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.


  1. Thoughtful series. Thanks.

  2. Another great article. One thing that I think is worth pointing out to people who don't "get" the OSR is that the challenge-based pleasure of it is quite similar to playing sports or competitive board games– you have opponents who want to stop you, nothing is rigged in your favor, etc. I find some people get it when it's explained that way.

    One thing I disagree with though is your assertion that partial success or success at a cost are rare in OSR games. They're common; they're just not attached to the act of rolling dice like in storygames. Breaking down a door but making noise that prompts a random encounter check is success at a cost. Winning a battle but taking damage is success at a cost. Winning a battle but one enemy escapes to warn others about you is partial success.

    The difference is most noticeable in combat, where partial success doesn't happen on individual attacks, but more on the combat as a whole. But it is there, all the time.

    1. Those are good points. I agree with you! And often the partial success can be a negotiated failure, like if I said as the DM: "you can get the door open quietly if you make the open doors check, but if you botch it, you force it noisily." And you're right of course, that the give and take of combat often results in "partial successes" too through rolling. Even the combination of dice rolls from a single attack can be a bit like that: I hit the opponent with the d20 but then roll a 2 for damage, leaving the opponent injured but standing, and myself open to their counter-attack. (Also, it's worth saying that there's nothing built in to this style of play about not having mixed successes, as the reaction roll already shows. I was here more remarking on why you didn't need to have mixed successes on dice rolls in order to move things along or make them interesting in this style of play, because often the series of accepting a yes-no gamble is interesting enough.)

  3. Here's an exchange from a twitter conversation I wanted to record here. @necropraxis made the following insightful comment: "I wonder if it is appropriate to include Trophy Dark as an example of challenge oriented play. For sure improv is challenging, but if the game provided the same aesthetic payload with reduced effort, wouldn’t that be considered a design success?"

    To which I replied:
    "Good point! I agree that it would probably be a design success if changing the rules made it easier for everyone to succeed at satisfying collaborative storytelling in a game like Trophy Dark. So the challenge isn’t *the point* in the same way. I think the use of my example is misleading in that way. But there is some truth to it; I feel that given that collaborative storytelling is intrinsically challenging that’s got to be part of the fun of a game like Trophy Dark. The feeling, “Wow, I really got into that. I contributed something cool.” Or “We really made a thing happen there.”

  4. This really helps solidify why Mothership is often referred to as an OSR game, or at least OSR-adjacent: while it's not B/X-derived (what so many people seem to think OSR means), it embraces the same type of challenge and playstyle.

    1. Yes, I would definitely include mothership, for exactly that reason! Here's anothe reason: it seems built to be usable with open world sandbox style play. For example, A Pound of Flesh is pretty clearly a sandbox setting, or component of a sandbox setting. (Also, the lack of any narrative control rules suggests an emergent story rather than collaborative storytelling focus.)