The sweet seduction of OSR

June 8, 2015 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
Tagged , , ,

I’m getting sucked into OSR sensibilities and I like it.

I’m not sure how it all started, if I’m being honest. I think I read one ebook or another which linked to Hack & Slash. I added that and some other blogs to my RSS reader, and forgot about them for ~9 months.

At some point I was bored and saw the beginning of the Cities series Courtney Campbell did. Around the same time, I discovered West Marches.

OSR was sucking me in.

To be clear, I don’t think I am a die-hard. If I may be permitted, I’d call it “OSR-lite.” How do I boil that down? A list will do nicely. Here are elements that I had more or less ignored or struggled with prior to May:

When I run a typical White Wolf game, it’s sandbox-style. The environment is mostly limited, though. Players make choices about what to do and works with the Storyteller to translate that into game events. Simple enough.

In a D&D game, I can do this. The beginning of Er-Eret, aside from the initial goblin encounter, was nothing but roleplaying. I think most people had fun, too.

But this isn’t why, even from a young age, I yearned for fantasy-themed, structured make-believe. If I had to pick a single impetus, it would be this: The Legend of Zelda.

Love at first sight

Until I saw Zelda, most of the games I’d played were highly constrained. Super Mario Bros, for all it did to spawn an entire genre from nothing, had many constraints. You couldn’t get hit much; you had a timer after which you’d die; no saving; no backtracking; and more.

Zelda was love at first sight, by way of contrast: hit points; no timer; saves; backtracking; exploration; secrets; and you start with no fucking idea what you’re doing. You have a sword and a shield and it’s up to you to make something of it.

Oh, and your sword is magic. And there are dungeons. And magic items.

Now, Zelda isn’t really OSR-esque in many respects. There’s no permadeath. In a micro sense it is non-linear, but in a macro sense, progression is linear.

In other respects, it totally is! There are some easily accessible areas which are much more dangerous, if not fatal, should you wander into them. Some have enemies you can’t hurt, or where hurting them is a chore, or they deal a lot of damage. Arguably this is another form of gating. The key is that if you’re good enough or clever enough, you could survive.

Zelda II was even more RPG-like, and I spent a fair amount of time with that one, too. You had spells, XP, the ability to explore, random encounters, objective difficulty, and so on.

Zelda was undoubtedly influenced by fantasy roleplaying, and this was plain to see. After this point I desperately craved something like Zelda but make believe.


I keep coming back to that sense of being put in a world, given a sword, maybe some magic, and you’re on your way. There are towns, caves, dangerous places, secrets, and various things that are always there. They aren’t randomly generated by the game, so when you play for the first couple of times, you have a sense that you’re in, well, a sandbox.

If we set aside the macro sense in which early Zelda is fairly linear, we have something very much like an OSR sandbox. Critically the player is in control of where they want to go. They can leave a dungeon at any point, and go exploring. In Zelda II, there are a few places you can go to get a pile of bonus XP. You can get ambushed by powerful monsters, and some encounters are either so easy or so hard they aren’t worth fighting. And so on.

I didn’t make the connection between Zelda and D&D until I started reading The Quantum Ogre series. If you haven’t read it, the whole thing is fantastic. You don’t even have to agree with it from a stylistic perspective, or buy into OSR wholeheartedly. I suppose if you only have time for a single post, I’d recommend On Resurrecting the Quantum Ogre and Having Him Over for Tea.


I don’t want to rehash all the points there. But the key here is that you have to relinquish some amount of control if you want player choice to be meaningful.

The problem I always had was trying to boil down clear choices for players. The PCs arrive at a town, and multiple people ask them to do conflicting favors or whatever. Can the PCs decide not to be interested? I mean, sure, I might have a timeline. But if the PCs leave town, what then? Shouldn’t they be able to do that?

The problem with tension is that if PCs have plot immunity, there is literally no reason ever to avoid combat. This may be fine right up until you want to find a way to tell the PCs they’re in over their heads without assuming they’ll metagame.

When there are no random encounters, there is no tension to travel. The players need to know that traveling through the mountains is qualitatively different than traveling through the swamp. They need to present different dangers, and different trade-offs. Likewise, if every random encounter is combat-only, you’re denying yourself the opportunity for offering more choice and color for your world. A charismatic party should play differently than a non-charismatic one, and not just in terms of stats and skills.

The preceding implies that some areas are more dangerous than others, which leads us to objective difficulty. If the PCs want to take smart risks, they must be risks, by definition. The stakes may not be their lives as such but this is D&D and the world is dangerous.

If difficulty is objective, that means that we need to account for PCs deciding to leave an area and come back later. A quantum ogre doesn’t work well here.

The part that made me most uncomfortable at first was about giving information in AND out of character. This is not adversarial DMing; you are the loyal opposition. You need to give the PCs enough rope to risk hanging themselves. Their choices must be informed. This rules out lying and trying to trick them.

Oh, you can create mysteries with clues — what do you think a well-designed trap is? — but if all you’re doing is playing gotcha, then clues are merely window dressing. You’re not the loyal opposition; you’re just the opposition.

Finally, we must say yes to what the players want. If they can’t get it, tell them how they can get it. It should involve work, risks, drama, whatever you want to call it. Whatever happens, you must be true to your word. You’re loyal. You want them to have fun.

Remember, you’re not trying to kill them. You’re just giving them manifold opportunities to make poor decisions. When they make clever choices, the payoff should be commensurate.

More later

I think this is a good stopping point for now. There’s so much to cover that I could seriously write for hours about this stuff.

I hesitate to say what I’ll write about next, but one piece which has bothered me somewhat is how to handle skills. Many OSR folks take a dim view of skills as a way to skip gameplay or, worse, screw the game up when checks fail.

This is an area where I part ways, and I’ll talk about why. At some point.

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