The recent chatter in my spheres regarding Lamentations of the Flame Princess has me reflecting on the OSR movement and its lasting impacts. Outside of the blogosphere the OSR seems to have a poor reputation on the larger discussion sites these days. Fifth Edition is a game industry force of nature, bringing lots of new gamers and occasionally breaking the surface of main stream media. 5E books are regularly best sellers on Amazon (not game industry best sellers, but overall best sellers). Just based on new players, growth, and movement in the gaming hobby, why couldn't there be a second flourishing of the OSR as newer gamers pick up 5E and eventually explore the hobby's roots?
My journey towards the OSR starts with one of my players, late 00's (maybe 2008), metaphorically flipping our game table over, dice going everywhere, papers and pencils flying, as he storms out in a huff. We were experimenting with 4th Edition at the time, and this one player, Kaus had enough of it. "Why are we wasting time with this pre-planned balanced encounter bullshit? I just want to wander the world! Whatever happened to 1st Edition where you could go anywhere, roll up random shit on random tables, and maybe get an awesome random treasure? This whole game is bullshit!"
These days I remember Kaus's mad moment as if he was the Comedian from the Watchmen (from the 80's graphic novel. There's a scene where the vigilantes, calling themselves the Crimebusters, are huddled in a room, planning their street-level patrols to 'fight crime' and stand up for justice. Comedian calls them all morons and lights their map on fire, telling them none of these efforts matter because "inside of 30 years, the nukes are going to be flying like may-flies". As he stomps out, he tells their thinker, Ozymandias, he's going to be "the smartest man on the cinder". Sometimes we need a Comedian to burn our plans to the ground and get some clarity on the big picture.
That was my departure point for the journey back to earlier editions of the game. We dusted off Moldvay BX and 1st Edition, and I started to see how places like Dragonsfoot or Knights and Knaves Alehouse still had active communities centered around older games. A lot of people just never stopped. I saw how the OGL (a 3rd edition open games license) allowed the creation of simulacrum rules sets, like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord (clones of 1E AD&D and Classic D&D respectively). I discovered the OSR blogosphere, started reading influential voices of the time like Grognardia, and ultimately decided to start my own blog as well (this was 2010).
When I look back at the period in the OSR and what it meant to me, I view it broadly through 3 lenses - a literary book club, a symposium on game theory, and a crucible for do-it-yourself (DIY) products.
OSR as Literary Book Club
Dungeons & Dragons drew heavy inspiration from the fantasy novels of the 50's, 60's, and early 70's. An important element of the OSR movement was a rediscovery of the game's origins and roots - a re-evaluation of the roles of Gygax and Arneson in the inception, tracing the evolution of the publishing history, and analyzing styles of play. An off-shoot of this re-examination was a desire to read the Appendix N books identified in the 1E DMG (Gary's list of inspiration) supplemented by Moldvay's list in the 1981 red box, and tracing source literature's impact on the game - classes, monsters, spells, that kind of stuff. I loved that the OSR included a community of like-minded book readers exploring not just the Appendix N literature, but related authors. I greatly enjoyed Poul Anderson, Leiber's Lankhmar books, Zelazny, the Lovecraft Circle (Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith), Vance, Lord Dunsany, Moorcock, AA Merritt, and De Camp and Pratt's "Compleat Enchanter" series. That's a heady group of fantasy authors! I also got introduced to great adjacent authors, like ER Edison's "The Worm Ouroboros", Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast", and modern fantasy authors like China Mieville.
What a big contrast to the contours of the modern tabletop community. Granted, COVID has most people playing online, but computers were already taking a prominent role in the hobby - virtual table tops, computer RPGs, and the rise of celebrity Twitch streaming and celebrity gamers. Modern D&D has embraced a high magic, fast moving, cinematic, over-the-top action style and moved pretty far from the literary roots.
OSR: Rediscovering a Past that Never Was
In the intervening 30-35 years since D&D's creation, an entire language around game theory and analyzing what was transpiring at the table-top emerged to facilitate discussion. It was only natural that a throughline of the OSR was to apply more current understanding of game theories to the older play styles to identify how and why they worked so well. I called this "a past that never was" because we (OSR folks) sometimes assumed our preferred styles were the only way (or best way) to play the game, when in reality the publishing history shows there was a lot of experimentation. But overall the OSR collective aligned around the premise that the best game styles were exploration-based games (hex crawls and dungeons), and this matched up well with game theory. The hex crawl and the dungeon were the platonic ideals of the old school style adventure.
This "OSR as game theorists" element of the online community helped me articulate why 4E failed for us. Older games relied heavily on procedurally generated content (random tables) that helped the referee run a dynamic setting in real time; random content is also a vehicle for communicating knowledge about the game world without all the exposition. Experience points and the class/level system are strong default motivators, beyond the game narrative. Agency theory of play, sandboxes vs paths, dice integrity, emergent story vs planned story, all of this helped us characterize the strengths of exploration settings. Lots of great insights came out of that time period.
OSR: A Forge for Products
The first waves of OGL retroclones were focused on trying to be faithful copies of the original games, with modest improvements. The succeeding waves began to re-envision old school games and adjusted them to fit a different aesthetic. The two rules sets I spent the most time with were Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LOTFP), a version of BX with strong class niches, a solid skill system, lower powered magic, and a weird horror aesthetic; the other was Adventurer Conquer King (ACKS), another BX clone that really leaned into the economic and domain building side of campaigning. However, I mainly remember the OSR of that period for the adventures. I loved the early LOTFP products (see last post here), and ran several memorable LOTFP campaigns. There were also several published megadungeons from the period we enjoyed: Dwimmermount, Barrowmaze, and Stonehell, come easily to mind, I'm sure there were more. We ran an ACKS Dwimmermount megadungeon campaign for quite some time with all the neighborhood kids - great fun.
As a mostly 5E referee these days, I do miss running the OSR rules sets, and we've been trying to get 5E to play like an older game. 5E is mostly good! I bang my head against the power level of the characters (and of course that's the player's favorite thing, to be powerful), but I'm not ready to go "Kaus the Comedian" on our 5E games (yet). I prefer how the lower-powered characters in OSR rule sets feel more literary and grounded.
Perhaps the most lasting impact the OSR has had on 5E, beyond pulling the rules towards simpler core mechanics, is the way the 5E fan base has embraced the DIY publishing ethos. There's a not insignificant amount of DIY game content for 5E either being published through the OGL (and showing up on DriveThruRPG) or following the WOTC guidelines to land on the DM's Guild - and the very existence of the DM's Guild, WOTC's proprietary DIY channel, seems like a result of hobbyist pressures. However, other than some offerings by major third party publishers, I haven't seen anything in the DIY 5E space that rivals the iconic publications of the OSR DIY space.