Some OSR sandbox play

This post is an oblique response to and . I am not writing to give a definition of OSR, but rather describe my experiences over a number of years and how I play in and run games that are often classified as OSR, but also various other editions of D&D.

I am talking about a specific creative agenda or style of play or purpose to play or whatever terminology one prefers. It could be described as problem solving play (or challenge-focused play) with a focus on fictional challenges, exploration, strategy, tactics and logistics; or wargaming on a commando squad level. For me, the fun of playing in this way comes from exploring the unknown and creative problem solving, as well as similar fun one gets out of various board and computer games (which are much more limited in scope by necessity of not having a human referee adjudicating whatever actions one tries). I've been running games in this style using various homebrew rules systems (some of which would be obviously classified as OSR, some might not), Pathfinder 1 and D&D 5. I've played it using Lamentations, Old school essentials, D&D (Finnish red box and Finnish B/X), a homebrewed system, a homebrewed descendant of BECMI and Praedor. And maybe Basic fantasy roleplay or some other retro-clone.

The games are I've played in have almost always been sandboxes. A couple of the convention games have been one-shots with no connection to anything, but most con games have had a persistent world and possibilities to play in the same one for several sessions. What sandbox play means here is that there are several different things going on in the game world, including several obvious adventuring possibilities. You can engage or not with any, but in longer-term play it might have consequences. You can scout out locations, choose to go in or not, scout another one, return and leave, and so on. There is also maneuvring outside the locations themselves; enemies might escape from a location if players go in with force and then leave, or they or the characters might set up ambushes or track down their enemies. Some locations, like ancient tombs, are essentially static, while others, like lairs or castles of intelligent beings, contain active actors.

The default gameplay loop is what one would expect: go into a dungeon, try to survive and find treasure (or reach some other objective), and then get out alive. As players get their characters more established in the game world, they typically start having different kinds of goals – resettling an abandoned town, starting a silver mine, and so on. Sometimes the world imposes things on them – an army approaching, someone messing with a holy treasure and a god imposing a quest on them. Sometimes characters are retired as they find a non-adventurous place for themselves in the world.

The key principle for this kind of play is that the game master has to be as neutral as possible with respect to the survival and success of the player characters. Apocalypse world had the game mastering disclaiming decisions making (about certain dramatic issues), whereas here the referee is disclaiming decision making about the fate of the player characters. One way to do this would be to use a rules engine that defines many things carefully (this is what West marches of Ben Robbins did), but I prefer a different take. It is essentially a combination of several techniques with a focus on establishing trust on this neutral refereeing. Rolling dice in the open and saying what they are rolled for is a basic technique; for example, pushing the giant sloth down the shaft would be difficulty so and so strength roll, given there are two of you and supposing it does not notice you while you charge it; or you would expect 1/2 chance of finding a carefully hidden ("typical") secret door in the room if all of you search for twenty minutes or if one is on guard but the rest search for about twentyfive minutes.

The way I make these judgments about difficulty levels relies on several things. First is going by the fiction and how the world works, to the best of the group's understanding. Being explicit about the difficulties allows the entire group to voice whether the numbers are reasonable or not and whether there are misunderstandings and whether my estimates are good. Since I play with people who know more than me about various matters, we can benefit from this shared knowledge pool, learn, and make the game world more vivid. As I play more with a given group, things get more codified and there is less need to be explicit. The second procedure is reading what the adventure or preparation says; the third is checking if the rules system has a way of resolving the matter.

More generally, to referee in a neutral way, I always think what might happen in the world, and in case of uncertainty, consider probabilities for different options and roll a die. I use prepared adventures (mine or by others) as they specify threats and treasures; I roll random encounters to decide whether something is met or not; I make reaction rolls to determine whether someone is well or ill disposed; I roll morale check to determine whether someone fights on or retreats. Sometimes the rolls are spontaneous; I might roll d3 to determine whether some group fortifies, runs away or makes a counter-attack after the player characters caused heavy losses to them and gave them time to react, unless the political dynamics or the personality of their leader determine otherwise.

In one of the linked videos there was talk about hesitation and confusion before opening a door. This is something I would expect from an inexperienced group; the game master (nor any of the players) is not making clear the difference between planning and acting and none of the players takes leadership. The first unclarity I have experienced now and then, not really with OSR as I have not played that with an inexperienced group, but most recently with Burning wheel. Very frustrating. Since I see the game as a wargame, teamwork and leadership are interesting and relevant parts of play, so the second is a case of inexperience as a player in this style of play or a skill one has not mastered yet. Much like in other (real life) team work contexts, if the team is undecisive, one has to guide it into a more fruitful mode of action. As a game master, I would say, after a while, that I interpret it so that the characters are having a discussion about what is happening (allow the players to disagree or agree) and this has taken, say, ten minutes or so (with maybe a reminder about how torches or random encounters work if appropriate); do you continue or do something else? Greater player skill (in teamwork skills in this case) leads to play that is more fun and engaging, and those players also get better results in game due to more functional decision making.

I would say that my role as a game master is to act as coach to new a group (an experienced group learns by experience, not coaching) and as a neutral referee in any case. I am not against the players; I am hoping they do fine against the game world and adventures. I have made the world and chosen the adventures, but not for this group of players or characters; I have added a hopefully healthy mix of difficult and easy, cruel and forgiving adventures, by different authors and from different game systems, and over a long period of time. Some places have been explored (and randomly restocked), some not. I do not typically know the level of the characters that are active at the moment, except vaguely (this one is level one or two, that is around six). This all makes sure that I am not tailoring any content difficulty-wise.

The game masters I play with might or might not play in completely the same way, but the games have been sufficiently compatible that I have not been surprised by how they run their games. In one game we went to an adventure location that had been emptied, figured out what had happened (from the place and notes left by the previous group; this was a con game with a persistent world with several sessions, persistent characters but obviously shifting players). Little loot, little action, fun detective work. Next session with a different group we used the information, figured out a shopkeeper had all of the loot in their store, did some social engineering and got the town guard to surround the place, getting a good share of the treasure with little risk. My character retired after that, being the old man they were. In another session in the same continuum we went to a different adventure location, again mostly looted, wisely left a tomb undisturbed, and found a hidden treasury (there was a statue with three heads, two of which looked at doors; the secret door was where one assumed). I have also lost characters due to recklessness (climb down a cliff without a torch and then there was a guard down there; be eaten by a magical owlbear when I was not good enough at hiding; these in completely different games), but I have not, even once, felt that it had been unfair; I made my choices, stupid or not, the dice added friction or helped along, and then there were consequences.

On a more tactical side, in a different game, my pseudo-mongol mounted archer (1st level) faced two orcs and fifteen goblins and managed to drive them away almost single-handedly while killing an orc and a goblin due to the mobility given by the horse and having a bow (as did the orcs). The rest of the party was fortifying the manor we were here to explore. There was definite risk-taking; I was hit once and it was good luck to slay the orc in heavy armour, acting immediately while they were still confused about my appearance, and changing my angle of attack and not staying put.

I have not discussed the role of the written rules system that much. Much as in other traditional games, the style of play is more important than the written rules system. In this context, the rules system gives the basic mechanical framework and basic chances of success of various actions, as well the power level and superpowers of the characters. The most important rules change I use is experience from achieving player-chosen goals (with 1 experience point per gold piece of treasure recovered being the default unless you have better things to do; gets the game going nicely); since this is a game of player skill, the players need to set their goals and experience is how we measure good play, so the experience rewards should be something the players can predict and reason about, to some degree.

There are many other things one could discuss; how some people simply do not believe that this is in fact the way we are playing (leading to new players facing more frequent character deaths unless coached by more experienced ones), how one can see a marked increase in skill as people play, how many skills transfer from game master to another, how the game works fine with one or two active players taking leadership and others mostly just hanging on and even better when everyone is active and engaged. There are also all the fascinating questions about how to best play the game, like matters of scouting and being on watch and how very careful and meticulous play sometimes has a great cost due to attrition of resources or due to intelligent enemies taking initiative.

This is a very general text; please let me know if there is anything particularly interesting here, or missing from here.


8 responses to “Some OSR sandbox play”

  1. Hi Tommy! Thank you for

    Hi Tommy! Thank you for sharing. There's a lot to say.

    This is something I would expect from an inexperienced group; the game master (nor any of the players) is not making clear the difference between planning and acting and none of the players takes leadership. The first unclarity I have experienced now and then, not really with OSR as I have not played that with an inexperienced group, but most recently with Burning wheel. 

    What we are talking about in those video is not about "inexperienced group", we are talking about experienced players of D&D, which import practices from playing D&D into other games. It is not a confusion between "planning" or "acting". It's more: everybody was playing its character, saying what he does, roleplaying together, and suddenly, "we should act as a group", and we enter some kind of blurry discussion where the players are actually talking about what they should do as a group. They are talking about what should happen in the game, with some kind of goal of coordination to do the "best tactics", video game like. Nothing is about "what the characters are doing", or "what the characters are saying". I remember a game where one of the player entered this mode, like "we should kill this noble", and we didn't engage this conversation OOC. I answered "I'm going to talk with him, so if you disagree, just play it and we will have a scene", but he was still in this blurry zone, and we did not kill the guy, and he was kind of angry, giving the responsibility of its experience of play ("our group is an avatar of justice and we should not play disagreement about that!", which means, don't play your character, but discuss about what is going to happen in game and then just push the "play" button). So we're not playing our characters anymore, we are debating about assumptions of play. And when someone says "I'm gonna do that", people are in this "squad mode" that is not playing a character, but assuming what other players should do and trying to convince them, into specific mindset "look for secret doors" for instance.

    You can see that happening in the second or last session of the lamentation game which triggered this conversation

    My point is that it's not about experienced player or inexperienced (what kind of experience are we talking about ?), because to me an "experienced player" would just say what his character is doing, or what he says, and anybody can do without years of experiences. It's more about habits of play, acquired in specific groups playing specific ways with particular unquestionned assumptions. 

    And even when we say "don't do this, you don't need to be a coordinated tactical squad", people will do that. So it's not "experience", it's specific assumptions that are contradictory to other ways of playing (aka… simply "playing his character"). What I understand about your example  is that the players has the choice to fight prewritten threats or not, but their actions will not change the fact that those threats are the active threats. The threats are defined prior to the actions of the characters. The experience you seem to talk about is seems to be "looking for your signs that the threats are there", so it's about identifying the prewritten modules and threats and discover the right tactics and choices to made, how to look for this threat. The DM's role is to give them those prewritten bits and informations about which threat is where, and how to deal with it. But if you say that there's not threat, just a noble in a village that wants to hunt a dragon, and girl from this village which is in love with this dragon, do the players know how to deal with the situation by just playing their characters, or are they gonna "look for the good threat" and "the good tactic"?

    But here, without an actual play and those general terms, we can't answer this question. So please check the lamentations session and comment it, without thinking that this is an "inexperienced group" vs "experienced", but more looking as "specific culture of play" and how it relates with specific bits of sessions you have played!


    • Hey Greg,

      Hey Greg,

      I would like to emphasize that I am writing from my own experience, and reflecting how I would interpret your discussion from the style of play I have been playing and refereeing in. By inexperienced I mean inexperienced in this kind of play. And yes, this inexperience might come in the way of bleed from other styles of play; railroaded play, play where players have explicit narrative rights beyond their character, play where one expects a series of balanced combat encounters, or maybe play where the character is guaranteed to be a protagonist and the events in the game fundamentally revolve around them.

      I managed to find time to listen to the linked discussions. I am trying to listen to what you linked, but there is a lot of it, so I'll be ready whenever. I am not claiming that the style of play in your game is the same as what I have been doing. (I have played Lamentations of the flame princess in this style of play and as far as I remember it is quite in line with Jim's writings in the referee book and his blog post on adventure writing. But this means very little, of course.)

      I'll discuss three things, again, from my own experience.

      1. Analysis paralysis as a player.

      First level characters (one second level) in an abandoned manor of a mad archmage. Rats have been driven into a cellar earlier. Giant rats and lots of them; quite dangerous in anything resembling a fair fight. We were considering descending into the cellar. We decided to detach the door so that nobody can lock us down; there are signs of goblin activity in the area, so we are careful. (As a note, manipulating matters of movement and sight by having doors open, closed, stuck, broken etc. is a big part of play.)

      There was some extetermination of rats and the session ends. Characters return to civilization with little loot. During downtime there is speculation about burning the rats, poisoning them, getting dogs to fight them, building rat-slaying contraptions, etc. This happens via Discord discussion channel. Once game begins, some options are discussed a bit but we end up buying one competent dog, since those are available (one character is a noble and has the contacts to find such); it does not take too much time and we did some Fermi estimates that it would probably take some tens of minutes, or maybe some hours at worst, to slay them by careful attrition, so messing with fire or poison seems too risky to be worth it. The solution is good enough.

      Opening a door, for comparison: thief or anyone really listens, opens the door, and then either we charge in or we are prepared for danger. The presence of standard operating procudure makes things fluent, but of course there are still choices and it is not always suitable.

      For a different example: A con game, I am playing. The game starts by "you are approaching this border town"; it is a small sandbox with a couple of encounter locations. I have an hour, maybe two, before running my own game. We have some beginner players, so I help them make characters while the referee is preparing (I don't really know the precise rules used here, but the general process I am good on). Anyway, some players start wondering if they should go into the town or climb over a wall or do some other nonsense; but it is a town, so I just say we can probably just say hi and go in; my character hails the town guards. I saw no threat and figured the dangers were elsewhere; turns out I was right. The game gets moving; I took a leadership position to avoid wasting time and effort on something non-interesting and non-dangerous.

      2. Player analysis paralysis as a game master

      As a game master, when I notice the players are speculating about what to do, I ask "do you do that?" (and maybe go through how difficult it would be or what are the assumed obvious consequences if appropriate) when they declare some action. Maybe they do; if so, play moves on. If not, they typically switch to explicitly discussing. This is a good and fine part of play, generally, but if the players seem to be stuck (are not coming to a decision or introducing new ideas; not "stuck" as in not solving some puzzle), I do as mentioned above; let them know I interpret the situation as the characters discussing, time goes on and it makes some noise. Do they want to continue? Then I might lie about the usual consequences of this.

      Player discussion about what to do is an inherent part of play, but discussion which goes nowhere is not desired play.

      3. You wrote:

      The DM's role is to give them those prewritten bits and informations about which threat is where, and how to deal with it. But if you say that there's not threat, just a noble in a village that wants to hunt a dragon, and girl from this village which is in love with this dragon, do the players know how to deal with the situation by just playing their characters, or are they gonna "look for the good threat" and "the good tactic"?

      When running the game, I do not preclassify things as threats or not. I just a one-shot; players had rumours about a dragon's treasure, dead dragon, and dangerous mushrooms. They investigated, found mobile man-sized mushrooms (not hostile, but certainly threatening) and a mushroomy elven witch commanding them (closed concerning her intentions). As a game master I had no particular idea about the goals of the witch; she had found these nice mushrooms and was living the good life with them, though previous adventurers had been hostile so she was suspicious. The reaction rolls were okay; she was not giving the treasure, but had no issue letting the characters go away.

      The players immediately decided the witch is evil and about to feed the nearby villagers to her mushrooms, so they hired some folk, some fuel, and burned the place down. Lost a lot of treasure value in the process, too, but there was plenty left. (They could equally well have made some kind of agreement with the witch; hire peasants to bring the shrooms rotten plant stuff or whatever and try to exchange such services for gold or whatever. Might have worked, depending on some charisma rolls and how one sells it to the various parties.)

      But the players have also driven away kobolds rather than slaughter them, negotiated entrance past them into a dungeon rather than taking hostile actions, etc.

      Facing a morally ambiguous situation and still being capable of taking decisive and effective action is part of player skill in this kind of game, in my experience. Then we as players often comment on how good-hearted, racist, cold-blooded, noble or heroic or whatever the characters turn out to be. Sometimes there are tragedies due to misunderstanding and being in a tense situation. Sometimes there is alliance with someone one hates as a player and would rather kill.

  2. Enemies choosing targets

    Over at , Ron wrote:

    Survival at lower levels relies strictly on the DM electing not to direct traps or attacks upon you (a given player), especially for thieves and wizards, leading to the game being dismissed as (accurately) broken, i.e., unplayable unless someone is massaging events and outcomes for you, the very "plot shield" that the mythology claims was absent

    What I do is that enemies often choose their targets randomly (from the ones that are available or close by). If the enemies are intelligent and have time to prepare, they will do otherwise; many enemies will avoid striking at the most heavily armoured targets when possible; creatures like trolls and ogres might strike at whoever made the most flashy attack, etc.

    But in any case I tend to be explicit about this, rolling who is targeted openly after having explained how the target is determined this time, unless the monster is one that works on mysterious reasons.

    This goes back to not making decisions about whether they live or die and about building trust on this neutral refereeing business. This is, of course, much easier when I do not know how many hit points whoever has and what their armour class is (though the latter I am likely to learn for characters that are taking hits often).

    This is, of course, making no claims about how other people run their games, and much less about how people used to play the game back in the old days.

  3. Concepts and connections

    At last! My apologies for the delay; last week was particularly stuffed.

    Here's my video to serve as my comment here – I hope you like it and look forward to anyone's thoughts.

  4. Special social personal obligations

    In the video, you make the point that anyone having a 'special' status regarding "social personal obligations relative to how we are playing" is not playing and in fact invalidating play.

    Radical words, but they painfully struck home with me: I've recently pushed through some changes in my homebrew rules against the wishes of some players and this has created some hard feelings — and rightly so, as I've just realized when watching your video, months after the fact.

    I felt in the right because I've designed the rules and see them as an ongoing project – going so far as claiming our campaign of 150+ sessions was a playtest – and probably also because of some lingering sense of entitlement because I am usually the GM (with the traditional responsibilies which have nothing to do with special status, as you helpfully point out, except historically and problematically so). So thank you for this eye-opener.

    • Hi Johann, welcome and thanks

      Hi Johann, welcome and thanks for the kind words.

      Your example is maybe angled a little differently from my thoughts in that presentation, because game design does offer an example of functional if quirky or "stoppy" special status for one person relative to how the game works (at all). I can see how this concept helps you, though, because after one hundred fifty sessions (!!) the other players may well feel enough ownership or, I guess we can call it, security in the system to perceive changes as arbitrary on your part.

      By coincidence just from last week, in this exchange between Sean and me, I think my video there is practically tailor-made for someone in your situation. It's the first video link in my reply to him, made specially for that conversation. I welcome any comment you'd like to add there.

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