8 October 2017

Defining OSR, Defining Your Game

So, what's OSR fantasy gaming?  This is pretty well-covered territory, but I'm interested in its relevance to design in particular.  The first place I think people fall down on this is not realizing that there's two separate elements to it:

1) The Mechanical
2) The Thematic

You see, I needed an image in front of the next one down, or people would think I was blogging about 3rd edition.


Broadly, OSR games tend to be rules-light.  The GM is expected to make up rules more often, or adjudicate situations quickly with a simple die roll and some improvisation.  The lightness especially shows when it comes to player customization and character generation.  This is in part a reaction to later editions of D&D (and other games) which added more and more gameplay complexity, but it's also a recognition that people had a great deal of fun with B/X and BE(CMI), and that's valid even if 3rd edition and the like had never existed.  OSR doesn't do Whiggish game design: not all change is progress.  I'll be generally aiming for these ideas in Simulacrum, my clone, as well.  At the same time, pretending that people haven't had a good idea in 40 years is silly: there's definite mechanical booty lying around in other editions and games to be plundered.

Less of this, then.

There's really a lot of specific mechanical stuff that's worth talking about--the approach to feats, skill systems, class structure, front-loaded vs gameplay crunch, and so on--but those are things that should each be considered in turn when they come up when we reach that design stage of the game.


Most of us know the thematic elements of OSR play, so I'll only briefly summarize them.  OSR games tend to emphasize clear lines of agency.  The GM will wind up determining a lot more than in more modern games, not just how the game plays out in general (a GM's traditional role) but the very rules themselves, because much less is mechanically codified.  However, in terms of plot, the GM is expected to be much more of a facilitator than a storyteller: player agency here takes prime of place.  For example, the GM may have an adventure laid out, but if the players decide that some element of it doesn't match what they're interested in or what they think their character's would do, then the players are liable to take off and go do something else, and the GM is expected to be okay with this.

One of the major departures of later games from OSR play is the reversal of the above roles.  Mechanics become a lot more player-facing--the environment and campaign setting are more codified, characters more mechanically in depth, and the players more aware of it all--while the GM takes a much greater part in determining player agency (or lack thereof), thanks to the increasing primacy of the story (and then the metaplot, or grand story); players increasingly became cogs in a story machine--trains on the track, with no chance of leaving the rails.

OSR games also tend to be less heroic.  Players are graverobbers, mercenaries.  They may eventually rise to great heights of personal power, complete with their own private armies and fortresses.  However, and despite the ample dose of heroism contained in Appendix N and other inspirations to D&D such as Conan, that's not at all guaranteed.  It's not even a given that you'll live that long.  Instead, you might get killed on first day out by a garlic bread golem.  Or a squirrel.  Or dysentery.  There's no guarantee that you'll be up to a particular challenge.  There's emphasis on stealth, on cleverness, on resource management, and much, much less on plot armour keeping you from paying for your boneheaded charge into the orc horde.

I can take 'em


I'm sure you noticed a lot more text there for the thematic section, even in a summational state.  In part that's because I want to talk about a lot of the mechanics stuff later, but still, it's not a coincidence.  I think a lot of what makes OSR play old-school is in the thematic elements, i.e. the play style, not the mechanics.  This can be inserted into a game, but what's interesting about old D&D is that it wasn't usually called out so much as just assumed.  This makes sense when you consider it was the first RPG, and that any differing methods of play had to literally be invented, but it does result in some interesting design lessons.

The biggest one for me it that, despite how it started out, it turns out you can run one hell of a storygaming railroad using old-school D&D.  Hell, it should be obvious that not only can you, people did.  People tend to define the close of the golden age of OSR D&D with the advent of Ravenloft, Dragonlance and the story-based module, not any great rules change; the release of 2nd edition AD&D (which in terms of its mechanical support for plot-based play was not any different than 1st ed) was just the headstone on the grave.

To go further, I'd argue that not only are OSR rulesets not antagonistic to story-based play, early editions of D&D--the very heart of the OSR--support story-based gaming so well that this overwrote both the original intent of the rules and the gameplay style of its creators.  D&D left behind old-school play while under old-school rules, long before 3rd and 4th ed ever appeared.

It's not their fault that things suck.

This above isn't an attempt to lay the ideological underpinnings for Simulacrum to be a Dragonlance-based plot-heavy game or encourage people to buy up railway stocks.  Rather, it's a note of warning that, while mechanics do shape play style, which in turn shapes your game experience, no ruleset will be sufficiently OSR through mechanics alone.

Theme Meets Mechanics

So what do I do then, if I want the game to play as an example of OSR design?

I think the best we can do, were we so inclined, is to not just attempt to write rules but explain them, and not just in some GM's Advice section.  That is, write a rule that leads to the goal we have in mind, and then explicitly call out that goal for the reader.  Here's rules for how much time everything takes; now here's an explanation as to why time management matters in-game and, out of game, why it's worth doing.  It's providing a director's commentary right in with the game.

That would help, no doubt.  At the same time, part of me thinks that railroaders are gonna railroad, and wonders if I'm making a game or a teaching tool.  Those aren't necessarily two different things (one only has to look at Mentzer's brilliant and best-selling Basic set to understand that).  But maybe GMs and their players are going to make choices on those topics themselves and there's nothing to be gained by trying to convince them otherwise if it's not essential to my own goals?  Or to put it another way, does it matter if people want to run the Dragonlance modules using my game  Is that truly the fault of the game?

It's an interesting debate, and one I haven't settled internally yet.  Some of my drafts have these play notes, and some have been already deleted.  We'll see what we can manage this last part in an elegant fashion, because this could also conflict with my "lean and mean" principle (content vs. bloat is another thing I'll blog about eventually).