Back to Posts

The Third Aesthetic

Posted in Correspondence

After basically writing a design doc for the game we kicked off our wargaming-way inspired game last Saturday. It was a blast, but in a way that seems aesthetic-adjacent to two of the more predominant takes on games in the general vicinity of old school and the wargaming way.

So you’ve got some adventurers going into a deathtrap, usually underground, and trying to get something of value back out. That’s the basic pitch. The two most common aesthetics that seem to get applied to this are grimdark metal or fantasy Vietnam.

The grimdark metal aesthetic is all despair, darkness, and some shock. There’s a dwelling on embellishment on the sensory aspects of strange creatures and horrible deaths. It often comes with that one metal font, you know the one, and art that would fit on a adjective metal album. It’s slightly exaggerated, dark, and grimy.

The fantasy Vietnam aesthetic is military fiction of the bleaker sort, but with dragons (or more likely kobolds). There’s a nod towards how awful this would be in real life. It’s less exaggerated and more plain-spoken, but still concerned with the fact that the situation is awful.

These aesthetic poles seem to map a lot of old-school challenge-oriented games and supplements between them. No system or adventure is entirely either, but most pull towards one or the other in some way. And some of the old-school-ish things that are more about the genre than the challenge-oriented approach that Eero calls the wargaming war aren’t particularly close to either.

Our game, though, is drifting towards a third aesthetic pole that doesn’t seem to show up as often in the more challenge-oriented systems and adventures. It’s not particularly grim or concerned with how bad the situation would actually be to live through, engaging instead more like a sport.

An illustration might help: Dead Cells is a fairly difficult rogue-like platforming videogame where you’ll die a lot (it is a rogue-like after all) and you fight all kinds of fairly horrible creatures, but it doesn’t really try to make things feel horrible1. It’s challenging, maybe even brutal, and it describes things that would be unpleasant at least to encounter physically, but it isn’t trying to make that viceral to the player.

That’s more or less the aesthetic our game has hit: an approach to the situation where things can be awful, but the awfulness isn’t the point.

There are systems and adventures that are more towards this pole, but in general they tend to be the ones that are less challenge-oriented. DCC would be a reference point for the aesthetic, but rules-wise it puts a heavier emphasis character abilities as compared to player choices and cunning.

This is probably part of where the “sport” approach resonates with me. Grimdark skews more towards performance, fantasy Vietnam skews more towards military tactics, but we’re approaching the game from a remove that is more like sport2.

  • Last week I said I should finish a book and so I did. On Savage Shores done. I’m really enjoying the spread of academic research that dispels or complicates commonly held notions of “civilization” into approachable books (thinking also of The Dawn of Everything).
  • Unfortunately my next reading project, Pirate Enlightenment, has been a little less successful. I generally love Graeber, but thus far this book has been more detailed history instead of a more conceptual look, and it suffers for it. I’d expected something building on the ideas from his classic essay There Never Was A West, which still lives rent-free in my brain for pointing out that direct democracy is basically a way to avoid having to actually pick up weapons and fight. In a situation like a pirate ship, with everyone armed and with opinions on important matters, casting votes is basically a proxy for fighting over it.
  • My other project this week has been setting up a simple Markdown-based approach to tracking beer (both my current stock and the beers I drink). Sure there’s Untappd for tasting notes and for cellar tracking, but the social media aspects of Untappd (and the corporate ownership) are killing it and is one person’s passion project that could go down at any time. I want to own my own data in as simple and portable a format as possible, so now I have some markdown files with some simple frontmatter and a few scripts to do common things. It’s definitely a hobbyist approach, but it’s been very enjoyable to set up. I’ll probably share a how-to at some point if it works out for a while.

  1. Come to think of it, Dead Cells is in part an homage to Castelvania which does the same thing. 

  2. The specific terminology, though, is still a sticking point. To me “sport” brings to mind self-improvement, team work, and testing yourself. My players have less positive reference points. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

Read Next

A Wargaming Way Starter Kit