Have you tried ANT? A response to Marcia’s “OSR is Dead” post

June 3, 2022 8 comments

I don’t usually indulge in talking about “the scene” or categories like OSR or Storygamers, but this article was so nicely and lucidly written that I couldn’t help worrying about its theoretical underpinnings.

I should explain my own stake: even though I don’t consider myself part of the OSR, I find it a useful category more than a constricting one: if a game or group describes itself as OSR then it gives me some loose ideas about what it’s interested in – what Tom McGrenery calls “fantasy non-fiction,” where you’re not here for “writer’s room” play or some pre-written fiction so much as the range of possibilities for how a situation could evolve exclusively through having PCs interact with it. Where problems will kill you unless you try to anticipate their particular challenges. Where things are probably more or less compatible with B/X DnD. As a writer, I think my constellation of interests is more likely to find an audience among OSR players than other well-known categories.

So reading that the OSR is “dead” (again) or should be dead is not really welcome news for me. Happily, I think reports of its death are again greatly exaggerated, partly for reasons of humanities theories, partly because of simple social mechanisms.

  1. Harman’s “object oriented epistemology” might not be the best fit for describing something as loose and debatable as “the OSR.” Marcia concludes that Harman is naive for putting faith in some discursive constructs that aren’t really real – but if those discursive constructs include identity formation – the identity of “being in the OSR,” for instance – then she’s implicitly using a false consciousness argument against anyone who identifies themselves with the OSR. If the OSR doesn’t really exist, then neither do is adherents – or at least they’re mistaken in thinking there’s a movement there.
    But there are other theories for describing loosely-knit communities of thought, which do not get so hung up on whether the group agrees within itself on its own definition. The OSR might be better described by one of these. EG:
    (a) Ben Anderson’s idea of the “imagined community” describes a social category (eg a nation or ethnic group or community of interest) that people identify with, that is understood to be separate from other categories (ie nation/ethnicity/sect/identity A is separate from nation/ethnicity/sect/identity B), but that does not have to be more coherent than that, in order to have self-identifying members. Anderson’s main focus is on how the idea of a nation or ethnicity gets propagated and used by political actors: individuals appoint themselves as spokespeople for the group in order to imagine it in detail for the rest, generally excluding some of the people who were previously imagining themselves as part of it. That seems relevant to the OSR.
    (b) Actor-Network Theory deals with how connected bit and pieces of technology and ideas and people can organize themselves into working groups, in order to achieve certain effects. In this theory, people and abstract ideas are on the same level in deciding who/what is part of the network, which is collectively imagined. Big networks must be simpler than small ones/individuals, because they rely on being imagined by their constituent members in mutually-compatible ways). Individuals who appoint themselves as representatives/leaders of the network must put forward simple ideas that the whole actor-network can follow.
    Neither of these ideas requires a common understanding of the community so imagined, both of them allow for something more like first language acquisition from community adherents, who are individuals who find a thing called OSR and decide whether it’s for them, without needing to be paid up members of a sort of club of agreements.
  2. The OSR can be understood as a resistance movement. Resistance is defined primarily by what it resists or, groups that define themselves in resistance/opposition to some existing entity don’t need/don’t tend to produce strong self-definitions – their bonds of cohesion depend first on their opposition. This is a classic issue for all resistance movements: “what is the Left?” or “who is a true revolutionary?” are the standard questions that bedevil movements the minute they’re not being shot at by the Right/reactionaries. The OSR started as a break-away from the direction of published DnD: “let’s do our own thing instead!” Constant arguing over what that other thing might be is, I would argue, a sign of a healthy resistance. And unlike, say, Maoism, the OSR can have a successful life as something other than a unified movement: so long as an individual table of players can form a temporary community of thought around an idea, they can generate a play culture.
    This last point goes in direct opposition to what Marcia says about “those first grognards.”
    “At first glance” she says “there is not much going on with these folks on a productive level; any materials being made were mostly adventure modules and maybe house rules, rather than any introspective work on what exactly they liked about these games or what they wanted to see more of.” – she regards the latter self-reflective work as “a proper play culture,” more than than “just playing the game” – but, notably, one of the big tenets I’ve seen in OSR discussions is that you should in the first place “just play the game.” Dissing that seems like dissing the OSR without addressing it.
  3. once you make a category like OSR, people will use it, outside your control. Marcia notes this, but doesn’t follow through with the corollary, that they’ll apply it to you whether you agree or not. Exactly this happened, btw, with postmodernism and a set of authors with which Marcia seems to be only partly familiar (Deleuze, for starters, and his fellow admirers of Lacan, but also Foucault and Derrida and so on – many of the people who have since been ascriptively labeled “Cultural Marxists” by various right-wing hacks).
    So, in spite of Marcia’s plea to stop using the term, it will continue to be used (for at least another 20 years, if it follows postmodernism’s trajectory). And if you feel like resisting the magnetic pull of D&D’s published output, then you might want to have some sort of term to identify other people who also feel like resisting. And if you don’t try to own the term, then it will only be owned by people unfriendly to it – like “Cultural Marxism,” which was invented by right-wingers, has no defenders, and is therefore an ideal whipping boy for right-wing writers – the fact that there’s no there there does not matter, a fact that should be familiar to anyone who trawled through Imagined Communities or ANT, above. Or anyone who lived through the past 10 years of US politics.

So overall, I think I’d prefer not to kill the OSR just yet.

The Ritual

February 5, 2022 1 comment

Talking about Victor Turner yesterday gave me an idea.

Once a year, at the summer solstice, those mages sufficiently trained in the Hidden and True Arts may ascend the Holy Mountain and conduct a ritual, which has the power to change the fundamental workings of the world. For each sufficiently trained mage that takes part, one word may be uttered in the Original Language. The sentence that these words make up becomes true at the end of the shortest night, so that the people of the world may marvel at its working through the longest day. Only one mage utters the sentence, and then that mage’s voice is lost, forever.

There are few sufficiently trained mages and they are all highly suspicious of one another, so it has been many years since a ritual took place that was both substantive and widely approved. Two mages were able to augur “Caesar drowns,” but they could not recruit a third who would trust them enough to add “today.” The three mages who decreed “monkeys can fly” were regarded as both imprudent and carelessly incomplete: they neglected to impart to monkeys the will or urge to fly, so they remain (mostly) bound to their trees.

Still, the ritual stirs powerful hopes and fears. The sufficiently trained mages of some lands are feted and treated with lavish courtesy. In other lands they are killed on sight. They are almost always held prisoner in one way or another. Except, it is said, for a secret order of mages who live somewhere on or in the mountain, who have sworn to counter any sufficiently dangerous sentence.

from https://kurtwenner.com/history-of-street-painting-1/
Melasti/Temple Procession. Ketut Parwita Bali, 52-72 cm. Paper, 2000. From https://www.nowbali.co.id/ritual-life/

An addendum to the previous post on magic and technology

February 5, 2022 1 comment

In discussions following the previous post, I realized that I never really explained why I wasn’t happy with writing magic into my games. (this is pretty self-indulgent and all about me, me, me. Fair warning.)

Magic can absolutely offer a coherent system, separate from the regular systems of the game, just like another branch of technology. Why not? Paolo offers: “I’m not sure if wonder is required. Wise folk do not wonder at magic as much as mundanes, maybe at some point of experience and learning you become wise to all the ways of the world and stop wonder altogether.”

I’m happy to play games on that basis, but I’m not happy to design that way. If the magic in my games feels like that, I will wonder why I am not just using an easier-to-understand technological explanation. More, I will feel like I’m cheating the magical of its full potential. Adding magic tends to break the tension of simple tactical situations, which I love as a (sometimes) historical gamer. As Chris K put it, “If what you really want is a deep investigation of tactics, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t want something to disrupt the intuition of those tactics unless it gave you something more worthwhile than that intuition.”

So then Paolo got me to read a bit about Daniel Dennett and taking an intentional stance on the world, which is essentially what we do when we think we’re dealing with another thinking agent. And that held a side-note that encapsulates what I think the cost of including magic is…

“Eleanor Rosch [argued for] the “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”. Rosch argues that, implicit within any system of categorization, are the assumptions that: (a) the major purpose of any system of categorization is to reduce the randomness of the universe by providing “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, and (b) the real world is structured and systematic, rather than being arbitrary or unpredictable. Thus, if a particular way of categorizing information does, indeed, “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, it can only do so because the structure of that particular system of categories corresponds with the perceived structure of the real world”.

Up to now, I have considered magic and technology to be functionally identical in fiction – they have inputs and outputs. They may operate on separate systems inside the fiction, they may have different organizing principles, but from a stance outside the fiction, that’s just window dressing: you can reskin one as the other and proceed.*
1. “it’s magic” generally ends arguments, while “it’s science” starts them. “Magic” is a sufficient explanation or rather a signal that no further explanation will be given.
2. it is therefore generally impossible to see all the way around a magical explanation: the magicness leads out of view, which means there is some part of the situation which cannot be fully grasped/operationalized/made predictable. It is always narratively acceptable, because it is already anticipated, that magic may be turned against the user, because the user (and audience) never fully understands what they are doing.

So magical explanations never “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.” Instead they add a cost of difficulty involved in imagining them and communicating them, with their full implications and use cases. This is essential to those “devil’s bargain” or “three wishes” stories: the bargainer never really understands what they’re agreeing to.

Rosch’s “maximum information with the least cognitive effort” strikes me as especially important in RPGs, where everyone is being asked to imagine hard and operationally all the time, and even more important in online games, with their limited duration, thin channels for communication, and uncertain levels of attention. A grenade has a great information/effort ratio: the player knows what it does and has a strong sense of the limits of their knowledge (“just how far do I have to throw this thing to be safe from it? I dunno. So it’s a risk”). A vaguely-worded spell at least costs more effort to parse out and probably also has unknown unknowns, even after the player thinks they understand it.

And that’s why I am so happy to find a payoff to declaring a game token to be magical, rather than technological.

* My son objects that I have now twisted the words magic and tech so far that nobody else uses them the way I do, but I think the way I used to use them was flabby and uninformative. In the Dennett link, above, the word “aboutness” is used. And I can see that it’s an annoying word – I had to look it up to understand it – but I can also see how a polyvalent and vague word like “meaning” would just cause confusion in the discussion they’re having.


Here: Alex offered a really neat method:

“So my version of surprising magic, which I used in a campaign a few years ago, was that mages could develop new spells out of words of the names of spells they already knew. When they created the spell, they would write down what they wanted it to do. I would not read their version, but would develop my own (usually slightly ironic) interpretation of the name, which I would write on an index card and put aside. There were a few basic guidelines about, eg., how damage or bonuses could scale, but beyond that they had carte blanche and spells were level-less. (There was an understanding that if anything seemed truly busted we would talk through it.) When the player first cast the spell, and not before, they would test their magic lore skill to see if they had designed it properly. If they succeeded, they would use their version; if they failed, they would use mine.”
…and that could be refined by having the loser of the dice contest add a twist/modification, so it’s always a hybrid.

An example from play:
Player: my spell is called “summon places”.
Me: ok, write down what it does.
We each spend about a minute jotting down our idea.
Some time later, she says: I cast summon places.
Me: Roll arcana.
She rolls arcana and fails.
We flip my card: Chunks of architecture fall from the sky.
In real life we stopped here, but for the sake of thinking it through let’s add a step where she’s able to work in an idea from her card.
Player: my card says it allows me to travel to a given place, it’s a teleport spell.
Me: ok, chunks of that place are falling from the sky. Which place did you target for this casting?
Player: oh. The vampire’s castle…
Me: welp

…this whole discussion would’ve been better handled as a comic in the series “philosophers play D&D.” Since it wasn’t, I can only offer by way of apology a scene where Basil Fawlty misuses the intentional stance:

On the difference between magic and technology

February 4, 2022 2 comments

I’ve wrestled for decades with Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It seems true. It definitely contains a nugget of wisdom. It’s a license to Space Opera to your heart’s content. But for writers of fantasy games it leaves a giant, nightmarish question:
“so what’s magic for, then? What’s special about it?”

I maybe take Clarke’s quote to heart more than most. I have a hard time drawing hard lines between magic and tech – to me, netrunning in Cyberpunk looks like a magical activity: nobody around the table really knows how the engineering works (especially in the game world, which is always slightly ahead of our own). You can effectively run it just like a divinatory trip to fairyland or a religious ritual, which has concrete effects in the mundane world. And it shares the basic structure of rituals – while you are in cyberspace, the normal rules are suspended and a new (maybe inverted, maybe logically consistent but alien) world holds sway.* You return with privileged knowledge from your encounter with the Deep and Secret – either revelations about how the world has always worked or a change you’ve made in the programming layer, which is now manifested down here in Everyday Praxis.

But if that’s a reliable technology, a skill the players can deploy at will, then how is it different from Library Use?
Shouldn’t there be something extra about magic? Some wonder? Isn’t it cooler to be a wizard (or hacker) than a middle manager?**
DCC’s answer to this is magic is dangerous and unpredictable, which is great as far as it goes (in particular it makes players grateful for what they get out of magic, rather than dissatisfied and ambitious regarding ways they might exploit it) – but then it’s really just a risky technology, like early explosives. “The wizard’s going to do their thing? OK everyone, retire to a safe distance. Wait and see if it works” (and that’s one of the great vices of netrunning, as done back in the 80s: it’s an interlude in the game where all the non-hackers are not needed around the table).
Mage’s answer (and Ars Magica’s, to a lesser extent) is magic is a special skill system, where you get to invent new skills/effects on the fly. Which is super cool, and sits right on the bridge between Old School concrete reality and Storygame negotiated worlds – here is a particular moment where you get to author part of the rules. ApocWorld players are probably yawning right now, but it gets at the realization I’ve just had this week. Finally.

Magic is the capacity to add surprise.

Like the deus ex machina of Greek theater is a surprise (and hated by Aristotle for it), it suddenly provides an alternative path to the one everyone’s expecting. It turns away from the predictable course.
Magicians in fiction are generally exceptional and unexpected in their fictional worlds. They herald a power outside the control of other people. Even D&D’s rather staid one-spell-a-day MUs are a novel threat because you don’t know what spell they have until it’s happened. And (early) D&D explicitly doesn’t let them keep doing it. You get one shot of lightning, not a handgun. The spirit of surprise is in there, even if it’s not always actually surprising in play.

Surprise. The ability to surprise the enemy, the other players, the DM.
I reckon if your magic isn’t surprising, it’s just technology (and would be better represented as such, so it can be fully understood by player tacticians).

Now that we know this, what can we do with it?

1. Learn from theater. If a deus ex machina just manufactures a happy ending and cancels the drama that comes before it, that’s a horrible audience experience. But a deus ex machina that heightens the drama or opens up implications for where things could go next? That’s like an achievement unlocked.

2. Maybe build surprise into the systems, so that the magic always catches the players and DM a bit off guard. Draw a tarot card (or an oblique strategy) and apply its implications on top of your intended effect. Allow a bit of player narration, if that’s not part of your usual toolchest, or ask someone uninvolved for something extra that happens, incidental to the intended payload. Magic systems that come down to bargaining with NPCs are always good, because the NPC can demand something in return – maybe something deferred. And you could roll on reaction tables, to see where this relationship will go next. Whole adventures can come out of these debts – or massive complications to the current adventure (“I see you’re rescuing a princess. Get me her brother.” Or “I’ve always hated their vizier – he’s a wizard, you know. Kill him for me, but you can’t involve me.” Or “all that treasure you’re collecting needs to be poured into the hole in the sea, or the world will drown.”).

3. Don’t be afraid of being excessive in adding surprises. They’re supposed to be uncontainable in the common order of things. When Tolkien wrote Bilbo’s ring into The Hobbit, it was just supposed to be a ring of invisibility – an extra secret, that Gandalf foreshadowed (“He’s an excellent burglar, even if he doesn’t know it himself”). Maybe Gandalf selected Bilbo through divination, but the birds didn’t tell him why Bilbo was the right choice. That’s magic for you. It’s a license to go further than anyone expects.

ETA: I added a post that explains why I think magic needs this extraness. If you don’t need it, don’t read it.

* I could go on about liminality and the enhanced status of the nerd, but that’s more about the ’80s origins of Cyberpunk than anything relevant here today.
** This essay brought to you by my reading China Mieville’s The Scar, which taught me that what I really despise is magic that is just another technology. When the metallurgists in The Scar want super strong chains they call in thaumaturges to add an extra layer of magitech and I just don’t care in fact I am physically repulsed. It feels like such a waste of imaginative potential. The wonder that Mieville’s missing is right there in that word: “thaumat-urge” – “wonder-worker.” And thauma literally comes down to “a thing to look at,” from the same root as “theater” – the place where you go to be enchanted. Where you’re willing to accept a deus ex machina. Also, thanks to Adam Thornton, this no longer says “cooler than a plumber,” because as he pointed out, plumbing is deep wizardry.
*** I can’t leave without posting Inosuke pulling a perfect deus ex machina. Magic.

Let’s play pirates!

July 19, 2021 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of different kinds of play wrapped up in roleplaying. Whenever I get into a discussion of the meaning of some particular rule or feature, I am reminded that I have a load of unconscious biases, based on the sorts of play I prefer to write and run, that don’t match those of other gamers. It’s hard to get to a point in discussions where I’m sure what the other discussant is talking about.

“Let’s play pirates!” can lead in a bunch of different directions, each with their own genres of action. Is this a game where you play movie pirates who go “arr” and swing on ropes? In that case, not only should you not take the action very seriously, you should also actively look for opportunities to do those things. And you should base your expectations on movie tropes. If the big gold cup is not the end-goal of the adventure, then it’s probably just a sign pointing to some other story-token – a pirate king’s daughter or corrupt/undead colonial governor ripe for a slave revolt or something of the sort. On the other hand, if it’s a strictly historical game, maybe your best bet is to keep your true identity secret and try to escape the pirate life (with some loot), to set yourselves up as merchants somewhere far from your previous crimes. Or if it’s the kind of world where 18th century Batman could work, you could try to maintain a respectable front while reaping rewards from (carefully morally calculated) maritime violence in far-off ports.

I tend to set my own games in worlds where the players can do anything they like – ignore all adventure hooks, pursue their own individual objectives etc. The worlds are self-supporting and self-running; stuff will happen whether the players engage with it or not. The players’ actions do not inherently lead to them being “good guys” or “bad guys,” they are just actors in the world. They can try to improve things or ruthlessly seize what they want for themselves or assist other ruthless accumulators. In each case, there will probably be some beneficiaries from their actions, who will be pleased, and some who lose out and who will be made angry.

This sort of game is tactical at base – if the players want to have a larger effect on the world, they should probably accumulate resources, allies, influence, and plans. They are “rewarded” for playing with common sense. Their surest path to success in any large goal generally starts with accumulating some surplus resources, so they’ll have stuff to trade with or use in schemes, so that they can acquire particular force multipliers, so that they can get the levers they need to move the bits of the world they want to move.

But I know at other tables there is (for example) explicit Good and Evil, and maybe you can tilt the Cosmic Bias by your actions. Or there are Good Guy protagonists and Bad Guy antagonists and if you behave like the latter, you will get more antagonism from the world. On the other hand, if you act Heroically (as befits your status as the Hero of this story), you will be supported in adopting that role. If you die, it will be under dramatic circumstances that complicate the story in entertaining ways.

In my experience people tend not to talk about this sort of thing explicitly in setting up a game, but as a player I find it really changes my ideas about what I might try, what I might expect to get away with, what kinds of things might be rewarded and amplified. Players’ choices only make sense within a certain field of validity – and that field is generally being contested all the time by the choices people make and the directions that drags the campaign.

I also find that different ideas about the genre of action of a game ramify through all discussions of every part of the game – what’s entirely natural to one genre of action can be offensive in another.

I think this might actually be an important factor in some discussions of, e.g., the old “orcs are racist” contention. In a game where every character class is an archetype, pretty much defined by an actor’s performance (think of e.g. Star Wars, where the Smuggler character is always some variant of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo), there might be a space for an Orc character, who can play into or against some existing fictional prototype of Orcishness (or Klingon, if you’re having a hard time imagining a prototypical Orc actor). In this case, the prototype of the Orc always shadows the player’s moves, and whatever the player does as the character will be measured against it.* But in a game where an orc character is supposed to have the same gamut of actions and moralities open to them as any other character, the way they are characterized as different from everyone else is liable to lead to (interesting, uncomfortable) comparisons with real-world racial categories. The questions of race and racism might now shadow the player’s moves. Do they suffer from prejudice – from the other non-orc PCs based on their race, and/or from other orcs, for mixing with the PCs? Are they expected to express some sort of particularly orcish behaviours? The game and its participants now have to think about what they’re choosing to include and why. Or, more often, they may be called on to ignore some obvious implications of the action, in the interest of keeping the desired kinds of action going through the game.

The fact that individual RPG campaigns seldom inhabit a really clearly defined genre-of-action position is liable to lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Even a Star Wars game has choices to make, about how much it tries to emulate movie action and how much it’s a model of a tactical wargame sort of world.

I guess I’m saying, when somebody says something that just sounds wrong, it’s most likely to be because they’re coming from some set of expectations and field of signification that is unfamiliar to you. Try to find out what the world is that they’re imagining, before judging the validity of their statements.

* note, even Star Wars is not immune from the kind of semantic drift I’m talking about here – the fight over whether Han shot first is really about changes being made to the genre of action that Star Wars inhabits. In 1977 Han wasn’t in the subset of the cast that contained the heroes, which is to say he didn’t have to comply with the weird moral universe of the US cinematic action hero, where murder is OK but only if it’s a lesser evil enacted in avoiding a greater evil, or if it’s done without cruelty. The question has practical implications for players of Star Wars smuggler characters: can they shoot first or not? Will they be betraying their prototype?

On the regular hell that is the improved Spanish Prisoner con

June 10, 2021 Leave a comment

I realised I had one more thing (for now) to say about Spanish Prisoner Cons (SPCs):

the big problem with the basic form of the SPC is that it promises to deliver a good thing, one day. It’s much, much more effective to promise to stave off a bad thing. The longer you delay gratification of the good thing, the more likely it is that your marks will turn against you. But the longer you prevent the feared catastrophe, the better you look. “They’ve kept us safe for years! Who knows where we’d be without them?”

ahem. And as long as the bad thing cannot be shown to have happened yet, the con is sustainable.

Also, the bad thing gives the con-man an implicit yardstick to measure their own offerings against. “Do you want that? NO? Then accept this.” See also insurance, the war on drugs, policing, fascism etc.

The avoid worse yardstick also points out a secondary game/layer implicit in Call of Cthulhu: merely being “better than the monsters” gives the PCs a license to be as bad as humanly possible. Everything above that level is left as an exercise for the players’ own consciences. It seems to me that this is a challenge, to make CoC the most interestingly humanist, compassionate game around, but my actual play experience has worked out closer to the bottom end of that spectrum.

(see bottom of post for a confusing aside on Spain as a source of SPCs)

OK, that’s done. It seemed important to say it, but now it feels finished and I fear I’ve wasted your time with very obvious stuff. So in recompense to the Joesky we all have inside us, you need to know about this D&D campaign dreamed up by 16th century Flemish society: Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) is a “folkloric character, the leader of an all-female army on a quest to pillage hell.” Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Pretty much everyone who talks about this figure and her depictions delights in recounting the old Flemish proverb: “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market,* four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon.” I feel I can get away with repeating it because it neatly encapsulates my thinking for Counter-colonial Heistcrawl.

* I do love the equivalence drawn here between discord and commerce. I also have to quote Braudel’s quoting of an unsourced proverb: “three women and a goose make a market.”

A confusing aside on Spain and prisoners:
Spain in the 16th century (the country making Brueghel’s life miserable) seems to me enmeshed in a veritable Piranesi nightmare of prisons and prisoners:
1. the church’s SPC (avoid hell) justifies the crown’s ethnic cleansing scheme (clean Spain for Christians only!), so that genocide against Iberian Jews and Muslims is conducted in the name of Catholic dominion. That incidentally leads to the revolt of the Netherlands, long-term disorder, and some atrocities that inform the visions of hell for which we so love Northern Renaissance art.
2. Loot grabbed during that genocide drives a market for the conquest of the Americas and sparks another set of SPCs, because if the Spanish Crown has already grabbed the gold, you gotta go get more.
3. if Natalie Zemon Davis is to be believed, American treasure also causes an inflation crisis in church favours: guilt at the atrocities committed to get the gold can only be expiated by giving it to God (decorating churches), incidentally deflating gold a little as a form of money in circulation, but also leading to an ever greater demand for gold decoration: the ultimate elastic market.

On the special hell that is the Spanish Prisoner con

May 17, 2021 6 comments

Usually I take a good day to write a post. I chase down links, I look for the right illustrations, I rewrite at least twice.
This post is not like that.

There are many cons. I’m reading The Big Con right now, to try to get a feel for the form.

But it seems to me that the Spanish Prisoner con is one of the cruelest, both for the mark and for the con man, because it hinges on imagining a better world, and then short-changing that vision in order to grab some quick cash.

Here’s how it works: I have a friend, a nobleman, who has been taken prisoner in Spain (it’s the 17th or 18th century: it is credible that Spain is a world power and also that justice there is sufficiently arbitrary that my friend might be wrongly imprisoned and/or arbitrarily freed if we can get him some money). So if we can just help my friend get free, then he will reward us all. Endless summer, drinks by the pool, envy all round.

So the con is, I need some seed money to get a big payout. Oh, dammit, the Spaniards snaffled the seed money – I need more. A bit more. OK, this time for sure. Yeah, more so we can get the friend clear. And so on.

The mark has to imagine a better world. The con has to sell them a better world. And then consistently fail to deliver.

Now, if I were in the novel-writing business, I would write this as a perfect set-up for a tragedy. Because the con has to be convincing, it’s best if it’s based in something true. So then inevitably the con man falls in love with the lie – because they have to forcefully imagine the better world and then impress upon the mark how much better it is that reality. Specifically better than the tawdry reality where the mark is having pocket money siphoned off them by some low-life storyteller.

The “prisoner” can be any great thing that would measurably improve life – prison for Trump, or free energy, or faster-than- light travel, or a cure for global warming. The con man can even be well-intentioned. They actually might be unconsciously conning the mark. They just have to sell it.

And it’s a hell because we, the smart audience know that it can never be fulfilled. Dramatic irony. The sheer attractiveness of the idea slowly eats away all resistance. We can watch those fools slowly get drawn into a false belief in redemption. We can see them sacrifice their money, their opportunity costs, their lives and loves for this one big love. The prisoner that can never be released.

Thank god we’re safe and warm here in our skepticism.


March 22, 2021 10 comments

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked what I think about Harry and Meghan more times than I’d like for one lifetime. The honest answer is “as little as possible.” But then I started to be told how I felt – how all Britons feel – by commentators in the US and UK, and it set me thinking about bricolage and discourses and whether some aspects of Orientalism are always in play – not just in conditions of colonialism.

The thing that really set me off was this podcast from the NYTimes, where Sarah Lyall calls the monarchy “the glue that holds [British] society together.” According to Lyall, British people felt they had to be emotionless robots until former-princess Diana talked about pain in an interview, and that gave them permission to feel pain. With reference to Harry and Meghan: “the monarchy is sort of setting the tone here. It’s the rest of society. I mean, it’s as if they’re sort of waiting for license to discuss these things in a new way.” That struck me as strange because it didn’t reflect my own experience, growing up in Britain in the decades immediately preceding this apparently epochal interview.

Elsewhere in the interview Lyall allows that there might be two kinds of Brits – “establishment people, older people, men,” and “younger women, people who were unhappy in love, people who had struggled with mental health issues, people who maybe had eating problems or other problems,” but together they only form one kind of society, and that society needs permission from the royals to feel things, otherwise it will come unglued. And that set me thinking about some rather incautious anthropology I’ve read, like e.g. where Jim Siegel uses Freudian analysis on the population of Indonesia to claim they were collectively tramuatized by the death of Sukarno’s pet dog. Back before the rise of post-modernism it was quite common in anthropology to discuss the workings of the “savage mind,” to boil (neatly bounded) cultures down into a few phrases, to understand foreign Others as primitive emotional mechanisms, trapped in their backward mythologies. The discussion of the British and their fatally flawed relationship with their royal family looked to me a lot like bad old Orientalism.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is a book-length diatribe against this sort of superiority complex analysis, where the writer stands aloof from the people they’re looking at, maintaining an exterior perspective that allows for blanket judgments about whole populations. Said identifies the complex as a handy tool for colonialism but also a dangerous self-delusion, since  “cultures are always made up of mixed, heterogenous and even contradictory discourses.” But Said also claims that Orientalism is always wrapped up in colonialism – it only really functions to reproduce power distance between two populations. And I’ve often wondered, what if there are no relations of colonial domination in play? If we see the colonial-Orientalist thought pattern dominating cultural interpretations in non-colonial contexts, how would we know that it’s actually colonial and not just a basic interpretive framework linked, perhaps, to ideas of which communities we identify with or against?

So I was thinking all this when I finally got around to watching Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures and I realized that its Barbie palace setting was supposed to be 19th century Britain. Big deal, you say, it’s anime. Moreover, it’s Jojo, i.e. baroque anime (thanks Mateo). Season 1 Jojo draws on British (or American-dressed-up-as-British) gentleman adventurer genre conventions, so… sure. Japanese artists adopt another genre, fine. But when the “16th century knights” Bluford and Tarkus showed up, the misrepresentation started to be so blatant, so willful, that I began to think there was something deliberate going on.

Here’s Tarkus, sporting a horned helmet, like the Vikings didn’t wear. He’s supposed to be a knight in the service of Mary Tudor.
Here’s Ed Courtenay, an actual nobleman in the service of Mary Tudor, for comparison.
He’s not a knight but an Earl, but that really just means he can afford a more expensive portraitist.

I started wondering if these romanticized Vikings standing in for Renaissance dandies were some sort of comment on ignorant/careless depictions of Samurai and Ninja in Western media. If they were supposed to make me think more carefully about depictions of Japan, they were working. I also started thinking about Britain’s place in other countries’ mediated imagination – Japan was effectively in the US’s colonial orbit until the 1980s, the US was in Britain’s until the 1780s. Can UK/US relations be called non-colonial? Or does the colonial trace still apply two centuries later?

And that set me back to Shonda Rhimes’s recent adaptation of Bridgerton, an old-fashioned bodice-ripper erotic/romantic fantasy that has the novel element of pretending that 19th century Britain could have had race relations that 2020 Hollywood would feel good about.

Bridgerton’s romantic leads. He’s been “traveling outside Britain for business,” which is as close as Bridgerton gets to mentioning colonies. She, obviously, has waited at home like a proper English rose for the precise moment of plucking.

For a while I couldn’t articulate what it was that bothered me about Bridgerton. Other people who complained about its non-traditional racial presentation were accused of everything from boring historicism to closet racism. But the business around Harry and Meghan made me realize that what bothers me in particular is that it deploys its fantasy Britain (or “Shondaland,” as the title card suggests) to have its cake and eat it too, dodging 2020’s arguments about representation by presenting itself simultaneously as fantasy and not-fantasy in a very Orientalist way.

It’s pretty obvious to me that Bridgerton chose to be notorious for its Progressive take on race, in order to avoid being notorious for its regressive gender politics – which are those of a remarkably traditional bodice ripper (a bold move when even Adventure Time has had a go at the genre’s cliches). That is, it’s nostalgic about women being submissive as a social fact, so that it can tell a story about how the heroine manages to get comfy in her bondage. So that explains why it’s set in 1813 Britain – because that setting “explains” the gender politics… except that Bridgerton’s alt universe, with its more acceptable 21st century casting, makes it clear that it’s not an Austen or a Bronte story, and so it doesn’t have to come to Austen or Bronte type conclusions. The leading characters are notably more interesting and sophisticated – more like the audience – than their benighted Regency supporting cast. They can have frank conversations about female masturbation on the model of Dr. Ruth.

Not like this lot, who are fine actors all, but not leading lady material. Also, they’re dressed in an acid-coloured parade of the worst fashions of the first half of the 19th century, as opposed to the lead’s more 1810s-by-way-of-1910s elegant simplicity.

So the show is simultaneously in and not-in Britain and its leads are simultaneously British and other-than-British – more specifically, the show is set in a fantasy Britain that rests on a particularly American conception of what it means to be exterior to British history, to be defined as not-British and to parade that difference in certain highly-reified ways (tea, polite skepticism, some obvious markers of the class system, dentistry). It uses British actors and is filmed in British locations, to reproduce a specifically American gaze. In the end it’s no closer to British history, really, than Jojo. Negar Azimi calls the Orientalist view of the Orient “a skewed mirror upon which Europeans could project their motley desires and fantasies.” Applying that here, we see Shondaland obscuring any “real” British history, replacing Britain with stuff that might never make it onto the air in an outright US-in-the-US romance. Projecting subby desires onto a primitive, peripheral Britain allows them to be (a) depicted for the metropolitan US audience and (b) alienated from them, so they can watch it all without owning (up to having) the desires. Kinda like all those steamy French paintings about the sinful life of the harem, created to titillate/concern the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire. Imagine those poor white women, enslaved by the brutally moustachoied Moor!

Ingres, of course. The Turkish Bath. This one’s actually pretty tame, although a rare excuse to get a lot of naked women on one canvas. For the full-bore experience check out nearly anything by Gerome.

Returning to Harry and Meghan, their story is one of an American, sophisticated-sympathetic heroine, wounded by mean, racist, backward old Britain in the form of a shadowy Royal Family (“not the queen, though!”), her pain acknowledged only by her loyal leading man, who is willing to be rescued from his “unconscious racism” by her teaching… and I guess I see how this story has all the right receptors, both for making a statement in the current moment of US politics and for sweeping up any bits of Orientalism swimming around in the body politic. Britain already plays an important part in the American imaginary as a sort of villainous uncle the US has outgrown – it’s kept perpetually in the imagined position of a privileged bully, belittling the US, despite the fact that the two countries’ actual, practical relations have been completely reversed for at least 70 years now.

And I guess what I think about it is that, in this story, Britain is the less attractive, less interesting supporting cast, the perpetrator of racism and the holder of revanchist bad traditionalism, contrasted against our heroic leads… and that Britain might be standing in as a skewed mirror of the US – a method by which Americans can be called to stand together against racism in the US, soothing the tensions of last summer… as long as the visible racist enemy comes in the form of some inferior foreigners. We can all agree on the failings of Others.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this image of the British royal family is false, nor am I saying that I doubt Meghan’s story, nor anything like that… but I note that the interview had no very specific moment that it had to become news (it wasn’t urgent like a plane crash or a sport result). H&M had moved out of the palace months before. They weren’t going anywhere. It was a story with a long shelf life, waiting to claim its optimal moment in the US’s attention, and it does seem pretty relevant to the current moment – with Trumpist racism fading against hopeful Bidenism. A moment for resettling, clearing out dirty laundry, declaring that “we are not those people.” Certainly not those people. Those royals that we snubbed 250 years ago.

so I wrote all this stuff about Orientalism and the interview and Bridgerton because I thought it wasn’t super obvious – because I had to work through what I thought about it, myself. But it bothered me that there might not be a clear enough link in this post between the stuff Said lambasted and the light entertainment on TV – if you weren’t familiar with the arguments, you might not see what I was seeing. But then last weekend I found Orientalism in all its vainglory, with the gloves off, in Hulu’s “anti-historical” comedy-drama The Great. If you watched Bridgerton and think I’m making the Orientalist discourse up, then this is what it looks like when fashionable opinion really doesn’t care about what its subject thinks.

here’s young Catherine, about to get beaten up by the ladies of the court under guise of rustic native dancing.
They’re wearing candy-coloured wigs to signal that they’re unseriously sophisticated, like that Marie Antoinette movie.

Ostensibly, it’s about Catherine the Great of Russia, and ostensibly, it’s a comedy. that last part is important to its selling points, so let’s start there.

What tells us it’s a comedy is really just its breakneck pacing and the fact that you can always tell what everyone’s thinking, because they say it out loud. “I am quite annoyed at you and I might have you killed, except that you’re also making me horny.” That sort of thing. If, instead of this, the characters turned half away with an unreadable expression for a few seconds and you had to infer their plots over the next few scenes, it would be straight back into premier TV territory, because under the pacing it’s an endless succession of intrigues and betrayals and imminent danger, just like Game of Thrones. And because it contrasts its antic palace parties with some gruesome death and dismemberment, it’s a black comedy. A satire. It tells us on the title card that it’s “occasionally true,” but it neglects to tell us which occasions. What tells us that it also intends to be taken somewhat seriously as a historical drama is its authentic…. Britishness. it’s shot on location in British palaces, with British accents. If you think that might prevent a certain distinctive Russianness from shining through, well, it was the enlightenment. Everyone was aping French fashion anyway. It’s up to the audience to navigate this hall of mirrors and decide which bricolage pieces are structural at any particular moment.

So it manages the sneaky internet troll trick of saying the cruelest, most brazen things, while claiming that it’s only kidding. It paints the Russian court as a wildly abandoned, wildly dangerous, non-stop orgy; Russian religion as laughable, magic mushroom fueled, cynical superstition; the Tsar’s family as a bunch of lunatics; and the nobles as terrified sycophants, getting drunk and throwing each other out of windows for the Tsar’s amusement. In other words, it repeats exactly the image of the Russian court that western Europe constructed in the 16th-19th centuries – as being an Oriental despot’s whorehouse, dressed up in European clothes. “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar,” as the French moralist Joseph de Maistre said, while Catherine was on the throne. And it gets away with repeating these old formulas with the satirist’s disclaimer that nobody escapes its sharp tongue – Catherine, the one foreign viewpoint character, is just a whisker more reasonable when she first arrives, but quickly has to adapt to barbarism in order to survive.

But what is it satirizing? What work is its Orientalism doing? Well….. if, in today’s USA, it is safe to hold prejudices about Britain, it is downright dutiful to hold prejudices about Russia. Putin plays up to the part of a Bond villain, the ever-more-intolerant laws of his regime seem designed to offend US progressives, and his meddling in US politics on Trump’s side (whatever its actual aims) serves to give him a particular kind of US political identity. “Scratch a Russian” is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago. Against that, Russophiles can hold up Catherine the Great as a rare moment of progressiveness in Russian history – Helen Mirren’s recent miniseries was straight-up laudatory, maybe an appeal to Russia’s better angels, comparing Catherine with Britain’s Gloriana, hinting that Russia might find friends over here if only she could remember her more enlightened moments. The Great, in contrast, tells us that Catherine represented a momentary deviation from the normal Russian character – she was a naive foreigner who briefly thought there was a rational mind under the bear’s fur. Her illusions are brutally crushed by a flurry of huzzahs and thrown glassware. As Viktoria Riyabikova notes, underneath its costumes it’s really about Russia today – or about Russian-British-American relations. I think Riyabikova might be being too charitable, though, in thinking that it wants to talk to Russians about reform. I suspect it just wants to talk to Americans and Britains about how irrational the bear, and court systems, and power and politics really are.

Fallen London: French Vanilla chef kiss

February 22, 2021 3 comments

I promise this blog will not become a pure Fallen London fandom site, but there’s one more thing (for now) that I think is worth sharing about it – its careful relationship with cliches.

Anne has written about French Vanilla settings – worlds that are adjacent to the well-worn paths of fantasy or science fiction, just different enough that players stay alert for the differences, just familiar enough that players don’t feel lost in a sea of novelty. And Fallen London is a French Vanilla setting par excellence. As I’ve noted before, FL leans heavily on the literature of cities-as-characters in a more-or-less Gothic mode, which is to say a tradition that goes back to Casanova, takes in Dickens, Conan-Doyle, and Stoker along the way, and fetches up around David Mitchell. It’s pretty careful to stick to fictional Londons (with occasional nods to Parises) and not to stray over to America, which already sets it apart from the sparkly era of urban fantasy, but there’s still plenty to get mired in, out in the Victorian pea soup fog: demon barbers, Jack the Ripper, you know the drill. I’m going to share a few examples from the early, mid, and late game, so this is your spoiler warning: ⚠️ Don’t read any more if you’re going to get upset about knowing FL lore.

……still here? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What really impresses me about how FL uses French Vanilla is the way it deploys cliche to draw the reader into stories that never goes quite where you expect. So its betentacled Rubbery Men look Lovecraftian at first glance, but they skew tragic, rather than horrifying, as you get to know them. Perhaps they operate some sinister underground organ, but that puzzle’s a gateway to the question of who calls the tune? The rooftop urchins, who initially recall Dick Van Dyke’s support dancers, turn out to be tied to cults, the government, and possibly the intelligence operations of a long-dead god. The more you learn, the more fretted their relationship with the roofs becomes.

Regarding Saucy Jack and Sweeney Todd, FL mashes them up – there’s a Jack of Smiles, sure, but anyone could be him. It turns out he’s the knives, which possess the hands and minds of those who hold them. You can become Jack for a while… which means you wake up having let the knife go, and have to reconstruct what happened to you (and everyone you know) over the past month. Charting the history and crafting of the knives takes you to entities that have a complex relationship with London and its Fall, and so you’re off on an onion-skin mystery, of which The Ripper is only the outermost layer.

Obviously the city’s lousy with vampires…. but it’s tastefully eschews common Draculoid or Ricean bloodsuckers. The most heavily telegraphed, cliche-laden vampire fake-out turns out to be the psychic emanation of a predatory real-estate contract – which brings me to my second point: Fallen London has a very strong and consistent viewpoint (which is impressive for something that’s written by many hands). All games offer a theory about the world – their mechanics reflect a set of understandings regarding what’s understandable, acceptable, how cause and consequence works, how people will react to situations, what tactical decisions will make sense in their context. And Fallen London’s viewpoint is generally more complex than it first appears, both interesting and interested in the things it talks about. For instance, you can get involved in publishing a newspaper, which inevitably opens up the question, “what is news?” Well, in FL it comes in 3 flavours: meritorious, outlandish, and scandalous. Which sounds like a straightforward value judgment, until you realise that meritorious copy really means “that which will incite outrage,” with little regard for public education. Some of the most important stories are scandalous. Some of the most urgent – if true – are outlandish. And the business of packaging them all together into a single edition of your rag really drives home the point that it’s a composition, made to sell. It will sell better if it tickles more of its readers’ emotional receptors. The outermost reach of the game (for now) is one of its most acerbic parts – a place called Moulin, which is an extended commentary on the academic publishing mill. It consists of a large back yard, where archaeological artifacts wash up, and an institute where you write monographs to interpret them into histories. Those histories can be ironic (“what fun!” the supporting text notes), tragic (“how boring”), or cautionary, and are attractive to different publishers based on their tone. Exploring that theory of the history mill made me sit back in silence and look over my bookshelves…. and I had to concede, whoever wrote it has a point. Moulin also contains the closest thing I’ve seen to a manifesto statement for the whole enterprise:

That which is, is always constructed on the bones of that which is not. For every line of text, its negative lies just below the page. A skilled hand can trace an idea to its echo.

I read the second part of that as a concession that hermeneutics can only ever be an art, not a science. But the first part – constructed on the bones of that which is not. That chimes strongly with my own experience as a historian. I strive to ask answerable questions, but my motivation for asking them always has something unanswerable underneath it. When I look at the hierarchical arrangement of spaces, my potentially answerable question is “how does this spatial arrangement communicate power relationships?” but what I really want to ask is “how important is architectural design in maintaining power hierarchies?” or even “how do people command power? Why is it given to them? Why do even quite small groups tolerate tyrants?” I have to compare what is with other hypothetical possibilities, and the existence of tyrannies with some idea I hold within me, of non-tyrannical social structures and what those might look like.

Finally, perhaps more usefully for the DM in search of bricolage ingredients, there’s the stratigraphy of Fallen London and what it tells us about the secret history of the world. London is the 5th city to Fall, and it Fell on top of its predecessors (in some undisclosed location underground, but not necessarily under any particular ground) so there are traces and hints of what those previous cities were. To be a Fallen city is to be excised from our own world – the world of the Surface – so there’s an implicit negative geography up there. We know that London Fell with the whole extent of the Thames valley, including e.g. the canal locks of Jericho, but not necessarily the city of Oxford, to which they were formerly attached. And that, due to contractual entanglements, some direct possessions of the Crown Fell with it, so Balmoral is down in the cave. So identifying the other Fallen cities might open up interesting vistas for exploration. And here the French Vanilla approach yields dividends, because those cities seem to be almost, but not quite, the places you’d expect, and therefore they can contain… nearly anything, which can all be highly suggestive of clever connections without tying the writers down.

The 4th city is widely thought to be Karakoram – Qublai Khan’s first administrative capital – but it seems obvious to me, given the Romantic leanings elsewhere, that it’s Xanadu’s stately pleasure dome, not least because caves of ice keep cropping up. Therefore Coleridge, Calvino, Dalrymple. For the 3rd city, they mention the murderous Mayan or Zapotec Ball Game (although they don’t use the names, nor pelota, which is a generic ball game name sometimes used to distinguish it from current games). If the rule is that the city in question must have disappeared from our history then I personally don’t know enough to track it down (there are so many): its red bird cult suggests somewhere Quetzalcoatl or a close cousin holds sway. Artwork for the 2nd city implies ancient Egypt, and there are references to Sphinxstone as a material that imprisons Masters. I’m pretty sure it’s Akhenaten’s lost capital Amarna, which was destroyed on his death, along with his heretical cult of Aten. Regarding the 1st city, inevitably some people have suggested Ubar – and Irem does show up as an over-the-untersea location in the game. All I know for sure about it is it had coins. Among the first coins we know of are the electrum coins of Lydia – which are pretty damn interesting AND a trove of them was famously found under the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There’s also the early history of Mesopotamian coinage. And so we are free to fill in whichever version of the first city of men we prefer. Regardless, it will have only an oblique relationship with the sunken architecture of the ancient Magistracy and various mystery caves that are unknown to mere Surface-dwellers.

On tactics and surprise

January 29, 2021 Leave a comment
There have been a lot of changes to Fallen London over the past year… several new areas have been added to the map, you can build a railway going westward to Wales/Hell. I guess I’m lucky to have caught it during its renaissance, 10 years after first release.

I’ve been playing Fallen London for a year now, and I’m definitely in the “late game.” That doesn’t mean I’m exhausting the content (good god, there’s a lot of content) but I have reached one edge of it – I’m building a railway to hell and exploring new material as it’s published – and that’s a new experience, because other players have not yet compiled a wiki of the options, which means I can’t optimize my path. (Fallen London, like Pokemon, is complex enough to support a third-party market in intelligence – players helping other players to navigate the dizzying web of options.) So for almost the first time I find myself in strictly narrative, rather than tactical, space: I have to make decisions based on what seems right to me at the time, not based on what’s profitable or necessarily desirable.

And that’s a deep, fundamental shift in user experience and design incentives. Many of the choices I have to make look decidedly tactical. What style of railway stations should I build? Which is to say, what faction in London am I trying to flatter? Who should I listen to when deciding how to strike deals with a (characteristically weird) kaiju? For the first time, I have to think – and decide how to think – toward success on an interaction-by-interaction basis, rather than researching long sequences of interactions that have already been signposted to choose a strategic pathway through them.

“Big deal” say all the old School roleplayers. “Choose, die, learn. The risk is the reward.” Except that’s not necessarily the sort of game Fallen London is – or, rather, Fallen London plus Wiki is a different game from Fallen London as originally written, and both games are perfectly functional but they work on somewhat different expectations.

Right now, the biggest element of difference I’m experiencing is a shift in my literary expectations. I have to think about what sort of story Fallen London is. Is it a work of serial fiction on the classic model, pioneered by Richardson’s Pamela – a parade of surprises a.k.a. “soap opera logic?” The long-lost sister is actually an evil imposter! Just when the rich land-speculator is about to steal the family farm, he gets shot! Apparently by the dead father, who faked his own death! If so, maybe I will be rewarded for always taking the most outlandish option. Or maybe (more likely) there are no rewards for thinking, because surprise denies planning.

I’d be a little surprised if that were actually true of Fallen London, because it’s not very game like. Denying planning means denying tactical thinking. Imagine if chess pieces suddenly shuffled their abilities halfway through a game and didn’t tell you. And meaningful interaction depends heavily on meaningful planning, anticipation of outcomes. But it’s also true that Fallen London does trade in surprises, at least in the writing. Maybe it occupies a sort of middle ground, like classic murder mysteries. And maybe it’s vulnerable to the same kinds of pitfalls murder mysteries often face, when they fail to tread the line between the reader’s conflicting desires on one hand of wanting to play along with the detective, interpreting the breadcrumb trail of clues logically, and on the other hand wanting to be astonished, marveling at how they failed to see the twist coming.

So, suddenly I have to judge what kind of fiction Fallen London has always been, in order to assess how much I should try to anticipate the consequences of my choices. Is it better to try to build a solid railway institution or go outlandish, confident that I’ll be rewarded with outlandish results?

And that’s made me realise that this question is a huge part of the invisible rulebook for any roleplaying campaign. “Unfair, arbitrary” dungeon puzzles get hated on for killing characters, but grief over character loss is masking a deeper betrayal: the real problem with them is that they’re narrative surprises foisted on players who are expecting a tactical challenge. They cancel the tactical work the players were doing. Meanwhile Call of Cthulhu is always in danger of being a sheep in wolf’s clothing: while HPL’s stories were decidedly “literature of surprise,” Petersen’s game starts from a position of genre familiarity; the published adventures usually deliver a firmly tactical (even formulaic) RPG experience. CoC illustrates fairly neatly a principle I use a lot in my games, of getting the players to learn the “grammar” of the world they’ve entered through a sequence of explorations, which yield initially surprising but consistent results (it turns out the mechanical monsters are all piloted by former adventurers, the monsters will hot stray far from the lair) so they can start thinking tactically about how to use that grammar (confront the monsters with their former loved ones, stay just outside the perimeter, try to force a break in loyalty to whatever is controlling the monsters from the lair). But when CoC gets too tactical, when the grammar is too well understood, its premise suffers.

Now, all of these forms – soap, story, tactical game, even magic tricks and jokes – rely on the same basic mechanism involving anticipation and revelation (which looks rather like a variant of the old gambler’s dopamine release cycle). As the participant/reader/player is reading/playing/watching these narrative forms, they are engaged in building their own version of the narrative in their head. They are constructing expectations, anticipating outcomes. And then the story/trick/interaction closes the anticipation gap one way or another with a definite result, showing the participant that their anticipation was right or wrong, or should have been right if they had just interpreted the information differently. The basic form of the Ancient Romance (the structure behind pretty much all soaps) sets up an anticipation – star-crossed lovers are meant to be together and will be happy ever after if they can get together – and then throws a series of obstacles in their path: surprises to be overcome, sub-anticipations to resolve, which can indefinitely delay the resolution of the overarching anticipation. Pleasure – or frustration – depends on whether the consumer accepts the sub-resolutions offered along the way.

In the literature of surprise, the trick is to get the consumer to accept the thing offered as superior to the thing they were anticipating. Soaps are about pulling this off in minor ways a couple of times an episode and in a major way at least once per season.

In tactical games, the trick for the player is to observe, recognize and neutralize all the obstacles in order to force the resolution to match their anticipation. Overcoming very difficult obstacles works like being rewarded with a surprise: the tactical player surprises themself by closing off the counter-anticipation of losing.

As usual, it turns out creative works frequently mix these different modes up, shift between one kind of logic and another, take brief holidays etc. etc. BUT every time they do this with players (far more than with mere spectators), they ought to give some warning that it’s happening, so the players can adjust their style and expectations.