Brian’s OSR Overview

When I tentatively started investigating this retro niche of our hobby I was surprised by how big it was, I had heard of Labyrinth Lord and Stars Without Number, but not the dozens of other games I soon found, all offering their own unique take on the OSR. For almost three years now I’ve been digging through (and occasionally playing or running) the plethora of OSR products which I had previously let pass me by. Since I’m always seeing new gamers arriving in the OSR community, I thought I should have one place I can direct people to for sharing what I have learned. It won’t be exhaustive, but it should be enough for anyone to know which direction they want to head in.

I felt sad at first that I had missed so much, the OSR had been running for ten years already, how was I ever going to catch up? It turns out that the OSR was just getting going. In the three years that I’ve been paying attention I think OSR is easily twice the size it was. New games are being conceived, developed, written and published, new adventures and settings pushing the boundaries of both D&D and RPGs in general are released every week. So if you are new to the OSR, don’t worry, you got here just in time for the next bit of awesome.

So lets get a couple of questions out of the way,

Isn’t it just D&D?

– Well, it was. The first wave of OSR games were produced to be replicas of TSR era D&D, a way for people to be able to buy the old rule sets when Wizards of the Coast weren’t actually selling them. OSR is many things though. Part of the old-school mentality championed in the OSR communities is DIY RPG. The game at your table is yours, so make it what you want, so it’s only about fighting Kobolds in 10×10 corridors if that’s what you want to play. Soon enough the second wave of OSR appeared, taking the amateur retro concept in different directions with games set in ’70s Science Fiction or just tweaking the D&D mechanics with modern game design sensibilities. Now the third wave is here and we have OSR games set in hell or where the players generate their home town and it’s residents as they create their young adventurers. OSR games where the same monster should never show up twice and games set in World War 2 or prehistory where it’s humans in the caves. So yes, it’s is D&D, but don’t think of that as a limitation.

It looks like all the rules are all about fighting, I don’t want to fight.

– That’s good, because if you try to fight your way out of every situation you will likely get your PC killed. The rules are mostly for combat because combat can kill your characters so it needs to be reliable and strict. Don’t think that that is all you can do though; you are encouraged to think around problems. Scare off the opposition, sneak past the monsters, make friends, make trades, form alliances. There aren’t strict rules for these things because as soon as you write them you are limiting your player’s options to what you wrote in those rules. Instead OSR operates on the mantra of, “Rulings, not rules,” where the GM is encouraged to fairly an consistently adjudicate each crazy player plan as it comes up. This way the players are free to play the game however they like.

So every game is a sandbox?

– Pretty much. The PCs should always be free to respond to each situation however they chose, up to and including bugging out of the current adventure and going to find another way to make a fortune, steal a castle, save the world or whatever else the players are up to. Certainly there is no strict balancing of encounters, PCs can get out of their depth if the players make the wrong call. Don’t assume that just because you found a dragon’s lair your party can take the dragon.

DIY RPG, player lead… So OSR games are just like modern Indie Narrative Hippy games!?

– Well, no. Almost all OSR games still follow the strict delineation between GM duties and Player duties. The GM chooses the setting and populates it and runs all the NPCs. The Players have control of their PCs and that’s about it. There is no shared narrative control, no scene framing, no pre-game discussion of what tonight’s session is going to be about, and you won’t find any mechanics for building an entertaining story. OSR runs on the traditional social contract: The GM is in charge but he has to understand that the PCs are the stars.

Next I’ll share my thoughts on some of the more popular OSR games. It’ll be like, twelve micro-reviews. Or something. (Part 2)

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10 thoughts on “Brian’s OSR Overview

  1. I think you forgot to say about the Dump Stat Syndrome.

    I think one of the problems of “Rulings over Rules” is that you can generate the Dump Stat Syndrome, by (in the case) put a Charisma attribute that should determine the PC Social Habilities and capacity of convincement, but you throw this in the air, as there’s no in-game consequences on having a small attribute (which didn’t happen with a low Strenght or Constitution, that would result on a PC being killed). So, even more in systems that allow the Stats exchange, like (for example) Black Hack, on this case taking a small STR and a big CHA in the rolls would imply on an automatic exchange between both, as there’s no CHA roll to see if the King will not put your barbarian behind the bars.

    1. I don’t think “dump stat syndrome” is as much of a problem as you are suggesting. Sure it could be an issue, if the GM doesn’t take the appropriate stats into consideration when making his rulings, but then you are basically saying, ‘Rulings not Rules only works when done well.’ which is pretty much true for anything.

      Your example is pretty much a non-issue anyway. If you want the GM to take into consideration your low Cha, ask him to. If you don’t want him to, and he doesn’t care about it, then no-one cares and it’s not a problem.

  2. What is interesting to me, the way I read your article above, all of these OSR characteristics are mostly about the style of play more than the mechanics of play, and can therefore be applied to many different RPGs, not just ones based on old D&D. (And I concede that mechanics influence style and vice versa).

    1. You are right, OSR-style play is more about the way you play than the mechanics you use. One of the games I want to mention in my next posts is Far Away Land, I would say that it is definitely an OSR game despite the fact that is a new system built from the ground up for it’s own setting.

      Off the top of my head I think the only thing a system needs for OSR play is to be potentially lethal. The threat of losing your character should be one of the stakes in play.

      Similarly, there are a few mechanics which I would say are mostly incompatible with OSR play. Things like Fate Points giving the players authorial control.

      1. I agree there are a few mechanics that are definitely NOT OSR. But I used to see an awful lot of arguing about ascending vs descending AC, or “3d6 in order” as being critical to an OSR game, which I never agreed with.

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