Revisiting the NSR

The term NSR has evolved into something of its own, thanks almost entirely to the efforts and passion of Yochai Gal, but over the years I’ve gotten a few recurring questions about some of the points from my original NSR post. It feels like its time to come back and put all my thoughts from across the internet into one place. This won’t be everyones answers. They aren’t canonical. But they’re mine.

A Weird Setting – More palette than approach to play. It was a common recurrence among OSR and OSR adjacent games at the time I wrote the original post to draw from a similar well as the New Weird literary movement, or to lean into psychedelic mechanics and trappings, or simply to add a layer of the surreal. It was an explicit pushback against “vanilla fantasy”. I’m not quite as tapped into the scene as I was and I have no idea if this still holds, but back then it felt like a common enough trope to call it out explicitly.

A Living World – Sometimes in trad games, built for campaigns, or indie games generating everything contextually, it feels like the world warps around the characters. In NSR games the players far more often play protagonists of this story than heroes of THE story. Sometimes they’re just the latest trespassers. They’re the focus, but not the hinge the world turns on. Things happen in the background. Cities rise and fall. Kingdoms war and conquer. Life moves on. The world advances whether the players do or not. On the small scale you’ll commonly see this represented as wandering monster tables, sometimes tied to reaction rolls. On the large scale you’ll see this as things like faction turns.

Deadly – Maybe the term I regret the most from this list. I should probably have gone with “consequential”. Barring funnels and horror games, deadly combat isn’t quite what it appears to be. Many of these games care about resources, and HP just happens to be one of them. Monsters are moving traps. Resource drains. They’re excuses for creative thinking and smart planning and sneaking and diplomacy and… Monsters are dangerous because you should be avoiding them or talking with them. They’re disincentive. And more than that, the reasons behind a living world apply to your life and death too. That dragon isn’t a gold hoard with an HP value. Its a creature a thousand years old that plans to outlive you. Combine and you have a lot of tables that rarely see characters die. Although for what its worth, most of these games are rules light, chargen is fast, and if your character dies it takes less than 5 minutes to create a new one. So it goes.

Emergent Narrative – The story isn’t in the book the GM buys, and it isn’t in the narrative the GM presents. The story is what the players do. Players don’t play through a story, they create one through their actions. The only difference between this and what many indie games do is how much is pregenerated vs generated on the fly.

External Interaction – A long time ago I ran a Kingmaker campaign in Pathfinder. And every time they would enter a new scene, before I could describe anything at all, one particular player would roll their d20 and tell me what their perception check was. It was a mechanics first response. Compare to something like Into the Odd. In an ItO game I would describe a room and players would tell me what they wanted to do in the fiction. At the point where there was a question about what could happen or what was possible, only then would we look to the rules. So. External environment first instead of mechanics first. External interaction. Fiction first might have been a better description, but the term has historical baggage.

I haven’t had much in the way of questions for the others, but you never know what the future holds. Rasp of Sand automates the GM role for solo play. Stars Without Number isn’t always so rules light. Ideally NSR is flexible enough for it to adapt to trends, and I can update this post accordingly. If not? Something else will come along. It always does.



For those interested in a wee bit more historical context I found the original twitter posts that led to all this. Brian Bloodaxe and Necropraxis came up with the acronym to mean New Sworddream Renaissance and New OSR respectively. All credit where its due.

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9 Comments

  1. “Consequential” –> sub in “impactful”?
    In reference to Chris McDowall’s ICI doctrine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting take, to me though, and perhaps some others from back in the G+ days, this doesn’t feel especially different from the way the OSR was described in say 2014? The play style elements described feel essentially shared for example. Even the nonstandard setting admonition feels very much of the 2011-2016 “Mid”, Renaissance, or G+ OSR? This was the era of flailsnails after all, a riot of nonstandard settings whose variety many contemporary branded systems attempt and fail to emulate because they lack the varied creative community to support such an endevour.

    I agree that the OSR is no more, but only in as far as it’s not a cohesive scene these days, having grown, fractured and become a the basis of a/several brand(s). There also seems to be a fair bit of revisionism about what the OSR was during the 2010’s and a desire among the usual suspects to put the early Revivalist OSR in an undeserved place of primacy (not that early retroclones and forums are bad, but they aren’t the lone source of the creative energy that made OSR a notable RPG culture).

    I get it, especially for those who see their gaming efforts as professional or semi professional, it’s nice to claim that one owns or better has invented an entire play style and design ethos, to cut it free of the baggage of mean old hobbyists like myself, but I still can’t find anything in the description above that’s new, except the context of a fractured scene where commercialization to at least some degree is the only means to create discussion around and place one’s ideas within the community, and perhaps this is it? NSR is Mid-OSR with Late-OSR characteristics and less or narrower scene cohesion?

    I don’t mean to be cynical, because I do think the Post-OSR or whatever is different. I think it has a greater and more harmonious relationship with narrative based indie games and a growing interests in Proceduralism and Procedural Generation/Improvisational Refereeing (these might even be somewhat at odds)— both of which are increasingly supported with more rigorous theoretical frameworks. Perhaps more important the post-OSR, as far as it is a scene, feels younger and has a greater variety of people in it, a change that can only be for the better.

    Thanks for posting your thought, these emerging game culture things are almost impossible to pin down, but I suspect we all should try as a community building exercise.

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    1. It isn’t all that different from how youd describe OSR. At the time I wrote the original post I was just tired of going on social media(reddit mostly) and see people argue over what counted. Mothership, or Offworlders, or whatever was the hot topic of choice that day. So I figured adding a new term focused entirely on the approach to play rather than what system was being used might skip the categorization check and just get to the interesting bits. Cutting away at the d20 legacy. Honestly at this point its very much out of my hands. I threw something to the wind and its been picked up by others and rooted elsewhere. I wanted to postscript something that felt unfinished. But all that said I’m fascinated by what others have been working on and cant wait to see where this little corner of the industry goes next

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    2. I’m similarly confused by the “NSR” concept. I guess if I had to describe it succinctly, it seems like the OSR principles of play but with the actual TSR-era D&D games (and their clones) explicitly excluded from the definition in favor of the lighter and/or newer games?

      I dunno, seems unnecessarily exclusionary to me. Similarly silly as when people who are really into the TSR games tell people that Knave or Mothership isn’t OSR because it’s not D&D. Like, can’t we just talk about this style of gaming and share ideas with one another? My B/X game has been immensely improved with mechanics and principles I nicked from lighter games. I would love to hear from everyone, rather than schisming and sundividing incessantly just because we can.

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      1. The intention wasn’t to exclude b/x or any of the retroclones, it was to not require them. If they fit the outline for you, and they certainly do for me, great! If they dont, thats ok too. Im not hear to harsh on other peoples gaming preferences. I wanted to describe a style or approach to play rather than imply a mechanical legacy. The original post says it more succinctly, but if you find the term useful? Awesome. If not thats ok too.

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  3. I was really thrilled to see this post, and grateful to you for coming back and revisiting a term you were instrumental in defining. It was also somewhat alarming as I’d only recently been talking to Yochai Gal about your involvement in the NSR scene day, a year or two on from coming up with the term.

    Hope you are well: I understand from your twitter that you are dealing with some significant life changes right now. Good luck and thank you.

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