New on Desk #26 — Politics of D&D

My forestry adventure has continued as intensive as ever this week, which implies a relative paucity of other activities. I don’t actually have much news for you in this newsletter, which shows well in my featured theme: it’s just a modest follow-up on something that we’ve been talking about for a few weeks now.

Politics in gaming and art

Just a simple disclaimer here about some basic stuff. I don’t think that this is controversial or difficult, but I’ve found that people often have quite different assumptions. So let me just tell you what I think “gaming” is, and how it relates to “art” and “society”. This will be short and to the point, I hope.

Gaming: This is a hobby, something that people do for distraction. Some are so passionate and skilled (one largely follows from the other) about it that it’s a vocation. The reason we humans care about something like this has to do with the artistic, intellectual and social virtues of the activity. Storytelling is an example of an artistic virtue; sportsmanship is an example of a social virtue. Various games and subcultures involve intricate mixes of these, but that’s the big picture. Although I say that humans engage in hobbies as distractions, this does not mean that hobbies are not jusfied: a hobby can be healthy or useful or self-improving or the opposite of those, all aside from whether it works as a distraction. (A hobby that you engage in unvoluntarily isn’t a hobby, it’s “study” or “work” or something like that.)

Art: I subscribe to a communication theory of art; communication is expressed thought, and art is stylized communication. Art is also a hobby for most, a vocation for some. Games can be art, and they’re definitely both communication. Just like games, art can also be justified or condemned for its qualities. They’re so similar as pursuits that a common umbrella term would no doubt be useful; often you can just bunch games under the rubric of art, but if you want a more exact terminology, I guess you could call them (and a few other things, e.g. sports) “cultural pursuits”.

Justification of cultural pursuits: Taken as a whole, only picking the most noble pursuits under consideration, we can name plenty of good reasons for why these kinds of activities are if not intrinsic goods (I personally think that very few things are that, philosophically speaking), then at least useful. They develop character, increase knowledge and wisdom, develop social capital, keep people sane in the face of an uncaring cosmos, and so on and so forth. Your list of virtuous qualities might be different depending on what you value, but odds are that you can list some things that can be good about culture taken as a whole.

Condemnation of cultural hobbies: Likewise, we can also name some things that are probably not that good about some specific cultural pursuits. Cultural activities perpetuate cultural values, for instance, so if you disagree with some cultural value, you might conclude that the activity that perpetuates it is not so positive after all. So we can say that while there are valuable cultural pursuits (I imagine that few human beings envision a world entirely devoid of culture as the ideal), there are also others that aren’t so very good. Maybe still better than sitting and staring at a wall, but maybe not even that.

This valuation is inherently political: Just in case it isn’t obvious, the above talking points should pretty clearly lead one to conclude that you cannot actually justify or condemn cultural pursuits without plugging in some value-based reasoning about what you actually envision as preferable human lifestyle. This is “political”. There is no such thing as “apolitical gaming”, not unless you wish to give up any and all opinion on what is “good” and what is “bad”. Not that I haven’t met people who are sufficiently apolitical to suggest that, but I tend to take this as a sign of naïvete more than an informed philosophical stance. For most people the notion of “non-political” only ever means “politics I take for granted” rather than any honest attempt at not having an opinion at all.

Gaming being culture, it’d be nice if it was justified culture: This is why the culture wars have such a cachet in gaming, of course. I don’t even think that it’s generally an argument of “non-politicized” vs “politicized”, as it’s often represented; it’s just that the conservative right-wing of gaming thinks that gaming as it stands is inherently justified (basically by it being comfortable, if I’m being honest; it’s justified because I personally have no complaints), while the liberal left-wing disagrees for more or less solid reasons. One wants to assert that a justification already exists, while the other claims that things have to be changed for justification to be possible. Both crave the justification because they care about the hobby and don’t want to think of their activity as “evil” or “useless” or “damaging” or whatnot.

This review of basic stuff has a purpose, too: I wanted to explain why we’re so interested by the conquistadorialism in D&D, as touched upon last week. This is in no way unique to roleplaying games, you’d have the same questions facing you with any other art — or cultural pursuit. You engage in culture, and the choice of engagement has implications that I can only term political: it is a question of how you choose to carry yourself through life, and what could be more political than that? It may be a political sphere that has been made taboo by society (that is, it is delineated to be part of the private realm and therefore inappropriate to be challenged in public as a lifestyle choice), but that’s a transient feature of society and not any proof of inherent non-politicalness of the lifestyle choice.

American liberal discourse uses the term “problematic content”, which I like as a term, even as it’s become a rhetorical ragdoll in the culture wars. The basic meaning, stripped of rhetorical subtext, is, I think, useful: when we have a cultural pursuit that seems to, on the face of it, contradict our own political values, we can call it “problematic”. I think that’s a good name, and I have a specific reason for that: it’s not “forbidden” or “ignored”, but rather recognized as worthy of scrutiny and consideration. “Problematic”.

D&D is the problematic thing here, in case that wasn’t clear. The conquistadorial memetic complex that pretty much defines the game (I mean, you literally don’t have a game if you remove all of it) is problematic to many of us, and that’s why the question of whether it’s a good reading is interesting. It’d be nice if D&D wasn’t conquistadorial, because then it wouldn’t have to be problematic, and then I wouldn’t have to think about what to do with that little nugget of a realization. For many D&D is not problematic at all — that is, what the game is for them does not in any way present them with ideas that are contrary to their own values. (To be clear, I don’t think that you have to be a racist conquistador to come to this conclusion; you just need to be able to read the D&D books and play the game without seeing the things I see in it.)

What you do with problematic content is, of course, a big dividing line in itself. Do you forbid it? Many in the right of the culture war seem to actually agree with the idea — you totally should forbid the wrong kinds of culture! It’s just that this culture here is not problematic, so here we shouldn’t! You can have a fairly nice culture war with everybody agreeing that bad books should be removed from the shelves, with the actual argument revolving around whose books are the bad books.

That would naturally bring us to other ways to approach problematic content, but perhaps I’ll leave a philosophical treatise on that for another time. Rather, let’s talk about a practical idea for what to do with the conquistadorialism in real play context.

The Gygaxian Nature Documentary

Coup de Main in Greyhawk, our new old school D&D campaign, has been running for a couple of weeks now. It’s based on Gygaxian Greyhawk setting materials in a way that might not be entirely orthodox, but is nevertheless “content-seeking” in the sense that I’m not engaging in any major political purging of the setting to bring it more into line with some alien value base. It’s the Greyhawk setting, and that means that it’s racialist, full of ethnic fantasy violence, full of colonial power relationships, and so on. It’s got a fantasy cosmology that explicitly encourages ethnic cleansing of Evil intelligent species. We can say that insofar as D&D is at all conquistadorial (that is, I’m not just seeing something that isn’t there), then Greyhawk-the-setting is at the very crux of those themes.

So that obviously leads to the question of how to actually play this material. How do you, as players, treat the content at the table? What does it mean to you as the creator-audience of the campaign? I’ve got two obvious approaches, I imagine that these occur to everybody else as well:

The Modernist Original: This is, as I understand it, the textually encouraged, historically confirmed and consistently Gygax-supported interpretative stance on Greyhawk and D&D in general. The Good and Evil are real metaphysical phenomena that really do justify not a race war, but a war of Alignment. Orcs really are evil, and it is perhaps unfortunate, but nevertheless mature and unavoidable, to deal with them as the vermin they are. Societies that accept Humanoids in their midst are savage or corrupt. You’re supposed to present all this with a consistent gravitas reminiscent of an early 20th century youth’s adventure novel: the bad guys are really bad, fundamentally, and you gotta be willing to show that to the extent necessary to sell it to the audience. The good guys really are justified. This moral wrangling isn’t supposed to be hard, there’s no shades of grey about it and the proof is right there for anybody to see. (The GM inserts as much proof as necessary, in the rpg case, I mean.) The good guys are not brutal, they are noble; the war is valiant, a romantic affair. These points are not negotiable, a moral grey absolutely should not exist because this house of cards can’t stand if you stop believing. Speaking of current-day gamers wanting to do this, I frankly recommend going with entirely cartoony aesthetics; the orcs should be comic book level ridiculous to really sell the idea that you can feel good about the conflict.

The PoMo Deconstruction: The obvious alternate take is to approach this stuff with a healthy ironic distance. The gods claim that orcs are evil — in fact, that Evil is evil. Here’s a fanatic priest exclaiming this viewpoint, and actually have an asshole of a paladin on top, because why not. And then let’s look into the orcs, and oh, look-see, they’re just indians. Maybe they’re brutal, but wouldn’t you be after a couple thousand years of race war that you’re losing. Who would have guessed that the privileged, superior culture would find it useful to paint the history’s losers as “Evil”. In this campaign Good and Evil are still team markers, but the conflict is viewed with fundamental moral skepticism, and the players essentially acknowledge that their characters, who probably work for the colonial powers (and therefore against the greenskins), are conquistadors: repressive agents of a foreign government looking to enrich themselves by exploiting the savages. Logically speaking the campaign should actually involve a lot of greenskin slavery (not present in the Originalist interpretation, because there the Evil is Real and orcs really need to be killed instead of used) because it’s not like there is any more logical reason to pursue a campaign of extinction than there ever was in human history. (There are setting-based reasons for why the Good can’t enslave the Evil; I’ll come to those later in the newsletter.)

(There’s also a third obvious approach, the Nazi Party Sunday Special, in which the race war is presented as not only natural, but also desirable. “Good” is divested of all nuance of empathy, and every conflict is interpreted as existential, thus justifying extremely brutal means of conflict resolution for the good guys. Hard Men making Hard Choices, as the saying goes. Needless to say, this is entirely beyond the pale for me as a stance that I’d adopt at the table.)

Anyway, my only original creative idea this week, the feature idea for this newsletter, was another thematic framework that might be interesting, thought-provoking and functional as a solution to this question. I got the idea while going for a swim at a particularly bird-infested pond after a hard day of forestry; there, while pondering the swans and ducks and gulls and such, a thought occured. Check it out:

The Nature Documentary: We are observers to a complex ecology in action. It is so very difficult to cross the species-threshold in understanding; we can barely understand individuals of the same species, so how then a “person” of an entirely different species? The game documents for us some of the realities of racial interactions in Flanaess. There is much hate and a competition for living space, relations of the hunters and the hunted; it is similar to our own world in that the rich ecology presents an endless cycle of life, one where nature is often red in tooth and claw. Things like Alignment are in-setting ideologies, maybe real and maybe not; for our purposes they are just differences between the actors, the animal life we are observing to our delight and education. Making moral judgement of these events is unnecessary for us; we merely watch, and perhaps learn. When the orc kills the man, or the man kills the orc, it is like a fight between a lion and an ape; not something that most of us feel the need to immediately interpret in moral terms.

The thing I like about this aesthetic approach is that it refuses the relentless (and ludicrous/uncomfortable) moral identification that the Modernist Original grants the humanity, but it doesn’t really engage in a massive deconstruction project like the PoMo stance does. It’s not an attempt at proving the Gygaxian core story of the setting wrong on every count, which I like because it maintains the alieness of the 50-year old modernist setting instead of revising it into “what Eero would make, if for some god-forbidden reason he wanted to make a vanilla D&D setting”. The Nature Documentary stance is just us taking the material at face value, at sufficient distance to avoid moralizing on it. It’s a grim setting with some very dark premises, so perhaps it’s best to treat it with a fair amount of detachment.

Greyhawk Coup Alignment Rules

Related to the above, here are a few remarks about how Alignment works in our Coup de Main campaign. This is all intended as campaign adaptation of original Gygax Greyhawk stuff. It’s not “this is how Gygax played”, and it’s not “this is how it should be to accord with current-day political correctness”. It’s just me interpreting Gygax for our current purposes in a way that attempts to emphasize the specific thematic merits of Greyhawk (distinct from generic D&D-ese, I mean).

Nature of Alignment: Alignment is a set of omnipresent cosmic energy fields that either are caused by or cause primordial divinity of the sort that causes the world to exist in the first place. Alignment energy flows through everything, but it interacts barely at all with physical matter; only metaphysical things like souls and magic interact with Alignment energies. Alignment energies come in two varieties, the Moral (Good/Evil) and the Axiomatic (Law/Chaos). Divine magic is generally carried by these Alignment energy fields, which is different from arcane magic (which draws its power from the Inner Planes).

Things can have Alignment: Everything in the Prime Material Plane (the real world) is by default Unaligned — devoid of Alignment. It is, however, relatively easy for things to harmonize with the omnipresent cosmic Alignment fields. This is like magnetic polarization, except instead of iron being particularly susceptible, it’s souls and magic items. Non-magical things and places can also gain an Alignment by being associated with powerfully Aligned events (think “cursed place”), but this Alignment is never very strong compared to what’s possible for souls and magic.

Character Alignment: Humans are born Unaligned. Some other creatures are born to a specific Alignment, generally due to having been designed to be like that by someone. Humans have souls, which is not a given for all beings; being otherwise unmagical, a human’s Alignment is normally the Alignment of their soul’s. The Alignment of a soul is influenced by Free Choice: both the Moral and Axiomatic Alignment fields affect a soul that makes certain types of metaphysically reactive choices, staining the soul with the mark of their passing. We call this stain the character’s Alignment, such that a character can be e.g. “Lawful Good” due to having been marked by both Lawful and Good Alignments in their time. Human communities can display strong Alignment bias because the so-called Free Choices that people make are actually influenced by their upbringing, family and community values.

Effects of Alignment: Alignment does not determine a character’s behavior. A character is not obligated to be faithful to their Alignment. A character cannot know their own Alignment. (The players as a convention of play do know.) Characters are not normally punished for shifting Alignment. Alignment is not a personality indicator. Alignment-specific magic exists — such as divinities — and cares about a character’s Alignment. Alignment is essentially a “stain on the soul”, representative of the kinds of choices the character has made in their past, and some things can read that stain for their own purposes.

How the Axiomatic Alignment Axis operates: The cosmos originally came into being as an establishment of universal Law. This Law is in no way subjective; it is the same everywhere and for everybody. Laws of Nature and Natural Law are of the same essential order of thing in this regard; defying gravity and murder are both Unlawful Acts, which is called “Chaos”. Human law may, and often does, conform to universal Law, but it is not necessarily the case. When a soul chooses to uphold the universal Law, they are committing a “Lawful” act. When a soul chooses to break the universal Law, they are committing a “Chaotic” act. The universal Law has a specific nature that is immutable and explored as necessary in play, but you can probably figure out the basics: murder’s Unlawful, homosexuality is Unlawful, eating meat as an Elf is Unlawful, flying while not a bird is Unlawful, generally desiring anything outside your assigned place in the world-machine is Unlawful, etc. Arcane magic can work by principles of either Law (legal loopholes in the fabric of the universe) or Chaos (break the fabric of the universe by sheer power), so spells often have variants for both.

How the Moral Alignment Axis operates: Moral Alignment is defined by inter-personal interaction; it came into existence only when souls appeared in the Axiomatic universe. The interactions of souls empower the existence of Moral Alignment in its two poles: “Good” Alignment energy is generated by altruistic interactions, while “Evil” energy is generated by oppressive interactions. Those terms should be pretty obvious, but let’s say that the most common ways that people of Flanaess produce “Goodness” are acts of charity and communal service, while the single most common source of “Evil” is the institution of slavery, with looting and rapine a close second. Moral Alignment doesn’t care about motivations or circumstances or pleasantness, it just cares about whether souls are in altruistic or oppressive relationship to each other. Torturing animals is Neutral, running an inquisition is Evil, and so on. Notably, I do not interpret conservative good governance to be an inherent Good; if your activity is not about helping other people, it’s not Good in the metaphysical sense even if it might be e.g. civilization-maintaining. (The existence of gratefulness might work here as a measure: if your activity is not making somebody grateful, it’s probably not Good.)

Thematic morality of Alignment: Despite the names, “Good” and “Evil” in the Alignment metaphysics are not interpreted by me as representing real moral judgement. They are merely metaphysical colors. The audience has to decide for themselves what is actually good case by case, I do not intend or believe that you can trust these Alignment labels to distinguish good guys from bad guys for you. This should be obvious if you know that your personal ethics are not legalistic; characters could end up with an Alignment stain on them for all kinds of reasons that could be entirely justified by Kantian or utilitarist or whatever ethical system you prefer. (In case it’s not blindingly obvious, all of the above holds true for the Axiomatic Alignment Axis as well!)

Evil Humanoids and Alignment: The omnipresent race wars in Flanaess are often justified by Alignment; if it’s natural to fight somebody of the opposite Alignment to yours (as if you’re a pawn of cosmic forces), and orcs are Born Evil, then killing orcs on sight isn’t a racist cultural structure, it’s a natural moral duty. Needless to say, this is not objectively true in the Coup campaign, even if there exist religions that present this world-view in-setting. Alignment doesn’t make you kill anybody; it’s a measure of what you’ve done in the past, and nobody is mind-controlled by Alignment to act in a certain way. (You might be mind-controlled by e.g. an angel or a devil, of course.) If you choose to wage war on orcs because you hate orcs, that’s on you and not the metaphysics per se. Orcs specifically aren’t born Evil, by the by; they just have an Evil-inclining (oppressive) culture. A Good person killing an Evil person isn’t even a Good act; there’s no Alignment bonus whatsoever to it, it’s exactly the same as killing a Good person as far as Alignment is concerned. (A Neutral act, to be specific; both Goods and Evils are drawn towards Neutrality by killing people. You need to make it cruel to be Evil, and defensive to make it Good.)

About True Neutrality: The Greyhawk setting includes an underlying and less-emphasized theme of True Neutrality. This is essentially a separate, orthogonal Alignment axis, and treated as such in the Coup campaign; being “Unaligned” is different from being “True Neutral” in that “True Neutral” is firmly committed to neutrality in a mystical way that resists Alignment stain. (It’s literally mystical, think monk meditation and such; the soul is fortified against the stain.) True Neutrality is important to the setting history as the Alignment of druidry, the prehistorical religious framework of the Flan, the aborogine people of Flanaess. Pure magic and martial arts are also True Neutral concepts. While there are naturally Neutral actions that souls can take, True Neutrality is mainly bolstered by specific ritual activities.

My tinfoil hat theory of what’s going on in the setting: After doing close reading of Gygax’s Greyhawk box and related materials, I’ve come to conclude that the ancient Flannish peoples resisted Alignation because of a principled stand against Outer Planes encroachment. The Flan lived in relative peace with various non-human peoples of Flanaess, which I think was caused by their religious position on Outer Planes gods; or rather, the incessant race war of modern Flanaess is caused by the dominant Oeridian culture welcoming Gods and their Alignments into their lives. Alignment doesn’t dictate your personality or magically cause you to act in a certain way, but Gods live on the stuff, are fanatically committed to it, and perfectly capable of providing their followers with doctrinal material to organize themselves into Alignment-based hate machines. The Greyhawk Wars, the prophesied continental conflict in the horizon during the setting’s present day, are going to be the most recent culmination of the Alignment-driven cycle of brutality between nations.

An aside on the ancient wars: The Migration Wars between the Oeridian tribes and the refugees of the Suel empire? Quite possibly a conflict of Law vs Chaos, if not entirely to the knife in that regard. However, the significance of this Axiomatic Axis has been reducing in the modern, increasingly feudalistic Flanaess; feudalism is a genuinely Unaligned governmental model, balanced between Law and Chaos. (Tribal kingship is Chaotic, imperial bureaucracy Lawful, in case you were wondering.) The megatrend of the recent centuries has specifically been Moral Alignation, the great war of Good and Evil. The first true Alignment Battle was fought only a couple of years ago in-setting as the pan-Evil Horde of Elemental Evil met with the Furyondian Good Alliance on the field of battle. I believe this to be a sign of things to come, and as clear a thematic statement as you could ask for.

A nutshell of thematic practice for Greyhawk: OK, so I was creating random encounter tables, and wrote up a few “universal special encounters” — encounters that can occur anywhere in Greyhawk. I don’t claim that there aren’t other encounters in this niche, but I think that these do a pretty good job of describing what Greyhawk-the-Setting is “about”. Here are the three “theme encounters” that can infrequently happen just about anywhere in the world:
Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight: Mordenkainen is this lame Neutral super-wizard who’s committed to keeping Good and Evil fighting for obscure reasons; arguably the current status quo of Flanaess is largely his doing, or otherwise he’s an irrelevant blowhard — your pick. He’s helped by a bunch of followers, thence the “Circle of Eight”. This encounter indicates that one of the circle members is running a con of some sort (wizards have complex ploys, and continent-policing meddlers have even more, so this could be whatever) in the area and decides to scope out the party. Could end up with the party gaining a quest.
A Knight Errant: a Good knight of level 2d6 is embroiled in a thoroughly Arthurian Quest. Really romantic stuff. Could maybe help the PCs (knights are big on side quests), or they could help him. Originates in one of the Central Flanaess feudal kingdoms. The knight and the Quest should both have specific identities, this is a relatively big deal demographically speaking; level 2d6 is pretty high in-campaign.
A Slavery Operation: an Evil Factor (a homebrew slaver class) of level 2d6 is in the process of capturing, transporting or selling slaves. Accompanied by a well-equipped and professional entourage, probably of mixed races. Implies economic connections to the Flanaessian slavery network, which could e.g. lead to playing the Slavers modules.

Monday: Coup de Main #3

Our old school Greyhawk campaign is proceeding apace! The third session saw us make noticeable strides in mapping, positioning and combat fluency. It’s still quite awkward, but less so than in the earlier sessions, which means that we just need to practice more to make it better and better.

The session was a classic dungeon paranoia engagement as we sneaked and listened and sneaked around an empty house, trying to avoid being surprised by goblins that were surely just around the corner. (This is the Yrageme Chateau familiar from earlier sessions, of course.) These hopes and dreams of surprise-attacking enemies were ultimately fulfilled by discovering one of the banes of low-level dungeoneering, a pack of ravenous giant rats that wanted to go tooth-to-nail with the adventurers!

The party kept their cool, however, and handily forced the rats to flee. A very methodical shield-wall arrangement situated in a doorway served them well, preventing the rats from getting into the ranks and overpowering the party with superior numbers. The MVP may have been the party scout/Thief who managed to forewarn the party about the rats, allowing them to grasp at the tactical initiative. The entire encounter would have been finished without any injuries if the party wasn’t so aggressive about the rats, assaulting the last stragglers even as they were trying to escape; Wee Will the Evil Fighter got a spear in the back by pure accident as henchmen behind him were a tad too excited about poking at the last rat around Wee Will. Will caught the hit on his mail, but a huge bruise (and loss of most of his HP) will keep him in recovery for a couple of days.

The PCs haven’t yet realized that the rats retreated down the stairs to the house basement, so their current operational assumption is that they have the pack of giant rats captured in a kitchen closet. We’ll see how that develops, but for the time being we ended the session with the PCs comfortably in control of the manor kitchen.

Session #4 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 29.6., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Thursday: Land of Nod

RPG Club Hannilus has returned from summer vacation, so we convened on Thursday to consider Paul’s GMless story game from the ’00s, Land of Nod (unpublished). The game’s very much in the vein of GMless stuff of the time: No Myth blood opera, scene-wide conflict resolution. The rules encode little thematically, focusing mostly on whose turn it is to advance the story. If you’ve played something like Zombie Cinema, While the World Ends or Tales of Entropy, to name a few similar games, you know what it’s like in rough terms.

It’s interesting that Paul considers the game’s predominant theme to be “unrelated stories with an underlying mystery that emerges via play, independent of the designs of any individual player”. The interesting part is that what he describes is actually an all-but integral feature of the GMless No Myth story game: any game where the players take turns contributing to the story, incorporating earlier developments, naturally begins by players developing individual puzzle pieces and ends by the players pattern-recognizing a sensible whole, a “meaning”. It happens in every one of the games I named above. Even something rudimentary like Once Upon a Time can easily end up doing this. So in that sense Paul’s central theme is a bit like describing your adventure game as “the player characters form a party and go on an adventure supplied by the GM”. I mean, sure, that’s probably what happens.

Nod mainly supports its theme by encouraging the players to develop an ensemble cast of protagonists who are initially and superficially unrelated to each other. It’s a relatively mild thing to hang your theme on, I guess. Again, a bit like empowering your theme of “adventure!” by suggesting that the player characters could form an adventuring party. Sure, let’s do that.

Aside from my bemusement with the somewhat forced thematic statement, I found Nod an interesting game. Its got the virtues of the high Forgite formalist story now game, such as clever dice mechanics and dramaturgical resource management. I wasn’t at my brightest on Thursday, but we’ll be continuing with it next Tuesday, and probably one more session after that (so as to finish the dramatic scenario), so I’ll have time to build an overview to my satisfaction.

Quest serial: A Simple Transaction

Quest-format forum roleplaying games are an interesting new development over the last decade or so; while originating on the image boards, you can find the format putting down roots in various creative geek hobby communities nowadays. It’s a writing-oriented format of play, with a serial-fiction author and an audience that influences the direction of the story via multiple choice voting. It’s essentially like if a “choose your own adventure” story was being written in real time, as you go. The subculture that mainly practices quest-format is that of millennial Internet geeks, so the content is generally steeped in fanfic, manga, roleplaying games, video games and so on. Creative agenda varies wildly, with wargaming attitudes (particularly besserwisserism) and existential philosophy (read: kitchen psychology) being popular.

So anyway, I’ve been reading this stuff over the years, and usually have a few stories/games under regular following. The latest piece I checked out just this week, A Simple Transaction I, is apparently part of a years-long series of related quests; it’s a highly self-aware gamer isekai thing, so nothing particularly new on that front. Pleasantly hardcore about it, though, with no half-measures or pretensions to being anything else. Reasonably well-written, but highly oriented towards character optimization and similar wargaming concerns. If planning to read it cold, I suggest skipping the initial purple prose and studying the character creation process.

My reason for considering this worthy of mention here is specifically that the author of “A Simple Transaction” is clearly a gaming veteran capable of presenting something of a master-class in development and use of effective point-buys in roleplaying games. This is a topic that we’ve discussed a few times over the spring months, so I was thinking that the reader might be interested in seeing what actually considerate use of multiple choice and point-buy looks like. You might find that it’s a much more intense thing than what is considered the norm in the actual point-buy school of gaming.

Another remark: the techniques and structural framework used by the author here are highly compatible with Amber Diceless, and depending on your cultural background, it might be easier to understand what Amber is even trying to do if you study a next-generation example of what amounts to essentially the same thing. If your understanding of the character creation phase of Amber is not as intense and fraught with a similar constraint of multiple-choice analysis paralysis as the character creation in “A Simple Transaction” is, then I dare suggest that you’re doing it wrong.

State of the Productive Facilities

Yeah, no — too much forestry in my life still. I’ve done some preliminary concepting on the old school primer crowdfunding thing in the forest, though, so maybe that’ll move forward in July.

In the meantime, the latest poll is winding towards its conclusion. With just a couple of days left until the end of the month, the race for the top spot is thoroughly dominated by the three theory article offerings; at this writing they stand at 51-48-48, with “A Big Model overview” in the top spot.

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

  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (19%, 66 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (15%, 54 Votes)
  • [theory] The semiotic significance of game mechanics in rpgs (14%, 51 Votes)
  • [design] Notes on my Basic D&D homebrew (13%, 46 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (10%, 36 Votes)
  • [design] Concepting the post-D&D adventure game (8%, 27 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (6%, 21 Votes)
  • [design] Drafting an old school primer (5%, 18 Votes)
  • [design] a Chronicles of Prydain wargame (4%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Coup de Main in Greyhawk campaign protocol (3%, 11 Votes)
  • [design?] Put together some He-Man shit, for reals (2%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 145

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We won’t be doing a poll next month, and maybe not in August either, depending on how efficient I am at clearing the board as it stands. While I expect and hope to have more time for creative work next month, as the forestry season draws to a close, there’s the crowdfunding ambition to consider: that’s sure to monopolize some attentions as well. We’ll see.

5 thoughts on “New on Desk #26 — Politics of D&D”

  1. I’m thrilled to see The Sacrament of Death come out on top, though I could see it as a part of the primer, too.

    1. Yeah, I noticed that you’d been campaigning for it, and it paid off this month! Your cunning use of sniping (last minute voting) caught the other voter factions flat-footed. Clever to wait until last day to mobilize a last dash over the finish line. Good strategy there.

      Something similar to the Sacrament article will no doubt make its way into the primer if it happens, but the Sacrament as a topic is wider than just old school D&D — it very much applies to trad adventuring games as well. It’s a good theory topic, I think, as it’s under-appreciated yet constantly stumbled upon in any game that plays with ostensibly lethal stakes (which is most of them, what with adventure games being dominant in the scene).

      It’ll take a while for me to get to writing the article, of course. I’ll try to not be needlessly annoying with the ever-longer gap between the polls and the actual writing; part of why I’m probably not doing a new poll before like September, I want to get back to a quicker turn-around and that means clearing the backlog (while also juggling my actual publishing plans). I’m going to specifically prioritize the outlining articles for the primer and the DMG, as those are directly relevant to my crowdfunding plans, but the Sacrament article doesn’t benefit from that effect, so it’s stuck on the bottom of the list for now.

      (That is, unless you feel that I should prioritize it? I’m asking because you seem pretty excited about it, so maybe it pertains directly to something or other that you’ve got on your plate. I wouldn’t mind giving the piece a higher priority if there’s a practical reason for it.)

  2. Yeah, I did some campaigning in various corners of the net, such as the quiet little forum of Bryce Lynch’s Tenfoot Pole site. Here’s hoping it will also increase interest in your blog!

    I’ve mostly trained my players to accept and even like my highly lethal approach, but casualties have been slightly down in the last couple of months, so I try to be vigilant.

    Due to the coronavirus crisis, some old pals have contacted me to revive our high school game via Roll20 and it’s quite fun. That said, it’s really about the people and the nostalgia for me and I wonder if I can show them the joys of putting PCs through a meat grinder at some point. The Sacrament of Death and Muster: A Friendly Primer to Challenging Dungeoneering would sure come in handy.

    1. A bit of quick advice on the Sacrament, then: start talking about character death early and often, it does really help. The shock and distress that players feel at sudden character death is generally and most often caused specifically by it being unexpected. (Players will often phrase this as a feeling of unfairness, but I don’t think that’s quite correct.) It’s a bit like dealing with real-life death and disaster (although obviously less so), which is also helped by two important things: having a contextual framework for understanding the bereavement, and being mentally prepared for it in advance. Both of these purposes are served by the GM incorporating a game-specific “Sacrament of Death” into the way they explain and teach them game. (I call it a sacrament for nuanced reasons that aren’t really relevant here — the important bit is that you have a pedagogical narrative for preparing players for eventual character death.)

      For old school D&D that sacrament has traditionally been something along the lines “ha, don’t get too attached – that guys’ gonna bite the dust soon!”, but there is room for different narratives, and you can look into other games for inspiration. In Call of Cthulhu, for instance, the Sacrament is roughly “Lovecraftian horror stories are about protagonists going mad and dying, so don’t be surprised when that happens to you. Embrace it!”

      I’ll write about this in more detail in that essay when I get around to it, obviously, but that’s really the gist of it.

  3. Thank you. I appreciate the preview advice, especially in light of the fact that you advise starting to communicate now (rather than sneaking up on mode etc. – one of the things Mike used to rant against…). I’ll probably go for some shock therapy like running a DCC funnel, too, as that has worked nicely in the past. IF I ever get that project off the ground, that is.

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