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Game Masters' GuideOSR+ Philosophy

OSR+ vs. PbtA Style

Games that are "Powered by the Apocalypse" (PbtA) are RPGs that, like games in the old school tradition, have in mind a certain style of play, and are designed in such a way to support that play style. The PbtA tradition originates in Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker, which laid out a set of principles for players and the GM that would later become design principles for an entire generation of RPGs.

In order to compare the philosophy of play in OSR+ to PbtA-style games, we'll reference those principles laid out in Apocalypse World.

In short, PbtA games were remarkable when they hit the indie RPG scene because they codified a lot of the unspoken principles of old school play into the backbone of the game, as well as provided GMs with specific actions they can take to run their games, in the same way players have actions they can take to play. This has the effect of distributing control over the narrative across the table, rather than bundling the majority of it up in the GM's hands. Moreover, each PbtA game tends to offer mechanics designed to emulate a particular genre of fiction (the post-apocalyptic, in the case of Apocalypse World). Lastly, PbtA games tend to favor non-diegetic mechanics over diegetic ones, which are mechanics players use that model the narrative rather than action characters take in the fiction.

The Yes, And

Player Moves

When a player says that her character does something listed as a move, that’s when she rolls, and that’s the only time she does. The rule for moves is to do it, do it. In order for it to be a move and for the player to roll dice, the character has to do something that counts as that move; and whenever the character does something that.

One of the most divisive aspects of the PbtA play style is the language surrounding moves. The nature of moves (which are simply mechanics that trigger when characters take action in the fiction) is no different than how the old school style instructs players to "manually" interrogate the fiction: "Encourage players to interrogate the fiction 'manually,' asking them to describe the manner in which they interact, rather than eliding their actions via a roll or assumed character ability." (Principia Apocrypha). In other words, you don't roll dice until your character does something in the game that warrants it.

One key difference between "moves" in PbtA and actions heroes can take in OSR+ is that, like other simulationist games, most actions heroes can take in OSR+ are resolved discretely, whereas in PbtA games, many discrete actions are often bundled up into a single move. For example, in OSR+ combat actions include individual attacks vs. parries vs. dodges, and exploratory actions that manipulate the scene are resolved play-by-play, rather than in a single roll. Compare making a single attack in OSR+ to the move Going Aggro in Apocalypse World:

When you go aggro on someone, roll+hard. On a 10+, they have to choose: force your hand and suck it up, or cave and do what you want. On a 7–9, they can instead choose 1 [of the following...]

Every PbtA action is the equivalent of a success check in OSR+, meaning every roll has a chance of succeeding extraordinarily, generating success at a cost, or granting the GM an opportunity to intervene with fiat depending on the context of the roll.

Add to this that there are actions specific to "playbooks" (which are essentially character classes in PbtA) outside of those basic actions players can take when interacting with the game world at large.

OSR+ takes some inspiration from PbtA moves, however. Success checks and scene checks, for example, are abstracted fail-forward mechanics modeled after the way moves work in Apocalypse World, that are available as an option to use when the GM wants something other than a pass-fail result. Additionally, there are many actions players can take that are neither discrete nor diegetic in the game: downtime mechanics such as parleying, monologuing, journeying, and montaging generate metanarrative benefits across indeterminate gulfs of in-game time.

Why Play

...Because the characters are together against a horrific world. They're carving out their little space of hope and freedom in the filth and violence, and they’re trying to hold onto it. Do they have it in them? What are they going to have to do to hold it together? Are they prepared, tough enough, strong enough and willing? […] Because there's something really wrong with the world […] Who fucked the world up, and how? Is there a way back? A way forward? If anybody's going to ever find out, it's you and your characters.

Apocalypse World, like most PbtA games, implicitly makes the argument that we play the game because our characters are trying to make sense of themselves in the fiction (in other words, resolve their conflicts). This sounds very much like narrative fulfillment, and so PbtA games and OSR+ are aligned on the objective of play, in stark contrast to the old school style.

On the Fourth Wall

To the players: your job is to play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves—cool, competent, dangerous people, but real. My job as MC is to treat your characters as though they were real people too, and to act as though Apocalypse World were real.

Unlike the old school style, PbtA calls for players to fully embody their characters, implying that you should make decisions as they would, and keep player knowledge separate from character knowledge. This is mirrored in OSR+, because understanding how conflicts and flaws drive heroes' choices in the game is deeply connected to the objective of play.

Make the World Seem Real
Make the Player Characters’ Lives Not Boring
BARF Forth Apocalyptica
Address Yourself to the Characters, not the Players
Respond with Fuckery And Intermittent Rewards
Name EVeryone, Make Everyone Human

You have to commit yourself to the game's fiction's own internal logic and causality, driven by the players' characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside [...] Cultivate an imagination full of harsh landscapes, garish bloody images, and grotesque juxtapositions [...] In your game, make all your NPCs... do what they want to do, when they want to do it, and if something gets in their way, well, they deal with that now.

All the advice here is not dissimilar to the advice in the old school style that NPCs Aren't Scripts and Keep the World Alive when it comes to creating a realistic microcosm out of the fiction, and Keep Up the Pressure, Offer Tough Choices, or Embrace Chaos... But Uphold Logic drive the narrative forward to create verisimitude.

Of Look Through the Crosshairs, Baker writes: "'there are no status quos in Apocalypse World.' You can let the players think that some arrangement or institution is reliable, if they’re that foolish, but for you yourself: everything you own is, first, always and overwhelmingly, a target." Put another way, you must consider how every element of the fiction can be used to move the narrative forward so that players don't take for granted that the game world exists independently of what they do or don't do.

It's worth noting that Apocalypse World singles out Address Yourself to the Characters, Not the Players as a principle of play: that is, the GM should treat players as their characters when he addresses them, which is not necessarily something GMs do in every old school game. This is good advice in OSR+, as it closes the distance between player and character, thereby encouraging them to make decisions in-character.

Always Say [What Is Demanded]

Apocalypse World divvies the conversation up in a strict and pretty traditional way. The players' job is to say what their characters say and undertake to do, first and exclusively; to say what their characters think, feel and remember, also exclusively; and to answer your questions about their characters' lives and surroundings. Your job as MC is to say everything else: everything about the world, and what everyone in the whole damned world says and does except the players’ characters.

Apocalypse World admits it isn't doing anything unique here: this is the very definition of the conversation in RPGs. Like the old school style, PbtA games advise the GM to be "scrupulous, even generous, with the truth" in the same way the Principia Apocrypha advises GMs to "be generous" and "give them the benefit of the doubt" when interrogating the fiction.

Ask Provocative Questions & Build on the Answers
Sometimes Disclaim Decision-Making

…You’ll need to pass decision-making off sometimes. Whenever something comes up that you'd prefer not to decide by personal whim and will, don’t […[ you can put it in the players' hands [...] Start simple: "What's your living space like?" "Who's known each other longest?" Once you have the player's answer, build on it. I mean three things by that: (1) barf apocalyptica upon it, by adding details and imagery of your own; (2) refer to it later in play, bringing it back into currency; and (3) use it to inform your own developing apocalyptic aesthetic, incorporating it—and more importantly, its implications—into your own vision.

In PbtA games, it is ordinary and expected of the GM to invite players to construct aspects of the fiction as the conversation unfolds. Unlike the old school style, OSR+ also invites players to collaborate with the GM in constructing the fiction under certain circumstances. This starts in session zero, when they create story hooks that later get incorporated into the adventure, but it's a technique you can use throughout the campaign whenever you want players to become more invested in the scene. Let them add details, or let them contribute to the lore, within the parameters of what you need out of the scene.

And while OSR+ is a simulationist game (where the world "exists out there" to be interrogated by the players), there are many entry points in the rules that enable the players to steer the fiction for themselves:

  • Through fate points, by introducing narrative advantage
  • By earning player advantage in success or scene checks
  • By utilizing story tags
  • Through certain downtime or exploratory actions such as journeying, montaging, or consulting the lore.

Be a Fan of the Players’ Characters

“Make the characters’ lives not boring” does not mean “always worse.” Sometimes worse, sure, of course. Always? Definitely not. … The way to make a character’s success interesting is to make it consequential. Let the characters’ successes make waves outward, let them topple the already unstable situation.

The old school style stresses that the GM behave as a neutral arbiter of the rules and is often referred to as a referee. In Apocalypse World, the GM is referred to as a "master of ceremonies." The language here is important, because it reveals the attitude of the GM desired by either philosophy of play: a referee does not take sides, he does not care personally about outcomes, he's fair and impartial; a master of ceremonies is an orchestrator of a grand event, a kind of entertainer in his own right, whose purpose is to introduce guests of honor.

In OSR+, you have to wear two hats: both that of the neutral arbiter when it comes to resolving mechanics, but also that of a cheerleader when it comes to things your players are hoping to accomplish. While your hands are tied by the rules, you want them to succeed, meaningfully. This is because the point of playing a game in OSR+ is narrative fulfillment—the knight wants to redeem himself, the evil sorcerer wants to acquire the crown of serpents to taste immortality, the thief wants to escape with the jewel to become world-renowned. While this doesn't mean the heroes must succeed in their goals (it can't be easy if it's to be meaningful), it would be unsatisfying if they never got to try.

And so this is what is meant when we say that OSR+ agrees with the PbtA that you need to be a fan of your players' characters: be a fan of their journey, and make that journey worthwhile.

Fronts & Thinking Offscreen

A front is a set of linked threats. Threats are people, places and conditions that, because of where they are and what they’re doing, inevitably threaten the players’ characters — so a front is all of the individual threats that arise from a single given threatening situation. Creating a front means making decisions about backstory and about NPC motivations. Ral decisions, binding ones, that call for creativity, attention and care. You do it outside of play, between sessions, so that you have the time and space to think.

"Fronts" in Apocalypse World are basically a lightweight methodology for worldbuilding: putting things out there in the fiction that can act on the party in the form of GM moves. The types of "fronts" include warlords, grotesques, landscapes, afflictions, and brutes, which are appropriate to the game's post-apocalyptic setting. They are the means of "thinking offscreen," which is to say, conceptualizing what is happening in the world independent of the player characters' actions to create a sort of overworld that sits above their characters' theater of action.

In OSR+, factions stand in for fronts, though the game tends to shy away from abstractions or mechanics that dictate what they do. Usually, you place real world NPCs belonging to said factions and related events into scenes to have them affect the fiction. The closest thing to GM moves for "fronts" in OSR+ is overworld play, where players can interact with the fiction-at-large, from a global perspective, as opposed to from the perspective of their heroes. This is very different than what fronts are about in Apocalypse World, where fronts manifest GM moves that can directly impact characters.

The No, But

Non-Diegetic Mechanics

It can be argued that most PbtA moves are non-diegetic mechanics because they model what the character hopes to accomplish by acting, rather than what the character is actually doing when acting. For example, in Apocalypse World, the basic “moves”include:

  • Do Something Under Fire
  • Go Aggro
  • Seize by Force
  • Seduce or Manipulate
  • Read a Sitch
  • Read a Person
  • Open Your Brain
  • Help or Interfere

These actions don't model the specific actions characters take in the fiction, but instead model the expected outcomes of those actions. For example, when I take action in the fiction that equates to the move Seize by Force, my character might actually be grappling an opponent in a single attack or spending twenty minutes organizing my gangsters to surround the warehouse: both actions I take are being modeled by this move, and what the move yields is whether I fully succeed, take harm while doing so, or weaken the resolve of my enemy.

Most actions in OSR+ are not non-diegetic like this: success checks can be, and scene checks certainly are, but attribute checks are all diegetic in nature. On the other hand, the use of metanarratives currencies (such as fate points and story tags) are non-diegetic in nature, in that they confer benefits in the game that are derived from the narrative (and the player's choice to invoke those benefits), rather than action characters take in the fiction.

GM Moves
Make Your Move, But Never Speak Its Name

Of course the real reason why you choose a move exists in the real world. Somebody has her character go someplace new, somebody misses a roll, somebody hits a roll that calls for you to answer, everybody's looking to you to say something, so you choose a move to make. Real-world reasons. However, misdirect: pretend that you’re making your move for reasons entirely within the game's fiction instead [...] Pretend ... that there’s a fictional cause; pretend that it has a fictional effect.

GM moves are mechanics intended to structure the actions a GM can take when he runs the game. PbtA games explicitly lay out the things you can do as a GM, and most of the things you can do are in reaction to things players do. This is in stark contrast to the old school style, where the GM is not restricted at all in what he can enact in the fiction, so long as it does not violate the rules as written. The GM moves in Apocalypse World are:

  • Separate them.
  • Capture someone.
  • Put someone in a spot.
  • Trade harm for harm (as established).
  • Announce off-screen badness.
  • Announce future badness.
  • Inflict harm (as established).
  • Take away their stuff.
  • Make them buy.
  • Activate their stuff’s downside.
  • Tell them the possible consequences and ask.
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without a cost.
  • Turn their move back on them.
  • Make a threat move (from one of your fronts).
  • After every move: “what do you do?”

As you can see, the majority of these "moves" are self-explanatory: they are actions you take as a GM when the players look to you for what happens next, or when some other move instructs you to take action.

There are no GM-specific moves like this in OSR+, and in fact the GM is empowered to act with fiat when there are gaps in the rules as written (per Rulings, Not Rules), but looking to lists such as the moves available to GMs in Apocalypse World can illustrate of the sort of things you can do to direct the narrative, just remember that when it comes time to resolve them, you fall back to your toolbox of rules, which are usually more discrete than PbtA moves.

In many ways, the GM is not an equal party to the game, which is the implicit suggestion that is made by PbtA games that introduce GM moves: in OSR+, the GM is its orchestrator, who, while acting as a fan of his players, uses the rules as tools to run the game.

The advice to "make your move, but misdirect" is not completely irrelevant to OSR+, however. The GM can initiate some actions that players can initiate, for example in downtime: the journey mechanic features a series of random rolls that invite players to participate in narrating the journey. It makes sense to narrate that move as part of what happens in the fiction, rather than call attention to it as a mechanic, so as to not to break immersion in the fiction. In a broader sense, too, the mechanics should always take a back seat to the action: that is, a player shouldn't say, "I’m going to use the weapon tactic Swift" but instead say, "I'm going to duck behind this alleyway and quietly toot my blowdart into that guy’s butt," which the GM then confirms is an attack using the Swift tactic. The same goes for the GM when he describes the actions NPCs take against the players.

Play to Find Out What Happens

It's not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I'm not fucking around). It's not your job to put their characters in double-binds or dead ends, or to yank the rug out from under their feet. Go chasing after any of those, you'll wind up with a boring game that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived, and you’ll be pre-deciding what happens by yourself, not playing to find out.

This is the cardinal rule of PbtA games, and the principle around which most of the mechanics in these games are organized. It's not new advice, either: while the rules surrounding what a GM can do to drive the narrative forward are what PbtA is known for, "Play to find out what happens" is mostly a reiteration of “prep situations, not plots,” which the OSR style also agrees with. In short: it's just good GMing advice.

However, in OSR+, the objective of play is not to find out what happens. That's certainly something that's going on when we engage in the conversation, but the objective of play is narrative fulfillment: we play to resolve our heroes' conflicts. And so the GM must take the story hooks the players introduced in session zero and insert them into the adventure, in order for that to happen. This is typically done by placing story hooks into the lattice of scenes that makes up the adventure, rather than coming up with everything on the fly, or making things up purely in reaction to things the players do in the fiction.

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