Wednesday, October 11, 2017


In terms of role-playing preferences, I've always been in kind of a weird position. There's always been a weird undercurrent of animosity between the different camps of the role-playing community. Within the indie/nar/forge/story-game crowd there are certain elements that have a tendency to look down on D&D in any form as an unsophisticated and unsatisfying experience. This sentiment is often extended to the OSR movement, which can be seen as a nostalgia-fueled leap backwards in gaming. In turn, the certain elements of the OSR crowd have a tendency to look at the story-games people as elitist hipsters trying to pass off their game experiences off as high art.

This isn't universally true of all parties on each side — how often is anything universally true of a group of broad group of people? — but I've gotten in debates with people on both sides about the legitimacy of the other as a valid game choice. This brings me back to the first sentence: I've always been in a weird position between the two communities, with one foot on each side. I enjoy both kinds of games quite a bit, as they offer very different experiences that appeal to me for different reasons. The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've realized they have in common.

Intentional, Focused Design

The hallmark of both movements was a dissatisfaction with some element of the hobby that was so widespread as to spark the creation of new games meant to answer a specific question. For the forge/nar/story-games movement, it was largely a dissatisfaction with games on the market in terms of creating the kind of stories that people wanted to tell. For OSR, it was largely a reaction to the introduction of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons that made a whole lot of people realize that the current official version of the game was no longer giving them the kind of experience they wanted to have. In both cases, this dissatisfaction lead to intense critique, analysis, and eventually the cultivation of a body of design philosophy.

DIY and the Indie Explosion

In both cases, fierce forum debates quickly became blog posts and ultimately an explosion of games designed to embody various elements of the design philosophy. The primary focus on both ends was on a specific way in which the game was meant to be played in order to deliver a very particular kind of experience. Both scenes have flourishing online communities where people are constantly churning out games and hacks and other content. Both scenes are to this day dominated by independent publishers, many of whom have turned their passions into a legitimate business. 

As I chewed on this subject, I realized that if I went a bit deeper I could actually draw far more parallels in my own journey through this. My gateway drug into the narrative scene was a now largely forgotten game called The Riddle of Steel. It was a formative game for me, in that it not only introduced me to a whole new way of playing, but ultimately changed how I played everything after that. The parallels between TROS and the OSR are striking, even beyond their amusingly similar abbreviation.

Red-Handed Pulp

The Riddle of Steel is a reference to the classic Conan the Barbarian movie, from 1982. Both TROS and the OSR ultimately take their origin from early pulp Sword & Sorcery as filtered through popular culture. Amusingly, both also then sort of obscure the human-centric and exotic pulp quality to do a Tolkienesq medieval fantasy with elves and dwarves.

Modular Mechanics

Like the overwhelming majority of OSR games, TROS had no single unifying mechanic. Instead, it had a handful of different self-contained systems the game leaned on for different situations. Much like with OSR games, this both told you rather explicitly the arenas in which the game wanted to focus but it also gave you a ton of room to add, remove, and tinker with the guts of the things. Almost as soon as the game was out, people began to customize and hack it to suit their campaigns much in the same way as even today people hack their OSR system of choice to customize it for whatever they are doing.

Gameable Gaps

Many OSR enthusiasts will argue that the lack of rules for certain situations is a feature, rather than a bug. TROS benefits from a similar gap in its rules set. While it features a rudimentary skill system, it was obvious that combat and sorcery were what the game was really interested in. Everything else was a simple test and you moved on. It gave the GM quite a bit of leeway and in practice I found playing TROS to have a lot in common with my memories of playing AD&D: you basically ignored the book most of the time until someone got in a fight or cast a spell, with the thief-type character usually being the one to do nearly all of the task-resolution kind of rolls.

Player Choices, Player Skill

Much like the OSR, TROS was not a game you could by any means just "roll play" your way through. TROS has one of the highest player-skill curves of any game I've played. You, the player, have to become very good at both engaging with the system to get XP (Spiritual Attributes, in this case) but the combat and magic mechanics require a huge amount of system mastery to play. What's awesome about this, though, is that the system mastery here means "picking strategies and making interesting choices in play" rather than something like where system mastery means "knowing how to build your character in order to get the most amount of bonuses."

This, more than anything, is probably why I was so attracted to TROS back when.  The idea that you would win because of your choices rather than having the highest numbers or the biggest sword or whatever was enthralling. It gave me a taste for something that I've been chasing ever since.

Player-Driven Play

This may not be true for all of the OSR, but it is generally true for the parts of it I enjoy. I love sandboxes, huge, sprawling dungeons, and anything that lets the players have a significant say in the strategies and engagements they will attempt. Even if you've all agreed to the premise "we're going dungeon-delving" the gold-for-xp nature of so much OSR tends to mean that players are in charge of their own advancement. The OSR assumptions of balance mean that the players have to pick and choose their battles and are making decisions that ultimately puts their success and failure in their own hands. Contrast this with later D&D (or other games) where you are often a participant in a pre-written story and are rewarded for hitting milestones within that story.

TROS did this in a way that no other game I'd encountered had, with the PC's Spiritual Attributes making them masters of their own destiny in a massively compelling way.  The two camps take massively different approaches, but both games ultimately empower the players to make decisions that matter and let them drive the game onward in a compelling way. 

In hindsight, it's not surprising to me at all why Sword & Scoundrel inherited as much TROS DNA as it did or why we retained what we did after all of these revisions. By the same token, it's not surprising that I'm gravitating towards OSR even as I work on the former. In a lot of ways, they are the answer to the same kinds of desires taken in two different directions.

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