Alright… It seems like the current trending games are Into The Odd, Cairn, Knave/Maze Rats, and I can’t think of another. My question is not about lineage or how one came from the other. I’m trying to understand OSR/NSR and what drives people’s positive responses to its most popular iterations.
My question is, what’s the difference between these games? What causes one person to prefer one over another?
Please include other games that I should be aware of, but please don’t discuss 20 games.
Can we cap to your top 3 or 5 games that you think I should be aware of and why?
Okay. Standard disclaimer about how NSR is more a community than a design philosophy. That said, to me each game you mentioned focuses on different aspects of what one would commonly describe as the OSR playstyle. One of the things that you have to remember about the OSR is that it tends to cling to not just a certain style of play but also older rulesets that are supposedly better at capturing said playstyle. This is mostly B/X, but you see arguments for AD&D and OD&D as well.
Games associated with the NSR are, to me, more focused on capturing different aspects of the OSR besides a strict adherence to the previously mentioned rulesets.
Into the Odd strips a lot of the sacred cows of D&D away, and its implied setting, but definitely emphasizes the deadly nature of OSR play as well as its focus on problem-solving. Knave is an attempt to create a system that runs OSR modules without a lot of the cruft of older systems. Cairn brings ItO-style gameplay together with parts of Knave in order to achieve Knave’s goal while preserving some of the gameplay innovations of ItO (I am very biased in favor of Cairn, so take this analysis with a grain of salt). The thing that unites all of these games, to me, is that they aren’t as hung up with compatibility as OSR retro-clones tend to be, but they definitely want to match the playstyle in many respects.
I think what game you prefer has a lot to do with what sacred cows, if any, that you value. Not to mention what aspects of the OSR playstyle you find interesting.
One game you didn’t mention here which I feel like should not be left out is Mausritter. Despite being a game about mice, a lot of people report having a lot of success teaching the OSR approach to solving problems, combat, etc. with it compared to a retro-clone or even some of the other games mentioned above. That is because it is easier to accept a lot of the maxims of OSR play (combat as a fail state, problem-solving over optimization, etc.) whenever you are a playing an intelligent mouse rather than a treasure-hunting human.
Personally I would place them on a spectrum from “focused” to “familiar,” where “focused” is more concerned with creating a particular experience and “familiar” is more concerned with being warm and comfortable to players who are used to other, more popular games.
Into the Odd is extremely focused, Cairn is somewhat more familiar, and Knave and Maze Rats are focused on being familiar in different ways to different audiences.
What causes one person to prefer one over another?
Either you find comfort in the familiar or you find it to be dead weight that’s holding back your experience.
I’m trying to understand OSR/NSR and what drives people’s positive responses to its most popular iterations.
I have a little table I wrote to explain the difference between the modern D&D and OSR styles of play. Hopefully it clarifies some things.
Beyond that, the NSR is just about removing some or all of the traditional D&D trappings in favor of different kinds of settings and streamlined rules. If the traditional D&D trappings are a key part of your fun, then you might prefer the OSR.
And @flyrefi mentioned problem solving in a way that doesn’t involve the rules… (long COVID makes my brain not work, I think I got it right)
So, what does problem-solving mean, especially in a context that doesn’t follow the rules? Like, this is something I can’t wrap my brain around and, being autistic, get ready for a shit ton of clarifying questions.
The most common problem that players in an OSR-style game will face is: “We’re in a dungeon with monsters who are way too strong for us to fight directly. How do we steal all the treasure in this dungeon without getting ourselves killed?”
The answer is by being clever — using items, using the environment, and exploiting weaknesses to get what you want without fighting.
I read the 124 Goblin article above and, though they seem simple, I get the impression that coming up with such challenges can be really hard. Because, it’s not just being in the moment with the players, it’s also being aware of the environment and the surrounding machinations. No? I mean, how do you develop the skill?
Well, it’s usually not a good idea to compare yourself to Arnold K. One of the reasons that list exists is because you can take the challenges in it and remix them as you please. No one would expect you to come up with one on the fly. A lot of this stuff will be already done for you if running a certain module or part of your prep process if you are doing your own thing.
Note that a thing to keep in mind with this is you don’t necessarily have to come up with the solution, just the problem. In fact, if you talk to a lot of OSR/NSR creators they will tell you they have no idea how players will solve some of the obstacles they put before players, they just trust that they will come up with something clever to overcome or avoid it.
It’s a bit of a leap of faith, and something I struggle with as well. I like to try and come up with at least three solutions in my head to a challenge, but I believe I am in the minority in the space when it comes to this.
Sadly none that I am aware of. Just the guidelines that Arnold lays out in that blog post:
No obvious solution. (Straight combat is always obvious.)
Many possible solutions.
Solvable via common sense (as opposed to system mastery).
No special tools required (no unique spells, no plot McGuffins at the bottom of a dungeon).
Not solvable by a specific class or ability.>
I’ll give you a really basic example from a game session I was in a couple of months ago. We found ourselves in a room that was full of what basically amounted to a Bronze Age Phalanx in skeleton form, still in formation and everything. We didn’t know what would trigger them, or even if they would animate (let’s be real, they were definitely going to animate).
Some in our group ended up smashing several of them to see what would happen, and we ended up in a desperate struggle to seal the door before we were overrun. Looking back, we could have handled the situation in a variety of ways, but the most important thing was that we couldn’t just solve the situation without thinking.
There are a few things we could have done in this situation:
We could have ignored the whole room, of course (boring!).
We could have closed the portcullis and hit one from a distance to see if they triggered (more prudent than what we did, but not as exciting).
We could have knocked the giant braziers over that lined the outside of the room and scattered the fuel inside at the feet of the skeleton army, doused it in lantern oil, then burned the whole formation to a crisp.
No easy solutions. Just engaging with the problem and trying to solve it with the knowledge and resources you have on hand.
It’s worth mentioning, given your misgivings about GM fiat, that this type of problem solving works entirely by GM fiat. The players describe what they do in the fiction to solve the problem and the GM decides if it works. It relies on the GM honestly portraying the fictional world, and responding to the players in good faith to work, like all GM fiat.