Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where Should the Innovation in the OSR Be - Rules or Settings?

+Michael S made some good points at The Tavern earlier today and it made me think - where should
the innovation in the OSR be - rules or settings?

Mike specific brought up Empire of the Petal Throne and Blackmoor.

EPT's strength is not it's ruleset, which is basically OD&D with some houserules, but it's setting. Deep and alien and multilayered while still slightly familiar.

Blackmoor brought us the first published adventure. Common now, it was a first for the fledgling hobby.

So, where should the OSR innovate?

I think it should be with the settings, using house rules to make it unique where necessary. I have enough generic fantasy settings to last me a lifetime. We need more Spears of the Dawn and Arrows of Indra (both complete games where the innovation is the setting) and less reworks of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms - been there, have it, don't need a pale imitation.

From my own perspective, I'm working on a series of Pocket Settings for White Star. I want a fun hook for each, but I don't expect them to truly innovate on their own. 8 pages doesn't give one much room to innovate. But I have been given peeks and "elevator pitches" of what some others have in store for their White Star settings, and some may just hit the "new and not seen before" level.

I see sci-fi as a less trod and overworked field to plant than fantasy when it comes to RPGs. Hopefully White Star achieves it's goal as a toolbox for others to truly innovate. Time will tell.

What say you? Rules or settings and why?


  1. Settings, settings, settings. The OSR is all about flavor and not crunch.

  2. Totally setting. OSR rules are pretty much the same with a few exceptions, but a truly unique setting? That's priceless.

  3. "After 40 years, how much is / can / will be truly new."

    Well, considering we've been reinventing drama and stories since we were gathering around the fire with a language a few ten thousand years ago... first well recorded by the Greeks a few thousand years ago... probably not much. :) but I digress....

    As far as rules go... or how we can spin/respin a game while keeping it's basic skeletons? Probably not much.

    As far as settings go... since we're using EPT as a sort of yardstick (and it's funny that after 40 years, it would still be the yardstick of measuring "unique and freaky") - let's talk about that for a minute. MAR Barker had this vision of his world of Tekumel in his head since he was a kid. Since he was born in 1929, let's assume the 1940s. So for over 35 years, he's cooking up what is a huge world in his head and on paper. He brings it to life with other people in an ongoing game that lasted till he died, and the "universe" is still evolving.

    It was a unique act of creative effort, but it was fed by all the things he read and learned over those years.

    I think that's not as strange or unique as you might think - I think we all have had those moments of mashup, or of riffing on an idea and suddenly we're contemplating a new land, a new story. It might follow the typical dramatic structures, but the beauty of RPGs is that once you introduce other folks into your worlds, they take on a new life.

    That's why I think some of the most successful settings aren't these brand new worlds just thought up... they tend to be long running campaigns that have some history and fleshing out. I think it's very rare to have a completely new, unique setting just pop up, and if it does, more power to the person who did it.

    The power of any of these games we play is in the experience of exploring what is in our minds' eye as a social event. Of getting to live and play in someone's imagination. When it's unfettered, when it doesn't just be the same orc with pie over and over and over... that's when it's really something else.

    I think we could take almost all the rules and houserules and find out they are not so much different... and honestly, that's probably why the more I play, the less I identify with an "edition" and I just say "I play D&D." But the settings... that's where I get the most excited because that is where the magic happens.

    I think if more modules focused on the setting and ideas of what lies behind/beneath what is going on, that would be wonderful. I love the 1PD, but I realized that without the setting, they were just dusty rooms with 2000 coppers. It was when I put that room into the floating city that drops a ladder at every town and sends the flying bird women to capture the children and bring them up so they could become goblins, sing in the goblin choir and keep the city afloat.. and the 2000 coppers are the coins that have captured the dead souls of the children who've deceased while in captivity... THAT is what would make that room stand out.

  4. Neither. Settings that strike out to cover new ground run the risk of being difficult to approach (EPT!) while a rehash of familiar themes is rarely satisfying (GH & FR knock-offs). New rule sets are aiming at an ever smaller target of "that is a bit closer to what I thought than anything else".

    The real way forward is scenarios (or modules, if you prefer).

  5. Does it need to be a binary decision? Two examples you provide are both more interesting because of their settings, but one fails a bit for lack of innovation while the other one manages to make the rules work with the setting (I'll leave it hanging as to which is which). So...I guess I'd say these aren't binary, and they aren't so easily separable.

  6. Since my blog is all about rules and mechanics for OSR games, I evidently think that there is mileage out there with new and elegant rules and mechanics maintaining an OSR feel.
    One reason I like Zak’s Vornheim and A Red and Pleasant Land is that they’re setting AND module AND “add on mechanics”. I actually use them for ideas, or even just to prompt me to think in new ways.
    I’m wary of settings with new rule sets which I fear from experience are often just someone else’s rules thinly skinned with arbitrary non play-tested changes.

  7. It should really be both. "Rules inform the setting", as in what Crypts and Things did to HP/injury/death, or what Red Tide and Scarlet Heroes did to Clerics and MU spell lists, or what Dungeon Crawl Classics did to super-cautious adventuring.

    And besides that, there's still a lot of innovation available via rules: there aren't that many games that adopts AD&D's attack bonus progression for the classes, or OD&D's everyone has the same hit die size but not everyone has the same number of hit dice, or Chainmail's spellcasting that wasn't even Vancian, or DCC's Mighty Deed die, the list goes on.

    1. So what did Crypts & Things do to HP/injury/death? I am interested in a game similar to D&D but without the ever-ascending HP and impossible-to-kill PCs.

  8. @Jonthan Lapitan - are those really innovations? What is ground breaking, or takes us to new territories, in fiddling with "AD&D's attack bonus progression for the classes"? Is it a truly new orc, or just a different flavor of the pie he's holding?

  9. For me, the old rules aren't good enough anymore, and for one good reason: I have a lot less time to prepare and play than I did back when I was a kid.

    So rules, cause I need rules that require no preparation, no studying and that are quick logical and slick...

    It's what I'm trying to do with Solum, its debatable if it'll be successful of course :)

  10. Taking previous comments into account, I think a three-pronged attack is best: setting, scenario, and rules (not necessarily in that order). The reasoning has already been stated elsewhere and is, in my opinion, self-evident.

    1. I fully agree. The OSR should innovate in all regards - not only setting and rules, but also scenarios, presentation and other related things.

  11. I'm with Venger in the three-prong approach. Some people like settings, some people like modules, some people like new mechanics, some like a combination.

    I think we can pretty much use anything aside from further iterations of the OD&D rules. I think we have pretty much covered every flavor, dial, and degree of D&D-dom. Keep giving us variant stuff and different things to play with.

  12. Settings, no doubt. The rules (and overall similarities across "OSR" systems) are what bind us all together, and why everything designed with the "OSR" in mind are so useful to "OSR" gamers, no matter what actual system they use. The only rules innovations I've seen, that doesn't break anything, has been the bracketed [Acsending AC] system introduced with S&W. New, modular system add-ons are great, but nothing compared to the setting books, like Vornheim, Yoon-Suin, d30 Sandbox Companion, etc.

  13. I'll just drop this here... http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/2015/05/innovation-settings-rules-or-what.html

  14. Most settings suck pretty bad so I'll say rules.

  15. Settings are harder to pull off unless they already have years of playtesting behind them, I think. If someone is doing an OSR project with new or tweaked rules (as, ahem, I am here -- http://greatandsmallrpg.blogspot.com/ ), it's probably best to sketch out a handful of setting ideas that tie into particular spins of their rules, and then see where the market of ideas focuses its efforts.

    My project is an "animal fantasy game," in the vein of stories like Watership Down or The Guardians Of Ga'Hoole -- where PCs are more-or-less real world animals (as opposed to sword-weilding ones like in Redwall or Mouse Guard). As such, it's not focused on a particular setting, but I do have three setting sketches I plan to reveal as the project moves forward. I'll wait and see which of them resonates with any players who use my stuff, and work outward from there.

    That said, I also prefer cool settings over minor OSR rules tweaks when it comes to games about bog-standard bipedal humanoid characters. I really appreciate the work that went into projects like Stars Without Number and Arrows Of Indra (though I must admit that Beyond The Wall is one of my fave OSR iterations because of the way it handles magic).

    On balance, I'd prefer to see adventure supplements that give both a great setting sketch and some relevant rules tweaks that a DM can use for further expansion. Full-fledged world settings are a lot harder to pull off, so broad-brush overviews of settings that function as the backdrop for a more focused scenario seem like the way to go.

  16. I would like to see someone come up with a Rosetta stone document that converts the major OSR rules. A page or two that could be added to the back of every OS product/game.

    I'd also like to see more settings. Most of the settings I've seen so far are beautiful and wonderful and even if I never use them as written I'm going to use bits and pieces of awesome.


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