Archive for March 24th, 2010


OSR (Huh! Good God, y’all!) What Is It Good For?

He who hath the Photoshop skills to alter that to "OSR" shalt earn 100 XP. Huh!

Over at the RPG site, Phantom Black started a thread called Why “OSR” at all?!?! which turned out to be one of those adventures where you set forth to slay a troll and then an unexpected reaction roll makes the monster apologize for all the bellowing and gnashing and exclamation points, and as the parlay ensues you realize not only are there going to be no XP from combat, you’re not even going to recoup your investment in flaming oil.

Determined to get something out of it (besides some fine dick jokes), I thought it’d be worth talking here about what I think the Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is good for. The sagacious Clash Bowley said:

Generally speaking, the OSR don’t think that all change is progress, and that what has been done since year X – the exact year varies – in game design has moved away from what made roleplaying games awesome in the first place. By getting back to the source, one refreshes one’s understanding of what gaming should be. Some see this as a touchstone to make real progress. Some don’t need your steenkin’ progress anyway. They were happy in Year X, and if they just go back to that, they will be happy again. Some just lost where they were going and need to go back to the last known position. There are a multitude of variations. I’m not an OSR guy, but they are pretty straight forward about what they are looking for. It’s just that there are really several OSRs which share some commonalities, but which are going in different directions.

I think that’s well put, but “refreshed” isn’t entirely accurate in my case. Even though I grew up with AD&D I never had a good understanding of what it was designed to do well and how I could get the most out of it. Thanks to the discussion and resources of the OSR, I currently enjoy playing old-school D&D much more than I did back in the day. (Experience with many other game systems, and twenty years’ worth of maturity and personal growth, must also get some of the credit.)

I think the OSR is useful as a movement for the same reason that genre is useful for a reader: if you like one book with a rocketship on the cover, having a label can be a good guide to where to go if you want to delve deeper into more stuff like that.

In my opinion, the body of work associated with the OSR is worth checking out (and experiencing for yourself through actual play with a group open to the experience) even if you don’t plan to make a habit of playing older games. I feel like the recent games of 4E and Rogue Trader I’ve run have been much more successful because of my immersion in the roots of gaming, and discovering that I really, really love the original D&D I never played as a kid doesn’t stop me from being interested in new stuff as well.

Because I think it’s worth thinking more about the “not all change is progress” idea that Clash identifies as an OSR tenet, here’s my response to another question of the quotation-mark-loving OP:

as far as these “old” mechanisms didn’t “survive” in most roleplaying games that are sold today, what does this hint at? Game designers being “morons” knowing better what rules to devise than their customers, just talking the customers into that the old rules were “obviously” bad? Or is it just a misdevelopment that game designers published what they deemed better, thus talking customers into believing those new mechanisms actually were “better”, or was it the broad mass of customers falling to actually believe the fallacy of “new & improved always equals better”? Is this a paradigm shift we are experiencing, or is it a “correction” of “wrong” developments that happened?

If you think “further down an evolutionary pathway” or “around today when other species aren’t” always means “better fitted to survive” then I’ve got some birds unable to fly because of their ornate plumage for you.

I’d say the fact that “old” mechanisms aren’t still around in the contemporary marketplace tells us that the people who felt the need to create new games wanted them to do different things than the original ones did. “Hey, Game X does exploration really well, but I hate its abstract combat. Let’s make a new game to fix that.” Since the designers and playtesters are starting from Game X’s approach as a point of divergence, they’ll spend a lot of effort on Game Y’s critical hit charts and encumbrance rules. They won’t waste word count talking about exploration because they all know how to do that using the techniques they internalized playing in Game X.

The result is that when a new generation of gamers grows up with Game Y, the knowledge of how to do the exploration that Game X was good at is lost, such that it takes a conscious effort to engage with the older games and ensure the survival of their best ideas. What the OSR means to me is a bunch of resources for that effort and a community devoted to this work whose shared or divergent perspectives I can benefit from.

Note also that if Game Y’s designers started playing Game X as pre-teens, the things they think need fixing, like a reliance on consensus adjucation, might not be problems at all to the 24-33 year olds who started it all. And let us not discount the economic incentives to publish lots of new books of RPG stuff on a regular basis. When all’s said and done I think there’s as much evidence for change in RPG design as a process of progressive degradation, like photocopying a photocopy, as there is to say that it’s inexorable progress and improvement. Not having anything to sell you either way, I’m as happy to pick out the good new emergent ideas as to retrieve the old dusty ones.

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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