A big distinction that’s often made between modern RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons 5e and OSR RPGs is combat as war vs. combat as sport. Combat as war frames combat as, well, life-or-death. It’s about surviving, not how you survive or what dirty tricks you had to pull to survive it. Combat as sport frames combat as a fun, often-balanced activity; an expression of character, excitement, fun.
Tension before or during combat
Another way to look at it is that within modern RPGs, the tension lays within combat. Emphasis is put on actions, options and maneuvers available in battle. Rolling initiative is the start-signal of, ‘let’s have some fun’. If it turns out you’re fighting an opponent that’s too strong for you, there’s space within combat to find out. There’s relatively little in the ways of options before combat, or those are highlighted less.
In OSR RPGs, the emphasis of tension is shifted by reaction tables for instance (determining the mindset of the opponent, and whether they’re opponents at all), and tension in figuring out what the mindset is. You could almost say that in modern RPGs, the tension lays within combat. OSR puts the tension before the combat. Modern RPGs use combat as a CAPS LOCK, OSR use them as an exclamation mark. A long staredown, a quick draw of blade or revolver, a CLASH, and resolution – as opposed to a Marvel movie final fight.
Two types of survivability
Both styles of RPGs feature what I’ll call survivability. This comes in two ‘flavors’: player survivability and mechanical survivability.
Player survivability is the ability to apply strategies and tactics. In this context, I would define ‘strategy’ as the general choice where to fight, how to fight, and the goal in fighting. ‘Tactics’ are choices made within combat itself; synergies between characters, positioning, using abilities.
Mechanical survivability is everything on your character sheet that makes you harder to kill. Your HP, gear, abilities all act as backups in case your tactics and strategies fail.
5e generally asks little of player survivability; in random encounters, it’s common to just run into goblins and have at them. There is a level of player survivability in the form of tactics, but the mechanical survivability is generally ‘strong’ enough to allow for risk-taking and simply letting things play out.
OSR RPGs lean more on player survivability; combat is war, you want to live, so let’s make sure we fight at a time of our choosing, from an ambushing position, with overwhelming force if possible. You tend not to have the mechanical survivability to survive, say, 4 goblins grouping up on you.
Survivability in the OSR: Cairn & Block, Dodge, Parry
In Cairn, as far as I understand it, survivability looks like this:
|Type of survivability||Element|
The neat thing is, this also ranks how much trouble you’re in if things fail. Every next line is a fallback option.
- Good strategy prevents the need for good tactics. Kill ’em before they know what hit ’em.
- Good tactics can prevent you from getting hit. Cover, high ground etc.
- Armor prevents damage to your HP, by the way of damage reduction.
- HP prevents damage to your STR, and more HP gives more defense.
- STR is your last line of defense, and higher STR means less risk of failing a Critical Damage Save.
Block, Dodge, Parry
Block, Dodge, Parry adds a couple of options, and ties into more resources. You could argue that Block, Dodge, Parry grants players more mechanical survivability, and thus more survivability overall.
|Type of survivability||Element|
- Strategy & tactics work the same as before.
- Fatigue is an important new addition. Fatigue allows you to, well, block, dodge and parry. It can prevent and minimize damage. As Fatigue interacts with your inventory, this means that your survivability is now linked, in part, to your inventory management, natural hazards during exploration (“Powering through this snowstorm gives you 1 Fatigue) but also magic use.
- Inventory is a new addition for the next update of Block, Dodge, Parry (out soon!), allowing you to sacrifice gear to take blows – the well-known Shields shall be splintered rule.
- Certain skills allow for damage reduction or -prevention. Skills are gained organically, by playing the game and, well, having your character learn stuff.
- Armor works the same (damage reduction), except you can also choose to sacrifice it – see the above rule.
- HP works the same (protecting STR), except you can train to raise it (instead of using Scars).
- STR works the same as before.
Why write all this?
I think that survivability is an interesting lens to look at combat in RPGs through, to help better understand whether a game is ‘lethal’.
It’s also a useful framework for players to understand OSR games through. It reminds me of X-COM a bit, where it is very clear that if you just try to brute-force the odds, you’re gonna have a bad time. It’s about making sure that whatever statistical risk you take, is in fact worth it.
It communicates what the game expects from them in regards to combat, beyond “yeah this game is way more lethal than 5e”.