Monday, May 30, 2016

Let's Play Runequest - I: Character Generation

If you follow me on Google+, then odds are you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m getting into RuneQuest a bit these days. There are a number of reasons:
  • I backed the RuneQuest Classic Kickstarter a while back. There was a lot of hype for a reissue of Runequest 2nd Edition, which debuted in 1980 and was arguably the most popular (and grognardy) version of the game. The brand has had a long and tumultuous history, culminating in the latest version of Runequest 6 and now Runequest Classic (which I am supposing is more or less synonymous to Runequest 2nd Ed., which of course is not to be confused with Runequest II, which was put out fairly recently by Mongoose Publishing and is the immediate predecessor to Runequest 6. Yeah, it gets confusing.)
  • Runequest defaults to a Bronze Age setting. Yes! There seems to be a great divide in the RPG community between medieval fantasy (thanks to D&D) and a number of other genres, most notably science fiction. Sci-fi and modern games are pretty huge. What I don’t like about sci-fi is that there’s an underlying assumption that everything is explainable. We can build a hyperdrive because of these reasons. Fantasy is different in that the unexplainable (Magic, Dragons, Justin Bieber's popularity) is simply accepted. The problem, however, is that fantasy rarely ventures outside a pseudo-medieval setting, and occasionally into a modern (Dresden Files) or futuristic (Star Wars, if you ignore the “long time ago” bit as the movies start). I have a lot of fondness for pre-Roman history, so kudos to Runequest for breaking the medieval mold.
  • It fixes a lot of the problems most of the people I talk to have with D&D. For whatever reason, Armor Class really infuriates a lot of players. This is because all of the reasons that a player character misses an attack are lumped together for simplicity. If you miss in D&D, you could chalk it up to an actual miss thanks to a deft dodge or a glancing blow off the enemy’s armor that doesn’t happen to do any damage. Many alternative systems (like RQ) get around this by giving an active defense roll and/or having armor absorb damage.
  • It’s both old-school and not. RuneQuest followed closely on the heels of D&D and Traveller as one of the earliest role-playing games. However, when compared to D&D, Runequest is completely devoid of character classes and instead focuses on skill rolls. A d20 is forgone in favor of a percentile roll (d100). Combat is (reportedly) gritty and realistic. It sounds like it could behave somewhat like GURPS...
Speaking of GURPS, it might be the perfect introduction to why I’m even writing this post in the first place. Theoretically, everything is runnable in GURPS. All you need is to spend points on some character concept and before you know it, you’re free to roll a 3d6 skill check from now until forever. The problem is there’s a lot of work to do in the beginning, and you have to have a character concept that you’re working towards. Contrast that with old-school D&D, where you had better not invest more than five minutes into character creation, because it doesn’t take long at all to roll 3d6 a bunch of times, and it will really feel like a waste of time after your level 1 character dies fighting a Dire Mosquito.

With this in mind, I decided that while I’m waiting on my RuneQuest Classic book to arrive, I at least have the PDF version, so I should try making a character to see how it’s done. Furthermore, since I have copies of both RuneQuest 6 and the upcoming RuneQuest Classic thanks to the Kickstarter, I can compare the character generation systems of both (again, guessing that the upcoming Classic version is very close to RuneQuest 2E.) My hope is that this will help me get used to both systems and see if either is simple enough to incorporate into my regular I-Want-To-Run-This game system arsenal.

RuneQuest Classic - Characteristics and Abilities

This seems pretty simple, with everything being 3d6 in order. Except that I’ve got different characteristics to roll: STR, CON, SIZ, INT, POW, DEX, and CHA. These are pretty much their D&D equivalents, with some exceptions. Size is entirely new, Intelligence has nothing to do with magic, and Power has everything to do with magic.

So I decided to roll up a character. Let’s call him Nabua. Rolling 3d6 in order, I get:

STR 6 / CON 10 / SIZ 11 / INT 12 / POW 9 / DEX 9 / CHA 11
So, apart from being somewhat weak in Strength, I have a fairly average character. RQ Classic now says I have to look at these and calculate some abilities—basic adjustments to simple skills: Attack, Parry, Defense, Perception, Stealth, Manipulation (i.e., intricate tool work), and Knowledge. Your hit points and damage bonus are calculated at the same time.

What's really cool about these aspects is that they each depend on multiple characteristics. For example, stealth is not purely dependent on DEX, but also SIZ, INT and POW. Size is easy to understand—it's easier to hide if you're small. I won't get too into things, but suffice to say that these abilities are far from one-dimensional.

Unfortunately, all the charts are for naught as Nabua apparently gets no natural bonuses to any abilities. He's also got no damage bonus and a total of 10 HP. But anyway, that's all there is to it. Just look up some adjustments on tables for your character, and those modify your basic skills (whatever those are by default...)

RuneQuest 6 - Characteristics and Abilities

The modern version of RQ is very much the same, except that not everything is 3d6. For both Size and Power, you roll 2d6+6 for humans, which indicates (apparently) that humans tend to be more massive and more intelligent than your average RQ race. I thought that this was quite a nice touch—it reminds you that humans are only one of many distinct races in the world, each with its own unique qualities, but it still gives us a collective pat on the back for being generally smarter than the rest of them.

I wanted to create the same character I would have created using the RQ Classic rules, so I took the same die rolls and applied them in the order that the RQ6 book calls for them. With that in mind, Nabua now has the following RQ6 characteristics:
STR 6 / CON 10 / SIZ 13 / INT 12 / POW 12 / DEX 11 / CHA 9
So overall, a bit similar, but with a few extra points here and there.

Ability calculations are quite a bit different, but each is still dependent on multiple characteristics:

Action Points: 2
Damage Mod: -1d2
Experience Mod: 0
Heal Rate: 2
178cm tall, 87 kg weight
HP: 5 Head, 7 Chest, 6 Abdomen, 4 Arm, 5 Leg
Luck Points: 2
MP: 12
Move rate: 6m
Strike Rank: 11.5*

*—there's some ambiguity with the strike rank, because I'm not sure whether I should be rounding it up or down, or keeping it as a non-integer rational number.

Now there might seem to be a lot of things in this list, but it's only one more than the list I glossed over when doing my RQ Classic version of Nabua. There's something that kind of irked me for the longest time, though, and I couldn't quite place it until just now: With the exception of damage bonus and hit points, everything from RQ Classic was skill-based. With the introduction of things like "action points" and "luck points" being mentioned, it hints at more complicated mechanics.

The reason I'm so mechanics-averse is mostly due to prior experience both as a player and a GM. Some of the best role-playing I've seen has been in situations where the only mechanics invoked was a simple universal check, sometimes just to see what number came up. (E.g., roll 1d20 in a rules-light D&D game. Roll 3d6 in a GURPS game. Roll a d% and let's see what you get.) Meanwhile, mechanics-heavy games such as FATE or D&D 4E present games where the presence of the mechanics distract from the fiction... Anyway, I can forgive all this because so far the character generation is still pretty quick, about the same speed as I'm going through RQ Classic.

RuneQuest Classic - Money and Equipment

OK, switching back to RQ Classic, we see a brief section on how to improve your characteristics, which is essentially how you pay for training. Skipping over that (since Nabua doesn't have any cash yet), we see a section on Money and Equipment. Learn to pick up some d100, because this is when you start using them. I get lucky and roll a 93, meaning I'm a Poor Noble. I roll another d100, and I see that I get 325 Lunars every year until I'm 21 Score! (Note that since this seems to be a fixed stipend of some sort, I'm assuming you don't re-roll the value for every year. You could get anywhere from 5-500 Lunars that way, which is a rather wild fluctuation.)

Anyway, this is a perfect time to say how much I love random tables. Without the game forcing me to roll for it, it would not have occurred to me to play a poor noble. Or if it did, it would be after a long period of deliberation, during which I rejected other options for a character. With having my character's background dictated by the game, it immediately sets the imagination in motion. Why is my poor noble Nabua adventuring? Is he simply bored? Has he stumbled on some arcane secret inside his family library and strives to know more? Is he determined to avenge his cousin, who was kidnapped by someone who thought his family had more than they did?

The character concept is something that always has to be considered in a system that lacks character classes a la D&D. I'm sure that there are probably some random tables out there that help generate character concepts like these for systems where there are no classes or templates. It would make a fantastic aid for games such as GURPS, where you could sometimes struggle to come up with an idea for an interesting character.

Anyway, the book gives me some simple lists of equipment depending on my character background, and with that I head straight into the Combat and Mechanics chapter. That was an easy session of character generation! Let's go back to RQ6 for its wrap-up:

RuneQuest 6 - To be continued..?

Going back to RQ 6, I get to calculate my Standard Skills by simple formulae that are based on my characteristics (which, by the way, is a process that still hasn't been spelled out for me in RQ Classic.) For example, my First Aid skill is INT+DEX, expressed as a percentage—easy peasy. In addition, an additional skill is the Combat Style, which varies based on setting. For example, a Scythian horse archer and a Greek hoplite would both have different proficiencies in combat, but they would be contained within their respective Combat Styles. Furthermore, who's to say that a Greek hoplite couldn't assimilate into Scythian culture and start learning (probably really slowly) to be a horse archer? All it would take is adding and developing a second Combat Style. Awesome.

And then I see that I have two more chapters to go before character creation is done. Chapter 2 is Culture and Community. Chapter 3 is Careers and development.

Damn it.

I've heard that RuneQuest combat is gritty and deadly, which is great. But I've just passed the fifteen-minute mark with these character generation steps (not counting the writing I've done for this blog post,) The more time I invest in the generation of Nabua, the more I lose if and when that character dies. I find that in a lot of modern RPGs, character death is almost unthinkable in practice because people are too damn attached to their characters. I'm at a great point in the RuneQuest process where I've got enough detail to go on and have (I believe) enough balance on the daring-cautious spectrum to be a good adventurer. If the Game is going to have a Song of Ice and Fire-style mortality rate, I can envision getting mighty pissed off when we have to stop the story every time a player character dies so that a new character can get rolled up.

But for now, I'm going to try to withhold judgement. It took a long while for me to get the free time to produce this lowly blog post, so I'll have to finish the RQ 6 character generation process another day...

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The I Want To Be a Wizard Dillemma

This will be a D&D-centric post, but it will address what I call the “I Want to Be a Wizard” dilemma. Very often, I will approach a game as a player with a certain loose character concept in mind, i.e., a class if we’re going to play D&D or a similar game. Some people like to play fighters or magic-users exclusively, whereas I just want the freedom to choose what I want to be. All the more interesting character details tend to fill themselves in as the games progress, but I like to be able to choose my starting point.

So, right up front, one of the game systems I really enjoy is GURPS. It is a remarkably simple system to play in once the game is going, because all of the requisite work is front-loaded into character creation. You start with a strong character concept and build the game mechanics according to it, such that you have an accurate representation of the character. The downside is, there’s often little room to let those characteristics come into existence organically through play. It’s also nigh impossible to have a “pick-up” game of GURPS, even if your GM has gone to the trouble of making Templates to replicate classes. Often, a clear campaign idea has to be established from the get-go before you can start generating characters.

Therefore, as we dismiss GURPS and instead focus on systems that are akin to D&D, we notice the familiar trend of player attribute scores ranging from 3-18 (as a result of a 3d6 roll). Each possible class has an associated principal attribute that will matter above all others for the majority of class-based actions (Fighters need Strength, Wizards need Intelligence, and so forth). So of all the six ability scores, you’re going to want one to be higher than the other if you want to play a particular class.

Now, the most straightforward way to get around this issue is to simply arrange your six results to taste, rather than roll each attribute in order. This is probably the way most people ended up playing, but with the “old school” movement, there seems to be some impetus to stay consistent to the original letter of the law. However, there have been some interesting ways around the 3d6-in-order rule that allow for some character freedom.

The earliest days probably saw the rise of the super-attribute: roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die. This is referenced, I believe, in the 1st-Edition DMG itself. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong.) It tends to promote much more competent characters, less susceptible to death in an exceptionally lethal game system. For a detailed look at the stats, check out AnyDice and their analysis: ...But beware, for down the road of the super-character lies the realm of PC preciousness and invulnerability. Death should be commonplace, shouldn't it?

Perhaps the most fun variant on character generation exists in Dungeon Crawl Classics with its idea of the "character funnel." Essentially, each player starts with multiple (usually four) 3d6-in-order characters, with the last one standing being able to graduate to a first-level adventurer. There's more rules and opportunities for advancement there, but it's a novel approach that exposes a new truth about 3d6 character generation. D&D's random character generation engine has a key flaw in that it only has a sample size of one. That is, while there are exceptional failures and exceptional successes for every attribute, the mean should be 10.5 for each. However, a single sample could fall anywhere on the curve. With four samples, you get a better chance of an average or better-than-average starting point for the type of character you'd like to play. As an example, you may very well end up having two "normal" characters, one "weak," and one "strong" that you'd prefer to play over the others. Depending on the game, that character may survive, adding an extra dimension of randomness.

I think this is an idea that should be explored in more depth in other systems. While I love DCC, it does gravitate toward being a rather off-the-wall game, and it could be a hard sell for a group who wants something more down to earth. But the idea of multiple instances of character creation may be gaining traction in other systems. Here is the optional "Multiple Characters" rule from Adventurer Conqueror King System, which is:

As an optional rule, at the start of play, each player generates five characters and selects one primary and two back-up characters. The remaining two characters are given to the Judge to use as NPCs to populate the campaign setting. If the primary and backups are all killed, the player generates five additional characters, again picking three and giving the Judge two. This ensures that the player always has a variety of characters to choose from to find one he likes, and gives the Judge some additional NPCs to populate the world.

This offers an interesting variation that helps mitigate the problem of limited sample size. The only issue is that rolling 3d6 thirty times can get tedious. I might end up tinkering with some other ways to throw around 3d6 rolls to see if I could keep the high sample count while lowering the overall number of die rolls.

Have you run into problems with "3d6 in order?" How do you typically handle attribute generation in your games?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Drop It Like a D6

[A very brief post as I try to generate a small amount of content and keep the blog alive. Seriously, I have my fair share of ideas but not enough time to transcribe them into words.]

So, Z used the cover of [redacted] to make a 2-dimensional multi-use table. I know, this is old news because [redacted] was published in 2008. Still, humor me, because it's a revelation to me as I'm just now coming back to the RPG world.

Essentially, when you roll a die, traditionally you get one random value out of the result: the number on the face of the die. However, when rolling on a finite 2D surface such as a piece of paper (or in Z's case, the cover of a book), the die will land in a particular spot, which itself could have significance. All of a sudden, you have three random values instead of one. There's the face value of the die, but also the relative x and y position (or horizontal and vertical if you're averse to algebra).

This has vast implications. Instead of rolling up something's random hit points, for example, you can roll up its hit points, armor class, and number appearing - all with one roll of a die. Given enough familiarity with interpreting the result, it has the potential for speeding up random rolls immensely.

Traditionally, the most common form of random roll has been the random encounter table: roll to see what creature or NPC the party encounters, if any. However, with the possibilities offered by the die-drop table model, there's a nearly endless supply of things you can come up with because of the multi-dimensional nature of the roll.

I think it might be a fun idea to try and create my own die-drop table. I think I'm going to start with a treasure generator. If you have any ideas of what you might want to see in a die-drop table, maybe comment below and give me brainstorming material!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

What I Got From Fate: The Good Part

This being the Internet, there are a lot of people around who argue about stuff. the community of RPG players is no different, and I would imagine it's probably more intense than most in terms of emotional investment because games are little nuggets of pure joy in an otherwise crap world of strife. So, the fights that we have as a community tend to be very passionate.

Right now, I don't think there's a game system as a whole that's more divisive than Fate. (Note that I'm not calling it FATE, because it's not an acronym or initialism of anything, as GURPS is.) Opinions on it tend to gravitate toward the extremes--either it's the fantastically innovative pinnacle of the RPG form, or it's the worst example yet of a mechanical mockery of what RPGs are. I don't know, insert your own hyperbole here.

Personally, having run a game Fate, I will say I don't really like it.

Let me start off with some caveats: I know that a lot of people play Fate and they really like it. I tend to be an open-minded guy, so I am open to the possibility that maybe I was just doing a horrible job GMing the game. I have also heard that some prefer to play Fate Accelerated Edition to Fate Core, which was the version I was running. Again, I'm going to point out that I'm forming my judgments with relatively little experience. I've also not played any Fate games that are heavily intertwined with settings, such as The Dresden Files or Atomic Robo. So it may be possible for me to like Fate, but I'm not going to run a game any time soon.

I ended up starting a campaign that was a story of a group of carnival freak show performers in a steampunk setting; think Victorian-era continental Europe. We played about four or five sessions before I realized that Fate was killing the game. I took the characters and re-built them in GURPS, which was the system we used for the remainder of the campaign.

Let's start with the good part about Fate. When I played Pathfinder and other such games, we tended to build our individual characters and then throw them together with little consideration for each other apart from their function. You know the lines. Who is the healer, who is the "tank," etc. This type of mentality is the first step in a game where you are running a glorified stat block as opposed to an actual character.

Fate forces you to come to the table for an introductory session that plans how the campaign is going to go: GM and characters alike. I knew that I wanted the characters to be members of a freak show, but those were my only conditions. My agenda was otherwise blank, and so we arrived at the steampunk fantasy idea after going around the table and talking about what we all thought would be fun. By our establishment of the Aspects (capitalized to emphasize I'm talking about the Fate mechanic) of the world, I also got a big cue as to what flavor the game was going to have. I realize that any old RPG can have this collaboration session, but Fate incorporating it into the rule book really emphasizes how player consensus is crucial to a campaign's success.

What's even more awesome about Fate is the character creation. The first task you are given is to come up with your High Concept, your essence, your defining phrase. In Fate, you are not just a Rogue, you are a Daring Swashbuckler of Venice, an Infamous Cutpurse, or a Disgraced Turncoat. Because the mechanics depend on descriptive but flexible Aspects, you get a lot more character definition. The same is true of your Trouble, a secondary Aspect that defines your downside. Flawed characters are interesting characters, and even if a character is seemingly perfect, everyone struggles with something.

In order for the game to even function, Fate demands that the characters be fleshed out. This fleshing out ensures that you're not just consulting your array of numbers and modifiers that you just so happen call a character.

As if that weren't enough to generate characters that were more interesting than 90% of D&D characters out there, Fate then calls for the Phase Trio (a name I dislike because it sounds way too ambiguous and theoretical). Essentially, each player comes up with three bits of backstory--at the table alongside everyone else. The first bit starts to establish each individual character's history, but the second and third are stories where the other characters are involved. As a result, the beginning of the actual campaign sees a group of characters that are all interconnected in some fashion. They don't have to form your standard D&D Trope Party, but you likewise don't have a collection of individual lone wolves, either.

(Then there's a whole bunch of skill crap and stuff, which is the remainder of character creation, but I've already addressed the best part.)

I think that the preliminary session of this campaign was one of the greatest, because we already had a good sense of who the characters were going to be as the game progressed. The only downside I can see to this approach is that sometimes I like to ease into a character concept and let it develop over a span of play sessions. Of course, the danger is that the character will forever remain a faceless amalgamation of statistics, which has happened far too often throughout RPG history.

What I got from Fate is the realization that in some form or another, I should approach game creation and character creation from a standpoint of open-endedness and collaboration. There is no reason to come to the table with a game prepared only to discover that no one's interested in playing, and there's no reason that the players have to be a bunch of randos who meet in a tavern.

Next time, I'll discuss what happened when our Fate game got going, and why I had to switch systems. Until then, does anyone read this? Comment if you do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The New Kid at the Old School - Part 2

This is the second half of my first post on my perspective on the "Old School Renaissance," or OSR. Part 1 can be read here.

Arguably the most famous Magic: the Gathering card is the Black Lotus. It's essentially an easy way to get a huge advantage over your opponent if you play it very early in the game, when both players are scrambling to build their resource pool. It was also one of the first cards ever to get banned because it was so ridiculously overpowered. It is usually cited as the most expensive collector card in the game.

I bring up the Black Lotus because it's an example of Wizards of the Coast (the company that has produced Magic: the Gathering since its humble beginnings in 1993) enforcing a sense of fairness and balance into its games. I doubt anyone reading would debate that such a player-vs-player game shouldn't be fair to a large degree.

In 1973, a mere twenty years before Magic: the Gathering changed the face of gaming, Gary Gygax founded the company Tactical Studies Rules (later simply TSR). The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published soon afterwards in 1974. But on April 10, 1997, TSR was sold to Wizards of the Coast, which had become a major success overnight by developing M:tG's collectible card game model only four years prior.

Whereas TSR settings like Dragonlance and Dark Sun might have contributed to the rise of the "railroad" in published adventures, The change in company ownership seemingly led to the rise of the modern versions of the rules. TSR did publish an insane amount of supplemental material for the 2nd edition of AD&D, but it wasn't until the 3rd Edition rule set, the first published by WotC, that the game felt, well, different.

Ironically, 3rd Edition was the first not to have two different versions of the rules, "Basic" and "Advanced." There was just the one rule set, and so it was simply called "Dungeons and Dragons," despite ramping up the complexity of the rules. It's not that the additional rules were any more complicated, but rather they were much more inescapable. In my opinion, these new rules were incorporated to introduce the concepts of fairness and balance to the game. The 3rd Edition rules expected that encounters with monsters would be something that would pose just enough difficulty to challenge the PC's, but would more often than not result in their survival. After all, just like a streamlined M:tG deck, there's an inherent investment put into your custom character that would go to waste upon his or her death.

A lot of existing RPG players didn't like this new approach, and many simply stuck with playing whatever edition they were most comfortable with. As time progressed, many new RPG players could only learn with the new, well-balanced system, and some experienced frustration at the sheer amount of structure and rules rigidity that was in place.

Anyway, I'm starting to seriously deviate from my original intent with this post. An interesting by-product of the 3rd Edition rules was WotC issuing the Open Gaming License, acknowledging that a game's mechanics could not be copyrighted, only the game's product identity. Essentially, anyone could call for the procedure of calling for dice rolls and applying modifiers just like D&D in a game they wanted to publish independently, but the flavor that makes it D&D Proper could not be copied.

At the beginning of the OGL era, everything from the original days of D&D onward was not only copyrighted, but also long out of print. For this reason, many so-called "Retro clones"--carbon copies of previous D&D games that changed just enough in detail to avoid infringing on copyright--became popular. For example, if you wanted to play the Moldvay/Cook Basic Set, the Original D&D White Box, or the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, you could use Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, or Dark Dungeons, respectively.

Very recently, earlier editions of the game were reissued and made available for download by Wizards of the Coast. It's for this reason that I'm now able to have my own new hardcover version of the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia (see below.)

My one-off printing of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia

One would think that this would spell the end of the OSR era. After all, why seek out cheap imitations of D&D when at long last it's possible to get copies of the exact D&D edition you wanted to play in the first place? Well, the easiest answer is that many clone games have free downloads, but that's also not the primary reason that OSR games exist. The answer comes in the OGL itself: Because you can't explicitly copy D&D, you have to have some originality.

Sometimes these are relatively simple improvements, which could be as minor as improving presentation (I've heard that Delving Deeper is an improvement compared to the relatively poorly-presented Original D&D White Box). In other cases, the changes that are inherent in an OSR game are significant enough to alter the entire feel of the game. For example, compare the Basic/Expert version of D&D to one of the games that is closely based on it, Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The latter is dedicated exclusively for weird fiction. Although a lot of that comes from the published LotFP adventures, the mechanics themselves lend to a grittier game. (For example, encumbrance is greatly simplified and adds an extra dimension to resource management.)

As of now, the biggest players in the RPG market are still Pathfinder (which started thanks to the OGL) and the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, which is still owned by Wizards of the Coast (which itself is owned by Hasbro these days.) This new D&D Edition has earned a lot of praise primarily for giving a nod to earlier editions of D&D, namely in that the sheer bulk of the rules machinery has been stripped away, especially compared to 4th Edition, the most rules-heavy machine of them all.

While 5th Edition continues to try its best in merging modern and classic play, it is now easier than ever for players (like me) who started gaming after the 3rd Edition paradigm shift to discover the charm of the earlier games of the roleplaying game hobby. Once that discovery is made, there's a wide world of new material that is available, with many new innovations coming every day.

It really does feel like a Renaissance in some ways.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The New Kid at the Old School - Part 1

As I sit and look at my bookshelf of RPG books, I'd say it's fairly well-balanced. There's a lot of GURPS hardbacks, as well as Legend of the Five Rings books and the Mongoose Publishing edition of the Traveller Core Rulebook. Then there's a divider in the bookshelf—it's an IKEA bookshelf that also houses my vinyl records.

On the other side of that divide is Swords and Wizardry Complete, the AD&D 1E PHB, the AD&D 2E trio (PHB/DMG/MM), then the 5th Edition trio of the same three books. Then sits the massive tome that is the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, a few published modules, then the smaller-format stuff: A Red and Pleasant Land, Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Rules and Magic, Fiasco and the Fiasco Companion, Savage Worlds Explorers Edition, Fate Core System, Reign Enchiridon, and Dogs in the Vineyard.

I have to move some of the smaller books because I just received my custom-printed copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, which I had made once I purchased the PDF document online from Wizards of the Coast. Soon to be added to the collection are a boatload more things published from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. (They'd be there already except that they're coming from Finland.)

Many of the games I've mentioned, and those which I'm most excited about—particularly Swords and Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia—fall into a category known as "OSR." This stands for "Old-School Renaissance." Or maybe "Old-School Revolution," or "Old-School Revival." There's never been 100% consensus on what the "R" stands for, and perhaps that's appropriate.

The first RPGs I got to play used Dungeons and Dragons 3.0, followed by a very brief foray into 4th Edition, and eventually Pathfinder. I remember how Pathfinder seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time from the nearly-a-computer-simulation feel of 4th Edition. However, looking back on it now, I was still stuck in a system that consisted of massive amount of rules and numbers. Our Pathfinder group was fairly large—6 players—and every time we had a combat occur, I had to pull out my laptop to help keep my special abilities straight and tally up my modifiers correctly. I was playing a paladin, so I had a lot of bonuses bestowed upon me.

Also, despite the heavy focus on combat, it never felt as though we were ever in danger of having our characters die, either. Maybe the system is geared towards PC preservation, or maybe it was just unconscionable that we'd have to throw away a character we spent a few hours building. I can trace all the problems I had with the game being tedious to the fact that so much effort goes into building a character and optimizing statistics.

In short, the rules of the game were a more powerful entity than the game itself.

Many postmodern game systems* address the issues of Pathfinder and 3+ Edition D&D in different ways. Fate Core and the Fate Accelerated Edition are both very popular these days. In them, the narrative—including all its details—is built actively by everyone in real time at the table. You can spend the game mechanic's currency to declare a detail about a scene, or actively try to create advantages that you can use for the benefit of your character. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, in particular the popular spin-off Dungeon World, are built to systematically create a highly fluid but intriguing narrative. (In DW at least, the GM is forbidden from pre-planning a story, and has a finite list of actions s/he can take, although these can be broad, such as "reveal an unwelcome truth.") These postmodern games can vary wildly in their approach, but they all affect the narrative in different ways.

*—I've also called them "story games," which I've learned is a term that carries negative associations with a specific website with some bad apples, or "hippie games," which sounds rather pejorative. In contrast, "postmodern games" makes me sound like I might know what I'm talking about, so I'm going to stick with it.

The OSR philosophy of game design, speaking very broadly, is to revisit the era of gaming before there were rules governing virtually all of the possibilities that arise in gameplay. Earlier games had an array of ability scores, but not necessarily skills. Feats didn't exist. With a lack of rules governing every specific possibility, a lot more flexibility and freedom was in the hands of the game's GM. If you come across something there were no rules for, you made the ruling yourself. In these cases, the rules of the game are inherently pared down so that they do not overshadow the game itself.

My first time actually encountering "OSR" was the recent UCon 2015 convention, where I played, amongst other things, Swords and Wizardry. The game felt "old school" to be sure, because there wasn't a lot to the mechanics. Other than a few references to an unfamiliar character sheet to figure out attack bonuses and armor classes, I ended up playing my character, rather than my character sheet.

Furthermore, UCon featured an entire OSR track, meaning that every table in the room featured a game that would be considered "OSR." It was clear from watching the tables that everyone was totally immersed in the game before them. Contrast that with a few organized play tables (such as Adventurer's League or Pathfinder Society, for example) I saw later in the convention, when everyone seemed to be playing very distractedly, looking in their books or e-readers for rules or other details.

A common perception of the OSR community is that it consists of people who either regressed to earlier gaming editions after not liking new things, or simply never moved on from them out of nostalgia. I would argue that this is not true. Both the OSR movement and the postmodern RPG movement are reactions to the mechanics-supremacy and numbers-dominance of systems like D&D 4th Edition and Pathfinder. The postmodern RPGs tend to attack the problem from a standpoint of asking some of the most basic questions about what is needed to make an RPG. The OSR tends to correct the problem by shifting focus away from mechanics, taking out what is unnecessary and leaving the GM with a more adaptable rules framework than a complex and intricate rules machine.

Am I arguing, then, that the OSR method is a better approach? NO! In the end, my argument is that both the OSR and postmodern games are two sides of the same coin, which came about as a reaction to the rules-heavy trend that RPGs were taking. There are many gamers who can find RPGs in both genres that are fun solutions to the pitfalls of modern mainstream gaming.

Here's Matt Finch's Quick Primer on OSR Gaming (Free PDF), if you're looking for a more thorough introduction to some key OSR concepts.

I'm planning on a follow-up blog post in a few days where I discuss some of the different examples of OSR games, because there is actually a lot of variety.