A Game Per Year: Empire of the Petal Throne (1975)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

Empire of the Petal Throne is the world’s second roleplaying game, if Dungeons & Dragons is the first. It was first published as a manuscript edition in 1974, the same year D&D came out, and then in 1975 as a proper boxed set with maps and everything.

I’ve noticed a phenomenon where a roleplayer decides to explore the early days of the artform, just like I’m doing now. They read Chainmail, are confused by D&D’s first edition and fall in love with Empire of the Petal Throne.

This happened to me too. There’s simply something beautiful about it.

Empire of the Petal Throne holds the distinction of being the first roleplaying game with a proper campaign world, the world of Tékumel. It’s not content to be a generic fantasy roleplaying game but strikes out to make a unique artistic statement. Perhaps because of this vision, its strengths still shine through despite the archaic nature of its design.

The game’s designer M.A.R. Barker is a Tolkien-like figure, a university professor and scholar of ancient languages who invented the world of Tékumel long before the roleplaying game came to be. Like all good designers of fantasy worlds, Barker came up with invented languages which feature prominently in the game. At first, they make the game seem foreboding and difficult to grasp but you get used to their rhythms surprisingly quickly.

In a comment at the end of the game book, Barker says that a key part of his motivation for making the game was that he felt traditional fantasy worlds were boring. Why not have something inspired by the other cultures of the world beyond the European ones?

So what’s the story of Empire of the Petal Throne? What do you do?

The world is a science fiction / fantasy hybrid, a future where humanity has colonized an alien planet which has then suffered civilizational collapse. Because of this, there are humans as well as alien monsters and sentient beings. The great cities of the world have vast dungeons under them from earlier ages. In terms of style, the layered history of Tékumel brings to mind Medieval Arabia or India.

At the start of the game, the characters are foreigners who have just arrived at the city of Jákall. Because the local people are super racist, the characters are forced to do menial tasks, undertake dangerous missions and otherwise do things the locals don’t really want to do.

As their fortune and power grows, the characters become grudgingly accepted into local society, eventually building strongholds and amassing retinues.

The basic structure of the game where the characters explore dungeons, grow powerful and start constructing something is familiar from D&D but this time there’s a cultural context around it. There’s a lot of interesting worldbuilding as the game sets out rules for inheritance and even taxation (1% of character assets per month).

As a published game, Empire of the Petal Throne is complete in a way D&D is not. It provides a good picture of what you’re supposed to be doing, explains the mechanics of play well and even has an example dialogue between the players and the Referee!

As a side note, the game also features what I’m pretty sure is the first LGBT character in roleplaying games, Mnekshétra, the “Lesbian Mistress of Queen Nayári”.

Looking back at the history of roleplaying games, the position of D&D is unassailable. It’s the first roleplaying game. However, there’s something in the artistic vision of Empire of the Petal Throne which makes it seem much more compelling as a precursor to the kind of games we do now.

A Game Per Year: Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

Cover of Men & Magic, one of the three booklets in the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

The first roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons in its original 1974 edition! For 1974, I actually had a choice between this and the manuscript edition of Empire of the Petal Throne, but I felt I couldn’t skip the game that started it all.

The original edition of D&D is strange to read because many of the conventions of how roleplaying games are designed and presented are not in place yet. My favorite is the way the text refers to “adding pips to the result of a die”. In modern games, you would express this like so: 1d6+1, meaning roll the die and add one.

This is a set of rules for the purposes of playing a game where each player controls one character, under the watchful eye of the Referee who runs the game. The characters explore dungeons and wilderness environments, kill monsters, find treasure and beat challenges. Or run away to lick their wounds and fight another day.

Reading the three booklets of the game, it feels as if the designers were collating rules notes for the use of their own scene. There’s no explanation of play culture so you end up guessing what it might be like based on small hints.

Some of those hints are quite confusing. At one point, it says that the optimum player/Referee ratio is 20/1.

At this point in its development, D&D doesn’t contain everything you need to play. It often refers to Chainmail, even in basics like combat. It also uses another earlier publication, Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival. Wilderness adventures in D&D use the other game’s map.

The basic assumption in D&D is that the Referee plans a dungeon (recommended depth: 12 levels) and the player characters explore it. They can return to the same dungeon over and over again and it can contain pretty much anything from a monster lair to a bowling alley.

When not dungeoneering, the characters build castles and towers. They hire people to work for them. These hirelings are expected to participate in adventures, so the adventuring party can consist of dozens of people.

Because the rules are so spartan, it’s fun to see what kind of things get an extended treatment. There’s a complicated system for enslaving dragons and even selling them. Another pet subject is intelligent magic swords that can take over their wielders. Rules for aerial and sea combat are also provided.

D&D clearly doesn’t describe roleplaying as we understand it today, but it’s also hard to see the specific outline of how it worked forty years ago. It feels as if to properly get it, you needed to be a wargames aficionado at Lake Geneva in 1974.

A Game Per Year: Chainmail (1971)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1975 third edition of Chainmail.

There’s only one real starting point for a project like this, the original Chainmail miniatures strategy game from 1971. It’s not a roleplaying game at all but as a precursor for what came later its value is undeniable.

Designed by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perrin, Chainmail is a collector’s item nowadays. Embarrassingly, I had to start my project by cheating as I couldn’t find a PDF of the 1971 original. Instead, I read the 1975 third edition of Chainmail. From what I understand, it’s otherwise the same as the original except for a wider selection of spells.

Chainmail is a 48 page booklet of dense rules text. Despite this, it was surprisingly easy to read even for someone like me, with no familiarity with wargames. The simulation of medieval military conflict is the main subject of the game, with rules for engagements between units as well as exotic stuff like sieges and tournaments.

In hindsight, an important element of the booklet is the Fantasy Supplement, an appendix with extra rules for fantastic elements like magic on the battlefield. Chromatic dragons which later became a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons are already present.

Still, Chainmail’s focus is on historical warfare. The foreword expresses the hope that the game would inspire an interest in studying history in the players. Some historical features, such as Landsknecht-soldiers seem to loom at least as large in the imagination of the authors as fantasy elements do.

Research Blog Antarctica #167 – Hulluuden vuorilla

Photo: Leena Tiuri

Play: Aarne Linden: Hulluuden vuorilla (Tikkurilan teatteri, 2018)

Hulluuden vuorilla (At the Mountains of Madness) is a play based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name, dramatized and directed by Aarne Linden. It consists of a single scene in which the organizers of a new Antarctic expedition hear about the fate of the previous, dramatically failed one.

It was fun to see the familiar story brought to the stage with such undisguised commitment to the source material! It’s all there from the shoggoths to R’lyeh.

At the Mountains of Madness is a wellspring of inspiration for Antarctic stories, itself inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions. In this stage adaptation, I especially liked the foregrounding of the expedition’s scientific aims and the parallels this created with the Elder Things.

Non-Digital: Itras by – the Menagerie

The Menagerie is a supplement for the Norwegian roleplaying game Itras by, created by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen. However, if you’re familiar with roleplaying game supplements, this is definitely something else. As befits the surreal nature of Itras by, the Menagerie calls into question the very meaning of expanding on a published roleplaying game.

I have a lot of love for Itras by. A highly literate yet light roleplaying game set in the dreamlike city its named after, the original core book played with mood and prose, guidance and suggestions much more than banal game mechanics.

In 2009, I acted as the publisher for the Finnish translation of the game, under the title Itran kaupunki. A key motivation for me to have the game translated was so I could read it myself. It hadn’t appeared in English yet and I didn’t read Norwegian. It proved well worth the effort!

The Menagerie is a feast of contributions from a large variety of different designers, writers and illustrators, all coming together to offer their own take on Itras by. In addition to being material you can use to run games, it’s also a masterclass in game design, peeling back the layers of decision-making that go into making any particular choice.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jason Morningstar’s article Itras by Without Itras by. In it, he goes through the deck of cards the game uses as a tool for inspiration and resolution of events. He demonstrates how it can be used in other contexts and what kind of effects different modifications create.

It’s also a wonderfully heterogenous book. Roleplaying communities have an unfortunate tendency to devolve into depressing little cliques who all hate each other, but the Menagerie boasts contributions from a highly disparate group of people, both geographically and in terms of design style. There are Norwegians and Poles, Americans and New Zealanders, Storygames alumni and OSR aficionados.

The book even includes complete games based on Itras by. An example is Grimasques by Banana Chan, a freeform game demonstrating that good design and focus on a single element of the Itras by world can produce something very clearly defined even in this surreal environment.

For me, two of the most affecting chapters in the book came at the very end. Martin Bull Gudmundsen has a beautiful personal essay reflecting on his own background, Asperger’s syndrome and the particular nature of surreal game design. He also wrote a short fictional text together with Itras by co-designer Ole Peder Giæver as an allegory about making a game like this, a suitable ending to a book full of strange wonders.

Kuparihärkä on tullut painosta!

Meitsin kolmas romaani Kuparihärkä on tullut painosta! Aina hieno fiilis kyllä kun kirja muuttuu fyysiseksi esineeksi.
Julkkarit on Toverissa ensi viikolla, 4.10. Kaikki paikalle vaan! Aikaistin aloitusta kuudesta puoli kuuteen jotta voi tulla luontevasti suoraan töistä.
 
Ohjelma on kevyttä, puhun kirjasta ja myös trilogian edellisen osan Tuhannen viillon kuoleman pohjalta äskettäin pelatusta larpista.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 2

I’ve read the second of the Analog Game Studies books in my quest to catch up on the series. You can check out the book here or read the articles here.

After the introductory first book, this second volume is where the series really gets going. It feels like in addition to being collections of articles about non-digital games, the series also engages in trying to define what “analog games” means. Reading this book, the divide into digital and analog games feels arbitrary, yet also necessary to carve out space for all the types of games that often get excluded from discussions of games.

The book starts strong with veteran boardgame designer Bruno Faidutti’s essay Postclonial Catan. In it, he subjects European-style boardgames to a postcolonial analysis, writing from his own perspective as a designer of Eurogames. To me, the interest of the essay lies in not just the analysis, but also on the design perspective on why Eurogames seem so full of national stereotypes, often cringeworthy.

In other articles, reading Anglo-American writers about Eurogames is strange because it reveals such deep cultural fissures. For example, there’s a critique of Eurogames like Settlers of Catan in that they avoid violence as a subject matter. This creates a false representation of history because when you remove violence from colonialism, for example, and reduce it to nothing but trade, you whitewash historical crimes.

This critique is obviously totally sensible! Yet the rule against war and combat is ingrained in me from my own childhood, from how my mother and father and the worldview I learned at home. The idea that family games should be violence-free is something that makes sense to me on a gut level. It feels shocking to read it being talked about so casually, as if it was just some weird European quirk.

Closer to my home field of roleplaying games and larp, there’s the article Out of the Dungeons: Representations of Queer Sexuality in RPG Source Books by Jaakko Stenros and Tanja Sihvonen. I’d seen it years ago at Ropecon in presentation form, but it was interesting to read it properly. Queer sexualities have been dealt with in roleplaying games in a messy, often weird way, and I remember some of the specific examples from my own roleplaying history.

The idea of roleplaying or larping with an audience has kept recurring in different contexts through the years, from art galleries who wanted art larp to be audience friendly to the modern phenomenon of roleplaying as a YouTube spectacle. There’s three excellent articles in the book which expand on this in ways that make me think our previous conceptions of the subject have been simplistic. These articles show that if you really want to do this, roleplay with an audience, there’s a whole art to it.

The articles are Moyra Turkington’s A Look Back From the Future: Play and Performance in Biosphere 2013, Sarah Lynne Bowman’s Connecting Stage Acting, Role-Playing and Improvisation and Lisa Quoresimo’s Joy and Meaning in Theater Games. What I especially like about them is the basis in actual experiences with this kind of work.

This is another great collection, well worth your time. The only real issue with it is that the articles were originally posted online, and a few contain references to illustrations or other features not included in the book.

Non-Digital: Slowquest and Roleplaying Game Culture

I was at the Helsinki Comics Festival recently, lured in by the promise of roleplaying game related indie stuff. The Australian illustrator Bodie Hartley was there with a series of little booklets published under the title Slowquest. They’re interesting because while they are not roleplaying games, they are most definitely roleplaying game culture.

My first roleplaying game was the red box edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I grew up steeped in roleplaying game culture and it has informed my practice as a designer. As a child, I read scifi and fantasy, went to cons and shook my head at the Satanic panic.

However, the actual toolbox of roleplaying games, the design concepts that make up the artform, don’t have to be connected to this culture. You can make and play roleplaying games even if you have never heard of Legolas or Shadowrun. I’ve seen this in practice on the larp side of things working with Palestinian designers, because the history of larp in Palestine comes from an NGO background rather than as an artifact of local geek culture.

My first book about roleplaying games, Roolipelimanifesti in 2005, was in some ways a reaction against the way I felt roleplaying game culture limited the design space of roleplaying games. In retrospect, it’s almost like teenage rebellion, a statement of identity against the stifling omnipresence of dragons and other genre elements.

In the years since 2005, I’ve made my peace with the culture around roleplaying games. This is good because now I can enjoy Slowquest, which is great! The main attraction are the two quest books The Goblin Guard and Meet the Wizard, choose your own adventure -style stories in which you navigate simple and funny adventure scenarios. They are simple and charming, like emanations from the collective subconscious consisting of all the cultural artifacts populating the world of roleplaying games.

Other booklets include the monster descriptions for the Swamp Goblin, the Mushrump and the Sentient Ooze. Another favorite is the booklet Some Wizards Volume I, a collection of wizards.

Non-Digital: Our History

Me standing under a portrait of myself and those of other Finnish roleplayers. Photo: Jaakko Stenros

The Finnish Museum of Games opened a new exhibit on the history of tabletop roleplaying games in Finland yesterday. It’s wonderful stuff and I expected the feelings of nostalgia revisiting all these old things brought me. But the real surprise was in how much there was I’d never heard of before. The exhibit takes an extremely comprehensive, diligent approach to its subject, and because of this even a veteran roleplayer who lived through the era will find something new.

Verald is the only Swedish-language roleplaying game published in Finland. I’d never heard of it before seeing it at the exhibit.

From a personal perspective, it felt strange to see parts of my own history move behind the glass of a museum exhibit. Sometimes literally, as I was startled to find a character brief I’d written for another player years ago on display. It was from the tabletop campaign Tähti by Mike Pohjola, later published as a book.

Other times, the maps drawn by hand on graph paper were not from my campaigns, but they could well have been. They’re from people who started playing as kids, often American fantasy roleplaying games translated into Finnish. It’s funny to imagine what those kids would have said if told that in a few decades, their squiggles would be museum-worthy.

Many of these relics are from people who would become game designers themselves, including James Edward Raggi IV of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame who’s old home campaign maps are now on display.

Among the exhibited roleplaying game magazines, the most amazing find was the Floppy Magazine from 1987.

This list of “killed things” starts with “1 old person”.

Designer Mike Pohjola decided to be the first to break in the table at the center of the exhibit room by spontaneously conjuring up a Myrskyn sankarit game.

From a wider perspective, the exhibit is part of an interesting process where as we grow older, we become more conscious of our own history. We want to preserve it and make it understood. It’s wonderful that the exhibit is not only about the history of games as publications, but makes a serious effort to include the actual experiences of people playing roleplaying games.

This is especially important in Finland because the emergent play culture didn’t always reflect the cultures that produced the games we started with. A young kid in Helsinki or Kouvola automatically played D&D with different assumptions than the American designers who made it.

Non-Digital: Analog Game Studies vol. 1

I’ve worked a lot on tabletop games this year because of my involvement with Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, and I developed a yearning for the kind of design writing about tabletop games that we have for larp in the form of the Knutepunkt books.

As sometimes happens, it turns out this already existed, and had for some time. I found the first two Analog Game Studies collections at Gencon, and just finished reading the first one, published in 2016. It collects the articles originally published online in the journal in 2014.

This is good stuff, and I’m happy to know that there’s already a few years worth more out for me to read!

From the perspective of a reader like me who’s interested in roleplaying game design, the highlights from vol. 1 are Jason Morningstar’s article Visual Design as Metaphor: The Evolution of a Character Sheet and Evan Torner’s Uncertainty in Analog Role-Playing Games.

Morningstar’s article takes a classic design question of the character sheet and goes through his own process in developing one for the game Night Witches. Torner writes about uncertainty from many different perspectives, using published games as examples. I especially liked the consideration of uncertainty created by other players, as that’s a design space close to my heart.

Other interesting articles include Nathan Altice’s The Playing Card Platform and Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner’s Post-Larp Depression. Both felt like the kind of baseline articles about a given subject that can now be referenced in a thousand articles in the future.

The last article in the book is Lizzie Stark’s The Curse of Writing Autobiographical Games, in which she writes about designing a game called The Curse. The subject is deeply personal and the essay is a wonderful, clear example of how difficult subject matter becomes design.

Research Blog Antarctica #166 – Kohteena Etelämanner

Discussion panel: University of Helsinki: Kohteena Etelämanner (Focus on Antarctica), 2018

Kohteena Etelämanner (Focus on Antarctica) is a public discussion held by the University of Helsinki on 27.8.2018. It’s also available as a video recording on the university website. In the discussion, three Finnish scientists who have worked at the Finnish Aboa base on Antarctica.

The scientists talk about their experiences on Antarctica as well as their geologic research. It’s a good discussion, well worth your time if you speak Finnish and are interested in the Finnish Antarctic mission. Amazingly cogent and relevant audience discussion as well.

I watched this on the livestream, and it was funny to see so many people I know personally in the audience.

Research Blog Antarctica #165 – Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Musical: Lisa Peterson: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (U.S.A. 2017)

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is a New York musical about a Brooklyn single mother and Ernest Shackleton’s Transantarctic journey. I didn’t see it live; a recording appeared on YLE Areena, where it will be for two more weeks.

In the story, Kat makes a video for an online dating site only to be replied to by Ernest Shackleton who’s in the middle of his disastrous Antarctic journey. His story takes up much of the musical, but our perspective is firmly rooted with Kat. The decision to include a modern perspective is interesting because it makes the whole musical not about Shackleton per se, but rather about our relationship to his legend.

We don’t see a real explorer but rather an exaggerated character who’s tale of heroism inspires us in the modern day. I recommend watching it live or as a recording because the show is simple, effective and affecting.

Research Blog Antarctica #164 – The Winter Over

Fiction: Matthew Iden: The Winter Over (Thomas & Mercer, 2017)

At first glance, The Winter Over by Matthew Iden falls into the familiar category of Antarctic thrillers where manly men face the travails of human weakness and the unforgiving environment. And indeed, superficially the book seems to have some of the characters and plot elements typical of those stories.

Its protagonist is mechanical engineer Cass Jennings who’s assigned to the fictional Shackleton South Pole Research Facility for the nine month isolation of the Antarctic winter. Soon life at the Facility starts to go wrong as hostile, malicious forces try to use it for their own purposes.

Yet this is not a macho story. By the end, its clear that the creative vision is something else altogether, something more humane and warm than is typical of these novels.