02 July 2016

OSR: Old School "Renaissance" or "Regurgitation?"

They do make them like this anymore.

The Old School Renaissance (OSR), (or revival, or re-tread) movement is still in full swing with games with rules based on early RPGs (mainly original, Basic, and Advanced D&D) being released all the time. The point of OSR is to bring back the good old days when rules were simple, you players could try anything, and there was a lot of winging it as a major part of the experience. You could easily imagine an old school enthusiast saying things like “things were better back then. Armor didn't reduce damage, just made you harder to hit. And it was better that way,” or “you kids stay off my tabletop with yer newfangled battle mat!” Was it really better back then, or is it a case of wearing Goggles of Rose Colored Seeing +2?

Was It Better?

Forty years have passed since the birth of the role-playing hobby. It has been evolving every since. Many innovations have come. D&D did not have skills, (though Basic/Expert and AD&D did gain them later on). Early games also made characters archetypes, their features set by the “class” chosen and your character's abilities advancing in pre-determined ways. There was no room for customization. Random generation was the way of life, with dice determining your attributes and those rolls limiting what class you can take. These days most games let players design the character they want usually through point buys, and choosing new features as they adventure.

The evolution of RPGs took many different roads, but many OSR adherents tend to think they have gotten too rules heavy and a burden in playing a character. This is actually not true, with games like FATE and Dungeon World as prime examples of rules that are very light and encourage role playing. My current go to game, Savage Worlds, rings all the bells of what people want old school to be. In fact these games are far less complex than real old school D&D which, especially in its AD&D form, had tons of rules which tend not to work like other rules for similar circumstances, many exceptions for this or that, or designed just for a real esoteric concept. AD&D is the epitome of this.

Doing it all again.
The problem I have with most OSR rules is that they are pretty much copies of the old rules. OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord are basically the same game, maybe with a few select differences but manly adhering to the old rules. How many versions of a single rule set do we need? One? Two? A dozen? I encourage these writers to take that energy and go their own way, integrating rules changes or creating a whole new game that captures the feel they want but gets rid of the cruft. They can even make it compatible in most ways while integrating new ideas into it. Sadly this is rare.

Some ideas are held on to even though they do not pass a basic realism test. Armor Class (AC) is the prime suspect, so ingrained that the newest edition of D&D holds onto it like a sacred cow. With AC armor does not block damage, it made you harder to hit. Even early on other games discarded that idea, letting armor reduce or even block damage. In D&D even if you are in the heaviest plate mail if you are hit you will take as much damage as an unarmored peasant. Another is the “kill and take” mentality which makes cleaning the pockets of the dead a major part of the game (even for paladins). What is more conducive to role playing, spending time solving problems, or searching nooks and crannies for gold and magic and keeping long lists of the spoils? Heck, most of these retro-clones eschew the “evil” of skills. How about making magic-users fun to play at low levels. I played in a first level one shot for the anniversary of D&D at my FLGS. I cast my one spell, ans pretty much did nothing for the rest of the game.

This is not to say that there is not some really good things about OSR. There are tons of adventures to run, some really good settings as well, which I convert to a different system to run.

Lastly, are they even needed. One of the main reasons for retro-clones is that the old rules are out of print. Not actually. They are all available in PDF these days. You want to play first edition AD&D? DriveThruRPG has the whole kit and caboodle.

I am not trying to insult anyone, just to question if looking back is full of cloudy memories.


  1. It's worth pointing out that OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord predate the release of the PDFs of 1e AD&D etc. on DriveThru RPG. In fact, it's arguable whether the "whole kit and caboodle" would ever have been released as PDFs if the OSR hadn't demonstrated there was a market for it.

    Also, the rationale behind the first generation retroclones was specifically to emulate the rulesets as closely as possible, so they would be available under an open license. This was so future OSR products could be published as "OSRIC-compatible" instead of having to approach Wizards of the Coast for a license.

    Finally, there are loads of second generation retroclones that do indeed build on the first generation (e.g. LotFP, ACKS, Red Tide, Stars Without Number, too many others to mention). These do innovative, creative things. Innovation is definitely not "rare" in the OSR (both in terms of settings and in terms of rules, and AC is a good example; with ascending, descending, ACKS saving-throw style, probably even RuneQuest style damage reduction floating around). And, crucially, all this creativity required the first generation of retroclones to lay the foundations.

    1. Sorry it took so long to see your comment. Been very busy. Thanks for the post, though I heartily disagree. All these are way too rooted in the 70's/80's. So much innovation since then, but I don't see it here.