Sorry, contributing to the OSR flood - but if it isn't half interesting from a design/play-philosophy point of view! So I hope you'll bare with me.
I've been reading through my beloved B/X again and I want to draw your attention to some quirks of the OSR that're kinda fun: all of the sub-systems at play.
I think contemporary game design favours a more holistic approach for it's systems - everything flows, a graceful balancing act to support forward narrative/game momentum - but old D&D, as I see it, is filled with outrageous design cul-de-sacs and partially disconnected sub-systems. Personally, I love these. There's something a little magical about these obscure little procedures that really characterise the game as a whole but I can see how it's rubbed countless numbers of D&D graduates the wrong way and are continually getting drawn and re-drawn by the hacking/OSR community. I'd love to try assess the function of these sub-systems and their interplay and see what they really get up to when the grown-ups have left the room.
My analysis of sub-system in B/X D&D (at least) is that there are two main types - ones for players and ones for the DM. Player-involved sub-system are things like Retainer/Hireling acquirement and training, Thief skills, magic-user and cleric spells and magical research, stronghold building and so on. DM-involved sub-systems include random encounters, treasure tables, encumbrance, rumours etc. None of these are essential to play, really, and there's many a OSR title that alters, simplifies or hand-waves at least one of these. Encumbrace, fer instance, you can simply drop and the game continues largely unmolested. Why are these sub-systems so interesting then? I'd suggest that their charm (for me) lies in their divergence from the regular action of play, using different dice and methods to interact with the fiction on the same terms as the main game but with a finer granularity. They promote "my" part of the fiction expressed through mechanical terms - my number of retainers, my looted rubies, my ability to pick pockets - there's something incredibly satisfying in having my stakes in the game-world (as a player) reinforced through sub-systems I have ownership or control over. The mutability of sub-systems is also a plus: we can house-rule them in or out without much negative effect on the game overall. Don't like that the Thief Skills are a d% roll? Ok, lets make that a 2d6 table! So long as we can rule in a fair way to resolve this that doesn't impact the day-to-day resolution methods of the central system the possibilities are vast. What DM hasn't made their own encounter subsystem to represent a special area of interest? Promoting their interests as a dungeon master through the mechanics of a sub-system. Sublime.
Anyway, rant over. My tl;dr position is that
- Disjointed sub-systems define the OSR experience.
- They dramatically deepen play/investment despite their disposable nature.
- They Reinforce the "rulings, not rules" aspect of OSR.
It's a hard line to take but there we go; perhaps it's not as all internally "disjointed" as I assume? What do you think?
(edit: changed to correct category)