Friday, October 13, 2017

What I Want in an OSR Game

OSR appeals to me in specific ways for specific reasons. Because I'm already doing character-focused story-game stuff with other games I'm playing (or writing!), I don't need OSR to be my end-all-be-all general purpose tool. Here the attraction is in what makes OSR different.

Objective, Challenged-Based Gaming

Most of the games I love actively embrace failure. Burning Wheel, Apocalypse, and yes, Sword & Scoundrel — all of these games are designed in such a way that failure is not only expected, it's inherently part of what drives the story forward. You are not playing these games to accomplish things so much as to see what happens.

OSR is pretty well the opposite of this. In the majority of games in this family, you have two sources of XP: defeating enemies and recovering treasure. Both of these are objective-based reward mechanisms. If you want to advance, you have to succeed. You have to overcome challenges in order to get the rewards both in and out of character.

Sometimes, I'm in the mood for a tragic, twisting narrative. Other times, I want to be challenged. I want my players to be challenged and to be rewarded for beating those challenges.

Encounter-Based High Adventure

As a corollary to the above, most of the games I'm into are intensely character-focused and built around exploring who that character is and what they are about. It's a lot of fun but it can also be emotionally exhausting. I'm not always up for it as a player or a GM. Sometimes you want to be playing Game of Thrones where it's all character-focused drama built around their individual goals and passions. Other times, you want to play Conan or Indiana Jones, where the protagonist is less a focus and more an excuse for us to go on cool adventures and see weird shit. OSR is definitely in the latter camp.

This shift in focus also gives you an entirely different kind of creative outlet. Prepping for a character-focused game is all about finding ways to reincorporate aspects of those characters into the game. In an OSR game, the GM's creative efforts are almost the opposite -- outwardly focusing on creating interesting scenarios, locations, creatures and other encounters. You have a ton of freedom to do random interesting things.

Random Stuff and the Impartial Adjudicator

The more story and character-oriented the game is, the more deliberate you want to be with events. OSR tends to be all about the random. Aside from giving you all kinds of neat weird play artifacts (mutation tables, weather tables, random encounters..), the more randomized the elements become the more objective you can be as a GM. When I'm playing B/x, my job isn't to actively challenge the players or find ways to highlight their character. My job is to prepare a situation for them to explore and then impartially interpret the results of the dice as they do so, adjudicating any fictional elements as impartially as I can. Whether they succeed or fail, the amount of XP they earn, all of that is between them and the dice gods. I am simply the messenger.

Player Skill and Fictional Engagement

One of the major draws to OSR for many people is the way these games allow direct engagement with the fiction. In many cases, you can bypass challenges through role-playing alone, whether this is negotiating your way through a social encounter or narrating your way through disarming a trap or solving a puzzle. In a way, resorting to dice can almost be seen as a fail-state, as it means you have to instead fall back on your mechanical abilities -- and in the process, you're putting yourself at risk.

This approach is supported fairly well by OSR play.The lack of skills in most of these games means that players have to look elsewhere for solutions to their problems. Risk management is the primary player-skill to master in the game, so any time you can overcome a challenge through fictional positioning you're better off than you would have been letting the dice decide your fate. This works well in conjunction with the earlier point about challenge-based gaming. I love the kind of creative problem-solving that the gaps in OSR rules foster.

Adventure as Expedition

In nearly any other game I play, equipment and supplies are basically hand-waived. Tracking time, speed, and distance are all just irrelevant trivialities that interfere with the story you're trying to tell. In OSR, they can be a crucial part of the logistics of exploration. Early D&D editions were big on treating dungeon-delving as an expedition. Players would have to carefully balance their supplies to ensure they had enough goods to make a journey, but the more stuff you brought the slower you move, the less you could bring back and the more easily you can be overrun. You could bring hirelings with you to help you fight or haul, but the more people you bring the more supplies you need and the more attention you'll attract. And of course, time is also against you, because the more stuff you bring the slower you go the more time it takes the more supplies you go through, the more likely something will eat you.

In any other game time, speed, and inventory are unnecessary simulation and best ignored. In OSR, they can be an important expression of player-skill through risk management. I also personally love the Lewis & Clark or Oregon Trail vibe that you get once the players have started an adventuring company, set out into the wilds, their packs laden with junk and a dozen hirelings at their side. It's a unique experience and one that's nigh-impossible to manage in most systems.

I could keep going on. The rules-light nature of most of these games, the flexibility in hacking, etc., but the purpose of this post was specifically to talk about what I wanted in an OSR game that wasn't what I was already getting in my other games. In turn, as I kick around design ideas, these highlight the areas I really want to lean into and focus on.

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