critique 2: the old school


i don’t think this article will ruffle anyone’s feathers. i’ve had the pleasure of only interacting with old-school gamers [1] that aren’t somehow neopagan fascists and that don’t have any weird nostalgic presuppositions about the OSR: namely, that OSR is how games SHOULD be, or that it’s important to stay true to (some version of) gygax’s inspired vision. i gravitate towards the old-school scene because i like the lack of buy-in required to play. like mafia or werewolf, you can get together with your friends without pretension and use the game just as an excuse to joke around and have fun. of course, playing the game is enjoyable too, but (for me) that’s only conductive to the enjoyment of the party at the table.

i bring that up because this enjoyment of play has nothing to do with something inherent to the OSR style, even if i myself feel it to be the best fit for its lack of conceit and rules compared to other games. in fact, gygax attributes this sort of enjoyment-beyond-the-game to a biological difference of the sexes [2]. men understand how to enjoy the game for how it is, whereas women will get distracted with “LARPing” and so on [3]. it seems, according to gygax, women’s enjoyment is not necessarily opposite of men (i.e. “LARPing” as characters is not necessarily incompatible with the gygaxian game), but it is something beyond men’s style of enjoyment which renders the two play styles basically incompatible. in short, one could say that "LARPing" is besides the 'point' of the game.

taking such cues from gygax, i hope to shed light on the patterns of desire which dictate the play of dungeons & dragons as originally “written” or “intended” [4]. this will not only serve to flesh out gygax’s supposed difference between female and male enjoyment, but it will also help explain the origin and evolution of the dungeons & dragons game.

dungeons & dragons, men & women

i want to preface this section by saying that i have previously developed these ideas in my earlier series called traverse fantasy (links given in subsequent subheaders). i was never happy with how those turned out, so this is my second chance to make something i’m happier with.

i propose that there are two binary characteristics (spectrums?) which distinguish interactive systems. the first is whether a system has an open or closed set of possible interactions. the second is whether an expected sequence of interactions within some system is finite or infinite. perhaps there are other important aspects, but these two are useful to distinguish the old school playstyle from others.

closed & open systems (original post)

a closed system has strictly defined interactions from which the agent cannot deviate. for example, a video game is a closed system not only because there are limited ways by which the player can interact with the game, but because the rules of the game are literal instructions for how the computer ought to store and process data. the only way to deviate from a closed system is to somehow open it up to different interactions than were originally anticipated, similar to how hacking a computer program opens up new interactions between the user and the program. otherwise, the system is absolutely closed.

an open system has no such (obvious) limitations because it is located within the grand system of language itself. the difference between closed and open systems is perhaps best illustrated by the difference between d. megarry’s dungeon! and d. arneson’s dungeons & dragons. both games have the same written procedure for detecting a secret door: elves have a 4-in-6 chance, and everyone else has a 2-in-6 chance. dungeon! is a board game because this interaction is the final word. meanwhile, dungeons & dragons expects the player to avoid this very interaction. instead, the player narrates how their character slides their hands across the wall, hoping to come across a hidden door. this interaction is interpreted by the dungeon master who then tells the player whether or not there is a door at that spot.

this is not to say that the presence of a master is what distinguishes open systems from closed systems. on the contrary, closed systems find their own strict 'master' in the closed set of possible interactions. the master of the open system is ultimately the demiurge of a greater master: the system of language which encompasses all other systems of interaction. hacking a computer program expands the set of interactions from those sanctioned by the program to any possible interaction represented in code. likewise, dungeons & dragons expands the set of interactions found in dungeon! to any possible interaction represented in language. this means that the dungeon master is not really a master at all [5]. instead the dungeon master takes whatever the player say, and transforms it into a representation which can be handled in the game-world through language.

finite and infinite systems (original post)

if you have read my previous approach on this whole topic, you'll know that i previously used the terms 'definite' and 'indefinite'. however, liber ludorum (blog post) brought to my attention a book by j.p. carse called finite and infinite games which made the same point i did but in longer form, and probably with much more knowledge than i have. i will use this new terminology to nevertheless make the argument i had made prior, since my own view was derived from computer science and lacanian psychoanalysis.

a finite system only supports a finite sequence of terms, whether those terms are events or interactions or 'signifiers' (if you're familiar with semiotics). games can be made finite by asserting a positive terminal state. this means that there is a goal you try to reach by playing the game, and by reaching the goal you win and the game is over. for example, in dungeon! the goal is to get a certain amount of gold and then to enter the 'great hall' space before the other players do.

an infinite game can last forever, not just by the players' own efforts but because it is structured to last indefinitely. it accomplishes this by not having a positive terminal state. there might be a negative terminal state representing failure, e.g. when you die, but the goal is precisely to avoid that state. there might also be markers of progress, like experience levels in dungeons & dragons, but these are not terminal states at all. instead, they allow the player to endlessly pursue goal after goal. this structure is homologous to lacan's notion of the plus-de jouir, the subject's drive: there is always something else for the subject to desire because nothing fully satisfies. this drive allows the subject to continue to exist, if we (like lacan) define the subject as the desiring mechanism itself. therefore, to summarize carse, the aim of an infinite game is not to win but to continue playing.

drive is key to infinite systems. any game worthy of the moniker 'game' must transform the player into a subject by forcing them to desire, i.e. by telling them what they lack. in hungry hungry hippos, the player becomes a hungry hungry hippo who desires to eat more marbles than the other hippos. the difference between hungry hungry hippos and dungeons & dragons [6] is that the game terminates when there are not any marbles left. one player wins and the satisfaction wears off. the friends might play another game of hungry hungry hippos, or they might move onto something else entirely. in contrast, dungeons & dragons offers one goalpost after another. it represents a wholly self-contained fantasy wherein the player qua subject does not have to stop desiring, and they are driven toward treasure after treasure (and experience level after experience level) indefinitely.

cooperation between players also lends itself to infinite systems. really, the subject of dungeons & dragons is not the individual character but the whole party. even though each character has their own level indicator and their own being in the gameworld, the true subject is the assembly of characters insofar as it represents the unity of the players' desires. needless to say, this unity is unstable because of intrapersonal conflicts and so on, but the conceit of cooperation allows players to strive towards that unity anyway. by principle, a game where characters compete must be definite because there exists a terminal state where one character overpowers the rest (lest that overpowering be inconclusive and dissatisfactory).

for example, consider a modification of dungeon! where there is a dungeon master who represents the actions of each player character competing against each other, relocating the competitive drive underneath the open interface of dungeons & dragons. such a game is not impossible to imagine, especially because the role of objective referee originated in freeform war games (not to mention in physical sports, albeit with a lesser responsibility). even more so because already when a player character dies in dungeon! they simply start over. however, dungeon! is not an indefinite game. it terminates when someone enters the great hall with the minimum treasure required to win. that is to say that goalposts cannot be shifted indefinitely for a competitive game, where in effect each competitor is a goalpost. the ultimate satisfaction is derived from besting one’s competitors for once and for all [7].

dicks & dragons (original post)

let me make something clear: to say that the dungeon game "is freudian" is really stupid. it suggests that something has to obviously correspond to (a vulgarization of) freud's ideas on a superficial level in order for freud's theory to become applicable there. to put it in a different way, it suggests that some things are “freudian” and other things aren't, and that things which are freudian are definitively and essentially freudian. i am not going to tell you that dungeons & dragons is “freudian”.

instead, i propose that psychoanalysis is a useful model with which to approach dungeons & dragons as the fantasy of a desiring subject. we can use psychoanalysis to talk about dungeons & dragons because dungeons & dragons is the product of someone's brain, and the way in which anyone produces anything speaks to the unconscious processes which guide that person's behavior. at the same time, we are not concerned with any one individual, but with the consistent patterns which emerge in individuals who play dungeons & dragons. this speaks to the persistent elements of the game as something which, by being common to those individuals, also speak to those individuals' patterns of desire at large.

in particular, the structure of dungeons & dragons as an infinite game is homologous to what lacan calls the phallic drive. the player as an adventurer seeks treasure after treasure, and the game enables the player's fantasy by ensuring that there is always another dungeon to raid and pillage. likewise, the phallic drive always ensures that in the subject's imagination there is always another thing to desire. lacan calls this the phallic drive because it directly relates to the subject's unconscious 'belief' that they are castrated [8]: they have irrevocably lost something that once fulfilled them, and so they must grasp at straws to find something to replace what they have lost. for the typical male subject, there is always another woman to fuck. for the gygaxian adventurer, there is always another dungeon to loot.

this is where we meet again with gygax's comments on sexual difference: gygax says that men normally find enjoyment according to the structures of the game, whereas women find enjoyment outside of the game structure itself by "LARPing" and "csocialization [sic]" and "theatrics". gygax is correct to notice that this is "because of a difference in brain function", but this difference is not biological as much as it has to do with the (normal) determination of desire for girls and boys. lacan distinguishes masculine and feminine enjoyment along similar lines as gygax [9]: the male subject is basically enslaved to the phallic drive ('there is always another dungeon to fuck'), whereas the female subject may find enjoyment beyond this phallic cycle of failure.

fantasy and the phallus

if you’ve read my previous posts, most of the above sounds like a retread: the old school dungeons & dragons game distinguishes itself from others by taking place within an open and infinite system of interactions; furthermore, this structure lends the game to be enjoyed by anyone who desires “phalically” whether female or male (or neither). i want to draw out some of the implications of this reading, and also give it some nuance.

the (phallic) structure of a fantasy does not necessarily inform its explicit content, but it helps us understand why the explicit content appears in the form that it does. by explicit content, i am referring to the distinction freud makes in the interpretation of dreams between the explicit and latent content of dreams: explicit content is the superficial images that appear in dreams, while latent content is the symbolism behind those images. freud’s discovery of the unconscious originated to explain how dreams are structured according to the dreamer’s desire; lacan would then rephrase freud’s discovery in terms of the phallic drive which i’ve already described.

dungeons & dragons certainly phallic, and this relationship between the player and the game-loop structures the images which appear in the game. the players are adventurers in a pseudo-medieval world, and they loot dungeons to survive. other people better informed than me have pointed out how this fantasy is not grounded in medieval europe at all, and how it has more in common with wild west fantasies about colonialism than with feudalism. the only reason dungeons & dragons is “medieval” is because gygax and arneson were medieval history buffs who liked sword and sorcery fiction (itself also a derivative of wild west fiction). the weird imagery of swords and dungeons and borderlands is knitted together by the party’s desire to accumulate gold, which has nothing to do with its economic value but instead its being a victory point for the players. the game relies on accumulation as a metaphor for victory, but it also rids accumulation of its own significance in capitalism. in this way, phallic desire takes the wheel and appropriates gold as a symbol for itself.

in short, the images that appear in dungeons & dragons are totally nonsensical unless you take them as the product of arneson and gygax's weird fantasies. certainly their fantasies are products of the liberal capitalist world in which they lived, but criticizing dungeons & dragons for being capitalist/colonialist doesn't give the full picture: the images were selected because they were already socially desirable, and it's only in this precise dimension that we can criticize them. arguably, the games which deserve to be criticized from a political angle are the ones that claim to be self-aware of their politics ("everything is political" becomes a self-justification rather than a basis of critique), when in reality they just express more ideology to an even greater extent than the naive yet awful gygax. we'll probably come back to this if/when i write about the online indie game scene.

for now, back to gygax (who, to be clear, is a piece of shit and whose work reflects this).

gygax and the evolution of role-playing games

There is a need for a certain amount of uniformity from campaign to campaign in D&D.  This is not to say that conformity or sameness is desirable. Nobody wishes to have stale campaigns where dungeons, monsters, traps, tricks, and goals are much the same as those encountered in any one of a score of other campaigns. Uniformity means that classes are relatively the same in abilities and approach to solving the problems with which the campaign confronts them. Uniformity means that treasure and experience are near a reasonable mean. Uniformity means that the campaign is neither a give-away show nor a killer - that rewards are just that, and great risk will produce commensurate rewards, that intelligent play will give characters a fighting chance of survival. (gygax, preface to ad&d)

the open structure of the earliest dungeons & dragons games might have caused some friction against the phallic structure of the intended audience's desire, including gygax’s own enjoyment of the game [10]. although the phallic structure is basically essential to dungeons & dragons as a 'kind' of game (from blackmoor to od&d etc.), the main appeal to the role-playing game was its open nature where anything was possible. keep in mind that the first role-playing game, braunstein, emerged because the players decided to get on the referee's nerves by playing dolls with their war figures. gygax's advanced dungeons & dragons was on paper the same 'game' as all its predecessors, notwithstanding all the new mechanics it offered. however, it was written with the intent to close dungeons & dragons and offer up a new master in the definitive words of gygax [11].

ironically enough, this positions advanced dungeons & dragons as the progenitor of later 'traditional' games which the OSR movement eschews [12]. it does not necessarily feature the closed interactions that later traditional games do, i.e. "look at your character sheet to decide what to do". however, the book appeals to its own necessity as the final word on all matters, and it upholds gygax's vision as the ideal according to which to structure your own party. gygax's tome is therefore the progenitor of the injunction that "system matters"--not "system matters" as a basis of critique, but "system matters" as a justification for a system (i.e. as an ideology). gygax's systematization matters because it is his authorial vision, and it is the way the game is meant to be played.

in the next post, i hope to explore the implications of this closing development in the hobbyists’ desire, and how this informed the sorts of games that were being published at the time.

[1] ew, 'gamers'. i don't like that word, but i use it here with all due respect.

[2] just google gygax’s forum post about biological determinism lol

[3] gygax seems to use the term "LARPing" to refer to any sort of in-character theatrics.

[4] that is: not with respect to an author's stated intentions (death of the author, yadda yadda yadda), but simply with respect to how dungeons & dragons is written.

[5] i am not using the word 'master' here in the lacanian sense, but as a direct contrast to the presupposition that the dungeon master embodies the whole game system which they represent for the players.

[6] another difference is that hungry hungry hippos is a closed system that has not been opened up by language like dungeons & dragons has.

[7] it’s on these grounds that lucretius argues that competition is futile, because it cannot result in lasting pleasure. although i see him as a deleuze to hesiod’s freud, this gives me more to think about. to use language i introduce later: does lucretius think phallic enjoyment itself is futile, or only when it pits people against each other? i still think the former, but it’s worth drawing this out.

[8] in particular, the normative 'neurotic' subject has this relationship to desire. the pervert and the psychotic do not.

[9] these structures are not definitive of the difference between women and men, but their own difference is what is culturally designated as masculine and feminine. there are men with feminine desire and women with masculine (i.e. all-phallic) desire.

[10] (zizek voice) *sniff* and does this not preschisely locate gygax as the father who, you know, exempts himself from castration and instates the law?

[11] from a lacanian standpoint, we might consider the emergence of role-playing games to be a 'hysterization' of board games by basically rejecting the role of system as a restrictive structure. for gygax to then dehysterize dungeons & dragons by providing a definitive text and discouraging interactions outside of the 'game' ("LARPing", "csocialization", "theatrics") corresponds to his desire as an obsessional neurotic.

[12] where OSR refers to the (supposed) recreation of the original playstyle of dungeons & dragons, and not necessarily the creation of new materials compatible with old d&d games including advanced dungeons & dragons.


  1. Interesting read. Speaking of Freud: The relationship between gaming sessions and re-telling of the delves & adventures (perhaps also what some in OSR circles call 'emergent gameplay') is a bit like (completely like?) the secondary revision (not sure if that is the english translation?) in the dream work. Making a coherent narrative out of the game as-if it was always there.

    1. Thank you, and that’s a really apt comparison to make (and I bet it’s one worth drawing out more)! It makes me wonder how story games differ structurally, since they try to generate a story into the future rather than narrativize events that have already occurred.

    2. Within this perspective what would you call/consider the audio recording of the game session? You can retell the delve and adventures, and since the actual play has been captured you can even compare your retelling to the actual "record" of events. I record my game sessions so I can analyze missed opportunities as a game master to make the events and encounters more interesting. This is for the purpose of providing the players with a "living World". Simply put, to judge whether I am doing a good job as game master or not.

    3. hi there, sorry i missed your comment earlier! i think you're right that an audio recording of a play session is something different than a retelling of that same session. in any case, it takes a lot of dedication to go back and listen to previous sessions, so that's a really nice thing you're doing for the players :)

  2. I read that book when I was "on the road" at age 19. I found it very accessible and put words to the crazy ideas I had running around in my head. You know, the same ones running around my head now!

  3. I really like your ideas and your writing style :D


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