The Trouble With the OSR (Redux)

I’ve received a lot of, ahem, feedback on my last article critiquing the OSR. For those of you who don’t know me in person: I love feedback, especially the negative variety. In my last post, I made a few criticisms of the OSR, which drew the attention of a few OSR players seeking to educate me on the merits of the OSR. As already mentioned, I am a fan of the OSR, though I think that the adherence to game mechanics from the ’70s and ’80s hurts, rather than helps, the game in the long run. I maintain my original position, that game mechanics are a form of technology, and to reject mechanical innovations is a bit like trying to reclaim the glory of Rome by using aqueducts instead of underground plumbing.

However! As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “[P]rogress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer.” In this instance, “progress” in game mechanics can very well get us farther away from the type of game we wish to play. Broadly speaking, I enjoy the style of play placed forth by the OSR, though I do see a number of the mechanics as inelegant. (Percentile skills; descending saving throws and Armor Class; an excessive focus on magical potentialities; etc.)

Because of this, I’ll comment briefly (not in full) on some comments on the article.

BrianBloodaxe:

The first wave of OSR games may have been simple reproductions of the systems of classic D&D, since then though the OSR had treated us to all manner of evolutions on the format. Look at Beyond The Wall’s community and scenario generation, or the campaign setting Yoon Suin, the improv nature of WhiteHack, or any of the other games and innovations you list yourself.

These games don’t work despite the decades old D&D trappings, they work because of them. The D&D format is lightweight and easy to tweak, it gives just enough rules to run without anything getting in the way and forty years of use means everyone has a good grasp of where it can be bent or rewritten yet remain playable.

If it really bugs you that these innovations are built on a D&D core, take the bits you like and use them with a system you do want to run. That is what OSR is all about.

First of all, thank you for the suggestion to check out those games. I downloaded some free material for Beyond the Wall today and looked over it a bit; it has a strong OSR-meets-PbtA vibe. Whitehack does, too, so I’m going to have put both on my wishlist.

I think perhaps the most poignant line in the comment is: “These games don’t work despite the decades old D&D trappings, they work because of them.” I would tend to agree. The D&D system is one that “just works,” unlike Macs (heyo). As with wargames, D&D endures because it scratches a primeval itch for nerds everywhere: to conquer the shit out your enemies while amassing material wealth.

Matt:

My DnD experience has been different. While it has involved dungeon crawls it has also included collaborative story telling, characters I will remember forever and who had an impact on me despite being figments of our imagination, memories of crazy imaginary stuff our group did, and talk about years later “you remember thay time when…” as if it really happened. Saying it is just one long continuous dungeon crawl/exp grind is like blaming Lego for providing instructions to build a racing car when you just want build a family sedan and ignoring the fact that Lego has given you blocks to build whatever you want.

I would agree with this sentiment with the caveat that D&D pushes gameplay toward the dungeon crawl. To use your analogy, when Lego provides instructions on how to build a racing car, you can’t blame users when they build racing cars and view the pieces as tools to build the best race car.

Dennis Laffey:

I think, like a few others have said, both here and on G+ where I saw the link to this post, that the OSR’s innovations are partly in mechanics, but mostly in setting and style. Just because a mechanic is new doesn’t necessarily make it better. The classic D&D engine works well for games based on exploration, risky combat and searching for treasure – be it gold and jewels, high tech artifacts of the ancients, or whatever.

If that’s not the type of game someone wants to play, there are plenty of other games out there that may scratch their itch. But I think it’s a stretch to blame the OSR for not being something it never claimed to be.

Agreed, but I wasn’t really “blaming” the OSR so much as I was commenting that there’s a certain lack of mechanical innovation within the genre. As I said in my original piece, I understand that this is a feature and not a bug to the OSR crowd, but it’s one of the reasons that I don’t fully embrace the OSR. Ideally, I could just make my own OSR game with my own house rules, but you know how the saying goes: those who can’t do write blog posts complaining about things they don’t like.

Sam Mameli:

The problem with this article is that it reads like someone critiquing another person’s ice cream order.

Many of the people playing games and writing games in the OSR based them in older mechanics because thats what they dig, and everybody should know by now that you can’t (shouldn’t) argue taste. And most of those rules get rewritten by DM’s anyways, so who cares? One of the great discoveries within the OSR is that system doesn’t matter and we can all play our characters from literally any game with a 20 sided die and all have an awesome time. I’m referring to the FLAILSNAILS conventions and you can read more about it at http://jrients.blogspot.com/2011/08/flailsnails-conventions.html

You seem to have only scratched the surface of what has come out of the OSR. I suggest going to https://campaignwiki.org/wiki/LinksToWisdom/HomePage and checking out what roughly 10 years of games blogging as accumulated. (If you’re tired of the 4 class structure you will be pleasantly surprised by the entries under player character.)

I’m the kind of jerk who loves to critique others’ ice cream orders, though. “What do you mean you’re ordering chocolate? That’s disgusting.” I don’t have any malice toward people who like chocolate ice cream–or the OSR–but I’m an opinionated loudmouth with loud (and terrible) opinions. I’m being sort of a self-deprecating smartass here, but I’ve spent the last two days reading the OSR links at work (some men actually work at their jobs, but that seems beneath me). The links are much appreciated–there’s a lot of information on the OSR that I’m enjoying picking through.

Brian Renninger:

“Gaming mechanics are a form of technology, and technology evolves.”

Game mechanics are software and software acquires cruft. Sometimes Wordstar is all you need.

Karl Labjou echoed similar sentiments:

Games are NOT technology… and EVOLUTION is not synonymous with objective IMPROVEMENT.
Get past that nonsensical belief and maybe you can start having fun again.

You’re talking to a guy who went from loving 3e D&D to hating everything about it, so I’m with you on this. I’m about ready to ditch skill systems altogether, but that’s a more in-depth post.

Tim:

I’m kind of bewildered that the author chose to include DCC in his lists of OSR games, but then ignored all the ways in which it made the typical D&D classes interesting. I can’t imagine playing a D&D wizard without thinking how much more fun it would be in DCC. Same with the fighter (or any other class, really).

I love DCC, but I can’t stand the crazy dice. I’m aware this is part of the game’s charm, but it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That’s altogether unrelated to your point, but it’s a thought I had. More on-topic: I was speaking broadly about some of the OSR’s mechanical flaws, and DCC still manages to churn out a hundred thousand spells for casters while the non-casters get a few pages devoted to them. You might ask if they need more than that–and perhaps they don’t. But the unequal distribution of pagecounts bothers me. As mentioned above, it’s a matter of taste, and it’s a taste I don’t like: spellcasters receiving all sorts of fun and interesting things while fighters and rogues get diddly. As always, I’m aware this is considered a feature by the OSR and not a bug, but I dislike it.

Thanks for all the comments; please feel free to leave others.