In Defense of (Some) Metagaming

Alice and Bob want to play an RPG. Alice volunteers to GM, and the two take a look at the available games on her well-filled shelf. They debate playing Apocalypse World, but are both in the mood for something a bit more fantastical. After some back and forth, Bob remembers that he recently read a fantasy novel with a cool idea he’d want to see in a game. The two discuss it, and settle on Whitehack 2e as their starting point and then set to discuss implementing the basic ideas and the character concept.

Alice and Bob are, throughout this whole process, metagaming.

The word gets a bad rep. Especially among traditional RPG players, it’s associated with toxic players, disrespectful attitudes, and disdain for the logic of the fiction. All these can certainly be true. The sheer amount of horror stories about these subjects speak to their prominence. I think a lot of GM’s/referees have an understandable wariness about behaviors that suggest the horrors of metagaming. Because RPG’s are socially permeable things, they are subject to all the cajoling, bullying, and downright meanness that any social interaction can be. The metagame discourse and level of conversation is, in the wrong hands, merely another tool of the bully or the insensitive player.

Of course, such participants aren’t bad participants because they metagame. They are bad participants because they play in bad faith from the very beginning. Use of the metagame level is incidental, not causal. Unlike play mechanics, in which there are at least some kind of checks and balances on who gets to decide what vis-a-vis THE ROOLZ, the metagame conversation has no such constraints. Of course it’s the asshat’s playground.

Nothing should belong just to the asshats.

Playing the Good Metagame

We negotiate ideas and courses of actions all the time when we play, and the exact point of where the “proper” game begins and the meta ends can be pretty hard to tell. And yet, when it’s done in bad faith, something in the culture and the conversation allows us to identify the bad metagame pretty quickly.

Alice and Bob’s metagame was productive. It ultimately enriched their experience and helped ensure a better outcome for both of them. The same is true of most metagaming, really. Examples of good metagaming include:

  • Safety tools.
  • Pitching campaign ideas.
  • Discussing character options.
  • Transparency about play procedures.
  • House-ruling and hacking to change the game to be a better fit for the group.
  • Openness about character motivations.
  • Understanding and fruitful use of genre expectations.

I find it somewhat odd that these things are not included in the usual discussions about metagaming. Most examples of bad faith metagaming fit into one of the above categories, in a bad mirror universe version kind of way.

Bad metagaming practices tends to produce bad GM practices as well, and the most pernicious example is the undue reverence of ‘immersion’. If the GM’s insistence of the ‘immersive’ reality of his world has primary importance, then the endeavor to maintain this illusion is a carte blanche to all kinds of bad metagaming practices. If the GM’s world and the way he runs must, at all cost, be shrouded in mystery and give the appearance of pure, inspired (but highly planned) creation, that idea allows the GM to disregard safety tools, to unduly shoot down ideas they don’t think “fit”, and to obscure whatever parts of the story they feel like obscuring until the players have ‘earned’ that insight. A lot of unhealthy “GM is god” notions lie the DNA of these ideas.

Enough of the bad examples.

Prehistoric Metagaming

I recently played in an absolutely brilliant game run by my friend Paul. It was a Free Kriegsspiel kind of deal, set in a semi-mythological Paleolithic setting, and it was one of the best games I’ve ever played in. One of the reasons it was excellent is because its metagame was rich and fruitful. Creatively, the group gelled really well, but that’s not all. Paul, being the arbiter and facilitator, made the procedures of the game abundantly clear from the beginning and signposted important decision points. (On another note, I find that Free Kriegsspiel generally games tend to have really healthy attitudes towards metagaming – huh.) The campaign needed an amount of buy-in, and that is not possible without a metagame conversation. It required us to understand when dice rolls were made and negotiate about their stakes and outcome – metagaming. It involved Paul rolling on random tables to determine various world elements and outcomes, and he was honest about doing that – you guessed it, metagaming. We, as players, were constantly allowed a peek behind the curtain. And it was awesome.

Obviously, no one in the group played in bad faith. We could not have played this game if any of us had. And the thing is, I don’t think anyone playing this game in bad faith would have enjoyed it. What would there have been for them to enjoy?

I like to think of metagaming as being similar to filmmaking techniques. A film, after all, has content that could be described independently of its presentation, but so much of a film’s power relies in the acting, the editing, the cinematography, the direction, and so on. And there’s always going to be some in the theater leaning in with a smirk and say “Oh, of course that cliché was going to happen in this type of movie… ” or “Pfft, that thing is totally implausible!” or “This is trash, no real person would ever act that way!”. When engaging cynically with the meta of the movie, everything can be construed as a detrimental quality.

And if one watches a movie with such a mindset, did one ever really intend to enjoy it in the first place?

Precepts for Solo Play

As circumstances have put a temporary halt to much of my social gaming, I’ve gotten a fair amount of solo RPG’ing done. The first stories fizzled out fairly quickly, victims of rusty practices and bad calls. Solo RPG’s lacks the social valve normal gaming does. Relying on the input and reactions of fellow players is just not an option, and tables and oracles, though valuable tools, aren’t people. A bad call can cascade into an unworkable, unenjoyable and worst of all un-fun experience. And if we’re not having fun with solo play, why even bother?

So I reflected on my experiences a bit and tried to formulate some best practices and principles of play. They might work for you too. Strong inspiration from Shawn Tomkin’s principles of play presented in the excellent Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Starforged.

Dance Like No One’s Watching, Because Nobody Is

The performative aspect of roleplaying is much less a factor in solo play. To many, myself included, that’s something of a disruptive paradigm shift. What’s the point of embodying characters and playing out dialogues and scenes if no-one’s there to enjoy it?

The secret is: There is no point save your own enjoyment and fun. If playing out scenes with performative elements, voices and gesturing makes you more invested and more into the game you’re playing, then do it! If the same practices make you feel self-conscious or awkward, then don’t. You have an audience of none, and you don’t need to appease anyone but yourself with roleplay flexes.

Roll with the Rolls…

Before making a roll of the dice, clarify one thing: Is this roll meant to generate something inspirational or resolve something quantifiable? There is a huge difference between rolling to find a good name for an NPC and rolling to determine whether the Sword of Dragon-Slaying finds its mark on the great wyrm. If a roll is inspirational, we’re still looking to answer a question, but there’s no need to settle for an unsatisfying result. Nothing’s at stake in this roll except setting up and anticipating future developments, and in this kind of stage-setting, ignoring the result of a roll can be perfectly acceptable if the generated content just isn’t doing its job. But if the dice are rolled to resolve a decided action, to find the winner of a battle, or to otherwise decide rather than inspire, then the outcome of the dice should be final and authoritative.

… But Season With Reason

Yet sometimes, dice results come up with something that’s just plain nonsense. Not interesting nonsense, not exciting twists, not anything inspirational or useful or conducive to play. There are two remedies: Take a step back and apply reason and common sense to the result, and go with the least disruptive, outrageous and un-fun interpretation. A single die roll shouldn’t undermine the entire logic of the setting and the world. A bit of dispassionate reason can go a long way – though when we’re heavily invested in what’s happening, it can be hard to take that much-needed step back.

Fail Forward

Solo gamers can be such masochists. I know because I’m one of them. The impulse to punish and really make things hurt is tempting. It’s also almost easy. Failures and setbacks shouldn’t necessarily be binary “yes/no” resolutions, but should change the fiction and the characters’ positioning in it. Consider seriously the implications of a failed roll beyond “you can’t do the thing” and don’t be afraid to roll up some unexpected minor twists. Door closes, windows open.

(For some brilliant examples of failing forward in solo play, Trevor Devall’s Me, Myself & Die! series on youtube is a masterclass. Especially the current season, beginning here.)

Be (Dis)loyal to the Genre

A strong understanding of the genre you’re playing in gives a great catalogue of tropes, options, and reference material. Use it. And betray it if you want. Do not be afraid to throw genre curveballs into your story. If your game of Ironsworn begins to assume aspects of cosmic horror, or if you throw in some Vancian science fantasy tech into a campaign of Scarlet Heroes, you’re not going to get caught by the genre police. The rules system and random tables you’re using will likely massage the game back towards its original intended milieu – and if it doesn’t, this is a great excuse to start houseruling and tailoring the game to your own fun.

Chronicle, Not Novel

Write down no more than you need to or that you want to. Do not be mislead by the expectation that you’re writing for an audience. If you ever decide to publish or share your story, chances are it’s going to take some editing and re-working anyway, and if you put yourself in editing mode while playing, the game will suffer. Your immediate experience of the story and your memories of it are more important than the beauty of the prose on the page. Such things can be added later if needed.

The Balance of Darkness

It seems Midnight has gotten an update for the Fifth Edition Era. Seeing that made me page through some of the older versions of the setting I had lying around, highly-produced relics of the 3rd Edition OGL era. Conceptually, Midnight is great; it’s basically Middle-Earth if Sauron won, where Evil has already won, the Good Guys lost the great cosmic struggle, and we’re now seeing the aftermath. The game emphasizes how heroes in the world do not fight to overthrow the Big Bad, but to hold on to last vestige of hope and goodness that are left in the world. Nursing those few embers of resistance and rebellion that are left.

Where Midnight falters is, in my view, in its inability to meaningfully deliver on the promise of its themes. Victories can never be more than local. Attempting to make lasting change is futile. Heroism is doomed by its own optimism. And, frustratingly, much of the Midnight material is silent on exactly how a long-term campaign could ever be brought to a satisfying conclusion. I closed the PDF with a weird feeling of dispirited dejection. I remembered loving Midnight on my first read years ago. Now I don’t even want to consider playing it, at least in this state.

But dark fantasy is something I love and adore. Elric of Melniboné, the Witcher books, the Black Company, Thieves’ World, and sundry fantasies with highly bleak themes were formative in my understanding of fantasy stories. They have darkness in abundance. Some of them have sections that are downright miserable. And yet they spark inspiration. Even going back to grandfather Tolkien, there are passages of The Lord of the Rings and the rest of the legendarium (special mention to Children of Húrin – not for the faint of heart, that book!) that are mired in depressive darkness. I strongly believe that darkness, threats, and the presence of dread are essential ingredients of effective fantasy. But they are rarely the only flavor.

In Midnight, darkness is the pervasive, all-conquering flavor. Ugliness and despair are ever-present, and… In a sense, it all feels too easy. The setting’s assurances that it is all meant to make us want to fight for the modest victories and the small glimmers of hope ultimately ring hollow. Ultimately, everything is too bleak, too unchanging, too overwhelming. Good deeds, sacrifice, and heroism appears becomes not only futile. It becomes pathetic. I cannot imagine myself enjoying a game week after week where Evil is not only victories, but also philosophically in the right. It’s too easy to overdo the darkness. It’s too easy to cherry-pick the very worst excesses of evil, real or imagined, and foreground them under the guise of “gritty grim darkness”, followed by silence of what to actually make of this ugliness.

That’s the crux of my problem with Midnight. Many other dark fantasy games, or indeed pieces of dark fantasy media and literature, has evil and darkness powerfully present because they want us to seriously engage with these issues. Through engaging with them, we formulate and negotiate responses. We develop. What I find distasteful in Midnight is that the setting preempts this discussion by essentially making it clear that no reaction you can have to Evil will ever truly have meaning, and at worse, it will never be nothing more than tears in the rain.

I think it’s worth considering this when we introduce elements of such oppressive darkness to our games. Does it enrich the themes of the story and the game, or does it inadvertently shut down and invalidate certain avenues of the conversation? Does it jeopardize everything that’s meaningful about our agency as participants?

Nevertheless, I’d love to hear stories about good games of Midnight or other grimdark worlds. Share. Did the darkness overwhelm, or did it elevate the game? Did you have worthwhile triumphs nevertheless?

A Grab Bag of Burning Wheel Ideas

Very unstructured post today. Just a bunch of stuff that’s been on my mind.

The Elves Are Strangers: I’d love to play a game where the elves aren’t the ancient custodians of nature, but rather are new arrivals, heralds of a change in the cosmic order of the world. Maybe they have arrived from another plane of existence, or their arrival in the mortal world was delayed by some divine accident. Elves arriving to a world already peopled by human kingdoms and cities, and dealing with that.

Arthurian, With A Twist: A campaign that leans much more into the Celtic roots of Arthurian legend, Chronicles of Prydain style. A game less about the militaristic chivalry of later medieval knighthood, and more about the local tensions of syncretic, communal cultures meditating on their place in the world rising from the ashes of the old imperial order – an order which they themselves partially embraced and partially rejected.

Schisms and Successions: A game set in a dual monarchy whose two constituent kingdoms follow different variants of the Faith. I’d like to play a game where questions of religion do not fall into the trap of making one side into pawns of fundamentalism, or that portrays religion as wholly poisonous. Something like The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay; a world where religion and dogma matters and is a point of tension, but without immediately resorting to exploring it through the ugliness of sectarian violence.

Among the Orcs: Orcs are used too little as PC’s in Burning Wheel games! I’d love to play a game that challenges and explores the somewhat stale idea of “orcs as Big Bad’s cannon fodder”; set among the orc clans on the edge of the human kingdoms, a disgraced human warlord?sorcerer?noble? arrives and tries to harness the fierce orcs to serve their cause. Existential hijinks, clan politics, and questions of “What is evil really, dude?” ensue. And probably a bunch of really cool fights.

Knights & Prejudice: Better pun needed for the title. Burning Wheel has, I think, untapped potential as a game with romance themes. A game of Jane Austen-esque romance in a chivalric court of love would be a lot of fun – Duels of Wit to seduce and flirt; Fight! for those highly emotional fencing spats; nail-biting Resource tests to secure that particular type of rose you know your crush adores.

Tapestries and Mosaics

Should you think of your RPG setting as a tapestry or as a mosaic?

In most other kinds of fantasy and sci-fi media, settings are very much tapestries; they are intricately and deliberately woven, with threads changing color and leading from one motif to another, with the intent of creating a unified finished experience. In experiencing a fantasy story, we see a bit of that tapestry, and if its images and colors intrigue us enough, we turn to appendices, wikis, and all the other setting-deepening tools of the genre. The Tolkienesque epic fantasy is the archetypal tapestry. Coherent, mythopoetic, laced with meaning.

In a mosaic, we can much more easily identify each discreet piece. And each piece may still shine with texture and vibrancy even when isolated. The Conan stories, the tales of the Thieves World anthologies, the old D&D dungeon crawls – bits that shine brilliantly on their own, but can make for a larger motif and image when combined with others and seen from a distance. Unlike the tapestry, where each thread is placed with intent, the bits of a mosaic tend to not fit perfectly together. Awkward gaps, but also unexpected new patterns, hidden overlaps, and emergent beauties.

I think a lot of us dream of making that beautiful tapestry. Something unified in every sense, showing a great experience with threads we can follow endlessly. The tapestry is the template novelistic fantasy gives us, and it was certainly what I tried to emulate when I was first discovering the wonders of RPG’s. Thinking in terms of these interlocking threads could be as frustrating as it could be rewarding. The tapestry demands cohesion and meaning, and it is easy to overthink these aspects when prepping. When the imagined world begins to choke rather than invite imagination, the tapestry is doing the opposite of its purpose.

Furthermore, tapestries can be hard to navigate for the uninitiated. Middle-Earth and the Duniverse are rich, deep places that can overwhelm any who’s not familiar with them. That is doubly so for a custom setting full of idiosyncrasies and unexpected, wild ideas.

Nowhere is the idea of the mosaic world more precisely expressed than in the OSR, with its emphasis on “modules”. The implied world of most OSR and retro-style D&D isn’t one of Tolkienesque cosmic struggle, but rather of disjointed, decaying, entropic, and half-wild worlds that are meant to be discovered and explored. Happening across unexpected pieces in the mosaic is, ironically, to be expected. A mosaic can very start from a few pieces and then expand, formed its bigger picture as the participants recognize patterns and gain perspective. Even if a singular piece is recognizable, its configuration and adjacency to other pieces will always be unique to this mosaic.

Apocalypse World similarly encourages the existence of blank spaces that can be filled as needed. The cool thing about laying a mosaic is that you don’t need to put a piece in place before it’s absolutely necessary. You don’t need to go with your first instinct, and you can let the game percolate and mature before placing the exact right stone – and even then, its edges are likely to create wholly new emergent gaps and connections.

The dirty secret to all this is, of course, that most of our creations are part tapestries, part mosaics. We place some deep threads and then embellish them with stones along the way, or we imply threads from lines of stones placed in delicate ways. And sometimes, we need to rip up those threads or shake up how everything fits.

Envision my game worlds as mosaics has, paradoxically, helped me appreciate the tapestry-like retrospective experience. Like mosaics, game worlds and game stories are rarely perfect – the unexpected twists and turns are what keeps us coming back to the table, after all. Imperfection is acceptable in a mosaic, because it helps create dynamism and emergent properties. So don’t be afraid of it.

A Not-Quite-Review of The Burning Wheel Anthology 2021

Disclaimer: The Burning Wheel Anthology appears to already have gone out of stock. Hopefully it will get a reprint soon.

The Burning Wheel Anthology 2021 is the latest member of the admittedly small Burning Wheel family of publications. And it’s an odd one. Part rules addendum/errata, part rules expansion, but not a splatbook either. It’s fairly short too, a mere 119 pages. The Codex already acts as “must-have” expansion book due to its essays on playing the game and its invaluable advice and catalogue of tricks and toys. I can already say that the Anthology isn’t quite that indispensable.

The book consists of two part: Revised Rules and New Systems. Quite self-explanatory, and most true – although a very brief essay on the role of capital-E Evil in Burning Wheel found its way into the New Systems rubric. Huh.

The whole family. (Excluding cousin Monster Burner, he has been disowned, it seems).

The Revision Mission

Overall, the Revised rules are good. Great even. But not “change your game this instant to accommodate them” great. There are new rules for Working Quickly, and they are cool. There is a new, slightly simplified table for Ob modifiers for Circles, adapted from Burning Empires (which I have not played, so no comment there), and they’re actually quite nice. And then, there is the Lifepath Burner. It’s a guide to making, well, new Lifepaths for the game, and I’m not sure how I feel about it, and I have had no reason to test it in depth. I don’t think I’ve ever had the inclination to create new Lifepaths, simply because the restrictive and funneling nature of the system is already delicious inspiring to me. But the advice contained here appears sound enough.

And then, one of the jewels of the book: Alternate Artha. This is a much-needed overhaul of the role of traits in the artha economy, revising some of the rules for spending and earning Fate points. The gist of it: Spending Fate points on die rolls is now more expensive if you want to open-end more than 6 result; and Traits are no longer Fate point farms, but play into Embodiment, while the post-session denouement now includes noting which Traits were leaned into and which were buckled to help guide the next Trait Vote. Good stuff. I can absolutely see this being used in my games.

And last among the Revised Rules is Treatment and Injury, a set of optional expanded rules for exact what it says. Notably, damage is now divided into categories like abrasions, burns, punctures, and so on, which affects recovery and healing. And, notably, there are now more precise rules for Traits inflicted by injuries, something that was a little vague in the original rules. Good stuff – I’m not sure the level of granularity about injury types fits in most campaigns. If running something in the vein of The Witcher or The Black Company or similarly war-themed fantasy, I can see these rules being hugely helpful.

To Seek Out New Rules and New Subsystems

So, onwards. New Systems. The first is Heroism, a new Emotional Attribute that can be unlocked when a character, after many trials and tribulations, shade-shift a stat to Grey in-game. This is a really neat idea, and fits in snugly with games about zero-to-hero character or more traditional epic fantasy. I can see it fitting in really well with games that want Big Damn Heroes to matter without resorting to some kind of homebrewed artha flood. Reaching Heroism exponent 10 has a nice, almost D&D-esque “Reaching level 20” feel to it. And in true Burning Wheel fashion, there are rules for fallen heroes as well. Neat. Cool. Nice.

Next up is Immortal Investment. This system invokes and simulates another fantasy trope – the weapon or item gaining powers through a bond with its user. Essentially, it’s a system that allows you to track the artha you invest in tests using a specific item, and that will eventually empower it to do cool things. The more artha, the cooler the thing. It’s a neat little system, and one I think could be homebrewed easily to fit a campaign world or to fit with a specific item. “The more you use the Sword of the Dragon Xadranius, the more of his power you awaken!” kind of stuff. I like this system.

Next is Fighting Arts. This gave me GURPS: Martial Arts flashbacks. It’s a system for creating essential traditions of fighting and combat for cultures and groups in the campaign setting, which is a neat idea. Like several of the other systems, I don’t think it’s a must-include for every campaign. But for a game in, say, swashbuckling in Renaissance Italy, it’s a cool way of mechanically conveying differences between the Milanese and Florentine fencers. The only downside is that… It’s a bit of work. I would have loved for this section to twice as long and provide more examples. In the current iteration, it feels slightly bare-bones, and it shifts a lot of quasi-homebrewing responsibility on the GM. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends entirely on said GM.

And now, the meatier section: War. These rules are to armed conflict what Fight! is to duels. Not only are there rules for the battles themselves, but there are rules for raising and maintaining units of different kinds of troops. You even get to the decide on their Doctrines and Traditions – essentially the unit’s Beliefs and Instincts, and that’s a really neat idea. Like Fight!, this is a complicated system, and hardly intuitive. There is a lot going on – and it is the first time I’ve seen Burning Wheel rules actively include a combat grid!

My impression is that the success of these rules depend on two things: Whether they fit into the campaign and group’s conception of what war should feel like in their game; and how well the GM can adjudicate the system. Because, and this is frustrating… A lot of adjudication will be needed. The rules for War require quite a lot of tests, and many at rather high Ob. That is not a bad thing – the same can be said of Fight! and Duel of Wits and so on. But in many cases, I feel these rules don’t do an amazing job of communicating what a failed roll entails, and what a fair outcome would be of such a roll. And that is crucial for Burning Wheel. Nevertheless, these rules tickle the wargamer in me, and I’d be delighted to try them out in action. There is also some very neat advice on resolving wars with fewer die rolls, so yay!

After war, we’re about rules for Factions. These rules are, somewhat surprisingly, less meaty than the War rules. I would have liked to see more to this. Overall, the rules rather abstractedly handle much of the stuff a faction might be up, and the menu of options is quite small. It does introduce a Faction phase to the game, which, like any good faction subgame, can add grist to the creative mill and provide some fun surprises. But aside from that, I really don’t see much here that isn’t already doable with the existing rules. The fact that people have not only run, but run very good, games of Burning Wheel involving factional intrigue, politics, and fighting shows that the game is very well-equipped to handle this arena already. In fact, I fear the Faction rules here may sometimes act more as an impediment than an improvement as the GM and players agonize over which in-fiction actions translates to what faction turn action. There are some neat ideas here, and some good advice on running faction-heavy games even without these rules. But I don’t see this section being required if you want to play Game of Thrones style feudal intrigue.

And lastly, the oddball: A one-page essay about Evil. Basically, it’s a neat little summary of the things nasty characters should do – it’s a call to make your villains Evil. In the sea of moral grey Burning Wheel sometimes encourages, it’s nice to see a section saying it’s okay to have Saurons, Palpatines, and Mordreds too.

Concluding Thoughts

The Burning Wheel Anthology 2021 is an odd book. It’s not perfect. I’m not even sure it’s essential. Some of the stuff is somewhat underwhelming. But still, I think it’s a worthwhile purchase if the options provided by any or all of the new systems and revisions would be a good fit for your game.

Thoughts on The Years of Rice and Salt and Spirituality in Gaming

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt is, for me, one of those extraordinary, perspective-changing reads. It’s become something of a comforting re-read over the years, and remains a beautiful, thought-provoking, and highly spiritual work. Its central conceit is an alternate history of Earth where the Black Death’s ravages in Europe far exceeded those in our own timeline, more or less removing Western Europe from the equation of history from there on. Instead, it is the nations of India, Asia, America and Africa that expand and colonize, that experience scientific revolutions, that fight devastating world wars – all of this told from the point of view a cast of characters continually reborn and reincarnated to find themselves in various key moments and periods, and philosophizing on their experiences through the lens of both dogmatic and syncretic religio-spiritual worldviews. Part alternate history, part crash course in comparative religion studies, part philosophical novel – and all awesome and beautiful. And Robinson is a highly empathetic and skill author who does not treat his subject matter as Orientalist window-dressing, but as serious, complex, and often contradictory components of an speculative history as rich in both beauty and tragedy as our own.

So, capsule review and endorsement out of the way. I’m currently re-reading the novel once more, and thought “Wow, this would make a good Burning Wheel game”. It’s got all the components, right? A focus on character experiences and beliefs, testing those beliefs, and a setting that is historical-ish without being constraining. And so, while all these element seem to be a perfect fit for a Burning Wheel campaign, this short list leaves out the crucial element of spirituality that permeates the themes of the book. Because, as it turns out, spirituality is quite a hard theme for roleplaying games to tackle.

Let’s get something out of the way: We’re not talking about injecting explicitly religious themes or dogmas into games – much like good old Tolkien, I personally prefer some degree of separation between the cosmology of the imagined world and whatever actual religious beliefs are held by those involved with it. It’s not impossible to pull off, of course (Pendragon does it quite well), but the pitfalls are numerous. Applicability, not allegory, as Tolkien taught us. No one likes showing up to a gaming table to be proselytized to.

Neither are we talking about the mere presence of spiritual paraphernalia or imagery. D&D and its many cousins and half-cousins are rife with mystics, monks, and trafficking with spiritual and religious forces. It comes with the kitchen sink, and nothing wrong with that. Spirituality in this context usually means one among sources of supernatural, magical and quasi-magical phenomena, another rich vein of imaginary material to tap into. And that’s not an indictment, merely an observation that spirituality in these contexts are usually less concerned with actual spiritual experience and more with providing more options and cool stuff to the world, and I’m very pro-cool stuff.

And then, of course, we have games that actively try and gamify spiritual themes. Ron Edward’s Sorcerer, the Faith rules in Burning Wheel, and arguably Chaos corruption and similar rules in Warhammer Fantasy and its ilk. What these rules achieve is, at the very least, an in-fiction way of showing and simulating the impact of ephemeral forces, and the most tried-and-tested way of doing that is through hard numbers, character sheet modifications, and physical, kinetic manifestations.

All these examples show how, to one extent or another, spiritual themes can manifest in games. Like so much else in RPG’s, their efficacy beyond their immediate game-and-stats impact depends on the player’s buy-in and willingness to lean into the concept. In a game like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it is just as valid to see Chaos corruption as a bump on the road in the form of a stat penalty or similar as it is to see it as a genuinely, deep-seated festering ugliness overtaking the character. Games and game mechanics can only go so far in encouraging this kind of thinking and experience. How the game incentivizes, prompts, and prods players is important, but not all tricks work on all players.

Roleplaying games, by and large, tend to be concerned with tangible, kinetic, and physical relationships. The philosophies of the OSR stress this point emphatically. The world is there for the PC’s to interact with, and that requires easily construed vectors of interaction. Decisions matter because they have quantifiable consequences, and because the physical world, for all its potential magical intrusions, can be expected to behave according to intuitive and predictable patterns. A kinetic-physical framework is the one most immediately accessible to us all, because our brains are already using it effortlessly and tacitly in our daily lives.

A framework that primarily facilitates physical matters is thus not greatly adapted to facilitating more abstract, impressionistic, and (excuse the choice of words) poetic situations. Quantifying and demarcating are time-honored traditions of the roleplaying hobby, as any GURPS sourcebook can attest to. I don’t subscribe to the adage that spirituality and religion are somehow resistant to these things, nor that they are inherently irrational or nonsensical. But the evidence does suggest that spiritual experience involves appealing to other parts of the mind. In spiritual experiences, categories are confounded and blending, while symbols and impulses mix to create a different sense of meaning. It opens doors to forms of powerful and emotional scenarios. It can tap into some of the same vectors of meaning that we access when experiencing awe at the Homeric epics, wonder at the poems describing Middle-Earth’s Gondolin, ephemeral otherworldliness of Unknown Kadath, and sense of epiphany in the visions of Paul Muad’Dib Atreides. All these sensibilities are present in the canonical works of fantasy and science fiction, and yet often absent in the games that inherit their aesthetics.

Roleplaying isn’t, and shouldn’t, be meditation sessions or elaborate experiments in Zen. Accessing this kind of creative flow isn’t necessarily easy or even desirable for everyone. For some, it’s nonsense, and it I can’t argue with that. All I can argue is that nonsense can be deceptive, and that by leaning into it a bit, by wanting to find that elusive sense of meaning and creativity among all the wonderful nonsense of our hobby, openness to a more abstract, spirituality-friendly vector can be another tool in the box.

When Failing Forward Fails

One of the elegant beauties of roleplaying games is the possibility of ‘failing forward’. To clear up any misconceptions: ‘Failing forward’ does not mean that the PC’s will always get what they want no matter the results of die rolls or other mechanics, nor does it mean that failures should feel immaterial or trivial. ‘Failing forward’ merely means that failures can, and should, help generate new situations and conditions that can be tackled and explored the same way situations generated by success could.

We see this all the time in other media. Setbacks and high-stakes failures are everywhere in drama. In pop cultural terms, The Empire Strikes Back is one of the most perfect examples of a ‘failing forward’ scenario ever put to film. The heroes fail. In fact, they all but lose. Han is captured and frozen in carbonite, Luke loses his hand and has got some parental drama to deal with, the Rebellion is in tatters… Yet, these failures help move the story ahead, and they are not presented as results of mere foolishness nor avoidable mistakes on the part of our protagonists. Almost everything the heroes in Empire Strikes Back set out to do turns out poorly. And the story is better for it.

These principles apply to games in different ways. In emergent-narrative games like Dwarf Fortress or Crusader Kings, failing forward is delightful. The spanner in the works and the unexpected upset is part of what keeps the game state fresh and engaging, and part of what produces the type of tales these games are uniquely suited for. Their mechanics and their gameplay anticipates and accommodates the twists and turns produced by the engine. A game of Dwarf Fortress with complete linear progressive structure would be, well, quite dull. It would be a sequence of the player masterfully executing a sequence of systems to produce a perfect result, and perfection tends to be pretty boring and un-storyable.

The Dwarf Fortress community knows this. It is with good reason that they’ve proudly adopted the infamous LOSING IS FUN as their motto. And losing really is fun in Dwarf Fortress, in Crusader Kings, in Caves of Qud, and their ilk. Losing tends to make for the most entertaining, nail-biting, heart-wrenching, edge-of-your-seat moments.

What does that mean for RPG’s? Some games are designed explicitly around failing forward principles. Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark and so on all have sophisticated ways of incorporating genre-typical modes of drama and failures into their gameplay loops. Crucially, their systems do not rely on linear progressive structures. The systems governing character stats, traits, and so on are designed with a mind to characters that’ll get battered up and that’ll, sooner or later, experience harsh and cruel failure. By anticipating these potential outcomes from the beginning, these games can present gameplay structures that allow for meaningful failure – and for characters to meaningfully rebound from these failures.

Games with more explicitly linear systems of progressions struggle with this. The secret sauce of ‘failing forward’ lies in the promise that this failure can be dealt with, can be rectified, that things can be made right once more. Games, be it roleplaying games or video games or board games, sometimes present systems that appear to allow for failing forward, but does not deliver on the promise of that crucial return to success. It’s something I find a lot of computer RPG’s struggle immensely with. On the one hand, they want an immersive, rich world where failure is a possibility, and where you are encouraged to play things out Ironman mode and roll with the punches. But in a system where you’re expected to always and strictly adhere to linear progression model, that is hard to do.

Much as I love games like Darkest Dungeon and Battle Brothers, these games struggle immensely with this conundrum. Death spirals are common in these types of games. Most insidiously, you can enter one without knowing because you think (in no small part because the game explicitly tells you) that you can persevere through this one setback. In truth, that apparently small setback has in fact ruined every chance of long-term success. You can’t roll with the punches if every punch is, effectively, a knock-out blow.

So again, what does that mean for RPG’s? Well, for one, that they too are vulnerable to death spirals, but are also uniquely situated to recontextualize and refocus the game to accommodate failures. Failure does not need to mean ending, nor does it need to mean the closing of future directions. Make your failures feel like Empire Strikes Back rather than a knock-out blow. Don’t be afraid to fail forward, but keep in mind that failing forward is only impactful if the possibility of resurgence and renewal exists.

Meditating on Play and Innocence

Somewhere while busy gaming, I think I forgot how to play.

Not ‘play’ as in ‘playing by a system’s rules’, ‘system mastery’, or ‘poor sportsmanship’. Play as in the innocent, free-film, liberating kind of creative engagement so typically seen in young children, and often ignored or uncultivated in us grownups. Modern psychology is luckily starting to grow wise to the therapeutic power of this kind of play. Contrary to frowny-eyed, finger-lifting elder wisdom, play is not just a waste of time, nor is it something we should make an effort to outgrow. Play is precious. Play is important. Play is meaningful. It’s a powerful way of staying sane in a world that invites a lot of justified frustration, anger, and sadness.

Two new directions in my hobby gaming have made me reflect on this quite a lot.

First off, I am a player in a campaign using an Free Kriegspiel Revolution/Renaissance style ruleset. And ‘ruleset’ is a somewhat generous term, as FKR tends to be aggressively rules-light. I was skeptical of this philosophy at first, because I do love a good, meaty, meaningful system, and my conversion to appreciating this style of play was gradual. In essence, FKR emphasizes the conversation of the game. It foregrounds following the logic of the fiction as it is understood by the gestalt entity of the table, sprinkled with just a few rules to set things off in a tone appropriate for the genre. More so than anything I have ever played before, this tapped into the ephemeral, somewhat hard-to-quantify, interpersonal creative alchemy that is uniquely present at the gaming table. Rarely have I felt such a Vulcan mindmelt as I have in this game. Played respectfully, but with loyalty to the imagined world, and played with a willingness to (for lack of a better term) “go with it”, this game has created uniquely meaningful moments and arcs without resorting to elaborate rule systems or game-mandated practices – the imaginative dynamics of the group playing are the game. It can be daunting, even off-putting. But give it a shot. Check out some of the FKR games available in the awesomely named Neverending Drachenschwanz on itch.io. Take their words “Play worlds, not rules. Read books, not systems” for what they are and enjoy yourself. You might accidentally end up in contact with a part of your creativity that has lain dormant for decades, languished in the shadows of grown-up-world shame and afraid to, well… Just play.

Second off, I’ve gotten into miniature assembling and painting again. It started out as a friend asking me if I wanted to help assemble some Frostgrave soldiers. Now my table is a mess of Army Painter brushes, bottles of paint, and plastic adventurers in various stages of adventure-readiness, priming, basecoating and highlighting. I’ve sat down vowing to just assemble a couple more wizards, and when I looked up again, four hours had passed in blissful flow of cutting and gluing. I had put off getting back into miniatures for quite a while. Nah, I can’t do it, I’m not talented enough, and it takes up space, and anyway I was never that good at painting anyway and so on. I’m glad I’ve proved myself wrong. The Scrooges of the world will scoff at the idea of painting plastic figurines in faux-medieval getups for hours on end. Bah, humbug, what use is that, they might say. And that right there is the crux of it all. Play doesn’t need a goal, it doesn’t need a utilitarian purpose or even a particularly elevated expression. What it supposedly “needs” to do is far less important than what it’s actually doing: keeping us sane, engaged, keeping us thinking, keeping us living.

And there can be nothing wrong in that, I think.

Elephants and Mosquitoes (or why I love both garbage art and masterpieces)

A nice piece on the value of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of art.

Bandithmer

Disclaimer: I don’t particularly like evolutionary analogies, and I don’t think the one I’ll put forward today really has any truth to it, when it comes to actual biology. Think of it more as a picture, an image of how various artforms proliferate in various ways.

The average lifespan of a savanna elephant is about 70 years. They have a 22 month gestation period, and it takes 18 years before the elephant is mature.

A mosquito, however, has a lifespan of only a few days, to a couple of months, depending on sex and their living conditions. From an evolutionary standpoint, this means that the mosquito can evolve much faster than an elephant, because a beneficial mutation will come forward much faster. This doesn’t mean that any minute we will have an army of super-mosquitoes at our necks, but it does mean that they adapt much more quickly to a…

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