Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Customizing the OSR Experience

Resources like Brent Newhall’s Old School Renaissance Handbook and Taxidermic Owlbear’s overview of retro-clone systems remind me of the OSR’s amazing diversity in mechanics. Each new OSR game provides the author’s own interpretation of the classic Dungeons & Dragons game system based on a beloved early edition, an amalgam of preferred mechanics, new innovations on those systems, or other inventive derivations. (And I’m not even mentioning setting interpretations incorporating those mechanics....) Although I like a single unifying “core mechanic” in my games – such as the dice-pool roll against a difficulty number in the D6 System – I grew up with the amalgam of different mechanics in the Basic/Expert D&D and Advanced D&D games. “Core mechanic” systems allow for a some degree of interpretation in fine tuning within the scope of the basic rules, yet so does D&D with its numerous individual rulings for resolving the host of situations that arise in the course of a game. D&D established the foundation for fantasy roleplaying game mechanics; the OSR demonstrates just how variations and innovations can vary to produce games with different play styles.

The process adjusts individual mechanics within the game to find the right balance of game play. Take a look at individual systems and notice how gamers can alter nearly every one for a particular play style or rules preference. Since roleplaying games focus on characters, many of these elements appear on the character sheet; many trickle down to other systems, particularly in handling monsters .Designers have adjusted existing rules to their liking, but for some they’ve devised original ways of handling mechanics while still evoking the spirit of early roleplaying games:

Abilities: Many authors stick with the classic six attributes in defining a character’s core abilities. Some, however, re-interpret these, changing the names and even going so far as to condense them into three.

Generating Scores: The method for determining an ability score between 3 and 18 has remained a subject of debate since the beginning of roleplaying games. Does one roll 3d6 or 4d6 and ignore the lowest result? Do players assign scores in the order rolled or to best accommodate their character concept? Many designers – and certainly players themselves – leave this method up to individuals so they can use a method best-suited to their play expectations. Some games offer variations to the score values themselves, distilling them to their basic ability score modifiers or even changing the number range (hence altering the character of derived game mechanics).

Modifiers: OSR authors can choose ability score modifiers and the mechanics they effect. Various early editions of D&D offered different ranges for modifiers, from a very basic -1/+1 range to -3/+3 and even upwards of +4 for exceptional Strength. OSR designers adopt a range they feel best suits their style. Authors also determine how modifiers affect additional mechanics. Does a Strength modifier affect “to hit” rolls and damage, and if so, is that only for combat-oriented classes? Do modifiers alter new systems added to the existing framework?

Race & Class: These two categories offer great potential for variations to the foundational material. Do OSR designers combine race into classes or do they keep race and class as two elements to freely combine with and enhance each other? The diversity of both categories offered can help define the fantasy setting beyond the OSR parameters. Do authors take a minimal approach and include only the core races and classes or do they freely add classic optional offerings and invent original ones of their own design? Some designers add extra class bonuses beyond spellcasting, undead turning, and thief skills, particularly for those classes without such benefits; while some start at first level, others begin when characters attain higher levels. Two games come to mind that incorporate additional class features nicely, James Spahn’s The Hero’s Journey and Scott Malthouse’s Romance of the Perilous Land. (I’ve been sitting on a draft of a piece on how these can help give starting characters a boost, but it hasn’t yet come together as well as I’d like; we’ll see....)

Spells: Many OSR games handle spells using the traditional Vancian magic system, memorizing a set number and level of spells and losing them temporarily when cast in-game (until regained after reflection and study). Some designers adjust the number of spells at each level or even re-interpret or clarify existing spells, but others try innovative approaches, devising new spells or even re-working the spell acquisition and casting mechanics. Spells remain one of the core game systems that can really change the feel of a game if altered far from the original material.

Skills or Ability Checks: Some games incorporate rules for handling actions outside of established mechanics for combat, spells, and special class abilities. Third edition D&D incorporated a comprehensive skill system tied to ability modifiers and difficulty numbers, though the extent to which OSR designers have used such mechanics remains limited. Many hew closer to the “rulings not rules” maxim for retro-clone game design, preferring to offer a basic core mechanic for skills or ability checks simulating skill use (if they offer a system for this at all).

Saving Throws: Aside from adjusting saving throws based on class, creators can choose to stick with the traditional five categories, distill them to three or even one, and vary which ability modifiers affect them. Those using ability checks might eschew traditional saving throws altogether in lieu of a test against an appropriate attribute.

Armor Class: Perhaps one of the greatest developments from third edition D&D and the OSR – to me, anyway – was the use of Ascending Armor Class (AAC). OSR designers can pick which one they prefer, traditional descending AC or newer and more intuitive AAC. Armor ratings might vary here or there; I’ve seen some interesting variants based on shield size that gives bearers some extra protection.

Role of Armor: Do gamers take the traditional route of armor-as-AC-bonus or do they use armor to reduce damage? The concept of armor decreasing the difficulty of hitting a target – and hence scoring damage – remains rooted in the earliest fantasy roleplaying games; yet armor, technically reduces damage from hits received. Many OSR authors default to the traditional concepts, but a few have found innovations using armor to reduce damage while still evoking an old-school, retro-clone feel. Once again Spahn’s The Hero’s Journey and also Nygard and Nordinge’s Blood & Bronze (on the edge of the OSR, but valid nonetheless) address armor reducing damage in a way that works within the original system framework.

Weapon Damage: This topic sometimes spurs interesting discussion among gamers. Do designers stick with basic d6 damage or go with variable weapon damage, and if so, how to do that? A penalty for small weapons and bonus for large ones? Damage by polyhedral die code (and if so, how much?)? Is battle axe damage fair considering it’s a two-handed weapon (I’ve seen some interesting explorations of that topic)?

Combat Resolution: Few OSR designers fiddle with the core combat mechanics of rolling a d20, adding any bonuses, and comparing it against a cross-referenced difficulty number (or Ascending Armor Class value). The d20 itself has become an icon of the roleplaying game hobby. Yet occasionally I’ve seen the combat mechanic revised along the lines of an ability score check (see above), albeit still using the beloved d20. Games like Malthouse’s Romance of the Perilous Land and Mark Hunt’s The Front World War II RPG use this mechanic, in which players make a Strength or Dexterity test to hit (for melee and ranged combat respectively); Malthouse’s game modifies the stat downward based on the opponent’s hit die, a nod to more powerful opponents having a greater chance to dodge or deflect an attack.

This brief overview is in no way meant to represent a comprehensive analysis of all the system variables within OSR games; but I hope it celebrates the vast landscape of options designers and players have when customizing their own OSR experience. Much of the OSR’s diversity comes from the different ways creators can interpret and combine each of these factors in different combinations. The elements listed above dwell solely on game mechanics, only one aspect of a game (though an important one). Players want rules to reflect their particular views on how an OSR game should run, but they can adjust those themselves if necessary; the game’s given setting (if anything beyond “generic medieval fantasy”) and the overall presentation can also affect one’s play experience. Exceptional OSR designers focus on all these aspects to create games catering to players with similar tastes and priorities of design and setting. While some might consider such “re-hashing” old game elements has seen its day, others continue expanding the bounds of OSR gaming to cater to nostalgic tastes while experimenting with new experiences.


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