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  • Writer's pictureBen Sandfelder

Lessons from the OSR

When the D&D: Next playtest started in 2012, I found a bootleg PDF of Keep on the Borderlands, and the 1981 Moldvay Basic Rules. That's the red one with the green dragon on the cover. The playtest included a rewrite of the Caves of Chaos, and I wanted the rest of the context for the adventure. At the time, I didn't get the appeal.

Elf is a class? Save vs. death ray/poison? THAC0? Where were the skills? Where was the customization? Where were the options? Coming from D&D 4E, then 3.5, then Pathfinder, it made no sense to me.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I marathoned Stranger Things, and that got me to revisit Basic D&D. Many cite it as the "best" D&D edition of all time. If this book has maintained such a strong following since before I was born, then there had to be something of merit hidden in its obtuse mechanics. So, I ran a game, and I fell in love with it.

Different Times, Different Paradigms

The first D&D book I ever purchased, the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, proclaimed in its core assumptions, "Adventurers are extraordinary." In B/X D&D, this is not the case. In B/X, adventurers are ubiquitous. Your party can encounter other adventurers exploring the exact same dungeon. Castles are assumed to be ruled by high-level Fighters, Clerics, or Magic-users. Bottom line: adventurers are everywhere, and your characters aren't special.

To me, this was a radical departure from today's complex backstories, intense roleplaying, and custom-tailored subplots (not that any of those are a bad thing). In B/X, your characters were nobodies, risking life and limb for the chance of "making it" in a brutal and unforgiving world. As a freelancer, maybe I related to it a little bit.

It was, plain and simple, a power fantasy. You probably lose a lot of characters, exploring the DM's monster-infested world, but the ones who survive earn the power of change. Whether it's through political influence, criminal enterprise, divine intervention, or raw magical power, your characters reshape the setting to their whims. The most powerful thing in the game, even to this day, is wish-granting magic, because it can do anything.

That idea of D&D as a rags-to-riches story burrowed into my brain like an illithid tadpole. But as a GM, how are you supposed to plan a story around that? Oh, I realized. You don't.

The Emergent Story is the Story

One of the main criticisms I hear about OSR games is the high lethality.

"How am I supposed to get invested in a character who dies in one hit?"

Turns out, you aren't supposed to. At least, not yet. You build that investment over time. Your brand-new 1st level character was a nobody, but now, they're Dugan the 6th-level Fighter, who made a basilisk into boots and found the legendary Sword of Six Sorrows.

So what happens when Dugan fails a save vs. poison and dies? In any later edition, this would be a colossal inconvenience. Maybe I, the GM, had a whole subplot about his evil long-lost brother planned. That would've been my mistake.

The Dungeon Master section of the Basic Rules says nothing about storytelling, because that's not what it's about. The story isn't something the Dungeon Master plans - it's what happens during the game. If a 1st-level party encounters a dragon, then they encounter a dragon. The players know they can't possibly win in a fight, so what do they do? They may try to hide, or flatter the dragon, or buy their safety by surrendering hard-earned treasure.

And all of those possibilities are supported by the rules themselves! There are reaction rolls to determine whether monsters encountered are even hostile. There's simple evasion and pursuit rules. The rules for dragons clearly state, "...even the hungriest dragon will pause and listen to flattery."

So then, the story becomes, "Yeah, we retrieved the Ring of Xylanthus from the Tomb of Terrors, but we ran into a red dragon on the way back to town. She demanded all of our treasure in exchange for our lives, so I guess we have to find her lair now, and steal it all back."

"Whatever happens, happens."

Even if the party fails, and gets wiped out by the dragon, then a hook is right there for the players' new characters: "some adventurers found the Ring of Xylanthus, but it was stolen by a dragon, and they died trying to get it back... so now you're being sent to go get it."

The story can keep going without the same characters because the story isn't about the characters. It isn't something the Dungeon Master leads the players through, but something the table creates together, by interacting with the game's simple, open-ended systems.

Even if Dugan, the 6th level Fighter, dies after months of gaming, it's not the end of the world. Who's going to rule the castle he built? Who will the Sword of Six Sorrows choose as its next wielder? Especially when you read the stories cited in "Appendix N," and you look at the modules written during this era, it certainly appears like the focus was on loosely connected episodes, not sprawling sagas. More Conan the Barbarian than Lord of the Rings.

The Resource Management is the Point

Tracking things like arrows and rations in modern D&D is pointless and pedantic. Nobody does it - not even the video game adaptations. Why not? Because there are so many other things to track now - per day features, special abilities, skills, etc. that it's just one more thing encumbering the player's cognitive load... and it doesn't add anything to today's more story-driven D&D games.

Rewind to B/X D&D, where a 1st-level character fits on a 3x5 notecard. Tracking arrows and rations isn't just easier, since there's so much less to track - it's a critical part of the game!

Encumbrance is measured in coins, not pounds, because 1 gold = 1 xp, so you need to know exactly how many coins you can carry. Beyond that, the assumption is that the party's "base town" may be days away from the dungeon.

To this date, clerics have spells like purify food and drink, which a new player may scratch their head at. "That seems really situational," they may say. Well consider this: it's B/X D&D, you're lost in the Corpse Swamp and the party is running out of water. Do you really want to refill your waterskins in a place called the Corpse Swamp?

B/X D&D was at its core, a resource management game. How much food did you bring? How many arrows do you have? 0 hit points was dead - so that was a resource you had to manage proactively. Spells were insanely powerful - a 1st level Magic-user can win an entire fight with one sleep spell... once. However, the sample dungeon has nine rooms, and five of them have monsters in them. So, when will your Magic-user be using that single sleep spell?

Random encounters (which, today, are perfunctory "speed bumps" between destinations) tax the party's resources. Going to the dungeon, getting lost along the way, and stumbling, half-starved, into a werewolf lair is all part of the story the group is creating.

The four classes had a clearly designed niche, which was neatly explained in Mentzer's version of the same Basic rules. Thieves scouted ahead, opened doors, and found traps. Fighters defended the party from monsters. Clerics managed the party's resources, replenishing HP, creating light sources, food and water, and so on. Magic-users were "get out of jail free" cards, able to bypass entire fights, traps, or other obstacles by having the right spell prepared. The "demihuman classes" were each hybrids or variants on these themes: Halflings were fighters who could scout like thieves, Dwarves were especially durable fighters who could see in the dark, and Elves got the best of both Fighters and Magic-users, but needed the most XP to level up.

The challenge B/X D&D presented was strategic, but in a different way from today's D&D. It wasn't so much, "which ability will you use to kill this monster?" but "what resources are you bringing to this gauntlet of challenges? When and how will you use each one?"

When you look at the early generations of video games that this version of D&D inspired... you can kinda see it.

I'm too young to have rosy-eyed nostalgia for these editions, but they've nonetheless managed to win me over. I could probably do a whole other article digging into all of the things about Old-School gaming that I've enjoyed, from the lighter rules, to the easier prep, to the fact that I, the DM, don't know what's going to happen, either.

D&D claims there are three "pillars" to its experience: combat, exploration, and roleplaying. RPGs seem to be gravitating towards these, as well. Some games, like Pathfinder 2nd Edition, are drifting towards ever-crunchier combat mechanics. Others, like most Powered by the Apocalypse systems, have zeroed in on roleplaying, and telling a collaborative story as a group. The OSR, in my opinion, remains the undisputed champion of the exploration pillar. It's about discovery, forethought, and careful preparation. That play style may not be for everyone, but it's definitely for me.


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