Wednesday 1 July 2020

How OSR is Bastionland?

I often get asked whether Electric Bastionland is an OSR game. Rather than try to define the OSR as a whole I'll point you somewhere that I think explains it well:

The Principia Apocrypha is a fantastic one-stop-shop for understanding OSR style play, both the document itself and the accompanying links provided.

But gameplay aside the OSR is also a community of sorts, with all the decentralised segmentation and arguments over definitions and identities that come with it. But for the most part I've found it full of creative people that are always happy to share weird ideas, dig into how to improve your game, and shine a light on both hidden gems from the past and interesting new creations.

So are Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland OSR? From my perspective, yes, but it's not always that simple.

With Into the Odd I think people tended assumed it was OSR because it was released at the height of the G+ years, so it was much easier to point to a large online gathering of people and say "that's the OSR". When I was playtesting and developing the game I largely did so with people that enjoyed OSR style, and many of the sessions I played were part of an organised play where people could bring existing characters to new systems. In those games I was literally running the game for B/X characters and running them through dungeons, so it doesn't get much more OSR than that. 

So in general perception, Into the Odd was branded OSR even though it diverged quite radically from its source material in comparison to the retro-clones that dominated the scene. Since that time there have been a number of popular games operating within the OSR umbrella but clearly moving away from mechanics found in B/X. Black Hack, Knave/Maze Rats, Mothership, Troika, Best Left Buried. We saw some seminal blogposts that discussed OSR-play from a different angle, while preserving the spirit. For me the stand-out moment is On romantic fantasy and OSR D&D by Joseph Manola, which framed OSR-play as closer to Myazaki than Moorcock. The message here isn't that this should become the new OSR canon, but instead that OSR-style could cover a wider range of genres than you might think from first glance. 

A while after that G+ died, scattering the OSR community between Balkanised Discords, the Twitter Hellscape, and some lost souls doomed to wander Facebook. Even the blogs, which formed the very core of the OSR while G+ was still growing, are starting to be viewed as something of a relic. 

I'm predominantly on Twitter, and my circle shows a much wider variety of gameplay styles than I would see on G+. There's the ocean of Indie Games, people that mainly play 5th Edition D&D, and people that are playing things from that push the boundaries of gameplay into directions I would have never even considered. This is great for two selfish reasons: I get to hear about games I wouldn't ordinarily have come across, and I get to shout about my game to people that wouldn't have heard about it at all back in the G+ days. Even people that I think would hold very little interest in the more traditional B/W-clone side of the OSR.

So it's time for a thorough analysis of How OSR is Electric Bastionland? 

More like How Clickbait is this Blogpost? right? Please read this with the understanding that I have my tongue firmly in my cheek. 

According to the people that follow me on twitter it's basically two-thirds OSR. 

Would be interested to know what the 24% would describe the game as, but for now it remains a mystery.

But who cares what people think, this is my self-indulgent navel-dive. 

In 2018 a question was presented to the people in the circles of Scrap Princess, an icon of the G+ OSR: 

What are assumptions about how to play an OSR adventure that you think might not be commonly held as desired?

The answers were then condensed into ten points by Patrick Stuart, which he would later use in his Artpunk post, which he pitched as a subcategory of OSR. There was a lot of discussion around how many of these points are just good general game advice, rather than specific to OSR, but I'll address those as I move through the list. 

I'll tackle them one at a time and will try to detach myself from personal opinions and look at what's purely in the book. No half marks, if I feel like I can't fully justify a point then it's a NO. 

This is a game about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists.

While the world of Bastionland is left open to the Conductor's interpretation I feel like there's a lot of content in the book to support it as a sold, real place. The mapping procedure gives it some grounding and the players are encouraged to think of their surroundings as real.

The relatable 20th-century feel helps things feel more real in my experience.

Killing things is not the goal. 

Every Encounter is doing something besides waiting to kill/die, and there's no reward for killing. Your goals are getting money to pay your debt and not dying. Fighting might help with the former, but hinders the latter. 

There is nothing that is “supposed” to happen.
Lots of emphasis is placed on player choice and agency, the Conductor encouraged to create "situations not plots". 

However, there's definitely an assumption that the players will go hunting for Treasure, they are Treasure Hunters after all.

But I feel like the mapping procedure ensures that these aren't linear affairs, and there are enough improvisation tools in the book that players can always go off-grid.

Unknowability and consequence make everything interesting.

Consequences are a big yes. There are numerous references to them throughout the book. 

Buuuut unknowability is where I'm a bit of an OSR-heretic. There's definite mystery in the world, but I stress giving more information than you might think.

So I don't really have Unknowable things, you just need to ask the right questions.
You play as your character, not as the screenwriter writing your character.

100%. The only references to "Plot" or "Story" in the book are things appear in your character's Failed Career. I think that sums it up nicely.

It’s your job to make your character interesting and to make the game interesting for you.

This fits to some extent, but I feel like the whole point of Failed Careers is to give you a more interesting character than you'd normally get with "Level 1 Thief". One of you is probably going to be something weird like an alien and another might get a sentient helmet so don't think this one fits well, even if I agree that the player should take their concept and make it their own. It's not entirely their job. 
If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.

For sure. The characters don't have any real mechanical advantage over some other scrub from the street. You're outright told to be smart or die. 

The answer is not on your character sheet.

I mean this is almost entirely the point of the game. There isn't even a character sheet in the book because I'll often just scribble them onto paper to avoid getting too distracted from the game itself. Sure, sometimes you'll use things on your character sheet to solve problems but it's only really going to come from equipment, so I feel like it represents the character rummaging through their backpack, rather than the god-like player surveying a suite of mechanical powers. 

Things are swingy.

Okay this is a tricky one.

Some elements are the very definition of swingy. Practically every roll is a flat, even distribution. There's no rolling advantage on attacks, high modifiers, rerolling 1s, or other tricks that games use to ensure a higher result. Even if you're packing a d12 cannon you can roll a 1.

Character creation uses 3d6 for Ability Scores but there's no drop-lowest, no rerolls, no point-buy and you've got that infamous d6hp roll in there just begging to score a 1. One of you might have STR 18 and another STR 3. Deal with it!

Saves are straight up pass/fail and use a single d20 for linear distribution. Even with STR 18 you've got that 10% chance of rolling 19 or 20. 

But, combat is designed very much to be less swingy than D&D. You won't get randomly critted to death out of nowhere, and you probably won't spend multiple rounds where you all whiff your attacks. As this is one of the key divergences from D&D, and one of the most deliberate design choices in the game, I'm torn on the final call.