Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Grave Trespass - Pokemon Dungeon Crawler


Grave Trespass is our series of guest reviews. This guest review is by Marcia. --Ben L.


“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe

and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

- James Joyce, “The Dead”, Dubliners


Often the Old School Renaissance is characterized as a return to a particular playstyle, which was not necessarily the norm in the early years of the hobby, but has since been upheld as an original style of play. With respect to playstyle, then, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler by John Battle [1] postures itself as an OSR-inspired rulebook. The player takes on the role of a Pokemon creature in a post-human world, “delving into the dungeons [human beings] left behind” (Battle 3). On the same page, Battle notes that his game plays “similarly to other dungeon crawlers” and that the rulebook uses the same language as other OSR-style texts, including hit dice and levels. This statement allows the text to locate itself not only in an existing literary tradition (as it were), but, being a rulebook, imports understandings of play common to the declared style without having to explicate them.


Reinventing the Wheel


Pokemon Dungeon Crawler is split between an implicit intended playstyle and an explicit set of rules which do not facilitate that playstyle. Having established that it uses OSR terminology as boilerplate, the rulebook instead focuses on distinguishing Pokemon characters by their abilities in combat. There are twenty playable Pokemon characters, and each one is defined by a number of special abilities that deal damage or inflict conditions in battle. The book maps each special ability to an element, and it explains that certain actions will have stronger or weaker effects against a particular target based on the target’s own element. Although this emphasis on combat makes most sense to adapt the Pokemon characters to paper and pencil, it does not lend itself to a playstyle where exploration guided by desire (often of gold) is the primary loop of play.


One useful point of comparison might be to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons published in 1974. It referred to itself not yet as [rules for] a role-playing game, but as “rules for fantastic medieval wargame campaigns”. The first volume which defines player characters does so mostly according to their combat abilities, although it also includes rules for levying taxes, recruiting monsters, and carrying equipment in that order. The third volume however gives procedures for underworld and wilderness exploration, by defining a ‘turn’ as the interval between random encounter checks (albeit at different scales of distance and time). Although the usage of the word ‘turn’ becomes confusing when reading the spell lists and trying to decide if a spell should last 1 minute, 10 minutes, or a whole day, the book is consistent in defining the ‘turn’ as the base loop of a play. The effect is that the original Dungeons & Dragons has a clear notion of what constitutes the game it prescribes by defining it in terms of its repetitive procedures.


On the other hand, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler offers rules for dungeon exploration, but they are scant and unintuitive in their presentation. They are given in a section entitled “Dungeon Rules”, but the first page of this section is concerned with handling encounters. First it defines initiative as the procedure to determine if it is your character’s turn to act or your enemy’s turn. Then it defines a turn as simply that: your character’s turn to perform an action. This definition does not mesh well with the explanation of dungeon exploration on the next page, where it says “You can take a turn to explore a room/area. This lasts about 10 minutes” (Battle 42-3). Here, dungeon crawling appears as an action a character can take rather than the core loop of the game itself.


The book offers more of a procedure for long-term travel, prescribing that every six hours of travel requires a ration and an encounter check. Still, that is the most detail it offers and so it gives more questions than it does answers (Does every traveler consume a ration? How much distance does a ‘6 hour chunk’ cover? How many time-chunks can one travel in a day?). Depending on how much travel is expected of the players, which is unclear, this rule might be too costly; however, if places of interest are only a trail away from each other as in the Pokemon video games, then perhaps the high cost of travel makes sense. In any case, for both overworld and dungeon exploration, the reference to literal timekeeping seems to be more of a vestige of stereotypical OSR rules than something with procedural function. This is not to say that the rulebook fails to meet my own tastes, but that it does not offer a full framework for the playstyle it prescribes. This must be supplied by the players.


To me, the text is indicative of a preference in the hobby culture for rulebooks (or ‘games’) over other materials produced for tables. The same material offered in Pokemon Dungeon Crawler would have been better suited for an adventure or a setting module, where hard rules could be supplied by a base rulebook and specific minutia handled by the Pokemon adaptation. I understand the motivation to make a rulebook to adapt specific Pokemon mechanics, but I don’t see this as necessary when the book prescribes that the Pokemon serve as player characters, and that these characters even adhere to the traditional D&D class schema of fighter, magic-user, and cleric. An adventure text would have suited Battle’s intent better, I think, to allow players to explore a world of Pokemon without human beings. Instead, as a rulebook, the text cannot fully commit to its vision of a fictional world nor does it explain fully the sort of play it prescribes.


Nostalgia in the OSR


Pokemon Dungeon Crawler also embodies the sort of nostalgic attitude that originally propelled the OSR as a cultural trend. Only a few hobbyists now grasp at an ideal of Gygaxian play that Gary himself did not strive for; most who have stuck around after the end of the OSR understand that old school play is not actually original, but a matter of personal preference [2]. Since then, there have been whispers of new school revolutions and sword dreams that would redeem the kernel of creativity from the corpse of the OSR. Yet these post-OSR works have not quite parted from the desire to return to a lost state, whether that state is the dubious origin of the role-playing game hobby or a memory of childhood trapped at the turn of the millennium (if not earlier).


John Battle’s works are preoccupied with the recapture of a time long past .dungeon is a tabletop adaptation of the experience of playing a massive multiplayer online role-playing game [2], taking cues from the 2000s anime franchise .hack and contemporary video games of the time like Runescape and World of Warcraft. The book yearns for the days of LAN parties and late night Skype calls, or whatever they used back then. Likewise, My Body is a Cage adapts the premise of the Persona series of video games (most recently Persona 5 in 2016), where characters explore psychological dungeons in their sleep to escape the confines of their living experience [3]. However, unlike Persona which envisions an escape from the dullness of teenage life, My Body is a Cage mourns the loss of the player characters’ dreams which have been unfulfilled in mature life. It’s a Persona-esque fantasy for people who wish they still had something to look forward to in adulthood.


Unlike Battle’s other works, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler does not contend with the failures of adult life to live up to childhood expectations. Instead, it asks readers to play the roles of Pokemon in a world without humans. The sample dungeon takes place in an abandoned power plant, implying that this is not merely a world without humans, but one where humankind is done with. Of course, the book also explicates this: “There were humans at one point and now there aren’t. Pokemon have inherited all that was left behind.” It is a Pokemon world robbed of the childlike innocence with which the video game and anime series, both intended for children, is infused. The effect of this near-apocalyptic background is a sort of melancholic eulogy for childhood, which injects the player with a desire to reconstruct their world and return to what has been lost. This situates the game’s premise in the ideological presuppositions of the OSR as a return-to-tradition, even as that rhetoric has been discarded in superficial form by the left-leaning factions of the post-OSR community.


The setting’s apocalypticism also echoes what Joseph Manola refers to as the OSR’s aesthetic of ruin [5], which is a sort of setting where the player characters explore a fallen world populated with “ruined bodies, ruined minds, [and] ruined societies.” This trend is not original to any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which has historically adhered to what Gus L. calls Gygaxian vernacular fantasy [6]. Whereas Gygaxian vernacular fantasy has the veneer of medieval fantasy on top of a nostalgia for Wild West tales, the aesthetic of ruin expresses open nostalgia for a society and time rotting before the player characters’ eyes. Manola argues that the aesthetic facilitates the libertarian sandbox play encouraged by the OSR: “Well-maintained social order is the enemy of free-wheeling adventure, and so the more ruined everything is, the more freedom PCs will have to run around inside it.” This is absolutely true and necessary for understanding.


However, I cannot help but notice the timing. The late twentieth century was an increasingly optimistic time period in the United States, and this might be reflected in Gygaxian aesthetic which appeals to a nostalgia for a fictionalized past (the expansion of law and order) but serves as the conduit through which to fantasize about that past. The aesthetic of ruin, on the other hand, reflects the political volatility of the twenty-first century, having emerged in the post-9/11 era for example. Now the fantasy of tabletop campaigns is not to celebrate a constant state of symbolic victory, but to mourn for an impotent symbolic realm that has fallen to its self-inflicted trauma. For Battle to imagine a Pokemon world without humans reflects the larger attitude of melancholy in the tabletop hobby community, the modern culture industry, and finally the capitalist state of things gazing into its own navel and finding ruin.


This is not to say that the nostalgic attitudes that permeate Pokemon Dungeon Crawler and other works by John Battle are morally problematic, even besides moralism being a flimsy basis for analysis. In fact, they are utterly normal from the Lacanian standpoint that lack grounds desire, and so we desire what we think we lack. Nostalgia, a perceived loss of a past (blissful) state of being, consistently emerges in cultures across history. Marx says in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.” Of course, the Romans always looked to the Greeks as a role model of political power, and the Greeks were obsessed with a mythological golden age they could not attain. Hence when we discuss nostalgia as a motive for contemporary art, it cannot be reduced to fascistic tendencies. As cultural analysts, we ought to better distinguish between structures of desire that fascism plugs into (e.g. nostalgia), versus content that is plainly fascistic (e.g. what does it have to say about nations or about class antagonisms?).


Nevertheless, as a younger person, Pokemon Dungeon Crawler strikes me as a relic past its own time that appeals to a different demographic than my own (perhaps people who think that Pokemon creatures are cool rather than cute). This speaks to the nostalgic tendencies of the OSR that run deeper than advocating for an anachronistic playstyle that was never really “old school”, but which are nevertheless situated in an identity shaped by the simultaneous guilt and pleasure of nostalgic consumerism. This is on one hand an admission that I am not the intended audience of this work, but it is also a call for authors in the post-OSR to not so readily rely upon nostalgia as a premise for play. As long as our fantasies indulge in the pleasures of memories past, we will not yet have exited the OSR as a yearning for things that never were to begin with.



[1] Battle, J. 2020. Unofficial Pokemon Dungeon Crawler. https://johnbattle.itch.io/pokemon-dungeon-crawler

[2] B., J. “Six Cultures of Play,” The Retired Adventurer. 2021. https://retiredadventurer.blogspot.com/2021/04/six-cultures-of-play.html

[3] Battle, J. 2021. .dungeon.

[4] Battle, J. 2021. My Body is a Cage.

[5] Manola, J. 2016. “OSR aesthetics of ruin,” Against The Wicket City. http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2016/09/osr-aesthetics-of-ruin.html

[6] L., G. 2021. “Classic Vs. The Aesthetic,” All Dead Generations. https://alldeadgenerations.blogspot.com/2021/07/classic-play-v-aesthetic.html


9 comments:

  1. Could you say a bit more about what is problematic about nostalgia, where the nostalgia is not for an imagined glorious past? Especially where the nostalgia is rooted in the experience of childhood? I ask because design is an intensely personal process, and I feel it's often richer if it comes from the memories and experiences of an individual, which are often memories from childhood.

    There's another generational layer that you gesture at as well. This is especially true for older people like me, who had our first interaction with gaming as children, and may have set it aside for a while to return to it as an adult. I think there's value in dwelling on your memories and experiences of early play as a way of recapturing what was intense and fresh then. It's a resource to draw on as we renew and deepen play later in life. What do you think about that?

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    1. hi ben! :) so i don't think nostalgia as such is anything problematic, but i am interested in showing that post-OSR works don't have the same ideological distance from OSR works that they are often supposed to have. in this particular case, i think the appeal to childhood nostalgia falls flat because it doesn't critically reflect on the topic of its nostalgia. it casts it in a moody light and combines it with a different but popular genre of game, but not to much thematic effect besides doubling down on self-referential nostalgia.

      so, i do think there's value in reflecting on childhood experiences! there's nothing even wrong, i think, in relying on yearnful memories as a creative basis. however, i do prefer works which take the extra step and think about why they yearn for what they do.

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  2. Despite being neck-deep in pokemania in the Olden Days, I feel like the decision to use actual Pokemon hurt it in the long run - while spinning wheels and going nowhere is a trait of many franchises, Pokemon is king of it, and so this ended up coming across as "here's a thing that is also not moving forward or doing anything new"


    The whole "legally-Distinctemon" trend going around a while back felt like it had more pep to it, even just because it was built on "here, go build it the way you want"

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    1. Pt 2: Moving pokemon from part of the ecosystem you are studying and exploring to protagonists out to wander through abandoned buildings was a choice that didn't jive with me at all. The pokemon games themselves already allow you to wander through abandoned buildings, but what they can't do is explore that environmental aspect - but tabletop games can do that.

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    2. This. I struggled with the exact implementation of the tone when working on my version of a game for the "legally distinctemon" you mentioned. Part of the appeal is the bright eyed hopefullness and joy that pokemon represented for me as a kid. But also my tastes are a bit more mature now and I want rules that can represent a wider range of possibilities than blacking out when i lose a fight and mon just knocking eachother about etc. I think the ideal age (after playtesting a bit) is a... 13-16yo Ash Ketchum, rather than a 10, ha!

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  3. Thanks for a great review! I have no interest in the game in question, but really appreciated the cultural analysis. I think we, in rpg-spaces, benefit a lot from these.

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  4. I know that fascism has been described as "nostalgia for an imaginary past," but I don't think it follows that all nostalgia is fascism, or even has that potential.

    Even when I think of the flaws in game designs that try to simultaneously BOTH enforce a specific OSR-orthodoxy play-style that may not have existed pre-2008 or so, AND mimic Gygax's prose and mechanics as much as possible (with things like the standard six ability scores, the standard classes, emphasis on wargame-derived tactical combat, etc) - there are two problems I see, but neither of them particularly has anything to do with nostalgia. The first, in my view, is simply too much copying of "orthodox" words and phrases (like "combat is a fail state" or "the answer's not on your character sheet") without doing the work of creating something that's meaningful to a reader who's no SO steeped in the scene and its jargon that they fill in all the blanks and paper over all the contradictions for you. The second problem is a widespread failure to accept that most of the specific things Gygax originally wrote have the same problem - to a reader who is so fully versed in OSR-orthodoxy that they know how to play what you meant instead of what you wrote, Gygax's mechanics serve more as a signal to those readers to go ahead and play the game as it exists in both your heads, but to anyone outside that group, the mechanics do not particularly support the assumed style of play, which, since it is assumed, is not actually written down for outsiders.

    But none of that's about nostalgia. It's about internet in-groups and failures to communicate effectively to anyone outside them.

    When I think of my own nostalgia for an imagined past, I think of something like what Nick LS Whelan said about the Civilization board game from 1980 in another venue: "I got a hand-me-down copy of this board game when I was like ... 7 or 8. And it absolutely fascinated me. I had no hope of figuring out how to play it, and I'm pretty sure the box was missing pieces. But I'd periodically take it out and organize all the little decks and tokens, and move them around on the map. For years of my adulthood it was a sort of mysterious artifact. I started to doubt the existence of it. Had I merely dreamed this strange game? I did eventually figure out that it was this game a couple years ago, but I haven't actually got hands on it since childhood. It is 100% the sort of game that fascinates me, but that I'd never have the patience or interest to actually play. I'm tempted to track down a copy anyway."

    THAT, to me, is what I think of when I think of the imagined or imaginary games of my one's youth. They're like, when you're aware of a game's existence, but you don't know how it works, and you know you don't know, and maybe you don't even really have access to more than a fraction of the game ... but somehow you end up with this intense curiosity and interest in it, and it occupies a really important place in your mind.

    As WFS pointed out to me "The real game will never be as good as the one in your head when you only vaguely know about it / when you can hazily remember it."

    And he's right. Nothing you make today (no thing that is real and has definite qualities) can possibly feel like the imaginary game you longed for when you were younger. But that LONGING I felt when I was a kid is what I think of when I think about my own gaming nostalgia.

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    1. hi anne!! i'm so sorry for the late reply; the semester flew by and so did time, and now it's almost april. i totally agree with you that nostalgia is not inherently fascist or even problematic! in fact, it's such a common way to view the world and desire things that many writers consider it central to (normative) desire.

      in the months after writing this article, the video game *pokemon legends* came out, which is a remake of the pokemon game i played when i was in second grade. playing it felt like karma got its kiss for me! i saw the familiar creatures and heard the familiar music and read the familiar names and was like, wow i'm sucked into this. so, i'd like to clarify that my criticism of this rulebook isn't just that it's nostalgic but that it doesn't have much else going for it.

      i also agree that many of the problems with the OSR have (had?) to do with its inability to communicate its own ideas and repeating slogans that don't actually explain themselves. lots of people, myself included, were floundering around trying to understand them. it doesn't help now that since the OSR has become almost a marketing brand, people more than ever want to prove fidelity to bygone slogans they don't understand. still, i think we should never view nostalgia as anything but a pretense, and it's a pretense employed often in the OSR to obscure the communication issues you point out (besides also being the pretense for AD&D or B/X-onlyist tendencies).

      treating nostalgia as an end, and an inherently problematic one at that, does the whole conversation a disservice when we should be looking at what the nostalgia is *doing* instead. thank you for your reply and for the opportunity to draw this out more explicitly!

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  5. I really enjoy this lit analysis style of rpg review

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