A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Negative Space

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on May 28, 2022

Tagged: torchbearer theory osr

Kingdom Death, why not

I just finished playing four sessions of Torchbearer. Jesse ran the game for a small group of us. I will write more about Torchbearer later, it was a very interesting game. Today I simply wanted to write about rules and how players engage with them.

In OSR play, I think it quite common that players are doing their utmost to avoid engaging with the rules of play! They often exist to model some sort of failure state: saving throws, combat, etc. The odds are in the house’s favour, so play becomes about fictional positioning to avoid leaving things to chance. OSR games are about overcoming challenges, and clever play in this space is all about stacking the odds in your favour. Of course, the best odds are the ones where you aren’t rolling any dice.

I play with people who regularly don’t know the rules of the game we’re playing. If they need to know something the expectation is the DM will tell them. Torchbearer sits in stark contrast to all of this. You need to know the rules as a player and as a GM to play effectively. It’s an interesting game of resource management. Just like B/X, but you have even more to manage besides your food, light, time. You also have to worry about your conditions, checks, etc. Playing the game is about engaging with the rules. Clever play comes from understanding the mechanics and bending the game to your favour.

When chatting after our last session of Torchbearer I brought up some of the above and one of the player’s thought it so odd: you are just playing pretend, the game is rudderless. Players choices don’t mean anything, because nothing really means anything. A fair assessment, for sure. But I suppose how I have described things above isn’t the whole story.

OSR play feels like it’s about engaging with the negative space of the rules. The rules layout the guardrails for play. This is a game about exploration and adventure. You might need to Save vs. Magic, it’s written on your character sheet. You might need to fight a monster, you have hit points and to hit bonuses. The game tells you what it’s about, and where you need to worry, and play then is about trying not to worry. OSR play isn’t simply playing pretend because the game frames what your pretend looks like—like all role playing games.

Games that work well provide support for play through their rules, GM advice, player advice, etc. This is true regardless of the model of play as described above. When making a game, especially a rules lite game, you should think about how players will approach the rules of play, and if there is enough there to encourage forward movement and interest.