Nomic Kennings

I’ve thinking about ‘Nomic’ this week. A game system created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber

13 minutes


I’ve thinking about ‘Nomic‘ this week. A game system created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber which includes has rules/mechanisms for changing the rules.

If law-making is a game, then it is a game in which changing the rules is a move. Law-making is more than changing the rules of law-making, of course, and more than a game. But a real game may model the self-amending character of the legal system and leave the rest out. While self-amendment appears to be an esoteric feature of law, capturing it in a game creates a remarkably complete microcosm of a functional legal system.

Nomic of course relates both to what I was saying in this weeks podcast about modular politics, coordinative mechanisms and tbh in a wider sense world running.

There are two ‘classes’ of rules in Nomic: Immutable and Mutable.

The two-tier system, by complicating the simplicity of a unitary system, embodies the same self-paternalistic elements of the federal constitution. The “immutable” rules govern more basic processes than the “mutable” rules, and so shield them from hasty change. Because every last rule of the game can change in the the course of play, the players may feel that they are playing a “different game” after a few rounds than when they sat down.[Note 4]

Here’s the TLDR of how the game works from wikipedia:

Initially, gameplay occurs in clockwise order, with each player taking a turn. In that turn, they propose a change in rules that all the other players vote on, and then roll a die to determine the number of points they add to their score. If this rule change is passed, it comes into effect at the end of their round. Any rule can be changed with varying degrees of difficulty, including the core rules of the game itself. As such, the gameplay may quickly change. The game can be played face-to-face with as many written notes as are required, or through any of a number of Internet media (usually an archived mailing list or Internet forum).

Under Suber’s initial ruleset, rules are either mutable or immutable. Immutable rules take precedence over mutable ones, and must be changed into mutable rules (called transmuting) before they can be modified or removed.

A rule change may be:

  • the addition of a new mutable rule
  • the amendment of a mutable rule
  • the repeal of a mutable rule
  • the transmutation of a rule from mutable to immutable, or
  • the transmutation of a rule from immutable to mutable

Dog Eat Dog

In both my conversations with folks for my world running project I’ve bought up the RPG – Dog Eat Dog by Liam Liwanag Burke.

A game about colonialism and its consequences, it is in my opinion a ‘perfect’ game.

Dog Eat Dog is a kind of Nonic game with a sort of ‘one one way Narrative Gate’. Rules are created, but can never repealed. Each new rule complexifies running of the games world. There’s a reason Dog Eat Dog was nominated for the Diana Jones Award!

Here’s a little bit about how the rules of DED work from a 2012 interview with the creator:

GFBR: So let’s talk a little more about how Dog Eat Dog works. Players take turns setting scenes, and play happens pretty loosely in scenes, until there’s a Conflict: someone says something that someone else doesn’t want to have happen.

Liam: Yeah, it’s mostly free narration until people run into conflicts, although people often work hard to avoid getting into conflicts in the first place.

GFBR: Why do they do that?

Liam: Well, I think they see pretty clearly that conflicts with other Natives are probably just going to benefit the Occupation, and conflicts with the Occupation are more or less impossible to win if the Occupation wants to win badly enough. So the safest course is to try to do as much as you can without making the Occupation too angry.

GFBR: Okay. Because conflicts start with Negotiation, and if someone doesn’t like the compromise that comes out of that, they basically take it to the dice (Chance), and if someone still doesn’t like the outcome of that, it escalates to Fiat, where the Occupation just gets to decide what happens.

Liam: Exactly. So even if the Occupation decides to compromise, there’s always that sword of Damocles — they can just choose to win, if they want to. It’s not a negotiation from equal positions.

GFBR: Oh, right. So when a scene is over (decided by mutual agreement), and the Occupation was in that scene, there’s the Judgement.

Liam: Right. This is where the Occupation compares the Natives’ behavior in the scene to the Rules, and determines whether they followed them (and get a token) or broke them (and lose a token).

GFBR: So Natives are “rewarded” for following the unspoken assumptions about society that are codified into the Rules, and punished for not following them. What happens with a Native who decides to throw it in the Occupation’s face and not kowtow to any of the rules?

Liam: They run Amok, of course! If they keep breaking Rules to the point that they run out of tokens, they end up in a state where they get to win conflicts automatically instead of the Occupation. This is their opportunity to do what they’ve been wanting to do the whole game and really cause some trouble. Of course, when you run Amok, you have to die during your next scene — you can wreak some havoc, but you can’t do it and survive for long.

GFBR: That seems pretty intense. There’s no “winning” for the Natives. Once the game’s started, at least.

The Kenning Game: An Introduction

A few years ago I spoke about kennings and orbit words. There is a Nomic-like game called ‘The Kenning Game’.

This essay presupposes a familiarity with Hermann Hesse’s novel Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). My own glass bead game, my approach to the Eternal GBG, which of course exists only in the novel and as a Platonic archetype, is called the Kenning Game, and is described below. This is really only a bare outline of the Kenning Game and its possibilities; as a result of my explorations with the Bamboo Garden group here in Seattle.

The Kenning game is about constructing an elaborate “conlang” or “constructed language” to get inside the reality of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. Incidentally the GBG IMO is probably THE book people need to read to understand the present and near future. We’re living it.

What are Kennings?

Kennings are an old Norse poetic device based on the analogy. They’re similar to Homeric epithets. Where the Greeks might say “the wine-dark sea” in their epic poetry, the Norse would say “whale road.” This of course comes from the analogy “sea is to whale as road is to horse” or something like it. To use the standard shorthand, this becomes

sea : whale :: road : horse

You can also diagram it as

   sea      road
  ----- :: ------
  whale     horse

The key to the Kenning Game is realising that such an analogy provides four kennings possible (or at least permissible). In this case, we have

  sea   = whale road
  whale = sea horse
  road  = horse sea
  horse = road whale

You get these kennings by going “vertically” then “diagonally” from the word in question in Figure 2. With a valid analogy, you can always get a kenning by going vertically then diagonally. Try it and see.

Some of these seem a little strange, but we might make sense of them by positing that “road whale” for “horse” is the product of a culture of aquatic intelligent beings that ride whales the way we ride horses. Some kennings do come out strangely, but one thing we are after in art is the novel viewpoint.

Now, the interesting part of the Kenning Game happens when you “nest” kennings.

The Kenning game seems like a crazy thing to play, here’s an example:

Charles Cameron has pointed out to me that the alchemical signs for “sun” and “gold” were identical, as were those for “moon” and “silver.” To the alchemists, gold and the sun were one and the same, so our last kenning is a tautology when expressed graphically. However, for purposes of the Kenning Game, it may be possible to differentiate between them simply by composing new kennings. Suppose you had glyphs for “metal” and “planet”:

gold : metal :: sun : planet


gold = metallic sun
sun = planetary gold

silver = metallic moon
moon = planetary silver

Here’s what I wrote about the value of kennings

The gravity of a kenning indicates the intensity of the concept it tries to contain. 

Orbits, gyroscopes, gyers bring to mind angular velocity that acrete around a star or an idea.

We need more kennings. It’s a far better way of generating understanding. 

Reject the social media literalism that flattens ideas with a label or a name. 

Let’s dance around the edges of ideas to know them better.

After I wrote that episode, JDO wrote about Kenning Novels, and what kennings do to the idea of a linear narrative – its worth checking out. Incidently, I wonder how much of this kenning thinking went in to his most recent book You Pray for Dry Weather at the Sight of the Sun.

let’s assume that “storytelling” in terms of a novel suggests a sequence of things happening, either in chronological order or slightly skewed (flashbacks, flashforwards), that suggest a change within a character or a plot device. How do you get away from that?

This is where the kenning comes in.

Whats interesting about the Nomic rule structure is how the ‘world ends’.

213. If the rules are changed so that further play is impossible, or if the legality of a move cannot be determined with finality, or if by the Judge’s best reasoning, not overruled, a move appears equally legal and illegal, then the first player unable to complete a turn is the winner.

This rule takes precedence over every other rule determining the winner.

Throw in a whole bunch of James P Carse/Finite and Infinite Games here. But the TLDR is living worlds are autopoetic.

Doesn’t matter if you wind the world up with a Nomic-like simulation or a kenning-like recombinational structure, successful worlds will keep worlding – this is the heart of Ian Cheng’s Emissaries guide to worlding

Anywhoos, this is a skattershot collection of related topics that I’ve been thinking about this week.

Photo 365


Permanently Moved

DAOs: Governance
vs Coordination

21st century meme culture and real-time chat have combined in DAOs to create the rolling AGM as a novel participatory form

The Ministry Of My Own Labour

I’ve spent the week with a notebook. Basically writing a plan of action. Bullet points became mind maps (remember them?), those mind maps came back together as bullet points under titles.

I realised that all the things I have half finished need to be broken up and re-combined. I have a blog. As Paul Graham Raven said to me ages ago “You have a blog, think like a blogger”. It seems to me under this rubric to explore aspects of a subject across posts rather than in one or two massive long things that are trying to do too much all at once.

AS a result, the podcast this week, I guess, is step one. A building block for other things.

Dipping the Stacks

What If This Is Just the Way Things Are Now?

This period of perceived relentlessness is, in fact, a period of tremendous potential — like the post-Civil War period, and also like the 1960s.

‘Bizarro World’ – The Boston Globe

“It’s funny,” I told Flewin. “We have an old Nintendo Game Boy floating around the house, and Tetris is the only game we own. My wife will sometimes dig it out to play on airplanes and long car rides. She’s weirdly good at it. She can get 500 or 600 lines, no problem.”

What Flewin said next I will never forget.

“Oh, my!”

After I hung up the phone, I went to the bedroom and woke my wife, Lori.

Have iPhone Cameras Become Too Smart? | The New Yorker

Apple’s newest smartphone models use machine learning to make every image look professionally taken. That doesn’t mean the photos are good.

How to blow up the capitalist realism of fossil capital | ROAR Magazine

Capitalist realist tropes in Andreas Malm’s environmental critique can complement Mark Fisher’s surprisingly scarce engagement with the climate crisis.

The Peace Within | DAMN° Magazine

The Bare Truth Is That Every One of Us Has Only So Much Time. Time to Achieve Goals, Carry Out Tasks, Attend to Family, Make Friends, Shower, Drink a Cup of Tea. How We Decide to Utilise Our Minutes Is Up to Each Individual. But if We Speak of Quality, Do We Not Want Every Day to Be Well Spent?


I finished reading Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia mid week. The anthology contains more than 50 contributions from folks of all ages and economic background. It’s a difficult and at times a confronting read.

Having finished it I returned to my second read though of Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta with a smidge more context than before.

I finished the warhammer 40k novel Requiem Infernal by Peter Fehervari. Fehervari has – for the last decade or so – been quietly carving himself a strange horror filled corner of the 40k universe called The Dark Coil. A series of interlinked short stories, novellas and novels has produced a complicated world. I decided after reading The Reverie (one of the best 40k novels hands down) to read my way though all of Fehrvari’s work. Grateful for this A Traveller’s Guide to Peter Fehervari’s Dark Coil that TrackOfWords put together. 3 stories down, 12 more to go.

I chucked a bunch of books that i’d like to read on my kindle this week.

  • Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age
  • Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games
  • The Microprocessor: A Biography by Michael S. Malone
  • The Chip by T. R. Reid

I also keep meaning to read The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson too.

So many books. So little time/other priorities.

Music Spotify Playlist

Broadside Hacks – Barbry Allen

A friend told me about Broadside Hacks on Tuesday and they have instantly become one of the most exciting things happening the UK music. A collective of musicians loosely based around a jam night in South London participating in the ‘new folk’ revival.

Barbry Allen is one of those English folk songs that once heard can’t be forgotten. The main character denies a dying man’s love, then dies of grief soon after his untimely death. Broadside Hacks version is wonderful.

Like all folk songs Barbry Allen is older than us, bigger. They are songs the perform us rather than the other way around.

Can’t wait to see ’em play live.

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One response to “Nomic Kennings”

  1. […] I’ve mentioned Blaseball several times previously in relation to power fandoms and Collective Storytelling, and Permissive IPs. It has very interesting mechanics and dynamics. Forexample the fact the community vote to change the rules of the game means the rules are in some sense nomic. […]

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