Tabletop Tuesday – An “Outsider’s” Perspective on OSR
Before I talk about this topic, I need to be clear on what I mean by “outsider.”
I started playing RPGs around 1985, and I’ve played everything from the original Basic Dungeons & Dragons to the latest Powered by the Apocalypse games. I admit, however, that I’ve been mostly clueless on a lot of the “politics” and “movements” in the industry.
I only recently began reading about the long history of the very hobby I’ve been invested in since the days of Back to the Future, Duran Duran, and “New Coke“. So, when I first learned about the Old School Revival (or Renaissance), and everything surrounding it, I was perplexed.
What was the OSR? What do they mean “old school”? What do they mean “modern” games? What’s their beef with games labeled “indie” or “story” (and vice versa)?
So, I decided to investigate this gaming style and approach; I was directed to various games, articles, blogs, etc. Some were positive, some were negative, but they all were informative.
I still didn’t get the controversy, however, so that’s why I’m writing this article. I want to explain how OSR (and the divide over it) looks to me, an “outsider,” and why I wonder why it’s considered “different”.
So, what is OSR?
Many people believe it to be a preference for “old school” games, usually those from the earliest years of the hobby. That’s not entirely correct, though – many games, of different styles and rulesets, appeared in the years after D&D started in 1974.
Instead, it seems that OSR focuses heavily on the original D&D (0e) and the first two versions of Basic D&D (aka, Holmes and Moldvay). This origin may be why OSR fans are often construed as “D&D purists”.
That claim isn’t entirely accurate, however, as OSR appears to be more than merely preferring “old school” D&D mechanics. Matthew Finch’s primer says, “What makes 0e different from later games isn’t the rules themselves, it’s how they’re used.”
Although many OSR games use D&D 0e and the Basic versions as their basis, it seems it’s less about the game mechanics and more in how people run or play them. So, “old school” appears to stand more for how games were run than how they were designed.
Thus, my first confusion over OSR: how is it different from playing any other game?
Mechanics may influence (or limit) GMs, but in the end, you can run any game however you see fit. You could theoretically run a rules-crunchy Palladium game in the OSR style, while GMing a game of Basic D&D in a “rules heavy” manner with little flexibility.
If how the game is run or played is independent of the mechanics, then why do we even need a label like OSR? Why can’t we say, “This session/campaign will be in a more ‘old school’ style,” rather than divide ourselves?
Of course, to understand what that difference is (and whether other mechanics can use it), I think we should explore the style of OSR.
What is the “old school” approach to gaming?
Returning to Matthew Finch’s primer on OSR, he provides four points:
- Rulings, not Rules
- Player Skill, not Character Abilities
- Heroic, not Superhero
- Forget “Game Balance”
The first concept I find easy to understand, and I’ve discussed it earlier; the rules aren’t what’s important, it’s how you use them. GMs don’t follow the rules to the letter (if there even is one for the situation), but instead, make rulings given the players’ actions.
I think the second point is an unusual deviation in games where you’re usually portraying someone else; your character isn’t anymore (or less) smart, charismatic, etc. than you are, and it’s up to you (the player) how well you handle a situation. Many scenarios involve puzzles for the players to solve, rather than the characters (and dice); dumb warriors might solve a trap while alluring bards can screw up with the wrong words.
The third idea seems the main call-back to “old school” games: the “power level” of characters. Instead of portraying seasoned heroes who lay waste to minions and go toe-to-toe with monsters, players start as nobodies or “everymen” that could die from the lowliest goblin. You don’t start out as Legolas, but instead as Bilbo.
The fourth concept seems to stem from the last two; games are not set up to be “fair” or to make the characters untouchable protagonists. A castle dungeon might host a monster well above your level, and you need to be clever, run, or die; OSR games are less Lord of the Rings and more Game of Thrones.
Honestly, I could easily enjoy a game in this style, but I’m not sure why any of this is supposedly an “old school” mentality.
I’ve known plenty of games where the GM ignores (or fills in) the mechanics and reacts to player initiative and creativity, particularly with on-the-fly rulings, is nothing new. Sure, some systems may do it better than others, but are all those games I’ve played OSR just because they match the style?
RPGs that are “low level” and “unbalanced” are also just a matter of taste; I’ve had GMs run games like these in many editions of D&D, not to mention no few horror games. Even computer gamers enjoy this approach, as seen in survival games like ARK and DayZ.
The only point that stands apart to me about OSR is the preference to focus on the players’ abilities over the characters’; I’ve always thought RPGs were for playing something different. You’ll still find RPGs where you portray yourself, however, and even the idea of solving puzzles through descriptions and player acumen stretches as far back as computer games like Zork.
OSR sounds interesting to me but doesn’t seem to have any exclusive claim to its tenets. I’ve encountered many of these ideas in RPGs throughout the decades and even seen them in computer and video games.
If OSR is a style (not a rule system), and one that you can find in a variety of games, perhaps the difference is in the history of the movement itself?
OSR has roots stemming back to the turn of the millennium, when Wizards of the Coast created both 3rd edition D&D as well as announced their Open Gaming License. Dissatisfied with the changes to 25 years of mechanics and feel, fans of the “old school” style began using (and adapting) the 70’s and 80’s rules for their purposes.
Most sources suggest the official start of the OSR occurred in 2006, with Finch and Marshall’s Old School Resource Index Compilation (OSRIC), a “retro-clone” of the original and early Basic versions of D&D. Between the rise of social media and forum websites, as well as the ease of PDF publishing, the “renaissance” had begun.
As I mentioned, most of these publishers were individuals unhappy with the direction of TTRPGs, specifically D&D. They believed all the additional rules had stripped the games of their free-form nature and tied the GM’s hands when it came to on-the-fly rulings.
Honestly, the OSR people weren’t entirely wrong; many games (including D&D) have bloated rules and charts, while power-gamers and rules-lawyers run rampant. Various players expected games to be fair and balanced, to have every possible action spelled out, and to be able to use (and abuse) the system to their advantage.
My confusion isn’t that OSR proponents had a problem with other styles of gaming, so much as their timing and labeling.
Why did the OSR people think it was “new” editions and players? Why didn’t they start a movement when things like this were occurring during what I consider “old school”?
As I’ve mentioned, most of the philosophy of OSR (and the complaints from which it arose) isn’t new. I’ve seen these same things around dinner tables and at conventions since the end of the 20th century.
Traveller, notorious for rules that require spreadsheets (and a character creation system that can kill you before you play), was published in 1977, the same year as both Basic and Advanced D&D. Rolemaster, one of the most rules-heavy “simulationist” games, was published in 1980, a full year before Moldvay’s D&D.
The “old school” era is rife with games that range from simple to complex, and that’s not even getting to the enormous variety of mechanics and styles that appeared during the mid-80’s into the 90’s. If D&D could co-exist with (WEG) Star Wars, Shadowrun, and the World of Darkness, why was there suddenly a problem?
As far as I can tell, it seems to stem from two things: the “offense” that was 3rd edition D&D and the Internet.
When WotC released 3rd edition, fans were in an uproar – it’s one thing to create new games that are different, but to change the “holy grail” that is D&D? Ironically, it’s almost like the diehard fans went even more extreme in response, eschewing 20 years of AD&D in favor of the original systems.
Also, by the early 21st century the Internet was more mainstream and user-friendly, bringing with it forums, blogs, and social media. Suddenly we had a much broader network through which we could discuss, share, and (of course) complain.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t further impetus behind the creation of OSR; maybe there were influences in the industry or broader gaming circles. Again, though, I’m not a designer, writer, or even an everyday blogger or forum participant; I’m just a long-time gamer that enjoys playing RPGs.
So, from the “outside,” OSR appears to have less to do with “old school” gaming in general and more to do with classic D&D players (who enjoyed a particular style of game) who became upset. Fans who could now voice their discontent and design with their own games and social movement, thanks to the Internet.
I need to be clear, my exploration of OSR doesn’t end here.
There’s more to this OSR story than just some “outsider” trying to figure out what it is, how it originated, and why it exists. OSR also has been intertwined with a notable divide in the RPG community, one that has moved beyond simple Internet arguments to real-world consequences for some people.
I’ll follow up on that issue in another article, however, as it deserves more than a blurb at the end of this discussion. Suffice to say, if OSR is merely a gaming style favored by “classic” D&D players, one that shares many tenets with other games, then the conflict surrounding it seems even stranger.
For now, I’m going to check out some of this “Old School Renaissance” more to see if there’s as much of a difference as proponents say.
In the meantime, feel free to join me and explore these games some OSR people recommended:
Allow me to re-write your article in a simpler and non-TL;dr format by way of metaphor:
“I don’t really understand why the Macallan 18 year might be favored over say…Wild Turkey. I’ve drunk some of this stuff (both kinds) over the years and frankly I just can’t see why people get so impassioned over the differences that (honestly) my tongue cannot detect. Can’t we all just get along?
tl;dr ~ internet shorthand for, “I’m too lazy to give your work the time of day but too important to walk away without interjecting my opinion.”
Two clarifications that should help your understanding immensely:
* The OSR is not a single unified philosophy or movement, driving towards one distinct message or goal. Rather it is a very loose chorus of voices full of contradictory perspectives. The people creating OSRIC are after something different from the people creating _Lamentations of the Flame Princess_. If you approached it expecting a coherent ideology, your confusion is no surprise.
* Barring a couple extreme voices of no worthy repute professing otherwise, there is no conflict between the OSR and Indie games communities, and it speaks poorly of your research if you believe such. The OSR by its origin and nature _is_ Indie, and some of the biggest proponents of the OSR movement have been established Indie creators. Go look up the writing credits on the LotFP supplements and you’ll find names like Kenneth Hite and Eero Tuovinen. Search the Story-Games forums and you’ll find a wealth of discussion of OSR play. There’s so much overlap and exchange between the two communities that the notion of them feuding is laughable.
And one observation:
* Just because something isn’t new doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. And just because it’s old to you doesn’t mean it’s not revelatory to someone else. There are a lot of young gamers in the OSR who weren’t playing in 1985, to whim the tenets of the Old School Prime were a paradigm shift from how they were introduced to the hobby.
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1. How is it different from playing any other game?
Some people explicitly disagree on one or more of the core tenets. Thus it’s useful to have shorthand of some sort to frame such disagreements. Labels persist as long as they’re useful, and I find it useful to say that I run according to a lot of OSR ideas, for example, rather than ideas which emerged within the Pathfinder community, or ideas which emerged from the storygame community.
There doesn’t need to be a fundamental earth-shaking difference in gameplay for the label to be valuable. It’s perhaps true, for example, that if I get a new player they might play in a storygame I run and an OSR game I run and find the adaptation easy. For a new player, it’s hard to say what biases or habits they’ll have. But in the community, folks *can* find this hard. And let me stress that word: *can*. As long as they can find it hard, the distinctions remain relevant.
2. If how the game is run or played is independent of the mechanics, then why do we even need a label like OSR? Why can’t we say, “This session/campaign will be in a more ‘old school’ style,” rather than divide ourselves?
These are sort of grouped together, but I think they are importantly different. Firstly, while you can indeed run a game somewhat independently of the mechanics, there are two points worth making.
One: not everybody even *agrees* with that. Some people refuse to acknowledge that the game can be about more than what the rules explicitly say it’s about. Folks have done analyses of D&D where they point to the thickness of the Combat chapter and then use that to make assertions about how D&D can’t possibly be used to tell stories. So your first point (which I guess you see as common sense) isn’t as non-controversial as you imagine it to be. There’s a spectrum of belief, ranging from the idea that you can run any game any way, to the idea that games end where interpretation begins. Within the OSR, the latter chunk of the spectrum is considered somewhat gauche, but within at least a few major storygame communities it is part of accepted discourse.
Two, and this is more nitpicky than strictly answer your question: there’s a limit even to interpretive play. Shadowrun is just going to feel fundamentally different from The Sprawl, no matter how hacked the game is. Stars Without Number feels fundamentally different from a game of FATE set in space. It would be disingenuous to suggest you could erase those differences, though you could certainly play one in a way that was a tribute to the other.
Your second question is about word use. I want to point out that the statement “I will run this in a more old school style” does exist. I say this all the time when I run a game that doesn’t make a strong stand either way, like 5e. You can run 5e a la cinematic principles, OSR principles, storygame principles, run a lolrandom game in it, run it as close to the intended design as you can, or any variant thereof. So people say this all the time. The divisiveness is a separate matter from the labels. You have people who comfortably use the label without any divisiveness, and you have folks who use labels to declare war. Divisiveness is thus not inherent to the act of labeling.
3. Why was there suddenly a problem?
The OSR kinda first came about as a mix of a shorthand to help players and a legal dodge. Having OSRIC allowed folks who weren’t as careful about licensing to just use the OSRIC document as their base for building other games. Also, you could say something like “yo I run an old-school game” and this would be helpful if you wanted to cultivate a community of like-minded folks. So it’s not necessary for a moral problem to exist for the label to exist.
I sort of understand the confusion. There definitely is a bit of moral panic when folks try to talk about the one true way to play, or whatever. But that is again a mixture of things, it isn’t tied indivisibly from the label. Labels often evolve, and when the people who enjoy the label make drama, the label can come across as more dramatic.
I’m sure there are even more reasons for it to come into being than the two reasons I listed. You get the idea.
4. In the meantime, feel free to join me and explore these games some OSR people recommended…
This seems like an odd way to do recommendations. I mean, this is literally more nitpicking rather than useful insight. I guess I think it’s more useful to recommend games you like rather than to just throw a bunch of titles out there. Especially cuz the systems differ in how you would explore them, so much.
Like, ACKS isn’t going to feel different from most clones til you get to high-level play. Lamentations’ ruleset actually doesn’t do weird fantasy at all, the meat of the “weird fantasy game” is embodied in their adventure design and publication practices, not the core rules. And then OSRIC, while it does have its fans, is in my experience more of a springboard for designers to move from than an innovation in its own right (since it’s a clone).
Sorry: Like I said. Me nitpicking. You do you. 🙂
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“So, «old school» appears to stand more for how games were run than how they were designed (…) Thus, my first confusion over OSR: how is it different from playing any other game?”
I don’t think OSR are about how games are run above how they are designed; in OSR games, there is not a distinction between the two. These games are designed to be run in whatever manner you like. That’s different to modern games because the later are designed to be run in a more or less specific manner. Say, FAITH and Conan 2d20 are games that were designed for a certain style (i.e. rules as written); the rules are supposed to support and favor that style of game. But OSR are not designed to play on any specific style. My favorite OSR, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, was designed to support any style: you can play by the rules as written or you can change a few or everything, or you can have rulings when there is not a rule for a given situation and the games still is LotFP. You change something from Conan or FAITH and you are neither playing Conan nor FAITH anymore.
To understand what OSR is:
1) D&D was not a very well written product. Some rules were ambiguous, plainly unintelligible, or hidden in walls of text (the difference between hide and hide in shadows, for instance).
2) In order to play, the groups had to tailor rules and invent houserules, including rulings.
3) The games were almost impossible to play as written because not everyone were able to understand what was written.
4) Modern games try to be clear and include rules you must follow, not suggestions. Some are bad written and you have to make an effort to get through them, and unless you do it, you can’t actually run THE game (you acn run a game but not the expected game).
5) New versions of D&D were easier to read, but the rules were harder or made the action slow.
6) Or maybe, people liked their own houserules more than the rules that Gygax wanted to imposse on them when he released AD&D.
7) OSR games are designed so that rules are few, easy and clear, and easily changed when you need a new, better rule for a situation not forseen. They are not designed to be strictly followed (OD&D was, but people were unable to), they are designed to be easily customized. Also, all OSR games that are based on any version of D&D (some say there are non-D&D OSR but I disagree) are sets of the prefered rules and houserules of the creator.
Never ceases to amaze me…
“Hello Internet: here’s some of my thoughts about this topic I’ve recently started looking at. I realize I may be wrong about some of the facts, but this is just my opinion so far.”
Internet response: FUCK. YOU.
I shouldn’t be surprised, really. We’re talking about a movement ~ however ill-defined ~ that people personally identify with, so of course they’re going to treat your impressions as a personal attack.
I find the outsider perspective very informative. I haven’t looked at all your cited resources, so there might be an opportunity to learn more about the movement… but overall, an insightful read.