This is the second post in a series where I explore the OSR play style by considering the different pleasures it makes available. As in my first post, I'm taking as one of my reference points the contrast between OSR and story games. This time though I'm going to talk about the way each of them reacts to what we might think of as a depressing tendency in "trad", "mainstream", or "corporate" play style. OSR and story games each try to secure different pleasures that this depressing tendency threatens. The difference in what we're after is easy to miss, because we talk the same talk when we criticize the tendency we both find oppressive. Perhaps these are hopelessly large generalizations, but it seems to me like the get at something.
One thing both OSR and various story game designers are against is railroading. Here's a rough explanation of the metaphor of railroading. Trains can only run along certain tracks, stopping at a predetermined set of stations that lie along a straight line. Perhaps there are one or two choice points, but those choice points just lead to more straight rails with their own fixed sequence of destinations. One finds something similarly constraining in TTRPGs when the dungeon master comes to the table with a pre-planned story following a certain sequence to a fixed conclusion. The role of the players is to move through a series of scenes or encounters exercising a very constrained agency, to tell the story that the DM wants to tell in more or less the way he wants to tell it. This style of play has deep roots in the history of D&D, going back to some tournament style modules (I'm looking at you Tracy Hickman) that want to walk the players through a more or less fixed sequence of events and challenges towards a final confrontation with a big boss. One finds it still in Pathfinder style "adventure paths". What if someone gets off the path? Wouldn't it be more interesting to do just that?
Both story and OSR gamers find this dreadful. I find it interesting that they both reject it sometimes using the same form of words. When I first read Vincent and Meguey Baker in Apocalypse World saying, "We play to see what happens," I recognized immediately a formulation that everyone in the OSR would enthusiastically affirm. Ditch the rails and the preplanned series of events! If we've done our job right then we know that we can only see what happens by playing the game. Similarly, both OSR and story gamers regularly say that they value "emergent stories". The idea is that the stories are not pre-written, rather they emerge from play. So it seems like we're on the same page. But I'm convinced that this is, in large part, an illusion.
Story games tend to see the problem as lying with the fact that the DM is doing all the narrating. He has already written the fiction, and the players are present as his props, or as actors who follow his pre-written script in a play that he is also directing. From this perspective, railroading is awful because it reserves the pleasurable activity of creating fiction for the DM and denies it to the players. It also makes the creation of fiction a kind of controlling exercise in moving people about as thought they were extensions of your will. The attractive ideal they present as an alternative is to let the players in on the act of creation. What they are after is an improvisational, collaborative, story telling, where players and GMs can explore fiction together, creating interesting stories in a certain genre by throwing characters into provocative situations so as to see what happens.
Given that this is the kind of distinctive pleasure (really a whole family of pleasures) they are trying to secure, their rules and practices allow players to take control of the fiction in various ways. For example, let's start with Apocalypse World, which is quite amenable to OSR adjacent play. A "move" in Apocalypse World is an action type that triggers dice rolling. One of the general moves available to all classes ("playbooks") is "Read a Sitch". This is a move that allows the character to understand a charged situation by reading the intentions, vulnerabilities, and so on of the people in it. One can only use this move in a situation that is charged, i.e. tense. I'm interested less in the move, which doesn't speak one way or another on this point, and more in how the authors explain it. In explaining how this works, the Bakers imagines a player saying "I want to read the situation," and the GM ("MC") responding, "Oh yeah? How is this situation charged?" This invites the player to take over the fiction and elaborate on the situation. The player might say something like, "It's charged now! I've had a grudge against Bad Maw since he burned Locust Village." Or, he might say something like, "I've been hooking up with Sister Kate, and Bad Maw doesn't like it." Similarly, even in John Harper's Blades Against the Dark, which is very OSR adjacent, players can always trade resources ("stress") to change the fiction when something bad happens to them. They can also suggest to one another "Devil's Bargains", inserting faustian choices into the game, in order to give each other bonuses on rolls. For example, if someone is trying to intimidate their gang of hirelings into not torturing a captive, another player might say, "Maybe you go too far, and there's simmering resentment building up that might boil over later." And these are just tiny examples of what is a thoroughgoing tendency to enable the contributions of players to the fiction being collectively produced. Stories emerge from these rule-supported collaboration in story telling.
By contrast, OSR gamers see the problem with railroading as the fact that the DM is trying to tell a story. They regularly say things like, "Well, if that's what he wants to do, he should go write a fantasy novel then." Here's something I don't hear them say, "We should change things so that we all write a fantasy novel together in an improvisational and collaborative mode." The OSR idea is to ditch the pretension to storytelling altogether. Liberation is from the idea that we're trying to tell a story. In OSR games, people don't think in terms of creating fiction. They go about pursuing aims, overcoming challenges (hint: this is the pleasure for the next post in the series), accomplishing goals, enjoying the pleasures of discovery, and so on. They do act on reasons like, "This would be a cool place to go and check out," (pleasure of discovery). But they don't act on reasons like, "It would be cool for the story if we went here" (pleasure of storytelling). On the OSR approach to play, we're certainly engaging in collective make believe, since we pretend to be characters inhabiting a world together, but this collective make believe is not improvisational storytelling.
If we don't see ourselves as storytelling, then in what sense do we take pleasure in "emergent stories"? When we say we're into "stories that emerge from play", we mean precisely stories that no one aimed to produce. Like in ordinary life, where we do various things not intending to produce a story, but nonetheless through the interaction of chance, the dubiousness of colorful characters, and our boldness in the moment, a memorable story emerges. This is, obviously, a different pleasure than the pleasure in contributing to, exploring, and collaboratively crafting a satisfying story. Mainly in the OSR we don't get that pleasure. Since our games don't aim at collaboratively producing satisfying fiction, often our play doesn't coalesce into memorable or satisfying narrative, which can be disappointing to people who come wanting to tell stories together. (Confession: sometimes I feel that disappointment.)
But there's something we get that story games can't as easily deliver. A story that is incredible in real life is not very impressive where we are aiming to produce incredible stories. You're the one writing the story? Then of course that thing that makes for a cool story is what happened. How much more awesome is that same story when it happens in real life, where no one was trying to make an awesome story? That's the kind of emergent stories that OSR gamers take pleasure in. When we trade stories, we aren't trading fiction we collaboratively improvised: we're swapping war stories.
Another thing that getting off the railroad means in OSR play is getting into an open world. I can best convey the pleasure of this by example. My son wanted me to introduce D&D to his two cousins over Thanksgiving. The older of the pair is a surly tween. I had some capital to spend, since she definitely thinks of me as "the fun uncle", but I was expecting resistance. I had no time to prep (also, I don't prep for kids), so I quickly sat down and scrawled a hackneyed dungeon in 10 minutes. A princess' bed had been turned into a portal. She had been dragged into some ice caves beneath, where an ice witch was holding her captive. The king had sent in a dopy suitor and knights who had promptly gotten captured by some yetis. They went a ways into the dungeon and messed around with some stuff. At first the tween was rolling her eyes and making sarcastic remarks. But then my son said something offhand about what they would do when they got out of there. She stopped the game and said, "Wait, we can do ANYTHING we want in this game?" And I said, "Yes, that's the WHOLE IDEA of D&D." Her eyes got wide like saucers and she burst into a shit-eating grin. They promptly hatched a plan to come out of the bed and rob the king, fleeing to the big city with the king's wizard in ho5 pursuit. They took the princess' bed with them, and so they have had a portable dungeon with them ever since. The game consists now of one scam and heist after another in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, Judge's Guild sword and sorcery wonderland of a city. The thrill that my niece experienced, that feeling of total, delicious, delirious openness: that's the pleasure I'm talking about. It's the same pleasure that group has every time they begin a session by discussing all the irons they have in the fire, and settle on whatever strikes their fancy as the best and most interesting thing to do.
If you read my last post, I bet you're thinking: but the kid's game you're describing is all improvisation. Part of the reason why people in the OSR sometimes push low prep styles is to prevent a DM from laying down the rails in the first place. The idea is that if we don't prepare too much then we can't prepare in such a way as to forestall openness. This is why story games with their improvisational, player-driven collaboration immediately destroy the railroad. So some may be scenting a tension between the pleasure I'm articulating here and the pleasure of discovery that depends on the presence of an already existing world. But how do you prep for an open game that's not collaborative storytelling? Through the exercise of our collective intelligence we've solved this problem. In OSR design and play culture we make the rails impossible through the way we prep and play games.
For example, when prepping "an adventure" we don't prepare it as a series of scenes or encounters. Instead we prepare location-based adventures. We imagine a place that could be interacted with in numerous ways. This affects something as concrete as how we design maps and layout. We learned early that there should be numerous ways into and out of a place, interesting inter-level connections, looping passages, map features that can be interacted with and used in any number of ways. This single concrete point has a huge psychological effect, since it makes it literally impossible for a DM to imagine in advance the sequence of events as players move through a space (those stations on a straight rail).
Similarly, instead of designing NPCs around dramatic encounters that push in a single direction, we design jostling factions that can be interacted with any number of ways. They have their schemes and complex motivations and are in conflict with one another. Players enter into this social terrain interacting in whatever way they want with this dynamic and unstable environment. The single best piece of writing on this is Gus L.'s forthcoming Pyre Coast. Gus is a master of faction play, both as a DM and a player. (Whenever he shows up in my game I think of the legendary reports of Dave Arneson showing up as Captain Harchar in M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel games.) Gus has excellent advice on how to fold factions into the design of every locale, and also into random encounter tables. The Pyre Coast is a kind of master class in viewing a dungeon and wilderness encounter table through the lens of faction play. Cole Long has interesting thoughts about this coming from his Swords of the Inner Sea Campaign, a hidden gem of OSR play. I'll talk about that in the third of my Google mix tapes series. (From someone who never has much of a queue on this blog, since the demise of G+ I've had about a dozen posts on my workbench.)
When we move up from adventure sites and factions to the level of wilderness and the campaign map, we prep to foster openness by preparing sandboxes. The idea is to populate a map with interesting features, settlements, lairs, adventure locales and so on. One has no predetermined sense of where the players will go or what they will do: it's their sandbox to play in. One variety of sandbox play is the hex crawl. The term comes from the hexagonal shaped wilderness maps popular from the war games influenced days of the early hobby. The West Marches campaign was an inspiring experiment run by Ben Robbins in the early 2000's. It was a completely open game of wilderness hex crawling. Ben had prepared an unexplored wilderness hexmap, the West Marches, stocking it with adventure sites, lairs, landmarks, and so on. There was no fixed group of players or regularly scheduled games. Instead the players recruited teams, and scheduled sessions, to go to locations of their choosing. Together, this huge assortment of different players kept a collective map, which in turn spurred further exploration (e.g. when another group uncovered a new adventure site or pushed further into the unknown then people scrambled to put together a new expedition). The game was restrictive in that all adventuring began and ended in a settlement, and all adventures happened out there in the wilderness of the West Marches. But it did give a template for maximum openness in player choice in the context of wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling that could be realized in less restrictive forms.
But still, one might think, such openness, even if it doesn't stand in tension with prep as such, does stand in tension with evocative snowflake worlds of the imagination. For surely the only way to develop the lore, the history, the metaphysics, and so on of a world is through some kind of meta-plot and story arcs. Or, at the very least, one might think that such world building minutiae could never be relevant to the nuts and bolts of an open, player-driven game. Since one of the hallmarks of the OSR is the creation of precisely such implausible jewels of settings this would be a major tension in our culture. But we've cracked this nut too.
I have run an entirely open world in my maximally pretentious and wildly baroque dreamlands game. The basic trick is to introduce setting lore, metaphysics, religion, and culture in connection with elements of the sandbox. For example, I explored the Numinous Game played by the Unrelenting Archons, the alien deities of religion of Zyan by putting a Forgotten Temple of the Archons on my map as an adventure site that the players could visit. When theology and metaphysics are wrapped up in the mystery of an adventure locale, then metaphysics becomes key to unravelling the mystery of dungeon. Similarly, one can introduce a lot of this through jostling factions who have their own cultures, histories and so on. Do you want to befriend the Guildless pariahs in Zyan? It may help to understand that they are mute exiles who worship Golumex, the pariah Archon of ruin and lost hope. When setting lore is part of the sandbox, your snowflake of a world is the solution for getting off the rails rather than the problem.
|This John Blanche picture from Sorcery! was the inspiration for the Guildless|
I talked about how I develop a setting through a sandbox in my own campaign here. Over the years, Chris Kutalik has written a series of illuminating posts about related on the Hill Cantons blog, which I'll talk more about in the Google Plus Mixtape Track 02. Here's one where he talks about "setting info" as a treasure type and how he connects lore to every dungeon he designs. Here are two different posts (Post I and Post II) where he explains his index card method that ties setting mysteries into his sleek system of campaign events, rumors, and adventure locales. (Confession: when I wrote the post on world building I linked to above, I forgot that I had read Chris writing about it. I was clearly channeling him, especially in the defense of the "snowflake setting". Sorry Chris! One small way I would push back on Chris' perspective on all this is that I don't see why "top down" setting construction is opposed to openness. I see why it has various practical problems, but I don't see the connection between it and "thinking in terms of a five-act play", at least if what you're top-down designing is a sandbox.)
To story game ways of thinking this is an incredibly reductive mechanic that at best forces all games of D&D into telling stories from a small range of genres, say the swords & sorcery picaresque. It's all Cugel the Clever, or Conan, or Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. This is basically true: the stories that emerge from play do tend to have this flavor. Since in OSR games we're not thinking about intentionally producing fiction, this bothers us less. (It probably also helps that the genres of fiction involved are well-loved in the OSR.) If this is too constraining for you, I recommend looking at The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger for a creative re-interpretation of the rule that ties it into setting specific flavor. In my next campaign, I'm going to follow Metzger's lead and tie the recovery of treasure to a setting specific themes to produce emergent stories that break with the swrod and sorcery picaresque. But more on that another time.
There are also ways of widening the incentives a bit. Jason Hobbs, in his West Marches style Kalmatta game, adds to this a rule that incentivizes exploring, giving 10 XP for each hex on the map visited, and 150 XP for uncovering adventure sites. Jeff Rients wrote a fabulous post a long time ago about giving XP for visiting a small number of wondrous locations in your sandbox. The crucial thing is just that character advancement be tied to the uncovering and braving of adventure locales. Other possibilities exist as well, for example, in a different system adventure locales might contain means for players to advance without a mechanic like XP, for example, by undergoing trials of the spirit or some kind of transformation (again: this will be in my next campaign). But the crucial thing is that exploration and overcoming challenges in adventure locales be directly incentivized. Further goals emerge and are built on top of that foundational activity.
I have trouble envisioning an open game in the OSR sense without some incentive structure like that. Otherwise one has to invest in story elements from the get-go, thinking from session 1 about your PC's motivations, and perhaps making choices about what kind of story you want to tell with this character. After all, someone is going to have determine the motivations for playing in the sandbox along certain vectors, whether it's the DM or the players, or some collaboration between all-of-the-above. The kind of openness in OSR games involves not doing that, and so requires some impersonal mechanic that incentivizes playing in the sandbox, for example, by linking it to "success" and player advancement. While we can certainly imagine more flexible variations on this theme, some mechanic along these lines will be essential.