Weird Materialism and the OSR

This blog post is adapted and expanded from a Twitter thread I wrote very recently about OSR game design and ‘the Weird’ after Mark Fisher, which got a decent amount of traction. Read it here if you want, but this post covers the same ground and more, unconstrained by character limits and typing on my phone.

For a while now I’ve kept returning to the following question: what exactly is it about the design philosophy and play culture of OSR and post-OSR RPG systems and play-styles that make them so suited to grappling with the Weird? As aesthetic modes go, the Weird is clearly the dominant one of an easy majority of the most compelling material put out by the OSR scene: from Patrick Stuart’s Veins of the Earth, to Stonehell, Into the Odd, The Nightmares Underneath, Best Left Buried, Mothership, and more – regardless of whether they’re a setting, adventure module, or game system – so many (post-)OSR books not only assume that the games run using will operate in and around the aesthetic mode of the Weird, but can even be readable as remarkably compelling Weird texts in their own right.

In this post I will argue that the aesthetic engagement with the Weird presented by these books is inseparable from the philosophy of (post-)OSR game design and play culture: particularly the style’s emphasis on understanding the setting as a clearly defined physical space; its insistence on making logistical questions (rations, dungeon turns, light, encumbrance, etc.) a key part of the challenge presented to the players; and the clear demarcation of responsibilities between the players and the GM, which makes managing the setting solely the GM’s responsibility. In short, I argue that (post-)OSR material returns so frequently to the Weird because the procedures of (post-)OSR play are uniquely well-suited to presenting it – that the play style’s unique focus on the immutable physical materiality of an imagined space directly matches with the philosophical foundations of the Weird in a way that other design philosophies do not, because they serve to establish a uniquely concrete imagined world in the minds of the players, that the Weird can then upend by irrupting into.

First, though, I need to clarify what I mean when I say Weird. In my understanding of the term, I draw very heavily on cultural critic Mark Fisher’s excellent and sadly final book, The Weird and the Eerie. I would encourage anyone interested in running a game in this style to read it: even if you are often put off by critical theory, Fisher’s writing is always staggeringly clear, concise, and engaging, and this book in particular has totally changed how I think about horror fiction. To Fisher, the Weird relates to the sensation of ‘wrongness’ we feel when we encounter something that cannot be explained by the rules of reality as we understand them, which thereby proves our understanding to be inadequate. It is defined by the shock or thrill we experience when we realise that the world is not what we thought it was. As he writes, ‘a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate’.

As he points out, you might encounter this sensation in your daily life. When an experimental painting blows away your conceptions of what art can look like, or when you try to conceptualise the reality-bending spatial and temporal distortions of a black hole, you are confronted with the shocking truth that the ‘rules’ by which you thought you understood the world were only contingent: that ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth […] than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. This vertiginous sensation you feel as the conceptual rug is pulled out from under your feet not only forces you to reconsider your understanding of reality, but in doing so casts doubt on whether you can ever hope to understand anything as it really is: when you have already been proven wrong once, what’s to say your new comprehension is any better?

These are the sensations that Weird fiction either depicts or seeks to instill in its audience. Of course, the defining writer of the Weird is H. P. Lovecraft, whose protagonists are regularly sent mad by the horrific realisation that what they had understood to be solid reality was really just a thin sheet of wallpaper over a howling void. Nevertheless, as Fisher notes, for all of Lovecraft’s tentacle monsters and outspoken disdain for dreary realism, the Weird elements of his stories are always given power by their contrast with a rigorously described mundane normalcy. As Fisher puts it, ‘Lovecraft needs the human world, for much the same reason that a painter of a vast edifice might insert a standard human figure standing before it: to provide a sense of scale’. Or in the words of Lovecraft himself: ‘Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside – we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.’

When a (post-)OSR game grapples with the Weird, we see this friction between the mundane world we think we understand and the incomprehensible Outside beyond translated into RPG design: the irruption of the Weird into a setting is compelling precisely because of the disjunction between the game’s Weird elements and a style of play that is otherwise defined by forcing players to conceive of the fictional world their characters inhabit in practical, consistent, and clearly defined material terms.

In fact, this emphasis on materiality that practically defines the (post-) OSR movement. In Matt Finch’s famous Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, for example, he writes about an old school party detecting a pit trap by pouring water on the floor of the dungeon and seeing it pool into a conspicuous square: the GM describes the physical space the player characters exist within, and in order to do well in the game the players have to probe its physicality further – often quite literally, with ten-foot poles.

I want to call the philosophy behind this ‘common-sense simulationism’: the procedures of the game intend to simulate a consistent world that behaves in a predictable way, but the very lightness of the rules leaves the GM, whose ultimate authority over the setting is key, with the job of filling in the gaps with a ‘common sense’ understanding of the world’s physics. The players are then tasked with using their own ‘common sense’ to interrogate the world’s physics further, firmly establishing a shared comprehension of the shape and nature of the imagined space in everyone’s mind. Players who fail to adequately interrogate or comprehend this physical space are punished by the game by having their characters fall into traps or get lost as a result of inadequate maps.

What few codified mechanics there do tend to be in (post-)OSR systems also concern the players directly with the physicality of the setting through a preoccupation with logistical minutiae: clear rules for the management of resources and time (dungeon turns, encumbrance, light sources, rations, rope, ammunition, fatigue, etc.) immerse the players in the concrete physicality of their characters’ needs and the nature of the world around them. Crucially, the players of (post-)OSR games have no control over the setting other than through the vehicle of their characters: in contrast to some story games, (post-)OSR games almost never have GMs ‘ask questions and use the answers’ to define the setting.

This is crucial for creating the Weird effect because it not only constructs a world in the mind of the players, but gives them an equivelant relationship to it as we imagine we have with the real world in our daily lives, which we believe we can understand but have very little control over. This equivelance of relationship is more important for constructing a ‘normal’ world to exist in opposition to the Weird than its actual ‘mundanity’ (whether or not it superficially resembles the world we live in). Although Lovecraft set his stories in what was then a recognisably ‘mundane’ present-day US, whether the setting is already in some way fantastical is actually irrelevant, as long as it is a) consistently defined, and b) close enough to our conventional understanding of the world that players can use their ‘common sense’ to extrapolate the consequences of their actions. What is important is that a consistent understanding of how the setting ‘ought to’ function is shared by the players, regardless how simply ‘unusual’ that setting might be, as this gives the Weird elements something to exist in relation to. The best of Robert E. Howard’s ‘Conan’ stories are undoubtedly Weird, after all, despite the Weird elements existing in relation to a totally made up world.

So the game mechanics and play procedures work to create a shared consensus aaround the physics of the imagined space the characters inhabit, which can then be turned inside out when the truly monstrous shows its face. In one of its most common and simplest forms, this sensation can be produced through the game mechanics by forcing the players to immerse themselves in the practical mode of thinking these rules create, and then having the monsters simply break some of the rules that the players are forced to abide by. The clearest and most long-standing example of this is dark vision: monsters have it and PCs usually don’t, which not only gives monsters a drastically different relationship with the physicality of the dungeon, but in doing so casts them as incomprehensibly Other: if monsters don’t need light to see, then how do they see at all? Can we even imagine what the world would look like through the ‘eyes’ of a creature that doesn’t need light to see?

While this particular friction has been at the core of Dungeons and Dragons from the very beginning, newer (post-)OSR material heightens its contradictions by further emphasizing the physicality of the imagined space, intensifying the consequences of the game’s logistical procedures, and while simultaneously amplifying the nightmarish Otherness of the Weird irruptions into the setting. The finest example of this is Patrick Stuart’s Veins of the Earth, which makes its players obsess over whether they have too much weight in their backpack to climb up to a ledge, while confronting them with creatures so alien that even the book itself seems to struggle to represent them. Veins Under the Earth presents a variation on B/X D&D that ‘is designed to make players as paranoid and obsessive about what they are carrying as real cavers’, but is filled with creatures so fundamentally Other that the book’s artist does not even attempt to depict them as anything other proudly non-representational series of beautifully textured angry scribbles. A decisive rejection of the anatomical inkwork of early D&D books or the ‘imaginative realist’ style that dominates modern fantasy media, Scrap Princess’s pieces seem set on capturing how a given creature makes you feel, implying that capturing it any other way would be impossible. Elsewhere, the almost wilfully oblique prose can create a similar effect, as Stuart writes monster descriptions that resist easy visualisation or explanation as the table.

Nevertheless, even as Veins of the Earth’s monsters seem to struggle against clear textual and pictorial representation, they remain fundamentally material, even if it’s an unexpected sort of materiality that does not entirely mesh with the ‘common sense’ physicality that the rest of the game has forced the players to imagine. In game system terms, the monsters all have hit dice and movement speeds; in terms of the game’s fiction, they are often listed as having smells and sounds as ways for the player characters to sense the creature in the pitch darkness of the book’s subterranean setting. These smells and sounds are described to emphasise the impossible materiality of whatever you have encountered – whether that’s a fossilised vampire that makes the sound of  ‘a pool cue scratching madly through the baize’ as its ‘frozen limbs rotate and fossilised sockets twist’, or a ‘cancer bear’ that regularly douses itself in flame to prevent its tumorous bone plating from growing any thicker, and fittingly smells of ‘soot, ash, chalk, and oil’. As in both of these cases, the clearly explained but surreal material origins of many of the creatures do follow a twisted sort of logic, but it is crucially never the same ‘common sense’ physical comprehension that the players can use to enact change in the world themselves.

In other words, the Weird entities of Veins of the Earth, as with traditional Weird D&D monsters like gelatinous cubes or aboleths, do not represent a rejection of materiality but an incomprehensible expansion of it to include things that should not exist according to our ‘common sense’. For Fisher, it is precisely Lovecraft’s  ‘emphasis on the materiality of the anomalous entities in his stories’ that sets him apart from the Gothic writers who preceded him, including Edgar Allen Poe. As Fisher writes, ‘even though what we might call ordinary naturalism – the standard, empirical world of common sense and Euclidean geometries – will be shredded by the end of each tale, it is replaced by a hypernaturalism – an expanded sense of what the universe contains’. The implication, then, is not that there are no rules structuring reality, but that the rules that really matter are never what we thought they were, and we may never truly understand them. In (post-)OSR gameplay, contact with creatures that break the rules of the consensus reality shows our ‘common sense’ understanding of it to be inadequate, and we must either adapt our conceptions to accomodate new information if possible, or else continue to cling to our faulty common sense when we can comprehend no alternative.

If Lovecraft is distinct from the Gothic novelists for his ‘hypernaturalist’ emphasis on materiality, then I would argue that the philosophy guiding (post-)OSR game design and play culture is distinct from various ‘new school’ design philosophies for a similar reason. To choose examples for their similarities in genre and branding, we might think of the MMO-influenced gamism of D&D 4e, the narrativist emphases of PbtA-influenced games like Dungeon World, or the ‘spreadsheet simulationism’ of D&D 3.x and other games of that era as useful alternative examples.

Firstly, systems that emphasise gamist or narrativist play are unable to engage with the Weird in the way I have described simply because the materiality of the setting is not a primary concern in the way it is in the (post-)OSR. The Dungeon World rulebook, for example, writes that one of the biggest differences between DW and other fantasy RPGs is its rejection of the urge to define space by ‘a square-by-square map denoting precisely what goes where, often presented to give as much detail as possible’. In contrast, ‘Dungeon World often leans in the opposite direction – maps marked with empty space and a one or two word description of the location in question like “blades” or “scary”’. By emphasising this fuzzy relationship with space, Dungeon World and games like it reject the concrete materialism of the (post-)OSR, and position setting as nothing more than the background for the characters’ stories. I don’t mean to criticise that style of play, which is great fun on its own terms  but it does preclude the specific (hyper)materialist relationship with the Weird I have been describing.

Gamist systems like D&D 4e do rigorously define space, but it is a certain kind of abstract quantification of space that does not resemble the way we experience space in our daily lives and so actively resists ‘common sense’ extrapolation. While a certain kind of weird effect can be produced by having that spatiality behave in unexpected ways, the Weird does not achieve the same charge when it irrupts into a framework that does not resemble the one we use to make sense of our own lives in reality. Similarly, the pleasures of a gamist system are too caught up in total comprehension of the game’s mechanics to make breaking the rules much fun.

A similar problem arises in what I have called ‘spreadsheet simulationist’ games such as D&D 3.x, which attempt to have a defined procedure for every little thing. The rules of these games are simply too complex to be internalised by their players at once, which means no shock is created when these rules are broken since there are always nuances and exceptions. Furthermore, it is the very absence of totalising rules that forces the players and GMs of ‘common sense simulationist’ games to solve problems by visualising the material physicality of the setting between them, thinking in terms of the setting first and the rules second. Even if a ruleset of this sort does actually successfully simulate a consistent physical space (which is all but impossible), the players no longer need to conceptualise it to succeed, as the relationship between the physicalities of the characters and the setting itself is taken out of the players’ hands and systematised as a series of die rolls. It is only by immersing the players directly in the ‘common sense’ material logic of the setting that we can create the right sensation of wrongness when the Weird irrupts and everything starts behaving in ways we thought impossible.

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