Friday 28 December 2018

Gosh Darnit Somebody Is Wrong On The Internet

So I found this blogpost,from the guy who did the hilariously naff review of MotBM, and it  mentions my stuff in it a few times. And it sorta pissed me off, but since it doesn't have a comments section I can find I'm gonna write about it here in an incoherent and vague sort of way.
Maybe there'll be some insight in here. Maybe it will be useful. Mostly it's venting.

part 1: anecdotes
I find this argument to be pretty weak given how drab, and often even out-right bad the ancedotes of OSR-driven games tend to be. For example, on Emmy Allen’s post about her DMing style, she lists five of her favorite gaming anecdotes. Two of these involve being vindicated that a player character died, another is basically “I almost died because of a bad die roll, but then another die roll also failed so I lived”. The only anecdote that seems mildly interesting ironically comes from VTM, a story game.
So, this right here is the point. 'Mister C. Reservations' takes these little anecdotes and assumes that these are the best plots and storytelling that I've experienced in RPGs, and that if this is as interesting as it gets, then the playstyle must be uninteresting. Which is untrue. 
In my time roleplaying, I've done all sorts of interesting things. I've been involved in melodramatic sweeping tragic love stories that, to this day, I find genuinely touching. I've seen political intrigues and skulldugery that took out-of-game months to pull of. I've played through crises of faith and experiences of religious fervour. I've played a mystery campaign that took literally three years to conclude, start to finish, and was consistently weird and intriguing every week as we probed deeper. At larps, I've fought in mass battles with 800 on a side, blocks of troops manoeuvring against each other. 
The thing is, though, those stories don't make for pithy anecdotes. They don't make for the sort of story you share in the pub("Remember that time Hideaki botched his drive roll so badly he owed a major boon?") They didn't prompt those moments of unbelieving laughter at the table.
Those little anecdotes got picked out because they were times something unexpected happened and it took the game in weird new directions.
[[also, if you call Vamp a story game to actual story gamers, they'll laugh at you. It's pretty much as trad as they come. Fuck, the whole indie forge thing happened as a direct reaction to why they felt Vamp wasn't working.]]

Here's the thing. Other people's games are boring. They are! To the extent that 'let me tell you about my PC's backstory' is joked about in some circles as being the stereotype of boring RPG conversations. The reason we like Actual Play (in my experience) is when it's being used for illustrative purposes; when the events in the game are being taken apart and analysed to show what makes a particular rule-set or module or setting or playstyle tick. 
But those same stories that seem boring to an outsider form a sort of shared mythology between the people that were actually there. We still joke about Grub, the caveman who died to the first dice roll of the game (and whose corpse was taken apart for materials by a ruthless band of players, making him in many ways the MVP of the campaign). Gaming is a social experience, and after your four hours of gaming are up, you're left with a set of shared memories that mean fuck all to people who weren't there.

Moving on.

Part two: OSR principles and discussion thereof.
I don't know what this guy is advocating for, really, except that he doesn't seem to like the whole OSR style of play. He says he does, but... Iunno.
A lot of the discussion in OSR circles tends to define OSR ideas in relation to the other big trad game: WotC D&D. A lot of the points about things like death being expected, lack of balance, the world existing outside of the PCs... all of those points are being made compared to the distinct style of play that modern D&D produces. That is, a sequence of combat heavy encounters tightly balanced to provide a tactical challenge but no real risk of character death, strung together by a pretty linear plot where the PCs move from one set-piece to another. 
If you're coming from playing a game like Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Dark Heresy... well, those games already do most of the things being discussed in OSR circles, to a greater or lesser extent. So if you're used to playing Call of Cthulhu, and then the OSR tells you to embrace lethality, then you're going to think we mean 'even more lethal than CoC' which is... just gonna be unplayably silly.

So, I'll say this again: the OSR exists as a reaction to the direction WotC took D&D in. This is a pretty well documented fact (that I can't be assed to provide proof for). I don't just play/run OSR stuff, and the dirty little secret nobody talks about is that these principles - the ones OSR thinkers bang on about, and that those outside the movement are so perplexed by - are seen just as much in other games. When I've had Vamp or Hunter or Mage run for me, particularly in larp settings but at the tabletop too, 95% of the time the STs are using very similar principles to what I see OSR players use. The idea of a living world, of challenges that aren't perfectly matched to PC capabilities, of death being a risk, of player agency, all of that... I see the GMs using it when running everything from Lacuna to Monsterhearts to WoD.
Hell, there's been a pretty neat series done by necropraxis about how Apocalypse World and OSR gaming use basically the same set of assumptions if you drill down to it.

Part 3: the bit that pissed me off
Here's the whole quote:
I have serious problems with the way RPGs are written, presented and designed. Why do I mention this? Because from what I’ve read, much of the OSR does as well. In that Emmy Allen post, she mentions that she hates “fights that go on forever, setting agnostic systems… slavishly rolling for everything” and mentions that she “doesn’t play RPGs for the story”, but rather the “ancedotes” and the setting. The things she’s describing are things common to almost all RPGs, and she can’t even enjoy the story–but she does enjoy the setting.
If this sounds like you, I’m going to be frank: You do not like RPGs. Or at least, not the part of RPGs that people commonly sign up for. What you like is emergent gameplay, which can be better obtained through video games and board games, without any of the awful scheduling issues or any of those things you said you don’t like. What honestly seems likely is that many people (overwhelmingly these people are DMs) are attempting to reverse-engineer the medium into something more palpable for them, and to be honest? I was once like that. It is an almost addictive experience, being a DM controlling a “living, breathing world”, and many people find that the desires of the players get in the way of this euphoria. It’s an ego trip. The OSR provides unlimited fuel for this ego trip, providing adventure after adventure where “anything can happen” but none of it really requires much consideration or personal sacrifice. Maybe I do understand the OSR, or maybe I have it all wrong. But it’s just like I said: all games have expected outcomes, and the ones I see in OSR games are overwhelmingly not healthy.

[angry cavegirl noises]
So, let's pick this apart.

The things she’s describing [these things: "fights that go on forever, setting agnostic systems… slavishly rolling for everything"] are things common to almost all RPGs, and she can’t even enjoy the story–but she does enjoy the setting.

So why are these bad? Why don't I like them? (In the post, I also lump in 'PvP' and games that encourage system master in character gen). In short, because they get in the way of the stuff I enjoy: mystery solving, exploration and discovery. In quick succession:
Most boring fights take up a disproportionate amount of time for the amount of decision making and information learned the players actually get. Since the chance of death is probably high, you need to do the fight 'fairly', but dividing a group of 5 and one GM into strict initiative order means that one sixth of the time a given player is just sitting twiddling their thumbs waiting for their action to come up. It gets in the way of the activity of roleplaying: if you want constant violence, a skirmish game like Malifaux or Inquisimunda is much better. A good game is one where violence is scary but over quickly: nasty, brutish and short.

PvP is horrible and I hate it, and like fights it eats up game time and distracts from the important stuff.

Slavishly rolling for everything is just... bad design and/or bad GMing. Most players don't play RPGs so they can roll lots of dice. Those players are off playing 40k or, I dunno, yahtzee. The problem is that while randomness is good (in that it keeps things exciting) but too much randomness makes the game too unpredictable, where chance has a greater effect than anything the players choose to do. In my view, skillful play largely consists of taking a situation where random chance might fuck your PC up, and reducing the ability of random chance to do that (such as, finding ways to stop that monster making attack rolls against you).
Lastly, setting agnostic systems... well. Why don't I like those? Because fundamentally, my enjoyment of the game - both as a player and as a GM - comes from the setting. It's a common saying that the game mechanics are the physics of the game world, and that's a sensible viewpoint imho. The strength of a game like Vampire or Call of Cthulhu is that the game mechanics represent how things work in that world. As a slightly twee example, the Blood Point in vamp is not an abstraction used for game mechanics. It's about a pint of blood sat in the vampire's system. It's a fact known in-world that rising for the night, or sprouting claws with Protean, or mimicking being properly alive use about a pint of blood. The mechanics aren't just abstractions and shorthands, they refer to actual things in the world. So I can play and not have to worry about game mechanics intruding on my immersion in the setting, because the mechanics are the setting.

So there's that. Saying that I can't enjoy fights or dice rolling or whatever is missing the point; what I'm complaining about is when an element of the game becomes disruptive of the overall experience. And then saying I can't even enjoy the story is likewise missing the point. The story is, by and large, whatever happens in play. Largely, what I - and other OSR writers - argue for is games that model narratives other than the hollywood 3-act script. Perhaps a soap opera where characters rise and fall, plotlines are introduced, some elements grow to prominence and others fall by the wayside. An organic story. Why? Because other mediums - films, novels, etc - do conventional narrative better. The strengths of RPGs (particularly RPGs where the PCs go into dungeons) lie in other styles of narrative, so you're better off playing to the medium's strengths.
If this sounds like you, I’m going to be frank: You do not like RPGs. Or at least, not the part of RPGs that people commonly sign up for. What you like is emergent gameplay, which can be better obtained through video games and board games, without any of the awful scheduling issues or any of those things you said you don’t like. 

Well this is just presumptive. Video games and board games are often highly competitive and require a often lack that sense of immersion in a world that I want. (This doesn't apply to all video games. Some - Dark Souls and Silent Hill spring to mind - totally do this.). Besides which, I like RPGs as a social activity with friends. 
And now we get to the bit that pisses me off.

What honestly seems likely is that many people (overwhelmingly these people are DMs) are attempting to reverse-engineer the medium into something more palpable for them, and to be honest? I was once like that. It is an almost addictive experience, being a DM controlling a “living, breathing world”, and many people find that the desires of the players get in the way of this euphoria. It’s an ego trip. The OSR provides unlimited fuel for this ego trip, providing adventure after adventure where “anything can happen” but none of it really requires much consideration or personal sacrifice. Maybe I do understand the OSR, or maybe I have it all wrong. But it’s just like I said: all games have expected outcomes, and the ones I see in OSR games are overwhelmingly not healthy.
What the fuck, mister ChimRes? The implication that everybody GMing OSR games is just in it so they can engage in an unhealthy ego trip is just obnoxious. This was the point where I went from perplexed to irritated.
My experience has always been that GMs run the game they'd want to play in. If a GM enjoys games about characters' emotions and relationships as a player, then the games they run will facilitate that. If a GM enjoys crunchy tactical combat, they'll run that sort of game. And, when a GM enjoys games about exploration and discovery, they'll run those games. 

Part 4: Why OSR?
There's a lot of misconceptions about what OSR games are out there. I've come up against this a lot. My ex used to refuse to play in my games because 'well, they're basically D&D, and D&D is boring'. Other people think the genre's about constant grinding death-by-kobolds, or tomb-of-horrors-style GM power trips. 
As I mentioned earlier, when OSR games are largely explained using their relation to modern D&D and games of its ilk, then that's going to produce a distorted image in people who don't play them.
When discussing this stuff with people that haven't got into it, you're going to hit misconceptions like this stuff all the time.

So what is OSR to me? Why do I make stuff for it, why do I like it so much?
The answer, I think, comes in three parts.
Firstly, the skeleton of the game (six stats, hit dice, AC, etc etc) is a lingua franca. This is incredibly important. It means that you can have a family of games and rules and hacks that all inspire each other. Since the game's comparatively simple, has been around for ages, and has been hacked to hell and back, it's well understood. Any given mechanic is pretty well grocked by the community at large, and so your tweaks to that mechanic (or stuff in the world that interacts with it) is coming from a position where everybody basically knows how it all functions. 
The fact that it's based on D&D is, to my mind at least, largely incidental. The point is that this is the common language everybody basically understands, so when you describe things in those terms or analyse those mechanics, people know what you're doing.
The second reason is the creative people that make OSR stuff. A few points stand out here: the OSR is largely amateurs and small-press publications. Most people making OSR stuff are doing it for the love of the game, and are driven by artistic vision over the corporate line. A company like WotC wouldn't produce Veins of the Earth or A Red & Pleasant Land. It's weird and risky and cool.
That's not to say you don't also see this in other indie RPG scenes. Apocalypse World hacks have a similarly vibrant and diverse scene, because again it's a scene made of hobbyists using a common lingua franca to inspire each other. 
Lastly, I find that what motivates me as a player is discovery. I want to explore the game world, to find new things, to investigate mysteries, to solve puzzles. I want to feel like I'm learning about the game world. When I GM, I'm GMing to facilitate that experience in my players. When I write game stuff, the product is likewise there so the GM can facilitate that experience.

Now, to plenty of players, that sense of exploration and discovery isn't what they're here for. If you don't enjoy that sort of game, that's fine! Other games exist, and serve that niche. If you like politics, join a vamp larp. If you like melodramatic emotion, play monsterhearts. 
The appeal of the OSR, to me at least, is that it's a community that's grown around a shared love for a specific experience in play, and creating games that help create that experience. 


  1. "Video games and board games are better for emergent gameplay." I feel bad for his players.

  2. The OSR settings/modules I like seem to go against the whole "controlling a world" idea. Random tables and dice take a lot of control away. Even the reaction table from basic D&D is a clear example of the DM not fully controlling the world.

    The strictness of modern WOTC modules seem to go for a more controlled world at the table.

  3. Thought I was in trouble for a second there. Reading the whole post, dude's got a lot of pure non-sequitur arguments and undistributed middle arguments.

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  5. The guy is an idiot. COnfirmed! I only suspected that he was when he published his review of Blue Medusa, but this new post is proof enough my suspicions were right.

    He even thinks "anecdote" is synonymous with "story".

  6. I see a lot of this kind of reaction to the idea of the "OSR" - it's one of several reasons I've personally stopped using the label OSR and switched to a variety of other labels that indicate what I'm talking about is a play style.

    I think you are right that the lethality of classical dungeon crawl style play is over sold - at least when one doesn't have an agnostic GM, has players that understand the ethos of play (e.g. they know that they can run away from things, and that some things they meet will be more powerful then them). It's a basic different view about how TTRPGs are played. There's been plenty of bad actors in the OSR community, loudly proclaiming the virtuosity and superiority of OSR play: the risk! and the merciless cold equations of the dice that players conquer only through genius of player skill. It's created quite a reaction - and I'd place this guy in the reactionary camp.

    I think that the OSR has done a bad job at pointing out how the playstyle is antithetical to combat, and excatly what exploration play entails. I've been trying to do so non-judgmentally a bit lately, extolling the ways that Exploration games function below the level of mechanics - but there are some who really want to play a linear tactical combat game and have trouble viewing tabletop as anything else - just like there are those that think having more complex story elements then the evil priest in B2 is unforgivable railroading.

  7. I think there is a point to be made, Gus, that without setting boundaries on what OSR means, it leads to it just being branding, but I'm not sure that is what is happening here. I, too, noticed the "designated rest zone" that Zak mentioned and I cringed at it. Obviously this brings up it's own problem vis-a-vis gatekeeping.

    I think the problem in this case isn't necessarily OSRdom not communicating itself well (is it their job, really?) but that the dominant (hegemonic ideology?) of WotC DnD is so different from TSR DnD and many people, this DM in particular, seem to come to the table with so many unquestioned assumptions about how the game is played. He tries to run OSR like you'd run by-the-book 3e-4e-5e and it just doesn't work.

    We can see the blogger doing Thursdays in Thracia talking about running their game by-the-book ( so they understand why random encounters are important, for example, even though the majority of their gaming has been more modern like this DM. They played B/X as if it were it's own game and not just a minor deviation from what they are accustomed. And they are having a much better time of it.

    1. Unknown, I don't want to defend the buffoon complaining about Emmy's posts - he's just as bad as some kind of stereotypical grognard who's only response to any question is "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT!" He's not as rare though - let's call him the "Settler" as it's a synonym for "Pathfinder" and implies settling for whatever.

      Is it the job of people that like older games (The job of the OSR is to burn down) to educate these settlers? I hope games outreach isn't anyone's job unless they are getting paid for it - but I do think that classic gaming fans can offer an alternative style to people who enjoy 5E as it is written. The difference is that instead of arguing that the way we play our games is inherently better, more truthful or correct, to have some understanding. There's been a lot of in-group snobbery in the "OSR" and there doesn't need to be.

      Many people like their escapism to be linear, hit the narrative beats of film and fiction and involve complex tactical combat as the chief locus of play. That's not wrong, it's not not the same as a classic dungeon crawl. Acknowledging that and indicating the ways that classic play has a different ethics of play, design principles and from that mechanics can turn most of these folks into people who at least are interested in classic play - because many of them recognize that their scene based or encounter based adventure design doesn't quite give the risk/reward tension that an exploration game might. Likewise, acknowledging that OD&D and B2 aren't going to give you the careful narrative beats and detailed tactical combats of Pathfinder is worthwhile - because it allows you to look at your game and table and try to think of what can be changed, borrowed or added to inject elements of that other playstyle.

    2. I mean, I don't think modern-era D&D is good at giving well-timed narrative beats and a nicely arcing plot.
      Systems that do that well *do* exist, mind you. The Mountain Witch is not my normal schtick but I've had fun with it and it sets up a nice little samurai drama, with the moving parts in place to produce all the story beats you'd expect.
      If, however, you're using 5e or or whatever to create a 3-act plot with rising tension, a dramatic climax and resolution, you've gotta fight the system to do that.

  8. Hi there.

    Despite what you call "angry cavegirl noises", I thought this was remarkably civil, especially considering what I said. There's really not much I can even address here, a lot of this post seems to be your way of explaining your sentiments rather than a specific grievance directed at me. If I tried to respond to this piece by piece 90% of that would be me saying "I already know."

    I definitely owe you and several others an apology for claiming that you "don't like RPGs". That's a ridiculously stupid thing to say to anyone. In my original draft, what I wrote was "I honestly wonder why you're even playing RPGs", but I thought "if I'm gonna be that ruthless, I might as well go all the way". I didn't exactly write this in the best mood and my opinions on gaming philosophies like have lessened in intensity over the past couple of months--so no, I do not actually believe that you don't enjoy RPGs.

    A more reasonable revision of that statement that more closely reflects my current sentiments would be this: the way you, and others like you, engage with RPGs, seems to me as if you are intentionally trying to be transgressive. I don't see DMing styles like yours as being very compatible with any of the group actives that RPGs commonly model themselves after: group storytelling, roleplaying, tactical combat, etc. While I don't stand by my statement that the OSR doesn't like RPGs, I absolutely *do* stand by my statement that many in the blogosphere are attempting to reverse-engineer the genre into something more palpable to them. This is not an outright bad thing to do, certainly, but the common justifications for this process are incredibly reductive and commonly stem from false premises (which is what I was trying to address by going over the statements SP collected).

    On last thing, about your examples of play: when I read your post which contained these examples I was actually taken aback by how honest they were. You are completely correct that "other people's games are boring", which is precisely why people on the internet very commonly lie about the games they are a part of. This is exactly why I mentioned your examples--they were so plain and so honest that I knew they had to be genuine. This is something that is striking about your blog posts in general. The way you talk about games is so matter-of-fact, which is incredibly useful to me (and probably many others) because many other OSR blogs straight-up read like advertisements. Saying you don't enjoy these types of games was probably the dumbest thing I've ever said online because if you didn't enjoy them, why would you be this open about the banalities involved?

    1. Oh hey, it's you! Hi, welcome to my comments section!
      Yeah, the big thing I felt was that I was... misrepresented? taken out of context? I probably wouldn't have gone on a big ol' bloggy rant had there been a comments section on the post to put my thoughts.

      I do agree that the /style/ of game OSR often shoots for is quite distinct from other games that also call themselves RPGs. I get just as much out of playing in other types of game: I'm very into WoD, play a fair amount of Monsterhearts when I get the chance, and larp a lot. Like a LOT, as much of my gaming is live-action compared to tabletop, tbh.
      When I run (or play) OSR I'm going for a very particular experience - one that's more about in-the-moment decisions than broad story - and want to drill right down into that type of game rather than being unfocussed. When I'm playing at a vamp larp, on the other hand, I want to wallow in melodrama and angst, and my decision making process (what the forge calls 'stance' I suppose) is very different.
      Maybe I'm weird, but i actually really enjoy a certain amount of adversarial GMing. A GM who doesn't pull any punches and turns the screws whenever I fuck up makes any victory feel that much sweeter.

      And lastly, do I try to be transgressive with how I structure games? Yes, although I think 'radical' sums it up a little better? The whole storygames crowd are not the only ones pushing at the basic assumptions of what 'makes' an RPG: plenty of OSR ideas are really quite shocking if all you've played is published by Wizards of the Coast or uses the same assumptions. Like, 'we're ten minutes in and my PC is just *dead*' has come as quite a surprise to players.
      So long as players know what they're signing up for, I think it's all cool. There are lots of different niches that games can occupy (in terms of approach and structure) and I happen to like this one.

      But yeah, thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm genuinely super happy to see you weighed in :D