The debate: what is the OSR?

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This post is a debate and an introduction. This post is a debate because the OSR is a groundswell of thought among some gamer communities that was never planned, directed or defined. OSR means different things to different gamers. That is to say, OSR, at least places different emphasis on different issues for different gamers.

The acronym OSR means different things too. Some take OSR to stand for “Old School Retro-Clones”. There is even a D&D retro-clone page on Wikipedia. Others use the three letters to stand for “Old School Rules”. The usage that I see most often, with increasing frequency, is “Old School Renaissance”.

temple of elemental evil

As the word “Renaissance” suggests; the OSR is about how things used to be.

Can gamers agree on how games used to be, though? Can they agree on what changed?

The following statements are an attempt gauge whether there is any common ground. Each statement has a thumbs up and thumbs down option. Be Nero. Give the statement the thumbs up if you agree with it and the thumbs down if it needs to.

OSR is about stripping away rules and making gamers simpler.

OSR is about moving away from storytelling to adventuring.

OSR is about quick and random character generation.

OSR is about being able to play a whole scenario in just one evening.

OSR is about making roleplaying less pretentious.

OSR is about reducing the emphasis on combat mechanics.

OSR is about reducing power levels of adventuring parties.

OSR is about decreasing abstraction and using suitable game mechanics wherever necessary.

OSR is about roleplaying games that do not require high levels of commitment.

OSR is about random monsters, hit locations and armour values.

Many new RPGs have too many rules and mechanics.

Many new RPGs are too much like computer games.

Many new RPGs take too long to create characters.

Many new RPGs are too complex and detailed.

Many new RPGs are too abstract, bothering only about theatrical storytelling rather than heroic adventures.

You may feel that none of these questions go to the heart of the matter. You may also feel that some contradict one another – they do – or that the Nero live/die approach to an answer isn’t appropriate.

Let us know in the comment section below what you think the OSR is about. What does it mean to you? Why do you think so many gamers are lining up as firmly pro or anti-OSR while others remain perplexed by the attempted distinction.

Picture credit: Image taken from The Template of Elemental Evil (TSR)

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The Old School Renaissance is a revitalization and

rebirth of the sense of wonder that the Old School gaming community used to

possess. Rather than the current "disposable" gaming community, OSR seeks a new perspective on the Old School ways. Some consider simplifying the rules enough to warrant the change and transformation. Others, like myself, believe that the OSR is a perspective, a non-literal idea that does not need the props of most

contemporary games.

Story and narrative is all, not the add-on “bling” of supposed Character development; there remains a central idea to OSR that requires a sound plot, a good, descriptive narrative, and imaginative problem solving in a fantasy milieu that nurtures this benign revolution of ideas. Basically, the perspective is that there must be meaning throughout the gaming session. Not an empty kill and slash campaign.

Comment to Sarah Newton: Yes! Improvisation, and imagination.

Sarah Newton
Sarah Newton

For me, the OSR is about openness, flexibility, and simplicity. About not needing to worry about canon, not needing to have a rule for absolutely everything, but feeling that it's cool to improvise, wing it, make stuff up, and generally be in charge of the game rather than the game being in charge of you. It's about sandboxing, about adventures which aren't rigidly scripted, about easy character generation and about rules you don't have to look up and which are easy to remember. About mystery, "exploring the map". It's also about solid rules: when you're dead, you're dead, lack of arbitrariness in what constitutes damage or effects on a character, a reliable rules backbone which the GM can lean on to say "hey, them's the rules".

Above all, it's a style of play. It's simple, it's open, it's fun. It's *creative*. And, in terms of fantasy, for me the OSR means that very specific fantasy genre of "trad" character classes, levelling up, accumulating treasure and experience, gold, magic items, spellbooks and healing potions, having pulpy heroic adventures to save the world - at least, if you can survive the first few levels! :-)

Jon Woodland
Jon Woodland

I think that OSR primarily means stripping away all the extra rules that try to define the "roleplaying" part of RPGs as a set of probabilities based on dice rolls, rather than a probability based on GM ruling.

In the Old School, there was never a role to see if you could persuade someone. The ability to persuade an NPC was a direct result of the way the GM perceived the status, attitude and intelligence of each character in the situation, and the explanation given by the player of how his character was persuading. If the player actually could act out the situation as well, it was often a bonus (or hindrance). The GM would then make a ruling.

What OSR often causes to happen, is much more of a focus on storytelling than on combat or game mechanics. Sometimes, there will be a random roll for a non-combat result, but more often, the players need to talk their characters through the situations. The rules for random chance are more focused on combat, partly because combat can be lots of fun, but mostly because it would be harder for a GM to rule on every descriptive blow and damage without seeming too arbitrary.

The fact that Old School D&D was often filled with endless dungeon crawls and ridiculous creature placement and treasure hordes, had little to do with "old school ideals" and much more to do with "that's what D&D was like".


Umm, Someone get rid of that die....? I did not realize it was such a large jpeg. Sorry.

Andrew Girdwood
Andrew Girdwood

I think it's okay; Disqus truncates the image and that's far more desirable than trying to edit someone else's post :)