The Line Between Player Skill and Game Rules for OSR-Adjacent Design

TL;DR Big Question: What is and what is not an appropriate Game Rules intrusion into Player Skill from an OSR/NSR/POSR Gamebook perspective?

Context: I previously posted this thread in r/OSR and, while it did get some valuable feedback, that community is more into interpretive reading of rules than the creation of new rules.

This is all written within the context of trying to design an OSR-adjacent game (more like Troika! or World of Dungeons than OD&D, OSE, or LotFP). I’m trying to capture the OSR gameplay feel but with very non-standard rules.

Thank you for your time!

I am struggling to reliably locate the line between overcoming a challenge with Player Skill vs. Game Rules on a theoretical and design level (I am working on a ttRPG design that requires me to understand and appropriately apply theory). I assume my problem is my own misunderstanding or insufficient context. I am soliciting any perspective and resources you may have handy that you find it worth your time to share.

*I understand the decision of whether or not to deploy Rules will be done at a table-by-table, situation-by-situation level. Please read as though this asterisk were generously peppered throughout this post.
When a player uses the character’s environment and equipment in inventive and creative ways to overcome a challenge, they are using Player Skill.

When a player rolls a d20 to attack a monster and rolls a d6 to deal damage, they are using Game Rules.

A 10-foot pole, bundle of incense, or clump of mud do not have damage dice or other Game Rules tied to them (except maybe inventory considerations or cost of purchase). A Mace, Breastplate, and Magic Ring often do have additional Game Rules tied to them.

This doesn’t prevent the latter from being used in inventive ways that circumvent the Game Rules, but it does imply a delineation between what circumstances call for Game Rules vs. Player Skill.

Moreover, it implies that there are “right tools for the task” for some, but not all, challenges. There are often also Character Skills that define Game Rules for what might have otherwise been relegated to Player Skill.

(If I have all of that correct) Here is where my understanding starts to blur:

  1. Would using a Lock-picking Kit be Player Skill or Game Mechanism?
    Perhaps you could use Acid to melt the lock, a hammer to break it, or an axe to hack through what it is keeping locked. These all feel, to me, like they’re Game Rules situations, but I could also see an argument for them being matters of Player Skill.
  2. Would using a Trap-disarming Kit be Player Skill or Game Mechanism?
    Perhaps there is a way to bypass whatever activates the trap, or a way to fill in the open part of the trap that gives danger access to you, or a way of activating the trap while you’re beyond its reach. These all feel, to me, like they’re Player Skill situations, but I could also see an argument for them being matters of Game Rules.

Traps tend to be the poster child for “Player Skill.” There is a greater variety of traps, and thus a greater variety of solutions. Beyond that variety, a trap feels much the same as a lock, but with a (usually) narrower set of motive intentions and accepted solutions.

In many OSR games, there are Character Skills tied to using Game Rules for both.

Is it just that Traps have more variety than Locks that makes them a matter of Player Skill? Or is it that Locks are more difficult to solve narratively because it’s a bunch of unseeable bits? Or are Locks equally a matter of Player Skill?

And then, what about Combat?

To me, a Monster feels more like a Trap than a Lock. Bashing a skeleton with a Mace instead of shooting a Poisoned Arrow at it feels more like a matter of Player Skill than Game Rules. So, why is Combat so heavily codified with Game Rules?

From a Player Skill vs. Game Rules perspective, Combat resembles Locks more than Traps. However, there’s an even greater variety of Monsters and possible solutions than there are for Traps. While many of the solutions to Monsters are not Combat, it still feels strange that Combat is given as much of the Game Rules focus as it tends to receive.
(I worry that I may come off as complaining or aggressive. This is not my intention. I think there’s something everyone else understands that I don’t. I’m definitely not trying to in any way diminish or call into question other people’s enjoyment of RPGs.)

Bringing it Back Around

I get that if you just had a “Trap Disarming Kit” or were able to spam a “Disarm Trap” spell, it would remove an avenue of engagement. You’d be using the Rules to overcome obstacles instead of applying (Player Skill) reason and imagination to solve problems in exciting and rewarding ways.

But then why are other things codified with Game Rules and procedures?

Is saying your character is using Lock Picks and then you roll dice to see if you successfully unlock a door counter to the Player Skill involved in creatively navigating a Trap?

Is rolling Attack and Damage dice vs. a Monster’s AC and HP a less exciting and rewarding way to solve a problem?
I know that the answer is that different elements are better for different people at different tables in different circumstances. I just don’t know why Locks are codified in X way, Traps are codified in Y way, and Combat is codified in Z way.

And I certainly don’t understand why Social engagement is codified in W way.
I’m trying to understand what is and what is not an appropriate Game Rules intrusion into Player Skill from a Gamebook perspective.

Why I Ask

I’m working on an OSR-adjacent game where players use their character’s magic abilities to engage in challenges where they would normally use character equipment in traditional OSR. My goal here is to keep that same dynamic of table reasoning and player inventiveness as the driving factor, not [use spell = roll these dice + check for success].

In crafting these magic abilities, I’m struggling to locate the boundary between [this permits a player to come up with a variety of interesting applications] and [this solves the problem without creativity on the player’s part].

But, I’m having a hard time figuring out what needs to be what.

My impulse is to make everything Player Skill and Trap style.

However, even in OSR, not EVERYTHING is Player Skill and Trap style. There are Lock Picks. A Longsword deals d8 damage. From a Game Rules perspective, a Thief can disarm Traps better than a Cleric can.

So, I’m trying to figure out where to draw these lines and how to formulate magical abilities specifically around an OSR play-style. I’m interrogating each ability to see if it fits, but in interrogating all this, I realized I needed to understand the theory behind why things are the way they are in OSR games, and I realized I do not.

I’m using Cairn’s spells as a guideline for formatting. Even just reading how Yochai formulated these spells has helped me gain a better grasp on things. I love that they’re not a solution to a problem, but rather a thing you can do which could be creatively applied as a solution to an appropriate problem.

But even then, I have questions!

Two examples taken from the Cairn SRD: SRD | Cairn

True Sight: You see through all nearby illusions.

Upwell: A spring of seawater appears.

Upwell is open-ended and feels like it exists purely for creative application and Player Skill potential.

True Sight feels close-ended. It does one thing, which is to allow the character to see through illusions. Is this bypassing Player Skill in favor of a Game Rules solution? If it is, is that something that should be in a game for some reason(s)?

In my mind, an Illusion is more like a Trap. But, maybe it’s more like a Lock and needs more straight-forward and less creative ways of overcoming the challenge of it? Is it more like a Lock because there isn’t as much variety in Illusions and ways to overcome them?

I don’t know. And I’m really trying my hardest to understand.

I feel like other people get when something should be like a Trap or a Lock or Combat and I don’t.

I think Yochai has it right that there’s a balance between True Sight Game Rules and a time for Upwell Player Skill, but I am having the damnedest time figuring out where to mark the boundaries between them while creating something new and a step removed from the OSR default Xs, Ys, and Zs.

Thank you for being awesome.


When you say OSR, you should really say (BX) DnD (or retroclones thereof). In DnD, you roll some dice to find traps, find secret doors, open locks and even to open every single door in a dungeon. In the context of the complete set of dungeoncrawling rules, these mechanics do work as a game.

This whole player-skill idea is an Old School Renaissance thing, and OSR games play differnt than the style that DnD was designed for. Mechanics like combat are required to make rulings consistent and transparent. Also, they are fun because they lead to exciting outcomes and there are lots of choices for the players to make. Similarly, there are rules for chases in DnD, and the same reasons apply.

If you have the right tool in your inventory, have the required knowledge and have enough time, you should just be able to open a lock, just like you should be able to do anything else. Opening locks really isn’t that engaging, unless the lock is some kind of puzzle or riddle that the players can solve. And to me, this is really the point. People design monsters with weird effects to fight (requiring critical thinking to figure out), designers in the OSR come up with innovative traps that are actually fun to engage with, instead of just rolling dice to detect and disarm them.

Perhaps you could use Acid to melt the lock, a hammer to break it, or an axe to hack through what it is keeping locked.

To me, these sound like great examples of player skill. In Cairn, players have to use up one inventory slot to bring a tool. And sometimes there are additional rules, too, like limited uses or the chance that a tool will break. For me, this is a good delineation between game rules and player skill.

Sometimes, you as a referee are just not sure how a situation should play out. That’s when game mechanics should come into play, ideally offering choices (= player skill) for the players.

Here you can find the social ‘mechanic’ I came up with for my little horror/investigation game.

In summary, I think it mostly comes down to the challenges you put in the players’ way, rather than the rules. If you need consistent and transparent rules to decide how to proceed when the result is not obvious, use game mechanics that reward player skill.

Anyways, these are my thoughts and I hope that I stayed on-topic. It’s an interesting question.

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To me the issue is not player (character?) skill versus game rules, but what your game is doing with conflict and tension. We can extend Linus’s points to say that player skill actually elides conflict through choice, but sometimes there is no choice to make (purposefully or not) and yet there is still conflict that needs to be adjudicated. A game rule is just a method to neutrally resolve a conflict—it’s not the referee who said the character failed, it’s the dice! This is perhaps why combat may feel rules heavy bc the referee cannot have the ability to declare a winner (then there would be no need for player skill or game rules). I think player skill is bounded by game rules, but not the other way around.

Also, as Linus indicated, what game is your system playing? As the designer, what are you interested in?

Hi, I can’t tell your line, or any player’s line. I believe the rules could cover most of the scope of “I need to scrape that tiny little spot in my back” to “damn it’s already late, let’s get this obstacle over with in a commonly decent way”. Tinkering with a game I hand the decision and the tools to the players, except for some special scenes when I warn there will be no coming back on whatever stakes and difficulty they set for themselves. But even then, there’s no game police.
So for your game, I’d make the spells very specific tools, and let players read situations and inventbuses for the tools. That’s where I believe the fun in OSR is. But I’d also leave a failsafe backdoor so that challenges can be dumbed down when the mood is not there. Doing this, I’d be very careful of implied performance judgement, because the slightest eyebrow raising at a critical moment can damage a session more than retconning, murky descriptios, and dice fudging.

For the TL;DR Big Question, I think the answer is simple—game rules exist for the things players can’t choose. This has been touched on by the other commenters.

Traps are less game-mechanical than locks because they have more ways to be interacted with. For example, if you see a tripwire, you have a choice. You can look around to see what it attaches to. You can cut it from a distance. Locks, however, are a matter of character skill, because it isn’t interesting to pick which tumbler to jiggle, and most people don’t know how to pick locks anyway.

Combat has many possible approaches and strategies, so I consider it a matter of player skill. However, we can’t usually decide how to swing a sword—it’s a matter of technique, the opponent is fighting back, the game isn’t really about fencing, etc.—so we roll dice. The player skill is using the unknowns to your advantage.

Of course, this is all my opinion, and I agree with the other comments. I also think it would be useful to talk about a goal; what kind of feeling are you trying to evoke? Or what kinds of choices do you want players to make? That kind of thing.