OSR Are There Any OSR (or OSR-adjacent) Games With Modern Sensibilities?


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demoss

Explorer
Players enjoy character arc even if its just a consistency thing. Consider nudging things so they can. Deadly games can support this but they can absolutely ruin it too.

For deadly games my favorite hack is to steal fate point mechanic from WFRP. Short version: give everyone 1 Fate Point. It sames them from certain death, once. Getting a second one is HARD (like, do something the gods rate worth putting a finger on the scales.)
 

TwoSix

Uncomfortably diegetic
But in a game with little actual crunch in advancement think of advancement things like Magic Items. That kind of enhancement mechanics trapped in physical objects in the fiction can be unlocked from physical items.

Say in an adventure they encounter a smithy who if they save their life or have some other significant effect on their life could offer to show them how to get the effect of say a +1 sword against a type of armor. A variety of things like that, from experiences in the adventure, give a menu of options to choose from. That's probably the most powerful kind of example. It can be super tricky and you become a game designer but that's part of the fun.
That's how my current "5e" game works. No classes, but the PCs gain one "feat" every level that can also be used to strengthen their connection to a current magic item or special ability they have.

For example, one of the characters found a frosty longsword a few sessions ago, and got very attached to it despite only having a 10 Strength. They spent their "feat" to increase the connection, which bumped up the damage the sword did (from an extra 1d4 cold damage to 1d6) and let the character use their Charisma as the attack stat for that weapon.

Watching the players interact with the idea last session and really get deeply invested in what sort of connections they could build was very cool DM moment for me, personally.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
So, as someone who's expressed his distaste for D&D's new direction multiple times in the forums, I'm starting to think of formally expanding my horizons. Dropping D&D 5E/One D&D as my main game and using someone else as my default. One option I've been considering was OSR games (OSE in particular), since it seems like I like quite a decent part of its design philosophy. I ran an OSE oneshot and read a few different rulebooks and blog posts to see if I could grok the philosophy, but some things still feel off.

To be fair, I started playing long after old school games had died down, around 3.5/Pathfinder era. I also skipped all of 4E and the rise of OSR as a movement, and I was pretty smitten with 5E when it first came out. So I'm a bit of an outsider to OSR-verse, but given the variety of games available, I'm hoping there might be a specific ruleset for the style of play I have in mind, which is slightly more modern than what most retroclones offer. I was hoping people interested in OSR could point me in the right direction, or at least offer some ways I could hack existing rulesets to better suit my needs.

Now, here's what I like about the OSR philosophy:
  • Simulationism First: What I've always liked about D&D was the possibility to create a fantastic world with its own logic that made sense. Most OSR games (owing to an assumption of Gygaxian naturalism) seem to put verisimilitude first: If it wouldn't make sense for a wizard to cast spells in armour, they don't. If a poison would kill you instantly, you only get one save against it. The rules also work well with a style of DMing where the random tables lay out the internal logic of the world you're in, and the DM produces the results neutrally by rolling on random tables or applying the invisible rulebooks in his head (if you're going through Orcish territory, you are likely to run into a warband with 10d12 orcs, even if this isn't balanced!).
  • Emergent Storytelling: This is tied to the simulationist approach, but I think D&D's real value comes from the moments that can only come out of an emergent story that naturally came together from various game mechanics. Other media (be they video games or movies or simple stories) can do preset narratives quite well (maybe even better than TTRPGs), but D&D's collaborative storytelling is unique in that none of the participants really know what the end result will be, but they know the end result will make sense because it will have followed the game's (and as a result, the game world's) rules. You can get unique stories like "Do you remember the time when we planted one of the beans from the Bag of Beans to Silvanesti and used the pyramid that sprouted out of it to lure Cyan Bloodbane?". I think OSR's style is uniquely fitting for such emergent storytelling. This also means "letting the dice fall where they may", and allowing players to suffer the consequences of their actions (but also reap the rewards of making the world a better place).
  • Rules-Light/Actual Natural Language Rules: One of the reasons I never bothered with 4E was how it offered a game where the fiction didn't matter and only the strict rules interactions (which were presented in video-game like terminology) yielded results. I liked 5E's claim of having a natural language to explain the rules, but then realised the rules were being interpreted more and more in a strict fashion. It wasn't until I saw OSE's rules that I saw what real natural language rules look like, and I really want to run a similar system where things are explained clearly without needless abstraction.
  • Making Resource Management/Exploration Actually Meaningful (at least some of the time): I always tried to homebrew rules to make encumberance or supplies or light sources matter in 5E, until I realised that the game has those mechanics only as vestigial remains from old editions, and that dungeon crawling and inventory management really shine in OSR games. I'd like logistics to be a meaningful challenge for some extent of the game at least (counting how many torches you'll need might get boring when you're high level, but in early levels I definitely want the OSR-style dungeon crawling experience).
  • Focus on Player Intentions Over Character Skill: I know this isn't how OSR usually phrases it (I believe the normal saying goes "Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability"), but there's a reason I phrase it this way: I like that OSR tries to get players to look beyond their character sheets and think more like someone actually living in the world. I like that it rewards players when they explain their intentions clearly and when those intentions lead to smart play. That said, I'm not necessarily a fan of putting player skill over character skill, while still valuing players' intentions over anything their character sheet says. Does that make sense?

As the last point makes it clear, I'm not entirely sold on OSR's approach to everything. Notably, I'd like to keep the following features from more "modern" games, if possible:
  • Assuming the PCs are competent: While we should encourage players to think like they actually live in the world, they don't. I don't want to require the players to describe everything they're doing with meticulous details to avoid a "gotcha" moment where the DM punishes them for something their character would've known better (I'm not saying this is how OSR works, but there does seem to be a group of people who like to play in a more adversarial fashion).
  • A Unified Game Mechanic: I just like how everything is "1d20 + ability + proficiency, compare with the DC" in 5E. I find the stiched-together nature of subsystems upon subsystems of OSR games to be rather unhelpful. It certainly turns off my gaming groups.
  • More High-Level Adventures: From what I understand, most OSR games stick to the sweet spot of levels 1-10, where the players are either nobodies trying to survive a deadly world or competent mortals who still can't fight epic-level threats. With that said, I actually do like modern games' epic scope where you can travel to other planes or be an equal match to apocalyptic threats. Most OSR games seem to consider that you get a stronghold and retire after your name level. I'd like the option to face bigger threats as epic heroes instead.
  • As Little Biological Determinism As Possible: While I understand that racial ability scores and racial level limits (even race-as-class) are a core part of the playstyle OSR is recreating, I'd honestly prefer something like Level Up's heritages and culture where races are more about the supernatural traits you get but don't limit what your character can do. OSE Advanced Fantasy's optional rules for removing level limits (and giving humans extra traits to balance it out) were a step towards what I had in mind, for instance.
  • More Balanced Character Options (within the limits of the game world's logic): While I like simulationism, I'd like player options to be balanced between each other within the limits of the world's internal logic. I know that OSR style games balance different character options through different means (different level progressions for Magic-Users and Fighters etc.), but if possible I'd instead prefer the game to make the two options equally useful in an all-things-considered way, where one option roughly contributes equally to others when you considers all pillars of the game, and better options are not balanced by making them harder to get. I'm okay with some power variation between different PCs, but if one character gets to bend the rules of reality at level 9 and the other gets a couple of guys calling him "m'lord", that doesn't seem fair.
  • Not Supporting Politically Icky Groups: Again, I don't think this is a problem endemic to OSR, but there seem to be some groups using old-school gaming as a shield for their vile views, and I'd rather not support them as much as possible. I'm writing this mostly because I've had issues with this before: I used to use Adventurer Conqueror King's domain generation system a lot when designing my homebrew world, but upon learning the creator associating with particularly gruesome people, I really didn't want to touch those rules again.
I know my request is a bit odd, and I don't mean to yuck anyone's yum. I know a lot of people enjoy OSR games as they are, and I understand that for a lot of people the OSR philosophy makes sense when you use all of its tenets (including the ones I want to switch with more modern tenets). I've tried running a few OSE games and that's why I'm looking for a system with the more modern inclusions I've mentioned. If it doesn't exist, that's fine! I'll try to take on the OSR tenet of tinkering to create what works for you and make a game like that myself, but I'm just trying to see if something closer to my tastes already exists.

I really appreciate any pointers you might send my way!
I appreciate what you like as it is what I like too. I don't tend to dig too deep into who is making a product so I'd use ACK especially if I already paid for it. I might not buy more if the person is especially outspoken but I tend to pay for product not philosophy.

I am actually working on a D&D clone game for my own uses. It would never be good enough to give to someone else as I don't have time to make it wordy and explain every tiny assumption.

Castles and Crusades is another good source book. I don't use it as is because I want a skill system. I do like though the concept that skills modify attribute checks. So you can try almost anything but skill helps.

I don't like 5e's approach where you get better at your skills as you advance in level. I prefer to pay as a go and choose bread or depth as I want. I've avoided feats and just went with class abilities. I deliberately designed classes differently so that some were super simple and others more complex to play.
 

Autumnal

Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
Vagabonds of Dafyd may be worth a look. Ben Dutter does his usual magic to lay out a super-light framework that ends up with character ratings that make it very easy to use lot of OSE material, without ma few of the olde school tropes I didn’t like in 1977 and don’t like now.
 

Yora

Legend
With lots of people tinkering with their own fantasy heartbreaker systems right now, I started putting together a version of the Basic/Expert rules with all my house rules. And while I'm at it, I'm completely replacing all the values in the character class tables with math that makes sense to someone who learned RPGs from the d20 system.
 

Now, here's what I like about the OSR philosophy:
  • Simulationism First:
  • Emergent Storytelling:
  • Rules-Light/Actual Natural Language Rules:
  • Making Resource Management/Exploration Actually Meaningful (at least some of the time):
  • Focus on Player Intentions Over Character Skill:
This might be absolutely perfect for you or you might absolutely loathe it, but you might want to check out Apocalypse World. It's post-apocalyptic rather than D&D. But other than the first point absolutely nails everything you just mentioned so might prove to be what you are looking for. (It also uses some very different assumptions from D&D and is frequently easier for people who haven't played D&D than those who have)
  • Simulationism first:What's meant by "simulationism" differs a lot - but it definitely has everything that the characters (PC and NPC alike) follows the rules of the gameworld first. MCing a game of Apocalypse World is entirely different from DMing D&D however.
    • If by "simulationism first" you mean you want a fully mapped world in advance of the campaign then it doesn't do that; the first session is world creation round the PCs. This may be a deal breaker.
  • Emergent storytelling: Apocalypse World is an engine for emergent storytelling in a way that makes any strain of D&D seem painfully slow. Your character class is where you fit into this post-apocalyptic society (from local town boss to driver to cult leader to medic) and every roll is one with consequences while players roll all the dice. And consequences happen up to and including changing your character class.
  • Rules Light/Actual Natural Language Rules: Check. There are only a tiny handful of technical terms. There's depth to the rules, but they aren't complex and it does better at natural language than any version of D&D I've seen. Character sheets are a pre-printed two sided sheet to fill out, and that contains all the character-specific rules you use plus their relevant gear.
  • Making resource management actually matter (sometimes): And sometimes it does, depending how pressured it is - and depending how pressured your character class is. Scarcity of resources is definitely a thing. Exploration matters less (there isn't a pre-written map).
  • Focus on player intentions over character skill: Given the flexibility on interpreting rolls from both sides then yes there absolutely is
For how the moves work here's the Apocalypse World equivalent to Sense Motive/Insight. The parts in square brackets are my additions to clarify what's going on.
READ A PERSON
When you read a person in a charged interaction, roll [2d6]+sharp [stat]. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 1. While you’re interacting with them, spend your hold to ask their player questions, 1 for 1:​
  • Is your character telling the truth?
  • What’s your character really feeling?
  • What does your character intend to do?
  • What does your character wish I’d do?
  • How could I get your character to —?
On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.​

And here are a couple of special moves that can be taken at the game's start by the Gunlugger (the combat monster class) although classes are allowed to poach from other classes when they get new moves:
Battle-hardened: when you act under fire, or when you stand overwatch, roll+hard instead of roll+cool. [i.e. use the "wrong" stat]​
naughty word this naughty word: name your escape route and roll [2d6]+hard [stat].​
  • On a 10+, sweet, you’re gone.
  • On a 7–9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you, the MC will tell you what.
  • On a miss [6 or less], you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out
It's a completely different approach to D&D's but based on what I think you mean by "Simulationism First" and "Focus on player intentions" it should hit the nail on the head. And it among other things lets you show more about what your character wants to do than just using the skill would. I think it also qualifies for natural language? (If it wasn't obvious profanity and sex both very much exist in the rulebook partly to set the tone).

Going into the supporting factor Apocalypse World is very much a modern game and vastly influential in indie gaming.
As the last point makes it clear, I'm not entirely sold on OSR's approach to everything. Notably, I'd like to keep the following features from more "modern" games, if possible:
  • Assuming the PCs are competent:
  • A Unified Game Mechanic:
  • More High-Level Adventures:
  • As Little Biological Determinism As Possible:
  • More Balanced Character Options (within the limits of the game world's logic):
  • Not Supporting Politically Icky Groups:
As for these:
  • Assuming the PCs are competent: Assuming a competent MC definitely as long as you do not expect things to go smoothly. All rolls are by the players which means the complications can feel as if there's less competence. There is a trap here of course. There's also the additional route to competence of giving the players more control and the characters more competence; when the Gunlugger move above said "Name your escape route" in the naughty word This naughty word move above it meant it. The gunlugger gets to make an escape route even if it was previously established as a trap - if necessary through the wall or straight through the enemy. Because they're the Gunlugger and took that move.
  • A unified game mechanic:When you trigger a move roll 2d6 and add your stat and consult the move. The basics are on a 10+ you get what you want. On a 7-9 a success-with consequences (the move will say what you get to pick). On a 6- the MC gets to make a hard move; GM does anything logical that follows the fiction.
    • The big exception to this is "The Harm Move" when a PC takes harm - in that case the player rolls and adds the harm taken rather than a stat and wants to roll low.
  • More high-level adventures: N/A. In Apocalypse World you create the entire setting in the first session and the villains are much more personal in D&D.
  • As little biological determinism as possible: Post-apocalyptic with psychic powers and one of the canon character classes available is a dolphin in an exosuit. (It doesn't show up in most games but there's not much biological determinism here).
  • More balanced character options: Check. There's a huge amount of risk/reward going on. Every playbook does what it's supposed to even as they range in power from the town boss to the local medic or creepy psychic.
  • Not Supporting Politically Icky Groups: Here's Vincent Baker's Twitter. "Defund & Abolish" should tell you which side of the spectrum he's on.
I wouldn't normally jump in with a system that's not OSR on an OSR thread but you seemed to be making a checklist of things where Apocalypse World is really good.

There is a D&D-inspired Apocalypse World hack; Dungeon World. There are two reasons I'm not recommending it so strongly as I am Apocalypse World although it's technically a better answer to the question you are asking:
Anyway I'm not sure Apocalypse World is what you want - but I'd definitely advise giving it a look.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
So, as someone who's expressed his distaste for D&D's new direction multiple times in the forums, I'm starting to think of formally expanding my horizons. Dropping D&D 5E/One D&D as my main game and using someone else as my default. One option I've been considering was OSR games (OSE in particular), since it seems like I like quite a decent part of its design philosophy. I ran an OSE oneshot and read a few different rulebooks and blog posts to see if I could grok the philosophy, but some things still feel off.

To be fair, I started playing long after old school games had died down, around 3.5/Pathfinder era. I also skipped all of 4E and the rise of OSR as a movement, and I was pretty smitten with 5E when it first came out. So I'm a bit of an outsider to OSR-verse, but given the variety of games available, I'm hoping there might be a specific ruleset for the style of play I have in mind, which is slightly more modern than what most retroclones offer. I was hoping people interested in OSR could point me in the right direction, or at least offer some ways I could hack existing rulesets to better suit my needs.

Now, here's what I like about the OSR philosophy:
  • Simulationism First: What I've always liked about D&D was the possibility to create a fantastic world with its own logic that made sense. Most OSR games (owing to an assumption of Gygaxian naturalism) seem to put verisimilitude first: If it wouldn't make sense for a wizard to cast spells in armour, they don't. If a poison would kill you instantly, you only get one save against it. The rules also work well with a style of DMing where the random tables lay out the internal logic of the world you're in, and the DM produces the results neutrally by rolling on random tables or applying the invisible rulebooks in his head (if you're going through Orcish territory, you are likely to run into a warband with 10d12 orcs, even if this isn't balanced!).
  • Emergent Storytelling: This is tied to the simulationist approach, but I think D&D's real value comes from the moments that can only come out of an emergent story that naturally came together from various game mechanics. Other media (be they video games or movies or simple stories) can do preset narratives quite well (maybe even better than TTRPGs), but D&D's collaborative storytelling is unique in that none of the participants really know what the end result will be, but they know the end result will make sense because it will have followed the game's (and as a result, the game world's) rules. You can get unique stories like "Do you remember the time when we planted one of the beans from the Bag of Beans to Silvanesti and used the pyramid that sprouted out of it to lure Cyan Bloodbane?". I think OSR's style is uniquely fitting for such emergent storytelling. This also means "letting the dice fall where they may", and allowing players to suffer the consequences of their actions (but also reap the rewards of making the world a better place).
  • Rules-Light/Actual Natural Language Rules: One of the reasons I never bothered with 4E was how it offered a game where the fiction didn't matter and only the strict rules interactions (which were presented in video-game like terminology) yielded results. I liked 5E's claim of having a natural language to explain the rules, but then realised the rules were being interpreted more and more in a strict fashion. It wasn't until I saw OSE's rules that I saw what real natural language rules look like, and I really want to run a similar system where things are explained clearly without needless abstraction.
  • Making Resource Management/Exploration Actually Meaningful (at least some of the time): I always tried to homebrew rules to make encumberance or supplies or light sources matter in 5E, until I realised that the game has those mechanics only as vestigial remains from old editions, and that dungeon crawling and inventory management really shine in OSR games. I'd like logistics to be a meaningful challenge for some extent of the game at least (counting how many torches you'll need might get boring when you're high level, but in early levels I definitely want the OSR-style dungeon crawling experience).
  • Focus on Player Intentions Over Character Skill: I know this isn't how OSR usually phrases it (I believe the normal saying goes "Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability"), but there's a reason I phrase it this way: I like that OSR tries to get players to look beyond their character sheets and think more like someone actually living in the world. I like that it rewards players when they explain their intentions clearly and when those intentions lead to smart play. That said, I'm not necessarily a fan of putting player skill over character skill, while still valuing players' intentions over anything their character sheet says. Does that make sense?

As the last point makes it clear, I'm not entirely sold on OSR's approach to everything. Notably, I'd like to keep the following features from more "modern" games, if possible:
  • Assuming the PCs are competent: While we should encourage players to think like they actually live in the world, they don't. I don't want to require the players to describe everything they're doing with meticulous details to avoid a "gotcha" moment where the DM punishes them for something their character would've known better (I'm not saying this is how OSR works, but there does seem to be a group of people who like to play in a more adversarial fashion).
  • A Unified Game Mechanic: I just like how everything is "1d20 + ability + proficiency, compare with the DC" in 5E. I find the stiched-together nature of subsystems upon subsystems of OSR games to be rather unhelpful. It certainly turns off my gaming groups.
  • More High-Level Adventures: From what I understand, most OSR games stick to the sweet spot of levels 1-10, where the players are either nobodies trying to survive a deadly world or competent mortals who still can't fight epic-level threats. With that said, I actually do like modern games' epic scope where you can travel to other planes or be an equal match to apocalyptic threats. Most OSR games seem to consider that you get a stronghold and retire after your name level. I'd like the option to face bigger threats as epic heroes instead.
  • As Little Biological Determinism As Possible: While I understand that racial ability scores and racial level limits (even race-as-class) are a core part of the playstyle OSR is recreating, I'd honestly prefer something like Level Up's heritages and culture where races are more about the supernatural traits you get but don't limit what your character can do. OSE Advanced Fantasy's optional rules for removing level limits (and giving humans extra traits to balance it out) were a step towards what I had in mind, for instance.
  • More Balanced Character Options (within the limits of the game world's logic): While I like simulationism, I'd like player options to be balanced between each other within the limits of the world's internal logic. I know that OSR style games balance different character options through different means (different level progressions for Magic-Users and Fighters etc.), but if possible I'd instead prefer the game to make the two options equally useful in an all-things-considered way, where one option roughly contributes equally to others when you considers all pillars of the game, and better options are not balanced by making them harder to get. I'm okay with some power variation between different PCs, but if one character gets to bend the rules of reality at level 9 and the other gets a couple of guys calling him "m'lord", that doesn't seem fair.
  • Not Supporting Politically Icky Groups: Again, I don't think this is a problem endemic to OSR, but there seem to be some groups using old-school gaming as a shield for their vile views, and I'd rather not support them as much as possible. I'm writing this mostly because I've had issues with this before: I used to use Adventurer Conqueror King's domain generation system a lot when designing my homebrew world, but upon learning the creator associating with particularly gruesome people, I really didn't want to touch those rules again.
I know my request is a bit odd, and I don't mean to yuck anyone's yum. I know a lot of people enjoy OSR games as they are, and I understand that for a lot of people the OSR philosophy makes sense when you use all of its tenets (including the ones I want to switch with more modern tenets). I've tried running a few OSE games and that's why I'm looking for a system with the more modern inclusions I've mentioned. If it doesn't exist, that's fine! I'll try to take on the OSR tenet of tinkering to create what works for you and make a game like that myself, but I'm just trying to see if something closer to my tastes already exists.

I really appreciate any pointers you might send my way!
Castles & Crusades.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Another shout for Beyond the Wall and Through Sunken Lands. Flatland Games also produce Grizzled Adventurers, which is very similar to the others but lets you put together a group of higher-level characters and send them through a dungeon in a single session.
I've previously run Beyond the Wall and it is a delight. About to run Grizzled Adventurers and my players are extremely enthusiastic about it. The game lightly improves on Beyond the Wall by explicitly preparing for new characters who show up after the group rolls up all their characters together (a big part of both Beyond the Wall and Grizzled Adventurers.)

Each of these games has a very particular vibe, but they are A+.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Here's another angle.

In classic Traveller there isn't an advancement system, not really. So advancement is in found wealth, generated wealth, equipment found or increasingly available, in growing power either politically or socially.

It's important that some of the choices in those areas become the game of the player away from the table. Just like character advancement is.

Now throw in a bit of Call of Cthulhu where you get the opportunity to grow in skills or acquire new ones by using them or attempting them during the game.

My trouble is I've never thought too deeply about it nor tried to codify it in any way, just winged it.
The lack of a real advancement system is what made my players say no thanks to Traveller, which is a shame. But yeah, this kind of stuff is more important to many players than many would-be GMs realize up front.
 

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