2011-07-06 : I <3 the OSR...

Michael Pfaff asks, and Bwian seconds:

Can you tell us more about how the OSR has influenced your recent design? (I remember you mentioning something about this in a previous post.)

This is probably the mention you mean: 2009-04-06 : Fistfightville. What I say there is that in old school games, at dice time, the GM is the reporter, perhaps the interpreter, but never the arbiter outright of the game's fiction. This led me to the whole dice & clouds series, and also to the MC's agenda, principles and moves in Apocalypse World.

As far as my designs go, I haven't played any retroclones, and I don't follow any OSR luminaries closely, so maybe there's no direct influence. Storming the Wizard's Tower came straight out of playing Moldvay D&D, though, and Apocalypse World came straight out of Storming the Wizard's Tower, so what I see is parallel development.

It looks to me like the Old School Renaissance is designing games from thoughtfully- and critically observed actual play, and then publishing them independently. They're doing what I'm doing!

Ah! here's another mention, maybe you mean this one:

I find the old-school renaissance thrilling... I think we can learn some spectacular things from it and really broaden our designs, our play, and our social view. If you're like me, you're interested in what they're doing and you're excited to take part.

To do that, to engage with them at all, to even be able to read what they're writing, my story gamer friends, you'll need to set aside your instinct to commoditize, and reexamine "GM" as a powerful solution to the problem of biased judgment.

I still think that, and Apocalypse World is all about that precise thing. Bring the idea of a GM's agenda, principles and moves to your understanding of how the OSR plays games and, I propose, you'll see that they're doing some wicked cool things that we haven't been doing at all.

1. On 2011-07-07, Bwian said:

That's interesting what you say about StWT.

I got very excited about StWT when I read and played it - both the concept and the way it was all laid out -  because it did/ does seem to capture something about my early RP experiences.  But with much clearer structure for the GM.

So it seemed you had captured part of the feel of those memories and sort of 'bottled' it in a very concentrated form.

In some ways, though, a lot of the OSR seems to be about removing the structure.


2. On 2011-07-07, Ry said:

I love the OSR and have bought many OSR products, and I follow Grognardia and a few others blogs.

But... I do think there's an unacknowledged tension within the OSR between

1. Trying to consistently create an old-school experience
2. Putting GMs through the boot camp of developing the skills that make such an experience work
3. Having a few vague rules


3. On 2011-07-07, David Berg said:

Heh.  It's funny.  My first impression upon discovering story games was, "Instead of trying to tackle the tough issues of roleplaying, these people gave up and are doing something else."  Only later could I say, "Oh, okay, this story gaming stuff is roleplaying too, it's just different."

Anyway, for me, the concept of the GM as impartial outcome deliverer based on principles goes back like 20 years.  The question since then has simply been, what's the best toolkit for the GM to actually do that?

Does anyone know any good OSR GM toolkits?

Or training materials?

My occasional cartoons and examples seem to work well as orientation for some folks, but aren't exactly at-the-table tools.  I know tons of games with some tools that might apply (like AW), but none that are a complete OSR package.

I heartily agree that this is exciting design territory!  Encounters as Bangs, disaster and escalation tracks, GM-only mechanics, levels of certain and uncertain information, hint/clue economies, setting-based resolution reference... the possibilities are as infinite as the array of powerful but uncodified techniques that OSR GMs have been using for decades.


4. On 2011-07-07, Gregor Hutton said:

I really, really liked the GM advice book in the boxed set of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. James shoots from the hip and the tone really worked for me.


5. On 2011-07-11, Bwian said:


'...any good OSR GM toolkits?'

My first reactions - who knows whether they make any sense - are:

1) The early 'whole games' e.g. Moldvay Basic, Dragon Warriors contain GM toolkits, in the sense of collections of procedures GMs can use, and how to put them together, and examples of play (as do their clones/ reprints, as a result).  Those books don't contain everything a GM might use or need, but they do contain quite a lot - enough to play a game of sorts, if you can work out how to put the bits together.

2) There is a definite theme within the OSR that stresses case-by-case judgement (a la Delve in some ways?), rather than systematising the GM process.

You can find a million 'tools' out there: how to draw a map, how to stock a dungeon, how to write an encounter key, how to tell in-character from out-of-character knowledge, how to keep the player involved when a PC dies mid-session.

But there is a distinct tendency to resist the idea of prescribing a single way of putting all of these bits together.  There is an idea that each campaign/ session is an idiosyncratic construct.

So you can almost view the OSR itself as a 'toolkit', in the sense of a collection of discrete 'tools' to choose from and apply as your situation demands.  But there are not a whole lot 'toolkits' in the sense of clearly laid out, beginning to end GM 'operating manuals'.

This is/was part of the fascination of StWT for me, because it IS pretty complete.  Provided the GM already knows the basics of tabletop roleplay, you can definitely play the whole game by following the procedure/ sequence given.

If you look closely you can also see a complete overall procedure (for a different, smaller game) in Moldvay Basic - but the player-centred presentation tends to obscure the GM's role/functions.

Liked your cartoons and examples btw.  I was surprised by how much the cartoon, with its thought bubbles etc. helped to explain things.  Well done.


6. On 2011-07-11, David Berg said:

Bwian, I'm with ya, man.  I think the toolkit approach makes sense in a lot of ways, but few texts seem to reliably get GMs clear on the best way to match tools to situations in play.  I'm really curious about what you're seeing in Moldvay.  Care to get more specific?

I should also confess that I don't actually know what product "Moldvay Basic" refers to.

I'll also chime in that I like my toolkits unified, where there are logical and procedural consistencies between tools.  I think that makes it easier to (a) remember what to do when, and (b) learn the right orientation from which to make judgment calls.


7. On 2011-07-12, Jeff Russell said:

David, I'd recommend "A Quick Primer to Old School Gaming" as a quick guide to what sort of GMing the OSR is about. Not a whole lot of very specific advice, but enough to be useful and I felt like it provided a clear idea of what was different from the procedures that have come to be thought of as "traditional" as to be useful. In any event, it clearly conveys an enthusiasm for what seems like an exciting way to play.

You can get it here:
(it's free as a pdf)


8. On 2011-07-12, Vincent said:


I have a kind of harsh thing to say. Look out!

Those of you who are looking for an OSR rulebook - who want the OSR to explain itself to you - are missing the point. If you want to understand what they're doing, you're going to have to put in the time.

What they're doing isn't casually accessible, not because they aren't bothering to make it accessible, but because it legitimately requires work, practice, analysis, discipline, and investment. Same as what I'm doing!


9. On 2011-07-12, Vincent said:

...Which is not to say that they're not ALSO being intentionally and/or subconsciously obscure and provocative. They are, after all, a bunch of human people doing human people things. I can only presume that they promote simple options into best practices and best practices into immutable principles, and give their ideas emotionally challenging names to excite the excitable and repel the timid, and portion out their insights measure by measure instead of making a big generous gift of them, and all those other things I try not to do but manage to do anyway. It's the nature of the thing.

Also, they're new, as design movements go. Their first batch of games are just now in publication - their My Life with Master, their Universalis. Their publications over the next like 2-4 years will tell us a lot more.


10. On 2011-07-12, David Berg said:

Agreed; if you're new to OSR, you can't get it by reading any single text (thought that primer is a great intro to the mindset).

What I'm wondering is, if you already know OSR cold, who's out there working on extensive GM support for it in the form of game design?

A lot of OSR designers are actually not interested in that!  I can name a bunch of upcoming games that worked really hard on characters and advancement and left moment-to-moment GMing unaddressed.


11. On 2011-07-13, Bwian said:

@ David

...who's out there working on extensive GM support for it in the form of game design?

I guess there might be some, although I'm not aware of them.

There is a definite thread in what I read of the 'old school' that seeks to avoid tying any GM down to any particular, integrated approach.

Sometimes it seems to be implied that there is no such thing as a comprehensive procedure for old school play.  This is potentially incredibly liberating and/or threatening and/or silly and/or [insert other adjective].

The talk seems to be more about 'methods as tools' than it is about 'game as system'.

So at that level it seems to me that what the OSR community is doing is a bit different than/ tangential to a lot of the Forge/ indie (??) activity.

I agree with Vincent that what is happening there is deeper than just another system.  At the moment the OSR doesn't strike me as a particularly focussed on game design, much less 'how-to-design'.  This must be a strength in some ways.

Re.: Molday Basic, I'm referring to the 'version' of

Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Rulebook

edited for TSR by Tom Moldvay, and first published in 1981.



first batch of games: I wonder what you see as being the important/ interesting/ influential ones here?


12. On 2011-07-13, Vincent said:

Oh, I wouldn't have the first clue. It might even be that their games aren't their important publications at all.


13. On 2011-07-13, David Berg said:

Bwian, thanks for the info!  Is that this?

I dunno about important/interesting/influential, but here are some OSR games recently published or nearing publication: Old School Hack, Legends & Labyrinths, Adventurer Conqueror King.

On methods as tools, I dig it, but it's old news, and identifying more and more methods is getting less and less exciting for me.  Improved usability would be exciting, though—having the toolkit nicely diagrammed and laid out for immediate and easy reference and use in the moment.  Focus and priority also has potential—"these 10 tools are irrelevant, these 10 are fine supplements but don't sweat 'em, and these 5 tools are the ones you absolutely must master for this game."

In my experience, the biggest problem with old-school style gaming is the need to find a brilliant GM, and any OSR work that doesn't tackle that disappoints me.  But I started playing in '87; maybe that wasn't an issue in '81...?


14. On 2011-07-13, Vincent said:

Hey, check out this insightful post by Tony Dowler, on Story Games, about Dungeon World's "spout lore" move.


15. On 2011-07-13, Paul T. said:


I don't think most people would think of Old School Hack as an "OSR" game. It's quite the contrary: kind of a D&D4E lite with indie elements (e.g. Fan Mail).

One game I keep hearing a lot about as an OSR product is Lamentations of the Fire Princess ("LotFP").


16. On 2011-07-13, David Berg said:

Ugh.  I can't separate OSR games from old-school non-OSR games.  Definitions... too... fuzzy...

Fanmail might seem aberrant, but hey, L&L's Energy Points (GM hands out resources for playing with or against your alignment or just being colorful) might too.  Spout Lore strikes me as potentially being a bigger stretch to old-schoolness than either.

LotFP's site isn't very informative, but RPGPundit's review of the game is.  Sounds like D&D with more interesting character class disparities and better encumbrance and item-creation rules, but I'll look further...


17. On 2011-07-14, Bwian said:


Yep.  That's it.

I'm not claiming that it will meet your requirements...  but it does have a minimal set of techniques/methods.

Is it enough to run a game?  A good game?  That depends 1) what game you want to run; 2) what transferable skills you already have; 3) your audience etc.

I hear what you're saying about 'old news'.

Talk to me about 'useability'.  What do you mean by that?

Focus  I think you get in Moldvay, since its so small (although, as I say, the player-centred presentation throws it off a bit)

The six 'must master' items in Moldvay (p B60) are listed as:

- That's not in the rules! (GM improvises rulings)
- There's always a chance (allow a saving throw)
- DM is Boss (resolving conflict over rules/rulings)
- Everyone is here to have fun (focus on the fiction, keep the game moving)
- Everything is balanced (threat vs. reward, adapting to group preference)
- Your character doesn't know that (enforcing character ignorance)

pp. B60-B61 also add ten 'optional suggestions' ranging from Mapping (getting players to draw a map of the dungeon as they explore) to Playing Surface (using a 'battlemap' or similar for tactical display).

Add to this what is covered in the main body of the rules (designing scenarios, dungeons etc), and you have 'a GM toolkit'.  Is it the perfect toolkit?  *shrug*

Its not beautifully laid out.  But it is short.  That's a BIG virtue.

Something that has never really happened is tool descriptions at the level of 'micro-skills', although this was partly covered by 'examples of play'.  Your cartoons are a step in that direction.  Good luck!  :)

As for needing a 'brilliant GM'...  I don't know.  I have always found some players easier to please than others.  8)

What games were you playing in, say 1990?


18. On 2011-07-15, Michael Pfaff said:

Definitely was the second one, but I like the first one too.

Was there anything "wicked cool" you took out of playing, reading and seeing others do the same with Moldvay D&D?


19. On 2011-07-15, Vincent said:

Oh man was there ever!

I learned about fiction-driven competitive play, and how on earth you can GM it, and how on earth you can design for it.

I learned about the strategic and tactical texture that moral questions can provide to competitive play, mirror image to the moral texture that strategic and tactical questions can provide to thematic play.

WICKED cool.


20. On 2011-07-18, Michael Pfaff said:

Fiction-driven competitive play.

Love that term.


21. On 2011-08-15, Clinton said:

People looking for an OSR GM toolkit: Vincent's right in that you have to put in the time, but if you want some help with that, get Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And not the free version: it doesn't include the GM book. Read the hell out of that GM book. It is fantastic.

LotFP is a great game to play, too.


22. On 2011-08-16, Vincent said:

I got LotFP a couple of weeks ago. It's great! I'm going to run it this fall.


23. On 2011-08-19, David Berg said:

Hey Clinton, is that LotFP GM book easy to memorize / use in play?

I've read probably thousands of pages of good GM advice that didn't stick in my memory and/or wasn't evident enough in the moment of play to overcome my default instincts.

I'm not sure what the alternatives are, but I will say that Harper's Apocalypse World MC sheet was a little more usable.


24. On 2011-08-20, Vincent said:

By the look of it, like Apocalypse World's, the GM section isn't advice, it's orientation. Play will tell but it looks quite solid.


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