Friday, August 4, 2023

7 Maxims of the OSR

Back in the aughts and the 2010’s, a decade ago now, there was a movement in older RPGs that I was part of - the “Old School Renaissance” or "OSR". The OSR still hasn’t really been defined, or at least its definitions have always been in conflict, now more than ever as it becomes a subject of nostalgic veneration. It’s uncontroversial to me (I’m sure others will feel incandescently differently) that one of the hallmarks of the OSR was the creation of instructive maxims about how to enact its desired play style. That play style in turn depended on and created an exploration focused elevation of player choice in a strongly referee controlled setting. The maxims of the OSR were commonly offered to newcomers and now linger in the communities of the PostOSR, where they are too often repeated as if they are unalterable, clear truths obvious to everyone. They aren't and they weren't. Like most maxims, aphorisms, and pithy bits of commonsense, these distillations of OSR gaming wisdom are useful … but only up to a point, and they work best as reminders for people already familiar with their goals.

Trampier from the 1st Edition Monster Manual

These days it feels like the Post OSR spends a lot of time reinventing things that people wrote on blogs in 2010, or stumbling into the same well known solutions and declaring they have "fixed" the play style. Part of this is a lack of information for people new to these kind of games, exacerbated by the lack of citations among the hundreds of retro-clones that claim to be OSR games. There's little help for this, and as much as introductions to OSR theory like Philotomy’s Musings, Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, or Milton, Lumpkin and Perry’s Principia Apocrypha are useful documents and helpful introductions, the majority of OSR wisdom exists as scattered blog posts and in the minds of people who have engaged with the play style over the past 20 or so years. People don't read blogs anymore, but even if they did ... these bloggers, designers, referees, and players have a tendency to fall back on maxims when asked to explain elements of the play style, and it’s not the most efficient way of communicating craft and knowledge.

Worse, as the actual creation of the maxims recedes into the past, clouded by memory's failings and wearing into the grooves of dogmatic repetition, they have begun to take on the force of natural laws rather than suggestions or explanations of design decisions and play culture. The power of nostalgia and orthodoxy transforms simplifications and shorthand for larger, complex concepts into definitions that are frequently misinterpreted or carried to lengths that subvert their original meaning and damage the very type of play they were meant to support.


Maxims have such a power in the OSR because it was forced to deal with the convoluted history of early Dungeons & Dragons. It’s often, and falsely, claimed that the goal of the OSR was to play games in the manner of some ideal past table: Gygax’s basement in Lake Geneva, or “the way D&D was meant to be played”. While some undoubtedly tried, this claim and any efforts towards it that actually happened is mostly nostalgic invention, a blend of cognitive distortions and bias that includes: rosy retrospection, survivor’s bias, selective abstraction, the masked-man fallacy and the halo effect. The problem being, that even where it’s discernible through faulty memories, self aggrandizing claims, and lies made up during IP litigation, the play style of early RPGs was constantly in flux. Dungeons & Dragons showed a great deal of conflict and transformation within play style from the first, and even within the 1974 edition. For example, the "Alternate Combat System" alone suggests an entirely different play style then the combat rules for Chainmail that were originally intended for the game. Worse, depending on one’s prior experience or influences a variety of play styles and design approaches all seem to fit within the description of “Old School” RPGs. The bloggers, referees, forum wits, and designers of the OSR struggled to articulate exactly what they wanted, which wasn’t uniform among them in the first place.

Instead of representing a “rediscovery” of a fully functional set of rules, procedures, design ethos, and play culture of Gygax's golden age -- somehow lost or destroyed by some ever growing cast of villains (the Hickmans, the Blumes, Lorraine Williams, Patricia Pulling and the Satanic Panic, Dungeons & Beavers, Hasbro, Vampire Larpers, Organized Play, or ... as always ... Young People), the OSR was always a place of invention, adaption, and revaluation. The OSR play style, to the degree any exists, was a new thing that evolved over time in the 2000's and 2010's, influenced by and partially formed from original early RPG texts and long-term play experiences of its members -- but necessarily taking in the various ideas and work in RPGs from 1974 to the present. Pithy maxims acted to anchor this decades-long aggregation of hundreds of peoples’ ideas and experiences into vague statements of general principle. "Rulings not Rules" is a phrase that one shares like a secret handshake, even if it's meaning isn't especially clear. Such statements are great for forming group identity (far more pleasant and long lasting than railing against a cast of villains and blaming them for a rupture from the nostalgic ideal) … but they don’t actually explain how to play the game.

Maxims differ from aphorisms in that they present themselves as little truths, almost with the force of natural laws. Aphorisms instead ask their audience to think about them, and often hint at paradoxes or complexities in a way maxims don’t - and again this is where maxims are great tools for forming group identity, but less effective at teaching or giving their audience any sort of deep understanding.

The following maxims were common in OSR spaces and continue to be cited in much of the discussion around OSR and Post-OSR play style. I haven't generally listed their originators, though I suspect that most of them can be traced to a specific blog post or forum thread, largely because I am lazy, and they are always presented outside of their original context. Without it, they have changed meaning with time, and each is an effort to condense and simplify complex concepts or even arguments from or between numerous other contributors. Instead, all I can offer is my criticisms of the maxim (based on observations of how I've seen it used) and then my personal understanding as someone who was there, or at least peering though keyholes and standing in the shadows, when most of these maxims were hashed out. Generally this is a positive reading. 

I. “Rulings not Rules”

Perhaps the ... ruling ... maxim of OSR maxims. It’s not the most confusing of them either, but it often gets taken to extremes and sometimes it’s presented as a call for removing all rules or for justifying absolute referee control without regard to player expectations or consistency.

While rules-free fantasy adventure games (often called the “FKR” scene) and ultra-lights with ever more minimal rule sets became quite popular in the later OSR and post-OSR period (2016ish to now), the OSR, the old rule sets it took from, and dungeon crawling as I advocate for it all depend on the consistency and predictability of known rules. The play style depends on both mechanics and procedures for the majority of game events, especially the common, expected, reoccurring and core ones, and these rules also often provide models or at least references for ad hoc rulings.

I understand the maxim instead to mean an two related things:
  • RPGs should offer the freedom for characters to act beyond scenarios already contemplated by rules. This is accomplished by referee decisions, ad hoc rulings that should (see the next point), become consistent table rules if the events requiring the ruling occur again.

  • OSR, Classic and Dungeon Crawl games all demand a high degree of trust between players and referee. Players must trust the referee to adjudicate unexpected situations fairly, and referees trust players by allowing them to offer unexpected solutions with reasonable chances of success. Both players and referees should not appeal to or demand citations to the rules over the referee’s judgment about events. Meta-gaming and “rules lawyering” solutions that are against the “spirit” of the setting or lack fictional consistency (e.g. the “peasant railgun”) are considered cheating or unsporting and the referee can reject them even if the rules as written allow them.

II. “The Answer isn’t on your Character Sheet.”

Similar in intent and effect to “Rulings not Rules”, this maxim rejects the dominance of rule (or specifically mechanic) based solutions to game puzzles and problems. Players are supposed to observe and ask questions about the fantasy environment and then solve problems by describing actions that use the resources described to logically overcome obstacles rather than testing a skill listed on the character sheet. The OSR character finds secret doors by tapping walls with a 10’ pole and listening for hollow spaces rather than rolling to “spot hidden”. While there is truth to this being an aspect of the play style, the maxim speaks in absolutes that don’t match the rule sets or experience of most OSR style games. Dungeons & Dragons gains progressively more skills with each new edition, but even the earliest contains rolls for finding secret doors and avoiding traps. When the thief class is added in the first supplement skill tests become an established game element. Similarly spells and equipment have always been tools that players are meant to write on their character sheet and use to solve problems in play. A huge number of spells (especially ones named after early characters like Tenser's Floating Disc) are solutions to specific in-game problems.

So what does this maxim mean? Instead of being an admonishment against character complexity it’s more about adventure design and the focus of play:
  • The game should present complex but logical obstacles and expect players to solve them using logical reasoning and using objects in the fantasy world around them in interesting and unexpected ways.

  • The referee and designer should give clues relatively freely when players offer logical actions to uncover them and respond to logical solutions to obstacles and puzzles without hiding clues or success behind unnecessary skill checks or other rolls.

  • Adding to these two goals or practices the best player solutions are those that don’t require any rolls or checks at all and don’t waste character resources like: equipment, Hit Points or spells. This sort of open ended problem solving is a core part of play rather than something secondary to combat or interacting with NPCs and shouldn’t be elided with skill checks.

III. “Role Playing not Roll Playing”

More Trampier D&D Illustration
Another argument for the essential nature of OSR play, though one that long predates the OSR (first offered in1980?) and has been picked up by numerous cultures of play. In the context of the OSR, early systems, or dungeon crawl games it's an interesting maxim because these games are often inspired by the earliest understanding of RPGs as an extension of war games -- the quintessential “roll playing” activity. That the maxim appeared somewhat commonly in OSR spaces and continues to appear in Post-OSR ones (as well as Contemporary Traditional communities for games like 5th edition D&D) is a response to specific foundational claims about the OSR. In OSR and Post-OSR context "Roleplaying not Roll Playing" tends to mean little more than disdain for the alleged focus of later editions on character building and tactical, feat centered, combat. As dogma though it’s more pernicious then most maxims here because it’s more vague and more contemptuous of other play styles. Obviously one rolls dice a fair bit in OSR or dungeon crawl play, and compared to several other play styles does so more often.

This doesn’t mean that “Roleplaying not Roll Playing” can’t be read in a positive way. In general removing unnecessary dice rolling and complexity from a game is good design because it speeds things up. Yet too much simplification, too much “minimalism” can detract from play -- not just abandoning rules, but failing to provide assistance to referees in other ways: a lack of sample monsters or equipment in a rulebook, or the tendency towards system neutral adventures that never consider how complex and strange monster attacks or effects can be mechanically modeled. There’s a point where demanding too much role playing and not enough roll playing runs counter to the dungeon crawl style of play which depends on risk taking and risk management as a key part of play. This problem of excessive minimalism is also found in the discussion of “Fruitful Voids”, the use of spaces left in game design (very common in early RPG design) that the referee must fill, often with the help of the players. Such voids are good when they mark areas of play (such as negotiation with monsters, or unpuzzling obstacles) that are meant to be free-form and depend on open-ended problem solving … but when they are everywhere one doesn’t have a game, one has a mediocre at best prose poem in the form of an instruction manual or gazetteer.

There is a more interesting lessons one can take from "Role Playing not Roll Playing":
  • Avoiding unnecessary dice rolls is more then having a simple system, it’s also an aspect of role playing, in the case of older style dungeon crawl or OSR games, which are focused on problem solving (rather then say genre emulation and story creation) this means not making every solution require a die roll. When players come up with a good plan that doesn’t involve anything risky and obviously subject to fate, the referee doesn’t roll anything and doesn’t ask players to roll anything. In terms of the maxim they’ve role played their way through the obstacle or problem. Of course this is a referee skill, and it’s a key one - knowing when to roll and when not to - and that’s something to get to with the next maxim.

  • It’s not usually worth it to ask for a roll that doesn’t involve a high degree of risk and consequences. If the goal of “Role Playing” for dungeon crawl games is to plan and scheme in such a way that dice never have to clatter across the table, it’s hardly fair for the referee to force rolls when there’s a tiny possibility of risk, risk that players have been lead to believe isn’t there through the meta-game (as when they are in town vs. in the dungeon or wilderness), or risks that the players don’t have the opportunity to anticipate or find clues about (with rare exceptions).

IV. “Don’t Fudge Dice!”

Given the advice in cursed 1990’s Dungeon Mastering manuals like “Play Dirty” and “XDM” which encourage tricking and forcing your players to experience exactly the plot one intends, this can be controversial advice in “Trad” and even 5th edition or other “Contemporary Traditional” game spaces. It’s also one of the only maxims here I can agree with fully. Though there are caveats. Not fudging dice assumes a sort of ideal referee who never drinks ⅔ a bottle of tempranillo during play or has a weird day at work that sticks with them while they are running the game... It assumes that the referee never makes mistakes that get the game into a situation where fudging dice feels necessary to maintain fairness. This sort of thing really does happen - though far less often then it can when pushing the players down a narrative path. Not fudging dice has a more important corollary in "Roleplaying not Roll Playing"(see above ) and recently a mystical, cultic sort of reading…let’s call it “The Oracular Power of Dice” or “The Cult Dungeon Masters Guide Appendixes”.

However, to get to why this maxim makes sense to me: 

  • Don’t Fudge Dice… No really don’t. It's a sort of little test of the concepts above...refereeing shouldn’t feel antagonistic and fudging dice is usually based around softening antagonistic refereeing ... while giving the referee a sort of absolute but deniable power to inflict good or bad events based on a whim. If you roll constantly and dice are always mere suggestions then it’s really the referee and not the dice deciding when things matter. This creates distrust among the players who can no longer feel like their choices matter, and often creates the appearance of favoritism.

  • Trust in the referee and trust in the integrity of the dice is important because players need to trust the referee to present the world in a way they can understand and where they can judge risks prior to rolling the dice. One of the skills for an OSR or classic referee is to have the authority to stand by decisions and the adventure design in good or bad circumstances. Fudging dice often looks like a referee trying to direct play while pretending dice are forcing them to do so. Accountability for and ownership of the setting’s response reinforces itself though, building trust between players, with the referee, and with the integrity of the setting. All of this is useful when one is running a game with high risk to the characters, because in moments where characters die or fail the referee needs to be perceived as a neutral arbitrator who doesn’t impede the players’ victories but also enforces logical consequences of their mistakes. No one wants to "lose" in an unfair game.

  • As previously noted, when not fudging dice a key skill is picking when to ask for a roll. It’s often better to simply not roll the dice if there are consequences that one would avoid by changing the roll afterward — and if one realizes too late, it’s better to own up to making a mistake rather than trying to trick the players.

  • Don’t depend on dice to do everything as a referee either, the point of not fudging dice is to offer a world with integrity and clear consistent rules (e.g. swords do 1D8 damage). Randomness is great, it’s part of what makes RPGs fun and different from storytelling, but while random tables can be inspiring they are not a substitute for referee intelligence or designer diligence in creating the setting. Creating random dungeons without later editing tends to create incoherent and/or extremely bland funhouses, while providing a small set of tables to fill fifty rooms won't offer a workable adventure. In play as well, there needs to be spaces where the referee simply says "no" for the setting to make sense. Even without fudging, rolling for every absurdity while using the popular “1 always fails and 20 always succeeds" rule breaks down referee responsibility to provide a reasonable reaction from the setting and player responsibility to puzzle through the game’s obstacle. Of course, it's better to simply say there's no chance rather then fudge this kind of roll.

V. “Play the World not the Rules”

A less common maxim at least in this form. Sometimes it gets phrased in other ways or as related maxims, like “Create Situations not Stories” or “Sandboxes not Railroads”. This maxim is an affirmation that the game is concerned with player choice and creating a setting or adventure where “anything is possible”, because things outside the rules as written follow logical patterns and likely results can be deduced from the players’ real world knowledge. For example: water flows down hill and wolves (or their equivalent) eat meat.

The maxim also speaks to world design, claiming that the adventure is not a narrative within a setting, but the players interactions with the setting as a whole. Adventures don’t advance in a predictable manner, but represent the exploration of locations to steadily increase character power and involvement with the setting's secrets, factions, and larger scale events. Both of these ideas can cause a lot of confusion, the maxim itself only touches on them, and the idea of a sandbox and absolute player freedom tend to be daunting. The referee might feel the need to design an entire world before the first session or prepare a huge number of locations. Likewise, the idea of absolute freedom can stun players. It’s hard enough to know what to do with your life in the real world, but an RPG player has little or no idea of what’s even possible in a new setting. What’s expected of them and their character? How do they go about it?

This isn’t the way to start a good campaign, and it’s intuitively obvious to a lot of people hearing these maxims that it won’t work very well. Of course that’s also not what the maxim means, or not exactly:

  • A sandbox setting is open for players to do anything … but this has reasonable limitations built into the structure of the game and culture of play. Of course most players don’t start off with a plan, they don’t know the setting, and they don’t know what to do. The referee needs to provide clues about where the party can find adventure. This is the reason rumors and hooks are a regular subject for discussion in OSR and Post OSR spaces -- they are how the referee gives players information about what opportunities exist for them. Hooks and rumors are mere suggestions however, and they are a way to give players information without forcing them to read or listen to long descriptions of a setting and its lore. Generally this works for players, because they want to play a game about dungeon crawling or adventuring, and hooks and rumors offer that. Of course some players instead want to run cookie shops or go on a dating binge through NPCs. When this comes up it’s usually a mismatch with the group or an effort to test how free they really are to make decisions. I tend to ask the player to retire the wayward PC, making them into the local baker or cad, at least if the player's goal is outside what the rest of the players’ want to focus their few hours a session on. If the whole party wants to bake fantasy cookies or something that doesn’t lend itself to typical adventure activities, maybe it’s time to find a game or play style that supports these kinds of “slice of life” goals better.

  • "Playing the World" shouldn't be daunting for the referee either. The joy of an open world might be infinite opportunities, but... Sure characters can go off and do “anything”, but the world doesn’t have to let them succeed or make it easy. Danger abounds, and the setting pushes back on player goals. The referee or designer isn’t required to “gate” or “zone” dangers for player level, reducing the risk of whatever the players want to seek out to something they can triumph over, and poor plans might not have a chance to succeed. Since most players are logical and want their characters to survive, this isn't an issue, they seek out the risks and locations they feel like they can handle rather than run straight at the most powerful and dangerous location they hear about. This means that the smart referee doesn’t need to prepare everything, just the content that characters have immediate access to for a session or two with enough options to provide some potential variety. Of course, a vague idea of what else is beyond this immediate area is helpful when players start to get wanderlust or overestimate their characters’ abilities.

  • The scale of the world is large, one isn’t playing through a specific story, or to reach some condition set by the rule. The goal is more experiencing what’s possible in the setting aided by the structure the rules create. This becomes most important when looking at the comparably high character death rates in most original, OSR, or Post-OSR games. High lethality works because there’s a whole world to explore that can evolve and change regardless of a specific character’s fate. The player need only promote a henchperson or roll up a new PC (something they can do anyway on a whim - retiring their current PC to run a bakery or something) to keep the game’s “story” going. In many contemporary games, because they are built with the individual character as a centerpiece -- character arcs and back stories that set up a specific narrative for the whole campaign -- this seems unworkable or counter intuitive, but within the OSR and affiliated play styles there’s more emphasis on discovering the characters’ stories in play, even if this is dying early in the campaign to become an aspect of the surviving characters’ stories.

  • Finally, and on a smaller scale, playing the setting and not the rules references the way OSR and similar games encourage players to find solutions outside the rules using previously discovered elements of the setting and from referee description to succeed in their goals. This isn’t the same as realism though. Like reasonable fictional limitations, player knowledge, innovation, and scheming isn’t limited by what’s realistically possible or with a great deal of specificity. Simple “game logic” solutions work without determining the exact science or chance of success from real world models. One doesn’t need to look at strength under tension and maximum loads by material to determine if a party can ascend a rope grappled to something - the combination of rope and grappling hook is sufficient.

VI. “Combat is a Fail State”
Trampier Still - Monster Manual

This maxim is somewhat dubious, but also acts as important pushback against certain tendencies in the older rule sets and play style of early Dungeons & Dragons and the common insult or complaint that OSR games are simply hack and slash combat — combat being where all the rules are. The OSR long denied this argument, but still had to grapple with the large amount of combat rules and tendency for games to constantly devolve into combat. Combat is of course one of the most obvious ways to resolve a lot of common RPG problems, and the OSR commitment to player choices and sandboxes tends to mean it’s almost always an option.

In early Dungeons & Dragons there may be some truth to the idea that combat is a major goal of and focus for play … parties were expected to be much larger: 8-14 players each with 1-2 characters and a henchman or five. These big parties can engage in far more combat with far more success then Trad and OSR style groups of 3 to 8 adventurers and fewer henchmen. Additionally, there’s some weight to the idea that when writing OD&D Gygax and Arneson saw it as a supplement to, perhaps even a “mini-game” for larger war game scenarios—meaning that the characters were closer to war game pieces then the RPG concept of the character.  This would make party losses fairly meaningless as they are simply soldiers in the player's army. Both early Trad (Hickman era TSR) and OSR play styles have dealt with this contradiction between rules and play conditions in distinct ways. Trad by creating the adventure path, where combat challenges are carefully structured with the aim of balance - testing but not killing the characters. The OSR has opted to retain a more open setting and player driven narrative … and so defensively calls out “Combat is a Fail State”.

Why defensive? Trad and now Contemporary Trad (or OC) players and designers (long the vast majority in the hobby) tend to fear and mock the possibility of open worlds and wide player freedom, often citing the worry that players will become “murder hobos” — wandering about and killing everything and everyone to gain wealth and with it XP. This is not a classic, OSR, or post-OSR problem though. An open world can (and often has baked in tools like factions) push back against marauding bands of killers … or alternatively let players experience a bandit or criminal campaign. The “murder hobo”, to the degree he exists and barring the most actively antisocial players, is not a threat to a sandbox campaign.  In an adventure path though antisocial characters are a threat because they make the character “heroes” into villains and disrupt the adventure’s structure which has no alternatives built in. This is the flip side of the danger that PvP poses in OSR and related games vs. the way it can easily be incorporated into adventure paths or story arcs.

So. “Combat is a Fail State” expresses a distinctive aspect of the OSR play style, an adaption to using rules designed for large parties with smaller ones in an open world full of asymmetric threats.  It unfortunately does so in an often angry, defensive, and reductive way that runs counter to most people’s actual game experience — combat will happen in an OSR game or dungeon crawl, and likely pretty often. What does the maxim capture then?
  • Combat as War…another OSR catchphrase, serviced from a famous ENworld thread back in the 2010’s… the idea that newer types of D&D offer “Combat as Sport”: balanced tactical contests played out through the rules of the system. The OSR play style provides “Combat as War” instead -- conflict where following the rules is dangerous and likely deadly, because power between combatants is asymmetrical. Good players should stack every advantage and find solutions like traps, ambushes, and deception before fighting. “Combat is a Fail State” is broader though, it offers the possibility that it’s better to win without fighting. Deception, alliance, bribery, and simply going around dangerous enemies are better solutions than dangerous combat.

  • Of course old D&D and most OSR or POSR games still have lots of combat rules. Plus even my own games usually include a combat encounter each session. My argument has been crushed underneath logic and praxis … or alternatively rules aren’t always the most dense around parts of the game where the players are expected to spend the most time or which represent ideal play. Rules are also necessary for parts of the game that are the most contentious and require the most clarity. There’s plenty of rules in most sports about what constitutes foul play, but that doesn’t mean that basketball is about throwing elbows and running around holding the ball. The same with OSR style exploration games. Combat is the most likely place where the players will “lose”, that is where their characters will die, and so players will try to scheme their way out of the risks even after combat has commenced - something the play style rejects, because combat is also how bad player decisions and risk taking manifest. Combat needs to be hedged in by rules precisely because in the OSR style of play it’s an area where player choice is constrained to a greater degree then in most parts of play. The extensive rules have a preclusive effect, filling the area of play and preventing even well thought out player schemes or referee rulings from lessening the impact of combat’s threat to character survivability.

  • Perhaps better to phrase this maxim as “Combat is an Inevitable Failstate” - much like the way most poker hands end in a “call” and the players have to show their hands. It’s not the goal of play, it’s not the ideal way for a skilled poker player to win the hand, but it happens a lot because it’s easy and the rules push towards it, making the players work to avoid it. Again, the reason players want to avoid combat in OSR and related styles of play is because it’s the way characters most often die and get removed from play. This also touches on the alleged high lethality of these play styles - but characters only die a lot when players seek out combat, take excessive risks, or are extremely unlucky.

VII. “Strict Time Records Must be Kept”

On page 37 of the first edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide Gygax writes “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” A famous quote and not just because it’s in all caps.  For Gygax though it isn’t a general command, rather it relates specifically to campaign play, downtime, and upkeep cost. It’s not about dungeon turns or combat order but the logistics of a many session campaign, and the specific sort of open table public game that Gygax advocated for. Bookkeeping and a calendar to keep track of dozens of players and characters coming and going in the setting over months or years. So… originally this maxim isn’t even about most parts of play, and it was long treated in the OSR space as a sort of humorous overreaction by Gygax, an old man shouting at clouds. Of course this shows another fracture point between OSR design concerns and Gygax’s early play style — Gygax considered long, public, campaigns with more war game like feature the proper structure of play, while the OSR, especially in its middle years tended to focus on individual adventures or unique settings with even larger, but less committed casts of characters via the online “consta-con”.

More recently, Post OSR design has moved towards minimal rule sets, and many newcomers from the Contemporary Traditional game space are getting interested in older rule sets. In this context, “Strict Time Records Must be Kept” has become an actual maxim, and acts as a reminder that “Turnkeeping” and related rules are the legs that classic style exploration stands on. The actual maxim though doesn’t do much to explain this, still having the bizarre quality of Gygax’s original outrage, and can lead to confusion, focusing on the minutiae of tracking resources, distance,  and in game time rather than the essential element. The mechanics and procedure of turnkeeping, dungeon navigation, encumbrance, supply depletion and random encounters matter as structural supports to location exploration — but the specifics are malleable depending on many factors: design goals, session length, party size, and setting fiction.

To understand “Strict Time a Records Must be Kept” in the OSR or Post-OSR sense consider:

  • In a play style about overcoming obstacles through problem solving and exploration, the first obstacle is the layout, size, and paths through the location (or dungeon) — navigation or orienteering. The dungeon of course contains fixed risks: traps, monsters, factions, and puzzles that limit access to its rewards, traditionally treasure. The best way to overcome or avoid these risks or obstacles is to go around them and approach everything with extreme caution. The common complaint about tapping 10’ poles in gray corridors exemplifies this. Its answer is built into old dungeon exploration design: the randomized risk of wandering monsters and the depletion of necessary supply - especially light. While there are mechanics directly supporting both, random encounter checks and encumbrance, they require turnkeeping to know when monsters threaten the party and when supplies are used. Regular turnkeeping also gives the players a rough idea of when supply loss and random encounters will occur (or at least have a chance to) and so let’s them make decisions about risk and reward — how much caution can they afford? That’s the core function or “loop” in dungeon crawling, so “Strict Time Records Must be Kept” (or at least the passage of time and accumulating risk needs to be supported with rules) precisely to avoid a boring game where exploration has no risk or danger associated, and is mostly a waste of time.

  • The original Gygaxian concept of “strict time records” is campaign focused, and these days it is usually expressed as “one to one time”. One to one time an approach to campaign downtime where days pass at the same rate in the game world as they do in the real one (except during a session). This can cause issues of course, when the action of a single session takes place over many days in the game world, but it’s an interesting and generally functional way to encourage multiple parties (or even referees) at the same table and multiple characters (a “stable”) for individual players. It was never a common OSR practice however, despite interest, and works best for regular, public games at a hobby shop or large online community. For home style games with mostly consistent players it doesn’t offer nearly as much and down time can be organized in a more abstracted manner.

That’s seven maxims that were common in the OSR and still persist in its offspring and affiliated scenes, play styles and communities. Like any discussion of what the OSR was (or “is” for those that believe everything is the same since 2000 or whenever), it’s debatable and personal. These are simply what I take from these maxims, and how I understand them as usable. Even where I’m wrong, I think the process of looking at OSR truisms less dogmatically -- peeling them apart and deciding what’s polemic, what’s simplification, and what’s actually descriptive is worthwhile to understand the possibilities and future of dungeon crawl style RPGs.


  1. While I have seen Old School games (really, D&D in general) excused of being all about killing and stealing, I have never seen it linked to a tend to "the possibility of open worlds and wide player freedom" from any "Trad" gaming source, or really anywhere. Do you have any links for that one?

    1. I'm not saying this is a direct conversation a call and response type deal - both claims here are capsules of an endless debate that starts in A&E and Strat Review and pops up like a mushroom whenever sandboxes or adventure paths are mentioned.

      On one side the claims of "Open worlds and player freedom" vs. "An adventure path lets the players experience story besides mercenary plundering". I tend to see it in one sided arguments - sandboxers deny the possibility of adventure paths allowing any agency and pathfinders arguing that without direction there is only violence.

      You can find this argument on your forums and social medias pretty easy even now. r/DnD for example has regular "Players don't really want Sandboxes" threads. Though again, in arguing this is a misunderstanding, just like the that every adventure path is a referee indulging their personal fantasies (usually perverse).

      I don't give cites here to things when people ask these days - even friends - I don't want to encourage the sort of oceanic mammal behavior that was the hallmark of a certain ex-OSR luminary.

    2. What we know as the OSR is not solely defined by old documents; rather it takes those as a starting point, but adds 50 years of gaming know-how and philosophy. Previously "the baby was thrown out with the bathwater;" the OSR retrieves the baby and puts it in fresh water.

      Sandbox play has always been around in gaming and was probably the original form, but it wasn't really documented it was assumed. You can see that assumption in reading through some of the very earliest materials, but probably won't notice it unless you're looking for it. But we know that topic game was played, both because of us are old enough to have experienced it, and because the original authors and designers have also explained that in various interviews and essays.

      But you can't say that the modern open-world sandbox play that characterizes the OSR is quite the same way it was done back in the day either; or at least the people who were riding at the time did not envision it and had not fully developed it. (It's likely that some local groups were doing it the same way we do it now. Personally I tended to, not because I was smart or advanced or anything, it was just the way I understood the materials when I read them.)

      But as I said there's been 50 years of learning and thought and development building on those original concepts, some of it by people who never played other games, others by people who move to other games and came back, I'm still others by people who are newcomers to old school games.

      I don't have any citations. As I said you can find them reading between the lines if you're looking for them; that really you have to talk to the people who have been involved in Old School gaming to really understand where it comes from I guess.

    3. I see you skipped the first few paragraphs. This is not a post about uncritically accepting "OSR" myths or maxims.

      A) Yes, the OSR has always been its own thing - despite the claims of some of its proponents. It was always an adaption of old rules, memories, and subsequent experience. Desire for a game experience (either a past one distorted by memory or an imagined one) that took inspiration from old rule sets and adventures.

      B)I am one of those people involved in "old school gaming"... have been playing since 1982. Was pretty deeply involved in the OSR until 2019, when I decided not to use the label anymore and close down my near decade old OSR blog. So sure, you can read what folks like me have to say about what the OSR was and it may help understand it's details. Not claiming I know exactly, and even when it was a thing OSR folks were always hashing it out to a degree - like Trey and I above or JB and I below. Different ideas about play, different ways to describe it. Seems like the same could be said for the inventors of RPGs back in the 1970's.

    4. Understood. I think, however, that taking thngs from a list of points perhaps used against sandboxes or adventure paths and "encapsulating" them they way you have you create a strawman that mischaracterizes the actual motivations and concerns. To say someone finds the sandbox to minimalist or (going the other way) overwhelming is not the same "often" citing "the fear players will become murderhobos."

      Anyway, re: combat is a failed state, your baseball analogy doesn't work, because the rules of baseball talk about disallowed behavior to explicitly rule them out. This is hardly the case with combat. But even were it apt, the MLB 2021 rules devout a scant 14% of the page count to all forms of disallowed action--so not a lot. Your second reframe like better, but in general wonder why no one evokes what seems to me to be the obvious reason: D&D evolved from a war game and it's heavy combat rule reliance is simply an artifact of their history. A failure of imagination to a degree.

    5. Oh I'm absolutely not trying to conflate the fear of murderhoboism (which is I think a valid fear in some play styles more than others - though antisocial jerks are everywhere) with confusion about or by the openness of sandboxes that I see sometimes in both Contemporary Trad and Post OSR communities. They are different.

      The first is not something I think sandbox referees should worry about (or more they should recognize they have tools) but should be ready for, while the second is something that absolutely needs to be dealt with from the start bybaking faction, easy to spot first locations, hooks, rumors, direction and option into the setting. It's why lauding open worlds and sandboxes isn't always honest or correct. The referee or designer has to let the players into that world first, give them something (or ideally things) to worry about and people who want stuff from them and then let the players decide who they want to help, where's interesting etc. The referee can then have the world logically respond based on what they know that they players don't and then the players learn more about the world - become more invested in it and better at having goals and schemes.

      Also it was a basketball analogy, but I suspect the rules of the NBA are also not entirely about penalties. The key is the very idea of rules for bad play, penalties. In RPGS this isn't the same, but again its places in play you have to circumscribe more heavily because there will be greater friction and greater chances of loss - they need to be clearer and more absolute. Of course the war game legacy of early D&D is there, but the OSR wasn't early D&D it a was a play style constructed from trying to make sense of old D&D and other games from the perspective of an ideal form of play -- not as part of a larger lineage. The OSR chose to cut that historical reading off at various points and develop a play style from how those rules functioned to get to a style of play that worked and felt right. So yeah there are weird vestigial wargame bits (inches for movement? actual measured movement even...) but at a higher layer the rules serve to promote certain ways of playing. One of those is to see combat as a sort of climactic embodiment of the risk the players are constantly trying to manage or avoid.

  2. I discussed the myth of these "seven maxims" two years ago. They did not and never did apply to all "old school" gaming:

    Also, I would like to reiterate (as I did at the same time: that the "Principia Apocrypha" is a huge steaming pile of nonsense, i.e. non-helpful, grossly wrong, and misdirected.

    Except with regard to Original D&D (and its first clone, Swords & Wizardry), a largely PRIMORDIAL document that left a lot to be desired as a completely designed game system, these "seven maxims" are largely inapplicable. I am rather tired of them being reiterated at all.

    Now, in aid of being somewhat constructive, I *did* offer seven alternate "elements" of play, which I feel are a tad more helpful to players of old edition D&D, MAINLY "advanced play" (which can mean "AD&D," expanded OD&D play, *or* a basic game played in a mature fashion). These can be found here:

    [yes, at the time I was a bit off-putting to my readers by expounding AD&D as the "true" form of D&D game play...apologies for the over-exuberant evangelizing. Please ignore the self-righteous bits, if possible]

    1. They've been around a long time to help forge group identity. I'm also not super fond of them - though I always try to give other people's favorite game things a fair shot.

      Like Principia Apocrypha - which was actually written and edited by a huge cast of OSR folks on G+ and collated/condensed by its authors. It's not trying to teach the play style you like I suspect, and it was specifically written to explain play style differences to people arriving from the land of story games. In that I think it does alright, and it's a snapshot of what the "mainstream" of the "OSR" was doing as it started to fade. It's as good as the other two I list I think - just from a different era and with that era's feel.

      Personally, I'd say 1981 Basic with its examples, samples, and instructions does the best job of actually teaching people (but then it's not really teaching "OSR" style play either... )

      I also have my own maxims, one I will share is "A dungeons is a fantastical location designed to be explored procedurally." The rest, like publishing systems, I am dubious about, I fear releasing such things into the wild ... people might misunderstand them and have bad wrong fun ... like trying to play AD&D.

      Nah, AD&D is fine - fascinating selection of documents, some useful stuff, some trashy filler. It's very Gygax I think half good designer and chill referee/half greedy asshole and tyrant. I call that dichotomy Gygax and Xygag. The game certainly doesn't have the flow and speed of play I want these days and I find a lot of that comes from clutter - like segments - while it confuses stuff I do want - like encumbrance. Much easier to build up OD&D a bit then razee AD&D

    2. This:

      "I'd say 1981 Basic with its examples, samples, and instructions does the best job of actually teaching people"

      I agree with.

      I disagree with pretty much everything else...statements, presumptions, conclusions, and your reply.

      And that's okay. I don't "hold it against you" or sneer in your general direction or anything. Just wanted to make note of it...I was surprised at how different my thoughts are from yours on so many subjects!

      I will also admit, that I did not closely read your original blog post...your "seven maxims" nor your interpretations of them...the first time I came to this post, because (as I wrote) I am so damn tired of these idiotic, oft-parroted concepts ("rulings not rules," etc.). Now taking the time to read your actual text...well, I'm still very much in disagreement with much of what you've written. But a point-by-point refutation is hardly constructive nor (IMO) helpful. As said, I just want to ADMIT that my original comment went off 'half-cocked.'

      I just find this whole subject very fatiguing AND exasperating.

  3. Good stuff. The part I'd take most issue with is the seventh maxim. My sense is that the whole one-to-one time concept exists purely within Westmarches and Shadowdark. The former is strictly between-session, while the latter is strictly within-session. I think that the Westmarches style of play has its place, though it's pretty limited. We'll see what comes of Shadowdark. I'm not a huge fan, but I'm willing to give it a chance.

    To me, the essential concept behind "STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT" (other than the fact that Gygax was sometimes a pompous jackass) is that a crucial element of D&D is resource management. Torches, arrows, random encounters, hit points, rations, spell slots...these are important concrete values. In light of this, I personally loathe the idea of "usage dice" and similar abstractions. If you're going to go there, why not just play Blades in the Dark and be done with it?

  4. I don't think these maxims are good - any of them - I wish folks would stop shouting them at people who want advice on how to run B2 (though for B2 it has decent advice in it, and Moldvay Basic has more).

    I've been preaching supply as a cornerstone of dungeon crawling on this blog for years, but I'm not especially tied to the mechanics of Gygax and friends. Their encumbrance system(s) are clunky or insufficient and scale badly. Their movement and exploration mechanics either too wishy washy or more appropriate to a skirmish wargame. The old mechanics work, but they take too long for 3 hour sessions, usually online.

    Just like meetings or appearances online or to match more contemporary schedules (as opposed to the schedule of a 12 year old on summer vacation) I think some changes from the traditional can be useful. I have my own set of adaptions and concessions to 2023, and tend to find others efforts to streamline play interesting. A lot excise what I think are core parts of the game, but they often work where the designer has an understanding of the basics of dungeon exploration: turnkeeping, supply and randomized risk.

    I don't have much patience for those who get angry about not using the old way (which old ways btw? There's more then one set...) though I'm fine with people using them. In general I find restorative nostalgia a bad thing - it conceals the past in treacle and attacks the present on delusional ground, usually focusing on hating people rather then adapting or solving problems. It's silly to apply it to elfgames I know, but its a habit of mind I find dangerously annoying.

    To paraphrase Hofer or maybe Hericlitus ... If we ever get back to our quaint Canton, it won't be the same...time passes and we get old.

  5. This is a serendipitous post to come across for me. This week, I started in earnest working on a project about megadungeons. I want to make something really practical about running them. The origin of my interest in them comes from my attempts to try to make sense of the game. That involved digging into where the game comes from. I have been thinking a lot about being honest about my interest while coming off as beholden to the past or a rigid devotee of an imagined way the these games were played in the 70s. So, it was great to see some ongoing dialog with these concepts that can come off as settled wisdom.

    I will say that while running a game with a dozen to two dozen players doing things around the same time, that strict time keeping thing is pretty key. It has been important both on the larger scale but I have also run a few sessions that have happened in the same place at the same time. Even that rule, though, hasn't been a maxim I never break.

  6. Mega dungeons are hard. I still am not sure to what degree they existed (or more what form - they clearly existed, maybe dominated) in early play - but it doesn't matter. I have a strange fear that published they are always too much or too little.

    Reading Arden Vul (a very good mega dungeon ) is a job and I think it might be excessive to run - at least a big commitment. While my favorite mega dungeon ASE seems to be a great balance of detail and terse description ... until you run it and find yourself needing to add a lot.

    Maybe the mega dungeon is unpublishable (we can certainly create and run them)? I know HMS Appolyon when I started running it was a map on one bar napkin and a list of descriptions on a second. That worked but couldn't be published to describe the setting and how to play. Likewise, my notes for it 8 years later when I stopped running it were a thousand pages - still not ready for anyone else to use, but even cleaned up and expanded to usability, that would be untenable as a published product.

    Mega dungeons seem to me to require a referee's personal vision and investment to make good, and in that case why invest in someone else's fantasy?

    1. I don't mean to swing conversation about your post to megadungeons. I do agree whole heartedly about the the questions of whether they are publishable and why invest in someone else's vision. All of this is part of why I am interested in something more about process and skills than something focused on delivering a keyed object.

      I haven't taken the deep dive on Arden Vul but I have the found parts I have looked at to be pretty well done. I feel like a downfall to megadungeon that is made like Arden Vul is that those detailed and dense pages quickly become useless as play begins and the dungeon starts to change as a result.

      Back to the post, I appreciate seeing a bunch of stuff tossed around as received wisdom getting another look. It is making me make some introspection on "rules" I hold to. Like, I generally think of myself as a stickler for strict time keeping. In reflection, though, I have moments where I condense passed time to one period of downtime or how I will get more abstract with time and movement when moving through a well trodden path. I don't think such things are bad. It just shows to me how even ideas I found valuable need to be flexible.

    2. Arenden Vul is a very good dungeon that shows an enormous love for its source material (pulp fantasy, swords & sorcery, and the adventures of Jennell Jaquays). That's part of what's so frustrating - it's everything I think I'd want in a mega dungeon, but I can't ever see myself using it.

      Turnkeeping and timekeeping more generally are always worth looking at. When must you have strict records and when doesn't it matter? I play a dungeon crawl game, downtime doesn't matter much and wilderness travel doesn't matter much. I tend to do them as fast and abstractly as possible.

      For me downtime exists to refill supplies, hire henchmen, research spells and find rumors - all easy to handle very abstractly - almost like a drop down menu and the weeks or days supposedly involved are pretty meaningless, the real unit of time is "sessions", not fictional time, but a type of "turn".

      Likewise wilderness travel. Get it done quick, and generally it only matters to the degree that it sets the stage for the location or involves interactions with regional factions. I tend to make a few random rolls a day for landmarks, weather, and encounters ... but I don't really care much ... I should likely do more (something about supply in terms of mule-loads?).

      We can't simulate everything, so I try to focus on the bits of the fantasy world I want to engage with. Obviously a domain focused game would have different emphasis. Different rules even.

  7. The problem with MegaDungeons is that players think all we need is 4 characters to do this. We are going to go through 1000's of rooms many levels deep down underground with only a week's worth of food & water. They really think this is going to work. Any sane expedition would have hundreds of workers and tons of supplies to succeed. That is not possible at First Level.

    1. Not to derail these comments too much with megadungeon talk but I feel like a lot of elements of the megadungeon break down under bringing common contemporary play assumptions to them. I think they only makes sense with a large player base that goes beyond a "single party" mentality to explore the large space. Conversely, they are way of making play with a large player base make sense by focusing play. Similarly, ideas like experiencing or clearing the whole dungeon just don't even make sense for how a megadungeon functions.

    2. I see you've read the intro dungeon from Palladium. 500 mercenaries and 1,000 workers with that's a rival party.

      As to the problem of intended party size vs. actual party size or maybe more biting off more then we can chew ... yup that's a problem, but it's a problem of dungeon design and one that contemporary party size exacerbates, but doesn't create.

      Maybe one doesn't need 1,000 rooms with only 100 rooms of content?
      Maybe there should be many more entrances, shortcuts and secret ways to discover?
      Maybe the design should be tuned for how the dungeon will actually be used rather then an artificial ideal?

      Look at the sample dungeon in OD&D for example. It's not a sprawling 100 room level winding over 6 sheets of paper taped together. It's a stack of much smaller levels, interconnected in various ways.

      Look at Thracia - it doesn't have 1,000 rooms, yet it's often called a megadungeon and seems to function as one. Instead of vast empty areas to deplete supplies it uses density, secrets and discoverable history to create mysteries that encourage backtracking and exploration.

      The concept of the megadungeon as often presented seems designed mostly so someone can hold up the thickest book in RPG land and shout how they have the biggest dungeon. It certainly isn't designed for how most people actually play these games.

    3. I asked Jennel nicely on FB and she said she doesn't consider Thracia a megadungeon... but it was in enough of a grey area that I felt that was the only way to get a definitive answer.

    4. I'd say the question becomes though - what defines a Mega Dungeon? It's a slippery one. If we go by the OSR definition we hear from Grognardia and other places "A dungeon big enough for a whole campaign" aka Greyhawk Grognard's "Tentpole" dungeon, Thracia qualifies. That of course is an OSR - meaning 2000's at the earliest definition.

      Though the point here isn't so much "Is Thracia a Mega Dungeon?" It's more about how Thracia is built. Arden Vul is designed the same way and it's clearly a Mega Dungeon ... is it playable? I mean I wouldn't want to expend the effort, but the 3d6 DTL actual play seems to manage it?

  8. I always assumed the obsession with time was Gygax having a multiparty campaign and not wanting to screw up the timeline.

    Makes me think what else in AD&D and by extension OSR is an outgrowth of that unusual type of game, and of little relevance to 'normal' play ever since.
    ie the extra effort of being consistent to multiple players and parties, not just one group.

    Also that game had an extra stake/reward - be 'better' than the other players and other groups.

    1. Wait until you hear about tournament modules...

    2. A Pox on Tournament Modules! Lazy bloody TSR.

  9. Dear Gus,

    My name is Thomas and I’m contacting you to ask your permission to translate one of your articles/posts into French and publish the translation on the (free) website, a non-profit website of French translations of RPG articles written in English (and other languages).

    The editorial line of our association is to translate and publish on our site substantial feature articles on roleplaying games that we find interesting and/or funny, all for the intellectual benefit of the French gaming community.

    We started in 2000 as the French version of Places To Go, People To Be (, the famous award-winning Australian e-zine on RPGs. After having translated 100 of the best articles from the original PTGPTB, we now have over 600 articles translated from such blogs and e-zines as the Christian Gamers Guild, Monte Cook, Greg Costikyan, Johnn Four from, Gnome Stew, John H. Kim, Robin D. Laws (Pelgrane publishing site), RPGNet, countless Scandinavian LARP Theorists, Signs & Portents (Mongoose), The Forge, The MESSAGE (Men Ending Slurs And Sexist Attitudes in the Gaming Environment)...
    They all trust us!

    And we’d like to translate this article. It is a bit awkward to talk about this in the comments of a blog post. Is there a way we could contact you directly ?
    Thank you for your interest in our endeavor, I look forward to your reply

    Yours truly,

    Editor and translator for

    1. Sure - send me your proposal at "". Alternatively note that all "non-art content" here is available via BY SA NC 4.0 license. That means you can do what you like with it as long as you say where you got it (in a publication - you don't have to tell you game crew or anything) and don't use it for commercial purposes and have to release it under the same license. Personally I wouldn't consider translation for a gaming magazine for profit unless your magazine is pulling in enough to be a full time job over six figures.

  10. Here's my "Eight Mantras of OSR Gaming" (from 2021), many of which line right up with yours!

    1. Those look like fairly standard OSR maxims... very similar to these seven, which of course makes sense because as suggested above, these things aren't especially good at explaining a specific style of game but about creating a group identity. The primers themselves do a better job but they are also locked in their own context. Finch or Philotomy are foundational but coming from before OSR culture had really coalesced. Principia is late OSR and aimed at newcomers from the Story space, existing as a particular gloss on OSR ideas just as those ideas and the scene behind them exploded into different directions.

      The maxims I think are really only helpful if one has already learned the play style from someone...though to an extent that's always been how it works. Learn how to play/run the RPG from someone, or just muddle through with the rules and a vague idea until you have your own style that works. Cohesion arises out of scenes like the OSR.


Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...