Aether Operation is a psychedelic, surrealistic RPG set across the four Quantum Realms: spirit, brain, bone, and meat. The goal of the manipulators (player characters, each of which is aligned with one of those four aspects) is to maintain balance within and amongst the realms; their enemies are rogue entities and artifacts that seek to accumulate power for themselves.
The game’s mechanics center on each manipulator’s skills. The CRM involves rolling a number of dice equal to the numerical value of the skill being used. When manipulators take damage, they either reduce their skills’ values or they reduce their form, which is a separate point pool akin to HP. When a manipulator’s form reaches 0, they dissipate into the quantum landscape, and the player takes on the role of NPCs and environmental features.
Formally, Aether Operations is immediately recognizable as an RPG. Physically, Aether Operations departs from other publications via an experimental structure that plays on the material properties of its medium.
Aether Operations in Print
Aether Operations is not paginated; it is a single sheet of paper that is unfolded over the course of reading. The process takes reader from initial impression to character creation to core rules, all of which appear in progressively larger layouts. It culminates in finally revealing the map of the Quantum Realms, and at this point, players are ready to begin the game.
To facilitate folding and minimize bulk, Aether Operations is printed on newsprint—extremely lightweight paper. This grade of paper is usually reserved for ephemera: documents meant to serve a single, limited purpose but not to endure for months or years.
Newsprint’s consistency makes it flimsy and easily damaged, but it also has another consequence. Newsprint isn’t thick enough for metal type or plates to deeply deboss ink into the paper’s fibers, and so the ink instead sits on the surface and readily rubs off onto anything it touches (and, somehow, many things it doesn’t).
Luckily, this isn’t the case with Aether Operations. But the tactile nature evokes an expectation that the readers’ fingertips will come away full of errant ink, thereby gradually reducing the document’s integrity and quality, just as the Quantum Realms’ integrity is eroded by keepers and rogue artifacts.
Another problem inherent in newsprint will emerge, however. Unfolding and refolding the sheet for play and reference will eventually take its toll on the paper as the fibers wear from bending. The degrading physical integrity emphasizes the threat of disintegration that the manipulators must combat.
Overall, the paper’s physical character reinforces the transcendental aetherealness of the Quantum Realms. Its ephemerality fosters a handle-with-care mentality suitable for playing the manipulators, who cannot recover their form points and must act carefully lest ambient rigors lead to dissolution.
The physical nature of Aether Operations recapitulates and reinforce these aspects of gameplay. But the document’s design has other implications, not least of which is situating Aether Operations in a liminal category between poster and zine. This status of not quite being a book creates further resonances between the virtual game and the physical object. To fully appreciate these intersections, we must take a short detour through biology.
Neoteny occurs when an organism retains juvenile traits into its chronological adulthood, when those traits should change or disappear. For example, adult dogs retain characteristics of puppies and wolf pups that grown wolves do not possess. The most notable traits are morphological—having to do with the dog’s form as a dog—and behavioral, which humans have selectively bred for practical or aesthetic purposes.
But neoteny doesn’t have to be externally, intentionally induced. It can occur “in the wild” as a response to environmental conditions.
One of the most famous examples is the axolotl, a Central American salamander described by Julian Huxley. The axolotl is notable for remaining in a larval stage characterized by external gills, fins along the back and tail, and other aquatic adaptations.
But when transplanted into dryer environments, axolotls will mature into their adult stage. In their naturally wet habitats, though, axolotls maintain their immature form because doing so is simply more comfortable and survivable.
Neoteny isn’t unique to complex living systems. Designed objects, including printed documents, can also be neotenous.
Neoteny by Design
One example of textual neoteny is the gloss: writing that appears in the margin or interlinear space of a primary text. Glosses historically serve to clarify or interpret that text.
The gloss is a vestige of an earlier phase of Western cultural development. Direct dictation of interpretation was considered desirable, especially in matters of institutionalized faith prior to the Enlightenment. At that time, book production was a slow, specialized process conducted entirely by hand. Consequently, incorporating glosses into books was more efficient and effective than producing a companion volume.
Glosses can still serve their valuable purposes in textbooks, critical editions of literature, and other documents with explicitly didactic functions. However, part of post-Medieval liberal education’s purpose is to equip people with the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to understand and interpret writing and ideas.
By and large, through education and technology, glosses have become obsolete in mainstream print. As such, the gloss can be interpreted as a neotenous textual trait that some books retain from the earlier history of writing. Aether Operations, on the other hand, displays a very short-term neoteny by retaining a transient structure that emerges in the individual history of a printed book.
Books in Print
The basic unit of a physical book is the page. Each page is part of a leaf, which consists of four pages. Leaves together make up gatherings; gatherings are bound together in sequence to create a book.
The basic unit of book printing is the sheet. A sheet is printed front and back so that, when folded and trimmed, the result is a properly oriented and ordered gathering of pages.
In traditional, analog bookmaking, individual pages are printed using frames called chases. Chases hold together the typeset text along with any etchings or engravings. Wedges (called quoins) secure these components alongside spacers (called leading and furniture) within a chase.
To print a gathering requires two sets of chases, one for each side of the sheet. Each of these arrangements of chases is called a forme.
If you printed a sheet with two formes, front and back, but didn’t trim the folded edges or bind the spinal fold, you’d have something like Aether Operations—one step short of its final, “mature” form.
The Form(e) of Aether Operations
Unlike a sheet meant to become a gathering in a book, though, Aether Operations is designed—its formes are intentionally arranged—to be readable through progressive unfolding. If trimmed and bound, it would not be easily readable.
To function, Aether Operations resists this final transformation from folded sheet into pages. Instead, it remains in an unfinished, incomplete, or immature form (as judged by the standards of the bookmaking process). While the gloss is a neoteny of textual design that harkens back to an earlier historical period of bookmaking, the organization of Aether Operations is a neoteny of transitory material form that emerges in the physical printing process.
Aether Operations persists in this folded (rather than paginated) form because that form is better adapted for the intended purpose of facilitating gameplay. Progressively larger spreads accommodate the phases of character creation, presentation of rules, and finally the deployment of the map used to navigate the game’s setting during play.
That map is more effectively presented as a broadside than it could be in a zine. By integrating it into the other printed components, the document maintains a stronger physical unity with minimal usability friction or restrictions.
“Strata are judgments of God”
Thus spake Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. Taking their cue from Antonin Artaud, Deleuze and Guattari are emphasizing how stratification imposes hierarchy, which necessarily assigns status and value to its constituents.
Reading Aether Operations is a process of destratification that’s enacted through unfolding. Rather than geologically delving deeper through the strata of pages, the reader physically flattens the document’s information hierarchy as they approach gameplay.
Manipulators are primarily characterized by their alignment with one of the four realms, which are modeled after the enfolded structures of being. But in terms of character creation and relation to the Quantum Realms, these strata are arranged circularly (contra their linear visual presentation) without hierarchy, opposition, or co-dominance (as in the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire).
During play, the manipulators prevent or undo accumulations of power that would upset the four realms’ balance and recast them in a power-based hierarchy. The physical flattening (destratification) of Aether Operations is implicitly identified with the balance manipulators seek to preserve.
Similarly, Aether Operations apportions agency more equitably amongst players and GM. As mentioned above, when a manipulator dies, its player takes on roles that are traditionally the GM’s provenance. Another example is travel between realms. The player whose manipulator embodies the destination realm will answer questions posed by the other players. The GM must then adhere to these characterizations in the ensuing adventure. The players, not the GM, set the scene and the tone, and the GM subsequently interprets these. In this way, Aether Operations leans toward a more balanced asymmetry rather than overt hierarchy.
At a higher level of abstraction, the activity of play itself exists in a relatively flattened, non-hierarchically oriented social organization (which I describe in Table Talk and in the fourth labyrinth of Ariadne’s Ribbon). Players interact with each other through a network of relations rather than the more fully centralized structure that defines other forms of communication.
However, in print and in gameplay, Aether Operations and Aether Operations resist fully dissolving these structures. Even when unfolded, Aether Operations still bears tactile and visible marks of stratification. The hierarchy of information also persists on the opened broadside. Taken as a whole, it still preserves the spatial organization of layouts that lends the pseudo-paginated form its coherence, and this alternative form is preserved physically by the creases in the paper that persist even when unfolded.
Aether Operations exploits the isomorphism—a mappable, meaning-preserving similarity—between its physical and gameplay structures. This mutual reflection of materiality and experience helps make the game innovative and rewarding even if those similarities aren’t consciously recognized. Far from being novel for novelty’s sake, Aether Operations aligns print materiality with gameplay experience in a meaningful, coherent way.
Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.
A material review of Seb Pines’ solo writing/drawing/body-marking RPG
A guide to compliance in the Dying World
Where do you turn when D&D isn’t enough … or becomes too much?