Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Spectre (7+3 HD) Is Haunting the Flaeness: Towards a Leftist OSR

    Special thanks to Kazumi Chin, Fiona Geist, Camilla Greer, Michael Lombardi, and Robert Parker for their feedback and guidance.

    The design space associated with OSR games is often assumed to be inherently reactionary, an interest in classic games coinciding with a desire for social regression and oppression. Setting the incorrect nature of that assumption aside, I started wondering what an explicitly leftist OSR framework might look like. This pondering was accelerated by a query on the same topic that Mabel Harper* raised on Discord a while back.

    This isn't untrodden territory. Some past must-reads from others: Marx + Monsters: A Radical Leftist Fantasy Sandbox, City of Brass "West Marxes"

    Inspired by Marx + Monsters, I concluded that a leftist OSR framework would move away from a simple advancement through gold route, and instead work through improving the community that PCs reside in. The approach I list below is strongly influenced by Mayfair Games's 1993 RPG Underground, a game centered around superhero-veterans attempting to improve their communities as the world around them went mad.

    This is a potential new framework for experience gain that a GM can use to frame a social format for their campaign. It assumes that PCs are still taking on adventurous projects, but seeks to present greater ties to the communities that they are a part of.

    Communities and Experience

    1. PCs start out as members of the same community. While they may have wildly different origins and backgrounds, they're all united by current location and ties. (This can be a city or town, or even a neighborhood. For higher powered games, a province or nation might be apropos.)

    Figures outside the tombs of the caliphs, Cairo, Egypt.
    Coloured lithograph by L. Haghe after D. Roberts, 1848.
    Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain
    2. This community is assessed on six stats:

    Identity - How strongly the community identifies as a group together, with a shared culture. Identity 4 or 5 might be a newborn boomtown, Identity 14 or 15 might be a longstanding ethnic enclave in a larger city.
    Prosperity - Whether the community is economically stable. Are folks able to get by comfortably? Are folks living hand-to-mouth?
    Safety - Are people physically safe in this community? Is their security under threat?
    Governance - The breadth and scope of government function. How well do governing institutions respond to the requirements of the community?
    Legitimacy - Is the government regarded as representative of the community's people? Are these seen as interlopers or leaders?
    Sustainability - Is the community's usage of resources sustainable in the long run? Is support infrastructure properly available for the residents?

    These stats are rated on a 3-18 scale, just as character stats are. The GM may either work with the PCs to collaboratively generate a community, as in Beyond the Wall or Dream Askew/Apart, may assign stats to a pre-existing community setting, or may roll 3d4 (not 3d6) for each stat.

    3. During downtime, between adventures, PCs may place money and time into raising one of the categories. They must describe how they are using their resources and time to combat problems or improve conditions for their community.

    Ex: Shaghab and Arslan live in a community with Legitimacy of 6. They decide to improve this stat by ousting the famously corrupt qadi, or chief judge, and seeking to install someone a bit better. Shaghab describes how she'll be spending three weeks organizing street protests against the qadi as he attempts to rule on cases, shouting out the stories of those he's screwed over, while Arslan will try to force the local governor to be confronted with this evidence of the population's unrest. They hope that through this, the governor will consider removing the qadi and replacing him with someone new. While the replacement's unknown, Shaghab and Arslan believe that they'll be able to influence the selection and pressure the governor to find a more virtuous replacement.

    Tizemt lives in the same community, but they think that trying to replace the qadi is merely supplanting one outside leader for another. Instead, they decide to spend a month organizing a community council that will resolve disputes outside the scope of the qadi and avoid having to appear before the corrupt pustule. Tizemt sees this as improving the community's Governance rating (conveniently, also 6), but it might also apply to Identity or maaaaybe even Legitimacy as well. Tizemt plans to support this council through holding meetings and determining who among the community will have sufficient stature to be seen as legitimate decision-makers.

    4. The GM assesses their plan, mentally considers counterarguments and forces that will operate to protect the status quo, and places it in a matrix framework to assess how effective this is at addressing the issue in question. (See: Matrix Games.)

    Strength of Argument
    Adjustment to Roll
    Very Strong Argument
    Roll 5d6 against stat
    Strong Argument
    Roll 4d6 against stat
    Average Argument
    Roll 3d6 against stat
    Weak Argument
    Roll 2d6 against stat
    Very Weak Argument
    Roll 1d6 against stat
    Abysmal Argument
    Roll fails!

    Ex. The GM thinks that Shaghab and Arslan's plan isn't too great -- aside from trusting in the benevolence of the governor, they also don't know that the governor and qadi have been working together to feather both nests, and that the qadi has some compromising information on the governor. But significant enough street protests might be able to sway the governor, if it becomes clear that the city won't quiet down until the qadi is removed. It's not the best thought out and there are hidden factors, but it's not completely unreasonable - the GM considers it a weak argument. They get a 4 on 2d6 against the community’s Legitimacy 6 -- the plan fails.

    The GM thinks that Tizemt's plan is more likely to receive results, since there isn't any hidden information in play, the scope of the change is enough to merit increasing the Governance stat, and Tizemt's player has identified prominent NPCs who they think have established a solid community reputation, even in the cynical Vancian atmosphere of the setting. While it's more likely to get off the ground since there's no particular opposition, having an alternative dispute structure may not necessarily take off and gain community support. It is considered an average argument.  They roll 3d6 against the community’s Governance 6 and get an 11 -- the plan succeeds!

    5. After the time and resources have been invested, the GM rolls against the stat as above:

    a) If the roll is above the stat in question, the PCs' effort is successful. The stat is raised by one, and all PCs who contributed to this effort gain experience: Firstly, each PC gains 1500 x the number of times the stat in question has been raised (so, 1500 XP for the first improvement, 3000 for the second, etc.) Secondly, they gain 1.5x the GP value of resources that were contributed as XP. Finally, the GM makes an explicit note of the method that the PCs have used to shape the community, to ensure that its effects continue to be remembered (and leveraged) as play continues.

    b) If the roll is under the stat in question, then the PCs have failed to improve conditions. The stat remains unchanged, and no experience is awarded. The GM keeps a tally of how much resources have been put into improving the stat in question; if the PCs manage to improve the stat later, then all PCs who have contributed (past or present) gain both the stat-raise experience, the benefit of 1.5x the resources of the successful attempt, and 0.5x the value of all prior resources put in, combining failed attempts with the most recent success. Long-term campaigns may not succeed at first, but they continue to build the foundation for subsequent success.
    Sao Paolo General Strike, 1917
    Unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia

    Note: Application of extra resources beyond the base requirements can grant rerolls on step 5, allowing a second chance at a failed increase: When a stat is 3-8, putting in an additional 3000 gp grants one reroll. When a stat is 9-12, this amount increases to 9000 gp. When a stat is 13-17, the amount increases to 27000 gp. Resources spent towards rerolls do not grant additional XP.

    6. After a stat has been increased successfully, the GM determines another stat to be tested against, and rolls 3d6 against that stat. (The statistic is either determined randomly, or emerges naturally from the nature of the improvement.) If the GM rolls under, that stat decreases by 1, to a minimum of the lowest stat present (if the two lowest stats are both 5s, one cannot lower to a 4 through this method). Decreases represent additional challenges that have begun facing the community; the GM should generate new adventure hooks from these.

    Ex. Tizemt's plan to create a community council as an alternative to the qadi was successful. Given that the community council now serves as an alternative form of governance to the incumbent, the GM chooses to decrease Legitimacy by 1, since there is now uncertainty over who really rules the neighborhood.

    7. This process can be used on its own, but ideally it would also take into account dynamic shifts in the campaign from the actions of other parties. The next steps would be tying additional shifts to a Chaos Index (reflecting further changing dynamics outside the control of player characters) and ensuring that adventure hooks can also present opportunities for changing a community's stats, or at least laying the groundwork for doing so.

    As a community improves, it will become harder and harder for PCs to improve its stats. PCs may choose to expand their focus (working to improve a city instead of a neighborhood, a province instead of a city). If PCs elect to expand, they begin working to improve the larger polity's stats (which are likely worse than the smaller area PCs have been focusing on). Multiply experience gains by 5 each time a player group chooses to expand. Multiply reroll resource costs by ten (and adjust costs for open-ended resource allocation accordingly as well).

    Emma Goldman
    T. Kajiwara, 1911 (Wikimedia)
    Note: Players may try and solve some of the problems that their communities are facing through violence -- their PCs are likely still adventurers or revolutionaries, after all. GMs should be cautious with this. In some cases, violence may absolutely be necessary - but it is not enough, in and of itself, to generate long-term systemic change. There must be positive action taken in order to create a sustainable improvement in a community.

    Design Notes

    XP as Central Driver

    Much has been made about 1 GP = 1 XP as the core gameplay loop driver of TSR D+D. But XP for gold retrieved also winds up being something of a de facto capitalistic outlook as well. Success is driven by accumulation of individual wealth -- by an adventuring company, even! So what's a new framework that can be used for underpinning a leftist OSR campaign?

    Marx + Monsters raises two proposals: XP for direct redistribution of wealth, or XP awarded through communal questions (a la Dungeon World). I found neither of these satisfying for my purposes. Direct redistribution of wealth is basically a slightly tweaked version of "XP through spending," and communal questions seems too far at odds with the mechanical framework of OSR games. Admittedly the system proposed here is still related to "XP through spending," but ideally generates a bit more  thought and focus regarding how people attempt to help others.

    Campaign Framing

    "Standard" OSR gaming is focused around the pulp-inspired picaresque. James's bullet-point list of what that entails (assumption of PCs at the margins, a corrupt/venal society) can fit well into a radical framing. The change is that instead of focusing on the individual rise of a small group of people (PCs), this proposed campaign explicitly looks at how a community or society changes (through the actions of a small group).

    Community Creation and Interaction

    Beyond the Wall features group creation of the party's starting-hub town, and ties the player characters together with each other and the shared NPCs they've created. (See also the communal creation of Dream Askew/Dream Apart, which focus even more tightly on communal setting as play center.) I don't know that group setting creation is a necessary part of this framing, but it can help to provide players with a strong connection to the community they are a part of, combating the detachment with which PCs can sometimes view their surroundings.

    "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow"

    Obligatory pop culture references aside, I recognize that this is a game system that's discussing social resistance and community building: areas which are pretty important at the moment, and areas which which I don't have a full grounding in. While I'm slowly learning more on these topics, I also recognize that I have LOTS of blind spots regarding these areas. If I've said something boneheaaded here, please do let me know.  
      * Also check out Mabel's new music video!


      Leftist Design and Community Interaction
      Alternative Experience Takes