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New fantasy adventures and guides by jjohn

Joe Johnston, who co-hosted various Gameshelf TV episodes with me back in the day, has lately taken to independently publishing adventures and play aids for Labyrinth Lord, a modern revival of circa-1980 tabletop role-playing games (and which all but states on its website that it’s essentially first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). You can find them for sale at RPGNow; some are pay-what-you-want PDF booklets, while others make print editions available as well.

His latest work includes Tranzar’s Redoubt, which challenges the players to break into a wizard’s hideout and rob him blind in grand fantasy-grindhouse tradition, as well as How to Hexcrawl, a guide to running traditional fantasy adventures in sprawling outdoor settings rather than familiar square-grid dungeons. Both feature excellent, original artwork by Dyson Logos.

(This news comes via Joe’s own gaming blog, Tabletop on the Desktop.)

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A hypothesis on the life cycle of combat RPGs

A question from the blog-topics backlog which I’d now like to throw out to the readership: If you have ever played a combat-oriented tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, did you ever actually use miniatures on a grid, as the rulebooks generally assume of their players, with each square representing a 10’-by-10’ area? Or did the combat, as with the rest of the gameplay, stick to an entirely verbal format?

It’s been a long time since my last paper-and-pencil D&D session, but I’ve dabbled amidst perhaps a dozen different RPG groups since first discovering them way back in high school, in various locations up and down the American east coast. In precisely zero of these groups did the players ever move character-representative pawns around on a grid, treating them as a literal tactical representation of the battle. At most the GM might occasionally doodle out an abstract visual-aid snapshot of a particular battle setup, just as a visual aid:

OK, this is the cave [draws blob on paper]… here’s where you all came in, and there’s that mysterious light [writes MYSTERIOUS LIGHT down in one corner of the blob]. The goblins are coming at you from this tunnel over here. You have initiative, right? What’s your first action?

That sort of thing. And from there, everyone sort of co-wrote the resulting combat choreography, with the GM generally allowing any action that didn’t seem to stretch the limits of a character’s ability. A character couldn’t bound across the huge cave in a single move (unless magically propelled), but they could probably move to rearrange themselves relative to anyone else in the party, or run to cover. At no point in any such game I played did the action ever stop while we checked whether a character, given their height, dexterity, encumbrance, and so on, moved the sufficient number of feet per round to cover the distance between their current position and that stalagmite over there. And that’s to say nothing about missile weapons or area-effecting spells; generally, if the GM said you could see it, you could shoot it. (Or be shot by it.)

And yet, the games’ thick manuals always provided copious rules that seemed to assume that this number-crunching mode was the only way to play. To the best of my knowledge, this has remained true in D&D all the way up through its most recent fourth edition: just flip through any Player’s Handbook and observe all the words and diagrams given to describing the precise square-footage of fireball spells, varying by caster level, or the grid-footprint of white versus black dragon breath.

Any tabletop RPG group I have actually seen in action would just take these numbers as cues, suggestions of relative scale and feasibility. A GM would thus know that a black dragon’s stream of acid-breath would toast fewer targets than a white dragon’s wide cone of blasted frost, and narrate the results accordingly. They would not lay down a straightedge to determine which players, exactly, the dragon has line-of-sight on; they would instead build on the story so far to come up with an answer that just makes good dramatic (or fight-choreographic) sense.

Therefore, a hypothesis emerges from my very limited experience: the encoding of miniatures-combat rules into tabletop RPG rulebooks turns them into an odd sort of genetic carrier, allowing concepts seeded by wargamers in the 1970s to express themselves as videogames with perfect and infinitely patient computerized arbiters many years later. But the tabletop rules must exist first, an interim, crysalis form serving to entice a quite particular subgroup of unsatisfied players to adapt them into the digital formats that they strive to evolve into. Only then can these games, freed from the control of impatient human GMs, proceed to revel in their own rules’ arithmetic, right down to the fractional movement modifiers inherent in a character after they drop an extra electrum piece in their belt pouch.

(Granted, sometimes these combat RPGs will instead evolve into amazing duck-billed tabletop slugfests like Descent. This is because life is vast and beautiful.)

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More thoughts on the passing of cruelty

I find it interesting, as an aside to yesterday’s column, to examine how applied cruelty has fallen from favor across multiple game media over time.

I chose the word “cruelty” quite intentionally, referencing Andrew Plotkin’s famous Cruelty Scale for interactive fiction and adventure games in general, even though that particular yardstick actually hasn’t seen much use lately. Today, adventure games worth playing rarely require players to keep more than one save file. Gone, largely, are the days where players must save early and often, managing an entire tableful of carefully named save-positions for easy — and inevitably frequent — access.

(In fact, the main reason the concept came to mind at all was Sarah Morayati’s excellent but unforgiving Broken Legs, a game that overtly classifies itself as belonging to the thorniest rung of Zarf’s scale, the one where games merrily — and silently — allow you put them into an unwinnable state. The game is an intentional stylistic throwback to certain knotted puzzlefests of yore, leaning against the modern trend that favors narrative over puzzles.[1] The game (which took second place in last year’s IFComp) succeeds because the player character — the irascible, scheming drama princess Lottie Plum — is an acerbic joy to play, and she tells a rollicking story, even if she herself is more interested in sabotaging all her peers than actually performing on-stage. But it’s a story you’ll need to patiently play though several times, if you want to give Lottie the best ending.)

Board games, too, have largely become a stranger to cruelty. When we filmed Diplomacy last year, I initially felt disappointed that no players got eliminated from our game — an ever-present possibility in this game from the 1950s. Not only would that have added easy drama to our unscripted, televised narrative, but we could have capitalized on the very concept of a board game that can “kill” players, forcing them to stop playing while their friends keep going — something that seems flatly outrageous by today’s tabletop design standards. Never mind certain shambling zombie-games that still manage to keep up this pretense…

And when’s the last time any of you with a tabletop RPG bent have ever had a character die — or, at at any rate, die without your full consent as a player? A few years ago, some local friends decided to play a game of first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, taking the circa-1975 rules literally as written, with the GM making no exceptions. This was back when phrases like the character must make a saving throw versus poison or die could be found dozens of times in any given rulebook or adventure description.

The result, of course, was a massacre, with individual players sometimes ripping through several character sheets within a single session, as their powered-up superheroes succumbed in a heartbeat to unlucky die rolls around falling-rock traps or venomous spiders. Nobody tried terribly hard to develop their doomed characters’ abilities, nor was there much call for inventing a completely new persona for each of their mayfly alter-egos. Clearly, these rules fit much better to a time when the game still had one foot in the category of miniatures-based wargaming.

So, the next time you’re playing a game of any sort that recognizably punishes failure without diminishing your level of fun, thank all those before you who have gave their in-game lives — over and over and over again — for the sake of inspiring better game design.

[1] Sarah reminds me about Jon Ingold’s delectably evil Make it Good, another capital-C Cruel game of recent vintage that is far larger and more difficult than her own work. The key point for me, though, is that I played Broken Legs more recently, and my memory is weak. So there’s that!

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice: Installment One

I am pleased to introduce Jeff Howard, The Gameshelf’s first guest blogger.

Jeff is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of
Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

He plans on writing about games and magic over the next couple of months here, starting with this post. Enjoy! —jmac


A magic system is any set of symbols and rules designed to rigorously simulate supernatural powers and abilities. Magic is pervasive as a game mechanic and fictional construct within games, spanning across genres (RPG, MMORPG, adventure game, action-adventure, fighter, survival horror) and decades (from the 1974 first edition of Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft and beyond).

Magic is part of the very nature of why people play games: to simulate abilities that they do not possess in real life; to escape from the prison of the mundane to the realm of enchanted; to weave the chaotic forces of life into a rule-bound system that can be understood and, at least partially, controlled.

The problem is that many magic systems aren’t very magical. RPG’s, both multiplayer and single player, have the same shortcoming: players press a button on a tray of icons, then watch an animation fire, followed by a cooldown period, after which players press the same button again. This process of spamming a hotkey button or two, cued to one’s most powerful spells, doesn’t feel like magic.

Magic, as depicted in fantasy literature and occult tradition alike, is a complex and arcane art comprised of gestures and words, as well as ingredients carefully combined with ritualistic artifacts in order to draw away the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds. So, the question emerges: how could designers put the magic back into magic systems?


The solution is a two-pronged approach of game archeology, locating and analyzing the most innovative magic systems in games, and investigating the actual occult systems that can provide inspiration for game designers.

An analysis of magic systems from a game historical perspective is useful in order to locate games which have featured spell-casting methods that are more immersive and richly meaningful than the average RPG. Game interfaces and mechanics tend to become homogenous over time due to familiarity and a desire to create low learning curves for designers and players alike. However, there are many hidden gems from throughout the history of magic systems which occur either before the standard row of spell icons becomes well established or which work in deliberate opposition to this way of casting spells.

While careful examination of game history can help re-energize magic systems from a formal and aesthetic perspective, depth of gameplay may require reaching outside of videogames and into the human ritual practices and metaphysical symbolism often referred to as the occult. In this context, occultism includes many mythological and ritualistic traditions, including Western ceremonial magic as well as tarot and voodoo, characterized by an attempt to conjure and control metaphysical forces. Game designers have tended to shy away from talking about the metaphysical aspect of magic systems because of the attack on Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980’s by fundamentalist Christian groups due to its perceived occult content or ritualistic nature. Yet, because rituals are intended to be practiced rather than merely observed or read about, ceremonial tradition is often systematically organized in a way that lends itself to being implemented digitally and interactively.

As both historical examples and cases of confluence between gaming and metaphysical magic systems, there have been many innovative games featuring magical grammars, usually in the form of runes or symbols that can be combined to create spells. The word grimoire comes from the Middle English grammarye, which means grammar, as in a set of syntactical rules for combining words into well-formed sentences. A grammar can also refer to a book containing these linguistic rules. The etymological connection between grimoire and grammar comes from a medieval distrust of learning whereby any schoolmaster carrying a grammatical handbook was perceived by the illiterate as a potential warlock. At the same time, grimoires resemble grammars because grimoires contain the meaning of elaborate symbols and sigils as well as rules for combining these symbols in order to produce magical effects through ritual.


Rituals are complex multi-sensory productions involving the rule-based combination of gestures (tracing sigils), objects (wands and chalices), spatial configurations (temples and magic circles), auditory elements (chanting and music), and scents (incense). Such symbols are combined according to the principle of correspondences, by which elements stand by association for other elements. The literature of ceremonial magic is rife with tables of corresponding Tarot cards, Hebrew letters, astrological signs, musical notes, precious gems, and innumerable other elements. Such books include Aleister Crowley’s Liber 777 and its more recent expansion as Stephen Skinner’s Complete Magician’s Tables. The correspondences tabulated within these books are regarded by practitioners as deeply meaningful and intended to encode insights about the metaphysical structure of the universe (often by way of the kabbalistic tree of life, whose branches or sephiroth have lent their name to one famous RPG villain).

magician's tables.jpg

Magicians express meaning in ritual through performative and participatory action, requiring the active involvement of magical practitioners with an understanding of its rules and symbol systems. As such, ceremonial magic is a precursor and analogue to games as interactive multimedia. Because these multimedia performances are intended to accomplish pragmatic or spiritual work, ritual in ceremonial magic is often referred to as a working or, in more modern English, an operation. Both these words were frequently used by occultist Aleister Crowley and, later, by graphic novelist Alan Moore to refer to his spiritually-purposed multimedia performances. The words working and operation also hearken to the tradition of opera (Italian for work), so named because the synergy of music, poetry, theatrical sets, and costuming is a work of art that is greater than the sum of its parts. The most superb magic systems and the games of which they are a part aspire toward the condition of opera, as in the magnificent cohesion of Demon’s Souls. Indeed, scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan regard Richard Wagner’s imagined synaesthetic and fourth-wall-shattering future opera, called gesamundwerkt (German for “total art work”), as a foreshadowing of interactive multimedia.

Unfortunately, games rarely take full advantage of this potential for multimedia input or feedback, instead restricting players to mouse or gamepad input accompanied by primarily auditory and visual feedback with a minor amount of haptics. However, the increasing prevalence of alternative input methods like the Wiimote and the upcoming Kinect affords multiple opportunities for multimodal input that more closely simulate magic as a subtle art of multimodal ritual. Moreover, the history of magic systems offers multiple examples of games that allow players to cast spells using combinatorial grammars, alternative input methods, and sometimes a combination of grammar and alternative control scheme. By studying and understanding magic systems with these traits, designers and students of game design can imitate and improve upon their best features within new technological contexts.

In terms of combinatorial grammars with metaphysically meaningful correspondences, the highest example may be Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a horror game in which players cast spells by placing runes along the points of geometric figures in order to express a given spell’s meaning. For example, the combination of “protect,” “self,” and “intensify” would create a buffing magical armor spell at a level of power influenced by the number of intensification runes (“pargon”) placed at the end of the spell. Moreover, players cast each spell under the aspect of three alignment runes that correspond to Lovecraftian Ancients, each of which is in turn associated with a color that stands for a principle of humanity (body, mind, and sanity). These three Ancients and their associated runes and colors trump each other in a rock-paper-scissors mechanic at the game’s heart, which players manipulate by imbuing weapons and protective spells with a particular color of magic designed to overcome monsters of the opposed (and weaker) color. Spells in Eternal Darkness are philosophical propositions with narrative context and magical force: for example, X’elatoth’s green rune trumps Chatturgah’s red rune because the dissolution of sanity erodes the body, an outcome that can be enacted mythologically in the winning ending of a play-through in which the enemy boss aligns himself with X’elatoth.


This particular lineage of games with combinatorial grammars, of which Eternal Darkness is a high point, starts with an early first-person dungeon crawling RPG Dungeon Master, in which players combined strings of runes in order to cast spells. These runes allow for the discovery of new spells through trial-and-error experimentation, enacted in real-time combat that adds both a cerebral and a dexterity-based challenge to the system. Despite these technical innovations, Dungeon Master lacked an overarching meaning to its systems beyond flavor text within the game’s manual.

dungeon_master_large.jpgUltima Underworld I and Ultima Underworld II extend the lineage of Dungeon Master, in which players collect rune stones in order to piece together, through trial and error, spells governed by a magical grammar. This magic system has precedents in the virtue system of Britannia, based on a set of correspondences between three principles of Truth, Love, and Courage and their combinations to form eight virtues, each of was attributed to a dungeon, a town, a character class, and a color based on permutations of three primary tints. The magic system of the early Ultima games was, to a limited extent, based on runes and syllables typed in a text parser, as well as the combination of alchemical reagents. However, Ultima Underworld added a grammatically based combinatorial system as well as a first-person interface hearkening back to Dungeon Master. The occurrence of first-person interfaces with grammatically-based magic systems suggests that both features serve the larger goal of immersion—allowing the player to actively take the role of spell-caster through the mechanic of combining magic words and the visual perspective from the eyes of the caster.


These twin features of magical grammar and first-person interface gain the third element of a gestural interface to form a triad of immersive magic-casting in Arx Fatalis, a dungeon crawl by Arkane studios originally pitched as the third Ultima Underworld, in which players cast spells by tracing combinations of runes in the air with colored light.


(This method of spell-casting resembles and may originate within certain occultist traditions, such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram of the Order of the Golden Dawn, in which ceremonial magicians traced combinations of pentagrams in various configurations and with appropriate implements in order to banish or invoke spiritual presences.)


A more immersive but less combinatorial approach appears in Black and White, Peter Molyneux’s famed strategy game, which deliberately eliminates a heads-up display or HUD in order to allow players godlike control over a disembodied hand that traces symbols over its domain in order to cast miracles. Molyneux’s game is sometimes referred to as the first gestural interface, in part because a later patch enabled players to control gestures with a P5 Virtual Reality glove, adding another level of physical immersion.


Next week’s installment of this blog series will discuss gestural magic systems and other related forms of controlling spells through multimodal input, including some discussion of a game I am currently developing to put these ideas into practice.

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Another forum game

I've written a couple of short articles about role-playing games on web forums. (Including one game I ran myself for a few weeks.)

The context of those posts was Myst fandom. But my original inspiration was a Harry Potter fanfic RPG called Nocturne Alley.

I don't know how the thing got started; it only hit my attention at its end, in mid-2004. That was the culmination of a two-year arc of Livejournal posts. A group of people took the roles of characters from the HP books -- one each, and their real identities were not public. And the characters started keeping public journals. And commenting in each others' journals. And stuff happened.

The game started in Hogwarts Year Five, I believe. (The fifth book was not yet out at that point, so they were working in as-yet-unmapped territory.) Naturally, being fanfic, it diverged rapidly from Rowling's plan. (Sirius and Remus wound up married. That sort of thing. Fanfic.)

It was a long-running, collaborative performance which contained a wealth of detail and characterization. More detail, in fact, than anyone can possibly assimilate. There's no way you can read Nocturne Alley. I've linked to the LJ community page, and there's an indirect index too, but you'd spend weeks re-reading everything. This is an art form which, in an odd way and despite being online, exists only in real time.

(A single link I found interesting: questions answered by an organizer, afterwards.)

So why am I mentioning this now? Because Alternity has just started. This is a new Harry Potter game, and it starts from the beginning -- September 1, Harry's first day at school. Only not as in The Philosopher's Stone. In this scenario, Voldemort, er, won. As Lord Protector Marvolo, he controls England... and he's just sent his eleven-year-old adopted son Harry Marvolo to Hogwarts.

The conceits of the game:

  • It's in real time. Today is September 4th, 1991, game time. The first-years are in their fourth day at school. Christmas is Christmas, summer break is summer break, and -- at least in plan -- Alternity will run for seven real years.
  • Journal posts are journal posts. The game consists of what people say in their (public) journals. There are no transcripts of what is "really" happening, unless a character chooses to write about it.
  • Journals are public. (Voldemort's Ministry of Magic wants to encourage discussion that they can eavesdrop on.)
  • One exception: the good-guy conspiracy has managed to set up a private conference. (Posts marked "Order Only" are presumed visible only to Order of the Phoenix members.) It is implied that the bad guys can do something similar. Naturally, first-year students are not trusted with such secrets, no matter how well-raised they are.

Some announcements and public discussion appears on the community page, but most of the action will be on the friends page. Follow if you dare.

(Well, that's easy to say. I don't know how much I'll be following myself. My daily net-reading habits are not set up to just add a stream of livejournal. I try to avoid passive reading; if I don't take action to go look, I don't see it. And seven years is a long time. But I'm interested in how these things run.)

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Erick Wujcik, 1951-2008

In March I wrote here about the death of Gary Gygax. Yesterday I heard about the death of another RPG designer: Erick Wujcik. But you're much less likely to know his name. (Or be able to spell it, but never mind that now...)

His bibliography is long, but I knew him for the Amber Diceless Role-Playing system. (Wikipedia link because there is no good home page for the game right now... drat.)

I have never been in the bleeding edge of RPG gaming, so I don't know everything that led up to Wujcik's 1991 diceless design. I do know that it spun my head around sideways. The nature of RPG gaming had been obvious to me since I was eight years old: you decide what you are going to do, you work out the odds of success (based on your skills and the nature of the task), and then you roll dice to see whether you succeed or fail. Hit or miss. Find the secret door or walk past it. Make your saving throw or turn to stone.

The Amber system offhandedly junked that whole idea. You're playing a superhero. (The characters in Zelazny's Amber books don't wear their underwear on the outside, but they are superhuman beings.) You don't have a chance of breaking down that door; you break down that door, because you are awesome. The guy standing next to you may be awesome at fencing -- that's his character role, not the result of lucky rolls.

Wujcik's insight was to set up a way to distribute these talents among the gaming group, via an auction system. And then to create stories which were shaped by the shifting alliances of the group (Amber characters never trust each other), and their manipulation of events. Once you come down to the attempt, you know how it's going to come out -- so all the fun is in scheming how you'll approach it.

I played in an Amber campaign, although it fell apart after just a couple of sessions. None of us were hard-core RPGers, except I guess for Eric. I think that actually made Amber easier for us. On the other hand, it meant none of us had the habit of making time for gaming, week after week. At any rate, those few sessions were wacky and interesting and difficult. Awkward, but interestingly awkward. Not at all the tedious awkwardness of my pre-teen D&D attempts.

Diceless role-playing did not go on to conquer the RPG landscape. It did inspire Nobilis, R. Sean Borgstrom's claim on the Most Stylish RPG Ever. Nobilis mixes up the pure diceless nature with elements that allow more scene-by-scene unpredictability. Again, you play a superhuman being -- the deity of some aspect of reality: sunlight, or zeppelins, or treachery, or what have you. The game rules give a very general guide to what you can do (creation is more difficult than destruction; destroying a zeppelin is easier than deleting the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality; etc). But it mostly comes down to applying your aspect cleverly. You're never walking into a battle that you're certain to lose, because there might be a way to bring zeppelins into it...

(And yes, Nobilis is a game where you can delete the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality by retroactively causing the Hindenburg to burn in 1937. I told you it was cool.)

As D&D 4.0 sloshes irrestistably towards us, the bulk of the RPG world remains in the old, pre-Amber, "roll to see if you succeed" model. The interesting fringe has moved beyond the diceless, into territory which seems even stranger. Imagine a game in which you decide what you want, roll the dice, and then decide what you are going to do. This is essentially the model of Dogs in the Vineyard, and it makes more sense than you think. You have leeway to use your rolled dice in different ways, or bring in the "cleverness" aspect by using your character history or traits. But sometimes you just roll crap -- and that makes for good roleplaying. Are you going to play this scene as failure, near-success, pyrrhic victory? Will it cost in reputation, self-respect, or blood?

These are the games for people who want their characters to have interesting lives, rather than to succeed at every challenge... and you can learn more about the topic than I know by Googling "narrativist games". I have no standing to give that lecture.

I have no standing to lecture about any of this. If that Amber game wasn't the last paper-and-pencil RPG I took part in, it was the second-to-last. I just find all this stuff neat, is all. And it's all grain for the "Can I do this on a computer? Why not?" mill.

Erick Wujcik: a man who fed the mill, for many of us. Keep the gears turning.

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Game Chef indie RPG competition

Kynn Bartlett alerted me to Game Chef, an annual role-playing game deign competition. (Kynn's one of the entrants, with his game Awesome Women Kicking Ass.) As its name suggests, it's inspired by the TV show "Iron Chef", insofar as each year's competition stipulates a "secret ingredient"-style restriction on its entrants, who then have only have a week or so to create an entire, playable game.

This year, the contest was split into two parts; artist-entrants had a week to sumbit sets of black-and-white illustrations for RPGs that didn't exist, and the following week the designer-entrants picked up those sets and designed games around them. The competition closed a few days ago, and is currently in a judging phase - I look forward to reviewing the entries myself!

I know about the existence of indie RPG design culture from listening to the Ogre Cave Audio Report, a podcast involving Gameshelf friend Mike Sugarbaker. It's turned me on to fascinating games I'd really like to try playing sometime, including Dogs in the Vineyard (which puts players in the role of heavily armed clerics in alt-universe frontier America) and the Shab-al-Hiri Roach (where academic politicking and the schemes of ancient insect gods collide in an early-1900s New England university).

I'd love to put a short session on the show somehow, but even a short one would probably be too long to film with a full crew. Which isn't to say we can't do it anyway...

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