Can you have an OSR game without dungeons?

Hey folks, I’ve been a little quiet lately with all that has been going on near my bend of the river but I’ve been doing some thinking about the nature of the OSR, as well as more narrative games.

Do you think you can have an OSR game without dungeons?

First, my definition for a dungeon. I’m also very interested how you all would personally define one.

A dungeon is an enclosed space, usually underground, made up of distinct/discrete playable spaces that follow some sort of pattern/theme/motif.

I personally can offer up two viewpoints in response. On the one hand, I think dungeons are an integral part of an OSR experience. Dungeons are a logical place for treasures, horrifying monsters, and wondrous natural phenomenon to co-exist. Dungeons are an easy way to offer characters an opportunity to earn some gold, and hooks that lead to dungeons are convenient to manufacture (word of mouth, strange observations, infamous reputation, etc). On a more gamey note, dungeons force encounters to occur in enclosed, limited spaces. I think this is easily the most awesome aspect of a dungeon because it forces players to be creative. Being in a restricted space means that players have to deal with whatever’s in the next room, using only the resources they have on them and their wits. Different dungeons will offer up different solution spaces, for example mossy temple ruins give players different options than a stronghold made up completely of stone. Dungeons also force players to take resource management into account, they’re not going to find a store selling torches/rations while trudging through ancient caverns (probably lol).

On the other hand, maybe you could run an OSR game without dungeons. There’s some OSR sci-fi games out there, and I don’t think you have dungeons in the same sense (I guess exploring derelict ships and such would count though). Hexcrawls and the like are also very popular, but I’ve always thought that dungeons are the meat-and-potatoes of the experience but maybe the wilderness/exploration aspect can be brought to the forefront.



I would say no, but my definition of dungeon is much looser than yours. For example, if you are on an island it’s still a “dungeon” even though you’re not underground.

A dungeon in my mind is simply a self-contained area with treasure to steal, baddies to kill, places to explore, and characters to interact with. Without this you don’t have much of an OSR game.


I’ve had settings for adventure that don’t include the whole “post apocalyptic fallen empire” thing before, so there’s not much by way of ruins to explore. It was mostly journeying/travelling, with maybe a bit of a City Crawl here and there. I’ve also run Wave Crawls that, while some adventure happened in the Enclosed Hulls of ships, didn’t feature the traditional “dungeon as Mythic Underworld” environment.

The “tiers” of play (Dungeon --> Wilderness Exploration --> Domain) still kind of stay somewhat intact however, because venturing further afield from “home base” is much more difficult at lower levels, as dangers tend to increase the further you travel from civilization. Low level characters are loathe to strike out on their own, and stick to areas they know and can accurately reconnoiter.

Dungeons are fun, exciting, and wonderful teaching tools due to their linear/flow-chart nature, but with players that have already experienced the tier of play before, they are by no means integral to playing the game.


I think Dungeons are integral to the OSR in the sense it provides a singular foundation for adventures to grow out from. You can use the dungeon as a framing device to help keep adventures manageable even if they occur over hundreds of square miles since the adventure has certain boundaries (both physical and mental) to help focus play while also allowing players the ability to still do what they want so to speak.

In a 5e game I’m in, the campaign has started with us being caravan guards for a group carving out a new trade route. Using your definition, we’re not in a dungeon, but in terms of adventure design we are in a very long and narrow dungeon with rooms for encounters and towns we might come across and stop at on our way.

Just my two cents on dungeons.


I think dungeons are more iconic but sandboxes are more in line with the spirit of the OSR.

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Can you elaborate on this ink? In my experience osr modules may be sandboxy in nature but really their defining feature is always an excellent dungeon to explore.

A sandbox is like a dungeon with more player agency and meaningful decisions, such as to go somewhere else and do something else entirely. It also encourages proactive characters who have things they want to accomplish by giving them the larger and less constrained environment to explore. To be clear, of the important aspects of OSR, I value player agency, playing to find out what happens, emergent gameplay and living worlds the highest. Sandboxes support that better than dungeons. As for modules that aren’t so heavily tied to a dungeon, have you read or played Fever Swamp or What Ho, Frog Demons!


OSR games are well-known for using dungeons, but dungeons are not inherently OSR. It’s easy to do an OSR game in a dungeon, but you don’t have to use a dungeon. See: West-Marches, sci-fi-OSR, and any number of other genre emulations. At this point you run the risk of running it the “what is OSR anyway?” argument, but I think the point still stands. There’s lots of ways to prompt the lateral-thinking, resource-management, high-risk situations that OSR thrives upon without literally putting them in a hole in the ground.


Yes, I’ve read fever swamp but as per my definition of “dungeon” posted above I’d consider the entire swamp a “dungeon.”

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I think a more important distinction between old-school and not-old-school gaming would be the treatment of space and time. Old-school gaming (including AD&D and most games considered OSR, but also old WFRP and CoC modules) treats space and time immutable in the sense that measuring them is in accordance with the fictional setting and not the fictional narrative. For example, distances are measured in feet and miles instead of abstract distances (e.g. for spells, ranged attacks, and overland movement), and time is measured in seconds or minutes (or turns and rounds which are in turn made up of a discrete number of seconds or minutes) instead of “scenes” or whatnot.

In the CoC classic, Masks of Nyarlathotep, the cult strongholds have maps and the cultists have rough timetables (i.e. where they are what they do at any given time). Only if the investigators arrive on distinct nights will they observe a ritual or something - and not when they get there, y’know, to advance the story.

Compare that to Carrion Call, a WFRP 2E adventure (found in Plundered Vaults). It’s an isolated manor estate, whence the party needs to escape, potentially allying themselves with one or more denizens. However, even though the individual chambers have maps, the estate as a whole doesn’t, and the encounters are noted as scenes. Freely exploring the house isn’t the point of the adventure, and it doesn’t provide any tools to do so.

In summary, I consider games/scenarios less old-school if they don’t treat their locations as physical spaces but merely beats in some narrative - same thing goes for my OSR, naturally.


Yes, of course you can have an OSR game without dungeons.


I guess it all depends on what counts as OSR… (uh oh!)

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I agree with your definition, and I think I’m going to remove the “usually underground” from mine. But, what differentiates say a hex from a dungeon? One could argue a forest is a self-contained area, and I suppose you could consider it a dungeon.

The only difference between a hexcrawl and a dungeoncrawl are the rules, distances, and periods of time used to traverse them, otherwise they’re fundamentally the same. Just the scenery is different.


Do y’all think that games like Cold Winter count as OSR? The players manage resources including time to help the townspeople survive the harsh winter, but I don’t know if that can be categorized as a dungeon in the same sense that a hexcrawl can. Do games like these get more into board game territory than role-playing? Is movement an essential part of OSR games?

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May I ask why the answer is important?

(I think at this point whether something is OSR or not purely relates to marketing, because there is nary a thing OSRIC and Mothership have in common that would not be also true for Numenera and D&D 5E.)


I think that it’s easier to arrive at an answer for OP’s question by posing things that can’t be easily squared as dungeons mechanically or otherwise. I personally think that the OSR playstyle is not necessarily informed by the written setting or mechanics of the game, as much as how the players avoid the written mechanics to solve problems without resorting to chance.

But, I totally agree that it’s also an easy marketing word to associate with other content! I don’t think for a cynical reason, though–there’s a DIY attitude that OSR products have compared to others, where the expectation is that everyone picks and chooses what works for their table.


I don’t think I agree with this definition of dungeon. It’s because of that, that I think the point is moot. If a dungeon is ANY enclosed place where something happens, then there are so many dungeons in adventure fiction that the definition loses its meaning.

I mean if it works for you, that’s cool, but the “undergroundedness” of a dungeon makes it a dungeon to me.

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My concept of a dungeon is influenced by thinking of crpgs is a space that resembles a flowchart. Going between openness of sandbox and the narrowness of the flowchart dungeon decisionmaking is essential to my osr.


Definitely can have OSR without dungeons, I have run a few games like that