|AI Art by @nightcafestudio|
"You must follow the rules as written!" is one of the most toxic behaviors modern games communicate to players. Some games are worse than others, and the community adopts this attitude of, "If you change the rules, your entire game is invalid, get better at playing!"
In an OSR game, if a thief player walks a tightrope in an epic moment, I could give the player's character a +1 DEX permanently. Or a permanent +2 on all balance-related saving throws. Or something along a cat's grace ability usable 3 times per day. A balance-like power with a d6 skill die roll could be possible.
"But there isn't a rule in the book for that!"
"That isn't a power in any class!"
"This is cheating! Homebrew games are bad."
"You are ruining the game for others! Every group should play the same!"
"Learn to play the game better."
We used to do this all the time and it was great. The game was played entirely differently back in the day. A character sheet wasn't something you could do a "code audit" on to determine if the character was "legal for organized play" - it was a collection of customized abilities and powers collected through the character's journey, and often just made up and balanced by the group as best they can.
Every group had its own definition of balance too. Some liked realistic, and some liked overpowered games.
These days, companies seek to control options strictly. Pathfinder 2e does this. You can see the parallels between Magic the Gathering and D&D, where characters are like "deck builds" more than they are "organic creations of a story." If Wizards could ban spells and powers in D&D like they do in Magic, they would create a competitive e-sports play league around the game instead of what we have today.
At this point, I feel D&D was a horrible acquisition for Wizards, the play and model of the traditional game "as it was" fights against the new world they want to build. They could have just created a fantasy deck-building game where your +1 sword was a card the adventure gave you and been done with it and had the game they wanted. Your character should have been a deck of cards, and you collect spells, gear, powers, and abilities through competitive play. A group would buy an adventure game box, that would contain all the cards for that adventure, and when players succeeded and got levels and treasure, the cards in that box would be handed out to those players to keep.
Instead, we had six versions of Wizards D&D since 2000, and none of them get it right. None of them are the game they want to make, and the name D&D keeps them stuck to physical books. They have to transition the game to electronic now and be nebulous about supporting physical books. Physical books in D&D 4 were all but DOA; the patches were out before the books hit the shelves.
The problem comes when modern players bring the "by the rules" play style to OSR games. They will buy a game like Old School Essentials or Dungeon Crawl Classics and come in with the expectations that if a rule or character ability "isn't in the books," then "it isn't legal in the game."
Yes, you can play OSR games by the rules written in the books.
But that is 100% never the way we played them.
If I felt a character earned something, they got it. An ability score increase, special power, extra hit points, skill, feat-style, AC bonus, class ability, spell, power, or anything else we could dream up - the characters were "sticky". They gathered special "not in the rules" abilities through adventures. None of them were the same, pulled from a list in the book, and we could use things from other games to craft our unique experiences.
Did it make our characters "100% unable to be recreated by the rules?" Yes, but that was the point. If you wanted character audits and being able to track every character point spent all the way to maximum power level, you played GURPS or Champions. These days, Pathfinder 2e and 5E feel eerily similar to GURPS and Champions in that same "character audit" sense.
Honestly, GURPS does the entire point-build and character audit thing 100% better than 5E or Pathfinder 2 and is a better-balanced and more accessible game to run with a unified mechanic and build system. Be careful thinking newer games do things better; sometimes, the classics do it better, do more, and with fewer restrictions.
All D&D 3E through 5E games do are pace out GURPS powers and skills on a level chart. Feats? Designed superpowers or advantages. Spells? Powers with usage costs and limitations. All of this stuff in GURPS and Champions is based on math, and the math is often better in a point-buy system.
There is a difference between 5E and PF2 designers who do darn things they please and systems designed on math. Why should I trust designers who can never get an edition right? I would rather trust math. The math is more complex, but balance is guaranteed, and if there are exploits - they are clearly apparent, and the math can be changed easily. If 1d6 damage per 5 points of power is too much, change it on the base level (in one place) and go from there. Or force a limit on all damage powers.
Math is a better system for "following the rules" because "math has rules," and the rules are easily understood regardless of background, language, or culture. If I play a character design game, I am playing GURPS. Is it painful? Yes. Does it just do it all better? Yes.
And I don't need a new edition of a game every 10 years like I don't need a new edition of math every 10 years.
For softer designs with asymmetrical balance, like an OSR game, why is what they wrote in the book some sort of mathematical law? It is not. The rules in a game like this are all made up, allowing you to make additions and changes as you wish. Are OSR games balanced? Typically not.
An OSR game is a starting point for a game designer. The rules, as written, are just suggestions.
Do you want to give a player an extraordinary power or ability not in the book?
You are a game designer; you all are at the table, so why not?