Oh, no! I am writing about that thing nobody wants to hear anymore.

Yes, that thing. Or “thing”. OSR.

I was just peeking in again at Dragonsfoot, and unexpectedly, though it really shouldn’t have surprised me, I almost immediately came upon onother recent discussion of “What is OSR?” And my first reaction was “probably better not click at it, it’s almost certainly just more bickering and doom mongering about the state of western society”. This is the point where we are now. Where I think we’ve been for quite a while now. And I very much doubt that I am in a small minority of people having this reaction. I did end up looking into that thread and yes it was primarily about bitching about the collapse of western society. I didn’t read very far, but there were some intitial points raised that made me come to a conclusion about the various feelings I’ve had on the subject.

OSR has been over for a couple of years now. It’s not dead, it’s been concluded.

From how I experienced it, that thing that later became known as OSR began in the mid 2000s when the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons kept bloating and bloating until it was eventually discontinued and the plans for the new 4th Edition were increasingly looking like a drastic departure from all that had come before. And for a lot of people, that was the point where they said “I’m no longer wishing to keep up with current developments. I’m just going back to play the game the way I had enjoyed the most and stick with that.” OSRIC had actually been out since 2006, two years before 4th Edition. But I think the end of 3rd Edition really was the point where a lot of people paused to reflect about whether they wanted to hop onto this new thing or stick with their current thing, or perhaps even go back to an older thing.

And I think it is this reflection that really was this thing that went on to become known as OSR. Old School Reflections? It wasn’t just people thiking to themselves with which game edtion they had the most fun, but engaging in a wider conversation on why they feel they had more fun through the medium of blogspot sites. It was a period in which people dug into old rulebooks to critically analyze the mechanics and advice given in them, and exchange their experience with other GMs who were  doing the same. Many things that had been discarded and dismissed as silly where quite literally rediscovered, and with the great wealth of experiences that had been gathered over the decades could now actually be much better understood. Old School Research?

The thing with research of this kind is that you often make lots of easy big discoveries early on, some more difficult discoveries later, and after that only very rarely minor and obscure discoveries of little impact to the bigger  field. And I think this is exactly what we’ve been seeing here. All the really big and exciting stuff in OSR happened between about 2008 and 2010. Then the ocasional neat new idea up to maybe 2014, but since then I don’t think anyone has been making any new major contributions to the field. The Rennaisance had reached its end, it’s work been done.

It’s not like all of it went up in smoke and feded into the wind. I would argue the opposite. Of course, it seems quite ridiculous to say that the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is an OSR game. It really isn’t. But it is also very hard to deny that during the creation of this new game, the creators did draw significantly from this knowledge reintroduced into the sphere of fantasy adventure games by the old school revivalists. Not everything has been widely embraced, some things remain the domain of fringe enthusiasts. But the creative and intelectual space of roleplaying games today is fully suffused by ideas that came out of this period of reflections about what made early RPGs tick. If the term Old School Rennaisance makes any sense, then this is what it’s really about.

This does leave us with this somewhat strange position in which we are finding us today. Today, when something gets labled as OSR, it really is an “Old School Roleplaying Game”, which is “D&D Editions released by TSR”. It is a group of games, one among many other options that groups can chose from. But I think many people are fondly remembering the creative movement from a decade ago and are still somewhat under the impression that the two are still the same thing. And when there is nothing really left to discover or create, the only thing left to “the movement” is an endless cycle of self-reflection. Which is a conversation lots of people see little appeal in, which in turn provides much more space and attention for people who relish bickering. There probably has always been bickering, but with the intelectual and creative conversation having been concluded, that little bickering is now the only thing that is still going on.

Looking at my archive of posts, I stoppded using the OSR tag in mid 2017, almost two years ago now. It’s not that I no longer care about reaction rolls and morale checks, random encounters, encumbrance, noncombat-XP, and monsters that are safer to circumnavigate then to fight. I still love  them, and I discovered their value from the great ongoing conversation about older RPGs. But all the things I am doing and writing now don’t feel to me like contributions to this discussion. A discussion that has concluded.

Was OSR ever “a thing”? Or always just an idea?

Coming home from work today, I did my daily browsing through my list of RPG links to check for anything new. (RSS is witchcraft.) And turns out today is another one of those days where some people are expressing their unhappiness about their own RPG related reading including confrontational things about non-RPG-related things written by certain other people. Certain people who are being a dick about their hateful right wing views, and certain people who are being a dick about their hateful left wing views. Some of who really seem to enjoy ticking people off and getting the attention that comes with it. If you’re reading this, you probably know exactly which people I am thinking off. And if you don’t know who they are, then I won’t be naming them because they don’t need any more special attention.

This time, apparently someone posted something on twitter, and someone else made a public statement that he does no longer collaborate with him on RPG material because of that. And now someone else is writing on his RPG site that he also doesn’t like what the first person did, but also doesn’t approve of the second person publically reacting like that. And another someone wrote on his RPG site that he doesn’t want to read RPG related content for a while now because he always gets stuff like this in his RPG reading and it’s really annoying him. To which he got a comment that “at least” he’s “not as much of a prick about it” as some other guy who quit completely some months back. (And it’s all guys. The only two women I know in non-professional RPG writing appear to wisely keep their distance from all this.)

That’s the news from today from a wide circle of RPG-related colaborations and internet discussions that at some point became categorised as OSR. Or rather “the OSR”. But this isn’t new. Nothing about this is new. As far as I can think back, it has always been that way. Since the very first days when I became aware that there is such “a thing”, the most creative and prolific creators were already very controversial and divisive figures. Unfortunately, because some of them create really amazing stuff that is consistently ranked among the best, but always comes with a sour taste because you feel uncomfortable with giving them any money.

Two months ago, Patrick Stuart wrote about his experiences with colaborating on RPG books, which includes such lessons as “10. The scene is dominated by large personalities who all have massive flaws. Never be in a situation where you *need* someone, including me.” And I couldn’t help to immediately think that I know which past colaboration he is refering two. And I feel kind of bad for doing so, not actually having met those people or having had a conversation with them.

Now being a red-blooded idealist with the heart on the left side with very firm opinions about labor and gender rights, I completely buy into this “everything is political” thing. It’s true, progress starts at home and you educate best by example. When injustice happens in your presence, you have some obligation to speak up. But there are limits to that. If I feel that one of my colaborators is voicing believes that I find appaling and I feel uncomfortable about being associated with that person anymore, I consider it legitimate to publically state that you do so. It concerns you personally and you want to let others know what you actually think about a subject instead of people making assumptions about you based on people you get associated with. But when then other peoply try to join in who have no personal involvement at all, things are getting out of hand. Which is why I’m not naming any names here, even though I think lots of people have at least a guess who I am referring to or read the posts that I read today. But as I said, I have no personal involvement in any of that.

Now the actual topic here is the question of why plenty of people seem to feel that these things do involve them personally and they need to speak up about an injustice that happens in their presence. And that reason is “the OSR”. The idea that there is a confined group of people with a shared identity in which they are all equally engaged. Since I am part of “the OSR”, everything that happens in “the OSR” also concerns my personally. But I don’t see that. There isn’t one community. Instead there is just a huge mass of overlapping personal circles, to get all pseudo-sociological here. Two people enjoying the rules systems of Dungeons & Dragons from the 70s does not give them any kind of relationship. Even two people producing content based on these don’t have any relationship because of this. Now many of these creators do. Many engage with each other in extended discussions or personally colaborate on the creation of new content. But that’s again just their own personal circle. It does not involve any of us other bystanders, even if we have read and used some of their content. It’s when people assume that things that are happening in other circles are happening on their own turf that we get these childish bickerings. It’s neither news nor ongoing debate. It’s gossip. And I feel safe leaning out the window and making the claim that most of use are just anoyed by all of it. And by “us”, I just mean “we people who enjoy reading material related to the rules systems of Dungeons & Dragons from the 70s”. Which is all that OSR ever was.

Wilderness Adventures for characters of level 4+?

Common wisdom appears to have it that parties in B/X transition from pure dungeon adventures at 1st to 3rd level to the wider world of wilderness adventures after reaching 4th level. The Expert Set adds rules for characters of 4th to 14th level and rules for wilderness adventures. And of course B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are the most classic dungeon adventures and X1 The Isle of Dread was the first D&D hexcrawl. So obviously it must be true. Basic characters stay in the dungeon, Expert characters expand outdoors.

But I’ve come to wonder whether this really is the intention behind the way rules are split between the Basic and Expert Set. My suspicion is actually that the choice to split the rules into multiple sets was done with the intent to introduce both players and GMs to the rules gradually and not overwhelm them with everything at once. Which I think might have been a pretty good choice. The original Basic Set was a total of 60 pages. The Rules Cyclopedia comes to 300. That’s a lot of stuff to digest in one go before you feel confident that you know what you need to start playing. If you want to teach the basics of the game, you do need the dungeon, but outdoor adventures are indeed something that can, and perhaps should, wait for a bit later. Once everyone who is completely new to the game has got the hang out of the basics. By putting level 4 to 14 into the next set, the amount of spells that players (and GMs) are exposed to is much easier to overlook and you also get a collection of monsters that for the most part wouldn’t be absurd to face for a new beginning party. (Looking at you here, Dragon.)

I suspect that the separation of content was done as a teaching aid, primarily for GMs. It’s not so much that adventures change at higher levels, but that GMs can expand once they have become familiar with the basics. When you look at the Expert Set it says that “now” new paths of adventure are open, but does not do so in the context of character level. It is “now” that the GM has access to these expanded rules of the game. The Rules Cyclopedia does not touch upon this whole subject at all, from what I was able to tell.

Another strong piece of evidence, as I see it, are the modules B10 Night’s Dark Terror and X1 The Isle of Dread. Terror is a Basic module for characters of 2nd to 4th level while Isle is an Expert module for characters of 3rd to 7th level. Both begin at Basic levels and continue up into Expert levels and they are both wilderness adventures. The creators of these modules clearly did not write under the assumption that “you have to be this high” to go on adventures in the wilderness.

Raise Animated Dead

Resurrection of dead characters is a difficult topic when it comes to fantasy in general and to RPGs in specific. To make it short, I am not a fan of death being an effect on a PC that can be removed with the casting of a spell. Once a character in the party has access to this spell, players can mostly expect their characters to live forever. As long as the cleric survies the battle, everyone is probably going to be fine. If the time limits are generous, then it becomes mostly a matter of having the money and transporting the body to a high level NPC, which can become an available option much earlier in the game. This significantly changes the game and doesn’t really line up with pretty much any fantasy fiction. It just doesn’t seem right for my prefered style of Sword & Sorcery and so I created the aspect of life and death in the Ancient Lands around the assumption that resurrection is impossible. There is no soul separated from the body and once the life has been extinguished it is forever gone. Nothing there to bring back into the world of the living.

However, resurrected NPCs can be pretty cool when used sparingly. The undead sorcerer. The returned hero of old. The helpful ghost. I don’t really want to have these completely banished from my campaign.

One possible solution, that I think could be quite fun, is to make it possible to return a body back to life but the resulting creature ends up being somewhat odd. It looks like the person and has the memories of the person, but ultimately it’s something different. A magical construct. For antagonistic NPCs this is good enough. They can still be villains without any special limitations. For helpful NPCs this would still allow them to perform some kind of task that benefits the PCs, but they can’t really return back to their old life. Of course, you can get endlessly philosophical about the question whether a being with the same appearance and memories would be the same person or an artificial fake, or perhaps a separate but still fully human twin. I think usually they would be, but I believe it should be possible to come up with ideas to make them sufficiently similar but different that they would not be welcomed back into their old lives. That’s another step to be figured out later.

But regardless of how the world reacts to such resurrected characters, the players might and will quite possibly have very different oppinions. Players might have no problem with playing a character who has all the traits of their old one but has only philosophically changed. To make it effective, resurrected PCs should be unappealling to play on a continous base. One quick and easy solution would be to make it impossible for them to gain any more XP. This might make it appealing to have the character complete his last quest for dramatic reasons while not really offering much incentive to keep going after that. Another nice limitation that might help in making the characters unnatural nature apparent would be to not make this return to life permanent. Maybe it lasts only a month or a year after the character is gone for good or it takes continual magical rituals to preserve this temporary return to the world of the living.

Dark Sun Sandbox

No, this is not a pun.

I wrote about sandboxes and taking the idea of default goals from megadungeons on monday, and how it finally made sandbox campaigns click for me.

And it finally made me understand how I would properly run a Dark Sun campaign. A sandbox is a perfect match for it. One issue with the setting as described is that all the interesting possible oponents are fabulously powerful. If you want to engage in the current public affairs of Athas, you’re facing immortal sorcerer kings with limitless resources and whole armies of seriously dangerous minions. Yet doing regular bandit killing and caravan guarding would be just way too bland for a setting like this. Even being an ordinary adventurer looking for gold in dungeons would be kinda meh.

But as a sandbox it all makes so much more sense. The default action in a Dark Sun campaign is “don’t die”. When you’re in a city, then the templars of the sorcerer-kings are everywhere and looking to kill or enslave you for the slightest reason. If you’re not in a city, then it’s a constant fight to not be killed by the desert. Sitting around idle is never an option, you are always facing a threat. If you don’t have any specific goal for now, then simply staying alive and free will always keep you occupied. It’s a world that really comes to life through random encounters. Random encounters are not the hand GM nuding the players to do certain things. They are the setting itself being hostile to the players, which really is one of the big selling points of Dark Sun as a setting.

And going on more specific adventures with a defined goal can always be treated as a means to accomplishing the default goal of staying alive. Helping others is not something you do out of kindness, but because they will give you resources and assistance in return, which then can help you to survive the deserts and stay ahead of the templars for a little longer. And in the long term, the players can make allies and gain the friendship of slave tribes or bands of elves, or can call in a debt from thri-kreen. Or even somehow get the gratitude of a clan of halflings. Lunatic canibal halflings who live in the one forest in a desert world that everybody else stays way clear of. As they grow in personal power and gain allies, players can eventually get into a position where they can mean actual trouble for any of the sorcerer-kings. Whichever one of them the players decide to hate the most.

The Tyr Region is perfect for a sandbox, and not just because it’s full of sand. However, given that the setting was created for AD&D 2nd edition and that the really cool concept was quickly turned into garbage by a heavy handed metaplot that had NPCs do all the things that would have been cool for players to do, I very much doubt that this was the intention. But that’s clearly how I would run it.

Quicksand Sandbox: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?

One thing I am constantly struggling with as a GM is making up my mind what kind of game mode I actually want my campaigns to run in. The linear plotted adventure went out the window years ago, but since then it’s ben an endless back and forth between enthusiasm and disdain for sandboxes and dungeoncrawls, social games and exploration games, ongoing campaigns and episodic one-shots. Which I think ultimately comes down to a  disconnect between the kind of narratives I am dreaming of and the realities of running a game with other people. I want Conan, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, but these are all tales written by a creator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters and has full control over the past, present, and future of every scene at the same time. You can not replicate a book or a movie exactly in an RPG. You can only work towards running a game that will look like just as great a story in hindsight.

Of the many possible open-ended game modes to chose from, the two I know I am not interested in are hexcrawls and megadungeons. Which happen to be by far the most popular, or at the very least the ones that have most been written about. But the discourse about these two modes has led to the articulation of a valuable and important concept: Default Goals and Default Actions.

In a game that has a group come together at regular or irregular intervals and ask the immortal question “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”, there needs to be a default goal. If nobody has any special plan, then the whole group should be in agreement to default to one standard activity. Otherwise they just keep akwardly sitting around in confusion and are likely to start wrecking things to get any response to their presence from the game world. In the case of the hexcrawl and the megadungeon, these default actions are exploring new hexes and going to the dungeon respectively. Or simply “explore”. But as Matt Colville pointed out quite correctly I believe, “explore” is not a good goal. Exploration is walking around blindly and waiting for something interesting to fall into your path. It’s still waiting for the world and the GM to give them a task to deal with. Without understanding why, I think this is really the issue that always had me feel very uncomfortable about the thought of running a hexcrawl or megadungeon. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for the kind of narratives I want my games to produce.

My work on the Ancient Lands setting began as an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of tribal societies in a fantasy world that wasn’t as distorted as the nonsense you get about life in “warrior cultures” in movies and books. But while I think that it’s a fascinating subject and some elements of this will greatly help me making the Ancient Lands feel like an actual world, I have come to really appreciate minimizing exposition and player buy-in. Instead relying strongly on familiar archetypes to allow players to correctly guess what is what in this fictional world. However as part of it, I found one solution to letting PCs go on adventures and being indispensible for the survival of the clan, which was to define PCs as hunters for magical artifacts that can help defend the clan against their enemies and hostile spirits. Somehow this got stuck in my mind as the paradigm that all adventures in the Ancient Lands have to be treasure hunts and that all PCs have to be treasure hunters. After all, treasure hunting is what makes characters progress in B/X, so it seems to be a perfect match, right?

But in hindsight I really just handicapped myself with this approach. Without the addition of “return it to your clan to defend it against attacks”, the default goal of “find treasure” is just as hollow as “explore”. But while reading Kevin Crawford’s excellent Spears of the Dawn, I finally came to the realization that default goal does not have to be the only goal. It’s the goal that you can always go pursuing if you don’t have anything else planned right now. I believe the key to a successful sandbox campaign is to make it a hybrid campaign of exploration/treasure hunt and player-initiated story adventures. On their own, neither can stand by itself. At least not in a way that I want to run it. Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options.

A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people”. The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts. The platonic ideal for player initiated adventures always seems to me best represented by the classic Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. There is no quest giver and barely even a hook to get the hero into this adventure. He is just passing through a village when he sees that local gangs are making trouble. Even though the locals tell him to just be on his way, he is intrigued and stays to see what happens next. At this point he has no plan and not even a clear goal and completely plays it by ear, but once he has established some connections to the village it very quickly grows into a complex web of cunning deception and daring swashbuckling that simply is a blast to behold. This is what I believe player-initiated adventures in a sandbox should be like.

But in an RPG, walking down the street until the players run into something that grabs their curiosity is not feasible. If they currently have nothing to do, they need a default goal to fall back on that will keep them entertained until they find something more interesting to do instead. Putting the limitation on character creation that all PCs have to have a drive to look for magical wonders in ancient places seems like a perfect solution for a wilderness sandbox.