The bounds of OSR

So, I don’t know where the audience for this is! But I’ve always daydreamed about there being something like OSR but less necessarily dark and/or violent. I like cozy things! So, then that got me thinking about what OSR really means as a game in itself.

The thing that attracts me most to OSR, besides the rules-light party game feel, is how the story is emergent from the game. No one comes with the expectation of collaboratively writing a story or completing a story already set out for them: they’re in it 100% to play, and the story that comes out is the story of how you played and how you creatively beat challenges. This is totally diametric to story games where the game is the story, and maybe asymmetric with later DND where one is expected to engage in premade stories or give too much agency to predefined roles.

With that in mind, I’ve never seen an RPG with emergent gameplay that doesn’t basically revolve around smart looting: dungeoneering, space smuggling/adventuring, pirates, etc. I was thinking to myself how come despite the variety of settings, really all of these games are the same in principle? I think for one, it’s because OSR is a lot more board game adjacent then I’ve ever seen it identified as. All of these games operate by the same rules/etiquette and rely upon emergent storytelling rather than following a story. And that’s not to disparage OSR games, because they are fun in themselves! That’s why I’m here :slight_smile:

But, when it comes to creating different games from those OSR principles (rules-light, player skills, emergent stories), is it really OSR? Or, is OSR one category of mind-theater board gaming which has to do with dungeoneering and looting and so on? Can OSR encompass cozier stories, or is that entering weird eurogame or storygame territory depending on how the designer approaches it? Can OSR encompass intrigue games when XP is directly tied to gold? Maybe when the aim is to launder money, but what diegetic drive for character progression is there when money isn’t an object?

On a side, I’ve always thought of OSR as closer to party games like Mafia or Werewolf than to tactics RPGs or story RPGs. These are all like invisible board games (with the exception of miniatures or cards). Would delineating this get closer to the truth?


Advanced fighting fantasy was a bit more story oriented and less smart looting. Although there was a bit of that. Sounds like you need to write a system!

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I guess I do need to put something together! :slight_smile: Though to be clear, I’m not interested in story games at all–I am just curious about whether OSR principles are really principles of OSR or if they are principles of board games or party games. What if OSR is not on a spectrum between itself and other non-OSR RPGs, but somewhere in a spectrum of board games not concerned with story?

In which case, to expand OSR out of its original gameplay loop of dungeoneering, one really has to make another distinct board game. (DND was a war game to start off with!) This is exciting! :slight_smile:


Great questions! I’ve been thinking about many of the same things as well. This is the conclusion that I have come to. The OSR (probably) cannot do those things you are talking about.

I think OSR is pretty much anchored to dungeon delving, hex exploring (Outdoor Survival), and combat. (Which isn’t to say that’s how all D&D games go! I think we’ve all had a blast playing the 3 hour session shopping in town and chatting with innkeepers. But those happen, I think, almost despite the rules as written.)

I think there is room to bring in a lot of euro mechanics to rulesets (set collection, worker placement, etc) but at that point I think it’s probably not useful to consider it as OSR. (Luka Rejec has suggested adding meeples to his Ultraviolet Grasslands, and I think that still counts as OSR, so maybe I’m wrong.)


Isn’t that interesting! :smiley: I feel like also, they don’t only happen despite the rules, but that they’re almost like a necessary exception to the normal gameplay. The game rules necessitate a safe place to sell loot and hire people etc (besides the more cozy things, like talking to villagers and carousing and hanging out) and those things also provide a nice change of pace from usual. But, I don’t think a game could just be that in itself. The contrast between the opposite parts makes them appealing!

Full agree! Though I’m definitely going to have to check out Luka Rejec because that just sounds fun :slight_smile:

I also think OSR has something excessive beyond board game mechanics, not just that board game mechanics exceed OSR. The most important part is that if you play by DND rules as written then you lose, so you have to creatively avoid the rules to win. I think (OSR) RPGs are the only ‘board game’ where that is the expectation of how to play!

One kind of game I can envision (though not my #1 favorite idea; I’ve really been fantasizing about a cozy village errand game) is something like The Quiet Year except where the town or townspeople have written numeric abilities like good ol’ DND, which if you roll by you are likely to fail. That way, to protect or manage the town you have to think beyond its pure numeric capabilities etc.


You can give players XP for whatever you want. Use that to guide the type of game you want to run. Generally players love progression and their characters getting better at stuff. If you don’t reward them XP for killing stuff, but do reward them XP for trading items/setting up a store/meeting new people/saving cats from trees, etc they will start doing that stuff rather than killing everything they encounter.

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Here’s the leveling system I use in my sci fi game:

I realised a long time ago I really don’t like tracking how many enemies the players have killed in a game and then fiddling around with XP numbers at the end of the session (or counting gold coins). So, I simply don’t bother rewarding any XP for killing things. What I do reward XP for is the players doing things I find entertaining!


Absolutely agree with this, and that’s why I love that that is codified as part of old-school play. The players have actual “victory conditions”, so to speak, that present themselves diegetically in the game. :smiley:

The more complicated part for me is how to write mechanics to foster that. Like, if there’s not the constant risk of getting killed in a dungeon, what is the motivation to seek creative solutions instead of dice rolls? Maybe the element of time, or a resource that is depleted (like HP actually is! but that feels particular to games with the immediate risk of death).

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I love your XP list! I’ve seen this kind of thing for PBTA :slight_smile: this looks super fun! And I like how the numbers stay low too, that you don’t need to keep track of the minutia like 3,867/10,000 gold.


Depends on the setting. In your “cozy village errand” type game, maybe other villager like/dislike for the players could be a motivating factor.

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I can highly recommend it! I stole the initial system from some one else, but the XP to do is different for every game I run.

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I’m reading Ultraviolet Grasslands now and this is incredible! This is absolutely the kind of change in gameplay I was looking for. Even if it’s not the exact mood or premise, this proves to me that OSR principles can operate outside of dungeons and dungeon-oriented hexcrawls. How cool, thank you so much for the recommendation! :smiley: I especially love how it suggests all different manners of receiving XP, like @LizardMan’s list except it looks like the players pick one mode and go with it.

This is totally tangential, but I’m fascinated with the rules for massive group-oriented combat. It reminds me of the warband (?) rules from Mausritter, which I think I prefer because the numbers don’t accumulate and bloat.

On that note, I’ve been thinking about how it would be interesting if players had asymmetrical aims for earning XP. That would present an interesting challenge! The biggest of all probably being why the players are working together–what goal would they share?


Glad that you like it. I once ran a one-shot just using one of the photos.

Xp is a strange carrot. Player progression is a must for me but I’m not convinced that xp is the best to get to that point. Arnold k has suggested hiding xp jewels in his adventures, which is one way to incentive exploration.
Currently I am doing the simplest way to level up. Show up once, get to level two. Show up twice more, get to level three. Show up 3 more times, get to level 4 . It’s fine but I think there are more elegant ways. I do think it could be more module specific.

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I’ve seen milestone leveling up a good amount! :smiley: Though I like how XP (when done right) directly incentives players–I think to me, the actual character progression isn’t as important as the constant drive to play, and how the rules guide/define that drive. But players also like to progress their characters! It’s fun to get more abilities and become better in-universe!

Actually just read Arnold K’s article on popcorn XP earlier today, it sounds fun to play :slight_smile:

While I don’t think there has ever been a full ruleset for doing thins, I’ve seen a lot of posts floating around the blogosphere about how to go mannerpunk with a game. I’ll just link here what I have collected over the years as an inspiration, but I fear that there is still work to be done. The basic idea is to replace the classic parts of an OSR game (which are, as @KnightOwl said before, dungeoneering, exploration and fighting) with something more akin to your objective.


This is the core part of OSR, so this should also be the core part of your game. As anybody who ever went to a very big social event can confirm, those are a lot like dungeons. In fact, I could swear there were goblins at last year’s company Christmas party.

This is probably going beautiful along with @pjamesstuart’s Courteous Quest Generator


If the social events are the dungeon, navigating the social scene is the exploration. Sadly, I don’t have a blog post for this, but my suggestion is replace the hex map with some kind of graph, linking together the different mansions/important people and having the characters navigate them.

Social fighting

The whole the pen is mightier than the sword thing… I’ve read two ways of doing that, one more combat-like (Barakiel’s) and one more oriented around persuasion (Arnold K’s):


Haha Oh man. I didn’t know it had a name or that other people did it. Guess for my next trick I’ll reinvent the wheel!

Yes. Actually I am starting to think that mechanically this is the most important element to center on. People really like their characters and they love chasing new ways to improve them. One reason D&D 5 does so well, I think, is because they tapped into that quite successfully.


To quote the Principia Apocrypha:

XP-for-treasure is like the fuel of the game’s engine. Player decisions almost always hinge around it.[…] And you can tailor the focus of your game by adding value to exploring wilderness, saving prisoners, acquiring books, artisanal brewing ingredients, crystallized memories…

So I think that if you want to change the focus of the game to something more social, changing the way you gain experience is a key part.


I think we’re on the opposite ends of the spectrum, here. I’m drawn to this because of the dark and violent material. But don’t let me ruin your fun, feel free to experiment to get what you want out of games. Let’s just agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with playing around dark and violent themes.

I think there would be a lot to unpack here in this sentence. I’m not going to go too deep into it as it would be off-topic for this thread, and probably for the entire forum, but it really depends on your definition of storygame (a dubious term) and of story (a confusing term). However, I’m cool if you want to talk about it.

I think you make a big mistake if you make a too-close analogy between board games and roleplay. In a boardgame – usually – there is the space where players talk to each other, and the space of game mechanics, and there is communication back and forth. If there is a measure of fiction in the game, it only has aesthetic purpose, but does not change the outcomes of play.

RPGs have this additional part of the game, other than players and rules, which is the big imagined space of characters and events currently happening, and these three elements are in a constant three-way conversation with each other. This is true in “OSR” play as it is true in “storygame” play – in fact I don’t really consider these categories to be relevant.

This gets a bit confusing with OSR-style play as the foundational game texts are still written like wargames/boardgames. And then the GM is supposed to fill in with her own procedures. But I don’t think this makes OSR-style play in any way akin to boardgames.

The defining thing that I can see in OSR-style play is the object or purpose of play is very focused on player agency, exploration, reward for taking calculated risks and avoiding needless ones, personal challenge, clear failure states (death), and other similar things – roughly speaking.

So, to answer your question, I think those basic objects of play are independent of the presence of violence and dark themes, and you can totally focus on those objects while having, for example, cozy puzzles.

But I think that “let’s use a different boardgame as a base” completely misses the mark on how to achieve all of this. I think the discussion on how to reward XP is useful and needed.

One of the things that death and violence do is that they communicate on a visceral level to our survival instincts what is dangerous or what is not, and what is our failure condition. This is also used in many videogames, and is in no-way because “videogames are glorifying violence”, but simply because it’s such an intuitive concept (you lose, you die).

So the main question for you would be: one of your main problems is to achieve a proper failure state without involving violence and death. How do you do that? In my opinion, that would probably lead to the reworking of the entire HP/AC/Attack concepts, which are not really interesting if the possibility of combat and death is not part of the game.

Also, you would lose compatibility by necessity with most OSR material, this is unavoidable.


Absolutely, and they’re fun too! :slight_smile: This is less to adapt OSR to my own sentiments, and more a thought experiment as to what OSR could mean outside of its original context.

Yeah, I don’t think the original sentence was actually a helpful distinction; the point is less anything about stories in specific, and more about OSR is more of a game in itself than compared to later RPGs that make story traversal or story creation a goal.

I completely missed this aspect in my original post! You’re totally right that board games exist in a different space from RPGs. OSR game still exist in the same imaginary space, outside of the ‘symbolic’ space of hardcoded rules, as other RPGs do. My analogy was more to draw focus to how OSR games have emergent narratives that come out of playing the game instead of artificial narratives, and how they have definite win conditions (Gold = XP, die at 0 HP, torches last an hour) that drive play. The point of OSR games is to play and see what happens because the play is where the fun is, and I think that aspect is more board gamey than story gamey in comparison to later RPGs.

Completely agree that changing the game environment while retaining OSR principles (player skills, risk taking, clear failure, resource management) would have to mean drastically changing or replacing the concepts of HP, AC, and Attack. This is what I’m interested in–what those OSR principles look like outside of the original context of dungeoneering or hexcrawling.

And that’s also why I think there is a closer relationship to OSR and board games than OSR and narrative oriented RPGs, despite the imaginary level where the rules as written have to be avoided to avoid low chances of success. I think that level is actually unique to OSR compared to board games and other RPGs; you lose by relying on the rules as written, and have to play creatively outside the rules to not fail. Yet, the gameplay remains primary, and not narrative creation or traversal.

For sure, XP is central to this discussion because the function of XP is to define player goals. So, in a way I think that is the easy question, while it’s harder to come up with other elements (resources like HP) that necessarily have to change to play OSR style outside of the original DND context. This is where the dual comparison to board games and party games helps for me to think through this: board games for the focus on player skill and hard victory/failure conditions, and party games for the imaginary space where the game actually takes place.


I don’t think this is unique in any way to OSR-style play as opposed to, say, post-Forge or Forge inspired games. I could quote you a bandolier of games that are directly designed to create emergent stories (Trollbabe, Apocalypse World, etc…), although the extent to which this is currently recognized, acknowledged or even achieved by the “storygame” (have I already said I hate this word?) crowd is debatable, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion.

The main difference that I can see is that the inherent questions that the players are designed to answer are different: Stakes in Apocalypse World are mostly a thematic concept, so players have agency to answer thematic questions that emerge in any way they want; while the “stakes” of exploring a dungeon in B/X D&D relate more to personal safety, death, challenge, risk and reward, so agency of the players is more about taking risks and living with the consequences. Which makes B/X a very different game :slight_smile:. So there is focus on agency in both types of play, but different kinds of agency.

And it’s normal that if you don’t understand or haven’t experienced the other kind of agency it might look from the outside that that game is designed to produce “artificial story”, whatever you mean by that.

I’m not trying to derail the thread, just trying to get some points across to increase your awareness, hoping that it can help you achieve what you want to achieve.

I think this is more a philosophy in how to use the rules of the game text. While the procedures of play are really more than the rules of the text, they could include any procedure that the people at the table use to agree on the details of what’s happening and what happens next.

For example, a simple procedure of play that goes usually implied is “I declare what my character does, the referee describes the outcome”. They also could include any principles the referee uses to determine the outcome. The OSR community is notoriously fuzzy on defining these, but I think that at least reflection on them is warranted (the Principia Apocrypha are a great step forward in this direction).

I think what one needs to focus on while designing a game text for maximum clarity is what are the expected procedures of play, and then write a game text that describes those as best as possible. Not saying someone can’t change them, but at least you expressed everything you need to.

And I think that if you want to understand what “the bounds of OSR” are it’s important to talk about these things and explore in more detail what they mean (at least to you), despite the OSR community sometimes defying classification or definition of the term.