Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here.
What is the OSR?
OSR stands alternatively for Old School Revolution, Old School Revival, or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask and when it is you ask them. The term OSR dates back to the mid-00s when people on a number of online forums began trying to re-connect with a style of gaming associated with the origins of the hobby and the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.
The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.
Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?
The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.
Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.
Back in November, Thomas Manuel’s Indie RPG Newsletter opened with an interesting commentary on the concept of rules.
According to Manuel, the fact that we use the same word to describe the mechanical aspects of roleplaying games as we do the oppressive systems imposed upon us by real-world institutions might account for the existence of different sets of attitudes towards RPG mechanics.
As someone with a mind that tends to slide straight off of RPG rules and whose politics skew somewhat anarchistic, I would argue that the reason the same word is used for both classes of entities is that they are in fact describing the same class of thing. The only difference between the rules governing role-playing games and the rules governing bourgeois society is that playing an RPG requires active and deliberate consent while being part of a society requires only that you exist. If you were to show me a well-behaved and well-educated liberal who goes to the gym. I would show you someone who is in the business of optimising their character build using real-world system mastery.
This being said, the idea that really caught my attention comes towards the end of the editorial:
Maybe rules for storygames are more like settings or adventures for the OSR. A good adventure or setting is praised for it makes explicit and specific (and what it doesn’t). They’re praised for their modularity (and hackability). Nobody thinks of adventures as restrictions. It might not be a perfect analogy but there’s something there I think!