Mar 15, 2014

The ABCs of the OSR

A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to define "OSR" within the gaming genre.  Does it mean "Old School Renaissance" or another term somewhat synonymous with Renaissance such as "Rebound", "Redo", or "Revival"?  Does it mean "Obscure Systems of Roleplaying", or perhaps "Opinionated Self-serving Retrophiles"?  Ouch, that one hurt a bit.  Sorry.  Or maybe it means "Optional Systems for Ruling" or "Ominous Satanic Rituals".  D&D is, after all, Satanic you know.  What if, instead of limiting ourselves to a three-letter acronym, we employ the entire English alphabet?  Actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea.  Come along with me on a journey through the ABCs of the OSR.

A is for "Attribute-driven mechanics".  A lot of OSR games shun long lists of skills and feats in favor of using your basic attributes to get the job done.  It's a lot simpler to understand and keep track of such a system.
B is for "blog".  Grognardia, D&D with Porn Stars, Jeff's Gameblog, and Tenkar's Tavern all show that bloggers have played a key role in OSR history.  Perhaps, even, with its development.
C is for "cartography".  Most gamers in the OSR love to make maps.  Even if they don't draw aesthetically advanced rooms, dungeons, and caverns themselves, they, at the very least, highly appreciate them.
D is for "Do It Yourself".  There is a strong streak of house-ruling and homebrewing in the OSR.  Part of it is likely derived from habits created back in them olden days of yore when our choices of roleplaying game was OD&D or... OD&D.
E is for "edition wars".  Yes, I am a veteran of a few of these nasty altercations.  I have survived, mainly because I retreat to Switzerland just as fast as my little furry hobbit feet will carry me.  OK, even if I don't participate, myself, the OSR provides a powerful counterpoint to games such as D&D 4th edition and in so doing gives itself an identity.
F is for "Flexibility".  No, I don't mean roleplaying yoga.  Well, maybe I do.  I mean the willingness to mix and match genres and sources of literature in our roleplaying games.  I mean having the ability to adopt, reject, or modify rules.  I mean creating systems that encourage gamers of (slightly) different editions to play together *cough* FLAILSNAILS *cough*.
G is for "Gary Gygax".  Period.  Oh wait, I already typed a period.  Darn.  I just ruined the effect.
H is for "Henchmen".  The concept of multiple henchman has really faded over the last few decades, but its a strong part of the OSR.  Most old school editions included henchmen rules because, well, we kind of needed them for the same reason we needed a ten-foot pole.  Darn!  There goes the "T" I was going to use, time to think of another one before I progress much further beyond...
I is for "Improvisation".  I thought about getting all hoity toity and talking about abstract concepts such as "immersion", but decided that, at our core, members of the OSR prefer unscripted adventures.  The Dragonlance games are often vilified, for this very reason.  In fact, someone who did just that is coming up next...
J is for "James Maliszewski", the once prolific author of Grognardia.  If you search "OSR RPG", you won't have to read long before you see several citations.  However you feel about the man (more on that below), you can't discount the impact he's made on the OSR.  Speaking of which, that brings me to...
K is for "Kickstarter".  It's only been around a few years, but it's made a big impact, arguably both positive and negative, on the OSR.  All you have to do is look at the fiascos of Dwimmermount, Far West, Myth & Magic, or Quantum to find a black hole of negativism sucking in an ever-widening pool of potential investors.  Just kidding about it being all bad.  A lot of great OSR materials have come out of Kickstarter including high levels of art that would have likely been impossible without it.
L is for "Labyrinth Lord".  Sure, sure, a lot of you are gonna want me to cite Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it is a great game.  I own it and love it.  However, Labyrinth Lord is the first emulator I found, printed, ran, and started publishing under.  It holds a special place in my heart and on my shelf.
M is for "megadungeon".  They don't make sense.  They're impossible to "solve".  They're challenging loops of sometimes randomly stocked rooms full of dust and rats and coppers.  But we love them.  We still love them.
N is for "never say no".  It's a basic guideline for a lot of excellent OSR GMs.  It's a common philosophical thread with old-school roots.  It's also the motto of a prostitute I once met in Las Vegas, but that's another story for another alphabet, so let's move on to...
O is for "Open Game License".  The OGL created much of the RPG landscape we currently inhabit.  Pathfinder, Swords & Wizards, and Labyrinth Lord would have never come to be without it.  At least, not as openly distributed.  Arguably, 4th edition of D&D would have been very different had not the previous edition gone open source.  The OGL has allowed yours truly to publish a few games.  See those pretty pictures on the right-hand side of my blog?  If you click on them, it will take you to RPGNow where you can buy a copy or two.  Go ahead.  Buy one.  I'll wait for you before continuing on to...
P is for "player skill", which is more important that character skill.  It's a small sentence with a lot of implications.  Think about it.
Q is for "quick character creation".  Most OSR characters are drawn up in a the same time it takes me to eat one of those small bags of Doritos.  Roll attributes, pick class/race, roll hit points, saving throws, and money.  Spend money and recalculate AC.  Done!  This doesn't mean the game, itself, is simple.  Nor does it deny complexity of character.  That comes later, through play and player skill (see P above for a refresher).
R is for "retroclone".  Labyrinth Lord, for example, is a great game released under the OGL that, not only provides a rule system similar to our favorite one from the mid 80s, but also provides a publishing umbrella under which we may share adventures and other self-published supplements.  It's a critical part of the OSR.

S is for "sandbox".  I'm not talking about Tenkar's cat's litterbox, though some may say my games resemble such.  By "sandbox" I refer to the inverse of a scripted railroad style of gameplay.  Sandbox vs. Railroad is a classic OSR topic and kind of like the difference between free will and determinism in philosophy.  Sandbox style usually means more improvisation than preparation and more character-driven story than GM-imposed narrative.

T is for "TPK", which stands for "Total Party Kill".  Yeah.  It means just what it says.  All.  Characters.  Killed.  In the OSR, this is an acceptable possible outcome.  Older editions of our favorite fantasy game had a far steeper learning curve than typical games of the current generation.  It was more of a learning wall, actually.  A horrific wall of death against which you repeatedly hurled your henchmen and characters until you either figured out a way through, lucked into a critical hit, or simply gave up.  Maybe I could have illustrated a similar "T" concept with Tomb of Horrors.  Oh well, too late. Hang with me, I'm nearly done.

U is for "unbalanced."  First level elves are too powerful?  High-level wizards are impossible to destroy?  Oh well.  Deal with it.  We in the OSR prefer it.  Or, at the very least, are less concerned with gameplay balance or issues of mathematical fairness in probability.

V is for "Vancian spellcasting".  Gary Gygax may have drawn inspiration from the fantasy author Jack Vance when he and his Lake Geneva friends ruled that a spell, once cast, was gone until recharged/memorized again.  Regardless of later editions and other games altering this basic tenet, most OSR games hold firmly to this rule.

W is for "warrior", which is the reason we started playing in the first place.  It doesn't matter if your ideal race is Dwarf, Elf, or Orc.  I don't care if you disdain the barbarian class and think all Paladins are, as the Gencon t-shirt claims, douchebags (besides, the jury is still deliberating that one).  We all fight against obliteration, nihilism, and the nothingness that is to come after our last breath.  We all battle bad habits and corrupt bureaucracies.  We daily engage in a world in which we dream of unsheathing our sword or withdrawing our wands from the folds of our cloaks and severing the Gordian Knot of life's conundrums... whoa, what just happened?  What was I talking about and why am I suddenly wading through manure?  Oh, that's right, I wanted to talk to you about the letter...

X is for "XP".  As in "experience points".  As in one of the two, if not the, main reward systems built into the game.  Sure, we delve deep into dark dungeons, facing dangers and dastardly devils for the intrinsic fun of it, but we also do it for the loot and the XP.  This allows us to develop our characters and measure progress.  In some perspectives XP and coinage are one in the same.

Y is for "you".  The first person.  The most important person.  For many games and books, the fourth wall is as impenetrable as a Barrier spell cast by a 15th level wizard.  In the OSR, however, the fourth wall is paper thin and tears on a breeze.  I regularly choose it over Charmin in my house.  It's too bad that "Y" isn't the last letter of the alphabet because you are the most important part of the game.  You are the reader.  You are the warrior.  You are the sum of all creative forces focused into a single individual.  It doesn't get much headier than that, does it, Constant Reader?

Z is for "Zeb Cook".  He was the lead designer for 2nd edition; the first edition not written directly by Gygax.  Yes, yes, other authors had created official, canonical publications, but Zeb's work marks a continuation (some may even be so bold as to suggest "evolution") of the rule system with a new breed of designers, if not new generation altogether.  Zeb worked on Dragon magazine and wrote many influential early modules before picking up the lead design job.  Whether or not you include 2e in the OSR cannon, it is an undoubtedly important milestone in its history and wholly worthy of inclusion here.

Now you know your ABCs.  It's been a fun and sometimes bumpy ride.  I hope you find that the path was as much fun as the destination.  I'm sure you've got all kinds of ideas about alternate nouns for letters and missed opportunities.  If so, feel free to share them here.  Better yet, write your own ABCs and be sure to send me a link.  I'd love to read 'em.  But for now, I'm going to go upstairs and wake my daughter.  My wife isn't feeling well, so I thought I'd take my little girl on a daddy/daughter trip today and get out of the house for a while.  I'm thinking about going to my local Half Price Books store and checking out the roleplaying section.  You never know what you'll find there.  I'll probably buy my daughter some books and a stuffed animal.  Maybe even a DVD, but mostly books.  I like books.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Tim! A little tongue-and-cheek, but mostly true stuff.

  2. Enjoyed this.

    U is for "unbalanced." First level elves are too powerful? High-level wizards are impossible to destroy? Oh well. Deal with it. We in the OSR prefer it.

    Amen Brother Dylan

    1. LOL! Glad you're enjoying it.

  3. Well said, sir. I especially appreciated your inclusion of "Zeb" Cook. 2e was my introduction to roleplaying and for many years 2e and Roleplaying Games were synonyms in my life.

  4. I read the thread over on DF and I am amazed at the level of....bitterness(?) from a large group of the posters. The OSR is simply keeping the older games and/or older gaming style alive. I would think DF would be on board with that.

    1. Yeah, me too. I've posted on DF quite a few times, but this was the most negative. I had no idea the OSR had such a bad rep. That's too bad because I think the OSR has done a great job of raising awareness of OGL and older resources.

  5. Great post. Great list. Thank you for sharing these ideas!

  6. I missed this when you first posted it, caught it because you sagely linked to it from today's post.

    Well done, sir, well done.

  7. "You" is the second-person.

    1. I'm not using it as a personal pronoun, but in an ordinal sense.


Thanks for posting to the Digital Orc! Be sure to pick up a copy of one of my old-school modules available at!