Some Thoughts on Old School Renaissance and Characters

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The term “Old School Renaissance” means many things to many people.

Here’s what it means to me:

Looking back at the simple, streamlined, and flexible rules set of the original Dungeons and Dragons and then asks, “How would we keep the best of that simplicity and flexibility with what we’ve learned so far?”

OSR games bring us back to the exploration and interaction with danger. There’s no character immunity from death. Characters start weak, might well die, and work their asses off to stay alive through cleverness and care.

To mitigate the frustration of risky lives at early levels, the games are built with simple character creation rules. If a character dies, roll up another one quickly!

Further, the characters lack heavy backstory elements (if they have any backstory at all). It is the world that is rich and detailed. The characters get to go poke and prod and interact with it to dig out the richness. As the character learn more about the world and interact with it, their story begins to form. Enemies who escape in one adventure come back later. Achievements that gain the characters in one deep cave propel them to further dangers ahead. They become characters because they adventure.

In return for dangerous worlds, the Players get to have the experience of danger, mystery, and exploration. The game cycles between Description from the GM –> Reactions from the Players –> More Description from the GM. When rules are invoked, the utilization of the rules grow from the fiction that has already been created. The Players are always looking for concrete details and the GM is alway wanting to deliver them. The tales of this kind are less about the dramatic heart of the characters (though that comes into play the longer the characters survive) than in atmosphere, tension, exploration, and tactile experience through shared verbal descriptions.

I started a thread about OSR over at Story Games to learn more about it when I first became curious about it. The more I read, the more I became eager to give it a try — to return the roots, essentially, of what I loved about those early dungeon crawls… but aided by everything I know about gaming now.

Here are some choice quotes from that thread:

Judd wrote:

The games start with characters in a dungeon-delve adventure. They kick down doors and get treasure, marshal their resources and go back at it. At first the characters are really super-disposable but as the characters gain levels and the players gain dungeon-savvy, they become more durable and everyone at the table feels like they can actually invest in them.

All this time, the GM is making shit up, hacking at published things or things found online.

But at some point in the cycle, shit starts to change. The characters get land or start their own adventuring company or somehow or other invest in some corner of the world that they want to stake out as their own or whatever it is that they do and I think that is when shit becomes more character-driven. But my sense is that it takes a while to make sure this isn’t just another first level character for the garbage heap and even a while after that. The investment and character to drive the action is forged at the table.

Johnstone wrote:

The basic premise of the game is that the DM shows up with a mapped dungeon (or hexmap, or any other location that is unknown and unfamiliar to the players/their characters). The players explore this location, using their characters. The game doesn’t care who your character is — every element you have on your character sheet is a potential resource for exploring the location. Treasure is there to give you a reason to explore, traps and monsters are there to make it dangerous, and the town (or other civilized areas) are there so players can trade around the rewards they have collected from exploring.

That’s the basics. What happens to the campaign after many sessions of play is up for grabs. At the start, PCs are interchangeable, ie the dungeon doesn’t care which PCs go exploring. Players might get attached to their characters after many sessions, but the game doesn’t. Whether or not the DM does is up to the DM. Maybe the game turns into a series of character-based quests or becomes political intrigue, but that’s all add-on stuff that the DM (or the group) creates.

So, the basic “story” is dungeon-driven: some people explore a dangerous location.

John wrote:

– Character stories. We played 55+ sessions of Stars Without Number, starting with 4 players and 12 characters. The game setup was “You have a starship. Here’s the mission board where you can select jobs.” The action of the game was 100% focused on the color-rich tactical play that Vincent and Eero described. But the emergent story of the game answered the questions, “Who are these people, really? What are their ethics and values? What do they really care about? How do they change the setting?” The best part, to me, is that none of us had to put any effort into that stuff. We played the challenge-based game to the hilt and the character stuff emerged as the natural accumulation of choices and consequences.

In other words, we didn’t create fully-formed characters and then try to portray them. Instead, we created (partially) blank slates and then found out who they actually were once it was all over.

Also, the stable of characters meant that any one character wasn’t critical to play. They could die, retire, or decide that their goals no longer aligned with the rest of the crew. We had one character simply walk away to pursue other interests. And another that fused with a piece of nanotech gear and then was essentially sold off to another ship for profit. In 1-to-1 character-to-player games, these decisions would be disruptive, but here they were simply interesting outcomes along the way.

E.T. Smith wrote:

Theres’s a truism I’ve heard to explain the situation:

“Your Backstory is all the stuff you do, and enemies you make, to get to fourth level; it hasn’t happened yet.”

And, in a last quote from that thread, fuseboy posted:

One simplistic continuum is character vs. adventure focus. In a character-focused game, the camera (if you will) follows the characters, whatever happens to them, whereas an adventure-focused game, characters can become unable to participate through infirmity (or death). In the one, you use the adventure as a highly malleable environment used to reveal things about the characters; in the other, you use characters as replaceable probes to explore the adventure.

The difference comes up when the two diverge – in low-level D&D, if you run out of hit points, you croak and make another character. In Burning Wheel, if you’re horribly injured, you play out Touching the Void, the tale of how you crawled back to camp with two broken legs.

In decades past, I spent a lot of time trying to play character-focused games using adventure-focused mechanics. When I came across Burning Wheel, it blew my mind because it was the first system that really went out of its way to hit that explicitly – the GM was deliberately crafting challenges to reveal the characters, through their choices.

So, amazing as this has been, there’s something that seemed to fall by the way side in my gaming, which was the verisimilitude of the world at an out-of-character level. Sure the world is rich and detailed, but the lens of game play starts to feel like a stage the PCs live on, everything else brought on like a prop as needed, and so often created on a just-in-time basis, and so often just a shade too coincidentally appropriate or awesome.

I say OOC verisimilitude because while the characters certainly had to take the world at face value, the players don’t. The players know that if they go left, that’s where the awesome stuff (both good and bad) is most likely going to be. There’s no real need to do (god forbid) actual reconnaissance, because Touching the Void result of having no plan is just as awesome as Conquering Templars.

I started to crave player planning! I wanted players to be making intelligent plans about how to deal with the reality of the world around them, at a campaign goal level.

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Old School Renaissance and Characters

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