What are assumptions about how to play an OSR adventure that you think might not be commonly held as desired?

This is a thread started by Scrap Princess on Jul 16, 2018, on Google+, slightly edited by Alex Schroeder and others.

Scrap Princess

First attempt at something like this, might still be too long for each point.

Any storys that appear after the fact are emergent

These results should be understandable and deemed “fair” by the players.

Outright avoidance, fleeing, negotiation, schemes, befriending, disguises, and the like are acceptable and even desirable outcomes.


Resolution of action by player skill first then dice or character mechanics. Like players don’t declare I roll X instead players describe their characters actions and rolls are done if neccesary.

gregory b

Killing things is usually not the goal, there is nothing that is “supposed” to happen, combat is not the default assumption for an encounter.

Character death is not taboo and is to be expected.

The adventure will not enumerate the one correct way to resolve conflicts and puzzles; player creativity is expected and should be rewarded by the referee.

Balance as a design goal is generally absent.

Sean McCoy

OSR games are more like an escape room than a trust-fall exercise. The stories you tell about the sessions you played will be about how you learned or tried or failed to beat the different challenges you faced - not an Aristotelian three-act play with all the different unities, etc.

Wherever you go, there are things to do and the world reacts to what you do so do the things you want. Imagine you decided to go rob a bank today - would that be hard or easy? Would it scale to your abilities or would it just be the same bank that’s always been sitting there at North Garland & GWB? The game has no interest in whether you win or lose - YOU have to be interested in whether you win or lose.

When people play BotW and are like “It was so cool that I wanted to go up that hill and when I got there there was a little tree and INSIDE that tree there was a whole thing I never knew about!” That’s like an OSR game.

Brian Harbron

This is not a game primarily about improvisational, collaborative story telling. Outcomes will not be based on what makes for the most interesting narrative, and challenges will not be balanced around your character and their skills. Your goal is generally not to kill all enemies around you.

This is a game primarily about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists. Outcomes will be based on how this world would react to your interactions, and challenges will be as unbalanced, unexpected, and exciting as they would in a real world. Your goal is generally to survive the enemies around you, whether that be via avoidance, negotiation, befriending, or creatively throwing the balance in your favor.

FM Geist

Michael Julius

Assumptions from within or outside OSR?

Outside: A different notion of balance, reaction rolls, and tactical infinity vs 5e simply siloing the experience into “pillars”.

Zedeck Siew

Jacob Hurst

It is appropriate and preferred for a module to provide problems but no solutions. Solutions are expected to come from the players. The “fluff” and history provided in the module should then provide interesting consequences generating a “dialogue of play” along the lines of problem → solution → interesting consequences → solution → interesting consequences → etc. Until a new or more pressing problem comes along.

@Brian Harbron I think it’s wrong to say that it’s not primarily about improvisational collaborative story telling because I think it really is. I believe it’s that (as your 2nd paragraph points out) the world is also treated as an important participant, maybe even a “controlling” participant. The world puts fences around the emergent story, as opposed to the games typically called “collaborative story telling” in which the world is often subservient to the wishes of the players because “wouldn’t it have been cooler if….”

@Sean McCoy I really really like “The game has no interest in whether you win or lose - YOU have to be interested in whether you win or lose.”

@FM Geist This one right here! “because mechanics are not as important as puzzle solving, there is a greater tendency towards flavorful starting gear”

Brian Murphy

It is not the DM’s job to balance encounters; it is the players’ job to unbalance encounters in their favor. (AKA: if you find yourself in a fair fight your tactics suck.)

Brian Harbron

@Jacob Hurst I think I just view story more as an emergent, secondary effect of OSR play rather than it’s active, primary goal. i.e. The goal is not to tell the most interesting story you can, the goal is to interact with and overcome the problems at hand. From those interactions, the story passively emerges.

I think it’s a good distinction to make if trying to define differences between OSR and games like D&D 5e and their heavier emphasis on character backstory, more plot-driven adventure modules, and hesitance to kill characters and end their stories abruptly.

Not a hill I’m gonna die on though. And I can certainly see the viewpoint that interaction with the world is itself an improvisational act. (I think that’s what you’re getting at, please correct me if I’m wrong.) I do like the idea of the world as a “controlling” participant in that improvisation.

Dirk Detweiler Leichty

The answer is not on your character sheet. This is a game about exploring, solving problems, and pursuing goals in an imaginary world, arbitrated by a referee. The referee is trusted by the players to make fair rulings about the imaginary world and to portray and animate it according to its own logic, neither to please nor punish the players, nor to drive them toward desired outcomes.

The players are trusted by the referee to seek appropriate challenges and to employ all cunning in executing them. The players are expected to be motivated by the game’s stated goal (“acquire treasure, level up, escape the dungeon,”) and not to betray it in the name of naturalistic character portrayal.

The enterprise rests a great deal on how much the players and referee trust each other to perform these duties, and pathologies develop when that trust breaks down. If the referee can’t trust his players to be motivated by the game’s stated goal they might be tempted to use unfair means to pressure them into action. If they can’t trust in the players’ cunning, they will be tempted to soften challenges or grant easy victories. This in turn erodes the players’ trust in the referee.

When the fighter strikes an ooze with a sword, the referee must resist the logic of “what would make a satisfying moment?” and prioritize what honesty and the logic of the world demand, saying, perhaps, “your sword sinks deep into the ooze, held tight by suction. It seems unhurt.”

Angus Warman

I’m not sure if the best way to describe it, but if pure-storygame is sculpting with clay, then OSR is Lego. D&D has a set of instructions and number and sorted pouches with exactly the parts you need. OSR characters start out with a couple of core pieces, but the best parts will always be the bits you find in the massive, shared bucket. The colours won’t match, and you’ll have to hunt around. It’ll be great.

Chris Hall

Don’t expect pretty narrative story-shapes with neat and tidy resolutions. You may never find out who the big bad is (as if there were only one). You’ll probably die before then. Macguffins are to be mostly avoided. Plot armor doesn’t exist. Also, factions are key. Playing both sides against the middle is often the best plan. Why risk a fight if you can trick your enemies into disposing of each other for you?

Jacob Hurst

@Brian Harbron That’s a fair point. It does hinge heavily on “primarily”.

Daniel Davis

It’s your job to make your character interesting and to make the game interesting for you.

Vivien Feasson

So many good takes on the subject, and questions to go with :)

@FM Geist I’m wondering what, according to your style of play, WFRP has, that B/X hasn’t?

Ben Milton

It’s a game that can be easy or hard depending on what you enjoy in RPGs, but really shines when the players like things hard.

The amount of fun appears in increase as the player/character divide gets blurrier.

It accommodates a wide variety tones at the table: horror, comedy, whatever.

The group is initially bound together more by a common fear of imminent death than by linked backstories. This keeps the energy and interest high.

Due to the previous features, OSR tables seem to often have a party-like feel.

Emmy Allen

You will die. No, really, no matter how good you are, you will die. Dying is part of the experience, so you wanna learn to laugh when it happens.

Eric Duncan

Not surprisingly. A lot of what I see mentioned are the same principles V Baker put out in Apoc World.

Scrap Princess

@Eric Duncan perhaps but they are written in Baker cant

Eric Duncan

No they are written almost exactly as you wrote them in your example reply… albeit that they are spread out over a whole chapter rather than a bulleted list

Ramanan S

I think the Warren actually does Apocalypse World style advice that is perfect for an OSR game better than Apocalypse World itself. For example:

“Players, don’t get too attached to your characters, because the game isn’t about them—the game is about the warren. Individual rabbits are cheap and the continuity of the warren is everything. Death is explicitly on the table and will occur as the fiction demands, so breed early and often. Your kits are your legacy (and the pool from which you will probably draw your next character). Think of the game as a generational saga rather than an heroic narrative. Although your characters may well be leaders, poets, and scofflaws, they are still at the bottom of the food chain in a world determined to kill them. Perhaps their children can finish what you so bravely started. Generational play is great fun, and having a strong connection to the warren as a living community pays great dividends over time. You’ll start to care about its health and goals, and build a mythology around the exploits of previous generations. And, despite all these lofty assurances, in the end making up a new rabbit takes only minutes.”

Eric Duncan

@Ramanan S cool! But actually gets to my (unstated) point, this isn’t OSR specific at all. It is just a solid set of advice for many games.

Ramanan S

Yes, it is a lot of good advice. But I think there is more to OSR games than just running them like an Apocalypse World game, though. Your character in AW seem much more important than in an OSR game, autonomy over your character is more important, etc. The Warren is interesting to me because it changes some of those assumptions and makes it feel more like an OSR game.

Eric Duncan

I agree there are differences for sure but a lot of the things laid out here so far are less character focused and more GM/at the table oriented which seems to be more widely applicable. it just appears to be artificially compartmentalizing these as only applicable to the OSR

Also reminds me I need to take The Warren out for a spin to see if i could do a Rats of NIMH game with it…

Ramanan S

PbtA games seem focused on generating interesting narratives. All the partial successes and snowballing moves stuff seems designed to push games towards a climatic shit show and then you start that process all over again. (I mean there are so many of these games now maybe they don’t all fit that mild anymore.) I don’t think this is really a goal of OSR games, though I am sure people would be happy if the narrative in their game ends up interesting. In an OSR game careful planning and the like may mean your session is all high fives. OSR games seem to be more about problem solving and the like. I think there is a lot of overlap with Vincent’s advice, but it does feel like people played crap Dragonlance railroads and walked off in different directions to resolve their complaints.

And yes, I suspect a lot of advice for running a good OSR is just good advice, just like with AW games.

Vivien Feasson

One of the main differences could be how the DM/MC deals with PCs’ death: I’ve always had the impression that in a Pbta game, death cannot happen unless the MC (and/or the victim) really wants it to happen - the wound system is way too broken to be used as you would in D&D and stuff. Losing a character is a matter of story (“that was a cool moment when you sacrificed yourself”). Which means you shouldn’t kill a PC without its player’s permission. Apocalypse World 1, if I remember correctly, omit speaking about when to kill PCs.

Whereas in OSR it can be a matter of bad luck but it should most often be a matter of bad thinking. Punishment in the fair sense of the word (I’m still too sensitive to say you should kill X players each game, just to maintain vigilance).

Scrap Princess

@Eric Duncan is this the advice that starts with statements like “put everything in the cross hairs” and “be a fan of the characters??

Because that was classic Baker-Wackness. Explain something by starting with a koan that you then have to explain.

Eric Duncan

No I was thinking about like the triggering moves is almost verbatim matching if a plan is so solid no rolls are needed referenced above.

But yes some are buried in the expository paragraphs to go with his koan like statements.

FM Geist

@Vivien Feasson a few things:

Vivien Feasson

Thanks for the answer!

FM Geist

@Vivien Feasson Summary thing I forgot: basically it assumes that you are a conscripted rando with a terrible non military job (like managing truffle hounds or believing in skaven and murdering rats with a pike and a tiny dog).

It’s really tied to setting and Zweihander has my interest because it’s a more setting neutral version

Eric Duncan

Oh @Vivien Feasson that’s interesting, my experience has been the opposite. The wound chart prompts me and the players I have played them with to deescalate, find ways to ambush, bypass, etc. as death is always near.

But I don’t mean to derail. I just wanted to say these suggestions are applicable to more than just the OSR and its a shame to limit them to only that strain of gaming.

@FM Geist yeah Zweihander has a lot of interest to me for similar reasons as much as I dig WHFRPG it was very setting tied.

FM Geist

@Eric Duncan I mean to a degree: bushwhacking, backstabbing and etc. are the name of the game but domino consequences do mean that you will eventually end up in combat and be debating if you should try to cast a spell and either go historic or kill everyone in combat plus bystanders with a miscast.

I had a trollslayer in my party almost every roll up I’ve played so… that’s also kinda warped my perception

David Perry

Well, here’s the latest version of my attempt, asymptotically approaching a state for wider release. But I’d love to see a compilation of even shorter and snappier aphorisms! Great stuff in this thread.

Principia Apocrypha

Matt L.

As someone who’s RPG experience has mostly been in newer editions of D&D and World-style games, the thing that I like about OSR conceptions is the emphasis on player characters’ creativity and in-fiction problem solving rather than system mastery.

Character builds don’t matter so much.

Patrick Stuart

I broke it the thread down to my top ten aphorisms, with bits stolen from Gregory Blair, Brian Harbron, FM Geist, Zedeck Siew, Brian Murphy, Dirk Detweiler Leichty and Daniel Davis:

  1. This is a game about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists.
  2. Killing things is not the goal.
  3. There is nothing that is “supposed” to happen.
  4. Unknowability and consequence make everything interesting.
  5. You play as your character, not as the screenwriter writing your character.
  6. It’s your job to make your character interesting and to make the game interesting for you.
  7. If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.
  8. The answer is not on your character sheet.
  9. Things are swingy.
  10. You will die.

I love the first one, it really echoes with the reason why I’m not really into storygames these days, this impression of not dealing with a “real world” but with the art of writing or the texture of stories.

Jacob Hurst

I didn’t make the cuuuuuuut. ( T_T)

But seriously this is a great list and thread. =)

Joe Kilmartin

The dice themselves are “players” at the table and are as capricious and surprising as any other player including the Judge/DM. A suggestion from the dice (i.e. rolling on a random table, or how much damage did that fall do to your character) is just as valid a contribution and is usually the final arbiter of “what happens next”.

Vivien Feasson

“You don’t pre-decide what genre it will be; you can only influence it”. Comedy? Horror? Drama? A mix of them, to what degree? It will be decided during play, little by little, by the module, the DM, the players, and the dice (@Joe Kilmartin who reminded me of that).

Beloch Shrike

Hey @Scrap Princess, would you be okay with me archiving and hosting this thread on my website?

I’d like to see this discussion persist beyond the end of G+.

Scrap Princess

@Beloch Shrike yah, do it.