new school old school

Sure, OSR lacks a decent definition. Many have tried. Let’s not try again.

A lot of attention gets paid to the mechanisms and the meta-mechanisms, things like stats & skills; roll to hit, roll for damage; hex maps; rulings not rules; and like that. But that might be a little superficial — after all, I think every one of us has occasionally found a game that hits a sweet spot while at the same time having mechanisms we thought we would dislike. What is that sweet spot, and what would it look like on an OSR game?

Now, I’m pretty old and was teethed on Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I played Traveller and Twilight:2000 well into the 80s. Later I’d get back into gaming and it would be D&D again. I know the old school. I grew up there and I literally taught there.

I find, though, that my game design does not map on to that old school game design at all, but my play does map onto my old school play. So I’d like to wonder out loud about that now.

The Soft Horizon system is sort of powered by (more set off by) the apocalypse. But there are no playbooks. Instead there’s a very simple skill system — there’s a small set of skills (we call them methods, but whatever) and you have all of them at some level or another. That’s because I like my character definition generalizable — I want a set of blocks to fit together to make who I want to play. I don’t really want classes and playbooks smell of classes to me. Again, leaning more towards Traveller in some ways, but definitely Old. But even that’s a little superficial. I talked about how play is old school, and not specific system elements.

Map.pngA critical element of play for me is exploration. Characters are going to new places and solving problems there, both their own problems and the problems of the people they meet. By my recollection of old school gaming I have to place exploration, whether revealing the contents of hexes or just narrating a new space to be, as an element of the OSR. You don’t need a literal map (it’s only one tool that enables this function). You just need the game to have a focus on exploration in some form.

Another element is discovery. This goes hand in hand with exploration but I more mean finding out secret knowledge, making connections between disparate things. Unveiling mysteries to discover more mysteries. In Soft Horizon games I make this happen in very different ways than in my old gaming days — instead of the ref inventing it, the system delivers it or tricks the ref into delivering it at the last minute — but it’s the same objective, the same function.

biostorm.pngAnd then there’s wonder. You discover something truly fucked up. You develop an image in your head that’s mind-blowing. A seeming contradiction reveals that the whole universe is not quite what you thought. It’s that pot-smokers whoooah moment that makes everyone sit back a second and take it onboard. And then start spewing wild theories for the why of it. That wonder comes from making sense of contradiction and from everyone being surprised at once. Ref included. That’s something that many struggle to find and it’s not in the basic mechanisms of a world simulator. It might be in your awesome cover image or interior illustrations. It might be in some fiction. But those only happen once each and then you’re done. A system that’s really, solidly OSR needs to deliver it reliably. It needs to be intentional. I don’t know how well I solved this but goddamn I took a stab at it.

So there is a way, I think, that these games are OSR in spirit. They are hand made. They favour player development of character. They lean into exploration and discovery to reveal wonder. The target play is OSR. I for sure found a mechanism that does it for me, every time. I have no reason to believe that you are all that different.

a blast from the past: optima

This is from late 2009, after release of Diaspora and, more significantly, being (correctly, I think) criticized for using Optima as body type.

The choice to set Diaspora in the typeface, Optima, was not a casual one. It was considered, nuanced, and ultimately probably wrong, though the vision — the text as I hoped it would be — would still be set in Optima.

First and most obvious, Optima is the titling Face for Traveller (albeit the oblique in that document). Certainly Diaspora contains many homages to Traveller and setting the text in Optima was something that the original authors of Traveller probably could not readily do. So in the sense that we were updating that game, I chose to also update the physical text. I wanted to at least in part be what that could have been if done with modern tools and the same early vision. So, homage.

It was more than that, though. Optima is a heavily modulated sans serif, which is a rare beast. It lacks terminal ornamentation, yet its strokes change from thick to thin as though drawn by a human being with a brush. It is both man and machine. This was thematically consistent. Optima was also a Linotype font — it was designed for use in a machine that performed typesetting by taking keyboard input and actually casting a slug of metal type inside a compartmentalized foundry. An assembly line took the input, chose letter forms from molds, poured molten metal into them, cooled them, and dumped them into a page board as a complete line set in metal. When complete, the typesetter would remove the page of type and use it to perform letterpress printing or to press a proof for photography as part of a lithographic process.


This kind of early mechanization has parallels with the Diasporan view of technology: the first step in automating a process is to make a machine that does exactly what the process did. It was a long time before we cut the metal type out of the process altogether. Imagine a machine that actually performs molten metal casting in its innards — a word processor with a foundry inside it!

The fact of this early mechanization imposed restrictions on font design. One could not kern letters (because the type was set as a line, unlike the later Monotype machines which set by letter and could be manipulated at that unit) and so fonts built for the linotype have horizontally truncated f’s. They lack elaborate tails and serifs. The upper case Q never swoops into neighbouring territory. The idea of being constrained by technology is part of the Diasporan theme, and so again, Optima resonates. Another Linotype choice would have been Palatino, but this quasi-Renaissance letter form didn’t have the stark industrial feel of a sans serif face. Nonetheless, we do see use of Palatino in the text — the fiction blocks are set in Palatino Italic.

We could summarize that by saying that Optima is, at its very core, a “retro” choice. Not just because it’s old, but because it is representative of the way that nascent technological upheavals force art and culture. Before we figure out how best to use technology, it already begins to mold us — to determine how best humans are used in the service of technology.

The downside to Optima was something that did not show up in proofing the text: Optima is meant to be set with metal and so it assumes the high resolution of analog production methods. It is a beautiful and highly legible font digitally at 1200 dots per inch. It remains elegant at 300 dpi (common laser printer resolution) provided the black is consistent. Sadly, with an inconsistent black and low resolution, the strong modulation of the type can undo it — the thin lines become swamped by the thick. The d, the f, the c all start to look a little blobby and anemic by turns. So when I discovered that our printer’s blacks were less than perfect, my delight in the finished product was wounded. Not slain, but injured. And so the best and well considered intentions of the human behind the technology is undermined by the technology itself.

And so, this is a kind of apology. Diaspora could have been more legible with more attention paid to the demands of technology. Fortunately, the failure is thematic: should I, the conscious, free-willed, human mind sacrifice my vision — even my autonomy, to some extent — to service a technology’s failure? Perhaps I should — Optima itself is just such a compromise. And as technology advances we make these same kinds of compromises: we answer the phone even when we don’t want to, we treat humans as machines when we talk to them through a machine, and we choose convenience over beauty to stay ahead of the game. And these choices are part of what Diaspora explores. And so it’s a failure I embrace.

soft horizontal monsters

Currently there is no mechanical representation of monsters, enemies, gods, traps, or anything really. I’d like to keep that but perhaps monsters (as a generic term) can be represented as a set of narrative cues instead. That is, they don’t have a mechanical response but they tell certain kinds of stories. Consider:

  • Monster name
  • Description
  • Amusing quote (following the MtG pattern perhaps)
  • Introductions
  • Risks

Let’s look at the two that aren’t obvious, introductions and risks.

Introductions are ways the thing is introduced to the party. They are narrative diversions and slot into the ref’s prep areas of “start some shit” and “create a hazard”. They are cues for the ref that can be brought in on the fly. Let’s have an example monster.

Muck Cell (aka Jellysand)

ochre jelly.png
Hmm, this one seems to be occupied.

The muck cell is a huge single-celled organism that devours everything it comes in contact with. It disguises itself by hiding under a thin layer of earth or vegetation. If it has already devoured something recently its digestive power is reduced.

“You escape with some bad chemical burns on your thighs and you have no trousers now.”


  • Someone stepped in it. RESCUE is required.
  • Everyone is suddenly attacked at once. Time for a MONTAGE.


  • HARM: someone gets badly burned. The digestive system of the beast has burned or partially dissolved a character.
  • COST: something important gets dissolved. Some loot is ruined or create a DEBT based on something lost that’s close to a character’s heart.
  • CONFUSION: fleeing in terror leaves everyone lost. This thing is terrifying but not too fast. The whole party might be lost or it might be split up.
  • REVELATION: this thing has eaten something or someone you care about recently. This is a chance to poignantly reveal the death of a beloved NPC. What is the impact of that on the story? Go in that direction now.

So introductions are purely narration: this is what happens when you encounter the thing. We’ll provide some options so that there are different ways to stumble upon it. They imply, however, a mechanical impact, an action that might need to be taken. This shouldn’t be taken as gospel however! Let the narration take its course and see what happens. It may well be that the players find another way to approach the problem. If not, use the recommendation here.

Similarly, risks are ideas for how to put risk on the actions that follow. These might not work if the narration plays out other than expected: they are there to give you something to fall back on and a way to plan if you feel you prefer to plan a little more than me.

As with out ref prep sheet, these monster sheets are ideas. Cues. Ways to spark your own creativity but also something to lean on if your creativity falters. They are there to reduce your stress.