The Smart Party Does OSR

This week the Smart Party tackled the OSR with Daniel Sell, creator of The Undercroft.

I’m with Dan on two points: the Renaissance portion of the monicker (it’s a cultural movement), and coming to the OSR late. D&D was available when I was a kid but it was also displaced by Fighting Fantasy and WFRP (which are my old-school games) so didn’t get a look-in. I also don’t have a beard to stroke or the nostalgic feelings towards BECMI D&D (and I reject the general assumption that the OSR is looking backwards).

So, positive things about Teh OSR:

  • “Rosetta Stone” — yes. By keeping things “looking like D&D” you keep the cognitive load and comprehension barriers low.
  • From that basis, you can manipulate the various moving parts to tighten or refocus the system to do whatever you want. This is not reinventing or re-hashing, it’s optimisation for performance.
  • Or to put it another way, OSR is Linux, and individual systems are like distributions — for interoperability, customisation potential, and freedom to roll your own.
  • ACKS is a modern successor to BECMI’s zero-to-hero concept.
  • Lethality incentivises players to negotiate for advantage rather than take the raw deal that the rules give you in a straight fight.
  • But them I reject the notion that OSR is about lethality and I changed the rules to suit.
  • OSR games excel at providing GM resources for managing a campaign as a project, e.g. Sine Nomine games such as Silent Legions provide a way to generate your own sandbox, and crucially manage antagonist factions dynamically. This is such an obvious problem and yet a massive blind spot for many commercial RPGs.
  • Sine Nomine games are all good examples of deconstructing genre. Comparison with GURPS supplements is probably apt
  • Much as I like theory, OSR gives good practical examples like this one from Chris McDowall.
  • OSR games are probably a better model for learning how to GM and design adventures. They’re pictorially based and clearly itemised, and not predicated on “plot” with GM-as-entertainer role (the CoC and WoD models).

OSR games are no more reliant on GM/facilitator skill than any other traditional format game. The idea that more complex games can excuse lack of skill through rules is dodgy — really you’re playing a different kind of game if you’re just pushing counters and dice around the table for an hour. My experience is that GMs do the opposite, if the rules are too complex to fit seamlessly into the game, it’s the rules that get ditched in favour of common sense.

OK, while we’re talking about OSR and assumptions, I just dissected an old LotFP game I ran with Josh (Black Armada). During that game, Josh’s character lost both feet to standing in a field of slime (which had been eating the farmstead’s cattle from the hooves up). I set that up because I wanted characters to lose limbs and have other horrible things happen, and see if the players continued to treat their characters as disposable pawns and roll a new one, or persist with their PCs. There was actually little in-game debit to losing a limb, and it hasn’t stopped the Flame Princess adventuring.

Flame-Princess-T-shirt-display

Josh’s assumption was the PC was no longer playable; but there was nothing to prevent him continuing to play that character. Those assumptions are maybe fair given we have a legacy of dismemberment tables in WFRP, etc. But those assumptions like many assumptions about the OSR need to be challenged; there’s a weight of gaming propaganda that continues to say this style of game is all about disposable characters and casual murder for treasure, and that’s just bollocks.

Then we talked about the effect of disfigurement in other games that suddenly make players no longer want to play. This is not a functionality issue, it’s an issue of player self-image projected onto the character, (as well as the perceived value of a 1st level character in D&D). It’s not an issue of fairness or functionality.

I don’t see this enforced change on the character in D&D as any different from, say, a forced change to Darkest Self in Monsterhearts. That’s the game world and other player’s fiction intruding on your own character, and it’s a good thing. It forces you to change and adapt.

P.S. back Lovecraftesque, it’s good.

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  • I think it’s about expectations as much as anything. In D&D there are no rules for maiming; in other games there are. Hence if you’re familiar with the rules you don’t expect to lose a limb in D&D. You know it must be possible in the fiction, but since the system doesn’t provide for it, you assume it only happens to NPCs.

    By the way I don’t think the comparison to going Darkest Self is apt. DS is temporary, and leaves the player in full control. It’s an excuse to act up, not a constraint or limitation (with the odd exception ie the ghost). It can be empowering. Any mechanically enforced permanent harm to a character is very different.

      1. Being forced into the Darkest Self is comparable to being maimed/losing a limb in that the player’s image of their PC is intruded on, and that’s an event you can’t go back on. It’s not about the character’s functionality, it’s about the player-player or player-GM relationship
      2. If you say that players are supposed to treat Darkest Self as a temporary state with no lasting harm, then you’re treating that character in exactly the same disposable fashion as a D&D character.