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Our OSR D&D sandbox campaign

Started by Eero Tuovinen, October 28, 2012, 11:37:07 AM

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Eero Tuovinen

I'll write a bit about the D&D campaign I've been running over the last 1 1/2 years. It might be interesting reading, as I'm a pretty hardboiled Forge-head, but I also dig the way D&D has been reinterpreted (or perhaps retaken to its roots; immaterial at this point) by the OSR culture. What this practically led me to is a performance-oriented game of skill with a most enchanting division of work between the players and the GM. I've never played any other game where the GM is in full control of the details of content while the players control pacing and general direction of play. Resolution systems focus on fictional positioning and drawing organic, unbiased results out of situations with a sort of automatic writing approach.

Ron asked for a new thread here, but if this spurs thoughts unrelated to conflict vs. task resolution, I don't mind; insofar as fresh ideas go, I think that this campaign has more going for it in the challenge negotiation department than challenge resolution.

I've written about the details of this campaign before at my blog and at Story Games from different viewpoints. I'll hit some posts that seem pretty interesting in hindsight. As the campaign so far as spanned a 100 sessions (I've kept short notes since the beginning, so know the exact number) there's really been a lot that I should write about, but I haven't really had nearly enough time for communicating about my play in the Internet over the last few years.

Challenge-based adventuring is what I wrote when my current phase of D&D exploration started five years back. We played a one-shot of "primitive D&D" (basically D&D from memory, without rulebook references) as a lark then, and I surprisingly found that hey, I understand this game on a completely different level than when we quit our 3rd edition campaign five years before then. That blog post pretty much describes the creative agenda and basic division of labor for my recent D&D efforts: it's a project that solves the issues of balance endemic to modern D&D by bringing in explicit

There's other writing about the topic at the blog, too; for instance, I wrote a few detailed actual play reports about a shorter campaign we played after being inspired by the above one-shot session. That campaign, called "Alder Gate campaign", lasted several months and basically only ended because players in this far-away farming community tend to scatter away to university studies every year.

Regarding our current campaign (that really hasn't managed to find a name for itself for some reason), here are a few Story Games threads where I discuss the details of the systematic setup: the rules, procedures, methodology, some theory:
About the rules and general setup
About the details of conflict resolution in the campaign, also many other things
A detailed discussion of the textual combat system of D&D and how to properly apply it
A discussion of how I adapt adventure modules for the campaign
An exploration of how mid-length strategic arcs evolve in an open sandbox campaign like this
Most of those are pretty long threads with lots of different topics, but they do give a pretty good picture of what we've been doing in the campaign.

The the moment the campaign has been on hiatus for a couple of months due to the aforementioned annual gamer migrations. (A key player and a bunch of lesser stars went away to start their University studies, basically.) This is just fine with me, as I'm up to my ears in writing work, and it gives us a chance to run some playtests and play other things (we already started a cyberpunk campaign with Solar System, for instance). I'm pretty sure that the D&D will have a resurgence in the spring, though; I don't know for sure yet, but I could see starting a new sandbox with slightly different aesthetic parameters and tools. The current campaign is entirely valid and state of the art too, though, so I'll see what the players think when this becomes pertinent.

Ever since the first dozen sessions or so I've been thinking that I should write something more careful and considered about how we've finally "cracked" D&D; this has been my most successful single campaign game ever, and easily the most fun I've had with D&D or anything similar. I'm currently stuck finishing Eleanor's Dream, this annoying grant-funded project that's been hassling me since '08, but perhaps if the inspiration persists I'll put what I've learned about D&D on paper after that. If I do, it will not be a new rules set or retro-clone, but rather a book that analyzes the core D&D conceits and instructs one in building their own solution; I've become convinced that the real D&D lives and breathes in the constitutional process of mechanical revision that happens during campaign play among the group. The creative agenda and methodology is consistent between groups, but the true D&D of your heart is found when you homebrew your own, at least mechanically speaking. There are just so many ways of resolving the common mechanical issues presented by the basic assumptions of the game (the official games alone offer 3-4 canonical solutions for almost any matter) that all the hot air about adhering to the mechanical rules as written is meaningless.


Dear Eero,

Could you please expand, specify and perhaps provide an example of "the constitutional process of mechanical revision that happens during campaign play among the group." I don't get what you're talking about, but it sure sounds nifty.

Yours sincerely,

Eero Tuovinen

Sure thing.

The OSR theorists have posited that the rules text is an ultimately secondary concern in playing D&D correctly, as you have a GM there exactly because you want to be able to adapt on the fly. "Rulings, not rules" is one way this is phrased. This attitude often comes alongside what I would term a "naive" theory GM responsibilities: players run their characters and decide what they do, while the GM runs the world and describes how the world reacts to character actions. In this context it is often said that the GM has the power and responsibility to ignore the rules and make whatever decisions he feels best, with the players having no particular recourse.

That's only one interpretation of how rules work in old school D&D, though. Some writers, myself included, seem to have a more "constitutional" approach to the question of rules. The way I see it, D&D resolution system properly works via precedent rulings and legislatory action. The given campaign has a bunch of rules and mechanical ways to resolve different situations, and the GM is the guy most responsible for tracking these. When a situation comes up in play the GM is mandated to resolve it consistently, using a rule that was used for the same purpose beforehand. If he encounters a new situation that the rules do not cover adequately, he needs to make a ruling that then becomes a new precedent for the future. If he encounters a situation for which there already is a rule, but it's a stupid rule, then he needs to take it to the table, have the players affirm a change in the rules, and then continue using the new rule. It's very similar to how common law legal systems operate.

Now, the above mostly concerns resolution rules. The actual underlying system of play in D&D is not similarly arbitrarily evolving, I think, and neither is it based on GM fiat. The basic source for the rules that control mechanical precedent and the basics of Exploration - everything but the mechanical nuances, really - is the game's general set-up with its creative agenda, posited campaign structure and the way players return to the table over and over again. The constitution of the game, if you will, is that it exists for the purpose of developing and facing challenges. This purpose is achieved by essentially cooperative play and negotiation of large-scale strategic concerns. It's a necessary part of the game for it to be functional that the players and GM cooperate in maneuvering the adventuring party into properly framed challenge situations (e.g. dungeons). Once this is accomplished the group can use the accumulated resolution technology to find out how the challenge resolves.

My viewpoint on this ultimately indicates that most of D&D writing is necessarily of secondary concern, as most of that writing focuses on mechanical resolution concepts. This means that these writers, starting with Gygax, have failed to actually address the first-order concerns that gamers need to be able to overcome to play the game successfully: instead of telling us how he set up his sandbox campaign and how his group negotiated challenges, Gygax tells us about the outcome of this process of play. He tells us that after playing the game their group had established these sorts of character classes, and this is how their thieves picked pockets, and this is how shields worked vs. polearms. However, he never tells us the bit that I'm absolutely convinced about today after playing the game myself, that the GM's referee position cannot work without a clear system of precedent. He also doesn't tell us how these rulings need to be rooted in the fictional concerns of the group, and how there are no absolutely right or wrong choices for how to handle the individual resolution details. What we get instead is this myth where a long playtest has stabilized a genius rules system, and you're not really playing AD&D if you don't follow every brainfart rules subsystem written down by Gygax. I think that history has amply shown that the way D&D uses rules means that these rules are necessarily tied into a time and a place, into specific nuances of how people play and what they care about their fiction.

As befits this viewpoint our D&D campaign doesn't really use any single version of the rules. Rather, I started with a simple framework of non-denominational D&D and then created the specific resolution rules details utilizing the game's mechanical logic, all so that it makes sense to me as a GM. This allows me to use a system where I can personally stand behind every little detail of how the mechanics go: there's no dissonance about what hit points mean or grief over how unfair level drain is, as instead of accepting somebody else's ultimately arbitrary fiction I'm making these rules fit mine, just as the "rulings, not rules" principle advocates. And when we find that some rule doesn't perform to the group's satisfaction, we change it. I believe that this approach to the game mechanics works much better than utilizing a rulebook when the game is like old school D&D and relies on constant referee judgment.

Ron Edwards

Hi Eero,

My apologies for not getting to this thread yet. I'll be here in force soon.

Best, Ron


BTW, Eero, I wanted to thank you for your answer. I'm trying to read up on some of the links you provided, it's taking quite some time. Fascinating stuff.


Your concept of precedent is quite brilliant, Eero. I have to get up to speed on your threads. Do you find that keeping track of the precedents set in an ad hoc way is feasible? Do you have formal ways of tracking it?

Eero Tuovinen

Precedent has proven easy to track in practice. Part of this is definitely that we've been playing quite regularly, but it's also a fact that the human mind suits this type of memory task well. Just like a preliterary society, we find that it's easy to remember the last occasion when something or other was attempted in the game. Somebody always remembers.

Also, there is an important point in having the mechanical rules be an oral tradition: the process of forgetting stuff works to our advantage when we can claim that any rule unimportant enough to forget deserves to be forgotten. So even when somebody notes that hey, didn't we have a rule about polearms and how they affect initiative, and then we stop for five seconds to consider the question and realize that we've forgotten all about that - it's very easy and natural to just declare that rule null on the basis of the fact that we didn't remember to use it in the last three fights where it could have come into play. Annulment due to nonfunction.

Of course some active design takes place as well, but it happens pretty much on the basis of precedent as well: when a situation comes up repeatedly and the rulings used for it don't satisfy, we (doesn't need to be the GM doing this) put some thought into it and develop a more logical and streamlined subsystem that is then put to practical testing under the ordinary paradigm. For example, this is how the rules for spell research were brought into being: the first few times players wanted to do it we just did something arbitrary that made sense in the exact moment, but later on I've specifically decided on a protocol of ability checks and expenses in time and money that give a general ruling on how we go about it when a PC wizard wants to do spell research.

Another place where that process happens is with magic items. The original intent of the campaign is that generic +X magic items do not exist; "+X" is a power category for magic items, so when a module gives you e.g. a +2 dagger, that's just an indication of how magical and narratively important it is. However, in practice it proves that developing flavourful and interesting magic items out of the top of your hat is untrivial, so what happens is that all magic items actually come into play in a "generic form". The understanding is that your dagger is a +2 dagger only until the GM has determined what it "really" is. Then when somebody gets an inspiration (could be in 15 minutes or 15 sessions), the item's true nature is discovered. (This switch between simple numeric boni and detailed magical powers is not gamed because frankly our magic items are almost always much more powerful than an ordinary +2 to hit and damage. If you've discovered that your dagger is actually of dwarven make, you'll want to get that into play as soon as feasible.)

And of course, if I ever get around to actually creating the magic item generation tables that I've been planning, then I'll be able to get the "great magic item reformation" as it's called underway for real, updating all items floating around in the campaign immediately as they come up. The campaign has these sorts of lazy mechanical spots where we know full well that we could do better, but I haven't really had any time to dedicate to prep work as a GM, so the campaign plays on autopilot in practice. That's actually been surprisingly unproblematic, D&D requires practically no work at all from a GM who exclusively uses module adventures.


Gosh, you're the juggernaut of AP, Eero! Took me really long to read (most of) the threads! But it was very interesting.

I think I understand the "organic" evolution of the characters, the world, and the rules. I find it very interesting that some players have multiple characters, apparently depending on what situations have arisen in play, but also as a way to keep some characters safe (choosing which character one plays for a given adventure seems to be an important strategic point).

Now, I can't help but hear a little voice inside my head saying "Eero is really just an enlightened dictator calvin-balling the rules on the fly!" Of course, you know that voice, and there must be more. Classical concerns about overall power-inflation (as you say above, magic items tend to get even more powerful once their true nature is discovered) seem to be balanced by brutal and unforgiving consequences for failure (as the massive item confiscation following the demise of Juanita and Varaniel illustrates, or your fondness of XP drain), you have a notion that there must be sinks as well as sources of power. Are there any hopes of teaching how to manage this to new GMs?

What surprises me more, is that you don't seem to have any of those "balance" disputes I've experienced and read about over and over again at the time I was into D&D (ten years ago? more!?) It's one thing if you're being the benevolent despot flinging out nice magic items to everybody, but it's another when one guy seems to "get the shaft", because his character class or whatever seem to be really less effective than others. Does that even get conceptualized by the players? The general trend of mortality, the importance of large-scale (i.e., not straightforward combat) strategy/tactics and logistics, and spontaneous inventions (the doppelgänger heart is really nice for example) depending on the events which you talked about to discourage character building might play a role in that consideration being irrelevant in the first place, but I'd like to hear more from you. This is of some theoretical concern to me, because some options might never get chosen because the actual configuration of the rules don't encourage them. It's already quite remarkable that the players seem to accept the level discrepancy between characters. I've always had the notion that XP differences should never be too significant, but looking at the way your campaign works, I'm convinced your way is extremely functional. BTW, do players always roll-up new 1st level characters? What will happen if the mean level of the party reaches 10, say?


Eero Tuovinen

The game does not feel arbitrary or dictatorial from the inside. The GM decides on many things, but in truth that decision-making is bound by rule of law. Basically, the GM decides on only one thing in the game: what is beyond that next door. As long as he does not make this continuous choice arbitrarily in service of his own attempts to manipulate play, it's not even that much of a power. All the rest of the authority seemingly vested on the GM is actually under constant validation moment to moment by the rest of the players. The GM thinks that you can't swim in an iron hauberk - do the rest of the players accept this ruling - does a compromise emerge. The seeming GM authority over rules and rulings is really just presidential, not dictatorial; he's just the guy who's job it is to execute group consensus, and arbitrate disagreement. The vast majority of the time the shared creative agenda, honest will on everybody's part to respect the established fiction, and the measure of respect the GM carries are enough to ensure that the game doesn't crumble into constant bickering.

It's notable here that a major feature of modern D&D is complaints and arguing over the rules, or at least that's how the game is depicted in arm-chair theory. To me this seems like an outcome of a paradigm shift where a game that was originally fiction-oriented has come to be forced into a videogame-like objective rules framework. This means that players view the game as execution of mechanical rights and privileges: I have a right to a surprise attack under these mechanical conditions, and the even-keeled running of the game requires that this right is realized in play. In comparison, the onus of decision-making in our campaign is more on the player: does my vision of the fiction cause me to think that a surprise attack is a viable course of action here? This approach basically works as long as the players are honest and committed enough to the fiction so that sometimes they think that they deserve the surprise, and sometimes they think that they don't. It would fall apart if the players lacked that creative commitment to having challengeful play in a consistent world: we could not ask the other players to affirm and establish fictional positioning if we knew that this other guy over here, he's just always gonna say that yeah, my character's totally in position to surprise everybody. (It's part of the GM's job here to educate and encourage positive behaviors of play, of course - individual players basically stay in line with a combination of social respect and the creative purity of their own intent.)

As for teaching this to others, it hasn't been too difficult face-to-face, as an oral tradition. I've trained two other players who've been GMing with this method basically successfully. One of these has had some long-term difficulty, perhaps caused by his player base not really being on board with the described agenda over the long term. The actual method, though, is not that difficult. If anything, the difficult part is finding a group of players who genuinely believe in challenge-based gaming, a shared fiction and precedent-based, evolving rules system with a large inherent chaotic factor. Apparently many old D&D players who've gone through the 3rd and 4th edition eras are somewhat stuck emotionally on the level grind (which this version of the game obviates) and individual protagonism rights (the silent contract about the GM being there to ensure that your characters gets to "shine"). These types of players might end up playing in our campaign for quite a considerable while (dozens of sessions) before the campaign reaches a stressful point where e.g. a particularly cherished character is killed in a particularly meaningless way; at that point they might realize that our game is really just arbitrary bullshit, we don't care a whit about anybody having fun, and I didn't come here to have my character boiled and eaten by leprechauns just because of a bad dice roll. (Respectful disagreement, you understand - we haven't really had any screaming matches or anything like that.)

Regarding balance concerns, I think that we're lacking them because the campaign heavily propagandizes against the whole concept. Game balance is one of those relatively theoretical arm-chair concerns that I do admit exists as a psychological issue, but that doesn't actually do anything for the practical running of a game like D&D. That is, I do admit that people care about it, and they need to feel like their characters have a reason to exist, but that's a feature of the people, not the game. If you could just lay aside your balance concerns and focus on seeing the game from the boots of your character, you wouldn't end up noticing game balance within the game. Doing this (looking at the game from your character's viewpoint) is a very natural thing to do, as that's the very reason for the game: given that I have character X and goal Y, how do I resolve the challenge of combining this organic set of abilities with this organically grown mission? You can't waste your entire gaming time worrying about whether your character is appropriately balanced for the challenge, as that means that you'll never reach the payoff of the game. If you find yourself truly unable to stop worrying about the balance between characters or the balance between the party and the challenges, that means that you're not really on board with the fictional world we're developing: instead of accepting that this is just how wizards are in this world, and accepting that this is how many ogres you're likely to find in a single camp, you're intentionally deconstructing the activity and laying responsibility for these in-fiction things at the feet of the other players. Sure, the GM was the one who chose how many ogres, but he's not responsible for it in the sense that there would be some external measure for how many ogres there should be, and he failed it by putting in too many or too few. If you think that the GM put in an imbalanced number of ogres, instead of perhaps an unrealistic or insensible number, then you're using your own invented measuring standard that neither the GM nor the other players are.

The official party line of the campaign is that "balance" is a tactical judgement of the party of adventurers in the face of adversity. It is absolutely vital that the GM can take the same fictional problem and recognize the different challenges that it causes for characters with different means. Is the ogre guarding the bridge a mortal danger in exchange for the opportunity to pass the bridge, or is it just a potential speed-bumb, or are the characters so powerful that it's actually just a roleplaying encounter and not a real challenge at all? The players are thinking about this all the time, they need to know whether they're strong enough to take on an ogre. The GM is thinking about this as well, as the moment-to-moment chairmanning of resolution procedures requires him to be able to ask the right questions. The point is, we can say that the ogre thing is "balanced" not a priori as an arm-chair exercise, but rather afterwards: if the players found a meaningful way to relate to the event of the ogre on the bridge, and that relation involved some challenge, then we can say that it was a "balanced" encounter. The vast majority of encounters are balanced, although sometimes they are balanced towards the party running for their lives, and other times they're balanced towards the party lording it over some poor goblins.

Looking at character vs. character balance, the official party line states that Eero is happy as long as there is a random character generation method, all characters have theoretical equal opportunity over the long term, and the mechanical depiction of what individual characters are like accords with the fictional understanding. (Either we shape our understanding to match what the mechanics give us, or we change the rules.) The part about random character generation doesn't even need to be consistently applied as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's the default method. When players question it, I usually offer them variant solutions: if you feel that it would be nicer to play a heroic farmboy who was chosen by the gods to vanquish an ancient evil, we can do that. Would it be cool for you if we rolled your abilities with 10+d6 instead of the ordinary way? Or would you want to start your character from the third level? This is all consistent with the agenda in that we're choosing to play this game in this setting with these types of characters because the challenges we're interested in involve them; if a player can't enjoy the game because they don't find the challenges of playing a random average joe interesting, then of course we need to accomodate the kind of character they're interested in.

However, I am forced to conclude that the players do not actually want to play characters who are generated stronger or more experienced than their fellows - nobody's ever taken me up on the above offer. The players probably don't want unfair advantages. The closest we've come is when a player asked to play a character whose background was in high nobility; the campaign principle is that any fresh character concept is cool once, but later you'll get to do it again only on a roll of 1/6. As he was the first player who wanted to play a rich vagabond, we gave him the appropriate funds and social background. Maybe the player in question has less pride than all the players who've wanted to stick with the default chargen method, or that character vision was personally important for him, I don't know.

Regarding differences in level between characters, the official party line is that the game embraces all kinds of challengeful environments, and being the hobbit in the midsts of all the heroes of Middle-Earth is quite a valid challenge - how can you contribute with only your wits and the means of a nearly ordinary man? In practice players don't seem to mind level so much as the chaotic and very mechanically vivacious ability score system; some players now and then express some frustration at how their Fighter is less competent in fighting than the other player's differently-classed character due to large differences in natural ability. Other players and I instruct players to suck it up and do something about it; you can improve your character's chances in fights by fighting smarter, preparing better and surviving - it doesn't ultimately take that long for the well-played character to eclipse that guy whose characters always die in every session.

In practice the more usual party arrangement has been one where all the other characters are low-level, but one character in the group is considerably higher. This seems to flow more naturally from the sandbox, as high-level characters tend to have their own concerns that naturally engage lesser characters as mooks. Multiple high-level characters only congregate for a single adventure when the adventure seems particularly important. (Not merely difficult - that's a reason to send in your B-string, not a motivation to put even more valuable characters at risk!) I can't say that this would have bothered me; I get the sense that some players are sometimes frustrated by the immense mechanical difference between a 1st level and 5th level character, but this seems to be passing, and I suspect that players learn to deal with it as they learn the campaign's ideological underpinnings. That kind of frustration is ultimately in your head, nothing prevents you from playing a smart game and participating if you understand that playing the game is about ideas and leadership, not about rolling the dice. (The most frustrated players are usually ones that I would characterize as pretty mediocre in skill: they don't rely on the fiction for inventive solutions, and they have little initiative, for they expect that the heart of the game is to roll the dice where the GM dictates. Usually this sort of player gets directed to do things by players with more initiative, and this has nothing to do with the respective levels of their characters.)


Thanks Eero, this stuff is really fascinating and inspiring!

Eero Tuovinen

Because I've found out that it's useful to have a list of links on this topic in one place, I'll add another one here. This is a currently on-going discussion at Story Games:

On designing adventures for OSR D&D.

I should also note that we haven't played the game since last September or so, so we've soon had a full six months break. There isn't any particular reason, except perhaps that our social circles have been in a bit of a disarray after many players left in the summer. We've instead played more intimate games like Solar System and Delta Green over the winter. I'm intending to start some D&D action in the spring, though; I'm not yet done with this mode of play!