Call for Classic Play Questions

I don’t have questions, but as someone who attempts to write explanations and advice on how to run classic/trad/DIY D&D/‘OSR’/SWORDREAM play after running and blogging on the play style for 7 years or so I’m curious what areas of that style confound, confuse or annoy people who play other styles… I’d love to hear about them, and if you like (let me know if you don’t) I’ll try to give thoughtful answers.

Mostly though I’m interested in determining where the friction occurs for people who aren’t used to the classic playstyle when they read or use classic content/systems.

Thanks in advance.

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I run and play OSR games more than anything else these days, but there is one thing I still find myself bumping into repeatedly: I’m not sure how to reconcile the tension between this is a game of player skill, so I must be clever and cautious on the one hand, and on the other, if I don’t do clearly inadvisably risky things with some frequency, this game will be boring.

Some games build in mechanisms to encourage risky behavior, like XP on a miss in Dungeon World, or self-compels in Fate. But I read a not insignificant number of OSR modules where nearly everything interesting is deadly to interact with for basically no in-game or meta-level reward. Unless I find my own character’s suffering to be inherently amusing (and I don’t), sometimes I just don’t get why I should bother.

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Thanks for the response - and I agree that’s a tricky one. There’s a few questions in there (How does one invest in character in a high mortality system? Should there be greater mechanical/setting encouragement towards risk? How do we reconcile player skill, risk and not being boring?) but to me the core of that question is:

“How can one make exploration meaningful and how does it relate to player mortality?”

If this is off let me know.

By exploration I mean the “non-encounter” elements of play - or perhaps the parts of play where the players aren’t interacting with NPCs (including monsters) and are instead interacting with the setting itself. Traditionally this is trying to unpuzzle the complexities of an adventure location, but it could be all sorts of things like planning overland travel or maybe even understanding bureaucratic documents. There’s usually a minimal set of rules in these areas - largely because the potential complexities and puzzles are so varied. Traditionally the resolution mechanic for exploration puzzles is for the player to directly interact with the GM’s descriptions and the GM to adjudicate the result on an ad-hoc basis, maybe with the help of a generalized system of stat/skill checks or saving throws. I think this is a fine way of doing things - efforts to regularize it and make it more granular tend to break down the puzzles into dice checks and character building/skill selection which largely defeats the puzzle aspect of play by reducing it to purely mechanics.

For these sort of descriptive puzzles to work well though they need a few things. First, TRUST - that is trust of the GM by the players to be a neutral arbitrator (which is why I find illusionism - even beneficial die fudging - risky because it erodes trust) and trust of the players by the GM that they can approach open ended problems, even difficult ones, and find solutions or seek out alternative methods to obtaining their goals. Second, CLARITY - mostly of description and mechanics. As the only source of information for the players about the setting its incredibly important that the GM provide accurate and sufficient description so players can reasonably evaluate risk. If characters take risks based on poor description or a misunderstanding (even if it’s because the player wasn’t paying attention) negative consequences of failure will likely feel unfair to the player - and you’re right most players don’t enjoy the suffering of their character as an independent good. For me this usually comes down to, describing the situation back to a player when they want to act, clarifying the details … “So you want to try to jump down the 30’ pit?” and often describing the mechanical methods I will use to arbitrate success if any “Well you’re an acrobat so you should be able to do that but it’ll take a moment to recover at the bottom” or “You’ll need to roll 5D6 vs. Dex to do that without taking 3D6 falling damage”.

Generally if player decisions themselves are the cause of failures and the risks are mostly clear (where they are say something vague like “You can’t tell how deep the pit is - it could be a lethal fall”) before the player decides to undertake them even lethal failures, while they may disappoint, feel fair. The player gets to decide when to take that risk and play the game of judging risk v. reward that’s central to puzzles and schemes. This also involves a sort of trusting the characters - accepting that the characters are competent and will notice risks in the world with the skill to judge them that the players may not even from GM clues.

All this is aided by actual mechanics - specifically RESOURCE management. Picking locks or deciding how to descend a pit are pretty boring with infinite in game time. The players tend to descend into technical arguments and discussions about their real life experiences, stuff they’ve seen in movies or read about and generally over-complicate the decision of how and when to mitigate risk. Light, random encounters & encumbrance generally provide enough of a set of extrinsic constant risks to create a time pressure for solving puzzles that not only encourages player risk taking, but perversely discourages ultra lethal gotcha design (which is what I get from “OSR modules where nearly everything interesting is deadly to interact with for basically no in-game or meta-level reward”). A simple hole in the floor above a 10’ drop (1d6 damage fall, roughly 50% lethal to simply drop down for 1st level PCs) obstacle is really simple - tie a rope to something and descend - but if that process takes up valuable time: a torch burning down, and a random encounter check it’s more of a decision and things like “Do we spend more time recovering our rope? Do we leave it up for speedy escape? Do we see if we can just lower someone down with out arms and make a human pyramid faster then tying a rope? Do we waste a spell” all become interesting questions and the puzzle solving involved for even a simple obstacle creates a space for play without concealed or complex risk.

Finally (and perhaps more controversially?) a design aspect coming from the same set of ideas. Don’t regularly include concealed deadly risks. It’s one thing to set up a deadly trap that advertises itself or even a concealed trap that protects something obviously valuable. Poison needles on treasure chests for example are fine - players should know treasure is often trapped. Likewise door traps and hall traps where reasonable precautions, context or observation will find them are great - Tomb of Horrors has some good trap examples. I think there’s an aesthtic of danger that’s overplayed in some OSR circles - leaning too far into lethality as a way to claim player virtuosity or GM rigor - it’s still usually just antagonistic GMing with a gloss of “Cowboy Up!” or other tough guy crap smeared on it (which becomes doubly absurd given we are talking TTRPGS).

For players new to high lethality games I think settings that break from epic fantasy are helpful - I prefer the gonzo to the grim, but both are ways to show that danger and death are common, some degree of failure is expected (losses, running from superior foes, etc) which in turn can help explain the ethos and play style. Distancing players from the individual character - mechanically through troupe play or simply by celebrating group success and beginning with minimalist backstory can also help.

I don’t know that this adequately answers a complex question, but hope it doesn’t seem like total gibberish. Thanks again for giving me a question to chew on.

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Thanks for the thoughtful response. I need to chew on this, but right now it sounds like you’re saying: If a scenario is designed well, and you have a good GM, you should be able to just play however you like and not worry about meta-level questions like "should I do this thing my character should be too smart to avoid just because there is nothing else to do? Those are pretty big “ifs,” though… :slightly_smiling_face:

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I’d say the question of to what degree one should play one’s character “to the sheet” is a different question entirely, one that may be looming more meaningfully for mainstream TTRPG play then classic play do to a growing emphasis on character backstory. It’s a worthwhile discussion though that gets into subjective stuff like “How much backstory is too much?” “What do stats mean?”. It also gets into the ever popular dispute about alignment as an excuse for anti-social play and even big questions about player agency, player contribution to setting and methods of play/design principles when it starts wrestling with how to use backstory in game.

I didn’t mean that at all, but those are fine points too. I meant that this dilemma comes up for me even in games where my character’s intellect is left off the sheet entirely. Like, I played in a game of Into the Odd where we went through a number of rooms where the only things to interact with (as far as I could tell) were things that could kill us, there was no reward for interacting with anything the vast majority of the time), and there was nothing keeping us from ignoring everything and just moving on to the next room. In that scenario, it takes minimal sense to conclude, “I’d better keep my hands off all this stuff and keep moving, and keep my eyes open for something that could pay off my debt without getting me killed.” But that’s super boring as a player, at least to me.

It sounds like you’re saying this an issue with GMing style and scenario design rather than with game rules design more broadly: As long as your GM (or whoever designed the adventure) populates the scenario with an interesting balance of risks and rewards, it will be fun and interesting to take risks. I feel like that balance is lacking in many scenarios I’ve read and a few I’ve played, but maybe that’s just my admittedly limited experience.

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That is a different situation.

So I think you’re getting the gist of what I’m trying to say, and I want to point out that finding a proper level of challenge and lethality is also a matter of player and GM taste - even beyond its link to playstyle (what I like to call Ethos of Play). The Trust and Clarity parts of playstyle are important for allowing a high lethality exploration game at all but they don’t alone give players and GM the tools to run one.

The mechanical aspect - specifically the use of resource depletion and a “mini-game” of risk assessment are key because they allow failures that negatively impact characters without ending play. As a GM you have supplies, exhaustion and time (with the risk of random encounters) to tick down and attack rather then simply having every failure damage the characters health.

Maybe an example - a puzzle/trap. “A heavy stone idol of a squatting demon stands atop a stone chest, preventing the lid from opening.” Now as a GM/designer I want this to be a puzzle that attracts player interaction.

If all I have to respond to bad PC scheme to move the 2 ton statue is HP loss or telling the players “that doesn’t work” I don’t have much puzzle.

“The statue falls towards you, balanced with infernal ingenuity, save v. paralysis or die - crushed beneath.”

Now if the GM is clear in describing the statue trap this wouldn’t risk being unfair. The players could poke at it and discover it was oddly balanced, the GM could even warn them as they started tipping it that the statue seemed like it would fall unpredictably and was heavy enough to kill. It’s not especially exciting, seems pretty contrived (really even the statue wants to crush us?) and doesn’t allow for a variety of sub optimal solutions. This can be done on an ad hoc basis, attacking PC equipment - trying to pry under the statue breaks swords and poles and such, but a clear system of timekeeping and resources is less arbitrary.

With resources beyond HP there are many other possibilities that can respond to player schemes. Random encounter checks make pushing over the statue dangerous because of the awful racket when two tons hit the floor, plus the delay in doing it safely. Exhaustion compounds this because statue pushing is hard work and a rest wastes time, maybe rations. Light supplies may dwindle, especially if the scheme gets too involved (guide ropes, wedges, scaffolding, a bed of material to muffle the fall). Limited spells mean the wizard who can levitate objects, or turn stone to mud has a quick and safe solution, but those spells are also a resource.

I don’t know what your ItO GM was up to - were all the puzzles deadly or just threatening? It sounds like they weren’t tempting enough to find out at least. These are design problems, but they are compounded by a lack of resource rules (which depend themselves on encumbrancecrules), and made intolerable by antagonistic GMing.

Thing is most modern games (trad games like 5eD&D especially), don’t have meanigful resource depletion mechanics and many old games have overly fiddly ones. The impulse is to cast these mechanics aside because the take up GM energy (time keeping at a minimum), and aren’t heroic (worry about how many torches one needs to reach the lair of the world Wyrm is not the obviously exciting part of the adventure).

My melodramatic reading of the larger situation is that over time resource mechanics have faded, which makes puzzle solving and exploration trivial and tedious or deadly and tedious. Combat or player story development, or whatever else rush to fill the void left by exploration. New modalities of GMing that require different skills become popular. All this means that when players, GMs and designers go back to a classic dungeon crawl they are a bit confused - lacking the ethos to approach the puzzles with caution or even function on a non-linear map. Failing to grasp (or even use) mechanics that support they playstyle and generally getting frustrated. Some designers and GMs respond to this by upping the deadly, and finding setting justifications/tools for it (Grimmdark world! Funnel of death! Tough guy posturing! Lots of Henchmen!) - but I think there’s less drastic mechanical solutions.

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@Gus.L, that is a solid post! An excellent summary of some of the issues, and I couldn’t agree more. Very, very nicely done.

I’ll add on to this, from a larger perspective, drawing back a little from the details of resource management and small-scale risk and reward (e.g. do we mess around with the trap, or not?):

@JasonT, I consider one of the primary founding elements of this style of play to be that it is fundamentally player-driven. Judging and balancing risk and reward is the player’s primary prerogative in such a game. This means that it’s not the GM’s job to fix.

This means that, if you find yourself in a situation where every opportunity to interact with something seems more risky than it is worthwhile, you absolutely SHOULD simply say, “this looks too dangerous/not rewarding enough; let’s leave and look for adventure elsewhere”.

In fact, your right to do so is absolutely basic to this playstyle. It’s the strategic layer that underlies the whole game.

If you don’t have the ability to do this, but must confront the specific adventure/puzzle/opponent before you, then you are, indeed, at the mercy of the GM, and that allows for a lot of “failure modes”, like the one you’re describing - if the adventure is badly designed or the dice don’t roll your way, or the party has some critical flaw (e.g. no clerics and you’re surrounded by undead), you have no recourse. That’s not an appropriate thing to saddle a referee with, in my opinion, when they should be focusing on other things - the game should be set up so that it’s your choice to pursue opportunities for adventure, not forced upon you. That choice is fundamental.

(Now, granted, sometimes you might agree to limit your choices to due to practical matters: let’s say the GM only has this dungeon prepared, and there’s no time to prepare another. In that case, you might need to “suck it up” and make the best with what you’ve got. But that should be an exception, rather than the rule, and should be corrected as quickly as possible.)

As I see it, one of the big selling features of OSR-style play is that it forces/encourages players to be creative in their descriptions and bring vibrant interactions to the game. How you do it is more engaging that just rolling to do it.

That’s a selling point in my books. However, any Fiction-First game does this. Dungeon World won’t let you disarm the trap by just saying “can I roll to disarm it?” No, tell me what your disarming it looks it. Tell me what you do.

IMO, the difference between OSR games and many other Fiction-First games is that OSR rewards (and arguably demands) system mastery by having your knowledge/ingenuity let you be ‘more successful’. Not like how Pathfinder does - OSR doesn’t have those kind of systems, but it does have its own systems - liberal use of a 10’ pole, stepping lightly, using caution, jiggling sconces, hoarding torches, creating ambushes, drawing maps, recognizing danger, being appropriately distrustful, knowing that waterfalls mask footsteps, setting pigs on fire, etc.

And this is why I shy away from OSR; obtaining or employing that knowledge, and/or solving those kinds of puzzles isn’t my cup of tea, not in PF, nor OSR. I know many people thoroughly do enjoy this, and for them, great, go to it.

The challenges and ‘puzzles’ that I enjoy are at the character-level. How do I complicate my character’s life and jeopardize what they care about, how do I showcase their personality and their flaws? If I’m not introducing those into play, I’m unsatisfied. And quite often these demand intentionally ‘suboptimal’ play.

For instance, doing an OSR-style dungeon delve with an Indiana Jones homage-style character, hell yes I’m going to be way overconfident and do that obviously dangerous thing that triggers that obvious trap. Hell yes I’m going back for my hat. Hell yes I’m going to freak out when the Medusa shows up, and after my companions have dragged me away, useless and frozen in fear, I’ll say “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” (I might also have to throw in a “I know.” right before the Medusa freezes me in stone). These shenanigans are at least moderately likely going to get us all killed, ruining it for everyone.

OSR does demand creativity and ingenuity, and I appreciate that. However, as I see it, OSR will respond to my (intentionally) suboptimal and character-appropriate play by unceremoniously destroying my character (and fun) so that I learn to be a ‘better’ dungeon-delver.

I think that different players have different priorities and those priorities are better promoted by different games/styles. Given my priorities, OSR isn’t for me but admittedly I don’t take myself to be an expert on it. If I’m off, I’d love to know.

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I feel like I got a good answer on this by Brendan S., back on G+:

osr%20characters%20perspective

Something I wonder about: I like the idea of “interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists” but how do I extend that beyond dungeoncrawling. Do I do close prep of NPCs and relationships for example?

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I can take this as a question I guess…

Something along the lines of “How does character development work in a classic game?”

At a certain point, yes the classic exploration game is about the exploration of adventure locations and the struggles of ‘adventurers’ within them. This isn’t to say characters don’t develop - but they generally don’t start as developed.

The character begins largely as a cypher, with information about them only as far as necessary for the character to begin to interact with exploration challenges (stats, equipment, abilities). Personality, goals and relationships aren’t usually part of that, but if a player wants they can decide the PC’s personality and past. What the player can’t do is dictate the character’s future.

In a classic game, character relationships, goals and personality are earned through play. Encounters with factions and NPCs create enemies and allies while incidents, curses, blessings and interactions with strange things add oddities and quirks to the PC. Presumably with a structured enough campaign design one can start with a more heavily sketched out character (5E in some ways seeks to start PCs with relationships, personalities and goal … but doing so by the book requires using the Forgotten Realms), but it’s not needed or especially popular.

Another distinction is that the setting and GM in a classic playstyle will rarely force player action based on character psychology. In the absence of curses, charms and other rare mechanical effects, how the character’s inner world effects their actions is another player decision. The setting and GM of course also aren’t their to help build a psychological profile of your character or indulge the players desire to act out a specific one. If you want your PC to run from certain creatures - they can, but this doesn’t mean the GM and setting have any duty to treat that character in a specific way or insure their survival, and likewise your fellow party members may soon resent impetuous acts and desertion. I have been in games that descended into lethal PvP over someone playing some aspect of their characters personality in a way which endangered the party.

To respond to the example, in a classic game you don’t say “I’m an archeology professor/explorer whose advantages are: charm, luck, scholarship and disadvantages are: phobia - snakes, womanizing, hatred of father”. Your character starts simply, and while you can evolve traits, fears and such that effect play, as a player you don’t have the privledge of falling back on your personal fiction to redirect the locus of play to your specific character or the expectation that the setting and GM will bend to accommodate your backstory.

Over time your explorer may develop certain traits and behaviours, either through mechanical effects (cursed with a fear of snakes - must Save v. Spell to avoid fleeing from serpents) or simply ticks that the player decides on. Such personality traits, like relationships between characters or between characters and NPCS are almost always amechanical, but are usually accepted with better cheer by fellow players because they were developed through play and shared experiences. Coming into the cooperative endeavour of the adventuring party asking for special consideration from the GM because you’ve decided your PC has a special destiny or demanding that your fellow players indulge dangerous limitations you’ve placed on your PC for kicks is generally not something that the ethos of classic play approves of. This is not encoded in any ruleset I know of however, and if your table wants to make things harder by establishing backstories and foibles for PCs prior to play, as long as your GM is on board to work those prior relationships into the setting it can be done.

Of course design principles that usually include high lethality rulesets, location based play, faction relations and the party (rather then individual PC) as narrative agent often makes such preparatory work tragically futile either through character death or simply different goal and PC/NPC relations emerging through play.

I will add that in every classic style game I’ve played or run over several years, and that lasted more then two or three sessions, interesting characters have emerged. My ratcatcher who transformed slowly into a revolutionary mystic of a forgotten anarchic rat goddess, my evil parody elf/door wizard who ended up repeatedly heroically risking himself to protect his party until getting killed doing so, and even my fighter who became greedier and more impetuous until he decided to prove that a trapped statue didn’t really breath fire by stepping in front of it - the molten gold and silver from his armor was hard to recover. These are only a few of my PCs in two games - everyone I’ve played with has stories of characters with personalities, most of which evolved through play.

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Brendan of Necropraxis is one of the best theory and rule hacking folks out there - hos Pahvelorn campaign was a delight to be part of as well. His advice is almost invariably sound in my opinion.

Your question which I’ll phrase “How does classic play work for non-dungeon exploration scenarios” is one I’m still working through for my own games and I think pretty worthwhile. I can offer only the following nebulous thoughts because currently my I’m strongly focused on dungeoncrawl. Outside of dungeon crawls/location based exploration there’s a lot of distinct spaces for play. Wilderness exploration/travel, urban/social play and domain or town building immediately come to mind. These adventure types largely or completely dispense with spatial exploration - though the hexcrawl in unknown lands has a similarity (v. point crawl through known or settled ones). It simply makes no sense to run a city as a labyrinthine set of keyed locations explored and out-puzzled street by street. I have a strong impulse to say, don’t try to run non location based scenarios in a classic way - get yourself a mega-dungeon or even a world dungeon (dungeon as entire setting like the haunted giant cruise ship game I ran for several years).

Yet I think there is space for non-dungeon crawl play with classic rules and sensibilities. One can keep the ethics of: non-interventionist GMing, maximizing player choice and puzzle solving as primary locus of play. The trick is applying these ethics to a variety of game scenarios. For me overland travel/exploration is largely a question of small regional webs of faction built to make various adventure locations (including towns/havens and faction headquarters) without any assumptions over who or what players will decide is important. Travel beyond a day or two I tend to either force into boats or caravans which work more like a haven events/carousing table and rarely if ever result in adventure events.

Long distance travel definitively seems like a place to use scene-based design, at least breaking up travel into random table based vignettes and encounters that sometimes act as hooks for specific factions or locations.

Again beyond creating the small regional sandbox heavy with needy competeing factions (which is adventure design not mechanics) for the player to develop feelings about I don’t do much non-location based exploration play. I do think it’s possible, largely because classic games tend to use simulationist mechanics which means the rules leave space for and want to create the option for various scenarios. I do think that it would require some new subsystems, and I haven’t seen greatvones for stuff like social conflicts.

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Yeah, they weren’t “puzzles.” Your example of a demon on a chest is a good example of stuff I like just fine: A risk that is hinting at some reward. I would like to get what is in that chest; am I willing to risk messing with that heavy thing? In contrast, what I’m talking about is more like: The only thing in the room is a box that will release a lethal poison gas if touched or opened. There is an exit to the east.

I’m fudging the details for the sake of simplicity, but I think this kind of setup requires a generous ref to work. Adventure modules often leave the potential benefits or modes of interaction with such things open to interpretation, so this kind of thing can go multiple ways. A (certain kind of) traditional ref sees this as a trap with no benefit in interacting with it; that game is boring for me to play. A generous ref sees this as a risk/reward scenario that could result in an item with uncertain purpose that the players might somehow exploit in unexpected ways; to that end, they might offer a clue or warning so you don’t trigger the single-use item immediately. That requires more work from the ref, though, if such clues aren’t offered in a scenario.

I generally assume folks running games in Gauntlet Hangouts are likely to be generous refs, but I don’t necessarily assume we all have time to plan ahead and do extra prep to fill in the blanks around vague situations. I end up feeling a bit torn at times between different approaches. This thread is giving me ideas for how to handle this better as a GM, though, and maybe ask better questions as a player so as to avoid feeling overly cautious and bored.

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@Gus.L what’s your poison of choice for resource management? You already mentioned that the “traditional” ways are a little too finicky and I concur. I’m also not really convinced by the usage die as a more abstract measure. What do you use?

So I don’t love usage die except for wands and potentially ammunition (I like the way a usage die suggests both retrieving arrows/bolts and that combat rounds involve multiple actions).

I do think strict, even punitive encumbrance works wonders - unless you are running 10 hour sessions, but who does that? It creates its own host of problems around henchmen and such, but it’s the best solution I have. I wrote a bit on the importance of supply a while ago:

Maybe that’ll give a better idea of my take, though I intend to follow up with something more specific that also discusses rust monsters (or their metaphorical power) and slot encumbrance in the next week or so.