Theory review #96

Theory review #96

Theory review #93

  • The simulation dream by Tynan Sylvester discusses what to simulate and what not in digital games.
  • Measuring board game distance by Matthew Stephenson, Dennis J.N.J. Soemers, Éric Piette and Cameron Browne reports clustering of (mostly classical) board games based on their mechanical similarity.
  • How can the use of digital games in mathematics education promote students’ mathematical reasoning? A qualitative systematic review by Erik Ottar Jensen and Charlotte Krog Skott classifies use of digital games into five themes: developing strategies, exploring an immersive environment, experimenting, game design and solving tasks.
  • Why it’s rude to suck at Warcraft by Folding ideas takes a look at the instrumental play culture of World of warcraft and how it affects the game and its players.
Theory review #93

An OSR preprint

Jeff Rients discovered my preprint at Some history: I wrote that during a couple of summers, updated, and ended up publishing the pre-print as updating it would have taken too much doing at the time, given the low prospects of getting the article published in a journal. So there it is, outdated already when published, but such is life. I decided to publish the pre-print for the following perspectives it includes:

  • An academic look at OSR not based on nostalgia or equality with old D&D and its biases.
  • Non-wrong use of GNS, which is surprisingly rare for all GNS is cited by academic rpg theorists.
  • Using hobbyist theories as a lens to see at motivations and methods for playing.
  • Writing down the wargame perspective on OSR.

Of these motivations, all but the last one still stand. The strange collection of cited games is because very few OSR games actually said anything about why or how to play them. This situation has improved in the mean time. The collection of blog posts and forum posts is a combination of what I knew, could find, and could cite in a useful manner. Some draft did have Oddysey’s post on D&D and combat, I believe, but it ended up being taken away in one of the phases of cleaning the reference list.

Updates needed

Were I to update the article, I would have to update the theory section (given William White’s book) and would now take a look at multitude of OSR methods and priorities of play, namely:

  • Wargamey play, with Eero Tuovinen’s Muster and James Raggi’s Referee book as major sources. GNS gamist, GDS simulationist once a scenario is going, and ambiguous GDS when in the scenario negotiation or choice phase.
  • Creative problem solving play, with Principia apocrypha, Chris McDowall’s works and Petri Leinonen’s Them deeper bones as key references. Possibly GNS gamist, GDS gamist when revealing challenges (telegraphing traps for example), GDS simulationist and dramatist when resolving what the characters do (simulationist when following the fiction, dramatist when explicitly rewarding creative solutions).
  • Maybe the middle school game master storytelling tradition could be extracted from some Dragonsfoot and maybe Basic fantasy roleplaying adventures, or maybe Dragonsfoot discussions, but it would require work. GNS simulationist, GDS dramatist.
  • The freeform tradition that is branded FKR, or the NSR folk, might be doing other stuff, but I would have to dive in and see; it has been a while. Maybe character-centric freeform play could be isolated from there.

Doing all of this up to academic standards does not feel worth the trouble for me at the moment, so this blog post will have to carry the torch.

An OSR preprint

Burning vignettes

A one-shot usually has custom characters and an elaborate set-up. Playing one tends to take from one session (three to five hours) to maybe three sessions, as they tend to not be done in time, and depending on the precise scenario.

A vignette is shorter, more of an (extended) scene than an elaborate situation, typically for 2-3 players and a game master. It might be over in a couple of rolls or require use of extended conflict resolution systems, all based on how the game goes.

The troll and the cottage

  • Situation: A hungry troll has found a lone cottage in the woods. The resident might not appreciate this.
  • Participants: one game master, 2+ players
  • Character 1: a troll
  • Character 2: someone living in the cottage
  • Further characters: more residents of the cottage, or why not a traveller or another troll
  • Beliefs: Choose beliefs that allow a variety of outcomes; maybe the troll is hungry, sees humans as weak, and is lonely.
  • Gameplay: We start as the troll finds the cottage, maybe making some wise and scouting rolls to determine details, and various tests on the part of the resident to figure out if they have sheep and what condition is the cottage in. The game ends when the situation is resolved; maybe the troll sneaks in, snatches a sheep and the resident fails to track it, and we are done. Or maybe we have a duel of wits and then a fight after that. This is simple, low stakes play. We play to find out how the situation goes and what the characters make of it, with nobody having a preplanned plot arc in mind.

Generally, these vignettes are not an exercise in optimization; pick a character you have played before or burned before that suits the situation, or if you have none, burn a new one. Go for simple and obvious over complicated and powerful. There are no lifepath or exponent limits or recommendations over these guidelines. Starting artha is what the character had when last seen; otherwise, 3 fate and 2 persona. Tell the other participants at least roughly what you are playing, but do not coordinate carefully.

The point of reusing characters is to see a dear character once more, or to burn a new one if one likes that. Maybe use this as a way of playing a prelude and feeling out a character, or have a character whom you want to play when committing to a campaign is not really an option. Here you can still get some character advancement and similar joys of seeing the character grow.

Best practices for reuse: Do not use a character that ended up dead. Do take a bit of downtime if you have a character who fits, but not directly, so as to get them into the place. Whatever happens to the character here, carry it over to further games. This increases the stakes and excitement of the vignette.

The spider and the archmage

  • Situation: A web-wyrd great spider has found out where a human archmage lives and wants to learn their secrets.
  • Participants: one game master, 2+ players
  • Character 1: the arcane spider
  • Character 2: the archmage (or are they?)
  • Further characters: companions, grogs or creations of the archmage
  • Gameplay: Has the spider actually found an archmage, or are they mistaken? If they have, is the gap in communication too much; is the interloping spider killed as the monster they are, or do they manage to establish contact with the archmage and be taken seriously, or alternatively manage to sneak in and steal what they desire?

The purpose of the vignettes is to have gaming with a small social footprint, making participation easier and more lightweight. Playing together is a fine way of getting to know each other and creating shared experiences, thus also allowing stronger communication and more learning. These should also be a nice way of learning the rules system better, both the character burning, the core rules and the optional rules.

There are also further pedagogical goals: to hold a character lightly and to go into a situation without expectations of a particular character arc or other run of events. Also, to not fear or try to force extended conflicts: I encourage to use them if and only if they happen naturally in the gameplay, just to build up routine for them. Since the gameplay format is short, there should be time for an extended conflict.

The lovers’ duel

  • Situation: An illegal duel between two lovers of the same beloved.
  • Participants: one game master, 2+ players
  • Character 1: a lover
  • Character 2: a lover
  • Further characters: The beloved. A representative of the forces of order out to stop the duel.
  • Beliefs: Allow for a variety of outcomes, and have conflicting beliefs.

I encourage using the normal rules for artha rewards (with the game master’s or the group’s preferred house rules and interpretations). Also, have a trait vote, but remember that trait vote is not an advancement mechanic, but rather a change mechanic.

Here is how I would do it: after the session, everyone in the group should nominate each character for a trait or two just by trait name. For each one that roughly matches a trait the character already has, they get fate. If there was something the character clearly should have had but did not, they should get that as a character trait. If there is a trait they could have played but did not at all or acted against, remove the most blatant of such. This can also apply to die and call-on traits, though maybe they first go through demotion into a character trait. For earning die or call-on traits, only consider them if they were particularly noteworthy events of play and maybe also require alignment with a previous character trait in addition, or at least some BIT.

The two wolves

  • Situation: An ancient forest; a spirit hunter and a ghost of the deeping wood meet.
  • Participants: one game master, 2+ players
  • Character 1: a spirit hunter
  • Character 2: a ghost
  • Further characters: allies of the previous
  • Beliefs: Allow for a variety of outcomes, and have conflicting beliefs. This need not be a duel to death, though that, too, is a possibility.

Many of these vignettes are player character against player character, and hopefully can also teach how to deal with such constructively: play out your character fully, and let the consequences come.

As for consequences, remember that if you have a persona for will to live, you are not in danger of death, should you not want it. It is hard to get treatment in this type of scenario; a circles roll, even if unconscious, might allow it, but often you are due some nice wounded-type traits in the trait vote, I expect. Though maybe note everything always is worth dying for?

The lost orc

  • Situation: The glorious victory against the elves turned out less gloriously for you and your dark friend: you are alone and lost. What now?
  • Participants: one game master, 1+ players
  • Character 1: the lost orc
  • Character 2: the wolf mount
  • Further characters: an elf or a random encounter


Burning vignettes

Theory review #90

Theory review #90

History of bonus and malus dice

Bonus dice: when you roll dice, and add a certain number of extra dice, roll them, and take away a number of dice equal to how many you added, but you take away the worst dice. Malus dice is the same, except you take away the best dice, not the worst ones. Whether best and worst correspond to higher or lowest or something else depends on the particulars of the dicing system.

This is equivalent to rerolls in case of binary (for example success/failure) dice, but otherwise bonus- and malus dice are more powerful than rerolls.

  • AD&D 4d6 drop lowest from first edition? In that case PHB 1978. Maybe from some earlier Dragon article, who knows. In any case, not explicit about using a bonus die there, but with the variant of 5d6 drop two lowest, someone might have written down this formulation, too, at some point.
  • Over the edge, 1992 takes the best of several dice and uses both bonus and malus dice, also as situational modifiers.
  • Legend of five rings, 1997, roll and keep. Does anyone know if the game has explicit ideas of adding or removing bonus dice, or just manipulates the die pool size and grabs the number of kept dice from some source?
  • Dying earth 2001
  • Savage worlds, 2003, wild card die is a bonus die.
  • The shadow of yesterday 2004 explicit use, also malus dice; more than one die at base.
  • Whitehack 2013 has at most one bonus or malus die and uses Hero wars (blackjack) dicing: try to not roll above the score, but as high as possible.
  • D&D 5, 2014, popularization of advantage/disadvantage, limited to only a single bonus or malus die at a time.

The above is not a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully contains most of the original and influential titles. Please let me know of any mistakes or titles to add.

History of bonus and malus dice

Theory review #87

Theory review #87

Character stable #37

The most recently played characters are listed first, aside from the graveyard, where the highest wargamey experience gets priority place.

Characters in Coup de Greyhawk, in the world of Greyhawk

  • Ælfstan, a psionic monk who lives in poverty. In Misty marsh in Greyhawk. Level 4, wargamish experience 8527, modern D&D experience +1156 and average attribute +1, wargamish average attribute 13.
  • Diana Junes, a knife fighting retainer librarian of Ælfstan. In Misty marsh in Greyhawk. Level 1, experience 229, average attribute 11.
  • Melville, a poor Parisian master clerk, now adventuring in the duchy of Urnst in Greyhawk. Level 3, experience 316, average attribute 10.
  • Jussi Puska, a ranger who can not fight with two weapons, adventuring in Gnarley forest in Greyhawk. Level 1, average attribute 13, experience 1343.
  • Seela, a praedor against her will, now adventuring in the duchy of Urnst. Level 1, experience 186, average attribute 11.
  • Gotdorfd, a very unfortunate pickpocket who was caught and pressed into service as a dungeon guide in Great kingdom, in the world of Greyhawk. Currently adventuring in Gnarley woods. Level 3, experience 3775, average attribute 10.
  • Jarque, a Maldorean knight out on an adventure in Maure castle, in Flanaess. Level 1, experience 415, average attribute 11.
  • Guinevere, the current queen of Camelot, but now adventuring in Greyhawk. Average attribute 12, level 1, wargamey experience 159, miscellaneous experience 240.
  • A dungeon badger in the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk. Hit dice 2, average attribute 11.

Tournament of fear survivors

These characters are technically in Coup de Greyhawk, but I would not mind playing one of them in another campaign, either.

  • Geoff, a noble from Ammeni, out in the world to have fun and make trade agreements. Level 1, experience 25, average attribute 10.
  • Jack Stone, a mage who used to rule the streets of a modern city, now transported by paradox into this fantasy land. Level 1, experience 10, average attribute 11.
  • Duran-Dûn, a dwarfish mine foreman out to gather an army and take back his position and home. Hit dice 2, average attribute 16.
  • Ostrot, an extraplanar rat-monster with a terrible bite. Hit die 2, average attribute 12.

Free characters

  • Kaumil, a wood elven archer adventuring in Wilderlands of high fantasy, near Modron. Level 2, average attribute 13, modern D&D experience 1000, cheap wargamey experience 3151.
  • Senja, a mercenary who would rather not kill; currently seeking initiation with Mitra. Adventuring in Wilderlands of high fantasy, near Modron and a keep on the borderlands. Level 5, total experience 16866, average attribute 11. Wargamey experience 1656, cheap wargamey experience 13428, miscellaneous experience 1782.
  • Hayoshiko Egoshi, a samurai adventurer. Level 2, adventure points 1698, average attribute 10.
  • Daralr, an Orlanthi shaman from Glorantha. Level 2, adventure points 1494, average attribute 13.
  • Jorma, a forest mouse blacksmith who rescued some mice from rats. Average attribute 8, level 1, erfaring 100.
  • Little-Tund, a berserkr, retired into a small independent survivalist community in foreign lands after his host was slain by a superior force. Highest skill 17.
  • Rufus Hale, an enforcer.
  • Zeilee with alias «Tsai», a mechanic and space wreck looter. Level 1, experience 10, average attribute 11. Escaped from a creepy collapsing spaceship with some loot and a military general from fifteen years ago.
  • Bonicalcus, a drug-addicted underground alchemist and healer under a fantasy metropolis. Average attribute 11, highest skill value 64 %
  • athes, a cruel pseudo-mongol mounted archer. From Barren lands in Greyhawk and adventuring in Theranos. Level 5, average attribute 11. Wargamish experience 145, modern D&D experience 6070.
  • Lambros, a stoneman and a newly initiated thief. Strides 3, average attribute one dot.
  • Vasana, a heavy cavalrywoman of the Ernaldori clan of the Colymar Tribe, in Glorantha. Average attribute 14, highest skills and affinities 90 %.
  • Torgun Sigurddottir, a skjoldmøy from a shattered Norden, adventured last near Saxon. Level 2, adventure points 229, average attribute 10.
  • Melaku, a godbound in the village of Waja, in Ancalja. Level 1, average attribute 15, experience 2, spent influence 0.
  • Sølv, a human leader who owns a great farm, last seen in Saxon. First level, 73 adventure points, average attribute 13.
  • Shahu, a human merchant (or maybe a naga wizard) working for the glory of his trade company (or maybe nest). Currently active near Saxon. Level 1, personal adds -1, total adventure points 358.
  • Pönk, level 4 wolf troll warrior in the empire of Khazan, near Saxon. Personal adds 41, total adventure points 624.
  • An orcish archer, rampaging through dwarven mines.
  • A human adventurer who is quite certain they are born in a wrong body, being actually an elf. Cursed to burn eternally, suffering from terrible pain, but surviving regardless.
  • A swashbuckler buckling the swashes in northern Golarion. Level 1, average attribute 12.
  • Imhotep, a mummy masquerading as a historian in the modern Paris, though still wishing for the good old times to come back.
  • A teenage nerd mage, quite good with telekinesis.
  • Torakka, a superhero with the powers and inclinations of a cockroach.
  • A paladin, doing paladiny things in some fantasy world. Level 1, average attribute 12, experience 3.
  • A barbarian, strong and not very social. Level 1, average attribute 13.
  • A stalker who faced spooky outlines of people in the zone.
  • A noble of light in the Star wars very extended universe.
  • A student of statistics that has heard of the first signs of a coming zombie apocalypse.
  • A bear using a big log as a weapon. Level two, experience 135, average attribute +2.
  • A commando on a task in a near future banana republic in Middle or South America.
  • A mercenary minotaur illusionist, using walls of silence and darkness to obscure his position, while using grenades and a machine gun to deal with his enemies.
  • A doppelgänger, hit die 1, average attribute 14.


  • Fridswid, a young witch whom the oracle of Zagyg killed with a death spell, while she was hoping to release the oracle. Level 2, wargamey experience 1945, miscellaneous experience 1020.
  • Blarg, forest troll warrior died in the empire of Khazan, near Saxon, killed while simultaneously killing a horrid necrolyte and saving the village. Level 2, adventure points 1560.
  • Pöö, a warrior in the empire of Khazan, died in the blood feud of Saxon. Level 1, adventure points 1483.
  • Taril, an elf level 1, experience 296,2; killed by a pair of skeletons.
  • Garkromm, a savage entertainer from Abbor-Alz in Greyhawk, died in the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk, eaten by a fire beetle. Level 1, experience 268.
  • Rodaria, a seamstress from the city of Greyhawk, died in the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk, pierced by two spears to their gut, one ripped out by a (friendly?) barbarian. Level 1, experience 209.
  • Ottar, a chieftain from Sogndal, perished in Buffalo castle. Level 1, adventure points 127.
  • Atticus, an exiled Roman senator, killed by a giant spider in an elven slave torture dungeon. Level 1, adventure points 84.
  • Mitlar, a human warrior who was slain by killer bees in Buffalo castle while also killing them. Level 2, adventure points 62.
  • Wohoo the gargoyle warrior, level 1, killed by an orc at the exit of Buffalo castle in Khazan Empire. 42 adventure points.
  • Möö the urook warrior, level 1, died in a pit in Buffalo castle, killed by an orc. Empire of Khazan in Trollworld. 5 adventure points.
  • Jadar, a young priest and praedor from Jaconia, died in Wicked west marches by a witchling party.
  • Ranrance, a first level thief of small stature, mauled by a magical owlbear statue in Greyhawk. Level 1, experience 0.
  • A character killed by an animate mushroom, while trying to climb up from a cave. Level 1, experience 0.
  • A first level thief, died by lizardfolk or fishfolk in some abandoned mine dungeon. Level 1, experience 0.
  • Tard, a stupid berserkr, was killed by his cowardly leader as a scapecoat in a jail.
  • The frog, an outlaw, was speared by guardmen when trying to steal a silk pillow (and the crown on it) from the lord’s tower.
  • Lone wolf, a kai aspirant, who was killed by a helghast while seeking Sommerswerd.
  • A coast guard that died when a Great old one destroyed the ghost ship they were investigating.
  • An advanced robot that did not manage to convince the judges that it had learnt what humanity is.

Character stable #37

Theory review #84

Theory review #84