Over the past couple weeks I've been working on my homebrew rules (basically a combination of Whitehack plus a half dozen other OSR sources). If you've been following this blog you've likely noticed this a bit as I've posted various ideas and and impressions of rulesets that I've read and house rules of my own.
I began writing out my thoughts on the importance of danger, time, and resources in a bit of an introduction to OSR style play:
While a RPG game can have many settings, and evoke many different narratives, this ruleset seeks to evoke the importance of danger, time, and resources, as the interplay of these three things help create dramatic tension.
Danger: Let us begin with danger. It is the most obvious factor in play. Danger comes in many forms and tends to add tension and consequences to action. Real and unpredictable danger is what makes an RPG session more than just a session of improvisational drama or comedy.
Time: Time is important. Time can only ever be expended, never truly be recovered by the players. The passage of time is the Referee’s greatest tool in bringing alive the world around the players, in showing the players that their actions have consequences and creating a meaningful game.
Resources: The players have resources. These range from items to abilities to contacts in the world to knowledge about the world. Resources are used by the players to interact with the world, circumvent danger, and come up with novel solutions to problems.
These three things are not interesting by themselves, no one likes a game that's all about micromanaging your inventory. But it's because the interesting bits (narrative milieu, setting, npc characters, mysterious locations, etc.) aren't conveyed through the rules. Instead the view of this ruleset is that the rules act to structure interaction with these interesting bits. These interesting bits are built through play and a setting shared by the players and GM.
None of this is particularly new. But it did get me thinking about things and how rules are structured. For example if you open up most RPGs and look at the table of contents:
They tend to be pretty similar regardless of the edition or game. You have a section on character creation, a section on combat, a section on magic and spells, a section on items, a section on special conditions like drowning, fire damage etc. And if you're lucky you'll have a section on other game procedures besides combat like exploring.
Overall most RPG books tend to organize their contents by category. While this makes sense for other types of books I feel like it can end up making RPG books more confusing and dense in some ways. I think the OSR is partially a reaction to this where a lot of how the game was played traditionally isn't covered in the rules, and a lot of original OSR blogging was about different modes or styles of play that weren't covered in your standard ruleset (like hexcrawls).
As stated above I view the rules as sets of instructions which provide a structure for the players to interact with the setting and the things they find in it. In other words, a set of procedures. This idea isn't particularly new and another big point of the OSR.
However, for any given situation in the game there are different sets of instructions (often termed mechanics) which you could use to resolve interaction. For example take a chase. You could resolve it by simply flipping a coin. Heads the players get away, tails, the enemy catches up to them. Conversely you could resolve the interaction through a play-by-play of the players and Referee taking turns describing and resolving what they do and rolling dice. Like the players attempt to topple an apple cart to block the enemies. One of the players rolls and is successful and so the apple cart is toppled. The enemies roll to jump over the cart, etc.
The difference between these two procedures to resolve the players interaction with the world is their level of abstraction. Flipping a coin is resolving things with a high degree of abstraction. Doing a play-by-play resolves things in a low level of abstraction. I think neither is inherently better than the other, it depends on what kind of game you want to play.
However, I think it's important to note of that what is being abstracted is time. That whatever set of rules, whatever procedure you make up or choose to resolve a player interaction with the world, it is going to abstract time in a certain way. Furthermore, you are probably going to want to abstract interaction in varying degrees. A game that resolved everything with a flip of the coin probably wouldn't be very fun to play. Neither would a game that tried to resolve everything in a very complex play-by-play with tons of dice rolling for every little action.
In this manner I don't see the rules in a game as an almost abstract mathematical modeling of the world where you're attempting to come up with a set of attributes or rolls or mechanics or whatever that you can use to model everything in how an imagined world works.
Instead I see the rules as a set of compartmentalized procedures that exist like a set of Russian nesting dolls where each describes a different level of interaction. Once I started viewing rules this way I thought, hey, instead of organizing an RPGs contents by category I think they should be organized by time abstraction essentially by timescale. It just seems much more intuitive for me.
For example, I think there are about 5 different timescales used in most OSR games:
- Timescale - Characters: This section has the static rules that represent the game world where time is not a factor mainly basic character creation and dice mechanics.
- Timescale - Encounters: In this section time is generally measured in seconds to minutes and called an encounter. In an encounter there is often an adversary that will react quickly to the players and whom they have to react quickly to. Time is of the essence. Danger is often fraught!
- Timescale - Exploration: In this section time is generally measured in hours. The players are most often engaged in exploring a location that is not immediately hostile, generally room by room or area by area.
- Timescale - Traveling: In this section, time is measured in days where the players are traveling over great distances. Most of the day is assumed to be spent in the drudgery of travel with the chance to come across something interesting, along with certain time taken up having to do important logistical tasks related to travelling.
- Timescale - Seasons: In this section time is generally measured in months and represented by seasons where the players have decided to spend an extended period of time in a (hopefully) safe and civilized location.