What’s OSR?

Old School Gamers typically have been around for a long time. The reason we are somewhat attached to RPGs of the years past is because of the experience with those games/editions. Some of us have had the same Dungeons & Dragons books since they became available back then.


Old School Rules/Renaissance/Revival and what it means to me.

I’ve been seeing more rhetoric from multiple angles on this topic again lately. Maybe Go-oggle and Yu-Tube have picked up on the conversations in the room and my search history, etc. Who knows? But anyway, we’ll talk about what an OSR RolePlaying Game is as opposed to a more modern one.

Disclaimer: This is NOT about one being better than the other. Both schools of gaming thought are valid. Both styles of gaming are perfectly valid. One is no better or worse than the other. Please accept this as strictly my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Old School Gamers typically have been around for a long time. The reason we are somewhat attached to RPGs of the years past is because of the experience with those games/editions. Some of us have had the same Dungeons & Dragons books since they became available back then.

It’s not 100% just D&D, either. There are plenty of other games and other editions of games out there from the 1970’s -1990’s that are plenty popular. Marvel Superheroes RPG has had multiple incarnations over the years. Star Frontiers has only really had one official edition so far. Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) was around before the movies breathed new life into an old series.

Some of us OGs have been around even longers still. Remember Chainmail? Remember Warhammer before everything had a $100+ price tag. Some folx (before my time) played the predecessor to GURPS called The Fantasy Trip. (TFT) Call of Cthulhu has been around a very long time as well.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Now that we’ve heard about Old School, what’s considered “New” or “Modern” roleplaying?

My personal definition is anything that would be considered the most recent edition of a game. D&D 5E, for example, is most obvious. Some games such as RIFTS or Pathfinder 2E have just been reborn in newer editions, even under new systems, in the last five or ten years.

Game companies are businesses as much as we tend to forget. We would like to think the writers, editors, and production staff of these games as friends who help facilitate fun with our gaming group. We want them to do well. Unfortunately for our wallets, that usually means new editions, new sourcebooks, or new games.

New games, reboots, or new editions often take the form of a Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding effort. Most new games happen that way these days. If a product can’t pass crowdfunding muster, then it’s probably not going to happen. Some companies do the majority of what they do through Kickstarter and BackerKit almost exclusively as if retail and the PDF market are almost secondary.

Newer games tend to have a newer approach and a different attitude.

For example, D&D 5E bases level gain on Milestones (preferred) or Experience Points. Roleplay and story aspects are emphasized over combat. Older editions of D&D tended more toward smash the monster, grab the loot, gain the XP. DMs could set XP for other types of encounters, but it was quicker to go full on murderhobo if you just wanted to level up.

D&D 5E tends toward shorter dungeons, maybe five or six rooms that usually follow a somewhat logical pattern. Most of the story takes place in terms of interaction with other characters and NPCs. Most Old School NPCs were a means to an end. The loot and the monsters were the real goal and they were usually stashed away in some unbelievably huge multilevel underground complex full of traps, puzzles, and more monsters.

One last example. D&D 5E is sort of a generic system. People have created campaigns and settings for superheroes, giant robots, space opera, and even shoujo style manga roleplaying. The best part is, thanks to the Open Game License, creators can get paid for these efforts. In the before-time (Classic Star Trek reference,) there was no OGL and if you wanted to work for a game company you had to bend over backwards to get printed in a fan magazine and then pray you got picked up to write an article for Dragon. Then maybe get a foot in the door at old T$R or another established company. There were different games for everything, too.

So why is OSR so cool, exactly?

This is still all I need for old Basic D&D.

Game companies tend to drop old products like a hot rock once they cease earning money. I mean, it’s just good business, right? Sometimes they move onto a new edition. Sometimes they move onto another project altogether.

Back in the older editions of D&D we had a class. That class was pretty broadly defined in most cases. Fighter could be anything from a pirate to an axe wielding barbarian. In D&D 5E there are subclasses and even some specialization within the subclasses. There are more ways to customize your character than you can shake a stick at and a rule for every one of them. (This is also why Pathfinder 2E is 700+ pages for just the core rulebook.)

If we didn’t have a rule for something back then, we just made it up. Admittedly, some DMs had entire three-ring binders full of house rules. It was fast, it was loose, and it was fun! Our character’s actions were mostly limited by our imaginations.

AD&D 1st Ed had the Fiend Folio and two Monster Manuals. Anything beyond that had to be created by the DM. Nowadays we have how many official books plus dozens of third party monster books? It staggers the imagination and the gaming budget. That’s why I love Dungeon Crawl Classics (an OSR game,) so much. I end up creating and describing most of the creatures I want.

Another case to be made for OSR games is we know there really aren’t any sourcebooks coming out for the original editions. However, newer replicas of these old games serve two main purposes: to bring back rulesets into an OGL framework and to allow for the publishing of old homebrew adventures under the new (old) ruleset while still keeping it fresh. I truly wish I had hung onto some of my old dungeon maps.

Some modern RPG companies have found ways to cash in on old trademark IP. They’re selling reprints in PDF and even Print On Demand copies of old games. This is great because it gives new players a chance to get the old stuff without having to photocopy some beleaguered book the GM has been using for 40 years. There aren’t as many notes and coffee stains on the reprints, either.

I love both.

Fun old times. New fun times to be had. It’s all good.

I’m a roleplaying game fanatic at heart. I’ll run, write, or even play just about anything. It’s still a game. The rules are superfluous to having fun. I like crunchy bits like no other, but I do enjoy a good story, too. Whatever gets us there is fine.

I like older editions of some games for their charm, nostalgia, and fond memories they hold for me. A lot of old curmudgeons balk at new rulesets or editions. I welcome at least taking a look at them. Sometimes the new rules and art of newer editions draw me in. Sometimes they make me want to stick to the old stuff.

It’s also funny to convert newer RPG creatures and ideas into retro games. First, it makes me look like I made it up. Second, it gives me a reference to fall back on if I get stuck. There’s a lot of stuff we wish we had back then that is commonly available now. Plus, I know some OG curmudgeonly gamers have never picked up any new material. Heh heh heh…

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you regardless of editions or game systems. Hope you’re having fun. See you soon.

Author: Jeff Craigmile

I'm a tabletop role-playing game writer and designer from Des Moines, Iowa always looking for more work. I'm the father of four boys and human to three cats.

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