Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about “old-school” games. It’s almost become an obsession. And for a quite a while there, I had a really hard time figuring out exactly what was attracting me to these games. However, while on a trip to New York for a buddy’s bachelor party last weekend (sweet, merciful Satan, I drank WAY too much), I had a conversation with one of his friends in which I was finally able to articulate what about these games really gets my motor running. So, please join me for a brief journey into my wannabe-game-designer-brain that I like to call…
Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games
For the uninitiated, “OSR” refers to the “Old School Revival”. More specifically, updating the rules and concepts of the earliest days of our hobby for modern use. In practice, this ends up with games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The rules for all three of these games are free online (click the links above), so take a few minutes and have a look. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Pretty simple right? It probably looks like your favorite version of D&D, but with a hell of a lot less stuff. And that’s the first major draw. The simplicity of these games lends them a certain beauty. Instead of having rules for every damn thing, the GM is expected to make rulings. A lack of skill lists or task-resolution mechanics can be incredibly freeing. So, instead of juggling a long list of modifiers and then figuring out if “athletics” or “acrobatics” is more applicable to the situation, the question becomes, “Can your powerfully built, athletic warrior jump the chasm?” Almost certainly. The drunk halfling, on the other hand, probably can’t. Furthermore, your character’s stats are way less important in these games. Because attribute modifiers are usually somewhere in the vicinity of +/- 1, you can’t just brute-force dice-roll your way through problems. The game mechanics are intentionally left fairly abstract to encourage creative problem solving.
Honestly, unless your GM is a huge asshole, if you come up with a decent solution to a problem, you shouldn’t even have to look at dice.*
The lethality of these game systems has always interested me, too. At first glance, I didn’t really understand how these games were playable. Like, how do you survive fights? Then it dawned on me – you survived fights by avoiding them entirely or only fighting when you knew you could win. It was a staggering revelation. Since the ’90s, RPGs have had an insane emphasis on combat. And most of that is the fucking boring, grindy, tactical combat, which I’ve already spilled plenty of ink complaining about. Fights in OSR games tend to be quick and brutal, and the smarter, better-prepared group almost always wins.
Really, what strikes me about these games is how the their mechanics incentivise certain player behaviors. A common feature of a lot of these OSR games is that experience gain from monsters tends to be quite low, but when you escape a dungeon (or other adventure site) with a bunch of loot, you get an equivalent amount of experience points. So, in addition to combat being quite deadly, you’re further incentivised to avoid fighting or come up with a creative solution. Are there some orcs guarding a chest? Instead of fighting them, maybe you could bribe them into momentarily leaving their post. Or maybe you know that the orcs have long been at war with the gnolls that live in a different part of the dungeon complex. If you could lead some of the gnolls to this room, the problem might solve itself. Or, failing that, make the drunk halfling finally earn his keep and sneak by those orcs. Once there isn’t a simple mechanical solution (a boring tactical fight), creativity is forced to take center stage.
Perhaps the best thing about these games is the community that’s sprung up around them. Take a while to dig through the archives of Goblin Punch, Playing D&D With Porn Stars (just make sure to skip the drama), Dyson’s Dodecahedron, Deeper in the Game, and I’ll See It When I Believe It, just to name a few of my favorites. These guys are making amazing, cool, weird stuff and dumping it online for anyone to use FOR FREE.
Now, of course, this style of game isn’t for everybody. Some people don’t feel comfortable without well-defined mechanics to fall back on. Also, when GMing an OSR game, the Wheaton Rule applies double. You have to be tough, but fair. When your players come up with a reasonably cool solution to a problem, let it ride. But if they fuck up, make sure they feel it. If you never let your players’ creative solutions work, you’re the one who’s fucking up the game, not them.
M. Hamhock out.
*A lot of GMs house-rule some simple task resolution mechanics in order to fix edge cases. One of my favorites is the simple “when in doubt, roll under the applicable attribute”. Another really good one is Akratic Wizardry’s saving throws as general task resolution mechanics. In fact, I really dig all their house rules. Definitely take a look.