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OSR Differential Characteristics of OSR/TSR D&D versus WotC/Paizo D&D

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
So... for a little bit of background, my favorite version of D&D-- OF ALL TIME-- is AD&D Second Edition Player's Option, including Skills & Powers, Spells & Magic, Combat & Tactics, and High Level Campaigns. This is the last version of D&D published by TSR, and the last version of D&D that could-- arguably-- be said to belong to the OSR; it contains a lot of the changes that would later become the foundations of Third Edition.

I've seen a lot of petty arguments about where the line between Old School and Modern should be drawn-- before 3.0? before Player's Option? before Second Edition? Between O- and AD&D, even? (I haven't heard that one before, but I know some people prefer OD&D.)

In the interests of refining this discussion-- since it'll never be fully resolved-- and my nakedly commercial interests in appealing to the OSR community, I decided to try starting a discussion of which features of these games make them Old School or New School, and which features of New School games would be considered acceptable parts of an OSR game. I am not really interested in discussing aesthetics or playstyles here, because most of these games are mostly interchangeable with small adjustments-- and because the aesthetics and playstyles of old school D&D varied wildly.

So, without further ado...



These are the (non-comprehensive) traits that I generally see as differentiating OSR/TSR D&D from modern D&D:
  • Individual mechanics for unrelated tasks. (Initiative, surprise, NWP vs Thief skills)
  • Emphasis on randomized character generation.
  • Five Saving Throw categories (Rod/Staff/Wand, Petrification/Polymorph, Spell, Poison/Death, Breath Weapon)
  • Saving Throw DCs decrease as PC gains levels, and rarely vary based on the attack. Saving Throw progression varies by class group.
  • Descending AC and THAC0. (My impression is that most OSR games have abandoned this.)
  • Race and Class combinations are limited. (Includes Old/Classic race-as-class.) Nonhuman races have level limits.
  • Characters (mostly) retain the same class/classes for their entire careers. (Exceptions: dual-classing, 1e Bard, Classic humanoid spellcasters.)
  • XP Progression varies by class.
  • Multiclass characters advance by automatically/deliberately investing XP into different classes. (Includes OA Ninja and Classic humanoid spellcasters.)
  • Lower Hit Point totals: smaller CON bonuses, smaller Hit Dice, HD progression (mostly) stops at 9th.
  • Emphasis on domain-level play after 9th, divine ascension after 30th in Classic.
  • Extremely limited non-magical healing.
  • Combat attacks other than basic melee attacks use up ammunition or spell slots.
  • Ability scores are (mostly) fixed at 1st level.
EDIT: Courtesy of @Lanefan
  • Casting spells in combat took time, during which they could be interrupted. Taking damage during casting always ruined the spell.
  • Preparing spells took much more time, and a high-level spellcaster who had cast everything might take days recovering.
  • Magic items were vulnerable to area attacks and could easily be destroyed.
And these are the corresponding traits in modern D&D:
  • Unified resolution mechanics. (d20 + bonuses versus DC)
  • Emphasis on deterministic character generation.
  • Saving Throws:
    • 3.X: Three Saving Throw categories (Fort/Ref/Will). Tied to specific ability scores, and scales by class/level. (Good/Poor progression.)
    • 4e: Three passive Defenses (again Fort/Ref/Will) with variable ability score associations. Flat scaling with flat class bonuses.
    • 5e: Six Saving Throws based on Ability Scores, tied to Proficiency Bonus. Non-proficient Saves do not improve.
    • Saving Throw bonuses and Saving Throw DCs both (generally) increase with level.
  • Ascending Base Attack/Proficiency Bonus versus ascending Armor Class and Defenses.
  • Any Race is allowed to advance in (mostly) any Class. (Exceptions: racial PrCs and archetypes in Pathfinder.)
  • Multiclassing:
    • 3.X/5e: You pick a class at each level. In 5e, this is an optional rule and is limited by your ability scores.
    • 4e: Standard multiclassing allows you to spend 1 feat to swap out 1 class power, multiple times. Hybrid multiclassing allows you to gain some of the class features of two classes and split your power selections between them.
  • Higher Hit Point totals: Larger CON bonuses, larger Hit Dice, HD progression continues to max level. Monsters have much higher HP totals.
  • No intentional shift in endgame.
  • Much more non-magical healing:
    • 4e: Healing surges and Second Wind.
    • 5e: Hit Dice.
  • More options for at-will ranged attacks, depending on class.
  • Ability scores increase as PCs gain in level.
EDIT:
  • Spellcasting is instantaneous, but provokes an Attack of Opportunity. Spellcasters can make a Concentration check to negate the AoO, or to complete the spell even if they are damaged.
  • Preparing or readying spells takes an hour or less regardless of the quantity or level of spells.
And then there are the following unique mechanics that are present in modern D&D that may be of interest:
  • 3.X/4e: Prestige Classes and/or Paragon Paths/Epic Destinies.
  • 4e: Class-specific At-Will and Encounter attacks. (I know this one's controversial, but the execution isn't the concept.)
  • 4e/5e: Ritual Magic-- replacing spell slots with time and money for certain spells.
  • 3.X/5e: Archetypes/Subclasses. Similar to AD&D 2e Kits, but usually much more substantial.
  • 5e: Advantage/Disadvantage.



So... that's about as much as I could think of that differentiates OSR/TSR D&D from WotC/Paizo D&D. What other points am I missing?

And then... which features of Modern D&D would you consider acceptable in a game that otherwise looks and acts like an OSR game?

My own opinions to follow.
 
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I really think people are misremembering if they think domain-level play was a thing in 2nd edition. 1st edition, maybe (but even then I question how many outside of Lake Geneva bothered with it). But 2nd edition? Fuggetaboutit. I'm sure it was referred to in the rulebooks (I haven't read mine for ages so I don't recall) but it never came up in games as far as I remembered.
 


DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
There are parts of modern D&D that I actually like better than OSR D&D.

Unified mechanics, for instance-- you always roll a d20, you always want to roll high, all of the numbers go up. I like that every class uses the same XP chart.

I am generally indifferent to five versus three versus six Saving Throws. I like the way modern D&D associates Saving Throws and Saving Throw DCs with Ability Scores, but I don't like the way that in 3.X and especially 5e, the DCs scale faster than the bonuses. Good concept ruined by the execution.

I've never thought level limits were a good mechanic. Since they didn't come up in the vast majority of campaigns, they didn't serve to balance demihumans' special abilities (and multiclassing) against humans and even though they never impaired my characters' progress, I always resented the idea that someday they might.

On the other hand... having played modern D&D for the past twenty years, I am increasingly convinced that racial class restrictions-- or even race-as-class-- are necessary to differentiate nonhuman PCs from humans and from each other.

3.X/5e style multiclassing has been one of my bugbears... not quite since the day the 3e PHB was published, but certainly since before the 3.5 revision. I'm not going into all of it again, but I don't like anything about it. I'm not sure that AD&D has the best solution, but anything's better than picking a class every time you gain a level.

The main things I like about modern D&D, the things I am most keen to see incorporated into more palatable products, are the stuff further down the list-- the scaling ability scores with the ASIs to match, the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, more generous healing rules, and magic that functions outside of the spell-slots.
 

Sort of leads on to a different point however. 1st and 2nd edition were very closely aligned rulewise- fairly easy to use books from either edition together.

However, I don't really think they had similar playstyles. Look at Critical Role. Matt Mercer started playing in 2nd edition, and I think a lot of his playstyle is typical of those of us (myself included) who began playing in late 80s early 90s. I really think that even though the rules were similar the 70/early 80s group played the game very differently to the late 80s/90s group.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
I started in the early 90s, and I've read about a number of games from the early 80s that played in the same vein as the games I was in... it just doesn't seem to be well-represented in the OSR, which seems to lean toward high-lethality hex- and dungeoncralwls and firmly grounded low-level play.

In my last AD&D game with my original group, before I moved cross-country and switched to AD&D2, we were raiding a githyanki staging area on the Moon.
 

I started in the early 90s, and I've read about a number of games from the early 80s that played in the same vein as the games I was in... it just doesn't seem to be well-represented in the OSR, which seems to lean toward high-lethality hex- and dungeoncralwls and firmly grounded low-level play.

In my last AD&D game with my original group, before I moved cross-country and switched to AD&D2, we were raiding a githyanki staging area on the Moon.

Well I think OSR is very heavily dominated by those who began in the 70s, and the sort of playstyle reflects that.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
2E adventures we're kinda narrative based, mostly not very good, and it was a tool box edition.

Not a fan of level limits, don't mind racial and alignment restrictions. Prefer OSR MCing, and some other hits and pieces. 1d6 and 2d6 makes a nice change from d20.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
I'm designing my own D&D clone, based on my playstyle preferences influenced by those early games... I'm calling it Shroompunk, and I'm just really uncertain whether or not I should try to market it as being part of the OSR. I mean, I don't want anyone to buy it thinking it's something it isn't.

A lot of the design is still up in the air, but I am starting with a d20 base (and a lot of PF content) and trying to simplify things, streamline things, and beat the (IMO) unwanted threeisms out of it. I'm generally trying to use the PF content and structure to recreate the kinds of things I would have done with Player's Option in the late Nineties.

But I'm also including a lot of newer things, like the 5e implementation of AEDU powers... a hybrid of 4e/5e healing mechanics... some kind of accelerated ASI system (think Mongoose Conan)... and things like that. Things that would have fit in perfectly with the kind of D&D I learned to play in the early Nineties, but I'm not seeing reflected in the current OSR.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Well I think OSR is very heavily dominated by those who began in the 70s, and the sort of playstyle reflects that.
Yeah, I don't think that I would include 2E as part of the OSR. From what I can tell, the hypermajority of the OSR draws inspiration more from Moldvay-Mentzer B/X than from AD&D, whether that's 1E or 2E.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There's a few differences you missed:

0-1-2e spells took time to cast during which they could be interrupted by any attack. 3-4-5e spellcasting takes no time, thus can only be interrupted by someone specifically spending their round to do so.

0-1-2e spellcasting could be interrupted by any disturbance to the caster. 3-4-5e have combat casting as a commonly-available ability making spells much harder to interrupt.

0-1-2e magic items were much more fragile, each requiring its own save whenever the carrier/wearer failed to save vs AoE damage. 3-4-5e have largely dropped this.

In all of the above I much prefer the 0-1-2e approach, as they serve to rein in casters and item proliferation somewhat.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Sure, you can point to differences between TSR-era D&D and WotC-era D&D, but I don't think that OSR is fundamentally about a return to TSR-era D&D, particularly as an explicit part of the "problem" for a number of fans in the OSR community were adventures like Dragonlance.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
Yeah, I don't think that I would include 2E as part of the OSR. From what I can tell, the hypermajority of the OSR draws inspiration more from Moldvay-Mentzer B/X than from AD&D, whether that's 1E or 2E.

I've seen a lot of AD&D-based clones, and a lot of adventures for them. The newer stuff does seem to be more B/X or Rules Cyclopedia focused.

I'm not going to argue your point any further than to say that it is arguable. Wherever AD&D itself stands in the OSR, there are very few new games based on the 2e mechanics... and none whatsoever based on Player's Option. It's a big part of why I'm here.

Sure, you can point to differences between TSR-era D&D and WotC-era D&D, but I don't think that OSR is fundamentally about a return to TSR-era D&D, particularly as an explicit part of the "problem" for a number of fans in the OSR community were adventures like Dragonlance.

That's a good point, and something I hadn't considered. Most of Dragonlance was already in print by the time I was introduced to the game, and I know Planescape can be a very divisive topic in some circles.

"What is OSR?" is a rabbit hole some people have been lost in, never to return... but if you were to take a stab at it, what qualities would you want a game to have, to appeal to you as an OSR game?
 

Aldarc

Legend
That's a good point, and something I hadn't considered. Most of Dragonlance was already in print by the time I was introduced to the game, and I know Planescape can be a very divisive topic in some circles.

"What is OSR?" is a rabbit hole some people have been lost in, never to return... but if you were to take a stab at it, what qualities would you want a game to have, to appeal to you as an OSR game?
OSR games do not necessarily appeal to me. Some, yes, but not all. I learn a lot from reading through OSR games.

IMHO, OSR typically fall into two major camps: (1) retroclones and (2) new-wave OSR. This last camp is typically more interested in the game design philosophy of OSR and using that to derive new games rather than simply retro-cloning and tweaking older games. So when talking about what qualities an OSR game would have, we need to take both camps into account.

Player Skill > Character Skill: One mantra of the OSR community is that the answer to a given problem in the game isn't on your character sheet. OSR values what a player can do through creative problem-solving more than what a character can do based on the abilities the game gives them. Here we may also include a few other things that may encourage or cultivate that experience:
* High Lethality & Disregard for Encounter Balance: Both of these elements are meant to put caution into how players approach the game, particularly when it comes to combat. The idea being that players cannot go into every combat thinking that it is designed to be balanced in their favor. The solution is not necessarily "combat," and the incentives are not necessarily on killing the monster to get its gold (i.e., XP).

Non-Linearity: This is a HUGE part of OSR, and it's one reason why Dragonlance is often a sticking point between OSR and a lot of contemporary D&D, particularly D&D and Pathfinder style adventures. You can almost think of OSR and Indie Story games as two diverging responses to the same "problem": GM as author. (My interest in OSR involves the overlap and cross-pollination of these two diverging responses.) OSR actively resists linear adventures, railroading, and pre-written plots. OSR does this in multiple ways.
  • Open World Sandbox Play: let the players venture off the rails prepared
  • Non-Linear Dungeons: multiple entrances and exits so the dungeon is not a cultivated railroad experience
  • Random Tables: how do you prevent the GM from being an author? Make them roll encounters, loot, environments, and whatever else using charts and tables.
  • There is also an anti-fudging element because fudging goes against "play to see what happens" and is regarded as a slippery slope towards GM-authorship of outcomes.

Sparse Rules: A lot of OSR games do not bother creating rules for everything nor are they interested in that. So there is an active awareness that rules will not cover everything requiring a "rulings not rules" approach even more so than 5e D&D adopts.
  • Light Character Creation: This is probably also a more modern trend, lighter character creation so that players can more quickly and easily jump into the action.
  • Light Character Options: a non-reliance on feats, skills, and a smorgasbord of character abilities. This also goes hand-in-hand with rewarding player creativity. The player does not necessarily need an explicit ability that gives them permission.
 
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DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
Sparse Rules: A lot of OSR games do not bother creating rules for everything nor are they interested in that. So there is an active awareness that rules will not cover everything requiring a "rulings not rules" approach even more so than 5e D&D adopts.
  • Light Character Creation: This is probably also a more modern trend, lighter character creation so that players can more quickly and easily jump into the action.
  • Light Character Options: a non-reliance on feats, skills, and a smorgasbord of character abilities. This also goes hand-in-hand with rewarding player creativity. The player does not necessarily need an explicit ability that gives them permission.

Well, it certainly explains their antipathy toward Skills & Powers.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I don't regard 2E as OSR but you can run an OSR game with 2E.

No one hates B/X and it's still easy for modern players to understand.

1E a lot less clones. If you like it still plenty of cheap rule books available.
 

HarbingerX

Rob Of The North
I don't think everything you listed is what makes older D&D different. For example, level limits aren't required.

Lethality - Best class (Fighter) 1st-level HP == damage from a longsword hit. Other classes are less.
Random attribute rolls. Play what fate decides.
Attributes have small to minor effects on character class capabilities. Bad stats don't prevent being effective.
Roughly XP doubling per level.
Per class XP tables (I could be convinced this isn't required)
XP for Treasure
Task outcome narrated and then DM sets odds on a per-case basis.
AC values are bounded. This was natural with descending AC, but ascending can do it too.
Save-or-die/.5 damage system.
 

atanakar

Hero
Ability score bonuses and traits are all over the place during the TSR era :

OD&D/Holmes : Only Constitutions (More HPs at 15+) and Dexterity (Missile Fire at 13+) award bonuses.

In AD&D1e and 2e ability scores don't generally award a bonus unless it is 15 or more. Strength only gives a +1 dmg at 16. +1 hit / +1 dmg at 17. Intelligence grants more languages and spells per day. Charisma more spells per day and a Reaction modifier

D&D Basic (Moldvay) : all abilities of 13+ award a bonus/trait. 13-15 +1, 16-17 +2, 18 +3. Which is the closest to the WoTC editions.
 

atanakar

Hero
D&D B/X(BECMI) and AD&D are two separate games to me despite the similarities.

AD&D is Gygax's continuation of OD&D, while Basic goes off on a tangent with Race-as-Class. BECMI introduced a lot more race-as-class character classes in other books. Elf-druids, etc. If the Rules Cyclopedia visual presentation wasn't so garish I would like to read it some day. But I just can't.

If you design an OSR game you have to choose either OD&D (AD&D) or Basic as reference.
 

dave2008

Legend
On the other hand... having played modern D&D for the past twenty years, I am increasingly convinced that racial class restrictions-- or even race-as-class-- are necessary to differentiate nonhuman PCs from humans and from each other.
spell-slots.
I think you can differentiate races without class restrictions. You just have to not be worried about complete balance. IMO, a halfling or even a dwarf should never be able to get an 18 strength (max for humans in my games) without magic. And a goliath, minotaur and dragonkin can get to 20. Personally, unique traits and ability scores is enough differentiation for me.
The main things I like about modern D&D, the things I am most keen to see incorporated into more palatable products, are the stuff further down the list-- the scaling ability scores with the ASIs to match,
We are moving away from increasing ability scores and ASIs in our 5e games. Using feats only (some feats include an ability bump)
 

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