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.



27 comments:

  1. I think you meant John Harper's Blades In The Dark?

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    1. Yes, so embarrasing. Of course that's what I meant. Slip of the pen! Thanks.

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  2. Also, curious as to your opinion on Into The Odd, which eschews XP entirely, but replaces it with incentives to acquire artifacts (see Electric Bastionland especially).

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    1. Yochai I actually haven't looked at Into the Odd, which is weird, I know. I have a PDF, let me take a look.

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  3. Blades In The Dark is John Harper, not Morningstar, I think?

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    1. So embarassing! Yes I meant John Harper, of course!

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  4. I like, too! I think I'm going to love this series. "Jason Morningstar's Blades Against the Dark" should probably be "John Harper's Blades in the Dark", however?

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    1. Indeed! So embarassing. Slip of the pen. (I've been obsessively reading BitD recently, I think it's an AMAZING game.) Fixed!

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  5. I really think what you mean is old school play and not osr. One can enjoy old school play without having anything to do with the osr, both of which are true of me (I enjoy old school play but would never want to associate with osr). Osr is more of a product line if anything.

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    1. Tory Tatter, OSR literally stands for "Old School Renaissance". It is a self-conscious attempt to revive and build upon certain strands of old school play in creative ways. So certainly I'm talking about (some strands of) old school play. I disagree that the OSR is a "product line" though. It began on the blogosphere and the forums, and moved to google plus. Most people involved have never marketed or produced anything for sale. The OSR has acquired capacity to produce fancy products over the years, as people acquired skills, and the size of the audience grew. This has come with a literal and figurative cost. But still, at this point, it's very much a DIY phenomenon. Most people making products are still doing it out of their living rooms. In any case, why would you "never want to associate with OSR"?

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  6. I am curious to know if you think that the traditional games defined only by railroading or there is something else.

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    1. I definitely wouldn't define them that way. (Actually, I don't really have a definition, it's probably a huge grab bag.) What I'm talking about is a tendency rather than a defining characteristic. One sees the railroading tendency in the main versions of D&D and its competitors (e.g. Pathfinder). One finds this tendency in D&D with some early modules, not mainly Gygax's, since he mainly did pretty open location-based adventures. (Tomb of Horrors is an exception.) Judge's Guild's stuff was also very open, which is one reason it gets so much love in the OSR. 5E D&D moved some ways towards enabling old school style play, which is what won a bunch of people my little neck of the woods back to it. Some of its adventures are a bit more open, but the tendency is still there. Whenever someone is thinking of a sequence of "scenes" or "encounters" the players must move through, the tendency is there.

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  7. Geez no apologies necessary, who knows what post of someone else I was channeling at the time.

    About your point about "top down" world building I think it's an unfortunately a word choice that implies negative connotations more broadly. Funnily enough I come out of a political organization that would often contrast "top down" (bad, authoritarian, elite-driven) with "bottom up" (good, people-centered, organic, democratic) so it always implies a certain negative association that I don't think follows. I mean there are other axis that are more important from such as yes openess, co-creativity, player agency etc that are completely independent from world building choices.

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  8. I do think that post about setting and snow flakery came at a turning of the tide in the OSR (as in a larger moment not that my post was the catalyst). Previously I felt like the stick had been been bent way too far in the other direction.

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  9. Thank for the lunch time read. Enjoyed the whole thing! Great links too.

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  10. Personally, I find that at my table, XP for gold is not much of a great motivator. Yes, players are happy when they find gold but they do so many things for reasons of their own it brightens my heart. And the reason, I think, is this: if a good deed is rewarded, if a good deed is done for the reward, I don't think it is "good." Getting into moral philosophy, here. Anyway, that's why I like to set up my game such that the greedy thing (like plundering) gets you the short term reward (gold, xp, levels) but doing the right thing requires sacrifice and delays and with that it gives you the true long term reward. And by sacrifice I mean foregoing rewards, sacrificing influence, property, retainers, characters, and thus time spent, I mean a true sacrifice that is felt by the players out of the game, not just by the characters in the game.

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  11. Good post Ben. You describe well the style of D&D that I prefer.

    Adopting an entrepreneurial mindset to how they run their character (if this isn't already their default) can be hard for players who've grown used to "cooperate with the DM and we'll all have a good time".

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  12. This was excellent, thank you Ben.

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  13. I definitely need to read your and Hill Cantons's advice about making weird settings accessible to players. It's something I struggle with, and I'm sure others do too.

    One thing I've been thinking about railroads, is that reading most books is like playing a railroad game. The book is going to a destination along a set route. But you, as the reader, have to do work to get there.

    I don't really know what video game RPGs are like these days, but a lot of the ones I grew up with were like that. There was one (or one primary) path toward a destination, but you, as the player, have to do a particular kind of work to move along that path to get there.

    But it's a very solitary pleasure, between the lone reader/player, and the book/game itself.

    Even most non-linear novels or multi-path games still have a set amount of stuff you can possibly experience. (And this limitation usually means that the more paths there are, the shorter each one is, and one might genuinely wish to re-read/re-play to try to see EVERYTHING.)

    But although the solitary pleasure of reading is maybe the first thing we think of when we're trying to imagine how we would like an RPG to go, I agree with Retired Adventurer when he says that storytelling is actually a very poor model for what happens when multiple players and a judge sit down at the table together.
    https://retiredadventurer.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-basis-of-game-is-making-decisions.html

    I'm sure railroad modules are fun to read novelistically, and maybe(?) fun for players who are willing to collaborate to turn the essentially solitary pleasure into a group activity. Although it seems analogous to doing a table-reading of a play, in the same way that a CRPG is analogous to reading a novel. Similarly, story games seem analogous to improv theater. Whereas "old school" games feel like they have a different genealogy, descended from boardgames more than from theater.

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  14. You know, I once had a player in one of my 5E game have a moment of illumination when, for the Nth time, I made the point that there was no main quests or side quests (as some players had just been listing off the "quests" they had to finish"). They were playing in a hex-crawling sandbox with faction play, but still definitely saw things in terms of character background and plot arc.

    But this time, he said: "But if there's no main quest or story arc, that might lead to more characters being amoral..."

    I said "Well, yes. Though that means that characters who are heroic are ACTUALLY heroic, because they've chosen to be."

    And I find this - to slightly round out your discussion on that issue - that some players still run characters who ARE heroic, despite a lack of DM incentive or enforcement (as in the classic, "this is the game we're playing tonight, so fight the bad guy or else there's no game").

    So, it turns out, when offered a moral landscape that, *visibly*, is much like the real world (not to say the real world doesn't have a moral God, or that your DnD setting doesn't have underlying moral values; I mean how the agents perceive matters), some characters are amoral, some are vicious and evil, and some few - very few, perhaps - are still courageous and decent and the rest of it.

    (To offer an example from another, ongoing 5E hexcrawl sandbox faction game with heavily-altered XP rules [XP for spending gold on given things rather than gaining it, XP for discovering landmarks in the jungle, etc]:

    Random encounter happens in open country. An adult red dragon (who is a faction in her own right) is rolled. The 2nd/3rd level party begins to scatter and hide, knowing this is way beyond them. I know that this will mean some of the PCs die - the dragon's gonna catch some of them.

    The LG Paladin, played by my most balls-out player, does not flee. He stands firm, draws his greatsword, and yells "Halt in the name of the rightful Queen!" I roll a Reaction check; 6 and 3, so 9. I ask for his Cha modifier, which is +3. Reaction for the dragon is 12.

    She's amused by the little man challenging her. It could have been very different; the next session a t-rex random encounter ended with the cleric being eaten and a lot of hijinx and fleeing needed to prevent a TPK. But this time, player/character choice - in this case, courage and a sense of duty to the Queen - leads to an awesome, emergent moment, and a development of the faction play.)

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  15. Hi,
    nice piece! I have a question for you, or whoever can answer, I see you quote a forthcoming "pyre coast" something from Gus L. Is this Gus L the same guy who use to write the awesome Dungeon of Signs blog? Of yes, where can I find more information about this pyre coast "something"?

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    1. Yes the very same! He told me the other day that he's not sure whether it will see the light of day, which is a real shame, because it's really great. I still hope it will!

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    2. Thanks for the info! Gus L was by far my favourite RPG blogger

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  16. Man, by the end of reading this article, I was completely jazzed to do some major tweaks to my plans for my next campaign--in a great way! Awesome writing, awesome ideas.

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  17. There's certainly some amount of player-directed setting creation/definition in 'most every OSR game I've played. This came from in-session chatter: https://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2016/08/dreams-and-reality.html

    I invented several Orbital Gods in Gus's ASE game, and insisted that sapient rats were "Nimhs" on the Apollyon.

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