Few segments of the RPG fandom are as misunderstood as the OSR. At least, that’s what they keep saying on Twitter. The OSR, or “Old-School Renaissance”, are gamers who appreciate both the mechanics and implied playstyle of older editions of D&D, any of the TSR versions but usually Basic D&D and usually the versions of it (B/X, BECMI, or Rules Cyclopedia) that existed roughly from 1981 to 1991. The real problem with the OSR is a marketing problem; in the past it has been hard to distinguish those genuinely interested in the play philosophies of older D&D from those who were merely retreating to older games. Every time I’ve tried to look into the OSR and OSR games, I’ve come away asking the same question: “why are there so many hacks of Basic D&D and why exactly should I care?”
I started to understand the OSR a little bit better when I began reading about the intents and goals of old-school play. When I ran Torchbearer for the first time, a lot of the elements clicked for me. I was still stuck on the whole D&D thing, though. I theoretically got why most OSR games traced back to D&D, but didn’t really understand either a) what the OSR was actually doing with D&D, game design wise or b) where I could even start to figure this out. Luckily, an old friend came to the rescue in the form of a tweet:
Okay so someone needs to write a comparatively longread of Black Hack, White Hack, Old-School Essentials, Neoclassical Geek Revival, and Macchiato Monsters. I think you can cover the entire spread of the OSR in those five, and a good piece could put so much shit to rest.
— Joe would like money please (@IHeartFargo) February 21, 2020
The whole OSR in five games? OK, this sounds doable. When Joe tweeted this a month ago, I put it on the backburner, figuring I would slowly read these games. Then, well, you’ve seen the news recently. I’ve been practicing social distancing, and all of a sudden have plenty of time. So I went ahead and read five games. And what do I think? Well, there is definitely a lot going on in the OSR, “just D&D” isn’t really fair to a game like Macchiato Monsters. It’s also worth noting that anyone currently playing Fifth Edition should at least look at where D&D came from, especially when we have what is arguably the best presented retroclone out there, Old-School Essentials, easily available. However, as should surprise absolutely no one, I’m still of the opinion that we need to call a spade a spade. The OSR may be doing some great work in creating the best D&D possible, but there’s so much more in the RPG space, and so much more that’s already been written. If you’re interested in what makes an “Old-School” style of play different and fun, my recommendation would be to skip reading games at first and instead read the Principia Apocrypha by Ben Milton and Steven Lumpkin. This document clearly and concisely lays out the agenda and principles of old-school play as if it were a PbtA game, and is a great place to start.
Without further ado, then, let’s look at the games. These games all represent different approaches to the OSR; while they each maintain fairly complete compatibility with extant D&D materials, they are in fact quite different games, and in some cases depart pretty significantly from the rules of D&D as you know or remember them. For the sake of putting a stake in the ground, though, we’re going to start with the easy one: the retroclone of the group.
Old-School Essentials (OSE), at least on the mechanical side, presents roughly nothing new. It is a retroclone, a new presentation of the Basic/Expert (B/X) version of D&D, as revised by Tom Moldvay and David Cook in 1981. This is not hidden, the publishers even provide a detailed document which serves essentially as the errata which bridge the gap between B/X and OSE. Like the retroclones I’ve covered before, OSE as a product is intended to make an earlier edition of D&D easier to use and play. However, both Labyrinth Lord and Darkest Dungeon were free products, while OSE is sold at a price point typical of an original RPG. This is well justified, as OSE is probably the best-formatted retroclone I’ve ever read. It’s also worth noting that when I’ve plumbed the depths of Basic D&D for use in my games, I tend to prefer the later versions, BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia, for their higher rules density. The OSE reading of B/X does an excellent job at removing ambiguity and presenting as much clarity as is possible from the source material, which in turn helped me understand why B/X D&D is typically the platonic ideal for the OSR: Fewer rules means more flexibility. Rules Cyclopedia D&D is straightforward at its core, but it has a lot of AD&D-like cruft which makes it harder to use as a starting point and much harder to reference at the table. The basic rules of OSE (which don’t cover the entire game but are enough to start) are less than 60 pages, which makes sense for a playstyle which is supposed to hinge on dice rolls and rules lookups as little as possible. Many of the rulesets, including the next one, are intended as distillations, where as little reading (and specificity) as possible is put between the players and gaming.
The Black Hack is 20 pages long, including the cover, front matter, character sheet, and a copy of the OGL. This is a distillation down to the purest elements of d20 gaming, but what makes it such a critical game in the OSR library is that it is a perfect demonstration of just how little you need mechanics-wise to use the full breadth of Basic D&D modules, monsters, and supplements. Monsters are boiled down to hit dice and maybe one line of description, advancement is done in one paragraph, and random encounter rules boil down to rolling a 50-50 check every 15 minutes of real time. What’s really great about The Black Hack is how much mechanical depth it maintained despite being one sixth the length of B/X D&D. There are even a few innovations thrown in, like the usage dice for ammunition, rations, and torches.
I’d say The Black Hack might be a great starting point for players, given how little they need to read and how clear it is. Given what the game will be used for, though, it’s a bit more difficult for GMs. This is a game that assumes a degree of proficiency with old-school play, and in that way is likely to be more hostile to a first-time GM than even B/X D&D itself was. That said, if you’re comfortable with improvising and working outside of the ruleset for your worldbuilding, this is probably the most elegant version of D&D you’ll ever run.
Whitehack is also a distillation of Basic D&D, one that took similar assumptions as The Black Hack regarding what game elements were important, and then ran in a completely different direction. Characters are defined first by rolled attributes, and then by one of three classes: the Deft, the Strong, and the Wise. Most other important character details, including their race and their vocation (which includes what a modern D&D player would understand to be ‘class’), are defined with one set of mechanics, Groups. Each Group is placed on the character sheet next to one of the attributes, indicating that the character’s membership in the group has an impact on that attribute. The result is character creation with both simplicity and flexibility.
Most of the mechanics in this slim volume are geared towards narrative flexibility, even beyond the degree seen in other games. Whitehack has no spell list, something even the shorter Black Hack does, though there is the inclusion of the B/X spell list as a conversion aid. With the possible exception of items there is very little in these rules to give an implied setting at all, and even the item list has several inclusions which seem intended to directly expand the possible setting choices from bog-standard D&D (I’m thinking about firearms in particular).
Whitehack seems to represent the same school of OSR thought as designers like Kevin Crawford, who use a D&D scaffold to build different games. This isn’t to say Christian Mehrstam and Kevin Crawford design similar games, rather that both see the separation of the mechanics of D&D from the genre of D&D as a necessary and useful thing to do in their designs. What I most appreciate about Whitehack given this fact is that the entire game stands as a testament to the fact that you can dramatically alter the setting of D&D, even to something unrecognizable, but at the end of the day you will still have a fantasy game.
Whereas Fate Core has a metagame, Neoclassical Geek Revival is a meta game. One of the first rules you read is what you should do if you roll a die and it falls off the table. My bet is, even if your table has a rule for this, you’ve never before read it in an actual game. This helps Neoclassical Geek Revival (NGR) emphasize its design philosophy from nearly the very first page: this is a game designed around what you actually do at the gaming table.
NGR is also the least like D&D of any of these, even if the inspirations are still there. The stats are different, different enough that porting them will require some weirdness. The races are much more based on their mythological precedents than Tolkien. The class system is quite different but really interesting…there are five classes: Wizards, Warriors, Rogues, Bards, and Priests. These five all have completely different prime requisites and non-overlapping abilities (while the bard is a jack-of-all-trades in D&D, here it’s distilled down to charisma-based abilities). The way you “pick” a character class is by assigning slices of pie, typically three. Depending on how many slices of pie you assign, you get different abilities from each class. It’s way more intuitive and interesting than the way classes are done in modern D&D, and way less restrictive than the way they were done in older D&D. The last notable element of character creation is called “Schrodinger’s Character”. Instead of developing a character through a funnel or having weak level 1 characters die frequently (a mainstay of OSR stereotypes and, as this game admits, not all that fun), the character starts with a name, race, and attribute spread, but picks skills, inventory, traits, and even class as the game progresses. This both makes beginning character creation much quicker and makes for more durable, better aligned characters than completely random generation. Characters also pick relationships with others in their party, and depending on class get rules for special effects, dictated by specific rolls on 2d6. These range from item bonuses (for the warrior) to gaining henchmen (for the bard). The dice targets are weird and specific (higher than four, exactly seven, doubles, chained values like 2-3 or 3-4), but when you remember the pie piece class mechanics, it makes a lot more sense for there to be non-overlapping dice conditions.
Getting into the actual mechanics, NGR’s dice math is incredibly neat. Like most D&D-derivative games the base die is a d20, but there’s some variation here. There are three conditions for characters in NGR: Calm, On Edge, and Reckless. When a character is Calm, they don’t roll a die, instead the result for any roll is assumed to be 10. If for whatever reason a 10 isn’t sufficient for passing a given check, the character can become On Edge, and roll 3d6 for a result range of 3 to 18, with a bell curve centered on 10.5. If that isn’t going to do the trick, a character can then become Reckless, and only then do they roll a d20.
Saving Throw mechanics continue the trend of eschewing binaries and giving mechanics to situations. There are three types of saving throws: “Crazy Enough to Work”, “Standard Response”, and “Brilliant Defense”. These are clearly built around a very typical play situation: A player comes up with a plan which is either a) entirely crazy but also entertaining or b) way more insightful and interesting than you had expected. In these cases, you now have different saving throw math. “Standard Response” should be familiar to anyone who’s played D&D, succeeding lets you halve the damage of an incoming attack. “Crazy Enough to Work” applies to your player’s utterly wacked out plan that involves swinging on a chandelier and/or seducing the dragon. A success completely negates the attack, a failure doubles the damage. “Brilliant Defense”, a plan so good that it should do something regardless of the dice, reduces damage to a quarter on a success but still reduces it to half on a failure.
At this point, I should note that damage is one of three pools tracked for each character, the other two being stress and suspicion. Stress is the CoC-style “mental damage” pool that makes you eventually go insane, while Suspicion is a stealth mechanic, used for when characters are sneaking around in a threatened area. Once again we’re going way more granular than D&D, but once again these mechanics are actionable and not excessively fiddly. Speaking of fiddly, the game details out ways to use 12 different pools (including poisons, mutations, and even intoxication), but these are considered optional. The overarching term for such rules in the book is, literally, “fiddly rules”.
Most of the rest of NGR is details on mechanics as you’d expect, many of them optional. I appreciate that the combat system is designed in such a way to make the underlying mechanics applicable for stealth, social encounters and combat, but the innovations in how the system works are mostly front-loaded into the fundamental mechanics above. Still, everything you expect is here, including lengthy lists of gear and spells. The game includes a few meta-game pools, Fate points and Destiny points, which are earned somewhat similarly to Artha in Burning Wheel. Fate points are common, earned primarily through “awesomeness”. Awesomeness is a mechanic for encouraging flourishes not otherwise encouraged via mechanics; the list in the book includes wearing a cape, wearing an eyepatch, and then a higher score for actually needing the eyepatch. There are other ways to gain Awesomeness, including “Awesome Armor” (which is worse than most other armor but looks awesome) and as compensation if the GM stops the game to look up a rule (though if a player stops the game to look up a rule, they lose Awesomeness). Destiny points are more powerful, and are given out by the GM at key points in the character’s arc. Somewhat arbitrary, but I accept a “know it when I see it” for moments like this. Advancement is also built around the bog standard XP, though with one appreciated difference: There are XP tables for not only killing monsters or getting treasure, but also for exploring and finding new locales, defeating traps, and solving riddles. It’s not a big mechanical lift, but it immediately broadens the intent of the game, something D&D has been sorely missing since it moved away from XP-for-gold.
Neoclassical Geek Revival is built around play experience, providing rules for things that come up at the table all the time. In a way, this moves away from the OSR philosophically, and into the realm of fantasy heartbreaker, where the designers try to put what they liked about ‘their table’ into a new game. Unlike most fantasy heartbreakers, though, Neoclassical Geek Revival is well done, keeping the rules internally consistent while still hitting all of the classic design changes that heartbreakers try to make. While still coming in at a relatively svelte 150 pages, NGR is the bulky one of this group, and the one that is probably least like the platonic ideal of an OSR game.
Macchiato Monsters is the indie game of this bunch. It takes cues from both Whitehack and The Black Hack, as well as some more modern games, and out of all that comes a game that has the same objectives as those above, but gets there in a different way. The core mechanic is a d20 (surprise surprise), and there is broader use of what here is called ‘Risk Dice’, but uses the same mechanics as Usage Dice in The Black Hack. Like Whitehack, character races and vocations are named traits instead of specific mechanical options. Unique to Macchiato Monsters, though, is that characters are built, after rolling stats, with picks from a short list, which includes stat boosts, hit point boosts, additional traits, and a few types of special training: Martial, Magic, and Specialist. Here the traits aren’t tied to an attribute, necessarily, but when they’re applicable they give advantage on rolls (advantage and disadvantage is used in several of these games, likely because it reduces the need to count modifiers). Equipment gets us to what the focus here is, because equipment is rolled on nine (yes, nine) random tables. Continuing through the rules about wealth and encounters, it becomes more clear both how table-based this game is, and also why the use of the risk roll is so ingenious. Let’s look at the Encounters section for an example. All of the 12-entry tables in the encounter chapter are organized from most to least dangerous, which means that the table rolls are able to use a risk roll starting with a d12 (though the start point depends on the environmental danger level). If a risk die rolls a 1, 2, or 3, the die is stepped down, until it’s a d4, at which point such a roll causes the die to fizzle. If an encounter die fizzles…something bad happens. I thought using this mechanic for consumables in The Black Hack (which this game also does) was neat, but this application to encounter generation is just really damn cool.
The combat chapter re-emphasizes the “indie” aspects of this game. There is no turn order, instead turns are adjudicated via fictional positioning (like in Apocalypse World). All actions are player-facing, turns only concern player-characters and their allies (like in Apocalypse World). If a character misses an attack, they open themselves up to being attacked or put in a tight spot (like Apocalypse World). The design is much more about making things quick, fluid, and dramatic than it is about emulating D&D, though it’s clear that D&D has provided the to-do list. Like Whitehack, the remaining rules (magic specifically) are meant to be broad and tweakable; Macchiato Monsters also doesn’t have a spell list, instead adapting Whitehack’s dual pillars of Player-GM negotiation and an HP cost for spells. Macchiato Monsters also covers downtime, healing, and even domain management in a drive-by fashion with quick mechanics or ample use of risk dice. The back third of the book is random tables, including monsters, NPCs, locations, factions, and even plots.
Macchiato Monsters is similar in intent to The Black Hack and Whitehack, but it also brings in many other decidedly non-OSR inspirations. In addition to bringing in more indie elements to how the game is played, there’s also a degree of synthesis between The Black Hack and Whitehack, using both to generate something different than either.
So my whirlwind tour around the OSR is complete. What do these five games represent in terms of design breadth? Well, Old-School Essentials represents the foundation of the whole movement, the retroclone. OSE itself didn’t start the D&D retroclone movement (that would be OSRIC), it instead represents the most recent iteration of a retroclone, one that incorporates a number of innovations in layout, distribution, and editing that are improved not only from when Basic D&D was still in print but even from when the last generation of retroclones were released around the time Fifth Edition was new in 2014. Whitehack, The Black Hack, and Macchiato Monsters are three interpretations of what I’d call the core of the OSR: distilled rules documents that are easy to adapt, hack, and retool as the GM or designer needs. Whitehack, the first of these three to be released, is a pure rules distillation; significant and skillful work went into excising the implied setting from D&D and making a game document that is much more widely applicable. The Black Hack, which was released second, ventured to make things as simple as D&D, but also kept most of the setting hallmarks intact. The result is much less versatile than Whitehack, but simpler to play and simpler to use as a platform for converting and adapting pre-existing D&D material. Macchiato Monsters came last, using what the designer saw as the best parts from both Whitehack and The Black Hack and creating something that combined the versatility of Whitehack, the usability of The Black Hack, and some battle-tested indie innovations and “play to find out what happens” sandbox attitudes from a newer generation of games. Neoclassical Geek Revival kind of fits in philosophically with the others, but not as much from a design perspective. True to the admission in the book, NGR is a fantasy heartbreaker, inasmuch as it’s a modified version of D&D with all the rules the designer thought would be cool to include. In doing so, though, the game was saved through humor, rules designed hierarchically with an eye towards easy exclusion, and enough distillation to get down to 150 pages when a lesser game could have easily run three times that.
There is another question which is likely on the minds of everyone reading this: why these five games? As you saw above this isn’t my list, so I could rightly say that I don’t entirely know. That said, after reading them I have some theories. First, Old-School Essentials is easy: the entire OSR movement is based on retroclones, so the list must include one retroclone, preferably a B/X retroclone since those are more popular. Second, all three of Whitehack, The Black Hack, and Macchiato Monsters are games built around core OSR principles like those noted in the Principia Apocrypha. These games are short because it’s an OSR principle that it’s not the game’s responsibility to define and provide comprehensive mechanics. Each of the three then takes a different tack, all representing different design goals: Whitehack tries to distill D&D down to just the rules, no setting, The Black Hack tries to distill D&D down to its basic principles while still remaining D&D, and Macchiato Monsters aims to synthesize what came before it, both OSR and indie. Neoclassical Geek Revival is the one out of these five which does leave me scratching my head a bit, but in contemplating it and how it’s designed, I think it makes sense as a bridge between modern gaming and the OSR. If you’re a person used to playing games where the breadth of your abilities is laid out in a rulebook, NGR is going to be a lot easier for you to digest than Whitehack. And, despite being the longest rulebook in this category, NGR is still significantly shorter than Fifth Edition D&D, while actually including significantly more rules.
Here’s why I think this list makes sense. When you think about many other popular OSR games, they’re usually much more lightly modified versions of D&D that are built around selling adventures. Dungeon Crawl Classics is a good example of this, though it’s also not going to make any “core OSR” list from anyone because it’s based on Third Edition. With the exception of Old School Essentials (which still makes the list just from the perspective of making D&D readable), all the games on this list are designed towards the principles that the OSR sets forth as its common language. Most other games, even if you can run old-school games with them fairly easily, do not represent that sort of design effort. Remember that given a good understanding of how D&D works (and maybe a reference or two), it’s not difficult to run an old-school game or even old-school modules in Fifth Edition.
In reading some of the most modern designs the OSR has to offer, I can see the irony in associating the movement with the “old guard’ of RPG fandom. Most of the old guard was probably happy to stick with their Rules Cyclopedia and hasn’t asked or cared about the OSR, or any other game design movements for that matter. What the OSR provides is focus on and optimization for a style of play that grew up around the relatively sparse rulesets of the 70s and 80s, but specifically D&D. D&D is deeply entrenched in the history of role-playing games, and that entrenchment provides a common language (the six attributes, saving throws, gold pieces, etc.) through which gamers can communicate. OSR games all use the same language, but at the end of the day it’s a convenience rather than a philosophy. The reason games like Whitehack and The Black Hack are so short is because they provide only what you need to speak the D&D language; the play style and philosophy of the OSR is not contained in any of these games (barring the cases when they’re literally written in forewords). The reason reading these games is insightful is not because of what they tell you, but what they do not. While Old-School Essentials is a recasting of a literal old-school game and Neoclassical Geek Revival is a designer’s attempt at writing a new old-school game, Whitehack, The Black Hack, and to a lesser extent Macchiato Monsters are statements of intent as much as playable games. The intent is clear: here’s 20 pages. The rest is up to you, GM. Go play.
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