The OSR in Vivid Colour: The Fellowship of the Bling

It may be precisely that the “OSR” as a community developed some novel ways to play old systems, and that these are lacking in the RPGnet play reports. I says ways and not mechanics because largely I think I’m referring to design principles and ethics of play. Here’s what I’m not seeing in the RPGnet reports:

  1. Exploration play - Engagement with the environment and puzzle aspects of it as a primary focus of play. This is perhaps impossible because of the random methods of location design used. It’s hard for a GM to build puzzles of any sort into an adventure when generating it entirely on the fly. This appears to lead to the singular obstacle in play being direct confrontation with randomly derived monsters. It also remove the larger puzzle of level based design, where spatial orientation is a key part of game play - figuring out how the location works as a fiction space becomes impossible when the GM doesn’t even know because the structure is being constantly revised and invented during play.

  2. Direct Confrontation - “Combat as sport” is you will, the appeal to the RAW to resolve combats and monster encounters without fictional positioning of even a tactical variety, let alone the strategic.

  3. Lack of social and moral play - It doesn’t seem like reaction mechanics are being consistently used, or if they are the players are electing to attack almost every creature encountered. Again this likely comes from the random nature of dungeon generation, lack of a dungeon ecology or factions.

Together these create a game that doesn’t feel like what I know from using the same system, or what I see in say those ASE reports (the dungeon they are using is the author’s setting - but yes it was later published). Now if pointing out a lack of those things is being uncharitable I doubt I can meet your definition of charity - but they are things which I find are key to understanding classic play, at least as I enjoying playing it.

I mention the Dungeon World past of the RPGnet play reports because I am trying to understand where the players and GM in them got their design principles and play ethics? It’s not that they are bad or having the wrong kind of fun, it’s that it’s not my experience with “OSR” and I don’t think I’m alone in that or that my experience with these kind of games is very atypical.

As described it really does seem much similar to an early (also D&D derived I think) Roguelike ASCII CRPG, and one without the complexity of say Nethack or ADOM. Now there’s a chance this is just from the similarity of using randomly generated dungeons - but the main CRPG constraint of a lack of tools for parley and social puzzles isn’t shared? Where does the combat focused play style come from, because I do think it’s conscious, if not fully intentional. Did the RPGnet players set out to play a certain kind of game?

If not, how do did their experiments with B/X end up so differently then say Pat Wetmore’s (linked above: Henchmanabuse & ASE)? So different from Chris’ Hill Cantons? So different from Brendan’s with Pahvelorn and 0E? So different from mine?

If it’s simply that the constraints involved (random dungeon generation) create a certain sort of game experience that’s interesting, but it doesn’t change that these play reports don’t feel typical to someone who has played a lot of that style of game. Should I say they do simply to be “charitable”? 'Cause I can lie to you in the service of comity.


Ah, good! We’re pretty much on the same page, then, or at least much closer to it than I thought. Excellent.

I think that 90%+ of what you’re describing is a direct result of a limited timeframe and randomly generated dungeons. Much of the considerations you’re describing simply don’t come into play with such barebones and simplistic dungeons - as you say, figuring out the purpose of a certain layout or the ecology of a certain monster population is simply impossible when they don’t exist in the first place.

They do very consciously use Reaction and Morale rules, and make allies, friends, and worry about moral concerns when they come up. However, those elements are also limited somewhat by the material they are exploring (e.g. you won’t find a tribe of humans turned into tormented slaves by an otherwise well-meaning sorcerer in a randomly generated dungeon of this sort).

The remaining 10% is a question of taste, I think. I think my interests and preferences are very similar to yours when it comes to this style of gaming. I like to involve a lot more monster ecology, tactical considerations, and other complex factors in my dungeon design and play, as a way to give the game more depth.

Where we differ, perhaps, is that I see those as more advanced concerns. Given that attitude, I’m not going to be judgemental about a group of strangers operating with different tastes or to look down on their play. I like to enjoy those things in my games, but I don’t have a problem with other people enjoying a more simple style of play. (And, arguably, the vast majority of D&D play in any edition or type is likely just a sequence of combat encounters with little context - I’d assume that, like any other activity or art form, most of what is happening out there doesn’t reach heights of artistry. I’m sure that the limitations you’re pointing out would apply to the vast majority of play “out in the wild”.)

I think that the way they are playing is arguably precisely what the ruleset is built to do (e.g. the example dungeons and generators used in most old D&D texts produce this type of material as well) and the “natural” form of old school D&D play. I’d fully expect a random group unfamiliar with D&D to end up with something like this if they were given those texts and asked to figure it out for themselves.

To me, that’s precisely the charm of these play reports: seeing just how much fun and pleasure these players are having without making the game into a much more advanced and artistic affair. I think it showcases the strength of the ruleset and this mode of play in a way that is highly revealing. Kind of like how a food connoisseur might enjoy a simple margherita pizza made in a traditional style for its own merits, rather than complaining that it doesn’t have truffle oil or an original and exciting combination of rare ingredients that no one has ever tried before along with a carefully chosen wine pairing.

I also believe that it’s natural for this kind of play to evolve over time into a more interesting and developed style with many of the features you’re describing. As much fun as it is to risk your life against random opponents in a nonsensical dungeon, it’s natural to start to look for variety, depth, and to push the limits of the playstyle over time. I see this group doing this over the course of these reports, and I see no reason to assume that over time they wouldn’t progress to more evolved forms of the same material, as well. Again, I see that as a feature of these reports and find it charming: the reader gets to experience that journey along with the players, from simple, basic play to increased moral complexity and more varied material. I think that’s part of what makes this series of reports such a lovely introduction to the playstyle.

However, even beyond that and despite that, it’s remarkable how engaging and exciting the material is, even to people who are not experiencing the game itself. By the end of the thread, there are multiple readers hanging on every word and on the edge of their seats over Merry’s survival or the fate of the Charmed Ogre. There are people saying that they refresh the thread every 30 minutes because that’s how invested they are in the developing events.

I think that’s remarkable as well as highly entertaining!

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I think this is a very, very interesting comment that I hope you won’t assume malice on my part by digging into it.

Because I have to ask, if we approach any ttrpg, what can we reasonably judge other than the rules? We can presume that some amount of interpretation is required to run systems, but unless the system explicitly states “I am not comprehensive, you must rely on the GM for additional arbitration” you can’t say someone is running a game “wrong” when they are following RAW.

I am by no means saying having an external philosophy and community around a game or style of game is inconsequential, but unless the philosophy developed by the community is codified in the games they make, I don’t think it makes any sense to fault a group for playing a game by the rules presented to them without input from the community around the game.

Oh I don’t see any malice in that question at all. One of the phrases I use a lot is “ethics of play”, which is my way of describing the ideas that build up around a play style but are rarely spelled out. This is different to me the “design principles” which are intended play style, with or without mechanical support. Finally there’s the mechanics.

As a topical example I’d say “RAW” as it’s usually invoked is an ethic of play that at its core elevates the written rules as an arbitrator above the GM. There are other effects of this - principally placing a high value on system mastery, rules lawyering/textual interpretation as a primary means of resolving disputes, a comfort with or ven encouragment of antagonistic GMing and ultimately a belief that player limitations are themselves the rules and that the mechanics create a hard limit on the possibilities of play.

In classic play there’s been time for various sets of ethics of play to predominate, but because of the game genres largely organic (as opposed to intentional) evolution these haven’t been codified so much. I’d say there are sort of “Braunstien” set of freeform ethics that one can still see in very early D&D adventures (Temple of the Frog, Steading, and even Tomb of Horrors) that becomes increasingly simulationist as the Gygaxian influence comes to predominate. This later evolves into story first Hickmanism and the overly technical play of late TSR.

“OSR” as I understand it, or at least the weird little offshoot I was fond of wasn’t as concerned with the nostalgic rediscovery of Gygaxian simulationism - the details of AD&D, but with even more free form play - aided ultimately by gamification of exploration play elements. It’s not that this was a literal return to the ethics, principles and mechanics of very early (pre CRPG say) D&D, but rather new principles and mechanics around exploration play seeking to support a possibly mythical set of ethics of play.