Module Design and Scaffolding

I read Throne of Avarice this morning on its release, which brands itself a “setting book and procedural generation toolbox.”. I considered writing a review of it, but I’ve been avoiding reviewing new releases as my Bathtub Reviews can be quite critical. But I found myself encountering a very specific problem.

Front cover, by Ben Brown

This book is jam packed with lists, most of them unique, interesting and well-written, and almost none of them well-tethered. I don’t think every list needs to be tethered to a concept! But the problem is that it’s never clear to me which list I should consult in a given moment. There are groups of lists, sure: to generate a location roll on these three lists. But I need to get to that section of the book to find out that that group of lists exists. There’s no sign pointing me there.

This is easily solved: Individual items are as good in this book as something like Fever Dreaming Marlinko and if the author (Brian Yaksha) had chosen to, they could easily have formatted it as a more concrete world to great success. I think this would have worked better than what I read, but it’s clearly not the design intention. I’m not sure it’s a real solution if it runs contrary to the design intent.

I think the problem is a lack of what I’m going to term scaffolding: An overarching structural framework that allows the reader to organically explore the world in a way that invites delving further with intention. I can think of a few scaffolding types off the top of my head.

A narrative scaffold is presenting a core story and allowing the larger setting to be footnotes to that story. A mechanical scaffold is presenting a core mechanic which points to various sections of the larger setting in its outputs (an overland travel system for example). A structural scaffold is designing the module such that as you read it you are pointed deeper (or back further) into the module.

I’m certain there are other scaffolding types that I haven’t thought of, but I think that in writing a sandbox or tool-based module, it’s important to consider that navigation can be the most significant barrier to accessing the creativity you’re putting on display, and placing an appropriate scaffold in place to allow your readers to navigate your material is just as important as putting good material down on paper.

15th April 2023,

Idle Cartulary


Broader Proceduralisms

There’s been a lot of talk lately about proceduralism as it relates to various D&D-likes. I’ve written about procedure as it relates to Advanced Fantasy Dungeons here, but informing my views on the topic are these posts by a bunch of luminaries:

Read the above to wade into the weeds on a definition for procedure. I will simplify for my purposes:

  • A procedure tells you what order you execute the rules in.
  • You may be able to transition between two or more procedures as the narrative or rules guide you.
  • Some rules might be unique to or only impact specific procedures.

I instead want to talk about what types of procedures I think I’m seeing, how they’re misinterpreted even by designers, and the impact choice and identification of procedures in TTRPGs might have on play.

I’m going to make a leap that I began with in my post Pillars and Procedures: Historically, D&D’s procedures are space and time oriented. The primary procedures in 0e through 2e could be analysed thusly:

  • Dungeon (turns)
  • Wilderness (watches)
  • Battlefield (rounds)
  • Home (days)

Home here is used as analogous to “Downtime” in modern terminology, although no such term has been used historically that I can find. I’d go so far as to say historical D&D actually uses non-diagetic or real time for “Home”; Gygax’ infamous maxim “You cannot have a meaningful campaign unless strict time records are kept” implies strongly that early D&D downtime activities such as training and magical research were to happen when your character wasn’t adventuring.

Having hypothesised that space-time oriented procedures are present in D&D, I’ll assert that procedures are present in many other modern RPGs.

  • Blades in the Dark, for example, breaks its procedures into downtime, score, and freeplay, details order of execution and for downtime and score procedures, and maintains free movement between these procedures.
  • Wanderhome has a single fairly rigid journeying procedure, of creating a place, choosing a month, and creating the kith who live there, but leaves activity once in a place freeform until the travellers leave to go to another place.
  • Kingdom has a repeating crossroad – scene – check – reactions – resolve procedure, with no alternate procedures to transition to. Kingdom is necessarily
  • Microscope has a similar procedure of Focus – history – legacy – explore, but that isn’t necessarily

I’ve noted these in decreasing similarity to the example of historical D&D. But we can go much less similar, by looking at journaling games.

  • 1000 Year Old Vampire’s procedure of prompt – experience – memory – move forward is anchored in the ever advancing march of time
  • Body//Hack’s procedure is to advance forward through the prompts linearly one real-time day at a time

Lyric games are even more dissimilar, and conjecturing about the procedural anchoring of the Invitation, Flying Games or I EAT MANTRAS FOR BREAKFAST are each their own post. Suffice it to say that if they do have procedure, they are not anchored necessarily to time and space, but to memory, emotional response, and to physical objects, among other things.

Why do I care that even the most abstract of games can be analysed to have procedures? Mainly because I’m starting to think that for most TTRPGs, procedure might be a foundation that allows us to improvise and create in a supportive way, and that awareness of the presence of procedures as authors and designers might help us create more supportive and satisfying role playing experiences. But how can I do that? How about some counter-examples? Because since identifying this as a potential design flaw, I’ve been considering some games, some that I love, and some that I do not, in the light of it.

Let’s start with the big one: The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. 5E lays its perceived core principles out as pillars (as good a name in my opinion as anchor or foundation): Combat, social, and exploration. Combat is thoroughly proceduralised in the Player’s Handbook, but means of transitioning between it and the social and exploration pillars are unclear, and there is little procedural or rules support for the other two pillars, certainly little player-facing support in the core two rule books. This is a two-fold problem: Firstly, and I think my experience of playing is not unusual given what I see in APs, the pillars are misidentified; I don’t think there is a social pillar at all, it’s a rule that is dispersed through the game. Secondly, if there is an exploration pillar, it’s not supported by a procedure. This breaks parts of the game intended to leverage off it: The ranger’s skill set and many powers and spells handily break exploitation altogether by eliminating resource management so that the only question becomes “Where do we go next?”. Of course, we can fix these problems, but Im not discussing how to hack 5E to make it better, most designers I know started that way. What I’m saying is that misjudging the procedures renders the game unsatisfying.

Let’s go to a game I really like then: Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Why have I always found it less than the sum of it’s parts? Let’s look at the core procedure: Intro – take strings – react or pursue – build to a climax – end of session move – debrief. This procedure makes me feel unsupported by the goal of telling an action romance story, because it gives me no indication of what to do next. I can improvise, and because Thirsty Sword Lesbians has stellar playbooks it’s gets by on their strengths, but movement through stories or sessions is completely reliant on the GM pushing certain directions, recognising certain vague cues, or the entire table being psychically in tune with each other all of which are possible, but none of which can be guaranteed. When I play Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the foundation we improvise story off is not sturdy.

So, how do we recognise a procedure, now that I’ve identified examples both good and not so good? I think we are looking at two things: Our themes, and the foundations that we use to support our roleplay towards that theme.

So, for (historical) Dungeons and Dragons, I’d argue the primary theme is exploration, and so we need location-based foundations: Dungeon, wilderness, and city procedures The odd foundations are when we’re not exploring: Downtime and combat procedures serve to bridge gaps between explorations, but are optional, and in fact are often avoided or ignored altogether.

For Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the primary theme is queer action romance (“swords cross and hearts race”), and so location-based foundations don’t make sense. Scene-based foundations make more sense. I’m not rewriting this game, but perhaps considering what types of scenes exist and how they might transition one to another may provide the increased support I feel I need.

Through this lens, then, perhaps I oversimplified Wanderhome earlier: Wanderhome has nested and interlocking systems, of both place and events, individual events being detailed and providing support I brushed over earlier in the summary.

Anyway, I think I’ve lingered on this too long, and I’m not sure I’ve come to a satisfying conclusion. I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on broader procedures, whether this logic does in fact hold, and whether consideration of procedure in the larger TTRPG space is warranted. I limited my analysis of various games significantly largely for space and energy, but I’d be interested in counter examples or interesting examples of foundations I didn’t consider.

Idle Cartulary,

23rd June 2022

Rules Sketch: Ability Scores

If you’re walking in on the middle of this series, there’s an index here.

This sketch is actually quite straightforward from the read-through, because a huge chunk of this chapter is individual subsystems that are fun but need to be elsewhere – in magic, proficiencies, combat, death and healing, for example. This leaves me mainly needing to write a little, but not much.

I’ll start by, divorcing ability scores from “natural ability”:

Ability Scores

Ability scores do not represent your characters congenital ability, but rather the totality of a lifetimes work, play and study. You are not born strong, but you become strong working the Fourgoth Mines. You are not born intelligent, but become intelligent competing at the College of Six Seers – or perhaps become instead charismatic.

These are the six ability scores:

Strength is power and endurance.

Dexterity is agility and reflexes.

Constitution is health and resilience.

Intelligence is guile and education.

Wisdom is discernment and intuition.

Charisma is persuasiveness and leadership.

Then, simplifying generation, to match up with the new check procedure:

Rolling Ability Scores

Roll 3d6 six times and jot down the total for each roll. Assign the scores to your characters six abilities however you want.

And then, having spent a bunch of time trying, I just can’t fit associated statistics into the ability scores neatly, because they’re so heterogeneous. Instead, I’ll pull the interesting systems out and put them into sections, and add a few skills as proficiencies, later.

  • Proficiency: Bend bars, lift gates (climb walls?)
  • Magic: Magical defence and immunity
  • Social: Loyalty and starting attitudes
  • Health: System shock, resurrection
  • Equipment: Encumbrance bonuses

There we go, ability scores sorted. The only gap between these first two sketches is when you check abilities, which I can fill later. This has been a part of the Advanced Fantasy Dungeon Series! Let me know your thoughts on this approach, whether I’ve overlooked anything glaring, or anything of the sort!

Idle Cartulary

4th April 2022

2nd Edition Read-through: The Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’m reading through 2nd Edition as an educational exercise, and considering writing a retroclone for it titled Advanced Fantasy Dungeons. The purpose of the read through and writing the retroclone is more a design exercise as it is a necessary addition to my shelf. I started with the Player’s Handbook (1989), and in this post I’ll look at the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I’ll hit the ‘Races’ chapter in this post, as well, so content warning for racism. This is a long one, and you can just skip to the end for a summary of my thoughts. Let’s get started.

Interesting that this book literally opens with a screed against rules lawyering. Don’t just let the game sit there, and don’t become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. Given the reputation this edition would develop. In addition, the parallel organisation of this book and the Player’s Handbook is an interesting choice. Whilst I think some chapters aren’t necessary, it’s a neat call-and-response in many, that focuses the dungeon master on the player characters.

Chapter 1 is Player Character Ability Scores. It’s interesting that it’s largely accepted that players will have multiple characters across the world, and that you might bring characters from one game to another. There’s a discussion about balance in this context, acknowledging tables are different and that moving from world to world might cause balance problems. But, the whole chapter is largely framed as “how to control players”, when it’s pretty apparent that expectation setting could cover most of this without the necessary advice, which was better and more respectfully given in the Fourth Edition DMG’s “types of players” section.

Chapter 2 is Player Character Heritage. It outright states here that the only reason class and level limitations exist are to make humans appealing, but there is no strong defence here for the approach chosen. Based on this and the previous chapter on the same subject, the same approach and spirit would be to choose two positive and one negative trait from a heritage list, to achieve the same outcome, and give humans some damned features, as there is already precedent for not having all of your special abilities.

Chapter 3 is Player Character Classes. Interesting concepts introduced here: What it “means” to have character levels, 0-level characters being 1d6 hit points and having 2-3 proficiencies (and no other stats), the idea that it’s rare to be a leader in the field and have levels because “Their talents in the field are too valuable to lose, and their effort is expended on their art, not on maneuvering and toadying.”, introducing political intrigue at around level 9 (although no recommendations as to how), and retirement. Retirement suggestions “Avengers Reassemble!” Style one-shots against absurd threats, which is honestly an awesome approach to higher level play.

One expectation that I haven’t seen stated before is having low-level play inform characterisation. As an expectation, this would actually be a lot of fun to mechanise in some way:

Did Rath the Dwarf save the day by fool-hardily charging into battle when he was a mere 1st level? If he did, the odds are good the player will try it again and will begin to play Rath as a bold and reckless fellow. On the other hand, if Rath was clobbered the first few times he rushed in, the player would begin to play Rath as a cautious, prudent fellow.

One thing I overlooked about classes is addressed in this chapter, in creating new character classes. Basically, XP to level up increases for every power a class has, which is why the absurd paladin has a bunch of restrictions. This is pretty clumsy an approach, though, and I think it’d be more interesting to take powers (or increase them) at each level up, from a list, and then keep the same experience chart, as a way to make characters more unique but retain class “balance” without weird artefacts like “must remain lawful good”.

Chapter 4 is Alignment. It opens with a paragraph that should have been the introduction to the book:

In all points of disagreement with your players, listen to their arguments when your understanding of an alignment differs from theirs. Even though you go to great effort in preparing your game, the campaign world is not yours alone–it also belongs to your players.

Which is nice, because while it wasn’t said outright until the 15th chapter of the game, the designers clearly think it’s primary, and it should be forefronted. There are some nice alignment definitions which clarify what an alignment actually is supposed to tell you;

Alignment is a shorthand description of a complex moral code. It sketches out the basic attitudes of a person, place, or thing. Alignment is not personality. Add characteristics that make [a character] interesting, adapting these to fit the character’s alignment.

But that the definitions fail to do clearly, in my opinion (as evidenced by my being challenged by the rangers’ good requirement and the bard’s neutral requirement).

Societal, location and religious alignments, if alignments remain in the same form with words like “evil” and “chaotic” in them, are racist as shit and have to go. It’s not crazy, though, to say a society or religion has shared beliefs though: It’s squishing beliefs into the nine-part-grid that’s the problem. I’m starting to wonder if a solution would be, similarly to classes and heritage, breaking the sections defining each alignment into concepts and having characters pick a few core beliefs for them, or their society, or religion, might be a more flexible and less loaded approach to alignment.

This is an example of where I really enjoy the world building in Second Edition, even though it’s sparse:

Sometimes characters try to use spells or magical items to learn the alignment of a player character or NPC. This is a highly insulting, if not hostile, action.

And this, implying people in this world know that their alignment is “lawful evil”:

Asking another character “So, what’s your alignment?” is a rude question. A chaotic evil character with any wit would reply “lawful good.”

Chapter 5 is Proficiencies. It continues here to lean on simplified NPCs (assume proficiency in whatever they’re carrying), identifies proficiencies as a barrier to creativity, and talks about changing the list to choose the flavour of a campaign. This last point makes me feel like to match the assumptions elsewhere in the game, an evolving proficiency list according to “tier” (level 1, level 9, whatever high level is) might make sense to reinforce the expectation for intrigue, politics and war to feature at these levels. This makes me wonder if I need to read Birthright as part of this series, to be honest, and maybe Battlesystem to flag these expectations out more, so far left vague by the rules.

Chapter 6 is Money and Equipment. It ties living conditions to healing, rest and to quest hooks (you can’t do noble stuff unless you have wealthy living conditions), as well as burglary which interests me as an underdeveloped subsystem. There is a horse personality table which is my favourite table in the game so far. There are a bunch of item saving throw and equipment damage tables, which are dull as. Second Edition wants to have equipment and wealth interact with the world in both directions, but struggles to facilitate it in a predictable or exciting way, because it leans towards “realism”. I feel like a more straightforward option here would be to allow devil’s bargains: Your magic sword is destroyed because you deflected the fireball, it has no effect on you or the villagers you protected.

Chapter 7 is Magic. The only interesting thing here is a rule to let wizards learn spells by research, above and beyond their “spell limit”, in a way akin to a long-term project in Blades in the Dark.

Chapter 8 is Experience. Characters should get XP for surviving desperate situations through their own wit or will and for accomplishing “story goals” like rescuing the princess, but more importantly by being your class: Fighting, Furthering your Ethos, Researching spells or magical items, or getting rich. I feel like these are yelling for more solid mechanic support: Each player sets a goal for a session, they get “desperate xp” similar to Blades in the Dark, they have a clock for their Ethos or Research goal or for each level’s gold or fight goals.

Characters should level up every three to six adventures, which according to the Player’s Handbook are two to three sessions each, and each consisting four to eight hours. That’s conservatively 24 hours of play per level! These designers had a lot of time on their hands! Honestly I like the idea of slow play, but this speed feels blind to the reality of how much play most people can achieve. I think my idea in the previous session, though, satisfies the designers desire for consistent progress without levelling up every session (which they’re critical of as the lowest possible bar).

Chapter 9 is Combat. It says it’s not a combat game, and not to be concerned with the rules so much as what’s happening at each instant of play, describing the ideal combat as: One orc ducks under the table jabbing at your legs with his sword. The other tries to make a flying tackle, but misses and sprawls to the floor in the middle of the party!” Which leads me to believe that the rules in the Player’s Handbook are being utilised by the designers very, very differently. Part of this is why a longer turn is cool: There isn’t a lot of scene in 6 seconds, but you can do a lot in a minute. The challenge, then, is rebuilding or restructuring the combat chapter to support the kind of combat the designers want it to support.

Other points: Armour doesn’t absorb damage, it prevents it. No definitions for hit points; injuries can be specific or complex as the story requires. Different armour types are strong or weak against different damage types (slashing, piercing, bludgeoning). The simultaneous declaration is general (“I charge!”) and specifically to avoid tactics and make it more anarchic (“but now I can’t fireball them!”). Called shots are harder, and cause normal damage plus something special. There is no opportunity. Charging makes you vulnerable, but causes more damage. Firing into melee is inaccurate. There is a section on throwing boulders, which implies boulder throwing is a major part of the game. I approve.

The saving throw definition is remarkable and appears to imply a more major role in the game: The saving throw is a die roll that gives a chance, however slim, that the character finds some way to save himself from certain destruction, or at least lessen the damage of a successful attack. And it redefines them into broader categories: Strength of will, physical fortitude, magical attack, physical transformation, stamina, dexterity and spells (which is ‘other’). I find it a stretch to believe these 6 categories aren’t responsible for the eventual transition to ability-score based saving throws, via the three-category saving throws. It just also supports wider use: Saves for everything, armour for preventing damage. So what’s to-hit actually for? Did these designers envision PC-only rolls? If they did, fascinating!

Magic resistance is probabilistic, which I love. The morale check is a convoluted 2d10 roll under, that just needs to be simplified with something like advantage, disadvantage, or a dice pool. There is level drain, which always sucks and is too complicated. Poison rules are uninteresting, they need unique effects. Death is inescapable at 0 hit points.

Chapter 10 is Treasure and Magical Items. There are assumptions potent magical items, potions and scrolls are for sale; although later this is dismissed as reducing the fun. Land deeds, privileges, titles, offices are all treasures as well as gold. There is a section on “why are there hoards of treasure everywhere, and why are they still here?” Absurd relic rules are here, as in future editions.

Chapter 11 is Encounters. An encounter must present the possibility of a meaningful change in a player character’s abilities, possessions, or knowledge, depending upon the player’s decisions. This is honestly a damned good definition. Planned encounters consist keys and triggers, random ones provide a build and release in tension (“will they still achieve their goal?”). They speak of “wearing down”, but not of increasing risk associated with being in the wilderness or dungeon. It gives solid advice on notation and on including non-combat encounters in your tables. Advice to introduce complications if random encounters cause significant imbalance is great.

Chapter 12 is NPCs. It’s a little listy, however this gem is in the list: Assassination is not a discreet occupation per se, but a reprehensible mind-set. Hirelings and henchmen are all people, and it is difficult to find the right people and to read them: This tidbit would benefit from a random table more than the Military Occupation Wages table. Spellcasters are off-the-grid or else are hucksters; another neat piece of world-building. Walk-on characters should have an exaggerated personality trait, physical trait, and habit. Create only as much as the players will see.

Chapter 13 is Vision and Light. Infravision is heat vision, meaning they can’t see cold-blooded creatures and can blinded by heat. Lots of repetition from the Player’s Handbook, and I feel simplifying the endless lists, distances and resource management into a more straightforward subsystem is appropriate.

Chapter 15 is Time and Movement. The discussion around timekeeping between adventures focuses on managing multiple parties in the same world, but while there’s no chapter on downtime, it’s heavily implied that downtime happens in these gaps. A more consistent downtime subsystem would be beneficial. I’m happy that “terrain effect on movement” is optional, because honestly it’s incredibly dull for me. There is a differentiation and separate rules for “just lost” and “hopelessly lost”, which is hilarious.

Chapter 15 is A DM’s Miscellany. It doesn’t add much, simply more rules exceptions and sub-systems for specific cases. The appendices appear to be tables, but there are some fun things: Potions are unidentifiable. Maps are considered magical items due to their value. Rods, staves and wands require a command word.

Summarising thoughts: While continuing to be overwrought, the designers intent is clearer in the DMG than in the PHB, and actually appears to have been informed by a radically different play style than I ever interpreted as a child, or as the editions that followed. Shared world-building, minimal DM roll, system-minimisation (although clearly this latter tendency is clearer in the realms of social and politics than in combat or travel), multi-character and multi-party play is very clearly developed here.

The previous hallmarks I noted in the previous post are to a degree re-interpreted here, particularly combat, heritage, classes and alignment are clarified and all in an unexpected direction. Proficiency is recognised as potentially problematic, and the key question to come out of that is why has a solution to this problem not been found in three subsequent editions? Environmental interaction subsystems are doubled down on, with a bunch more DM-facing and PC-facing systems, re-iterating their importance and the necessity of finding a way to support it without so many separate sub-systems.

I did not expect to come out of this and expect the DMG to point me towards a radically different take on a Second Edition retroclone, but here I am. Advanced Fantasy Dungeons remains a very interesting prospect if some of the more complex barriers can be overcome.

Let me know your thoughts (if you have any), here or on twitter. This is interesting, and I’m interested in other peoples opinions, particularly alternative readings! I’ll try to find time to read some of the Monster Manual next week – this should be easier, because I’ll be taking samples. So far, essential reading feels like the Paladin, Ranger and Priest’s Handbook, perhaps the Bard’s, potentially Birthright and Battlesystem to round out the intrigue and war pillars that exist in Second Edition along with Social, Exploration and Combat that do not exist in more recent editions and that aren’t adequately covered so far. If you’re familiar with these older books, is there anything else I should look at, or look at instead?

Idle Cartulary

26th March 2022

Dancing around the rules

This week, I’m going to read all eight Anti-Sisyphus zines by Jared Sinclair (1).

Disclaimers: I like and respect Sinclair and considered him a friend, although our interactions have been limited since he departed Twitter. We engaged around AS and the philosophy of roleplaying a lot in good faith. My discussions with Sinclair informed a lot of my approaches to writing, best exemplified in Ludicrous Compendium and Blow Up Hamlet, two of my best works. Ludicrous Compendium #3 was released through Spear Witch. I shall venture forth regardless of my biases, also saying that you should probably buy these zines and read along because, as they are designed to be played, this may not make sense without them.

It appears I understood AS largely through conversation with Sinclair and a few other friends, rather than through successfully reading them. I have trouble with attention, and until recently wasn’t medicated, and as I read through AS for this post, I realised that I recall reading AS3 and AS4 clearly, though not the others. My memory isn’t what it used to be, or at least as far as I remember it. This then, despite previous beliefs, could be considered my first read of AS as a whole.

In the foreword to AS1, Sinclair presents a thesis that he then attempts to develop in each proceeding issue. In AS1 he is concerned that the procedures in our games do little to facilitate meaning, despite the ‘universal human desire’ to find meaning in story. Any meaning, Sinclair says, is imported by us, smuggled through the space between the rules, rather than being provided through procedures by the designer. By providing procedures for an activity, we render it meaningless, and so procedures are best chosen for unimportant activities.

I’m not convinced by the argument developed by the rules included in AS1 (2). My immediate thought is to look beyond TRPGS: Monopoly. Monopoly is a game where meaning lies largely in long-held house rules, previous experiences and trauma, long-held feuds and relationship. Monopoly sucks, but it is such a vacuous game that it holds meaning well.

I don’t think AS2 provides a stronger argument either, however, a pattern begins to emerge more strongly regarding what Sinclair believes creates “inducement to meaning” at this point in the development of his thesis: Vagueness. So, ‘The Buying and Selling of Goods’ and ‘The Tracking of Light Sources’ of AS1 fail because they are certain, elegant subsystems. You know when they occur, you know how to modify them. They have depth and clear aims. ‘Dice Pool Skills’ and ‘Treacherous Weather’, however are vague: ‘and so on.’, they say, ‘based on their class/background’, ‘appropriate tools’, ‘especially dangerous weather’, ‘stands until the GM decides’. The vagueness in these two tools feel like the “vacuum into which meaning flows” Sinclair seeks in AS1. To a degree AS2 asks the question, if unclear rules provide inducement to meaning, then are clear rules more, or less meaningful?

[…] we can listen to our dungeons and the dreams they have together [..]they are perfect already, and full of the terrible things we gave them. (3)

In AS3, Sinclair goes farther afield. The rules here are planted deeply and directly in the surreal. For me, the seed of anti-text is not just present in AS3, but blooming. It takes AS2’s question and applies it even more directly, and in my opinion this further proves that by placing vacuities into procedures, they become more meaningful. 

Sinclair continues in this direction from here: AS4 is an adventure, where there is nothing to interact with but rumours and an imagination. Here, it seem to me that Sinclair’s sense of where his proof lies has moved away from procedures – “often those things that are least interesting about [the game]” as he says in AS1, and instead anti-text is in full bloom (4): Enigmatic (not just vague) rules and lore that may or may not be true, and may or may not be written in the text at all.

AS5 is a case for Game Masters turning over their sovereignty to their players, and lays out a kind of hierarchy of agency that speaks to the primacy of the players that create the meaning, and by implication the insignificant of the procedures which are simply channels through which players to induce meaning. It is the most didactic issue; maybe for that reason I feel it is not the strongest in the sequence, despite it’s relevance, particularly looking forward to AS8.

The eight procedures of AS6 are the most enigmatic yet. Even the foreword is a poem attributed to a anachronistic Antiphon, “From behind the screen where I hid, I advance personally solely to you”. Here Sinclair might be considered his most self-indulgent, but I think his argument is to show how far text can be pushed in terms of procedure and of world-building.

I’m not convinced that AS7 is the same step forward in strengths and development of the theses that the previous issues are. The questionnaire format brings character sheets to mind, implying to me that here Sinclair is coming to character creation as he did Adventure and System. My approach to anti-text character descriptions as you can see in Tattoopunk Antebible, is basically Sinclair’s here, so it feels less absurd than intended? But regardless, while Sinclair is famed for a shitpost on Twitter, this is the first issue of AS where the content veered towards that, largely because it’s so game-designer centric.

AS8 is clearly Sinclair’s conclusion to the AS thesis. It is, for the first time, an entire game, in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons, in one page. It hails back to AS1’s original thesis, departing from the anti-text direction he has taken since AS3, and instead providing an example of what a full anti-Sisyphean procedure would look like. Opening with intentionally mundane OSR (5) procedures, I think to emphasise that they are the least interesting part of the game, Sinclair sets the scene for ‘Playing the Game’, which nihilates all resource management in all environments, and does not further define either resources or environment. This takes the familiar structure, and turns it completely on it’s head. Without internalising AS5 and 7, I suspect it’s unplayable. Leaning on the system will result in no play. Allowing play to flow around environments and resources will result in play. AS8 is a solid conclusion to AS, brings it full circle back to AS1 in a satisfying way. As Sinclair says in the foreword to AS8: “invent the rest: a past that lives only in the spaces between neurons, a future that is blank.“

Having finished Anti-Sisyphus, I’m satisfied with Sinclair’s thesis, and it was fascinating watching it develop in different directions, back tracking and re-forming arguments over six months and eight issues. It’s also fascinating to see how much impact it’s had on my philosophy, reflected in the principles I laid out earlier this month in Four Challenges. I think re-reading it right now provides me more guidance regarding system development than I remember it providing when it was first released.

There are, however, gaps that I can’t see are addressed (perhaps intentionally). On face value, it seems Sinclair would prefer a a blank page; however that is clearly not the case. Procedures are a necessary channel, but how do they channel, How do you choose your procedures? Is it relevant? Chosen procedures often imply what the author regards as important or implicit (see Four Challenges), so what is the interaction between saliences and vacuous procedures? This could be paraphrased as ‘Do all rules nihilate, or just some?’ This relationship feels worthy of discussion to me, and if the conclusion is ‘just some’, why? And how?.

I cannot discuss Esoteric (a salient consideration worth reading and considering in this context), but instead consider the Invitation, a lyric game that is largely procedure (technically) but is also aggressively enigmatic and collaborative. Is the shallow bowl mundane, or the instruction, Does it simply create space for meaning? Do we fill all rituals with meaning by and disregard their procedures? Are lyric games anti-text brought to bear on our own psyches? My feeling is yes, but it’s something unaddressed by these zines despite abutting against it.

Finally, consider Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e. With rules covering every contingency, is this text the best example of inducement to meaning? Sinclair could have developed this argument based on AS1: If everything is procedure, a game is all vacuum through which meaning flows. If this us the case, are D&D players truly playing unintentional homebrew or simply creating meaning in a way more obvious than in games with less vacuity?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they seem worth answering. What are your thoughts regarding Anti-Sisyphus? Have you read them? Do we agree with our conclusions? Did I misunderstand anything in your opinion? Would it be valuable to continue this series by reading Anti-Gorgias as well? Let me know in the comments. 

18th January 2022,

Idle Cartulary

1 Anti-Sisyphus #1 is shortened to AS1, #2 to AS2, etc.

2 Probably because Sinclair is good at game design, and so these procedures are interesting, and my designer’s mind cannot divorce from the meaning that is supposed to flow around it.

3 Honestly I’m truncating these quotes because AS is so brief I fear quoting everything Sinclair writes, but also occasionally he says things in a way that doesn’t benefit from paraphrase.

4 My gut feeling regarding why AS4 is such a success is because in the type of game Sinclair is referencing, the adventure or module is the game, and the rules are largely immaterial and interchangeable. Sinclair accidentally took aim against the wrong target, and has finally found.

5 I know I’m not supposed to use the term, but seriously look at these procedures you know what I mean.

Canon is not for the idle

I struggle with traditionally written roleplaying game settings and adventures. They feel like university textbooks, full of hidden salient points unclearly flagged, information not directly relevant to the examination at hand, an opportunity for the writer to flex their literary muscles rather than for me to be provided tools to experience the world or invite my friends to experience it.

Then there are the numbers. Pages of ACs and HDs, like a samurai sudoku hidden in a full page search. Overwhelming for me! There is poetry, no doubt, hidden between the numbers — at least in the best written of them — but I cannot auger these mysteries.

It’s physically overwhelming. I open the book and my brain screams out in I Can’t Deal.

A big chunk of OSR-adjacent mutuals talk about the concept of anti-canon, notably Luka Rejec (Ultraviolet Grasslands) and Zedeck Siew (A Thousand, Thousand Islands). Rejec writes that his anticanon formed from play at Wizard Thief Fighter:

One part the bricolage of found modules, another our ideas as players (including my refereeing self as a player), a third the random play of dice and tables.

And became this in the practice of creating Ultraviolet Grasslands.

[…] games that revolve around the dynamic interaction of players and referees and texts, and where the world is a unique and ephemeral creation that appears for a moment in the collective imagination of the group, before dissipating again, falling to the subconscious to fertilize new ideas, new worlds, new stories […]

So, how does this take shape in Ultraviolet Grasslands, which I’m unabashedly a fan of? To talk about that, I need to separate out three things: The first two are what I complained about being overwhelming for me in the first two paragraphs. I’ll call these canon-text and mech-text (short for mechanics-texts). These are the things I find hard to process, albeit for different reasons. Luka doesn’t name his solution, but I’ll call it anti-text because I think that’s funny. It’s text that may or may not be true in the game world, but rather serves as seed for spontaneous collaborative worldbuilding.

The anti-text of Ultraviolet Grasslands is a glorious garden, full of remarkably coloured fruit and vegetables the likes of which I haven’t seen, weird and wonderful and flavourful, and every time I flick through it I’m excited to choose with my friends what dish to cook with it. But what struck me as I read through it is that SeaCat – Luka’s heartbreaker system – saturates the book, draws me out of it, and clogs the text up for me with mech-text that is a significant barrer to running it. That said, it was the first play-text I’d read that was a step in the right direction. One hurdle down, one to go.

Let’s digress and talk about Troika!. You’ve probably heard of it. Troika has rules, as most roleplaying games do, but Troika! is remarkable to me because a Troika! supplement doesn’t feel to me like it has mechanics, even when it does. A creature stat block is 4 numbers, a mien and a description. Pretty minimal. A character background is simply a description, a few possessions and some skills that are not from a list and can run the gamut from mundane to absurd. Because of this, it’s become a favourite for a specific (and significant) portion of the community. Troika’s mech-text, while extant, fades into the background when it comes to playing the game itself. Most of the Troika Numinous Edition is anti-text, with mech-text cunningly hidden as single numbers amongst it. Troika is evidence to me that a game can exist that has mech-text but that doesn’t overwhelm me with numbers and rules. Troika isn’t a game to be studied in the sense that you must sit an exam to play.

Ok, back to anti-canon. So, after the half-revelation and half-disappointment that was Ultraviolet Grasslands (don’t get me wrong, I still adore everything Luka creates and Wizard Thief Fighter is a something I read as it’s published), the next text I found inspiration in was A Thousand Thousand Islands. This series of zines by Zedeck Siew and Munkao (Munkao, the artist, genuinely deserves equal footing in the project that is A Thousand Thousand Islands), is truly systemless, and in a way that I find inspiring, lacks instruction in how to use it. You simply read it, and sense how to use it. It is sparse, allowing for notes on how it evolves, and it is inspired by the mythology of south east Asia, and so is unique in many of it’s anti-text approaches. It is simply there, if you wish. It is genius. I didn’t read it before I wrote Ludicrous Compendium(and it predates it by about three years), but Ludicrous Compendium was a similar approach, with minimising instruction and maximising space.

So, for me, I have before me two challenges: I want more game-texts like A Thousand Thousand Islands. Anti-canon, settings the lie in gaps, voids at their heart. I want to write them, bring them into existence. Reach of the Roach God, A Thousand Thousand Island’s first full-sized book, raised almost $150 000 on Kickstarter. I am not alone. But also, I want more game-texts like Troika. Troika is a unique setting: It’s eclectic and gonzo in a way that is reminiscent of the AD&D 2e settings of Spelljammer and Planescape – both things that I adore. But my heart lies in the traditional, heroic, low-magic sword-and-sorcery settings of AD&D 2e. I adored Dragonlance as a child, dabbled in Forgotten Realms novels. Troika doesn’t want to be those things. And I wish that Troika had less numbers, if that is at all possible.

My anti canon, my playful voids, people are reaching for them, breaking ground, but I must write them myself. I must write them myself because I want to run a game with no mech-text if I play as a GM, I want to play in a game with as little mech-text as possible whilst maintaining complexity and interest if playing as a character.

That is my goal. This was a long-winded way to talk about how canon, as much as it can be beautiful, as much as it takes skill and loving care and attention to detail, is not for me, and not because I’m lazy or don’t care, but because it canon and mechanics are a barrier to play for me, and they are barriers I want to innovate and eliminate from my play if I can.

6th January 2022,

Idle Cartulary.