OSR disdain for skills and using a character sheet vs Burning Wheel skill heaviness

Hey gang,

I have been reading following a bunch of interesting OSR related stuff on facebook and I like it. I love the art mostly and I like the discussions on rulings not rules, and creating situations that are really tough and unbalanced.

One of the things I hear often is that a old school D&D character sheet doesn’t have any skills and how this omission in design means that players have to use player skill (asking questions, thinking clerverly, etc.) to get out of trouble.

When I started playing BW from a history of D&D, I was blown away by skills and how flavorful, colorful and important they were to defining ones character. You could see what is important to a character by looking at their skill list and exponent values. So I like skills. I think it adds a lot of flavor that other games lack.


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What Burning Wheel did you really blow my mind more than other games is develop and gamey a truly meaningful reward system around the things that I want to focus on. The large skill list, to me, is an extension of getting rewarded for exploring the things that interest me.

While B/X D&D and the OSR retro-clones are great fun in their own right, the reward system works differently. Yes, without skills, you are free from the constraints of what you can and can’t attempt as a character, but the only system of growing your character comes from gathering treasure and killing bad guys. That’s where XP comes from. That’s a pretty narrow focus. And while other OSR games might reward XP more liberally, it rarely has anything to do with what my character believes or chooses to fight for, unless the GM makes that call himself.

I think OSR games can be plenty of fun, but a lot of writers/creators in that scene can get pretty narrow-minded around the whole skill list thing.

The second to last paragraph on page 73 of BWGR is a solid counter argument to OSR’s “The answer is not on your character sheet” mentality.

Often, if the answer is not on your character sheet, it’s in the GM’s head, and the game becomes about guessing what they’re thinking. Or, you’re going to come up with your own solution, and the game becomes about socially playing others to get what you want. Neither of which is desirable to me, and both of which I see happen all the time.

Sometimes, the solution is in some diagetic element or relationship: ‘You have to use the clues to figure out which key to put in which hole.’ Fine. That can be fun sometimes, but I don’t generally come to the hobby to play point-and-click adventure games.

That mentality is also very solution-oriented: ‘If you want to solve the problem, you’ll have to think outside the box.’ That can be fun – Torchbearer’s “Good Idea” rule is a fun and effective integration of this kind of approach with BW’s style – but it’s not really what Burning Wheel is about: Burning Wheel is more about what you identify as problems and how committed you’ll be to solving them.

OSR games tend to be less about watching a character grow and evolve and suffer and more about putting you as a player in a dungeon, trying to solve the environment. They’re radically different attitudes in my opinion.


I believe that games are about the things they have rules for. I definitely believe that there are people who disagree with that point, and I think that it’s a large conversation, but I think that there’s a lot to be said for it. However, this means that the OSR’s tight combat rules and fleshed out worlds makes them about fighting and exploring. Burning Wheel’s desire to make the majority of the skills be a consequence of what a Lifepath might have, and then the core systems be all about how a person reacts to another (Resources, Steel, Duel of Wits, Circles, Fight, Range and Cover) or how they are special (the many kinds of magic, fighting arts), really drills down that Burning Wheel is about creating a strongly defined character, and then putting them in conflict with both their worlds and the characters in it. Something the OSR kinda isn’t. But that’s also fine, at least I think so.

As for the point of player skill - well - that’s so dependent on the table and what constitutes a “skill”. And that’s just hard to codify in a game system and not an RPG group.

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I find the “Rulings not Rules” dictum troublesome and problematic. A game’s rules are the game itself, and the players step into Ye Olde Magic Circle and agree to abide by the rules to create fair play. The rules and that agreement then collaborate to create surprise and delight for the players during the operation of the game.

Moving the authority of the game from the rules fully onto the shoulders of one player—authority that supersedes even the social contract of the game itself (as in, we’re not here to play the game but to subject ourselves to the “ruling” of one player)—opens a game up to bias and, more often, limits the range of possible results. One players’ imagination is never as rich as the multiple imaginations of the group.

Going further, I often see this credo of Rulings Not Rules tied to the idea of systemless or system-light play. But that assertion is a fallacy. The system is always present in a roleplaying game—and it always has the same weight. The choice being made in design is where the weight resides. In this case, the system moves into the shoulders of a single player issuing rulings. Playing the game becomes about playing to or manipulating that authoritatively positioned player.

And, while I love a good belief(!), there’s a One True Wayism to the Rulings not Rules ideology that rankles me. Burning Wheel’s philosophies and procedures only ever apply to it—to a single game. Even its cousin and sibling games require their own explicit philosophies and procedures. If you’ve listened to me babble for long enough, you will hear me actively resist the pull to apply BW’s systems beyond its borders. Folks are always asking me for generic GM advice—which I can’t give. And folks are endlessly trying to kitbash a BW system into another game—at which point they’ve made their own game and my philosophies and rubrics no longer apply.

So the implication that there is even a class of games that get by with a pithy philosophy like Rulings not Rules rings false to me. It feels like an ideology for a group that is trying to assert an identity. And that is expressly Not My Thing. I try to take each game on its merits. As Silverwizard said, “games are about the things they have rules for.” I believe that to be self-evident and I approach games with that mindset—not with an overarching philosophy or ideology.

I will also add that I have created an OSR game in Miseries & Misfortunes—its system is based on the Moldvay Edition of D&D. Yet there is a post on this very forum disputing that it is in fact an OSR game! The author of the post cites the many system quirks that don’t line up with the current vogues in OSR design. I am still amused by this (exclusionary) stance. The OSR is more vast than you could know, grasshoppers. Even in its short existence its stances have shifted and morphed quite a bit. And I suspect they will continue to.

For a fantastic source on the first few waves of debates around what a roleplaying game is or should be, read Jon Peterson’s Elusive Shift. You will quickly see that we have been around this Rules not Rulings mountain many times in the past—and that, in the first decade of the hobby’s existence, people thought deeply and intelligently about the designs and their implications.


Thanks Luke, love it.

I got a few negative comments in those forums for stating the same fact. The best example I have is from my days playing 2e. One player used to get frustrated by my GMing style because I would always (unconsciously) favor the ‘persuasion’ checks (we didn’t roll any dice) of another player simply because he was my best friend. Not fair. I never even thought to ask for a charisma test because we didn’t play that way. The player in question was rightly upset because I was being biased even though I didn’t want to believe it. So much arguing in those games!

When I joined your table I was so impressed when we did that first Duel of Wits play test because I got to roleplay my eloquent freedom-fighter noblewoman perfectly because her character sheet had the right tools for the job.


But about the point about not having an Investigation skill and how that encourages the player to engage with the system and probe the DM for clues, there are a variety of things that can happen in a BW that would still be fun and add to the story.

Situation: Players have to find the Secret Door to save the young prince.

If the GM has a clear idea of what mechanisms need to be interacted with to find the secret door the players could
A) ask tons of questions, get inspired and then say what they are doing. Move the smooth brick to the right. If correct the GM could just reward with an open door.
B. The GM could ask for a Perception test . Or a agility test.
C. The player could roll a secret door wise.
D. He could make up a skill and roll unskilled and try and open a new skill…encouraging a new direction for the young adventurer.
E. Or the GM doesn’t know what mechanism are required to locate the prince but the player suggests something totally cool and within reason and just make something up rolling a skill from his character sheet. This happened in my game and it lead to one of the coolest scenes in the game so far.

I wish I could play more! I love this game but adult life can be such a drag!

Designers chose whether or not to have an Investigation skill. And the choice is one of abstraction and focus for the system.

You’ll note that BW has no such skill. Is that because I want players to ask the game master for clues? Not at all. There is no investigation skill because the game is not about modern, forensic crime and policing.

Other games might include an Investigation skill to abstract and simplify that in-game process so as to focus on other areas. Other games might atomize investigation into Crime Scene, Canvassing, Digital Forensic, Genetic Tracing, etc. It just depends on what the design is going for.

And I don’t think I need to say this but I know questioning D&D’s tenets is a sensitive operation in our community. So allow me to be explicit: It’s perfectly acceptable to have a game that calls on players to ask the game master questions and advises the game master to use a set of procedures that includes “rules not rulings.”

Also, another thing that I don’t say enough: I miss playing with you! (Aang Sung has continued to live on in our campaign—she’s in charge of that city now!)


What?!?! this is shocking! that was 20 years ago! jeez we are old af. She must be a badass by now. Is Peter’s Inn still there?


Aye, the Shattered Aft!


I agree with Luke here but I want to add some of my perspective.

To me, Rulings over Rules is pure nonsense. Interpretation of a text and making rulings is how tabletop rpgs function. The rules aren’t ridgid programmable logic, groups come to a consensus of how a game works at their table. It’s pure crap.

Rulings over rules, fiction first, don’t split the party - these are memes, signifying where one staked their gaming identity. So, you’ll find harsh, uncharitable reads of skills from OSR fandom, but have you noticed the examples are usually get rules wrong, are a result of toxic play or not from actual play (basically strawman argument).

You’ll find the same behaviors across any subculture in the hobby scene. Now, this isn’t always the fault of the creators or all the participants. You can look at Story Games, PbtA, 5E, The Forge, White Wolf LARPS etc etc and see folks make broad sweeping statements to put their favored brand above others, create division, and - well sell their favorite brand of game. Fandoms are about consumption (buy games to support “the hobby”), and performance. Fandoms don’t require participating in playing games itself to be apart of (luckily, you can play rpgs and not touch the fandom).

It’s best to just ignore people who are heavily invested in placing one subculture of gaming above others. Critical discussions of the effects different rules or lack of rules is good. It’s great to see the many different ways we can engage each other creatively…but when someone is just dead focused on their subculture and boosting it - they won’t have anything useful to say beyond HERE IS HOW BIG OF A FAN I AM.

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Interesting topic.
You can see what happened to the last version of D&D (4e) that tried to be completely transparent about the goals of its “modes of play”: it lasted only 4 years.
Despite its strong focus on rewarding tactical combat, characters could gain XP not only from combat, but also from defusing traps, succeeding at skill challenges, and succeeding at self-directed quests. No other version of D&D has ever been so explicit and varied in its handling of sources of XPs.

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