Wednesday, June 24, 2020

XP for GP and Retro-Gaming: What are the Alternatives?

In three recent "theory" posts, I've been describing retro-game (OSR) play style. At several points, I've emphasized how the 1 XP per 1 GP rule sustains the pleasures of retro-gaming play. But the truth is that the rule limits and directs play in various ways we might want to avoid, and suffers from problems when it's lifted from the original context for which it was fashioned. So I think it's worth our time to understand as clearly as possible what it does for retro-gaming play, so that we can see what alternatives there are that might do the same work. In other words, I want to understand the role of 1 XP per 1 GP in order to think about what alternatives to that rule that might enable and sustain retro-gaming play.

Here are some positive things 1 XP per 1 GP does in retro-games. First of all, it sets an objective success condition, thus enabling the pleasure of overcoming challenges. You succeed if you get a big treasure haul out of the dungeon; you fail if you come up empty handed. While players will pursue many other goals in open world gaming, setting their own additional success conditions, this dimension of objective success and failure is crucial for maintaining the pleasures of overcoming challenges. It gives you success as something that is not settled by DM fiat ("milestones" or "good play" rewards), or negotiated between players and DMs, allows the DM to occupy the role of a neutral referee or judge. The world is set up, the challenges are placed, and the players do what they want, with the DM refereeing the consequences of their actions.

Another reason 1 XP per GP works is that it incentivizes exploration and discovery, thus enabling the pleasures of exploration. Treasure is placed in the forgotten corners of the world, or in the ruins of the great Empire that Was, in the cracked ancient domes of the serpent people, etc. By placing the lure of wealth (and so success) in the places that must be explored and understood in order to overcome the relevant challenges, you regularly entice the players to break new ground, and uncover the mysteries of the setting as a condition for success.

It also de-emphasizes combat as the sole or main way to gain experience. Instead of telling you to always rely on your sword arm, it encourages out-of-the-box thinking, and opens up the possibilities of faction-based play. You do not need mindless monsters to slay for "grinding experience", but can rather have most "monsters" attached in one way or another to factions with their own goals and complexities. It leads to a more creative and tactical, less reductive style of play (in this respect), lending itself better to the pleasure of emergent stories and open-world play.

Here's a point I owe to conversations with Nick Kunzt. Something that I haven't emphasized previously, but that is implicit in the system of downtime activities I've been developing. In his account of money, Marx emphasizes that money is the universal commodity. It is like the philosopher's stone in allowing one to transmute any object (that one sells) into any other object (that one buys). His droll example involves the religious farmer who grows wheat, and sells it, in order to buy a bible...from a bible salesman who uses the farmer's money to buy whiskey and print atheist tracts.

Of course, there are some things money can't buy, like love and solidarity, but it buys an awful lot: a wild night on the town, orphanages, arms for a peasant's revolution, books, a wizard's tower, improvements to an inn, a really special sword, etc. The point is that by tying advancement to the possession of a universal commodity that player characters can spend to pursue their own idiosyncratic goals, it encourages interaction of player characters with the setting from the start. They are encouraged to build something so to speak, and to leave their mark on the world one way or another. Again, this kind of dynamic investment in the setting is one of the great pleasures of open-world, sandbox gaming.

Some Problems and Limitation with XP for $$$

What follows are my thoughts about some problems and limitations with this rule. I want to emphasize that I myself am currently using the rule, and have done so for the last 4 years of play. I'm not trying to talk anyone out of using it. But here are some ways that I have found it to be problematic or limiting.

The Rule Valorizes Bad Values

Something that people worry about with this rule is that it involves bad values and politics. For example, that it valorizes capitalistic greed and colonial plundering. This sentiment is frequently expressed on gaming twitter. I think there's something to this worry, although not as much as people think. There's so much to say about this that I'll only be able to scratch the surface.

First, a clarification. This worry does not depend on the thought that playing D&D causes us to have the relevant values as people sometimes claim that children who play violent video games are more likely to grow up to be violent adults. (These are claims that could be investigated with social science to test for the causal links.) Instead the worry is that this rule in retro-gaming invites us to express a certain value, to casually treating something bad as if it were good to do, so that we can have fun doing it. Such an expressive attitude is insulting to the people who actually suffered these things (exploitation and colonization) and would appear to endorse, even if only in imaginative play, the thought that what they underwent was not really an injustice, or one not worth taking seriously.

Let's start with capitalist greed. One problem with this objection, when it's stated nakedly, is that one can play at things without valorizing them. One can enjoy playing diplomacy, while opposing imperialism, militarism, and great power politics, or monopoly with little sympathy or affection for real-estate moguls. Those games do not involve much imaginative investment, but even where we are more richly invested in imaginative play, being earnest is not the only mode of play available. I often play retro-games with groups that are largely composed of socialists, anarchists, and leftists of various stripes. We often enjoy playing sometimes self-serving individuals who enrich themselves by extracting treasure from dungeons while engaging in a Vancian comedy of manners with a wide range of factions, including friends, enemies, and best of all, frenemies. Our games are not unified in this aesthetic, because we're not emulating a genre (that's not how retro-games work), but it's definitely part of what's going on. In other words, we enjoy a certain swath of the game because it is pleasing satire of self-advancement or competitive greed. It's true that it's enjoyable in a sort of touch-in-cheek satirical mode only because we are drawing on our real world experience of things that aren't great. But that's what satire is for.

Another problem is that players characters in games with 1 XP per GP are often not very greedy when they get ahold of treasure, at least in the sense of looking to accumulate wealth. First off, in my experience player characters often end up throwing their lot in with oppressed underdogs in the setting, and end up spending their wealth to help people or pursue spiritual or political goals. It helps that the rule is not that you get experience points through returns on business investments (normally, money you get without adventuring doesn't count), and often there is an emphasis on spending down any wealth you get (often you only get XP if you spend the gold). So it's definitely not about setting up enterprises to efficiently exploit workers, or even about becoming rich. The worry that it's a game about capitalism, or even greed in the sense of ambition for material advantage, status, and luxury, doesn't fit very well with my experience of play since I started using the 1 XP per GP rule. I'm not saying you can't go there with this rule, obviously you could, I'm just saying that it's easy not to go there if you don't want to.

A bigger worry, I think, is about colonialism. "Plunder" and "exploration" and "taming" of already inhabited "wilderness" certainly is a big part of the heritage of D&D. When extracting loot is used to motivate exploration of lands already inhabited by intelligent beings this seems to be an issue. But there are ways of handling XP for GP that do not valorize colonialism, either in the mode of "exploration" or "settlement", or in the mode of "resource extraction". One way this gets handled in a lot of retro-gaming settings is to place the exploration and looting of cultural sites in a post-apocalyptic space. What one loots are the splendors of the ancients, past great empires, and the like. In a certain sense, this is counter-colonial, since the ancients were more likely to be the colonizers or the imperial forces, and one lives in a destitute present of the post-colonized. Similarly, geographical exploration is not about spreading the reach of some supposedly superior civilization as in settler colonialism, but rather about uncovering eldritch sorceries and ancient ruins of (more) advanced civilizations under a dying sun. So one is looting, yes, and plundering cultural artifacts, certainly, and exploring geography that may already be inhabited, most definitely, but it really matters who is getting plundered by whom, and who is doing all that exploring in the service of what projects. Colonialism is not just any kind of exploration or plundering.

Now this point is a little bit delicate, because there is a nugget of truth to the idea that people who were raised in colonizing or settler colonial nations can only get so far from real world horrors when drawing imaginaries shaped by this historical milieu. I can recognize that the politics of Raiders of the Lost Ark were atrocious (not fighting Nazis, that was great), and I can make sure that my D&D game is not about stealing golden idols from savage "natives" to return to safekeeping in the setting's version of the Oriental Institute or to private collectors. But that childhood experience of watching Indie switch the bag of sand for the golden idol are certainly part of the subterranean fuel that feeds my dungeon imagination. Similarly, when Luka Rejec writes in Ultraviolet Grasslands, my current favorite retro-gaming product, that one of the main influence was playing the Oregon Trail video game, it's pretty clear that he's drawing from an imaginary that is shaped by the exploration of inhabited lands by settler colonialists. But if you read UVG, although you are certainly encouraged to "go west young man" by the long map that begins with your home base in the East, the resemblance stops there. You start in a city that is controlled by cats with human pets, and travel across post-apocalyptic trackless wastes to places ruled by technologically superior AIs with multiple porcelain bodies. The psychedelic acid metal vibe really has little to do with the aesthetics or value system of The Last of the Mohicans, much less Gunga Din. In short, UVG draws on cultural sources (e.g. the Oregon Trail video game) that are part of the historical inheritance of settler colonialism, but it does so in sophisticated and highly mediated ways that do not reproduce or valorize colonialist value systems.

I can live with that. But I get it if you think the mere resonance with cultural inheritances shaped by colonial tropes is too much, even if it is handled well and doesn't involve literal colonialism in the game. In that case, I can see a reason to decouple acquiring loot and exploration, and so a reason to ditch the XP for GP rule.

But there is still a part of me that wants to reply to this objection that perhaps rather than having white people in settler-colonial societies try to excise every cultural reference to an ever-present colonial past from the imaginative influences on their games, a better solution would be to broaden the pool of people imagining retro-gaming settings to include the contributions of creators in formerly colonized nations of the global south. Can I take a moment to emphasize just how great Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao's Thousand Thousand Isles setting is?

Art by Mun Kao!!!

The Rule Produces Predictable and Limiting Genre Effects 

But this brings us to a second problem. One limitation of the rule is that it steers the game towards producing stories that fit certain genres, and steers the game away from stories that fit certain other genres. For example, it steers the game towards Vancian satirical picaresque, or pulp swords and sorcery, or towards gritty tales, and decidedly away from high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or coming of age tales like A Wizard of Earthsea or Chronicles of Prydain, or a million other genres. Now retro-gaming is not about reproducing a genre experience, so you might think this isn't a problem. But without treating genre emulation as the goal, we can still recognize that there are predictable effects of operating with a certain systems of rewards. Since we take pleasure in the stories that emerge spontaneously from play, we are not indifferent to the flavor of those stories.

It's awkward to run a game with a high fantasy vibe with this as the main rule for advancement, and it would also be a strange fit for a game with a romantic vibe that was about developing relationships. If you are happy with Vancian picaresque or Lieber-style pulp fantasy, then the rule works fine. But if you want a game that has less shady characters who are on the make, then this rule is pretty constraining. What we incentivize matters for the flavor of the stories that results, even when play doesn't consist of trying to tell a story that fits a certain genre. 1 XP per 1 GP can flavor the stories that emerge from open-world play. When this taste grows stale, we might want to prepare the ground for stories with a different flavor.

The Rule Doesn't Work Over the Arc of a Campaign

Currently, my biggest gripe with this rule is that it doesn't really work over the arc of a campaign in a sandbox setting. My eyes were really opened to this fact by playing in Nick Kuntz's megadungeon game during the quarantine. The original games of D&D, for which the experience system was developed, were megadungeons, where all play centered on exploring a vast mythic underworld location, for example, Gary Gygax's legendary Castle Greyhawk. Nick has been running a wonderful game like that set around a mysterious underground area called the Complex. Nick is using B/X with modern retro-gaming tools and sensibilities. It is immediately apparent to me that the advancement system of XP for GP will work perfectly throughout the entire arc of this campaign, focused as it is on dungeon delving for treasure in what is an epic dungeon that can sustain a whole campaign.

But in an open-world sandbox, where things are not tethered to a single dungeon location, I have found that the rule tends to fade in significance around 5th level, when the players become really invested in the setting. At first they adventure for gold, lured by their initial destitution and powerlessness to the treasures placed throughout the sandbox. But then, as they come in to their own, develop connections to NPCs and factions, and have travelled extensively and have affected the world through their actions, they no longer choose where to go or what to do based on how much treasure they are likely to get.  And that's a good thing, since it shows that they have become really invested in the setting and world, and are doing just exactly what as a DM I hope players will end up doing.

I find that, as a DM, when confronted with this, I start to place treasure where the players are likely to go, rather than luring them to go certain places by placing treasure. Since they're becoming heroes and risking more dangerous things, I have a pretext to put richer (sometimes absurdly rich) treasure there that keeps them advancing to higher levels with their exorbitant XP requirements. But it feels, on my end, like a charade, since the campaign has evolved beyond a point where gold is actually motivating their choices. To be clear, they still do things to overcome challenges--but the challenges are not mainly overcome in order to acquire treasure.

There's nothing terrible about this, but it does seem like a failure of game design, insofar as the core mechanic of advancement works the way it is designed only at low levels. One would like an advancement mechanic that either shifted gears along with the phases of the campaign, or worked uniformly throughout the arc of a campaign.

Alternatives to XP for GP

To recap, XP for GP does a lot for retro-gaming play: it sets objective success conditions, motivates exploration, encourages tactical play rather than combat, and ties advancement to the ability to effect the campaign world in player-driven ways. But it also comes with a set of limitations, possibly encouraging self-seeking PCs, flirting with colonialist imaginaries, skewing the sorts of stories that emerge from play towards the gritty, picaresque, or pulp, and functioning unevenly over the course of a campaign. In light of these problems, it's worth looking at some alternatives. What we want are incentives to adventuring that do the same or similar work for enabling retro-gaming play, while increasing our options and avoiding some of these problems.

Having read a fair bit of contemporary retro-gaming materials, as well as early hobby games, I can think of four alternate approaches. These approaches are not exclusive and can be combined with one another, or even with the XP for GP rule.

Luka Rejec from Ultraviolet Grasslands

Directly Award Experience Points for Retro-Game Activities

Perhaps the simplest alternative is to simply award experience points directly for engaging in retro-game activities. For this to preserve the challenge oriented nature of the game and the neutral role of the DM as referee, it's important that this not take the form of the DM (or other players) "rewarding" good retro-game play by doling out experience awards, but rather takes the form of getting experience points for achieving objective success conditions that are known in advance. 

A classic approach in a hexcrawl is to award a set amount of experience for exploring a new hex, with another set amount for uncovering a new adventure site. I use this in my dreamlands games for the exploration of the White Jungle, awarding 50 XP to each player for each new hex uncovered. (This is a large amount of XP for mere exploration, but the White Jungle is deadly.) You can also award known amounts of XP for visiting certain amazing locations or being the first to find them, as Jeff Reints discussed brilliantly in this post

This will work best if the players know about rewards for finding and visiting these legendary places of adventure. If you're interested in awrding XP directly for exploration, probably the sleekest and most developed version can be found in Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands, which is about long distance travel on a pointcrawl rather than a hexcrawl. UVG gives XP for how far the PCs travel on the westward pointcrawl, as well as for discovering locations, identifying and studying new flora and fauna, investigating (and perhaps triggering) anomalies, and surveying and mapping interesting sites. One can also directly reward other retro-game activites, such as faction-based play. Humza Kazmi has discussed on twitter and elsewhere the idea of rewarding XP for improving the reaction roll modifier that different factions have towards the PCs or the PCs settlement. While I haven't seen a system like this worked out in any detail, it's not hard to imagine how it could work well in fostering socially oriented faction-based play in an open world sandbox. I look forward to seeing it developed.

Use Sandbox Advancement

Another approach is to tie character advancement directly to visiting certain locations in the sandbox without the medium of experience points. For example, in Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa there are two classes, warrior and sorcerer. Sorcerers are warriors who can also learn to cast rituals. The way sorcerers do this is by finding and visiting secret locations on the map, for example, where they can read the markings on the ancient red obelisk or listen to the whispers of the blind oracle and learn such and such an eldritch ritual. Similarly, certain rituals can be cast only in certain locations, or depend on components that are found only in one place on the map. This brilliantly tied magic directly to sandbox exploration by (literally) putting spells on the map.

Traveller has an element like this as well. In the original 3 little black books, there's a whole part of the game that has to do with acquiring psychic powers. No one can start with psychic powers. The only way to find out if a player character has psychic potential and the only way to unlock that potential is by locating and visiting the Institute. But to protect itself from persecution, the Institute is hidden on some backwater in the vast reaches of space. The book introduce a whole minigame for tracking it down over the course of a campaign via whispers and rumors. 

This is even there in D&D in vestigial form from the beginning, in that one of the class powers of fighters in OD&D is that they are the only class able to use magical swords. So finding one of the magic swords placed in the sandbox is necessary to unlock one of the main powers of fighters. Similarly in Electric Bastionland, advancement is largely by finding oddities, old tech, scattered about the sandbox.

This is a nifty way of motiving exploration, since it ties character advancement directly to exploration and interacting with the game world, without the use of an abstract currency like experience or treasure, and so without the general need to acquire piles of loot. Furthermore, it does so by setting up objective success conditions: find the Institute, learn the delirious incantation to summon the dreaded blue maw from beyond space and time, unearth a Glamdring or Sting from a mouldering barrow.  

Start the PCs in Debt

Another alternative is to keep money as the incentive for adventuring, but use an alternate frame introduced originally by Traveller (1977). In classic traveller, the default assumption is that you start off with an old spaceship that you bought with a massive loan from the bank. Fuel and repairs are expensive, and interest payments are due every month. If you can't pay, the bank takes your ship. You're motivated to take shady jobs to keep the jalopy running and pay off the rapacious bankers nipping at your heel . Chris McDowell's recent Electric Bastionland, another triumph of retro-game design, uses this collective debt frame as well. McDowell also adds a mechanic that increases your debt when players die, adding another incentive to avoid character death.

This is an interesting mechanic in that it leaves treasure as the incentive, but decouples it from mechanical character advancement. In Traveller and Electric Bastionland, there are no systems for mechanically improving your adventurer, although to a certain extent character advancement is replaced by ship advancement in Traveller, since more money means that you can make improvements on your ship. In Electric Bastionland too, character improvement is almost solely about what gear you have. But you could couple the debt frame with another system of character advancement. The point is that with the debt frame you are still incentivized to explore and adventure, and in doing so you still get a universal commodity that allows you to interact with the setting in multiform ways.

One advantage of this approach is that it builds in a sunset to wealth acquisition as a mechanic, and so overcomes the problem about the uneven functioning of this rule over the arc of a campaign. In the early stages, you're trying to get out from under a crushing debt. You reach a real transition point when you've paid of your loan and the ship is finally yours. By that point, you're invested enough in the setting to be a self-starter when it comes to adventuring and exploration.

Another advantage of this approach is that it puts you in the business of getting treasure by starting you off in the situation of someone who is oppressed by the system, in a kind of debt-bondage to a patron or the lords of finance. This puts a different political spin on scoring treasure, so it also deals with the "values" problem in a different way.

Art by the unforgettable Miles Teves.

Replace Getting Gold with Achieving a Desirable Social Status

Similar to the debt frame, but without the use of money, is a set of motives for adventuring and exploration that involve achieving some desirable social status. For example, in Skyrealms of Jorune, one begins as a tauther, a subject of the realm who is undergoing the period of challenge and service to become a citizen (drenn). One becomes a drenn by getting other important drenn (NPCs) to vouch for one, by marking one's chalisk (disk) or making the pilgrimage to the capital to testify on one's behalf. In short, one adventures in order to build relationships with NPCs and factions so that they will help one become a citizen. Again, getting NPCs to vouch for you is an objective success condition tallied by the literal number of marks on your chalisk. And like the debt frame, it has a sunset condition built in. Once one has enough marks to become a drenn, this reason for adventuring no longer applies. But by then the PCs will be neck deep in the setting with plenty of goals of their own.

Similarly, in the original Empire of the Petal Throne, one begins as a foreigner, fresh off the boat in the foreigner's quarter. One works over time to be accepted socially in Tsolyani society, perhaps becoming a citizen and being accepted into a clan. While less clear cut and mechanically codified than in Skyrealms of Jorune, this kind of  play that involves advancing by developing social relationships is at the heart of gaming in Tekumel. It's probably the single main thing that sets Empire of the Petal Throne apart from D&D in its various incarnations.

As you can probably tell, these approaches are not unlike the idea that Humza floated of using experience point rewards for improving social relations, but they do it by attaching the award to a desirable in game social status rather than through the medium of an abstract currency. This is more immersive and less gamified approach, but requires a setting of a very particular kind to work.

So What are Your Ideas?

I'd love to learn about more approaches, so please don't hesitate to drop your ideas in the comments.  Remember that we want are incentives to adventuring that help to sustain the distinctive pleasures of retro-gaming in exploration and discovery, in emergent stories and open worlds, and in overcoming challenges. So mechanics that award PCs for just showing up, or for meeting preset story goals, or for instructive failure, or for having used a skill in game, or for acting the part of their character according to genre expectations, are not the kind of thing we're looking for. Not that those things are bad, they just don't work to sustain retro-game play style. What are your ideas?

Addendum (8/20/2020)

DIY and Dragons just did an amazing post discussing a bunch more ways of rewarding exploration, travel, discovery of secrets and the like. See especially her discussion of Neo-Classical Greek Revival's method for rewarding a higher experience point value for each room (or hex) into which you push before returning to the surface, Dwimmermount's awards for uncovering secrets of the megadungeon, and Ryuutama's travel-based system of XP. A lot to digest here that supplements nicely some of the systems I noted  above. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Pleasures of the OSR: Overcoming Challenges

This is the third, and perhaps final, post in my series on the theory of retro-gaming play. (You can see the prior installments here and here.) I've been coming at this by discussing distinctive pleasures that the retro-game (OSR) play-style enables. This time the pleasure in question is the satisfaction in overcoming challenges. I should say that even more than in the past two posts, here I'm mainly channeling things other people have said many times over the years. Probably the single best recent thing you could read on this topic is Arnold K's advice on how to run his new starter dungeon module, Lair of the Lamb. It's pure gold and gets at in a terse and practical way the things I'll be talking here in a more prolix and theoretical mode. This recent thread between @Genesisoflegend and @DistemperedGus on twitter gets at important points that influence what I'm saying too.

What Pleasure?

To identify the pleasure in question, the first thing we need to distinguish is a character overcoming a challenge in the fiction of the game, and a player of that character overcoming a challenge. The pleasure under discussion is of the latter rather than the former sort. Something might be very challenging for your character to do, but easy for the player. For example it might be hard for your character to stand up to their overbearing mother, or to lift a heavy gate, but very easy as a player to have your character do either of those things. For example, it might be as easy for the player as uttering the following sentences, "I screw up my courage and say in a faltering voice, 'Mom that's enough," or, "My character tries to lift the gate". The distinctive pleasure I'm talking about is one that arises from doing things that are hard to do as a player, besting challenges through the player's skill, ingenuity, insight, caution, daring, dumb luck, and so on.

Now, almost every sort of game--not only roleplaying games!--involves players overcoming challenges by exercising some skill or ingenuity. (A counter example might be very primitive children's games of chance, like war or candyland.) Naturally, roleplaying games involve players overcoming challenges of distinctive sorts, different than the challenges in athletic games like basketball, or boardgames like clue. And not surprisingly, different kinds of roleplaying games involve players overcoming different kinds of challenges. Let's take two examples of roleplaying games that involve challenges to player skill that differ from retro-gaming play-style.

For our first example, take the game Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross, a game that bills itself as a "collaborative storytelling game of psychological horror". (I backed the very successful kickstarter, and it looks to be a very fun game indeed.) In Trophy Dark, the players play doomed treasure hunters who penetrate an ancient forest of horrors in search of treasure. The ethos of the game is that the players are supposed to "play to lose". That is, it is a foregone conclusion that their characters are doomed, and the fun comes in seeing how they meet their memorable end by collaboratively crafting a story within a set genre of psychological horror. This is very challenging to do for all the reasons that collaboratively storytelling is hard. You have to be creative on your feet; you need to be able to stick with the vibe of psychological horror; you need to be "yes and"; you need to surprise other people by introducing bleak and chilling elements into the fiction; and so on. Those are all big challenges that it is satisfying to overcome in play.

For our second example, take a game that is heavy on rules-mastery, character building, and tactical combat. Say, Pathfinder, or 3.5 D&D played in a way suggested by fat rulebooks swollen with feats, skills, and class powers. Here part of the challenge involves mastering the rules to build a character that will be able to do cool and effective things in combat. One is encouraged to pore over the books and design the character's path from the beginning of the game. In combat, one is supposed to look at the battle mat and use ones feats and class powers to maximum advantage to overcome interestingly varied enemies in shifting tactical environments. Again, this is all very challenging to do, and fun to succeed at. But notice that the challenges to be overcome are completely different than the challenges that Trophy Dark throws up for its players.

In retro-gaming play, the challenges to be overcome are different still. Retro-gaming play-style does not involve collaborative storytelling because it does not involve aiming to construct a narrative with pleasing properties. So the challenge is not the one that the players of Trophy Dark tackle. Furthermore, retro-games are usually rules-lite. An illuminating retro-gaming mantra is "the answer you are looking for is not to be found on your character sheet". What this means is that the challenges in question are not challenges of rules mastery that involve careful selection and the use of elaborate powers. There are no complex character builds. "Min-maxing" is not generally possible, and if you have somehow discovered a way to do that, you are playing in a spirit contrary to the play-style I am discussing and chasing different pleasures.

Objective Success and Failure

Although in an open-world sandbox, the challenges that players overcome are often ones the players pose for themselves and so want to overcome purely for fictional reasons (i.e. "revenge", "help the slave revolt", "unravel the mystery", etc.), it is important to retro-gaming play-style that mechanics exist that regularly impose objective "success" and "failure" conditions. For example, the simplest and most widespread success mechanic is 1 XP for 1 GP. You succeed if you get a big haul of gold. You fail if you come out of the dungeon empty handed. (In my next post I will be discussing alternatives that do the same kind of work in ways that are less reductive and materialistic.)

The other big objective success condition is survival. You succeed if you live to play another session. You fail if your character dies. This is one reason why retro-games tend to have a "no homework" principle, and why they encourage you jump in with a PC who is more or less a blank slate whom you will flesh out through play. The idea is that if you can jump this makes it easier to accept PC death, which happens more frequently at low levels.

To be clear, failure can and should be fun if approached in the right spirit, just like losing a match of basketball can and should be fun. But you know what's more fun than failing? Succeeding. And you know what makes success more fun? When it's hard and failure is a real possibility. That is why the deadliness of retro-games is part of the fun. There's a thrill that comes from hazarding the life of your character, and a real satisfaction that comes from keeping them alive. But you can only have that satisfaction if everyone accepts that character death is a possible outcome. Similarly, you can only be pleased with a big treasure haul--as having successfully overcome real challenges--if it is possible to come up empty handed. The frustration of failing to get treasure is a condition of the possibility of the pleasure of success. Having the pleasure of success in this sense presupposes that one will sometimes have disappointing sessions. Hearts will be broken. If they never are, then this kind of fun can't be had.

Open-Ended Tactical Challenges

But let us be more specific. Typically, the challenges in retro-gaming play style are also open-ended, admitting of no pre-given solution, and often not even an obvious path of least resistance--at least not one promising a reasonable chance of success. In fact, one good way to design a retro-gaming dungeon or location is to place challenges in it that you have no particular idea how the players will overcome. Since the games are rules-lite, and "the answer is not to be found on your character sheet", generally the challenges are to be overcome through creative planning, outside the box thinking, and situational tactics. Success is often the fruit of what a certain stripe of storygamers call "fictional positioning". You are trying to think creatively to get your characters into a position in the fiction where they will have the resources and advantages to overcome the fictional obstacle, even if it is beyond their pay grade without the upper hand provided by a good plan or fortuitous opportunity.

These points apply to combat as well. Many foes belong to factions, which are groups with interests and goals of their own, who can be approached any number of ways. Tangling with a faction is usually beyond the player's pay grade if approached in crass and linear way. The same goes for many more straightforward monsters.

You see Smaug. I see an open-ended tactical challenge.

This is one reason why the idea of balancing combat encounters with challenge ratings is incompatible with retro-gaming play-style. If you are playing well you will avoid combat when the balance goes against you, and if you do fight, you will usually be trying to tip things your way first. A fair fight is certainly not something to be celebrated (even chances of death, yay)! The other reason that balanced combats do not work in retro-games is that they are incompatible with a sandbox and open world, without some serious contrivance, e.g. locking regions or locations until a certain level is reached, as a video game might. The way retro-games handle balancing encounters is instead to make information available to players about what they will be getting themselves into if they tackle various locations. As long as their choice is informed, who are you to declare that the challenge rating is too high for them to succeed?

If you balance your encounters, instead of Smaug you get this. 

In this neighborhood we find the small degree of truth in the maxim that sometimes gets bandied around that "combat is a fail state" in retro-games. What is true is that combat is often a gamble with no intrinsic reward attached to it (if there is no or little XP for killing monsters), and that unless you have stacked the dice in your favor it is foolish to gamble with your life. Especially if other means are available to you. Of course, combat is often unavoidable, and often a perfectly acceptable risk. This is the sense in which the maxim is an overstatement.

As long as we're speaking of mantras, let's return for a moment to "the answer is not to be found on your character sheet", and talk a little bit more about what is on the character sheet. In many OSR games, like the many B/X derived games, player character abilities and magic items tend to be more like multi-purpose tools and less like optimizable advantages. The magic-user doesn't become a slightly better gun turret each level, but rather acquires weird one-off powers that are situationally very effective if used creatively, like spider climb, phantasmal force, or unseen servant. Thief skills too, like hide in shadows, pick locks, pick pockets, or backstab, are more like having a weird set of skeleton keys than having an optimized routine of combat feats. Similarly, magic items in retro-games tend to be strange all-purpose tools. In my dreamlands game, the original party has a flute that commands living statues, and jeweled grapes that reduce gravity. My own character in Nick Kuntz's game has a candle that casts light only his own party can see. How are the players going to use items like these? A DM could never predict it, and that's part of the fun. Instead of a +1 sword, give your players open-ended tools the use of which you have no way of predicting.

Rolling Dice as Gambling

Let's talk now about rolling dice. There are many reasons dice are rolled at the table, but there is a certain flavor to dice rolling in retro-gaming. The flavor is that of a skilled gambler who knows the odds and chooses to make certain gambles, some low stakes and some high. There is a drama of the clatter of the dice (real or virtual), and the baiting of breath. This is part of the reason that almost all mechanics, reactions rolls aside, in retro-games are binary: either success or failure. The games are not, in the main, driven forward by partial successes with complications. They are rather dotted with well picked opportunities to make a wager that will either succeed or fail. Calculate the odds and take your gamble. When you don't want to gamble, try to avoid rolling dice. Play often (usually) moves forward without the need for rolls.

Resource Management

This is the background that helps make sense of the focus one often finds in OSR games on resource management. Light. Rations. Encumbrance. Wandering monster checks. The idea is to design the adventuring locales in such a way that there are known and (to some extent) predictable and objective challenges that must be navigated as a way of increasing the difficulty, giving many opportunities for making those gambler's wagers. Want to search the room for a secret door? Great, you'll have to take a wandering monster check. If the wager is pleasing, clatter go the dice.  

The GM as Judge or Referee

All of this entails a different role for the GM in OSR games than in a game like Trophy Dark. In Trophy Dark, if a player is struggling to contribute satisfyingly to the collaborative storytelling, the GM all will endeavor to help out in any way possible: to give helpful prompts, to "yes and", to give suggestions that the player can elaborate on, and so on. Since everyone is trying to tell a story together, they all try to help each other overcome the challenge of creating a satisfying collective story of psychological horror. The GM in this sense acts like the players, although fulfilling a different role.

In an OSR type game, by contrast, while the GM can and should root for the players, it is important that the GM be an objective arbiter of success and failure. This is why, in early D&D, an apt metaphor for a GM could be a judge, as in Judge's Guild, or a referee, both ideally neutral arbiters. This is why there is an ethos in OSR play of laying out the risks clearly when a player says they want to do something, especially if it requires one of those high-stakes gambling roll, so they can cleanly know and accept the consequences of what they're choosing to risk. This is why there is a practice of rolling the dice out in the open and not fudging any dice rolls, or modifying encounters to fit player ability, and so on. To bend things towards player success is to remove the conditions of the possibility of taking pleasure in overcoming challenges. But, even more importantly, if player death and failure are on the table, then if you bend things towards success sometimes, it will call into doubt the times when you don't. The death of players will then seem arbitrary and unfair. What we strive for instead is a situation where everyone can cleanly accept the outcomes without worrying that something unfair has happened to them.

People sometimes express disbelief that this can be a fun way of playing, but I've got to tell you that it can be immensely fun and rewarding. I want to be clear that I am not somehow imposing this as a universal norm. As I hope I've made clear in this series, there are lots of ways of doing things, and one can chase different pleasures to different degrees, by making various compromises.