In 2006, I was around 12 years old and looking through a PC magazine that I had bought in an airport book shop when me and my mother were traveling to Peru. I remember this incident because at the time my favorite videogame was Heroes of Might and Magic IV and there was an advertisement for the sequel. I would spend most days after school playing Heroes and I was incredibly excited for a newer version. Before that advertisement I saw an article about a horror game made by a Ukrainian game company and remember thinking that the monsters were looked intense. I barely skimmed it, but I knew it mentioned the Chernobyl disaster and intelligent AI.
The summer of 2011, I had just returned from backpacking in New Mexico for two weeks and I had two months before I started my senior year of high school. I was first starting to lift weights and I spent my summers either in the gym or in front of my computer playing video-games. I remember talking with some of my old acquaintances in Ukraine, the same ones that gave me my first Magic the Gathering cards and urged me to become a DM, and they told me about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. At the time I was playing Mount and Blade Warband with a Chinese WWII mod and was beginning to enjoy FPS's so when Vladik described a survival horror open-world FPS with all the characters speaking in Russian and Ukrainian, I was super intrigued.
To this day, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series is in my opinion the objectively best video-game I have ever played. It's mechanics evoke a very specific game-play which in my opinion is the platonic OSR player experience with two exceptions. First, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series is a single player experience and while you may a squad of 4 other people with you, the majority of the game is just the player experiencing the horror and lost majesty of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Second, the weapons used by the characters are guns which while not directly being non-OSR are not the same as swords. That being said this post is an essay on by how playing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series a Dungeon Master or Referee would be better served by experiencing the Platonic OSR Player Experience which they could then recreate.
Aesthetics of Ruin
If you haven't read this post about the OSR Aesthetics of Ruin by Against the Wicked City, please do so as these next paragraphs discuss the points raised within also its a great post.
In real life this is what happened during the disaster in 1986. The event occurred during a late-night safety test which simulated a station blackout power-failure and in which safety systems were deliberately turned off. Water flashed into steam generating a destructive steam explosion and a subsequent open-air graphite fire. The estimated radioactive inventory that was released during this very hot fire phase would then go on to fall-out/precipitate onto much of the surface of the western USSR and Europe. Following the incident the remains of the No.4 reactor building were enclosed in a large cover which was named the "Object Shelter". It is often known as the sarcophagus, with the purpose of reducing the spread of the remaining radioactive dust and debris from the wreckage and the protection of the wreckage from further weathering. The No.3 reactor continued to produce electricity into 2000. After the disaster, four square kilometers of pine forest directly downwind of the reactor turned reddish-brown and died, earning the name of the "Red Forest" further a robot sent into the reactor itself has returned with samples of black, melanin-rich radiotrophic fungi that are growing on the reactor's walls.An area originally extending 30 kilometers (19 mi) in all directions from the plant is officially called the "zone of alienation". It is largely uninhabited and has largely reverted to forest, and has been overrun by wildlife because of a lack of competition with humans for space and resources. Even today, radiation levels are so high that the workers responsible for rebuilding the sarcophagus are only allowed to work five hours a day for one month before taking 15 days of rest. Ukrainian officials estimated the area would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years.
"cast PCs as tiny figures wandering a world of dead and dying titans, stumbling amidst the wreckage of mighty forces they do not understand."
in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, you are likewise cast as a lone wanderer in a land ravaged by radiation and the actions of a secret cabal. In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, the Chernobyl Power-plant has a much different role. Between 1996 and 2006, a secret lab was built inside the derelict Sarcophagus in order to host the Common Consciousness project. This project was an attempt at altering the "psychic collective unconscious mentality of humanity" to be more positive. However twenty years after the Chernobyl Power-plant incident the Common Consciousness project created a rift in the "psychic collective unconscious mentality of humanity" which caused anomalies (dangerous magical/psychic traps) to spread all over the Zone of Alienation. Individuals would then travel into the Zone of Alienation to prospect for magical artifacts also created by the 2006 incident. The Chernobyl Power-plant is a place of myth and is believed to be the very heart of the Zone. The most well known tale of the zone is that of the Wish Granter, a monolithic crystal of unknown origin that makes one's wishes come true, rumored to be hidden inside the destroyed reactor No. 4. So now we have what is essentially a magical wilderness filled with numerous dungeons into which individuals enter for wealth or magical ability. If that's not an amazing OSR prompt then I don't know what is.
Joseph Manola further writes that
"OSR game styles tend to be very open, giving PCs as much liberty as possible to run around an environment and explore it in whatever wildly self-destructive ways they can dream up; but that openness requires and implies a certain set of absences. If PCs can run around the inside of a giant machine pulling levers to see what happens - and they should be able to, because that stuff is classic - then that implies that whoever first built this amazing machine, with all the technological and organisational prowess which its size and complexity implies, is no longer around to stop them. If they can rove from place to place, butchering or befriending the occupants of each area as the whim takes them, then that implies the absence of any kind of overarching authority able to control the movements of this gang of freakish desperadoes."
The title refers to the name of the illegal prospectors into the Zone of Alienation, Stalkers. These are individuals who "run around an environment and explore it in whatever wildly self-destructive ways they can dream up" and "rove from place to place, butchering or befriending the occupants of each area as the whim takes them". This leads us to the next point of Stalkers as Dungeon Crawlers
A Stalker is A Dungeon-Crawler
The term stalker as well as the abbreviated title of the series refer to the fact that those entering the Zone of Alienation are Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, and Robbers. Outside of loner, I would say these are all great descriptions of OSR characters, and even in the case of loner it could be said that due to the a typical nature of an OSR character they are a loner. The player of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trespasses into dangerous places full of monsters and magic in order to obtain wealth, with the most tense moments of the game is spent penetrating deep into abandoned laboratories and other ruins to obtain occult treasures. I don't think it's possible to describe the purpose of OSR characters with any greater accuracy. Playing the series you must manage your encumbrance, must plan for your expeditions into danger, and play cautiously. What I loved most when playing is that reckless play results in the game almost always beating you bad, but if you played cautiously you were almost certainly guaranteed victory. This means that there is a rare chance of you going guns blazing balls to the wall and emerging victorious. This innate unfairness necessitating caution and occasional victory despite overwhelming odds has been the greatest source of joy for me as a player in OSR. The mentality that arises as one plays the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is the same that emerges in veterans of OSR play, so by playing the game a referee may understand how their players will approach their games as they understand the methodology of OSR. The following four sections detail the shared methodology of OSR and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series that are player facing.
Journey of Safety to Wilderness to Dungeon
The majority game-play within the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is the process of leaving a shelter, traveling through wilderness, and entering a laboratory to steal it's occult treasures. As players travel from safety to the underground structure, they may encounter random events like psychic blow outs, bandit ambushes, or even mutated monsters. I hope readers at this point have grasped that the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is essentially a post-apocalypse hex-crawl where several dungeons are located.
As a referee I have found that the majority of OSR follows the pattern of Safety to Wilderness to Dungeon and most of the systems I write on this blog have that in mind. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series emphasizes this model as your character leave a singular safe location travel through the irradiated wilderness and then enter a laboratory. Characters have to plan how many munitions, how much food, and etc to take with them and similarly there are three stages of play. In the Safety Stage characters obtain information about their destination and prepare for the journey. In the Wilderness Stage characters seek to prevent encounters with wandering monsters and search for possible stashes of valuables set as intermediate way-points by other stalkers. In the Dungeon Stage characters manage locked doors, secret passageways, traps, and horrible inhabitants. The longer one plays the more competent they become at all three and honestly they would be well prepared for playing a an OSR game.
One notable thing the game emphasizes is picking your fights wisely. While one could choose to engage with every enemy entity they see, they would waste resources and possibly die. A great deal of the game is figuring out how to sidestep combat. Management of resources and risk assessment are vital player skills and in the game lore veteran stalkers possess these skills, similar to how veteran OSR players should as well.
Anomalies, Ten-Foot Poles, and Movement at Mapping Speed
One thing that confused me originally was the concept of mapping speed, until I though about it in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. terms. Through out the wilderness and within the majority of the laboratories are multiple areas of psychic anomalies which can kill you. Stalkers toss bolts every few meters to determine the area of danger of the anomalies so that they don't perish. Rather than sprinting towards cover you painstakingly throw bolts every meter and where they cause a great gout of flame to appear you don't step there.
OSR characters within dungeons move at a fraction of their combat speed so that they can avoid making any great deal of noise, map out their environment, and reduce their risk of traps. In OSR games the ten-foot pole is used to trigger traps as a character would but instead of having a person filled by spears, an empty space is. Having moved at this slow speed as a player in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series I understand both how and why characters within a dungeon would move so slow as well.
|Those who have played Shadow of Chernobyl know why this image was used|
So one thing that struck me was how tense each of the underground laboratories and passages ways were. They were dark, sounds echoed, they were winding and disorienting, and full of horrible things. I dreaded going into them because they were hard to leave when things inevitably went wrong and because I had no idea what was behind each door. As a referee these dungeons are my litmus test of how oppressive a dungeon should feel. An ethos espoused in OSR is that rather than Referee vs players it is Dungeon vs players and the feeling is very present in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. I can't do the laboratories in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. justice but just play them and think about how you felt. That feeling is that one that should be felt by players.
Dungeons are the concentrated wilderness but without the benefit of escape by open space. All of the horribleness of the wandering monsters are concentrated in spaces which limit your movement and turn what may have been once simply sight-seeing and fleeing into a gauntlet of the horrible. The horror of the dungeon doesn't come from the scary sights and sounds but from the anxiety arise from the lack of safety and escape.
Characters are Limited by Their Resources
In S.T.A.L.K.E.R your character does not gain abilities and retains the same physical capabilities they did at the start of the game to the very end. Their ability to function is limited by their resources and equipment. I find this to be very similar to the design principles of OSR games. Characters progress in levels but the majority of what they obtain is further resources not necessarily new abilities. In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series you are limited in what you can do by what you have on your character sheet and this greatly encourages lateral thinking. You have to track your inventory as your opportunities to resupply are severely limited and you need to prepare before hand.
OSR characters are similarly powered. While a level 10 character will have more capabilities than a level 1 character they are fundamentally limited by their resources. You only have so many torches, only so many spells, only so much HP. You are forced to constantly assess resource expenditure before you engage in further plundering of ancient tombs.
AI Wilderness and Random Encounters
What always blew me away is the level of AI wilderness that runs within the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.engine. up to 1000 individual actors are passively run through out the whole world so while your character maybe in the starting area, NPC actors are battling horrible mutants within the final and most deadly area. No matter what you do, the world continues to act. Rather than waiting for the player to do something, the NPC continue to work. While this can occasionally render quests impossible to complete due to NPC death to random enemy, it makes the world feel alive.
The most frustrating and often Kafkaesque hilarious moments in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series would be when dangerously low on health and ammo I would reemerge from a laboratory only to have a military squadron descend on that location. It greatly emphasized the importance of meaningful time into the world. While games like Pokemon have random encounters for the player in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series these are quite literally wandering monsters. They spawn in uninhabited areas and then travel throughout the world occasionally meeting players or NPC actors. Rather than walking through tall grass and suddenly meeting a Ratata, I could see bandits squatting in a camp over a kilometer away and then could later return an hour later to find them all dismembered by mutated boars.
I had to be cognizant that time wasted on circumventing threats could lead me to have to deal with wandering monsters and I believe there is nothing more OSR than that.
BONUS! Bandits are my Favorite Wandering Monster
Around 30% of the enemies you face are members of the bandit faction. The video below is a series of bandit quotes in English. You should listen to at least 3 minutes of the video.
*I played the games in the original languages, but these quotes aren't that far off
So while you are wandering through a ruined irradiated hellscape you have these chuckle-fucks running around trying to extort people while screaming:
"You gotta help us bro! These uptight faggots are dipping us in some stinky shit"
Its a very refreshing form of relatable humanity. They are also literal murder-hobos and are strangely similar to every group of players I have ever played with.
I love them as a wandering monster for my OSR groups because I can run some many different options depending on their reaction roll. Will they be friendly? Will they want to rob the characters? Will they just want to hustle them? While encountering a magic-user or a fighter there is a clear mechanism of how those enemies would overpower the characters on a poor reaction roll but bandits are 1 HD low armor low defense enemies. They have to use lateral thinking and strategy to overcome obstacles. In essence they are low-level characters who survive in the world just as your party would. Every convoluted scheme you could come up with, they will do as well. Best of all their goal is not kill the characters but just to rob them and leave and in my experience as a Referee there is nothing worse for a player than an entity which takes their stuff and leaves. Bandits in my games have caused more character motivated vendettas and plots than any possibly evil overlord or dragon.
BONUS! Hex Density
For the first game int the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series the world is essentially composed of 18 areas connected by gates. While to OSR readers this may sound like a point-crawl in playing it it becomes a hex crawl. One such area, Dark Valley, is shown below.
Here we have 5 major points of interest alongside terrain and scenery. We have a bandit lair in the north. Directly east of the bandit layer is a ruined gas station where someone has hidden a cache of resources. South of the gas station is a lab facility which is essentially a three floored dungeon. Going further south we have a bridge over a swamp, the bridge itself is irradiated while the swamp is full of monsters, forcing the players to decide which risk they can better manage. Lastly there is a pig farm at the south of the map where a trio of stalkers will attempt to hustle you with the promise of a rare gun. Each area is so filled that rather than just going to the Borov Bandit Base, you are instead going to a site filled with possibility.
This is slightly more dense than one of my hexes, but it illustrates how to fill a singular area with several intractable elements. Rather than simply saying there is a single tower in the six mile hex you can say there are several sites you could see, playing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series this becomes much more apparent. Players wander the ruined landscape and see structures from afar and as there are so many that each may hold the promise of prosperous find or doom.
Lastly in writing this article ,I decided to add the possibility of caches and stashes to my wilderness hex filling procedure. This would give each abandoned ruin a further purpose besides shelter from weather and a possible site for camping at night. It would also give characters a reason to engage with each structural site and would likely increase the number of dungeon entrances found.