I was asked to explain how DayTrippers – with its collaborative interpretive action resolution system and narrative arc model – can be considered “OSR”. Certainly those things don’t sound very “old-school”. Indeed, the action resolution system in DayTrippers is based on a Narrativist technique, and the whole idea of working within a narrative arc is more Modern than Trad. At first glance, these things might make DayTrippers seem decidedly “new-school”. That’s especially true when we consider the Core Rules alone. But the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide is a different sort of animal – a blend of traditional and modern techniques – producing high-prep, high-bleed adventures, designed to be run by Auteur GMs. Within the pages of this book, DayTrippers meets the OSR. Let’s see how it stacks up against a classic definition of the term.
Matthew Finch, author-designer of the 0e retro-clone “Swords and Wizardry” wrote what is perhaps the definitive primer on “Old School” gaming. His “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” is available for free on Lulu.com. In this book, Finch lays out the four “Zen Moments” which for him define the old-school experience, and goes on to illustrate each with examples. I decided to use Finch’s criteria as an OSR filter for analyzing the design and flow of a DayTrippers game. Grab a copy of Finch’s piece at Lulu and read along:
First Zen Moment: Rulings, Not Rules
OSR games tend to rely on GM rulings, rather than cut-and-dry rules or situation-specific rolls. Like Finch says, that’s why there are so few numbers on the character sheet, and so few specified abilities. A few Stats and a few Skills – loosely interpreted and generously applied – are all you need. Thinking outside of the box is the norm. No matter what weird idea the Players have, there is a simple mechanic for the GM to grab and extrapolate a ruling from. For players, this means that problems will tend to be solved creatively, using observation, reasoning and experimentation. No two traps (or solutions) are alike.
This is the approach of DayTrippers as well: The PC Sheet has very few numbers on it, and they are all very broadly interpreted. The “bipartite narrative resolution system” (YES AND, YES BUT, etc) not only forces each action roll to be interpreted in terms of the fiction, but a positive result on a roll actually allows the Player to narrate the result.
Second Zen Moment: Player Skill, not Character Abilities
Traps and Obstacles in OSR games don’t force Players’ into mechanical bottlenecks or “one-roll-fits-all” roll resolutions, and they don’t correspond to any sort of “perception” skills. Players must tell the GM when they’re investigating something, and how. The solutions to problems in old-school games tend to be invented on the fly, rather than “discovered” when the PC “finds the right answer”. There’s always some other idea you can try, and the GM will find a simple way to resolve it.
In DayTrippers, this concept is layed out right at the start: Players are told to consider their skills as broadly as possibile. Quoting from the Core Rules book: “Characters can use Skills in all sorts of creative ways, whether or not those uses are generally considered ‘part of’ the Skill. The Skill of Prestidigitation, for instance, might be used for pickpocketing. Swimming Skill might be used to hold your breath in a toxic atmosphere. Don’t hold back. Use your Skills creatively and interpret them broadly. The GM can assign a DL (Difficulty Level) to any weird thing you can imagine, so it’s really about the fiction that the Skill permits. Sure, the Level measures how good the PC is at using that Skill, but the creative ideas and applications of that Skill will come from you.”
Third Zen Moment: Heroic, not Superhero
Finch points out that “Old-style games have a human-sized scale, not a super-powered scale.” This means your characters are never going to be star-striding super-powered demons from beyond this dimension. In Finch’s words, they’re aiming to become Batman, not Superman.
This is the way character definition works in DayTrippers as well. While they’re definitely a bunch of weirdos – who else would risk life and limb to disappear into alternative universes – they’re still normal people in terms of their capabilities, and they always will be. After scores of sessions and character advancements, having gained hundreds of experience points and visited dozens of worlds, your PCs might attain intergalactic fame and notorious wealth but they’ll never be gods. That’s part of what makes their successes so exciting.
Fourth Zen Moment: Forget Game Balance
OSR games, at least those played in “sandbox” environments, don’t worry too much about game balance. That’s because the Simulationist GM sees their goal as the literal presentation of a realistic world, with no safety rails preventing PCs from encountering monsters or obstacles vastly superior to themselves. That’s part of what makes the world “real”. There is random death in it.
While DayTrippers can certainly be played this way, this is one area in which the Narrativist influences of the game show through. The differences are not just cosmetic but structural. Because of its unique campaign structure – as a series of “one-shots” or “short stories” – the DayTrippers campaign is not truly a sandbox. It has some sandboxy qualities, and the GM is encouraged to create multiple destinations for the PCs to explore at their own whim, but within each session the Cyber-GM works to create a strong sense of narrative arc, and most obstacles are intended to be beatable by crafty Players. The difficulty of obstacles encountered by PCs ramps upward as we go, increasing the tension and risk until reaching the Final Crisis – which might indeed prove to be too much for them. In a session of DayTrippers, you’ll push your Players up against the wall eventually, but not right away.
Looking back over these four key traits, hallmarks of the OSR, we find that DayTrippers exhibits three of them. While the narrative structure and psychological approach of the game are definitely new and strongly influenced by Narrativist designs, there’s plenty here for an old-school GM to sink their teeth into. If you’re a trad GM who wants to take their gaming group to a more collaborative level, or if you’re interested in applying stronger narrative structures to your trad gaming sessions, you should feel quite comfortable and intrigued with what you’ll find in the pages of the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide.