2016-01-19 Innovation and the Old School Renaissance

Robert Bohl asked for examples of innovation in the Old School Renaissance (OSR) and there were some good answers in his thread. Sadly, it got deleted and so I’m collecting the comments I liked on this page.

New settings, monsters, classes? Arnold K.'s blog, for example.

(All of Arnold’s blog posts pulled from the OSR Links to Wisdom Wiki which has nothing but links to blog posts I liked...)

Personally, I also enjoy the blog posts that talk about the fine details of how to run games. These posts aren’t sweeping innovations but they rather feel like reports from a community of practice. People like Brendan S or Ramanan S write posts in this genre, for example. Are they “innovations”? Perhaps they are, but they are small innovations, not “disrupting” innovations.

The very small innovations I was thinking of include Brendan S’s Hazard System, for example. There, he devises new procedures for game play based on the random encounter mechanics. This pushes the boundaries of the existing game in interesting ways without making big changes. Small, incremental innovation.

For myself, “prep” is a topic that keeps changing. Thus, where as the rules themselves might not change as much, there’s still plenty of space for innovation in the game procedures, social contracts and the like. For myself, again, contact with Dungeon World has made me rethink campaign developments using fronts (Using Fronts, Fronts). “Innovative?” Maybe not. But the field is still changing.

One could argue that changing the setting and moves from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World to Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches with flying in the Soviet airforce in WW2 is pretty “disruptive.” It would seem that the only change that you could make in the Powered by the Apocalypse field would be to stop using the rules and use something else entirely? And thus when people take the classic D&D rules and use them to do science fiction like Traveller (Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number), or when they keep the existing rules but add a domain game like Kevin’s An Echo Resounding, or when they keep the existing rules but add a wilderness development procedure involving tags like Kevin’s Red Tide, then those a pretty significant changes.

Let’s take a deeper look. What sort of domain game innovation is there to see? I guess in the seventies, people would have used Chainmail to fight mass battles. The Rules Cyclopedia had a different rule called War Machine where you assembled all your troops and threw a percentile die with results weighed based on the troops on each side in order to determine winners, losers and losses.

JB then wrote his B/X Companion with Mass Combat where units battle units and instead of rolling a d20 you just look up how much % damage you do based on to-hit and armor. Ian Borchardt pointed out that this is the mechanism of Swords & Spells (TSR), the unofficial 5th supplement to D&D, so perhaps that doesn’t count as an innovation.

Robin Stacey had written a similar thing for M20 using “combat scale” where damage done is multiplied using a non-linear scale. A copy is still available.

Kevin Crawford wrote An Echo Resounding which added upkeep costs for units, rules for creating new units, a simple financial system, and so on. I wrote a short summary for my players at the time.

At the same time, the Adventure Conqueror King System also worked on that, but instead of using abstract points of Military, Social and Cultural “power” it just extrapolated the D&D gold piece economy to the max. If you’re interested in a comparison between the two, the designers discussed the different approaches on a forum.

All of these developments look at how a classic D&D campaign reaching name level might develop and offers essentially various house rules to run these games.

As for wilderness development, there have been various attempts to work this out. The one I remember best is by Erin Smale. I even wrote some mapping software to use it. I also remember Rob Conley’s discussion of How to make a Fantasy Sandbox.

All of these involve quite a bit of work and don’t solve the basic problem of generating new ideas. Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide has the following usage example on page 103. As you can see, Kevin provides tables that interact with each other, helping you fill that wilderness with life.

“The first step is to determine the kind of settlement it will be. Having no preferences, the referee rolls 1d10 and comes up with “Country Estate”. Evidently, it’s a remote, fortified manor owned by a rich merchant or powerful noble.

With that established, the referee decides to roll twice on the site tags table to see what qualities make this manor all that interesting to adventurers. The results are “Faded Glory” and “Hell King Cultists”. Well, now. It looks like this humble country seat may not be the safest waystation for the PCs.

The referee turns to the site tag list and reads over the elements associated with each tag. After some reflection, he decides that the country seat won’t seem to be dangerous at first glance. Whatever’s going on at the estate is subtle enough that wayfarers won’t be instantly attacked as potential sacrifices.

Since the country manor is a little like a noble court, he rolls on the Court Site tables to get the roles of the three most important people at the estate. According to the dice, the three big names there are the Noble, the Spouse, and the Noble’s Child. A roll on the random NPC tables in the back of the book shows that the Noble is a woman and the Child is a daughter. Recourse to the random name tables give their names as the noble Daifu Tanaka Rei, her husband Tanaka Hengest, and their daughter, Tanaka Maiko.

Now the referee looks back at the tags and decides to start creating adventure hooks. ...”

Each tag comes with a paragraph of text helping you push towards adventure hooks.

I really like the new presentation of wilderness and dungeon maps in A Red And Pleasant Land. Some nice pictures on this blog post.

Judd Karlman wanted to hear more about adventure layout and said that information was hard to find in the text and the where as maps are beautiful the players usually don’t get to see them. And I concur! Anybody reading the reviews by Bryce Lynch knows that there is a long tradition of suboptimal usability in adventure design, to put it mildly.

I tried to explore a different way of writing high level adventures for my Caverns of Slime but I’m sure there’s a lot more to be done, here.

This is also why I was very excited to read about Perilous Wilds and Perilous Deep by Jason Lutes. His classic D&D Dungeon World cross over is a way to go I might want to pursue in my games as well. Or, as Ramanan S put it:

“The book introduces new rules and mechanics to Dungeon World games for travel, making camp, scouting, etc. These could be moved whole hog into a game of D&D. My plan is to do just that in my Carcosa game. The mechanics of Dungeon World are quite simple: roll a 2d6 and you either succeed, succeed with a complication, or fail and face a tough complication. You could model all reaction rolls in D&D on this formula, I suppose. The rules taken together add a structure to wilderness travel that feels lacking in vanilla D&D, and is apparently glossed over in Dungeon World.”

Anyway, those were my thoughts on innovation within the Old School Renaissance.



Discussion of Proceduralism on Brendan’s blog.

As I said in my blog post, I feel there are still things to do better in this respect and I feel like Dungeon World and its Moves might be able to point us in new directions: a Chase Move instead of calculating stuff using movement speeds; a Research Move instead of paying a lot of money and skipping many sessions before rolling perentage dice, a domain game or a trading game that doesn’t end up being an accounting game.

– AlexSchroeder 2016-01-21 14:56 UTC

Some other people “from the Old School Renaissance” are picking up the thread. Sadly, a bit all over the place. I’ll try to link them as I find them.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-22 12:07 UTC

As for the value of innovation itself, Dan Proctor said it best, back in 2008: «I will note some challenges (in my opinion) the “old-school revival” faces. […] The idea of game “evolution.” It is true that in our culture there is a misconception, broadly, that cultural evolution evolves “upward,” so that changes are for the “better.” This social Darwinism is deeply ingrained. It is only natural that people translate that false assumption to games, often equating role playing games with technology, as if the next edition of an RPG is quantitatively better just like the next generation computer games that have better graphics. Of course this is false. An RPG is only “better” in the eyes of the beholder, not quantitatively.»

And half a year later, he writes: «Besides, the OSR isn’t just about retro-clones. It’s about a way of gaming, and a way of producing RPG material. It doesn’t matter if you write a module that doesn’t align itself with a particular clone game, its the content and feel that matter. It’s not just about fantasy games, either. Old-school gaming includes all genres.»

– Alex Schroeder

As Robert Bohl decided to delete the thread on G+, I’m going to ask people for their OK to repost their comments.

The comments below have been edited slightly because I only wanted to keep the “good parts” of that thread. I’ve also added links to products, mostly by pasting the product name into Google Search and picking one of the top links. If you’re looking for reviews, you’ll have to do some of your own googling.

Michael Moceri said: Godbound is kind of what you’d get if someone wanted to make Exalted as an OSR game, which seems pretty innovative.

The basic structure of the game is just what you’d expect. D&D abilities, levels, polyhedra, etc. Your typical OSR structure is just where you’d expect it to be.

The innovation comes from how it’s used. In this case, it’s to up the power level and scope of play. A starting Godbound will casually cut through crowds of mooks, taking out several per action without any particular effort. It doesn’t do the zero end of zero to hero at all.

Probably the biggest part of that is that it’s got a system for using your influence to change the world. You get points to spend from your worshipers, from your powers, and from deeds that you perform, and you can spend those points to create lasting change. Want to create a perfect system of justice in a city? Totally doable. Want to build a library that becomes a shining beacon of knowledge for the world? That works as well. And creating particular things in particular locations are where the scope of play begins; you can also alter the fates of nations or even the whole world if you set your mind to it, and the influence system handles it just fine.

It’s also set up to drive play. You need to go out and get stuff to build your larger, more impressive works. You need to gather influence. So you need to go on quests to get what you need. Which gives you a great excuse to go into that mad dungeon filled with clockwork traps (which you could actually build using the influence system if you wanted) to find the piece of celestial machinery at its heart so that you can use that magical artifact to build your own works.

It’s kind of neat. The free beta is also available if you want. I think it’s up to beta 0.12 right now.

Casey G. said:

  • Scenic Dunnsmouth – Innovative card and dice mechanics create a town and relationships that ensure no two play-throughs will be the same.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon is innovative because it’s an art book masquerading as a monster manual.
  • Yoon-Suin is innovative because it’s a toolbox for creating an expanding, unique campaign world.
  • Scarlet Heroes is innovative because it allows old-school play with only a DM and single player or solo play, with no conversion of source material. Also contains an engine for solo play that would be valuable to any game, not just an OSR game.
  • A Red and Pleasant Land is innovative because it’s the most beautiful RPG book on the market.
  • Kevin Crawford’s OSR Kickstarters are innovative in that they are all successful and deliver early. His model should be used widely.
  • Into the Odd is innovative because it boils dungeoncrawling down to its simplest essence in an evocative Victorian dystopia.

That’s just off the top of my head. That said, innovation is overrated. Good writing, a good story, and good mechanics don’t need to be innovative. 

Kevin Crawford said: I think looking for innovation in the OSR is at some level like looking for innovation in pens. There is a certain contingent of people who are deeply, passionately interested in new pens. They want to see new inks, new nib styles, a sober discussion of the merits of various barrels, and exciting new neo-pen, pencil-inspired modifications. The great majority of people, however, just want a damn pen so they can write something.

The OSR lets you write things. Everybody knows how it works. Everybody understands what you’re saying, even people who have no intention of actually using OSR rules. If you want to write a crazy city sourcebook like Vornheim or a trippy slug-man fantasia like Yoon-Suin or an unrepentant megadungeon like Dwimmermount (for Labyrinth Lord, for ACKS) then the OSR will let you do it with a minimum of system gasconade. There are some people who really want to just recreate the pens of their youth in a more accessible fashion, or who want to tweak the pens to suit their own writing style, but the great majority of really interesting OSR stuff is the result of what was written and not how.

System gasconade refers to the size of the damn you have to give about the system you’re using. There are many gaming systems in which the mechanics of the game are intimately intertwined with their creations. This is particularly prevalent in systems that explicitly emulate a genre or narrative structure, like Fate with its Fate Point economy, or the Gumshoe system with its clue economy, or any one of a hundred indie games oriented toward particular stories. The system says you need X, and Y, and Z in your game or there’s going to be a problem. The OSR has none of that. There is no coherent metastructure expected to be imposed on any given creation. While this deprives it of the inevitable advantages of an interesting metastructure, it also means that the author doesn’t have to genuflect to any other considerations when writing their stuff. It’s just you, the paper, and a handful of descriptive mechanical concepts and processes.

Quite aside from nostalgia, I think one of the biggest reasons that small publishers ape 80s trade dress is because they have no idea how to lay out a book without doing so. It’s not like their choices are between “A nuanced layout that emphasizes critical text in an evocative fashion, seamlessly blending an RPG rulebook’s tripartite role as reference, inspirational fiction, and instructional manual” and “AVANT GARDE FUCK THE GRID BOXED TEXT 4 LYFE”. Actually making a layout that responds to the three conflicting roles of an RPG book is incredibly hard, and for a raw amateur just doing it like it’s always been done is at least a guarantee that they won’t completely screw it up. What the hobby needs is a superbly talented book designer to study the genre, formulate basic principles, provide worked examples, and compile it in the form of a guidebook comprehensible to a total novice. Which suggests to me that we’re going to be seeing a lot of Souvenir for a long, long time. 

Zak Smith said:

Art and writing more innovative than anything in any RPG

Fire on the Velvet Horizon. Not only sentence-for sentence beautiful on a genuine literary level far beyond the Neil Gaimanisms that pass for “good writing” in RPGs but in terms of organization as wel. The art was made first, then the description written after and the bestiary trope of “experts claim” is woven into a sub-plot of secret competing experts. Praised publicly by China Mieville.

By the same authors: Deep Carbon Observatory.

Graphic and information design far more innovative than anything in any RPG

The One Page Dungeon Contest winners. For example Luka Rejec’s Purple Worm dungeon. Communicating lots of dense information at a glance to the busy GM.

Carcosa: the only well-organized, published hexcrawl, lots of room for notes while you do not have to fish thru paragraphs to find hex contents. Plus its weird enough fantasy that Monte Cook gave it props.

Innovative digital tools

First off, y’all should love this as it’s an OSR/Story gamer collaboration—the Abulafia random generators. Although Story Games people started it, the OSR has gone nuts adding to it creating generators with complex, nested content drawing on multiple libraries that generate all kinds of RPG content at the touch of a button. Basically the entire contents of a 15-page Judges Guild or TSR module can be made in 3 or 4 clicks.

Secondly there’s the Last Gasp random generators, which are super easy to make your own and they fit on your toolbar. So basically now there’s a button on my browser that I can hit and it randomly generates monsters disaggregated by environment or spells disaggregated by level or any other thing you might want while GMing. You just cut your homebrew random table and paste.

Thirdly there’s Dave's Mapper—which takes hand-drawn geomorphs from a variety of different artists and combines them into random maps.

Innovative game rules

Innovative analysis

Innovative collective projects

These were all crowdsourced and work and read faster in play than any existing hexcrawl product.

Innovative settings

Yoon-Suin presents a nightmare opium-dream Far East that owes absolutely nothing to samurai-movie cliches and does it in absorbing detail with absolutely zero fat on it, complete with slug men, mutants decadence and adventure-hook-generating rules for trade

Dwarfland is a weird menage of Arthur Rackham fairy fire and black humor where, for example, the king’s crown is and has always been secretly a Helm of Opposite Alignment so each tyrranical general becomes a kindly despot once she seizes power and vice versa

Innovative Everything

Monster Manual Sewn From Pants is folk-art lunacy waaaaay beyond anything anyone else in RPGs is making. Other dimensions, Anime-style Magical Girl cyberpunk, weird mutations out of Bosch and various avantgarde transhumanisms pretty much in every blog entry.

The OSR Links To Wisdom organizes a lot of the best articles.

Brendan S said: For me, a lot of what I learned from the OSR is to appreciate consequences of many classic rules that are often counterintuitive on their face (and may have been originally unintended).

  • The creative value of randomness [1]
  • Emergent narrative from random encounters (cousin of “play to find out what happens”)
  • Compatibility of play incentive with game behavior (GP as XP)
  • Interaction of lethality with engagement through tension [2] [3]
  • Prioritizing diegetic (fictional) problem solving as a legitimate alternative to using explicit mechanical solutions. [4]

As someone who learned tabletop RPGs originally in the 90s with AD&D 2E and White Wolf, many of these ideas were surprising and useful. Further, since those games were developed at least partly as reactions to the perceived shortcomings of earlier D&D, I suspect many of those designers may not have understood the way earlier systems contributed to play.

This represents a shift in beliefs for some substantial contingent of players (myself included), which seems like a good measure of innovation.

Olman Feelyus said: I don’t think there is anything acutely innovative about the OSR and as others have already stated, that isn’t really it’s goal. However, in the aggregate, both in how the philosophy around play at the table has been refined and in how product gets developed and marketed, it is overall a big innovation in our hobby. I don’t think there were ever groups who were so explicit about their dungeoncrawling and sandboxing and so clear on the parameters around that until the OSR came along and really started talking about it.

It’s like a remix and refinement of many already existing elements that has created something that is new and different, something that couldn’t have existed 20 years ago, yet is still very familiar.

Mark Delsing said: I’d argue that (what I saw as) the original premise of the OSR — namely, let’s look at these original games with fresh eyes, putting aside our ’80s and ’90s baggage, and examine how they were played by their creators and see what we can learn — was itself pretty innovative. It was gaming archaeology/anthropology, and I don’t think anything like it existed up until then.

Likewise, there may be the “rulings, not rules” stuff, but I also seem to remember ideas like, “Hey, did you know that Moldvay, if you play it exactly as written and forget what you think you know about D&D, is a really fun, functional game?” That was crazy-pants thinking to me.

The flip side is that I do think plenty of people have used the OSR as a way to defend having never looked beyond the habits they developed in the ’70s.”See?! We were right all along!” E.g., arguing in favor of gender-based ability caps. It’s honestly why I’ve unfollowed a lot of OSR folk I used to read regularly.

At its best, the OSR bypassed the grognards and went to the source material, revealing that lots of accepted wisdom was wrong, IMO.

Rob Conley said: The innovation found in the OSR is the same as any other niche of the hobby and industry. It’s just being based on the mechanics of classic D&D rather than something novel or another system.

RPGs are about creating experiences. The experience is created by players acting as their characters interacting with a setting with their actions adjudicated by a human referee.

Because of this, RPG are inherently flexible. Even in RPGs as focused as Paranoia or Pendragon there are dozens of possibilities the referee can choose from.

This is similar to why after centuries of theater and a century of filmmaking, people are still finding new ways of presenting well-worn plotlines like boy meets girl. While on one level it’s all the same, on another the different circumstance and personalities often make it all fresh again.

What this means is that you don’t need to focus on mechanics to have variety and innovation. Mechanics grab people’s attention as they are about concrete rules used for adjudication or defining what characters can and can’t do. Easy to grasp and understand.

What’s not so easy is how to create a setting and how to manage the setting during the course of a campaign to give a the campaign a specific feel. One reason it is not so easy is because it’s so heavily weighted towards the experience that’s being depicted. Gothic Horror, Weird Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, Epic Quests, and the various combinations all bring different considerations.

The thing about the OSR is that because no single company dominates the IP there are a multitude of viewpoints being put out there. Which in my book is a good thing.

That’s the most useful collection oft RPG material I’ve seen in a long while. Thank you!

Falk 2016-02-06 11:03 UTC

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