6e: the game where everything is an (OSR) problem

Hey all, I made another game! Like Pyrrhic Weaselry, which was born out of me trying to take the "fiction first" element of OSR design to its logical conclusion, this one started with me thinking a lot about good OSR Challenges and Traps. I don't have much to add to that discussion, but I do want to point out how this style of "skill challenge" design does a couple things right that I think the more systems and mechanics focused philosophies can miss.

For example, Chris McDowell from Bastionland says that his measure of a good trap is:
  • At least one part of it is immediately visible.
  • It allows interaction and investigation.
  • It has impactful consequences for the victim.
While Arnold from Goblin Punch says that a good OSR challenge meets the following requirements
  • No obvious solution. (Straight combat is always obvious.)
  • Many possible solutions.
  • Solvable via common sense (as opposed to system mastery).
  • No special tools required (no unique spells, no plot McGuffins at the bottom of a dungeon).
  • Not solvable by a specific class or ability.
Neither of these are mechanics for traps or challenges, but they'll shape the feel of the game far more than any trap-mechanic would, and make for far more interesting play at the table. Whereas the mechanical implementation of traps leads players to engage mechanically, guidelines like these lead to scenarios where players must engage in the fiction, and make use of their character's abilities or items in ways that might not be immediately obvious. In these situations, gameplay is more fluid and conversational, and depends a lot more on good ideas or convincing arguments than it does on dice rolling, two things which I personally strive for in my games.

This, of course, is also nothing new; the idea of productive voids is one that is periodically kicked around the game design discourse. It did however, get me thinking about replacing normally mechanically defined parts of a game (say, combat) with similar guidelines to the ones above, which in turn made me think about replacing the things in a game that normally have limited or no rules of any sort surrounding them (say, chatting with a tavern gossip), with those same guidelines. Which, finally, lead to this little game where everything is OSR style challenges: 

The easiest way to understand the game is just to read it; the rules take up one page, there's another two pages of GM advice and examples, and a character sheet which doubles as character creation rules, so it's pretty lightweight.

However, if you'd like a rundown before you download it, I'll provide one here. 

Challenges are at the heart of the game. Whenever a situation is both potentially dangerous and has at least more than one important factor, that's a Challenge. Ultimately, it's up to the table what does and does not count as a Challenge, but that's a good rule of thumb. 

When a situation is declared a Challenge, the players decide their goal: what they're trying to accomplish over the course of the Challenge. "Kill the king" "Steal the coin" "Charm the ogre" are all good goals. 

Then, the GM jots down a numbered list of all the Threats that the Challenge entails. A Threat is simply a danger that the Challenge could inflict on the players. For example, if the players are fighting a goblin, threats could look like: 1): Bites your fingers off. 2): Strangles you. 3) Laughter drives you mad. 

Finally, the GM decides how many "Hits" or successes the players must get in order to succeed the Challenge. 

The players then get 30 seconds per player to come up with ways to use their characters abilities and items in concert with the fictional situation and their surroundings to overcome or negate those Threats. At the end of 30 seconds, the GM rolls a die on the list (rounding up if necessary, ie; d4 for 3 Threats), and checks to see who has a plan to deal with the Threat that was rolled. The player makes their argument, the GM makes a ruling. If they succeed, they mark a Triumph, rewriting one of the Threats to describe themselves making progress on the Challenge. If they fail, they suffer the rolled Threat. Anybody who doesn't have a response suffers a compromised version of the Threat.

If a Triumph is rolled instead of a Threat, or if no Threat is rolled, the players mark a Hit. The Challenge ends when the players overcome it, decide to retreat (done by describing your exit plan: succeed and you leave, fail and you suffer the rolled Threat and stay in the Challenge), or the fictional situation changes to the point where the Challenge should be rewritten or discarded. 

It's all a little abstract on paper, so I'll provide a play example. 

Let’s say your character has decided to pillage a dragon’s horde. She’s evaded the wards and traps placed on the lair, and now she stands, looking down at the  sleeping dragon. The GM notes the Threats: 1) Dragon rolls over, crushes you in sleep, 2) Cursed gold starts shrieking when you pick it up, 3) Dragon’s eye opens, fixes you with a baleful gaze, and Qualities: unstable footing; gold slips and slides when you walk on it. 

The  GM starts the timer for 30 seconds and you brainstorm. 

For Threat 1 (dragon rolls over and crushes you) you know that your character’s got a grappling hook, so you figure she can just get to a high point above the dragon’s rolling. 

For Threat 2 (cursed screaming gold), you did your research before this heist, and made sure your character brought a soundproof sack to deal with the screaming gold. You run out of time before you get to Threat 3. 

The Timer ends, and the GM rolls a d4 (3 threats, rounded up). The die comes up 2 (cursed gold). Fortunately, you had a plan for that. You describe scooping the offending coins into the soundproof sack; this makes sense to the GM, so you mark a Triumph and replace “cursed gold starts shrieking” with “a soft silence falls on the room” 

Next round, GM rolls a 2 again; it’s your lucky day! Because you already marked a Triumph on 2, this time you mark a hit and describe filling your sack with a good portion of treasure as the dragon slumbers quietly.

If the GM had instead rolled a 3 (Dragon’s eye opens), you might have been in more trouble. Deciding you’d rather compromise than wing a plan and risk failure, you talk it over with the GM and agree that the dragon spots you and awakens, but you slip behind a crag in the cave before anything worse happens

Honestly, I'm pretty proud of this one. I've run a good few sessions with it, and while the "everything is a challenge structure" does require a bit of a mental shift, it's a lot more intuitive in play than even I'd initially assumed. 

The doc has a bunch more examples of what can be done with the system (things like Hidden Threats, which allow you to just write hints instead of directly spelling out the danger and tend to rachet the tension way, way up (imagine entering a dark room, triggering a challenge, and seeing only "1) Metal scrapes on stone. 2) Soft laughter. 3)Acrid odor" as the Threats), but my favorite thing about it is probably that it can zoom in and out so well. 

You can use it as a travel mechanic (start a Challenge with the goal to cross the great desert, and Threats like "running out of food/water" "go mad with boredom" "form a grudge against a comrade" "heatstroke" etc), or  you can run a duel with Threats being different strikes and techniques described with meaningful detail. 

The game is pay-what-you-want over on Itch.io, but if you'd like to skip going to a whole new website, I'll link a google doc here as well.

Please, give it a read! I'm really curious about what people will think of this one, so feedback is especially welcome, and please, if you have questions, ask em. I'll see you all next time!


  1. I look forward to checking this out! Did you ever publish Pyrrhic Weaselry? I know it's all on the blog but it would be nice to have it in a book/zine format.

    1. I haven't published it as a zine yet, no. I'll probably do a revised edition at some point and publish that in some way shape or form though.

  2. Isn’t this almost exactly the design process that produced “Dragon’s Lair”, the 80’s laser-disc based Arcade game? At least, when I read your examples and try to get my head into what running a game like this would “feel” like, I find myself thinking of that game.

    1. hm. Maybe? I think the difference (besides the videogame aspect) would be that this rewards creative thinking over essentially anything else, whereas Dragons Lair was more of a forerunner of the modern quicktime event, right? In practice, I'll say that this game basically feels a lot more conversational than rpgs I've played in the past

  3. Just ran this with some friends to test it out and it was a lot of fun! I ran it where I rolled for the threat and they decided who would take it on, but it seemed they'd just pick whomever had the best way to handle it. I might try having each player roll and they have to handle that threat. Also I was a little confused with how hits and triumphs are handled; if they're scored as a group or if that's individual to each player. It seems it should be handled based off what the player writes down, if they're solution is just for themselves or for the group.

    Thanks for making this! I really like that the play is much more focused on the characters and not on stats.


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