Session Zero


Unlike maybe the majority of role-players, I didn't come to the hobby through D&D. Nor via GURPS, or Pathfinder, or one of the other big names that did so much to define role-playing early on. The first game I actually sat down and played was Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, an Old School Renaissance game. At least, it seems like an OSR game to me. These things are debatable.

In short order, though, I found out about the New School Revolution. Almost immediately, that felt like a natural home for me in the hobby. In part, that's because early descriptions of the NSR emphasized its opposition to gatekeeping and social barriers, which chimed with my perspective on the politics of hobbyist spaces. But the descriptions of NSR as a style also overlapped a great deal with what I wanted from a game: rules light, emergent narrative, weird, etc. That was the point, right? “Just a brief list of stuff to help find games that match your taste,” as Pandatheist put it.

But a big part of NSR discourse has always revolved around the question: “What is NSR?” To some degree, that's natural. If the point is to help you find a game that suits you, then it's reasonable to expect the term to draw some lines. Historically, I'd say there's been a remarkable degree of consistency to the games people within the scene would identify as NSR. I have yet to see anyone hold up a 100-page DM's guide as indicative of the NSR. Which makes it all the more surprising that there's so much resistance within the scene to any attempt to put a finger on what NSR means. “It's whatever you want it to be” is a common refrain.

For my part, I tend to see it in terms of design history. The OSR can be understood as an explosion of creativity ignited when Wizards of the Coast put their SRD in the hands of a generation of burgeoning designers who had, over decades of practical experience, arrived at a range of ideas about what made that style of role-playing rewarding. The games I associate with the NSR grew out of that explosion, but took as their point of departure the idea that you could open up new spaces for creativity by stripping away much of what seemed fundamental to D&D.

I'd go so far as to say that “rules-light” is misleading when applied to NSR. It strikes me as a quintessentially OSR attitude, meant to rescue some conception or another of old school from the excesses of the official game's subsequent development. At their most integral, the games I think of as NSR seek to break with the past, and they do that not by chipping away at later accretions, but by dismantling the patterns embedded in familiar structures. Lightness is a side-effect of deconstruction. (So is, I would argue, weirdness.) Games like Into the Odd and Knave demonstrated how removing seemingly core elements like Ability Checks and the six-stat character could open up the design space and make room for new ways to play. They proved you could make compelling games not by re-imagining RPG history, but by breaking it in interesting ways.

Those lessons seem to me the sort that justify calling that shift a “revolution,” and I try to apply them when I design my own games, but it's mostly pointless to talk about them in the context of the NSR. I'm reasonably convinced that the history I've traced points to a real shift, and that it has a palpable impact on the state and scope of the hobby. And yet, pointing to it as the impetus for the NSR will usually grind the discussion to a halt, for sheer lack of any agreement on what the NSR might be. I could put my foot down and insist that the NSR is best understood as the result of that historical shift, but to what purpose? The point is not that there's disagreement within the scene over what NSR means; the consensus is that it needn't — maybe even shouldn't — mean anything at all.

Which is fine — for now. I still participate in NSR spaces, including the recently renamed and reorganized Discord, but my suspicion is that it can't last. Already, the Venn diagram that once pointed me to games that suited my tastes is growing diffuse to the point of uselessness. Without some agreement around what the NSR means, there's nothing to prevent those spaces from drifting away from what drew any any given member to them in the first place. Indeed, that seems almost inevitable. This home is only temporary.

#nsr #osr #into-the-odd #knave #discord #theCauldron

An addendum to my previous post on the ascendancy of system in role-playing games, inspired by Travis Miller's recent explanation of the evolution of the genre:

Miller sees the emergence of the RPG format as the creative addition of open system world building to the closed systems of hobbyist wargaming. Role playing proper appeared when wargamers started using the relatively inflexible rule sets of wargames as the basis for collaboratively imagining adventures in fantasy settings.

I've already seen some pushback to Miller's account, and honestly, I'm not versed enough in the history of the scene to adjudicate, but I find it striking that the theoretical division he presents — open vs. closed — maps pretty well to the way system and setting are discussed in the OSR scene. Miller writes:

I can throw down the GURPS, D6 System, Savage Worlds or any other generic system and that will be inadequate. Without the setting in which the game takes place, it’s just rules and die rolls.

But we need not think purely in terms of generic systems. Discussion about taking the system from one game and applying it to the setting from another is common. Free Kriegsspiel Revolution goes a step further, demonstrating to what extent the open system component of Miller's equation can be made to stand on its own.

The implication, whether we like it or not, is that the units we think of as role playing games are chimera, patched together from parts which, more often than not, have no integral connection to one another. The phenomenon we called a role playing game may, in fact, be something occurring at the intersection of other games.

Maybe Miller's account is wrong. I've already seen it argued that early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons hewed close to a simulationist model — wargaming with goblins, in effect — and that may be so. At the very least, it's possible to imagine a fantasy dungeon crawl game constrained by a much more tightly closed system than those used in modern OSR/NSR games, and I'm sure some people would both play and enjoy that. But would we call it a role playing game? If not, then we may still have to reckon with the hybrid nature of the beast.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #freekriegspiel #FKR #DND

The more time I spend in OSR/NSR conversations on the internet, the more I'm struck by the quietly contested state of system in those communities. On the one hand, there is an absolute welter of rulesets out there, ranging from relatively true-to-model adaptations of various editions of D&D, to radical reinventions of the form. But at the same time, there seems to be a broad consensus that none of these systems are essential to actual play. They're taken more in the spirit of suggestions. At best, each is a tool shed that may be ransacked for parts.

There appears to be a general aversion to playing games “as written.” GMs certainly haven't stopped bringing new games and supplements to the table, but to hear them speak of it, many run those materials using not the printed rules, but rather bespoke systems, hacked together out of elements from here and there. One designer of a well-known horror/sci-fi game is even said to have admitted he doesn't run his own game as written.

This makes conversation tricky. To what extent are we talking about the same activity when we discuss a game we've both modified, each to our own tastes? I'm reminded of the comment sections underneath recipes on food blogs: “Loved this dish, made it with turkey instead of beef, added oregano, and used a different cooking method.” Serve whatever you enjoy at your own table, but those changes complicate how we talk about what the recipe does or does not achieve.

The attitude shapes design as well. New games are routinely presented as hacks, by which I take them to mean a formalization of their own approach to running some other system. Some are written on the assumption that players will pick-and-choose which rules they'll implement. Maybe that's merely realism about the state of the hobby. In some cases, it's almost reads like a moral imperative. For people just cutting their teeth in the hobby, it can pose challenges.

There are, of course, historical reasons for these tensions. GURPS, heartbreakers, the Arneson–Gygax rift, D&D's release of a SRD. Ours is a haunted hobby. Cumulatively, these points along the last half-century of its development have contributed to a conception of system that suggests some underlying game we're all playing, an unattained object toward which this endless proliferation of rules is aimed.

Many paths, one destination. For me, that premise locked into focus a while back when someone on Twitter (I don't recall who) alluded to the “one perfect system” every GM is seeking — a semi-mythical ruleset particular enough to suit your own personal play-style, but flexible enough to accommodate any setting or story you might want to explore.

Deliberately or not, that trope correlates to a certain diminution of the rules. What function does a rule serve if you can change it out for another and ostensibly arrive at the same game? Are they even rules once they've been made interchangeable? At the far end of that trajectory is free kriegspiel, which dispenses with most rules in favor of judgments. All well and good. Your table, your rules. Or no rules, as the case may be. In the middle ground, though? The territory between D&D and FKR? Rules appear to have been replaced by system.

Would it be uncharitable to characterize the OSR as a movement built on devising new systems for playing old games? Perhaps; but it's also true that one standard by which OSR systems are judged is their compatibility with existing modules. That, in itself, exerts a formative pressure on design. It favors rules — or are they methods? — that do what has already been done, or which, at the very least, ensure that past modules, some of them nearly half a century old, don't break at the table.

Which is not to deny that there are innovations in the ever-growing catalog of new games and systems. There are substantive differences between them, even if the changes are sometimes incremental. But the demands of adaptability and modularity ensure that many of them are disposable. New games are made to be functional without any given rule or method because the odds of the system making it to the table intact are low.

I'm painting with a broad brush, but only to highlight a general trend. There are, of course, a great many games that take seriously the constructive power of a clever rule. There are games that daisy-chain a slew of well-crafted rules to foster novel modes of play at the table. There are games with rulesets so carefully calibrated that removing any one rule would undermine how the game as a whole plays. These games sacrifice the ideal of a universal system that can be used to role-play in any world, but in doing so, they make it possible to role-play some worlds and some stories better.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #GMing