OSR?

I’ve been following around the OSR (Old School Renaissance or Revival depending on who you ask) community for a little bit now. At first, the movement in the RPG community seems like a rejection of anything modern and it is to some extent. It’s easy to be against things, what’s more interesting to me is what the OSR works toward. That’s why I liked Matt Finch’s booklet “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” it summarizes some reasons why people enjoy an OSR title in what he calls Four Zen Moments. He then explains four Taos for the Game Master.

Some of these Zen moments I like some I don’t, some I think are better achieved through different means. I’d like to approach them here and attempt to discuss them objectively from a design perspective.

Zen Moment 1: Rulings not Rules

I’m not going to rehash the whole text that Mr. Finch wrote, the booklet is free. Briefly though, the idea here is that the referee (or GM) uses the rules and the players use descriptions to interact with the referee. The referee is like a judge that must rule based only on a constitution and the arguments that are presented and possibly a few tests (that’s how it sounded to me anyway).

Observations
  • Players are totally at the mercy of the ref. A good ref can run an enjoyable game, a poor ref is maddening.
  • The mental load on the ref is shifted from memorization to making spot judgements. This is good if your ref is very imaginative and has a poor memory.
  • The mental load on the players is moved from memorization to imagining the environment they’re in. This benefits people with good spacial memory but hurts those who have trouble imagining a three dimensional space.
  • This approach is highly dependent on good communication skills in both directions. I think we’ll all agree that it’s always nice to have a good communicator but we don’t always get one.
  • When philosophies clash, the player will lose.
  • Players have no “legal” legs to stand on. When there is a rule, a player can point to it and show why they should be allowed to do something a ref says no to.[1]
  • I have personally seen a ref follow the example that Mr. Finch gives for the “Ninja Jump” in a modern game so he’s not wrong.

Zen Moment 2: Player Skill, not Character Abilities

This one seems a little less focused to me but I understand the grouping. The main idea is that you are your character’s mind. You’re able to do whatever you could with common knowledge in that situation. Usually that doesn’t include knowledge that would be situationally inappropriate like how to build an airplane in a medieval fantasy. However, if the player is clever with their use of knowledge, it’s ok for them to do things that would seem inappropriate for their character, like a big dumb barbarian that keeps coming up with brilliant plans.

It also includes the idea that the game doesn’t revolve around the PC’s stats. There are monsters that the players just can’t take on and it’s their job to be able to tell that.

This Zen moment is the most revealing that OSR is a specific flavor of RPG. Mr. Finch explains that OSR games are about taking an average person and building them into a hero.

Observations
  • Players that are good at something will always be good at that in game.
  • Players that are bad at something cannot effectively play characters that should be good at it.[2]
  • This type of play is better looked at through the lens that the character is inexperienced at first and as the player learns how the world works, the character is also. A game that uses more character abilities assumes the character has knowledge that they are bringing to the situation.[3]
  • Inexperience can be deadly.[4]
  • Clues that should be obvious and relevant might be missed because the ref didn’t offer and players didn’t ask for it.

Zen Moment 3: Heroic, not Superhero

I’m not sure where the Zen moment is here. This point is just framing the scope of the game. Players start out as average people and you try and build them into heroes. They never become untouchable or immortal, it’s just not in the scope of the game. Maybe the Zen is that this can be enjoyable?

Again, this is pointing to the OSR being a specific flavor of RPG. If you like that scale of progression, then you might like an OSR game. If you’re looking for something different, OSR might let you down.

Observations
  • Obviously superhero games might not fit well with OSR concepts but it could be done for low level superpowers.[5]
  • Spy games don’t really jibe with this moment.
  • One kind of experience (zero to hero) might not be what players want.[6]

Zen Moment 4: Forget Game Balance

This was partly covered in moment 2 but is elaborated on. The game doesn’t care what the character’s level or stats are, it’s the player’s job to figure out what they can and can’t fight through.

Mr. Finch also emphasizes moment 1 here, that the players have no right to depend on a rule book[1]. It may have been better to call this moment “You don’t have the right” because that’s what is repeated. It’s brought out that a ref never has the right to tell a player what their character does. More accurately, the ref can never make a choice for the player. In earlier examples given, the ref is repeatedly telling the players what their character does as a result of their choice and rolls.

Observations
  • Inexperience is deadly.[4]
  • Taken too far, the ref could build an adventure that is simply impossible for the PCs. This has to be tempered with the ref working to make an enjoyable game. The general difficulty of the game still needs to be controlled.[7]

Tao 1: The Way of the Ming Vase

Basically, find ways to have secondary effects happen in the game. Be imaginative with the player’s choices having consequences. Critical successes and critical failures are intrinsic to these consequences.

Observations
  • This is probably good advice for any RPG, although the mechanism for unintended consequences and secondary effects isn’t always explicitly stated.[8]
  • This is going to be difficult for a starting ref to always have novel unintended consequences. I’ve been GMing for twenty five years and it’d be hard to do this perfectly.

Tao 2: The Way of the Moose Head

This is a way of handling exploration that relies on the characters asking the right questions and knowing what to do with the answers.[9]

Observations
  • This is a matter of preference more than solid gaming advice.
  • Tired players are going to have a hard time asking the right questions.
  • Players are going  to miss out on a lot of details that you’ve prepared.[4]

Tao 3: Your Abstract Combat-Fu Must be Strong

This is the idea that it’s the GM’s job to fill in the results of combat creatively or quickly.

Observations
  • This Tao’s description relies heavily on critical successes and failures for permission to be creative.
  • This really should be part of any RPG, I know it’s not always but that’s just people getting lazy.
  • This is putting all the load of creativity load on the GM.
  • This could be a source of contention with the players since the GM is dictating what their character does as a result of their choice.[8]

Tao 4: Way of the Donner Party

This Tao is about resource management. The most useful part of this advice is that the GM should keep a tight grip on how much time has passed in order to handle depleting resources. The big takeaway is that OSR games are heavy in resource management[4] take a step back and own that and you’ll get the results the designers intended.

Observations
  • I’ll say it again, lose track of time and you lose track of resource use when doing it this way.
  • A lot of players actively try and game resource and time management (cheat), this puts a heavier load on the GM.
  • There are some tools that handle resource management without having to mentally track all the elements that could cause a party to be in trouble.
  • This is good practice in a lot of RPGs, not a lot of people do it though or even want to which says something.
  • Time management might get squishy when the characters are wandering around poking 10 ft poles at things. No rules no structure.[8]

In the end, OSR games are a type or RPG, they’re not my thing judging from the descriptions given. “Modern” games are often designed to avoid problems that players of old school games had at their tables. I don’t think playing an OSR game would result in table flipping in my current group but it would have when I was a teen.

I was hoping to find some essential core truths about RPGs or why the OSR has such a strong following. I don’t think I see a lot of universal tools here other than “be creative and tell a story” which is mostly the Story Games crowd’s thing. Certainly the OSR group gets there differently. I’ve always played without worrying about game balance. Story Games would have a hard time inducing that kind of experience so there’s lessons to be learned for sure. Neither group have a monopoly on RPG insights.

If anything, seeing that large numbers of people like this kind of experience confuses me. Either there are a lot of really good GMs out there, people are masochistic or they prefer GM control because it’s easer for them. RPGs largely rejected all controlling GMs in the 80’s and keep moving away from them. Then the OSR shows up and goes right back to it. Is the OSR made possible by the older, wiser, more experienced GMs out there? Is it possibly driven by them, their desire to play games like they did when they were young? Is it simple nostalgia? I know all the OSR adherents are screaming at your computers right now.

Games have to talk to your experience in life for them to be really enjoyed. In some ways I’ve experienced the ideas described and in others I’ve experienced the opposite making them difficult to try and enjoy. GM control can simplify play fun can turn into a game of Mother May I. It strongly depends on the GM, their experience level and even their mood. Thats why a lot here is mercurial. It can be good or it can get really bad.

There are some good concepts to be explored here though. I think they have their upsides and downsides. A lot of the ideas put a heavy load on the GM which could lead to burn out if a GM isn’t careful. Each trade off may be better or worse for specific players. Some will find the methods here liberating. Others will find them frustrating and limiting.

Continue reading “OSR?”

World Door Chapter 2 – TOW

Chapter 2

TOW

I sat in the middle of the great hall, watching the glimmers in the fog. Great beasts appeared all around me, some valued for the food they would provide, some had to be caught alive so they could be trained as beasts of burden, others like the Alk were valued for the metal in their bones and their antlers.

I wondered for a moment, what would we find on our journey? There were many animals that I’d heard of, but never seen.

“Show me a Cephrog!” I called out.

The glimmers faded and then a creature seemed to emerge from a body of water. It’s many arms like coils folded over each other to pull it’s great bulbus body out onto land. At the last moment two of it’s arms shot out with amazing speed towards me. I leapt back in fear but found the glimmer had faded when I looked back. In a few moments the random glimmers returned.

I was reluctant after that to call out another animal. In time though my curiosity got the better of me and I tried again.

“Show me a Gleff!” I called.

The glimmers faded again and at first a tiny object appeared in the fog circling again and again, growing larger each time. Then the great bird came into view as it circled down and finally landed in one of the branches of the tree as if it were in the hall with me. Its talons were the length of my forearms and it stood as tall as two men. The glimmer faded before I could get a good look at its features.

Continue reading “World Door Chapter 2 – TOW”

World Door Chapter 1

Glyph

“There is an error.” The Glyph stated.

I froze in place and glanced around. The warnings had become rare in the last few years, it’s just my luck that I’d be right in front of the Glyph as it announced the error.

In my grandfather’s time, the town would have immediately assumed that I had caused the error. I would have been killed at the foot of the Glyph to atone for it. Thankfully we knew that didn’t always work. Even after killing the person suspected to be the source of the error, there would be a plague. Now I would have to go through a trial but I’d be spared the sword, for a time.

“There is an error.” The Glyph repeated.

A crowd began to form. Jash Malcrom walked up quickly, “Stay where you are boy, running will just make them hunt you.”

Continue reading “World Door Chapter 1”

One Rule

It would be interesting to make an RPG out of only words, no math, no charts, just words. Maybe it would be simple and refreshing.

A game like that could easily become just as or even more complex than any normal RPG though. In order to build a world engine that only used descriptions, could end up taking up a huge amount of time to convey.

To circumvent that eventuality, it may be useful to give the engine a direction so that things stay simple. This is what I thought of.

One Rule

Every story worthy element has One Rule. The GM gives the world a rule. Players give their characters a rule. Important (special) equipment gets a rule. An important NPC or maybe a group of NPCs get a rule. Weather can get a rule. A maze can have a rule.

There are a few conditions that make things clearer.

No two elements can have the same rule. This is important so that two unstoppable forces don’t collide and annihilate everything.

A more specific rule supersedes a more general rule. If one player has a character that is “The greatest fighter in the world” and another has the rule that they are “The greatest swordsman in the world” as long as the fighting is being done with swords, the swordsman wins out.

That’s very Amber like in it’s certainty however. A character can always win in a specific contest, a randomizer could be employed, but that doesn’t seem interesting. I’ll have to play with the idea and see if it I can make something of it.

Artwork

I’m feeling good, I have my new art tablet, a Monoprice 14481 and I’m really enjoying it. Setting it up wasn’t easy because there’s very little documentation to go on, but I eventually found enough little snippets of information on message boards to get it working properly.

I’ve done some pictures for Eat the Meappets as  a warm up and I’m working on pictures for Protector right now. I’m thinking that I want to go in a different direction with the art in Jump Temp. I’d like to try a different style that I’m not really sure I know how to pull off. It’ll be interesting to try though.

I’ve already finished around ten pieces and I’ve been trying to get in one every two days. Jump Temp and Protector are both around 80 pages, so they both need around 20 pictures minimum.

After that, I’ll start working on the last sourcebook for The Artifact. This is going to be a busy year.

On the non-artwork front, I’ve halfway put together my beginner friendly RPG that doesn’t use character sheets and tracks things on a board (or one sheet of paper). I have something of a story to build to, but I’m looking for that little something, a twist or other element that makes the setting come alive.

A Beginner’s RPG

RPGs are often designed for the expert player’s experience. An RPG game designer is likely to have had many experiences playing games and already has a concept of how the game “should” work. It would be great to see a board game designer who has no experience with RPGs be asked to make one. A game for beginners by a beginner that knows how to make a game, just not “our” game.

The reason I find that situation intriguing is that it would seem like it would produce a game that is much more beginner friendly. It would probably ignore ideas that an experienced RPG designer would think of as important. Like knocking out chunks of DNA and seeing what happens to an organism, we could learn immeasurable lessons about what it takes to make an RPG.

So what are things that you find in almost every RPG? Character sheets come to mind. What if you didn’t have them? How would you track who your character is and what they can do? Cards might be a way of keeping track of who your character is. Simple things like a special ability or equipment. Maybe if there were only a few attributes, you could simply remember what your character could do? Would a board game designer even use attributes?

I think it’s fairly obvious that a board game designer would not have a big beefy game book. If anything, they might make some kind of board for tracking game states. Things like hit points, would easily be managed by on a board with tokens. If you want a record of a game that’s interrupted, take a picture of the board.

Things like initiative might not even come to mind or if they did, might not show up like we’re used to. Either you take turns in the order you sit around the table, or it might be tracked on a board by how many rolls you’ve made in something like a racetrack.

Although most game makers would be familiar with the idea of experience points from things like video games, someone who was truly starting fresh would probably not come up with that idea. It’s more likely that if there was some kind of advancement, that you’d draw from a reward deck. As that deck depleted, the chances of advancement reduce because the player’s keep the advancement cards while the other rewards cycle in and out of the deck. This would also cap the total possible advancement so you don’t see overpowered characters. It would require a very large reward deck though.

Now, what about a “win” state? Most games have some kind of an end state that tells you that you’ve won. RPGs don’t do well with that because they’re supposed to be open ended. I’ve seen “arena world” RPGs that no one wants to play because there’s not enough of a story to them. They have a clear goal and a clear win state, but it’s not interesting. What if each player got a card that said what their “win” state was? Maybe the character is retired after that? Maybe the “win” is that you get to take one of the reward cards?

What about for the GM? Maybe the game board would track enemies in very simple terms. Maybe the game board also acts as a kind of random encounter table for generating games on the fly.

The real question is story, and how is it treated? I think there needs to be a specific world for the players to act in. A universal game engine is not beginner friendly because it’s not specific enough for the GM or even the players. It has to be open enough so that each player can pursue their own interests, but the main way to get what you want is usually via one path (traditionally this is slaying monsters). This also has to be communicated quickly and simply.

I’d like to make a free version of this game. A game tracking piece of paper for 1 to 4 players (if you have more players, print off another page). A printable deck of cards (printable decks are not my favorite, but it’s a workable solution). A small game book, under four pages describing how to play. A boxed version of this game would be a nice upgrade.

Game Making To Do List

I’ve got way to many pans in the fire. I need to select a target and finish it off one by one so that I can clean up my backlog of projects. The following list is more for me than for anyone else to read through. I just thought it’d be fun to share.

  1. Artwork for Protector.
  2. Artwork for Jump Temp.
  3. Edit and finish Eat the Meappets and then make artwork for it.
  4. Re-write the last sourcebook for The Artifact-Imbalance of Power and update it’s art.
  5. Write another chapter for The Imbalance (An Artifact based novel)
  6. Finish my goofy shark tank like game Apparatus Dominant
  7. Make an expansion pack for I Didn’t Do It! murder mystery card game
  8. Work on my sci-fi random story generator, a project I dropped a while ago but looking back, made some real progress on.
  9. A revamp and clarified version of Bubs the Robot.

Honestly that list is shorter than I expected it to be. A lot of it is waiting on artwork that I just haven’t felt like doing, but not all of it. There’s a bit there I can get moving on without art.

Although I do have a bunch of non-Store32 things I’m trying to do, I’m taking programming courses, I have two books I want to read, etc. The point of this is to try and tick off a few of these items so that I don’t feel like I’m so far behind in all my projects.

I’m hoping to buy a new digitizer tablet for art soon. I’ve recently discovered that there’s a lot of options that are far less expensive than I thought. I’m hoping that the art malaise I’ve been feeling is due to my underperforming Fujitsu tablet making art less than enjoyable to produce. I guess I’ll throw $400 at the problem and hope it goes away.

RPGs need a Keurig

I like drinking coffee when role playing, but what I mean is that there needs to be a way of taking the complicated rules and choices of an RPG and encapsulating them into an easy to use package.

A coffee capsule cost more but it’s easier to process when you want coffee. It also comes in smaller doses.

Can you tell I just woke up and made coffee?

I’m really not sure how to apply this yet, it just seems like it could work if someone tried.

What Does The Energy System Do?

My two new RPGs both use my Energy System (ES), why am I using it and what is the system good for?

ES is designed to play a game that tells the story of characters exerting themselves. The core of the system is that each character (or really any entity) has a certain amount of energy to exert on the world. Traits say what the character is good at and makes the energy they spend more effective.

Why ES and not some other system?

ES handles a number of things organically that other systems need special rules for. It was developed with the question of “What might an RPG look like if they didn’t stem from war-games?” For example, there are no Hit Points, a staple of war games. The closest thing a character gets to hit points is their Energy Dice. There are no separate rules for combat or other skill challenges. They’re all handled the same way. This results in a game that handles any type of in game challenge using the same rules. The only special cases are more like examples of how to use the core rules in specific situations.

What is different about playing ES?

One main difference is the approach to storytelling. This is not a storytelling game as some RPGs have sold themselves. The game dictates what happens in mechanical terms, then the player interprets the game result and tells the story from that. Players are free to tell exciting and impressive tales about their character, but are constrained to make the tales fit the game result. This is a very different experience that some love but others find alien.

Another big difference is in the pacing of the game. Often many dice are rolled at once for each turn. One of the original design criteria was that my players wanted to use a range of dice types so ES obliges them. The important thing to remember is that, rolling the dice is not telling about a single action, but is a stage of a challenge. A character in the ES doesn’t swing a sword, they enter a duel. They don’t dodge an attack, they engage in defensive maneuvers. If players try and explain their rolls in terms of single actions as most RPGs do, the story of what goes on in game will seem very short. If the explain the game results in broader efforts and tell the story of how those efforts went, the game is fuller and will feel properly paced.

At it’s core ES has two main elements to the rules, Agents and Traits. Player Characters are not referred to as an Agent, but are in fact special instances of an Agent. NPCs are Agents but so is equipment, vehicles, and even things like super powers. An agent is anything that has it’s own pool of energy dice. Traits make the dice the player will roll bigger, making the numbers larger and the results higher (on average). There are different kinds of Agents and Traits, but the whole system boils down to those two elements. In play, this sometimes takes players a little bit of getting used to, mostly to unlearn all the baggage that many games require.

ES simulates a large number of situations and interactions with it’s simple ruleset. For vehicles, fuel tracking is handled by their Energy Dice. Weapons ammunition are handled by their Energy Dice. A gun jamming is handled by the Energy Dice. Encumbrance is handled by Energy Dice. At the same time Energy Dice are how the characters get things done so they aren’t tracking several different values, it’s all managed the same way. Social conflict, survival situations and combat are all handled in the same manner.

Is the ES a universal system?

The ES is flexible, but it’s not universal. In each application, the ES needs adjustment to set the proper tone. In most cases, specific types of Agents are considered special to the setting and get special rules. Character creation also has to happen differently to handle different genres.

Mad Scientist Invention Game

I still don’t have a name for it, but we playtested a new card game the other day and had a lot of fun. The players get five cards that say what their invention does. Some cards are good, some are bad.

The players show off the good things their invention does and hide the bad. They do a little elevator pitch for their invention and try and describe it. The fun part is the descriptions are really goofy when they’re all mashed together. We were giggling through the whole playtest.

Next the players pick if they want to be an early adopter and invest heavily in someone else’s invention, make a small investment in an invention, or not invest at all. Early adopters get to see all the bad cards, investors only get to see one bad card of the inventor’s choosing (naturally the least bad card).

Now everyone votes what invention they would actually buy. There are monetary rewards for having your invention picked and rewards for investing wisely, but bad cards cut down on the rewards. The player with the most money at the end of the game is the winner.

Except. . .

There is an “Ends Civilization” card. If an inventor can get an invention with this card in it’s stack to be purchased by the other players, they automatically win the game!