Sunday, June 12, 2022

What would a Materialist RPG be Like?

In previous posts, I have the habit of throwing in philosophical terms, some of which are overdue a better explanation. Materialism is a pretty common term in philosophy, but it comes in more than one variety. Here is what I mean by materialism in the context of an RPG.

Materialism in the Context of RPGs

Materialism in philosophy deals with the relationship between the material world and consciousness. Materialism tries to relate all consciousness to physical states, denying that there is any “realm of thought” separate to this.  Materialism in an RPG obviously differs from this. Firstly, we are dealing with a game world, not our real world of experience. Secondly, we are concerned not with the denial of consciousness, but a denial of the character, conceived of as something distinct from the game world.

Annihilation is a sci-fi novel, relatable to Old School Gaming through its similarity with Roadside Picnic (it was also made into a recent film starring Natalie Portman). Annihilation is not an easy book to decipher, but I take its main concern to be the annihilation of the character. This occurs as the protagonists in the novel are progressively assimilated into their physical environment, losing their sense of identity as they eventually become one with their material surroundings.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Design Philosophies: Weapon Damage in Into the Odd

I’m a bit more comfortable with philosophy than I am with game design. One thing I’ve found though is that having a philosophical position can be helpful in making design decisions. Working on a collaborative project with Panic Pillow, I thought of a neat example of how a philosophical position has served me as a guide.

The part of the rules I’m working on was conceived as an Into the Odd (ItO) hack, but I wanted to treat weapons a little differently. In my first ever post, I talked about ItO as a materialist game, in that physical objects in the game world play the largest part in defining your character. But in later musings, I’ve realised there is more than one way to apply materialism to an RPG.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Grounding Magic in Your Game World

I’ve been looking at ways to better ground magic in the game world. This is against it being an abstract power that turns the world into a wizard’s plaything. I’ve considered developing a somewhat grandiose “magic as science” system, with internally consistent laws. But I’ve wondered if there might be a simpler way.

Here I’m going to get down and dirty, introducing some practical interactions with the physical world to spells. This will look at individual spells in isolation, trying to make the world an interesting factor in gameplay. My thesis on the overarching laws of spell science can wait for another day.

Warning, things get dangerously close to playable content, with a link to my “materialist” take on an illusionist at the end of the post. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Making Spells More Scientific

There is a scene that sticks with me from childhood from the D&D cartoon series. Dungeon Master (the little bald dude) is teaching the principles of magic to the cowardly cavalier. The lesson is that summoning a spring of water to quench your thirst deprives another part of the world of water. 

This seems an important moral about maintaining balance in a self-contained system. But of course, it has nothing to do with how magic actually works in the D&D role playing game. I’ve never read a version of the create water spell that mentions its contribution to desertification. But could magic in an RPG work more like this?

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Magic as Science

This blog talks a lot about prioritising the game world in RPGs. This is partly about the world ‘pushing back’, in limiting the character’s agency to determine outcomes. Magic as a principle would seem to fly in the face of this. It’s fundamentally about manipulating the world, going against the natural limitations we face in everyday life. 

I’ve argued that 5e D&D embodies idealist poetics, which can be summed up in the principle that “thought determines being”. With magic, the wizard’s thoughts can determine being in a quite literal way – as with the Mould Earth cantrip. Take this idea too far and the whole game world becomes little more than a wizard’s malleable plaything.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Character Advancement in 1st Edition AD&D

This is the second of two posts looking at character advancement in D&D. I previously argued that D&D takes a character-centric approach to advancement, with the game-world playing little role in determining the path of this progression. I suggested this went against the tendency in “old school” D&D (OSR) to prioritise the game world over the character. Here I will suggest ways to address this, looking at attempts made to do so in 1st edition Advanced D&D (AD&D 1e).

Last time, I singled out “Oath breaker” paladins in 5e D&D as emblematic of character classes failing to impose constraints on player agency. This subclass effectively jettisons any influence the game world has on a paladin through their religious order and deity. Basically, you get to advance whether you follow the paladin code or not. In AD&D 1e though, paladins got a bit less of free ride. This was literally so in terms of their special warhorse, which develops an “immutable enmity” towards the character if their actions cause them to lose their paladinhood (p18 Dungeon Master's Guide).

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Old School Gaming and Brechtian Drama

This blog talks a lot about materialism in role playing games, but I’ve not covered where these ideas come from. Before I got back into RPGs, I spent a decade trying to write theatrical plays. My inspiration then was a 20th century movement that went against the dominant theatrical form of the time. I must like to go against the grain, because it is the rebellious “Old School”(OSR) strand in RPGs that has felt like home here too.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Oath-breaker Paladins – The Problem with Character Advancement in D&D

I’ve recently been taking a harder look at some enduring features of D&D that can be traced back to game’s original edition (OD&D). My goal is to run a campaign that moves its centre of gravity away from the characters, shifting it instead onto the game world. My last post looked at how such a “materialist” approach to gaming could be applied to ability scores. Here I will look at D&D’s approach to character advancement under a similar lens.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Dumping the Stats – Do We Need Ability Scores in RPGs?

Taking a closer look at the Chainmail game has led me to place some long-standing features of D&D under the microscope. Chainmail as it was used in medieval wargames, prior to its shift into fantasy, has a concern with the physicality of the game world which appeals to me. It feels like some of this materialist essence was lost at the point wargames transitioned into RPGs. But was this outcome unavoidable?

I’ve decided to take a harder look at some of the staple features of D&D that have endured from the Original D&D onwards, to the extent of becoming ingrained in RPG culture. My angle is whether these contribute to a materialist role playing experience (you can see what I mean here), or instead distract from this by placing the character at the centre of the universe.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

How Into the Odd is like Chainmail

I’ve previously mentioned my goal to run a materialist RPG campaign. I’ve argued that Old School gaming (the OSR) seems aligned with materialism, in its prioritisation of the game-world over the character. Wanting to understand why this is the case has made me interested in the roots of the OSR and leads me to take a closer look at the Chainmail rule set. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The 5e Dungeon Master as Pennywise

My previous post argued that the rule system of 5e D&D seems to encourage certain dramatic principles in its gameplay. I referred to these as idealist poetics, where outcomes in the game-world are determined by the characters in accordance with their personality traits. Here I will look at how this can play out in 5e campaigns.

I’m going to focus on a very character centric, high fantasy, approach to running campaigns. Of course, this won’t correspond to everyone’s experience of 5e. But as discussed in my previous post, the high power level of characters in 5e seems designed to encourage this style of play, where the fate of the kingdom hinges on their actions.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Is 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Tragic?

My previous post looked at how a certain approach to roleplaying games, that typical of the OSR, has seemed to align itself with a philosophical position known as materialism. The “Old School” (OSR) style of gaming is often contrasted with the approach characteristic of mainstream 5e D&D. It is not surprising then that 5e D&D itself shows an alignment with a different and contrasting position, one which I am going to refer to as idealist poetics.

My aim is to keep the philosophy light. A lot of the ideas I talk about here actually come from dramatic theory. This may not be their natural ground, but I think they help explain certain trends within RPGs surprisingly well.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Philosophy of the OSR

In my previous blog post, I talked about Into the Odd (ItO) as a basic materialist RPG. ItO emerged from a revival of interest in “Old School” gaming based on the playing style of pre and early Dungeons & Dragons. Here I will talk more generally about features of OSR gaming that align with materialist principles.

Delving a little into philosophy, a materialist RPG would be one where “being determines thought”. Put simply, the emphasis is on the game world shaping the characters, rather than the characters shaping the game world. I previously discussed how ItO fits with this principle. But elements of this are also widely seen in the OSR approach to gaming.