Sure, OSR lacks a decent definition. Many have tried. Let’s not try again.
A lot of attention gets paid to the mechanisms and the meta-mechanisms, things like stats & skills; roll to hit, roll for damage; hex maps; rulings not rules; and like that. But that might be a little superficial — after all, I think every one of us has occasionally found a game that hits a sweet spot while at the same time having mechanisms we thought we would dislike. What is that sweet spot, and what would it look like on an OSR game?
Now, I’m pretty old and was teethed on Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I played Traveller and Twilight:2000 well into the 80s. Later I’d get back into gaming and it would be D&D again. I know the old school. I grew up there and I literally taught there.
I find, though, that my game design does not map on to that old school game design at all, but my play does map onto my old school play. So I’d like to wonder out loud about that now.
The Soft Horizon system is sort of powered by (more set off by) the apocalypse. But there are no playbooks. Instead there’s a very simple skill system — there’s a small set of skills (we call them methods, but whatever) and you have all of them at some level or another. That’s because I like my character definition generalizable — I want a set of blocks to fit together to make who I want to play. I don’t really want classes and playbooks smell of classes to me. Again, leaning more towards Traveller in some ways, but definitely Old. But even that’s a little superficial. I talked about how play is old school, and not specific system elements.
A critical element of play for me is exploration. Characters are going to new places and solving problems there, both their own problems and the problems of the people they meet. By my recollection of old school gaming I have to place exploration, whether revealing the contents of hexes or just narrating a new space to be, as an element of the OSR. You don’t need a literal map (it’s only one tool that enables this function). You just need the game to have a focus on exploration in some form.
Another element is discovery. This goes hand in hand with exploration but I more mean finding out secret knowledge, making connections between disparate things. Unveiling mysteries to discover more mysteries. In Soft Horizon games I make this happen in very different ways than in my old gaming days — instead of the ref inventing it, the system delivers it or tricks the ref into delivering it at the last minute — but it’s the same objective, the same function.
And then there’s wonder. You discover something truly fucked up. You develop an image in your head that’s mind-blowing. A seeming contradiction reveals that the whole universe is not quite what you thought. It’s that pot-smokers whoooah moment that makes everyone sit back a second and take it onboard. And then start spewing wild theories for the why of it. That wonder comes from making sense of contradiction and from everyone being surprised at once. Ref included. That’s something that many struggle to find and it’s not in the basic mechanisms of a world simulator. It might be in your awesome cover image or interior illustrations. It might be in some fiction. But those only happen once each and then you’re done. A system that’s really, solidly OSR needs to deliver it reliably. It needs to be intentional. I don’t know how well I solved this but goddamn I took a stab at it.
So there is a way, I think, that these games are OSR in spirit. They are hand made. They favour player development of character. They lean into exploration and discovery to reveal wonder. The target play is OSR. I for sure found a mechanism that does it for me, every time. I have no reason to believe that you are all that different.