Thursday, 15 July 2021

Organizing RPG rules by timescale

Over the past couple weeks I've been working on my homebrew rules (basically a combination of Whitehack plus a half dozen other OSR sources). If you've been following this blog you've likely noticed this a bit as I've posted various ideas and and impressions of rulesets that I've read and house rules of my own.

I began writing out my thoughts on the importance of danger, time, and resources in a bit of an introduction to OSR style play:

While a RPG game can have many settings, and evoke many different narratives, this ruleset seeks to evoke the importance of danger, time, and resources, as the interplay of these three things help create dramatic tension.

Danger: Let us begin with danger. It is the most obvious factor in play. Danger comes in many forms and tends to add tension and consequences to action. Real and unpredictable danger is what makes an RPG session more than just a session of improvisational drama or comedy.

Time: Time is important. Time can only ever be expended, never truly be recovered by the players. The passage of time is the Referee’s greatest tool in bringing alive the world around the players, in showing the players that their actions have consequences and creating a meaningful game.

Resources: The players have resources. These range from items to abilities to contacts in the world to knowledge about the world. Resources are used by the players to interact with the world, circumvent danger, and come up with novel solutions to problems.

These three things are not interesting by themselves, no one likes a game that's all about micromanaging your inventory. But it's because the interesting bits (narrative milieu, setting, npc characters, mysterious locations, etc.) aren't conveyed through the rules. Instead the view of this ruleset is that the rules act to structure interaction with these interesting bits. These interesting bits are built through play and a setting shared by the players and GM.

 None of this is particularly new. But it did get me thinking about things and how rules are structured. For example if you open up most RPGs and look at the table of contents:

They tend to be pretty similar regardless of the edition or game. You have a section on character creation, a section on combat, a section on magic and spells, a section on items, a section on special conditions like drowning, fire damage etc. And if you're lucky you'll have a section on other game procedures besides combat like exploring. 

Overall most RPG books tend to organize their contents by category. While this makes sense for other types of books I feel like it can end up making RPG books more confusing and dense in some ways. I think the OSR is partially a reaction to this where a lot of how the game was played traditionally isn't covered in the rules, and a lot of original OSR blogging was about different modes or styles of play that weren't covered in your standard ruleset (like hexcrawls). 

As stated above I view the rules as sets of instructions which provide a structure for the players to interact with the setting and the things they find in it. In other words, a set of procedures. This idea isn't particularly new and another big point of the OSR.

However, for any given situation in the game there are different sets of instructions (often termed mechanics) which you could use to resolve interaction. For example take a chase. You could resolve it by simply flipping a coin. Heads the players get away, tails, the enemy catches up to them. Conversely you could resolve the interaction through a play-by-play of the players and Referee taking turns describing and resolving what they do and rolling dice. Like the players attempt to topple an apple cart to block the enemies. One of the players rolls and is successful and so the apple cart is toppled. The enemies roll to jump over the cart, etc.

The difference between these two procedures to resolve the players interaction with the world is their level of abstraction. Flipping a coin is resolving things with a high degree of abstraction. Doing a play-by-play resolves things in a low level of abstraction. I think neither is inherently better than the other, it depends on what kind of game you want to play. 

However, I think it's important to note of that what is being abstracted is time. That whatever set of rules, whatever procedure you make up or choose to resolve a player interaction with the world, it is going to abstract time in a certain way. Furthermore, you are probably going to want to abstract interaction in varying degrees. A game that resolved everything with a flip of the coin probably wouldn't be very fun to play. Neither would a game that tried to resolve everything in a very complex play-by-play with tons of dice rolling for every little action.

In this manner I don't see the rules in a game as an almost abstract mathematical modeling of the world where you're attempting to come up with a set of attributes or rolls or mechanics or whatever that you can use to model everything in how an imagined world works. 

Instead I see the rules as a set of compartmentalized procedures that exist like a set of Russian nesting dolls where each describes a different level of interaction. Once I started viewing rules this way I thought, hey, instead of organizing an RPGs contents by category I think they should be organized by time abstraction essentially by timescale. It just seems much more intuitive for me.

For example, I think there are about 5 different timescales used in most OSR games:

  1. Timescale - Characters: This section has the static rules that represent the game world where time is not a factor mainly basic character creation and dice mechanics.
  2. Timescale - Encounters: In this section time is generally measured in seconds to minutes and called an encounter. In an encounter there is often an adversary that will react quickly to the players and whom they have to react quickly to. Time is of the essence. Danger is often fraught!
  3. Timescale - Exploration: In this section time is generally measured in hours. The players are most often engaged in exploring a location that is not immediately hostile, generally room by room or area by area.
  4. Timescale - Traveling: In this section, time is measured in days where the players are traveling over great distances. Most of the day is assumed to be spent in the drudgery of travel with the chance to come across something interesting, along with certain time taken up having to do important logistical tasks related to travelling.
  5. Timescale - Seasons: In this section time is generally measured in months and represented by seasons where the players have decided to spend an extended period of time in a (hopefully) safe and civilized location.
Now, I don't think any of these concepts or the procedures in these various sections are new. But I do think organizing and thinking about RPGs in this manner is. I don't think I've come across a rulebook or RPG that really organized itself in this way or to this degree.

I find organizing rules this way makes them much easier to understand and reference at the table. The referee just has to think, what are we doing? At what pace are things happening? If danger is present and things are happening fast, then I should probably look for rules within the Encounters section. If they're really slow with little danger present, probably in the Season section.

I find thinking about rules this way also really helps to find what level to abstract things to when making new procedures. Like take my chase example from above. Imagine a typical chase from a movie. Running through a market square. Stuff is happening pretty fast. You'll probably want to resolve things on the Encounter level of abstraction. It seems to naturally fit there. 

But also, what about more long distance chases? Like the party see's a group of enemies on the horizon and they begin to chase them? Well, that's a different level of abstracted time that seems to fit in with traveling. You may need some procedures there also. Maybe call it pursuits instead of chases as it better describes the situation. Maybe a "chase" can even lead to a "pursuit" where the Referee is able to seamlessly switch from different levels of abstraction. If the players escape the bad guys in the market square and get out of the city, they find themselves being pursued across the dusty plain. You as the Referee can switch from the one scene to the other, switch from the one set of procedures to another.

Additionally, by grouping your procedures based on the level of abstracted time, you're able to come up with some core mechanics for that level of abstracted time. For example in Encounters to me one of the core mechanics is having an initiative order. Where things are happening fast. Who goes before who and does what is really important because actions are resolved in sections. 

So if I were making chase rules for this level of abstraction I'd probably include an initiative order. Where while the party is running as a group, they all have to make some kind of attribute roll in order to outrun whomever is chasing them. If a person fails, they begin to stumble a bit and lag behind. The next person in the initiative order has a decision. Do they try and grab whomever is lagging and help them to their feet and run faster? Do they try and create a distraction by toppling that apple cart? Do they turn and fire an arrow at an enemy and hope that causes some commotion? 

Likewise, if I were to make a set of procedures for pursuits I'd probably use the the core mechanic for that level of abstracted time. Mainly, by using a hexmap for travelling and the concept of a watch. Where each watch represents eight hours. Where the players have to decide, do we try to march faster and cover more ground than we normally could in 8 hours? Do we explore the hex we're in and try to setup an ambush or just hide? Do we try to go slower but conceal our trail? Where are we going? Which route should we choose on the hexmap? What do we want to spend our 8 hour watches doing?

If you have a couple really good core mechanics or procedures for each level of abstraction, it becomes pretty easy to modify or interpret them to handle new interactions and situations in the world. Oftentimes the hardest part is picking the the level of time abstraction that feels right, a task made much easier and more intuitive if the rules themselves are arranged by order of time abstraction.

In conclusion, ever since I had this little revelation about organizing RPG rules this way I've been revising my house rules in this format. It's been a bit slow going and is tedious at times. I don't think anything that I've talked about is particularly new in the OSR scene but I have found in re-organizing my house rules like this has forced me to fill in a lot of gaps. 

As mentioned before I'm using Whitehack 3rd edition as the base for my homebrew ruleset. When I'm done writing it up I'll probably post it here on my blog for all to read. I don't think I would ever publish it or have ambitions to that end. I've stolen waaaaay to many mechanics and rules and things from various OSR systems to feel comfortable publishing it.  

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Decolonizing Your OSR Game

So the issue of whether or not D&D is racist and/or colonialist with overtones of 80s American capitalism seemed to have reared it's head again as it seems to every couple of months.

I'm not going to write about these views in particular. Other people have written about them in better ways than I could at length.

I always find myself feeling like a middle child when this topic comes up, kind of stuck between my older sibling (hardcore TSR oldschool grognards) and my younger sibling (5th edition fanboy's) as they argue vehemently all over twitter while I just kind of stand to the side ignored by mom and dad.

I do think there are some problematic themes in D&D. But I don't think the issue is as polarized as this topic is often treated and talked about. Where either you run your table with all the problematic content in it's 80s glory, or you remove anything that could be seen as problematic to anyone and run a game that begins to not resemble D&D much anymore and is firmly family friendly.

I don't think the issue is so stark and there are multiple ways to decolonize your game and keep it interesting. In fact, some of these things I (and I think the OSR sphere) have been doing for a while and have been doing so not for any particularly 'woke' reasons (at least not initially) but because they lead to a much more interesting game.

1. Use the Early Modern Period as Inspiration instead of the Medieval Period or Tolkienesque Fantasy

I know this is kind of a general point but I find a very useful one. In terms of the general level of technology and political/cultural organization that goes on in most D&D settings and games, it more closely resembles the Early Modern Period (approximately 1400 or 1500 to 1800). 

It's kind of the sweet spot. You have individualism becoming a thing, the printing press and rising literacy, the beginnings of capitalism, the beginnings of scientific investigation, and the rise of the nation state. 

Anything earlier and it's really hard to understand the thinking and perspective of the people who lived back then. Anything later and technological development begins to change things so much it wouldn't really be D&D.

It may seem weird to suggest this time period to decolonize your game as it's kind of when colonization was happening and the slave trade was in full swing.

But I find reading up on actual history of this era really forces you to discard general romanticized ideas it, of both the oppressor and oppressed that are often formed after colonization happens. It also gives you an idea of how and why colonization happened and who benefited. And it often gives you gives you insight into what these colonized societies were actually like before they were colonized, (as pre-contact history of colonized places can be fragmented). 

If you're going to play a game set in the past with multiple cultures, being knowledgeable on how colonialism happens and what leads to colonialism, can help you portray the setting in a way that's sensitive and multifaceted rather than pretending that colonization as a form of conflict simply doesn't exist or is a simple affair.

Knowing how and why colonialism happened also helps with coming up with reasonings as to why conflict between nations and cultures is not taking the form of overt colonialism and racism. If you know what societal structures, institutions, and forces lead to colonialism, then you can probably come up with societal structures, institutions, and forces in your game that prevent it. I don't think colonialism and racism are inevitable, but a certain degree of conflict, posturing, and cultural misunderstanding is. 

I tend to take this approach in my games. I don't like to have any systemic colonialism or racism in my games. But I do like to have multiple cultures and nations and am not going to pretend like racism and colonialism is not an inclination of humankind and that individual cultural conflict can't be handled in a way that creates interesting and engaging situations and stories.

Like, do we really want to help or sign on with these pirates? They were all once captives themselves and half were refugees, but they do seem to like to raid costal villages of an unfriendly nation a lot.

Or, this trading company has opened an office in this foreign city. The two cultures get along okay, and exchange needed goods, but there's been cultural misunderstandings and conflicts in the past. Do we want to side with one over the other? Do we want to even get involved? Which cultures is better? Can one culture be better?

2. Get rid of evil humanoid races and just have humans

One common criticism of how D&D may be racist is it's depiction of evil humanoid races as inherently evil who, depending on what art of what edition you're looking at, may resemble people of colour. 

It's part of the whole Civilization vs Wilderness theme in D&D where the 'civilized' cultures are generally modelled after European ones and the 'wilderness' cultures are modelled after indigenous or nomadic cultures.

A great solution I find to this is just replace them all with humans. Humans are pretty good at being awful to each other. Banditry and groups of people living outside the law were also very common in the early modern era. Simply replace all your generic bad guy humanoids with actual humans. You don't need to have an actual untamed wilderness to have dangerous people about. Bandits in the countryside kind of ensure that even in the middle of a settled, western European nation state, you can still have an area without a lot of law and order.

As an added twist you can vary encounters with them to make some of them morally gray. Like are these bandits bandits because they were farmers and their crops failed and they need a new way to feed themselves? Or are they ex-soldiers who don't give a fuck commanded by a sadist who genuinely loves his job? 

Also, by having humans as your generic enemy with interesting motivations it makes the actual monsters and strange creatures more strange and interesting in comparison.

3. Have starting cultural backgrounds instead of races or ethnicities

A lot of games will let you play as other races with racial traits or abilities. Some games which tend to use humans more will let you pick a starting ethnicity.

I tend to just let players roll a local starting culture for their character instead. This local culture represents experiences a character has had and communities that they have been part of that have granted knowledge about a particular place, way of life, and social class. Culture tends to be the main thing which ideals, attitudes, and practices are transmitted from human to human anyways. More so than race or ethnicity. This stuff isn't genetic after all.

I tend to opt more for a local culture that is reflective of a certain lifestyle in a certain geographic place than one defined by a nation state. While the idea of a nation state was forming during the early modern period it was still all somewhat ambiguous. People probably identified first and foremost with the local village and lifestyle they were from and then larger more collective things like the nation state they found themselves part of. 

I use this chart and let my players pick their nationality after based on what area of the world the game is set in:






You grew up in one of the many small agricultural villages that dot most landscapes. One of many brothers and sisters, you worked the farm and life was hard. Life was dictated by the seasons, both spiritual and earthly, a time and place for everything.



You grew up taking care of your families herds. Moving with the seasons you brought them to graze upon the open grasslands in the summer and sheltered in the forested vales in the winter.



You grew up with your family living in a wagon, trading items here and there, your father doing odd jobs where he could find them. Whether because of persecution or the call of the open road, your family lived in many places and spoke many languages.


Religious Urban

You grew up cloistered in a tight knit urban religious community. You attended religious schools and celebrated religious holidays with your community. At times persecuted, the pain of one was shared by all within the community.



you grew up on a small town or village on the coast. The open sea called to you every morning and the gulls awoke you. Songs were sung as the catch of the day was delivered and all eyed the ocean carefully when storms rolled in. Some people in the village would even go on fishing expeditions that lasted months or even years.



Once upon a time you had it all. You lived in an ancestral hall with a silver spoon in your mouth. Then one day it was gone, the rest of your family killed by your uncle.


Free Town

You grew up in a tall house in town. Your father was a tradesman and your life was filled with the gossip of the town. It was a small but industrious community, proud of it's work and civic ethos.



You grew up in the streets of a big filthy city. Wild dogs your only friends, cats your competitors, other orphans your comrades.



Your mother was a scullery maid, your father unknown. You grew up in the servants halls of your employer. Working for them just as your mother did until you decided enough was enough.


Mountain Folk

You are from the mountains and of the proud folk that fill them. Forestry, mining, it doesn't matter, you learned much from the hard but friendly folk that you grew up among. You can drink almost anyone under the table.



You took care of your family's flocks, letting them graze upon the hilly meadows in your youth. Long hours you spent guiding them, making sure none got lost. Most of the time spent outdoors you learned how to navigate and survive in the rocky landscape.



Coming from a long line of men who have served, you grew up playing with toy soldiers and hearing stories of war. You longed for the day when you could serve gallantly and bring honour to your family.

So if the game was located primarily in Western Europe and two characters rolled a 6 one might be a minor ex-noble from Lyon, France while another might be a minor noble from Genoa, Italy. They've have insight into local intrigue and would probably have more common understanding with each other than a pastoral goatherd from the French Alps even though the two French characters are from the same nation state. 

I find this creates more flexible and interesting backgrounds than race. 

4. Have your world be post-apocalyptic

In most OSR games the players are delving into ruins and looting treasure. At heart this is somewhat problematic as that treasure probably belonged to someone. While this is a core part of OSR games I think it you can make your games a lot less problematic if you make the culture the treasure comes from long dead culture. 

While characters are still looting treasure (they aren't exactly conducting archeological excavations) it's generally a little less problematic if the people they are looting it from has no real living descendants or cultural connection. 

It's also less problematic if the culture is some weird culture like the dungeon was built by an alien culture from the stars on a windswept isle. Or a bunch of giants made from living stone living deep within the mountains dug out the dungeon and then abandoned it.

And less problematic if the culture was kind of evil, like the strange religious cult that inhabited the dungeon practiced human sacrifice and used to raid others.

These aren't perfect solutions but I find most players are willing to accept them.

5. Have no land be truly uninhabited

Humanity has pretty much spread all over the globe and lived in just about every type of geography you can find. I'm not talking about modern times, I'm talking about pretty much the last couple thousand years. While population density may vary greatly, there are very few parts of the earth that have ever truly been unclaimed. No matter how few people there are living in a place, no matter how spread out they are, generally someone will consider every part of the earth their home and belonging to them. 

This may make it seem like it's hard to have wilderness but it kind of feeds into making the world post-apocalyptic. If every part of the earth has had humans living on it and considering it their home, as time goes on and cultures drift and conflict happens, you're going to end up with tons and tons of ruins and remnants of these old cultures, regardless of how few people live in the region currently. 

Indigenous peoples in an area should be seen as more than just obstacles or potential conflict. They are the ones who best know how to live in and navigate the geography. They are the ones who probably know where the ancient ruins are that the players are most interested in and what is dangerous about them. 

If you read the accounts of expeditions of early explorers, most times they survive purely by the help or advice of the natives. Navigation and exploration of an area should be very, very, difficult for the players if they don't get to know the local indigenous people and their culture. Doing so can create a lot of interesting gameplay. Like how do they feel about the ancient culture that built the ruins? Do they see the treasure as a resource to be exploited or lost technology to be regained? Something to be protected as a heritage treasure? Something that can help them understand their forgotten past? A painful reminder of the past? Do they actively re-use parts of these ruins (stone from ruins used to build present day buildings etc.)? 

Additionally, frontiers tend to from not because a land is empty wilderness but because it's the rough geography and mutable borderlands in-between two, often competing, cultures. They tend to be full of competing factions and interests and ripe for adventure as the two competing cultures press up against each other. Instead of having a civilization vs wilderness setup, make it a borderlands. 

6. Keep the weird things relatively uncommon and very weird

This is another big one. Have a firm distinction between your weird or strange elements and your recognizable more normal elements.

I personally hate the overall trend that seems to be present in most WOTC materials to normalize the fantastic or weird elements in fantasy in order to present a setting that seems well thought out where fantastic things are part of daily life. This is both present in low magic stuff like the Forgotten Realms and high magic stuff like Eberron. 

In my settings people are aware that there are weird things in the world. They're aware that occult magic is real and exists. That strange creatures can be found in certain area's. That there is much unknown about the world. But is the average peasant really exposed to all this? No, probably not. In the early modern era people rarely travelled more than 30 miles from their village. While weird things exist, it's really not part of the daily lives of most people and most people in my setting are fine with that. They avoid the weird because it's dangerous and likely to kill them.

I find integrating the fantastic elements of the setting into the daily lives of the people to much makes the interesting parts of the setting way less interesting and tends to open itself to problems. If you want to try to explain everything about your weird elements and have everything logically congruent you're going to have to fill in a lot of 'gaps'. When you fill in gaps you tend to draw upon what you know about the normal real world to make it feel realistic. This creates real world analogues. The more you do this the more you open yourself up to interpretation that these fantasy elements represent real world things and thus comparison to these real world things.

The easiest thing I find is to just draw on and use actual history for the normal stuff in your game and keep your weird stuff very, very weird, at times without much of an explanation to the players. The weird stuff just is

I find the work the OSR is doing to make the weird things weird again has, whether it intentional or not, helped decolonize D&D and remove problematic elements in some ways more than the work WOTC is doing by simply rewording references or removing material.

Patrick Stuarts conception of what the Drow could truly be like and how strong their hate could be to me does more to remove a lot of problematic elements from the Drow, more than anything WOTC has done. Where after reading his description of them it's pretty clear they aren't just dark skinned BDSM themed matriarchal goth elves. They are something different, something that feels beyond the human range of emotion, of expression, of thought. Something that feels alien because it's so irrationally extreme.