Maintaining Descriptive Mystique

Some in the OSR blogosphere have suggested that Google+ will soon replace the role of blogs as a venue for conversation in our circle. I haven’t been doing a lot of posting there on my own initiative, although it is fun to be drawn into discussions when people tag me in a conversation. Here is one started by Kirin Robinson, designer of the awesome Old School Hack, that uses the interview I did with Canon Puncture as the departure point for some interesting territory. Kirin wrote:

If you’re curious about some of the tenets of old-school D&D, and how they differ from modern D&D (no judgement here, though), here’s a great half-hour gaming advocates podcast with The Mule Abides’ +Tavis Allison as he goes on about the history of the game. I highly recommend it, I learned a lot listening to it.

What’s very interesting is that he’s not so much talking about D&D as outlined in the original little brown books, but about the “Mythic D&D” that existed beyond them at gaming tables in the context of the style of play being this new and exciting thing – D&D as a framework, where situational rules were made up as you went along in a sort of emergent “creating the game as you played the game” kind of way.

Thinking about +John Johnson‘s dice fudging debate, there’s something to be said here about the uniqueness of having a purposeful non-explicitness in how one runs a game. I know that that’s probably an immediate and almost painful turn-off for a lot of gamers, of course. Even me.


John replied:

There are a great many newer games that tie into this “making it up as we go along” idea.Fiasco may be the best well known of them. Personally I love those types of games, and they’re what I tend to gravitate towards these days. However I also enjoy having the rule set actually supporting the type of gameplay you’re trying to do.

I took him to mean that the OD&D ruleset doesn’t actually support its intended gameplay, which I think is not at all true – saying that it doesn’t enforce that gameplay is different, and I think this lack of enforcement is valuable. Re-reading it I’m not sure this is what he meant, but my reply isn’t direct enough that it makes a difference:

I think the interesting thing about OD&D is that it has a framework of very concrete bits with big lacuna everywhere else, including just about everywhere modern games assume rules are needed. You’re not at all making up the prevalence of a helm of telepathy in a treasure hoard as you go along (although you might make up your own variant on that table before play starts); it’s just what the helm does that is undefined.

That said, since that interview I’ve spent a bunch of time with some fan reformats of the OD&D rules – if you put together in one place all the things OD&D says on a topic throughout the text, it’s not nearly as non-explicit as I made it out to be. Which implies that you could take a tightly designed game and make it productively mystifying by a Burroughsian cut-up method!

Kirin replied “I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where you’re going with Adventurer Conquerer King, man. Can’t wait!”

The connection of these two thoughts made me realize that, like playing with Greyharp’s 3LBB reformat, developing ACKS has been part of a process of filling in my own blanks and de-mystifying the originally ever-puzzling OD&D text into something coherent:

Adventurer Conqueror King is kind of an OSR recapitulation of 3E; in some ways it’s very much a rationalization of the original rules. We’ve spent endless skull-sweat looking at the social organization & treasure types of B/X monsters like orcs and pirates and reverse engineering general principles about the distribution of wealth, and I’m pretty sure Cook & Tweet & Williams did the exact same thing to get to the demographics guidelines in the 3E DMG. (We just add “consistency with ancient-world history” and “avoiding the unintended consequences of 3E/4E” to the mix.)

There is still an emphasis on framework over rules, though. I was talking to some NYC storygamers and they were like “are you going to provide guidelines for adjucating the players’ clever solution for using a decanter of endless water to defeat a descending-ceiling deathtrap?” I was blown away that this was what they considered the important problem; it seemed obvious to me that you’d just rule that it worked, or ask the table what they thought the probability of success was and roll it on a d6, or do whatever else your group had evolved to deal with lacuna.

The ACKS design is all about figuring out how many apprentices it took to make that decanter of endless water, and who can afford to buy it, because when the players kill an appentice wandering monster we want it to be easy to adjucate that some baron sends his knights after you demanding to know why you delayed production on the item he promised for his liege’s niece’s wedding gift.

Kirin replied:

I was very lucky, in putting together Old School Hack I had equal measures of critique calling for more specificity and calling for maintained descriptive mystique.

By and large I like the latter. Adding more rules is easy, keeping things simple and interesting and establishing precedence for further extrapolation? Much harder.

I love the idea of descriptive mystique as something the designer of a ruleset has to work to preserve, just like the designer of a campaign setting has to make sure blank spaces get left on the world map. Thanks to Kirin and John for permission to repost their comments here!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2011

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