Thursday, 30 August 2012

Skinning Cats: The OSR Mold

In an interesting posting, serial (and I mean that in good way) blogger Erik Tenkar discussed what he perceived as a connection between complexity in rules and mortality in play. Key to his argument were two questions: “Does Pathfinder not mesh well with old school dungeon crawls? Is the risk of character death in a rule system that encourages players to plan out their skills and feats in advance too great for the "Oh Shit! Run!" style of play?”

At one level I fully agree.  After all, who wants to spend a session making a character that ends up finding out how a bottomless pit trap works…the hard way. 

Having never played Pathfinder, I can’t speak to the rules, character generation or modules.  Yet I do recall that there were OSR era games that did have some very substantial generation hoops.  Early-ish RPGs such as Traveller, Rolemaster, James Bond 007, Palladium Fantasy come to mind.  I would imagine for such games, "Oh Shit! Run!" style of play” might have been less than satisfactory?  Perhaps the answer might lay in reading old non-D&D modules?

Indeed, OSR as "Oh Shit! Run!" may in fact, be more specific to D&D or even perhaps the D&D dungeon crawl? Perhaps "Oh Shit! Run!" might have largely been a notion found mostly in fantasy (D&D?) games?  I wonder if the same phenomenon was experienced at game table favouring other systems?  In my experience, other early games such as Top Secret, Gangbusters and Boot Hill, while not ‘first generation’, rarely followed such a tempo (and play principles).  Indeed, there was ‘running’ but many of the virtues (fun and frustration) found in D&D was simply not part of the equation.  Seen in this way, is "Oh Shit! Run!" more suggestive of OSR-D&D rather than OSR?  Surely OSR can also mean: “Other systems…remember”?


  1. Serial Blogger Reporting Sir! ;)

    Oh Shit! Run! can also be described as a gaming style where players learn to evaluate situations and decide if they can handle as is or avoid until better equipped / prepared / higher level / more skilled - etc.

    I think that goes hand in hand with "sandbox" styled gaming, which OD&D and it's offspring generally do well - so long as the players understand (and the GM gives the proper hints) that not everything will be level appropriate.

    RuneQuest 2 (Chaosium) was heavily sandbox styled with Pavis, Gig Rubble ad it's various Gloranthia setting releases. When I ran MERP back in the day, my players quickly learned to be careful, as not everything they encountered could be safely defeated in a straight up fight.

    Oh Shit! Run! styled play requires tactics and strategy.

    Top Secret combat was very lethal. Smart play was better than lucky rolls ;)

  2. On three points here, we agree.

    1. Oh Shit! Run! seems a staple for OSR play (and always has?) OD&D
    2. Players should “learn to evaluate situations and decide if they can handle as is or avoid until better equipped/prepared/higher level/more skilled - etc.” This insight however, is applicable regardless of era/game/genre.
    3. "sandbox" styled gaming” (“OD&D/offspring”) does include a strong element “that not everything will be level appropriate.”

    Yet perhaps there are early games fitting OSR inclusion that do not follow this pattern? Now, you’ve got me thinking about it, I’ll have to go back and read a few modules again! My hunch is that there are some examples of a) encouraging missions (dare I say stories?) in OSR-era games b) the nature of the sandbox incorporates “evaluation” but places more even emphasis on player-driven initiatives?

    Finally, is it possible that some inversion is likely in which the more complex the character generation, the inclined players are to be smart, careful, tactical, strategic? After all, who wants to spend hours on a Rolemaster character to just throw it away being stupid (oh but it did happen, didn’t it)? Perhaps in these cases, complexity promotes investment rather a ‘funnel’ approach that characters are pushed through to see what shakes out the other end?

  3. Yet perhaps there are early games fitting OSR inclusion that do not follow this pattern?

    Perhaps, but none that I'm aware of. At least so far as I remember playing them. My Top Secret games were extremely lethal; characters were not James Bond, they were Alec Leamas or George Smiley, and they died very quickly if they didn't play intelligently.

    This was the way that we played everything in those days, regardless of complexity. I played Traveller and Palladium Fantasy, and characters in those campaigns were just as likely to snuff it as characters generated using simpler game mechanics. I recall one Traveller session, in particular, in which my character, a Jack-of-all-Trades armed with a leather jacket, a boot knife, and a pack of smokes was the sole surviving character among a party of battle-dress-wearing, plasma-rife-armed super characters, simply because I was too vulnerable to be overconfident, and while the others put their faith in their gear and died, I played very conservatively and got out alive.

    I think the shift in play styles had more to do with a growing 'story-telling' element that started creeping into play around the time that Dragon Lance became popular. I seem to recall people feeling that it would 'ruin the story' if the protagonists died part way through. This attitude became, and still is, prevalent in many gaming circles.

    The OSR, and Matt Finch's excellent primer, reminded us the way we used to play, when RPGs were games that were won or lost and depended on a player's skill, not free-form theater with GM as playwright and director, and the players as actors following the script.