Taking bits of story games and putting them into OSR (specifically pick lists)

An overly long preamble

I think the distinction between OSR and story games is greatly overstated.

First I'll give a bit of background about myself. I started playing games in roughly 2007 and while I started with D&D, I quickly became interested in a wider range of games, although generally those available in the surprisingly well-stocked FLGS. Later on, I learned about a wider variety of games through a few random blog posts or kickstarters, but all of my experience with TTRPGs up until 2020 has been entirely playing them, and I was blissfully isolated from most online discourse.

That changed in 2020, when I discovered I could talk about games online, mostly on Twitter, and also start making adventures for games. It was exciting and invigorating to make things people actually cared about, even though a lot of the people online were angry and miserable, for rather understandable reasons. I was slightly bewildered by all the people who seemed to hate each other for reasons that would be impossible to explain even to the people I played TTRPGs with every week. It seemed that people had formed a lot of theories over the years about how people play games, and divided themselves into factions accordingly, which, I think, have very little to do with how most people actually play games.

In particular, I don't buy into the idea that "OSR" stands on one side and "story games" stand on the other and never the twain shall meet. I'm not even sure these two categories are meaningful any more. But a lot of this ironclad division seems to be based on a lot of highly theoretical essays written a while ago that bear very little relation to my experience playing games. I feel like a lot of the supposed conflict between different play styles could be resolved by spending less time arguing and more time playing games (or at least reading them).

My actual point

The difference between a random table and a pick list is that the random table has a second column for numbers, in case you want to choose things randomly. For instance, Blades in the Dark has a list of appropriate names for the setting, and Cairn also has a list of appropriate names for the setting with numbers beside them.

Someone will probably say it is not The True OSR to pick something off of a random table that you like instead of rolling for it, but I will refer them to my previous point about having fun playing games instead of arguing about them.

On Discord, the subject of whether pick lists can teach us something about OSR tables came up. One person had a pretty cool idea which I won't share because it's their idea, you'll just have to join the NSR discord to find out. This had me think about a cool thing I'd seen in some pick lists. For instance, Wanderhome has character generation picklists that ask questions like, "choose two you still are and two you arent' any more" or "choose two you are and two you refuse to be." I think this is good inspiration for random tables. Let's imagine this in an OSR table.

Pick one that this dungeon room has and one that it clearly used to have:

  1. A pit trap
  2. A slumbering monster
  3. A chest of gold
  4. A water fountain
  5. A holy altar
  6. A passageway leading down
  7. A valuable relic
  8. Strange writing on the wall

Example 1. Let's say it has a chest of gold but clearly is missing a valuable relic. Well, that poses a mystery. Why is the gold undisturbed? Is it trapped or cursed? Or did the one who stole the relic not value gold the way you might? Or perhaps they're wounded and still around here - they had the strength to carry the relic but had to leave the gold.

Example 2.There is a holy altar but it's missing strange writing on the wall. Maybe the writing was defaced? Maybe this was once an altar to some other god whose very name was erased - perhaps some danger related to that old god still lurks? Or maybe the power of the altar can only be unlocked if the writing can be restored.

This is basically the most cliche spark table I can come up with, but adding the "clearly used to have" makes it a little more interesting.

Also I cheated and added some numbers. I'm indecisive.

Pick one the town provides and one the town would pay good money for

  1. A healer
  2. Plentiful food
  3. Military might
  4. Skilled craftspeople
  5. Political legitimacy
  6. Protection from supernatural dangers

I threw this together in about a minute, but I think it might work as a simple faction system. I'll take it out for a quick spin.

Town A: Has political legitimacy, needs protection from supernatural dangers

Town B: Has military might, lacks food

Town C: Has food, is in desperate need of a healer

There's obvious conflict between B and C here, and a real potential for it to break out into open violence. If C needs a healer, maybe there's some kind of plague spreading? C is especially vulnerable but also the plague could spread to B if they proceed with their plans. Meanwhile, A is above the fray - maybe they're the capital, but why aren't they getting involved? Maybe the ruling family has been taken over by some hidden supernatural forces.

Recently, I was playing around with Mythic Bastionland's faction generation system, and while theirs is a lot better thought out and tested and so on, I think with some work my approach here would not be totally out of place in that kind of game.

I'm not sure that something like this hasn't been done within OSR, but I personally heard about this way of structuring spark tables, sorry, pick lists, from story games. In fact, they now seem so obviously similar that I am now second-guessing myself - do people really consider these two approaches to be so fundamentally different? And yet there are probably a lot of cool ideas we're missing out on, by isolating ourselves in these two camps.

Written Dec 17 2023