Thursday 3 October 2019

OSR is Survival Horror

No, really. Hear me out on this.
I'm don't play many video games, but survival horror is something I find fascinating.

Generally accepted qualities of survival horror games:
  • The game isolates the player in an inherently hostile environment, in which everything is a potential threat.
  • The player avatar is somewhat dis-empowered, and cannot reliably defend themselves through brute force alone.
  • Survival instead requires alertness, careful resource-management, avoiding threats, and so on.
  • Exploration is often a focus; to succeed you must keep pushing forward into danger. Environments are set up to facilitate this.
  • Shit's creepy. The game's atmosphere is often oppressive, sureally disturbing or overtly threatening.
This is all stuff that a classic oldschool dungeon-crawl does well.
Your starting PCs find themselves in a dangerous environment (the dungeon) that's full of monsters that can absolutely kick their faces in, if it comes to a direct conflict. They're cut off from the support of civilisation and surrounded by threats. To succeed, the PCs have to move forward carefully, to budget resources such as HP, spells, light, etc, to avoid random encounters where possible.  The game's about negotiating a space that wants to kill you. 
If you run it right, a good dungeon crawl evokes similar tension and building nervousness that a game like Silent Hill does, you just need to hilight the overtly horrific elements of the monsters and space.

The basic set-up of an OSR game (particularly at low levels) supports this. Exploration turns (and their associated mechanics such as light management, random encounter checks, etc) push the game towards being about exploration, and the combat mechanics are pretty fucking unforgiving if the enemy land a hit. 
I genuinely think that if you wanted to run a Silent Hill style game, or a zombie survival game, or whatever, then an OSR-style framework could work very well. You'd want to swap out gold-for-xp for something else to motivate your PCs, but that's not too hard if you understand what's driving your protagonists forward. An 'XP for uncovering horrible secrets' mechanic could work fine to mimic the 'I shouldn't want to see more but I can't resist the curiosity' drive you often see; your PCs then have a nice tension between wanting to witness the horror and needing to survive it. Once you've got that down, it's largely cosmetic design to actually produce the adventure.

Anyway, this isn't a big post but it's a thought that's been knocking about inside my head for a while.


  1. Dungeon doesn't have to be an actual dungeon, I think. One very good survival horror game I've played was Darkwood (highly recommended) and it was set wilderness, or, at least, in the wilderness-as-dungeon. It allowed for larger scale that in its turn gave more space for various eldritch locations.

  2. Much of what we do in the early levels is exactly survival horror. Completely so! Even the vanilla D&D world - fallen, sparse, dangerous, magical - is grist for the horror mill.

    OSR of course encompasses way more real estate than survival horror but this is an excellent description of what we are doing in early levels.

  3. My dad always said "horror campaign, isn't regular D&D a horror campaign by default?"

  4. Sounds good to me! I always use the image of "murder clowns" because my players are fooling around it's all easy wins until suddenly it isn't and people are dying. And then you're trapped and it's hard to extricate yourself. I dig this ebb and flow of tension. It doesn't have to be survival horror all the time. Sometimes the reaction roll for those goblins comes up with a 12 and everything is funny for half an hour at the table. But then of course you all end up in the minotaur maze anyway and the axe is going to fall...

  5. I think OSR games definitely got the 'survival' part of survival horror down in spades, what with the reasons you mentioned, plus the resource management.

    Always had huge difficulty with the 'horror' part, though. I find it really hard to get scared in a group setting, so I've always associated horror with solitude - itself being antithesis to roleplaying games.

  6. The only distinction I'd make is that as a genre the classic dungeoncrawl is inherently logical, its monsters, traps and risks all follow a ruleset and are puzzles for the player to solve. Horror doesn't quite work that way, horrors threats are illogical and thier ability to overcome logical solutions, to return again and again, to refuse the rules is part of the genre.

    While the risks in classic play might be badly understood, hard to weigh and not worth the rewards - they must be comprehensible and fairly adjudicated for the game to avoid descending into a detractor's parody of the genre. Player agency has to endure, and so much of modern horror is about a loss of agency or false agency (whatever you do the monster will be there).

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  8. I’m not really a fan of horror as such. I’ve seen some movies, but I don’t go out of my way to see every movie billed as horror. To me, Alien and many of the related movies in the franchise are on the horror spectrum - other people laugh at me for saying this. I went to see it because it was SF. So, I don’t go to see everything, and thus I might be a poorly qualified commentator on this: But - to me, those movies had rules. Just, the characters within the movies, as characters within a dungeon, don’t yet have all the information they need to understand what is going on. There do seem to be different strains of horror, but I don’t think they all rely on things lacking in logic. Some rely on it. On the inexorable progression of events when you, the audience, suddenly work out what is happening, and why. And sometime later, perhaps, so does the movie/story protagonist, often way too late.

    So, I agree with the premise. Well spotted, I think.

  9. Mmmm,...I mean I think that was a very well spotted aspect of the OSR. Well observed may have sounded better...

  10. How do dungeons know what level you are to send the right level of monster at you? Are dungeons actually a type of non wandering psychopathic monster?

    1. That is certainly a potential take on the genre.
      I, personally, don't balance things, like, at all. Met a balrog at level 1? Ouch, dude, good luck getting out of that one.

  11. Yup, totally agree with this. It was recently pointed out to me that in Appendix N, included in the top 6 most important influencers is H.P. Lovecraft. Horror is definitely in old school D&D's DNA, and crossing the streams is actually pretty darn fun. Adventures written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess do a pretty good job of this.

  12. Fantastic post. So VERY true, never thought of it that way but yes survival horror is a perfect description.

  13. If you haven't checked it out already, Into the Odd (currently Kickstarting a rebranded, expanded second edition as Electric Bastionland) makes this explicit. Players are ill-equipped, squishy things and the most sane strategy when encountering a monster is to RUN.