Getting Started With The OSR: Part 3: Put Story In Its Proper Place

As I wrote this, I thought to myself, “Self! This should have been Part 2.” Oh well. Here it is.

Old School Renaissance gamers shudder and gag when a game master starts talking about “their story.” It’s worse than, “Let me tell you about my character.”

Story is a word that gets used a lot in tabletop role-playing games. It is frequently misused and misapplied. Typical contemporary game mastering advice is focused on how to create a story and then lead the players through it, hopefully, in an entertaining fashion. Unfortunately, when you do this, you are substituting an interactive narrative in place of a game.

This is anathema to the Old School Renaissance referee.

The Old School Renaissance rejects the idea that the game master is telling “their story,” and holds up emergent narrative as the way “story” comes from the game.

You can play 5E and other games using emergent narrative as a guiding principle. Many game masters run their games this way. Emergent narrative is not unique to the OSR. Apocalypse World famously proclaims that we “play to find out what happens.”

You will find it to be concept applied across the varied fragments of the OSR. If you want to run an OSR game, then this is a key concept that you need to internalize. OSR games are designed to be run this way.

I will add that an important use of story is one of those obvious things that we don’t notice or think about too hard because it seems so obvious. That is the use of story as contextual framework.

Story as contextual framework.

I mentioned contextual framework in Part 1 of this series and game a rudimentary description of it.

Since classic adventure games were discovered by experiments with wargames, it is appropriate to explain this using a classic Avalon Hill board game.

There is a story in here.

Context is the circumstances that form the setting of a situation so that they may be fully understood. In order for players to make informed decisions about the situation their characters are in, they have to have some context.

The contextual framework of the game is the setting where the game takes place. Another way to think about it is that It is the story of everything that happened before the game. It is the backstory.

The Waterloo board game has a historical narrative providing context. the quick backstory of the game is that Napoleon returned to power in March of 1815. States that previously opposed him formed an alliance. The allied forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington established a position near Waterloo in what is today Belgium. Napoleon decided to attack. At the beginning of the game, that is the situation.

The play of the game is informed by the context provided before the game starts. Certain units are stronger than other units because that is how it played out in a fight during the Napoleonic wars. I can move the cardboard chit representing cavalry further than I can move the cardboard chit representing the infantry. In the real world, cavalry run faster than infantrymen.

If my opponent is not as skillful as I am, then I might be able to win even though Wellington defeated Napoleon in 1815. Perhaps I maneuver differently or my opponent isn’t aggressive enough and stays put when he should counter-attack. Those outcomes emerge from the decisions each player makes during the game.

While we are playing the game, that’s the game. I’m making choices and the outcome is uncertain. Once the game is complete, we can tell other people about the events of the game. That’s the emergent story of our game.

Contextual and emergent narratives in OSR games.

In the OSR style of play, we see a structure similar to what I described in the Waterloo board game.

The game starts with some sort of context. This is common to all tabletop role-playing games. You always start with some narrative that informs the players of the circumstances that have created the setting of the adventure and campaign scenario. The players agree to play within that context and to abide by rules of the game when applying the creative solutions to problems they face.

You have travelled to a keep on the borderlands. Nearby, is a canyon riddled with caves. Within the caves are tribes of humanoid monsters who worship Chaos and seek to destroy the keep. The keep cannot spare any men to take the fight to the humanoids. The castellan is paying a bounty to adventurers who go forth and clear the caves of the monsters.

The game master has told the players a story. They started somewhere else and traveled from there, overcoming any obstacles, to arrive at the keep. There are characters, an objective, a set of decisions, and an outcome.

This is a simple narrative providing the context for the game to come. The keep is facing problems and needs the player characters to defeat their problems. There is an objective and a reward for accomplishing it. The context was established before the players start making any choices about what to do or how to do it. That context tells the players a lot without explicitly stating a great deal of information. They can use that context to make decisions as they progress through the caves.

This is a context like the game designer (and history) provided context for Waterloo.

OSR games are games, not stories.

Once the game commences, the story is only information the players use to make choices. In the OSR, the contextual story is an acceptable form of story to tell players. What comes after, the game, is not where you tell stories. The outcomes of those events are determined by the decisions made by the players, the mechanisms of the game, and the rulings of the game master when the game doesn’t have a mechanism.

Herding players through the story of their characters deads and heroics is not an acceptable form of story to OSR gamers.

Once the players start making choices, that is the game and not a story. Stories have predetermined outcomes determined by the story teller. If the game master takes on the mantle of the storyteller telling the story of the PCs having pre-determined the outcomes of the PC’s actions, then this is no longer a game. The game has become an interactive narrative. The players may have multiple choices that provide the illusion of being a game but the plot of the story has been predetermined and the players will experience that story no matter what they do. This is also called railroading.

In a properly run OSR game, the outcomes of the players decisions, determined by the rules of the game and the rulings of the game master form a series of events. After the game has concluded, the series of events form a narrative.

This is emergent narrative and the intended style of play in OSR games.

OSR games produce stories.

The game is not a “story.” The game produces a story but is not a story in and of itself.

Story emerges from the context of the game and the decisions players make within that context. It is not predetermined. It is often not anticipated by the game master. The game master is often as surprised by the outcomes as the players. Many OSR referees will tell you that this is one of their favorite parts of the game.

The story of the PCs emerges from the events of the game and is told after the game session has been completed. This is a broadly accepted principle found in OSR games. It is a concept that you must adopt if you want to play OSR games as they are intended.

This post has been theoretical. As a practical matter, when I’m talking about contextual frameworks what I’m describing is setting backstory. It takes skill to tell players about backstory without boring them with it. I’ve written some posts giving practical advice about how to do this. If you are interested in those, here are a few links.

I also refer to backstory as embedded stories. Here is a post about that and some practical tips for how to use them. Another post with embedded stories and magic items.

Micro exposition. Nobody wants to read your 20,000 word history of the realms any more than you want to read a 20,000 word character backstory. This post suggests how you take those embedded narratives or backstories and sprinkle the beats of the story out over time so that your players retain the information and actually find it interesting.

One way that conceptual frameworks manifest in OSR games is through the centrality of the milieu. That’s a fancy way of saying that the setting is more important the player characters.

15 thoughts on “Getting Started With The OSR: Part 3: Put Story In Its Proper Place

  1. Daniel

    I like this a lot, and this is how I (try to) run my 5e games. A lot of the 5e GM tips I read are the same as this – DMs create situations, the “story” is what the players/characters do in these situations. Mike Shea (Sly Flourish) talks a lot about this too when he speaks of “fronts” in his games (a term he took directly from Dungeon World).

    This is where I get confused. I lot of OSR talk I see is aggressively anti 5e, but when I see articles like this it seems that OSR is, well, just good DMing.

    Am I wrong that OSR is anti-5e? Is it instead an approach, that is system agnostic?

    Apologies if my question is stupid! It’s really hard to find info on this that isn’t vague or contradictory or, well, doesn’t quickly devolve into people yelling about capitalism or something for some reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Daniel! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Not a stupid question at all. It is an astute observation. Part of what I’m doing with this series of posts is to make some observations about where I think all the little fragments of the OSR actually agree. The other part is to provide people I’ve seen on Reddit and other social media outlets asking about how to untangle the knot of the OSR so they can actually play a game and have a positive experience.

      The OSR as a scene/movement is a lot of things. Some of them contradictory. It mainly started as a way to publish modules for old rule sets and a reevaluation of the “progress” in game design. It has fragmented into a variety of sub-groups. Some of them are quite vocal. Some of them look at their gaming hobby through an ideological lens. If you are interested in going deeper into the subject, here is an excellent post explains how things got where they are right now…

      My hypothesis is that most of the people actually playing and enjoying OSR games don’t have Twitter accounts, don’t blog, don’t have YouTube channels etc and just play. They don’t care for or participate in the drama online. I try to write for them and people who want to join in and play without all the nonsense.

      You may have given me an idea for a blog post, It might be correct to say that OSR is anti-5E. I think it would be more correct to say that the OSR is anti-WotC/Hasbro. There are a lot of facets to that gemstone and it will take me some time to articulate it. It’s not so much the rule set that is the problem. A lot of us think you can run a game that feels old school with 5E rules but you do have to do some modding. I think there are some marketing, art/aesthetic, culture, and the playstyle that WotC/Hasbro encourages through their products that the OSR dislikes. My personal opinion on that are partly expressed in this post

      You are correct in that what I’m describing is just good DMing. It’s what other more experienced DMs taught me over the years and has worked best in my experience.

      Thanks to Mike Mearls, 5E went a long way back toward old school play style. I think there are 5E DMs and online experts who have internalized many of the principles that were developed/discovered back in the old days and apply them. There are still a lot of places where the concept of plotted story and giving the mechanisms priority over the creativity of players is assumed to be “best practice” to DMing 5E. Here is quick example from a article.

      “It’s easy to assume that the GM is the only one who gets derailed by the players’ actions, but actually it’s far more commonplace for the players to feel like they’re being dragged away from their favourite moments to check back in on the plot they were avoiding. By observing the things they gravitate towards you can just fill your stories with more things like that. They’ll think you’re a genius – when in actuality you’re just being a good listener, and there’s no better skill when it comes to being a GM.”

      There are a lot of unstated assumptions built into that paragraph. Notice how the writer is talking about “your stories” and players avoiding plot.


  2. PW

    Is there a counter-argument that the “story” of the PC’s is not necessarily the same as the “story” of the players? I find that many players don’t mind linear play, as the story they’re interested in telling is the story of them, the player, having fun playing a game with their friends, and not so much their character’s story. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as a gamer in my 40’s, I find that I don’t have time to create settings and write adventures from scratch. Likewise, the other players in my group don’t have as much time to invest in writing detailed backstories or helping to fill in the blank areas of the setting. Instead, I find myself running 5e and PF2 adventures, which are (mostly) enjoyable, but tend to be a bit on the railroad-y side.


    1. My primary thesis in this post is that if you are playing an Old School Renaissance game, in the style those games and adventures are intended. then the game needs to be treated as a game not an interactive narrative as is common in the contemporary style.

      If your group finds railroad adventures to be an acceptable form of entertainment. Rock on. That is not how most of us design or run OSR adventures. 5E and PF and the adventures written for them are not old school and out of the scope of my post.

      There are many OSR adventures and campaign settings that require no more time to prepare than something more scripted/plotted.


  3. Pingback: Getting Started In The OSR: Part 4: Is the OSR Anti-5E? – Grumpy Wizard

  4. Pounce Cleveland

    OSR Folks like myself will always be “WotC D&D = Bad D&D. TSR D&D = Good D&D.” That’s just how we are. We’re not necessarily anti-D&D 5e (though many of us are), we just don’t like marketing (disguised as a story/adventure path/module) which puts WotC’s story narratives over the wishes of the DM and his or her local group, on top of a ton of rules which try to homogenize the “D&D experience” from one group to another, but ultimately slows the game down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about it too much before but I think you might be onto something with the idea that WotC is attempting to convince everyone that the way they want you to play is the best (only)way to play. It is in the company’s financial interest to do so. Even Gary was like that in the AD&D era. He wrote many times and in many places that if you deviated too far from the books that you were running an “inferior game.” He might not have been entirely wrong about that but he certainly had a business interest in pushing that narrative.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pounce Cleveland

        I have to admit, if some WotC game designer ranted like Gary Gygax that some players weren’t playing D&D 5e as intended, I would probably have a little more respect for the company. It would show they care… I guess. Lol

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Mhinas

    Maybe it is a matter of gaming culture… I am from Germany and RPGs have been very story- and background-heavy. I always DM my games with the players actions having priority so the story becomes – as you called it – emmergent. Maybe I am too young, but I started playing in 1988 (if one counts Fighting Fantasy a little bit earlier) and it was commonplace the GM asked tell me something about your character. But these were no elaborate tragic background stories, regardless if it was in D&D, The Dark Eye, Runequest or other games. Traveller and its character creation for example – it was all about building a characters background. This was old school too, just like finding a cult in Runequest teaching you bladesharp and heal 2. Is OSR only Sixstat-D20 to you or do you include other Old School games – and there are retroclones for those too, even for Rolemaster … Btw, my typical preparation for a campaign might just consist of rolling some random magical items and a couple of random encounters sprinkled over some squaremiles. My party managed to get a maximum of dungeon and hexcrawling, social interaction and even courtious intrigue from this. Sometimes I was amazed what they made out of it – and they made a randomly rolled captain of a patrol a much more important person in the game than my elaborated NPCs….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there are gaming cultures (plural) where what you describe is one of them and then there are others where the prefered style is to play through an adventure that is like a Fighting Fantasy book. You are limited to the paths that the GM or game designer has provided and you are playing through their story. This is something I think Wizards of the Coast and other bigger publishers encourage because then they get to shape the feeling and narratives that their games are being used to play. This allows them to shape the brand and what people think about it.


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