Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why I am Anxious about OSR Gaming.

The observant Burrower might notice that out of the several blogs listed on the side of the page here, more than a few of them deal heavily in Old School Renaissance/Revival content. This is not because I am particularly interested in OSR, though. It just sort of happened that I found them and happen to like a few ideas from each. And I still encourage any of you to go and check them out.

But this post is more about my weird feelings toward OSR than any writers of it. To be honest, nothing has prompted this post, either. I am not responding to any reader comments (though I would be happy to find some sort of question box feature for Blogger). This is just Furt trying to work self-therapy via text, because as it happens to be, the OSR is a source of a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for me.

First I should probably properly define the OSR- more for myself than for the reader, since you folks might very well be more into it than me, and in any case you have the Google at your fingertips. It's a loose term still, but it usually refers to modern tabletop role-playing games and their communities which go back into the history of tabletop RPGs, particularly D&D, and draw influences and mechanics from their earliest incarnations. A retro-clone of AD&D 1E, or of "Original" D&D, would be included in the Old School Renaissance. Often, rules bloat is consciously avoided and a much smaller body of rules is preferred, with individual DM or group rulings filling in the gaps on a case-by-case basis.

More than mechanics however, OSR games try to recapture the "feeling" of old RPGs. Feeling is hugely subjective, but a common agreement I've read is that the feeling includes a greater potential for danger, an emphasis on player skill, developing characters over time, and embracing various different approaches/deconstructions/reconstructions/love-letters to the classic act of dungeon crawling.

An excellent resource for helping to understand this "feeling" and getting started on your own old school experience is this primer from Mythmere Games. A lot of these "zen moments", or what I've for some reason come to call "pillars of OSR" will be guiding my haphazard rambling from this point onward. I guess I'll get right to it then.

Pillar #1

The first moment of zen is, as alluded to before, the use of "Rulings, not Rules". The players are not expected to have access to the whole ruleset of the game, and may even be discouraged to. They describe what their actions are, because there are no predefined rolls and checks with modifiers for them to use for those given actions. Rolls come in when there is something unexpected or variable, and it might just as easily be a d6 as a d20 roll. The DM or Referee has access to the rules, but they are meant to be used as a reference, not to define or even guide their actions.

The example given for this difference in approach by Modern vs. Old Style gaming is the disarming of a pit trap. In the modern style, the back-and-forth between player and DM is fairly brief, with checks made to detect and then disarm the trap in question. In the old style, the DM asks the player how they try to disarm the trap, and the player describes the exact feelings and actions of their character, as well as asks what they see. No die is rolled in the given exchange, and it ends without the pit trap being disarmed at all- just sidestepped by the rogue and party.

I had a vague understanding of what D&D was before 2000, but I didn't get into it until I got the boxed orange 3E set for either Yulesmas or my birthday, I forget which. As such, a d20+mod roll was the only way I knew how to solve a problem for the longest time. Unfortunately, my parents eventually took my orange d20 away when I started using it to determine my own hunger levels. More recently, when I broke my ~10 year streak of not actually getting to play the game and only dwelling in the theoretical elements of the game all by my lonesome, I approached it with a strong emphasis on character-building. It's a hobby of mine. Some people garden, or collect stamps, or consume massive quantities of recreational drugs. I boot up PCGen and fiddle with the math of a 20 point-buy and Wealth By Level in order to get the most satisfying, mechanical approximation of a neat character concept I can think of. I think of character ability in terms of feats and skill points, even when that can be limiting on approaches to a problem. And while the idea of stepping outside of that well-ordered box is enticing in theory, it also distresses me.

Another important bit of context is that, aside from one haphazard and charmingly abysmal attempt in my Junior year of high school, I have only ever played D&D or any other tabletop RPG over the internet. And the vast majority of those experiences have been PbP (Play-by-Post) games on message boards. In classic D&D, you get together with your buddies whom you know outside of the game, and hopefully you all have a sense of one another and your interests or ways of thinking about things. On the internet, where you send in character sheets and descriptions or biographies as part of a literal application process to the DM, things are a lot more anonymous. And that is where I think a strong body of rules is way more useful than fast and loose rulings. Rules become a means of communicating ideas to other people who have different starting points or wildly conflicting notions of common sense, and in many ways the ruleset becomes a specialized language used to facilitate the conversation of playing the game. Also, trying to play out that entire thief-referee conversation of what is seen and done in single-line posts over the course of several real-life days can severely hamper the progress of a game where people's availability is always shifting.

I suppose that feeling could be different, or would have the possibility of changing, if I ever play a face-to-face or at least real-time game with mutually-known people (I have yet to give something like Roll20 a real shot). But as it stands, "crunch" is a grounding, comforting thing which I can nonetheless use to my advantage, and I meet rules bloat and mountains of splat-books with delight rather than disdain because it comfortably widens the "box" I find myself within.

Pillar #2

"Player Skill, not Character Abilities" is a phrase that makes me quake with fear, and my insides tremble in such a way that I have to be careful how I stand up. In my mind, it strips away almost all of the role that luck has to play in the failure of my character, and it instead becomes a failure of me, the player. And I hate that feeling. I hate knowing that somehow, in a flexible game of options and possibilities where there is no intended "right way" to play, I have managed to play the wrongest way. It makes me feel useless to my (hypothetical) group of friends, and perhaps bad enough that it erases any gratification I might get from playing well. I don't trust myself to be skilled enough, or to ever gain the level of skill to be able to play. Even the possibility of a learning experience and the hope of doing better the next time around makes me feel stupid.

Don't ask me how the hell I managed to get through college with that attitude- I have no idea.

"Just play smart(er)" sounds like an obvious response to the problem, and that would in fact fix it. But then, in attempting to play smarter, the game becomes an exercise in suspicion, fear, and anxiety, and all of my creative energy goes toward imagining ways that things can or will go wrong. The simple act of sorting out the inventory of a relatively fragile shaman and their horse once became a grueling, months-long process where I (literally) weighed every single pound of encumbrance against its value and utility.

I agonized over how much space I had left below the Medium Load threshold for 11 Strength, and how any particularly valuable items were divided up between backpack and saddlebags. It became obvious (in my fevered mind) that the first monster we faced would immediately try to kill the character's horse and throw all of its items into a river or ravine, or disable the encumbered shaman to the point they'd be defenseless and dead. Every single possibility, even the ones with mutually exclusive possible solutions, became an inevitable scenario where It Was All My Fault™. And this was all for the relatively bloodless beginner levels of a Pathfinder Adventure Path!

This paranoia raised the question then of what I could reasonably expect a Dungeon Master to do. I don't think that many DMs are automatically sadistic, high-and-mighty, and out to get their players. But I do think that ORS games make it a lot easier for them to be. Again, maybe this would be changed by a face-to-face game where I do not imagine the DM as a shadowy figure behind a fortress of expensive referee screens decorated in images of Total Party Kills.

Another, smaller concern I have with this is the issue of effectively role-playing your character when you're relying on yourself, rather than them. A wizard with 18 Intelligence, for example, is objectively vastly more intelligent than most real-life humans are likely to be, and possessed of a greater ability to memorize details or absorb complex information. Yes, everyone has their dumb moments, but playing like you possess that high mental stat, especially if it's magically aided, sounds borderline impossible for an average player, or at least for me. So this character that should be able to handily meet a challenge has an even lower rate of success than what fickle dice would allow for in a modern style gaming context. And despite my reliance upon crunch, I value RP a good deal as well. This isn't so much of an issue with physical ability scores, since it's easier to imagine and describe feats of strength or speed, unless you have to show your work with body mechanics and physics homework.

Pillar #3

You ever stare at a word long enough that it looks misspelled, or just plain weird? I'm starting to get that way with "pillar" right now. Like the "ll" should be pronounced with the Spanish digraphic "y" sound. Or something entirely different, like pie-LAR... Anyway, on to the actual substance.

I actually have no problem with "Heroic, not Superhero". I like humble origins for characters, and just sort of stumbling into adventuring rather than starting off better than everyone else has its appeal to me. If they should be more powerful, for whatever reason, just raising the starting level and giving them a modest career history is perfectly fine. E6 is something that strives for that lower-magic,  grittier feel, and it's been around since the fairly early days of 3rd Edition. Pathfinder has a similar homebrewed meta-game, and a few 3rd-party publishers have even written gems about playing literal peasants.

But I also like high-powered games, even if I am terrible at managing magic items and spell slots. Both types of games seem equally enjoyable to me, subject to my flip-flopping weekly preferences of course. Combined with some of the above arguments, this power-level of game might make me more worried that common house cats will succeed in disemboweling my characters if they get pet the wrong way, but my anxiety doesn't reach a peak the same way. Eberron, one of my favorite settings, actually gives me an inkling of this same feeling because of how rare truly high-level characters are in the world. Sure, magic is everywhere, but it's mundane enough that you aren't a Superman among Batmans (Batmen?) for it.

Related to that note, does it make sense that I so closely associate the level of magic in a setting with the level of heroism vs. superheroism? I'm still mulling over what makes something "gritty" or "low" or "epic".

Pillar #4

Being told to "Forget Game Balance" is something I would be very tolerant of in a different medium. In a console RPG or MMORPG where a low-level player might make a wrong turn and get faced with a Hellobear, the penalty for dying is reverting to the last save, or respawning with some equipment damage, experience debt, whatever have you. Even in a roguelike game where death is permanent, a bewildering encounter with a nasty monster way higher up than its normal depth probably doesn't lose you a huge amount of time invested in a beloved creation.

But in a tabletop game where you can put in months of forum correspondence or hundreds of real-time hours, and using a system where resurrection magic is a pipe dream for many up until a certain level, I can't help but feel that that sucks for the players. The paragraph for this Moment of Zen claims that the old style campaign is in a fantasy world as opposed to a game setting, but it's still a game that is being played, and I think some degree of balancing should be implemented as such. I see the criticism of hand-holding in newer games a lot, but is it necessary to remove the handrails as well? What causes greater risks for smaller rewards inherently more fun?

I realize that some people can have fun while losing, and that a valid point in this is that if you can't have fun losing, then OSR possibly isn't the best choice for you. And in theory, I think I'd be fine with that if I could completely avoid attachment with my character in the event of their death by comical fluke. But I can't. In all of my years spent playing or thinking about playing D&D and its associated camp of RPGs, I have never had a character die on me. Granted, this is because all of the games I've been in have died before the PCs themselves. But I still fear the possibility (or maybe eventuality) of character death. It goes beyond the hours of investment or the list of gear on their person for me, since so many connections and story lines, as well as a part of myself, would also be dying with them. I guess I'm one of those people for whom a bad ending kinda spoils the good stuff leading up to it.

There's another sort of game balance I take a bit of issue with, and that's actually something that exists in many d20 games past and present, with the possible exception of games like D&D 4th Edition which emphasized power systems and things so heavily. This issue is party balance, and the ability of one character to contribute compared to another. I realize that prior to 3rd Edition, things like the God-Wizard and CoDzilla didn't really exist, but there were still areas of the game where one class outshined another. That is fine and expected with regards to party roles, but in my opinion it's kind of bizarre when it's applied to the progression of time.

I refer to the idea of Linear Fighters and Quadratic Wizards, and how characters will gradually transfer mechanical importance from one to the other as they level up, with a relatively narrow period of equality between them before mundane characters become redundant around formerly too fragile or specialized magic-users. The importance of player skill in OSR (and modern style games as well) can help mitigate this, sure, but it can also exacerbate it and make it even worse. I think this is the only point where I have a legitimate disagreement rather than a subjective anxiety attack, because a game works best when everyone feels like they can offer something at least seemingly equal, and aren't being overshadowed or overshadowing others. Both experiences can be unfun and guilt-inducing.

Miscellaneous Considerations

Not fitting into any of these major points are some of the specific bits which OSR games seem to lift from older games with confusing regularity. It might be nostalgia, or the grandfather clause at work, but they just vex me to no end.

Race-as-Class and Class Level Limits have gotten a lot of criticism and a lot of support in the past, and I don't mean to dredge up the played-out depths of the argument here. I can see how they would be useful for effectively marrying together mechanics and story, but only ever in a specific setting which they have been designed for, to reflect the unique conditions which characters in that world or universe experience. Beyond that, if they are the assumed way of things in any given setting in which the system is being used, that seems to me like a limitation of role-play and gameplay caused by overbearing mechanics, which is the exact opposite of what a lot of the OSR strives for. I think it would be better for the basic game rules to make no baked-in judgements on who can do what, and then leave that up to the specific DM, because barring existing but inappropriate material is a lot easier than but just as effective as making it from scratch to fill in gaps left behind by the authors' ideas of how the game should be played. 3.5E and Pathfinder DMs do that all the time when navigating the thousands of pages of printed materials to find what fits their campaign.

(This is also the part where I whine about so few deliberately old school games having playable, non-villainous orcs/goblins/what have you in the base rules, but that is because I am a one-trick pony with weird aesthetics, and I understand that faceless minions of darkness are an important facet of the feeling of the old days.)

Alignment is just... weird and difficult, and I don't get why so many (but not all) D&D retro-clones  embrace it like it isn't a source of needless out-of-game conflict. I admit I'm biased against objective morality in stories in general, but I feel like a big quality of life change could be to make it an optional rule boxed off from the rest of the game somewhere in the middle of the book. Unless of course the book is about Planescape, or another game where Outer Plane shenanigans are so integral to the plot. Then it gets a pass from me.

All of this said, I still like some of the ideas presented by OSR gamers. The blogs I follow have some bizarre ideas totally unlike what classic fantasy throws at you, and they remind me of how the Old School Renaissance, regardless of certain trends, is currently an absolute powerhouse of creativity and DIY-style world-building that allows for many cool and ironically new things to flourish. And that alone is good enough for me.

I do not know where I was going with any of this, if I even had a goal in mind. But it feels good to get this off of my chest and out into the ether. Thanks for bearing with me.


  1. I realize your post is old, but I thought I'd comment anyway.
    (1) For old school play it helps if your DM is not a jerk. Although play can be brutal there is an expectation that they aren't intentionally setting you up. The DM is not against the player, they are neutral.
    (2) Many groups back in the day created multiple characters. You play one at a time but the backups are there. This helps make you less attached and diminishes the crushing effect of losing one.

    1. Hi there, and thanks for the comment! Don't worry about the post's age- I took my sweet time replying to you, too.

      With more time passed between this post and now, I am able to say with a lot more certainty than before that my problems with OSR games have less to do with the games themselves and more to do with my own massive, untreated anxiety.

      The paranoia that the DM is going to entrap and destroy me is part of a larger, more general fear that anyone might do that to me, and a fear that I would somehow deserve it.

      The fear of character death takes root the moment I make them, so multiple backups don't help, unfortunately. I feel responsible for their wellbeing in a way, even if they aren't, ya know, REAL. And if I fail the first time, then that's just evidence that I never should have tried to begin with.

      It's all stuff to hash out in therapy, I guess is what I'm getting at.

    2. If I can be of any service in this matter... I'm a 30+ year veteran of the game, and remember the OSR aesthetic when it was new and exciting.

      The DM's responsibility to the players has traditionally been adversarial, but never hostile. The idea is that the cunning, planning, and intelligence of a single DM against the collective problem-solving and creativity of the players. That was why "fudging" the results or adjusting encounters was discouraged; the DM's plans were made in advance, and changing them en route was effectively cheating, defeating the creativity of the players for the sake of a predetermined outcome, or "the story." It was always possible, of course (the DM is the final arbiter), but such abuses of power were considered beneath an effective DM.

      Much has changed since then - the more contemporary DMs value story over player agency, it seems. But an authentic OSR game should hinge on collective "player skill" as an antidote to your fears - it's not only you, but all the party that should be dedicated to keeping each other alive, and the DM's responsibility to play the results straight down the middle, for good or for ill. Players that eschew teamwork, and DMs who use their power to become adversarial to their players, are not the sort of people that you need to waste your time with, and you are well shut of them. Your character isn't "killed" if the result came from a retributive or authoritarian ruling, and your paper man is playable in countless venues where his (and your) talents will be better appreciated.

      Risk is part of the game, but unlike in Vegas, the House is supposed to play straight, and accept victory and defeat with equal grace.