character sheets and choice and success

I recently read a definition of OSR (and I do not want to talk about defining the OSR) that included the idea that players are expected to use the content of their character sheet to find an optimum path to success. That is two things: the character’s skill set defines the shape of the narrative (the character happens to the world) and players are seeking success as a priority. I do not doubt that this is at the heart of OSR because this is very consistent with its wargaming roots.

So I now withdraw my old proposition that my games belong in some niche of the OSR. Unless this is a new axis I can be far to the left on, this isn’t what I want from a game at all.

example-char-sheetNow the first I’ve probably over-implied my distaste for. I do want the character sheet to impel the narrative, to sculpt it in terms the player has indicated. But I don’t want any part of the sheet to be irrelevant. I want characters to deal with complex problems that push them out of their expertise. I like it when Fighter is desperately trying to sneak into the castle. When Wizard gets in a knife fight. When Thief has tries to solve a problem with a half-learned spell. The real world rarely hits you head on — it hits you from the side. It forces you to learn things you would never choose for yourself.

So, systemically, that has to be fun to work. And that’s tied to the next thing.

Okay so, about success-seeking. In a role-playing game specifically, I really dislike this but I understand it — I think it derives from combat-centricity and the threat of character death. That is, we have become trained to seek success by games that punish us (the player) for failure. You’re knocked out of Gloomhaven. You go broke in Monopoly. Your bard dies. And so we seek to optimize both preparation and play for success to avoid punishment. We try to win.

moodBut the opportunity for something else is front and centre in role-playing games. We have no victory conditions. We don’t need to put death on the table as a risk if we don’t want to. And so we can explore failure safely, or at least partial failure. And I think this is necessary for an interesting narrative — a string of successes would indicate to me a lack of struggle. It doesn’t sound like interesting — or surprising, and I like surprising — space. We have to deal with reality, though, and reality says losing is bad. I used to cry when I lost a game. Flat out wail. That’s training we need to confront and overcome to get somewhere else.

Fortunately language has enormous power.

The system I’m refining to use for Diaspora Anabasis scales results as automatic failure, failure, success with complication, and success. The rarest is a success. Sadly players read this as “I am always going to fail” and the memory of losing Park Place to a slightly drunk and very performative Auntie Jean looms. We flinch. We don’t want to be put in that space. I’ve already given the game away here though — the word complication.

See, it didn’t used to be that. It used to be “realized risk“. This really triggers that reflex: the stage is set, the risk is declared, you roll the dice and the risk is realized. The bad thing happens. You failed.

Except you didn’t! You succeed, and the risk was realized. You got what you wanted, it’s just that there’s a twist. The negative reaction is largely a function of the language, though also partly because it is unavoidable. So two things are in order: a repair of language and a choice that you probably won’t take but that needs to be there to give you some security when you face the ghost of Auntie Jean. Hence “complication” instead of “risk realization” (which flows better anyway). And stress. Don’t want to eat that complication even though it’s a change in the narrative direction? Take some stress and add a FACT to your character sheet that has only fictional weight (which sounds like it’s weak but fictional weight is very strong indeed — consider your 10′ pole for a moment and all of the rules associated with it compared with all it will do in your game) and avoid the complication.

So mostly what’s going to happen is you’re going to succeed, even if you’re not great at something, but something unanticipated is also going to happen. You’re going to learn something that makes things more complicated (interesting). You might get injured (but not dead). Someone else might get injured. You might lose something. You might get delayed. You might get lost. But these things are at the heart of stories!

These, then, are critical ways my games will deviate from the OSR. In many other ways they align elegantly. But you won’t really have a character that lets you optimize all scenes for success, in part because there is no Fighter/Thief/Wizard role provision and combat is not privileged, so there are few contexts in which each broad skill category has a contributing role — the artificial tank, dps, healer cooperative role does not have a scene unless there is a complex positional combat system. And there isn’t. You will certainly look to your character sheet for ideas, but you won’t always pick your best skill and try to make it work.

And you won’t be confronted by Auntie Jean. Things will go south, get complicated, feel desperate, but you won’t feel like a loser. You will, I hope, feel beset with woes and emerge out of every strange twist of fate in a more interesting space.

6 thoughts on “character sheets and choice and success

  1. I know you don’t want to talk about defining the OSR, but that definition is *the opposite* of how the OSR functions in just about every community I’ve been around. The only part of the character sheet we regularly want players looking at is what they’re carrying around with them, because resource management creates stakes and because macguyvering things is fun.

    Otherwise, the meme is “Player Skill over Character Skill”. There are stats for combat, which are important because combat is a tense state that needs to have a fair backbone. Outside of that, we try to focus on player creativity over stats. I don’t want to say that definition is *wrong* because i’m sure someone out there plays that way… but god that definition is not accurate to anything I’ve experienced.


    1. Yeah, defining OSR mostly just starts fights in OSR splinter groups about THEIR definition. This one comes from a defense of OSR elsewhere. Personally the more I look into it the less I know what OSR is beyond “sorta reminds me of D&D when it was cheaply made”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, you’re not wrong about the definition of OSR starting fights, haha. The “player skill over character skill” thing has been a fairly consistent feature of the playstyle, at least. As far as I can tell.

        The OSR is in a bit of an identity crisis right now, though, so you aren’t the only one who doesn’t know what it is, haha.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh yeah, I get the player skill over character skill, but I’m more thinking about the way character skills are ideally polarized (you have great abilities and crappy abilities). But maybe that’s more literally D&D and not OSR.


  2. I was very confused at first by this because I have read “the answer is not on your character sheet” so often as an OSR maxim (e.g.,, but I think the character sheet thing may be something of a red herring here. The larger point seems to be that the kind of play you prefer encourages taking chances with interesting—but likely not lethal—stakes. And yeah, that’s not very OSRish (by certain popular definitions of OSR). I’m rereading The King Machine now, and the parts that jumped out at me related to this included “Try to get into trouble. You’ll like it,” and “The more often the dice come out, the more effective your character will become.” These highlight a tension for me in OSR play: As a player, I WANT to get into trouble, and I WANT to roll dice, because these things are interesting to me. But in OSR games, I’m supposed to want to AVOID trouble, and AVOID rolling dice, as you only roll dice when you’ve screwed up and the ref wants to have some other force to blame when your character dies.

    But of course, having a referee and open ended play and random tables all feel pretty OSRish to me, so let’s keep agreeing to refuse to settle on a definition and just steal the parts we like.

    Liked by 1 person

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