On the retro adventure game mentality (Them Deeper Bones, design diary 8)

Them Deeper Bones is my OSR-adjacent retro adventure game that can be found over on https://themdeeperbones.com/ (as of writing this, version beta.1.2). There is a short preview available on the site, and if that piques your interest enough, anyone can get the full playtest document and supplemental materials by joining the game’s discord.

Now, when I said “OSR-adjacent,” it is a term I’ve found to be both a curse and a blessing. I have some thoughts that are, in their nature a bit rambly, but there is an idea underneath here…

Poika ja Varis, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

I have scheduled weekly playtest games of Them Deeper Bones now. And the system works great. In fact, when talking about the big picture, it’s 100% perfect for my needs(if going to the nitty gritty, I’d say 95%, as there is always room for a few tweaks, that’s what the playtest is for).

But what I’ve found lacking is how I’ve communicated some things to my players as there is a huge amount of baggage that comes with the game being OSR-adjacent. There are some assumptions that don’t translate well between the Old School Renaissance to the Retro Adventure Game play styles. I’ve talked about creeds before, but as I’m writing yet another text update to them, let me open up some of my thoughts.

“Fantasy f*cking vietnam”

It’s a phrase I’ve seen used many times when talking about OSR campaigns — The game is a war, and war is hell. A constant struggle and only the strong survive, and that while the DM should be impartial, it just means that they should play the opposition as hard as they can and give no mercy! RUAAARGH! A sort of a war-gamey approach to things. Now, anyone who has played more OSR games knows that this is only one way of doing things. But if you’re not too familiar with nuances, this apparently might well be the way to think about approaching a game that talks about being “OSR-adjacent”

“No Gotchas”

And it’s really quite the opposite of what I’m going for with Them Deeper Bones. Yes, the guide is impartial. But they should be rooting for the players to have fun. The guide’s No Gotchas creed is at the heart of the play style the game advocates for. And it means more than just the fact that the guide can’t be an asshole and hit the party with wandering damage without a warning. It is a touchstone to a style we had when we were kids — the challenges in front of the characters were tough, but damn it was fun to try figure out ways to get around them.

I’ve compared the play experience of TDB with that of escape rooms before, and that comparison still holds true. The guide is there to build an environment that allows the players to try and solve the challenges presented. And in a way that the players have fun figuring out and maybe besting the challenges. It’s not war, it’s not brutal, it’s not antagonistic in any possible way (be it in the text or subtext). It’s a game. While it’s not as linear as an escape room and there are no set solutions to problems, there should be a sense that these are approachable with the tools the characters possess, or eventually come to possess.

This means that the guide in Them Deeper Bones is a provider of the elusive “fun” sort of challenges. It’s a lot easier than done, but after all, if the players are having fun, it’s a good game.

But it’s not a one-way street.

The other side of the coin

Now, this part is even more tricky. I don’t have the terminology down, but the No Gotchas rule sets a huge precedent of being respectful to the other people at the table. If the guide is playing “fair”, then it is only courteous for the players to pay back in full, and embrace the fact that this is a fun game. It’s a game that you want to win (to a degree an RPG can be “won”), but it’s not in the spirit of the game to do that in any way possible.

To return to the escape room analogy — you wouldn’t bring your set of lockpicks to an escape room, or kick down a door if you can’t open it right away. You know that in order to get the fun out of a the room, you need to play within the set rules of the room.

How does this translate back to a retro adventure game? It requires the players to show the same sort of respect there — the guide has set the challenges in front of you, and you have the tools the game provides you with to solve them. Playing along with this frame of adventurers exploring dark caves and encountering dangers. If the guide is playing by the rule of no gotchas, then the player shouldn’t have the need to to try and play the system, but instead play within the spirit of that fun.

And this is that special bit in the game that’s so hard to put into words. The lightning in the bottle that needs to be communicated. I hope I have a new player creed in beta 1.3 to communicate this, but if not, the development continues.

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