Posted by: markfender | May 21, 2014


For some reason, I’ve been reading a lot of OSR books recently. Which is totally not in my wheelhouse. I don’t quite get the appeal. I mean, I was around when the Old School games were active the first time, but I was more interested in other games. I didn’t get into D&D until 3rd edition (and “getting into” means I played it some) so, while I was active with gaming in the ’80s, the particular appeal of the type of game pushed by Old School was, and is, a foreign idea.

starsnumberAnd yet, I’ve been reading OSR products for entirely unrelated reasons. For one, I’ve been reading a bunch of Sine Nomine stuff. That is, Stars Without Number, and Red Tide. I think Kevin Crawford does a good job at innovating on the form of Old School and pushing it in new directions. And he does a good job of explaining what the appeal of an OSR game is and then, most importantly, putting that appeal into actual rules. His big thing is the sandbox-style of gaming. Which isn’t a foreign idea to me (and tends to be the sort of game I run). But an OSR sandbox is a different one from my kind of sandbox. One of Crawford’s big points is that the GM (he uses a different term but it’s silly and so I won’t use it here) shouldn’t be doing any additional work than what is necessary for the next adventure. Multiple times he says to not bother creating new stuff if it will never be used. And he does a good job of dividing the types of sites that OSR players will stumble across, and providing lots of random charts to build new encounters. But, perhaps most importantly, his random charts are specifically keyed towards the type of encounter being created, leading to a greater idea of cohesiveness than you’ll find in a Random Encounter Chart. For instance, in Red Tide, each monster encounter gets a one-page write-up. This includes the typically two-line stat blocks for a bunch of different types of that creature, sample groups of those creatures, along with a random chart to provide impetus for those creatures to even be an encounter. It’s short, quick, and more useful than “there are orcs in this hex.”

So, I’m on board for the type of game Kevin Crawford wants to run. He wants me and my party to go out into the wilderness and explore. Along the way, we’ll battle enemies with some motivations, explore ruins with some coherent theme, and engage in political dealings with village elders. Based on  the types of tools he’s created, I’m confident that we’ll get that in his games. I just still have to stop and wonder – why is this OSR? What is the appeal of the particular rules set he’s using? (Labyrinth Lord, in Red Tide’s case). It has a much smaller range of numbers than later D&D versions. This is kind of essential to the OSR experience as one of the essential ideas is that there is no ‘gating.’ If the next hex has a dragon on it and you’re 1st level, the GM is not going to lower the dragon’s stats so that you can beat it. You should leave the dragon alone until you’re powerful enough to take it on. This lesser range of numbers allows that to work a little better, as the variation between things is slightly less. Slightly too-hard content can be beaten with proper tactics or lucky die rolls. It also keeps lower level threats still threatening. So, I get that part. But these two-line stat blocks are kind of bullshit, though. Granted, it’s far better than the monster behemoths that D&D 3rd stat blocks became, but it’s still a sham. Because not all of the information I need is in those two-line stat blocks. What are a monster’s saves? In order to find that out, I need to know the “Save As” of the monster (in the stat block) and cross-reference that with a chart. So, wouldn’t it be less disingenuous to just put the six saves in the stat block? You know, the way D&D 3rd did? And why the hell are their six saves? The three from D&D 3rd are much more coherent of an idea. I just don’t quite see the reason to NOT innovate when given the chance, especially if the innovation is objectively better (And I really mean that use of the word ‘objectively’).

I will never fucking understand THAC0. I mean, I get the math behind it and how it works (even though I forget the math behind about five minutes after I read it – it is a simple concept that works exactly opposite to how my brain works) but I do not understand why that method is kept from older editions and the newer AC system is not used. Because it’s another place where the monster stats lie to you. “You only need these six numbers to run any monster!” is the promise, but the fact is I need to cross reference Hit Dice (one of those numbers) with another chart to determine the THAC0 for every monster to hit every different AC is the reality. So, every different AC in my party is a different number I need. When I could just determine a bonus to hit and then compare that one number against a bunch of different target numbers. And, yes, I realize that you can do that if you understand THAC0 and the chart and all that stuff, but it seems like some needless hoop-jumping when the stupid monster stats could just list one number and save me the time and effort.

In other words, I don’t see how this game is helping me run the type of game it wants me to run. I’m on board with the whole sandbox idea and being a free-wheeling, devil-may-care GM that only does the minimum possible. But the minimum the book is putting out still requires me to do work. And it is solely because “that’s the way it used to be” rather than any good reason. I truly believe that Stars Without Number is innovating in important ways, but there are so many other ways it feels tied to a legacy mechanic that keeps it from being the game it wants to be.

This is not a slight against Sine Nomine products. I recommend you all go buy them because they are useful books with a lot of great ideas. But they make me sad in certain ways that I can only connect to Old School for no damned good reason.


  1. There actually are reasons for it, but they’re embedded in the context of the audience. For example, why does the usual monster stat block only cite “Saves As:”? Why does it cling to descending AC? Isn’t there a better way to do this?

    Leaving aside the fact that Red Tide was published for the Labyrinth Lord system and thus obliged to do things LL-style, there actually is a reason for these quirks: almost all OSR games are runtime-compatible. If a system adheres to a few basic concepts- AC, saves, hit rolls, hit points, classes, and levels, you’re going to be able to use it with OSRIC material, with LL material, with 2nd ed AD&D materia,l with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with Stars Without Number…. And you will be able to do it at the table, on the fly, without stopping to convert things.

    And you can do this precisely _because_ of these weird old anachronisms. If a monster saves as a 1st level fighter, it doesn’t matter what its specific saves are- they’re on the DM’s sheet or screen you’ve got out for your game of choice, because your game of choice certainly has a Fighter class, or some class you can decide is fighter-enough for the purpose. If you’re using descending AC, you’re straight-up compatible with many OSR systems, and for the rest, you subtract it from 20 and you’re set with the new AC. You’re keeping your linkages loose so that the DM can just patch them through to the system they’re actually using.

    This is priceless for a sandbox GM. The ability to just reach out and snatch up terabytes worth of material whenever necessary makes life enormously easier. It doesn’t matter if it was published for OSRIC or S&W or LL or C&C or actual TSR D&D, you can grab it, slot it, and play it without screwing with any of the numbers. The efficiency gain from a more comprehensive stat block or fundamentally reworked mechanics doesn’t compensate for the increased cumbersomeness of importing existing resources.

    • That’s certainly something I didn’t talk about and is an interesting point. But, I’m afraid that feels like placing a positive spin on the fact that it’s a 40-year old system. And in my personal +/- table of the advantages/disadvantages, that positive doesn’t make up for so many other negatives.

      I’d hazard that you could do something very similar with other games as well, though. While it is certainly lacking some important sandbox-type tools, but the new World of Darkness games all rely upon the same numbers/power stats/etc. Yes, individual powers would need to be looked up, but the math across all the games uses the same statistical breakdown. At least with the new WoD, it was designed to do exactly this. Likewise, I’m sure I could plug and play most things from Savage Worlds or FATE games into a sandbox using those particular system mechanics.

      So, great point, but it doesn’t quite feel like enough of a reason to stick with those tried-and-true mechanics when modern games give the same possibilities. The back catalog just isn’t quite as deep.

      • The tradeoff for individual GMs will naturally vary, and I’m sure there are plenty of them out there who are perfectly satisfied with what Fate or SW offers in terms of rippable resources for a sandbox campaign. I’m sure a lot of these GMs really could hot-swap resources in and navigate the differences between Spirit of the Century / Fate Core / Dresden Files without preliminary prep and without taxing themselves at the table.

        But at that point, it comes down to taste. I know how to play Fate, and I’ve played WoD since the original Vampire softcover, but neither of those systems seem remotely as comfortable and usable to me as plain old-fashioned OSR D&D. I don’t find a lot of modern conventions to be actual objective improvements over the older ways of doing things, any more than I consider Jackson Pollock to be an objective improvement over Velazquez. Pollock may be great for a lot of things, but if I want somebody to paint a pope, I’m not going to give him a call. By the same token, If I want to run an open-world sandbox with no shred of preimposed narrative, I’m not going to have a lot of use for Fate. Other peoples’ mileage will vary, depending on those things that are actually most important or vexing for them at the table, during play.

      • I’m not sure this is a mechanic thing at all, but more of a presentation thing. I mean, okay, you know the HD of the creature, which means you can backfill in the saves. But why aren’t those saves actually written in the stat-blocks? Because that’s the way it used to be done? I can count the number of 2nd edition and earlier D&D games I played on one hand. I don’t have that chart memorized. I don’t even have the page number it’s on memorized. How does it negate the tried-and-true mechanics to list those numbers? So, why not just list all the numbers needed? I’m not exactly asking for modern mechanics here – just some modern layout and design.

      • Because the saves for a level 1 Fighter are not the same for all versions of OSR-compatible games. Indeed, OSR-compatible games aren’t even guaranteed to share the same save categories or the same dice for saving throws. Putting those save numbers down is useless for those GMs who run three-save-category games or single-save games or 2d8-save games whereas telling them “Fighter: 1” lets them use their own system’s mechanics.

        Some GMs really don’t want to have a reference sheet in front of them when they play, and prefer to have all that data replicated in the material they’re using. Other GMs consider it all to be useless cruft they’ve got to intentionally ignore in order to use their own system of choice. Any decision you make is going to be wrong for one group of users. If you never hot-swap in material from other gaming systems, then it can seem a mystery as to why it’s not all replicated, but the first time you yank B4: The Lost City out of the pile to provide a quick Carcosa ruin for a party consisting of an AD&D Paladin, B/X Elf, LotFP Specialist, and S&W Cleric, the benefits of loose coupling becomes clearer.

        Aside from that, if you blow the conventional OSR statline up much beyond its current AC/HD/THAC0/Dmg/Move/Morale/Alignment lineup, you make it too bulky to put inline with the text. That necessitates its breakout as a separate element. which is annoying as Hell to set cleanly- it adds at least one no-break vertical inch to any column you set with it, and that adds up rapidly if there are four encounters on that page worth of material.

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