This morning I did something that I have not done for a long time: I disappeared down an internet rabbit-hole. I could not tell you how I got there, but I found myself reading the Wikipedia entry for Holy Orders in the Catholic Church.
What drew my attention is the fact that, from the third century right up until the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic Church had an internal hierarchy that included both higher and lower holy orders.
The higher holy orders were pretty much what we think of today when we use the term ‘Holy orders’: they start with Sub-deacons, then it’s Deacons, Priests, then finally Bishops. This structure is then complicated by the fact that in addition to those four levels, you also have offices (like Cardinal or Archbishop) and titles like Monsignor that started out as offices before becoming terms of address and honorifics that are kind of the Papal equivalent of a knighthood. Paul VI apparently tried to get rid of papal orders entirely before settling on this weird compromise whereby you only get to be called a Monsignor if you’ve distinguished yourself as career bureaucrat who has served in either the Curia (the sinister motherfuckers who administer the Vatican) or the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. Similar to the way that the British royal family only gives the title ‘Royal Highness’ to members of the family who ‘work’ by opening supermarkets or appearing in public whilst wearing a crown for the purposes of opening a new Lidl or whatever it is those parasites call work.
While I will never not be amused and fascinated by the way that the Catholic church manifests institutional power, what really got me was this Wikipedia graphic of the different colours of hats and number of tassels associated with the different orders:
The comedian Denis Leary once had a bit about how Catholicism is a religion of hats. The closer you get to God; the larger the head-gear and, quite frankly, where is the fucking lie?
I then moved on to reading the page about minor orders and noticed something fun. There were originally four lower orders: Porters, Lectors, Exorcists, and Acolytes. The Porters were literally the bouncers at the church door while the lectors were the people responsible for reading aloud excerpts from the scriptures or the liturgy. Things get a little bit more interesting once you reach Exorcist as Exorcists were people who had made it to the third level and so were granted the power to expel demons. Level up from being an exorcist and you became an acolyte who not only lit the candles in the church but also administered the Eucharist to the faithful. In other words: Every time you go up a level, you get fancier clothes, you take on more responsibilities, and you gain more spiritual powers.
Is it just me, or does this sound exactly like a cleric in D&D?
So, last week news began to leak out about an investors’ conference call at which Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks and Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams commented that while D&D is a popular brand with loads of fans and a ton of active engagement, “the brand is really under-monetised”.
This has apparently sent very online D&D nerds into a bit of a tizzy as people have started catastrophizing about what this judgement will mean for the new generation of D&D that is due to drop next year. For example, Williams added that while only 20% of D&D players run games, those that do account for the vast majority of D&D-related spending. People have taken this to mean that WOTC might be looking for ways to include player-facing micro-transactions in their online gaming platforms. The range of hypothetical player-facing products range from dice skins, improved character animations, and higher-powered character creation options all the way through to in-game buffs, magical items, and additional gold pieces that you can buy straight from the platform.
As someone who has minimal investment in the D&D5 ecosystem, I don’t really care but I think that people’s fears are genuine because the move that Hasbro is preparing to make has already been made a number of times.
Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here.
What is the OSR?
OSR stands alternatively for Old School Revolution, Old School Revival, or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask and when it is you ask them. The term OSR dates back to the mid-00s when people on a number of online forums began trying to re-connect with a style of gaming associated with the origins of the hobby and the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.
The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.
Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?
The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.
Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.
The other day, I was writing up my thoughts on the Call of Cthulhu Weimar-era Germany supplement Berlin – The Wicked City and I started trying to put my finger on what it was that bothered me about the three interlinked adventures that comprise the bulk of the book’s page count. It wasn’t that the writer had ‘fucked up’ Weimar-era Germany or that the adventures were poorly written. In fact, I found the adventures to be well-researched, cleverly-structured and evocative in both tone and detail. Those were good adventures, but I had absolutely no desire to run them.
The more I thought about it, the more I came to realise that while the adventures were richly detailed and tightly-structured, they left little to no room for personal creativity on the part of the person running them. This led me to reflect upon the reasons why I roleplay and what kind of published material would support my style of play.
A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the World of Darkness Documentary and I noted that while I was never able to get a game off the ground, I did buy pretty much all of the original World of Darkness titles. Given that one of the reasons for never successfully getting a game off the ground was my profound antipathy to the old Storyteller system, it is interesting that I persisted with buying the products.
One reason for continuing to hand over my money was that the World of Darkness games were all pretty to look at and pretty well-written at a time when neither of those things were particularly common in the RPG industry. Even if you never actually sat down to play a WoD title, you could still look at the art, read the introductory short-story, and generally explore the very clear thematic vibe that each game put out.
Another (not unrelated) reason was that reading the books would inspire you to not only create characters but also to imagine how those characters might evolve over time. You could imagine a Vampire rising through the ranks of the local Camarilla but you could also imagine playing a Werewolf or a Mage and reaching the point where you got access to very specific powers. You could imagine your character changing and the games you played changing with them. It is interesting how few options there are for marking the passage of time and allowing your gameplay to evolve alongside your characters.
Back in November, Thomas Manuel’s Indie RPG Newsletter opened with an interesting commentary on the concept of rules.
According to Manuel, the fact that we use the same word to describe the mechanical aspects of roleplaying games as we do the oppressive systems imposed upon us by real-world institutions might account for the existence of different sets of attitudes towards RPG mechanics.
As someone with a mind that tends to slide straight off of RPG rules and whose politics skew somewhat anarchistic, I would argue that the reason the same word is used for both classes of entities is that they are in fact describing the same class of thing. The only difference between the rules governing role-playing games and the rules governing bourgeois society is that playing an RPG requires active and deliberate consent while being part of a society requires only that you exist. If you were to show me a well-behaved and well-educated liberal who goes to the gym. I would show you someone who is in the business of optimising their character build using real-world system mastery.
This being said, the idea that really caught my attention comes towards the end of the editorial:
Maybe rules for storygames are more like settings or adventures for the OSR. A good adventure or setting is praised for it makes explicit and specific (and what it doesn’t). They’re praised for their modularity (and hackability). Nobody thinks of adventures as restrictions. It might not be a perfect analogy but there’s something there I think!
Many things changed during my absence from the hobby. In fact, so many things changed in the 10-15 years I spent away from RPGs that I am almost tempted to say that RPG culture has changed more in the last ten years than in the thirty years that preceded it. Take a gamer from the late 1970s and drop them into a game shop in the late 1990s and it would not take them all that long to adapt. Take a gamer from the 1990s and drop them into the hobby today and I seem to spend my time reeling from one conceptual stumbling block to another.
One of the biggest differences between RPG culture now and RPG culture twenty years ago is that it is now possible to get paid to run games. It’s not just that this is now a socially acceptable thing to do, it’s also that there is an infrastructure and a set of norms governing how to present oneself, how to find customers, and how to build your reputation as a professional game-runner.
My first impression of this development was to be somewhat opposed to it… Every session I have ever run has been for friends, family, or fellow travellers and so the idea of getting paid to run games conjures images of people being invited to dinner and offering to pay for their meal. However, the more I thought about the phenomenon, the more I realised the wrong-headed and out-datedness of that first impression…
One of the big lessons I took from my return to regular gaming under Lockdown was the need to re-examine old ideas. As I have said before, I returned to gaming convinced that I was a pretty good GM but I soon realised that my perceived competence was more a result of unchanging habit and unquestioned bluster than real skill.
One of the ideas I wanted to re-examine – Particularly in the wake of my experiences playing Dewey’s Ten Candles – was my resistance to the idea of non-traditional RPGs. By “non-traditional RPGs”, I mean the kinds of games developed by the designers who used to post to the Forge message board as well as the people who would then go on to operate under such rubrics as ‘indie’ or ‘story’ games.
I am aware that this describes a hell of a lot of games and covers a hell of a lot of ludic territory and so a more accurate description of the kinds of game I tended to ignore would be games that challenge the power structures of traditional gaming tables by deconstructing the role of the Game Master by re-distributing narrative responsibilities more equally throughout the group.
For ages, I refused to engage with this type of game. Then I returned to gaming and decided to give them a go. Not for the first time in my life, I wound up feeling a sense of profound shame and sadness over my own pig-headed stupidity.