OSR: The Iron Gates and Information Gating

Here are some more notes on my Alexander Romance/Dark Souls-inspired Iron Gates setting. People have asked why I don't just write the setting. This post is an attempt to answer that question. The issue isn't writing, it's choosing what to write, and choosing how to present that information to a GM in a useful way.

Stepan Alekseev

Dark Souls takes video game elements and makes them part of the world. Constraints become building blocks. Elements that most games gloss over become emblematic of the series.

  • Dying and respawning at checkpoints.
  • Resetting enemies.
  • Enemy deaths converting into Experience Points.
  • Boss fights.
  • Intermittent PvP.

The constraints of a tabletop RPG are not the same as the constraints of a video game. If you want media that turns RPG elements into world elements, Order of the Stick and similar tongue-in-cheek media are probably the way to go.

Dark Souls is a single-player game. The game proceeds at a pace controlled by one person. Combat is satisfying. Player skill is vital. Mysteries are optional; you don't need to know much of the plot to go somewhere you haven't been before, find a fog gate, go through it, and kill whatever is on the other side.

RPGs involve multiple people, who all need to be sufficiently entertained to turn up to the next session. The pace is barely controlled by anyone, but everyone gets some input. Combat is rarely as satisfying as system designers hope it will be, mainly because it takes time to do anything. Roll dice, move chits, mark down numbers, do math; a computer can do it all instantly and seamlessly, but tabletop RPGs are slow. Player skills are important, but are mainly focused on finding ways around combat (or similar roadblocks) and coming up with lateral solutions. Because the world doesn't exist outside of the group's shared imagination, a higher degree of engagement with the plot is important.

Simulating Dark Souls combat in an RPG doesn't make a ton of sense to me. You could build a tabletop system to "authentically" simulate a game of snooker... or you could just play snooker. If an experience is difficult to come by (say, landing an airliner, firing a neutron laser at a mutant space goon, etc.) then I can see some utility in simulating it, but Dark Souls isn't exactly hard to find.

So if we set the system aside as an issue for another time, we're left with non-system information. The old crunch vs. fluff distinction. What makes a Souls setting a Souls setting, and how can that information be conveyed in an RPG context?

Ariel Perez

Conveying Information In An RPG

In a Souls-type video game, player-facing information consists of the opening cutscene, any mandatory boss cutscenes, the environment, and maybe a few lines of dialogue. It's possible to play the game to completion and not have a clue what's going on. Why do bonfires exist? Who's this big snake? Why is this guy on fire? Oh well, hit them until the health bar drops and the credits roll.

Even players who pay close attention will probably miss lore elements. Some secrets seem like they are designed for collaborative analysis and debate. Why does Lysanderoth's Ring have a picture of the Fourfold Sigil on it? Why is a corpse in the Billowing Library wearing the Elm Scholar's Set, and does it have anything to do with the cut content surrounding the War of the Misfiled Ledger? You know, that sort of detail.

It's not difficult to write a Souls-type setting. It's difficult to present it to a GM in a manner that makes it useful (or even useable). Writing paragraph after paragraph about various dieties and locations doesn't help. It's just... words. What a GM needs are tools. I've written about a few tools in this post, but here are some additional notes.

A GM doesn't have access to spectacular visuals or sound cues. They can turn the book around to show the players some art, but that's not always feasible (or even wise; a good description can be far more evocative than a piece of art). Players tune out after a sentence or two of readaloud text.

Information is impermanent. Unless a player took notes, the description happened and then vanished into the past. In a video game, you can revisit an area, check an item description, or replay a conversation; RPGs do not have that luxury.

In between RPG sessions, real-world events will cloud memories and obscure details. "Where were we? Who were we fighting? What's that giant snake talking about?" Good notes help, but a GM can't force players to take notes or pay attention. 

Therefore, a setting guide needs to rely on tools that a GM can access:

Whenever possible, descriptions should use elements already present in the players' minds to create the shared imaginary world. Call up a castle and a castle appears; the players know what a castle looks like. Sure, everyone's imagining a different castle, but in one word the GM has set the basic framing of a scene. A handful of descriptive words and modifiers fill in the colours.

The first description of a scene should give the players enough information to make immediately relevant choices. If there's a giant dragon sleeping on a pile of gold, the GM should definitely mention it, and fill in architectural and textural details later.

But as the players move through a scene or interact with the world, the GM can introduce layers of description. It's an overgrown chapel with an altar. It's a wooden altar, painted to look like marble. The bowl atop the altar is made from the horns of a stag. The horns are untouched by the moss and algae that coat every other surface in the chapel.

In a Souls inspired RPG setting, every detail should matter. Everything should be part of a larger pattern, because there's so little information being conveyed. Everything presented in a setting guide should connect, in some way, to some other element or hidden plot or world system. If an altar is made of wood, it's made of wood for a reason. If a ring is made of silver, it's made of silver for a reason. It allows players to make educated guesses about the world, and experience the joy of discovery when their inferences are rewarded. It also lets the GM improvise with confidence.

Perfect coherence is impossible for any author... but it's worth aiming at, and it's worth convincing your readers (and players) that yes, this was all planned. Whenever possible, smile gently and take the credit. 

Themes and visuals can be repeated in different areas, or reinforced by similar phrasing. The chapel's guardians wear cloaks of lichen and masks of bark. They flee before anyone wearing a crown. Their blood is black and thin, like stagnant water.

Presenting this information to the GM in a useful and consistent manner is crucial. The days of chapters of two-column lore text are over. This information can fit in random encounter tables, items, NPC descriptions, location descriptions, weather tables, etc, etc. You don't want a GM to feel as if they have to quote the text verbatim, but you want to provide high-quality prompts that they can weave the written words into a fluid description.


Secrets, Secrets, and Secrets

I'm not a fan of RPG books where vital setting elements are hidden from the GM. If there's a murder mystery, summarize the plot early in the book. If there's a metaplot, provide a handy chart. Try, as much as possible, to make the GM's life easy. Let the players puzzle out the solution (or one possible solution), but don't force the poor GM to pick through pages of purple prose to discover Nepotian the Merchant is really Nestorpot the Heretic in disguise.

But since people sometimes buy RPG books to read, not to use, it might be advisable to include some less relevant mysteries for the GM/reader to uncover. Vital concepts (such as Iron, Gold, and Water in the Iron Gates setting) should be fully explained to the GM, but subtle patterns could be left as surprises for readers and players alike.

Since the Iron Gates setting is based on stories from the real world, readers, GMs, and players can use real-world knowledge to assist in-game. The material isn't a 1:1 adaptation, and reading the Alexander Romance might provide too many spoilers, but patterns present in the Iron Gates setting will resonate with other stories known to the players.

Example: The Stag and the Unicorn

There is much to be surmised, but little that a cautious investigator would care to affirm positively, about the symbolic meanings ascribed to the unicorn in pre-Christian times. Several bits of evidence concur, however, in the suggestion that for a very long time one-horned animals have been regarded as emblematic of unlimited or undivided sovereign power.


In the Book of Daniel (chapter viii) there is recorded this strange vision: "And behold, an he goat came from the West on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground; and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. And he came to the ram that had two horns . . . and ran unto him in the fury of his power. And I saw him come close unto the ram, and he was moved with choler against him, and smote the ram, and brake his two horns: and there was no power in the ram to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground and stamped upon him." Later in the same chapter we are given an interpretation of this vision: "And the rough goat is the king of Grecia, and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king."

The one-horned goat of Daniel's vision, in other words, stands for Alexander the Great, and the whole allegory depicts his triumph over the hosts of the Persians, represented by the two-horned ram. The interesting thing is that the one horn should be chosen as a symbol of superior power. One can readily understand it as a symbol of single and supreme sovereignty, and it is permissible to paraphrase the sentence quoted above so as to make it read: "The great horn that is between his eyes signifies that he is the supreme king." Exactly the same symbolism is found in the pseudepigraphic first book of Enoch, in the ninetieth chapter: "And I saw till horns grew upon these lambs, and the rams cast down their horns; and I saw till there sprouted a great horn of one of these sheep, and their eyes were opened. And it looked at them and it cried to the sheep, and the rams saw it and all ran to it." The one-horned sheep of this passage, according to the notes of R. H. Charles, must be Judas Maccabaeus.

- Lore of the Unicorn, Odell Shepard

In opposition to the singular horn of the Unicorn / the singular power of Kingship / control / legibility, we have the Stag, whose branching antlers represent opposition to anthropocentric order. Consider the White Stag of Arthurian legends. Both the White Stag and the Unicorn are otherworldly and proverbially difficult to capture. 

So, in the Iron Gates setting, creatures with one horn will be associated specifically with Iskandar, and creatures with multiple or branching horns will be associated with the outer darkness and wilderness. Will this association ever be relevant to the players? Probably not. But if they pick up on it, and find an amulet with a unicorn on it, they might make a connection.


  1. This might be my most-anticipated rpg thing right now. You have clearly thought very hard about the issues at hand, and to great effect. Everything you've written in this series has been gold, and I've stolen quite a bit of it already.

  2. Interesting! One thing I struggle with with designing this sort of thing is what happens when you have to actually people the setting. There's a tension between how much information the people who live in this world know, in part because unlike in a video game where you can lay out passages of dialogue, in a game the players can metaphorically beat characters like pinatas until lore spills out.

    1. Oh absolutely! And very well put as well. I should have covered that in the article.

      The traditional approach is to make the PCs outsiders (so that player knowledge is approximately equal to PC knowledge), and to make NPCs either ignorant, unhelpful, or actively pursuing their own agendas. In the Iron Gates, some of the information will be known to the players (that iron must be quenched in blood and that too much iron seems to have some sort of effect on the human body), some will be known to NPCs (that Iskandar did not die a natural death), and some will be unknown to all (what lies beyond the Iron Gates).

      Another way to conceptualize it is by asking yourself how much information you could provide to a questing PC. How old is that temple at the end of the street? Do you know any local arms dealers? What is the significance of the statue in this square, and when was it erected? Which members of your local government can be bribed? How do you think the world will end? Etc.

    2. Reasons this NPC can't be beaten like a piñata until the lore spills out:
      1. They can speak in endless circles, a la "a dosh is a thing that, at least in aggregate, and under at least one possible circumstance, can be distimmed by a gostak". They never lie, but are very careful to answer with "yes" when that's a booleanly true response and "no" otherwise. "Is King Arctavio a werewolf, or not?" "Mmm... yes." This option is my personal favorite.
      2. They are off their rocker. They mix crackpot babbling with a few precious grains of truth, but only to make those truths suspect and more difficult to believe later on, and so drive the players to madness.
      3. They are as ignorant as the PCs, unfortunately. "King Arc-who-now? Sorry, I'm just a corn farmer." How much do you know about Amyntas IV of Macedon? I didn't even know his name until I checked Wikipedia.
      4. They tell bald-faced lies. "King Arctavio is actually a member of the Snakeman Cult. If you walk up to one of his guards and hiss at them, they'll let you right into his chambers." If you only deploy a guy like this once or twice, discovering his treachery will drive players into a frothing-at-the-mouth murderous rage.
      5. They actually *can* be beaten like a piñata. It's nice to meet a genuine sage, archaeologist, loremaster or librarian now and again. I prefer ancient magical constructs, or otherwise immortal and inhuman intelligences, but a scholarly NPC works just as well.
      6. They were murdered immediately before the PCs arrived, in order to permanently ensure their silence on the players' most burning questions. Perhaps they scrawled out a cryptic note in their life's blood; "ARCTAVIO... THE FACE ON THE MOON..."

    3. That makes sense! Distinguishing between the 'known' and 'unknown' bits of the world can be a bit challenging as well, I think that was part of the issue I was running into- treating all knowledge as equally secret, or as degrees of secret.

  3. Did Elden Ring spur you to return to this, or is it random timing? The open-world nature of ER both complicates storytelling (players can access nearly everything at any point) and enhances aspects of it (if something seems like a dead-end, go explore elsewhere and build the network of ideas wider rather than deeper). Lots to be mined there, assuming you have a spare 40-300 hours to invest.

    1. I've been digging into Elden Ring, because (as you'd expect), an open world Souls game has a lot of overlapping design with an RPG setting. Some good choices, some bad ones, and some irrelevant ones, but it's all worth examining.

    2. A full breakdown of how you think elden ring relates to RPGs and what you think of it's choices would be cool. I like your reviews of things

  4. Nice to see this setting revisited. The horn imagery brings Iskander as Dhul-Qarnayn to mind, while we're being Abrahamic and anachronistic there's always Revelation's pointy beast. I don't know what notion of bronze age empires medieval literature had beyond mentions of Hittites and Babylon but I reckon you could expand Bronze's reach further back than old Rhen. Mostly bronze as an alloy reflects older empires' reliance on trade where with iron it's easier to mine, smelt and smith on the spot. There'd be nice symmetry with iron as the most recently mastered metal while also being that which has been with us longest in our very blood.