Monday, March 9, 2020

Streamlining/Making Emergent Play Emerge Sooner, Part 2

Still more to come (so expect a Part 3), but some updates to the conversation beginning with yesterday's post emerge already.

First: we've been having a go at some of this on the r/osr subpage, with interesting questions, ideas, and comments over there.

Second: since my post I've picked up both The Perilous Wilds and Freebooters on the Frontier, which together offer a very well-regarded way to play a PbtA game honoring OSR principles (if you keep reading below, you can see what I mean by that). Early impressions after studying them is that these may offer a very good compromise solution when I want to address the needs I raised yesterday, which I can supplement with a few tricks from other games as needed. Meanwhile, however, reddit user u/Deathadder99 suggested that I also check out Ironsworn: Delve, a new (paid) expansion to the (free) solo-or-coop-or-GM'able pbta game Ironsworn. Since I just dropped $12 on the Perilous/Freebooters combo, I'm not going to drop another on Delve just yet, but it looks, frankly, really awesome. It has a 60-page preview and if you read our reddit dicussion you'll get some further input on how it addresses the issues I raised.

[please note that the links in the previous paragraph are Drivethru affiliate links, which means that you don't pay anything extra, but I do get a credit-tip from DriveThru if somebody buys something via these links.]

Third: over on the "off topic" (soooooo off-topic, sorry folks!) page of the Into the Odd Discord channel, @Freddo and @Yochaigal asked me to clarify my views on the lines between storygaming and OSR gaming. My response turned out to be about the length of a blog post, so I figured I might as well drop it here as well with light editing:

Thanks! Hmmm...honestly, that seems like a simple question, but it could be addressed in so many different ways...I'm not going to try to offer my take on a definition of the two forms, which often seems just divisive as well as subjective (ok, here's my working definition of OSR, only partly tongue in cheek: if anybody has ever had an argument about whether your game is OSR, congrats, it's OSR ;-). No, more seriously...I'll offer some personal, subjective impressions of what makes me go "oh, I see it's a storygame" and what I like or don't about these options.
10:07 AM
A game shouts "OSR" to me if it emphasizes the concrete reality of the shared fiction; locates (at least almost) all narrative authority over that fiction with the GM; and encourages thoughtfully manipulative engagement of that fictional reality through players' creative problem-solving rather than predetermined video-game-like actions or abilities. Within the universe of games that do this, I personally find the ones with elegantly minimalist rulesets more appealing.
10:12 AM
In OSR-land, we often (rightly) use the expression, "the answer isn't on your character sheet." That's a helpful shorthand way to express the value of creative problem-solving instead of those video-game prescribed moves. is possible to push this too far. In point of fact, even in an OSR game (say...B/X or Old School Essentials, which nobody should doubt = OSR), sometimes the right answer is, very clearly, on your character sheet. The baddies are about to attack across this narrow log-bridge and we need somebody to hold them off while the rest of the party tries to get the gates unlocked.'s not shocking to discover that the character sheet that says "Fighter" on it also has the best available Stats to handle holding off the hobgoblins on that single-file log bridge. If somebody decides that what we need now is "FIREBALL," well, this is probably also somewhere on a character sheet and/or in a rulebook. So OSR play doesn't actually abandon "answers on a character sheet," it just emphasizes the importance of other answers too. At the end of the day, however, if there are NO answers on a character sheet then we lose: genre. It's just a universal rules system. You can hack genre back in, but ultimately we do have to balance player freedom with genre emulation. Even OSR games have to honor genre emulation a little bit - or they'll get boring.
10:12 AM
Now, what about storygames?
10:18 AM
Ok. Like OSR games - whether or not we admit it - "storygames" also exist somewhere in a range along part of the same spectrum. There are some storygames that almost completely do away with the 'concrete reality of the shared fiction', and this can happen whether the GM alone or all players share authority to change that reality on a whim by reshaping reality with new 'facts.' I have the ruleset for a narr game called "On Mighty Thews" that I greatly respect in terms of game design - but I just can't get behind its agenda. It uses a delightful, elegant chargen and resolution system, and/but it works by inviting players to introduce new facts about the world (ranging from "the first hobgoblin falls dead from the log bridge" to "ah, but those runes on the gate are the work of Atlanteans, my ancestors! I read their glorious words and command the gate to unlock." The reality of the game-space is in perpetual limbo, and in some of these games, nothing is sacrosanct about that reality unless/until it gets fixed through narration at the table. I can respect what these games seek to do, but I generally don't find them appealing.
10:19 AM
But hang on...because there is a whole range of games OSR-fans might dismiss as "just narrative" games that actually still have a lot to offer.
10:23 AM
Games like the PbtA series do - or at least can - operate in this middle sphere. Years ago I was an ardent devotee of PbtA, then got sick of it and turned to OSR gaming. I've realized recently that there are ways to play PbtA that wouldn't have bothered me as much. In some ways, a 'restrained' PbtA approach is kind of middling on my spectrum. Fictional Positioning can be honored in ways that align neatly with the OSR's emphasis on concrete, manipulable reality. I am not a fan of inviting the players to call down brand-new facts about the game world during play, but you don't actually have to adopt this approach in PbtA gaming (so, e.g., based on my read of Freebooters, it seems that the 'spout lore' approach only works, explicitly, if the GM buys your rationale for what you have heard). So in some ways the spirit of OSR gaming's "game structure cosmology" clearly can be maintained in a PbtA game [c'mon, Gundobad, if you're going to nerd out, then nerd out properly: "the game's assumed ontology" would be a much better way to express this idea].
10:26 AM
The last piece I want to signal takes us back to what's on the character sheets. The common playbook structure in many PbtA games drops game-changing special abilities that do sometimes look like we're moving back toward the 'video gamey prescribed abilities' problem. Above, however, I suggested that this is a false binary; even OSR games have to rely on a bit of this to promote genre immersion. As I've chewed on all this lately, I've realized that I value the ways a restrained PbtA playbook can honor OSR concrete-reality yet take the players deeper into genre immersion. In Freebooters, for example: anybody can fight, of course, but the Fighter can do it better. Yet this isn't just due to some bonus bumps. The Fighter playbook includes a starting Move/Ability that basically means you're better at charging like an idiot against overwhelming odds. The game doesn't guarantee success - you get some cool perks when you do this, but the rules also require you to 'burn' Wisdom - confirming that this is probably a dumb idea. But one of the possible outcomes is that you make the enemies focus on you and you alone until you've gone down swinging.
10:28 AM
So: return to our hobgoblins-at-the-bridge example: B/X already has a character sheet telling us that the Fighter is the right one to put on the bridge. Freebooters, however, moves just a bit in the storygamey direction, but does so to breathe life into this moment. The fighter is going to look awesome, but he might also die horribly. Either way, a Boromir-defending-the-wee-lads moment - a major genre touchstone - is easily fulfilled.
10:28 AM
I find this appealing. As I've recently quoted Michael Prescott saying "when I've had a lot of one of these approaches, I start to get hungry for the other approach." Ok, sorry for the long rant-dump, but y'all literally asked for it!

So, what does this all mean? Well, for now, I think it means I need to try out Freebooters when I GM for the kids, and see how it goes, without letting go of my OSR concrete-reality sentiments; and it means that I need to keep running my based-on-OD&D play-by-post campaign, but stay open to fluid pbta-ish ways to handle its pacing should that seem appropriate. And it means that I still owe a promised Part 3 discussing some useful mechanics for streamlining wealth and domain play. And finally? It means that I, and you, should enjoy some happy gaming.


  1. I've also experimented with adding PbtA mechanics to old-school and trad D&D but I used the social systems from AW to supplement the scant tools provided by D&D (no matter the edition).

    I've struggled as both a DM and a player in D&D with trying to simulate all human interactions with a pass/fail charisma checks or open ended conversation.

    In contrast, AW and Monsterhearts always seemed to have rich social conflict with players scheming for leverage and position to use their stronger moves (but combat and dungeon crawling felt flat).

    PbtA games usually have several social options that focus interactions and let players drive at specific goals.

    Have you played with adapting the PbtA social moves? I'm still noodling with my hack.

  2. Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delayed response. Yeah, pbta social dynamics are definitely more fleshed out in general. I like and agree with your contrast that pbta dungeon-crawling can seem flat but D&D social mechanics can feel flat too, in turn. That being said, in my actual practice I have tended to rely on my own gut for social mechanics, supplemented by a simple reaction roll. I have some pbta online play scheduled soon, though, so I may be able to test out this angle soon...


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