Monday, October 23, 2023

This Blog Has Moved!

The new blog:!


This blog, Caput Caprae, is old and deprecated. If you're looking for the latest, freshest, hottest, coolest new content from me, Sam, you can find the new blog at

A few of the juicier, more recent blogposts here have been transferred over to the new blog. They're the ones I want people (inquisitive students, future employers, fawning fans) to read.

That said, if you're here on an archaeological dig, I salute you! Godspeed!

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Are RPGs Games, Really?

Defining Games and Play

In their landmark 2004 game design textbook, Rules of Play, Salen & Zimmerman devote a chapter to definitions of games. 

They run through eight definitions of games and play from various scholars—Huizinga, Caillois, Abt, Avedon & Sutton-Smith, Suits, Crawford, Costikyan, Parlett—and compare them in a single charming chart: 

(Salen & Zimmerman 79)

There are, obviously, many other definitions of games, but I think this chart does a pretty good job covering the basics. 

That said, it is worth noting that Salen & Zimmerman do conflate play and games here; while they discuss those boundaries earlier in the chapter (Salen & Zimmerman 72–73), both Huizinga and Caillois primarily discuss play, rather than games. Granted, Caillois writes in French, where jouer, "to play," is simply the verb form of jeu, "games." But most translations of Man, Play, and Games—including Barash's, the one most people read—do decide to translate it as play. Huizinga, however, specifically calls attention to the games/play distinction at the very beginning of Homo Ludens (Huizinga 3), and as his own translator (for certain editions—it's a complicated history), is very intentionally choosing to use "play" over "game." The others all mention both games and play, but the definitions they offer primarily center on game, rather than play. 

By conflating their definitions of play and games together in the chart, Salen & Zimmerman ignore some of the nuance: there are subtleties between a playful act outside the context of a game—say, rolling down a hill, or making puns, or flirting—and more formalized games. Those distinctions matter for us, as we'll see. 

Because I'm a noted fan, I'll also include De Koven's descriptions (not, interestingly, definitions) of game and play from The Well-Played Game. On games:
For me, the oncept of games embraces those activities we know mostly clearly to be games—football, cat's cradle, gin rummy, peek-a-boo. These are clearly games.... I consider a game to be something that provides us with a common goal, the achievement of which has no bearing on anything that is outside the game. (De Koven xxiii)
And on play: "Play is the enactment of anything that is not real. Play is intended to be without consequence.... When we are playing, we are only playing. We do not mean anything else by it" (De Koven xxiv).

And finally, the now-common definition that Salen & Zimmerman themselves offer: "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome" (Salen & Zimmerman 80).

Defining RPGs

In Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach, at the conclusion of Chapter 2, "Definitions of 'Role-Playing Games,'" Zagal & Deterding offer this accurate-if-unhelpful summary:
Many definitions of "role-play" and "role-playing games" have been suggested, but there is no rboad consensus. People disagree because they often have an unclear idea of what kind of phenomena they are talking about, and therefore, what kind of definition is appropriate.... Hence, if we ask for a definition of "role-playing games", we can only refere to either how particular groups at particular points in tiem empirically use the word and organize actions and the material world around it or how we, as a scientific observer, choose to use the word to foreground and understand a particular perspective... (Zagal & Deterding 47)
Worth noting that Zagal & Deterding here refer to RPGs a whole, including TTRPGs, larps, CRPGs, MMOs, and other myriad forms of roleplaying. The book does go into more definitions of TTRPGs in Chapter 4, but that chapter's authors—including our good friend William J. White—don't manage to defeat the challenge that Zagal & Deterding describe. 

The RPGs I discuss are the ones I play most often, which you're probably familiar with. Players take on the role of characters in a shared fictional world, and narrate their actions within that world. One player, the GM, doesn't have a single character they play, but instead plays "everything else:" NPCs, monsters, factions, the environment, and so on. Sometimes, the players or GM give up control over some aspect of the fictitious world and roll dice to determine how the game world operates. 

They're RPGs. You're familiar. 

My particular leaning is more sandbox-y, more open-ended, with fewer rules. "The OSR" has a lot of baggage as a term, but it's a reasonably good umbrella moniker for the style of play I enjoy and the games I run. 

Most of the definitional work here applies to most categories of RPGs: traditional '80s-90s stuff, Forge-era storygames, Powered by the Apocalypse and its descendants, late-aughts retroclone OSR style, big crunch 4e grid games, newer-age NSR/FKR/etc OSR style, and so on. These definitions mostly don't apply to some of the most cutting-edge contemporary indie work: solo games, lyric games, and certain varieties of GMless game largely fall outside these definitions. 


Do We Play RPGs?

Yes! Yes? Yes. Almost certainly. 

Huizinga defines play as an activity that is voluntary, nonserious, limited in time and space, ordered with rules, for its own sake, separate or distinct from reality, and featuring tension and joy (Huizinga 9–11). We'll talk about rules more in a bit, but RPGs are activities that are indeed voluntary, (infamously) limited, for their own sake, separate from reality, and feature tension and joy. Seriousness is an unclear element: Huizinga goes back and forth on the definitions of the term (Huizinga 5–6), but acknowledges himself that "Children's games, football, and chess are played in profound seriousness; the players have not the slightest inclination to laugh" (Huizinga 6). There's more to dig into regarding his definitions of seriousness (particularly as it pertains to ritual, culture, and the rest his book), but suffice to say Huizinga's definitions of play do not contradict the activity of an RPG. Checkmark from Huizinga.

Caillois largely agrees with Huizinga, defining play as free, separate, uncertain, unproductive in that creates no new goods or wealth, governed by rules, and make-believe in its awareness of a second reality (Caillois 9–10). Rules are, once again, the sticking point, but the other five certainly fit. Checkmark from Caillois. 

De Koven's definition as enacting anything that isn't real (De Koven xxiv) fits RPGs perhaps better than almost anything else. Checkmark from Bernie.

Salen & Zimmerman's other six (as well as Salen & Zimmerman themselves) don't clearly define play in the separate way that Huizinga, Caillois, and De Koven do, so we'll leave them for the next section. 

We'll get to the question of rules in its own section, which is a sticky point. But for now, we can say with some certainty that we do play RPGs. 

Are RPGs Games?

Let's examine each of Salen & Zimmerman's fifteen comparative definitional points in turn (going in reverse order):


Are RPGs art? Yes! There are inumerable definitions of art, but RPGs are expressive and creative. Good enough for me.

System of Parts/Tokens and Resources

The fuller line that Salen & Zimmerman pull this criterion from is this:
A game is a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality... By closed I mean that the game is complete and self-sufficient as a structure. The model world created by the game is internally complete; no reference need be made to agents outside of the game... By formal I mean only that the game has explicit rules... a game is a collection of part which interact with each other, often in complex ways. It is a system. (Crawford 4)
Do RPGs fit this? Not all of it. RPGs are fundamentally open: the rules are made to bend and change. Likewise, an RPG world is never "internally complete." As players take actions, they change the game world, altering the structure. 

There is an argument to be made that the purely diegetic fictional world of an RPG does fit this definition, and that as players and GMs we merely examine one part of it: an argument that the world exists independently from our interactions, and that while we may never experience that world in its fulness, it is complete and self-sufficient. 

That said, no text can fully contain such a world, and thus the published rules of an RPG certainly do not qualify. 

As for Costikyan's definition, Salen & Zimmerman (seemingly) quote Costikyan in saying "A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal" (Salen & Zimmerman 78). They cite Costikyan's famous text I Have No Words and I Must Design, but through a weblink, one that's now dead. 

I've read I Have No Words and I Must Design, and I searched through my copy for that exact quotation, and I couldn't find it. I don't know where Salen & Zimmerman got that quotation from. 

Do RPGs fit that definition? Not fully, no. Yes RPGs are art, yes they have players, yes those players make decisions, but only sometimes do they manage resources and only sometimes in pursuit of a goal. This may fit certain tables' games, but it's not a blanket yes.

(While we're on Costikyan, the definition of games from him that I learned in undergrad, which appears in I Have No Words and I Must Design, is as follows: "An interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal" (Costikyan 25). An interactive structure of endogenous meaning does sound like an RPG, but one that requires players to struggle toward a goal certainly doesn't. Many RPGs have goals—get loot, gain levels, save the world—but at no point do the text, the GM, or the play processes demand players follow those goals, let alone struggle.)


Suits, in his rather wondrous book, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, somewhat idiosyncratically points out that games are deliberately inefficient: " are goal-directed activities in whihc inefficient means are intentionally chosen" (Suits 37). In poker, he points out, the goal is to win as much money as possible, but if you simply your opponents over the head, or if another player repays you a previous debt, you may've made more money—but you haven't won at poker (Suits 37). It's a fascinating observation. 

Does it apply to RPGs? Yes and no. As Mulligan points out, players—as they roleplay characters—seek the path of least resistance. RPG characters want to do things very efficiently: they don't want to struggle, they don't want to get hurt, they don't want to expend resources.

But players do want inefficient play. Walking into a dungeon, encountering no enemies, grabbing the loot, and then walking out entirely safely is unsatisfying. It's boring. 

This once more gets into the question of the fictional world as game and the table as game. 

Sidebar: Frame Theory. In the landmark RPG sociology book Shared Fantasy, Fine describes three basic frames, which are bundles of shared experiences, expectations, and identities (Fine 186, 194):
  • The "primary framework," that is, the real world. Physical, actual reality, with all of its normal social rules and expectations. Players are themselves.
  • The "game framework" formed from the rules and mechanics. Here, players are thinking in ludic game-mode: they make optimal, tactical decisions from within the context of the game and the rules. 
  • The "fictional framework," that is, the world of the game. Players are characters, fully inhabiting their fictional personas.
(For what it's worth, I think frame theory gets a lot of talk for what it is. It's a useful referential tool, perhaps, but in terms of both game studies and design, I find it a bit overblown. The Dungeon Zone is fun, but it's a bit played out at this point. It also has a tendency to really draw the attention of my undergrad students to the point that they don't want to talk about anything else.)

I mention frames because they can cast some light with regards Suits and inefficiency.

Within the primary frame, as players and de-facto audience members, players want inefficiency. We want to struggle, to feel the tension, to, as Mulligan says, look back on a beautiful irrigated garden.

In both the game and fictional frame, however, players want to be as efficient as possible, and here a distinction emerges: in the game framework, inefficiency is indeed built in as Suits describes. Levels, feats, XP, stats—all increase over time but demand struggle and arbitrary requisites. A player may want to reach Level 20, but the inefficiency of the rules makes for a more satisfying experience.

In the fictional frame, however, there is no efficiency: all challenges are diegetic and inherent to the fictional world. We assume characters behave rationally and efficiently. When we encounter a monster in the dungeon, it's not because the characters want to encounter a monster, it's because the monster is really there. From within the fictional frame, if the adventure is satisfying, it is that way purely by happenstance.

So, are RPGs inefficient? Yes, but no. 


Yes! Very obviously, RPGs are deeply ingrained in make believe, fantasy, imagination, and all related topics. When I say "I stab the monster," those words are a representation of a shared fantastical reality occurring elsewhere. 


Yes! The outcomes of an RPG are deeply unclear, both in the dice's randomness but also in the raw uncertainty of multiple people contributing to a shared fantasy. Even without dice, RPGs are uncertain because reality is uncertain.


Yes! If you don't want to play an RPG, you aren't. A player can stand up and walk away from the table. Indeed, if players don't agree to the balance of narrative authority—between the players, the GM, and any other elements at play—the game falls apart. 

Creates special social groups

Yes! See Fine, Shared Fantasy. Or indeed nearly any depiction of RPG players from the past 50 years.

Artificial/Safe/Outside ordinary life

Huizinga writes that " is not 'ordinary' or 'real' life. It is rather a stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own" (Huizinga 8). He goes on to say "What the 'others' do 'outside' is no concern of ours at the moment. Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. We are different and do things differently" (Huizinga 12).

Caillois writes that play is "Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance" (Caillois 9).

Crawford writes "A game, then, is an artifice for providing experiences of conflict and danger while excluding their physical realizations. In short, a game is a safe way to experience reality" (Crawford 12).

De Koven writes: 
Play is the enactment of anything that is not for real. Play is intended to be without consequence. We can play fight, and nobody gets hurt. We can play, in fact, with anything—ideas, emotions, challenges, principles. We can play with fear, getting as close as possible to sheer terror, without ever being really afraid. We can play with being other than we are—being famous, being mean, being a role, being a world. When we are playing, we are only playing. We do not mean anything else by it. (De Koven xxiv) 
On its face, RPGs seem to neatly fit these definitions. RPGs take place in a fictional world, as fictional characters. Players regularly play characters who murder and steal, and everyone has a good time. 

On the other hand, there's bleed. Role-Playing Game Studies defines bleed as "the phenomenon when a player's thoughts and emotions influences the thoughts and emotions of the character they are role-playing (bleed-in) or a character's thoughts and emotions influence the player (bleed-out)" (Stenros, Bowman, et al. 420). 

Bleed is everywhere. We constantly feel emotions as a result of our characters' feelings, and our characters constantly act under the emotions we feel. This is a large part of why safety tools are important: they provide structured ways to stop or slow unwanted emotions at the table. 

To a certain extent, the existence of bleed proves that RPGs are not separate from real life. The sheer fact that safety tools exist is an argument for the connection between reality and play. 

While bleed perhaps contradict's Crawford's and De Koven's definitions, it doesn't preclude Huizinga or Caillois' definitions. RPGs are indeed distinct: we all meet at a certain time and we sit around at a certain time. 

While bleed poses some emotional threat or danger to players, it is still incomparable to the physical dangers that the characters face. When a monster kills a character, the player does not die. 

So are games artificial or separate or safe? Yes, but no.

Never associated with material gain

Yes! While there were a few RPG tournaments in the '80s, they never caught on. There is no comparable play within RPGs to anything like professional sports, gambling, or large-scale tournaments. 

(There is a separate argument here regarding the shift from GM to game designer selling their work as a monetization of the hobby, but game design itself is fundamentally distinct from play.)

Not serious and absorbing

As mentioned before, Huizinga is a bit contradictory on this. I think Salen & Zimmerman's depiction is overly simplistic. RPGs certainly are serious and absorbing, but it's not clear according to Huizinga what bearing this has with regards to an activity's status as play.

Involves decision-making

Yes! Many decisions are made in RPGs at all levels of play. 

Activity, process, or event

Yes! RPGs are clearly an activity. You play RPGs.


Most RPGs do not have explicit goals or outcomes in the traditional sense. In very few RPGs can you "win" or "lose."

Indeed, Salen & Zimmerman go on to point out RPGs as an exception to their own definitions: "Role-playing games clearly emobdy every component of our definition of game, except one: a quantifiable outcome... In other words, there is no single goal toward which all players strive during a role-playing game" (Salen & Zimmerman 81). They equivocate on this a bit by saying that individual sessions may have goals—kill the dragon, save the king, steal the hoard, etc.—which can form outcomes (Salen & Zimmerman 82).

I think their analysis is largely accurate. There are lots of small goals in RPGs from session to session, but there is no overarching goal. Likewise, in most RPGs, those goals are extremely player-defined: there is no requirement or task set by the game that the players must follow. While there may be fictional incentives towards certain goals (kill the dragon so it doesn't destroy the town) and certain non-fictional player goals (a player wants to have an in-character romance), neither of those are strictly binding, and neither are required for an RPG to function. 

On the other hand, within the primary frame, there are many goals: players want to tell an exciting story. They want to feel cool and powerful. They want to explore another world. They want to have a good time with friends. But these primary frame goals are not unique to RPGs, nor even to other games: a player may want to have a fun time with chess, but "have fun" is not a rule of chess. 

Are RPGs goal- or outcome-oriented? No. 

Conflict or contest

To some extent, the answer is an obvious yes: there are dragons to be slain and treasures stolen. The basic ability check is fundamentally a form of conflict. 

There are three counterarguments to this. First, in most RPGs, the mechanics that allow these contests to occur are simulated: a Strength check is a check to see if a character can lift something heavy. What that lends itself to varies: it could be a check to swing the sword that slays the dragon, or it could be a check to lift a weight on a squat rack. A check is based on uncertainty, but that uncertainty does not necessarily require conflict or contest. 

One possible exception to this is that of conflict vs. task resolution, as defined by Baker in "Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore." Baker writes:
Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

In conventional rpgs, success=winning and failure=losing only provided the GM constantly maintains that relationship - by (eg) making the safe contain the relevant piece of information after you've cracked it. It's possible and common for a GM to break the relationship instead, turning a string of successes into a loss, or a failure at a key moment into a win anyway.

...whether you succeed or fail, the GM's the one who actually resolves the conflict. The dice don't, the rules don't; you're depending on the GM's mood and your relationship and all those unreliable social things the rules are supposed to even out.

Task resolution, in short, puts the GM in a position of priviledged authorship. Task resolution will undermine your collaboration. (Baker "Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution")
Under these parameters, Baker describes altering the otherwise-simulated nature of common RPG resolution mechanics into mechanics that instead fundamentally alter the shared fantasy. The role of the dice shifts to a more oracular role: they determine not only performance or ability but the nature of the fictional world. A check would only be made, in these contexts, when there is necessary conflict that demands resolution. It's important to note that these ideas, as written in the text, only apply to some RPGs. A GM could perhaps alter another RPG's text to better fulfill Baker's ideas, but not all RPGs behave this way. 

The second issue, however, one that even Baker's framework does not resolve, is that at no point does an RPG necessarily demand conflict within its fictional world. It's entirely possible to play an RPG and simply never encounter anything dangerous or uncertain—that's not how most tables play, but there's nothing stopping those tables from doing so. 

The third counter to the claims that RPGs are based on contest is that players and GMs are not strictly in competition with each other. There are cooperative games, certainly, but the lack of any clear goal in an RPG means that players are not working against some opposing force. There are moments of conflict that occur as a result of the fiction, but those are not required or enforced by the RPG in and of itself.

Do RPGs feature (necessarily) conflict or contest? No.

Proceeds according to rules that limit players

Consider Fine's frames again: where do the rules exist?

In the primary framework, we have rules regarding our conduct at the table, most of which are not codified by the text: listen when somebody talks. Show up on time. Don't throw your dice at other players. (It's worth noting that a few RPGs, like Avery's The Quiet Year, do interact with this framework: in The Quiet Year, players may only speak at a certain time. These RPGs are unusual, though, and are outside much of the discussion thus far.)

In the game framework, we have many, many rules: ability checks, attack rolls, saving throws, class, species, class, level, HP, and so on. These rules are strictly governed by the text.

In the fictional framework, the rules vary. Some of them are rules of the fictional world as defined by its inhabitants ("in this city, weapons are not allowed"), and thus can be broken like laws. Some of them are implied by our own world's rules, like physics ("if you don't eat, you will starve"). Some of them are unique to the fictional world ("when the moon is full, you transform into a wolf"). 

In most RPGs, the game framework and fictional framework interact regularly. If you transform into a wolf, your game statistics change to match the wolf. This is common in most kinds of games.

In his unfinished manuscript, Inventing the Adventure Game, Robinett writes: 
Making a simulation is a process of abstracting -- of selecting which entities and which properties from a complex real phenomena to use in the simulation program.  For example, to simulate a bouncing ball, the ball's position is important but its melting point probably isn't.  Any model has limitations, and is not a complete representation of reality. (Robinett, Chapter 5, "Getting Ideas")
In an RPG, the rules too are abstractions, and those rules may simulate the ball's position. What is unique to RPGs, however, is that despite not existing in the rules, the ball still has a melting point. Just because an element of the world is not present in the abstract simulation of the rules does not mean that element does not exist. 

In RPGs, the fictional framework takes precedence, regardless of abstraction: if a character transforms into a wolf and their statistics don't change, it feels strange. It feels incongruous, or cheap, or fake. We expect the rules of the RPG to conform to the fiction. 

Likewise, in most RPGs, characters are not limited to what the rules explicitly allow them to do, but instead to behave how they choose within the fictional context of the world. Zagal & Deterding write that in RPGs, "Attempted character actions are limited only by the imagination of controlling players" (Zagal & Deterding 45). A character may attempt nearly anything. They may not succeed—at most tables, a character could not jump to the moon—but they may try. 

Because of this reversed relationship, that the rules of the game framework are dependent on the rules of the fictional framework, the written rules of the text diminish in importance. It is possible to play an RPG with no game framework—the primary and fictional frames must exist, but the game frame is secondary. Abstractions are purely representational: the map is not the territory. 

All that said, the primary and fictional frames do still present rules that must be followed. If players can't agree to the basic conventions of their group, or if start breaking the rules of the shared fictional reality, play stops. Critically, in most RPGs, the rules of the primary frame are left entirely unspoken, and in many RPGs, the rules of the fictional frame are meant to be changed or expanded upon. 

So, do RPGs proceed according to rules that limit players? Yes, but the rules necessary to play are not those found in RPG books. 

In Summary

Here's the checklist in order:
  • Proceeds according to rules that limit players: Yes, but not the rules found in the text.
  • Conflict or contest: No.
  • Goal-oriented/outcome-oriented: No.
  • Activity, process, or event: Yes.
  • Involves decision-making: Yes.
  • Not serious or absorbing: No, but this is hard to define.
  • Never associated with material gain: Yes.
  • Artificial/Safe/Outside ordinary life: Yes, but no.
  • Creates special social groups: Yes.
  • Voluntary: Yes.
  • Uncertain: Yes.
  • Make-believe/Representational: Yes.
  • Inefficient: Yes, but no.
  • System of parts/Resources and tokens: No.
  • A form of art: Yes!
Obviously, Salen & Zimmerman provide these comparisons to demonstrate there is no one singular definition of game. It is an old and ongoing debate within game studies. 

But it's clear that RPGs defy much of what makes normal games what they are. They aren't like normal games. They don't work in the same way. Videogames, board games, card games, folk games, party games, sports—there is a great of overlap between them, and relatively little overlap with RPGs.

RPGs are unique. 


Consider De Koven's definition once more: "...something that provides us with a common goal, the achievement of which has no bearing on anything that is outside the game" (De Koven xxiii). Once again, the answer is contradictory. Within the rules of the text or the context of the fictional world, no, RPGs are not games. But as players, as people who want to play, then yes, of course RPGs are games. 

So what does this mean? What does RPGs' status as weird fringe maybe-games tell us?

The most obvious conclusion is that, within the pedagogy of game design, the design skills between RPGs and most other games are significantly less transferable than between other types of games. If you're trying to learn or teach RPGs, you need to do it differently than the other games.

The other conclusion, particularly with regards to the definitions surrounding rules, conflicts, and goals, is that a lot of what gets put into RPG books largely doesn't matter. The elements that change the fictional world—setting, genre, adventure, tone, aesthetic—do exist in many RPGs, but they are rarely given the same foregrounding as the rules. 

As designers, the key question we need to ask ourselves at every turn is this: are rules the most effective way to get the outcome we want? Game design is, to a large extent, the design of experiences. But because rules have relatively little importance compared to other games, it's worth strongly considering how much of what you want players to experience is defined by the rules. In terms of what is actually played at the table, rules are often secondary in impact compared to non-mechanical writing. Defining the world in fictional terms has a much stronger impact than defining it in rules.

So go forth and design, in the knowledge that RPGs are weird and the rules don't matter.

Works Cited

Baker, Vincent. "Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore."
Caillois, Roger, trans. Meyer Barash. Man, Play, and Games.
Costikyan, Greg. I Have No Words and I Must Design.
Crawford, Chris. The Art of Computer Game Design.
De Koven, Bernard. The Well-Played Game.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens.
Salen, Katie, and Zimmerman, Eric. Rules of Play. 
Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.
Zagal, José, and Deterding, Sebastian. Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

High Fantasy Worldbuilding: Plenty Vaults

Age of Mythology (2002)

Some friends of mine recently asked me to run a classic high fantasy D&D game for them. Huge journeys, magic item collectathons, lost siblings, mysterious visions, wild crazy dungeons, villainous dukes, the end of the world—the works. 

Recently I've been playing a lot of gritty, low-down D&D, classic OSR stuff. It's fun! I love inventory management and getting trenchfoot and having hour-long tactical discussions to kill three guys—genuinely, I really do—but I've also found myself wondering about other pastures. Not necessarily greener pastures, per se, but perhaps more... saturated pastures.



Here's a question for you: what's the nearest stretch of "wilderness" to you, right now? 

I live in Brooklyn. There are a couple of state parks on Long Island that are a couple miles across, and plenty of places in Jersey and upstate where you could walk for a few hours and not run into anybody, but genuine wilderness? Much harder to come by. In terms of places where you could walk for days, I think the closest to me is either the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the northern end of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. 

And even those places only maybe qualify as true "wilderness." There are trailheads and signs and campsites and other hikers. You can get lost for a few hours, or even a couple of days, but it's relatively difficult to get so lost and removed as truly lose all contact with civilization. 

But here's the thing: in fantasy media, wilderness is everywhere. 

When the Hobbits cross the Brandywine, it's three days through the Old Forest before Bree. After Bree, it's nearly three weeks to Rivendell. From Rivendell, it's another couple of weeks to Caradhras and Moria (a little squirrelly, given time spent going up and down mountains), then three days through Moria and another two to Lorien. It's almost two weeks from Caras Galadhon in Lorien to Amon Hen, where the Fellowship breaks (nobody lives there but it's after this that Frodo and Sam start getting really lost, and the Three Hunters turn westwards to Rohan). Point is, Middle-earth is huge and almost totally empty. Relative to the real world, the Fellowship meets fucking nobody.

Tolkien makes this all particularly obvious since he's so meticulous around time and distance, but gargantuan swathes of untamed wilderness is extremely normal for fantasy. Look at basically any of the fantasy lexicon that D&D draws from—or even newer fantasy, Sanderson or Avatar or even some of Jemisin's stuff—and the wilderness remains vast and wild. Cities stand alone.

By contrast, here's a pretty decent breakdown of what real-life Western Europe looked like. Cities have tons of towns surrounding them, and those towns are in turn surrounded by uncounted numbers of tiny unnamed villages and hamlets. It takes days or weeks or months of travel before you leave civilization behind and get to the truly uncharted wilds.

That's not to say wilderness doesn't still exist! It totally does. Most deserts, some mountains, certain parts of the rainforests, nearly all of Antarctica—uninhabited and largely untouched by humans. But as with our medieval examples, it takes weeks of travel along the gradient of civilization before reaching the true wilds. 

Why does this happen? Agriculture, mainly. Almost all the food humans eat is grown, and agriculture takes up a lot of time and space. Cities need to be surrounded by miles and miles of little farms and villages that grow all the food those cities eat. The bigger the city, the bigger its surrounding agricultural operation needs to be. 

But! This kind of sucks for D&D. Saying "yeah you walk through the nineteenth nameless village of the day, the peasants continue to momentarily stare then go back to work" just isn't as compelling. Yes, there are many diehard historical nerds who love this kind of thing. But for the game my friends want, where cities really are pockets of civilization surrounded by untold leagues of dangerous wilds, we need something different. 



A very long time ago, when the Gods left the earth and the Ancients crumbled into ruin, they left behind a gift: hidden vaults of pure white marble and untarnished gold. Every two weeks, when the full moon shines and the new moon hides, food springs forth within these vaults. Bread, meat, vegetables, cheese, water, salt—everything people need to survive.

Different vaults are different sizes. Some support only several hundreds, while others provide enough for tens or hundreds of thousands. In some blessed places, multiple vaults exist in proximity, leading to sprawling metropolises. From time to time, a vault may have requirements: rituals performed, valuables offered, sacrifices made. If these requirements are not met, food is not replenished.

Over time, the peoples of the earth built up cities around these vaults. Supplemented by a few other reliable sources of food (fishing, gathering, occasionally hunting), the cities grew to their maximum, then stopped: this is where the walls rise. Each city can only support so many; wise cities put food aside for disasters and wars, but foolish cities keep trying to grow, to expand. Yes, new foods are sometimes devised—mushrooms grown in caves, insects raised in cages, vines grown on walls—but these developments are uncommon, and rarely contend with the quantities provided by the vaults.

Outside the walls, the world is dangerous. Monsters prowl, the roads of the Ancients lie overgrown, and strange magic lurks around every corner. Yes, from time to time bands of heroes or soldiers try to tame some stretch of the wilds, but it rarely holds more than a generation. The world is simply too dangerous and sieges remain functionally impossible, so prudent cities invest in their walls, not their armies. 

Travel is rare. It does happen from time to time—gold draws the brave and foolish out, as always—but many travelers vanish and never return. Those who do travel from city to city tell wild tales of other realms governed by strange magic and stranger beings. New modes of travel are endlessly researched: merfolk watercraft, dwarven under-rails, wingling skyships. Anything to get off the ground, where the woods are haunted and the roads are watched.

So most people live their lives inside the walls of their cities: the governments dole out food, and life goes on, safe within the city. Because food is provided for, citizens are free to follow other pursuits: arts, sciences, history, religion, magic. Each city holds new splendors, new cultures, new wonders.



Okay, so here's why I like this idea for a mild-to-moderately self-aware Classic High Fantasy D&D Campaign:
  1. It fulfills the basic requirements that our fantasy media demands: improbably large cities immediately surrounded by huge amounts of wilderness. These cities are self-sustaining because of magic plenty vaults, and that means they don't need farmland. The bigger the vault, the bigger the city—simple.
  2. It means the wilderness can be dangerous. Normally in D&D there's this overriding question of "why don't the 2d100 goblins in the cave just crush the local village?" Here, it's simple: all the towns are really old and well-fortified because they want to protect their magic food supply from a world full of D&D monsters. It also provides some obvious and convenient motivation for those 2d100 goblins to act aggressively towards towns—they want that magic food supply.
  3. It provides a plausible-enough excuse for high fantasy bullshit that's totally out of wack with the standard medieval millieu. If your population-one-million Fantasy Rome doesn't need to have 90% of those people farming, it's not that implausible to suggest that their (magic-)technological speeds would advance quicker than our own human history, thus allowing lots of fun high fantasy nonsense. 
  4. It's an easy way to give each of your cities a very distinct identity: this one's built in the middle of inhospitable arctic wilderness; this one's dug into the face of a gigantic cliffside; this one's atop the back of a huge walking elemental. Why? Same reason for each: people found a plenty vault there, and so now it's a city. You can double up on this by having weird city-specific offering requirements for each vault—the cliff-city's vault demands one pure sapphire for every hundred tons of food, so now it's a major mining hub.
  5. Relatedly, because the wilderness is so dangerous, naturally each city needs some huge high-fantasy entity that protects it. This city is watched over by an ancient dragon, this one is warded by a wizard school, this other one still is run by a megalomaniacal beholder's secret mafia. Monsters that want minions need to feed those minions, and so they gravitate to the vaults. 
  6. It helps keep the world in a kind of relative stasis. While it's very in-vogue for the OSR to have constant background churning—factions clash, politicians backstab, armies march, borders change—your classic fantasy world needs to stay pretty still (until the heroes arrive to mess things up). A world where the outside is super dangerous and every city is quite isolated ensures that, while cities themselves can be a bit volatile, the broader world status quo is unlikely to change anytime too soon. 
All of this contributes to a setting backdrop that, while not 100% solid all the way through, provides enough groundwork to help justify a whole lot of the stereotypical fantasy setting. It lets cities be varied and weird and interesting, it lets the wilderness be extremely dangerous and full of dungeons, and it lets those two things sit in pretty darn close proximity to each other. All those things that normally require squinting and hand-waving can, with at least some measure of plausibility, be safely included.

Obviously, this is all theoretical—who knows how it'll work at the table. But I'm enamored with the idea, and it's got me much more excited for Classic High Fantasy D&D than I would be otherwise.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Quotations from The Well-Played Game

I recently read Bernie De Koven's The Well-Played Game all the way through for the first time. Here are some of my favorite bits.

--- our play community develops, there are particular times when we seek out games withy fewer and fewer rules. We have so affmired our ability to play well together, to be safe with each other, that rules begin to get in the way of our freedom together.

As we begin to sense our power to create our own conventions, as we discover that the authority for determining whether or not a particular game is suitable resides not in the game but in the play community, we are willing, even, to change the very conventions that unite us.

pgs. 12–13

As we continue to pursue this need to focus on the game alone, we find ourselves less and less willing to do anything other than think about the game. (...)

We create an authority which is no longer within our control, no longer subject to the conditions of our community. This helps us keep our minds on the game. This helps us avoid arguments. We have others now who can do that for us.

As our rules become regulations, we create greater and greater distance between our community adn those who govern it. Not only do we give our authority over to the referees and umpires, but we also allow their authority to be determined by an even larger authority, unnamed, unspecific, to which ascribe the personality for determining the regulations by which we play. (...)

 We have reached a point in the pursuit of our well-played game in which the game has taken precedence over our community.

pg. 32

Rules are made for the convenience of those who are playing. What is fair at one time or in one game may be inhibiting later on. It's not the game that's sacred, it's the people who are playing.

pg. 44 

If anything needs to change, it is much more logical to change the game than it is to change the people who are playing.

pgs. 47 

No matter what game we create, no matter how well we are able to play it, it is our game, and we can change it when we need to, we don't need permission or approval from anyone outside our community. We play our games as we see fit.

Which means that now we have at our disposal the means whereby we can always fit the game to the way we want to play.

 pg. 53

Clarity. Clarity. We can't play unless we are clear that that's what we're doing.

pg. 103

The games [of the New Games Foundation] were called "new" not because people had never played them before but because they were kept new by the ways in which they were played. Whatever rules there were, they were only the starting point, the introduction to the game. They described not how the game had to be played, but rather how the game could be played. People played the games the way they wanted them to be. that was the understanding that made the games "new."

pg. 113

We can play dangerously and still play well. If it works, we can play with more. We can be safe even though we're playing with things that we can't play with anywhere else. We can play with serious things—things of consequence. We could play with silence, with fasting, with patience. We could play with anger, with fear... Because we play responsibly, because we have affirmed our responsibilities to each other, to the sense of wellness, we can become larger than necessity. We can discover a new freedom. (...)

So we play with danger. A little danger. Enough danger. It is thrilling beyond words, this ability to play well with survival—to include in our games the very things that we have never been able to play with before. We can even play with death.

We can do this as long as we maintain our balance, as long as we are fully aware of the consequences, and fully accepting them. But, as our games get dangerous, our community has yet another obligation—we must make doubly sure that everyone we are playing with knows the consequences, has chosen to play.

pg. 125

Playing to win is as absurd as anything else, but if it helps us play well together, if it helps us arrive at a well-played game, we have to know that we all take the effort seriously.

pg. 130

Imagine how incomplete you would feel if, before the game, you were already declared the winner. Imagine how purposeless the game would feel—even though the universal agreement was that you were the winner.

It is disillusioning, being a winner. As disillusioning as it is to be a loser. If you're a winner, you lose the reason to play. The game goes on, but you don't. If you're a loser, you lose reason. You go on, even though the game is already over. 

pg. 138

We seek purpose so strongly that when our purposes are finally, ultimately fulfilled—when we come close enough to see that satisfaction is inevitable—we create, as swiftly as we can, other purposes.

pg. 140

When we're playing, we're not thinking about how well we're playing. We're just playing. We're not even thinking about playing.

pg. 142 

If we can all play well together, if we can find out how to do that, we might be able to raise the stakes infinitely.

pg. 143


The Well-Played Game was first published in 1978—an auspicious era for us elf-game nerds. The way De Koven writes, though, it all feels relevant. One of the quirks of De Koven (as with a lot of game studies text from before the '80s) is that he takes folk games as a default assumption. Games were published, sure, and there were board game designers that were active, but the vast majority of games lacked such a clear designer and direction. They were made, largely, by their players.

One of the quirks of studying RPGs is that, despite the astounding and enduring influence that D&D has had on videogames over the decades, RPGs remain folk games. It's almost impossible to make definitive statements about rules or mechanics or design because they're so unique and individual to their own tables. Even extremely tight, rigid RPGs vary wildly from table to table and group to group.

It's what makes De Koven so relevant to our circles and scenes, I think. He writes for a time when games, as they existed in the collective consciousness, were far more fluid and pliable than we conceive of them now. Yes, videogames can be changed (see Boluk & Lemieux), but RPGs are fundamentally folk-based games. There is no authority that really matters beyond the players at the table.

It's a beautiful thing.  

Monday, January 9, 2023

Review: Lingua Ignota, Live

On December 16th, 2022, I saw Lingua Ignota live at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. 

In a word: Prophetic. Transcendent. Messianic. Rapturous. Revelatory. Apocalyptic. The most affecting performance I've ever witnessed, and one of the most intense emotional experiences of my life. 

The setup was simple: a stage at the front of a large warehouse music hall. She had a modified piano, a laptop connected to gargantuan speakers, and a microphone. In the background, a video looped, showing cut-together and blurred footage of marshland, red smoke, and middle-Americana carpeted-floor church services. The stage lights weren't always on, but when they were, they shone red. She also had five tall, thin vertical lights, freestanding, which she moved around regularly. They glowed gold; the affect was that of either candlelight or angelic divine illumination.

She began the show by walking down into the audience, the house lights off. She went to the center of the audience, stood on a box, and turned on a single of her golden lamps. Then, she sang "O Death," the Appalachian folk song. When she reached the final line, she turned off her light and sang to all of us in total darkness. 

She could have ended the show then and there, one song, and I would've been happy. Simply sublime.

The rest of show was split into two parts: the first third, she sang and played her piano. The rest of the show, she turned on a backing track from her laptop, an overwhelming wall of sound, and sang with just the microphone.

She was like a prophet. A figure who understands fundamental mysteries of the universe in a way that the rest of us do not. She was a saint. The word I wanted to address her by was "master," or "teacher." I was overwhelmed with intensely personal respect and devotion. I wanted to cry out to her, up there on her stage, to weep at her feet and beg. If she had told us to give up everything and come follow her, I would have done it without regrets.

And yet—she remained extremely human. Twice, once on the piano and once with the backing track, she stopped her show right in the middle because someone in the audience needed help. She was very open about it being a show; she joked about how easy it was to stop and start because it was just one button on her laptop. She ducked behind her piano between songs to drink coconut water. It was unabashedly all production and show. 

But that only made it more powerful. Both times, I wondered how she would recapture the mood and atmosphere after such a stark interruption, and both times she had us all in her thrall in seconds. To know that she had conjured up sound and wisdom not as a transient experience dependent on external forces, like a seance or a drug, but as something she simply controlled—witchcraft. Like calling down lightning on a whim. 

I was in tears for about half the show. I started crying during "FRAGRANT IS MY MANY-FLOWER'D CROWN" ("For I have learned / All men are brothers / And brothers / Only love each other") and more or less didn't stop. It was catharsis on a level I've never felt, and sometimes doubt I will ever feel again. I felt raw, like I was laid bare for judgement day, sins and all.

The show worked its way through a compilation of songs from SINNER GET READY, CALIGULA, and ALL BITCHES DIE. Her backing track was based on the albums, but modified.

Twice during "MANY HANDS," I was struck with fear and panic, gasping and weeping. I know all of the words to "MANY HANDS" ("The Lord spat and held me by my neck / I would die for you I would die for you He wept"). It is the song of hers that is most important to me. Seeing her perform it live in front of me was simply apocalyptic. I mouthed the words along like a prayer, and she took those words and threw them back at me with holy fire and brimstone. I couldn't look away. I quaked in my boots and sobbed with terror.

Multiple time throughout the show, she took hold of one of her lights and descended into the audience, singing all the while. We parted before her, a crowd of the faithful ready for her message. She walked through our midst like an angel or a ghost, gracing us with her presence while silently demanding everything we had. To see her part the masses singing, holding aloft the only light in the hall, was simply unearthly.

Later, she sang "FAITHFUL SERVANT FRIEND OF CHRIST," illuminated only by two of her golden lamps. Hearing her, silhouetted against heaven's light, call out those words ("Faithful servant and / Friend of Christ / Most glorious and / Holy light") was perhaps the closest I've ever felt to God. It was penitence, a burning declaration of faith, one that might yet signal redemption. I wept for joy. 

In the end, though, she was gentle with us. She returned to her piano for the last song, a stripped-back cover of "Jolene." It felt like aftercare, softer reminder that this was just a show and she was just an artist. 

Maybe. While I understand on an intellectual level what elements of the show I saw and heard, on a spiritual and emotional level I remain in utter confounded awe. Mabe she simply did her research on revivalism and American faith music. Maybe she simply constructed one of the most meaningful performances I've ever seen. Maybe she simply is a virtuoso of unparalleled talent.

But maybe not. Down in my bones, it is an unquestioned truth that she speaks with divine authority, that she sees something the rest of us only dream of. In my heart, there is no question that she is blessed by God and the Devil alike.

After the show, I was in a daze. I wanted to say a million things, to scream and cry and laugh, but I didn't. I mostly just stood silently. I was on the edge of tears on the walk out of the hall, and cried again on the way home. 

I was raw for days afterwards. On reflection, weeks later, thinking about the show still makes me cry, but mostly I feel gratitude. I will likely never see her again, but she commanded such revelation that I cannot feel anything but a burning passion, a profound thankfulness for showing me some glimpse of the fiery heavens. God's mystery is great and terrible, but she is his prophet.