log in or register to remove this ad

 

OSR A Historical Look at the OSR

Forking this tangent over from the Full and Glorious History NuTSR thread for possible further discussion, and to share the series of blog articles about the history and evolution of the OSR movement and the term OSR, from last year. There are five of them, the first coming out almost a year ago, and the fifth and final installment just last month. I think I first encountered them last week, and I trolled back in this forum a bit and didn't see a thread about them.


Also, has anyone ever decided what in particular makes a game "old school"? Is there a cut-off date (do late 80s count)? Is there anything ruleswise that's a necessary thing?

As I can state from experience, oh dear gods is that a can of worms.

Want a nice tussle in the wrong places? Ask whether Old School is limited to D&D, and then stand back.
Yup.

In brief:

Old School as a descriptor is applied to a lot of games, mostly relative to the perspective of the speaker. I've seen "anything prior to the release of 3rd edition D&D" used, but even 3rd ed is more than twenty years old, at this point! Some folks go back a bit further, and describe Old School games as anything published prior to 1990, which seems pretty reasonable and admits the initial release of 2nd ed AD&D (but not its later Skills & Powers and related expansions), but cuts things off like Vampire: The Masquerade and the rest of the Storyteller wave, and other 90s games which specifically pushed back against older tropes. But also admits classic games like Traveller, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulu, West End Games' Star Wars, FASA's Star Trek, and a whole lot of other older stuff. Some folks, however, will complicate it further by using the word "School" to admit in newer games which are modeled on or attempt to replicate the feel or play dynamics of these older games.

OSR (Old School Renaissance, Old School Revolution, or Old School Rules, in my observed descending order of popularity) is an even slipperier and more capacious category, often used to refer to the post-3E movement of play valuing and exploring the above older games, and retro-clones thereof. PLUS often used also brand new games again attempting to replicate or capture the older play dynamics, "look and feel" of old games, even if with new mechanics. PLUS used even more profligately as a marketing label for anything which apes the trade dress, art, or tropes of old school games (you see a lot of crappy 5E modules marketed as OSR because they have dungeons or whatever, even if they clearly weren't designed for OSR play).

IMO the below series of posts accurately describes the history of the OSR and the usage thereof. Long story short, the term originally referred only to pre-WotC D&D in reaction to 3rd (and later) edition(s), but the usage has blurred and broadened.

As a finer-grained distinction, there is also (going back to the early parts of the OSR movement, starting around 2005 or so) the debate over when the D&D Old School ended. Some folks include 2nd ed AD&D due to its large degree of compatibility with 1st ed, but I'm generally in the camp that considers the old school to have largely ended once the Hickman Revolution launched in TSR with products like original Ravenloft and especially Dragonlance. Dragonlance was more or less the beginning of the Adventure Path concept, and essentially the point at which old school exploration and treasure hunting-centered play really left the spotlight, and heroic adventure questing/fantasy novel emulation became the more central focus of D&D design and play. In this interpretation, the Old School of D&D was basically the first ten years, around '74 to '84.

 

log in or register to remove this ad



Alternatively, old school ended when the majority of players started focusing on playing one character per campaign and expecting that character to be the protagonist of an epic narrative. (Which appears to have happened at some point between 1975 and 1985.)
I tend to concur that this is more accurate, though of course it's a subjective judgement.

WotC's approach to D&D was and is very much compatible with (and an outgrowth and rationalization of) what TSR had been doing with the game for at least a decade.
 
Last edited:

Though the OSR is a little clearer, you can still run into issues where some people will at least defend it applying to retroclones of games of the same era (Cepheus Engine to pick a particularly stark example since unlike some of the others its not based on a one-time TSR product), but it gets particularly gritty when the people who expect "Old School" in general to only apply to D&D, with others using it, as you note, for things like RQ, Traveler, and Villains and Vigilantes.

(For particular fun, in a group about that, ask them if Champions (originally published in 1981) is Old School in the earlier versions (and make no doubt, there's a distinct sort of cultural break between people who never liked a version later than 4e (or sometime 3e) and people happy playing 5e or 6e); you can sometimes get resounding silence).
 

If we're going to draw a single line in the sand of Old School vs New School, I think the 3e release (or WotC purchase) has to be it. So many large changes happened at once, ranging from mechanics to design theory/philosophy. And not just in the game, but also huge external changes that had major in-game effects, including publication under the OGL and the company management (WotC vs TSR). There are just so many things you can identify as before/after that change. Plus you can put clear and exact dates on it, rather than fuzzy and gradual changes over time with overlapping rules editions/changes. I think that as the game continues to grow in popularity, especially with younger folks, this is going to be seen as the most identifiable epoch.

That being said, I do think an "age" or "era" approach is more descriptive. I know I've read at least one article breaking things into Golden Age as the initial explosion, Silver Age as Williams tenure at TSR, Bronze Age starting at the WotC era, Revival Age in the current growth spurt, etc. There are definite difference in these eras that you can't just call Old/New School. It's also the only way to make peace with the Old Old School folks who will be insulted if you try and lump their Gygax/Arneson products in with the stuff TSR was pushing out near the end of it's days.
 




bennet

Explorer
Alternatively, old school ended when the majority of players started focusing on playing one character per campaign and expecting that character to be the protagonist of an epic narrative. (Which appears to have happened at some point between 1975 and 1985.)
thats a bizarre definition, there was plenty of protagnists, epic adventure and "story" in temple of elemental evil or temple of doom.
 

GreyLord

Legend
I never heard of the 90s idea where Old School is anything pre-1990, but I could buy that idea.

The easiest and most obvious line is when WotC printed 3e though. That's what really gave the entire OSR movement it's impetus in the first place.
 

Jer

Hero
If we're going to draw a single line in the sand of Old School vs New School, I think the 3e release (or WotC purchase) has to be it.
I'm sorry, but the idea that 2nd edition can be considered "old school" still blows my mind. That the Planescape and Ravenloft games I played in during the 90s could be characterized as "old school" is just plain weird given how radically different they felt from the D&D I had been playing in the 80s.

As I said in the other thread, I actually think that the term "old school" is very subjective and has to do as much with when the individual first came into the RPG hobby as anything else. But I think if you're drawing a dividing line that isn't somewhere around when Dragon magazine started publishing and the hobby moved from "everyone trying to figure the game out on their own" and into "TSR employees trying to produce content on a monthly basis" I think it's got to be sometime prior to the publication of 2e personally.

Some milestones I'd consider separating old and new school beyond the Dragon magazine publication date would probably be the publication of Unearthed Arcana or Oriental Adventures (1985), the publication of the Dragonlance books and modules (1984), or possibly the publication of the Dungeoneer's/Wilderness Survival Guides (1985/1986) as where things pivot away from old school styles of play being assumed by the books being produced. UA and OA assumed something that wasn't dungeon crawling in their setting material and new subsystems, Dragonlance assumed a narrative form of play as the default rather than a one-off (which is why I don't peg it with Ravenloft or the Desert of Desolation series - which were less influential on everything that followed), and the Survival Guides introduced the idea of having some kind of "skill system" into the game which I personally find to be one of the big breaking points from old school D&D rules to newer rules styles. (EDIT - just remembered that OA introduced the proficiency system, so another mark in its favor I suppose).

But of course part of that is because I am old and lived through these changes in published content and expected play style, and watched how these publications influenced what was published after. Also I don't think that "old school" is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing - it's just a thing. I'd really like it to be a descriptor of a tangible point in history and not a marketing term because that makes it somewhat objective and useful to me. (But really, it's a marketing term - so I know I'm tilting at windmills with that).
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I tend to land on the "old school is pre-WotC" bandwagon, but I think decreeing 3.x "not Old School" also gets fuzzy when we bring stuff like Dungeon Crawl Classics into the mix. For those unaware, DCC is essentially 1974 style gaming with 3.x style mechanics.

I know people who do not consider DCC part of the OSR, but in my book the attitude and approach to characters and games is far more important than the mechanics in use.
 

The article series points out that the OSR had different motivations/agendas when starting out. One was simply to republish older rule sets under the ogl. But there was also a decentralized effort to try to codify what about those rule sets was interesting, eventually settling on a preferred playstyle. I don't think the adventures put out for 2e, say for Planescape, which were narrative-heavy railroads, would fit well within that playstyle, even if the ruleset was basically compatible with all the early modules. The author seems critical of the direction the latter impulse took, especially in looking at "new school revolution" rule sets like Into The Odd, Maze Rats, Mork Borg, etc.
 

Jack Daniel

OD&D Referee
thats a bizarre definition, there was plenty of protagnists, epic adventure and "story" in temple of elemental evil or temple of doom.

Well, yeah, Temple of Elemental Evil (1985!) is definitely either very late old-school and proto-trad, or it's fully post-old-school and therefore early trad. (I'm inclined to think the latter, because of the assumption that the PCs are heroes out to defeat Evil rather than just tomb-robbers who want to loot the Temple by happenstance.)

But… what do you mean by "temple of doom"?
 
Last edited:

kenada

Legend
Supporter
“Old school” is bit of an overloaded term. I don’t think it makes sense to use it as a broad category of games. That doesn’t mean other games can’t be “old school”, but you have to evaluate them in their own contexts and relative to their modern incarnations. Just being published at the same time as “old school D&D” doesn’t strike me as enough to qualify. I think this is particularly true considering the evolution D&D itself went through and the way people played changed even when the system stayed the same.

I like the way the article broke things down, though it feels like everything is still defined in terms of ‘OSR = D&D’, but with less of a negative connotation. I don’t think I could get my group to try a classic OSR game again, but going OSR-adjacent (with my OSE/WWN hybrid) has resulted in some of the best sessions we’ve had.
 

Liane the Wayfarer

Frumious Flumph
See, the thing that always throws me, is people mention games as being "Old School" this and "Old School" that, but the mechanics of D&D 3.0 were basically a streamlined version of the Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) mechanics, which were a streamlined version of RoleMaster, which arguably had its heyday from 1980-1994, before the RoleMaster Standard System retooled a large part of the system. Mutants & Masterminds is not usually considered Old School, but combines elements of 3.0 (which, see above), and Champions, which is definitely an Old School game as the system that came out in 1981 didn't undergo meaningful change until the 4th edition came out in 1994. Yes, for players steeped in AD&D 1E and 2E it seemed radical and (perhaps) alien, but for people who played other systems in the interim it was just the good material, repackaged and glammed up.

I understand it more if we talk about adventures, as the older scenarios definitely have different design goals from the stuff that came out once Dragonlance hit it big.
 

I think using the term for the very earliest "raid dungeons and get rich" style is at least coherent, but maaaan does that set the time frame far back and selective, since that was already eroding even within the D&D sphere before even AD&D2e came out. I'm not entirely sure how reliably it even fit some of the BD&D and related offshoots.
 

bennet

Explorer
Well, yeah, Temple of Elemental Evil (1985!) is definitely either very late old-school and proto-trad, or it's fully post-old-school and therefore early trad. (I'm inclined to think the latter, because of the assumption that the PCs are heroes out to defeat Evil rather than just tomb-robbers who want to loot the Temple by happenstance.)

But… what do you mean by "temple of doom"?
I mean to say tomb of horrors
 

bennet

Explorer
Maybe you need to start deciding on the traits of a OSR game before deciding on when it ended. Simpler combat, high chance of death?
2e core books were fundamentally the same as 1e core books and I used 1e modules with the 2e ruleset.

Probably a better exercise for the bigger youtubers who are leading the OSR movement and have thought about it more.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top