Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What OSR is/isn't and why you should/shouldn't care

I was planning on finishing my post on Ars Magica today, but I've been really sick over the past few days which means I've been sleeping a lot. One of the consequences of sleeping when ill is that I usually have weird dreams, some of which could best be called nightmarish. So of course a few days ago Zak S. posted something about this thread on and I read it. The thread, as well as the post (which looks to have been recently deleted). First of all, reading web forums annoys the hell out of me. Moderated ones, anyway. I started with Usenet ( and that should tell you enough about my views on moderation. Anyway, that thread on was the subject of several horrible dreams I experienced dealing with OSR and all that sort of crap. Like my previous post stated, people are just missing the point.

I hate the term OSR because of the implication that new games have nothing to offer, but that's the term we have so we're stuck with it. It's sort of like the United States we have football and soccer. I realize the rest of the world calls soccer "football", and football "American football" or "gridiron" or some other bullshit, but it's called "football" here. If you don't like it, that's fine, but if you're in the US and call soccer "football" people are going to look at you like you're an asshole. OSR is the designation given to a set of games that exhibit a certain set of criteria, and just because the name is stupid doesn't mean the designation is meaningless. I think Zak tried to make that point in the thread and was met with epic-level actuality, which is a term used to describe humorless nerds hellbent on sticking to the first definition of a word in the dictionary, ignoring the other fifty uses as they see fit. Fuck those guys, OSR is the word we're using. Now I have to give the criteria, right?

OSR isn't AD&D. Someone literally tried to say it was in that fucking thread. In fact, AD&D itself is anti-OSR in the sense that the term is used. AD&D was published in an effort to codify all the various house rules and endless variants introduced the few years after D&D was published, to create a definitive version of the rules. That's not OSR. OSR also has nothing to do with the age of a game. It's entirely possible to create a clone of Vampire or Amber or Rifts or even D&D 4th edition and have it be an OSR game. Why not? Old-school gaming is not about a particular set of rules. To think it has anything to do with which rules-set you're using misses the whole point. I played in an "AD&D" game when I was in high school that used stuff from Rolemaster, Palladium Fantasy and Warhammer. The DM would allow just about anything, but no I made a multiclassed dwarf fighter/mind mage. The combat system was AD&D but with criticals hits from Rolemaster. Blah blah blah, this is nothing new, everyone does this, right?

No, they don't. THAT is the point of the OSR. I do not like 4th edition D&D, so what. Plenty of people do, whatever. Reading various boards, you'd think that if it's not in the rules, it can't be done. 4th edition players, in general, seem to be of the mindset that the rules define everything and the players and DM are strictly confined to the rules. Oh, did I say 4th edition players? Try reading Dragonsfoot. Everything is "How does this work by-the-book". Fine, doesn't bother me, but don't EVER bring up something cool that happened in the game if it's not in the fucking rulebook. Your DM had this badass adventure with stuff that's not strictly BtB? Get ready for the arguments and pedantic nonsense. AD&D players aren't any more part of the OSR than the guys on the WotC boards because they're both more interested in rules, not play.

Old-school is doing whatever you want, whenever you want, because it's fun. It's adhering to the idea that "the play's the thing", not the rules. This might come to a shock to most people, but rpgs attempt to simulate a fantasy (or scifi, whatever) reality. What does the boardgame Sorry simulate? Not a fucking thing. I mean, maybe it's a social commentary on the futility of relying on luck to achieve success in the financial realm. Hell if I know. I used to play it a lot when I was a kid because it was fun but I never worried about what my game pieces were eating or if they enjoyed their task. They were just game pieces. Wondering these things about rpg characters isn't necessary for play, but might be legitimate questions at some point. Using old-school mentality, if I wanted to know how my Sorry game pieces felt about their lives, I might create a chart and roll on it when necessary, perhaps throw in some modifiers based on current progress. Someone else might require an extensive roleplaying session, lots of psychoanalysis. The chart way is definitely older, and the roleplaying way is arguably newer, but they're still old-school in the sense that those rules didn't exist and someone just made them up because they figured it'd be fun and add a new dimension to the game. OSR Sorry might have a million new rules, with a ton of stuff, but it'd still be identifiable as Sorry. If group A decided to dump the roleplaying and use the charts, no one would say a fucking word. "You're not playing it right"? The only way to not play it right would be to not play at all.

To reiterate, OSR is not about a particular set of rules or a timeframe, or even a certain style of play. It's simply about doing whatever you want to have fun, not sticking to a particular mindset and keeping the holy words of the game designer as canon. You can certainly play 4th edition D&D in an OSR way, if you want. Or you can play it as-written. Which is better? I thought about this question for a while, and finally decided the OSR is better, objectively, simply because it's inclusive. There's no prohibition against keeping to the rules, strictly, in the old-school mentality. In fact, there is a large segment of old-school play that is very much concerned with the rules. But it's still "your" game. If you ad lib a bit to cover a situation unclear in the rules, you're doing it old-school. If you send letters to the editor asking for clarifications, you're an old wargamer still unaware that rpgs are a new form of gaming. If you insist that something cannot be done simply because it's not in the rules, you're a "nugamer", and pretty much an annoying fuck. The whole DIY ethic is very much a part of the OSR, and in fact one of the major contributions the OSR has given the rpg community is a reminder that this whole thing started in someone's garage. All the major rpg publishers started in garages, publishing crap independently because no one else would.

You shouldn't care about the OSR, because caring would, paradoxically, violate the precepts of the OSR itself. Do whatever you want and don't give one fuck about anyone else.


  1. D&D didn't start in a garage. It was much cooler than that. It started in the basement of a Playboy Club.

  2. Well said. I read part of that thred as well and had the same reaction to the AD&D post.

  3. As good a manifesto as we could ask for.

  4. "No one goes there anymore. It's too popular."

  5. Couldn't agree more. I did in fact play 4E for a while like this too (mostly because that was the ruleset the players at my last job knew).

  6. As a Pathfinder GM, who spends a lot of his online time on OSR-blogs for inspiration, I couldn't agree more, as well.

  7. There are precepts of the OSR? Haha!

  8. The interest in "How does this work by-the-book" isn't some slavish devotion to the rulebook but, rather, a desire to learn how the game was originally intended (or, by extension, how it was written compared to how it was played). It is a desire to learn the history of the game in order to appreciate why things were done the way they were done. If it wasn't for this desire, I never would have learned that Dave's pre-D&D Blackmoor RPG had a skill system, that it didn't use vancian magic, or that higher level characters were harder to hit and not harder to kill, or that character "class" wasn't even a concept back then.

    1. You must be reading different message boards than I am.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I deleted my comment because I felt that it was more of an attack upon you, and that isn't what I wanted to do.

    I think that the OSR is a total failure. It was started to take the game back from "the man" and now most of the founders have become "the man".

    The OSR is a brand name now, and they have themselves stuck in the exact same marketing plan as WotC, they are creating wares for new users, but those new users aren't even buying the products. They are still and always will start at WotC. The target audience of the OSR was supposed to be an advanced audience, that is who is buying this stuff.

    The OSR is a failure, it is a brand name that saturates the market with uninspiring and juvenile products. You go to the OSR hangouts and more and more it resembles Usenet, because it is SPAM, even if it is user created SPAM it's still SPAM.

  11. they have themselves stuck in the exact same marketing plan

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