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: