Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Adventure Component: the Well of Ways (Doorjamb Jam 2024)

 Another adventure component, this time an entry in the NSR server's Door Jamb Jam, a celebration of the sorts of games where you get really fiddly about exactly how you open a door in the middle of a dungeon crawl.

The Well of Ways

In some dungeon somewhere, a 10x10’  section of floor is actually a hole with a carefully painted piece of canvas stretched over it. This canvas conceals a 50’ pit with spikes at the bottom. A pit trap is common enough, but this one has five iron-banded doors in each wall, built over each other, with their 1” sills 10 feet below the last. They all have handled doorknobs and open into (rather than away from) the pit, except the bottom-most doors, which must open out because otherwise they’d get caught on the spikes. Unless desired, any rooms in the Well of Ways are extradimensional spaces and do not connect up to the rest of the dungeon.
Each door is designated with its cardinal direction and numbered going down.

N1. You can feel spring tension as you twist the doorknob. When the door is cracked, a magical WIND rune in the wall behind the door activates, blasting anyone at the door back. If S1 is open, they will fall into it. Otherwise, they'll slam into S1's door and have a moment to catch themselves with a successful save. On a failure, they fall into the spikes below.

N2. Rusted chain hanging from the door, easily snapped off. Opens to a massive chamber of marble columns surrounding an empty pool, full of snoozing baboons. On the other side of the room is a gem-eyed golden baboon idol. Footsteps echo in this place.

N3. Opens to a small room with a block and tackle hanging from the ceiling.  Would be useful for lifting things out of the lower sections if you had rope.

N4. The knots and grain in the wood planks of the door resemble a staring face. It is a mimic. Behind the door is a closet full of adventurer skeletons.

N5. Scent of blood coming from behind the door. Opens to an ornate blood fountain with strange winding gore-tracks going in and out of it. A vampire boa constrictor will rise from the fountain to regard anyone who approaches. In the bottom of the pool is a cache of four random potions.

E1. False door. Does not open.

E2. Opens to a straight, space-defying 20’ tunnel that leads to S4. Your ears pop as you walk through it.

E3. Door smells of saliva. Opens to a cell containing a ghast meditating on his hunger and spite. Has a cool hooked wrought-iron sword but prefers to tear up his prey with his hands and teeth. Normally sits in a pool of his own spit— gross!

E4. Opens to an extradimensional bookshelf (like in the movie Interstellar.) On the other side of the bookshelf is a goblin merchant, Marko, a jolly little guy with a blue headwrap and silver medallion necklace. He can pass supplies through the shelf in exchange for valuables. On his side of the shelf, it’s a sunny coastal villa. Living things cannot pass through the shelf.

E5. This door is airtight and has an extra latch you must unlatch to open it. Opening the door triggers four spouts which shoot out Dolorfetor, a violet cloud which coats the throat, lungs, and mucus membranes with Agony Molecules. Anyone who isn’t holding their breath at this level of the well must save or die. The cloud rises at a rate of 10’ per round, inflicting the save on any it catches until it dissipates after emerging from the pit.

S1. Opens to a 100’ corridor where gravity pulls forward instead of down. Sideways torch sconces. At the bottom of the pit is a pile of skeletons. One has a pointed hat and robes, laying in a pile of shattered glass and a ruined potion of feather fall. The corpse also has on it a spellbook, a staff of dancing lights and a valuable cameo locket.

S2. Door is painted purple, already chipping away. Within is a cavern with a garbage-filled pit.

S3. False door. The "knob" twists oddly smoothly. It is a cork. Pulling the knob pops it out, exposing a canister of volatile dragon gall to the air, causing it to explode.

S4. See E2.

S5. Seems to be a brick wall covered in graffiti— “DAMM BABOONS”, “TRY IT IN THE DARK”, “KEY BROKEN”, and “FOR A GOOD TIME CALL ON ASH OF THE ROADSIDE HOUSE.” There is a small  keyhole in the corner with a twisted piece of key trapped in it. If twisted with lockpicking tools, the whole wall will slide up like a garage door, revealing a ransacked arcane study. (The door can also be broken down as an Open Doors roll at -1 penalty.) Trapped in a jar is a blue-green pixie named Trouble Dancer. She will ask PCs to slay the one who imprisoned her, the master of a dungeon the DM wants to run soon. If they accept, she will blow pixie dust on them, giving them youthful levity (-2 intelligence) which will wear off into weary disillusionment (+2 intelligence) if they ever slay their target. She’s kind of a bad friend and you have to use an unbearably high voice when you speak as her.

W1. Opens to a closet with a barrel of hundreds of steel rings. If touched, they start to link together and form a Chain Link Freak (stats as a green slime)

W2. Opens to a full-length steel mirror. Anyone looking in sees their own smug reflection. Behind their image they see a heavy chest full of dubloons, a wheel of cheese, and aged wines instead of the rest of the Well. Their image will prevent entering the mirror room. If there are no lights to cast a reflection, they can enter unheeded.

W3. Door slightly hums. Opens to a New England forest micro-plane— but oh no! Yellowjackets built a huge hive on the other side of the door, and opening it will panic and alarm them.

W4. Opens to a small alcove housing a silver gyroscope built around an hourglass filled with gold shavings. If the gyroscope is spun, the hourglass upends and the spinner is immune to gravity for one hour or until the gyroscope is spun back.

W5. Signs of frequent use on the handle and hinges. Opens to a root cellar converted into the haven of a feral child. She has been on her own in the dungeon for almost three years, and responds to intruders by throwing sharp objects and shouting insults. Answering to “Breakfast Doubledare”, she has been left alone by any nearby dungeon captains out of rare mercy. Her only friend is Iohel, an talking +2 Toothed Zweihander. He can sense undead and speak archaic languages, and when his ego overwhelms his wielder he drives them to bloodthirsty vampire aristocrat behavior. Pretty much the worst possible guardian to Breakfast.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Sceptre-Shaken World (Unfinished World pulp adventure module)

 The Unfinished World is a setting by G. R. Michael of Numbers Aren't Real. This is a pulpy, stupid module in which the PCs go on a cross-country adventure. Its structure is that of a pointcrawl, but the characters will spend days between points, so you can probably let them regenerate all their HPs and spells and so on in between flashpoints. This, plus handwaving a lot of the logistics, is intended to contribute to the pulp adventure feel. Because the routes characters in this setting are likely to be severely restricted by the fact that being outside of a town when night falls is a death sentence, you can be pretty ham-fisted about making PCs go from point to point. If they take another, equally reasonable route, improvise a new point with this encounter prompt table:

(2d6) Encounter
2. wizard
3. The Buddha
4. monke
5. masked cleric(s) and/or angels
6. snooty authority figure
7. persnickety locals
8. The Dead, in some building or circumstance where they can hide from the sun
9. Fairy
10. Freak people- want to dig a hole
12. horrifically dangerous freak monster

I'm certain my depiction of the Unfinished World diverges somewhat from what is known and lacks certain elements of the original author's pizzazz. Such is life. Some characters in this module are named using Vayra's famous name generator


Overwise immortal Kino Kinokin can step a thousand leagues in a moment, cast funny spells, and when he would die his body turns into soggy rice and he is reborn the next day. Just a few hours ago, he found what he believes to be the Stone Primordiale, an artifact that is reputed to allow its wielder nearly unlimited power if they can reach a certain site in the barbarian wastes of the South. However, by magical decree the Stone cannot travel over the ocean, and so he sends his agents to smuggle it through Umbersheen and Arel to the wastes.

The PCs will start knowing most of this, perhaps not exactly where the Stone is going. This module assumes the characters will try to follow the agents carrying the Stone, beat them there by taking a ship, or following the agents for a while and then taking the ship. When following the agents, keep track of the number of delays and shortcuts or expedients the PCs encounter. If they ever make more surprise advances than delays, they catch up to Kinokin's agents, a party of 2d4 dumb-ish adventurers. They carry the Stone Primordial, a jagged brick of iron-troubled bedrock. If the PCs get their hands on the Stone, any scholars they consult posit it can only be destroyed with the power it unlocks in the wastes, at the Builder meeting site called Øyelokk. They will probably consider this a good way of getting rid of Kinokin, who will manifest every day or so to bother them if they stay in one place for too long.

If some random NPCs are described as attacking the PCs and the reason is not elaborated upon, it's the direct fuckery of Kino Kinokin.


1. Outside Warkunst is an ancient Losian site recently excavated. The PCs start the game here, picking over Kinokin’s massacre of the diggers after solving a very simple logic puzzle to access the vault. A dying scholar exposits that he is taking the Stone Primordiale south to “wake the Old Man,” that it cannot pass over the ocean water, and that it will secure him untold riches and power, etc.

2. Under an aqueduct is Kino Kinokin and a magically charmed sword-saint. He’ll brag about his plans and immortality, then probably sic the saint on the PCs

3. Forty friendly peasants. Say they’re traveling laborers, but one of them is training to become a sleight of hand artist. If you let him demonstrate, he’ll find a coin behind your ear (and let you keep it!), juggle anything sharp you give him (throw him a couple more midway!), and for his third trick you need to have your arms tied (so he and the thirty-nine other red heretic laypeople can carve you up with knives and eat you to gain your power.)

4. Deelft. When the party comes to this walled town, they find its gate ajar and hastily daubed with an incomplete message, “DEAD IN”.  It has been overtaken by the Unburied. Only an hour until dark, and it’s hours and hours to the next town or to backtrack.

5. Nordmaerz. Fortified town from which armed caravans depart for Umbersheen. Everyone is up in arms because the marquis refuses to shelter the followers of any heresy-- an insane cruelty that is sure to bolster the hordes of the dead. Blue-masked, oiled-up hunks shout insults from the southern hills. If you seem like an authority figure, they’ll throw a snake at you as you pass.

6. Wiswood Forest. Interesting-looking travelers are waylaid by Walaric, an Umbern outlaw, and his Dour Men. They wear gi and tights of lindwurm green, and fight with staves. Will "invite" you to his forest holdfast and treat you to a feast, but will then extort you for your belongings unless you're obviously humble and charitable.

If challenged, will happily duel you with staves on a log over a river, and if you win he will invite you to join his company. If you explain your quest after defeating him, he will send his son, Vanhoe (ninja 2), to help you.

7. Pail Trump's Holdfast. A renowned and generous Shee lady of war, Pail will host and outfit travelers. However, she demands they wear embarrassing Shee clothing and eat frightening Shee foods, such as an oddly textured egg, jiggly bread, and "eel lip" (which is made from worse ingredients than it sounds.)

8. Besieged port town, surrounded by overzealous raiders and overflowing with unhappy sheep. There is a longship captained by the disgraced Arelian captain Wooden Zopittybop-bop-bop of the Sur Le Canon, who is willing to take travelers to dangerous places but won't put to port in Arel because of his many enemies.

At every sea and coastal point, there's a 1-in-6 chance his old rival Half-Dead Vikenti will arrive with his ship Mieuxquetoi to pursue the bounty on Wooden's head.

9. City of Umbern. A rare unwalled city, for it was decided that if there were not stout men to guard the four passes into the city, that would be the night it should be destroyed. Doctors and clerics attempt to cure the venomous bite which is slowly killing the Umbern heroine Marguerite. Her pained screams have draped themselves over the city for a month now.

If the PCs spend the night here, a beggar in a green dog mask will find one of them, mime digging with a mattock, mime crying, mime holding something aloft, mime inserting something, then mime being decapitated. Under no circumstances will the beggar speak, and if not prevented they will lope away on all fours.

10. Highrock, a city which is the center of culture in Arel. Weirdos like the PCs are sure to attract the attention of corrupt officials who will extort them severely. Otherwise, all manner of supply is available here. A cruel mustachioed dog-catcher pursues a clever Arelian Shorthair, a grey terrier with grape-white eyes. If the party aids the pooch, it will become fast friends with them, barking to thwart any ambushes against them and otherwise being handy.

11. Etroit, a town at the mouth of a tunnel under the mountains. Halfway through the tunnel, sloshing through freezing mud, a trio of Purple-mask clerics try to cut the party off for esoteric reasons they smugly refuse to elaborate on. Each has inscribed Deserving Truth on a wooden board they will set up as a sort of barricade. They are guarded by a single cockney zouave named Desk.

12. Daemon, a seedy city of Arel and home to weirdos and iconoclasts. Guild thugs are available as hirelings. If you're low on funds, asking around can (improbably) get you in on a bank heist going down tonight.

13. Angulaire, a city home to the Free Labor Company, run by Builders. If the party comes through here, a gang of Builders will stop them and attack with sledgehammers in the middle of some crowded street with a vendor selling wrinkled apples from a cart and a group of men loading fragile vases into a ceramic shop.

14. Guanost, a backwater coastal town. In the port is docked the Pikram, a king vessel of eccentric make with sails at eccentric angles. The captain, Klotho, suspects that the monkey team she hired to fill out her crew are of pirate stock, and is willing to take paying customers far if they look like they can keep her safe from mutiny.

15. Private orchards of the proud noble Luisinho Van Der Waal, tended by odious centipede-men imported from the west. If aid is requested, he will allow them to charter his junk, Poor Fashion Decision, (named after losing a bet). However, Kino Kinokin will appear and use imperial courtesy and his status as a rich guy to convince Van Der Waal that the PCs are troublemakers, and by the time the ship is almost ready he will try to apprehend them.

16. Depressing shipping towns importing tons and tons of tobacco. Very unfriendly, but you could pick up a braggadocious zouave guide to the islands ahead.

17. Parrot-faced duke happy to host and supply PCs. Partway through, his compound is broken down by Builder workers, seemingly in spontaneous protest but actually in terror of Kinokin, for lo! He has arrived to screw with you.

18. House of Enlightning. Ruined temple with a stone Losian-faced statue visible above the trees from the shore. Quicksand surrounds the temple, trapping a half-starved and aggressive tiger.

In the depths of the temple are sarcophagi dense with muttering and shaking Dead, as well as antique apparati that convert their movement into energy stored in a humming copper coil, which will electrocute anyone who touches it. You can see their skeleton. The coffins have lasted for centuries— they're great at resisting the struggling dead within, but pretty fragile when messed with from the outside. If you get a box open, you will learn how the Losians contrived to make their dead squirm. Piled up in the room are many valuable grave goods (gilded vestments, silver mugs, polished amber paperweights, jade beards, ritual dongs) and a defaced statue.

19. Wild angels of the spell shoal, doing the backstroke.

20. Pirate Attack! Two Deltan pirate ships, tipped off to your location by Kino Kinokin. Formerly partisans of the Aeshean Colonial Authority, now lacking friends, scruples, and supplies. One ship is swift and fragile, and its crew prefers to board its targets. The other is a lumbering old cog laden with gear, and the crew angles its single cannon to face almost any direction.

21. More tobacco plantations, wealthy parrot-face dukes, and field hands. If the party lingers here for more than an hour, an Aeshean vigilante will stow aboard their ship and die of her severe wounds, happening to leave them her belongings when they detect something stinking behind the pickle barrel.

Foremost among these objects is SIDEREAL HEAVEN STAKE, a light adamant xiphos +3 with a dragon-antler handle and colorful ribbons running from his pommel. Says he is an avenger, and that he can only wound the truly evil, a claim that will humble the wielder as they find he cuts down priest and pillager alike. His voice is gravelly and grave, and he sees everything as a slight or betrayal. When he rolls maximum damage, the wielder makes an extra attack against someone in range— if not another enemy, an ally, and if there is no ally, themselves.

22. Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but instead of microplastics, undead corpses. In addition to a thousand Drowned there flits a hundred-foot long undead serpent with the face of Ben Carson, for some reason.

23. Isolated Plantations. Tall, tall yellow heretic begrudgingly laying the dead to rest in a depopulated village. A boatman ignored the symptoms of a deadly disease and died without anyone to notice before he rose as an Unburied the following night. Remaining villagers are jumpy and unhappy.

24. Stilt-House Settlement. Forest dense with flesh-tearing weasels. Tobacco fieldhands use weasel-repellent whistles. This village, Joyeuse, is the brainchild of an Arelian tycoon who rules with the veneer of democracy.

25. Sandy cove, a stopover for those too shady for Cacheleaf. Grotto fort guarded by the most wretched smugglers in existence. An entitled baby-faced cleric bosses them around, knowing they can’t afford to alienate him.

26. Cacheleaf, a coastal town which holds an Academy of Manufacturing. If entreated for aid, the academy will send Vanesa Coke, a level 4 Manufactory, as well as a team of twenty undergrads, to assist the party. Coke will plan to betray the party as soon as they get their hands on the Stone.

27. Snow-choked Mountains. Horrific travel conditions. Make a CLBG check or lose a couple random items. Make a Save or lose 1d4 max hp. Make a HRTS check or be miserable.

Also, if coming from Cacheleaf, a work gang of Builders attacks from hiding with hastily constructed boulder traps.

28. Evil monolith. It’s said Timotheos made it after getting too many annoying questions. Those who see it must save or walk towards it. As you get closer, you can see it writhes with fiery malevolence. Indeed, it is magma-hot and to touch it is death.

29. Coastal whirlpool. By the time you see it, you’re already in its pull. Unless you have a good idea, it threatens to smash your vessel onto the rocks. There’s an old shipwreck with Unburied inside.

30. Abandoned monuments of undressed stone. As the party travels through here, Kinokin will conjure rainbow-color lights which bring about a heavy blizzard. Those who press on take 3d6 cold damage, save for half, that won't naturally heal until they're in a warmer clime. Those who take shelter in one of the stone structures must only save or take 1d6 cold damage, but the Old Man in the Ice will see them through the magic eyes there carved, which may have some effect?

31. Øyelokk. A huge moot of thousands of builders in two hundred camps. Set up in a circle a respectful distance from a huge round depression in the ground. Maybe you could sneak past everyone in a big black cloak? Perhaps you could convince them you work for Kinokin. A slick duct in the ice is the site of a huge temple of unworked stone. The duct has three stone gates held shut by three magic wax seals. Slitting them open is easy enough for a mortal.

If his agents manage to get the Stone here, they will bring it to the temple and Kinokin will descend the duct with it, hoping to command the power of the Old Man of the Ice and become as a god. The party may have the same plan. The issue is that the Stone is a fake— an ancient fake made by some pre-Aeshean scholar, good enough to fool Kinokin completely.  

At the bottom of the duct within the temple are three things— a springy, spongy floor that weeps a salty fluid; a crusty, salty creature that acts like a Dark Souls knight boss, and a pillar decorated with scenes of an armored giant twirling around stout humanoids. Within the pillar is an obvious depression which, if the correct Stone is inserted into it, will flood the room with the spiritual energy of thousands of dead Builders, granting the operator incredible power.  

When the fake Stone is inserted, it explodes (1d6 damage, save to avoid), and then the room half-floods with the spiritual energy of a few hundred dead Builders, giving terrifying visions of torment, soul fugue, and drain. Everyone present must save or take 2d6 psychic damage, then on all following combat rounds anyone present must save or go totally insane, entering a Builder frenzy and having a 2-in-6 chance each combat round of attacking without distinguishing friend from foe. For every cleric doom a character has incurred, they get +3 to this save, as they are increasingly adapted to chaos.

Ending the Adventure

The structure of the module is such that the game is assumed to end at Øyelokk. Regardless of the outcome of any fight in the bottom of the duct, a foreign panic overtakes every Builder in the vicinity and they will flee into the wasteland. Probably much the worse for the wear, the PCs might find in the abandoned moot more valuables than they can carry. Perhaps they can even find hints as to the location of the true Stone Primordiale. Certainly their deeds have won the attention of the Old Man in the Ice, which is sure to make their lives interesting going forward.
The most likely disruption to the structure of the module is if the PCs get the Stone and destroy it or decide not to take it to Øyelokk. Certainly that would save them a lot of trouble. In such a case, simply play out the outcome until you can't think of any further interesting results.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

IDW2: a Simple Theory of RPGs

“To be overtenacious in the midst of trifles is the mark of a mean understanding.”

The second-most important consideration for me as a relative bumpkin in a world of many developed theories of RPG play is that every attempt to explain what leads to fun or meaningful play is incomplete. You can play an RPG in the most inane way, in a way that seems boring or unagentic or that seems in theory utterly lame, and still nevertheless have wild success by almost any metric.

The most important consideration for a no-account like me in the world of RPG theories is that role-playing games are incredible. We are in awe of them and compelled to discuss them, what we think about them, and how they work. Discussion of theory is dangerous, because it is deadly poison, but it is tempting, because the poison is sweet and the body needs it.

So I would say that procedures matter, systems matter, worlds matter, and all those other things, but surely they can't matter so much that they explain the magic that happens when an orc stabs my guy in a devil shrine or my spouse pretends to be a sad spy consoling me as I pretend to be a sad data analyst who's just so tired of fighting Dracula night after night

While I am suspicious of RPG theory, I am doubly suspicious of literary analysis as a tool for understanding RPGs. It's hard enough to use literary analysis to understand an author. The writer of a gaming text is only a fraction of the authorial power promised by the game they write. Sometimes we spend a lot of time and words constructing a way of seeing some topic and don't even claim that this way of seeing is insightful or true.

I kind of get the impression that RPG theory discourse is some interminable battleground on websites like the Twitter, and I'm not trying to wade into that. I write because these ideas take a hold of me sometimes and I think it's good to try to express them well. Have you noticed that many people might in the moment seem rude or dismissive online, but as soon as you see them writing about something else, or talking on a podcast, or just interact with them in the real world they almost always show themselves to be decent, humble, and kind folks, allowed to express themselves in a situation where context, nonverbals, and tone are more easily sussed?

I Don't Want to Name My Theoretical Framework

(IDW2 Theory for short.)

I think of roleplaying games as being

  1. a special kind of conversation
  2. where you pretend
  3. and are playing a game
When you study communication in university, this is one of the charts they show you. The greatest simplification is to pretend that communication is one-way, when in truth it involves everyone sending messages simultaniously.

Conversation: RPGs involve multiple people transmitting information to each other, to put it like an alien might. I assume this point is pretty obvious and doesn't need explanation, except that to say I consider "Solo RPGs" to be their own kind of thing and won't really write about them in this blog post. One important point is that anything that is true of conversations is true of RPGs. If you google "elements of a conversation", all of those elements are present in your RPG. Just as changing the format and structure of a conversation can have an effect on it, so too can it have an effect on an RPG.
Pretend: This is what I think of as the active ingredient. You're either pretending to be someone or do something, or you're refereeing someone else's pretend. It's in pretending that you get to express something, better position yourself to imagine or understand something, or change your relationship to your goals in the game. Maybe playing chess can teach you some instrumental virtues, but pretending to be someone else is an act of empathy, and of completion of the human heart. Even if you treat the character you're playing as a simple pawn, you're still pretending to do things (like disarming a bear trap or getting eaten by dogs), and that's the detail that separates Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition from Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game.
Game: I'm not going to define what a game is, but you know what I mean. I guess I'm excluding things like improv games, even though they are conversation/pretending games. A game with the kind of structure that lets it connect with the pretending. Even a very story-focused rules-light situation or a FKR campaign tends to feature goals or (goal-making) and intelligent attempts to achieve those goals.

If we're going to be generous and say I've sufficiently defined a role-playing game, the fair test is to ask "so what?", to see if we can use my definition to better understand what leads to fun or meaningful play, the thing I claimed other RPG theories failed to do. First, I'll try to explain in a humble way, as though I was naive to my own values and preferences in role-playing games. Then, I will try to explain how I think about this definition in light of the kinds of games I prefer.

(If I do manage to do better than my more learned fellow theoreticians, notice that it's just because I'm putting uninteresting and uncontroversial ideas at the center of my theory. In general, they are better writers and on this topic better thinkers, and whenever I discuss RPG theory with others I feel like I'm badly misunderstanding what they're trying to tell me.)

Naive Explanation of What Leads to Fun or Meaningful Play
Conversations, pretendings, and games are usually less fun when the participants aren't on the same page for the context of the activity. If one person wants to have a serious conversation and their interlocutor wants to have a laid-back one, neither will be happy. Meaningful conversations require the participants to engage with each other in honest and open ways, and to be in some way vulnerable to what is said. You often can't make something meaningful with effort alone. Artistry or insight might play a role. Sometimes, you just can't make meaningfulness happen and the best thing to do is enjoy the time spent. We can prepare endlessly for a conversation but it cannot guarantee any kind of outcome. There is such a thing as being a good conversationalist, or a good improviser, or a good game-player, but there's always collaboration of some sort in a conversation or a scene. Discussion, imagining, and play can all be inherently enjoyable on their own. There is nothing truly mysterious about why we enjoy role-playing games, except for the broad mystery of why humans enjoy anything at all.

Values-Laden Explanation of What Leads to Fun or Meaningful Play
"Okay wise guy," you may be are saying, "but that's just a string of random truisms, unhelpful to anyone." I beg you, please bear with me. While sometimes inane wisdoms bear repeating, I will now stake some more contentious claims. 
  • RPGs like a referee: There's often a big subjective difference in the pretending part of RPGs and the playing part. Referees allow for that much-vaunted "tactical infinity" that so engages the mind while also imposing a restriction, as referees interpret those things the player asserts about the world, and can often decide if the assertion stands or not. You can call it "Tactical ∞ - x." In a DMless RPG about solving a mystery, the players can't be flatly wrong about their interpretation of events. In a DM'd RPG, maybe the DM has it all written out how a murder took place, and if the players come up with a hypothesis they may be right or wrong. That probably treats the mystery as a game with degrees of victory or failure. Different kinds of RPGs will set different activities as part of the pretending versus part of the game. In Brindlewood Bay, players pretend to solve a mystery, engaging in an act of creation together as they write an explanation of the clues they found. The fun isn't in the potential to be totally wrong; it's in other parts of the RPG. The presence and purview of a referee can define the RPG.
  • Rules don't only elideThis is against what has been described as a "strong formation" of a stance, so it's unclear who, if anyone, believes it. By rule, we mean a game rule, the sort of thing written in a rulebook. This isn't the exact same thing as what I call a game in the conversation/pretend/game triplet, because a rulebook rule might instruct you to, for example, do some pretending, like in the Brindlewood Bay example. A rulebook rule can elicit a feeling of unease if it says "When you attempt to pick a lock, describe something horrible your character imagines might happen, then roll a die and try to meet or exceed your Lockpicking Number." If, like me as a younger man, a referee makes dungeons without any kind of wandering monster and then is convinced by a rulebook rule to add an encounter table to their dungeons, they might not be principally eliding the question of how and when PCs run into monsters so much as conjuring monsters out of the conviction the game might be somehow improved thereby. Rulebook rules can be a good scaffold to connect the things we pretend with the things we play in our conversation. They can help define new ways for these things to relate to each other.
  • Bespoke Specific RPGs trump unmodified general RPGs: RPGs have weirdly hitched together a conversation, a pretending, and a game. Tweaking one part reflects on the others, and it will probably make for a more enjoyable game if they have a pleasing assonance (or maybe some intentional dissonance?) If you just want to play another D&D 5e campaign, more power to you, but if the setting of the game world is an ill fit for some of the character options, say, or if everyone playing really digs some house rule, it's a good idea to make changes that reflect that. Poetry, the careful selection and ordering of words, is an art. It doesn't have total dominion-- many well-loved games have inelegant terms like "primary attribute" that could be more artfully expressed. But changing the conversation, the pretending, or the game, will change the other parts. The effect of tinkering with an RPG to give it more evocative and fitting features may be subtle, but if you perversely work to make an RPG less evocative and fit your setting less well, the effect is clear.
  • In-world coherence is not king: Weird Writer, a FKR umpire, writes that in FKR play "Abstraction that would contradict or supersede in-world logic is minimal and ideally absent". There's nothing wrong with that, but my framework would claim that abstraction which contradicts in-world logic is just fine, as long as it doesn't ruin the game sector of the RPG. Consider the bashful approach many have to the way HP is treated. For some DMs, it doesn't "make sense" that a high-level fighter can get stabbed many extra times with a sword, and they choose to clarify that HP isn not a measure of how much literal damage your body can take but perhaps a representation of your luck, fighting spirit, don't-get-hittedness, or some other factor. I note sympathetically that some of those DMs, in the excitement of describing a good attack roll in a combat, let themselves get carried away and narrate a big, juicy strike that goes against some of their earlier HP philosophy. My contention is that this is perfectly fine. Many abstractions that contradict in-world logic if you think about them are actually the best or most natural abstractions, especially if you don't think too much about them. Maybe there's some undiscovered, elegant solution to common contradictions of this type, but I reckon that there's a good reason we keep coming back to some of them. It's good food and good for you.
Now that I've staked some more arguable positions, can my theory explain why other people, smart folks all, might think differently? Surely they too are having meaningful game experiences that break with my theory? Yes. While I think my theory explains why RPGs like a referee, it doesn't preclude games that lack one. While I don't think rules only elide, there's nothing to say they can't. In the question of bespoke RPGs trumping unmodified ones, I think the proof is in the pudding when you consider how people will bend over backwards to make bizarre and creative settings that explain the many questions raised in interpreting the minutiae of your average edition of D&D. Those who really value in-world coherence seem to have a great time, but I have not seen the blogpost written that really convinces me that disregarding in-world coherence is so bad in and of itself.

It has rightly been said that it is better to play RPGs, to engage with the hobby, than to theorize about it. But because we are so intrigued by such a wonderful thing as what happens around our table, we are compelled to expound on it. It is good to keep in mind those things that RPGs clearly are-- conversations, pretending, and games-- when trying to understand them. Most useful insights into RPGs are boring and unsurprising on their own, while our own fascination combined with a beautiful culture cohort of artistics, curmudgeons, and mystics can inspire us to overcomplicate how we think and talk about RPGs. There are many ways to enjoy them and to otherwise benefit from them, and isn't that neat? Understanding how an RPG's conversations relate to its pretending and its game is a good way to make your play better.

Thank you to Locheil, Vayra, deus ex parabola, and Gin Bradbury for their advice and suggestions in the composition of this blog post.