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Lost in Old School D&D (and other stuff)Jens D.
Updated: 4 days 11 hours ago

Repost: Misconceptions about Gatekeeping (Opinion Piece, not a rant)

Sun, 01/16/2022 - 17:52

This respost from 2018 was triggered by this post over at Monsters and Manuals. There is no "gatekeeping"? Come on! Sure, everybody can do whatever they want, even publishing. That's just not what gatekeeping means. Gatekeeping means that those who took the same path earlier and with success, will do their best to keep that high position in the hierarchy, which MUST lead to gatekeeping, one way or another. As I say in the post: the matter is not if there is gatekeeping (that's just a reality of life), it is if it's benevolent or not ... Anyway, here we go once more:

You wouldn't think that having an opinion is how "gatekeeping" gets defined nowadays, but that's sure how it's done (happened to me just the other day). You would also think people see right through those things, but that doesn't seem to be the way it goes. Let me propose some ideas and thoughts about that. You are, of course, always encouraged to make up your own opinion, just make it an informed one.
Definitions & Implications
I'd point you to the English Wikipedia article, but the lack of content makes it useless, so we go to the German version instead and translate away (first paragraph, using DeepL):"In sociology, gatekeepers are people who have the ability or position to influence the rise of people, also known as mobility in sociology."It's so simple, there's almost no need to explain what this means. People at the top of a hierarchy decide who makes it and who is ... ignored. This is common knowledge. Sociology found this true in schools, in economies, actually, it's true in all the places where hierarchies are established.
The idea of gatekeeping originates from communication science and it is important to mention that the practice itself can be useful or even necessary in certain contexts, while of course bringing lots of responsibility to the one "keeping the gate". Take, for instance, the pre-selection of news before they are published: the criteria with which the available news are filtered and used can have all kinds of good or bad results.
Easy examples for this are found in the thousands. Take newspapers that decided to report unwelcome "truths" but filter politically, to those that filter for commercial reasons. Fake news is a thing for a reason: it shows how those deciding or influencing what is published (the gatekeepers) can and will abuse their power to reach goals that are not within the common interest, but in the interest of the few (whoever benefits from it, generally speaking).
Applying this to a scene or subculture has clear implications, I think, chief among them the realization that there is a distinction between a "scene" and a "hobby" (roughly the distinction between a belief (think "hobby") and a church (think "scene")). I believe it explains rather well how a hobby will have different co-existing (and shifting) scenes and why scenes themselves might end up with some form of hierarchical orders (like churches would). It also explains the dynamics that will be at work.
So scenes move and shift in the greater context of the hobby, hierarchies form and change the same way. The OSR is to be understood in this way: it's one scene among countless others in our hobby. As a matter of fact (and to be perfectly clear about this) some form of distinction is crucial to have such a thing as a scene (think catholics and protestants, to keep it with religious analogy), so you will have to state characteristics of distinction if you want to belong. Always.
Having established borders like this ("3e sucks" or "Traveller is the only true SF RPG!", insert your own), a scene will form hierarchies, mainly based on popularity and to some degree on competence, depending on how possible it is to assess or achieve any of that. I'd say the OSR is mostly popularity-driven (adding some competence from the successful publishers and some artists). 
Example of malevolent hierarchy ... [source]Those at the top of the established hierarchy now naturally form cliques of supporters around them, and the next thing you will get are camps within a scene where each camp struggles for a better position in the hierarchy (pick the last flame war and you know what I mean). Given that this is mostly about opinions and artificial borders and with no objective measurement other than commercial success (which is to some extent arbitrary and/or manipulated by the same mechanisms), this all must come down to politics of taste.
And that's where gatekeeping comes in. Every scene has people that decide what gets popular and what doesn't. So if you are part of a clique, support will be voiced and a infrastructure of more or less sufficient sales-manufacturing instances is triggered, ensuring commercial availability and with that, success (which loops back to keeping yourself popular).
If you aren't part of a clique, the question arises how to gain access to one. This is the crucial choke point, the proverbial gate. I would argue it is also crucial in that it is the very point where it reveals if a scene is fair or corrupt.
The Corruption of the OSR?
In a perfect world, those at the top of a hierarchy would have the best in mind for the group. Publishers filter for true genius or art instead of going with what works, is popular or transports hidden agendas. Newspapers inform the public about what is relevant and offer information with the means for the individuals to form their own opinions instead of creating fake news or working for big corp or politicians.
However, we aren't living in a "perfect world", if such a thing could even exist. Instead we live in a world where those things coexist in a duality. That doesn't mean it has to be both all the time, one scene can be more or less completely corrupt and another one more or less fair. This opens a new line of inquiry: how to measure corruption in a scene. Let's look into that.
A most basic definition of corruption is (according to"Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain."Again, simple enough. How to measure (or proof) this in a community is a completely different animal. We have indicators for this, although indirectly (or concluding from established general research towards how it could manifest in communities).[source]There is proof that marginalization of people leads to criminal/aggressive behavior (here, have one paper on the subject, if you search for it, there is way more) and you can say that one of the main forces behind criminal (aggressive) behavior is the perception that a rise in the social hierarchy is prohibited if not impossible. This connects nicely to what is already established about gatekeepers further above.
It's important to understand that we have to take into account that we are applying those ideas to a social media environment, which means that "crime" and "aggression" will manifest somewhat differently while the social mechanisms are still very much in effect.
We also have to take into account that the only fair measurement of corruption in a society is based on its perception (at least that's what's used, see linked above). Which isn't conclusive at all, but can give implications. So you'll have a higher mortality rate of critical journalism in corrupt countries, for instance. Corruption has measurable consequences.
I'd like to add that "social capital" is another important aspect to consider, not necessarily "just" monetary gain. There is also a strong trend to mix personal politics in all of this, which doesn't help.
With all those restrictions in place, we can go and make fair and conclusive assumptions how the perception of corruption in a scene like the OSR might manifest in what outside the social media environment could be perceived as criminal or aggressive behavior, or the appropriate equivalent thereof.
If I had more time on my hands and if I where more than an enthusiast for social science and psychology, I'd try to formulate some indicators for a healthy community and collect data to index all that. I'm not, so we'll have to work with some rough concepts here (would be willing to do so, if someone with an academic background would be willing to help). Here's a couple of good indicators:
  • TRANSPARENCY: We already established that the scene is not the hobby, but the same is true for commercial interests. The clearer a distinction can be made between the commercial interests of an individual acting in the community and its contribution to said community, the better (the more transparent, the less corrupt).
  • FAIR MODERATION: A hierarchy comes with responsibility for those higher up. How easy it is to address the hierarchy and how those in the higher positions interact with the rest (benevolent, malevolent, indifferent), gives indications how healthy or corrupt a community is.
  • QUALITY OF ARGUMENT: What discussion culture is apparent in a community. Are extreme politics tolerated? How common are personal attacks? How are opinions categorized in general? The way a community discusses (or allows discussions) gives indications about corruption in as much as people tend to get more aggressive and polarizing, if they believe they are not heard or taken serious.
  • QUALITY OF CONTENT: The quality and the amount of the content a community produces as well as the restrictions that are put on that output (pay walls, for instance) gives an idea about the decision processes behind the content. If bad stuff is hyped or if publications are ignored, it's a sign that the processes are corrupt.
  • MOBILITY: How likely is it to become popular (or known) in a community? Can everyone do it, if necessary from scratch? Or are always the same people in the spotlight? How open is the community to new people? Stay those at the top of the hierarchy at the top? How? By what measures? Are those successful parading their success (which would, again produce aggression)?
  • GRATUITOUSNESS: One final, but very important indicator is how many people are willing to contribute to a community for free. Whose taking the time to do all the little administrative things that make a community work and are they (in some way or another) charging for it? Gratuitousness is a sign of good will in a community. If there is none, it's most likely because people perceive the community as unfair in some way or another and that would be another sign for corruption.
Those six should suffice, I think. They interconnect and overlap a bit, but should differ enough to count. This also isn't a black or white type of thing, it should have nuance (like a grading system and an average result). If tested and any or all of them show signs of corruption, the more intense should be the reactions to it in relation to the grade of corruption.
In other words, if a community has a tendency to very polarizing and heated debates where no one changes his opinion, where personal attacks and marginalization are common occurrences, if that community also allows no development and doesn't divide between commercial and non-commercial interests, if material is hyped for reasons of  privilege instead of quality and if everyone believes his or her efforts should be remunerated, then you most likely have a corrupt community. 
And that's just by applying reason, nothing else.
Where does that leave us?
This is not about if there is gatekeeping in the OSR or not. There is without a doubt. The question is if it is beneficial or malevolent towards the community at large. There's also the question how to address and oppose corruption, if it is detected.
But before any of that can take place, people should come to a common understanding how the community they are part of works and why. I hope I helped a bit forming that understanding. I also hope I was able to make a clear case that voicing opinions is NOT gatekeeping. At best it is challenging a hierarchy, but most likely it's just a border conflict between different scenes or cliques.
That said, attacking people for their opinions is a bad sign for a community in general, for the reasons I summon above. So, is the OSR corrupt? Well, you should be able to form your own opinion about that. I believe the OSR took a turn for the worse in recent years. Maybe that's the natural course of things, as scenes have the same fluctuation among each other. However, that doesn't mean you can't have a positive impact in a community.
Every bit helps, right?
ADDENDUM 2022: I'd be interested in opinions about how those six markers above manifest in what's left of the OSR. My impression is: there is no mobility anymore. Those that had been "famous" 5 years ago are either gone or are still on the top. There are no new faces (I'm aware of) and those who are left don't seem interested in real community work. Last time that was challenged was the artpunk/nop-artpunk carfuffle that went nowhere. So how do you guys see it? Is there even a scene left to talk about? Are the gates just closed?
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Railroading the DM - Is it a thing? And if so, what about it?

Mon, 01/10/2022 - 13:46

Railroading is generally understood as the process of one actor leading other actors towards a certain goal without allowing diversion from what is "planned". In gaming we usually see that as something a DM does to the players. I want to challenge your perception in that regard a little bit. Is it possible to "railroad" a DM? What would that look like? And is it as bad a thing as it is considered to be for players*? Lets find out (it's a long one, you are warned).

Time is not linear, that's why!

[Disclaimer: all of the following will lead to some game-theory thinking. Just stay with me here. It's also "only" how I interpret these things. All will be somewhat less obscure in the end, however, as I aim to talk about gaming sooner or later here. Turns out I needed to take a big swing here ...] I'll start the year post with claiming that there is, broadly speaking, no free will since the presumption that time is linear may be quite faulty. We experience it that way, yes, but even in hindsight alone we realize that things couldn't have happened any other way as they did. There's even a causality to it, at least one we can negotiate individually (and I'd argue a very complex one playing out from that point in time we call the Big Bang).

The past of this timeline is solidified (not "history", as a concept, but that'd be another argument I'll make later), which means that the future will be solidified, too. Or from a more general, non-linear perspective, all of it is already solidified**. A symphony that will play out as it plays out. Like seeing Beethoven's Ninth engraved into a vinyl record instead of playing the record ...

So there is no free will, you may ask, and I answer to that: well, we (in western culture, mainly) need the idea of free will to help people seeing that the history of things we experience in life is not the whole picture. There is an out and you can find it yourself. It is, if you will, a key that opens a door to an autonomy away from, say, the shackles a culture may present. Or a personal history. The list goes on ...

Anyway, I'd go as far as wagering that the idea of free will is incompatible-but-comparable with, say, the classic Daoist way of thinking in that the shamanist culture creating the conditions for the Daoist movement found an alternative way to show the outline of that same door (or one of those doors?).

The Doors got a kick out of that quote ... [source]

In that sense, or at least as I came to understand it, "free will" is a hallmark of critical thinking and has an immense psychological value. It is a necessary tool to free minds in our society, but the general (maybe naive?) understanding that we are free agents able to make "unimpeded" decisions is, in a very physical sense, false. That Big Bang has its course, down to the smallest subatomic particle, and we are along for that ride. Knowing what that ride exactly is, is an entirely different issue.

An excersize in critical thinking?

So free will is more like a cultural neon sign (blinking, of course) to point the way to the insight that there is more to the universe than what we know and are able to communicate or fully grasp. There is, to describe it by ways of daoist thinking, an unknown pattern underlying everything, and we can somehow tap into that.

All of this alligns nicely here: free will denounces the limitations of an individual's past and makes social "suggestions" out of social "norms", Daoism denounces the Ego and cultural norms to form a deeper understanding, and all of the above can be described as "critical thinking" as that needs an individual capable of autonomous thought and all the necessary steps to become "autonomous" fullfil several criteria we can see mirrored in cultures all over space and time to have something akin to "free will" or (much more developed) spiritual "enlightenment".

Not all the same, but HUGE overlap.

In short, autonomy from the forces limiting our growth is the key signifier. We see this evident and very well researched in psychology as well. Having "agency" (another buzzword that fits here), as in "being able to chose independently", is a healthy condition for us humans. To achieve autonomy is tricky, though, and maybe starts with the vague notion that we have to find out what we actually decided for "ourselves" and where we are manipulated into acting without questioning.

Each step in that process needs to be taken, owned and understood ...

[source]The Limits of Control

There are limits to the things we can control physically and mentally, there are limits to the forces controlling us and there is something beyond what we define as control. Autonomy, then, is first of all "knowing the territory".

It is the kind of birds-eye-view on ourselves that helps us realizing our shortcomings, limits and potentials, and with that we can work. Freedom is, then, operating within those limits to develop our potential.

Many of us carry, for instance, trauma, one way or another (especially given the times we live in) and it manifests to our surroundings through acting out in pathological ways. It varies between individuals, but it's always what C. G. Jung would describe as the "Shadow" and it takes, according to Jung, "considerable moral effort" (Aion: Phenomenology of the Self) to face and overcome that shadow.

[source]Naturally, there is obvious value in overcoming those limitations imposed through trauma. What's more, it seems to be a function of cultural development to implant the seeds for that throughout a society so that most (if not all) get a chance to find their way out of misery. It's why I think there is truth in the saying "Psychoanalysts are the shamans of the 21st century". We find ways to track down and map those doors within the cultures we create.

It really seems to be an universal constant. Shamans, holy men or women, psychoanalysts, priests, all seem to be functions of societies to connect us to ... ourselves, more or less. As we are lost. Allan Watts wrote in his book "The Book" that god plays hide and seek in us and it is our quest in life to find him. I think that's a beautiful way to describe it.

My point being, as soon as you go looking for those doors, you will start questioning the world surrounding you. And if you take this upon you long enough and with vigor and discipline, you will grow, you will become a "better" person in the best possible way. It is a process and not all people will go it all the way, but the journey is the goal, as they say.

And while you are at it, you will develop the skills necessary for critical thinking almost instinctively. Over time you will gain autonomy and "free will", maybe even enlightenment.

I'm aware that I've glossed over some aspects here, like what "the unknown" is or could be and how it limits or frees us. Or what the difference between free will and enlightenment might be. It'd be too esoteric to dive into all of that at this point (I might in another post).

In passing I want to mention that there are rather profane ways to, for instance, "manipulate" time, for one by interpreting our past differently or even just by starting to act differently so that our acting today will change our "future past". Exploring even more obscure ideas in that direction (maybe like how words form reality, and so on) might further help illustrating my train of thought here.

However, it'll lead too far away from the point I'm aiming for (as this will be about gaming eventually), so we'll leave it at that for now.

Not an elephant, but the outline of it ...

There is a famous analogy that describes how we can see the outline of a thing by looking at the other pieces (which are usually the pieces we can know). One huge outline-inducing piece regarding "critical thinking" is what happens if a society decides it doesn't need that kind of personal growth. Or how "interested parties" manufacture consent by attacking, side-lining or undermining critical thinking.

The main word to describe that would be propaganda, which basically is about using psychological tools to wage war against a populace. Those tricks are as old as the need for those in power to keep the populace down, but the earliest 20th century saw some of its ugliest manifestations of it and the early 21st is doing its best to top that, it seems.

As far as methods go, the simple version seems to be to keep a populace in fear, which means they can't negotiate their way out of a problem as it seems either to be too complex, too contradictory or too intimidating. A populace primed like that is easily open to suggestions how to solve a given problem without questioning it much. Which will be abused, of course. Always.


Advertisement has discovered this for profit decades ago, which is why we don't teach in schools today how to recognize and counter those methods.

Another term helping with the outlining seems to be the postmodern idea of deconstruction, which seems to have lead to the idea that there are no basic truths other than what can be decided individually. I'm making shortcuts here, of course, but when people say they can't have an idea of, for instance, certain scientific fields because they didn't promote in it, then we see the result of deconstructive thinking as interpreted by the mainstream.

Sneakily forcing people into submission through lies and intimidation or helping them thinking their way out of coming to their own conclusions are both counter-intuitive to what critical thinking is about. Both perfectly line out their opposite, if you will.

And this relates to gaming how?

Well, what kind of gaming experience are you looking for? If you are prone to critical thinking, gaming can challenge you to explore ideas and grow. If you are happily subservient, gaming can offer you mindless entertainment with opportunities to show your thought-fealty.

Is there an in-between? Don't know. You tell me. But gaming can offer a door to critical thinking, and that's where gamedesign can come in. This is where the Gamemaster can make a difference. It is where players have a choice (not necessarily where they get a choice ... there's a difference). All it takes is taking on that considerable moral effort Jung talked about.

An idea like that will have, of course, detractors. People will say "but it's only a game" or "why so serious, I play to relax!", and to all of those I'll say: have it your way. It's all right to just let go and consume. No harm, no foul. People will take your money, for sure, and you will be entertained.

As for the statements themselves, they are just patently wrong. We play to learn. Not only that, we thrive when we play to learn. It's not work, it's not serious. IT'S WHAT WE DO. You don't have to, of course, but it is well established that gaming is among the only things that get us forward in life. It just can also be used to keep us in a lull, but that's NOT it's original purpose.


People telling you otherwise are either trying to sell you something or believe what they are being told. I'm not saying this to insult, but merely to point out facts. Those distinctions are important.

How to (properly) railroad a DM, then?

The greatest benefit of training in Judo is not that you learn to fight. It is a Zen discipline, and as such going that path is about engaging with yourself through discipline and training in specific, say, rituals. The fighting part is almost a fringe benefit, if you will. In a way, it offers an individual expression of the philosophy not only through combat, but in life. I've met people who've trained Judo their whole life and it is quite obvious that it informed their behaviour and way of thinking.

You see where I'm going with this?

Role-playing games CAN offer guidance towards critical thinking by providing the tools by which a gamemaster will find that damn door through mastering the game (what the name actually implies, you know?). That's a gameDESIGNERS gold standard, actually, to offer a design that allows some form of insight into reality through playing in addition to being entertaining. You will find no long-term successful game that doesn't fullfil that criteria (really, try me).

GMing a role-playing game won't lead to enlightenment, as it is. But with proper design, it'll take a gamemaster's hand and show them how to master the craft and that can show a way to enlightenment (if we accept this as a spectrum). I think that we should aspire to achieve something like that as designers. Every craft deserves that kind of excellency, why shouldn't role-playing?

Doesn't need to be every game, but it'd be nice to see it given a shot (I'll try that anyway, but I'm not really what you'd call an influencer ...).

If nothing else, gamemasters being successfully able to form narratives through conveying a resemblance of reality that translates to a participating audience needs an understanding of many, many facets related to critical thinking. The question is: is a DM railroaded for following the recipe in order to make their own game or is a DM railroaded for being neglected that growth and just being told what to do (making them some sort of medium for a designer's vision)?

If you read up to that point, you know the answer: both can be considered railroading, although the intentions in the necessary designs are very, very different and that will be obvious in the games.

I've said this before: a first person shooter is mostly bound to be a railroad. Sure, there are those with huge sandboxes, but the stories are linear, with very simple decision trees and character development to go with at best. The point of playing them, however, is to express yourself within those rails***. How to move, how to kill, which weapons ... the rest is noise, and as a player, if you came for a shooting, you appreciate the fast-forward for the rest (if it's a well done addition, all for the better).

Same can be true about a DM expressing themselves within the rules they are provided with. It mostly remains true regardless of the intentions the designers had, btw, if the DM is already "on the path", because they got their informtion from another game (even from another activity!), for instance.

Either way, railroading the gamemaster is a rail real possibility. As with players, it just isn't inherently a bad thing. Like I said, the intentions are making the difference here. Are you supposed to be compliant sheep, dancing on the marked spots? Are you just reduced to be an author's mouth piece, with the weak promise to shine in their supposedly superior light, as long as you keep it on track? Or is there a chance of growth in keeping within the rails?

Situations to avoid, Part 1 [source]

Opportunities to take responsibility?

Be it the gamedesigner who aims to manifest great ideas through complex designs in their games or gamemasters aiming to convey some very specific and demanding story in their games or players testing the boundaries of their limits, nothing of that is per se necessary to play games. But all of them are opportunities, and as such, one should not dismiss the good it can do to explore the possibilities here.

I keep saying that our hobby is still in its infancy, but we still have seen some high marks. From the beginning, actually, as everybody and their grandmother will tell you how playing the early games changed their lifes, or how they learned this and that.

To connect the dots her a little bit, the whole DIY attitude of the first editions of D&D, the idea to let DMs roam free in their campaign development but giving them the tools to get it done properly (which had to be mastered, of course), all of that was one of the main reasons for the success of those games. Incidentally, it's that encouragement to create and, implicitly, the idea of some form of autonomy (and all that might entail) that made the early OSR movement so lively and eclectic.

To keep something like this alive it needs voices in the community realizing that there comes a responsibility with writing, publishing and even playing games. Again, that considerable moral effort Jung is talking about. The effort not to make it about profit. The effort not to reduce something to brainless entertainment. The effort to strive for some kind of excellency in our endeavors.

"Build it and they will come", right? And we know how to do all of this properly. We know what's possible and where there's still room for exploration. We are able to recognize intentions in designs ... Nothing of this is news. The beauty of culture is that we can stand on the shoulders of giants to get a chance to see maybe just an inch further than they did.

We don't have to start from the beginning, we already have a headstart, IF we take the responsibility that comes with it. If we put in the work.

It needed saying, now I stop ...

Just one last thing, to bring that last argument home: the Tao Te Ching, that original first text about Daoism, is roughly 2500 years old, based on ideas that are even older than that. Shoulders of giants ...

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.” (Laozi, Tao Te Ching)

See? They already knew.

Role-playing games can be a journey for all willing to engage in this hobby to find growth. And not just individually, but as a group. How cool is that?! I hope we don't lose the values needed for that growth out of sight and instead manage to inspire others to start that journey as well.

I also hope people don't take issue with the broad strokes and shortcuts I had to make in this post. I know the devil is in the detail and one generally shouldn't lump in all those different ideas into one concept, especially if some of those ideas are highly debatable themselves. However, I believe my shotgun-approach here holds true and I'm willing to discuss particulars, if someone would be so inclined. Just keep it casual :)

Have a good start into 2022, friends and neighbors. And remember, no matter how dark the world is, there's always a journey inwards waiting for us to make the next step. Ranger out ...



If you are interested in finding out if I actually try to do what I'm talking about above, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3|| (that science fiction role-playing game I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm still doing a sale on it ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


*With which I disagree, btw, for the simple reason that there are different modes of play and "railroading" is one of them. Like you'd see, for instance, in the heavily scripted Call of Duty series. You don't have to like scripted games like that, but that's no reason to disregard them as valid, right? So if people want to get a ride through something a DM planned, and all are on the same page, then that should be totally fine. Just saying.

** That's not even all, of course, since a non-linear approach might also mean that all points in time are readily accessible at all times, so to say. And Merlin lived backwards in time, as we all know ... The point I'm making is that it just might not be only linear and that ONE cnclusion of that is that the whole thing is fixed. I'm aware of the idea that changing the past might introduce parallel timelines and that might be happening all the time. Our consciousnesses might even travel in between or visit them in dreams or ... whatever. All interesting sidetracks, just not what I'm aiming for. 

*** Even if the rails are wider, you are still lead somehwere. Sometimes that is a good thing, but I'd offer it's always a good thing to make it a conscious decision to be lead, even "only" for entertainment.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

2021 in Review (and a collection of favorite memes from the blog)

Thu, 12/30/2021 - 13:10

Yeah, lets do one of those and get the 20 posts for the year ... Actually, a lot has happened and is happening that is worth talking about that, so I thought I'd share. 


20 posts here on the blog in 2021 is not a bad number. To begin with, it's doubling what I managed to get done in 2020! I aim to be even more productive in 2022. The main problem I see is that I don't seem to be part of any particular rpg scene or movement right now. Nothing that'd lead to some sort of traffic anyway. I mean, I'm trucking on, of course. If I get the urge to write something, I aim to do so ... I just have to get a strong theme going, I guess, and see where the dice fall.

That is to say, this blog is not dead yet, but it needs another focus. I don't think I have said everything I can say about rpg theory, but a lot of that is going into other publications, so I need something else happening here. I have some vague ideas. We'll see.

Ø2\\'3|| - Role-Playing in a Dystopian Future

 "ORWELL" is the big one this year. Lots of work went into this cyberpunk-dystopia role-playing game. Proper editing, proper artwork, proper layout and lots of original design with 4 years of proper play-testing. It was a test if I had it in me to write a complete game and get it out there ... and I did and it is.

As far as tracktion goes, this still has some ways to go. However, it was to be expected. I'm only starting to be known as anything resembling a publisher, game designer and author, so why should people bother? I aim to get this into some hands next year. Maybe I can get a bit of a buzz going if some reviewers actually review it. It'll take time, but that's totally fine. The quality stands for itself (you can go and check out a free preview of the book here).

Other than that, I found it motivating to get something done to a degree that a print publication is justified. It's just nice to hold the book in hands now and see it all come together on the printed page. It's actually a bit addicting and I will keep doing that.

So what else is cooking?

In the works (I'm slow, that's why!)

First things first: I should stop announcing specific dates. Not that anyone ever contacted me and said "Jens, this was supposed to be out 3 months ago! Bad, bad publisher ...". No. It seems of no consequence other than getting published later. However, I constantly get it wrong, so I should be more careful about this stuff.

So for the first quarter of 2022 I plan the pdf releases of 2 products. First be67:

be67 - A D&D Retroclone Mutant

A collection of my D&D house rules and a complete game set in the Weird Sixties powered by Labyrinth Lord/BX, HackMaster 4e, The Arduin Grimoir and some original designs. Basically Urban Fantasy as a sixties grindhouse movie.

I will have to redo that cover, I think. The script is already 71 pages strong (A5), which should roughly be two thirds of the whole thing, making good progress so far. Artwork is in production and it will see proper editing again. this will be a blast and I'm looking forward to having all the house rules finally revised and in a nice little booklet (a PoD version should follow this year).

The second book will be "Reflected Digressions":

A collection of posts I wrote here on the blog. I've already done the collection and sorting. This will need a proper layout, work I haven't started yet, but I'll keep it light and classic ... The pdf at least should be easily enough done. Roughly 300 pages A5, mainly writing, almost no artwork and I'll do some light editing. Another nice little book I'll be happy to have (the blessings of PoD, my friends).

Now that'd be roughly the first quarter. Depending on how fast all the pieces come together, I'll have a third publication in the works for either the third or the fourth quarter of 2022, and that would be THE RISE OF ROBO-HITLER:

Obviously later now ...

I'm about to wrap up the play-testing on this one (this was SO MUCH FUN in 2021!) and the whole bunker complex is mapped out and stocked. Still needs the artwork and writing. To be totally fair, this might not see the light of day until Christmas 2022, but also pdf and PoD when it happens.

TRoRH made be67 a necessity as its the rules I'd ideally have people use to play this (although it will be compatible with LL and MF as well as all the other retroclones and BX).

As I said above, I'll keep doing stuff with the blog. What exactly will be the main focus in the future remains to be seen. Still posts about game design, maybe I should do some posts about world building, burt somehow I never managed to keep those going ... 

What else?

Monkey Business, my first major publication, is the gift that keeps giving. It now has four 5-Star ratings (one being a very nice review by Eric over at Sword & Stitchery) and a very enthusiatic 3-Star review and close to 500 downloads.

I'd love to do a revision and expansion of Monkey Business with a proper PoD attached and updated for be67. I've shared this mock-up the other day. I'd love to see that happen in 2022, maybe as a kickstarter:

Either way, you should check that action out, if you haven't already. It's a blast and the level of crazy gonzo role-playing you can expect for TRoRH.

Beyond that I have a couple o f ideas I might start working on next year. What of that might actually also see some form of announcement in 2022 is depending on too many factors to tell right now. I'm working on at least 3 other role-playing games at the moment:

  • Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (needs a complete revision and some more playtesting)
  • HäXar (so far only concepts and some minor designs ... might be testing ground for some rules I still need for LSotN)
  • The Grind (most vague, but some strong elements already developed and written about, will be a card based rpg)

I should do more with ORWELL (or at least the system it runs) and I have a couple of fun ideas for modules I want to write for be67 (fantasy).

So you see, I'll keep myself quite busy and with luck I'll get some nice things published as well. I hope you guys will be along for the ride!

What's left but memes?

I wish all you guys reading this all the best for the next year. May the dice be with you, and all that. Spread love and good vibes, if you can. The world needs all it can get of that right now. I'll do my best as well in that regard.

For now I'll close with my favorite pictures, memes and gifs here on the blog from the last 10 years (all referenced properly where they occur here on the blog). 

Because, why the fuck not.

HackMaster 4e

HackMaster 4e

That was the face of a TPK, my friends.

Harry Potter stole this ...

DIY ethos

Extreme Ironing (I kid you not ...)

HackMaster 4e

The Bard

Man, I really needed to do that :D So many memories. Do you see a theme? Maybe not ... Tell me your favorite and I'll tell you what post it's from!

And as I said, all the best to all of you! Read you on the other side.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Good End Part 3 (It never ends rambling?)

Mon, 12/27/2021 - 16:41

I thought about just making this a "Merry Christmas" post, but I'd rather give you guys some content with all the excuses why things are again slow at Disoriented Ranger Publishing. And now I'm late too. Ha! So have the excuses up front: I wasn't as fast as I'd have liked to be, which is entirely my fault (well, my fault in that I'm totally stressed out by current events and rarely work at capacity, so to say). That said, I'm making progress. be67 is at 62 pages and growing (I think I'll end up at around 90, maybe?) and the collection of posts just needs a proper layout, the rest is already where it needs to be. Small steps. Anyway ... Today I want to talk about satisfying campaign endings. Let's talk about that.

I already started talking about Good Endings in 2019 (see how slow my brain works?), so get some basics in Part 1 and Part 2 before we dive into BIG endings.

An end to all things?

What is an ending? What qualifies as a "good" or "bad" ending? And how do we engineer that in our stories? First of all, there are different forms of endings, naturally:

  • A gaming session can end and should with its ending get people stoked for the next session.
  • An adventure might end, and that should maybe bring some closure to most (if not all) the elements that made that adventure tick.
  • A character might die, which is an end worth considering.
  • A narrative arc comes to a close, breaking a continious loop of some story elements, and that might deserve some highlighting to make it an end worth recognizing.
  • Or things might fall apart and people discontinue playing, which is another end in itself (although not a good). 

This isn't, of course, a complete list. It's what the last two posts covered, more or less. It should make obvious that lots of interactions in our games need their endings acknowledged so that the story (or the participants) can move on.

Wise words ... heh [source]
Maybe that's the main take-away, generally speaking. We need closure to move on, so it should be one of the main tasks for a DM to find those endings and make them worthwhile, if only to build towards the next.

There is, however, one more ending I came to encounter in the last two years more consciously, and that would be something like the grand finale, the end of not only an adventure, but the end of a grand campaign. The final tally, if you will.

It takes special consideration in that it should (ideally) be the remarkable end note of a very long story (or collection of stories). D&D had always tried its hand on designs for this, at least up until the advent of 3E (which just paid lip service to the concept, imo), and if one would only see the decline of the attempt as far as role-playing games are concerned, one could come to the conclusion that it faded out of the books because it's not worth the time one would need to invest to make it happen.

Alas, we know that it works very well in other games, especially computer games with lose ties to the rpg genre, which is where I came to encounter it. 

The things I have seen ...

[This will contain some spoilers for the games I've played ... they are old games, but you are warned]

The first time I saw this done well was in Far Cry 3 for the xbox 360. It's basically a sandbox with some rpg character development for good measure and lots of freedom to free an island from pirate occupation by shooting at them. That's one dimension. The main story, however, is less free-form and way more scripted, which allows for some memorable set-pieces and a distinct story arc in it's own right.

That story is about a soft guy becoming a "warrior" after being confronted with violence and its brutal reality. FC3 was lauded for how that story plays out, and rightfully so. In the end (spoiler!), the player has to decide if they want to embrace being a killer by sacrificing their friends or if they try to leave the violence behind by reconnecting with the friends they rescued.

You, the player, have to make that decision. Either way, the decision is not as important as the questions leading to that decision. Is there such a thing as a "Path of the Warrior", and what does that mean? Is there a way back from killing a shit-load of people? Honestly, playing a shooter all through to the end, killing all opposition, to then get asked what it does to the soul? That's powerful stuff and it makes for a great end. It stays with me to this day.


At that point I did not think about writing this post, though.

The next game that did a great job with its ending was Dungeon Siege 3 (also for the xbox 360). The game itself was a somewhat enjoyable gaming experience, mostly because of the couch-coop (something the spouse and I really enjoy). It is somewhat forgettable, as far as playing it goes, but not outright bad ... linear progression and gameplay, nice to look at, very rpg-lite. But okay.

What really worked, though, was the end. The boss fight was very well balanced and felt epic (which is great!), but the main feature was seeing how all your decisions throughout the game played out in the end. See, there had been some minor decisions to be made every here and there. Do I kill this enemy or am I friendly towards them? Do I support this queen or should I force an alliance with someone else, more capable ... stuff like that. Somewhat disconnected from the gameplay, weirdly enough, but something to discuss during cut scenes.

The pay-off for this was very satisfying, I must say. Well done. In a way, the decisions made in between mapped the game, and when it all came together, it brought the whole game alive again. You did something a certain way and the people liked that, which led to XY. You didn't do another thing, and a region turned unstable, which resulted in XY, but due to your influence, it turned out alright ... Which is another aspect worth mentioning: it all mostly had a positive spin.

Admittedly, a lower achievement than what FC3 did, but worthwhile. A good end that actually manages to lift the whole experience to something worth reminiscing about. Nicely done.

Yet, there is a third game I need to talk about to bring that point home.

Because another game ending that impressed me was that of Far Cry 4 (also xbox 360, and yes, I got lots of gaming done in the last 2 years ...). The recipe was very much that of FC3: very open sandbox (different setting, this time in the Himalayas) with some rpg elements for character development and a strong main story for when you want to engage with it.

It is, however (and imo) the more mature game in that the punch the end carries isn't as hot-blooded as in FC3 but far more calculated. The main character is a guy that goes back to the place of his birth to bury the ashes of his mother. That fictive country suffers under a dictatorship, with oppressive forces, violence and slavery ... all the bad things one could imagine.

Your mother had been big with the resistance and you coming back puts you directly between the lines. And personally so, since the leaders of the resistance as well as the dictator (the main villain, of course) are aware of you and you actually get to know them from the beginning.

A couple of things happen in the game that give a player agency and make the game somehow more personal, although the main bad guy is barely there ... Mostly, because he starts talking to you right from the beginning, then he calls you every now and then to tells you some fucked up shit, then you go around fighting his propaganda machine AND you see what his soldiers do to the people. The villain becomes a constant presence through his actions and interactions but without being a target. The sandbox is saturated with his presence, so to say.

So when the final confrontation comes (spoiler!), he's just sitting there, waiting for you, completely being nice and charming, asking you to just not shot him in the head and how boring that would be.

I did not hestitate to shoot him in the head.

And the game went directly to the end credits! No bells and whistles, just creating facts. It was great. Shook me even more than the end in FC3. Was it the right thing to just pull the trigger? Should I have waited and sit down to eat with the guy instead, as he had offered? However, he was a murderer and torturer and bat-shit crazy! I saw what he and his goons did to the country, talked to the people ... He had it coming. For sure (I ended up thinking about a bunch of pixels). Would have poisoned me anyway. Or something. Right?

So after the credits the world is free to be roamed again. I went back to his place, see if the ashes went where they should. And there is the final revelation: the character's mother had killed the dictators 2 year old daughter as a punishment for the woman who fell in love with him. Dark shit ... Honestly, I might play the game again just to explore those angles a bit more.

It's a good story, with an even better presentation. That isn't all, though. The resistance, you see, has two leaders and they don't agree at all how to free their country. There is a modern, more money oriented way and a traditional, more religiously oriented way. And you have to decide several times if you go with the one side or the other.

Both come with severe consequences (if you do the one, it has dire consequences for the other). You help shaping the country by bringing one of them to power with the other being dismissed. That was also very good story-telling which left me thinking more than once that I might have done a mistake there with my decisions. Good shit, well worth a replay for that alone.

FC4 in a nutshell? [source]
 Of course those are just a couple of samples. Good story-telling in computer games wasn't that rare up until a couple of years ago ...

You see how in all cases the campaigns are wrapped up nicely, giving you something along for the way? What's more, the elements that made me engage with the games that way had nothing to do with playing the game, it was more about the interaction with the game over the course of the campaign. And that, of course, directly relates to the analogue role-playing games we are talking about here ...

What RPGs don't do (anymore)?

Classic D&D had immense level ranges. Levels 1 to 36 with the D&D Rules Cyclopedia alone, AD&D wasn't far behind that and you could always extend the game to godhood (which meant for some classes in the D&D RC to go the complete distance 1 to 36 AGAIN). Lots of play, with campaigns potentially lasting for decades and one of the main reasons to have loads of campaign settings in AD&D.

We are not talking about how intimidating the prospect of a campaign like that can be. What we are focusing on instead is what was done to actually make it manifest in the game. One would have to consider that characters get more powerful, of course, and all role-playing games do that. Actually, it is the one thing most role-playing games kept intact in their games: power curves demand adequate challenges. The bare-bones concession that there is a development that needs to be addressed.

Considering that more powerful monsters bring with them a higher impact on a campaign, we already have some intrinsic change in play-styles along the power curves that level advancement produce. That it in itself is not enough, is quite well obvious in the fact that most "old school" campaigns favor a range of 1 to 6 or 8 levels, with newer games thwarting that somewhat by diluting the early levels, starting directly more or less with mid-level gaming.

Both approaches show the problem and the solution, imo. Classic D&D lends itself to low level play while the tools for mid- and high-level games are available, but get mostly ignored. That mid-level game has a market is obvious in newer editions, as characters already start with the equivalent of level 3, adding a steep powercurve and fast development, resulting (arguably) in something comparable with, say, levels 6 to 12 in classic D&D terms.

It's not sold that way, but it most certainly reads that way. Going by that trajectory, D&D 6 will be about allmighty and genderless gods in a fantastic world of equity :)

AD&D, arguably, does a great job at offering good high level play. However, the main problem with high level campaigns is the workload, which is why there aren't many of them to buy, and I'm not even talking about quality here. You want a good "end game" module (and the pdf for FREE, no less), check out The Dreams of Ruin ... I wrote a bit about it here. That's Labyrinth Lord, so we are talking BX here, showcasing it can be done, but is very difficult to pull of commercially (among other things) and complex to boot. Dreams will give you scope.

The thing is, the big campaign arc isn't done anymore or very rarely. And not only because it is hard to prepare or write an end game module from the system-side alone. Megadungeons could fill the bill, maybe. However, if they just present the challenges without taking the implications into account (which is easy to do if the big bad monsters are trapped in a dungeon, or, in other words, a highly controlled playing field), it'll fall short in encouraging high level play or risks feeling "the same" just with higher levels and longer combat sessions.

As I said above, in a way one could argue that campaign play was just flawed design that failed enough commercially to be reduced to lip service in modern products. And while it might hold true, commercially speaking, it's thinking like this that reduces the playing experience to lots of blinking lights and short-lived amusement park entertainment, with the hard work of keeping it all together left to the Gamemaster ...

Anyway, I digress. The point is, it isn't done anymore, or not to a degree that actually helps DMs to play one single game for that long. Not taking The Campaign serious as an important part of a games design and instead relying on shiny facets that entertain only for as long as it takes to offer the next product is entirely grounded in product-oriented thinking and not at all in terms of game design.

Actually, most games even lack the advice for DMs completely, as a capable DM goes against the idea of selling more product. The DM part in general is also the most difficult part to write, lets not forget that. Easier production makes faster product and why risk something outside of popular mainstream when the easy road earns pretty cash? So all that complex stuff gets tossed ...

... and we are back on track, I guess: campaign play is not there anymore (as far as I can see), there are reasons for it, but what we are talking about here is how to utilize it and why it makes sense to do so.

What went wrong, then?

So we know those rules exist, and we know they don't work (to some extent). No one I'm aware of took the time to dissect those rules and check why they might be problematic (I assume they are necessary for the reasons summoned above).

I think that the main problem is the original approach that came to be known as "name level". It assumes a stage in character development where a character is elevated beyond level to represent more in the gaming world than they actually are. It is something of an advancement, but it doesn't work that way, mainly because it mimics a status that should emerge naturally through play, and that's a bit like getting a trophy for something you didn't achieve.

It carries no meaning as such to become a "paladin" (with additional rules, even!), if that's nothing you have worked towards but solely because you are lawful (as per the Rules Cyclopedia). There is no fun in reaching a level and class appropriate moniker if it isn't earned or even reflected in the gaming environment (for which it mostly is too abstract to even apply, considering different cultures and all that).

There is a strange array of additional rules patched unto this design, like having those characters in use groom low level characters (AD&D 2e), just in case of character death (or retirement, actually), the idea being that players have control over generations of characters with different power levels over the course of a campaign ... Yeah. A very small minority did that, would be my guess.

It even spawned a whole campaign setting making mid-level gaming a focus (Birthright, also AD&D), but it shifted the rules-focus so much, it ended up being a different game. Not unsuccessful, just very niche.

Birthright ... when the campaign map is the character sheet :D [source]
 When all is said and done, players won't care that much. The design in the first three generations of D&D is mostly so unobtrusive that only those who really care will end up utilizing it, and there's few of those.

But if you don't use it, characters barely evolve above the original first scope of development, and the campaign ends because people would rather experience that development arc again instead getting the feeling of stagnating with a character. It is an end in itself, I suppose, just not at its full potential (or good).

The main problem with all those rules, imho, was that they are only loosely attached to character development and need player-attention to be manifest in the game without offering enough incentives to bother. That's just not how players work, in my experience. It's also in conflict with the "Rule of 7", as it keeps adding and adding to a character. With too many balls in the air, most people will lose interest quick (I guess with games 5 is a good average, but go for 3 with low effort games).

So while early designers certainly have seen the necessity for an campaign arc beyond what levels offer, it was never successfully incorporated into the game. Therefor, producing a good grand finale for a campaign was not impossible, but left entirely in the hands of the DM, with barely any advice to go by.

What to do about it? (be67 edition)

The simple solution is: have the DM orchestrate it all and have some systems in place that support what the DM is doing. A campaign needn't be highly structured, as you can't plan with anything concrete over a long time. But what you can (and should!) do is making setting markers and making them count.

 It is no secret that a wide power range makes different pacing necessary. You basically should have a major shift in setting and tone about every fifth of a given power range. For the D&D RC that'd look like this:

Levels 1 to 7 = Low-Level Gaming (The Rise), establish setting & possible future shifts on horizon, characters are unknown & looking for their opportunity to make themselves known

Time passes

Levels 8 to 14 = Low to Mid Level Gaming (The Great Opportunity), first major shift in setting (major conflict starts, maybe an invasion or a revolt), characters have to face bigger challenges & with more direct responsibility for others (owning land or titles, having an army, being higher ranking guild members, something like that, all facing the new challenge one way ro another), they might be able to have a hand in the next shift (their decisions certainly will have an effect on their surroundings), characters are known locally, big players start noticing & try to use the characters for their goals

Time passes (months, even)

Levels 15 to 21 = Mid Level Gaming (The Reckoning), second major setting shift (major conflict escalates or ends under new management with even more severe problems on the rise), character's actions after the first shift should be evident & saturate the gaming experience in this phase, characters are not only known, but people have an opinion on them & act accordingly, characters are now big enough with influence to be a threat to opposition they might not even be aware of & will have to fight to keep what they achieved (one way or the other), characters have a BIG part in how the next shift manifests

Time passes (might be years here)

Levels 22 to 28 = Mid to High Level Gaming (The Reign), third major setting shift (however the chips fell from the last phase, the characters are known for their involvement & are on the front line for whatever consequences arose), 

Time passes (lots of time, probably decades)

Levels 29 to end = High Level Gaming (The Legacy) last major shift (the last hurrah, a final new challenge, ideally something connected to the past, something the characters are somehow responsible for), whatever the setting looks like now, the characters are major players in it & established through their deeds, although that final shift might be personal, its consequences are cataclystic for the whole setting, but alliances have shifted & old allies might be gone or missing, creating need for new, powerful allies

... and it all will end in one epic finale. A good end.

Somehow this came to mind: Buffy from season to season ... [source]

 Anyway, as I said, it is a very general frame, just to give you an example here. The game I'm writing on (be67 - a b/x retroclone-mutant, so to say) will have detailed rules for those transitions. But it is all there: plan a phase very generally, ideally have some major story per story arc (or distinct features for sandbox play).

It doesn't matter as much if the characters hit exactly that level range. A level more or less doesn't hurt (and characters die, people fluctuate ... you know the drill), but when a phase ends, shift focus for the transition. Let time pass by and have the players build on how the last phase ended. Collect tidbits for that moment and give the players a feel for what impact they had.

Offer them opportunities for growth: land or titles, marriages (political or otherwise), business opportunities, an army to lead or something academic ... just as characters and level allow (start small, build on that ... not from grunt to admiral in one go, for instance). Use future phases to build on that, maybe even threaten it. Make them work for it.

To bring that experience home, I'd allow a level up in the transition phase. That way it feels like part of the level up and the end of a phase needn't correlate with a "naturally occuring" level up. Just finish the phase as appropriate and treat the new phase just like you'd treat character creation: you set the new stage and the players arrange their characters accordingly.

The End

There is power in new beginnings, but a lot of that power is derived from the end that happened before that.

If you apply the general frame described above and keep your notes straight, you can make your rpg campaign a very distinct experience for everyone involved, with lots of good little ends in between and one big final end note to finish it all.

I should leave it at that. Took me three days to get here, so if this isn't done, I'll do a part 4 ...

But I hope you guys found something of value in those ramblings. It turned out to be a long one again. Did any of you reading this have long lasting campaigns. Does what I wrote resonate with you? Or are there other ways to sustain a long-lasting campaign? How about good endings. How important do you think they are? 

FC3 GIF made me laugh ... [source]


If you are interested in a completely realized science fiction role-playing game with lots of theory and a huge DM section, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3|| (that rpg I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here).I'm still doing a sale on it ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here!

Just look at that beauty ...



Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

This Blog Turns 10 Years This Month ... Let's Celebrate!

Wed, 11/03/2021 - 18:20

Alright, so this happened: I'll be doing this for 10 years come November 7th. For me, that's huge. It's something that had helped me countless times with all kinds of stuff, be it discussions about games and game design (being able to point out that I had done a post about a subject is priceless) or even getting a job (it shows dedication, if nothing else, but people can also get an idea what you are about, if they are willing to take the time). I'd say I got at least one date out of it, too :) So while The Disoriented Ranger never was among the really popular blogs out there, it was useful and has been read and interacted with. I'll take this month to look back a bit (and maybe even forward).

Partytime, excellent ...

This will be a short little post about what I'm planning to get done this month and what else is in store. Looking back I found that while it short-term never helped the blog to stay clear from day-to-day blog-politics (click-bait and controversy drive a lot of traffic, I've seen it happen elsewhere ...) and keep it long-form instead of, say, posting little things daily, the material gathered that way is still very much readable regardless of when it was written. Most of it, anyway. And one thing I always wanted to have (you know, for my own book-shelf) was a nice little compilation of the blog.

I've spent most of last month going through all that, collecting and sorting what I think would make me happy. It's not done yet, but I have a cover to show you and I aim to get at least the pdf out there on the 7th. Not for free, but dirt cheap (as I learned a lesson there: free/PWYW just don't track with OBS ... it needs to cost at least a buck to be useful on the site). I'm thinking 1.99 USD for a pdf that will amount to round about 300 pages A5. Behold a cover:

I'm happy with that cover. Thoughts?After that I'll prepare that for PoD and order the test print. Depending on how fast that will turn up, the print version should be available at the end of the month (I really hope so!).

One thing I'll really miss in the book will be all the great memes I used on the blog over the years, so I think I'll do at least one post about those. And I guess I have to talk about  unfinished project, since that was a big thing here as well ... It's not the "disoriented ranger" for nothing.

So expect a more lively blog here this month!

While we are at it ...

To mark the occasion, I've put a heavy discount on that dystopian/cyberpunk role-playing game I wrote with the very obscure name Ø2\\'3|| (hint: it's leetspeak ... the whole game is all sorts of innuendos and easter eggs, very much in the spirit of the setting). I'll keep that discount up for the whole month.

Not sure what I can tell you about it that you might not already know. It's an original system and, if I may say so, solid design. With a huge theoretical part for the aspiring gamemaster as well. It wouldn't exist without the work done here on the blog.

If you already checked it out, I'd be happy to hear about it!

Let the festivities commence!

10 years, friends and neighbors! It's been a ride. If you joined the blog at some point and stayed, I appreciate you. This has been a hobby endeavor, unedited at that, rambling at times, opiniated about game design, but unheard. Ha! I really love the opportunity to put down my thoughts about playing role-playing games and get an audience for it, too.

Google meanwhile shanked exposure at least two times in the last 10 years and who knows how long blogger will last. The OSR (which was what got me to blogging to begin with) didn't ... as such. Ruins left to explore, as another blogger said the other day in an interview. I like that. True too, if somewhat sad.

Met lots of people, have seen people disappear, die even (Dreams of Mythical Fantasy is still dreaming, people ... James is dearly missed and yet I get traffic from his blog every now and then as if nothing significant had changed). Some ended up being 'internet friends' for the blink of a screen just to be gone again, others stayed friends.

The beauty of insignificance is that the trolls seem to stay away. Mostly. Either way, I had some great interactions here on the blog, basically from the beginning. Not sure where I'm headed right now or where that spark is that carried so much of it up until a couple of years ago, but I'm glad I made it up to this point and I'm sure something will come up in the future ...

Anyway, I'm rambling. Love you all. Stay tuned for more (maybe even more substance)!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

In Defense of Randomized Content in RPGs (with bonus 1d20 Random Table for megadungeons)

Thu, 10/28/2021 - 12:41
Just tropping by to leave a little something here on the blog. It's been a busy month, and November will be just as busy (for relevant reasons yet to be disclosed to you, gentle reader). So here's a little something I did for a project that didn't make the cut ... Incidentally it also connects nicely with the last post and further explores my thinking in that regard. The Random Table in the end is just icing.

True randomness, you say?

Many gamers believe that the use of random tables in role-playing games is an old school staple and has no place in newer designs. Let me try and change your mind on this.

First of all: the use of random tables, for instance, to create some encounters or an encounter reaction, is not necessarily as ‘random’ as one would define the word. Let’s see a definition. ‘Randomness’ is, according to the main definition offered by the Oxford Language Dictionary:

‘The quality or state of lacking a pattern or principle of organization; unpredictability.’

Most rpg random tables are a collection of terms (or mechanics) that are considered compatible with the purpose of the random table and therefore will produce results that are within an expected spectrum or range. It’s when random tables start to work in conjunction and use more abstract terms that you’ll get results that are a bit more unpredictable.

So what I’m saying is that a one column table with 20 or even 100 entries doesn’t really qualify as something that produces random results. It’s a start, but not where the true potential lies. Or its reason …

Gimme Danger (the narrative whispered)

Gamemasters have to describe versatile environments and how all of that interacts with the players and the game. Improvising all of that is never advised. A good game will do some of the heavy lifting and some notes and maps along with some moderate documentation will be enough to keep a campaign running, if the improvisation it needs to bring the game to life and connect all the dots is actually up to the task.

Just make it work, right? [source]
So improvisation is where it’s at. The flow of the game, the interface between players, rules and narrative across time. It’s a crucial junction and delivering or not decides between everyone having a good time and destroying the Suspension of Disbelief. It takes tact and rhythm, an idea how the narrative’s past and its future could connect and everything in between. If you are a gifted (or experienced) storyteller, you can get away with a lot before there is any danger of being repetitive or running the narrative into the ground. If not, this is where you’ll struggle, even if the rest works.

Ultimately, we all have our ways and tastes and styles. We are subjective individuals and it’s only human to prefer certain outcomes or stories. However, it makes us lose sight of the possibilities. This is where Random Tables figure into the equation. This is where they shine, because random tables are in that weird space between rules and improvisation.

The best results make no sense on their own

It’s about unpredictability, just like they say in the definition above. Checking if an encounter is friendly by any chance instead of just assuming that they’ll always look for combat will open up every game. And context will always give you some opportunity to make it part of the story. Why is that slime the group just encountered so shyly engaging and not at all aggressive? That’s a story worth some curiosity.

And you can’t plan for it in a meaningful way. Not without cheating (as in: forcing it on the players). However, if you allow it as an option, the best way to give something unexpected a way of occurring is by making it ‘random’ in a way that contradicts what you are going for just enough to expand the narrative by elements you wouldn’t have thought of on the fly without leaving the realm of possible and expected occurrences.

Now, that's a mouthful. Since I had this next part laying around, doing nothing (as I mentioned in the beginning), I'll end this one with an example, for a change. The premisse with this one is that the characters hang out in a city that is on top (or near) a megadungeon of some sort. The idea is to have a number of incidents that will occur on a regular basis, but vary by circumtsances enough to have them recognized as a general theme. It's abstract enough to be that and should easily adapt to every fantasy setting.

Behold (and check out the conclusion at the end):

You have a megadungeon under the city, so once a week you will experience (roll 1d20):
  1. … ghosts of adventurers, talking about their past failings.
  2. … strange gasses emanating on random locations.
  3. … underground detonations.
  4. … currency lost all value for now as treasure floods the city.
  5. … weird visitors from another dimension (planescape tourists).
  6. … humanoid tribe occupying a district, seeking asylum and protection from a bigger threat.
  7. … fissures appear, roll additional 1d20 (1 meaning a minor fissure, a 20 toppling houses).
  8. … mobilisation of an adventurer guild for a (1d3) rescue/retaliation/reinforcement mission.
  9. … parade of high level heroes coming back from a dungeon deep-dive.
  10. … a water body (toss coin) in or close to the city drops significantly with lots of gurgling.
  11. … random magic wildfire (1d3: no magic possible/weird side effects/triple effects).
  12. … monster meat is back on the menu! Butchers sell cuts of rare beasts.
  13. … city watch enforces an immediate evacuation of a district, no reasons given.
  14. … magic items show weird but harmless glitches (1d3: sparks/talks nonsense/vibrates).
  15. … underground fight with (random encounter) is carried out to the surface (1d3: neighbourhood joins in/turns into a wild chase/ends up being a slaughter).
  16. … rich and drunk adventurers partying too hard, being annoying.
  17. … exotic funeral, financed by an adventure guild, paid bards constantly sing praise of a dead adventurer all over the place.
  18. … drama between two famous adventurers is the buzz of the town. Bets are taken.
  19. … city prepares for an invasion from below (1 in 6 chance small army (1d100% of the population) of 1d6 combined Random Encounters will make the attempt).
  20. … that the psychosphere in your corner of town shifts to an extreme for a short time (1d3: ecstatic/aggressive/depressed).


Our understanding of what 'random' means in role-playing games, is pretty basic at best, so it should be safe to say that games in general benefit from what they add to a game. Since they mostly stay within the narrative scope of what a given game might allow (and considering misfires are easily navigated, I might add), there are actually no good arguments against using random tables. Not that I can see, anyway (and I've thought a bit about it, too).

As a matter of fact, random tables help game designers in helping gamemasters in bringing their vision to life, and that's just as important. Role-playing games are about telling stories, and in the end it is all about the impulses a game offers to make it what it intents to be. Specific words, ideas or inspirations are all easily enough transported into the game through random tables, and easily enough implemented, since they are part of playing the game and not just an info dump somewhere in the rule book.

What do you guys think? Do you see any reasons to not have random tables as a standard tool in every game? 


Good boy ... [source]


If you are interested in a completely realized game heavily utilizing random tables of all sorts, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3|| (that rpg I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). We will definitely do a sale in November. Stay tuned for that ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here!

Just look at that beauty ...


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs