Re: “OSR and what to explain”

DISCLAIMER: I wrote this post largely in response to Scrap Princess’s Google+-originated idea of the OSR, which I no longer think represents the OSR as a whole. This post also contains the dumbest allegation I’ve ever made: the claim that the OSR doesn’t like RPGs. That isn’t true even of the Google+-branded OSR, and even if was, I don’t have anywhere near the experience needed to make that claim. I’m keeping this post unedited because I believe deleting that statement would be akin to shying away from my mistakes.

It’s debatable how much Scrap Princess & co’s claims actually do represent the OSR, something she says herself in her post. Most of the people quoted here have been in some way involved in producing OSR products; I think that it is fair to consider these statements an earnest representation of their philosophy. It should hopefully go without saying that not everyone who produces old-school content is a part of the OSR, and not everyone in the OSR believes all or even most of these tenants. Screeching at the OSR for the foolishness of these statements is absolutely a bad approach and I was short-sighted to frame it that way. Screeching at the products that were published in service of the philosophy that the statements reflect– that’s more than fair.

I was planning to let this blog rot, but I came across Scrap Princess’s blog post which was apparently inspired by my MOTB review. I’ve been meaning to put out an addendum and/or clarification of my review, and to, much more briefly this time, explain why I think this way about games.

First of all, if you’re reading this Scrap Princess: Hello! Believe it or not, your blogpost critiquing the spells of DND was the spark that led to me finally reviewing MOTB, despite wanting to do so since I finished it over a full year ago. It reminded me how totally bizarre the OSR crowd is. You made an extremely good case about what makes a good and bad DND spell, and even wrote down specific criteria for doing so. As I read through it, I thought to myself “She may be right. Can these problems be fixed? What would an improved DND spell list look like?” But my train of thought was suddenly cut short by your praise of Wonder and Wickedness’s spell list, which, by my understanding, falls quite short of your criteria for a good spell by a considerable margin.

It’s exactly as I said at the conclusion of my MOTB review. The OSR tends to be very good at identifying problems, and in some cases they even develop valuable metrics for solving those problems, but then you look at any OSR-written darling-of-the-week and it seems like these products actively invoke the very problems you were trying to address. It makes it impossible for me to take your corner of the blogsphere seriously–if I’m forced to be brutally honest, the whole thing seems a bit…circlejerky? It’s very hard for me to consider a game designer/theorist legitimate when you disproportionately praise products written by those who are like-mannered, and who have self-identified under your, quite honestly, pretentious name (whether the “R” stands for revival or renaissance, the name is still gaudy–though I’ll admit that “story games” is much worse an epithet). This is especially true when I can look up just about any given OSR writer’s blog and find out that they don’t practice what they preach.

But let’s address the post already. First off, let’s skip ahead a bit to the part where I’m addressed.

I read this Maze Of Blue Medusa review and the author appeared to have no understanding of other peoples play styles and it was a trip.
So I thought I could try and make a pre-face to use in future for any material I create.

The allegation that I do not understand the OSR (or, in this case and others, literally any playstyle but my own) has been repeated several times by different people. Given how many times I’ve seen this, I think I should be as clear as possible about what experience I have with RPGs.

I started started playing RPGs during my freshmen year of university. I was well aware of what DND was by this point as I had read through some 2E stuff (including the PHB) and played the Baldur’s Gate series/Temple of Elemental Evil video game. However, I was inexperienced and unfamiliar with anything but DND. I got into DND through my university’s gaming club and played a full campaign, plus a few one shots, with one of the DMs. This DM was the most popular gamemaster within the club and was graduating at the end of the school year, so, when his time came, he suggested that I take up DMing in his steed.

From that point on, I was running at least one session a week. DND was the most popular TRPG at university, and I quickly grew tired of it’s issues. The more and more I played it (3E, to be specific) the more I questioned it, to the point where I realized that I could probably fix many of the games problems by myself. Or, alternatively, I could run another system entirely. This did not bode well with the club, who feared that me using homebrew would throw off new players who wanted to use their characters across different university campaigns, and the common answer to the question of a new system was “Don’t bother. No one will play it.”

It was because of this that I left the club, and encouraged all of my players to play outside of it. I ended up playing Shadowrun, Call of Cthulu, Ryuutama, Symbaroum, Apocalypse/Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, FATE, Everway, VTM, and various other systems including numerous homebrew systems. By my count, I have played or DMed for 13 campaigns, and played with somewhere between 50-65 different players. This is by any reasonable measure, an insane amount of experience, at least for someone under 30 (which is the typical demographic of RPGs). I have seen more players, and more systems, than three DMs of my age group combined.

Now you might say that none of this means I have any understanding of the OSR. And given that this post exists, you might be right. But consider my experience, and then consider this: I’ve read at least half of Zak’s blog in full, and the entirety of many other OSR blogs. I’ve read numerous explanations of the OSR, most notably David Perry’s Principia Apocrypha, which is 19 pages long. I’ve played numerous games with the OSR stamp of approval, including Astonishing Swordsman and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Stars Without Number, and of course LotFP. Now, my question is this: If I’m not capable of understanding the OSR, given the amount of experience and reading under my belt, then who is?

That was a big part of what I was trying to say with my review. The reason why the OSR often gets branded as being less inclusive than the story games movement has nothing to do with who you are or what your orientation is, the reason is your products are often completely impenetrable and borderline unusable for many people. And despite what I believe to be Scrap Princess’s best intentions, an explanation of the OSR that holds up the adversarial, unintuitive and often outright hateful pillars of these types of games, is not going to make the OSR more attractive. It’s only going to make more apparent what the issues are.

Let’s finally get onto the definitive terms.

Players Decisions  Must Matter: The consequences of their actions and decisions is the engine of the entire game. It is what results in an “emergent story”, but even before then , the moment to moment play is interesting because what they are doing matters to what will happen. To best support this:
 They should be given all the information that would be available to their character.

The g.m should be prepared to accept the results of the dice and roll with the players effects on the world.

Ok, first off–vague. Very, very, vague. I had to look into the Google+ thread that spawned most of this to even begin to parse what you meant here, and even now I’m not so sure.

No one would ever argue against player decisions resulting in an emergent story. This is followed with “To best support this: They should be given all the information that would be available to their character.” I don’t know what this means. Who would argue against a character being given all available information within their grasp? What genre of RPG does not do this?

You state that the DM should be prepared to let events fall as they may within the luck of the die. Sure. I know people that would hate this, but sure, I’m on board.

Trying to force a conventionally coherent/cliche narrative for a “better story” by trying to force or cancel player decisions or consequences or ignore a dice roll, will always act against the mattering of player decisions.  Don’t worry about the final results working as conventional story , worry about the moment to moment play being interesting .

What you say here sounds non-contentious on first reading, but there’s very deliberate wording here that betrays your conceit. You begin with “Trying to force a conventionally coherent/cliche narrative for a “better story” by trying to force or cancel player decisions or consequences or ignore a dice roll” heavily implies that by adding story elements, you are forced to cancel player decisions or ignore dice rolls. In reality, story elements and emergent gameplay are not mutually exclusive.

In response to my MOTB review, many people misunderstood me when I used the word “coherent”. I use “coherent” almost exclusively towards design elements, in regards to player psychology. A coherent scenario is one that functions within the expectations of the theme, setting, and mechanics–which can potentially include “weird” outcomes if the theme, setting, or mechanics are themselves weird. An incoherent scenario is one that doesn’t do any of that, for example, being attacked with zero warning or narrative reason in a designated “rest zone”, or a generic Owlbear having 24 AC and +20 to hit when all other Owlbears have +9 to hit and 16 AC (thanks for the primo example, Pathfinder Kingmaker!). It most definitely does not mean “cliche”, and in fact I actively try to avoid cliche narratives. It’s sort of what led me to MOTB in the first place.

You state that we shouldn’t worry about the final results working as a conventional story, but that we should worry about the moment to gameplay, again implying a false dichotomy. Actually, I’m not even sure it’s a false dichotomy, it’s more like..saying “don’t do (thing), do (the same exact thing) instead”.

A story, for the vast, VAST majority of people playing roleplaying games today, is the moment to moment gameplay. It is what they are focused on most of the time. If you’re roleplaying as a character, every single thing you do within the scope of the game is in reaction or propulsion of the story. If there’s a bad story, people are going to be less motivated. If there’s a good story, people are going to be more motivated. Since literally every moment of the RPG sessions is going to be you acting in volition of your character, it naturally follows that what you’re doing most of the time (in other words, moment to moment) is participating in the story.

You can choose to have minimal story or dense story, but if you have no plot/an incomprehensible plot, players have no idea how to roleplay and thus, no idea how to play their character beyond “don’t die, be smart in combat”. Though given that your most popular tagline for the OSR movement is “You-Just-Play-Your-Guy-And-He-Might-Die”, maybe that’s the entire point you’re trying to make.

If so, I think a lot of the OSR’s understandings of game theory can be traced back to a false conception that adding any element at all to a game automatically takes away from the elements that are already there. I mean, you realize you can have strong pacing and moment-to-moment gameplay and an interesting narrative at the same time, right? Like you can just do exactly what you’ve been doing only make your settings actually convey an idea or, god forbid, even cater to your players a bit. This is in fact how most people run DND.

I noticed that both times narrative is mentioned here, it is preempted by a disparaging qualifier: first “cliche”, then “conventional.” The implication being that OSR games do produce interesting stories, they’re just not conventional. I find this argument to be pretty weak given how drab, and often even out-right bad the ancedotes of OSR-driven games tend to be. For example, on Emmy Allen’s post about her DMing style, she lists five of her favorite gaming anecdotes. Two of these involve being vindicated that a player character died, another is basically “I almost died because of a bad die roll, but then another die roll also failed so I lived”. The only anecdote that seems mildly interesting ironically comes from VTM, a story game. I can’t say I’m convinced to convert, with this coming from someone who earnestly considers these examples to be among the best things she’s encountered since switching to an OSR-driven DMing style.

> Any encounter /situation will be “balanced” ( i.e have the ability to effect) as is appropriate for its existence in the world.
Therefore the players should be able to seek the challenge they want by seeking out different areas, getting information, or coming up with plans, alliances or schemes to balance things in their favour. 

Outright avoidance , fleeing , negotiation, schemes, befriending, disguises, and the like are acceptable and even desirable outcomes.

Once again, this is an idea that very much appears to be a good one, but is often used as an excuse for poor design. It is all well and good that a creature has it’s statistics governed by what would be appropriate for them in a realistic scenario. Sure. And this might mean that characters may encounter something which is far too strong for them and they might be forced to retreat and/or die. Again, fine. Where this comes a problem is when players are forced into excessively difficult or excessively easy encounters on a frequent basis, to the point where living or dying is almost completely arbitrary and not at all defined by expectations of the system or fiction in relation to it.

It’s basically a motte and bailey argument where the ideal of a world defined by it’s setting is used as a shield to protect what’s really being said, which is that encounters should not be “designed” in any real sense of the word. In traditional games where narrative control is bestowed upon one person (the DM), that person has near-total control over the place, the time, and indeed, often, the outcome of encounters.  It is often stated by OSR writers that players are expected to play intelligently, tactically, to think ahead of time and preempt danger. Never do these people mention that players have no control over the environment, no control over what NPCs say or do, they have only the vaguest idea of what they’re going to fight next (and often, in OSR games, no idea at all), and often have zero input into when a fight is even initiated (as a result of random encounter rolls).

The cards are massively stacked against the PCs and the only way to make scenarios the slightest bit fair is to either ensure that all potential opponents (barring truly stupid player engagement such as picking a fight with an armed militia), no matter what, are defeatable and/or escapable within the realm of possibility *even if met in very dire circumstances*, or to craft encounters ahead of time so that both the DM and the players will be able to prepare for most rough circumstances by default. Or do both.

It is simply not good gameplay to combine deadly-as-should-be monsters with random encounters and vague, amorphous locations.  It results in frequent, inescapable death that will quickly kill player morale. If you seriously think that encounter design has no place in your games, I advise you to play Pathfinder Kingmaker. Never before has there been a more shining example of why game balance matters.

Because of above , only exp for killing monsters is a bad fit. Consider exp for treasure, pre-set goals, or the like

Sure. A lot of people were confused about my comments on gold for exp in my MOTB review, so let me clarify myself: I did run the game with gold for EXP, and gave a small amount of EXP for discovering each major section of the Maze. I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with gold for EXP, and I don’t know anyone who *only* runs exp for killing monsters, buuuuut…

The thing about gold for EXP is that it often seems to be used as a concession for gold not actually doing anything else of real value past level 1 or so. This is not a problem unique to the OSR, but it is a problem. Really, what level your character is should rarely matter more than a little bit beyond determining challenge relative to capability and whatnot, because your players should be getting some sort of advancement (or at least going through some sort of change) independent of the system you are playing. Gold/cash in and of itself is very rarely a serious motivational factor, unless it is an extremely large amount in a system where people are debt-ridden and whatnot. Though to be fair, players that are especially demanding of advancement/motivational factors tend to not be great people to to game with, so this isn’t something I think is a major issue.

Now we get to the definitions provided by others:

Resolution of action by player skill first then dice or character mechanics. Like players don’t declare I roll X instead players describe their characters actions and rolls are done if neccesary.

Okay. Admittedly, I didn’t see this sort of thing as part of the OSR. I often see people, not necessarily OSR-aligned, denying the need to work out a character’s actions if the player doesn’t want to, so I always assumed that was an OSR thing. Guess not.

 Killing things is usually not the goal, there is nothing that is “supposed” to happen, combat is not the default assumption for an encounter.

Character death is not taboo and is to be expected.

Sure. I got a lot of pushback for my MOTB review from people assuming I assumed every encounter was a combat encounter, which admittedly wasn’t helped by my misreading of the Blue Medusa’s column–I wrongfully assumed that the Medusa duels the players after a conversation regardless of circumstance. But remember, I got rid of the random encounter tables after the Garden. Even ignoring the fact that I did not interpret most encounters as combat-driven, if I did do so, it would still have resulted in less than half as much combat as if the Maze was played as written.

I don’t mind character death at all, but keep in mind that the idea that character death is “expected” is going to get you very strong pushback from many people. This alone will often be the deal breaker when it comes to selling people on OSR games.

I’d also like to note that despite the statement that “Killing things is usually not the goal”, killing things describes not only the bulk of OSR gameplay and stories but often the systems themselves. This statement being followed up by “there is nothing that is “supposed” to happen” leads me to believe that you are in denial of the fact that all games have expected outcomes and that this is true even if you intentionally try to make a game with no expected outcomes. Zak S once described DND as a “nihilistic” game, he meant it in the sense that it has no non-emergent theme or narrative–he is incredibly wrong about this, and I have a feeling this statement backs up that kind of face-first denial.

The adventure will not enumerate the one correct way to resolve conflicts and puzzles; player creativity is expected and should be rewarded by the referee.

But what you’re describing is creativity under the workload of the referee. MOTB had a major problem with rooms having zero defined meaning or purpose, I did not ask for the writer to enumerate the ways in which they could be useful–and in fact, a few times they did! What I instead asked was that the rooms be constructed in a way that would actually lead to some sort of habitual process or hook, some sort of lead-in, or even, if you’re feeling non-formal just directly tell me (as the DM) what this room is for. It has nothing to do with player creativity, and in fact what you are actually describing is a game where the solution has no defined conditions and therefore has no real hints or clues leading to it’s solution. What you’re describing is a literal guessing game. It’s not interesting for the DM or the players.

Also not liking the presumption that a solution being listed automatically means any other conceivable solution does not work. This logic makes no sense at all: you are claiming that no explanation being provided means any explanation is acceptable, but a single solution being provided means that no other can be possible. It’s absurd.

This is a game primarily about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists. Outcomes will be based on how this world would react to your interactions, and challenges will be as unbalanced, unexpected, and exciting as they would in a real world. Your goal is generally to survive the enemies around you, whether that be via avoidance, negotiation, befriending, or creatively throwing the balance in your favor./
I think I just view story more as an emergent, secondary effect of OSR play rather than it’s active, primary goal. i.e. The goal is not to tell the most interesting story you can, the goal is to interact with and overcome the problems at hand. From those interactions, the story passively emerges.

By this point I think I can say for sure that there is a persistent pattern of OSR devotees prescribing virtues of their design methodology with an underlying implication that this is not the case in other realms of RPG theory, when in reality, it often is. The implication here being that OSR design creates worlds “that exist”, while others are merely curated. Someone should call up Zak and tell him this guy is proclaiming that the OSR is word-for-word the exact definition of simulationism.

Of course the goal is not to tell the most interesting story you can. The goal is never to tell the most interesting story you can, or at least god I hope not, this is a terrible medium for it. For most people the level of intrigue/”quality” of the story either does not matter or matters very little, the appeal is a story that is shaped by multiple people whether it be, good, bad, cliche or off-kilter. The problem with the OSR is that they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and make the claim that because “story games” are often coddling to players, any and all story elements are obstructive to interesting challenge-based gameplay. The claim here is that gameplay should be challenge-based, but by disregarding both story and encounter design you have effectively nullified any means to make your challenges actually interesting. You are going backwards.



Having said all this, you might be surprised to know that I actually consider myself to be more aligned with the OSR than I am aligned with the story games crowd. I would at least play basically any OSR clone, though I know I probably wouldn’t enjoy it, while I outright refuse to play any Apocalypse World variant or something like Ten Candles. I mentioned before that much of my history with RPGS was rooted out of a dissatisfaction for the mechanics, and much of this dissatisfaction sprout forth in much the same way that many OSR and other trad-gaming blogs critique and pick apart the game. If I compare the amount of stuff written by the OSR that I’ve found useful to what I’ve found useful by the story games crowd, the results are nearly 3:1 in the OSR’s favor. But the fact is…

I haven’t played or refereed RPGs in over a year and a half. My game of MOTB was the last game I played, and I knew it would be before I started it. Because the fact is, I have serious problems with the way RPGs are written, presented and designed. Why do I mention this? Because from what I’ve read, much of the OSR does as well. In that Emmy Allen post, she mentions that she hates “fights that go on forever, setting agnostic systems… slavishly rolling for everything” and mentions that she “doesn’t play RPGs for the story”, but rather the “ancedotes” and the setting. The things she’s describing are things common to almost all RPGs, and she can’t even enjoy the story–but she does enjoy the setting.

If this sounds like you, I’m going to be frank: You do not like RPGs. Or at least, not the part of RPGs that people commonly sign up for. What you like is emergent gameplay, which can be better obtained through video games and board games, without any of the awful scheduling issues or any of those things you said you don’t like. What honestly seems likely is that many people (overwhelmingly these people are DMs) are attempting to reverse-engineer the medium into something more palpable for them, and to be honest? I was once like that. It is an almost addictive experience, being a DM controlling a “living, breathing world”, and many people find that the desires of the players get in the way of this euphoria. It’s an ego trip. The OSR provides unlimited fuel for this ego trip, providing adventure after adventure where “anything can happen” but none of it really requires much consideration or personal sacrifice. Maybe I do understand the OSR, or maybe I have it all wrong. But it’s just like I said: all games have expected outcomes, and the ones I see in OSR games are overwhelmingly not healthy.