Swords & Wizardry Light - Forum

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Defining the Nebulous OSR

OSR is a fairly nebulous term, as it may cover different RPGs or years depending on who is using it.

For me, it covers D&D (and all the derivative clones) from 2E and before. It also covers Tunnels & Trolls, Avalon Hill and earlier Runequest, GDW Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, Rolemaster / Spacemaster & MERP, Palladium Fantasy, Toon, 1st Edition Paranoia, WFRP 1e - the list goes on.

Were any of these games "tactical" in nature? I don't think so. Some where definitely rules heavy.

See, I know which games I consider to be covered under the umbrella of the nebulous "OSR", but I'm not sure what actually defines a game as being an "OSR game.

What defines an OSR style game to you?


  1. Hmm, yes I think I could also tell you whether a particular game was "old school" or not, but I'd have trouble defining it from the other direction.

    If I were pressed for a definition, I'd say anything published before Vampire: The Masquerade would be old school, but it's an arbitrary point and I'm sure exceptions would arise very quickly.

  2. I'm not sure what really constitutes an OSR game, but I have to disagree and say that I think DragonQuest especially was very tactical... hex maps for combat, action points to determine how many things you could do, etc...

    My knee jerk opinion would be to say that Runequest, Rolemaster and Chivalry and Sorcery were also more tactical than not, but I'm remembering games from 20+ years ago so it may have just been the way my group played

  3. This is like trying to nail jell-o to a wall. For me it isn't so much about an automatic qualifier for games that predate an arbitrary point in time. Obviously, it is about attitude and playstyle. It is also about a rules set that empowers those attitudes and playstyles. Guidelines not rules, a real DIY entitlement. I don't really use "tactical" as a guidepost, either. D&D was born of a tactical wargame, and it showed, so I can't rule a game out for that.

    So, it really comes down to attitude, not just the player/DM, but the rules themselves. Do they force a certain style of play or insist that certain rules are sacrosanct? Then they're not OSR.

  4. It's one of those things that can be hard to describe but you know it when you see it.

    I'm with Erik our innkeeper on this one - [b]he's nailed it[/b].

    OSR to me means any RPG from 1974 through to early/mid 80's.

    Note sure what "tactical" has to do with OSR per se. Some of those were, some allowed for it (as optional rules, appendixes or sourcebooks), many weren't.

    As to those I who claim OSR is OD&D and it's derivatives just hang on there whilst I sharpen my pitchfork and rouse the rest of the villagers for a lynch mob!

  5. Of course, OSR isn't a timeframe - else the same game would fall inside or outside the definition depending on whether it made it to press before the end of the 1980s*, say. It is easier to say what isn't old school - I'd say that a game that emphasises any of the following isn't old school: mechanically tightly defined tactical combat, optimised character builds, power scaling inspired by CRPGs and MMOs, and, at the other end, storytelling over gaming.

    Old school games sit between the RPGs-as-computer-games-without-the-cool-graphics and the joint-construction-of-narrative-games.

    *As we'd want to include the retroclones etc. in the OSR, I'd argue that the Mongoose editions of Traveler and RuneQuest should be in here - being commercial clones of the earlier games.

  6. Old school is when no player ever says to the ref, "You can't do that! It's not in the book!"

  7. excellent, and varied, answers so far. that is why it is so nebulous, I suspect - it's definition depends on our own play experiences in whatever time period you personally associate as the "golden age" of gaming.

    I do like Mr. Joel's definition ;)

    As for tactical - I see 3.5 and 4e as Tactical - most other tactical games can have those numbers scrubbed right off and there's little change.

  8. To me, an OSR game is any game in which:

    1. Character creation is not considered a sub-game unto itself

    2. Rules are a tool for the Ref, not a straitjacket

    3. Players can attempt any action so long as they realize there are always consequences and not all characters are created equal

    4. The "story" although conceived by the Ref, can (and often does) go off on a tangent because it's the players and their characters that drive the game -- the Ref's just there to facilitate.

    For me, "old school" doesn't cover any specific time period, it's more of a mindset.

    My favorite "old school" games?

    Swords & Wizardry
    Barbarians of Lemuria
    B/X D&D

  9. There are 3 distinct ideas at play when it comes to this subject.

    This, I believe, has always best described the OSR:

    "To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It [is] about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time."

    Rob Conley, Bat In The Attic

    There is the OSR, OSS and RetroGaming.

    Retrogaming is the basis of the OSR. Retro is when you are playing an actual commercial game system from the time period 1974-89 (ending with the launch of 2e-its place is debated by all on which side of the line it belongs).

    OSS, or Old School Style, is the underlying philosophy that separates the New school from the Old. It is the bare bones basics of that 1974-89 time period.

    The OSR is a 21st century creation, enabled to a great degree by the SRD/OGL and begins with the release of OSRIC. Some have argued that HackMaster was the first, but that was a licensed and sanctioned system. OSRIC was the first to step up independently and produce a clone (one of the key signatures of the OSR).


    OD&D = Retro
    X-Plorers = OSS

    The phrase OSR has taken on the same connotation as the word 'fridge'. Most people don't even think twice about calling a refrigerator a 'fridge' even though the word is short for a manufacturer of refrigerators (Frigidaire).

    It is why I prefer the phrase OSS. To me it best reflects the overall picture regardless of time period or system and would include OD&D, OSRIC and X-Plorers under the same umbrella.

  10. What defines an OSR style game to you?

    TSR D&D and its close relatives.

    All versions of TSR D&D are just variants of the same game, even the core of 2e. TSR D&D has a certain style based on the foundational aspects of the game. Many games emulate these aspects and can be called "old school".

  11. OSR means old school D&D. The TSR versions.

    Obviously there's some intrest in other old school games, but TSR D&D is the core.

  12. To me, the OSR is about returning to the games where players were more free in how they played and represented their characters. While some games had more rules than others they were still very open-ended on what a man could and could not do. It also contrasts what games have become these days, and their efforts of emulating video game styled play with lots of limitations.

    I'd say agency is what divides the old from the new.

  13. I can only give you my definition of OSR and I've never even thought about defining it. OSR to me is playing like I did in the late 70s, early 80s. Enjoying friends while we throw dice (virtual ones these days), staying up way too late cause you have just a little farther to go, getting stupid off of too much caffeine (although beverages have probably changed now), eating some pizza, and laughing when your buddy, pal, BFF throws a 1 in a critical situation. Fun first, game second.