OSR A Historical Look at the OSR


Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.

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.


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Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.
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Thomas Shey

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.


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.

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