Thursday, 8 September 2016

OSR aesthetics of ruin

First off: I know that trying to make generalisations about the OSR as a whole is a fool's errand, and that what I'm actually talking about is less 'the OSR' and more 'that cluster of OSR writers whose works are loosely grouped together by shared connections to Lamentations of the Flame Princess and to each other'. That would make for a rubbish blog post title, though; and I don't think I'd be saying anything too contentious if I was to observe that the group of writers in question have been responsible for a lot of the most high-profile OSR work in recent years. The people I have in mind include (without in any sense being limited to) the likes of Zak S, Gus L, Arnold K, Patrick Stuart, Scrap Princess, Dave McGrogan, Rafael Chandler, Chris Tamm, James Raggi, Zzarchov Kowolski, Bryce Lynch (whose reviews, at this stage, constitute a highly influential body of OSR writing in their own right), James Maliszewski, Patrick Wetmore, Geoffrey McKinney, Clint Krause, Mateo Diaz Torres, Dunkley Halton, Chris McDowall, P. Crespy, and Matthew Finch. And probably a bunch of others whose names are slipping my mind just now.

Each of these writers has a very strong personal voice; but, as I've mentioned before, they also have a strong body of shared aesthetics. One could be boringly reductive and describe it as 'weird science-fantasy horror', but the patterns of imagery which recur throughout their works are actually a good deal more specific than that. More specifically, one of the things which links a lot of them together is a shared interest in the aesthetics of ruin.

Jupiter Pluvius
'Jupiter Pluvius', by Joseph Gandy.

Ruins, of course, are central to D&D, and always have been. The original dragon in the original dungeon was Smaug in The Hobbit, who lived in a ruined Dwarven city, and 'it's an ancient ruin' has always been the go-to explanation for why the holy D&D trinity of vast underground complexes, dangerous monsters, and valuable treasure should all be found in the same place. (The basic pitch for many D&D adventures is essentially 'imagine if the Tomb of Tutankhamun had a hundred rooms and half of them were full of killer monsters.') But the ruined-ness of such settings isn't always given much attention; often, the ruin just acts as an excuse for having a dungeon out in the middle of nowhere, with everything and everyone inside it being in a basically non-ruinous condition. The traps are functional. The treasure has retained its full value. The magic items still work. The monsters are in tip-top fighting condition. Even the walls and ceilings are usually in pretty good shape.

In the works of many OSR writers, though, I've noticed that ruin  tends to be something which operates on every level: not just in the boringly literal form of physically ruined buildings, but also biological ruins (decaying corpses, malfunctioning ecosystems, unstable mutations, degenerate bloodlines), social ruins (fallen empires, disintegrating social orders, lost knowledge, dying traditions), moral ruins (madness, perversion, fanaticism, corruption), and so on. Their works are full of broken machines that no longer function, lost knowledge which no-one understands, degenerate clans sinking into feral barbarism, once-brilliant minds declining into madness, and scavengers living among the corpses of giants. Their preferred fauna are vermin and scavengers: frogs, snakes, rats, toads, insects, and spiders. Their preferred flora are usually mushrooms and fungi. Frequently-used motifs include rust, cannibalism, insanity, mutation, disintegration, mutilation, and biological decay. Rather than a perfectly healthy tribe of orcs practicing perfectly functional evil magic, their ruin-settings are more likely to be inhabited by clans of mad and degenerate morlocks practicing weird semi-functional cargo-cult sorcery based on badly-misunderstood fragments of ancient knowledge that they found scratched onto the dungeon walls. They don't just live in ruins: they have ruined bodies, ruined minds, ruined societies, and sometimes even ruined souls, as well.

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Print from Piranesi's 'Carceri'.

Over and over again, these writers cast the PCs as tiny figures wandering a world of dead and dying titans, stumbling amidst the wreckage of mighty forces they do not understand. (In fact, this could pretty much serve as the plot summary of every LotFP adventure I've ever read.) Whether they're delving into Stuart's Deep Carbon Observatory or Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Environment, navigating Gus L's HMS Apollyon or Chandler's Slaughtergrid or McKinney's Carcosa, trying not to die in Crespy's Castle Gargantua or on the slopes of Raggi's Deathfrost Mountain or just about anywhere in Arnold K's Centerra, they are going to be out of their depth and know it. But this is almost never because they're going up against a superior force operating at its full potential; instead, they're usually picking their way through the ruins of something so vast and powerful that even the random flailings of its last malfunctioning machines (or the dwarfish and degenerate descendants of its guard beasts, or the fragmentary and corrupted remnants of its arcane lore) are quite capable of smashing them to bits.

(Look, for example, at the layers of ruination built into the Dragon Hole dungeon that Arnold K is writing right now. A ruined reservoir complex once built to pump water into space, now inhabited by the remnants of a family of dragons, all of whom are insane. Each dragon served by a cult of brainwashed lunatics. The dragon's lair full of broken weapons and crippled would-be dragonslayers. The rotting corpse of their mother at the very bottom. The ruin goes all the way down. Gus L's adventures are even clearer examples of the same thing.)

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Untitled image by Zdzisław Beksiński. If you don't already know his work, you should.

Andy Bartlett was onto something when, back in 2013, he wrote about the Old School as having a 'pathetic aesthetic' - using 'pathetic' in the old sense of the word, as something capable of arousing feelings of pity or pathos in its audience. But that's only half of it. The fear and vulnerability of its protagonists - and of many of its antagonists, come to that - can and should arouse pathos, although it can also be played for comedy value. But the immense mismatch between their fragile, mortal lives and their huge and ancient surroundings also inspires feelings of awe and grandeur: the aesthetic which used to be known as 'the sublime'. A man bleeding to death in a gutter is pathetic. A man bleeding to death in a gutter in the middle of a pre-human city of mile-high spires combines pathos with sublimity.

(The technical term for the deliberately incongruous combination of sublime and non-sublime elements was 'the grotesque', which is an aesthetic that the OSR also gets a lot of mileage out of. But there's a difference between an aesthetic which deliberately jumbles up high and low elements and an aesthetic which simply places them both on the same stage in order to call attention to the vast disparity between them.)

This 'pathetic sublime' has become a bit of a trademark of much contemporary OSR writing, to the point where it takes a moment to recognise that it's actually a bit counter-intuitive. Real people don't get a choice about whether to encounter a civilisation at its height rather than as an ancient ruin, but authors and GMs do: and if the premise of your set-up is 'something huge once happened here', then why isn't that the focus of the scenario? Why not use a sublime sublime, rather than a pathetic one, and make the PCs as the equals of the world they encounter, mighty men in a mighty age, rather than dwarfish outsiders creeping fearfully through its wreckage? Take something like Gus L's (very good) adventure The Dread Machine. It casts the PCs as adventurers exploring an ancient site which has been stricken with no less than three layers of ruination: the ruin of the empire that built it, the subsequent ruin of the religion that brought that empire down, and the more recent ruin of most of the creatures which once defended it. Why start there, three crashes down the line, rather than having the original baddies up and running in all their evil glory, and the PCs being the Sublime Epic Heroes whose job it is to try to take them down?

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More Beksiński.

Here's where I think it becomes more than just coincidence. Quite apart from their preference for lower power levels, OSR game styles tend to be very open, giving PCs as much liberty as possible to run around an environment and explore it in whatever wildly self-destructive ways they can dream up; but that openness requires and implies a certain set of absences. If PCs can run around the inside of a giant machine pulling levers to see what happens - and they should be able to, because that stuff is classic - then that implies that whoever first built this amazing machine, with all the technological and organisational prowess which its size and complexity implies, is no longer around to stop them. If they can rove from place to place, butchering or befriending the occupants of each area as the whim takes them, then that implies the absence of any kind of overarching authority able to control the movements of this gang of freakish desperadoes. 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.

(Note that this is much less true of the 'scripted combat encounter' model of play that became the norm in the 3rd and 4th edition eras, where 'break into the fort and fight your way through an escalating series of set-piece battles as the defenders desperately try to repel your invasion' would have been a completely legitimate scenario design. In fact, for adventures like that, too much ruination might well get in the way: you don't want PCs circumventing combat encounters by climbing through the holes in the walls or manipulating the superstitions of the Morlocks, after all...)

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'Twilight Castle', from Vampire Hunter D.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that the more wrecked things are, the more open they are to free-form adventure. Malfunctioning AIs, senile liches, mad and delusional immortals, glitching magical security systems... all of these things are open to manipulation in a way that their fully-functional counterparts wouldn't be. Sane and organised beings are going to react rationally, efficiently, and collectively to an intrusion into their territory, which tends to short-circuit adventures; but if they're weird and superstitious and crazy then they can react in much more varied and interesting ways - a possibility which the classic module B4 The Lost City employs to great effect. The World-Shaking Magic of the Ancients probably isn't much use to you in your game: either it actually turns out to be not that much more powerful than anything else, in which case it's going to be a massive disappointment, or it really does have world-shaking power, in which case letting it be used either by or against the PCs is likely to end the campaign. But the fragmentary and poorly-understood remnants of the World-Shaking Magic of the Ancients are great - and precisely because of their ruinous condition, they can be given non-game-ruining effects without actually reducing the mystique of the Ancients themselves. No matter how fantastical something may be, familiarity will breed contempt: but only ever encountering things in fragments prevents them from ever becoming fully known and defined, which is great both for atmosphere and for actually enabling the kind of exploratory gaming which most OSR games are set up to facilitate.

I don't think this is the only reason why ruin is such a prevalent motif in OSR writing. Part of it comes from the rules: if you're a 1st-level character with three hit points exploring a mysterious underworld with dragons and demons in it, then a certain sense of being dwarfed by the world around you is inevitable. Part of it comes from the fascination with horror, which is a genre that was literally born out of people's feelings of discomfort with the ruins of the past. (There's a reason for all those ruined abbeys in early Gothic novels.) A lot of it is inherited from 1920s and 1930s weird fiction writers like Howard and Lovecraft, who were trying to get to grips with the new vistas of 'deep history' revealed by the science and archaeology of the period. But I think the reason that it survives as a design principle, rather than just as an aesthetic choice, is because it actually works for the desired mode of play. 'Five guys take on a fully-garrisoned temple (or castle, or lab, or whatever)' is always going to be either a heist or a commando raid. But 'five guys take on a ruined temple'... Now that can be an actual adventure!


33 comments:

  1. "Part of it comes from the fascination with horror, which is a genre that was literally born out of people's feelings of discomfort with the ruins of the past."

    Funnily, during the Renaissance, Roma was only 10% inhabited, the rest being the ruins of the capital city of the empire. They lived inside the ruins and built their homes out of them (check Hubert Robert's paintings by the way, they are early-modern post-apocalyptic)

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    1. Nice! I'd not come across Robert, but Gandy and Piranesi - both of whom I reproduce images from in the post - were doing similar kinds of work. In fact, a quick check shows that Piranesi and Robert would actually have been in Rome painting ruins at the same time! 'Early-modern post-apocalyptic' is a great description of their style.

      (I think the same 'people living in ruins' thing happened in Egypt, too...)

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  2. _In Ruins_, by Christopher Woodward, is an interesting read about the appeal and aesthetics of ruins.

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    1. Thanks for the tip! I'll give it a look.

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  3. hahhaa turns out I have RUIN tattooed on me

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    1. Hey, good for you!

      (And your blog is a brilliant example of using scraps, ruins, and wreckage in inventive ways. I loved the animation smears!)

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  4. Interesting read - thanks for putting a word to the feelings of ineffable sadness and decay that I often try to put in my adventures.

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    1. And a very good job you do of it, too!

      Do you know the Old English poem 'The Ruin', which seems to have been written by a Saxon poet contemplating the ruins of a Roman city? It's probably the purest example I know of the feeling that you describe, although I don't know how well it carries across into modern English!

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    2. What's particularly interesting about The Ruin (like much of Anglo-Saxon writing) is the ruined and lost nature of the text itself. We need to claw at the rare cases of a oral culture that's been written down for some anomalous reason — even that it was written itself is a strange ruination of its otherwise likely verbal transmission. It's a water-damaged photocopy of a photo of a painting.

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  5. great post, insightful and well written.

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  6. It's funny because I bey you started writing this before I wrote my last blog post, which was just about surviving the apocalypse and then all the survivora dying. It's the ruiniest thing I've ever written.

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    1. Yeah, I started writing it while you were still down your dragon hole.

      Starfighter Samwise is, indeed, totally and wonderfully ruin-tastic. And, in its own way, also weirdly faithful to the original vision of 'The Lord of the Rings'. Which is a series that has a thing or two of its own to say about ruination...

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    2. I'm going to write an adventure that's the opposite of ruin, just for you. It's going to be about helping a cow give birth, or helping a seed grow.

      YOU DON'T KNOW ME!

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    3. I do know you. It'll turn out to be a freaky mutant cow from space, and its baby will be the (p)re-incarnation of some lunatic heretic from the future who's trying to escape their own damnation by arranging for themselves to be (p)reborn into the body of a calf. A calf with laser-beam eyes.

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  8. I already see this one making it high on your "Popular Posts" lists. And one I can see myself linking to for years to come.

    I am quite surprised that I recognized most of the names that are listed at the beginning. I really got into OSR a year ago and these are almost all names I have added to my link list or file library over the months. Surprising, but probably not a coincidence. There is a real similarity and connectedness in this part of RPG circles.

    I first started thinking about these things when reading the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding (a great book I can fully recommend) and coming across the claim that all D&D is effectively post-apocalyptic. My wish to make something more positiv with my Ancient Lands setting eventually led my two a world in which civilization is in perpetual collapse. Warlords unite clans, crown themselves king, build a city state, and a two or three hundred years it all comes crashing down with the population fading back into the wilderness. It is the nature of things. And while almost every place you visit seems to be on the up branch, the remains of past city states and villages are everywhere. However, the driving force behind this circle is not entropy but life. What appears to be decay is really the natural world reclaiming what had been taken from it. It's a more lush and green approach, but in the actual effects on adventuring it's the same. Lots of emtpy places where the characters can stroll around at their leasure and attempt to comprehend the fragments of people who have vanished from history.

    And guess what game I just got back into yesterday: Dark Souls. This series lives and breaths the aesthetic of pathetic ruin and while the gameplay is a major draw the presentation is a huge influence for it's massive popularity. Another videogame I often think of when working on dungeons is Halo. It's much brighter with explosions and lasers, but in the end it's all about being one of few survivors walking through the ruins of the past.
    Dark Souls and Halo both make heavy use of the combination of empty ruins and death with an atmosphere of tranquility ot even serenity. Yes, everyone is dead and you probably will be too soon. But with all the living gone (and currently no undead nearby) it's all strangely peaceful and quiet.

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    1. Reply 1, on OSR name-dropping: I only started getting into OSR stuff about a year and a half ago myself. I think there really *is* a lot of connectedness - a surprising amount, really, when you consider that the only qualification for joining the OSR is liking one or more old versions of D&D. My impression is that 'Lamentations of the Flame Princess' has provided a kind of fixed point which a whole bunch of people with related interests (weird fantasy, historical fantasy, horror) have been able to rally around. Books like 'Better Than Any Man' and 'Red and Pleasant Land' give them something less ephemeral than a blog post which they can point at and say: 'we're interested in things like *that*'.

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    2. Reply 2, on other emotions aroused by ruin: yes, absolutely. Ruins don't have to inspire sadness, and you can certainly emphasise their tranquility or their vitality instead. (As a mopey Goth teenager in the 1990s, I found hanging around in crumbly old graveyards genuinely soothing. I drew great comfort from reminders of my own mortality.) So, yes, you can detach the 'game effect' (an adventure friendly location) from the aesthetic if you want to. Looting ancient ruins certainly never seemed to make Conan particularly miserable - he just viewed the rise and fall of nations as an inevitable part of life!

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  9. I think this came along at the right time for my own writer's block and has given me some food for thought. I have found with bringing new players into role playing in general and FRP in particular, they often ask "why" in regards to the reason so many old buildings are just laying around waiting to be looted. The question is valid and has often been glossed over or ignored in favor of suspending disbelief. The world is in ruin because the world is in ruin. To suggest we play in a relatively clean or better sanitized world would rob us of the underlying conflicts. One thing though that I want to get thoughts on is the relationship between the characters, their players, and the world. I have a few other things first, though.

    Ruin gives a sense of history and a sense of motion. Almost exclusively the earlier ages were ones of wonder, higher learning or knowledge, and a certain feeling of nostalgia for the good ole days. (Kind of like the history of RPG.) The people in those old days were closer to the sources of power, had more knowledge, but lacked the sense to use it correctly. As if the Romans or Scythians possessed nuclear weapons and ended the classical world with a few atomic mishaps. Instead of atomic weapons however, we usually get monsters and magic of such grandeur that they seem fantastic even in a world of magic and monsters and miracles. So delving into the detritus of those halcyon days has an allure, even if the bits are broken or no longer functional.

    Curiously I think this says as much or more about the characters and players than the writers and settings. I could (and have) played with FATE mechanics and some genre-bending settings that wrap things up in a neat bow after a session or two. But I don't want to do that, I would rather slog through a web and wickedness filled old stone building and rely on mechanics that are traditional or at least call back to traditional methods of play. Even as a world moves forward there are those characters who are unwilling or unable to move forward with it, feeling perhaps out of time or place or just unable to go through the every day world minimizing violence and conflict instead of embracing it. In some ways this recidivist behavior defines the kind of world these people, puppets of our whims though they are, can live and thrive in. They need ruin for a number of reasons. Yes breaking into a living necromancer's house is illegal, but breaking into a dead one's abode is fine and perhaps even praiseworthy. It is more than that though, in the world of ruins one has control of their own actions free of society's prejudices and needs to continue to grow. Heroes rarely come to happy endings because they can never truly give up that connection to a world where control is theirs and the risk is theirs.

    So I wonder if consciously or unconsciously the writers and designers are responding not just to their own aesthetic but also the needs of the audience? Especially in a time of social changes taking place in real life.

    This was a great read. I realize I have been doing my own designs in a bit of a vacuum and this has given me some food for thought.

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    1. I think that the preference of most OSR gamers for a certain level of 'messiness' - for games that don't, as you put it, 'wrap thing up in a neat bow after a session or two' - is a contributing factor, yes. Unlike games like FATE, where everything is built around the PCs and the world exists to tell their stories, OSR-style mechanics are meant to evoke a world that's bigger and stranger than the PCs who move through it, one that exists independently of them and probably doesn't care about them very much. That's going to lend itself to certain kinds of settings.

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    2. Exploring the ruins of past civilizations free of obligations is nothing new. It's all over the stories of Borroughs and Howards who were writing close to a century ago.

      Nazi architecture had the concept of Ruin Value, which was a conscious effort to build representative buildings so that they would still look majestic a thousand years in the future and their ruins inspire future generations. (Would have been very expensive, though, so these projects were pushed back for after the war.)

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    3. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/04/Joseph_gandy_bank_ruins.jpg

      Joseph Gandy's 1830 painting of how the Bank of England, built by his patron John Soane, would look after a few centuries in ruins.

      This was meant to be a selling point. 'It might not look like much now, but the future races who come to visit the ruins of our fallen empire are gonna *love* it!'

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    4. Another influence that certainly fits with the theme of British decline is the Lost Generation and WW1 - both the grotesque effacement of humanity implicit in mechanized warfare and the withering of 19th century values (or enlightment values)when exposed to the light of post-modern/post-industrial reality.

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  10. good one
    I think also the British (post-empire) writers with their themes of decay were a part of it--Tolkien, Moorcock, MJ Harrison

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    1. Thanks!

      Tolkien's a bit early to be post-empire - if anything, I think that the real battle in 'The Lord of the Rings' is between what Tolkien wanted the British Empire to be and what he feared it might be turning into, which is why the real battle is always the inner battle against 'corruption' - but Moorcock wasn't exactly coy about the evil empires in Elric and Hawkmoon being partly modelled on Britain.

      I think Peake's the one who does it most directly, though. 'Gormenghast' basically asks the question 'What would British society look like if it was a building?', and comes up with the answer: 'Well, it would probably be a really, really, *really* massive ruined castle...'

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    2. There is also this weird thing going on with glorifying and romanticizing defeat. The most celebrated moments of British military history seem to be consistently examples of soldiers facing defeat and death bravely and with dignity. To die and suffer for the Empire is noble and glorious. Winning not so much.

      (I suspect unconscious guilt over a never openly acknowledged history of crimes against humanity. Telling yourself and others that you suffered just as much may help a bit. We saw this here in Germany as well before 1968.)

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  11. I also believe that there is an intrinsic appreciation of ruin within the OSR community; ruin as a characteristic of beauty.

    The physicist Hermann Weyl links symmetry to beauty:
    "Symmetry, as wide or as narrow as you may define its meaning, is one idea by which man through the ages has tried to comprehend and create order, beauty and perfection.",
    but I believe that within the OSR more people identify themselves with the opposite, or to quote Beaudelaire:
    "That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity - that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty."

    You mentioned magnificent societies so grand, that even the decaying left-overs are brutally dangerous, and therefore suitable for an exploration game. I agree heartily with this observation. In addition I think that ruins and imperfection also lead to added complexity; you cannot safely deduce something from the experiences you had. For instance, in a perfect symmetrically laid out floor plan, you know what the left-wing will look like, after you have explored the right wing. Less so, in a ruin or other imperfect structure.

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    1. You're quite right about the inherent aesthetic appeal of ruined and irregular surfaces. In the eighteenth century, the distinction you're drawing here was used to distinguish between 'beauty' (symmetrical, perfect, clear) and 'sublimity' (rugged, irregular, obscure), with the taste for the latter leading people to do things like build fake ruins in their back gardens to make the view out of the windows more 'sublime' (although, obviously, not more 'beautiful').

      Very good point about complexity and unpredictability!

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    2. So, if I understand correctly, 'sublime' refers to a quality so large and grand that it cannot be reduced into something simpler. And therefore it is different from 'beauty', which can be broken down in smaller qualities (symmetrical, perfect, clear).

      Never realized that the two concepts were at odds. Thanks!

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    3. Well, that's how they were understood in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I can't vouch for later on, when I get the impression that 'beautiful' increasingly just meant 'aesthetically pleasing', like it does today. But, yeah, sublimity is all about overload... like, imagine staring into a huge cavern, so big that your light can only illuminate a tiny fraction of it at once. (This is a D&D blog, after all!) The cave is huge *and irregular*, which means, as you've pointed out, that you can't generalise from the bits you've seen to the bits you haven't. *Anything* could be out there in the darkness, so you feel a sense of mingled awe and terror. That combination of emotions, prompted by the experience of being confronted with something which is too big or weird or scary for you to get a mental grip on it, is what they called 'the sublime'.

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  12. As a side note, embracing imperfection and the fact that everything passes plays also a central role in the (Japanese) wabi-sabi concept.

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    1. It does, yeah, but that's a lot more subtle. Most OSR stuff (like most Western ruin art in general) tends to be BIG and IN YOUR FACE. There's nothing very wabi-sabi about a GIANT RUINED CASTLE KNEE-DEEP IN HUMAN BONES!!!11one!

      (I suspect that this may have its roots in the very different ruin-cultures produced by a culture which builds in wood vs. one that builds in stone...)

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    2. Wabi-sabi had a huge impact on the metaphysical superstructure of my own worldbuilding. I like to think of it being in "perpetual collapse", with untamed wilderness reclaiming everything. It also adds a certain Clark Ashton Smith vibe to everything, or Howard's notion that the natural state of humanity is barbarism. Most OSR stuff seems pretty grim and gloomy, but wabi-sabi is a good approach to give such adventures and setting a serene aesthetic as well.

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