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What Is An OSR Anyway

A topic by fadingroots created Mar 17, 2019 Views: 1,044 Replies: 20
Viewing posts 1 to 7

it's been explained to me so many times but i still kinda dont understand what makes games OSR beyond designers saying 'i'm part of this broad design movement'.. what makes OSR, OSR? mechanically and philosophically?

(+1)

I recall this post by Vincent Baker on his blog from way back when, and it has informed my thinking about the OSR ever since:

http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/602

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There isn't a simple answer to this question, because -- yes, the OSR tends to be a set of values / principles. If you are looking for a strict taxonomy you aren't going to find it.

Here are some definitions that I find useful, and reflects the stuff I like about OSR-style games / design / play:

" If you want a 'ten commandments' then this breakdown from the famous Scrap thread works as well as any;


1. This is a game about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists.
2. Killing things is not the goal.
3. There is nothing that is "supposed" to happen.
4. Unknowability and consequence make everything interesting.
5. You play as your character, not as the screenwriter writing your character.
6. It's your job to make your character interesting and to make the game interesting for you.
7. If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.
8. The answer is not on your character sheet.
9 .Things are swingy.
10. You will die

By Gregory Blair, Brian Harbron, FM Geist, Zedeck Siew, Brian Murphy, Dirk Detweiler Leichty and Daniel Davis;

There's not deep theory here, I'm just trying to describe a 'scene' or social/creative web that I intuit more than see around me. " 

(from this post by Patrick Stuart; the list was crowdsourced from a discussion thread on G+)

~

Recently I saw Sean McCoy (who made Mothership) cite Ben Milton (who made Knave)'s definition of the Old School:

" OSR: The more of the following a campaign has, the more Old School it is: high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system (usually XP for treasure), a disregard for "encounter balance", and the use of random tables to generate world elements that surprise both players and referees. Also, a strong do-it-yourself attitude and a willingness to share your work and use the creativity of others in your game. "

~

Speaking personally, I like games that don't try to model "rules of narrative" stuff:

Ie: Mothership is a sci-fi horror game, and this is emphasised by how gear in the game works, how squishy the PCs can be, how easily it is for PCs to freak out. But, depending on dice,  it is still possible for a game of Mothership to veer "off-genre" -- it could be a funny comedy of errors, or it could turn out to be a Doom-like shoot-em-up. 

That's by design, I feel? in my experience, games built on OSR principles tend to be foundations -- "Here are some tools to help you imagine being in a thin vaccsuit with maybe a terrifying alien stalking you; go forth and have an unpredictable few hours in a shared imagined space with friends." -- as opposed to scaffolds -- "This game is about space horror, and your group will the narrative tools to have an experience similar to other kinds of space horror media".  

This isn't a mutually-exclusive dichotomy, more a matter of emphasis. 


(I think I first saw games described as "foundation" or "scaffold" by Mabel Harper; I'm not sure whether I'm using this framework as she intended, or misquoting her, though.)

~

Also OSR-y folks like Emmy Allen and Luka Rejec have touched on the idea that D&D / D&D-esques are a shared language. This feels true, to me. The Old School tends to use the familiar grammar of D&D (and other well-known rulesets) to write new and fresh things, and converse with each other. This is why Daniel Sell's initiative system for Troika! (as one example among many) is something you can easily jury-rig into other things.

(+2)

This is very interesting stuff! Those "Ten Commandments" are especially interesting, and I find myself loving bits and disliking other bits of it.


What I love:

1. This is a game about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists.
2. Killing things is not the goal.
3. There is nothing that is "supposed" to happen.
4. Unknowability and consequence make everything interesting.
5. You play as your character, not as the screenwriter writing your character.

All of these, I feel, are also very much not necessarily opposed to the principles of more story-focused RPGs, which is what I have more experience with and love a lot. This is also how I've GMed a lot of D&D over the years.

Caveat to rule 4 though: surprises for players are great when they open up new paths for interesting scenarios (more challenges or more drama), not when it's a "gotcha!" moment. Traps that just go off without being telegraphed beforehand aren't fun.


What I dislike:

6. It's your job to make your character interesting and to make the game interesting for you.
8. The answer is not on your character sheet.
10. You will die

To me, point 6 means that if a game is not interesting in and of itself, the designer of the game has failed to make a game that can create interesting things. There's of course a difference between "the game, the system" that the designer made and "the game, the campaign" that the players play, and I do agree for the latter meaning in the end it's all up to the players (GM included).

I'm still having trouble with the idea that the OSR only would have rules for direct conflict/combat, when avoiding that is entirely the point of the game. D&D's rules are mostly about combat too, and many other games have a similar framework, but in those games the combat is the point. It feels incredibly counter-intuitive to have a game where the point is to not use the rules.

And lastly, "you will die" gives me the issue that... narratively, death is the least interesting thing that could happen. If a character dies, that's the end for them. There's no further drama, laughs or tragedy to be had. It's on this point that I don't think OSR games should really call themselves role-playing games, if this is their focus. They are very much games, but if cycling through multiple characters that die is the point, and its focused on what players can do rather than what characters can do, all those points together make it feel more like a board game with less rules than a role-playing game.


Ambivalent:

7. If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.
9 .Things are swingy.

I do love a "fair fight" sometimes, where it's more dependent on player ingenuity in the moment rather than all their planning up front.

Things being swingy is alright with me in short games, but not longer ongoing ones. Then it starts to feel like the dice matter more, or the GM can just make up whatever and negate my own choices.

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Things being Swingy means to me that characters do not become invincible; many Retroclones are built from versions of D&D  where you can't end up with a character hith more than 50-75 hp  (and frequently a lot less- some have max hp below 40, and the OSR informed game I play, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, has Max HP for the toughest humans at 30 and the largest barbarian ogre at 45).  While dying is the least interesting thing that can happen, immortality is the next least interesting thing. If you always choose to fight instead of parley, sneak, or run then you will die. It may take a while, you may have exciting adventures, but sometimes you will encounter situations or opponents that are out of your league, or you may make a bad decision, like trying to jump a pit, or climbing without a rope, or pulling the wrong lever.  Recognizing the risk can make decisions more thoughtful, and dying to save someone else, or out of catastrophic failures can be the stuff of stories told for years afterward. I know my group commemorates some of the wordt PC deaths, and we joke about some if the mishaps that lead to PC deaths over thirty years ago to this day.

(6 edits) (+3)

I personally don't unreservedly endorse this list for what definitively constitutes an OSR playstyle; and indeed no one is putting it forth as definitive. Googols of electrons have been spilled on this subject elsewhere. But, addressing the points that you dislike: 

Re: 6, I think 4 supersedes it and it is not terribly important to defining the OSR playstyle.

Re; 8, I'm not sure you elaborated on that?

Re: 10, I agree, and I don't think *literal, frequent lethality* is definitive of the OSR playstyle; I personally play with some house rules that cause wounds which decrease ability scores at 0HP, though taking significant damage in one stroke can still spell instant death. The point is real, harsh (if warranted) consequences for your actions to help accentuate PCs' agency and a reactive world, rather than situations like 5e clerics reviving people to fighting condition literally before a turn passes while surrounded by foes.

I'm still having trouble with the idea that the OSR only would have rules for direct conflict/combat, when avoiding that is entirely the point of the game. D&D's rules are mostly about combat too, and many other games have a similar framework, but in those games the combat is the point. It feels incredibly counter-intuitive to have a game where the point is to not use the rules.

I'm not quite sure where this came from. Most OSR rulesets do not "only have rules for direct conflict/combat". I think the usual defense of detailed rules for combat is that it represents a high-stakes situation, and so the involved parties likely will desire clear arbitration of how things occur. But check Into the Odd's combat system for a counterpoint:
http://www.bastionland.com/2015/03/describing-auto-hit-in-into-odd.html
http://www.bastionland.com/2017/05/decisive-combat.html

(+2)

"10. You will die"

I think this is better stated as "You can die, and it may be at an inopportune or 'dramatically inconvenient moment'" In other words, being a PC doesn't grant them immunity from grave consequences.

"And lastly, "you will die" gives me the issue that... narratively, death is the least interesting thing that could happen. If a character dies, that's the end for them. There's no further drama, laughs or tragedy to be had. It's on this point that I don't think OSR games should really call themselves role-playing games, if this is their focus. They are very much games, but if cycling through multiple characters that die is the point, and its focused on what players can do rather than what characters can do, all those points together make it feel more like a board game with less rules than a role-playing game."

I agree that death as a consequence is one of the least interesting consequences, along with no lasting or serious consequences. I personally have PCs being down at 0 hp in a state of uncertainty until another PC comes to check them with a check penalized by time since 0 hp. and I've also offered other consequences of being downed like dismemberment and the like. Oddly, I've never had any players take me up on that, not even letting me get to actual possibilities of it; choosing death and reroll.

And like David says, I really don't think that even at a basic level, both in rules and in actual play, for death to be a permanent discontinuity in a narrative, such as you can have in D&D.  To me it feels like a reaction to the continuous ease of surviving death and the 'Level Appropriate CR Encounter' mode of 3e onward. Which is as the default CR equal to Average Level is basically 4:1 odds favoring the players. The immediate risk PC death is minimal by design.

There is the play-style of each PC also has a henchperson as well as hirelings which should the PC fall could become the newest PC, maintaining a certain amount of continuity through the shared experiences the previously NPC had with the party and their relationship with the slain.

There is the erase or add a suffix to the PC's name retaining all stats making death to be more of an inconvenience, and in the case of a suffixed name, or even a new name, the 'new' PC is a relation to the prior, with any and all prehistory between them and the drama of "oh my dear sweet dead relation." As well as the rolling up a new character and gaining an inheritance. 

In these cases, yes the PC is dead, but their death is added to the collective's story.

This does ignore the constantly dying at level one situation which means there is can be very little growth and continuity, which is a complaint that is made. This is also where the rewrite the name on the sheet thing most frequently comes into play.

But more importantly, IMO, than these ways of creating continuity through or despite PC death, is that within the Cook/Marsh Expert D&D book it says to make sure the starting town has some kind of temple with a cleric of sufficient power to cast Raise Dead. The Moldvay Basic book doesn't because it doesn't include spells of high enough level. And these two books, B/X, are one of the main editions of D&D to have OSR games based on. 

TL;DR(?)

"You Will Die" should be "Death is a real consequence." And it's more of an immediate consequence of reckless action and an acknowledgement that PCs aren't necessarily favored by fate.

(+3)

If you look at B/X, most of the rules are to do with exploration, then combat, with a smattering of social rules (reaction rolls, hiring mercenaries, charm person -- though the latter could be viewed as combat). Though it's true - some OSR games leave all that stuff to fiat, and only have carefully delineated rules for combat, usually justified with that argument that combat is where the game most needs to step in and provide rules, not rulings.

It *is* pretty counterintuitive though.  "Combat is usually a bad idea" is usually an emergent property of the ruleset and is often a lesson that needs to be learned. PbtA games do a much better job of using basic moves to set expectations. Now I don't think that makes the PbtA approach *better*, a OSR ruleset can also just say "hey, treasure=XP in this game, so killing monsters is an unnecessary risk. Think about avoiding them or stealing from them instead". But because many OSR games assume an experienced audience, that advice often gets left out.

I agree that death is often an uninteresting consequence. Some OSR players definitely enjoy the revolving door of characters and black-comedic deaths. I think for others, it's more about the *threat* of their character's death to make consequences feel real. And because OSR generally doesn't go for illusionist DMing, that threat needs to be backed up.

Some people instead go for "your character becomes increasingly scarred", but I think my next game will instead go for forced retirement except in cases where survival is absurd. Your character is still around, but they're an NPC now.

I personally evaluate #10 as more than a character's death. 

A character can die when his ideals are challenged but unmet, when her core identity as a bowman was shattered when he lost one of her limbs, when her scars allow her to be more of an adventurer than any equipment ever will. 

OSR's lethality isn't from turning characters' HP to zero, it's from the adventurers facing great adversity that will definitely change the way they normally play. 

(+1)

See, I like that sort of thing a lot more! Character death on its own, to me, is usually only desirable if they're either not much of a character, or nothing more interesting in that moment can happen. A character choosing to make a final stand with almost certain death, so that their friends and family can safely escape, or because it's the only thing they can do to uphold their values, that is incredibly interesting (and tragic)!

A character ending up with other great moments of ultimate failure, like the ones you describe, are even better imo! I think those are moments that aren't an "end" per se for a character, unlike death. For me, characters truly end when either boredom hits, or they've overcome their failures and achieved success.

And I don't think "You will die" is a great way to encapsulate that--it strongly implies the opposite. OSR is lethal and therefore adventures should play differently than in a game where challenges are designed to be fair fights! But a game isn't lethal unless characters actually die, I don't think?

Apparently I've designed several OSR games without even knowing it.

(+2)

This may come across as unintentionally glib, but someone (I apologize that I can't give proper citation, the name escapes me) once said that the system is "OSR" if it can run Keep on the Borderlands without massive conversion. I'm not sure if I agree with that wholeheartedly, but I think it's a useful jumping off point in terms of narrative/design goals and playstyle. 

The other thing that I find most (not all) OSR games share is that gold=XP and monsters should be unique and fantastic. Very few OSR games I have seen run are based around fighting a horde of goblins, and then next time some more goblins, and then after that some orcs that are just bigger goblins. In fact, I think at one point, one of Raggi's submission guidelines for LotFP was your module should only have encounters with things that had never been published before. I'm paraphrasing but that was the general idea. 

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...oh, I guess I already have an account, so I can post here without any work! 

Here's my compilation/synthesis of advice on running OSR style games, which many folks share as an answer to this question. You'll probably also see another, older "OSR Primer"; this is kind of like that, but from a more modern perspective, and somewhat less contentious. 

https://lithyscaphe.blogspot.com/p/principia-apocrypha.html

(+5)

confirming that David's Principia Apocrypha is good!

i was trying to work this out in a discord server and i basically ended up summarizing it like this; would you say this is an accurate description?


(3 edits) (+2)

In a sense. However it is not necessarily restricted to dungeon delving; OSR games should handle just about any situation you'd find in any other game or setting. And yes, you don't set out to tell a story that the GM has planned out, but it can certainly produce wonderfully interesting stories that come about as the result of play - the interactions of the players and the game world as portrayed by the GM, even if that takes the form of a bunch of anecdotes stitched together. Often stories you hear from OSR sessions sound so strange and creative that  there's no way it could be the result of a planned narrative.

Another difference is that "solving" a problem in an OSR game does not have a number of discrete solutions that are codified into it (though roguelikes tend to allow a greater range of potential solutions than other types of games). Instead, the GM should be open to those wildly creative methods of solving problems formulated by the players. Often, a GM doesn't even know how a particular problem could be solved when they create it. 

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yeah that makes sense! bringing the strength of roguelikes and tabletops together

Sorta?

I think looking at how OSR games in general describe themselves. Being role-playing games derived from DnD for most part. They are games in which you play roles, unlike story games which are games designed to tell specific stories. The kind of roles and the rules of the game do influence the kind of stories that emerge through play, and the kind of play.

right, but the problem i was having is that in story games you also very much play a role! obviously in OSR you do this too, but i'm trying to figure out what separates them, rather than what they have in common

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I think they have more things in common than they have differences. At they end, you also have a story, i.e. a linear series of events, you can tell each other after the fact.

I feel most of what David Perry describes above also applies to other games that are about "playing to find out what happens". Very few that I know are about playing out a prescribed story.

For example, if I were to write a PbtA OSR game, I would say the MC section should have something like this:

Agenda:

  • to engage in creative problem solving.
  • to keep the future unpredictable.

Principles:

  • Employ and reward player ingenuity.
  • Try to be impartial in your judgement.
(+3)

Yup. Check out my Principia Apocrypha upthread :)