Friday, July 24, 2020

Reflections on the OSR

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.


  1. What about DCC? Lamentations is a tight rule set but for appendix N, DCC is way more in line. Also the beautiful spawn of 4E should not be discounted for high fantasy—13th Age.

    1. About DCC, readers here may be curious to learn that it is not an OSR game!

      According to its author, Joseph Goodman, January 30, 2020: "I don’t think DCC is an OSR game. It was influenced by the OSR movement but at this point, the vast majority of sales happen in places where no one knows what ‘OSR’ means. And a large chunk of the customer base is too young to remember D&D before 5E or maybe 4E."

  2. This is a refreshing take on the OSR. It does sound as if you are implicitly saying goodbye to an influential stage of D&D gaming, taking what good you can and carrying it forward. I think that's a wise way to go.

    I think there *is* a second, much smaller, wave of the OSR, but kids who are getting into it simply don't care about the Good Old Days. They just want to have fun. They have taken the principles you explained here and have gone further, leaving behind retroclones. They're playing Knave and "hacks of hacks" and other new games more in sync with their own "literary book clubs," not to mention their younger cultural values, in which Fafhrd the Cimmerian of Melniboné is not entirely welcome. The DIY ethos and the quest for even simpler but more consistent rules and mechanics have survived, it seems to me, under the name of OSR where younger gamers use it, whereas the middle-finger-held-high approach that characterized the OSR by 2011, and the creepiest of scandals in the last years, have sullied what could have lasted longer and have driven people away rather than drawing young 5e players in.

    The only quibble that I have (and this is minor!) is when you say that older games relied on randomly generated content. I think that's not really correct. The old rule sets don't bear that out. Even Gygax explicitly disliked designing adventures by random (I wrote about this June 6, if anybody wants to see). There were wandering monster tables in D&D, sure, but they were completely ignored by all the players I knew, at least, in the early '80s. Granted, other people likely played with more random elements in the old days than the groups I knew did. The OSR certainly showed how fun random content could be, and what you could do with it, but the OSR use of random tables in the name of old styles is sort of like looking at Mona Lisa's right hand and zooming way in and saying it was a painting about an index finger.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post! I'm with you on the last point, about products: I'm running Barrowmaze for my family, but with non-D&D, DIY home rules! Ha, perhaps that could make me a candidate to represent a second wave of the OSR, in 2020. Except I'm satisfied with "Fantasy Role-Playing Games" for a label.

    I agree with your approach 100%: take the good, leave the bad, carry on playing.

    1. I would definitely consider myself to be an example of the younger group of OSR-ish participants who really don't care how things were Back-In-The-Day (which was before I was born).

      I really like the old rules as simple, strong skeleton to use for my own things.

      DIY is much more a priority for me than OSR.

    2. I got into ACKS at 19, and many things about it seemed like a wonderful rebuke of 3.5e. Now, ten years later, I see ACKS has a host of problems, many of which are solved in later editions!

      I wonder if gaming is too dimensional for big movements to advertise well

  3. I've been thinking about how much DIY has carried over from the OSR side to 5E. There are a few DIY products I can think of - Matt Colville's "Strongholds and Followers", and Keith Ammann's "The Monsters Know What They're Doing" popped to mind. A guy did two expanded monster manuals (literally called "Monster Manual Expanded" and "Monster Manual Expanded 2") and they are pretty useful - lots of variants to 5e standard monsters to expand the challenge curves, as well stats for monsters missing from the core. And there have been several hobbyist offerings with simplified 5E rules like "Five Torches Deep". Mostly these are utilities though, and I can't think of any legendary hobbyist adventures that have captured the imagination of the fan base the way some of the most well known OSR adventures or megadungeons have done. Maybe this is a controversial question, but does 5E design encourage pedestrian adventures from the hobbyists?

    Otherwise the decent 3rd party products seem to be by established 3PP publishers (professional publishing houses) like Kobold Press, Goodman Games, Petersen Games (Sandy Petersen), and so on.

    1. Most of the better fan products are rules supplements, but over at /r/DnDBehindTheScreen/ you can certainly find imaginative setting and adventure material. Granted, the inspiration doesn't come from classic fantasy but mostly anime (IMHO).

  4. I'm sure you've covered it before but why did you turn to 5E? I'd add another facet of the OSR as basically "corporate D&D sucks". I'm not that mean about it but that's a big factor for me in not wanting to get into the latest edition.

    1. It's a fair question. The short answer is the players. My main home game (dads and kids) love the 5E - they go to conventions, adventurer's league, that kind of stuff, playing 5E. I'm trying to be accommodating and open-minded about it. Like all of the recent "corporate" versions (btw, I like that term) it's very player-facing, in that they get to play powerful characters with lots of mechanical options and little risk.

      For now I'm still seeing it as a friendly challenge to see how far the system can flex towards an exploration-based and dungeon crawl game. It's mostly workable in that direction other than how different the power curve and flavor feels compared to early D&D.

      We're going to do one more major 5E campaign (the 5E published megadungeon) and then make a call if my next game, a homebrew, stays 5E or goes back to an OSR rules set.

  5. That's kind of what I figured. That makes a lot of sense anything else would be akin to forcing your kids to only listen to your favorite music from your youth. I could see myself going that direction in the same circumstances. Good for you seeing how you can tie the versions of the game together! With my 40-something players I deal with periodic bouts of what powers they might have if we were playing 5E and we're using the AS&SH rules - not exactly the most puritanical of all OSR rulesets - so who knows where I might end up in the future!

  6. You MUST check out 5E: Hardcore mode. It's inexpensive and includes a lot of ideas to strip down and OSR-ify 5e, including working with the power curve. I really think you'll dig it.

  7. Here's a link to the product on DTRPG:

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. This covers it beautifully.

    One of the things I will always appreciate about Grognardia, despite everything, was his introduction to Appendix N. Hope springs eternal for a more literary D&D. Even 5e Players and GMs, or altogether new players, once introduced to the allure of more literary or even history-based D&D, will forsake their cartoon action hour poses and get into it with a dedication and seriousness that is heartwarming to see.

    I run a basic D&D game for younger colleagues that have never played Dungeons and Dragons. And it is beautiful. Rules are light, lethality is high, and teamwork and instincts are cultivated and hot-housed. As the Titans of the Rebirth slowly pass into obscurity some blogs will hold vigil over the flames of the Old Ways, proclaiming that the OSR is not a thing that can be killed but a thing that lives in each of us, eternal.