A Different Direction for the OSR

I’ve been doing a lot of work on Emprise!™, specifically on the Players Manual, and one thing is become more and more clear to me as I continue the work. This is going to be flying in the face of a lot of the common wisdom about just what makes an Old School game Old School. Reading the latest draft of the LotFPWFRPG rules really made that point stand out in my mind.

This is not going to be a “rules lite” game. Where some of the OSR games go for a stripped down dune buggy that the owner can then bolt stuff onto, Emprise!™ is going to have everything from an mp3 player built into the dashboard to heated leather seats and one of those chrome skull trailer hitch covers with the eyes that light up red. And did I mention that it’ll also come with tail fins you can attach yourself with a screwdriver?

The classes, for instance, are beefy and fiddly, as befits something that has the Unearthed Arcana rules grafted seamlessly into the old Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. Every class description is organized by its powers and limitations, and even the lowly fighter ends up with a list of five special abilities, each of which is treated as a power:

  • Experience point bonus
  • Exceptional strength
  • Multiple attacks per round
  • Weapon specialization
  • Establishment of a stronghold and attracting followers at high level

And there will probably be more as the editing process goes on; I could easily have included better melee combat tables as a power/advantage. Barbarians clock in with 13 abilities/powers/limitations/what have you. The new classes, too, will have a variety of powers, similar mechanically to how the thief-acrobat and my jester class are set up. Bards and mountebanks especially will have powers to persuade and misdirect, making them much more effective against intelligent foes (or marks, as the case may be). And there will be a skill system on top of everything else, but not enough of one to drown out the primacy of classes as archetypes.

There will be new spells aplenty for the bard, seer and mystic, of course, but Emprise!™ will be the game that Unearthed Arcana pointed towards. Lots of class-based special powers, quirky little exceptions (as we see for the use of whips in melee, for example, in UA), and a large variety of racial choices that have in-game consequences for both the game master and players (with more than half a dozen types of elves to choose from, for example, the game master has to understand the consequences of leaving them all in, or taking one or more of them out; a lot of that information will be included in the Game Masters Guide).

Monsters are going to be a little more “fiddly” too. Not only are you going to see the denizens of both Monster Manuals and the Fiend Folio, but the monsters themselves are going to have variable hit dice. Some will use a d4, some a d8, and so forth. Nothing near to 4E, with its strikers and commanders and whatnot, but still a step away from the simplicity of hit dice = d8.

Compare this with, for example, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, or the upcoming LotFPWFRP game. They deliberately go down a “rules lite” path. Limited classes, and limited powers within the classes. Few choices of race (and in some cases, races that function as classes). Minimal spell descriptions. They follow the school of thought that says the essence of old school gaming is minimalism; a simple framework that can be bolted onto. I’m taking things in the opposite direction; throwing the whole toolbox at you and saying “take what you like, discard the rest, but understand what’ll happen if you do.” Neither is “better” or “right”, but I’ll be curious to see how Emprise!™ gets received, once the time comes. Who knows? You often have to fly a plane straight into the headwind to take off.

My ultimate goal

This is the game I would have given my eye teeth to own in 1985. Much like CotMA was something I needed for my own campaign, and shared with the community, Emprise!™ is the game I’ve wanted to own for 25 years, and will likewise share with those who want to see what it looks like. That’s my entire goal; not to nudge the OSR in any particular direction, or advance it in the direction it’s been heading, or even to sell games. My goal is to have these books on my shelf. Period. If anyone else wants to have ’em there as well, they’re welcome to come along for the ride, and maybe you’ll find some things to insert into you own game as well.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

15 thoughts on “A Different Direction for the OSR

  1. After playing mostly 1e for the past 30 years, I'm thoroughly enjoying playing a more Basic (LL) game. It's liberating playing a lighter game that exercises my imaginative decision making processes more than my ability to recall or look up some very specific detail or rule from one of a multitude of rule books.

    Having said that, I am both very interested to see how Emprise turns out, and how it is received by the community, especially given the current OSR trends.

  2. I think there's still room, for a few fiddly bits. I'm really enjoying, messing around with S&W and LL, but AD&D will always be "D&D" in my mind.

  3. Hackmaster 4e both as a caution and an inspiration.

    Tim of Gothridge Manor, Dwayne of Gamer's Closet, and myself gave it a whirl and while there was some good stuff in there the whole package was a bit overwhelming.

    I am not arguing against your approach only pointing out an example where somebody took AD&D and threw just about damn near everything.

    From reading your posts and knowing your past writing, I think you will do a better job but wanted to point this out.

  4. That's an excellent point, Rob, and I certainly won't be tossing in nearly as much as HM 4E. As I've said before, I see HackMaster as an outstanding toolkit (both 4 and 5E), ripe for the plucking for an (A)D&D campaign. I happen to love some of the monsters they have in the Hacklopedia of Beasts, and will use them without reservation (ditto Monsters of Myth and Malevolent and Benign). But I find the honor and quirks and flaws sections to just be too cumbersome for my tastes. Don't get me started on the combat system; I'm not a fan of pushbacks, critical hits, or fumbles.

    Perhaps that's how folks will view Emprise!™ Someone might like the mountebank, or the new start-from-1st-level bard, or the streamlined combat system, or whatever, and import it into their game. That'd still fulfill my purpose.

  5. FWIW, I'm really looking forward to Emprise. I doubt I'll ever use it in its entirety, but I'll likely steal good ideas from it, much as I do from OD&D's supplements and from AD&D itself.

    So, back to work! 🙂

  6. I'm looking forward to it. As someone who drifted away from D&D about the time period you're discussing it'll be interesting to see where you go.

    Although I've never played second edition it seems to be, with the basic kits but before the options books, where I would have gone, more or less (I don't like specialty wizards). Still, I'm interested in seeing the take of someone who was more of an AD&D player (I was more an Intermediate D&D player).

    And like James says, it nothing else I'll liberally take inspiration from it.

  7. I think it will be nice to have a rules-fiddlier/heavier game in the OSR.

    @Zachary – Are you forgetting OSRIC? But hey, the more the merrier in my book. I'm loving the rule book smorgasbord. 🙂

  8. I am looking forward to what you do with this so-far under-appreciated aspect of the OSR corpus. The more Basic aspects fo the game have received a lot of attention, it will be nice to see the more Advanced aspects get a bit more attention now…

  9. I'm actually glad somebody is trying to develop their own retro-clone that actually takes into account "what might have been", regarding what would have been the changes to the game that might have been released in the proposed revised edition than what we got.

  10. Joseph, I thoroughly appreciate and like your project! I am not particularly a fan of rules-(too light) systems, and have always enjoyed a certain complexity in my games. And AD&D 1st and 2nd edition games are not really "simple" games in the end. But I do like being able to change particular sub-systems or exchanging some rule for one I made up, which means that a modular approach like the one you're working on sounds good. I am certainly looking forward to your game with a lot of anticipation.

    On a side note, after you mentioned you had looked at Dangerous Journeys as a source of inspiration for character classes, I went and took a look at Jester Class you did, and liked it a lot, except to say that it had perhaps too many abilities; some of them might have been collapsed into fewer abilities that could be used for different purposes. For example, I'd collapse the Verbal Patter sub-skills into one percentage only, and then introduce a few modifiers in the text description, depending on what the Jester is attempting. Same with Balancing/Juggling, and Fire Breathing/Sword Swallowing, which could become 2 percentages, instead of 4, and perhaps might all be collapsed into one single percentage. How unbalancing would it be to the class if all these skills were to start, for instance, at 30% and then progress fast (say to 60-70% at level 5-7) followed by slower progression onwards up to 85-90%? I don't think there would be an issue with this, especially if you introduced penalties for different difficulties, attempts, etc…

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