2019-10-07 Old School Reading

I recently wrote about role-playing game books, and now I just found an excellent blog posts from 2016 by Joseph Manola on his blog, Against the Wicked City: OSR aesthetics of ruin. I must have read it before? I don’t remember. But it still speaks to me.

It talks about aesthetics: ruined buildings, ruined people, ruined societies, and the flora and fauna of decay and vermin. Back in 2013, Andy Bartlett wrote The Old School is Pathetic – A Rant on his blog Known World, Old World. From there we get the term pathetic aesthetic. This aesthetic of suffering is then picked up and combined with the idea of the sublime:

the immense mismatch between their fragile, mortal lives and their huge and ancient surroundings also inspires feelings of awe and grandeur: the aesthetic which used to be known as ’the sublime’

The blog post then goes on to talk about the juxtaposition of the two, calling it the pathetic sublime. And then we get to the meat of it: There is a reason for this aesthetic. It grows on you naturally, without you thinking about it, but if you want powerful machines that are unguarded, then you have it all:

  1. an ancient past that has come to ruins, leaving behind artefacts that can be toyed with
  2. weak characters that are prone to suffer, both player characters and non-player characters
  3. an environment characterised by the absence of authority

Or, as it gets put in the blog post:

Well-maintained social order is the enemy of free-wheeling adventure, and so the more ruined everything is, the more freedom PCs will have to run around inside it.

Now we’re talking about the Sandbox. This lack of control, the instability, these sources of chaos in the environment make planning impossible. In a sandbox, you’re playing to find out and if the referee plans to far ahead, they automatically constrain the freedom of their players, and if players plan to far ahead, the referee is simply going to roll some dice and adventure happens – or the referee is going to simply nod and say: “your plan succeeds.”

I find myself doing that quite often. Players are planning, and I am talking with them, at the table, offering counter arguments and asking them how they prepare for this and that eventuality. And when we’ve talked it through, then that was the game. There’s no point in replaying it. The plan succeeds. I think this is an extension of my approach to Rulings, in other words: the game is a negotiation.

These are not heist games where planning is a thing.

The blog post also goes into another effect that I’ve noticed:

Sane and organised beings are going to react rationally, efficiently, and collectively to an intrusion into their territory, which tends to short-circuit adventures; but if they’re weird and superstitious and crazy then they can react in much more varied and interesting ways

Indeed I have run into this problem: the players travel up and down the wilderness and I play the people they encounter as reasonable as I can. These are people that listen when you talk to them, that weigh benefits and drawbacks, make rational decisions, and sometimes I feel that these encounters end up being boring. Where are the clowns, the assassins, the power hungry kings, the bloodthirsty knights, the raving lunatics, the immortal meddlers? That’s exactly where the fun is!



That’s where reaction rolls come in. Can also be used as a personality generator with a few tweaks.

Anders H 2019-10-09 13:11 UTC

I agree! On my screen I have a more elaborate reaction roll table, which I use for just that. 2014-08-21 No Dice has more info. I guess I’d love a little more variety so it’s by no means perfect. But it’s at least better than “yes” or “no”. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2019-10-09 13:58 UTC

What We Talk About When We Talk About The OSR is a great post that lists all the ways one can understand what “OSR” might possibly mean to the people saying it. Ahhh... all is lost. The words no longer make sense and the tongue is dry as paper.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-12-29 18:19 UTC

@Halfjack writes about his worlds being full of reasonable NPCs. I tend to have the same problem, specially later in the campaign, getting out of a rut.


  • “I guess that unless I start thinking about the kind of adventure hooks I provide in my sandbox, this kind of player diplomacy—sessions dominated by talking and the occasional reaction roll—will become more prevalent. Do I want to add Courtney’s minigame or do I want to engineer adventures that lead back to fighting?” – 2014-08-21 No Dice
  • «The point I’m concerned about is the lack of drama. I come away from these sessions wondering where the excitement was. I think it all goes back to something I read or heard a while ago: if all the opposition is rational, then all conflict is going to be resolved by reasonable debate. Where’s the “unexpected wackiness” in that? I love that part of the game.» – 2019-10-24 Stakes must be high

Anyway, that’s why I always read @Halfjack’s blog posts on his system of stakes and risks, like resolution as narrative.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-12-29 18:23 UTC

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