The OSR Contradiction

For a while now, I have struggled with fully comprehending the OSR playstyle. It’s documented. I’ve run several campaigns in my approximation of it. I wrote about a couple of OSR games. I even wrote an adventure for one of them – out soon, shhh. And I still don’t feel like I’m doing it right. That is, until I had an epiphany: it’s not a coherent design philosophy, and I need to stop treating it as such. Which may well be obvious to you, but it’s my blog and my epiphany, so here we are.

And before we get going: what even is OSR? A featherless dice game, perhaps. At this point it is impossible to pin down. I have no interest in community turmoil, so by “OSR” I mean the playstyle and common mechanics supporting it. At the same time, I have no doubt there are examples of OSR/POSR/NSR/etc. games with totally different playstyle & mechanics, which I think only supports my argument, but just to be safe: don’t worry, your favourite game is entirely self-consistent.

But back to the topic at hand. A while back I wrote about the difficutly of mastering narrative games (is that a reoccuring theme here?), with the ultimate conclusion being that narrative games embed their desired playstyle into the rules (not always well communicated, and not always well implemented), and failure to follow this playstyle results in a “clunky” experience as you fight the rules to make them fit your playstyle.

OSR games, on the other hand, rely on maxims & manifestoes, often existing outside the game text. As someone who didn’t start off with this playstyle, and didn’t have other GMs that practiced it I could learn from, such posts were an obligatory reading, but may have left the wrong impression.

One such maxim is “Rulings Over Rules”. Here’s the description from Principia Apocrypha, a “new OSR primer”:

The primeval old school principle. Old school style games are often sparse in what situations their rules cover. There are often minimal, or no “skills” or “feats”. This is a feature, not a bug. The flexibility this openness allows is a big part of the appeal of old school style games. Let players take advantage of this openness and try crazy things (and apply logic to taste).

Intertwined with it is the emphasis on “Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability”. From the same source:

Old school PCs are very minimalistic because the character sheet is mostly there for when players make a mistake. Players are not meant to solve problems with die rolls, but with their own ingenuity. Therefore, present them with problems that don’t require obscure knowledge, have no simple solution, but have many difficult solutions.

So “Rulings Over Rules” is not just an attitude towards adjucating various game situations, but also the reason for having simplistic rules. Combat? It’s war, your own fault for not securing overwhelming advantage, now you toss dice like grenades. Character abilities? No need, describe what you do and the GM will adjucate.

Except OSR games do have plenty of strict rules & procedures with no space for player ingenuity. It’s such a blatant contradiction of principle and practice, it’s so deeply ingrained, it’s taken me years to notice it. These rules simply cover different areas, often neglected by other playstyles: random encounters, exploration, encumbrance, resource depletion. That’s where OSR games innovate and distinguish themselves from one another. Not just regular old encounter tables, but hex flowers, overloaded dice, usage dice.

It makes sense: these rules help create a sense of pressure, of player agency and strategic choice. Do you take the time to search the place and risk another random encounter roll, or do you push on and risk triggering a trap or missing out on treasure? That’s the essence of OSR, isn’t it.

Except. Except, except, except. If rules are good for informed player choice and agency in exploration, why are they a detriment in action resolution?

Why are tactical combat rules avoided like the plague, why is the character sheet “mostly there for when players make a mistake” unless you need to check how many rations are left? For that matter, why is ingenuity not welcome in, say, encumbrance management – innovative mule packing techniques not that interesting? Fair, but are detailed descriptions of searching for traps that much better?

Not only is the “rulings over rules” principle applied inconsistently, its pursuit has lead the playstyle, how shall I put it delicately, up its own butthole. Here, for instance, is some advice on getting the most out of “rulings over rules”, followed by a big list of “OSR-style challenges” that do so. It’s good, very imaginative.

A couple of examples from the list: “This glass sphere (3′ in diameter) is filled with gems and horrible undead snakes.” “There’s a tiny octopus inside your stomach and it’s biting you.” “The room is proofed against magic. The door only opens when a bowl is filled with water from a spring down the hall. The hall is long, vented to volcanic heat, so the water will evaporate before reaching the bowl.”

Dungeoncrawling is contrived as it is. There’s a hole in the ground, filled with monsters and traps and treasure? And an entire class of people dedicated to delving into these dungeons? Not a whole lot of examples in mythology or fiction – until D&D bled back into fiction through video games, and now half of anime is isekai filled with precisely that. But to take dungeoncrawling and fill it with glass spheres of snakes & gems, stomach octopuses, and water locks in volcanoes? It’s not just the classic excuse of “a wizard did it”, it’s “a wizard did it so that adventurers could experience OSR-style challenges.”

And if you’re willing to accept these contrivances in order to experience the playstyle to its fullest, the artificiality of balanced encounters of the combat-as-sport D&D playstyle really shouldn’t bother you – it may not be your preference, but it takes just as much suspension of disbelief.

The OSR playstyle works, there’s no doubt: people have fun with it. Just so we’re clear, I have fun with it too. It works not despite its inconsistencies and contrivances, but because of them. Though its manifestoes and principles may suggest otherwise, it is simply an amalgamation of parts and approaches that happened to work well together, not a unified, self-consistent design arising from deeper philosophical ideas. A local maxima of fun.

Once seen this way, it’s easy to imagine games that could have started with the OSR principles and diverged, where the line between Rulings and Rules is drawn differently. Such games may even exist, and I’m simply ignorant of them. A game where you have to describe in detail how you render first aid, with scores of blog posts and forum threads scoffing at the idea of the Heal skill or, worse yet, hit points. Or a game where you have to learn how to identify and use plants in cooking and alchemy, with herbalism tables for every occasion. Or a game where you create magic rituals from first principles, balancing various requirements and side effects. An OSR Ars Magica. Osr Magica. Or…

More practically, this means I can take from OSR what I like, and ditch the rest without worrying I’m doing it wrong somehow. Which may have been a weird mental block only I had, but, again, my blog, my mental blocks. In the grand tradition of the genre, if OSR is dead, we can loot its tomb for all its worth.

10 thoughts on “The OSR Contradiction

  1. It helps to remember that OSR D&D, outside of domain play, is a game focused on exploration primarily and puzzle-solving secondarily. Combat is a distant tertiary. That’s why the majority of the rules focus on things related to exploration and puzzle-solving.

    Why is xp awarded for returning with treasure? Because finding gold requires exploration, and finding it without risking death requires puzzle solving and avoiding combat. Why do we have to track weight, rations, water, torches, etc? Because successfully planning and carrying out an expedition is a part of exploration and these things limit the amount of exploration that can be done. Also, its a bit of a puzzle to figure what to take and gow to bring the most loot back to civilization. Why do we track sungeon actions outside of combat in 10 minute turns and have wandering monster checks, and why are there monsters and traps if combat isnt much of a focus? Because that’s the risk vs reward mechanic as applied to exploration. The monsters and traps add tension and danger to what otherwise would be a boring exercise of thoroughly checking every room. Why are dungeons the focus? Because it’s a lot easier for a DM to detail a limited, cordoned off dungeon with secrets, hazards, navigation puzzles, etc, then it is to do that for the limitless great outdoors. Why does the combat system lean towards combat as war rather than combat as sport, and why are xp rewards for combat are minimal? So that combat is either avoided or the circumstances are altered by the players so that the fight is a fait accompli, both of which requires the players to explore alternative paths and puzzle-solve other options for addressing the situation, rather than wading into a balanced combat encounter. Why are the character sheets minimal and the mechanics for handling actions ambiguous? Because a pre-programmed selection of actions would limit the creative ways the characters might choose to explore and solve their obstacles. The things that have simple mechanics, picking locks, applying bandages, etc. are the things that didn’t contribute to the exploration and puzzle solving, so they can be glossed over with easy mechanics.

    Remember, the original players of D&D were miniatures wargamers. They knew of plenty of games about combat. If they wanted combat to be the focus of their games, they would have kept playing Chainmail and D&D wouldn’t exist. They were playing D&D for the aspects other than combat – exploration and puzzle solving. Once it is understood that OSR D&D, at least in the early levels, is about exploration and puzzle solving, the whole of the OSR becomes much clearer.

  2. As someone who often plays story games and is just getting into the world of OSR, you just summarized my own contradictions and thoughts, but you gave me a good conclusion. Thank you!

  3. It’s very important to acknowledge that RPGs can not attempt to cover every possible situation, and should not try to do so, and that players should be able to do things that are not explicitly in the rulebook. “Well duh” you may say but the 3-5e playstyle and even forgeshit like PbtA doesn’t seem to accept this. OSR does, it sets itself apart by that wisdom.

    But summing up the above up as a pithy catchphrase “Rulings not Rules OK” lost too much of the nuance. Sometimes the answer really *is* on your character sheet.

    1. I think you misunderstand PbtA. Nowhere does it say players must conform to moves. They may attempt anything at any time, as in OSR; the distinction is that there are additional rules triggered whenever the players attempt something specifically covered by a rule.

  4. My theory is that the presentation of OSR as a movement, rather than as devotees of a quite specific subgenre of RPGs (resource constrained exploration) makes it feel like these are big contradictions because you don’t explicitly have the moderating impact of genre to explain them. The 10′ pole poking (but no bandage describing) makes sense if you start with “this is a (certain kind of) exploration game” as one comment noted. But these fancy essays full of maxims don’t start that way, so it feels like they’re offering general advice that is useful outside the subgenre. This differs from a lot of advice for other subgenres, which as you note often lives in the game book, but even if not it’s usually explicitly said to apply to a certain genre: “here’s advice for running quantum mysteries” The OSR advice might be useful for other genres, but also it might not, even if it’s presented as universal.

  5. Yeah, this is largely spot on. There are a lot of sub-variants of OSR play and an emphasis on DIY design, so trying to apply everything you’ve read about it online to a single game is doomed to incoherence–picking and choosing is pretty core to the playstyle.

    I think the rules thing is often a little more consistent than you’re giving it credit for, though–OSR play tends to love rules that are GM-facing/generate challenge. Wandering monster checks and random tables aren’t really player-facing, they’re more about reducing arbitrariness on the GM’s side. Encumbrance (which varies wildly in implementation) or torch depletion aren’t action-rules in the same way that a cleave attack is, they’re rules that create an obstacle that the players can then riff more freeform in trying to overcome. And even then, the rules/procedures that do exist are usually subservient to the fiction–if the thing they’re simulating doesn’t make sense you can always modify or suspend them.

    I’d also be a little wary of taking blog examples as 1:1 examples of play. “There’s a tiny octopus inside your stomach and it’s biting you” is pretty contrived, but that’s because it’s being presented with zero context in a blog post. A lot of what’s fun about these freeform challenges is that they are so embedded in the game-situation–the solution often comes from other seemingly minor details described previously–that trying to describe compelling challenges in one to two sentences on a blog post feels really hollow unless you just go big weird. They tend to arrive a lot more organically than “you walk into a room and there’s an octopus inside of you”.

  6. People who weren’t playing in the early days of gaming tend to (forget/not know) that, as a medium, RPGs were in a very basic and indeterminate stage.

    A lot of ideas came over from miniatures wargaming, and a lot from written fiction (since there weren’t as many genre movies yet), but there weren’t really any examples of “previous lore” to draw from. So many of the solutions are simple.

    Also, if you weren’t in certain areas of the country with a previous player base, you just read whatever game books you had, and made up how to play from the sometimes very confused information in the books.

    You included maybe bits and pieces of OD&D, Basic D&D, AD&D, and Traveller plus some Arduin, and threw them them all together till you made up your own styles of play. Each GM tended to do things their own way. And we complained or complemented depending on how we felt about the Rules in the Books and the Rulings of the GMs. Consistency of play across games was not common.

    OSR seeks to try and recapture those styles, but to also put some more current theoretical ideas with them.

    Probably the biggest difference I see, is that since we didn’t really know what we were doing, we just did whatever. Not that we ignored all the Rules. And we certainly had Rules arguments (I say polishing my Rules Lawyer button). But I think we understood these were games of the imagination. Not finite board games. We had to figure things out for ourselves, and so a lot depended on the life experiences of the GM and other players. That is probably still true today, but now there seems to be more feeling of “having to do things correctly”.

    The OSR does have some really good bits and theories. But there are good things in other movements as well (Trad, Forge, Story, Anime, Solo, Etc.).
    Draw freely from the well of gaming ideas. (And movies and computer games and VR and … So On.)

    Make something that works for you.

    (And maybe make another something after that. Perfection is unlikely. Exploration is fun.)

  7. Judging by your examples I think you understand “rulings not rules” differently than I do. Rulings not rules means rules shouldn’t define every edge as a war-game would.

    For example 5E might list things that give you Advantage in combat while an OSR game would leave that up to the GM (maybe including three examples or so to clarify the point).

    Another example would be Usage Die, that rule doesn’t add overhead, instead it removes the need to track arrows and food. It’s not something folks fight over, just a mechanic to remove the drudgery. Also I don’t know that Usage Die is really OSR though as many old school players consider resource tracking an important part of the game.

    Lastly Hex Flowers, I believe, are for the DM only. To create randomness and random tables are a big part of the OSR experience.

  8. I think you conflate two different things as “rules”, thus creating the contradiction you perceive, but then my sense of OSR doesn’t remotely include usage dice…

    Encounter rolls, hex flowers, etc are simulation procedures that the DM uses to create the world-apart-from-the-pcs, both statically (dungeon contents) and dynamically (random weather). As Misha said these are GM-facing rules. And there’s plenty of space for rulings here – most discussion of the Mentzerian procedures for stocking a dungeon applies it in gestalt to a level, rather than doing it pedantically one-room-at-a-time.

    These are different in kind from “what can my character *do* in this simulated world?”, where we employ rulings fruitfully.

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