that class is defined by actually having a job. The cyberpunk is not homeless, either. What they are is precariat, a social class that may be familiar to many readers from real-life experience, too. The issue came up when it was suggested in passing that your cyberpunk gangsta might like to engage in a drinking hobby. Sure, if you can afford to — what do you think you are, proletariat?
  • A contributor has been running online refereed wargaming with the 40k Epic rules, as I described in an earlier newsletter. There are now new rules developments in the form of explicit OoB printouts for the players to consider. I like how focused the presentation is: you get a descriptive explanation of each unit’s armament, tactical doctrine and commander personality. That’s already plenty to consider, particularly if the scenario allows the players to rework the Order of Battle a bit where they consider it necessary.
  • The introduction of the orders of battle, above, spun out into a consideration of whether a 1st world war army like the imperial army here should have combined division level artillery parks or distribute them in penny packets. (NB: the OoB linked above describes brigades but calls them companies.) The discussion ultimately meandered into considering how the modern American full spectrum operations doctrine would look like in defensive warfare. Interesting stuff.
  • I stumbled upon something particularly stupid while considering a Greyhawk campaign, the legend of Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight, the hair rock band that forms a formidable force for Balance (yeah, they’re not Good) in the Greyhawk setting as it developed over the ’80s. The gentlemen at the Agora helped me see the light and realize that the Circle of Eight needs to be depicted as dweomer-based superheroes (e.g. Bigby only ever casts Bigby’s Hand in various configurations to get shit done) similar to the Masters of the Universe. (Mordenkainen gets to continue being an umptyhumty level archmage, of course; it’s the rest of them who’ll become single-power superheroes.) Also, Vecna in an actually cool Greyhawk campaign needs to be replaced with Skeletor, obviously.

State of the Productive Facilities

I’ve been putting down the bones on the CRedux article; might well be finished next week.

Meanwhile, the month ends tonight, so the polls are running out. At this writing it seems like “Historiography of D&D” article were winning in the public poll, but the race’s been really tight: we’ve had our record number of voters, with 56 votes cast so far, and the current leader has been switching places with “The Sacrament of Death” all week long, so I don’t dare to call it quite yet. Still a few hours to vote at this writing!

This was also the first time I had a poll at Patreon. That one seems more staid, with an outline (it’s a stage of writing) of a new wargamey old school D&D book likely winning out. I guess that’s going to be what I write in, what, July or so. Won’t hurt to outline it even if I decide to not take it any further than that.

[May 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Historiography of D&D (19%, 32 Votes)
  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (17%, 29 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (16%, 26 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (14%, 23 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (10%, 16 Votes)
  • [design] Microfit wargame (5%, 9 Votes)
  • [writing] Chronicles of Prydain setting notes (5%, 8 Votes)
  • [design] HX Fighter Program Wargame (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [writing?] Hellraiser and Evangelical Christianity (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [design] Let's get Subsection M3 moving again! (4%, 6 Votes)
  • [practical] How to create online play tools in Google Sheets (2%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Superhero Tulpas (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 61

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3 thoughts on “New on Desk #22 — The Neo-Formalist School”

  1. As a Rolemaster aficionado I love the term “’80s charts & tables hellscape”. Reminds me of a my favorite subgenre of Shoot ’em Up video games (SHMUPS) called “danmaku” or “bullet hell”. “I enjoy ’80s charts & tables hellscapes” might be a nice conversation opener in RPG circles. 🙂

    In any case, I’ll try to direct a tiny corner of the OSR over here to vote for my favorite essay topic, the certain-to-be-excellent-and-relevant-to-actual-bloodshed “The Sacrament of Death”. You fools reading this can change your mind and vote for it, too!

    (Of course, that OSR ploy might backfire as the front-runner topic is about D&D, too. And as I have gratuitously attacked AD&D over there recently, my standing is rather low. But maybe I’ll generate a few hits at least.)

    1. Seems like you lost the vote this time around. We’ll get another chance, though; I added the Sacrament and the other top scoring runner-ups to the June polls, so the grind continues.

      I’ll really need to finish this CRedux article and attack the rest of these, or otherwise I’ll need to skip the polls in July again to give myself time to catch up. It’s fortunate that we’re not under any real time pressure here; I’ll be happy as long as I finish at least one essay every month, and the newsletter every week.

  2. Yeah, I was a tad slow to mobilize, I’m afraid. But some people I asked to check it out might vote for it in the new round…

    But I’m not disappointed — The Historiography of D&D was my second choice (and I unwisely voted for it and the Sacrament both in early May before you warned me).

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