PBTA <3 OSR? Can the design philosophies be combined?

So, I’m not sure if this has been a subject for discussion before, or if this is at all a tricky question enough for a good thread, but I’ll give it a try:

I’ve seen a couple of design choices explicitly combining PBTA with OSR ideas. I’ve been down this line of thinking myself so I see how this might sound appealing. But I’ve retreated from that line of thought as I see the approaches as giving very different interactions at the table, sometimes even opposing interaction (especially regarding fictional positioning which OSR relies on but PBTA hates - as I see it).

So it would be very interesting to hear what your thoughts are on this combination. Is it a match made in heaven, or a dysfunctional marriage soon to end in divorce? Perhaps you are working on a design like this? If so, please share your thoughts!



PbtA and OSR are both terms that are loose enough that I’m sure some hybridization is possible, depending on what you value in both schools of design and play.

However, there are also many design features of the two styles which are highly incompatible with each other. For those who consider it some kind of holy grail, I think they might be overlooking elements of each tradition.

Having said that, if there ever was a place for that to happen, it would be here at the Gauntlet. There’s Freebooters on the Frontier and World of Dungeons and a million other things.


I don’t have a particularly complex answer to this other than to repeat what @Paul_T said above, that you certainly see people trying this very thing to varying degrees with Dungeon World, Freebooters on the Frontier, World of Dungeons, Stonetop, and Vagabonds of Dyfed.

My sense is that you can splice together mechanics from this or that, but it’s more often that the cultures and attitudes of players who prefer one or another tend to clash more than anything. Of course, there seem to be many people here on The Gauntlet who are fans of both, so it’s not any sort of hard divide.

It might be tangential to the larger discussion, but can you elaborate what you mean about fictional positioning in OSR and PbtA? As I understand the concept, I would’ve said the exact opposite-- that OSR tends not to incorporate or allow much of it (there’s a mathematical formula and rule for anything you could ever do, or you can’t do it) and PbtA depends heavily on it (moves are queues for montages or interesting beats in a scene and open to fairly generous interpretation as to how your character actually achieves the effect). It’s possible I’ve picked up a different idea of what the term means or am looking at it from a different angle, though.


I’ve run old school D&D using the rules in Apocalypse World as-is and it mostly worked fine. The only 2 things that were much of a problem for me were that read a sitch is no substitute for a good search for traps & secret doors move, and characters advanced too quickly (they maxed out advancement after 4 sessions).

Whether this works for anyone else depends on what they want out of each game. I play old school D&D for the procedures, and don’t actually think any of the resolution rules are necessary, so I can replace any of them and still run the same kind of game. Apocalypse World has a lot of words on how to GM, and some of that you have to ditch when suborning the rules to the procedures of old school play.

Also I was using the Planet Algol setting, which is weird post-apocalyptic science fantasy.

Freebooters on the Frontier has a similar blend of old school procedural framework with PbtA resolution.


That doesn’t match up with any version of the OSR that I’m familiar with. “Rulings not rules” is one of the mantras.

I’d say that both approaches (PbtA and OSR) are very interested in fictional positioning, but often in very different ways. I think this post by @Michael_Prescott gets to the heart of it:


I will back up and say right after I posted I started thinking about how both systems incorporate fictional positioning in different ways, and that how people interpret what that means seems to lean one way or another based on the game and the person’s sensibilities, so I do think you’re right that it’s not true that OSR does not use it and PbtA does.

Similarly, I will admit I think I’m trying to communicate a not fully articulated thought about the differences between the systems. Things like the example in that blog post of a mathematical rule or formula for fall distance in D&D (1d6 * (# of 10 ft. increments) = consequence), or an equation for how long you can hold your breath, how much you can carry, etc. are what make me think that OSR tends to have people operate mechanically or mathematically rather than “positioning fictionally” (I’ll admit this is probably an arbitrarily skewed interpretation of what the term is supposed to mean). People are given comparatively complex mechanical information and tend to operate on that level, rather than on the fictional, numbers-free or lite level of PbtA. You see it a lot in combat, I think. I tend to fall back on “I use 20 ft. of movement, then I attack (roll…), and then I’ll attack with my offhand (because I have a feat that says I can).”

The contrast in PbtA is the classic “to do it, do it” which tries to get players to speak on a fictional level as often as possible, until the situational queues on the moves trigger. I have to describe the scene, not my interaction with an abstract resource like movement speed (again, thinking of this “positioning fictionally” although I recognize this is a limited interpretation of the phrase). In combat I might say something like “I dash across the room, whirling both blades around towards the knight.” Distance or movement range is sometimes a factor in PbtA games, but only if the DM or group decide to bring conscious attention to it, and it’s easily elided depending on the situation, so it’s a fictional consideration if we’re going to call on a tag or not, versus a hard rule about everything needing to exist in absolute space.

All that being said, I can see how this is actually as OP originally said, almost the opposite of fictional positioning-- it doesn’t matter too much if I established I was within a specific distance from the knight beforehand, we just let the move follow through if it makes sense within established (often nebulously vocalized) fiction. However, everyone at the table would hopefully agree that I’m not allowed to follow that move through if I say, didn’t actually have the swords I claimed to attack with, or had been asleep the whole time. Maybe it’s question of on what level of granularity or attention OSR or PbtA asks you to fictionally position…?

Another example I’ve seen in play (in 5e, for what it’s worth) is when it comes to things like a character trying to assassinate a guard-- the action broke down because we clearly understood the rules for hitting a guard in combat until their HP goes to 0, but we didn’t know a rule for hurting someone outside of combat (was it fair to take someone out in one roll when normally it’d take so many in combat?), and the disconnect between the two caused a problem. We had clearly defined rules for combat, and clearly defined rules out of combat (skill checks), but this didn’t seem to be either, so we decided the action couldn’t follow through.

PbtA encourages you to skip the roll and move through the fiction depending on how interesting people think the situation is, and the moves are supposed to be broad enough to catch any interesting situations you do want to linger on-- if the guard isn’t likely to put up a reasonable fight, you just hurt them, no roll. If there’s a challenge, maybe it’s Go Aggro, but it’s probably not Seize Something by Force yet. There’s nothing stopping people applying a similar philosophy in OSR games, but it’s something that in my experience people who’ve only played D&D are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with.

Now, having typed all those thoughts out, I think it’s probably fair to say that these are all fairly subjective experiences that more reflect a group of middling experience not playing D&D very well, and not something that shows an absolute statement about OSR as a design philosophy =P

For example, I do see how in OSR the fictional positioning (in a broader sense than my instinctive interpretation) still exists-- you can’t hit a thing with a sword unless you’re next to it, so you’ll need to do something about that with your movement action on your turn, etc. I guess what I’m poorly trying to get at is the different forms of conceptualizing and engaging with the action that each system reinforces.

(and apologies for a long, hopefully not too defensive post >.< )


That blog post hits the nail on the head with what I was thinking about when I wrote this post. I’m glad to see someone else put it so eloquently.

The question I’m intrigued to hear the answer to is: what parts of PBTA and OSR, can be combined? And to what benefit?


My own impression, coming from a classic play space is that while one might profitably adapt mechanics, ideas and settings between PbtA style games and classic rule-sets intentional hybridization might be harder. The playstyle/community issue for sure, but more to my mind the unitary v. esoteric mechanics split and simulationism v. genre emulation. A caveat of course - my experience with PbtA games is minimal - I’ve played a few games of Freebooter’s with a great GM (hey Bryan M! - I suspect you have and Andrew have far better ideas then me on this topic) but don’t really understand PbtA that well, so I ask for clarification and forgiveness where I get things wrong here.

Unitary v. Esoteric mechanics is a distinction on how mechanics are resolved. I suspect to has to do with how the game was designed (rules accretion v. conscious design), but the gist is a system of mechanics that’s repeats a single resolution mechanic and one that’s made up of multiple independent subsystems. This is important in play because with a universal mechanic it’s very easy to appeal to the mechanical system for novel resolutions without input of the GM (beyond maybe adjusting bonuses and penalties) - there’s already a way to mechanically resolve everything. In an esoteric system mechanics are specific to some situation and vary considerably. Novel situations require ad hoc rulings, at least about which varied subsystem should apply, and generally encourage players to try to get the best resolution mechanic they can by changing the way their characters approach the obstacle.

I.E. if the party is faced with a locked door the obvious mechanics (lock picking and forcing the door) have a specific mechanic in both contexts. In a game with unitary mechanics these two methods will be resolved in the same way (yes there are likely to be differences in chance of success, bonuses and penalties etc, but the dice rolled - the mechanic will be the same because after all the mechanics are unitary) while with esoteric mechanics there’s different subsytems for even these implicitly recognized solutions (for example in B/X D&D there’s a flat 1 in 6 chance per turn of forcing a door and a thieves’ skills based percentile increasing by level for lock picking).

This becomes important because the different systems of mechanics suggest different ways to resolve novel means of opening the locked door (tunneling through the wall, knocking and sweet talking whatevers’ on the other side, burning it down, using a magical sending to open it from the other side). With an esoteric ruleset the GM will be required to make a decision about what mechanic should be applied and this leads to potential discussion and often (with a good GM) a decison that something works automatically with a consequence - usually time and encounter risk. With unitary mechanics there’s a clear mechanic to resolve any alternative scheme. Some space still exists to judge bonuses etc, but the mechanics are set and the appeal to them is going be nearly automatic.

I can get into simulationism v. genre, but it’s similar - a mindset of what mechanics represent and that’s the big distinction here - not just the mechanics, but understand why the mechanics are there and what they do.


The overlap and conflict between OSR and PbtA methods is interesting and involved, I think.

These two quotes cut to the heart of the matter (and the linked essay by Michael Prescott is also excellent):

There’s a strong argument to be made for either case, and it often depends on the particular aspect of play or particular mechanics being discussed.

For instance, you can look at something like an OSR approach to encountering monsters, which might say, “at the beginning of every turn, the referee makes a Random Encounter check […] rolls for number of monsters encountered and their distance from the party […]”.

You could say:

“This is highly procedural and rule-based! We’re engaging these rules with no real connection to the fiction. In my PbtA game, in comparison, we determine when you meet a monster based on what’s happening around you, if you’re making noise, and if it flows logical from what’s happening in the fiction.”

On the other hand, let’s say we look at a PbtA-style rule for disarming traps. Perhaps it says something like, “When you mess around with the workings of a trap, roll+Crafty. On a hit, you can make sure the trap doesn’t trigger [etc…]”.

You might say:

“This is the group ignoring the specifics of the fiction, and just moving to a rule-based procedure. Roll the dice well enough and you disarm the trap; the fictional details don’t matter at all. In our game, if you want to disarm a trap, you have to figure out how it works and come up with something clever - you can’t just roll the dice and have it magically disarmed. You can’t fall back on a rule; you have to engage with the fiction in high detail, and every little thing matters.”

Both are right, in different ways. You have to look not only to the rules in isolation, but, also, the context in which they are used and how they are engaged, and the creative goals and priorities of the group.

In most OSR play, strict rules with harsh consequences around some areas of play (e.g. tracking time, getting killed), and no rules at all about others (e.g. solving puzzles) drive the group to engage with fictional details to a great degree when their life is on the line.

Many PbtA techniques and technologies work against this. I’ve yet to see a PbtA game that really accomplished that in a way that something like B/X D&D does.


I probably should have clarified what I meant by fictional positioning. As I’ve understood the term it’s about how important it is that players position their characters in the fictional world. And by position I mean like a toy doll: where do they stand, what are they wearing or holding, in what direction are they facing, how are they doing a specific task, etc.

In OSR those things can make the difference between life and death, but in PBTA we don’t really want to talk about that stuff because it doesn’t really matter to the mechanics, and when we see that a very elegantly described action fails its roll, we have less space to come up with an explanation or a complication that makes narrative sense. The link to Michael Prescott’s blog above says it all I think.

I guess that your interpretation of fictional positioning is a bit different from what I had I mind, but I think your anecdotes make a lot of sense nonetheless!

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Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I realized your meaning seems to be the one most people are using, and I had conflated the term with a slightly different subject >.<

In that regard, absolutely, a specific attention to detail is definitely more present in OSR than in PbtA.

Whether these two types of design are compatible seems like an extremely complex question (again, certainly being explored by a number of games currently in development).

If you just took a fully formed OSR game and swapped in a 2d6, graduated success to replace a d20, pass/fail one? That seems doable enough. But as everyone has said, there are so many particularities on either side in terms of attitudes and expectations of both the systems and the players, it’s hard to say. I suspect the combination “working” or not depends more on the tastes of the players than any sort of fundamental mismatch.

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Every game pays attention to different details, when it comes to fictional positioning, and in different ways.

Consider, for instance, that in an OSR game, when I am disarming a trap, I need to describe exactly where I’m standing, because that increases my chances of surviving if the trap goes off (and helps us determine whether I am affected by whatever happens).

However, in combat, I have very little interest or incentive in describing how I’m standing or how I’m swinging my sword, because none of that will change my odds of hitting the enemy (the attack roll) or the stakes of the roll (on a “miss”, I don’t deal damage, and that’s all there is to it). I don’t have any need to say what I’m doing with my shield, because shields get “splintered” on a specific roll outcome (a 1 in 6 chance, or on a critical hit, or whatever).

In comparison, there may be much more interest in establishing specific fictional positioning in that fight in a PbtA framework, because there can be ambiguity as to which move we are making, or the stakes of a failed roll. I don’t think that PbtA games enforce this very hard (it’s easy to skip this step, and many/most groups do), but getting fictional detail on all these points improves their play dramatically, and certainly does affect both those things. If I described my character as holding his shield behind him as he swings, the MC is less likely to have it destroyed when I miss than if I described him using the shield to prop open the monster’s jaws.

It’s a nuanced topic! And fictional positioning can cover a lot of different ground. (“My grandmother believed in ghosts” can be a form of fictional positioning, too, in certain scenarios.)

Each particular subset of play, each subsystem or rule or move, brings with it different affordances when it comes to what fictional positioning is necessary and important, and sometimes it’s not obvious until you’ve played for quite some time. (Consider, for a moment, how differently “trap finding” looks in a game with the same rules for resolution - whether 2d6+adds or d20 roll-under or whatever - if the GM decides how the trap works before the game starts, compared to a GM who’s just making it up as we go along! It’s a completely different process, even if it looks exactly the same “on paper” or to an outside observer.)


That is to say:

You can design OSR-style procedures which ignore fictional positioning entirely. You can design PbtA-style procedures which do, as well.

And you can design fictionally-demanding procedures in either “school” or “style”, as well; but they might end up in different areas of gameplay or they might end up accentuating different details and driving a different engagement with the game.


Generally the way I used to see “fictional positioning” defined in “OSR” circles several years ago when it was a popular phrase was as the distinction between describing character actions based on either how the character interacts with the setting/fiction vs. how the character interacts with the rules. E.g. detecting a trap as “I look closely at the floor and ceiling, any gouges, slits, seams, discoloration, soot or whatnot” v. “I search for traps, I have a 22% skill”.

The argument was often stated as only true OSR play uses fictional positioning not mechanics. I don’t agree obviously - I think it’s a ethos of play thing tied to trust and culture.


Isn’t making your own moves as one does when creating fronts and such for AW and DW the definition of rulings not rules?


I’d also say that GM/MC Moves themselves are a powerful example of rulings. When the players do something and ask what happens, the MC is entirely within their power to just make an MC Move instead of calling for a roll. To me, that’s the “rulings, not rules” spirit in action.


I’d suggest there might be a meaningful distinction in who is making that ‘move’ - “rulings not rules” as a maxim is about GM adjudication of novel situations rather then players having an aspect of narrative control. Now as far as GM moves (and again I don’t have a lot of PbtA experience) and narrative control I suspect that it’s a codified thing, a move, as opposed to a general principle about what a GMs role is codified as a mechanic - and that’s a point of distinction. Obviously there’s overlap - but ignoring the differences seems to ignore why a game of D&D presumably feels different then a game of Freebooters?


In my experience, GM Moves are basically very broad, and rely on the GM making a ruling as to what they mean in the given situation. They’re less limited as a restriction; rather, they’re specifically-worded to funnel and inspire the GM along specific lines. I think that’s still pretty compatible with OSR, and I’d even contend that each OSR GM is working with an unstated list of Moves, their own personal toolkit that they use as a heuristic for situations when they make rulings.


I think it’s worth thinking what effect codification and something “specifically worded as a funnel to inspire” does to play in comparison to a general principle of ad hoc adjudication for the purpose of simulation.

To some extent this is what I was talking about above a distinction between simulationism and genre emulation. For better or worse classic rule sets (perhaps because of wargame origins, perhaps simply as a ethos of play) are attempting to determine what “would” happen. My impression is that more modern rule sets, especially in the story game space, seek to determine what “should” happen - that is they are interested in creating a story rather then something akin to a fictional history. Climaxes and other elements of story structure play a role, as do genre expectations in a way that’s not part of classic play.

This might be a distinction between degrees of or intent directed at simulationism and gameification?

Again I think this is an ethos of play issue, but it’s also codified in the rule-sets, primarily through language - “move” vs. “ruling” for example. That makes a difference, because terms of art and other language codes always do, and it seems worth thinking about beyond simply shrugging and saying the two play styles do generally the same thing.

Again, to me playing classic vs. PbtA games feels different - my characters do different things, and obstacles appear and are resolved differently - is this simply confusion? Do PbtA GM moves feel/play different then a OD&D GM’s rulings? If so why and if not why not?


To me, it seems to produce a lot of the same play, at least based on my understanding of the OSR: players figuring out ways to do things within the fiction, acting on their tools and abilities. I think there’s differences in “move” vs. “ruling”, but personally I feel like the similarities are more relevant. To me, moves are basically more targeted and slightly prefabricated rulings.

Which maybe could go against the idea of ruling, but it doesn’t feel antithetical to me. To me, the important element is that the GM never rolls dice, but at the same time they’re in charge of saying what happens. GM-as-referee feels very OSR to me, as well.