OSR Are There Any OSR (or OSR-adjacent) Games With Modern Sensibilities?

Ondath

Hero
So, as someone who's expressed his distaste for D&D's new direction multiple times in the forums, I'm starting to think of formally expanding my horizons. Dropping D&D 5E/One D&D as my main game and using someone else as my default. One option I've been considering was OSR games (OSE in particular), since it seems like I like quite a decent part of its design philosophy. I ran an OSE oneshot and read a few different rulebooks and blog posts to see if I could grok the philosophy, but some things still feel off.

To be fair, I started playing long after old school games had died down, around 3.5/Pathfinder era. I also skipped all of 4E and the rise of OSR as a movement, and I was pretty smitten with 5E when it first came out. So I'm a bit of an outsider to OSR-verse, but given the variety of games available, I'm hoping there might be a specific ruleset for the style of play I have in mind, which is slightly more modern than what most retroclones offer. I was hoping people interested in OSR could point me in the right direction, or at least offer some ways I could hack existing rulesets to better suit my needs.

Now, here's what I like about the OSR philosophy:
  • Simulationism First: What I've always liked about D&D was the possibility to create a fantastic world with its own logic that made sense. Most OSR games (owing to an assumption of Gygaxian naturalism) seem to put verisimilitude first: If it wouldn't make sense for a wizard to cast spells in armour, they don't. If a poison would kill you instantly, you only get one save against it. The rules also work well with a style of DMing where the random tables lay out the internal logic of the world you're in, and the DM produces the results neutrally by rolling on random tables or applying the invisible rulebooks in his head (if you're going through Orcish territory, you are likely to run into a warband with 10d12 orcs, even if this isn't balanced!).
  • Emergent Storytelling: This is tied to the simulationist approach, but I think D&D's real value comes from the moments that can only come out of an emergent story that naturally came together from various game mechanics. Other media (be they video games or movies or simple stories) can do preset narratives quite well (maybe even better than TTRPGs), but D&D's collaborative storytelling is unique in that none of the participants really know what the end result will be, but they know the end result will make sense because it will have followed the game's (and as a result, the game world's) rules. You can get unique stories like "Do you remember the time when we planted one of the beans from the Bag of Beans to Silvanesti and used the pyramid that sprouted out of it to lure Cyan Bloodbane?". I think OSR's style is uniquely fitting for such emergent storytelling. This also means "letting the dice fall where they may", and allowing players to suffer the consequences of their actions (but also reap the rewards of making the world a better place).
  • Rules-Light/Actual Natural Language Rules: One of the reasons I never bothered with 4E was how it offered a game where the fiction didn't matter and only the strict rules interactions (which were presented in video-game like terminology) yielded results. I liked 5E's claim of having a natural language to explain the rules, but then realised the rules were being interpreted more and more in a strict fashion. It wasn't until I saw OSE's rules that I saw what real natural language rules look like, and I really want to run a similar system where things are explained clearly without needless abstraction.
  • Making Resource Management/Exploration Actually Meaningful (at least some of the time): I always tried to homebrew rules to make encumberance or supplies or light sources matter in 5E, until I realised that the game has those mechanics only as vestigial remains from old editions, and that dungeon crawling and inventory management really shine in OSR games. I'd like logistics to be a meaningful challenge for some extent of the game at least (counting how many torches you'll need might get boring when you're high level, but in early levels I definitely want the OSR-style dungeon crawling experience).
  • Focus on Player Intentions Over Character Skill: I know this isn't how OSR usually phrases it (I believe the normal saying goes "Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability"), but there's a reason I phrase it this way: I like that OSR tries to get players to look beyond their character sheets and think more like someone actually living in the world. I like that it rewards players when they explain their intentions clearly and when those intentions lead to smart play. That said, I'm not necessarily a fan of putting player skill over character skill, while still valuing players' intentions over anything their character sheet says. Does that make sense?

As the last point makes it clear, I'm not entirely sold on OSR's approach to everything. Notably, I'd like to keep the following features from more "modern" games, if possible:
  • Assuming the PCs are competent: While we should encourage players to think like they actually live in the world, they don't. I don't want to require the players to describe everything they're doing with meticulous details to avoid a "gotcha" moment where the DM punishes them for something their character would've known better (I'm not saying this is how OSR works, but there does seem to be a group of people who like to play in a more adversarial fashion).
  • A Unified Game Mechanic: I just like how everything is "1d20 + ability + proficiency, compare with the DC" in 5E. I find the stiched-together nature of subsystems upon subsystems of OSR games to be rather unhelpful. It certainly turns off my gaming groups.
  • More High-Level Adventures: From what I understand, most OSR games stick to the sweet spot of levels 1-10, where the players are either nobodies trying to survive a deadly world or competent mortals who still can't fight epic-level threats. With that said, I actually do like modern games' epic scope where you can travel to other planes or be an equal match to apocalyptic threats. Most OSR games seem to consider that you get a stronghold and retire after your name level. I'd like the option to face bigger threats as epic heroes instead.
  • As Little Biological Determinism As Possible: While I understand that racial ability scores and racial level limits (even race-as-class) are a core part of the playstyle OSR is recreating, I'd honestly prefer something like Level Up's heritages and culture where races are more about the supernatural traits you get but don't limit what your character can do. OSE Advanced Fantasy's optional rules for removing level limits (and giving humans extra traits to balance it out) were a step towards what I had in mind, for instance.
  • More Balanced Character Options (within the limits of the game world's logic): While I like simulationism, I'd like player options to be balanced between each other within the limits of the world's internal logic. I know that OSR style games balance different character options through different means (different level progressions for Magic-Users and Fighters etc.), but if possible I'd instead prefer the game to make the two options equally useful in an all-things-considered way, where one option roughly contributes equally to others when you considers all pillars of the game, and better options are not balanced by making them harder to get. I'm okay with some power variation between different PCs, but if one character gets to bend the rules of reality at level 9 and the other gets a couple of guys calling him "m'lord", that doesn't seem fair.
  • Not Supporting Politically Icky Groups: Again, I don't think this is a problem endemic to OSR, but there seem to be some groups using old-school gaming as a shield for their vile views, and I'd rather not support them as much as possible. I'm writing this mostly because I've had issues with this before: I used to use Adventurer Conqueror King's domain generation system a lot when designing my homebrew world, but upon learning the creator associating with particularly gruesome people, I really didn't want to touch those rules again.
I know my request is a bit odd, and I don't mean to yuck anyone's yum. I know a lot of people enjoy OSR games as they are, and I understand that for a lot of people the OSR philosophy makes sense when you use all of its tenets (including the ones I want to switch with more modern tenets). I've tried running a few OSE games and that's why I'm looking for a system with the more modern inclusions I've mentioned. If it doesn't exist, that's fine! I'll try to take on the OSR tenet of tinkering to create what works for you and make a game like that myself, but I'm just trying to see if something closer to my tastes already exists.

I really appreciate any pointers you might send my way!
 

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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Give this one a shot. While it sticks to the level 1-10 "sweet spot," that's because the highest level in the game is 10. And while the rules for starting at 0 level may seem to run astray of your "competent characters" stipulation, it's very easy to start characters at 1st level instead, which basically just gives them an extra 1d4 hp and maybe an unusual starting item.

You can also follow the rules from the Lankhmar material, which skips level 0 anyway.

And you will not find a company (or community) made up of more supportive, open, and enthusiastic gamers.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG|Goodman Games

Free quickstart rules are available here (this is a shortcut to the link you can find in the right hand column of the main landing page page I linked to above.:

https://goodman-games.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/DCC_QSR_Free.pdf

I encourage you to pay specific attention to the "How Is This Game Different From What I Have Played Before?" section on page 5 of the Quickstart PDF.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
You might consider a toolkit system of some kind, and run it in a “Gygaxian” style. I once ran a Fantasy HERO constructed to simulate 1Ed-3Ed style PCs. (It worked well, but too many of the players didn’t like HERO, so it fizzled quickly.)
 
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CapnZapp

Legend
One I think I couldn't immediately see in your list is how the game and its players are supposed to deal with character death.

One strong draw, to me, of OSR games in general and DCC in particular (since it's the only OSR game I've played/GMd extensively) is how it eschews the implied "social contract" between player and judge/DM that "your character is basically safe".

Put in other words, a huge net negative for me in late-era games such as 5E is how many safety nets there are to minimize the risk of something bad happening permanently to your character, and you the player having to deal with this.

One aspect of this you might not think of is system mastery. If the game is set up in such a way that a determined and reasonably competent player can plan out his character's "career" all the way from level 1 to level 10, 15 or wherever he or she thinks the campaign will end, then it's possible to say that the game encourages such behavior, since you unquestionably do get "better" results (minmax-wise) if you plan ahead and avoid making off-the-cuff decisions that easily are suboptimal.

After a player has done this homework, he can - and this part is entirely reasonable - expect to not let it all go to waste because he rolls one bad roll and his character is killed or permanently cursed or something.

More generally this is the rollplay vs roleplay discussion. The more mechanical bits the game offers for you to engage with, the easier it is for some players to "forget" about actually role-playing a fictional personality as a living breathing person, and just consider what "moves" yield the best outcome, basically treating your character as a collection of numbers and buttons to press to trigger abilities.

DCC is not that type of game.

It definitely is not a game where (most) monsters are markedly inferior compared to heroes, unable to do what the PHB gives player characters, and often entirely unequipped to deal with these abilities. It is not 5th Edition.

Neither is it a game where the publisher spends an enormous amount of effort on providing as many choice points as possible, giving you several character design opinion at each level, even if the vast majority of your decisions end up not significantly changing your character's abilities. It is not Pathfinder 2E.

Instead it is a game which celebrates heroes by putting them in real danger, so any accolades feel truly earned, rather than basically given to you unless you truly frak up. Behind every successful hero is at least one more now dead or diseased hero that paid the ultimate price.

At basically any time you can meet an evil necromancer or trigger some ancient trap, making your eyes melt or give you a tentacle instead of a leg.

The mindset of player entitlement, which basically says "since I've shown up, I can reasonably expect my hero to grow up to level 20 without needless interference, and I get to make any long-term decisions about his or her future", is replaced by a mindset where the players all cooperate with the Judge to write a novel or screenplay, and then play it out on stage or on screen, where one hero's downfall might be tragic for him or her, but overall a net positive for the story that is told. :)

Basically, when your character loses 6 Strength points, or your skin turns green, or you unceremoniously die in a gutter despite being level 7, you're supposed to take comfort in how you help write a memorable and affecting story, rather than throwing a tantrum because the DM and the game dared to "ruin" your carefully constructed plans for your hero! It's supposed to be good that these things happen, because it shows true courage from the heroes that despite real risks go forth and do heroics!
 

CapnZapp

Legend
As the last point makes it clear, I'm not entirely sold on OSR's approach to everything. Notably, I'd like to keep the following features from more "modern" games, if possible:
As I understand it, unfortunately for you, just about all these points are not the OSR way.

Since OSR is so unbelievably huge, however, I'm sure there are individual examples that are outliers... but AFAIK, OSR actively celebrate inequality in pretty much all its forms. For the purposes of not derailing this discussion, please assume I mean how the lack of balance is meant as a feature, not a bug.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Since OSR is so unbelievably huge, however, I'm sure there are individual examples that are outliers... but AFAIK, OSR actively celebrate inequality in pretty much all its forms. For the purposes of not derailing this discussion, please assume I mean how the lack of balance is meant as a feature, not a bug.
OSR play favors not balancing challenges against the PCs’ capabilities, but I don’t think it eschews balance entirely as a matter of principle. Moldvay Basic (which is a common base for OSR games) is a pretty tightly designed game and stands up well to modern games if you ignore some changes in preferences (such as for unified resolution). Of course, there are differences of opinion on how to effect balance. Casters in particular are balanced in OSR games by systemic limitations rather than by effecting mathematical equivalence.

With that said, I think the OP has a valid complaint. The systemic limitations don’t work when you want to do something other than what the system expects. If you are embracing domain play, that title gives fighters considerable resources they can bring to bear. It also gives you political connections and influence the magic-user is not likely to have. However, if you just want to do high level adventures (like going plane hopping or whatever), the domain stuff feels like background fluff compared to the magic-user who still gets to do cool stuff regardless.

Most of my OSR experience is with systems like Old-School Essentials and Worlds Without Number. I was going to suggest possibly modifying OSE to add some of the things the OP wants. For example, replacing the skill mechanic is easy. I started with B/X as a base for my homebrew system* and have modified it significantly, but I can still use stuff like monsters and adventures with it. However, if you are sticking with OSE classes, then you’re going to eventually hit the point where what you want diverges from what the system does.

Actually, while it is not my favorite system, @Ondath have you looked at Worlds Without Number? It leans more modern than OSE does. It has a skill system and saving throw categories that mesh better with modern sensibilities. Warriors are also very capable killing machines while casters are greatly restrained in the spells they can cast, but WWN spells are much more powerful individually than D&D one are, so it’s not like casters are terrible. WWN also has some really good referee-side tools for generating setting and adventure material.



* I almost suggested it to be cheeky, but aside from not being at all ready for public consumption, it wouldn’t meet the requirements. It’s not simulation-first. It’s more like OSR with a narrativist orientation.
 

Ondath

Hero
One I think I couldn't immediately see in your list is how the game and its players are supposed to deal with character death.

One strong draw, to me, of OSR games in general and DCC in particular (since it's the only OSR game I've played/GMd extensively) is how it eschews the implied "social contract" between player and judge/DM that "your character is basically safe".

Put in other words, a huge net negative for me in late-era games such as 5E is how many safety nets there are to minimize the risk of something bad happening permanently to your character, and you the player having to deal with this.
This is a fairly good point I hadn't considered. When I run 5E, I try to make it more deadly (resurrection requiring a skill challenge, for instance). I think in earlier levels OSR's usual deadliness can be fun, though my players are more of the neo-trad/OC crowd who might need some easing into that deadlier playstyle.
One aspect of this you might not think of is system mastery. If the game is set up in such a way that a determined and reasonably competent player can plan out his character's "career" all the way from level 1 to level 10, 15 or wherever he or she thinks the campaign will end, then it's possible to say that the game encourages such behavior, since you unquestionably do get "better" results (minmax-wise) if you plan ahead and avoid making off-the-cuff decisions that easily are suboptimal.

After a player has done this homework, he can - and this part is entirely reasonable - expect to not let it all go to waste because he rolls one bad roll and his character is killed or permanently cursed or something.

More generally this is the rollplay vs roleplay discussion. The more mechanical bits the game offers for you to engage with, the easier it is for some players to "forget" about actually role-playing a fictional personality as a living breathing person, and just consider what "moves" yield the best outcome, basically treating your character as a collection of numbers and buttons to press to trigger abilities.

DCC is not that type of game.
That's something I like about OSR-style games! I quite dislike character optimisation and players thinking through their character sheet instead of the fiction of the game.
It definitely is not a game where (most) monsters are markedly inferior compared to heroes, unable to do what the PHB gives player characters, and often entirely unequipped to deal with these abilities. It is not 5th Edition.

Neither is it a game where the publisher spends an enormous amount of effort on providing as many choice points as possible, giving you several character design opinion at each level, even if the vast majority of your decisions end up not significantly changing your character's abilities. It is not Pathfinder 2E.

Instead it is a game which celebrates heroes by putting them in real danger, so any accolades feel truly earned, rather than basically given to you unless you truly frak up. Behind every successful hero is at least one more now dead or diseased hero that paid the ultimate price.

At basically any time you can meet an evil necromancer or trigger some ancient trap, making your eyes melt or give you a tentacle instead of a leg.

The mindset of player entitlement, which basically says "since I've shown up, I can reasonably expect my hero to grow up to level 20 without needless interference, and I get to make any long-term decisions about his or her future", is replaced by a mindset where the players all cooperate with the Judge to write a novel or screenplay, and then play it out on stage or on screen, where one hero's downfall might be tragic for him or her, but overall a net positive for the story that is told. :)

Basically, when your character loses 6 Strength points, or your skin turns green, or you unceremoniously die in a gutter despite being level 7, you're supposed to take comfort in how you help write a memorable and affecting story, rather than throwing a tantrum because the DM and the game dared to "ruin" your carefully constructed plans for your hero! It's supposed to be good that these things happen, because it shows true courage from the heroes that despite real risks go forth and do heroics!
This is maybe something I need to settle in regards to my own tastes, because my knee-jerk reaction is "Well, perhaps there should be some ways to come from narratively meaningless deaths..." I know that's very much against the OSR philosophy (after all, there is no narrative!), so I know the games I get will run counter to this. Maybe I can hack a system where most save-or-die moments instead give meaningful debilitations without outright requiring a rerolled character, but this is something I'll have to work on myself.
As I understand it, unfortunately for you, just about all these points are not the OSR way.

Since OSR is so unbelievably huge, however, I'm sure there are individual examples that are outliers... but AFAIK, OSR actively celebrate inequality in pretty much all its forms. For the purposes of not derailing this discussion, please assume I mean how the lack of balance is meant as a feature, not a bug.
While I get that (and would be okay with at least going through unequeal rules before making any final judgements first), my usual players care way too much about fair play and players having some balance between each other. I could convince them that they don't need to consider their PCs as the main characters (and embrace any consequences that might come up), I could convince them that they don't need all character abilities fleshed out in game mechanics, but I don't think I could convince tham that one PC will objectively be better off than the others in an all-things-considered way. So I'd rather prefer a system where the rules balance different options somewhat.

I've looked at the DCC quickstart rules as @Ath-kethin has suggested, and I think there is a lot that I like. The classes do seem to be balanced around each other and I really like how they implemented martial manoeuvres and wizard spells in a similar "effect die varies interesting results". If I can hack a way to make races separate from classes, this could be the way to go.

One question I have on mechanical balance (I know that's not really a thing, but as much as it exists) across OSR games: Would it be reasonable to port some character options from one OSR game to another, since they're mostly based on a similar ruleset? I'm thinking maybe I can use the OSE Advanced class and race options within a DCC framework to add some options DCC doesn't have (Druids, races like Orcs etc.).

I'll also check Worlds Without Number. Thank you for the suggestions!
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I really enjoyed Forbidden Lands by Free League. It has a decent resource management system, a unified mechanic, and focus on Player Intentions Over Character Skill. What it does not have, as far as I know, a lot of high level adventures. It has a very different sense of leveling than D&D. I really enjoyed my romp in this system and recommend it, even if its not a perfect fit.

I do not, however, like the setting very much. On one hand there is a mountain of ill will and built in conflict between the races/ancestries, on the other hand its at times pretty awful stuff most games are moving away from. Though, its pretty easy to ignore it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The mindset of player entitlement, which basically says "since I've shown up, I can reasonably expect my hero to grow up to level 20 without needless interference, and I get to make any long-term decisions about his or her future", is replaced by a mindset where the players all cooperate with the Judge to write a novel or screenplay, and then play it out on stage or on screen, where one hero's downfall might be tragic for him or her, but overall a net positive for the story that is told. :)

Basically, when your character loses 6 Strength points, or your skin turns green, or you unceremoniously die in a gutter despite being level 7, you're supposed to take comfort in how you help write a memorable and affecting story, rather than throwing a tantrum because the DM and the game dared to "ruin" your carefully constructed plans for your hero! It's supposed to be good that these things happen, because it shows true courage from the heroes that despite real risks go forth and do heroics!
The short form of this, and applicable to the old-school style in general I think, is that the primary story being told (in whatever manner) is that of the party as a whole rather than that of any individual character(s).

A quick example as to how this can be put across in play: after some heroic deed the party might get rewarded and feted by the monarch but they'd be collectively introduced to the court as "The Company of Blackfeather Creek" rather than individually as Jocantha Ironborn, Allerithe Evensong, etc.

==============

To @Ondath - something you might test the waters on with your players is whether they're amenable to playing more than one PC at a time. If yes, then not only does the DCC funnel become a more viable option but even if you don't end up in DCC you can still allow them to run two at once, thus mitigating the at-table impact on the player should one of those PCs die.

Note too that, with the exception of high-level spellcasters, PCs in most old-school games are nowhere near as complex to generate or run as are PCs in modern games. Your players might not initially realize this.

Oh, and no matter which system you end up using, be prepared to houserule and kitbash the hell out of it to make it into what you want to run. :)
 

GreyLord

Legend
My go to is always Castles and Crusades.

I swear, the skill system from 4e and 5e is almost a directly rip off of the Castles and Crusades system. (you choose primary ability scores, in those you basically get a +6 to your checks vs. others of the same level. You can get an additional +1 for level differences...etc).

Many don't consider it OSR, I do.

It was also the last system that was worked in conjuction with Gary Gygax (designed by others, but Gygax worked in that system with his own creations to a degree, so it was designed with that in mind).
 

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