Limits—When are they useful?

@beeptest’s OD&D hack got me thinking. Not that I actually read it, just the fact of still seeing OD&D hacks floating around got me thinking. I thought, “Why can’t I jump on the bandwagon?” and flipped through my copy of OSE. What I quickly found, and remembered from past experience, is that OSE is extremely limiting, punishing basically anything outside the norm. At least 5e punishes you by being less good, not straight up bad. I can’t believe I just said “at least 5e” in a positive light. Anyway. That brings me to the topic.

I posed myself a design prompt. If I don’t like the limiting factors of OD&D, how could I like them? More generally, how could I get limitations to a place I like? At first, my answer was simple. “Just make a setting where the restrictions make sense and are upheld by the world.” I told myself. But, then, there’s a flaw with that. Why shouldn’t you just change the world to not have those restrictions, and encourage more narrative freedom? The answer, simply, is that you should do that.

My goal, with this design prompt, is to find the sweet spot of the “Demand Curve” that are limits in an RPG. “I DEMAND THERE TO BE LESS LIMITS.” Sure, but how many limits can I cram into a game while still liking it? Is there a way to frame limits to where it doesn’t matter?

A limit, in this case, is a “no.” It’s a firm statement slapping you on the wrist. If the game tells you that you ARE [blank], and there’s no way around it, that’s a limit. However, there are other “nos” that are a bit harder to nail down. For example, OSE can hinder a character in many ways. It’s not a “no,” but it is a “yes but no.” Because the game heavily incentives the player to not choose [blank], it might as well be saying “no” since only an idiot would shoot themselves in the foot like that. It’s like Schrödinger’s “no,” but a “no” nonetheless.

Something I wasn’t quite sure how to fit into this post is the Box. In the OSR, NSR, FKR, what have you, thinking “Outside the Box” is encouraged. However, in my opinion, a Box is required to actually truly think outside of it. Literally, it makes sense, but beyond that I can summarize the point thusly: Creative restrictions breeds more creativity. A deadline, a prompt. These restrictions help the artist flow their creativity. What is a Box, in an RPG sense? In my opinion, it is anything that grounds the player. A familiar archetype, a familiar setting, something relatable. More specifically, in the context of this post, rules.

The OSR loves to say “think outside your character sheet,” yet there is a character sheet in the first place. Sounds familiar to the above, no? As well, I think the blame is shifted to the wrong part of the game. I had an amazing talk with @Michael awhile back that got me thinking about character sheets in a better light. While I initially argued for thinking outside statistics, moves, and other mechanics, a character sheet, when used creatively, is just as good an answer as using something in the fiction. It’s just… a different way to get a result. And as a GM, I’m all about the players doing something different.

There’s a difference between an OSE character sheet and a Stories RPG character sheet (@Michael’s WIP game), however. An OSE sheet tells you what you can and can’t do, exactly what you’re good at. The Stories RPG’s sheet is more like a tool. It frames something like a high attribute as an open-ended… prompt. Oh wait, I talked about that already. I guess, through writing this, I’ve come upon an answer to my own question.

The type of limits that are both useful and do not intrude upon my enjoyment of the game are prompts.

To go back to the beginning of this post, MY OD&D hack would frame the limits of “you need X STR to be a Fighter” as something more story focused. Maybe you wanted to be a Fighter, but couldn’t for whatever reason. What then?

Sometimes I like to attempt to predict where my preferences will shift. For multiple years, the prediction was right, that I’d continue to want less and less rules. However, now that I’m at a point where I don’t need rules, maybe rules weren’t the problem, maybe the way they were framed was. So, my prediction / something more like a resolution is that I’m going to start exploring what rules help a game, and use those to improve my gaming. I have my own GMing tools, but players need tools sometimes too.

I’m currently having a lot of fun running Gradient Descent “rule-less and dice-less,” but even within that game, I’m subconsciously using procedure to resolve tasks, and have unwritten rules. On the other hand, I’ve also been running Free Kriegspiel wargames, and don’t bother the players with any of my rules I’ve made.

In summary, limits are useful when they aren’t restrictive and provide a baseline for players to think outside of.

Do you agree with everything said? Have an insight to share? Let me know! Thanks for making it this far.

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Can you clarify what rules in OSE you consider to be undesirable limitations? Or, just a few of what you would consider the worst examples? As it is it’s a bit difficult to understand what you’re talking about.

Class requirements, race requirements, that kinda thing. Just straight up “you can’t do this if you rolled X”

Ohhhh, now it actually makes sense haha.

I don’t see how you can solve that “problem” without ending up with a whole different system like the GLOG or something—but then, Justin Hamilton says Into the Odd is OD&D, so what do I know :stuck_out_tongue:

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I think you’ve run into something I also ran into when reading OD&D. It seemed arbitrary and limiting, exactly as you said. And then others helpfully pointed out that OD&D isn’t interested in limiting or even forming a box - it is a set of shorthands people decided upon to make litigating certain tense situations less annoying (i.e. “are you dead if the orc hits you”), turned into a book. I suppose the answer to “what do I do if I don’t like this set of shorthands” then is just “make your own”.

To give a little more context to the discussion, the point of OD&D’s hard race/class limitations (if my half-memories of Matt Colville videos are to be believed) is to convince more people to play as humans, and to explain why the most powerful NPCs in the world are human—because demihumans literally can’t ascend that high.

I doubt that Prime Requisites were nearly as annoying when it was expected that you would have a troupe of multiple characters, in which case it might help to have more of a hard prompt as to who the new guy is gonna be.

To be only mostly pedantic here (and apologies in advance) … OD&D is generally a term used to describe the 1970’s Original D&D - AKA the “white box”, aka the “Little Brown Books (LBBs)”. It is a very different game then the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules and Cook Expert Rules (B/X) which exist partially to screw over Dave Arneson on royalties, but are themselves a solid rule set and the basis of most retro-clones (but not all - OSRIC for instance is AD&D, Gygax’s preferred system, which highlights is absolutely terrible design).

I say all this because it’s helpful if you want a more simple system.

OD&D, especially if you dispense with the messes of the later supplements (Greyhawk and Blackmoore) and limit yourself to the first three LBBs (Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) are a very minimalist system. For example, OD&D has only three classes: fighter, magic-user and cleric. Demihumans are mentioned in passing only as level limited. To your specific concerns on limits, there aren’t stat requirements for any class - stats do little for characters mechanically. The OD&D rules are also better rules in many ways (encumbrance for example is actually at a level where players can use the rules and recover significant coinage based treasure) then what came after and have far more room to evolve. They have to evolve really, because they omit a lot of important things.

ITO is one example of such an evolution - though it departs radically from the mechanics of OD&D. B/X (including OSE, SWN, LabLord, S&W etc etc) are also evolution from OD&D that focus on greater variability and constraint.

This distinction might be useful for you in that OD&D is really very simple and unconstrained. The process of its evolution into what is ultimately 5E was to constantly add more complexity and constraint, but if you start with the same core mechanics you can of course select your own direction of evolution. With character design specifically it’s worth noting that OD&D character are blank slates to a far greater degree then even in B/X. They have very few mechanically defined traits, and most of those relate to equipment.

More generally Classic play styles also use mechanics very differently then Narrative ones. The players generally attempt to use the fiction to avoid interacting with the mechanics and as opposed to having the mechanics direct/constrain the fiction. Mechanics are the embodiment of risk and risk avoidance via unpuzzling the Referee and setting’s obstacles is the primary mode of play.


I am pretty sure that Arneson got beaucoup royalties from Moldvay’s Basic Set. He is credited as co-author with Gygax, and Moldvay’s just the “editor.”

I haven’t played games with defined “moves,” and I can’t imagine I ever would, as they seem like tight constraints on my personal preferences. Gus, I am fascinated by the distinction you draw between playstyles: do the players use the fiction to avoid the (punishing) mechanics, or do the mechanics generate the fiction? Where do wandering monsters fit in this distinction?

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@SageDaMage, you made my day! I do tend to think, lately, in terms of my design being all about helping people get their imaginations fired up - whether as players or storytellers. Your document is really lovely - so many quick and clean concepts that allow for choice and inspiration - and I’m super excited to see where you go next!

I’m very FKR at the table, but it has struck me that the approach requires a certain level of mastery of the art of story-gaming. Sure, some folx can just jump in (kids are amazing!), but others need some inspiration - prompts and tools - to get things going. I also think there’s a type of fun to be had in designing characters within constraints (I certainly have played plenty of games I thoroughly enjoyed because I designed clever strategies into my characters), but that it’s not for everyone (more submission and challenge, as opposed to narrative and expression). I think knowing your audience and designing tools that help them access the kind of fun you hope they’ll have is critical.

I think, for me, the key is just asking this: what can I make that will help people get into and stay in the type of fun I’m hoping to give them? Presence at the table gives you all sorts of tools to use, but helping others build their own tools - or pushing yourself to create something people can play without being there - is a whole other thing.

FWIW, VanWinkle, I’ve found “Moves” (I do use them VERY loosely, with outcomes dependent on discussion) can be helpful for giving suggestions to folx who struggle on how to approach a situation. The kids I run often find the basic approaches spark ways to engage. I find the basic “statistics” in many games a restraint - in effect, they become “Moves,” as they’re all representing a particular way to solve problems.

To me, most design questions have come down to two questions: how can I create and sustain 1) engagement and 2) agreement? Of course, what works for one audience won’t for another.

Really enjoying the perspectives - thanks, all!


A little off topic, but my comment on B/X and Arneson’s royalties was partially a misremembering of the Holmes Basic set. It could also somewhat apply to both (though I’d have to look at the documents so I’m speculating).

The Arneson royalty dispute started with TSR cutting his royalties and forcing him out. Then arguing AD&D was all Gygax - no royalties for Arneson. Holmes Basic was envisoned partially to support this claim. An alternate product line as the direct descendent of OD&D where Arneson would be walled off from AD&D royalties and get a pittance of Basic. The dispute worsened and his products were removed from the Holmes Basic box.

His supplements were replaced by his friend Carr’s B1 as a way to maybe neuter Arneson’s suit over Basic Royalties (TSR only wanted to give him 5% of the rulebook not the full box profits). B1 was replaced with a Gygax product once the box proved successful - likely again 'cause Royalties for Gygax.

Arneson sued again in '79 over AD&D and TSR settled for 2.5% royalties to Arneson on AD&D in '81. I suspect Moldvay B/X was a bit of an F-U to thecsettlement as it presumably would displace Holmes and wasn’t part of the settlement reducing Arnesons Royalties again.

To be fair to Gygax though, Arneson clearly didn’t have the same vision and was sort of a slacker. He went right back to making Napoleonic war games after OD&D and didn’t really seem like he cared about growing the company/brand. In the end Gygax did make up with him even after the guy sued TSR 5 times, and TSR published the updated (and quite good) Temple of the Frog, but by then Gygax was being pushed out of the company as well.

Not sure it matters except to say. Watch Out! The RPG biz started shady.

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