Sunday, May 19, 2019

The City of Hex: The Late Baroque CSIO

If you read and enjoyed my post on the City State of the Invincible Overlord, you all need to go read this post right now by Jonathan Newell on the Bearded Devil blog. It talks about his method for preparing and running his gorgeously mapped city of Hex.

Bearded Devil, you are bringing into reality what I glimpsed as a possibility only gestured at by the City State of the Invincible Overlord. There's a lot to learn from Jonathan's experiment with Hex. For comparison's purpose, let's start with the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The CSIO has a gorgeous and detailed map, full of cramped shops, narrow alleys, and open plazas.

It uses this street map as the template for play, since it is designed to run at the level of micro-geography of the city. In fact, the map doesn't even divide the city into neighborhoods--as though such distinctions are too large scale to be useful in play. About a third of the buildings are keyed, and every shop, tavern, and temple is filled with leveled NPCs (some colorful) and abounds with rumors and opportunities for adventures. Different streets have their own random encounters mechanic built in giving a sense of the character of the city at the level of streets.

I think this approach was born out of the best kind of creative thinking, extrapolating from early dungeon play, and essentially imagining a sword & sorcery city at dungeon scale, except instead of fighting monsters you get up to capers, heists, arena fighting, bar fights, and general hijinks, a version of what (to paraphrase Jeff Rients) Conan and Lando Calrissian might get up to if they found themselves bored on a hot afternoon in Lankhmar.

The possibility that I glimpsed in the CSIO is of an entire campaign plumbing the depths of an inexhaustible wealth of delicious, imaginative, city material. Where, in some sense, the subject of the game is the city itself, and the goal is a sort of carnal knowledge of the overwhelming built environment, where the players come to literally know the texture of its streets, the little nooks and crannies, and dozens, perhaps hundreds of its myriad secrets. Where the player would know exactly what it looked like to gaze across the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures into the Park of Obscene Statues, or that beneath Boot & Strap on Barter Street, the shop of notorious bootmaker Karugy One-Eye, they might exchange news with bandits and blackguards over a cup of ale and roast pig, provided they weren't elves(!), before coming out in such and such a spot in the undercity.

In the perhaps imperfect language I have recently developed for trying to talk about what's fun about this sort of thing, we can say the CSIO was created with the idea that city exploration might provide the pleasures of secrecy & discovery in a sense modeled on exploring a megadungeon. Since my own infatuation with city exploration IRL is premised on a romantic but absolutely true idea that cities are repositories of endless secrets and anarchic human-wrought wonders, this idea really gripped me. How could it not?

But one deep feature of the CSIO is that it is designed for low prep gaming. It uses an absurdly fiddly, but extraordinarily flexible (once you grasp it) system of generic random encounters (the system is also in the Ready Ref Sheets). This system is intended to combine with the immense system of loosey-goosey location-based rumors and detailed keyed locations to generate endless possibilities for adventure in an improvisational mode. It invites the kind of play I've been using it for with my son and his cousins. Did I mention that in the last session they fast talked their way into Liar Mukang's Pleasure Dome, escaping by a hair's breadth laden with his riches on the back of a gold dragon? And that I did zero prep for that session? I can report that the CSIO works as intended, at least with the 10-13 crowd. [Note: Liar Mukang and his pleasure dome is hell-of-racist. It was a nice teaching moment with the kids. We got to have the fun of the adventure AND talk about orientalism afterwards.]

It is striking that the improvisational style of CSIO is in some tension with the ideal being gestured towards by the detailed micro-geographical approach. There's something hilariously incongruous about juxtaposing the detailed geographical detail and the generic nature of the encounter tables: we go from the notorious bootmaker Karugy One-Eye with 3 levels in fighter and his bigoted ogre wife, complete with the rumor that two drunken rogues are slumped over a staff of power at a horse tie, to this encounter you might roll: a noble wants to hire you. It works perfectly well as a package, with the detailed geography and entries providing a structure that works as a skeleton on which to hang the maximally swingy improvisational encounters and adventures. But one way to look at this combination is as a possible fault line in the CSIO. We can then think of approaches breaking one way or the other.

Vornheim (I know, I know) ditched the micro-geography and keyed locations for a vastly more flavorful set of systems of procedural generation of the physical city itself, underwriting zero prep improvisational play to a higher degree. Logan Knight's Corpathium followed in this direction still further, supplemented with flavorful neighborhood based random encounter tables that moved the unit of the city from the street to the district. The experiment was to see whether we could replace the obsessive micro-geographical detail of the CSIO and its less successful progeny with methods of procedural generation to create the open sense of a truly vast city. Although those attempts succeeded at doing what they were trying to do, and so were a genuine advance, I think they missed the charm of the CSIO, conflating its approach with the boring enumeration of useless information that characterized later city products.

Hex breaks the other way, opting to dial up to 11 the intense, loving pre-generation of physical city as a boundless source of adventure. The game is run as a reverse West Marches campaign, with a shifting cast of players who set their own agendas in a sandbox consisting (almost) exclusively of the city itself for each session by voting in two polls, one to schedule a game and the other to set the agenda for the session (which they can edit to introduce whatever options they want). Jonathan then preps different areas and NPCs in the city as much as he can in advance, as in a West Marches game the DM would prep the portions of the hex map and adventure locations the players planned to visit. This approach of incremental city creation, with the prep racing ahead of the players via polling is an interesting approach. Over time, the city has taken on a life of its own and now is sufficiently developed that Jonathan says he has a pretty good idea what's going on in every neighborhood, and often at the street level. Which is nuts in the best kind of way.

As with the CSIO, Hex has a detailed map, allowing for play that is focused on the texture and microgeography of the city. If the CSIO map is pretty, the one for Hex is drop dead gorgeous. I mean take a look at this map fragment:

The Cultist Quarter & Enigma Heap
Jonathan runs the game with a huge version of the map rolled out on the table, which is how I run CSIO too (albeit with a smaller map). This emphasizes the freedom of movement for the players, and the city as a space to be moved through and explored. Unlike in the CSIO, where a lot of the game is about getting from point A to point B via the streets, Jonathan abstracts from movement between quadrants of the city, zooming at the level of the destination neighborhood. Using the polls to give him advance notice, he preps the descriptions for the streets and keys for the buildings and NPCs. Given how detailed his map is, he is able to print blown up versions of individual neighborhoods. Like so:

He also draws a lot of the crazy neighborhood blocks of clustered buildings that the players are likely to visit. Here are a couple of his drawings. How could you not be curious about each and every store, resident, floor and so on?

I find this aspect of his city especially remarkable. By employing his formidable artistic skills, as well as the aesthetic of a city of visually striking, quirky, simultaneously organic and jury-rigged clusters of buildings into blocks, he is able to give a rich texture to individual city blocks. I've never seen anything like this, but it sure would render memorable all sorts of locations in the city! He can literally just say to his players: this is what it looks like. This is what the prep of an adventure location might look like:

Obviously the city is extraordinarily flavorful, a place abounding in wonders, a sort of Dickensian, fey touched, demon infested, New Crobuzon. I think it would be a total blast to play there. Given my dispositions, imaginative burn out, and lack of mapping and artistic skills, it's clear that I will never be able to accomplish anything like this. Which is why I find this so fascinating. I can't wait to read more about how you run this game Jonathan. Perhaps one day Zyan Above can be a fraction of what you are making here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Pleasures of the OSR: Emergent Story and Open Worlds

This is the second post in a series where I explore the OSR play style by considering the different pleasures it makes available. As in my first post, I'm taking as one of my reference points the contrast between OSR and story games. This time though I'm going to talk about the way each of them reacts to what we might think of as a depressing tendency in "trad", "mainstream", or "corporate" play style. OSR and story games each try to secure different pleasures that this depressing tendency threatens. The difference in what we're after is easy to miss, because we talk the same talk when we criticize the tendency we both find oppressive.

What both OSR and story gamers are against is railroading. Here's a rough explanation of the metaphor of railroading. Trains can only run along certain tracks, stopping at a predetermined set of stations that lie along a straight line. Perhaps there are one or two choice points, but those choice points just lead to more straight rails with their own fixed sequence of destinations. One finds something similarly constraining in TTRPGs when the dungeon master comes to the table with a pre-planned story following a certain sequence to a fixed conclusion. The role of the players is to move through a series of scenes or encounters exercising a very constrained agency, to tell the story that the DM wants to tell in more or less the way he wants to tell it. This style of play has deep roots in the history of D&D, going back to some tournament style modules (I'm looking at you Tracy Hickman) that want to walk the players through a more or less fixed sequence of events and challenges towards a final confrontation with a big boss. One finds it still in Pathfinder style "adventure paths". What if someone gets off the path? Wouldn't it be more interesting to do just that? 

Both story and OSR gamers find this dreadful. They both reject it using the same form of words. When I first read Vincent and Meguey Baker in Apocalypse World saying, "We play to see what happens," I recognized immediately a formulation that everyone in the OSR would enthusiastically affirm. Ditch the rails and the preplanned series of events! If we've done our job right then we know that we can only see what happens by playing the game. Similarly, both OSR and story gamers regularly say that they value "emergent stories". The idea is that the stories are not pre-written, rather they emerge from play. So it seems like we're on the same page. But I'm convinced that this is, in large part, an illusion.

Story gamers see the problem as lying with the fact that the DM is doing all the narrating. He has already written the fiction, and the players are present as his props, or as actors who follow his pre-written script in a play that he is also directing. From this perspective, railroading is awful because it reserves the pleasurable activity of creating fiction for the DM and denies it to the players. It also makes the creation of fiction a kind of controlling exercise in moving people about as thought they were extensions of your will. The attractive ideal they present as an alternative is to let the players in on the act of creation. What they are after is an improvisational, collaborative, story telling, where players and GMs can explore fiction together, creating interesting stories in a certain genre by throwing characters into provocative situations so as to see what happens.

Given that this is the kind of distinctive pleasure (really a whole family of pleasures) they are trying to secure, their rules and practices allow players to take control of the fiction in various ways. For example, a "move" in Apocalypse World is an action type that triggers dice rolling. One of the general moves available to all classes ("playbooks") is "Read a Sitch". This is a move that allows the character to understand a charged situation by reading the intentions, vulnerabilities, and so on of the people in it. One can only use this move in a situation that is charged, i.e. tense. In explaining how this works, the Bakers imagines a player saying "I want to read the situation," and the GM ("MC") responding, "Oh yeah? How is this situation charged?" This invites the player to take over the fiction and elaborate on the situation. The player might say something like, "It's charged now! I've had a grudge against Bad Maw since he burned Locust Village." Or, he might say something like, "I've been hooking up with Sister Kate, and Bad Maw doesn't like it." Similarly, in John Harper's Blades Against the Dark, players can always trade resources ("stress") to change the fiction when something bad happens to them. They can also suggest to one another "Devil's Bargains", inserting faustian choices into the game, in order to give each other bonuses on rolls. For example, if someone is trying to intimidate their gang of hirelings into not torturing a captive, another player might say, "Maybe you go too far, and there's simmering resentment building up that might boil over later." And these are just tiny examples of what is a thoroughgoing tendency to enable the contributions of players to the fiction being collectively produced. Stories emerge from these rule-supported collaboration in story telling.

By contrast, OSR gamers see the problem with railroading as the fact that the DM is trying to tell a story. They regularly say things like, "Well, if that's what he wants to do, he should go write a fantasy novel then." Here's something they never say, "We should change things so that we all write a fantasy novel together in an improvisational and collaborative mode." The OSR idea is to ditch the pretension to storytelling altogether. Liberation is from the idea that we're trying to tell a story. In OSR games, people don't think in terms of creating fiction. They go about pursuing aims, overcoming challenges (hint: this is the pleasure for the next post in the series), accomplishing goals, enjoying the pleasures of discovery, and so on. They do act on reasons like, "This would be a cool place to go and check out," (pleasure of discovery). But they don't act on reasons like, "It would be cool for the story if we went here" (pleasure of storytelling). On the OSR approach to play, we're certainly engaging in collective make believe, since we pretend to be characters inhabiting a world together, but this collective make believe is not improvisational storytelling.

If we don't see ourselves as storytelling, then in what sense do we take pleasure in "emergent stories"? When we say we're into "stories that emerge from play", we mean precisely stories that no one aimed to produce. Like in ordinary life, where we do various things not intending to produce a story, but nonetheless through the interaction of chance, the dubiousness of colorful characters, and our boldness in the moment, a memorable story emerges. This is, obviously, a different pleasure than the pleasure in contributing to, exploring, and collaboratively crafting a satisfying story. Mainly in the OSR we don't get that pleasure. Since our games don't aim at collaboratively producing satisfying fiction, often our play doesn't coalesce into memorable or satisfying narrative, which can be disappointing to people who come wanting to tell stories together. (Confession: sometimes I feel that disappointment.)

But there's something we get that story games can't as easily deliver. A story that is incredible in real life is not very impressive where we are aiming to produce incredible stories. You're the one writing the story? Then of course that thing that makes for a cool story is what happened. How much more awesome is that same story when it happens in real life, where no one was trying to make an awesome story? That's the kind of emergent stories that OSR gamers take pleasure in. When we trade stories, we aren't trading fiction we collaboratively improvised: we're swapping war stories.

Another thing that getting off the railroad means in OSR play is getting into an open world. I can best convey the pleasure of this by example. My son wanted me to introduce D&D to his two cousins over Thanksgiving. The older of the pair is a surly tween. I had some capital to spend, since she definitely thinks of me as "the fun uncle", but I was expecting resistance. I had no time to prep (also, I don't prep for kids), so I quickly sat down and scrawled a hackneyed dungeon in 10 minutes. A princess' bed had been turned into a portal. She had been dragged into some ice caves beneath, where an ice witch was holding her captive. The king had sent in a dopy suitor and knights who had promptly gotten captured by some yetis. They went a ways into the dungeon and messed around with some stuff. At first the tween was rolling her eyes and making sarcastic remarks. But then my son said something offhand about what they would do when they got out of there. She stopped the game and said, "Wait, we can do ANYTHING we want in this game?" And I said, "Yes, that's the WHOLE IDEA of D&D." Her eyes got wide like saucers and she burst into a shit-eating grin. They promptly hatched a plan to come out of the bed and rob the king, fleeing to the big city with the king's wizard in ho5 pursuit. They took the princess' bed with them, and so they have had a portable dungeon with them ever since. The game consists now of one scam and heist after another in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, Judge's Guild sword and sorcery wonderland of a city. The thrill that my niece experienced, that feeling of total, delicious, delirious openness: that's the pleasure I'm talking about. It's the same pleasure that group has every time they begin a session by discussing all the irons they have in the fire, and settle on whatever strikes their fancy as the best and most interesting thing to do.

I f you read my last post, I bet you're thinking: but the kid's game you're describing is all improvisation. Part of the reason why people in the OSR sometimes push low prep styles is to prevent a DM from laying down the rails in the first place. The idea is that if we don't prepare too much then we can't prepare in such a way as to forestall openness. This is why story games with their improvisational, player-driven collaboration immediately destroy the railroad. So some may be scenting a tension between the pleasure I'm articulating here and the pleasure of discovery that depends on the presence of an already existing world. But how do you prep for an open game that's not collaborative storytelling? Through the exercise of our collective intelligence we've solved this problem. In OSR design and play culture we make the rails impossible through the way we prep and play games.

For example, when prepping "an adventure" we don't prepare it as a series of scenes or encounters. Instead we prepare location-based adventures. We imagine a place that could be interacted with in numerous ways. This affects something as concrete as how we design maps and layout. We learned early that there should be numerous ways into and out of a place, interesting inter-level connections, looping passages, map features that can be interacted with and used in any number of ways. This single concrete point has a huge psychological effect, since it makes it literally impossible for a DM to imagine in advance the sequence of events as players move through a space (those stations on a straight rail).

Similarly, instead of designing NPCs around dramatic encounters that push in a single direction, we  design jostling factions that can be interacted with any number of ways. They have their schemes and complex motivations and are in conflict with one another. Players enter into this social terrain interacting in whatever way they want with this dynamic and unstable environment. The single best piece of writing on this is Gus L.'s forthcoming Pyre Coast. Gus is a master of faction play, both as a DM and a player. (Whenever he shows up in my game I think of the legendary reports of Dave Arneson showing up as Captain Harchar in M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel games.) Gus has excellent advice on how to fold factions into the design of every locale, and also into random encounter tables. The Pyre Coast is a kind of master class in viewing a dungeon and wilderness encounter table through the lens of faction play. Cole Long has interesting thoughts about this coming from his Swords of the Inner Sea Campaign, a hidden gem of OSR play. I'll talk about that in the third of my Google mix tapes series. (From someone who never has much of a queue on this blog, since the demise of G+ I've had about a dozen posts on my workbench.)

When we move up from adventure sites and factions to the level of wilderness and the campaign map, we prep to foster openness by preparing sandboxes. The idea is to populate a map with interesting features, settlements, lairs, adventure locales and so on. One has no predetermined sense of where the players will go or what they will do: it's their sandbox to play in. One variety of sandbox play is the hex crawl. The term comes from the hexagonal shaped wilderness maps popular from the war games influenced days of the early hobby. The West Marches campaign was an inspiring experiment run by Ben Robbins in the early 2000's. It was a completely open game of wilderness hex crawling. Ben had prepared an unexplored wilderness hexmap, the West Marches, stocking it with adventure sites, lairs, landmarks, and so on. There was no fixed group of players or regularly scheduled games. Instead the players recruited teams, and scheduled sessions, to go to locations of their choosing. Together, this huge assortment of different players kept a collective map, which in turn spurred further exploration (e.g. when another group uncovered a new adventure site or pushed further into the unknown then people scrambled to put together a new expedition). The game was restrictive in that all adventuring began and ended in a settlement, and all adventures happened out there in the wilderness of the West Marches. But it did give a template for maximum openness in player choice in the context of wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling that could be realized in less restrictive forms.

But still, one might think, such openness, even if it doesn't stand in tension with prep as such, does stand in tension with evocative snowflake worlds of the imagination. For surely the only way to develop the lore, the history, the metaphysics, and so on of a world is through some kind of meta-plot and story arcs. Or, at the very least, one might think that such world building minutiae could never be relevant to the nuts and bolts of an open, player-driven game. Since one of the hallmarks of the OSR is the creation of precisely such implausible jewels of settings this would be a major tension in our culture. But we've cracked this nut too.

I have run an entirely open world in my maximally pretentious and wildly baroque dreamlands game. The basic trick is to introduce setting lore, metaphysics, religion, and culture in connection with elements of the sandbox. For example, I explored the Numinous Game played by the Unrelenting Archons, the alien deities of religion of Zyan by putting a Forgotten Temple of the Archons on my map as an adventure site that the players could visit. When theology and metaphysics are wrapped up in the mystery of an adventure locale, then metaphysics becomes key to unravelling the mystery of dungeon. Similarly, one can introduce a lot of this through jostling factions who have their own cultures, histories and so on. Do you want to befriend the Guildless pariahs in Zyan? It may help to understand that they are mute exiles who worship Golumex, the pariah Archon of ruin and lost hope. When setting lore is part of the sandbox, your snowflake of a world is the solution for getting off the rails rather than the problem.

This John Blanche picture from Sorcery! was the inspiration for the Guildless

I talked about how I develop a setting through a sandbox in my own campaign here.  Over the years, Chris Kutalik has written a series of illuminating posts about related on the Hill Cantons blog, which I'll talk more about in the Google Plus Mixtape Track 02. Here's one where he talks about "setting info" as a treasure type and how he connects lore to every dungeon he designs. Here are two different posts (Post I and Post II) where he explains his index card method that ties setting mysteries into his sleek system of campaign events, rumors, and adventure locales. (Confession: when I wrote the post on world building I linked to above, I forgot that I had read Chris writing about it. I was clearly channeling him, especially in the defense of the "snowflake setting". Sorry Chris! One small way I would push back on Chris' perspective on all this is that I don't see why "top down" setting construction is opposed to openness. I see why it has various practical problems, but I don't see the connection between it and "thinking in terms of a five-act play", at least if what you're top-down designing is a sandbox.)

One crucial rule used in almost all OSR games that makes this possible is a mechanic that links treasure with gaining experience. The classic rule is 1 XP per GP. What this rule does is link advancement of a character to engagement with locations in a sandbox. It presents a constant incentive for players to uncover adventure locales and brave them. There is thus never a question about why they would want to press forward into the unknown. In my experience, at the beginning of a campaign that uses this rule, the game is mainly about recovering loot. But as the players get involved in the world, it shifts into a set of campaign goals involving the relationships to various NPCs and factions, and interaction with larger elements of the setting, and so on. At mid-level play, one will regularly have strings of sessions without any XP whatsoever, as the group pursues solely self-selected campaign goals. (In classic D&D, at a high-level a campaign was supposed to shift into "domain play", when the PCs became big players in the world. I've never done that, I'm talking about an organic growth in player driven goals.) But the lure of treasure will always be there, meaning that as soon as they get they itch the group can always return to the baseline activity of exploration and adventuring.

To story game ways of thinking this is an incredibly reductive mechanic that at best forces all games of D&D into telling stories from a small range of genres, say the swords & sorcery picaresque. It's all Cugel the Clever, or Conan, or Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. This is basically true: the stories that emerge from play do tend to have this flavor. Since in OSR games we're not thinking about intentionally producing fiction, this bothers us less. (It probably also helps that the genres of fiction involved are well-loved in the OSR.) If this is too constraining for you, I recommend looking at The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger for a creative re-interpretation of the rule that ties it into setting specific flavor. In my next campaign, I'm going to follow Metzger's lead and tie the recovery of treasure to a setting specific themes to produce emergent stories that break with the swrod and sorcery picaresque. But more on that another time.

There are also ways of widening the incentives a bit. Jason Hobbs, in his West Marches style Kalmatta game, adds to this a rule that incentivizes exploring, giving 10 XP for each hex on the map visited, and 150 XP for uncovering adventure sites. Jeff Rients wrote a fabulous post a long time ago about giving XP for visiting a small number of wondrous locations in your sandbox. The crucial thing is just that character advancement be tied to the uncovering and braving of adventure locales. Other possibilities exist as well, for example, in a different system adventure locales might contain means for players to advance without a mechanic like XP, for example, by undergoing trials of the spirit or some kind of transformation (again: this will be in my next campaign). But the crucial thing is that exploration and overcoming challenges in adventure locales be directly incentivized. Further goals emerge and are built on top of that foundational activity.

I have trouble envisioning an open game in the OSR sense without some incentive structure like that. Otherwise one has to invest in story elements from the get-go, thinking from session 1 about your PC's motivations, and perhaps making choices about what kind of story you want to tell with this character. After all, someone is going to have determine the motivations for playing in the sandbox along certain vectors, whether it's the DM or the players, or some collaboration between all-of-the-above. The kind of openness in OSR games involves not doing that, and so requires some impersonal mechanic that incentivizes playing in the sandbox, for example, by linking it to "success" and player advancement. While we can certainly imagine more flexible variations on this theme, some mechanic along these lines will be essential.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Pleasures of the OSR: Secrecy and Discovery

This is the first in a series of posts that try to say something about the theory of the OSR style of play. I promise never to use jargon, but if you don't like self-conscious reflection on what we do in practice, then this series probably isn't for you. That's why I added the label "Theory" to the posts in this series: so that you can avoid it like the plague.

My way of conceptualizing our play style is to speak about the distinctive pleasures this style facilitates. It is play after all, and so the whole point is for it to be a pleasurable activity. Each post in this series will explore how the rules and methods we use facilitate one or another distinctive pleasure. These pleasures are, in many cases, mutually supporting in OSR play, and so they come as a package, but in other cases they're in some tension with one another. So there's going to be a little bit of explaining why I'm keener for some elements of OSR play style than others.    

Recently I have been reading a lot of story games, including Apocalypse World and its progeny, "Powered by the Apocalypse" (PbtA) games, and Blades in the Dark and its scions, "Forged in the Dark" (FitD) games. I've also been hanging around the Gauntlet Community. I have signed up for my first session in their delightful and ongoing storygame version of Constantcon. I also have been listening to the excellent Dungeon World (a PbtA game) actual play podcast We Hunt the Keepers. For me this process has been tremendously clarifying. I think what they do is really neat, and seeing how it's different from what we do helps me to understand why we do some of things we do. There's nothing like seeing the space of alternatives to better understand the niche you occupy. I'm also interested in how we could get some of the pleasures they chase into our games without diluting the pleasures we're chasing. As it turns out, this is not so easy, for reasons I'll explain eventually.

One of the primary pleasures I get in playing D&D is discovery. Discovery involves uncovering  something previously unknown. When I discover something, I learn or finding out about that thing. In some uses, say in science or geographical exploration, we use as the subject of knowledge humanity as a whole, and speak of "discovering" something only when knowledge is first brought to light. This is the sense in which Einstein discovered special relativity, and the sense in which Christopher Columbus emphatically did not discover the "New World", in spite of what your junior high school teacher might have told you. But we also speak of discovery in an individual register, as I might discover that I'm really good at philosophy, or I might discover some interesting historical fact about my neighborhood--a fact which other people know and have known, but which is news to me. 

The pleasure of discovery
One crucial point is this: in the ordinary sense of the term, one can only discover something that is already there. If you make something up, that's not discovering it. Another important point is that we need to distinguish between the character (PC) discovering something in the world of the game and the player of that character discovering something about the world of the game. Those are two very different things. It is possible for the character to discover something while the player does not discover anything. One case is where the player already knows what his character discovers. Another case is where in the "fiction" of the game the character comes to discover something, but the player does not because the "fact" was made up on the spot, either by the player or by the DM. In this case, although in the "fiction" of the game there was a fact about something that existed in advance, and your character just found it out, in reality there was no fact about this feature of the gameworld in advance, and so, as a player outside the fiction, there was nothing there for you to discover.

So here is one of the pleasures of the OSR style of play: it makes available the pleasure of discovery about the world of the game and the things in it. This fact depends on a differentiation of roles between DMs and players. The DM in designing the world, building the sandbox, creating and stocking the dungeons, making up the NPCs, and so on, acquires one secret after another. On the OSR style of play, prep is essentially stocking a storehouse of secrets. The players, by contrast, go into the situations they choose to enter in a state of ignorance. They are in the dark about the nature of this strange tower their character has decide to explore; they do not know what is around the next corner, or in that chest; they do not know what the NPCs are up to, or even what NPCs and factions there are; they do not know what will happen if they put that obviously magical crown on their head. This is tremendous fun for both the player and the DM.

For the player, there is immediate tension in entering into a situation without knowing what's going on. In OSR games, the stakes are almost always high, since they include the life and death of the character, but also the success or failure of many schemes. The lack of knowledge is thus a source of peril and uncertainty. It is both an obstacle to be overcome and a hazard to be dared. There is also a thrill of discovery, of uncovering things that are hidden. If the game is being played well, what is uncovered are not boring things. Every dungeon is initially a mystery, every artifact a hidden wonder, every faction an unknown quantity. To explore a dungeon is to unravel the mystery of the place.

This is the DM's map (above) from Judge's Guild's First Fantasy Camapaign by Dave Arneson, and the blank version of the same hex map, as filled in by players.
This feature receives dramatic representation in the fact that one begins a hexcrawl with a blank sheet of hex paper, and dungeon exploration with a blank sheet of graph paper. Judges Guild for example always included both a filled in DM's map and a blank map for the players to fill in. All that white space on the map is a representation of your ignorance as a player, and the satisfaction of marking what is known is the graphic record of the pleasures of discovery. This pleasure extends to larger scale discovery of elements of the setting and world. Since the OSR specializes in highly evocative settings, from the deep geological horror of the Veins of the Earth to the mythic slavic weirdness of the Hill Cantons, this journey into the unknown is also a coming to know about a fantastical world and its secrets. 

For the DM, the associated pleasures are different. The DM sets something up and then sees how the players cope with it in their state of ignorance. First of all, there is pleasure in knowing something that others don't know. The DM is the one in the know, the one who has the synoptic vision of what's going on that others lack. This is represented at the table in striking form by the presence of a DM screen, a kind of symbolic and real veil that hides the prepped storehouse of secrets from the view of the players.

Just look at this gorgeous screen that Anthony Huso just made!
From behind (literal or figurative) screen, the DM gets to hear the player's theories, suppressing a smile when the guess is wrong (or right). They see the consequences of the players' high-stakes choices in conditions of ignorance, getting the thrill of anticipating the cascading consequences. Another pleasure of having secrets is sharing them. The DM gets the immense pleasure of letting the players in on the secret as they discover more and more. This includes the dramatic pleasure of the "big reveal" or "the Saturday Night Specials", but also the more quotidian pleasure of describing something (a room, an NPC) for the first time. But that's just the beginning. If the DM has done their job right, then the PCs are walking into a tightly coiled spring. The DM participates in that sense of palpable tension that flows from player ignorance. They don't know what choices the players will make, coping well or badly with their ignorance, and the DM is as much on the edge of their seats as the players are. In one way, the tension is greater for the DM, since the DM knows what the players are up against.  

One way to see the significance of this pleasure is to see how it is undermined by some of the basic aims of story games. This is not a knock against story games, since my view is that they're largely chasing different pleasures that are not so easy for us to get at. I also don't mean to say that you cannot pursue this pleasure in a story game. But there are certain widely shared design goals in story games that make it harder. Story games generally try to break down the asymmetry of DM and players by allowing the players into the role of creation. Through myriad techniques and rules they distribute to players the world-making, scene describing, NPC reacting, job that the OSR reserves for the DM. The idea is that the players and the DM are telling a story together in a certain genre, in a kind of improvisational mode. Reality is, in a certain sense and to varying degrees, up for grabs in accordance with the rules that dole out narrative control. This means that while their characters might discover things, it's much harder for the players to do so. To the extent that discovery is possible for the players, it's because the DM is reserving some things and refusing to cede narrative control over them. They are facts that are fixed in the fiction independently of what the players want and choose, facts know to the DM and not known to the players. The point is just: a lot of rules in storygames push against this. This steers the game away from the pleasures of discovery, whereas the OSR is on a straight road headed to that destination.

A conceptual test case is the fascinating game Lovecraftesque. First, let me say that it seems like a really fun game that I think I might enjoy playing, especially on a cold winter night in New England. Lovecraftesque eschews the asymmetrical roles of DM and player altogether since it is a DM-less (some prefer to say "DM-full") game that distributes the entire bundle of DM powers and prerogatives to the players in turns. For each scene participants occupy one of three roles, "the narrator" (DM), "the watcher" (DM's helper), or "the witness" (the one player character). It is thus on the outer limit of the common design goal of story games of democratizing control "over narrative". It's interesting for our purposes since it also concerns the genre of Lovecraftian horror, which is all about the slow burning discovery of some terrible secret. It is a genre that would seem to be tailor-made in roleplaying games for realizing the pleasures of discovery. But the game faces a basic problem: it wants to give the pleasures of discovery, but since the participants in the game are making that truth up as they go along, this is not so easy. Here's how the rules navigate this problem.

Each scene, up until the final confrontation with the horror, ends with a clue being revealed by the current narrator. At the end of each scene each player "jumps to a conclusion", writing secretly on a sheet of paper their current speculation about the nature of the events befalling the witness and the cosmic horror behind it all. Perhaps events will prove their speculation wrong (almost certainly so) as different players, with different ideas and inspirations, take control of the role of narrator. So their speculations are likely to develop or change all together from scene to scene. At the end, after the horror has been revealed, the player share all their speculations with one another. It is almost as though there had been a fact about the matter, almost as though they had assembled clues to guess about it, and almost as though they learn the terrible truth at the end. Except nothing was fixed as the truth in advance, and so it is an elaborately constructed pretense of the pleasure of discovery, rather than the real thing. If you 100% abandon the asymmetry in knowledge between DM and player, it's about the best you can do.

Towards the other end of the spectrum, In We Hunt the Keepers, a Dungeon World (PbtA) actual play podcast DMed by Jason Cordova, Cordova often keeps a sense of mystery going by reserving knowledge and control of certain facts for himself. He operates, so to speak, with a DM's screen partially in place. Although the rules and ethos of the game dictate that he cede control of most details of the mystery to the players in play. And in Lovecraftesque fashion, at the end of the whole series the "big reveal" is going to be constructed collaboratively looking back on the clues assembled.

This brings us to a fault line in the OSR play style. The element in some tension with the pleasures of discovery and secrecy is a preference among some OSR types for low-prep gaming. In part this connected with a commitment to the pleasures of emergent story (hint: that's going to be the next post) and the universal hatred of railroading in all its forms; in part it's connected with a desire not to get paralyzed by unnecessary questions. People in the OSR regularly come out with sentences like, "Start small," and, "Don't get too far ahead of your players," and "Don't invest in a snowflake of a world." Given that prep simply is the stocking of a storehouse of secrets, these dictums all say: do less of that. On the side of tools, rules, and hacks, people have developed many techniques that allow a more improvisational style of play that fits those dictums, for example methods of procedurally generating at the table a garden in Ynn, the layout of Castle Gargantua, or a space hulk in Mothership.

This point needs to be handled with some care, since methods of random generation need not be in conflict with the pleasures of discovery. Start with a simple case: a random encounter table in a dungeon. I view these as essential elements of OSR play. To some extent, a random encounter table makes a variable of the movements and presence of various NPCs, factions, and threats. There is no fact of the matter about whether on turn 3 a band of crabmen is sidewalking your way until the die comes up a '1' on the encounter check, and the result of "Crabmen" is rolled on the table. But it would be confused to say that this speaks against the pleasure of discovery. Encounter tables represent the shifting ecology of an adventuring site: the factions, vermin, threats, and hazards that move around it freely. To have a random encounter is to learn something that is an already established fact about the locale: in this case (say) that Crabmen move through this area to feed on the giant clams in the submerged caverns to the North. It is important here that encounters can be repeated, and also that a well-designed encounter table reflects facts about the dungeon factions, interlopers, and environmental hazards. If well-designed, an encounter is itself a discovery about fixed facts about an adventuring site.

A harder case is where both the encounters and the nature and layout of the locale are procedurally generated. But even here a lot depends on the case. Take the Gardens of Ynn, one of the best products of the OSR (in my humble opinion). The Gardens of Ynn are meant for successive delves. Emmy Allen writes, "Ynn shifts and rearranges itself. Until the PCs actually look, the next location exists in a state of quantum uncertainty. There is, therefore, no need to roll up locations ahead of time. Every time players visit the Gardens of Ynn, roll up a new starting location from scratch." She has three different tables to roll on, one for the location, one for features of the location, and another for ongoing events in the location. These combine with random encounter checks that are Garden wide but that take a more dire form the more deeply one penetrates it. In one way these rules do block the pleasures of discovery. The DM does not have any concrete secrets in advance (the facts are all "in a quantum state"), and so the players cannot discover them. But in another sense that's not true. Part of the fun and the key to surviving the Gardens of Ynn is to understand the strange principles by which it operates, principles that are fixed in advance, and which the players will certainly need to learn. So it is a big discovery that when you go back in for the second time, you end up in a place that is totally different, and that the map has changed. The players learn they will only ever get one crack at each location. It is also a big discovery that when you push deeper, changes happen in a certain direction, that one can, as it were, plumb the depths of the gardens. Finally, there's a kind of aesthetic logic to the whole place that will be one of the main pleasures of discovery, along with a single shared encounter table. So it's a mixed bag in this regard: it systematically thwarts the pleasures of secrecy and discovery in one way, but enables it in another way: what it takes with one hand it gives back (in some measure) with the other. I wouldn't want to play this way all the time, but I think it would be fun to do for a bit.

This also explains why I'm not so keen on the raving enthusiasm for low-prep gaming that is expressed episodically in certain strands of OSR culture. I run zero or very low prep games when I DM for kids, which I do a lot. But that's because the higher pleasures are lost on them. It's not like when I play a proper game with grown ups. Different people like different things, so I'm not being prescriptive when I say that for me, the pleasures of secrecy and discovery are at the heart of roleplaying. One reason why the OSR style of play appeals to me is that makes this pleasure easy.  

Monday, March 18, 2019

Through Ultan's Door Issue 2: Progress

Issue 2 of Through Ultan's Door is nearing completion. I still need to commission a few pieces of art, but we're almost there. Here are the contents:
  • A cover by Russ Nicholson showing the entrance to the catacombs (pictured above). Roughly twice as much art as in Issue 1, including several jaw-dropping pieces by Huargo. Like the one below!
  • The Shades of Zyan on the nature of the living dead of the dreamlands.
  • House Rules for Slumberland, a new regular column introducing house rules for play beyond the veil of sleep.
  • The Catacombs of the Fleischguild, an entire 31 room trap-filled dungeon of the butcher priests of Zyan. As in issue 1, the cover of the zine is detachable with a lovely map of the dungeon by Gus L. on its interior.
  • Items & Spells: Several new spells for clerics of Vulgatis, the Archon of fecund and unseemly growth, and the legendary Spatterhaft, a splendid tool of ritual slaughter passed down among the Master Carvers of the Fleischguild.
  • Down The Sewer River, A separate point crawl map of the sewer river on folded 11x17 paper. The map is also being drawn by Gus. The key will be right on the map, with a massive encounter table on the reverse. This map connects the Ruins of the Inquisitors' Guild in issue 1 with the Catacombs of the Fleischguild in this issue. In a single sheet of paper, it contains everything you need to send your PCs down the river to numerous destinations.
By Huargo
If you wish to receive notification when Issue 2 becomes available, please send an email to to be added to my mailing list. If you ordered a physical or digital copy of Issue 1 from my Big Cartel store, then you are already on the mailing list. I may at some point start a Patreon, but have not done so yet. 

When the new issue goes on sale, I will also be reprinting Issue 1. So if you missed it the first time around, you'll have a second chance to nab it. The Melsonian Arts Council will be handling orders for both issues outside the US with more reasonable and reliable shipping than I can manage here. I hope that will better serve international customers this time around.

And did I mention that Dave Sealey converted the first issue of the zine to 5E? Check it out here.

OK back to work.  

Monday, February 25, 2019

White Jungle Races: Plumed Reavers & Mole Rat People

By Evlyn M

In the hypnogogic twilight of the threshold of slumber a vision wafts towards you on the fragrant, scented breeze that blows through the bright groves and shady bowers of the White Jungle. Oh intimations of strange races from a topsy turvy jungle! Perhaps in your next opium dream your psyche may be cast into the role of one of these vessels of adventure.

Plumed Reavers

By Evlyn M

Flocks of these winged humanoids may be seen flitting from tree to tree in the Bright Groves and the Windy Isles, the sparse and airy lowest levels of the White Jungle, where they dwell. Their originally bright and colorful plumage is stained and mangy from constant exposure to the jungle's offal rains. They are counted among the many hazards of the jungle's lower levels, their rotting parrot's finery and the sounds of their beating wings striking fear into the hearts of jungle denizens. For they are savage raiders without mercy, who delight in the suffering of their victims, often dropping bound victims to their death in the heavens below for sport. Although their tastes are crude, they enjoy bartering the goods they seize for colorful baubles and arms, and have a bird's curiosity.

Plumed reavers have developed immunity to the offal rains of the White Jungle. In addition, their hardy immune systems grants them +4 to save vs. disease. Starting at 2nd level, their wings become strong enough to support flight. At this point, they acquire a fly move of 12", which requires space for a 6" wingspan. They must for a round for every turn of flight.

Min/Max: Str 9/18  Int 3/15 Wis 3/16 Dex 6/18 Con 12/18 Cha 3/16
Racial Adjustments: Con +1 Chr -2 Wis -1
Permitted Classes: Fighter, Ranger, Druid
XP Adjustment: -10%

The party from the waking world currently has a cautious if neglected alliance with the savage plumed reavers. Bryan Mullins played a plumed reaver, Keew, who helped the party pillage the riches of the legendary lost Hanging Palace.

Mole Rat People

By Evlyn M

The mole rat people live in the darkness of the massive root ball warrens in the Brambles at the top (the base) of the White Jungle. They are diminutive, with pink wrinkled skin and twitching whiskers. They are great believers in rank and station, their society abounding in a superfluity of hereditary ranks, and honorary titles under the benevolent authority of their beloved Queen Bethany. Although they never wear pants, they otherwise dress as befits their stations with epaulets and medals, and tiny suits of armor and weapons. They are prone to romantic dispositions, heroes and scoundrels both.

The mole rats are small in size, roughly 2.5 feet tall. They must wield tiny weapons that do 1 die less damage. (So a two-handed sword does 1d8, and a longsword 1d6.) Their vision is keen in the darkness, but sensitive to the light. They can see 120' even in pitch darkness, 60' in shade, but only 30' in sunlight. Their time in the rootwarrens allows them to detect sloping passages, and they have an unerring direction sense underground. They receive saving throw bonuses as halflings, and a -2 AC  against normal sized opponents or larger.

Min/Max: Str 3/14 Int 5/18 Wis 5/18 Dex 6/18 Con 3/18 Cha 6/18
Racial Adjustments: Str -1 Cha +1 Dex+1
Permitted Classes: Fighter, Paladin, Thief, Magic-User
XP Adjustment: +10%

Evlyn M

The party from the waking world are fast friends with the mole rat people, having all received the title of Knight Errant after helping them vanquish the hideous encroaching hybubs, boneless oozing ghouls. Aleks Revzin will soon be taking over a beloved NPC mole rat person, The Viscount LeGrande, pictured below.

The Viscount LeGrande

Thursday, February 14, 2019


I believe Mandy, Jennifer, Hannah and Vivka. If you haven't read their harrowing accounts of Zak Smith's abuse, you should go do that right now. Thank you for your bravery. I completely disavow Zak Smith. I have blocked him on every social media platform. I will never play a game of Dungeons and Dragons with him, or work with him, or buy one of his products, or speak to him again. Our attention should be on the victims who have come forward and what they have to tell us. Support them any way you can. I have tried to.

But I have to apologize. And to say something about Zak and the OSR community. Because I think we're at a crossroads and what we do next is very important. If you think that's navel gazing I understand completely. Please stop reading now.

My connections to Zak are long, and I don't want to minimize them. I read Playing D&D with Pornstars from the beginning. It was from that blog that I learned about the existence of G+. While I was slow to get on it, and so missed the exuberant early days, I've been on for the last 5.5 years. When I joined G+ I didn't have a blog, had never published anything, hadn't been much on forums, and so no one knew who I was. Here was my very first post:

There was Zak, happy to immediately friend a newbie and play along. Another thing about Zak is that he had great taste (from my perspective). Some people would find our community through his blog and the other blogs he promoted--improbable people who showed up with rare talents, and he would promote their work right from day one. It was a clique of very creative people. Even though I haven't produced very much--one zine, a long running online game, a blog I post to once in a blue moon--he generally promoted my work. He played occasionally in my online game as well, including the early sessions, and he praised it. I benefited in that way from the increased social capital that his support gave me.

Zak also was a producer of public goods for the OSR. He seemed to have almost limitless time online. He helped convince people to get on google plus in the first place. He helped to organize FLAILSNAILS and Constantcon. He invented the term "Gygaxian Democracy" and popularized that improvisational communal practice that produced many wonderful things. I say this about his role in the community because some people inside the OSR are saying, "He wasn't at the heart of things, I blocked him ages ago" and a lot of other people outside the OSR are saying "He was at the heart of things because he was a master manipulator". I agree that the OSR was a huge mosaic with many sub-communities and people unconnected to Zak. Plenty of people kept him at arms length, or just had their focus elsewhere. I also don't want to deny that he was good at manipulating people, judging from the testimony of his victims--and my own (far lesser) experience--I would say he was very good at that. But the sad truth is that to the extent that he was at the heart of the OSR it was mainly because it's a volunteer operation and we let him do so much for us, especially those of us who were in and out of his clique.

Of course this came at a terrible price that I was wrong to tolerate. Oh my lord the fights he would get in with people. Nasty. Internecine. Interminable. Sometimes conflagrations inside the OSR around nothing more than personality, or (increasingly) with violation of his strange code of conduct for internet conversations. This created so many schisms that it was hard to keep track. I struggled to keep straight a mental map of the contours of the discrete neighborhoods that his conflict produced in my community, a cartography of wreckage wrought by his aggressive logos.

But more often these conflicts were with Story Games folks. I didn't know anything about Story Games at first. What Zak said about the community had a veneer of initial plausibility (he was smart), but over time it became clear to me that it was a bizarre obsession, a kind of holy vendetta. He was occasionally wronged by people from the SG world who would say some false thing about him. As Mandy says, at times his conflicts could spill over into anonymous rape threats and demeaning comments directed at his players (the eponymous porn stars of his blog title). That's terrifying and awful, and I have no idea who was behind them. But mainly as far as I could tell he was getting into senseless fights with SG people he disagreed with about games, fights that escalated rapidly because of his aggressive tone, and his intolerable argumentative style. He then kept tabs on the folks he was fighting with and prodded them frequently. And he had tiresome and elaborate theories about how his doing this made our community better. He had so many theories, and I never believed any of them. But I didn't do anything about it. 

Moth Hag, by Evlyn M

The first apology is to people he bullied inside the OSR. During a conflict between Zak and Paolo Greco that shook the OSR community, Evlyn M, a dear soul and brilliant artist, and a regular player in my game, bravely came to Paolo's defense and took a stand against Zak's bullying. When I had to choose between Zak and Evlyn, it was clear that I had to choose Evlyn. After all, Zak had brought all this on himself and Evlyn was only doing what seemed right to her. But all I did was kick him out of my group. That wasn't nearly enough, not by a long shot. I should have stood up to his bullying then--long before then--and condemned it.

So Evlyn ended up leaving the fucking OSR, because Zak papered things over with Paolo and life went on, and she had earned his enmity in the process. He was too central to the OSR, he was everywhere, even if you blocked him you saw him get tagged in comments or gossiped about, and she found it too stressful to be around him, because--you know--he keeps names. Evlyn I'm so sorry, I hope you can forgive me. And all the other people like Evlyn. I'm so sorry to all of you.

When I had decided to kick Zak out, I had a face to face conversation with him over hangouts to explain. Things were rocky for him at the time, because the OSR had risen up in a wave of revolt against him in defense of Paolo, and it wasn't totally clear if he was going to survive. (This is when Patrick Stuart washed his hands of him.)

by Miles Johnston

When we talked it was like I was speaking to a completely different person from online Zak. He was a prince. He was generous. He said nice and empathetic things about some of the people he feuded with. I was actually grateful to him at the time for handling it all so reasonably. Although he didn't agree with Evlyn, he understood my position. He said that it sucked getting kicked out of my game, but I could make it up to him by writing a piece for his upcoming horror game Demon City. It felt transactional and icky. His framing it as something I owed him made it hard to write the thing, and I refused money for it in the end although Mike Evans offered. But I wish to God I hadn't agreed to write it, and hadn't promoted his game by posting about the kickstarter on google plus. So I'm sorry for that too. 

The other group of people I really want to apologize to are story games folks. I did nothing to rein in Zak's bizarre vendetta against your community, other than argue with him occasionally about people I've come to admire like Johnstone Metzger or Jason Cordova.  I feel very bad about this. I know you don't know me yet, and so have no reason to forgive me. But one of the great hopes I have for the OSR is that it can now begin to heal the rift with those parts of the SG community that are interested in cross-overs. I think this would be very good for the OSR, and that we have many shared interests and overlapping design values, as the success of Fear of A Black Dragon shows. We have a lot to learn from you, if you'll let us.

The future for the OSR is uncertain at best with google plus going away, and now this. I don't know if the community will survive. But I hope it does, because I love this community. At its best, there are so many brilliant, vibrant, decent people sharing with one another in an open spirit, and producing extraordinary things. If we do keep going, on Discord or in some more diffuse form, we have to make absolutely goddamned sure that we don't let a narcissistic bully--and SO MUCH WORSE as it turns out, a domestic abuser and misogynist--do the work for us again. And we have to protect ourselves against someone who poisons our relations to one another and to surrounding communities for reasons that we do not share.

I am moderating comments for the time being on my blog. I welcome criticism and will certainly post it and try to respond to it, even if it's angry. I deserve a measure of your wrath. But I will not approve comments from Zak (or Kent). 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Google Plus Mix Tape, Track 01: Flailsnails

I have been on Google + for five years now. I have met so many of wonderful people there. We have shared practices, theory, information, and bits of wonder, frozen starlight, passed gleefully from one outstretched elfin hand to another. I have been in on the jokes (some actually funny), and shared sorrows with you. I have learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons with you, in unimaginably rewarding and novels ways. But now Google + is going away. So I made you this mix tape. I think you'll recognize some of the songs. I hope you like it.

Track 01: Flailsnails

Before the OSR got onto Google +, it lived mainly on blogs and in forums. There was a rich blogging scene in 2009-2011, with many blogs posting 3-5 times a week. This led to a sprawling conversation that was conducted via comments and cross-pollinating blog posts. There were limitations to this scene, because mainly people knew other people only if they both had blogs. So the bar to being in conversation with others was quite high, namely, being willing to post frequently on a blog you maintained. As a result, many people were probably like me at that time: a lurker who didn't really feel able to participate in the conversation.

The transition from the blogosphere to the Google+ scene came in 2011. People were drawn largely because of the new possibilities of gaming that Google+ provided through the combination of social media and the Google Hangouts platform. The F.L.A.I.L.S.N.A.I.L.S. Conventions were first published in August 2011. They were the brainchild of three people: the idea was originally proposed by Calithena to Zak Smith and Jeff Rients, and the three of them worked out the conventions together. They were published simultaneously on Zak's blog D&D With Pornstars, and Jeff Rients' long running blog Jeff's Gameblog. The idea was simple. If you signed onto the conventions, then you agreed to allow PCs from other campaigns into your online game. You opened the doors of your game to a bunch of dimension hopping weirdos who showed up to plumb the mysteries of your world, pull off heists, and generally get into a lot of trouble. This led to the phenomenon of ConstantCon, a rolling series of dozens of hangouts games, such that on any given night you could jump into an adventure somewhere in the multiverse.

At its height, enough people were playing that the whole thing took on a player-driven, campaign hopping, mission-based feel. For example, when one group of PCs got themselves imprisoned in Castle Amber in Wessex, other players would put together a team for a rescue mission. Consequences sometimes followed characters between worlds, like when Brutal Pete stole a statue of Blibdalpoop and charmed one of the god's avatars in Herman Klang's game, and an invasion of kuo-toa followed Pete to Jeff's Castle Vyzor game. Markets developed trading in items acquired in different worlds. Got a problem in the Hill Cantons? Maybe you can solve it with an item from New Feierland. Characters made name level, and opened which other players caroused in downtime. There was a misty wandering neighborhood, the Snail Quarter, in which flailsnails characters took up residence. There was even a character, Sir Alan of Partridge, owner of the (not so) legendary sword Chatscalibur, who ran a talk show interviewing other flailsnails characters.

And the characters! Some of them became Google + household names. Most notorious and beloved was, hands down, Jez Gordon's Man-rider. Rolling 3d6 down the line, Jez got a total attribute modifier of -8. Always game, he decided that the character must be a legless goblin. He rolls into adventures riding on the back of a nameless human servitor.

Man-Rider, illustrated by his player, Jez Gordon
In one session, Man-Rider had a god give him a ride, in another he got cloned, but, infuriatingly, the clone had legs. Eventually he became a paladin, which is good, because then he could aspire to one day summon a super fancy man-mount. You can read the (almost) complete history of his legendary exploits here.

Other names that come up again and again include Sir Ward, Reynaldo Madrinan's Lawful Good paladin who acquired the Sunsword, and once, by using a coin-operated vending machine, had the misfortune to accidentally crash the Broodmother Skyfortress, destroying an entire town of innocent souls; Mo, Scrap Princess' drunken lost soul from the shit holes of New Feierland, whose main positive accomplishment was a certain rescue operation to be discussed shortly; Blixa and Gleichman, Zak Smith's human thief and his dog; Phillip the Bloody, Evan Elkan's taxidermy obsessed wizard whom Blixa accidentally killed; Noggin Threeteeth, Barry Blatt's cockney, anarcho-syndicalist, dwarven sewer worker from the City State of the Invincible Overlord, who was slain by spectres in the Dark Tower; Malice A'forethought, Zach Marx Weber's white elf assassin; Aleksandr Revzin's Brutal Pete, hated of Blidolpoop; Shoe Skogen's Elsgin; Ba Chim and Father Jack of Hill Canton's fame, played respectively by Humza Kazmi and Michael Moscrip; Quartle, Eric Boyd's Frogling wizard; Anxy P's Babs Mackelthorpe; Tony, Paolo Greco's Pigherder, and his pig Hansel; Joshua Blacketter's wizard Pete Loudly, who rose all the way to 14th level, along the way killing a frog god, and unleashing She Who Dreams and Whose Dream is the Sea on an unsuspecting world; and Magic Meryl, Nick Kuntz's wizard who became a casual cannibal after studying the Scroll of Ghouls a little too intently, and was smothered by serpents only to be reincarnated as a halfling.

A group portrait of flailsnailers that includes both Brutal Pete and Magic Meryl by Nick Kuntz; click to embiggen.

And last, but by no sane accounts least, Barnabus Sleet, Maxime Golubchik's absolutely game-breaking muscle-wizard. By the end of his career, he was able to kill dragons with a single punch, and had five attacks a round, and an AC of -8. He once killed the god of the lizard men by punching her to death. He was that kind of guy.

Barnabus Sleet, drawn by Sam Mameli
What were the conditions of possibility for the amazing phenomenon of ConstantCon? For one thing, a heck of a lot of folks had been running games using either familiar older rulesets of D&D or an increasing host of retro-clones, or other systems that were variations on these themes. This meant that converting from one to the other was not too hard, in fact, usually a breeze. For another thing, various principles of play, like high-lethality, unbalanced, challenge oriented, location-based adventures, and the 1XP per GP rule, were widely shared practices in the gaming of the relevant community of bloggers and forum goers. Everyone was familiar with the trope of the dungeon crawl, and with the idea of a megadungeon, and sandbox, all of which both lent themselves very well to this style of play. Finally, the integration of Google + and Google Hangouts made scheduling and running a game very easy.

My guess is that FLAILSNAILS, more than anything, probably congealed a joyful solidarity and a living culture of play in the OSR. Everyone was playing in everyone else's games all the time. Everyone got to know everyone else by seeing them face to face, and sharing adventures with them. Useful techniques were carried like a virus from one game to another. Things that didn't work so well were tried and left behind. People came to know one another's campaign worlds as living things by cycling through them in a low commitment, high-octane, gaming. People were led to push the limits in creating in kind of competition with one another.

This percolated beyond the world of FLAILSNAILS. When I started my dreamlands game online, a bunch of folks just showed up, ready and knowing exactly what to do. We shared a set of assumptions about what we would be doing and how, everyone was familiar with the platform, and many of the folks knew each other (but not me, mainly). They were all, also, master players. I think FLAILSNAILS is partly to blame. (Another culprit were the long running non-flailsnails campaigns. Don't worry; I've got a song in that in a later track on the mixtape.)

When I was soliciting memories from flailsnailers on Google +, Trent B., the creator of the legendary New Feierland setting where many a flailsnails misadventures were had, popped in to remind his players about the fate of Trumpet, their donkey. It would be hard to come up with a better epitaph for Google +. 

But I learned later, in a twist of fate, that this was not in fact the end of poor, innocent Trumpet. For Scrap Princess' drunken ne'er do-well character Mo actually ventured to hell to retrieve Trumpet. And Shoe Skogen informed me that he now lives in a grassy meadow outside an inn somewhere. I can't help but feel that if we can bring Trumpet the donkey back from hell, then perhaps, after all, there is hope that we can give this wonderful community a second life, in some new, unimagined form.

Art by Shoe Skogen