Sunday, September 20, 2015

Undermining Certainties

In the beginning everything was a mystery. You started off with a broad sense of what you could be and what you could do but the specifics of the experience were new. Your character, in those early days, seemed to know little better than you. Learning the secrets necessary to stay alive was hard and came at the cost of many ignominious deaths and much failure, but eventually the knowledge came and with it power. Inadequate strategies were abandoned and secrets to success discovered.

This was the structure of early D&D: the Dungeon Master was an initiated repository of secret wisdom and the players seekers after that wisdom. The DM’s book was off-limits to players, for whom surreptitiously reading the mysterious knowledge secured therein was tantamount to cheating. The process by which the knowledge could be transferred from the initiated to the uninitiated was a series of ordeals. The master was not required to tailor the ordeals to the specific capacities of the aspirant, part of the testing involved determining what manner of ordeal could be endured. It was only by undertaking carefully judged ascending gradations of challenge that the character and their player could rise through the ranks, gaining new abilities to help endure the ordeals and new ways of using them and, almost as importantly, gaining the knowledge of how to go about things in such a manner as to minimise unnecessary death. There were tricks of situational awareness and cautious thoroughness in negotiating the dangerous environments the DM presented, as well as lists of vulnerabilities and immunities and powers that had to be learned by rote, list upon list of weapons, armour, spells, characters, places, monsters and treasures. All of these were mysteries at the beginning. You didn’t know them, your character didn’t know them, only the DM had access to the privileged information.

A useful concept for discussing these ideas is that of the epistemic regime. The epistemic regime of a work of fiction describes what is known by the different actors in the story and by the author and reader. Much of the tension, drama and humour in narratives derives from the unequal distribution of various facts: she doesn’t know he’s the killer, the author and the reader know it’s a bad idea but the character blunders on regardless. Irony relies on this unequal distribution too, there is an audience that derives a secret meaning from an ironic statement and an audience that does not, the knowledgeable audience and the author of the statement collude in the transfer of this secret knowledge in plain sight.

Epistemic regimes are of special importance to fantasy and science fiction because there is generally a whole lot more the author is aware of that the reader does not know and a subsequent necessity for a greater-than-usual amount of exposition. It is because of this wildly unequal epistemic regime that so much fantasy relies upon reader surrogate characters from outside the magic world; Harry Potter, Dorothy, John Carter, Alice; or reader surrogates from a provincial backwater; Bilbo Baggins, Rand al’Thor, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, Pug/Milamber, Duny/Ged, Shea Ohmsford, Garion [Insert High Fantasy yokel-destined-for-greatness here]. Their ignorance or outsider status requires that mentors explain everything for them or that the author’s exposition be justified by the mutually ignorant position of reader and protagonist. The other, less-important-for-my-hypothesis reason for humble origins is a dramatic one, it is more dramatically satisfying for underdogs to come out on top.

There is something of a distinction that can be made between the ascending character arcs of post-Tolkien High Fantasy and the Picaresque nature of much pulp fantasy. In the works of Jack Vance, Fritz Lieber or Robert E. Howard, the protagonists tend to be worldly and exposition is a less weighty component of the writing, even to the extent that, as is explicitly the case in M. John Harrison’s work, world-building is impromptu and ad hoc – only that which is necessary to pave the way for more adventure need be invented. Even the author need not know much more about the world than is revealed to the reader, and while some kind of character arc is often presented and new information revealed as the narrative progresses, there is definitely a tendency for the protagonist to not be a neophyte in need of initiation into the mysteries of the invented world, nor need the reader be undergoing such an initiation by proxy. Characteristically, such a world does not tolerate great upheaval, the changes wrought by the actions of a Picaro are generally not world-shaking. There is a fatalistic sense in the genre that the world will continues regardless of the actions of individuals, while in High Fantasy, the fate of the world is typically decided by the actions of individuals, their success changes the world for the better and saves the world from some kind of terrible threat.

These slightly distinct subgenres represent the two major sources drawn upon to develop D&D, and while there is a definite preference displayed by Gygax for pulp fantasy, the epistemic DNA of High Fantasy is very strong in D&D.  A satisfying and engaging character arc is one of the major rewards for bold and clever play, and as characters get more capable the dramatic stakes of their exploits are also raised. This state of affairs deliberately emulates the style of High Fantasy and does it well. In a player’s first campaign, they are given an experience that emulates that of the reader of High Fantasy, the particular ways in which the campaign world functions are revealed, and the geography, people and events unfold before their eyes.
Hide and seek is a game of practical epistemology. The different players start each round of the game with a different set of facts, and the seeker’s role is to remedy their ignorance through the application of a set of epistemological procedures designed to reveal facts about the whereabouts of the hiders: looking under things, looking behind things and trying to elicit giggling with a humorous performance of these procedures. The hiding players attempt to conceal the fact of their whereabouts by sneaking off very quietly during the count, selecting especially good and, if possible, novel hiding places and stifling giggling.

There is an environmental component to the game, a good place for hide and seek has a lot of hiding places. The tension of the game is increased by a prolonging the process of formulating and testing various hypotheses about the possible whereabouts of the hiders. Eventually, with enough rounds of play, the environment becomes exhausted as a source of novelty because the players have discovered all of the potential hiding places.  No longer is there any need for the formulation of new hypotheses about the whereabouts of hiders. All that is needed is to systematically check all of the known hiding places.

Vanilla D&D actually has a similar epistemic regime to hide and seek. The PC begins play as the seeker, made deliberately ignorant by a DM who knows all the hiding places. However, as long as there is no deviation from the standard playbook, after enough time the players will know by rote which strategy offers the best advantage against trolls, skeletons, ghouls, rot grubs, rakshasas, yellow mold, medusae and mummies. They will know what to do to best avoid running afoul of traps and surprise attacks, they will know most of the spells available and how to use them and what magic items they should be on the lookout for. This acquisition of lore is subverted and exploited by a few notorious elements of the game like gas spores and rot grubs – punishments for being too secure in your knowledge of in-game facts or confidence in useful interrogative procedures. These, in turn, spawn ever more sophisticated epistemic regimes where suspicion of malicious motives necessitate special countermeasures.


Whenever knowledge is gained, ignorance is lost –  naïveté evaporates under fire. Not only do the players gain the epistemological skills to better interrogate the game environment for useful information as they play, they also gain information about the generic game-world itself. Over years, every veteran player will also have had a chance to run games, or at least read through all of the once-forbidden lore so, unless a very strict separation of player and character knowledge is adhered to to avoid metagaming, a certain amount of worldliness is going to creep into the character’s interactions with the predictable enemies and scenarios they encounter.

Thus, then, the OSR. The OSR is largely composed of people who have seen everything and are rigorous and cunning in their interrogation of the game environment. This makes their characters disproportionately deadly and their play-style effective, especially if there is a predictability in their environment and the challenges they face – they have seen all the hiding places. This creates a need for the establishment of different play environments and different secrets as a means of recreating something like the epistemic regime of the older versions of the game. Because in addition to the worldliness of the veteran, there is in the nature of the OSR gamer certain amount of nostalgia for a time when everything was mysterious and new. It is impossible to recreate the experience of the first encounter with a rust monster using a rust monster. That door is shut now. There are other ways of recapturing the excitement of the experience but it requires the implementation of strategies of estrangement and a certain degree of invention.

I think there are many reasons why the source-texts of much OSR material tends to be Pulp Fantasy rather than High Fantasy. There is a degree to which the exhaustive creation of comprehensively detailed worlds only makes sense if there is going to be a large audience to make it worthwhile and ensure its continuity over time. There may be a suspicion of the artificiality of grand sweeping story-arcs and a legitimate dubiousness about their unworkability as imposed from above by in-game canon (e.g. 2E-era Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk). There is also the fact that picaresque Murderhobo-ism that is an emergent property of D&D’s reward system seems to run counter to the prevailingly axial morality of the High Fantasy genre but accords closely with the urbane fatalism characteristic of Pulp Fantasy. I think the most compelling reason for the preference is the inescapable fact of players Knowing the Score.

 A related genre with much overlap is the Weird. The Weird has about it something of an iconoclastic punk sensibility, even in its earliest manifestations there is a quality to it that is rooted in the erosion of certainties, in an ethical spectrum that runs from fatalism through pessimism to the outer reaches of nihilism. The prevailing epistemic regime here, particularly in Lovecraftian tales, is not merely ignorance for the protagonist but a sense that the gaining of knowledge is often inimical to sanity. The author is very much concerned with using strategies of estrangement to undermine the certainties of the reader.

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” HPL

This is, for me, the natural territory of the best of the OSR: a kind of iconoclastic undermining of whatever assumptions existed before (though maybe without quite so much portentousness), because there is compelling reason to serve up predictability. Hence Raggi-esque Negadungeons and Deep Carbon Observatory. There comes always into my mind the ridiculous image of the OSR gamer as a kind of reckless libertine glutted with sensation, walking blindfolded into unknown perils. I think that I am guilty here of a certain amount of reductive essentialism for effect but I know that there is a canny market for evocative novelty. The process of players having to negotiate new theories about the way the world is run and engage in rigorous interrogations of the structure of fictional things is potentially a source of much enjoyment for GM and player alike. It is especially the case if you’ve invented all the stuff yourself and the players are unravelling exposition as a means of ensuring their character’s survival. Nothing will ever be the same as the original experience but it might just be better.


  1. I also think that, overall, the best pulp picaresque tends to be written at a higher degree of quality (or at least more traditionally literary definition of quality) because it tends to risk allowing the reader to be confused or un-grounded (and thus have to do work) which is a hallmark of most of your more sophisticated fiction.

    1. I read or saw or somehow absorbed a comment recently to the effect that literary fiction and fantasy pursue different strategies of estrangement. In literature the estrangement is figurative, in fantasy the estrangement is literal. Like there is an extravagant mythical reality in the figurative language of Joyce but High Fantasy (a lot of which is essentially pastiche: post-Tolkien hackwork) is conservative in its figurative language and pursues a strategy of estrangement in the literal reality it is grounded in.

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    3. Well comparing Tolkien to Harrison or Vance--Harrison and Vance are willing to take on figurative estrangement by leaving the level of literality (or throughness) of their description of reality unclear. So they essential stack both sorts of estrangement together.

    4. Which is why Peake is so good. Peake seems to mirror the "ponderous architectural quality " and archaic density of his setting with the prose he uses to describe it. Harrison is hugely influenced by Peake, to the extent that In Viriconium could have been written by the same person aas Titus Alone.

      While Tolkien offers a less precipitous incline, I would ( of course) argue there are depths available to careful reading - to mix elevation metaphors.

  2. Great post. You point about the market for evocative novelty rings true, especially with so many OSR settings and modules tending towards gonzo over pseudo medieval Europe