Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we go back to the beginning, with a design movement that’s keeping it old school! The OSR is a group of gamers and designers who start with the earliest versions of D&D and go from there. Do you like the playstyle of old games, or have been waiting for someone to iron the wrinkles out of Basic D&D? Read on!
Dungeons and Dragons has been the most popular role-playing game in the world essentially since its inception. With the exception of a small period of time after 4th edition publication had concluded but before 5th edition was released, D&D has always been the hobby’s top seller, and even in that time period it was knocked off its pedestal by Pathfinder, a D&D derivative. Despite the enduring strength of the brand, the gameplay of D&D has changed quite significantly in the last four decades. And while 5th edition is selling better than any 21st century version of the game, one of the largest blocs of gamers comes from the time when D&D was on the shelves in toy stores and bookstores, prior to the Satanic Panic which drove the game into specialized niches it’s only now coming back out of. Basic D&D (and to some extent First edition AD&D) was the game that captured the imaginations of so many gamers, and a lot of them didn’t see a good successor to that game when 3rd edition D&D came out. So while many tried to jump on the d20 bandwagon, there was a group of designers who approached Wizards’ Open Gaming License (OGL) differently, seeing a new opportunity in the licensing scheme. This was one of the major factors that helped create the movement called OSR.
OSR stands for “Old School Renaissance”, or “Old School Revival”, or “Old School Roleplaying”, depending on who you ask. When you remove the window dressing, OSR was for all intents and purposes a reaction to the release of Third Edition D&D. Third Edition was the first version of D&D that was different enough from the previous five or so editions (three versions of Basic and two editions of AD&D) that previous materials were no longer compatible without significant reworking. The game was also designed quite differently, which like many reboots dissatisfied old fans. Although this backlash didn’t kill the game, it did cause a lot of fans to look elsewhere for material. Thankfully, the OGL made this easier. In the most direct manner, companies like Necromancer Games and Goodman Games made OGL/d20 material that mimicked the feel of older modules and were quite successful at doing so. However, the OGL allowed much more. As part of the license, the OGL allowed free use of basic D&D concepts like the six main statistics, armor class, and other “terms of art” that may have otherwise been the basis for a copyright lawsuit. The intent of this was to allow designers to use the Third edition scaffold, but it also made the vast majority of the rules for every previous D&D edition fair game. The first game which made full use of this was called the Old School Resource Index Compilation, or OSRIC. OSRIC was a clone of First edition AD&D and, while there were tweaks made, was more an exercise in testing the legal privileges of the OGL than of new game design. From there many other clones were made, which due to the OGL and their own permissive licensing, allowed for a great upswell in old-school material available.
While the OSR has no unifying rallying cry or philosophy, there are a couple of core concepts that show up in many discussions. One is the idea of looser rules making gaming better, often described as “rulings not rules”. This makes sense as a principle for a movement that formed in contrast to Third edition D&D, one of the most rules-heavy editions. Indeed, one could posit that the shift that 5th edition D&D took away from its two predecessors was partially in response to the OSR. The second core concept, and the one that is more interesting, is the idea of being able to hack and adapt materials from many games and have them all be compatible with each other, something that in D&D at least was lost with the publication of 3rd edition. This is also where the most interesting OSR games are produced; there are games which look nothing like any edition of D&D that took OSR principles of compatibility and hackability as design challenges.
There are a few OSR games that have caught my attention recently which aren’t traditional retroclones. First is a game called Godbound, designed by Kevin Crawford. Godbound is a high fantasy game where the players take the role of demigods in a fantastic world of magic. The basic mechanics are all D&D, with the same statistics and proficiency mechanics, but the power level sits squarely above the 1-to-20 progression that existed in AD&D and BECMI D&D. The setting actually looks quite a bit like White Wolf’s Exalted, to the point that several conversions exist. However, the important piece of compatibility is the fact that this game is designed to be completely compatible with all TSR and OSR material, even though the characters are punching in a completely different weight class. Beyond that, the designer includes a number of tools and generators to help hack the system and adapt other materials to slot into the setting. Kevin Crawford does really interesting work in a limited design space; his other major game, Stars Without Number, takes the same D&D scaffold and makes a space opera out of it.
There are other games which take the D&D scaffold and do something interesting with it, like the Adventurer, Conqueror, King system, or ACKS. ACKS emphasizes that the level progression of a character is not simply gaining physical power, but instead a transition from “adventurer” to “conqueror” to “king”. As such, the game has detailed rules for running a kingdom and leading an army, and emphasizes these activities more and more as characters gain levels. The game is still heavily embedded in early D&D mechanics, but has a really neat twist on the character arc as is typically understood in D&D.
The OSR is a movement concretely associated with D&D, and as the hobby progresses that does become more and more limiting. As shown by the recent release of Zweihander there is a retro appetite for many games that came out in the 80s and 90s, but these are not typically considered OSR. This means that the OSR movement has come to a period of reckoning. While 5e is selling quite strongly and keeping D&D on the top of the sales mantle for the foreseeable future, a lot of the growth in the hobby is coming from other games, specifically games that don’t look like D&D. Games like Fate and Apocalypse World have helped open up the design space a lot; the market power Wizards has over the form factor of role-playing games has diminished compared to what they had in 1999, let alone 1981. I’m glad that people are keeping old-school games alive, and many of the clones like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Labyrinth Lord make needed rules adjustments to the fairly creaky first edition D&D rules. Still, OSR straddles the line between a movement and merely the players of old games. While designers like Kevin Crawford are using the old rules scaffolds to push the hobby forward and embrace concepts of adaptability and hackability, much of the OSR is centered around the embrace of old games rather than the type of gaming that those rulesets produced. Now that Wizards has released every previous version of D&D in PDF form, the waters are muddied even further.
Writing about the OSR between articles on rules hacking and design was a deliberate choice. Trying to parse out if you as a player want to look into old-school gaming requires thinking about your opinions of early editions of D&D as well as understanding what the design goals are. The design goal of many if not all OSR games is “emulate the feel of Basic D&D or 1st edition AD&D”, though many have other goals like “emphasize kingdom building” (ACKS) or “build a game around the weirder and more obscure aspects of sword and sorcery” (Lamentations of the Flame Princess). Working within the limitations of an existing ruleset is a neat design problem, but unless you’re dead set on playing something that resembles early D&D, there are many other approaches that can produce an equally fun game.
Godbound, ACKS, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, OSRIC, Dungeon Crawl Classics and Labyrinth Lord (and Zweihander too for that matter) are all available at DriveThruRPG.