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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What I Want From an OSR Ruleset - Gaming Perfection According to Erik Tenkar

I've been thinking of what I would want from my perfect OSR ruleset, and I came up with the following:

1 - A front end as crunchy as the players want it. Anything from Swords & Wizardry simplicity to ACKS styled skills / proficiencies, so long as they are all "on the same page" with the amount of crunch they want.

2 - A back end easy enough for the DM to run with minimal reference to charts, tables, monster descriptions, spells and the like. A one sheet for combat, spell summaries, monster summaries and the like would be ideal

3 - Whittled down to it's core, a DM should be able to run the game with a 8 x 11 sheet of paper, folded in half like a booklet (and of course, whatever adventure he is running). Oh, and a readable typset for that sheet. Shit, might need 2 sheets (which would make 8 pages)

4 - Players should have everything on their character sheet that they need to play a session. Spells, experience charts, attack charts - whatever.

5 - Spells should be simple enough to explain in 2-3 sentences. Anything longer means it's too damn long.

6 - A unified skill mechanic. I think Stars Without Numbers does this very well. I'd yoke it.

7 - There should be a Player's Section and a DM's Section in the rulebook. These would full explain the game rules and such, which would be referenced on the above mentioned sheets.

I'm open for more ideas. Not sure where I'm going with this just yet, or even if I'm going anywhere with it. I just know I want the job of the DM simplified behind the scenes so he can spend the time running the scenes.

Kinda brainstorming out loud as it were ;)

33 comments:

  1. I a game like this already exists: it's either S&W or LL. Actually, it's probably S&W. I mean, I'm not even talking house rules. I'm talking about reminding players of old school games to stop trying to exploit the rules in the book and use the rule against the GM. One needs to remind them that in old school games, rules are suggestions and not hard and fast rules. The GM has final say on rulings, and the players need to be worrying about being creative and clever and determined and all that stuff. Sorry, am I making sense or sounding relevant? I guess what I'm saying is a GM should tell players at the beginning of a campaign something like: "ok we're using this here rule set in particular. I may use this system in some different ways, so don't sit back and think you know all the rules. I'm going to be fair, you have to trust me on that. If you can't trust me, then you'll probably need to find another game to play in. But I'm going to be doing XYZ, which may include a handful of house rules, but not too many I hope. So you need to focus on good roleplaying and not on how well you can manipulate/exploit the rules. Deal?"

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  2. @anthony - i understand what you are saying and it's valid, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

    I want to simplify the back end, the part the players don't see, so that a DM and a sheet of rules and charts to reference and things are good to go.

    I want simplified monster stat blocks

    I want less looking up needed charts, as i want those charts simplified and easy to reference.

    I also want the players to be able to play with bells and whistles or not as they see fit - it won't effect the backend, so it won't effect me much as a DM

    Rules are suggestions, but players need to be able to rely on the rules to be what they expect.

    I want to simplify, without making it "simple".

    Hope that makes sense

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  3. Tenkar,

    I have been reading your blog for a while, and this finally pulled me in to comment.

    I am a younger gamer (late 20s) who came to D&D after a decade of Call of Cthulhu and indie/Forge games. I cannot now recall what drew me in to the OSR, but I picked up first S&W Core and then, wonderously, WhiteBox, and it. all. clicked. Fast forward two or three years and I have a shelf gravid with OSR goodness enshrining my copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

    I say this to show that while I agree with your ideal OSR ruleset points, I find myself in a weird spot. I love WhiteBox. It is the game I introduce new people to fantasy role playing with, I don't even need the book anymore now that I have internalized some simple character/monster formulas, and when I change my mental gearset to WB whole worlds of wonder bubble up from the deep strata of the subconscious.

    But...I also love DCC, which is opposite to WhiteBox in so many ways. Rather than the WB d20 + d6, DCC uses the whole dice chain. Endless pages of tables, for spells and fumbles and magic swords and all manner of such things. Gorgeous retro art and kickin' attitude that contrasts sharply with WhiteBox's mellow, eager openness. And yet DCC has my favorite versions of the Classic Classes. Their Warrior is the greatest Warrior, their Cleric the most Clerical, their Wizards the kind of thing I always dreamed of playing.

    I've done some tweaking to them both, approaching the subject as "We are playing WhiteBox with Supplement Awesome: DCC". Static saving throws in the Fort/Ref/Will trio. Akrasia's Sword & Sorcery hitpoints. SWN skill system by way of Barbarians of Lemuria. Essentially, its DCC with some houserules, but by approaching it as WhiteBox with a supplement, I keep myself from feeling like I must use the crazy tables and fumble charts and spell charts and whatnot. They are options, gonzo awesome options, but if I have a better idea or it doesn't fit the flow, I can pull something from my WhiteBox hat.

    This was a bit rambling and possibly better suited as a blogpost, but I wanted to let you know that your post here struck a chord. The strength of the OSR is minimalism and imagination, with a solid enough central frame (six attributes, AC/DC/HP, saves, etc.) to be able to cross pollinate freely. I entered gaming with Call of Cthulhu and its "barely there" rules, and I know that my urge to run the game "right" comes from my heavy Indie game period, where every rule really was that important to getting it right.

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    1. @James - that sounds awesome! Do you have your house rules online somewhere? DCC has so many cool bits, i really want to add it to my D&D recipe.

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  4. @James - I love the DCC RPG - it oozes atmosphere.

    Which is why my game would be as crunchy on top as the player's want, yet be streamlined on the backend that the players don't see.

    I've got some ideas pinging around my head, initially on how to clean up monster stat blocks. By speeding up the play on the DM side, you speed up gameplay for the group as a whole.

    I like your approach to DCC Whitebox ;)

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  5. I have found the a good skill check is where most of the OSR run short.. I love BFRPG but I would say that's the one place where it falls short..

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  6. It would certainly be interesting to focus crunch on non-combat interactions, and simplify combat stats so that fighting relies on only a few stats.

    One could bolt a BareBones-style system of rolling against core attributes and skills on top of, say, Searchers of the Unknown.

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  7. Ok, I see where you're coming from. I definitely didn't mean that the GM can just change rules around at any moment. I meant that modern players need to stop worrying about knowing all the rules and start thinking about what they want their characters to do, and the GM will tell them what they need to do to test for success/failure.

    One thing: I guess I'm having trouble with the whole concept of players having the level of crunch they want, while the level of backend complexity stays constant. That just seems very unlikely, to me at least. I feel like the level of crunch for the GM is going to increase with the level of player crunch. Unless you can tell me of a system example that bucks that dynamic.

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    1. @Anthony

      Maybe the players want a proficiency system like ACKS (as an example - I'd rather use one like Stars Without Number). That proficiency system does not effect my side of the screen. If they have Riding and Appraisal as skills, it will come into play when they are riding into combat or trying to sell things at the pawn broker. The NPCs do not need skills - they can or they can't, as needed or as applicable. Skills are the "player's realm". It shouldn't have an effect on what i need to run the game.

      If they want weapon specialization, or i want them to have access to it, they can. Again, wont effect my side of the screen. If i want an npc to attack 3 times every 2 rounds at first level, he will. Because i called for it. Although in this case, I'd have it already decided by the simplified stat block.

      I should have more on it tomorrow, time willing. At least the idea of the simplified stat block ;)

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    2. The complexity of PCs does affect the DM in another way though -- in that the DM is required to understand how the PC's capabilities are described in mechanical terms, and to produce challenges also phrased in those terms.

      Example: charging on a horse over rocky terrain. Does this entail a WIS check for the rider, a Riding proficiency roll, a percentile roll, a saving throw, nothing at all?

      What I mean is that players who choose crunch will want the appropriate crunch to be used in the game. Hence the DM is also beholden to use an equivalent amount if crunch.

      I guess that's not what you were referring to though :)

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    3. I agree with Gavin. The issue I see as unavoidable is that the DM will need to know the mechanics of the player-side crunch. And to me, that seems to defeat the whole "back end simplicity for DMs" angle.

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  8. Something you've touched on before, but character creation has to be fast enough that you don't give up if your character dies in the first ten minutes of the adventure. It's hard to justify spending another 2 hours rolling up a new character if your first dies on his initial foray into the underdark. The elongated character creation process begins to drive the need to lower the mortality rates to keep players engaged. OSR games don't worry about this - if your thief dies, you can have another one ready to go in ten minutes.

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    1. @Mike - "Crunchy" is a relative term. OSRIC is more crunchy than S&W. ACKS layers in proficiencies, which makes it crunchier than OSRIC.

      None of the above come close to AD&D 2e with all of the Complete Handbooks.

      I'd want something that handles S&W Whitebox through ACKS

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  9. For my current project, I need a base old-school flavored ruleset that I want to keep as simple as possible. Something that is immediately familiar to seasoned veterans, but easily comprehended by new players. It's incomplete and untested, but the core mechanics fit on a single page: http://rubiconcrossing.com/?p=585

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  10. This is why I like Blood & Treasure so much - it combines the skill check with the 3 type saving throw. Like a thief wants to pick a lock? Make a reflex saving throw

    But I took it one step further, B&T uses the descending saves, but I flipped it back 3.x style, ascending, so you can change the difficulty number from 20, lower for easier tasks, higher for harder tasks. It's a very minor thing, but it has big advantages.

    It also goes a bit overboard, making opening doors and bending bars a skill, but that's simple to make an ability check out of , d20+ ability vs 20 (or higher or less). That didn't work so well in 3x because of inflated ability scores, but OSR it's far more viable.

    But B&T is 80% of what I want.

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  11. If you want old school feel with better, simpler rules then try Old School Hack (and the hack of that, Fictive Hack). They provide old school feel with more "modern" design. We've played a couple games now and we really like them. But I must say that as someone who began roleplay gaming back in 1978 I am mystified by the OSR. The rules back then were pretty crappy and I have no urge to play them ever again. D&D in particular was the worst offender. I dropped it after just a session or two.

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    1. AD&D was my first RPG. It's in my blood ;)

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  12. Doesn't T&T fit the bill for you? I think it meets all the criteria you layed out. Actually, I'm a fan Of Randall's Microlite 74, also and that might meet your needs as well.

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  13. GURPS with the Dungeon Fantasy expansion, I think.

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    1. you must have missed the parts about streamlining and simplifying ;)

      seriously, GURPS is WAY too crunchy for me these days

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  14. Your comment about spells needing to be simpler is interesting. While I'm waiting for the last Spears of the Dawn art to come in, I've been playing with a S&S game. I wonder how many spells I can boil down to one or two sentences at most- it's an interesting idea to play with.

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    1. Tunnels & Trolls accomplished the simple spell description. No reason the OSR can't.

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  15. While its not everyone's cup of tea, Castles & Crusades seems to meet your criteria pretty well.

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    1. I love C&C, but even C&C has crunch, such as in the abilities of the character classes. A GM needs to know at least something about the class abilities, or maybe that's just me, because as a GM I feel like I personally need to know the character class abilities and how they express themselves mechanically. This also goes for racial abilities. If a player is continually reminding me about their character's race/class abilities, I feel like a chump. But again, that might just be my hang-up.

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    2. I think I understand where you're coming from, though to me the racial and class abilities (in C&C, at least) are all pretty simple. Where I run into problems in keeping up with my players is spells. Given the huge number available in games like C&C, AD&D, etc., it's small wonder that nothing is a more common cause of pulling out a rulebook and interrupt a session to "see what exactly that does."

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    3. Tunnels & Trolls describes a spell with a simple line or two.

      That would be my goal here. Not gonna be easy ;)

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    4. FWIW, the White Box version of C&C keeps spell descriptions to a line or two as well. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I gravitate to it more than my copy of the latest, full color printing of the C&C PHB.

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  16. Your comment on Spells reminds me of LotFP's Summon spell. It's astounding to me that a system that is mostly incredibly simple and utilitarian, would contain what is essentially a module masquerading as a level 1(!) spell, bloating the core book by god knows how many pages.

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  17. To be fair, LotFPs Summon Spell is the game's Monster Manual.

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    1. Yeah, but have it as a separate section/table to roll up monsters, instead of 30 pages in the middle of the spell-opedia.

      Even without the variables on the monsters, the spell itself is mostly just an incredibly complicated TPK machine, and not one that most DMs would want to deal with, especially with low level parties. I'd replace summon with another L1 spell to round out the 1d20 spell list, and have Summon as an option rather a core rule.

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  18. The game you describe already exists, and in two flavors: BareBones Fantasy by DwD Studios, and Microlite74 by Randall Stukey. They approach it from different angles, but both arrive at the place you've described.

    I say this as a hardcore B/X Moldvay/Cook guy, who's been playing since the mid-70's. I haven't relinquished B/X D&D, but those two games mentioned above have managed to get my attention.

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  19. I really like where you're going with this. My holy grail would include your folded 8.5x11 sheet (although I'd use an A4 sheet - a tad bigger than letter sized- folded in half to be A5 size -perfect) in concert with a one page dungeon (OPD).
    I don't think that you'll be able to ditch the rule books completely during play, but if you can get the stuff that you refer to 90% of the time down on your reference sheet and OPD, that's still a big gain.
    Maybe there are further efficiencies to be gained by somehow getting more contextual stuff on the OPD template...
    I've been thinking about this a lot lately since my HB Dyson's Delves arrived. I'm trying to figure out how in the world to key some of the larger maps onto the single opposing page.

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  20. I've been running DCC with Jeremy Deram's Reference Sheet and a Player Ref guide that I took part of from him and then sort of butchered into a nicer (to me) presentation. The Tome only gets used for monsters and spells, but I think I'll be doing a Spell book in the same folded over A4 style, and maybe round it off with a monster book too. then four small books and my Megadungeon Map + Key. 90% of my DMing has been from the top of my head since I jetisoned 4e.

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