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.