Jeff Howard

Jeff Howard


The Left Hand Path of Game Design

Since the Satanic panic of the 1980’s, games have been attacked as gateways to the occult, an accusation often ridiculed by gamers and pagans alike as slander and misunderstanding. But might there be some positive truth obscured in the accusations, a black flame that radiates from the shadow cast by the false light of the foolish? The evidence of modern games suggests a Left Hand Path running through games, a current of sublime transcendence that exceeds the boundaries of representation and simulation—what we can visualize and what we can play. Such games channel the energy of anti-cosmic rebellion, pushing against the boundaries established by human or natural law.

For example, the tabletop role-playing game Kult allows players to simulate a Gnostic rebellion against the Demiurge and his servant archons, and Kult’s magic system is deliberately based upon a transgressive ceremonial magic of the Qlippoth and the Nightside of the Tree of Life. The classic storytelling game Sorcerer simulates demonic pacts and their constant, inherent risk as an invisible die roll whose outcome is secret to the players and known only by the dungeon master. Main Gauche, the chaos supplement for tabletop RPG Zweihänder, literally translates to “left hand,” implying the more sinister side of a game already described by its creators as “grim and perilous roleplaying.” In The Left Hand Path, a grimly atmospheric virtual reality game, players practice real-time sigil magic to control demons.

These examples of Left Hand gaming demonstrate the presence of an anti-cosmic drive to break free of established limits burning at the dark heart of game design that was prophesied in Blake’s cry of “Enough! Or too much” or Crowley’s command to “Exceed! Exceed!” Game designers on the Left Hand Path perpetually seek *more*: more brutal systems, more darkly atmospheric level design, and more Gothic worlds. Through these ambitions, game designers tap into the Romantic-influenced, Gothic fascination with the Sublime by striving to exceed bounds of representation and simulation, including the technological constraints of software and hardware.

The Left Hand Path of games is by its very nature countercultural, but it can be amplified and energized in order to enhance the potential of our play. Games enable the gnosis of the Left Hand Path by creating a space for play. Such play is inherently, anarchic, contrarian, and untrammeled by the mundane laws of man or nature. To pursue a Left Hand Path of game design, we work at the crossroads of narrative and simulation, technology and art, Gothic aesthetics and heavy metal ethos. Existing at an interdisciplinary crossroads, this talk is inherently inclusive and intended for anyone seeking a Left Hand Path manifested through antinomian play. Through this talk, attendees can become more conscious of existing games aligned with Left Hand Path practices, how LHP occultists might practice non-digital and digital game design as an occult art, as well as how the design of transgressive play can be incorporated into their own occult practices.


Ludomancer, Technomage, Occult Game Designer. Dr. Jeff Howard is Senior Lecturer in Games at Falmouth University in Cornwall, where he specializes in occult, metal, and Gothic themes and mechanics. His theory and practice converge in his work as lead designer of Arcana, a long-term game development project about performing occult rituals in a magical theatre to unlock the mysteries of the multiverse. He is a worldbuilding consultant for Apocalypse Studios on Deadhaus Sonata, a Gothic action roleplaying game in which the player takes the role of the undead fighting the living. He is also the author of two books: Game Magic: A Game Designer’s Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice and Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives, as well as the creator of “Howard’s Law of Occult Game Design” (published in 100 Principles of Game Design). Before joining Falmouth University, Dr. Howard taught for ten years as Associate Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He has presented on games and the occult at a variety of international conferences, including GDC, Trans-States, and ESSWE9.