I have always found it impossible to play magical cyberpunk outside of Shadowrun; I can’t imagine adapting the Shadowrun system to play, say, space opera or high fantasy. Similarly, I can’t imagine playing high fantasy with Traveller rules, or cyberpunk with D&D. Something about these classic games prevents them from being used outside of their genre remit, which is why I don’t naturally turn to D&D Modern, though no doubt it’s perfectly capable of the task. This is probably partly because they’re the games I grew up with, and back in that more innocent age I adhered to the setting constraints they gave me and then when I grew up I couldn’t escape them; but I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, and I think there’s a more fundamental artistic achievement here than merely capturing the attention of a 13 year old boy when he was vulnerable. Even now I can remember what it was like to open the AD&D Player’s Handbook (I think first edition, with the badly-drawn wizard on the front), and smell the very special smell of the paper, and see that densely written text; read Gygax’s strange (and in many ways wrong) prose, and appreciate the spells and monsters and actions described therein. There’s something very specific and powerful about the way that game is presented, like it contains its own lexicon and cosmology, right there in those 200-odd pages. The style of the game determines what you can do with it, and the presentation of AD&D, along with its gaming style, is so particular that you can’t just strip out the spells and monsters and use the system to run a space opera. I’d wager no one ever has, or if they have, they’ve slowly regressed.

I was reminded of this today by this excellent review of The Name of the Wind and The Children of Hurin, which compares the modern style of one genre novel (The Name of the Wind by Richard Rothfuss) with another, more suited to its task (The Children of Hurin, by Tolkien). The reviewer says about style:

style—the language and form of the novel—is seen as an unimportant adjunct to the “story.” It is not. A bourgeois discursive style constructs a bourgeois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it necessarily mismatches what it describes, creating a milieu that is only an anachronism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming environment rather than an actual place. This degrades the ability of the book properly to evoke its fictional setting, and therefore denies the book the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise.

I think this applies to RPGs as well. Creating style in RPGs isn’t just about the book (though the AD&D 1st edition is a great example of how this is done) but about how the gaming environment is constructed. Fiddly dice and tabletop mapping (AD&D); fiddly cards and tokens (WFRP3); miniatures and maps (D&D 3rd); starmaps and starships and sparse use of props (Traveller) – these are tools to create an environment that invokes a style. In some games this style is very carefully evocative of the nature of the game, and in others it is sterile (Aria) or actually versatile (Rolemaster/Spacemaster/MERP/Cyberspace). But without creating this specific environment – in the rules, in the aesthetic of the book, in the gaming environment, and in the nature of challenges and dramatic process – the game will fail to impress. Maybe this is why generic systems tend to be less successful than genre systems, and maybe also why some setting-specific games fail (because they don’t match their style to their setting).

The reviewer gives an example of this with Tolkien, contrasting the modern 20th century style of Rothfuss with Tolkien’s genre-specific style:

It’s a book by a man who knew intimately not only the facts and paraphernalia but the mindset, values, and inner life of his relevant historical period—more Dark Age than medieval, this time, but assuredly not modern. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, level on which this registers is that of the style, which actually does approach the classic elevation that Wollheim wrongly identifies in Rothfuss. The Children of Húrin‘s syntax is compact, declarative and unafraid of inversion (“Great was the triumph of Morgoth”). Its vocabulary is almost entirely purged of words not derived from Old English sources: so much so that the occasional Anglo-French term—for instance, the phrase “Petty-dwarf” with its petit-derived qualifier—jars a little. More, it is a prose written with a careful ear for the rhythms of English; a prose with a very satisfying balance of iambic and trochaic pulses, sparingly leavened with unstressed polysyllables (it reads well aloud)

This shows well the numerous tools that a writer can use to invoke effect, beyond just plot and ideas.The task of RPGs isn’t just to provide a distracting few hours of your life (as the reviewer so dismissively characterizes Rothfuss) but to provide a means of escape to another world. You don’t get this by slinging together a skill resolution system and a character sheet. You need a style for your game, a bridge between the imagination of the players and the mechanism by which they play it out interactively. Is this more difficult than constructing a good genre novel? I’m not sure, but I’m fairly confident it’s less financially rewarding. In any case, there’s a lot to be said for the stylistic achievements of the early gaming world, even if the systems themselves were crap and we eventually moved on to better ones. And I think the linked review gives some powerful examples of why these early games held our attention despite their flaws, through the comparison of two fantasy novels.

Incidentally, this review is also an excellent and powerful defense of Tolkien.

A first attempt at how a D&D character sheet might look like if written in business buzzwords:

Click for a full Horizon-scan

This character sheet is based on the D&D 4e Essentials character sheet, with the “skillset” separated from the “capabilities.” Follow the flow of that character sheet to see how they all fit in, though it should be obvious to anyone who is singing from the same hymn sheet as me exactly what should be actioned in, for example, the “Key Deliverables” section of the document. If you see a word you recognize, it’s because I can’t think of a suitable buzzword to replace it with. I considered putting in a statement about proper treatment of personal data and please destroy it if it has been emailed to you in error, but we all know that really those statements have no legal force. I think I haven’t used enough hyphens, and some of the nouns lose their full bullshit bingo force if they’re not used as verbs (or should I say, “verbed”).

Suggestions are welcome, of course: we’ll stir-fry them in the ideas wok. I’m doing a full 360-degree horizon scan on this, so any blue-sky thinking on it is absolutely welcome. Just so we’re sure we’re all on the same page, I should clarify that this is issued under the Open Bullshit License (OBL), just like all product made available through this communication channel. Under the Open Bullshit License, if you envision a strategic fit to any of the ideas pioneered here, you’re welcome to transition them to your own knowledge base. A few questions for us to brainstorm:

  • Is “drill down” sufficient for “dungeoneering”?
  • “Empowerment” isn’t the best option for “Armour class,” but much as you’d like to see the average meeting turn into a melee (that ultimately ends with your boss getting stuck with a guisarme), I can’t think of a buzzword for this
  • “Intestinal fortitude” seems a bit weak. Actually some of the original words (dexterity, fortitude, intiative) are kind of bullshitty in their own right: should they just be kept as-is?
  • Should the whole thing be called a “Service Level Agreement”? I’m not sure…

Let’s whiteboard any ideas and see if we can come up with a 2.0 version …

In comments to my post on shitty GMing it has been suggested that the problem simply came down to a GM who was running the game as a “neutral arbiter” and had I known that I wouldn’t have felt hard done by. Putting aside the particular exigencies of that case, I don’t believe that it’s possible for a GM to be a truly neutral arbiter, nor do I think that it’s particularly desirable. Here I shall give some reasons why it’s not possible, giving some examples from the module that we played during the particular case in question (which is available online here), and give my preferred role for the GM in play.

The Problem of GM Preferences

The GM participates in the game for his or her own fun, and is not actually a referee in the strict sense of the word. Every GM brings their own preferences for gameplay and interaction to the table, and it’s inevitable that the GM will reward play that matches their preferences, and discourage play that doesn’t. In a one-off game this may not be noticeable but in an ongoing group the players get used to the GM’s preferences and change their play accordingly (usually). The players are usually aware that the GM also needs to enjoy the game, and they do tend to adapt accordingly. But if they don’t, the GM has – and will generally use – a variety of techniques to ensure that the game will be rewarding for the GM as well as the players. I don’t think it’s possible for a GM to remain neutral while pursuing their own fun.

The Problem of Shared Experience

Much of an RPG in practice proceeds according to a series of descriptions by the GM, and responses by the players. How the players respond depends on their understanding of what the GM told them, and in my experience as both player and GM what the players understand of what the GM told them is very different to either a) what the GM expects them to understand or b) what the GM thinks they understand. Things the GM thinks are obvious remain completely invisible to the players; things the players focus on are irrelevant to the GM. It becomes the GM’s responsibility to do something about this: whether the response is one of correcting player misconceptions or riffing of these misconceptions, neither response is neutral. The genuinely neutral response is to either correct the players’ misconceptions (so there is no risk that the shared experience is corrupted by the medium of expression) or to ignore it (being “neutral”). I think many people who think it’s possible for a GM to be neutral couldn’t even agree on which of these actions is the mark of a neutral GM, or even which is possible. In reality I think the concept of a neutral arbiter relies, in gaming just as in real life, on the assumption of information exchange being perfect. This just doesn’t happen in games, and it’s no one’s fault that players suddenly yell “I’ll jump out the window!” when you’ve just described a subterranean room with no windows; it happens all the time. Players are tired, checking facebook, drinking beer, reading a spell description, checking whether they have used up that item … and you’re imparting a crucial piece of information that they not only fail to hear but fail to realize is crucial.

This problem is especially pernicious where the game depends on setting-specific knowledge. In this case the “neutral” GM has to decide which aspects of setting knowledge the PCs already know (and thus what the players can learn for nothing) and what they are supposed to find out the hard way. This is not the kind of information that has even a concept of neutrality attached to it.

The Problem of Knowledge

Everyone who comes to an RPG has their own specific knowledge and real life experience, and this has a significant bearing on their understanding of the game world. What people believe is possible or impossible, what they think their PCs can and can’t do, what they even think of doing with their PCs, depends on their understanding of the world they’re in. Recently Hill Cantons reproduced a few “design notes” from two popular RPGs, and the attitude towards knowledge in one of them (Chivalry and Sorcery, I think) was noteworthy:

We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity…[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe…The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.

This kind of attitude towards setting obviously assumes that everyone playing understands what a feudal world is and how it works. But this is almost never true. Lots of people know almost nothing about the “real way of life” under feudalism, and everyone brings their own prejudice and misconceptions to the setting. The most important of these prejudices and misconceptions are, obviously, those of the GM. What is possible politically, socially and financially in a feudal world is completely dependent on the GM, and there is no sense in which the GM can be neutral in arbitrating this stuff. Provide you stick to a set of disconnected module-based dungeon crawls this may not be an issue, but as soon as you aim for a game more complex than killing people and stealing their stuff, conflict between GM and players over assumptions and knowledge will enter the game.

This conflict also occurs in task resolution and challenges. A GM who is experienced in rock climbing and mountaineering will have a different concept of what is possible in these settings than one who is experienced in surfing or computing. I think lots of gamers are know-it-all nerds who think they have a good grounding in a wide range of knowledge, but in general they’re straight-up wrong about most of their wikipedia-based insights; and often very stubborn about defending them to boot. The GM may think he or she is being neutral in arguing that it’s not possible to do X, but if there is someone in the group who is familiar with X and didn’t learn about it yesterday on a dodgy message board, they’re likely to misinterpret the GM’s neutrality as pig-headed stupidity. The GM is not a database of unbiased knowledge; which way their biases leans depends heavily on what they know and what they don’t, and how they value the knowledge they do have.

The Problem of Facilitation

The GM is usually charged with the task of resolving conflicts within a group, that is often composed of people with little in common except their desire to game together. This manifests most commonly as a need to control the more ebullient and aggressive players, and to draw out the shyer and more timid players. It’s not possible to do this and remain neutral, because it involves favoring some people and being stern with others. Furthermore, the GM often has to resolve conflicts about actions and consequences, and occasionally quite bitter disputes about (for example) treasure, PC conflict, and game direction. Sometimes the GM has to shut a player up who is dominating the game beyond any kind of reasonably alloted time, and if a player is disrupting the group it is usually the GM who is charged with the task of deciding what to do (and communicating it to that player). Who, if not the GM, gets charged with the task of delicately explaining to the neckbeard that they stink and need to wash before attending sessions? OH, the joy of GMing. And when the GM does this they bring their own social biases and problems to the fore, and usually don’t stay neutral for very long – and they are usually responding to a group dynamic that they only have partial control over. It’s very hard for GMs to stay neutral in these situations, just as it’s hard for GMs to avoid playing favorites, or getting pissed off with particular players and acting irrationally, and so on. Some players just have a style that a GM will like or hate, and it will be rewarded or punished accordingly. This is not neutrality.

The Demands of the Module

Using the Rahasia module as an example, we can see a few immediate situations where the GM is tasked with a non-neutral stance by the designer, or set challenges that demand a departure from running the game-as-written. The Rahasia module introduction suggests that the GM

Encourage the players to think of ways of capturing and defeating the witches without inflicting physical damage

and the game is built on the assumption that GM and players will go along with this idea. This sets up a framework – including penalties of lost experience points – that is very far from neutral. Furthermore, the background information about the dungeon itself is very limited and not much at all is said about the structure of the dungeon. The trapdoor through which I climbed to my death is described thus:

Directly behind the statue, in the floor of the temple, is a secret door that opens over a staircase to the lower treasure room

No information is given anywhere about whether secret doors are locked or how to handle them, so the decision to make the room accessible to anyone from below is implicitly up to the GM. A decision to allow access is a decision by the GM to make the dungeon more dangerous; it might be taken unthinkingly or deliberately, but it’s not a neutral decision. Especially in light of this statement about the golem in that room:

This golem hopeless outclasses any typical party, so the players must think of a way past this creature (the robes work, of course)

This statement makes it clear that the adventure is not supposed to funnel the players into conflict with the golem; they aren’t at any point meant to be its match. Instead, the GM has to at least give the players a chance to stop and assess the situation and find a way to know that the golem is there. Allowing them to access the foot of the statue as soon as they enter the dungeon is not consistent with the intention of the module, but the module nowhere makes clear a way to avoid this. The GM’s decisions about trap doors, use of portals, and ways of passing through the dungeon are tied in with the nature of this final beast, and the option of playing the module “as written” is a dead one. The GM must choose a non-neutral position on this module in order to run it in the sense that it was intended.

The Fallacy of Behaviorism

Another common view I read on the internet about GMing and player reactions is the idea that players “learn” from their mistakes, and the GM has a role as a “teacher” to help them understand the risks of the world they’re in. This is particularly common in old school play, in my experience. I think this is both fallacious and patronizing. It’s patronizing because we’re all adults, and I don’t give up hours of my downtime to be schooled in the harsh “realities” of fantasy life by a self-important neckbeard. I want to play in a shared world where my understanding of that world is assumed to be an adult’s understanding, and my mistakes are handled, not judged. But it’s also fallacious. Adults don’t learn in this way, and punishing adults for their mistakes is pointless; it’s a classic example of a fallacy based on regression to the mean to think that adults will learn this way. Furthermore, what the GM may think is a mistake, the players may think was a reasonable action. On top of this, there is an additional behaviorist nonsense. Most of us learnt the game as teenagers being taught by bad teenage GMs in fairly immature social settings. If this behaviorist approach to learning from “mistakes” has any truth to it, by the time we get to game as mature adults we’re going to be well past correction, and will be gaming primarily based on the experiences of our (mostly crap) teen years. If so, “teaching” us is going to have to be done some other way, and is going to involve the GM coming down from their neutral pedestal to make judgements about what is wrong with our play style. But who’s to say, given the backgrounds of the adult participants in this hobby, that it’s the players who learnt all the mistakes? Just as likely it’s the GM who needs to be “taught” about their mistakes. The best approach is to drop this ideal altogether and accept that everyone involved in the game is probably flawed and their flaws and mistakes demand understanding rather than “teaching.”

The GM as Facilitator

I think the GM is inherently biased: he or she is there to enjoy a game, and wants the game to run in a way that entertains him or her. But on top of this, the GM is charged with preparing for the game, managing conflicts, and ensuring that the players have fun. These conflicting tasks are inconsistent with a neutral position, just as the players’ role is inconsistent with a purely selfish one (they are also meant to be aware of the work the GM has put in, his or her desire to enjoy the game, and the needs and perspectives of their fellow players). The GM thus functions best as a facilitator, ensuring that the players enjoy a game full of challenges and exciting situations, in which they will have fun and everyone will got what they are looking for. A neutral GM cannot help this happen, and I don’t believe it’s possible for someone to be a neutral GM to start with. There are too many conflicting pressures and responsibilities for the GM to remain neutral in all circumstances. By pretending that this is possible, we simply create a set of false assumptions and expectations that let everyone down: better to understand everyone’s biases and perspectives upfront, and respond accordingly, than to try and pretend they can all be hidden or put aside during an activity that, in its own way, can be as frantic, demanding and engrossing as anything else that adults do.


Last night my players got to do some, ah, enhanced interrogation while wearing smug smiles, and I found myself pondering how far we can come from our real-life moralities when we play. The Warhammer world is constructed so that you really have nothing to lose from torture. The only possible question that can arise when confronted with a chaos mutant, greenskin or cultist is will it work, because there’s no chance you’re going to allow them to live – their mere existence is a slight against very real gods, and a genuine threat to the moral order. In fact, the in-game morality is such that last night the PCs were presented with a moral quandary that in the real world is very hard to imagine. They had to consider allowing a chaos mutant to live, because it (and it really was an it) had information they needed, but was unobtainable by any other method.

Such is the Warhammer world. Having subdued – at great personal risk – 7 quite vicious mutants, and being aware that they were part of a bigger scheme, the PCs needed information. One of the vanquished foes’ mutations was a sentient tattoo on his chest[1], which spoke to the characters and offered to tell them everything it knew if they would help it live. Because it was a mere tattoo on an unconscious body, they couldn’t torture it or interrogate it in any way. Offering to let a mutant live is not normally an option, because the mutant knows that people won’t stand by their word. But in this case the PCs suspected they had a big plot to uncover, so they agreed. And such is the nature of the Warhammer world that the Tattoo informed them that in order to help it they had to cut off the limbs and head of its host body, so it could “grow its own.” This subsequently turned out not to be correct, and after a day the tattoo died, but the PCs thought the tattoo understood its own situation so were willing to oblige. Nonetheless, their dilemma was the exact inverse of that which we sophisticated moderns are used to thinking about.

Subsequently they caught a ring-leader of the plot they were investigating, and there was not a moments hesitation in laying the boot in. Not for a moment did they consider the obvious problems with torture, viz:

  • It’s wrong
  • It corrupts the person doing it
  • It doesn’t work
  • It radicalizes your enemies

In warhammer none of this matters anyway. Nothing you do to a real physical representation of ultimate evil can be “wrong.” These people aren’t products of culture or environment, they’re products of dark and corrupting magic whose fate can only be death. It can’t corrupt the person doing it, since destroying and torturing objectively evil creatures elevates you in the eyes of society and your own gods. And the forces of chaos cannot become more radical, so there’s no value to thinking about its social consequences. The only time these risks might apply is when you get the wrong person, but if they’re mutated they are by definition not the wrong person. The only thing wrong with that question is the use of the word “person.” This is a pretty repugnant worldview, but when you play warhammer you’re throwing yourself into it with a passion. So the only relevant question is “does it work?” Which brings me to the point of the post:

How do you handle torture in your gaming?

I noticed years ago that players have a tendency, when dealing with the forces of evil, to promise clemency before they get the information, and then to kill their target anyway. Alternatively, they torture the target for information but the target knows they will kill it when they’re done. In either case there is no incentive for the target to provide any information, unless we live in a world where torture is assumed to work even if the final outcome is death; but torture surely never works when the victim knows they will receive no clemency, especially if they have any loyalty to a cause. So in order for the torture to have any chance of working, the NPC has to believe it will survive. So my rules for torture in game are as follows:

  • First of all, a skill check of some kind is essential. There has to be a risk of failure, it has to be challenged against the targets fanaticism and toughness
  • This skill check can be stunted, that is the players can attempt to improve its chances of success through tailored torture. This requires descriptions, which can be a bit icky. Do you allow descriptions?
  • I don’t usually hide the roll, but if my players are the kind of people who can’t resist using information their PCs shouldn’t know, I do
  • The PCs are welcome to break the promise they make at the beginning of the torture process, e.g. to say they are going to let the target live but then kill it. However, if they do this very often they reduce the chance of success in subsequent interrogations of unrelated targets in the future, because a) I need a way to control this kind of behaviour from a believability point of view and b) I figure that the more they do this, the less sincere they’re going to be when they make their initial offer to subsequent targets – lots of nudges and winks and looks exchanged that the target will quickly understand
  • Fumbles and the like lead to misleading or wrong information

I also in some games (e.g. Warhammer) allow for the possibility of insanity or other dubious consequences of the regular application of torture. Even against “chaos,” it corrupts the user. In my Compromise and Conceit campaign a central character was a torturer, and immune to that kind of thing, and in general the infernal nature of that game meant I didn’t need to apply immediate consequences to these actions; but in any case the players all worked out near the end that their PCs were going to hell in the long run. That’s probably punishment enough…

Another thing I commonly do when dealing with cults is give their members a built in (and often messy) suicide effect when forced to reveal sensitive information. “It’s in the…” *pop*! I especially like to do this if my players are getting lazy and using the “bag and torture” approach to every problem. It encourages a bit of lateral investigation.

What I try to avoid at all costs is an environment where torture carries only rewards (getting the information) and no downside (the mutant gets to live, the PCs go slowly mad or turn to chaos themselves, etc.). I think of this as a way of balancing the real world repugnance (and impracticability) of torture with its in-game acceptability (and effectiveness). What’s the point of playing warhammer if you don’t get to fry the odd mutant tentacle? But at the same time I have a game world to balance, and future adventures to plan, and if torturing a target as a shortcut to solving the case means you have to leave a chaos mutant alive, then maybe the PCs will think twice about it. Mutants (and GMs) everywhere rejoice!

fn1: The original scenario calls for a chest with a second face embedded in it, but I decided to lift the idea of the The Tattoo from Mieville’s Kraken instead. The players spent the day referring to the resulting mutated torso as irezumi san, “Mr. Tattoo” or irezumi kun, which is the diminutive/friendly alternative to “Mr.”

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.

Another of my (several) complaints about Warhammer 3rd Edition is that it doesn’t seem to contain a great deal of flavour about the world, compared to the 1st and 2nd editions. I think this is largely because it is new[1], though I think Fantasy Flight Games are doing the rather nasty trick of assuming that everyone is just going to use old 2nd Edition source material for the flavour. In a way this is good because it means you don’t have to buy a whole new range of background material when you buy a new system, if you just want to upgrade to a system that actually works. After all, Black Industries may have produced a completely and insanely shit system, but the quality of their work on the world is unparalleled and unlikely to be bettered by any other company[2], and I think that the reason most people who play WFRP2 love it is the world, not the system – you love WFRP2 despite its myriad flaws.

So combining the two is the perfect way to play warhammer. And that’s what I did recently, when I started running the (excellent) first edition Fear the Worst adventure in WFRP3. I won’t spoil this adventure for readers by describing the content in detail, but suffice to say that it’s a really good example of the best kind of module. It has lots of material on the setting and a general structure for how the module should run, so that GMs can run it as intended and get a rich and interesting experience, but also leaves huge sections open to free-form development, so that the GM can drop things he or she doesn’t like, and players can make their own path to the conclusion (which occurs on a fixed timeline). It also openly allows for the possibility that the players will “lose,” with catastrophic consequences for the town if not for them. I like this style of adventuring a lot. And also, it’s quite lethal if the players are stupid.

The module was also very easy to fit in with WFRP3, with one caveat – played as written in WFRP 3 for the PCs as described in the module (novices), it is lethal, far more than I think must have been the case in the original. The module was easy to convert because the basic worlds overlap so well – the available flavour in the WFRP3 books makes you feel like you’re in a 1st or 2nd Edition Old World, and all the concepts described in the module are familiar to readers of 3rd Edition. Also, many elements of the module are very similar to those of the introductory module in the WFRP3 Tome of Adventure, with the same feeling of brooding trouble, everything on the surface happy and normal but chaos beneath. In short, the personalities of the different versions match up.

So what particular challenges faced me in converting the module?

Converting statistics: The WFRP 3 basic book and the Winds of Magic supplement include the monsters you need to make your adventure work, and all the NPCs in Fear the Worst can be mapped to them, so it’s no trouble to generate statistics. I fiddled a few details on some stat blocks to make the NPCs match up, and there were one or two spells that I had no analog for, but this didn’t bother me at all. Stat blocks in the original module are easily read and understood, and can be converted easily if you know what an average value should be in each system. This took very little time and produced creatures which in combat behaved roughly as the module suggested they would.

Handling traps: There are no rules for traps in the WFRP 3 rules, so I made my own, with corresponding cards. On the night my thoughts on traps were half-formed so I winged it a bit, which ended with the thief hanging by his hand over a pit full of spikes, looking very worried. But the joy of WFRP 3 is that it is the ultimate system for winging it. You can produce anything you want with those dice, and as I get more familiar with them I’m having a lot of fun making them do their creative work. This adventure depends on traps being dangerous, and I certainly made them so. Had the thief had a little less saving throw luck, he’d have been dead.

Handling the lethality:Quite unlike earlier editions of Warhammer, WFRP 3 is singularly lethal, and this was the third time my party came to a near TPK. This one was particularly dire, with the party cycling through unconsciousness several times (a very risky proposition) and their entire fate resting on a duel of wizards. My party were on the cusp of a second career, with all the extra power that entails, and so considerably tougher than the original module requires, but even if they had been smart and seen the ambush coming they would still have been in a very challenging battle. For novice WFRP 3 PCs the encounter at Black Rock Keep would, I think, be deadly on about 70-80% of runs, even without the ambush. The deadliness needs to be dialled down, either by reducing the size of the enemy group or by rolling some into a minion stat block, which is what I should have done with the two toughest fighters and the two weakest fighters. The original module calls for 7 unique creatures to do battle with 4 PCs, and gives those unique creatures reasonable strength in an ambush setting. I should have had 3 unique creatures and two pairs of minions, with the minions in melee and the unique creatures ranged/spell-casting. By not doing this I set a really challenging battle.

So the main take home lesson from this is to be careful in converting stat blocks and arranging enemy groupings, to take into account WFRP 3’s additional lethality; or to be ready with a backup plan for a TPK scenario (I had one vaguely mapped out in this case that would have been a lot of fun to run). Don’t be sucked in to the common myth that WFRP 2 or WFRP 1 are dangerous – compared to the third edition they are, in my (limited) experience much much less so. Module conversions need to take this into account, or GMs need to be ready to fudge it or wing it to make up for their mistakes half way through the adventure – or be willing to rain regular TPKs on their group, which in my opinion is not fun and soon loses you players.

I am thinking of trying to run one of the longer WFRP 2 campaigns (one of the famous ones) in WFRP 3 to see where it leads. It’s good to see that conversion is easy, because it means that I will be able to do enjoyably in WFRP 3 what would have been very frustrating in an earlier, less well designed system for the same world.

fn1: and actually I would say that there’s a higher ratio of background material to rules material in WFRP3 than any other system I’ve ever read. The magic and priest books are basically entirely about the world, as is the tome of adventure. By shifting all the rules into the cards, the books themselves get to have a lot of non-system content. But they’re chaotically laid out and it can seem like that material’s not there, and I think it’s not as good as the material from the 2nd Edition.

fn2: and I think Fantasy Flight Games are in a bind here. If they release a bunch of new companion material and background flavour they’ll be accused of fleecing fans a second time over, but if they don’t -and assume that fans will use existing 2nd Edition material – they’ll be accused of neglecting the warhammer world in favour of the system. More evidence that games need rescuing from their fanboys, if this happens.

The campaign I lovingly refer to as The Apocalypse Campaign was a campaign I ran in the early 2000s in Sydney, Australia with a combined group of inexperienced friends and experienced players. It started off, I recall, using a tarot-card based system whose name I forget and which was, unsurprisingly, terrible. I then moved rapidly to a non-tarot system of my own devising that was intended to be very simple and was, correspondingly, probably quite useless. This system was characterized by now character classes and skill-based magic (i.e. no spells – players just say what they want to do and I set a difficulty).

I think of this campaign as a kind of story seed with sandbox, in that I placed a few key story elements in the first adventure with no clear plan as to how they would unfold, an initial plan for one or two unrelated adventures, and a plan to build a strong story based on whatever happened next. The story seeds were quite powerful and gave me a backdrop within which I could easily control the PCs actions whenever I felt the campaign needed a kick, but the setting was quite powerful and the PCs good at exploring and controlling it themselves.

The Setting: Post-apocalyptic fantastic Europe

The setting was Europe after some kind of combined arcane cataclysm and apocalypse, in which the seas had risen (possibly due to global warming, though it wasn’t clear), advanced civilisations had collapsed and magic and monsters had entered the world. The cause of the collapse was unknown, with all knowledge of that time mysteriously lost, and the events were generally blamed on “science” so the world had retreated into a kind of neo-luddite mediaeval system, ruled by feudal kings under the wise guidance of the Catholic Church. This is the campaign for which I carefully constructed maps of a flooded Europe using just paint and a photocopier. I don’t think I have those maps anymore but the rich detail they provided was very useful for keeping my players engaged in what turned out to be a complex and interesting post-apocalyptic scenario.

In fact, the true history of the apocalypse was that the Catholic church, seeing their grip on the world slipping away with the increasing influx of technology and scientific knowledge, unleashed the catastrophe of the apocalypse deliberately into the world, breaking barriers between the material plane and some other planes to allow demons, monsters and magic in. The ritual they invoked led to the destruction of the modern order but preserved their own temporal power, enabling them to assert themselves in the aftermath as both the ruling powers and the first custodians of magic. In the new era, they hunted down those who were not officially licensed to use magic, destroyed heretics, and carefully shepherded all knowledge of “before” to hide their complicity in the world’s downfall. They held all of Europe in subjection under an undying pope, whose soul was reincarnated in a new boy child every 90 or so years. They also sought out and destroyed pre-collapse technology, and controlled a pan-European army of religious inquisitors (the Falcons) whose job was making sure everything went smoothly. All more advanced magical items that would replace the role of technology in the new era were also controlled by the church or its secular representatives. The model society was similar to that in the flooded post-apocalyptic Europe of the White Bird of Kinship novels, with demons.

The Plot Hooks

The basic plot hook for the adventure was simple: the characters were in a pub waiting for a ship from a fragment of England to Brittany, when Falcon soldiers descended on the pub and attempted to destroy it and abduct a child. The PCs rescue the child and the old man protecting it, and flee, but are chased and in a brief battle kill the soldiers but lose the old man. His last dying words are a request for them to save the child, which they agree to do, and they begin hiking overland to a different port to take ship to Brittany. The child, of course, is the next pope, and their act of charity has put them in direct conflict with the church. They then go to Brittany, meeting a Hungarian Fire Lancer along the way (and stealing his gene-coded fire lance), then in flight from the Church they travel to somewhere in Germany. On the way they are stranded on a haunted Ocean Thermal Energy Collection platform, where the haunting ghost shies away from them in terror at the mere sight of their baby. Much of the rest of the adventure involved them slowly discovering that yes, the child harboured an intensely evil being and yes, the being was the next Pope. From there they began to discover details of the history of the collapse, the Church’s power and how evil the Church really was.

Settings and Adventures

I managed to put some pretty memorable settings and scenarios into this campaign, some of them based on rediscovered tech and some of them based on the new magical world and its links to hell. Some examples:

  • The Ocean Thermal Energy Collector, which the characters wash up onto during a storm. While seeking shelter they stumble on the undead guards of its last occupants, killing them, but they are unable to defeat the chief ghost in the OTEC tower; however, they are able to steal his treasure because he shies away in terror from the infinite evil of the baby they are looking after. This gave them the first hint that they needed to investigate the baby magically for clues as to why the church was chasing it
  • Hungarian Fire Lancers, which I made up on the spot but proved very useful. A Hungarian fire lance is a pre-collapse plasma cannon of awesome power, gene-coded to a particular family so essentially an heir loom. The lance’s owners are allowed to keep these artifacts in exchange for service to the church, and they are legendarily powerful. The PCs, meeting a lancer early on in the campaign, were way too crafty for me, and turned an NPC meeting I had intended as a bit of flavour into a chance to empower themselves mightily. One of the PCs was a technomage, and the PCs thought that he might be able to hack a genecode. So while the fire lancer was distracted during a battle with some pirates, this PC slipped down below and recoded the fire lance to his/her own DNA. The fire lancer died when he next touch his own lance, and the PCs stole it.
  • The Time Bomb: Passing through an area of Southern Germany in their skyship, the PCs stumbled on a region deep in the mountains where birds hung in the air, slowly collecting moss; and on the ground below were the scenes of a battle between tanks and soldiers, all frozen in the midst of their actions. So dirt was frozen in the middle of an explosion, soldiers caught in mid-air halfway through a leap, a tank in the middle of being destroyed. The PCs investigated and found they couldn’t move anything or interfere with anything except a single bomb. The technomage disarmed this bomb, and suddenly all the previously-frozen soldiers and animals collapsed, dead, to the ground; the tank completed exploding and the dirt flew to its natural trajectory. The PCs had discovered a bomb that freezes time in a small area, causing all living things in the area to die instantly, and freezing everything in the state it was in when set off. Very useful for, say, killing a very powerful pope… but with only one use. They took it, and a grav tank.
  • Conversations with Orc Lords: The PCs did a bit of trading and passenger-carrying with their skyship, and in one memorable journey carried an Orc lord who turned out to be a very civilized and sophisticated chap, with a taste in fine wines and art. He hailed from a kingdom in Southern France that was entirely Orcish, and described their society of ritual duels, slave-owning, and continual internecine conflict. I re-envisaged Orcs as sophisticated, intelligent and yet still brutal and cruel, denied access to any form of trade with their neighbours and so only able to obtain magic items and technology by conquest. The PCs, of course, formed an alliance and immediately traded tech with this chap, and the Orcs – in all their brutality and sophistication – became a prominent feature of this campaign.
  • The Dragon Battle: I do dragon battles very rarely in my campaigns, preferring to keep dragons for near the end, when things are really out of control, and usually making them so awesome and inspiring that they only ever need be met once. So once the PCs had set up a kingdom for themselves in the pyrenees, discovered the truth about the Catholic church and were starting to coordinate resistance to and war against the pope, the pope sent a dragon to destroy them. This dragon, longer than London bridge and louder than a steam train, descended on their tower in a storm of its own making and killed one of the PCs instantly in a surprise attack. It then set about destroying their skyship, wasting their castle and slaughtering their followers in quick order, and they had to use all their wits to defeat it. It was only finally defeated by the technomage, who very quick-wittedly grabbed a grav bike and flew to a neighbouring cliff face, from where he took sniper shots at the dragon using the Hungarian fire lance, while the dragon tore the top off of their skyship, trying to kill their fighter. They lost two of their party to the dragon, half of their followers, one of their grav bikes, the skyship and a chunk of their tower, and even when it was dead and had fallen to its doom in a valley it was still dangerous – two PCs went to look at the corpse and with its dying gaze it mesmerized one, trying to get him to attack the other one. This dragon was a really stunning and powerful encounter for everyone involved, and really impressed on me the joys of high-level adventuring (which I do rarely).
  • The Shrike Tree: The PCs discovered that the Pope and the church had taken control of the earth and controlled access to a lot of magical power, as well as holding open the gates between the planes, through a deal with hell. Particularly, an innocent figure was being eternally crucified in hell, and while this figure was there there was no way of stopping the pope from reincarnating. So the PCs entered hell and found the figure, which I think was Judas (my memory doesn’t serve me well now). Judas was pinned to a tree of thorns that grew in the centre of hell. The rest of the tree was covered in thorns too, and on every one a fairy was impaled (or some other good creature). In order to stop the reincarnation, the PCs had to kill Judas and then impale their own baby on the Shrike Tree. I got this idea from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which I’d been reading at the time. The PCs’ journey through hell to here, and the subsequent mercy-killing of Judas and infanticide, were the first time I had ever set an adventure in another plane.
  • The River Styx and the Starbound Sea: After killing Judas, the entirety of hell turned on the PCs and they fled. They crossed the river styx and reached the gates of hell as they were closing, but a final, huge monster (the gatekeeper) attacked them and they had to flee, back into hell. Finally they somehow all got hurled into the river styx, where they were washed away downstream, until they all woke up, without their memories, on a beach of dark sand under a perfectly black sky. The beach was being gently lapped by waves from a sea that seemed to be teeming with stars. They knew nothing, but walking along the beach towards them was a character from a distant monastery – a monastery on another plane that the characters had previously visited to get information about the Shrike Tree. And it was here that the campaign ended, with the PCs having been successful, and lost everything.

Conclusion: Story-seeded sandboxes are fun

These settings were a lot of fun to think up and throw at the PCs, and really none of them (except the OTEC) were planned before the adventure started. We explored post-apocalyptic Europe together, and I made it up as I went. The only story goal I had when the campaign started was that the PCs would uncover the truth about the apocalypse, and maybe kill the pope. In the end they did much more than that, destroying the power of the church and establishing their own kingdom in the temporal world (which they then lost). But the details of all of that kind of drew together as we went, with me crafting the next stages of the plot from what the PCs had already done and found. It was a roller-coaster of a ride in a really dense, richly detailed science-fantasy world. If you have a strong setting, a vision of a final goal, interested players with interesting PCs, and a story seed that is both mysterious and compelling (and offers a lot of plot-intervention moments) you can create a truly exciting, long-lived and powerful campaign that is both sandbox and story. Well worth the effort!

One space for you, two for me...

In the last session of Rats in the Ranks, the PCs had to escape from a slowly collapsing dungeon before it crushed them alive. I’m not sure how I would have handled this in previous systems (never done it!) but the Warhammer 3 Progress Tracker gave me an excellent mechanism for doing it, not necessarily specific to the WFRP 3 rules, though the method I used is maybe enhanced by them. This is my description of that skill challenge.

The race against time in this case was the desperate race to get out of the dungeon. I constructed a 3 space tracker (that is, 3 spaces, and then the destination point, so a total length of 4 steps). I then put a token on the starting point for “the dungeon” and gave the PCs three choices:

  • Break and run separately for the entrance: everyone gets their own progress token, but they can’t help each other
  • Go with the fastest: the person with the best athletics skill determines their progress, but his/her skill checks are penalized for all those with lower skills, and any fatigue results are applied to the fastest PC
  • Go with the slowest: the person with the worst athletics skill determines their progress, but the skill checks are enhanced by all those with higher skills, and any fatigue results are applied to members of the party sequentially starting with the strongest

They PCs chose option 3, go with the slowest. The slowest was the mage, of course, with a Strength of 2 and no Athletics skill. I assigned an initial difficulty to the check of 1 challenge die (easy) that would increase by 1 misfortune die per round, and then become 2 challenge dice after a few rounds. Everyone with an equal or higher strength to Schultz could add one fortune die to the roll. I used the following outcomes:

  • x successes: advance that many spaces along the progress tracker
  • Fail: the token for the imminent collapse of the dungeon advances one space along the tracker
  • 2 boons: add 1 fortune die to the next roll
  • 2 banes: 1 fatigue

Schultz was initially successful, getting the party one pace along the tracker. Suzette cast a minor blessing to add one fortune die to the next roll, and Shultz used his once-per-session ability to add two fortune dice to a check, but it was a fail, which brought them back to equal with the dungeon’s inevitable collapse. They then got a bit desperate, with the difficulty now on 2 challenge dice, which is very hard to beat for someone with a strength of 2. So Shultz used his spell First Portent of Amul, and by a very lucky roll was able to neutralize the result of the next challenge die rolled in the skill check. Suzette cast another minor blessing and used her once-a-session bonus, and they rolled again for – a total of 3 successes, and 2 banes. This took their progress tracker to the end of the track, indicating they escaped from the dungeon, but I inflicted a single fatigue on Aruson and said that this was because he had to reach back into the crypt entrance and literally haul Suzette out as the stairs collapsed around her, and she landed on the snowy ground outside, still praying desperately.

I played a bit fast-and-loose with the rules here (allowing Suzette’s once-per-session ability to affect what was effectively Schultz’s roll) but it helped to add to the sense of desperation and hard scrabble built into the challenge. I find the progress tracker sometimes hard to use effectively but I think at times like this it works really well to give a sense of competition against time or the party’s own mistakes. And, it appears, it can be used to effectively construct save-or-die type situations, with the whole party at risk and the whole party working together to get through the challenge.

I really like the Warhammer 3 system, though I don’t know if it will work at higher levels, but I’m interested in adjusting it to work in a High Fantasy campaign style, rather than the “grim and perilous world” of Warhammer. To the extent that changes would need to be made, it seems that the main ones would be in character generation and advancement. I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently, and some of my ideas on how such a change might work are described below.

Characterizing High Fantasy

The High Fantasy ideas I’m used to basically seem to consist of the following:

  • PCs start at quite a weak and low-powered level, but progress to extremely high powers
  • Character classes follow quite a long development path, and career transitions are few and far between
  • Career transitions can be quite radical: from fighter to magic user, for example
  • Secondary spell users (like Bard, Paladin, etc.) exist

To incorporate these into Warhammer 3 would require a change in the base classes, and an extension of the duration of a single career (perhaps a doubling) so that a single career in the High Fantasy world is roughly equal to 2 or 3 careers in the Warhammer 3 rules. This would in turn lead to more dependence on Rank as a signifier of power.

Revising careers

I envisage 4 basic careers: Soldier, Initiate, Apprentice Wizard and Rogue. If one wants to include semi-spell users then one would also include the Paladin, Bard and maybe a Fighter/Magic User type (Warlock?).

There would then be a series of advanced careers, that represent improvements on the basic careers: Warrior, Cleric, Wizard, Thief. The additional careers of Ranger, Assassin and Druid could be introduced at this point, and maybe one would want to include Paladin and Bard at this stage rather than the previous stage.

Advancement would be simpler than in Warhammer 3. Any basic career can advance to any other basic career, but for the advanced careers the progression types are limited: Fighters can become Warriors, Rangers or Assassins; Rogues can become Assassins, Thieves or Rangers; Initiates can become Clerics, Rangers or Druids; Apprentice Wizards can become Wizards, Assassins or Rangers. Bards, Paladins and Warlocks(?) could fit into this scheme in the obvious ways.

There could then (perhaps) be a single additional class specific to each basic class: Barbarian for the Warrior, ? for the Cleric, Sorcerer for the Wizard, ? for the Thief.

Class distinction would be primarily through the use of talents, available skills, and maybe some specific action cards. I imagine that pre-requisites would be more complex than in Warhammer 3, and there would be spells for the different classes. Alternatively, semi-spell-users could be set to use lower-level versions of the other classes’ spells (this makes life easier for the designer) and can only be obtained by non-spell-using basic classes. So then we have the following progression rules:

  • Soldier: any other Basic class; Warrior; Paladin; Warlock; Ranger; Barbarian
  • Initiate: Any other basic class; Cleric
  • Apprentice Wizard: Any other basic class; wizard; Sorcerer
  • Rogue: Any other basic class; thief; Assassin; Ranger; Bard

I think I like this scheme since it gives a wider range of options for the initial non-spell-using classes. Alternatively you could put strict conditions on ability scores for the Initiate and Apprentice Wizard, and introduce the Bard or Paladin as more flexible versions of the same with access to weaker magic.

To get the effect of weaker magic, I imagine defining “petty magic” as 0 level, and allowing pure magic using classes to use spells equal to or less than their rank; semi-spell users can use Rank-1. Then, the number of xps required to gain a rank can be adjusted to match the demands of a weak starting point and a powerful ending point. Ranks of spell can also be exponentially more powerful (in this system, rank 4 or 5 would surely be the limit!)

Starting weak and ending strong

To achieve this effect I envisage the system putting stricter limits on the  starting attributes for a PC (maybe a maximum of 5) but weaker limits on how many advances can be expended on attributes, enabling characters to develop to a maximum of 7 or 8 by the end of their second career. This would mean that careers would span twice the XP range, and allow more advances. Typically, I imagine a set of advances for one career being something like:

  • 1 Talent
  • 1 Action
  • 2 Wound Threshold
  • 1 Fortune
  • 1 Skill or specialization
  • 1 Specialization
  • 8-10 Open Career Advances
  • 2 Trait Advances to Maximum Rank 5

So by the time a character has reached the end of this they have spent a maximum of about 25 points (not including non-career advances, which could also be more flexible). The open career advances would be handled the same way as now (on the career card) but would obviously allow more advances, i.e. more skill advances or action cards. I would introduce more scope by reforming the stances a little and giving more flexibility to assign points to them.

Reforming stances

Stances are a powerful effect in the game (though I think the Reckless Stance can be a little bit pointless at times). At low levels I think high fantasy characters shouldn’t have much flexibility to adjust them, so I would suggest changing the stances to give all PCs at first level 1 stance step in one direction (of their choice). They then buy additional stance dice as they proceed. They might even start off neutral-only, and be able to buy 1 stance per career. This prevents them from having lots of stance dice early on and gives monsters a huge advantage. It also means players have more incentive to buy up attributes – with stance dice being limited, increasing attributes is important.

It would also be a good idea, I think, to make some actions – and especially some types of spell – benefit more from specific stances. Pyromancy and necromancy should benefit from reckless stances, as should anything a thief or barbarian does, while Paladins and Conjurors should benefit from conservatism (taking your time about summoning demons is a good idea). Fighters should be able to adopt very different styles by changing stance options, and I like the idea that early decisions a PC makes really limit their future development. So if a PC has bought two steps on a conservative stance, that basically means that becoming a thief is a bad idea.

I also pondered linking stances to alignment (Law/Chaos) and I’m interested in the fact that the original Warhammer rules don’t do this.


I’m still thinking about whether any changes to WFRP 3 would be necessary to make it into a high fantasy game, or whether they’re mainly about play style. But if one did choose to change the game, the image I have is of keeping the same basic resolution system for actions, keeping fatigue/stress and action cooldowns, and changing character advancement so that it reflects the classic D&D-style classes. Along with a bit of tinkering with stances and some adjustments to the pre-requisites for the basic classes, this could be sufficient to make the game into a high fantasy system with an excellent (I think) skill resolution system, and some cool ideas for handling resources. I’ll be looking into this more over the next few months, and possibly also considering ways to convert the system directly to Compromise and Conceit.

Over at “Discourse” and Dragons there is a “rant” about the new edition of D&D, which being inside the OSR echo-chamber is largely agreed to by its respondents, until a chap called Shazbot (from Points of Light) turns up and delivers, in comments, his own handy little rant about old school logic. I believe a good rant deserves credit (where I agree with it) so I’ve reproduced some parts of it here. I think Shazbot ought to turn this into a blog post, because some of its content really reminds me of the way the game was played back in the day.

Why is it that old-schoolers are prone to filibustering and hyperbolic arguments?

“Ohhhh…4th Edition ruined the game forever…all of my previous gaming experiences have been retroactively sodomized. I now know exactly what it means to be a victim of genetic cleansing in Darfur. By proxy. Because of 4th Edition.”

That’s number 1 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate.

Number 2:

“It’s not roll-playing…it’s ROLE-playing.”

All because latter editions of the game have included things like fleshed out mechanics for social interactions and skill checks, like say, disabling a suspension bridge. Well hold on there, Crusty Withercock…neither term is actually correct. The term is “roleplaying GAME”. See, the “game” part implies a chance of success or failure which is impartially adjudicated through things like rules. So the first question this leads me to, is what exactly, is the practical…and I stress PRACTICAL…difference between a player rolling his/her diplomacy skill and the DM rolling on a reaction table behind the screen and adding reaction adjustments? Since both use game rules to determine outcome, both would be considered “roll-playing” by the aforementioned standards.

“Oh but Shazbot…our group eschews such rules and the DM simply decides how each interaction plays out.”

Super. Fantastic. But well, that’s not really a GAME then, is it? That’s a magical tea party wherein the DM arbitrarily decides if your efforts succeed or not…based on how his/her day went, or whatever. Hell, this was how just about everything worked in OD&D, because there were absolutely no rules for anything that wasn’t swinging a sword or casting a spell, so everything was either hand-waived or the DM pulled houserules out of his/her ass that inevitably changed week-by-week. OD&D, and you can’t get anymore old school than the old 1974 white box, you started at the entrance of the dungeon, and your character probably didn’t even have a NAME before 5th level…let alone a detailed and compelling backstory. Yeah…that’s role-playing right there. From there, things devolved into a battle of wits with an adversarial DM, laden with semantic booby-traps. “You said you were checking the floor and the chest for traps…not the chandelier…so now you’re crushed. Now get me another Blue Nehi.”

Which brings me to number 3 on my list of stupid old-school arguments that I hate:

“Dwuh? Healing surges? Action points? Daily attacks for fighters??? Bu-bu-but…verisimilitude!”

Okay…tell me how much verisimilitude is in this regular old school occurrence:

“So your unnamed Halfling thief companion has just been crushed by a falling chandelier. Luckily another Halfling just happens to wander through the door.”

Bob: “What-Ho, fellow adventures! Having lost your companion a scant few moments ago…it seems that you are in need of another hand, similarly skilled in the larcenous arts as luck would have it!”

Party: “My! What a fortuitous bit of random happenstance! Why yes stranger, we would be privileged to include you into our merry band! Forsooth!”

A revolving door of interchangeable characters in what amounts to a dungeon fantasy vietnam who, by the end of the adventure, would have absolutely no personal stake in the quest?  Uh yeah…verisimilitude.

Fine…let’s use another example. XP derived primarily through collecting treasure and not, in fact, overcoming challenging foes or completing quests. Please explain to me how picking up coins translates to casting more powerful spells.  In any case, one wonders why adventurers would go adventuring at all, when the safest and most efficient road to god-like power is running a successful business. Also, wouldn’t wealthy merchants ALL be high level characters? Oh, I forgot…PC’s don’t follow the same rules as anyone else…because they’re “heroes”. We know they’re heroes, because PC’s do heroic things, like robbing tombs of their wealth and hiring commoners to run down corridors and set off traps for them.

See here’s the thing…roleplaying games aren’t meant to simulate reality…grandpa Gygax said that himself in the 1st edition DMG…no roleplaying games are meant to emulate fiction.  Now tell me, in which Conan story did the Cimmerian get incinerated by haplessly stepping on the wrong floor-tile only to be immediately replaced by Conan the II. Regale me again with the story of Sir Percival resorting to cowardice and skullduggery to overcome an otherwise worthy foe. Tell me again about the time Merlin the Magician ran out his daily allotment of spells at a critical juncture. Sorry…but the only fantasy that old-school D&D emulates is old-school D&D. It’s become a genre in and of itself…and in my experience this sort of thing makes for terrible reading.

And finally…number 4 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate:

“WotC D&D is too videogamey/anime/superheroic/durple”

Because apparently any fighter not wearing a buckskin mini-skirt and a horned helmet is obviously ported straight from a Final Fantasy game.  Someone here has said that D&D should have remained a classic game that has never seen a revision…like Monopoly.  Bull. Shit. Even if Gygax should have been the final authority on all things D&D, he himself revised OD&D into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The original White Box wasn’t a game as much as it was a proof of concept. An experiment.. D&D has gone through a series of revisions over the years because D&D has NEEDED to go through a series of revisions over the years. Anyone who can honestly say that the mechanics haven’t improved over the years, is probably going to write a silly rebuttal, log out, smear poop on their face, put on a bicycle helmet, and promptly ride the short bus to school.

Over the years, game mechanics have evolved to become more efficient, intuitive and user-friendly…like technology, Even though you may not like the aesthetic direction that newer versions of D&D has taken, as in actually becoming a game centered around adventuring and telling heroic stories, instead of a random menagerie of cheap death traps…you cannot reasonably argue that the actual game portion doesn’t function better with each iteration. And you know what? D&D still has a long way to go before it reaches a sublime state of mechanical nirvana. But it’s slowly crawling there.

Stupid old-schooler argument number 5: And now we come around full circle…back to hyperbolic filibustering…

“WotC has destroyed the SOUL of D&D”

Yeah…no it didn’t. The soul of D&D isn’t in anyone edition. It isn’t in the rules…it isn’t in the art. The soul of D&D is still where it belongs…in the players. Maybe you don’t like what the players are doing these days…whatever. You’ve got your own game…now it’s their turn. Because if you honestly believe that a GAME like D&D is more about some bullshit, imagined ideology that you’ve applied only in retrospect, than it is about actually having fun…then your head is stuck so far up you’re own ass, you’ll be eating your lunch a second time.