Staring down a vicious stat-block just isn’t in keeping with the mindset that best suits OSR roleplaying. A long list of pre-determined weaknesses and resistances lends itself to an archivist’s game. A player’s success at getting past prescriptivist obstacles becomes an admin task instead of an opportunity for creative problem solving.
Vicious stat-blocks are so much easier to design. Want to make this more dangerous? Just add two to all of the numbers.
But designing problems that enable problem-solving is much more enjoyable an experience. The incomparable Arnold K. wrote an excellent piece that summarises what I most enjoy about designing these challenges:
Writing a good OSR-style problem is tougher than it sounds. It needs to be something that. . .
- has no easy solution.
- has many difficult solutions.
- requires no special tools (e.g. unique spells, plot devices).
- can be solved with common sense (as opposed to system knowledge or setting lore).
- isn’t solvable through some ability someone has on their character sheet. Or at least, it isn’t preferentially solvable. I’m okay with players attacking the sphinx (a risky undertaking) if they can’t figure out the riddle, because risky-but-obvious can be a solution, too.
Now, a lot of OSR play does’t require overt antagonists. However, Arnold’s breakdown coupled with my well-documented love of villains and resulted in the realisation that Judge Death is perhaps the perfect OSR antagonist.
1. He swiftly sets a tone
While there can be a lot said for subtlety, it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with a subtle challenge in a nuanced manner. Einstein famously said, “If you cannot explain something simply, you do not know it well enough.” Judge Death’s personality is crass (& arguably one-dimensional) but this quickly establishes a standard from which to interact with. Through play, the shades of meaning can be found.
The global annihilation threat isn’t a new story and it isn’t a particularly subtle one. It is retold so often because it retains a powerful emotional pull.
Likewise, Judge Death’s plan sets up an inevitability that demands interaction.
2. His motive is clear to grasp
All crimes are commited by the living, therefore all life is a crime.
While Judge Death is unlikely to calmly debate the innate issues of his logical fallacy here (Talking back to a judge? That’s ten years, perp.), his reasoning is easy to follow. The key word here is grasp. Not only can players simply understand it, they are able to use it as a tool. It doesn’t require setting-specific information in order to interact with and its simplicity enables the players to make safe assumptions about Death’s likely behaviours. And from safe assumptions, risky plans can be built.
Furthermore, it is clear that his motive is evil, in case there was any misapprehension about his role in the story.
3. He comes with interesting friends
A villain capable of proving a real threat to the world doesn’t work alone. However, Judge Death doesn’t just come with a legion of faceless goons.
The success of the other Dark Judges come from their variety; while the simplicity of their goal might become monotonous over a large campaign, the difference in their behaviour and tools help provide freshness. The variety and distinction is another thing that helps in play: each becomes an overt opportunity to solve problems — the solutions for which will differ between encounters. Consistently showing players that they must solve these kinds of problems will give them the skill to solve problems later on.
4. His statistics aren’t the most important thing
While it would be possible to write a stat-block for Death, he becomes a much more interesting villain if a number of truths are established about his character than a number of Hit Points given.
- Judge Death doesn’t regenerate xHP each turn; instead, he suffers no personal harm on being damaged.
- If his (current) body is completely destroyed, he moves on as an insubstantial spirit-form. This form can possess bodies.
- He doesn’t deal traditional damage; instead he reaches into your body and can stop your brain or heart.
Thus, fighting him doesn’t descend into a war of attrition. The combat becomes less a mastery of the system, more a mastery of the narrative.
* * *
I can’t recommend you drop Death directly into your game. Intellectual property protection would deem that a crime (for which the sssentence iss death). But you can use the facets of his success to create successful antagonists in your OSR games. Consider how you can use a character’s tone, her motive, her companions and the innate truths of her existence to provide elements for your players to interact with. Your villains should be much more than just a bundle of numbers.
Let us know how you apply these lessons to your villains in the comments below.