Anti-Sisyphus Omnibus (system agnostic) (priority review)
The omnibus-compilation of Anti-Sisyphus clocks in at 37 pages; these pages contain print-outs of the Anti-Sisyphus mini-pdfs #1 – #8 released individually; the page count above does not include front and back cover for the omnibus. However, the individual installment covers are included in the booklet’s page-count; 11 pages of these pages are devoted to the individual covers without any precise content, and one more page is devoted to an introduction to the omnibus. My review is based on the 2nd printing of the softcover version, which features thick, solid covers and quality paper, and it’s stitch-bound with two staples. I own the individual pdfs as well.
This review was requested as a priority review by my supporters.
It should also be noted that the booklet sports 5 editorials that serve to contextualize individual installments, often in a very charming, self-depreciating manner, which sells short the obvious research and reading that went into this booklet. That being said, I do not think that a traditional review format will do this booklet justice. Why?
Because this is essentially a post-modern manifest for ultra-rules-lite game/adventure design, performative and playful in its execution, with Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida as obvious key-influences; some of my readers will probably also have caught that the title is a play on Gilles Deleuze’s seminal work “Anti-Ödipus”, so add that to the key-influences.
in many ways, this, to me, reads like an attempt at a kind of Barthes-inspired “Death of the Game-Designer”, as a de-mystification and total democratization of game design as a process, and a general assertion of priorities in rules being misguided in some instances. (As an aside, the editorial for #5 does elaborate on that concept and pretty much directly quotes it in a playful manner.) This is a call to arms against the notion of rules as primary meaning-generators, in favor of an empty spaces between them generating meaning.
The very positive reception this has received in the ultra-rules-lite gaming circle is a testament to the power this booklet/ideology/manifest has for some people; the issue here is that, courtesy of the very structure of this ‘zine, it’s nigh-impossible to rate this in a fair manner, also partially due to the performative aspect of quite a few of the individual installments; beyond that, we have the level of detached irony suffusing the material, one so thoroughly interwoven with the material that it’s never that clear whether something is to be taken at face value.
Obviously, all of these general performative aspects cease working in their intent when contextualized in more rules-heavy games, and I’d argue that even most OSR games would fall into that category. If you, for example, enjoy games that have only the most rudimentary of rules, like “Into the Odd” and its derivative games, Troika!, and the like, then this may well resound with you.
Secondly, it should be noted that, while I appreciate the contributions of the aforementioned icons in critical theory and philosophy that informed the ideology (or lack/dissolution thereof!) conveyed by this booklet, they are thinkers whom I do appreciate as a whole, but also ones I’m partially vehemently opposed to. Barthes’ “Death of the Author” may be one of the worst things that has happened to humanities as proper sciences as far as I’m concerned (though the structuralist tendency that predated it also falls into this category), and as often as I end up enjoying post-modern literature, as often do I find myself aghast at the semiotic breakdown, self-referential navel-gazing and playful atomization post-modern literature sometimes devolves to.
Against the backdrop of this stance, it will probably be no surprise that I was not particularly enamored with this booklet; in fact, for me, as a person, this amounted to a waste of my time; ironically (or intentionally?), for me the best reading experience was actually the editorials, which show a keen and interesting mind at work.
However, I do understand that this book will have a very different use for others and may even be mind-blowing for some; as such, being a reviewer, I’ll endeavor to provide an outline of the content herein.
Anti-Sisyphus #1 provides a brief system for streamlined pricing; from d4 to d10, you have 4 dice for different value classes; the number of the item’s syllables then determines the number of dice; vendor reaction rolls are also taken into account. Additionally, we have a time and light mechanic, where dice are provided for light sources: E.g. torch = D6. You roll a d6, and when you enter a new room or start an encounter, the light source ticks down by 1. For obvious reasons, the fact that this makes light sources always go out when entering a room or starting an encounter is weird; I’d have simply tied that to time. I did not enjoy any of these rules and do not want to use them, but I can see some people enjoying these rules. It’s easy to poke holes in them.
Anti-Sisyphus #2 provides an easy dice pool skill mechanic, using pools of d6s to roll under ability scores; the more difficult a task, the more d6s you have to roll under ability score. Seen that sort of thing x times before. Secondly, we have a global weather roll: 1d4-1; if the weather would affect a check/save/etc., the result of this roll is applied as a penalty. Useful as a global streamlining for games that don’t have rules for weather influences, I guess.
Anti-Sisyphus #3 is a ramble on the perfect dungeon, and “rules” for it, where a character can choose to become the endboss of the dungeon, and fighting means death. That’s it. Probably useless for most tables. Following this is a holiday post-script, which is essentially an anti-rules-lawyer, pro-GM-decision text.
Anti-Sisyphus #4 is perhaps the most interesting for me, as it mirrors an experiment I have done as well; its cover states that the GM should steer clear of creating a background story or the like; 4 ultra-basic hooks/rumors are presented, and the module is a hex-crawl on an infinite grid, grey sands and desolation anywhere. Travel through a hex takes a day, and encounters…are essentially nothing. There 2 in 100 chance that something (ultra basic) happens; this experiment is one of creating MEANING by a kind of sensory deprivation of the players, and it is easily the most successful component herein as a performative experience, as a way to teach improvisation, or as simply a test of endurance. If your party’s game for experimental stuff, then this might be worth trying.
Anti-Sisyphus #5 proposes damage as experience: Damage is experience, and when you level up, roll 1d20; if you roll under your level, you die. I don’t enjoy either rule in practice for anything for purely hack and slash games, which I no longer do. It also includes a long explanation of the Death Posture, which I considered to be somewhat hilarious when attempted. Not an installment I’d consider worthwhile.
Anti-Sisyphus #6 starts with an excerpt of the poem “So long!” by Walt Whitman as editorial (the final lines, for fellow Whitman fans), and presents 8 notes from the author’s phone; a ww1 gun generator; a quasi-poem; an idea for classifying games on axes, etc.; in many ways, I think this is useful for GMs and authors, in that contextualizes the idea of philosophizing while walking/living for game-design and the smart-phone age. Content-wise, I liked the quoted poem at least.
Anti-Sisyphus #7 is a questionnaire that has, well the effect of any such question-array: It makes you think about aspects. Politics, religion, etc.; it’s also hilarious for some; the religion-section starts with questions on what’s most important for a GM, follows with a question of who the Neoplatonists were…you get the idea. It contextualizes know-it-all GM ideologies as the quasi-religious contexts they are. What is your favorite typeface used in a TSR-product? Draw a normal human. This is genuinely funny to me and made me laugh. Write a game in 5 lines. Write something that’s NOT a game in 5 lines. If you’re aware of e.g. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, this’ll be not as easy as many would think. It’s funny. Is it content for you? Debatable. But I can see it having a function.
Anti-Sisyphus #8 is perhaps the most obvious joke herein; we get basic rules-lite two-class rules for a 4-level character creation system, where ability score modifiers can range from +1 to -1, with the classes being fighters and magic-users…and then, after character creation, everything about those created character rules is disregarded, and the group plays a kind of narrative game based on poker cards. Haha. Funny? Perhaps.
All my usual means of judging a product don’t really apply to this booklet.
Can it be taken at face value? Yes and no. In many ways, this is a very successful attempt at creating a genuinely post-modern “gaming” booklet that is at once useful and not as useful; it’s impossible to separate irony from sincerity here, and while it can be incredibly useful for shaking up convictions (and trolling/pissing off persons), it is also very much an exercise in critical navel-gazing; its massive theoretical foundation (and believe me, it *IS* massive; it’s evident that the author Jared Sinclair has read and understood a serious number of great thinkers) and its application is intriguing; as a piece of meta-commentary and secondary literature for gaming as a whole, this is genuinely interesting, and sometimes decidedly FUNNY if you’re as much of an egghead as yours truly. If you don’t have the same level of knowledge regarding the inspirational thinkers, this might be much less funny…or much more enlightening.
Its actual utility for the average-Joe/Jane/insert preferred stand-in-GM-name remains to be disputed; for well-read academics and fans of post-modern and contemporary critical theory, or for those interested in the subject matter and gaming, this might be truly inspiring; same goes for those who feel like they cannot GM beyond the page/provided content, for those that need guidance regarding possible rules-lite design venues, as it *does* have this angle of a confident-booster.
I’ve had this booklet for over 2 years, and I still am not sure how to tackle it regarding reviewing it; because its very structure is one of performed subjectivity and as a call for that subjectivity to be answered and celebrated by the reader (something I am not keen on); as intellectually stimulating as parts of this booklet were to me in the sense that I “got the in-jokes” and what they say about game-design because I’m a smarty-pants, yay for me, insert pretentious self-congratulatory blabla, as much it also contrasts with the mathematical framework of most games I enjoy playing and the hard facts underlying the rhetorical flourishes provided.
Did this book change how I approach game-design? No. If anything, it further solidified my convictions. But other designers have found this booklet change how they think about games and game-design.
To borrow the tagline of one of my favorite publishers: “This might not be for you.” That certainly rings true for me regarding this ‘zine.
I think I’d have a blast talking with the author at a con, sharing drinks and discussing theory; in spite of ideological differences, this book shows a genuine desire for discourse, and I’m not talking about the toxic cesspool on twitter or FB, but of intellectual sparring and exchange. This is the work of a well-read scholar, and it deserves being treated as such.
And I respect this booklet. I don’t like it; it’s not for me. But it would not be fair to rate this badly…or praise it, for that manner. I can’t provide a rating for this.
This is an experimental manifest for a post-modern approach to rules-lite game-design and authorship. Would you enjoy it? I do not know. Would I buy this again? The answer would be a resounding “no”. But I don’t regret buying it either.
Take that for what it is; a subjective response to a booklet championing a thoroughly idiosyncratic and subjective position. That’s, more so than usual in my reviews, all I can do for you. It’s not as much as I’d like to provide, but all I can do right here. There’s no rating for this booklet that would be fair.
The pdf can be found here on itch.io!
Want an individual pdf?
#1 can be found here.
#2 can be found here.
#3 can be found here.
The Holiday Post-Script is here.
#4 can be found here.
#5 can be found here.
#6 can be found here.
#7 can be found here.
#8 can be found here.
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