How do you avoid pixel bashing (aka pixel bitching, aka ten-foot-poling every passage) in OSR-style play? Should you?
To me, OSR-style play means (among other things):
Trying to avoid rolls: if you have to make a skill check, or saving throw, or (gods help you) you get in an even fight, then you’ve probably made a mistake. Creatively using/interpreting the environment and the details given to you by the GM rather than relying on rolls… that’s where “skillful play” lies.
Exploring a concrete environment. Even if the environment is randomly generated in play, there’s an expectation that the environment, once established, is there and it’s concrete and the GM’s job, in part, is to make the environment “make sense.”
The environment being explored is dangerous, and you are squishy. Traps, monsters, cursed items, etc. Very few HP. Save or die effects. Be careful!
The environment having hidden things to find and exploit: secret doors, false bottoms, gems hidden behind the statue, back doors, etc.
So… how does an OSR-style game do anything other than devolve into pixel-bashing?
I’m thinking of a recent game of WoDu with @JimLikesGames and @Ignotus, playing Through Ultan’s Door. Almost the first room we enter has a grisly, mysterious scene (hanged masked corpses around a strange fountain) with bear traps hidden under the straw and a lurking beastman. A half-dozen rooms spiraling off of this central spot, some with hidden treasure.
The environment is rich, mysterious, well-defined, kind of scary. Are the bodies just bodies, or undead waiting to get us, or filled with maggot swarms, or what? Is the fountain just a fountain, or something special? Does tossing a coin into the fountain do anything? Are there gems in the fountains eyes? Should we sweep the straw for traps or just blunder about? (Shit, traps.)
We (mostly me) spent a ton of game time poking and prodding, moving carefully, suspicious of every detail. 90% of those details didn’t matter. And some of the details that I ignored (e.g. the straw under the hanged men, recently disturbed) revealed a trap that could have killed (or at lest seriously hobbled) most characters. Yup, I got to make a roll to dodge, but it felt like a chance to recover from a mistake, not an avoidance of the mistake itself.
The whole thing seems designed to provoke careful, methodical, tap-tap-tapping with a 10-ft pole. Con games of Swords & Wizardry that I’ve played have been similar, though the presence of 4+ other players has always led to someone getting bored/antsy and therefore doing something stupid and getting us all in trouble. (Again, reinforcing the value of being careful and methodical.)
So, like…is this right? Is this slow, methodical pixel-bashing (punctuated by terrifying, sometimes unavoidable peril or violence) the intended approach to play? If not, why not? What does “smart, careful play” look like without pixel bashing?
If you want to prevent your players from taking 30 minutes of play time to explore any given room… how do you do that?