Tuesday, February 1, 2022

System -Neutral or OSR Stats?

Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.”

Carl von Clausewitz

I have on occasion been moved to write about the Old School Renaissance (OSR, or whatever you want to call it using those initials). A few years ago I explored OSR rules and supplements. The vast array of adaptations offered some interesting innovations among the retreads of classic D&D mechanics. Settings and supplements tied to rules interpretations provided inspiration easily ported to other games. But now I’m developing two fantasy roleplaying game supplements – an as-yet unannounced setting and the Infinite Cathedral setting currently languishing in limbo – I’m faced with a conundrum. Do I provide stats for the inhabitants in OSR format or in my established but not terribly well-known system-neutral format?

Ages ago, it seems, when I wrote my Pulp Egypt setting sourcebook I opted to take the system-neutral path. My preferred game engine at the time, the D6 System pioneered by West End Games, was still under control of the new owners of the company’s name and limited assets; it had not yet passed to public use under the Open Game License (OGL). Although I’d freelanced for this new owner on some supplements for D6 Space, I wasn’t in any position to purchase a license for my own work. So I designed the Any-System Key, a means of describing gamemaster characters using three different power levels (henchman, boss, and mastermind) and listing relevant skills, also in three levels (competent, expert, and signature). Unlike fantasy roleplaying games, pulp games didn’t really have one overarching core system governing the genre, like D&D and Pathfinder dominated the fantasy genre at the time (and arguably they still do). For the most part, given their modest sales over the years, Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga demonstrated gamers wouldn’t terribly mind a system-neutral setting they could port to their favorite game engine.

When I immersed myself in the OSR craze I adapted this system in my Any-OSR Key to dabble in various projects, primarily a setting sourcebook, The Greydeep Marches. It’s modest sales and a few decent reviews proved momentarily satisfying, but any buzz it generated in the online OSR community and greater gaming environment was quickly drowned out by the vast flood of such resources released daily on DriveThruRPG. My natural self-doubt made me question whether I should have included OSR-style stats or released an OSR version to better capitalize on that demographic.

So now I face that conundrum again for current projects: do I stick with system-neutral stats or use some form of OSR stats?

From a sales point of view I’m afraid catering to the OSR set makes the most sense. For better or worse, D&D’s game mechanics – the foundation of OSR systems – have become the lingua franca of roleplaying games. Many concepts like levels, hit points, and armor class have even migrated to electronic games. I’m sure many gamers turn their noses up at the merest mention of “system-neutral” supplements, preferring material for their particular favorite game system and little else...certainly not something that requires them to do extra work determining stats for someone else’s creations. A few folks might turn their noses up at anything smacking of the OSR or even old-school games like B/X D&D as opposed to more refined, modern fare (including the latest edition of D&D). No doubt I’d sell more of anything labeled OSR or “old-school” than “system-neutral.” Increased sales at this point, for me, remains secondary to creating something that not only engages me in creating it but fulfills my particular gaming needs; if it interests and satisfies others, then great, but that’s not my primary goal at this point.

From a layout perspective, though, going with OSR stats makes more sense; they’re easier to flow and fit better visually with the rest of the text. OSR stats take up a few lines of text to note Armor Class, Hit Dice, hit points, attacks, damage, morale, and a few other relevant bits (I’m tempted to include something like “core skills” to round them out beyond a basic combat encounter...). My system-neutral “stats” consist of a similar basic set of descriptors not tied to any particular game system, with a few blank lines provided below so gamemasters can jot down their interpretation for their own favorite game engine. I’ve used “Any-OSR Key” stats in two publications thus far, The Greydeep Marches and Tower of the Faceless Clock, an as-yet unreleased programmed solo adventure meant as an introduction to The Infinite Cathedral that I just can’t muster enough confidence to release publicly. The extra blank line take up a good deal of room in the text column and sometimes provide challenges jumping columns and pages. When I provided “Any-System Key” stats in other products like Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga, those stats sat in convenient sidebars with plenty of room and without interrupting the flow of the main text. For projects in which I’m trying to evoke the feel of B/X D&D TSR products – like The Greydeep Marches seemed to do with some degree of success – I prefer stats in the main body of text. OSR stats work better in that capacity.

One of these projects (the as-yet unannounced one I’ve briefly mentioned before) I’m creating with the personal goal of using it to run as a B/X D&D campaign for my son and some friends (when we can do that again). In this case it makes sense to customize it to an OSR format rather than even a generic stat system that reflects some OSR basics but still requires a gamemaster to determine specific stat values from a textual description. I’m not keen on hammering out two sets of stats, even if one is generic; then do I lay out and release two different versions, one for OSR and one system-neutral? I’m tempted to go with OSR-style stats tailored to my particular house-ruled B/X D&D with my ultimate yet probably futile goal of running the setting for my son and his friends, when the pandemic precautions allow. The Open Game License would allow me (with some minor restrictions) to publish this work for those interested in it, though I have few illusions it would sell well by anyone’s standards.

If my musings on this subject seem to have wavered from one side to another, it reflects my general uncertainty. I’m developing the unannounced project when the inspiration hits me, leaving The Infinite Cathedral, even it’s ready-for-publication solo adventure, on the back burner for now...again. Right now I’m indulging in whatever project engages me and keeps me from spiraling into the mire harping on the pandemic, the socio-political situation, and everyday anxieties. No doubt the debate between OSR or system-neutral stats will continue burbling in my head. I take some comfort that stats remain a secondary if not tertiary concern to trying to develop location elements and characters to bring the setting to life for readers, gamemasters, and players.


  1. If you'd doing an OSR product, I'd suggest doing something OSE (Old School Essentials) 'compatible' - it's basically B/X D&D, so using it's stats you get a B/X D&D stat block that appears to be the lingua franca for the various OSR-related games as it's easy to convert to and from.

  2. If the work is designed for D&D-style play (PCs seek experience points, leveling up, treasure, etc) then it makes perfect sense to go with OSR-ish statblocks.

    If the work is designed for some other style of play, then OSR-style statblocks would be a cynical move.

    IMO, it comes down to that.

  3. Both interesting points, each influencing a particular style of play. At this point I'd think using my Any-OSR Key, though textual, would tie it too closely to D&D-style play. More factors for me to consider.


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