Thursday, August 4, 2016

What is OSR?

(according to Steven)

The OSR, or Old School Renaissance (or Revival), is a genre of gaming based around the original versions of D&D.  Currently, the OSR is supported by a wide variety of new "retroclone" game systems, adventures, and blogs dedicated to the concept.  Some detractors claim OSR games and adventures are playing on a sense of nostalgia, or are trying to recapture a false memory of what gaming was like "back in the day."  Some proponents claim that OSR gaming is simpler, richer, and more compelling than more modern, more heavily designed game systems.  Still, if you ask 100 gamers what "OSR gaming" is, you'll get 100 answers- it's a somewhat nebulous term that means different things to different people.  It's a feeling, more than anything else.

I have always loved the descriptions of actual play that come from OSR games.  It's common that, when I read actual play reports from the OSR, the content in them is vibrant, creative, and describes a player engagement with and creativity within the game world (and a game world engagement with player characters!) that surprises and delights me in a way I don't see happening in modern Dungeons & Dragons adventures / supplements / actual play.  It's possible that's confirmation bias, but let's unpack the OSR anyway.

I'm not deeply steeped in the OSR world by any means.  I'm really more of an outsider looking in at descriptions, and trying to pull them apart to understand them better.  I've played far more 3.5, 4, and 5e D&D than any other game, and the majority of the other games I've played have been Powered By The Apocalypse.  And still, despite enjoying all of these games... I find there's some core in OSR style gameplay that is still uniquely appealing and interesting.

So what is it that I find so compelling about the OSR style of play?  I've identified four core points that lead to what might be a most important fifth point that emerges from them.  Let's break it down.

Unique fiction

It's common that OSR games are very do-it-yourself, with emphasis on the unusual and the weird.  They tend to eschew a published campaign setting in favor of one that's homebrewed, even if it's cobbled together out of the pieces of a handful of published adventures.  Familiar monsters (goblins, mind flayers, dark elves) may appear, but behave in unfamiliar ways, or have idiosyncrasies to them.  Magic items are nonstandard, unusual, and have dramatic effects.  Long acting, capability-changing curses, diseases, and afflictions are just another fact of adventuring life for player characters.

XP for Gold

Generally, in OSR games, players are rewarded XP for recovering treasure and making it back to town with it.  This incentivizes players to either avoid fights or construct overwhelming odds in their favor.

Dwindling resources and character death

Resources are important in the OSR, and, barring very unusual circumstances, they diminish as play goes on, putting escalating pressure on players to be cautious in expending them.  Death is unforgiving, without much in the way of second chances or bleeding states.  Additionally, character power is often on par with or below monster power, making many encounters a serious threat.  OSR games also tend to include encounters that are overpowering enough to effortlessly murder the player characters in a head-to-head fight.

The penalty for bad luck of the dice or poor decisions is high.

Simple characters

Character creation is lightning fast (partly as a counter to unforgiving character death), and the players have little choice in how they "build" their characters.  Character sheets are spare, and don't have a lot on them in terms of dice rolling mechanics for solving specific in-game problems.  At the same time, the lack of explicitly defined abilities also avoids many explicit restrictions- characters are free to try many things in the fiction that other games may restrict by class.

These four are the core pillars that prop up what may be the most important, emergent, pillar of OSR style gaming:

Player cleverness

The solutions to in-game problems don't spring from the game mechanics, and aren't hinted at on the character sheet.  The solutions to in-game problems arise from the kind of player cleverness that only results when players engage with the fiction, exploring both problems and possible solutions deeply and recursively.

The core pillars above support this in the following ways:
  • Unique fiction: Unusual encounters and situations push players to engage in order to learn more and satisfy their curiosity about the fiction, and to better understand possible obstacles and solutions.  Long acting afflictions change character capabilities, and push players towards unique or clever solutions to eliminate the afflictions.  Unique magical items and effects give players strange tools to use as one-shot solutions, tools which may nevertheless affect the players themselves in unexpected ways.
  • XP for Gold, Dwindling resources, and Character death: These work together, pushing players to be clever to figure out how a fight can be either circumvented (requiring players to explore the play space more fully) or defused (requiring players to engage more fully with the unique fiction), or to construct overwhelming odds in their favor (often through using the unique magical items and effects they've accrued).  As play goes on, resources diminish, escalating the extent to which players have to rely on their own cleverness rather than the resources they've brought or acquired.
  • Simple characters: Characters are simple to make, which can ease some of the frustration that results from character death.  More importantly, the character sheet doesn't have convenient answers for how to solve the problems players face.  It's spare to the point that players are required to learn information in game by interacting with the fiction, instead of getting it from a dice roll.  Once they've got the information they need, once again, the solutions aren't on the character sheet- they have to come from player ingenuity, from an understanding of the fictional problems and resources they've explored.  Again, the simplicity of the character sheet also doesn't restrict players.  Players are free, without mechanical restriction, to gather information or attempt unique solutions by engaging with the fiction: "I feel behind the statue," "do the orcs seem to be deferring to an individual in the group?," "if I wanted to hide something small in this room, what would be a good spot?"

Well, this has been a very interesting mental exercise for me.  I don't claim that this is definitely factual, or THE definition of OSR, or that any other interpretations of this style of play are wrong!  But the above is what stands out to me as interesting when I read actual play reports, and I hope my analysis will be interesting to you as well.  Thanks for reading!


  1. Fun read!

    Could you post some example games/systems and maybe some example actual play reports too? You've piqued my interest!

    1. Hey Senojmas! For games/systems, B/X D&D, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Labyrinth Lord, and many others can be classified as "OSR". For a list to explore, see here:

  2. Moldvay D&D comes to mind, or the android dungeon grind Pixel Dungeon...

  3. A group I play with occasionally uses OSRs to help keep track of what happened in each session as there can be a couple of weeks between sessions. The more creative players write these in their character's perspective/voice and are pretty entertaining.

  4. Although I find your analysis compelling, I suspect you might be over-representing "unique fiction" as emergent qualities of OSR gaming. There's nothing mechanical in old-school D&D that promotes unique fiction more so than modern editions such as 4e or 5e. That's a quality with notable practices--such as reskinning--that might be commonplace throughout the spectrum and are dependent on the people playing rather than what they're playing.

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