Why OSR?

If you've watched Critical Role or any of the other major Live Stream D&D Fifth Edition games, you gather a particular impression of what Dungeons and Dragons, at its core, is supposed to be.  Wizards of the Coast's marketing team spends plenty of time pushing this idea.  "Collaborative Storytelling" is what they call it.  "You tell stories together as a group, playing exotic characters in magical, fantastical worlds." It sounds accessible and highly appealing to many, but when you put the idea into practice, you're often left with disparate approaches to playing the game that are eternally in conflict.

While there are often mixtures of each approach in any Tabletop Roleplaying Game group, players will often emphasize some more than others, causing the desire to branch off into separate groups or playing separate systems.  This is a natural impulse.  Part of Fifth Edition's overwhelming success is how it melds all three approaches together, facilitating all of them in their own right while not pushing any one in particular.  There are notable parallels between my perspective and GNS Theory (Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist), but unlike GNS, I do not find that blending these things causes a lack of cohesion, nor do I find that "simulationist" is an accurate term given the fact that striving for simulation in Tabletop Roleplaying is a fool's errand.

The Three Approaches

The Mechanic Approach:  The Mechanic approach seeks to maximize the player's experience by manipulating game features to give them the most favorable outcome.  While this can be confused with just "playing intelligently," there's a notable difference.  The Mechanic approach seeks to solve problems through explicit interpretations of rules rather than through creative problem solving.  The height of Mechanic Approach D&D was achieved in 3rd edition D&D, which codified nearly every aspect of the game and placed as much control in the players' hands as possible.

The Storytelling Approach:  Quite obviously, the storytelling approach focuses on delivering a cohesive narrative with intriguing, deeply rooted characters.  It focuses on complex plots and story arcs, often involving the players in the process of formulating elements that are introduced to the story.  Dungeons and Dragons does not, and has not, truly thrown their weight behind supporting this approach in any official capacity beyond marketing and platitudes.  The closest they have come to supporting the Storytelling Approach is by giving basic recommendations in the Dungeon Master's Guide on how to structure adventures for more dramatic effect.  The Storytelling Approach, unlike the other two approaches, is entirely system agnostic and only requires that the gaming group be willing to break immersion to accept more narrative control by the DM and/or players.

The Immersive Approach:  The immersive approach is best reflected in early D&D (OD&D, B/X, AD&D 1e, and AD&D 2e) and in OSR retro-clones.  The immersive approach is often mistaken for being simulationist, even by its own adherents.  Truthfully, the immersive approach does not seek to make game mechanics as realistic as possible, but to facilitate an experience which provides engaging conflict resolution mechanics but does not break the suspension of disbelief. This is why games with relatively simple rules can be highly immersive, but not at all simulationist.  The immersive approach is best served by open-ended play in sandboxes of varying scales, from dungeons to multiple universes.

So What Is The OSR?

The OSR (Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance depending on who you ask) seeks to recapture the essence of old school Dungeons and Dragons style gaming.  Opponents of the OSR and those who fail to properly understand it will often suggest that the OSR is bad, for various reasons.  Let's dispel those things.

1.  The OSR is toxic.  They're hateful, bigoted grognards who foster an environment that is completely inhospitable to newcomers and especially marginalized persons.  This is perhaps the most pervasive misconception, not in the least due to the fact that there are countless individuals who push the narrative in various forms of social media.  They take the worst of individuals' worst moments, apply the world's most powerful microscope on it, and apply their findings to a massive group of largely decent individuals.whose only bigotry is leveled at certain game design elements and perspectives on how the game should be run.  Yes, the OSR is filled with vocal opinions that are constantly attacked, defended, and refined for better use, but ultimately these opinions have nothing to do with who anyone is and more to do with how to make and run great games.  There is a strong political divide among the more politically active persons, but that's the case in every hobby.  Welcome to 2020.

2.  The OSR is all about killing monsters and taking their stuff.  This is a half-truth at best.  While the bulk of OSR games replicate the D&D experience (which, admittedly, is about killing monsters and taking their stuff), a hefty sum of OSR games are about tackling a particular setting or genre.  In truth, Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D (3e and beyond) are more about killing monsters than early editions of D&D.  In early D&D, combat is the lesser means by which you gain experience.  Most experience is gained by the acquisition of coinage and treasure, or by performing particular deeds that are relevant to goals of your class.  The further you ascend through D&D's editions, the more emphasis is placed on combat, with 4th Edition seeming to be its peak, and 5th edition taking a step back.  Because of this, the OSR is actually very well suited for games that emphasize social and environmental encounters.  Even if the rulebooks speak little on how to resolve specific conflicts in those realms, this is because the DM and the players would often work through these things far more interactively.  Less skill checks, more intuitive roleplaying.

3.  The OSR is inaccessible to casual players.  This heavily egregious misconception is largely due to a lack of reading the books.  OSR books tend to be extremely light on player-side rules, but heavy on tools for DMs.  A player can be led through the process of character creation in most OSR games in a few minutes and can start play almost immediately.  This is part of why the OSR is notorious for games with PCs who die regularly.  The OSR rarely pulls those punches because the games are high risk, high reward, and quick to churn out replacement characters.  Fifth Edition D&D is much more accessible than Fourth or Third, but it pales in comparison to games such as Dungeon Crawl Classics and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which have very simple conflict resolution mechanics and rely far more heavily on creative world design or quirky tables (in the case of DCC, anyway).

4.  Characters don't matter in the OSR.  This, quite simply, is based on a faulty preconception that character death being common and backstories being minimal means that characters are insignificant to the world.  This makes sense... until you put it into practice.  Characters are often more fragile in OSR games, this is true, but the fact that they are fragile is part of what makes them remarkable.  An inevitable response to more palpable danger in your tabletop games means that players take much more calculated risks than they do in modern D&D.  There is no guarantee that your character will survive.  There is no expectation that your DM will spare your character or offer any mercy.  The only guarantee is that if you survive and keep your wits, you have the opportunity for greatness.  A wealthy, high level OSR character is an enormous accomplishment.  They have scraped their way through danger after danger, risen from obscurity to a legendary status, and they earned their success every step of the way.  A wealthy, high-level 5e character is just what happens when you play for long enough in a campaign world that isn't like Dark Sun.

There are certainly more misconceptions to go around, but these are the most pressing ones I can think of.  And, coincidentally, in disproving them, I have also laid the groundwork for showing you precisely why you should play OSR.

Why Play OSR?

The OSR takes the tried and true foundation of basic game mechanics provided by D&D and runs wild with innovation after.  The OSR uses the six-stat array, the platonic solid dice (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20), the class/level structure, and such familiar concepts as Hit Dice, HP, XP, Saving Throws, and the To-Hit roll.  Beyond that, the OSR opens up to a wide world of system variants, novel mechanics, spells, monsters, all of which are extremely compatible with one another with very few adjustments.  Even better, the OSR is primarily a place of independent authors and game designers.  This means that the most outlandish, profane, niche products are in circulation for low prices that you would never see in the official D&D sphere.  To be blunt, it's the least corporate role playing that you can get with D&D, and it has more, higher quality third party content than any other tabletop gaming communities.  The extreme compatible nature of OSR content means that you can incorporate any official material all the way from OD&D to AD&D 2e with very few issues in conversion.

System mechanics and material aside, the style of play of the OSR is an entirely different beast from modern role playing.  While it will vary from DM to DM, GM to GM, Judge to Judge, Referee to Referee, and system to system, the general assumptions that go with OSR gaming push it to entirely different heights than those of modern roleplaying games.

1.  Your character is generally more fragile.  As I mentioned before, this actually increases rather than decreases their value.  Detailed backstories are often shirked in favor of more meaningful events happening at the table.  It does not matter what you came up with for your character before you started playing the game.  What matters is how you portray your character at the table, how they interact with the world, and how they interact with the party.  Many OSR games use very simple occupation tables to provide randomized, basic character histories, often as short as a single word.  From there, the DM facilities or reveals through brief exposition how the group came together or even sometimes completely omits any concerns about that at all.  Instead, the DM drops the players in interesting worlds with interesting things to do, with the expectation that the players will make things happen.

2.  There is a much stronger focus on creative problem solving.  In modern D&D, you often encounter problems that would seem insurmountable to regular people, but you can easily solve with a skill check or the casting of a spell.  This is, again, due to the fact that modern D&D emphasizes combat and mechanical agency.  OSR games, however, put you in situations that can be solved with the creative application of tools, negotiation, avoidance, and deception.  Magical intervention is possible, but even then, magic is usually either less malleable or more volatile in OSR games.  Ingenuity and taking risks has much more bearing on your success in OSR games than picking the right spells for the right occasion.

3.  Combat is often much quicker, meaning more gets accomplished in less time.  Due to the largely very simple mechanics and lower power levels in OSR games, much less game time is spent adjudicating combat.  Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of playing in a modern D&D game is the ever-increasing duration of combat as you progress in level.  Spells, character features, and monsters all become far more complicated, leading to longer adjudication and often more errors to be resolved.  In OSR games, the system complexity is mostly behind the screen, meaning the DM handles most of the heavy lifting and the players act much more intuitively.  Far less time is spent with players explaining how this feat or this new ability interacts with the game, and more time is spent at the edge of your seat, wondering if any of the party members are going to bite the dust because you've bitten off more than you can chew.

4.  The OSR is where the cutting edge of RPG innovation is at.  While storygaming is on the rise, the OSR is where you find some of the most polished and innovative RPG mechanics.  Game designers have been working with the D&D foundation for over 40 years, and as a result, there are thousands of game designers who have been tweaking this formula to perfection for decades.  Game design is an art, not a science, to be sure, but this experience has resulted in RPGs being streamlined to deliver very particular styles of play.  Dungeon Crawl Classics, for instance, is the evolution of the Beer & Pretzels D&D game.  It features addictive and chaotic randomized game elements with simple mechanics, whacky dice, and some of the best professional adventure modules in circulation.  Lamentations of the Flame Princess, conversely, is a very brutal system that gives Magic Users the ability to summon abominable horrors at first level and features "weird fantasy horror" adventures that are incredibly atmospheric.  Lion & Dragon takes the D&D formula and strips it down to facilitate medieval gaming (yes, actually medieval gaming) with the only fantastical elements being based on how medieval Europeans actually viewed the world to work.  That is to say that the game features mechanics that bring superstitions, demonology, and wild fey creatures that are consistent with historical folklore.  There are many, many more revolutionary titles that come to mind that I have yet to actually try yet, myself, mostly from lack of time.  Old School Essentials, Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, Esoteric Enterprises, Islands of Purple Haunted Putrescence, Stars Without Number, the list is enormous.  If you have a taste for a certain kind of setting or style, chances are that someone in the OSR has done it and they've done it fabulously.

5.  The OSR has an incredible value for gamers on a budget.  All of the aforementioned systems are both familiar and wildly different.  They're also pretty damn cheap.  The typical OSR system rulebook is going to cost between 10 and 25 dollars digital, 15-35 print.  The typical module will run anywhere between 3-15 dollars digitally and 5-20 dollars print, not including shipping.  There are enormous tomes of exceptionally high quality that range closer to $50 each, but with them, you often have an entire campaign world that is nothing like what you would get from major publishers.

Where Do I Start?

If you're looking at all of this and you're wondering how to get in on this action, here's my recommendation:  Join some OSR social media groups.  Do some research.  Find some of the more prolific OSR games.  Find the one that interests you the most thematically, and buy a PDF, or a print copy if money's not an issue.  Give it a read.  Absorb it.  If it doesn't change the way you look at RPGs, you're more than welcome to tell me I was wrong.  I won't pay you back, but hardly anyone gets to tell me I'm wrong, so it should make you feel good inside.

Most OSR discussion happens on forums, on Reddit, on Blogs, on podcasts, on Twitter, and occasionally on YouTube.  No matter who you are, if you aren't an utter dickhead, you're more than welcome in my circle at the very least.

Thanks for reading.  I hope to hear about your RPG success stories in the future.

Comments

  1. A great article. You make some very good points and dispel a few common assumptions.

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  2. I started playing in 1979, and still enjoy the game in various forms. This essay did an exceptional job explaining things I knew, but only tacitly. Thank you.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this. Personally, I'm getting over the Haters, because they can never be satisfied. I like the Old School format and approach to play. I don't care if "" liked it too, that doesn't make it wrong or bad.

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  4. This is a really interesting article! Thank you. Hope you don't mind if I make a few quibbles and ask a question.

    > nor do I find that "simulationist" is an accurate term given the fact that striving for simulation in Tabletop Roleplaying is a fool's errand.

    Do you mean that simulationism is specifically a fools error in tabletop rpgs or in games in general? If the former, I think I disagree. It's not something I'd play, but theoretically I don't see why a RPG couldn't achieve a level of simulation at the level of Advanced Squad Leader.

    > Lion & Dragon takes the D&D formula and strips it down to facilitate medieval gaming (yes, actually medieval gaming) with the only fantastical elements being based on how medieval Europeans actually viewed the world to work.

    Ah, yes, those well documented medieval European beliefs in chaos cults, ratmen and France being populated by a race of intelligent frog like humanoids.

    I'm being a bit bitchy, but you take the point. The old "medieval authentic" stuff is a marketing slogan and falls apart if you look at the game. Lion & Dragon is a good place to look if you want a heavily Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay influenced OSR game. But not if you actually want an historically accurate portrayal of medieval beliefs. It's about as historical as Mazes & Minotaurs.

    Onto the proper question.

    You've done a great job of explaining what the OSR has to offer to someone who's only played newer RPGs/newer approaches to roleplaying.

    However, that's not my situation. I've read some OSR stuff but I haven't played or run it yet. And I haven't played a D&D based system since 1989.

    I like a lot of the things that you outline the OSR as offering. But apart from some awesome settings, is there anything in terms of play experience the OSR can offer me that Advanced Fighting Fantasy or Tunnels & Trolls doesn't?

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    Replies
    1. Re: Simulationist, I have a hard time seeing that as an enjoyable experience. Fool's errand may be a bit harsh. I feel that adding layers of complexity to RPGs detracts from the immersion.

      Re: L&D, Wait. You're saying France wasn't overrun with anthropomorphic frogs? Interestingly, the more fantastical aspects like elves and frogs were supposedly added to appease people who may have been less interested in the grounded approach. Without those bits, I think L&D is very faithful to a proper medieval take on D&D, but I'm not a historian.

      To answer your question, I'll admit that a lot of the appeal for OSR products tends to be in how they take the rules and add new layers that make the systems better for certain modes of play. We all have our hacks that we do, but I can pick up Mork Borg and have a system that's all Norwegian Black Metal in theme with its insane lethality and brutal outcomes in comba, or Dungeon Crawl Classics with its incredible tables for crits, fumbles, and spellcasting. You can find all kinds of unique takes, but yes, there are wonderful takes that focus on setting and genre. There's certainly nothing wrong with Advanced Fighting Fantasy or Tunnels & Trolls, but I think there's a lot of great stuff out there if you're interested in seeing other takes.

      Delete
  5. Well said, hoss. Where do you start? Allow me to suggest Crimson Dragon Slayer D20. It's a FREE PDF!

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  6. You know, The only thing I think I want to engage in and critique here is the idea that narrative games are system agnostic. They are definitively not. There are absolutely games that have story-based mechanics, meaning mechanics that support, facilitate, and direct the story. Some are good, some are awful, but they certainly exist and are NOT system agnostic.

    This may seem like a small point, but I think one of those things that those games REALLY point out (once you've dived into them enough) is that mechanics ALWAYS affect the story. In fact, I would make the case that this whole article is essentially you saying "I like the stories that emerge from OSR mechanics". That sounds great to me! Good, and I like those sorts of stories, too! But don't pretend that a "narratives" approach is EITHER system neutral OR something that is not something that can be mechanized effectively and well.

    Also, the way in which we play RPGs has changed substantially. A Game like Moldvay, B/X, or really anything from that era when played today is HEAVILY supported by the knowledge that we have learned since that time. A LOT of the literal text of those games go directly against the old school principles you like so much. E.G. Traps in Moldvay are explicitly listed to go off 1 in 3 times a character walks over them, and can not be found by logic or thinking, but only on a roll of 1 in 6 (no matter how skilled the player is being). That is not player skill, but it IS old school dnd.

    I like my games more mechanized, and with general resolution mechanics.
    :)

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  7. I've read this blog post top to bottom 3 times now. This is the Traditional Role Players Bible if you ask me.

    I am always going on and on about immersion as the core of true RPG.

    I would only add: It's worth taking a time machine ride with OD&D. Anyone who wants to be within the milieu of Traditional Play is well advised to get a copy of Original D&D PDFs and then peruse them closely. OD&D is a wonderful stripped down system. Reading it is challenging as it requires extensive interrogation; yes, not all the rules are very clearly defined. That is the beauty of OD&D, you have to home rule some of it to your own gaming tastes. Yet the tiny books are a complete game system that are worth an investment of time and energy in order to play as if it was 1974.

    You know where to find me and I'd be glad to run a session in Blackmoor online.

    Griff

    ReplyDelete
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