Monday, March 11, 2013

OSR vs Pathfinder

If you've been living under a rock for the last decade, you might not know the edition war in D&D has stopped being a war and started being a collection of different nations, each with their own constitutions and understandings of how the game is supposed to be played.  Recently I've read some blog posts about this, as particularly OSR people are asked to justify why they reject new-age gaming.  I even read one post that called all modern editions 'adolescent power fantasies' and nothing but 'poorly-designed war games instead of adventure games'.

The thing is, I don't explicitly disagree with any of the points they made (newer editions certainly have the potential to pander to power fantasies, and as war games they don't do the tactical simulation game as well as, well, actual tactical simulaions,) but as I am neither an adolescent engaging in power fantasies, nor an uneducated wargamer, I got curious lately about why I enjoyed Pathfinder.  Since no one generally gets asked to justify their enjoyment of new-age gaming (it's just the status quo for modern gamers,) I thought I'd take a look at Pathfinder as contrasted with OSR gaming, to find what I enjoy about doing both.

OSR vs Pathfinder

I should make 2 confessions before I start this:

First, I wasn't there at the beginning of gaming.  I was raised on D&D 2nd edition, and sort of missed 3rd until 4th was already on the market, so I'm basing this not on years of experience or gaming nostalgia, but on my own reading of the OSR and D20 rules as they are currently, modernly, being interpreted.

Second, the whole appeal of D&D-inspired games is their universality, their ability to let a GM run whatever style of game they want.  Thus any system can encompass any style of gaming if the GM and players decide to pursue that style in question.  My goal, then, is to look not at what style of game CAN be done with a system, but at what style of game the system implies: what style of game is easier to do with a given set of rules, and what style of game would require a skilled GM, houserules, and improvisation to accomplish.

So without further ado, let's look at what makes up an OSR game as modernly interpreted, vs a D20 game as modernly interpreted.



Death: Frequent, sometimes unavoidable (save or die).
Character Creation: Quick, simple.
Combats: Fast, simple, doesn't need miniatures at all.
Experience: Often includes experience for loot and other non-combat options.


Death: Infrequent, almost always avoidable (no save or die).
Character Creation: Long, complicated.
Combats: Slow, complicated, usually involves miniatures.
Experience: Usually combat-only, unless the GM wants to include a story award or other houserule.

That was short, right?  There are, of course, different versions of both D20 and OSR, but in general these are the differences as accepted by both camps.

Implications of the Above:

In the current Pathfinder campaign I'm playing in, the GM told me before we started that he was having trouble figuring out a way to throw the characters together/figuring out what was going to forge the players into a single band.  Likewise, he commented about how at the beginning the players would be joining a mercenary crew and taking contracts and how he hoped that would be alright and not boring.  This got me thinking: Isn't that the cliche already, the easy way out?  Some adventurers meet in a bar and take a contract?

But really, this tradition is a holdover from older editions, not an actual aspect of the modern game's implied style.  Because character creation is such a short affair in OSR gaming, most games are built around this idea that characters can just be swapped in and out as they may die.  This is where the tradition of adventuring parties as more-or-less independent mercenary companies comes from: they can have a great purpose if needed, but it could just as easily be booze, whores and gold that is their grand motivation.  but the system is simple: an organized group doing jobs, earning money, gaining prestige, and when someone dies, a 'new member' appears to take his place.

Associated with this, most OSR characters are not quite as backstory-heavy as in other games.  If you could die the first session, why claim your character is the destined reincarnation of an ancient god?  Rather, players begin as more 'normal' people who achieve their greatness through adventuring, rather than claiming to have it from the beginning.

Finally, OSR games are more likely to involve army battles, hirelings, and other NPCs during combats.  If the combats are simple enough that they don't need miniatures and only take 10 minutes, than including a cast of 15 extras to the field and integral small-group tactics would take an hour or so at most.

D20, however, is a completely different bundle of fish.  In Pathfinder, at least, character creation can take hours, and with this (or even because of this,) character death doesn't happen nearly that often.  Rules for bleeding out and applying first aid, cantrips like stabilize  and an HP bloat from the 3/3.5 days mean players can usually be assured their characters won't die, or at least won't die easily.  This means that a lot more can be emotionally invested in the character in question and their backstories. (I know unusual backstories have existed across all editions, but at least from my own personal experience as a GM, it's only in the newer editions that a player tries to convince me he should be allowed to play a minotaur alchemist, trained by immortal ninjas, riding a clockwork snail, who's the reincarnation of an ancient god destined to reunite the faerie world with ours and rule a small country, whether my campaign world could incorporate that or not.)

The complex combats and enormous lists of abilities the average Pathfinder character has means combat takes a long, long time.  This, in turn, means preparing for a combat can take hours, and most GMs don't like it if the players decide on a course of action that negates those hours of preparation.  Newer-age games, at least as far as I have seen both professionally and in home-brew campaigns, are more likely to railroad the players: the illusion of player choice, but which always end up in the appointed times in the appointed places to engage in the appointed combats.  In some cases, games can be reduced to nothing but combat after combat, each one 3-4 hours long, with all non-combat options nearly extinct.


OSR games are about adventuring.  About going strange places, taking contracts, delving dungeons, fighting enemies or avoiding them, all as the players decide.  Much more sandbox-ish, and not nearly as focused on combat as on living an alternate life in a dangerous fantasy world.  Sneaking past enemies, talking past enemies, or just running are all valid options during combat, and the interplay of the characters is more important than the mechanics, as the mechanics are simple enough to learn in an hour.

Pathfinder, instead, is a hero game, or rather a story game.  It is much easier to incorporate backstories into a Pathfinder game, because you are virtually guaranteed the character will be around long enough to 'fulfill his destiny,' etc.  This is a game designed to recreate an Epic Fantasy, where a group of rag-tag friends complete grand story-arcs in their pursuit of an ultimate objective.  Long combats with little actual chance of death, designed to tell the GM's grand novel, with the players cast in the roles of the leads.

I guess that's why I find myself attracted to both systems.  I love the OSR approach to gaming: sandbox adventures, quick combats, a very real chance of death, a very open, non-combat side to the game that rewards ingenuity, and meaningful player choice.  But at the same time, Pathfinder is much more suited to elaborate characters, backstories that play integrally into the story, etc, which I also like.  However, Pathfinder also has somethings I don't like: non-lethal combats, hours-long combats, a game so focused on combats that the rest of the game is simply seen as an interlude (there was a reason Wizards of the Coast thought 4th Ed would be a good idea: it's just another step in the direction 3rd was already going.)

In the end I won't declare either system wins out for my own style of gaming.  OSR gaming can fit all those requirements, but Pathfinder also provides a fun gaming style, so long as my players and I all know and agree that certain implied aspects of Pathfinder will be changed at my table.

Perhaps that's the lesson to learn here.  Studying different takes on the same game, can give you insights, letting you pick, choose, and combine the best parts from each system for your own style of game.

I guess I can live with that message:

'Thinking is good.'

Adam out.


  1. Great to see that I am not the only one who views things this way. I've been playing nonstop since 1979 and my experiences have led me to the exact same conclusions.

  2. Yeah, this seems to sum it all up - I'd be interested to see whether other new-school GM's agree.

    I just wish there was a system that started with OSR style at low level, and then slowly graduated up to Pathfinder-style complexity and character backgrounds.

    1. I would recommend looking at Adventurer Conqueror King. I don't know if it's exactly what you're looking for, but it's the only game I've seen truly designed to take your characters from lowly adventurers to emperors leading realms in a single seamless game. I've also heard good things about Castles and Crusades, although I admit I haven't looked too closely at that one yet.

  3. Excellent write-up. I am GMing both Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry groups right now and your article captures the feelings I have about them very well.

    My Pathfinder group wants that long story, the heroism, and likes the complex tactical encounters.

    My Swords & Wizardry group wants real danger, treasure, and wenches.

  4. Interesting write up. Thanks for sharing