Monday, April 10, 2023

The Genres the OSR Can't Do


If you only ever listened to annoying AD&D fanboys, you might think that the OSR is strictly about crawling through big megadungeons as sword and sorcery murderhobos. But no community should be defined by its worst gatekeepers. The very fact that they suggest the OSR to be anything other than a manufactured revisionist narrative is reason enough for them to be suspect. To me, the OSR is an enduring illusion in large part because it's a very flexible culture of play. And I feel that despite its reputation for being notoriously difficult to define, "old school play" is still pretty cohesive and compelling.

I usually find myself on the side arguing for an expansive definition. "Renaissance," not "revival." The most important non-D&D game in the OSR lineage is Traveller and its relatives, and indeed, moderately-hard sci fi is a cornerstone genre in this space. So too are noir / investigation games and horror games. The genres often get blended together (Lamentations of the Flame PrincessMothership, Electric BastionlandEsoteric Enterprises, and Liminal Horror come to mind) but they just as often remain separate! Perhaps these four genres are simply the cornerstones of all RPGs. The most robust and reliable ones you can emulate in nearly any play culture. Remember, Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness have historically been the biggest serious competitors to D&D globally.

Despite this, I've recently been thinking about some things that have got me feeling out the borders of what can count as "OSR." This is a rare occasion when I'll be the one standing guard at the gate. But more interesting than that, I aim to discuss why these outsider genres can still be very exciting anyway for someone with OSR-inclinations like myself, even if they're "incompatible" with my default preferences.


Context

I would be remiss not to bring up what has me thinking about this. I've recently heard a number of hilariously bad takes that take aim at the so-called "Questing Beast school of RPG design." This is funny of course because Ben Milton is the consummate uncontroversial, apolitical voice leading his corner of the RPG industry largely from behind. To the extent that his criticism and original thoughts have any agenda behind them, they are usually just things like, "it's good to make books that are readable" and "it's good to make games that are playable." Accordingly, the sources of these bad takes seem to advocate... making games less playable. Good for them, I guess. I hope they have fun.

But of course, they still got me thinking. There are lots of things I disagree with QB about. Pretty frequently, really. But it's not anything specific to him. It's almost always just the kinds of blind spots that nearly all gamers have. The issue of most gamers being a bit close-minded in their appreciation of games, and then the bad arguments that arise from them trying to justify their criticisms of things which don't fit those preferences. And just as I frequently see other OSR folks parroting some of these bad arguments, I am trying myself to be a bit more conscious about not falling into that trap. I spend so much time and effort trying to articulate what I like about OSR games and why its my preferred playstyle in those four genres... that I don't have many well-formed opinions to offer regarding anything outside that small range of experiences.


Some Basic Assumptions

As stated, there is no agreed-upon definition of the OSR. But I'll draw attention to a few common traits people associate with it. Not the most important ones, but the ones relevant to this post's discussion.
  1. Player skill over character skill ("the answer is not on your character sheet")
  2. Tactical transparency
  3. Heroic, not superheroic
  4. High lethality and/or general grittiness of violence
  5. "Combat as a fail state" or "combat as war" or otherwise just, like, not favoring tactical "combat as sport" play
  6. Player motivation-driven campaigns, especially open worlds and sandbox challenges
There are lots of adjacent concepts derived from these that are a bit shakier. Some people insist that OSR means low-magic. Maybe having narrativist mechanics and procedures makes something disqualified. Occasionally you hear folks explain the OSR as, "the characters aren't really the interesting thing, the world around them is." Maybe there's something to that. I don't know. But I do see how the "core RPG genres" are flexible enough to either adhere to these traits or to reject them and still keep the genre intact. You can play a dungeoncrawl and focus on solving puzzles and turning factions against each other and luring monsters into traps (as in Maze Rats) or you can focus on how the environment of the dungeon tests your convictions and beliefs, how the darkness and labyrinth-layout stresses your brain, and how your body gets worn down (as in Torchbearer). Cultures of play do not own genres of story, ya feel? But if some genres can be incompatible with some cultures of play, then I have three likely suspects picked out to analyze.



Mecha

First of all, all three of these genres are pretty combat-centric. That'll be a recurring theme, and it hits a lot of those points on the handful of "OSR traits" we picked out.

I find mecha RPGs to be a wonderful set of paradoxes that totally upend most of my criticisms of modern D&D. There are so many traits of 4E and Pathfinder that I deride which, by the conceits of the genre premise itself, are 100% okay in mecha games.

Character death

There's a well-known tradeoff between the extensiveness of character creation versus the lethality of a game. Dying is meant to be a meaningful consequence that you want to avoid, right? It should punish you. But there are some punishments that are too harsh for a casual game of fun with your friends. If creating a character takes fucking hours in your system of choice, then you'd hate to lose them after only a couple sessions, and especially to a swingy die roll or a dumb mistake or something. The more of a burden it is to make a character, the less viable it is to employ death as a common and expected consequence for failure.

Now of course, a game with really intensive character creation can always get away with that easily enough if it also doesn't put players into life-or-death situations very often. But we all know that I'm talking about WotC D&D and Pathfinder, right? They're action games. They want you to get into fights. Combat isn't a fail state, it's what you're playing for. Meaning, of course, that they have a great deal of difficulty contending with this tradeoff. Death is such a punishing consequence in these games that they bend over backwards doing everything they can to keep players from ever experiencing it (unplanned, that is). But by doing so, they remove the stakes of any basic combat situation. If the dramatic question of a fight isn't "will they live or die?" then what is it instead? Many great thinkers of the era have proposed some pretty limp answers to that question, but ultimately they're just trying to cope with a playstyle that, by design, tries to have its cake and eat it too.

Of course, you could always come up with consequences of harm that aren't death, if you're creative. Characters could risk getting kidnapped, injured, humiliated, exiled, thrown into the Bog of Eternal Stench, or any number of things. I myself often play games where death is not on the table, and I greatly enjoy these kinds of alternative modes of thinking about risk. But let's be honest: in an action game featuring at least one combat almost every session, it is a huge amount of effort to commit to this. When two people are attacking each other with swords, the most intuitive consequence to that situation would be "someone dies," okay?

But in a mecha game? Well, suddenly it's much easier to justify.

So you're in a combat situation, giant robots duking it out in an asteroid field, really just feeding each other the ol' left-right. And this Voltron-looking douchebag punches right into your guts and pulls out your core phlebotinum processor module. That sounds like death, right? But... you hit the eject button, fly away in an escape pod, recover the pieces of your mecha later, and rebuild it during downtime. Wouldja lookit that? Cake tastes delicious when you get to still have it!

This is still a meaningful sense of "death" as a consequence because, yes, your player avatar got trashed and you were removed from play. The GM didn't have to come up with some way to describe two mechas fighting each other where the outcome wasn't "you get torn to pieces." They were free to just describe things in basically the same terms as the most gruesome, grindhouse combat imaginable. The other robot pulled out a giant neutron star sword and split your mecha in half down the middle.  Your ass is sitting out the rest of the fight, and your teammates are down an ally. But you also have a convenient excuse for why you don't have to go through character creation again, justified by the basic premise of the mecha genre.

[The following two points are discussed in my post "Not All Crunch is the Same," but as usual I'll save you the trouble of having to read that other post.]

Enumerated powers

When a game has, say, a feat or something that grants players the ability to do X, then it implies that you could not do X otherwise without the feat. It must be specifically enumerated to you by the rules. Most RPGs assume that, "the PCs can do anything they can imagine, describe, and seems feasible in the fiction." The rules dictate only the things you can't do. But a game with enumerated powers are, to use the clich√©, like buttons in a video game. In a video game, if you have an idea of what you want to do, then it needs to be mapped to a button on your controller for it to be possible. The rules dictate everything you can do.

[Marcia recently wrote about this and calls it "Exception-Based Design" which is probably a better name]

This is a type of crunch that you see all over D&D 4E, 3E/Pathfinder, and GURPS, but it isn't just a new school thing. The very first supplement for OD&D, Greyhawk, introduced the Thief class and it was immediately controversial for this precise reason. If the Thief is given mechanics for things like sneaking, disabling traps, and climbing (and godawful mechanics at that), then does that imply that members of other classes can't do those things? The answer, apparently, was yes. So of course, I typically disapprove of this kind of nonsense and shout "bad design, major L."

But in a mecha game? Well, suddenly it's much easier to justify.

Want to design a combat system where a character can't use their action to move unless they take a feat for it? Alright, we'll just say that "dashing" requires your mecha to have rocket boosters installed. Want to gate grappling behind a specific class build that a player has to select? Alright, we'll say that most mecha aren't capable of a grappling function unless they're built using a flexible, arm-focused chassis specializing in that purpose. Want to make disabling a lock a specific power you have to choose to invest in instead of something anyone can attempt? Alright, we'll just say that your mecha needs to have a special hacking module installed in order to access electronic-based mechanisms. Almost anything you imagine can be justified as an upgrade you can attach to your robot somehow.

Resource-based abilities

Resource management is an extremely flexible, intuitive, and engaging tool in game design. It's a very attractive option when you're trying to construct a source of challenge for the player but don't want to have to keep concocting more and more unique obstacles to throw at them. But I often criticize designers for relying on it too much, and especially for things that I don't feel make sense. Some powers seem like they should just be, like, things that you can innately do. Why do Barbarians in 5E get a limited number of rages per day? Why are so many things limited to once per short rest when there's nothing about them which seems like it's "exhausting" at all? Well, who can say? The meta reason is for balance, but there isn't a satisfying explanation within the fiction. 4E D&D was built entirely on arbitrarily limited resources, which is one of many reasons that people think it feels "video game-y."

But in a mecha game? Well, suddenly it's much easier to justify.

Think about just how many cool mecha powers you can imagine that could be reasonably limited based on ammo, fuel, battery power, overheating, or some other weird sci-fi nonsense. Having limited-use powers is nice because it allows you to grant players the chance to do something fucking crazy and badass without fearing that they'll use it constantly to solve all problems. You could always design the game such that players have lots of minor, passive bonuses instead. Sometimes that's great! But in the mecha genre, I feel like it's absolutely fitting to instead have play be punctuated by sporadic moments of unbelievable feats that, then, cannot be immediately repeated because it was a bit too draining.

Dissociated mechanics

This is a term I believe was coined by Justin Alexander but which has been identified and discussed for as long as there have been RPGs. Let me again save you the trouble of reading another essay and just quote Alexander's definition.
An associated mechanic is one which has a connection to the game world. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the game world.

The easiest way to perceive the difference is to look at the player’s decision-making process when using the mechanic: If the player’s decision can be directly equated to a decision made by the character, then the mechanic is associated. If it cannot be directly equated, then it is dissociated.

For example, consider [an American] football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt.

The mechanic is dissociated because the decision made by the player cannot be equated to a decision made by the character. No [football] player, after making an amazing one-handed catch, thinks to themselves, “Wow! I won’t be able to do that again until the next game!” Nor do they think to themselves, “I better not try to catch this ball one-handed, because if I do I won’t be able to make any more one-handed catches today.”
[Having served you some tasty copypasta, I also encourage you to read the rest of that post later since it's really good.]

Alexander picks on a really good example of a dissociated mechanic that frustrates me. In D&D 4E, a very common type of power that most classes and many monsters had access to was some kind of "marking" effect. A power where you designate an opponent ("marking" them) and inflict some kind of conditional penalty for as long as you keep them marked, perhaps limited to only having one enemy marked at a time. Things like, "When you attack you may mark the enemy, dealing 1d8 radiant damage automatically whenever the enemy attacks targets other than you" or "when you mark the enemy, all allies have a +2 bonus to attack rolls against the target."

Almost all of these effects were non-magical in nature. But without the explanation of magic, then what explanation is there? How are we to understand what these powers represent within the fiction? What real-life human action can you perform which these mechanics are simulating? The answer, of course, is fuck you.

But in a mecha game? Well, suddenly it's much easier to justify.

The one place in a D&D-like game where you can easily come up with justifications for powers that would otherwise be dissociated is magic. Magic isn't real, so you can just make up whatever contrived rules for it that you want. And in a mecha game? Everything is magic.

I know that might sound wrong, but think about it. All of the fantastic elements that allow for these amazing feats are following an "anything goes, you make the rules" logic just like a magic system does in a fantasy story. You can't actually build human-shaped robots the size of skyscrapers, and certainly not ones that can move as quickly, fight as fiercely, or employ as many cool sci-fi gadgets as the kind you'd find in a mecha game. So fuckit. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so you can technobabble away a lot of the potential sources of dissociation. A 4E-style marking effect? Just say that you hacked into the enemy mecha and let loose a virus on them mid-battle, or something.

So now we must ask two important questions:


1. Can you make an OSR mecha game?

The answer might seem at first to be an obvious, "sure, why not?" But I think it might actually be no. You can certainly make an OSR-like mecha game. Post-OSR or OSR-influenced or whatever you want to call it. I highly recommend checking out Absolute Tabletop's awesome game The Mecha Hack, derived from beloved OSR title The Black Hack by David Black. It's a brilliant product that will be a thousand times more palatable to most old school-inclined gamers than something like Lancer. But at the end of the day, how many core OSR assumptions of play can we preserve in this genre?

Heroic, not superheroic? Good luck with that.

High lethality? As discussed, this manages to deconstruct that dichotomy entirely.

Combat as a fail state? Fat chance, buddy.

Whatever lengths you'd have to go to in order to reshape the mecha genre to fit these OSR ideals are also going to render the genre almost unrecognizable.


2. Why would an OSR-inclined player be interested in this then?

Because those exact same types of game design that we'd normally disapprove of are still popular among other gamers for a pretty good reason: because there's still potential fun to be had with them. Enumerated powers, resource-management, and dissociated mechanics are all different types of choice architecture that you can set up for players to interact with and exploit. It is my belief that different games are about the different types of thinking they involve you in. And all of those may indeed be "types of thinking" that conflict with the purist ideals of a fiction-first, freeform playstyle... but they're still an alternative, fun type of thinking to indulge in sometimes. It's easier to get comfortable exploring those alternative design possibilities when they can be justified by genre conceits that aren't normally present in medieval-ish dungeoncrawlers.



Wuxia

D&D occasionally briefly acknowledges this genre and usually does a pretty terrible job of describing it, so I'm gunna do you a favor and wipe the slate clean from whatever secondary references you may have learned about it from. Wuxia is a storytelling tradition about the adventures of Chinese martial artists, going back centuries. For those unfamiliar with the specific genre conventions, here are some common traits:
  1. The protagonists are wandering warriors, loyal to a mentor and sect.
  2. They are heroic figures who live by a code, often the only ones who will uphold virtue in the places beyond the reach of the law. And if the law is present, then it's probably corrupt.
  3. The setting is a mythologized version of historical China, especially during the Imperial Era.
  4. Fantasy tropes rooted in Chinese folk tradition have some presence, such as the idea of qi, flying martial arts, magic relics, and spirits.
  5. They feature a lot of melodrama, swordplay, and kung fu.
Any of those assumptions can and often are broken, but any work that is commonly labeled as wuxia will retain, like, at least 3 of them.

When I was a kid, I grew up preferring Hong Kong martial arts films over wuxia. I liked Bruce Lee because I knew that he was really doing all that crazy stuff. When it came to Jackie Chan versus Jet Li, I was always firmly on team Jackie because, of course, he didn't use wires. For some reason, the main appeal of kung fu to me was how impressive it was, which requires a bit more authenticity. In hindsight, that's fucking dumb. Jet Li rules.

I eventually came to see that wuxia is the Chinese equivalent of westerns, or even better, sword and sorcery. Wandering heroes, frontier justice, low magic, personal stakes, meaningful violence, all that stuff. But if it's so much like sword and sorcery, then why can't it be OSR?

Why do we fight?

I don't know about you, but this is a question I think about a lot in regards to gaming. I myself often play action games that assume you'll have a decent amount of combat in them, but I spend a lot of time and effort trying to justify it. I love me some random encounters, but I've always hated, "and then you get ambushed by some baddies/monsters." That's limp. I need a hook in there. If the scene is going to lead to violence, I want it to feel like that was a very sensible and natural place for it to go. This is a big part of why motivations are such a valuable detail in defining an NPC, for me. And beyond that, I always try to have a combat scenario be about something a little bit more than just, "we wanna kill you, you wanna kill us." 

This might not be exactly how other old-schoolers think about these things, but it's in the same neighborhood. A similar mindset produced the maxim "combat is a fail-state," the mechanics of reaction rolls and morale rolls, and the tradition of treating factions in dungeons as something you'd just as soon ally and aim like a weapon as you would fight. And by golly, if your players are smart, they should be trying to avoid a straight fight even if it is a sensible outcome. OSR games often even create incentive systems that specifically reward you for avoiding combat.

Wuxia fiction is like the complete opposite of this.

Characters fight when they're enemies, when they're friends, when they're strangers, when they're teacher and student, when they're trying to recruit one another, when there's been a misunderstanding, when they're practicing, when they have an audience, when they want privacy, when they're eating, when they're shopping, when they're on the road, when they try to meditate, when they're flirting, when they're outnumbered, and on and on and on. Any time you ask yourself, "could this be a fight scene?" the answer is probably yes. It is not merely the perfect solution to nearly all problems. Characters resort to it even when there's no problem. It's often casual, accidental, and even friendly.

Tactical Transparency

Okay okay so there's going to be, like, 1000% more combat than in the typical OSR game. So what? Most old schoolers still like combat. They have their own way of doing it that appeals to them. If they didn't, they wouldn't spend so much time discussing the best ways to incorporate "maneuvers" into the game. But there's a specific quality of OSR combat that's rarely identified but very important to the core philosophy of play: tactical transparency.

Tactical transparency refers to when the rules of a game, especially those relating to combat, can pretty reliably simulate and validate "common sense" tactics. Assuming for a moment that you aren't going fully freeform (as in the FKR tradition of play), and that there'll be at least a small layer of abstraction through crunch, then you can still do that in ways that vary from transparent to opaque.

So for example, "narrativist" games are usually pretty tactically opaque. A lot of PbtA games summarize all action into a catch-all "attack" move of some kind, where the specifics of a fight is merely some fluff you describe. Some games give you metacurrencies to manipulate the fiction, but they're not making you think about what your character knows. In Robin Laws's Feng Shui, a player can spend a Fortune Point to say, "luckily, there's a shield mounted on the wall that my character grabs and uses!" You might think, "isn't that a common sense tactic? Using a shield to defend yourself?" But the point is the decision-making part. The type of thinking that you're doing. You chose to add a shield to the scene yourself, so the skill being tested wasn't your ability to problem-solve and think critically within the bounds of what was available. Rather, the skill being tested instead was your creative writing ability and fiction improv.

In the middle, we have games where you do play through the fight itself beat-by-beat, but the tactics still aren't fully transparent. If the combat rules make use of a lot of dissociated mechanics (as discussed above) or otherwise encourage "system mastery" (e.g. the best way to perform well is to just know the rules thoroughly and how to exploit them), then that's still preeeeetty opaque. The skill being tested is how good you are at playing this game.

But if a game validates an idea you have just based on its "actual merit," then things are beginning to be pretty transparent. A good rule of thumb is this: would I still have made this same decision if we had been playing this fight using any other ruleset? If yes, then your tactics transcend specific crunch. If no, then your tactics may be a product of thinking about the situation in terms of that specific crunch. "I only chose to aim for the eyes of this thing because that deactivates its passive buff to its allies" isn't as transparent a way of thinking as "I chose to aim for the eyes because I want it to be blind, so we can sneak away without it knowing what direction we went."

Anyway, the OSR combat ideal is often one in which you can get pretty far just by thinking of common sense stuff, and especially where you are rewarded for having clever ideas. But I just don't see this being applicable in most wuxia action. Maaaaaybe those aforementioned martial arts films by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, because they don't have much fantasy stuff in them, right? But even then, the "tactical thinking" behind most moves thrown in a fight is probably just, "I will try to punch him with the aim of injuring him." But in "true wuxia" it's an even bigger stretch. Characters literally fly, they move at super speed, and they can catch or throw anything faster that you can see. Even regular fistfighting, wrestling, and jumping is heightened beyond how it should work. Wuxia can appear on the surface to be about the same sort of realistic subjects as a grounded OSR game, where normal humans do normal human actions without magic or monsters involved. But a subtle, stylistic "genre magic" is injected into the kinds of activities that would be totally mundane in other genres, like drawing a sword or, hell, even just walking.

Wherever you find magic, you tend to work against tactical transparency. The higher the magic, the less it resembles real-life tactical options, and the more it relies on the player having a knowledge of those magic rules instead of their general common sense. They have to learn the tactical parameters of this specific game's combat rules in order to figure out what options they have, such as whether or not it's a viable idea to jump up and stand atop your foe's sword in order to avoid an attack.

Melodrama

Okay okay so there's going to be a lot of combat and it isn't going to be particularly rewarding of player skill. But so what? Conan the Barbarian is the most sword and sorcery OSR motherfucker in the world, and he can tear apart an army by himself! There's room for that, right? Well, that brings us to the last wuxia trait that I think gets in the way.

I mentioned a lot of tropes that wuxia has in common with westerns and sword and sorcery, but there's a pretty important distinction from those two genres: wuxia heroes are usually pretty unambiguously capital-G Good. Not always, but the vast majority of them. And yet, despite a black-and-white morality, wuxia stories are also often characterized by more moral complexity than a lot of sword and sorcery works! It's not uncommon for the plot to be based around a melodramatic lose-lose situation of good people with good intentions all in conflict with one another, their hearts and loyalties pulled in many directions.

Is that incompatible with the OSR? I don't know, but it certainly isn't complementary to it. Focus on character drama is not common in the old school culture of play, and any kinds of mechanical support for it in the rules is usually derided. Even just character creation is usually constructed so as to discourage this type of thinking as much as possible, emphasizing instead the importance of "roll up someone quick so we can get your ass back in the dungeon ASAP." A lot of old schoolers don't even like giving their PC a personality at all, essentially just making every single character, "basically like myself, but with magic."

So let's revisit those two key questions.


1. Can you make an OSR wuxia game?

The classic wuxia game is Robin Laws's Feng Shui, which definitely isn't OSR. Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate by Bedrock Games is mistakenly called OSR sometimes, but I'm not sure why. It's a well-designed game but holy hell is it crunchy. The table of contents alone is sixteen pages long.

As mentioned a few times previously on this blog, my co-writer is working on a wuxia game called Rivers & Lakes. It started out as a Knave hack. Maybe just "kung fu rules you can bolt onto Knave," or maybe something a bit more in-depth like Vaults of Vaarn or Mausritter. So, y'know, back then we told ourselves, "this game will fill the gap at last! Finally, there will be an OSR wuxia RPG!"

...Yeah, no. Definitely not. I'm very proud of the work finished so far on Rivers & Lakes but it definitely isn't old school. That said, it might be the most palatable option for old-schoolers who are curious about wuxia, much like how The Mecha Hack is the most old school-appealing mecha game. There are OSR fingerprints all over it, especially in regards to presentation, layout, and priorities. But at the end of the day, how many core OSR gameplay principles can we preserve in this genre?

Heroic, not superheroic? Good luck with that.

Player skill and tactical transparency? Only really if you focus on a very narrow subgenre or sister-genre of wuxia, but otherwise you're fighting an uphill battle.

Combat as a fail state? Could not possibly be more wrong.


2. Why would an OSR-inclined player be interested in this then?

Aside from the general, "because it's awesome"? Well, there is one notable aspect of OSR play that can be found in this genre: open-world sandbox campaigning. Wuxia is all about the wandering hero going from town to town and picking their battles. In the long term, they set goals like hunting down their enemies for vengeance, seeking out teachers of obscure fighting techniques, and planning the future of their sect. I actually think that Avatar: the Last Airbender provides the skeleton of a pretty much perfect wuxia RPG campaign, even though it's ultimately a quest to save the world.

This is subjective of course, but the open-world player-driven sandboxing stuff is probably my favorite aspect of OSR play. So even if every other old school trait has to be dropped or twisted in this genre, as long as this one thing can be preserved then I'm interested. And along the way, I've learned to have fun playing out combats that are pretty tactically opaque. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect that my distaste for those kinds of rules may have actually been because... crunchy combat rules often just kinda suck. But they don't have to.


Superheroes

I expect we're going to have to change up the structure here a bit. Because I can already tell that some of you are ready to object.

"Hasn't this dipshit heard of FASERIP?" "What about this Swords & Wizardry hack of superheroes?" "Surely Godbound counts, right?"

Hold your horses.

Maybe I'm wrong. You could probably convince me otherwise. But I'm here today ready to argue that you can't really have a superhero RPG that is both true to the genre and upholds the most commonly-valued and commonly-practiced aspects of OSR play culture. I'll try to leave a bit of wiggle room to acknowledge some edge cases but hear me out.

Alleged OSR Super Games

The first and biggest one is definitely FASERIP, the retroclone of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes from 1984. But I need to strongly emphasize that "OSR" is not just "anything that's 20+ years old" or whatever. It's a culture of play and design. Just because a game is old doesn't mean it actually has the traits we identify with OSR play. For pete's sake, the most iconic mechanic is one of the classic, original metacurrencies: the karma system, where players are rewarded for appropriate roleplay with points they can spend to boost actions with no diegetic explanation. If you're familiar with Inspiration in D&D 5E, imagine a much more complex and granular version that's also foundational to the entire system.

Meanwhile, I know of no less than four OD&D-derived superhero games: Hideouts & Hoodlums, Light City, Mystery Men!, and Guardians. Each of them uses the OD&D/S&W base but then builds or modifies it just a little bit. But pop the hood open and you'll see plain as day that none of them are equipped to tell stories about Batman, Spider-Man, or anything in between. Hell, these games are reluctant at best to allow even just flying. H&H especially feels less like a hack and more like a reskin in a lot of ways, where the "superhero" class is just the cleric and each spell has been made into a "superpower" that you can cast. And H&H's answer to gameplay is to just reskin dungeons as "criminal hideouts" to explore room-by-room.

Then we have 3rd wave OSR stuff. The two I see cited the most frequently are The Super Hack and The Vigilante Hack, which are both based on The Black Hack by David Black. These have similar issues to the previous, even if the rules being copied are more modern and polished. The Vigilante Hack is mostly rules for combat, and bizarrely medieval-like combat at that.

To be clear, I'm not calling any of these games "bad." Many of them are pretty brilliant. But that's not my point. Having rules for superpowers alone is not quite a "superhero RPG." Hell, that's all magic is in D&D. And merely adapting rules in an old edition of D&D as a framework does not make something OSR. These options might be appealing to a grognard in the sense that, "attacking works how you're used to, saving throws work how you're used to, spellcasting works how you're used to," etc. But they aren't exactly the sorts of mechanics that shape a particular playstyle.

Revisit your copy of the Principia Apocrypha. Notice that it doesn't have much to say about the specifics of your dice system, saving throws, or action economy. The spirit of old school play is in the way players navigate their conflict situation. And it is my contention that the underlying assumptions of the superhero genre itself, irrespective of mechanics, is what's at odds with the old school style of play.

The Supers are Too Super

Most OSR folks tend to prefer low-magic, high-lethality play. And where you do see a bit of flash, it's less likely to be in the PCs. Rather, it's the world that's fantastic and interesting. Does that sound like supers to you? Come on, all of Marvel comics just takes place in New York City. Gotham City is pretty interesting and cool, and Batman has no powers at all... but his story doesn't strike me as very lethal. Mainstream superhero stories very rarely feature protagonists dying, even without the Comics Code.

OSR values fast character creation and disposability, but the whole fantasy of the superhero genre is the uniqueness of each and every super. Take some time to come up with some neat powers, a theme, a costume, a name, etc. If you deny players that, then you're almost certainly denying them the most appealing part of "D&D but as superheroes!" in their heads. FASERIP has random character creation, but... it is by far the least popular part of the system and is almost universally houseruled right out.

The Focus is Too Shifted

The two activities that superhero comics books feature more than anything else are 1) action, and 2) drama. Just like with wuxia, you have a lot of fight scenes and a lot of soap opera stuff. Both of these things are available in old school play, but they are less popular in this play culture than in nearly any other. And doing either of those activities properly often requires design that serves to undermine other OSR ideals. In order to properly do the soap opera stuff, you need a character who is planted firmly in the game world. They need NPC relationships, a job, responsibilities, secrets, the works. They should be carefully-crafted and unique. And in order to feature so much action, there should be both 1) some depth to the combat rules and 2) some answers to "how do people who get into so many fights never seem to die?" that I imagine most grognards won't care for.

The Solutions are Too Weird

But even if we can accept those differences, we then have an issue with superpowers. Just as with wuxia kung fu, superpowers aren't just a problem because they make PCs "too strong" for the OSR. More importantly, they make you more reliant on crunch.

I touched on this earlier when I said "wherever you find magic, you tend to work against tactical transparency." See, we often say that a game with high tactical transparency allows you to think in terms that would make perfect sense in the "real world" equivalent of the game's situation. But what about stuff that isn't in the real world? Surely, the presence of magic and superpowers must throw all common sense out the window.

Well, yes and no. A lot of fantastic abilities (spells in D&D, powers in super games) can still be understood with common sense. If you can cast a spell that allows you to shoot fire from your hands, then presumably the magical fire summoned by the spell still behaves like real fire would, right? You don't need an exhaustively long and detailed spell description that tells you exactly how it does and doesn't work. You can just say, "treat it like fire." I bet that super strength, flight, and invisibility could all be run pretty easily through ad-hoc rulings.

But then there are those abilities that just need a bit of detail. In D&D, you have things like counterspell or restoration or even mage armor. How do you explain their effects in any terms other than the rules describing them? What actually is the spell guidance doing? "It's letting you add 1d4 to the result of a roll!" And whenever you have an ability like this, if you do come up with a description in the fiction ("casting mage armor puts an invisible force field around you") then that just raises more questions and creates exploits ("how does the force field know what to keep out? Does it protect clothing or can we burn you naked? Why doesn't it prevent fall damage?").

What the fuck even is this
In a superhero game, there's no shortage of superpowers that are just plain hard to describe without writing out some rules. What are the MCU Scarlet Witch's powers? In Age of Ultron they explain it with some silly technobabble ("neuroelectric interfacing") and then immediately lampshade that by re-defining it as "she's weird." The truth is that her power is to create glowy red stuff in the air and hit things with it, which is much easier to describe in game mechanics like "Blast (rank 5)" and "Telekinesis (rank 10)." How do you allow a player to be a speedster like the Flash without setting some ground rules on what they can get away with? I mean, you do still want to play the game, right? Because if so, you have to figure out some limits to super speed. Goodness gracious, half the X-Men need something spelled out. And you know what? I wouldn't feel comfortable granting my player a power like "spider senses" unless we figured out what that meant first, since it seems awfully ripe for abuse.

And even if you keep the crunch levels low, superhero conflicts tend to be best solved with superhero powers. The answer very much is on your character sheet. Every now and then Iron Man has a clever idea ("Jonah and the Whale"), but he is much more frequently reliant on his list of toys (missile launchers, nano-bot clouds, targetting systems, you name it).

"Villains Act, Heroes React"

Longtime readers of this blog know what's about to come next. It's a favorite topic of mine that will be copy/pasted from any number of previous times I talked about it, albeit with some polishing up.

See, there's an old adage in storytelling that "villains act, heroes react." It's especially associated with the Hollywood formula, and is nearly ubiquitous in superhero fiction especially. The activities of the heroes are usually just crime-fighting, and thus, responding to crimes being committed. In most heroic adventure stories, the conflict is instigated by the villain. A lot of the time, the audience is presented a status quo that is basically peaceful and just, and the villain is a disruptive force that must be stopped. 

Of course, you don't have to write adventure fiction this way, and in many cases, the opposite has been done. The heroes find a treasure map and are inspired to set forth on their own journey. The hero wants to enter a martial arts tournament to prove themself. They're an intrepid entrepreneur who wants to start a ghostbusting business. Or maybe the status quo is unjust and the world is a dystopia and the heroes decide to start a rebellion. But that's definitely not the norm for supers, is it? Spider-man goes out "on patrol," and leaps into action once Doctor Octopus robs the bank. The Super Friends mind their own business until they get an emergency broadcast over the supercomputer in the Hall of Justice. It's hard to be proactive in the fight for freedom if your society is already perfectly free and just, right?

And of course, OSR play instead encourages roguish PCs who are seeking their own fortunes and glories, oftentimes acting quite villainous in their exploits. The entire incentive structure is backwards. You can pop a bunch of dungeoneering knaves into a hexcrawl dotted with dangers and ask, "what do you wanna do?" But you can't easily drop a bunch of superheroes into a city and ask the same thing. Every session has to start with, "Loki stole the Tesseract!" so they have something to go off of.

Even in the stories that start out with proactive heroes, they still often switch up the dynamic later on so that the heroes are the ones reacting. Sure, the Ghostbusters are the ones who started it, and the villain from the EPA was merely reacting to their actions. But then, in unrelated events, the ancient god Gozer shows up and becomes a problem, so the Ghostbusters find themselves reacting to that villain.

Pretty much all of this is simply a given for the genre... unless you're talking about Batman.

Batman is one of the only superheroes I can think of whose setup is perfect for sandbox play. But specifically the darker incarnations of Batman. While I love 60's Adam West Batman, that falls firmly into the "Villains Act, Heroes React" paradigm I was describing before. No, we need a Batman where the status quo is fucking awful. A Gotham City that is deeply entrenched in crime and corruption right from the get-go. There doesn't need to be supervillainy at first. As we know, most of the worst villains Batman fights are also inadvertently created by his own actions, so supervillains only begin to arise once his career is already in full swing. But a superhero campaign that is largely just about fighting the mafia and corrupt politicians and cops, at least early on, is something I think we should embrace. Oh, and if there aren't figures of authority and morality that can be trusted, then it makes the players more comfortable assuming that role.

So, what can I say? Is the only way to do an OSR superhero campaign to just rip off Batman? It's definitely not a terrible idea. Everyone likes Batman. This is a really great series of posts about "OSR hero as vigilante/rebel" which I think could be a strong foundation for a Batman/Daredevil/Punishers-style game.

But it's time to ask the two big questions.


The real old school
1. Can you make an OSR superhero game?

Maybe something low-level and as vigilantes, but definitely not as the Avengers or even the Teen Titans. How many core OSR assumptions of play can we preserve in this genre?

Player skill over character skill? Not likely.

Tactical transparency? Often tricky.

Heroic, not superheroic? Hahahahahahahaha.

High lethality? Hell, even The Boys protects its protagonists behind a million layers of plot armor.

Combat as a fail state? Maybe villain death as a fail state is something, if you're playing Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. Otherwise, no, definitely not.

And, to me, the biggest nail in the coffin:

Player motivation-driven campaigns? Quite seriously the exact opposite of this in 90+ percent of all superhero stories.


2. Why would an OSR-inclined player be interested in this then?

Honestly, I have no answer other than, "because you like superheroes." And that's not true for many of you. But it is true for a lot of you, because the genre is bigger now than it's ever been before. But I truly think this might be completely antithetical to the game that Dave Arneson explored between Braunstein and Blackmoor.



Conclusion

Every year in October I run a game called Tricks & Treats. The players are middle schoolers celebrating Halloween like any normal kid when suddenly some supernatural horror rears its ugly head, and nobody can save the day except them. It has OSR fingerprints on it, for sure. The scenarios and solutions are open-ended, the game is low on crunch and high on tactical transparency and rulings, the character creation is fast, players are encouraged to pursue personal goals and rumors, and problems are best solved with your noggin'.

But there are some very important departures from the OSR ideal. Every scenario is in a bottle. The adventures are always built to be played in one session (in real life) and to take place in a single night (in the fiction), and there needs to be a lot of pressure on the players to make that work. As a rule, I don't actually allow player characters to die. I come up with other consequences for them, and I run a very challenging and impartial game, but nobody dies.

Believe it or not, this still appeals to me because there are many different kinds of fun. I've shared some of my T&T stuff in OSR spaces before because I thought that the grognards might appreciate the old-school influences on its design. Instead, that audience tends to fixate on the other parts. "This isn't OSR! It has XYZ in it!"

I think it's about time we all got more comfortable finding a way to both agree with that conclusion and yet also not use it as grounds to reject something that might actually be good.


-Dwiz

7 comments:

  1. Good toast.

    Of all the genres, I felt myself wanting to argue about wuxia most. I think a GLoG hack wuxia game where assumptions about fighting-as-fail-state and death were redefined would be pretty fun. Magic Dice as Kung Fu Dice and spells as styles is something I've obviously played a lot with before, so maybe I'm just trying to justify that past work.

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  2. Thanks for the Ogre Gate shout-out (this is Brendan from Bedrock Games). I feel like I may be forgetting another game that fits the bill but if you want examples of OSR wuxia the two that come to mind are The Golden Scroll of Justice by Joseph Bloch and Mad Monks of Kwantoom by Kabuki Kaiser (and you may want to check out something else he did called Flower Liches of the Dragonboat Festival). I think Kevin Crawford also did a wuxia inspired adventure for Godbound that could be interesting.

    Yes there seems to be some confusion with Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. I think it may be due to me being a fan of OSR material and running campaigns using a lot of OSR sensibilities (my adventures tend to be a bit sandboxy and old school in structure). But the game itself is pretty hefty

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  3. For years now I've been toying with the idea of an campaign that applies OSR play to a superhereo setting.

    The players would be villains. They'd start out as street thugs, pickpockets, etc. Each adventure they'd plan and enact some dastardly scheme, the inevitable end of which is Batman foiling everything and capturing them. There's no way to avoid this fate, but you can put it off longer and longer through clever play. (Accruing experience and resources in doing so.)

    The haven turns between adventures would be the player's stay in jail, where they could make connections and plot their next scheme. Then they'd break out just in time to start the next adventure. (Perhaps players could rotate through multiple characters, and if they leave someone in jail for a few sessions they're able to be released for good behavior, which means the goody-goody superhero is slower to come after them on their next adventure or something.)

    As the campaign goes on PCs could gradually go from mooks to supervillains with powers in their own right, but the ultimate failure of their schemes is always inevitable. It's only a question of how much damage they can cause before the hero catches up.

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  4. Your article is a good collection of fallacies. On top of it, I don't think you understand what OSR is. I would love to write an extense comment explaining why but I am sure you would just delete it and I'd waste my time and energy.

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    1. I won't delete it as long as it's not spam and doesn't contain any bigotry. I'm interested in what you have to say.

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  5. Have you seen my Hero's Mag Supers RPG? It's an OSR Supers RPG!

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