OSR as a State of Mind

The post below is written by Shortymonster, a guest blogger for The Iron Tavern.

Every RPG could be an OSR game, it’s all a state of mind.

I want to start by saying that I do not consider myself to be a part of the Old School Renaissance (OSR)  movement; when I came into gaming it was with such systems as Vampire: the Masquerade, Cyberpunk 2020, and a mate’s home-brew system heavily inspired by Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. All these were quite crunchy systems, and as a new gamer, I liked that. It was comforting to know that if I wanted to try something out that there was a rule to cover it, or at least a guideline to give the GM a position to adjudicate from. As time moved on and I grew as a player, there was always a room in my heart for games like this. I’m still using CP2020 as a system for my next campaign, and although the World of darkness has fallen out of my favour, I still like Gothic horror games with a bit of crunch, such as Unhallowed Metropolis.

What has changed however is that I’m spending more and more of my time as a GM to the point that I spend more time running games than playing in them. Quite often these days I feel the need to ignore rules in favour of maintaining the flow of the story. Some may think this might not be in the spirit of fair play to my players, but I promise one thing, if I drop a rule for them, that same rule drop applies to all the NPCs too, and vice versa. Often I’m not dropping a rule because it doesn’t work, or because leaving it in gets in the way of me telling the story I want to tell, but because it gets in the way of the free flow of play. This is something that should be just as much of a concern to me as it is to my players, but they should never have to deal with, in fact it should happen so seamlessly that they shouldn’t even notice it.

This to me is the essence of the OSR; finding a set of rules that allows – nay, encourages – the GM to make on the spot decisions about character and NPC actions without having to check through countless chapters and tables to get the answer from the rules. This doesn’t mean the rules should be ignored unilaterally, just that they can be put aside when they become an inconvenience. Quite often, they wouldn’t exist in the first place to slow things down, as the game designer could trust the GM to make the right calling. So, why don’t fans of OSR just run any game they choose like that?

If I didn’t like the combat resolution system in CP2020 I would ditch the needlessly complicated rules and come up with something that allowed faster resolution of a fight but didn’t get in the way of my players performing the actions they think they should be able to. And you know what, I don’t like it, so I did change it. My way is way quicker, easier to explain, and opens up combat for the players to take a bit more of the initiative with what they would like their characters to do. This seems to be in line with a lock of hacks I’ve read about, people taking a setting they like, and retro-cloning the rules the fir an easier or more comfortable play style.

To be fair, a lot of the adventures I run don’t have much in common with what most people think of when you mention OSR. As an example, I don’t do dungeon crawls. I find them a bit boring and they only exist for me as a way of having a laugh at the expense of the preconceptions of the genre. I will be running Something Went Wrong for instance, but not because I like dungeon crawls; because I love the multi GM aspect and the fact that it makes fun of the genre in a pleasingly light-hearted way. For the very same reason, I’m a big fan of the Munchkin card game.

So, to fans of OSR games, and I know there’s a load of you out there, I would like to say that I love what you do, and the effort you go to just to keep your ideal play style and rule sets going – when I see free RPGs out there in an OSR style, I grab them up quick and love reading them and thinking about what I could do with them – I think I’ll just keep playing whatever game I choose, and keep the OSR feel going by how I run the game, and how my group plays it. And a big thank you to folks of a like mind out there, who keep on hacking things to fit the way want to play; you’re saving me a ton of work.


Shortymonster is new to this blogging lark, but if you have enjoyed what you’ve just read, head on over to his own site and take a look at his thoughts on a variety of subjects across the spectrum of role playing games.

8 thoughts on “OSR as a State of Mind

  1. I’m totally with you on the idea that the rules should not be a burden to ‘Flow of Play’. When I first started GMing back in 1978 we only had the first three books ‘Men and Magic’, ‘Wilderness Adventures’ and ‘Monsters and Treasure’ as a basis for creating and running our worlds. In the Introduction Gygax wrote that the rules were supposed to be a starting point and framework for GMs to use to create their own rules systems. So a lot of GMs in those days, myself included, did just that. My design philosophy was to keep it simple. I wanted one chart for conflict resolution that would serve an infinite number of conditions, not a hundred charts with one for each case. That, I realized, would make game play slow, and be a burden. So I created a conflict resolution matrix with a very simple idea in mind. There are Skills and Difficulty Levels. Fighting is a Skill, Armor is a Difficulty. Swimming is a Skill, and a Raging River is a Difficulty. Basket Weaving is a Skill, and ‘The Sacred Dragon Basket’ has a Difficulty Level. So the matrix simply compares Skill Level to Difficulty Level. All Difficulty Levels are rated on a scale of 1 to 6 (easiest to hardest). It works for combat (Attack Level vs. Armor Class), and just as well for all other Skill uses. I’ve been using that basic design since then, and it’s worked out great for me. The other charts in my system all pertain to Character Generation, and Equipment. So working in the system is really very easy and winds up not killing Story-Flow with Rules-Lawyering. I’m really very happy with the system. And the stories that have come out of it have been really spectacular. The rules are non-genre specific, so my campaign goes from High Fantasy, to Horror, to Comedy, to Romance to Swashbuckling Adventure, to Steam Punk, all without any slow down in the game due to Rules issues. It’s pretty wonderful. So I totally buy into what you’re saying about that. I’m a huge fan of low-impact rules systems. And since I never dropped using my own homebrew I’m squarely in the OSR camp. So, thanks for the post. I’m glad to hear that others are also thinking along these lines. Anyway, if you would like to read about what kinds of stories have come out of my game, I have been writing up our play test stories in novelesque prose form and putting them on my blog. The table of contents are here: http://www.elthos.com/ExampleGames.aspx … also, if you happen to want to get a copy of the rules you can from the site. Just create an account and the rules PDF can be downloaded from the Main Screen after you logon. Thanks again for a great post!

    • Your rule system sounds pretty interesting! It must have worked well for you to have used them for so many years. Being able to handle multiple genres is very nice as well. Less time learning nuances of rules and more time playing the game.

      • Thanks. I do happen to like it and since it’s mine, I’m obviously biased in its favor. However, that said, I also should add that my players like it too, and they’re a little less biased than I am. So maybe it’s pretty good. It has served us well, at any rate. If you like, you are welcome to check it out, with the caveat that I’m still tinkering with the Rules Book, and occasionally put up revisions on the website when we make a rules correction / modification. I sure would be curious to hear what you think of the rules if you do. 🙂

      • Thanks. I’m obviously biased in their favor since I created them to suit my GMing preference and style. However that said, I also my players like them too, and they’re a little less biased than I am. So I’m going with ‘they’re great’… provided you prefer a medium-weight character build, and light-weight conflict resolution system.

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  3. Really enjoyed this article, despite the slightly distracting typos. 😉 OSR is indeed an approach to gaming, and one that I have adopted for my forthcoming campaign using the new Rolemaster.

    As an aside, I’d love to read an article on your ideas around dungeon crawls. How might you run a subterranean story and avoid the dungeon crawl mindset? That would be an interesting read.

    • Oops, just re-read it and, yup, a couple slipped through there. Past me and a spell checker in fact. I will try harder I promise. 😉

      I did run a subterranean adventure as part of a larger campaign, but it was only a few chambers and mainly run for the horror aspect of possibly being trapped underground. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=163

      How would I run an entire underground game? That’s certainly food for thought, and if I take a swing at it, I’ll head back here and let you know.

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