Friday, April 28, 2017

Defining the OSR by Identifying What it is Not (and other useless exercises of thought)

I was explaining to a teenager last night that defining the OSR was doomed to fail as each member of the OSR has their own personal definition. As that definition is personal, it generally is well defended and the thing of online battles that will never end ;)

Heck, we can't even decide what OSR stands for.

Is it Old School Revolution? Old School Resurrection? Old School Revival? Old School Renaissance?

Strange that we can't pin down what the "R" stands for but we know the "O" and "S" stand for "Old School" and not maybe "Original System" with the OSR becoming "Original System Rules"

Which is important, because if the OSR refers to Old School Rules (another possibility for the "R") then the OSR encompasses not just derivatives of the Original Dungeons & Dragons and its offspring but early RPGs such as Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, Bunnies & Burrows and so much more. Toon, GURPS, Champions (at least prior to the Hero System bloat), Rolemaster - All are 30 year old plus systems. Certainly they are Old School. (this list is far from complete - I'm not even going to make the attempt)

Or does OSR stand for "Open System Reference", as in, if it weren't for the OGL, there wouldn't be much of an OSR community. New releases certainly add life to the community.

So, what doesn't fall under the purview of the OSR? What is the cut off?

I think we can all agree that 3x and beyond of the D&D edition line of succession are outside the OSR, but then 5e tries to skim the bubble.

Are AD&D 2e's Skill & Powers releases within the purview of the OSR? I mean, 2e certainly is (I think), but what about all the splat books that bloated the system?

Looking at new systems, I see FATE and Apoc World and all their spinoffs as outside the OSR, but recent releases such as Polyhedral Dungeon and Far Away Land seem to be grounded in OSR sensibilities, even if their systems don't line up with prior Old School games.

Maybe the OSR is like an onion, with many layers. The inner layers are for the Original System Rules, then the Old School Rules, followed by an even larger layer covering the Old School Revival.

In the end, I find the OSR to be much like porn - I know it when I see it, but where I draw the line of what is and what isn't isn't the same place that others would draw it. We're all right even though our answers are different.

Yes, this was occupying my sleeping mind last night...


  1. Original School of Role-playing

    Maybe only the S has been nailed down?

    I say original because many of those players never left. I believe Rob Kuntz defines himself that way ("Original School").

    Anyway, I agree it's a mostly useless exercise. Using Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming or Chris Gonnerman's The Role-Playing Game Primer and Old School Playbook should help, though.

  2. Ha! This is good. I can tell you one more thing that's not OSR: gatekeeping what games other people play and enjoy, which has always struck me as ridiculous behavior. There's never been a better time to be a gamer, old school or otherwise — because now we have games for every play style preference and permission to make more. That's glorious!

    1. Well said. #BadWrongFun accusation is a plague that needs eradication.

  3. I think it all falls under Old School Roleplaying no matter what you determine OSR stands for. :)

  4. Well, comparing the OSR to porn pretty much nails it.

    Pun intended.

  5. OSR = "Oh Shit, Run!"

    The rules aren't necessarily the important part here, but the possibility that you can find yourself in over your head if you're not alert. From D&D 3.x on, and in many not-D&D games, there are often expectations that challenges will be 'appropriate' for your group, that you can reasonably expect to handle a certain number per day before it gets hard.

    "I think we can all agree that 3x and beyond of the D&D edition line of succession are outside the OSR"

    ... and yet, it was 3e (and more importantly, the OGL that 3e shipped with) that largely made the OSR rules sets feasible.

  6. I think of "OSR" like I do heavy metal music -- it comes in many styles and genres, and you simply know it when you hear it. :-)

  7. It's not "Old Stinky Relics"? I thought it was a commentary on the people playing that style, so.... (Please note, this is an attempt at humor through the medium of sarcasm).

  8. OSR = "Old School Rules". That definition has served me well, and encompasses damn near everything.

  9. It is an onion. Regardless of label there is a group of hobbyists playing, publishing, and promoting classic editions of D&D. Being people they have other interests. Some will take the original mechanics and mash them up into related RPGs that exemplify their vision. Some will take newer mechanics and mash them in to create their vision. Other like completely different genres, games, etc.

    Eventually you get so far out that you are playing something completely different from classic D&D. Which is fine but just realize that it not likely to be of general interest to those playing, promoting, and and publishing for classic editions of D&D.

    OSR for all it flaws is the label that got applied to this. Could have been something else but due to the way things shook out OSR got the nod. Personally I always used because I thought it was simple, direct, calls back to TSR, and sounds good when you say it.And it seems a lot of people shared my sentiment.

    But in the end the is about people not the label. The label is just a convince so we don't have to type the hobbyists playing, promoting, and publishing for classic D&D and related RPGs all the damn time.

  10. I rather like Old School Roleplaying, focusing more on the style of play than how one adjudicates said play.

  11. Food for thought: Godbound is considered by quite a few folk I know to be old-school in that it uses the Stars Without Number as a crux. But is more or less classless, does not use Vancian style casting, and race is more or less a cosmetic choice.

    Thematically it is also a much higher level of power than many OSR adventures and settings, although old-school D&D does have super-powered source material (Basic D&D Immortals and Forgotten Realms come to mind). It also has a sandbox gaming design ethos which is popular in OSR circles.

    To me it's a hybrid. Perhaps several years ago natter other proper thematics would be important for preserving "feel," but I think as time goes on there's more willingness to take old-school systems in more directions while still preserving core traits.

  12. Thanks for mentioning for example Polyhedral Dungeon. I like playing old style adventures but I don't want to emulate rulesets like AD&D1 necessarily. So, OSRIC will never become my thing. Games that bring different, original rule approaches to old school gaming - I like that a lot.

    Not saying Polyhedral Dungeon is ideal or better. The intro adventure was in fact a bit of a let-down.

    I guess what I would prefer more than the deluge of OSR retro-clones and mild variations of Original and Basic would be actually some sort of design school for high quality adventures - fun dungeons with interesting rooms that actually might even tell an interesting story. It's not primarily about the rules... It's about a whole school of design. I thought DCC had it nailed - they write fun modules. But very often it's about very small-scale, very linear things. It's so action-packed it knows no other pacing than the rush. A heady mix, but there oughta be more.

    So, what I'm looking for is less OSR systems and their proclaimed ideal playing styles but adventures that actually foster and encourage these play styles. If the lack of "powers" in a Basic or Original Edition characters lead to cautious, thoughtful playstyles instead of heroic fantasy, then my question is: Where are the adventures actually built around this style? Where clever tactics win the day, where smart actions beat the challenge, etc?

    There's way too few of these for my taste. Or maybe I have not discovered them yet. Always looking... I think the rules had enough spotlight by now. I hunger for the right kind of adventures. And it's not encounter tables or wandering monsters either... (though it doesn't hurt either)

  13. I say Old School Resources. New products that are ready made to use with out of print games, mainly OD&D, BX D&D and BECM D&D for me, without having to convert game mechanics.

    1. There is a great OSRIC monster book.

      Hmmm..... "Old School Reference" anyone?

  14. It stands for Old School Renaissance. My judgement is final and unyielding so there! Well Oh Shit Run is a really good second great term. DAMN there I go yielding!

  15. I was thinking of advertising a potential game as “old school”. But then I realized people would ask what I meant by that. Thinking about how to answer, I decided “old school” just wasn’t helpful at all. I came back to my two-axis model of RPGs: Rules versus rulings and “good story” versus “let’s just see where this goes”.

    I might still advertise as “old school”, but when asked to explain, I’ll explain the two axes and say my games are more rulings over rules and more “let’s see what happens” than “let’s tell a good story”. (With the acknowledgement that that may not be what anyone else means by “old school”.)

  16. I call it a second golden age. People making (or learning to make) cool stuff and using the internet to find their niche.

  17. Anyone know when OSR first became "a thing"?


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