Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Hidden Ways

"At first glance, the wilds may seem impenetrable.  A wicked labyrinth of dead end trails, washed out bridges, sucking fens, and hidden lairs.  But spend a little time outside the comforts of civilization, friend, and you'll learn to see the way I do.  You see, there's a network of hidden ways crossing these lands- a language of peak and gully and old menhir and game trail.  There are roads that cross each other such that you'd never notice the path.  The trail heads are hard to find, but once you find them... well.  The whole world opens to you.  And then you'll see-

There's so much waiting to find you."

The wilderness is a confusing place.  It's twisted and turns back on itself.  Ways you thought were straight double back; ways you thought were tangled have unexpected shortcuts.  Forests are dark as night, even at midday.  Hillsides slough off in rain, blocking a passage.  Rivers shift their course.

Travelling the wilderness is by no means an easy task.  You can try it, and if you're smart about what you're doing you might just get where you're going- but there are better ways.

Just as dungeons have rooms and corridors- traps, tricks, and treasures- so do the wilds.  Features, pathways, points of interest, landmarks- a lattice web of reliable paths to follow.  "Head north for five hours" may be nearly impossible- do the players have a compass?  Is it accurate?  Are there lodestones or ley lines that might disrupt their pathfinding?  However, "Find the old stone oak tree north of town.  From there runs a game trail that will take you to the old mill creek.  From atop the mill you can see an old wood cross on a distant hill... walk to it and an hour past it and you will be overlooking the Valley of Carrowmere"- now that, you can achieve.

Skeins and Tapestries

So the hex map of the wilderness is a huge tapestry.  A 6 mile hex is ~36 square miles, or 1,003,622,400 square feet.  Let's imagine a truly huge adventure site, like a Keep.  The site itself (including the building and grounds) is probably 1,000 feet on a side (200 squares)- or 1,000,000 square feet- MAYBE 0.1% of the total space in a hex.  And a dungeon of that scope could easily occupy 10 sessions of play!

What are the odds of players accidentally stumbling across this adventure site as they explore the wilderness?  Is there a more interesting way to let players find it than spending a day to roll a search check within this hex?

The solution I'll be tooling up for my sandbox game is to run skeins of hidden paths across the tapestry of the wilderness.  These "overland dungeons" will feature landmarks that obviously link to each other.  Any dungeon crawler can see that the Altar Chamber has two exits on the west wall, and a sharp eyed elf can spot the draft blowing on the tapestry at the back.  

Just so, any wilderness adventurer can see that, from the old hanging tree, there's a shepherd's trail that winds across the plains to the east; a split peak a half day's walk northwest, and a clever ranger might know that the berry bushes at the bottom of the gully might reveal an animal trail to follow to the north.

Players can strike out across the wilderness undirected, using their survival instincts to hold to a direction, uncovering the general lay of the land.  They can spend hours executing searches to see if they discover any interesting landmarks in that area!  But they can also gather information from locals and find their ways onto these hidden paths, these overland dungeons.  Once they're there, it becomes much easier to navigate from point to point.

Rooms and Corridors

Rooms are large spaces that can contain interesting features to interact with- combat challenges, puzzles, tricks, traps, and more.  Corridors are the connecting glue tying rooms together; they can often contain the same, but rooms are dwelling spaces and corridors are traveling spaces.

What might these look like in the wilderness?


  1. The half-ruined tower atop an old hill.
  2. The fetid lake.
  3. The witch's hut.
  4. The old hanging tree.
  5. The old stone menhir, with six skeletons skewered on pikes surrounding.
  6. The black bear's foraging grounds.
  7. The ruins of Old Weston.
  8. The resting spot of Ningauble's Hut, next to the swampy lake.
  9. The blasted spot of plains, where nothing will ever grow again.
  10. The old well, and its ever expanding tendrils of fungal growth.
  11. The signpost at the intersection of the old King's Road and Coastal Way.
  12. The druid circle.
  13. The bright glade.
  14. The rocky spire, split in two.
  15. The ancient and crumbled statue of a long forgotten queen.
  16. The negative-psychic afterimage of an ancient wizard's tower, long ruined.
  17. The crawling whisper of something under the surface.
  18. The mountain peak, topped with an ancient ruin, still lit at night.
  19. The old stone foundations of the gate in the pass.
  20. The emerald blue-green lake, source of the pure stream.
  21. Etc.


  1. A game trail.
  2. An old ranger trail, marked with faded strips of colored cloth.
  3. A gully between two dried hills.
  4. Line of sight.  (It's easy to get to that ruined tower- you can see it from miles off!)
  5. A broken and ruined road, hundreds of years old.
  6. An overgrown holloway, nearly a tunnel in the growth of the surrounding lands.
  7. A string of witch-lights through the forest, following some ancient and arcane track.
  8. A powerful ley-line, plucking at the hairs on the back of your neck.
  9. A stream, spilling from a tight cavern in the rock.
  10. The only walkable descent down the mountain side.
  11. A knife-sharp ridge line between two peaks.
  12. The echoing grinding sound that repeats out of the hills to the east.
  13. Old rope bridges strung up between ancient trees.
  14. A line of new growth through the old woods, sprung up in the wake of a forest fire years ago.
  15. A series of lightly magnetic dolmens across the plains.
  16. A line of mossy earth, tilled with sparkling mica from old mining.
  17. A short cavern that exits into a new glade.
  18. The line of dead earth, relic of some ancient sorcerous battle.
  19. A miles long branch of mycelium, deadening the surrounding landscape.
  20. Old bonfire sites atop hills, marking an ancient line of signaling.
  21. Etc.

Tricks, Traps, Treasures

What's a good dungeon without tricks, traps, and treasures?


Things to pique the players' interest, that aren't obviously good or bad until messed with...

  1. Touching the standing stone causes it to flare with a brilliant light, visible from miles around.
  2. A brilliant white stag leaping away through the forests... always one step ahead...
  3. An elf-feast, lantern lights and music- all vanishing on drawing near.
  4. An old consecrated site, where the undead fear to walk.
  5. A humming ley-intersection, conveying unpredictable effects on spellcasting.
  6. The brilliant campsite at the edge of a star-filled lake, comforting and restful.
  7. An old stone door set into the ground, graven with runes and imagery, impossible to open.
  8. An explosion of tufts of feathers and fur, plus a visible trail of blood.
  9. Etc.


Surprising problems that can afflict the unwary traveler.
  1. A shale patch, the entire hillside ready to shift and slide.
  2. An old bridge above swift waters, ropes nearly rotted through.
  3. A sucking quicksand fen.
  4. A lurking presence just beneath the surface, who awakens at night to steal spells from the minds of sleeping magic users.
  5. The roosting grounds for carrion crows- gone during the day, but returned after nightfall.
  6. A wolf den.
  7. The dry cavern, so convenient for camping in, with a false wall at the back that disgorges thieving orcs and goblins.
  8. A mirror lake, which shows all reflections in a dark half-light.  If you see them, they'll come for you...
  9. Etc.


Delightful surprises, easing the burdens of travel.
  1. A wandering bard.
  2. A patch of fresh berries.
  3. A pure, cool spring.
  4. An old ranger cache, freshly replenished.
  5. A traveling merchant's forgotten pack.
  6. An elf-feast, warm and welcoming.
  7. An unexpected inn.
  8. An ancient portal to a sumptuous and restful pocket plane.
  9. Etc.

Putting it all together

With these tools, we can build interlocking megadungeon spaces in the overland, open world sandbox- complete with factions, powerful threats to avoid, lairs, enemies, easy treasures, and devious traps.  Suddenly, exploring the open world is no longer a matter of moving one hex and rolling for encounters, but a continuous, descriptive, fiction-rich play experience.  And if players want to strike off into the unknown, there's even more for them to stumble across and discover.

You can even layer these megadungeons over top of each other within hexes- the space that runs out to the Keep on the Borderlands and the space that leads players to lost Carrowmere might have hidden ways that cross each other, but which are only visible from within each of their respective megadungeons.  This layered, hidden information creates a dense tapestry of discovery for exploration.

I hope you've found these ideas interesting!  What other rooms, corridors, traps, tricks, and treasures could exist in an overland dungeon?  How would you put this into your game?

Until next time!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Why Explore?

In the context of sandbox OSR D&D games... why should the players explore your game world?  What rewards exist to motivate exploration?

Here's a list based on my own experience, plus the answers a bunch of people gave me when I asked on twitter.  Players want to....

  • See their character change based on what they encounter
  • See the world change in response to their actions
  • Discover the interaction points between the world and their character
  • Enjoy the gamble of randomness in the game
  • Form new or build on existing in-game relationships and romances
  • Gain XP - often in the form of treasure
  • Gain power and capabilities - new items and resources and allies
  • Gain knowledge about the world and environment
  • Gain information about other challenges that have them stumped
  • Engage with new content - finding a new quest or situation
  • See something new in the world, experience something unique - environments, settings, monsters, etc.
  • Be surprised by what they find
  • Discover something, put it on the map for others
  • Follow clues to their ultimate discovery
  • Solidify an alliance with a faction
  • Find out what happens, what are the consequences of their decisions 
  • Overcome a tough challenge
  • Make deals
  • Open or unlock new content- areas, quests, relationships, npcs
  • Embody their alignment or beliefs within the world
  • Solve problems or help npcs 
  • Unlock and play with new character options
  • Explore options within the fiction
  • See their character succeed or fail
  • Simply to experience it themself
  • Find out what will happen to their friends

Let's break that list down a bit in terms of three different categories:

Mechanical Motivators

These things are explicitly mechanized by OSR games- there are rules the players can point to and follow for these events.

Notably, the extrinsic rewards of the game all fall here.
  • Gain XP - often in the form of treasure
    • Explicitly mechanized
  • Gain power and capabilities - new items and resources and allies
    • Explicitly mechanized
  • Overcome a tough challenge
    • Player Experience
    • Explicitly Mechanized

Narrative Motivators

These things aren't explicitly mechanized in OSR games; they rely on the GM's narrative chops to set up the opportunity for them to exist, and for players to interact with them.
  • See their character change based on what they encounter
    • OSR games don't tend to mechanize this explicitly within the core rules- rather, when it happens, it falls under the narrative OSR umbrella of "if it happens to you, it happens to you"- your arm got chopped off, so you don't have an arm.  "Rulings, not Rules" gets a lot of play here.
    • Some OSR style games have crit or fumble tables, or magical corruption tables that mechanize this.
  • See the world change in response to their actions
  • Form new or build on existing in-game relationships and romances
  • Exploit in-game relationships; make deals
  • Gain knowledge about the world and environment
  • Gain information about other challenges that have them stumped
  • Open or unlock new content- areas, quests, relationships, npcs
  • Put something discovered on the map for others
  • Follow clues to their ultimate discovery
  • Solidify an alliance with a faction
  • Embody their alignment or beliefs within the world
  • Solve problems or help npcs
  • Unlock and play with new character options

Experiential Motivators

These are just things that the players enjoy experiencing as they play the game.  If you have the first two categories, you should naturally have this one covered- but it's always good to keep in mind.
  • Explore options within the fiction
  • See their character succeed or fail
  • Simply to experience it themself
  • Find out what will happen to their friends
  • See something new in the world, experience something unique - environments, settings, monsters, etc.
  • Be surprised by what they find
  • Discover the interaction points between the world and their character
  • Enjoy the gamble of randomness in the game
  • Discover something in the world
  • Find out what happens, what are the consequences of their decisions
  • Engage with new content

So what does this mean?

It means that, if you're trying to set up a sandbox open world D&D game, the ruleset of the game you're using probably only manages a small fraction of what motivates players to go out and explore- and the rest of it is up to the narrative framework of the world you're building.

That large list of Narrative Motivators also raises a series of excellent questions for us to consider, as far as our players are concerned.  For example:
  • When does the player's character change?  How?  What keeps those changes in check, to allow the player to have fun with their character?  How does the player feel agency over the way their character is affected by the world?
  • How does the player know the world will respond to their actions?  (That might be a base assumption of all players- including GM- but it's good to clarify!)  How does the player know how the world will respond to their actions?  What are the avenues of agency the players have over this response?  How much agency should the players have in this response?
  • How does the player successfully build in-game relationships and romances?  How does the player know they can do this?  What are the avenues of agency for the player pursuing these?  
  • What are the consequences of a new relationship?  What benefits can it offer?  How does the player know what these are?
  • How does the player gain knowledge about the world and the environment?  What are the avenues of agency for the player pursuing this information?
  • How does the player pursue information about challenges that are stumping them?
  • How does the player know what courses of action will unlock new content?
  • How much can a player put on the map for other players?  Everything?  Nothing?  What if that character dies before making it back?
  • What if the player misses clues?  How does the player gain more information about a puzzle?
  • What do alliances with factions do?  What do factions do?  What benefits and risks does faction membership confer?
  • Why embody your beliefs and alignment?  What are the consequences of doing this?
  • Why solve problems?  Why help NPCs?  What are the consequences of doing this?
  • How does the player know what new character options will be made available?  How does the player know whether a new character option is desirable to them?

That's a lot of ground to cover, and it's part of why I think sandbox OSR games present a unique challenge to the enthusiastic GM!

I suspect some of this should probably be mechanized with explicit rules; some of it should definitely not be; and a great deal of it could be made easier with some simple, well-written guidelines.

Maybe we'll do a bit of that!

Until next time- did I miss a key motivator for you, as a player (not your character- you!)?  Do you disagree with how I've divided things up?  Think something I marked as Narrative is actually Mechanical?  Tell me all about it!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Getting my players into the Maze of the Blue Medusa

I got the Maze of the Blue Medusa about two weeks ago, and wanted to run it as an adventure- but the requirements to get into the maze are nearly impossible for players to "accidentally" do.  So here's the setup.

PS, this is way more written out than the notes I took on my notebook.  You don't need to be nearly this verbose in your prep.  Bullet points are fine:

Thrush Hill
  • Goods: City Prices
  • Obvious Features:
    • Cathedral Clock Tower
    • Frequent rains
    • Sewage stench from abandoned quarry (E)

Thrush Hill

There's a town called Thrush Hill.  It's well populated with a rigorous economy.  It has all the usual things you expect of towns, but a few things stand out to anyone there.  There's a big cathedral to The Lady Temperence with a mechanical clock tower, a point of pride for the town that can be seen from just about anywhere.  It rains frequently, which lends the town a slightly morose atmosphere.  The rains are both blessing and curse, as they cleanse the air of the sewage stench that rises out of an abandoned quarry east of town... and the dampness always causes the smell to return stronger just after.

Thrush Hill has a good trading relationship with Aldwyn Keep a few miles down the road, and a number of its craftsman find regular employ at special orders from Lady Orphone, a wealthy matron who lives on a secluded estate to the south.

Humphrey Bostock

Everyone who meets Humphrey comes away remembering three things about him.  Firstly, he fusses constantly with his elaborate powdered wig, which he often adorns with jewelry.  Secondly, he considers himself (at length, loudly) a great collector of art, though- like all who consider themselves a great anything- he's probably more interested appearing a great collector of art.  Thirdly, he is suspicious of everyone- doubly so of his servants, and quadruply so where money is concerned.

One of his servants, you see, has gone missing.  A quiet man named Oliver Poff, who served Bostock for the last 12 years.  The man seemed quite interested in a new painting Humphrey had hung on the north wall of his study- "A Lady In Chains"- across the room from the imposing red and black "Pater Familias".  Humphrey repeats a number of times that Poff made multiple inquiries regarding the painting, its origins, and the figure depicted within it.  He doesn't particularly remember what exactly was asked, but it was far too much for his liking.

And so, this morning, with Poff nowhere to be found, Humphrey has had want ads tacked up all over town-


Thieves and rapscallions abound in Thresh Hill, and this gentle son of her noble breast will not stand idly by while her treasures are secreted out from under her languid gaze!  Humphrey Bostock offers simple lodging and accommodations for trustworthy guards seeking a one month contract.  Experience with thieves and passing familiarity with one Oliver Poff preferred!

Generous payment of 60 silver pieces to be rendered at the successful completion of duties.



Of course, as soon as the PCs begin their watch in the evening, moonlight fills the study and the "Lady in Chains" begins to move....

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dog Training, Old School Style

"Aw man, I only have 70 silver pieces.  I'm SO POOR"

"... Wait a dog costs 1 silver piece?"


"Steven, can I buy 70 dogs??"


"WAIT Steven, can I buy 140 pigeons???"


So you bought a dog.  And you're playing an old school game, so you don't have the "animal handling" skill.  So here's what I'm gonna do in my offline game.

Design sidebar

At a high level, it makes sense to consider your dog like a very loyal retainer who just doesn't understand you- training the dog to understand what you want of it is the hardest part.

How can we emulate that with in-game mechanics?


Dogs can learn commands.  For the purposes of gameplay a thing only counts as a "command" if it's an order you'd give in a circumstance when the dog might have pressure to act otherwise.  So, like, we can just assume that you can teach your dog to "sit" or "shake" fairly well.

Here are some commands you might use in a dangerous circumstance:

* Attack
* Down / Heel
* Fetch
* Jump
* Track
* Guard / Watch
* Threaten

It's not an exhaustive list.  Be creative.  Dogs are smart, they can learn a lot of commands.

Dog Training

Each command you teach your dog has its own individual saving throw.  A successful save means the dog successfully performs the command to the best of its ability.  A failure means the dog doesn't understand.  It wants to obey you!  Maybe it rolls over?  Offers a paw to shake?  Barks?  Runs in circles?  It just doesn't quite get what you're asking for.

Every command save starts at 18.  You always add your CHA modifier to the roll when making the save.

You can "train" your dog.  If you're adventuring, a training session takes one Turn, focuses on a single command, and allows you to test the saving throw for the command you're focusing on.  If you succeed on the saving throw, then the saving throw permanently decreases by 1.  You can only decrease each command by 1 point each day.

If you're in downtime you can just focus on training your dog.  Each command save drops by 1 per week you spend focusing on the training, no rolls required.

You can only train your dog if it doesn't have any loyalty strikes (see "when to test loyalty," below).  A dog has to be happy with you to engage in productive training.

Designer's note: with continued training, your dog responds to your commands more reliably.

Dog Loyalty

Dogs start with a loyalty of 8.  Each command you train down to 5 or lower on the saving throw increases the dog's loyalty by 1, up to a max of 12.  Dogs like being trained.

Designer's note: with more time spent training your dog, their loyalty increases.

When to test Loyalty

(Remember, loyalty is a test on 2d6- less than or equal is a success, over is a failure)

Your dog is obedient to you, especially if you've trained it well.  Only test loyalty in the following circumstances:

* Each day you fail to feed the dog, test loyalty (each day unfed beyond the first applies a -1 to all loyalty tests)
* If the dog is injured following a command you gave it, test loyalty

Dogs have three strikes for loyalty.  On accruing three failures, you're not worth it any more- the dog goes feral and fends for itself.

You can erase a loyalty strike by spending a full day pampering your dog.  Belly rubs, chasing squirrels, well fed, who's a good boy.  No dangerous commands.

You can only train your dog if it doesn't have any loyalty strikes.

Designer's note: dogs can't really decide to quit, so it's really only repeated mistreatment that will make them take off- but they need TLC to get over the effects of the mistreatment.

Friday, August 12, 2016

OSR Gaming: Referee Agendas

Last time we talked about what are the Player Agendas for Old School Gaming.  Now that we've identified how the game expects players to interact with it... what are the Agendas for referees that will help them to build and run adventures that players can interact with in that way?

Referee Agendas for Old School Gaming

  • Know what the game asks of players - remember the player's agendas, because yours support theirs:
    • Dig into the fiction
    • Engage the fantasy as real
    • See a dead end as an opportunity
    • Let your unique creativity flow
    • Know when to run
    • Play to win, but delight in losing
  • Be fair to the players, and fair to the game - Referee is a great word for our role at the table.  A referee in sports is an  (ideally) impartial arbiter between two teams.  Likewise, we are not at the table as an opponent to our players.  As referee, we arbitrate an antagonistic relationship between a hostile game world, and creative players.  Sure, maybe we made the game world- but our role is to be honest, open, and fair to both parties in equal measure: the players, and the game world.
  • Engage everyone at the table - Take the time to shift to a quieter player and ask what they make of the current situation.  When one player is performing a long search, turn to the others- "What are you doing while she's occupied?"  You can even do this in your prep- build a world you know will engage each of your players.
  • Paint your own dark reflection - What scratches at the surface of your brain?  Installation art?  Korean horror films?  The hikes you took in the forest as a kid?  The adventures you create are a reflection of you.  Find what inspires you, and let it push you in ways no one else can anticipate.  What's weird about your world in a way you just love?  What's familiar with unexpected bits?  Reflect the world, but twist it in ways that are unique to you.
  • See your world as real in your mind's eye - This place you've created, or are reading about- it's a real place.  It exists!  You could go there, if you had the technology!  You don't, though, so it's up to you to communicate it to others.  What do you see, when you're there?  Hear, smell, taste, feel, sense?  What do you know about that's hidden, and what subtle signs are there?  The players will be probing your vision of this place for useful information.  Put your mind into that world, explore, and bring back what's valuable.  Likewise, apply a real world logic to populations and challenges, rather than building a carefully balanced sequence of fights.  If an encounter is too tough to fight, it's up to the players to deal with some other way.
  • Build onions - What are the PCs aware of already?  What do they notice at their first glance?  Which of those "first glance" things hides information on closer inspection?  How would players get that information?  Does that information lead them somewhere else, or deeper?  What's obvious, what's subtle, what's hidden, and what's invisible?  Create layers of information for the players to peel back and explore.
  • Make your details matter - When you're seeing your world as real and building onions, also remember to keep details of your world gameable.  Players should be able to act on the information you're telling them: "Her eyes are a shifting mottled green" helps players remember the NPC, sure- but "... and you notice she never stands more than one long step away from the table and its contents" gives them information they can act on.  "The pillars are ornately carved marble" - "... the furthest one is crossed with a latticework of cracks."  Your details should allow players to make informed decisions and take effective action.  You can hide these details within your onion for players to discover, but remember to make them matter.
  • Build ecosystems - What parts of your world are used by other parts?  Produce things for other parts?  Are there waste products?  Where do those go?  Who's friendly to whom?  Who relies on whom- who's symbiotic, and who's parasitic?  Who's opposed?  If one element is removed, how do the connected elements react?  Before players, your world is operating like a swiss watch, in a careful balance- it's reached a steady state.  What can the players push out of balance gently?  How does your world compensate or react when the players remove components entirely?
  • Build challenges with answers... - "There's a magically locked iron gate the players have to get past... how could they?  I guess one of the NPCs has a key... and there's a potion of Eat Metal hidden in room 12c."  When you build your adventures, seed them with challenges that you know the answer to.  Maybe the player characters have a core capability to get past the challenge, or maybe you've just placed the solution somewhere else for them to find.  Use these to encourage players to dig into the fiction, and explore.  If a challenge is critical for the continuation of the adventure, consider placing a few solutions- 3 is a good number.  "Okay, a key, a potion of Eat Metal... and if they befriend the Bisected Serpent, it can bore a hole through the stone."
  • ...And challenges without - "The deeps are stalked by a living maelstrom of ravenous psychic energy.  If the players want to get the Golden Falcon they'll have to get past it, but I have no idea how they'll manage that."  These are critical for old school gaming.  These exist to force players to be creative in ways that surprise everyone at the table.  Be cautious with placing these as challenges critical for the continuation of the adventure (unless you intend for players to retreat and come back later), but sprinkling them around can surprise everyone at your table.
  • Kill them - Remember, we're not antagonists to the players- but their survival is on them.  If they don't do the work, or if they're just plain unlucky... kill them.  I'm sure you've got a weird cleric in need of some hazard work up your sleeve.
  • Make them stronger - Every once in a while, even if it's just to see them freak out... give them exactly what they want, no strings attached.  After all, they've still got to get it back home.
What do you think?  Are there any obvious Referee Agendas for Old School Gaming that I've missed?

I've kept mulling over Jonathan Miller's "Bryce Lynch's Adventure Design Tips" - I might start a series digging into them one by one.  Or I might just open the monster manual and do an A-Z "weird version" of every monster.  We'll just have to find out!

Monday, August 8, 2016

OSR Gaming: Player Agendas

Last post we talked about some unique aspects of "old school renaissance" (OSR) style gaming.  While the rules of old school games center and make space for player cleverness as the driving force in play, classic rulebooks don't often include the "unspoken rules" of old school gaming.  Modern games like Apocalypse World have codified their own "unspoken" rules into what they call Agendas, and so, without further ado...

Player Agendas for Old School Gaming

Old school adventures are weird, wild, unfamiliar.  The rules of the game leave a lot of space for you, as a player, to be creative with your problem solving.  The best adventures will let you pry opportunities from them, and the best referees will be open and honest about the fruits of your efforts.  But how should you look to engage with the game to get the most out of it?
  • Dig into the fiction - Discard your assumptions about D&D, and be curious about the game world.  Pay attention to details- about characters, the environment, social situations, and more.  Take notes on them!  Make maps of them!  Those details can save your life.  When you write your notes, write questions for yourself too- What do they eat?  Do they have any social rituals?  What's that smell?  Why is there a breeze in this room?  Is there an empty space where a room should be?  Information is leverage, my crafty friend.
  • Engage the fantasy as real - If you were in a room with a heavy vase in one corner, and you wanted to know what was behind it, what would you do?  Probably drag it to the side, right?  Looking for an air current?  Lick a finger and hold it up.  Judging the slope of a floor?  Spill a little water on the ground.  Engage the fiction of the game world as real.  Describe the real actions you take to achieve the effect you're looking for.  Remember, other games may have dice rolls to do this for you- many old school games don't, so engage!
  • See a dead end as an opportunity - That dead-end hallway may hide a secret door, or maybe there's another passage to investigate.  The gargantuan monstrosity in the courtyard?  Maybe you can get around it, or negotiate.  A recalcitrant noble?  Maybe someone knows how to get some leverage.  Couldn't pick that iron door?  Maybe one of those unidentified potions will help.  Old School games have lots of hard blockers.  When your first attempt fails, change tactics- the dead end is just the beginning of your solution.  Often, digging into the fiction and engaging the world as real will open up new and unexpected avenues.
  • Let your unique creativity flow - Your class and/or race can do some unique things the other folks can't.  Learn to recognize when it's your turn to shine, and when it's someone else's.  When it's your turn, really go for it.  Outside of the game mechanics of your character, what are your unique inspirations and ideas?  Do you see a clever use for a magic item?  Do you want to try negotiating with the ferocious monster?  Do you see a weakness in the defenses the others don't immediately recognize?  Could you combine a few of these opportunities in a unique way?  Open up your brain, and let in the weird and the creative.  The world is so bizarre... it just might work.
  • Know when to run - Old school adventures often present encounters that, to a modern gaming eye, look like fights- only, if you fight them, you'll just die.  Learn to dig into the fiction to see the relative power of what you're facing, and don't be afraid to cut your losses.  A party that drags away one dead body is a party on their way to a Cleric, instead of on their way through a monster's digestive system.
  • Play to win, but delight in losing - Everyone wants to succeed, and certainly everyone wants to play with friends they feel are aiming to succeed- but that may not always happen.  Your characters may get turned into frog-people, lose limbs, be stricken by leprosy, turned into stone, cursed to burp up slugs, entombed in the earth for 10,000 years, or just die from being stabbed in the gut by a farmer with a pitchfork.  Learn to love the disgusting, horrifying, shocking, surprising, and even disappointing ways your characters are set back.  After all, there's always Resurrection.

Now, certainly these are great player agendas for many games, new and old (school).  But especially in mechanics-light old school games, players who keep these tenets in mind will be engaging with the game the way it wants to be played.

Of course, it helps players engage with an old school game if the referee has built it to support these agendas.  Next time, we'll define some Referee Agendas for Old School Gaming to make sure we hit the mark whether we're running a published adventure, or creating our own devious traps and terrors.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

What is OSR?

(according to Steven)

The OSR, or Old School Renaissance (or Revival), is a genre of gaming based around the original versions of D&D.  Currently, the OSR is supported by a wide variety of new "retroclone" game systems, adventures, and blogs dedicated to the concept.  Some detractors claim OSR games and adventures are playing on a sense of nostalgia, or are trying to recapture a false memory of what gaming was like "back in the day."  Some proponents claim that OSR gaming is simpler, richer, and more compelling than more modern, more heavily designed game systems.  Still, if you ask 100 gamers what "OSR gaming" is, you'll get 100 answers- it's a somewhat nebulous term that means different things to different people.  It's a feeling, more than anything else.

I have always loved the descriptions of actual play that come from OSR games.  It's common that, when I read actual play reports from the OSR, the content in them is vibrant, creative, and describes a player engagement with and creativity within the game world (and a game world engagement with player characters!) that surprises and delights me in a way I don't see happening in modern Dungeons & Dragons adventures / supplements / actual play.  It's possible that's confirmation bias, but let's unpack the OSR anyway.

I'm not deeply steeped in the OSR world by any means.  I'm really more of an outsider looking in at descriptions, and trying to pull them apart to understand them better.  I've played far more 3.5, 4, and 5e D&D than any other game, and the majority of the other games I've played have been Powered By The Apocalypse.  And still, despite enjoying all of these games... I find there's some core in OSR style gameplay that is still uniquely appealing and interesting.

So what is it that I find so compelling about the OSR style of play?  I've identified four core points that lead to what might be a most important fifth point that emerges from them.  Let's break it down.

Unique fiction

It's common that OSR games are very do-it-yourself, with emphasis on the unusual and the weird.  They tend to eschew a published campaign setting in favor of one that's homebrewed, even if it's cobbled together out of the pieces of a handful of published adventures.  Familiar monsters (goblins, mind flayers, dark elves) may appear, but behave in unfamiliar ways, or have idiosyncrasies to them.  Magic items are nonstandard, unusual, and have dramatic effects.  Long acting, capability-changing curses, diseases, and afflictions are just another fact of adventuring life for player characters.

XP for Gold

Generally, in OSR games, players are rewarded XP for recovering treasure and making it back to town with it.  This incentivizes players to either avoid fights or construct overwhelming odds in their favor.

Dwindling resources and character death

Resources are important in the OSR, and, barring very unusual circumstances, they diminish as play goes on, putting escalating pressure on players to be cautious in expending them.  Death is unforgiving, without much in the way of second chances or bleeding states.  Additionally, character power is often on par with or below monster power, making many encounters a serious threat.  OSR games also tend to include encounters that are overpowering enough to effortlessly murder the player characters in a head-to-head fight.

The penalty for bad luck of the dice or poor decisions is high.

Simple characters

Character creation is lightning fast (partly as a counter to unforgiving character death), and the players have little choice in how they "build" their characters.  Character sheets are spare, and don't have a lot on them in terms of dice rolling mechanics for solving specific in-game problems.  At the same time, the lack of explicitly defined abilities also avoids many explicit restrictions- characters are free to try many things in the fiction that other games may restrict by class.

These four are the core pillars that prop up what may be the most important, emergent, pillar of OSR style gaming:

Player cleverness

The solutions to in-game problems don't spring from the game mechanics, and aren't hinted at on the character sheet.  The solutions to in-game problems arise from the kind of player cleverness that only results when players engage with the fiction, exploring both problems and possible solutions deeply and recursively.

The core pillars above support this in the following ways:
  • Unique fiction: Unusual encounters and situations push players to engage in order to learn more and satisfy their curiosity about the fiction, and to better understand possible obstacles and solutions.  Long acting afflictions change character capabilities, and push players towards unique or clever solutions to eliminate the afflictions.  Unique magical items and effects give players strange tools to use as one-shot solutions, tools which may nevertheless affect the players themselves in unexpected ways.
  • XP for Gold, Dwindling resources, and Character death: These work together, pushing players to be clever to figure out how a fight can be either circumvented (requiring players to explore the play space more fully) or defused (requiring players to engage more fully with the unique fiction), or to construct overwhelming odds in their favor (often through using the unique magical items and effects they've accrued).  As play goes on, resources diminish, escalating the extent to which players have to rely on their own cleverness rather than the resources they've brought or acquired.
  • Simple characters: Characters are simple to make, which can ease some of the frustration that results from character death.  More importantly, the character sheet doesn't have convenient answers for how to solve the problems players face.  It's spare to the point that players are required to learn information in game by interacting with the fiction, instead of getting it from a dice roll.  Once they've got the information they need, once again, the solutions aren't on the character sheet- they have to come from player ingenuity, from an understanding of the fictional problems and resources they've explored.  Again, the simplicity of the character sheet also doesn't restrict players.  Players are free, without mechanical restriction, to gather information or attempt unique solutions by engaging with the fiction: "I feel behind the statue," "do the orcs seem to be deferring to an individual in the group?," "if I wanted to hide something small in this room, what would be a good spot?"

Well, this has been a very interesting mental exercise for me.  I don't claim that this is definitely factual, or THE definition of OSR, or that any other interpretations of this style of play are wrong!  But the above is what stands out to me as interesting when I read actual play reports, and I hope my analysis will be interesting to you as well.  Thanks for reading!