OSR Interested in dipping my toe into OSR but don’t know where to start. Any recommendations?

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I’ve gotten curious enough about the OSR to want to give it a try. But there are a lot of systems available and it’s hard to know where to go first as a newcomer. So, I was hoping some of the folks around here might have some more experience in the OSR sphere and be able to point me in the right direction. If it helps, here are some of the things I’m looking for in an OSR game and some of the things I’m not so keen on.

THINGS I’M LOOKING FOR
A focus on exploration. Both wilderness exploration/hexcrawling and dungeon delving. I fancy the idea of a highly player-driven game where the PCs push into dangerous unknown territory in pursuit of treasure and personal goals, and I referee.
Potential for open table/troupe play. A lot of classic D&D was built around the idea of a large group of not-necessarily-regular players, each with a stable of (presumably randomly-generated) characters, with no assumption that they are necessarily part of a single party. That concept really, really appeals to me.
Emphasis on player skill over avatar strength. It’s not that I have a problem with PCs being strong. I just want the game to challenge the players’ strategic and tactical decision-making and creative thinking, moreso than their system mastery and ability to build an effective character.
Resource management. Bookkeeping gets a bad rap, but to me, having to juggle concerns like encumbrance, ammunition, rations, torches, prepared spells, all that stuff is an important part of the challenge of D&D and its ilk. In that sense, I suppose this could be considered part of the above-mentioned emphasis on player skill.
Easier-to-manage PCs. Now, I love me some player-facing crunch. But whether I like it or not, most of my players can’t remember how to calculate their bonus to an ability check when I call for it, let alone all of the abilities they get from their class and feats and whatever.

THINGS I’D RATHER AVOID
Fiddly mechanics. I know unified resolution mechanics aren’t a given in OSR games, and that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. But the more unique mechanics I have to remember for specific situations, the more likely I am to bounce off a game. Also, for similar reasons to my interest in simpler PCs, I’d like to avoid a situation where you want to roll high in some situations and low in others. The easier the game is to play without having to look something up or stop and walk a player through what they’re supposed to roll when, the better.
Race-as-Class. Some may find race-as-class charming, but it’s not for me. I would also prefer to avoid racial class restrictions if possible, but I can always just ignore such restrictions if I have to.
Too much deviation from that D&D feel. Obviously this is highly subjective, but part of what I’m looking for from the OSR is that je ne sais quoi that makes D&D feel like itself. For this reason I would prefer not to ditch too many of those D&D-isms like the 6 polyhedral dice, the 6 D&D abilities, the classic D&D classes, etc. I’m not married to any of these things individually, but lose too many and it loses the vibe I’m looking for.
 

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I think what you are looking for rules out OSE or any other retroclones. These would be some games you might consider

Knave - lite system with 6 ability scores, all compatible with old adventures. It does not have classes, but instead your "class" is a combination of your ability scores plus what you have in your slot-based inventory
Cairn - similar to knave, but even more rules lite. Only 3 ability scores. Free
The Black Hack 2e - really easy system with 6 ability scores. The Black Hack has really good procedures for exploration and resource management, a great adventure building section, and there are a lot of homebrew add-ons out there
White Hack 3e - this one is a bit more esoteric, but is my game of choice. Classes work in a somewhat abstract and conceptual way, enabling players to either make conventional fantasy archetypes or create characters for really any other genre. It's still pretty rules lite.

I have also heard good things about Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells but have not looked into it myself.
 


Aldarc

Legend
OSE is the gold standard as a B/X retroclone.

However, I also would second @Malmuria's recommendation of the Black Hack 2e:
The Black Hack 2e - really easy system with 6 ability scores. The Black Hack has really good procedures for exploration and resource management, a great adventure building section, and there are a lot of homebrew add-ons out there
I would also add a few more fantasy adventure OSR games that you might find interesting.

World Without Number by Kevin Crawford (free version)
  • fantasy version of Crawford's lauded Stars Without Number sci-fi OSR game
  • four classes: warrior, mage, expert, and adventurer (i.e., warrior/mage, warrior/expert, expert/mage).
  • uses feat-like talents
  • advice and rules for campaign creation and running sandboxes

Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures by Flatland Games
  • B/X clone, roll-under-attribute
  • focuses on young adult fantasy adventure (e.g., Earthsea, Chronicles of Prydain, etc.)
  • an amazing character creation process that involves creating the starting village and character hooks as a group
  • classes are presented as PbtA-like playbooks that also includes player rules
  • see also the Sword & Sorcery version: Through Sunken Lands

Though not labeled as OSR, it is OSR like:

Index Card RPG by Runehammer Games
  • started as a 5e lite hack
  • technically class-less, though it has class-like starting packages
  • uses horizontal progression via loot as character progression
  • the master edition is a hefty volume that collects the core book and a bunch of supplements together.
 



Yora

Legend
I think there can be no better option for this than Old-School Essentials.
If race as class is an absolute no go, then OSE Advanced, which has a race + class option.

OSE is nearly exactly the old B/X game, which is the oldschool standard, and cleans it up a bit, with rules for the simpler modern Armor Class system already baked in. All monster and equipment stats list the AC values and attack modifiers for both systems.

Even if OSE(A) turns out to not be the system of choice, I still highly recommend reading it (available as SRD without Advanced options), because pretty much all other oldschool games are customizations and expansions on this B/X core.

Even more so, I recomment reading the Classic Dungeon Crawl series by Gus L. All the various games provide the mechanics, but generally don't go much into why the mechanics are as they are and how they are designed to run a game. The Classic Dungeon Crawl really explains the underlying logic and gameplay structures that are usually not that easy to fully extrapolate from the mechanics alone. Maybe not necessary to read the whole thing, as later posts elaborate further on previous points, but I'd at least read the six posts listed at the start of the page.
 
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Mark Hope

Adventurer
Another vote for both Old School Essentials (for that B/X feel, with or without Advanced options) or Swords & Wizardry Complete (for that OD&D plus supplements feel). Both are very, very close to their respective inspirations in both feel and mechanics. Many OSR games, while excellent games in their own right, stray from the criteria you have mentioned. You will not go wrong with either of the above.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Thanks so much, y’all! Sounds like The Black Hack (2e) and OSE(A) come pretty highly recommended. How “fiddly” is OSE? I gave the SRD a look, and I find the presentation quite approachable, but I don’t love how bonuses from ability scores vary from score to score, or certain tasks like opening stuck doors being resolved by an X-in-six roll while others are percentile based and others are a d20 roll, etc. But maybe it feels smoother in actual play than it looks on paper?
 
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Retreater

Legend
Swords and Wizardry also has a unified mechanic for saving throws, which I think gives it a bit of a boost over OSE, as well as separate races and classes as default. Tons of support material as well. The organization and presentation is not as sharp as OSE, though.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Swords and Wizardry also has a unified mechanic for saving throws, which I think gives it a bit of a boost over OSE, as well as separate races and classes as default. Tons of support material as well. The organization and presentation is not as sharp as OSE, though.
That definitely gives it an edge in my mind. @jdrakeh also said it meets my qualifications well, so I’ll make looking into this one a priority along with the Black Hack.
 


Yora

Legend
Thanks so much, y’all! Sounds like The Black Hack (2e) and OSE(A) come pretty highly recommended. How “fiddly” is OSE? I gave the SRD a look, and I find the presentation quite approachable, but I don’t love how bonuses from ability scores vary from score to score, or certain tasks like opening stuck doors being resolved by an X-in-six roll while others are percentile based and others are a d20 roll, etc. But maybe it feels smoother in actual play than it looks on paper?
The only thing that varies is the Charisma modifier to reaction rolls. It's not neat and looks inellegant, but it's a necessity because of how raction rolls work. A reaction roll is a 2d6 roll with possible numbers from 2 to 12. Getting a +1 bonus means the 2 result can't happen at all and the 12 result becomes a lot more likely. With a +2 bonus it becomes even more extreme, but that only happens if you have a character with 18 CHA. If you make the +2 bonus apply to characters with CHA 16 to 18, and also allow for a potential +3 bonus, it would get really wonky.
I used to think making that modifier steamlined with all other modifiers would be a good idea because it looks more neat, but I believe that this is a case where having one exception to the rule really results in a much better experience.
 

Voadam

Legend
Thanks so much, y’all! Sounds like The Black Hack (2e) and OSE(A) come pretty highly recommended. How “fiddly” is OSE? I gave the SRD a look, and I find the presentation quite approachable, but I don’t love how bonuses from ability scores vary from score to score, or certain tasks like opening stuck doors being resolved by an X-in-six roll while others are percentile based and others are a d20 roll, etc. But maybe it feels smoother in actual play than it looks on paper?

B/X-OSE stat modifiers go from -3 to +3 and do not generally apply to skill check type mechanics. 13-15 = +1, 16-17 = +2, 18 = +3. Everybody has ability scores from 3-18 with no ASIs. This means roll 3d6 in order is much more feasible and the stats make less of an impact on character effectiveness. Str is for melee attack and damage, int is for languages, dex is for AC and ranged, con is for hp, and charisma is for reaction adjustment. It is easy to keep track of in practice, only attacks and melee damage modifiers get actively applied in most situations. HP, AC, and languages are applied once then used as the baseline so do not need to be considered again.

For the different types of ability checks there are basically three systems.

Most things are x out of 6. Searching for secret doors. Searching for traps. Listening. Opening stuck doors, etc. Quick and easy.

Thief skills are narrowly defined class specific powers and use percentiles that start off with only tiny chances of success. I have always hated them and prefer Necrotic Gnome's (the company behind OSE) B/X Rogue for an alt thief class.

In B/X-BECMI-RC roll under an attribute on a d20 was a later skill development system, mostly from the Gazetteer series, that also worked for ad hoc checks. Simple and easy, but places a huge emphasis on individual character ability scores.

Generally it is a DM call on what mechanics to use for non-combat stuff, including no rolls and adjudicating off of player descriptions of what they are doing (player skill) or just adjudicating what happens.

In play it is generally quick and smooth. Either a player calls out a defined thief skill and tells the DM their percentage of success, or the DM calls out a d6 roll or an ability score check.
 

FriendlyFiend

Explorer
I've not played it, but Bundle of Holding currently has a $12.95 bundle of 'The Hero's Journey' RPG, which was based on Swords & Wizardry - that sounds like it might fit the bill.
 

Yora

Legend
Another pro-tip: Whichever game you pick to learn first, start with treating everything as rules as written (to the extend that it is actually written). Start thinking about tweaking it after you understand the whole system.
When I first got into B/X, I found that a lot of mechanics that seem weird and have a much better alternative do so because they actually are meant to accomplish something different than I expected. It's not just different mechanics to get to the same destination as d20 games. The games are trying to accomplish something different, and this often doesn't become obvious by just looking at individual mechanics. While there are not a huge number of moving parts, they all work together as a single unified system, often in unexpected ways. When you mentally switch out one rule with something that you think would be obviously better, then other rules that come up later might no longer work quite as intended.
Tweaking and customizing the rules should come after understanding the whole system as it actually works as described.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
The only thing that varies is the Charisma modifier to reaction rolls. It's not neat and looks inellegant, but it's a necessity because of how raction rolls work. A reaction roll is a 2d6 roll with possible numbers from 2 to 12. Getting a +1 bonus means the 2 result can't happen at all and the 12 result becomes a lot more likely. With a +2 bonus it becomes even more extreme, but that only happens if you have a character with 18 CHA. If you make the +2 bonus apply to characters with CHA 16 to 18, and also allow for a potential +3 bonus, it would get really wonky.
I used to think making that modifier steamlined with all other modifiers would be a good idea because it looks more neat, but I believe that this is a case where having one exception to the rule really results in a much better experience.
I can certainly see that, but to me that looks like an argument against having a different mechanic for reaction rolls rather than using the core resolution mechanic. Again, maybe it works out more smoothly in play, but to me the preponderance of bespoke mechanics for specific situations is one of the things that most turns me off of old-school systems.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Another pro-tip: Whichever game you pick to learn first, start with treating everything as rules as written (to the extend that it is actually written). Start thinking about tweaking it after you understand the whole system.
When I first got into B/X, I found that a lot of mechanics that seem weird and have a much better alternative do so because they actually are meant to accomplish something different than I expected. It's not just different mechanics to get to the same destination as d20 games. The games are trying to accomplish something different, and this often doesn't become obvious by just looking at individual mechanics. While there are not a huge number of moving parts, they all work together as a single unified system, often in unexpected ways. When you mentally switch out one rule with something that you think would be obviously better, then other rules that come up later might no longer work quite as intended.
Tweaking and customizing the rules should come after understanding the whole system as it actually works as described.
This is generally my policy when trying any new system, and getting a better feel for this different style of play is exactly what’s got me interested in OSR, so I’ll definitely keep this in mind.

I’m thinking I’ll probably go for OSE, with some of the optional stuff from Advanced Fantasy (particularly separating race from class). Seems like if my goal is to experience old-school play, the best place to start would be the old-school rules, as they originally worked. Once I have a feel for that, I’ll have a better idea of what I like and dislike in that style of play and can seek out or design something more tailored to my preferences.
 

JAMUMU

Justified & Ancient
My advice would be to use OSE as a starting point, as so many OSR games use B/X as a chassis. For a more AD&D feel, there's OSRIC, though I don't follow that anymore and I'm not sure how much material is still being developed for it. I used to be a big fan of Swords & Wizardry because you could get the game as text files, which made writing hacks a cinch, but these days for any OSR type shenanigans I noodle around with use OSE.

Two outliers I don't think I've seen mentioned are 1) Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which elicits strong reactions from people (and doesn't fit your no race as class criteria), but is an elegant re-tooling of the B/X rules to a specific OSR purpose and 2) Dungeon Crawl Classics, which is all about embodying a specific, semi-mythical style of old school play. These might be worth looking over if you get the chance, but OSE would definitely be my digging-in point if I was getting into the OSR today.
 

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