Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The OSR's Goldilocks Zone...

Before getting on with this week's offering, Robyn and I are please to announce the release of Chronicles I: Roman Silver, Saxon Greed, a starting adventure module for Barons of Braunstein set in Saxon England of the 8-9th century.  If this sounds like your thing, you can pick it up for just $1.49 from Drive-Thru RPG.  And now, on with the show...

So weeks ago on Facebook (or somewhere; I remember the issue more than the forum), someone suggested that the OSR seems to want the old days while co-opting the newer stuff it often decries.  It wasn't an adversarial encounter, since he liked this best-of-both worlds approach as much as he disliked the gatekeeper mentality of some.  We ended up agreeing; but the exchange got me thinking about how thin the so-called veil between old and new really is, especially since neither side has a monopoly on inefficiency.

Old-school D&D (but not necessarily the OSR) was remarkably clunky in its particulars despite its reputation for simplicity.  Separate mechanics for combat?  Stealth?  Turning the undead - not to mention saving throws?  The dungeon master was looking up a dizzying array of charts, making a DM's screen a necessary investment.  I can't imagine anyone using AD&D's grappling rules.  Seriously.  I didn't even bother.  Fiddly subsystems (to quote one friend's characterization) ruled this universe - and it wasn't always a stable reign.

But early D&D was delightfully open ended, with lots of gray area for the players - and their referee - to fill in with an alchemy of rulings and strategy.  It was the social contract on steroids, with just enough rules to keep it all from devolving into anarchy.  This is sometimes mistaken for simplicity; but it's not.  Awkward - and scattered - as they often were, these systems were confined to the most critical of functions, with everything else being optional guidance at best.  Its clunkiness was at least redeemed by this fact...

So maybe OD&D squandered its open-endedness by failing to employ a simple core mechanic (not at all out of reach, by the way).  Which is to say that early D&D succeeded despite its clunky mechanics, but clearly missed an opportunity to achieve its goals.

Enter modern D&D.  Here you get a simpler, more streamlined mechanic, which is frankly impressive, but also not the sole property of the younglings.  OD&D's combat resolution (roll d20 against a target number) was always there.  But applying it to everything else was a stroke of brilliance undermined by a tendency to mechanize everything until your character can't fart or scratch their ass without invoking some rule, however streamlined, robbing player agency in the name of simulation.  Bad?  No.  A missed opportunity?  Sure. 

Now enter the OSR.  This gets derided by a certain faction of reverse-gatekeepers as a contingent of dinosaurs shaking their fists; but it's remarkably progressive in at least some of its accomplishments.  By combining OD&D's rulings-not-rules approach with the modern hobby's thoughtful streamlining, you get gaming's Goldilocks Zone (but the baby bear's was just right).  The inverse would be untenable; a clunky, overwrought system appropriating every conceivable choice.  I'd say the OSR (like the baby bear's porridge) is just right...


  1. Good to hear your voice here on the blog (as always!). Also, I just downloaded the adventure - a thousand thank yous!

    Re: Single mechanics and missed opportunities, I'm of a mind to appreciate those little mini-games. For example the thief's percentile roll. I like that little tonal shift in the mechanic. Like, here you are about to do something different, maybe even a little special. The percentiles immediately remind everyone at the table how likely the thief is going to blow it.

    1. I hadn't thought of it that way! You've got a point. Also, we're glad you like the module and hope you're doing well amidst the craziness of the world...

    2. Hey there! It's all good here. We're actually moving in a few weeks. I took an ER job in Vermont.

      We gotta get the kids to the forest. Small town. Seasons. Year round outdoors.

    3. Awesome! It's gorgeous there. Hope you have a safe move and find happiness wherever you happen to plant yourselves...

  2. Perfect timing for the Braunstein release! Just a day ago I convinced some friends to give this a try and I was wondering which adventure I'd use. I'll use this one!
    I've already skimmed it and here's some feedback:
    1.) The map on page 2 could really need a better quality. Town names are not readable. Maybe add a high quality version as a handout to the module?
    2.) I'd prefer the NPC stats indented so it's easier to identify the next NPC in the list.
    3.) A nice bonus would be a list of names for spontaneous use, you know, when the PCs actually decide to be best friends with that NPC you just came up with... ;-)

    1. Also, once again I agree with your post.

    2. Thanks for the kind words! We'll take that on board...