D&D General The Beating Heart of the OSR, Part 1

bpauls

Explorer
I love the history of D&D! So when I ran into the repeated claim that B/X is the basis for more OSR games than any other system, I had to dig into it.

Part 1 of 2...


"A common opinion I’ve encountered online is that B/X Dungeons & Dragons is the basis for most of the games produced by the Old School Renaissance (OSR)—a grassroots response to changes Wizards of the Coast (WotC) made to D&D, starting with the third edition, released in 2000.

This belief may be widely-shared, but is it true?

We can examine this problem both quantitatively and qualitatively. In Part 1 of this article, I will look at how the above claim stands up quantitatively.

As with a lot of details regarding a decentralized movement, even a quantitative answer isn’t necessarily obvious. Initially, examining the number of OSR “system” products (core books and rules expansions, but not adventures) released since 2006, that are based directly on B/X, in contrast to the number based directly on another version of D&D, seems to support the claim that most OSR games are based on B/X.

Comparing an older product list found at Taxidermic Owlbear with a much more recently updated spreadsheet linked at Ynas Midgard’s RPG Blog, reveals at least 42 game systems or system supplements, released or started between 2006 and 2021, that are based directly on B/X. The same analysis shows as few as 18 based directly on the original 1974 edition of D&D (0D&D), and even fewer based directly on each of the other versions of D&D. Using this approach, games built on the B/X framework seem to be more than twice as prevalent as games built on the chassis of 0D&D, the nearest competitor.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. The OSR is largely an iterative community, rooted in WotC’s Open Game License (OGL). Any elements of an OSR game based on parts of a D&D system made available under the OGL, must also be made available under the OGL—meaning others can use those elements for their games. An OSR system is often based, not on an original system from WotC (or TSR, it’s D&D predecessor), but instead on a previous OSR system that is itself based on one of the originals.

Widening the data set to include not only OSR systems based on original D&D systems, but also OSR systems based on earlier OSR systems that are in-turn based on those originals, shifts the dynamic dramatically. This method reveals 46 systems based on B/X (or an OSR system derived from B/X), and 133 based on 0D&D (or an OSR system derived from 0D&D). From this perspective, OSR systems tracing their history back to 0D&D are nearly three times as common as those tracing their history back to B/X. Later OSR systems constructed on the framework of Swords & Wizardry or The Black Hack (both derived from 0D&D) account for 95 of these additional games—60 built on The Black Hack, and 35 built on some version of Swords & Wizardry.

The dominance of 0D&D-derived OSR games holds true for the first five years, the first 10 years, and the first 15 years of the OSR movement. It’s only in the first three years that B/X shows dominance—there were four B/X-derived games prior to 2009, and only two 0D&D-derived systems.

It appears the claim that most OSR games are based on B/X is, in fact, false. The title for the most influential game system in the OSR, perhaps fittingly, goes to 0D&D.

Of course, you could argue there is no way B/X can win, simply because B/X is itself merely an edited form of 0D&D—there is literally no contest to be had.

On the other hand, perhaps something about the B/X products literally “changed the game”, so OSR systems based specifically on B/X have had an outsized influence on the field. The claim mentioned at the beginning of this article could be true “in spirit”, though not in fact.

These are questions for a qualitative—not quantitative—analysis, which I will undertake in Part 2."
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is an interesting approach.

That said ... it can be exceptionally difficult to disentangle the TSR-era products.

Generally, the taxonomy is thought of in terms of the following ...

OD&D (or 0D&D).
Holmes Basic
1e
Basic (B/X, BECMI, RC, maybe Black Box).
2e

But even with that simplistic division, we have additional variables- many people would say that 1e is further divided into 1e and 1.5e (everything from UA on). While 2e also has a 2.5e (all the kits).

However, all of the systems are roughly interchangeable. And it can be truly difficult to determine where one ruleset ends and another begins- after all, OD&D to Holmes to 1e is a straight shot, but then again, B/X is also very indebted to OD&D (as simplified by Holmes, but with the whole race-as-class thing).

So here's one- how do you classify an OSR game that has race-as-class, but optionally ... not? Once you move away from strict retroclones of the actual older rules, and move towards "improvements," or "inspired by," or "compatible with," are you really beholden to a particular set of rules, so much as the legacy of TSR D&D?

...I'm looking forward to your next post. :)
 

bpauls

Explorer
This is an interesting approach.

That said ... it can be exceptionally difficult to disentangle the TSR-era products.

Generally, the taxonomy is thought of in terms of the following ...

OD&D (or 0D&D).
Holmes Basic
1e
Basic (B/X, BECMI, RC, maybe Black Box).
2e

But even with that simplistic division, we have additional variables- many people would say that 1e is further divided into 1e and 1.5e (everything from UA on). While 2e also has a 2.5e (all the kits).

However, all of the systems are roughly interchangeable. And it can be truly difficult to determine where one ruleset ends and another begins- after all, OD&D to Holmes to 1e is a straight shot, but then again, B/X is also very indebted to OD&D (as simplified by Holmes, but with the whole race-as-class thing).

So here's one- how do you classify an OSR game that has race-as-class, but optionally ... not? Once you move away from strict retroclones of the actual older rules, and move towards "improvements," or "inspired by," or "compatible with," are you really beholden to a particular set of rules, so much as the legacy of TSR D&D?

...I'm looking forward to your next post. :)
Thank you! I'm looking forward to writing it. I should have it up this weekend. :)
 

JohnF

Explorer
B/X was the first D&D I owned, and I was enamored with it.

However, I dreamed of playing B/X more than I actually played it back then - which was barely.

So your data was fascinating to me because my puppy love and nostalgia made me certain that B/X was the source of all wonderful OSR-ness. But it was not so!

Great read!
 

bpauls

Explorer
Sounds like you and I had similar experiences. We moved out to the country right before I bought the Moldvay Basic set. While I had a couple of friends who played, my isolation meant that I read and daydreamed a lot more than I played. Too bad we didn't have Discourse back then! :)
 

The Patrick Stuart post you link to is more about compatibility than inspiration, and b/x and OD&D are largely compatible.

The conservatism of everything being backwards-compatible to BX, or something like it, means that everyone setting out to make an adventure has a shared language, and a potentially shared market. A huge market.

And because the rules are simple, free or easy to distribute and widely available anywhere, then you have strong equality of access to the basic ideas needed.

When you break away from that, like with the latest gen of retroclones, Black Hack, Into the Odd, Knave etc, not to mention Troika which is totally uninterested in being backwards compatible with BX, all of these bend the format, try to do something new, try to carve out their own little space. But in doing so they fragment the great, messy, dirty pulsating island of BX-compatible D&D

So if you were setting out to write an "OSR" adventure, it probably makes some marketing sense to base the mechanics off b/x rather than write the adventure specifically for The Black Hack or Into the Odd. While the black hack, for example, is based off OD&D in terms of inspiration, you need to make a (simple) conversion with regards to mechanics (AC-->Armor Value, or how spells show up at different levels for example).

With games like Knave, white hack, black hack the conversion is simple, usually just based off HD for monsters. Games like Into the Odd, Troika, Mork Borg, or Maze Rats don't have rules for direct conversions.
 

Voadam

Legend
Are you just comparing OSR systems for the 0e vs Basic vs AD&D lines as opposed to products for the various OSR lines?

The big ones for products that I have seen are 0e Swords & Wizardry (Frog God does a lot) and B/X Labyrinth Lord (earlier) and Old School Essentials (currently). OSRIC had some early traction for 1e but has faded a lot.

As far as B/X vs. BECMI and RC I think it is a lot of first mover advantage in that Labyrinth Lord came out pretty early and was popular for the Basic line and was based on B/X. Anyone writing a module for the basic line pretty much jumped on the bandwagon as the minor differences did not matter as much as the name recognition that LL meant Basic.

The differences are minor but thief skills are better in B/X having been slowed down in BECMI to stretch over 36 levels instead of maxxing out and gaining qualitatively different skills at higher levels as I understood the B/X plan for companion levels to be. I did not see a lot of level 15+ adventures or high level material in OSR basic products so B/X covers most of it very adequately.
 

bpauls

Explorer
Are you just comparing OSR systems for the 0e vs Basic vs AD&D lines as opposed to products for the various OSR lines?

The big ones for products that I have seen are 0e Swords & Wizardry (Frog God does a lot) and B/X Labyrinth Lord (earlier) and Old School Essentials (currently). OSRIC had some early traction for 1e but has faded a lot.

As far as B/X vs. BECMI and RC I think it is a lot of first mover advantage in that Labyrinth Lord came out pretty early and was popular for the Basic line and was based on B/X. Anyone writing a module for the basic line pretty much jumped on the bandwagon as the minor differences did not matter as much as the name recognition that LL meant Basic.

The differences are minor but thief skills are better in B/X having been slowed down in BECMI to stretch over 36 levels instead of maxxing out and gaining qualitatively different skills at higher levels as I understood the B/X plan for companion levels to be. I did not see a lot of level 15+ adventures or high level material in OSR basic products so B/X covers most of it very adequately.
I analyze the numbers both ways--if you just look at OSR systems based directly on B/X or 0D&D, then B/X has more. If you expand the scope to also include OSR systems based on other OSR systems derived from B/X or 0D&D, then 0D&D has a lot more--mostly thanks to The Black Hack and Swords & Wizardry.

Yes, I think first-mover advantage may be significant. I plan to talk about it when I lay out my qualitative analysis in Part 2.
 

cfmcdonald

Explorer
But even with that simplistic division, we have additional variables- many people would say that 1e is further divided into 1e and 1.5e (everything from UA on). While 2e also has a 2.5e (all the kits).
IME 2.5E is generally applied to the Player's Option series, not the kits. I believe the first Complete X book was released simultaneously with the 2E core, so calling kits 2.5E would be strange. Personally I'd agree with D&D 2E - Looking back at the limited series: Player's Option, Monstrous Arcana, Odyssey, and more!, which rejects the idea of even the Player's Option as being 2.5E.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
IME 2.5E is generally applied to the Player's Option series, not the kits. I believe the first Complete X book was released simultaneously with the 2E core, so calling kits 2.5E would be strange. Personally I'd agree with D&D 2E - Looking back at the limited series: Player's Option, Monstrous Arcana, Odyssey, and more!, which rejects the idea of even the Player's Option as being 2.5E.

My 2e terminology is off (it's not my area of expertise). You're right, I was thinking of the '95 player options (C&T, S&P, S&M).

That said, 2.5e is just as real as 1.5e- a real unbalancing of the base system.
 

Voadam

Legend
I analyze the numbers both ways--if you just look at OSR systems based directly on B/X or 0D&D, then B/X has more. If you expand the scope to also include OSR systems based on other OSR systems derived from B/X or 0D&D, then 0D&D has a lot more--mostly thanks to The Black Hack and Swords & Wizardry.

Yes, I think first-mover advantage may be significant. I plan to talk about it when I lay out my qualitative analysis in Part 2.
Re-reading the blog post I see that now.

I actually meant products instead of systems, though.

So Drivethru currently lists 915 0e Swords & Wizardry PDFs in its catalogue

While it pegs 1144 for B/X Labyrinth Lord before you get to the new B/X hotness of the 236 B/X Old-School Essentials PDF products.

The drivethru system tags are not as comprehensive as they used to be, I think. I vaguely remember being able to search on black hack before.
 

bpauls

Explorer
Re-reading the blog post I see that now.

I actually meant products instead of systems, though.

So Drivethru currently lists 915 0e Swords & Wizardry PDFs in its catalogue

While it pegs 1144 for B/X Labyrinth Lord before you get to the new B/X hotness of the 236 B/X Old-School Essentials PDF products.

The drivethru system tags are not as comprehensive as they used to be, I think. I vaguely remember being able to search on black hack before.
I was only looking at systems, since the claim I keep running into is that more OSR games are based on B/X than any other system.

You make a good point, however, in that when I do the qualitative analysis, I need to address product support for different OSR systems, as that obviously makes a big difference in the DM/player experience for a lot of games. Thanks!
 

GreyLord

Legend
Ironically, I believe Sword and Wizardry originally WAS NOT based on OD&D despite it claiming that initially. I downloaded it early on and found that it was, in fact, based upon either B/X or BECMI which led me to send a scathing note to them and several comments elsewhere about how it was based upon something OTHER than OD&D.

It then changed to what it is NOW....but early on I was rather upset with them due to the above circumstance. Of course, at the time (believe it or not) there were an INCREDIBLY HUGE number of individuals that thought that OD&D was actually like BX or BECMI, and that they were directly the continuation of that line and copied what it was like originally.

That has changed over time and over the years, but back then when they were first starting to arrive, PDFs of OD&D were not widely available and those who actually had access or had seen the booklets were rather limited to a smaller group of people.

PS: Is it possible instead of tossing up a link to the article, you could just post it here? It seems short enough. Also, posting part 2 here also would be nice. I followed the link, but always appreciate it when people post the text here as well.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Good reason for B/X to have such an influence on the OSR would be likely because of the starter set nature of the game. I imagine more folks dove into D&D with some sort of starter set Holmes, B/X, BECMI than jumping in both feet first with AD&D (Advanced is in the title, after all) or straight up 0D&D.

I don't remember AD&D getting a starter set until late, late 2E. And well, 3E is too "recent" to be consider Old Schoole.
 

cfmcdonald

Explorer
Good reason for B/X to have such an influence on the OSR would be likely because of the starter set nature of the game. I imagine more folks dove into D&D with some sort of starter set Holmes, B/X, BECMI than jumping in both feet first with AD&D (Advanced is in the title, after all) or straight up 0D&D.

I don't remember AD&D getting a starter set until late, late 2E. And well, 3E is too "recent" to be consider Old Schoole.

The first AD&D starter set was First Quest in 1994. I'm not sure I'd call that "late, late 2E", but it was pretty far in for sure, after they'd turned down the "D&D" line.
 

Stormonu

Legend
The first AD&D starter set was First Quest in 1994. I'm not sure I'd call that "late, late 2E", but it was pretty far in for sure, after they'd turned down the "D&D" line.
Ah, the AD&D starter set that I was thinking of was "Introduction to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons", which was apparently 1995, after the revised rulebooks and the player options books had been released. I'd forgotten about First Quest, and somehow had misremembered it as being based on the BECMI rules.
 

teitan

Legend
I am one of those that I "get" how "Basic" or B/X and BECMI are derived from 0e, they aren't 0e because 0e was still race and class separate and while rules as written didn't allow for a dwarf wizard, for example, the baked in race as class concept didn't hamstring things so playing a dwarf wizard wasn't creating a new class. A Halfling in 0e as a fighter or Thief was different from a B/X and BECMI halfling. 0e has far more in common with AD&D than Basic to me as a result of this and as a simpler alternative to AD&D appeals to me more than B/X and derived systems.

WHat I "get" is that the race as class concept bakes the race and class ideas of 0e into one simple class system instead, re-enforcing the archetype of Elf as Fighter/Wizard multiclass without complicated dual classing rules by requiring large amounts of XP to level up and Halfling, who gets the short end of the stick in B/X, as a soft thief/fighter multiclass... extremely squishy while the poor dwarf is just a dwarf fighter. It's a less than elegant solution to an arguable problem that Swords & Wizardry shows isn't so much of a problem.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I am one of those that I "get" how "Basic" or B/X and BECMI are derived from 0e, they aren't 0e because 0e was still race and class separate and while rules as written didn't allow for a dwarf wizard, for example, the baked in race as class concept didn't hamstring things so playing a dwarf wizard wasn't creating a new class. A Halfling in 0e as a fighter or Thief was different from a B/X and BECMI halfling. 0e has far more in common with AD&D than Basic to me as a result of this and as a simpler alternative to AD&D appeals to me more than B/X and derived systems.

WHat I "get" is that the race as class concept bakes the race and class ideas of 0e into one simple class system instead, re-enforcing the archetype of Elf as Fighter/Wizard multiclass without complicated dual classing rules by requiring large amounts of XP to level up and Halfling, who gets the short end of the stick in B/X, as a soft thief/fighter multiclass... extremely squishy while the poor dwarf is just a dwarf fighter. It's a less than elegant solution to an arguable problem that Swords & Wizardry shows isn't so much of a problem.

So, this is a very brief nutshell of how this all evolved and how I think of it.

You have OD&D, which is the following-

The original three books (LBB), plus the supplements. (Arguably, you have additional material from Dragon Magazine, Strategic Review, etc., but I'm trying to keep it simple).

Then, you had Dr. Holmes streamline and re-publish OD&D as a "Basic" set. That's the first Basic (Holmes Basic). Notably, it does not contain much information from the supplements. It's the LLBs plus enough information additional information to make it all workable. At the last minute, knowing that AD&D was going to be published, there were references in this Basic to AD&D, but it wasn't made specifically knowing about AD&D.

Then there was AD&D (1e). AD&D is, for all practical purposes, all of 0E (which includes the supplements), plus additional information from Strategic Review and Dragon, plus some additional edits and changes made my Gygax et al. It is the natural inheritor to all of OD&D. AD&D wasn't really that different than OD&D with all the options turned to 11 and some additional rules to make it cohesive. Well ... semi-cohesive.

Finally, there was Moldvay/Cook B/X (which later begat BECMI, which begat the RC etc.). This edition ignored AD&D and went back to Holmes and 0E again. However, it did introduce a few changes- notably, the race-as-class- to keep the rules streamlined and simple.


Whether race-as-class is stupid, or a reasonably elegant and simple solution for making archetypes, is in the mind of the beholder I guess. At the time I thought it was stupid and juvenile. But now, I appreciate the genius of Moldvay. YMMV.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Whether race-as-class is stupid, or a reasonably elegant and simple solution for making archetypes, is in the mind of the beholder I guess. At the time I thought it was stupid and juvenile. But now, I appreciate the genius of Moldvay. YMMV.

I'm not sure it was a great idea to run with race as class past the X book. I might have put a 4 or 8 page transition guide to AD&D in the X box instead of doing CMI (but that's probably because that's what I did instead of BECMI, and given some of the art in 1e might not have been a wise move for TSR).

Anyway, I think I was 11 in late 1981 when I got my copy of Moldvay. The year before, my 5th grade class had seemingly all read LotR on our own and I didn't wonder at all why the elves, dwarves, and halflings were the way Moldvay presented them. Given the popularity of LotR at the time, the lower end of the target age group, and that it was aimed at those with no RPG experience, I have to vote for it being "Elegant and Simple" in B/X.

I think it was interesting in 1982 that a game run at the LGS/comic/record store a few blocks away had different players (ranging from their pre-teens to 40s) using OD&D, 1e, and B/X depending on what they owned, all at the same table. And it seemed to work fine. Once I saw different race/class mixes in action, that certainly made me want to grab 1e though.

I guess my biggest question (besides the shift in alignment between the character sheet and story later) is why LotR (or at least Hobbit) didn't make the young adult fantasy list.

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1644328175120.png
 

bpauls

Explorer
I'm not sure it was a great idea to run with race as class past the X book. I might have put a 4 or 8 page transition guide to AD&D in the X box instead of doing CMI (but that's probably because that's what I did instead of BECMI, and given some of the art in 1e might not have been a wise move for TSR).

Anyway, I think I was 11 in late 1981 when I got my copy of Moldvay. The year before, my 5th grade class had seemingly all read LotR on our own and I didn't wonder at all why the elves, dwarves, and halflings were the way Moldvay presented them. Given the popularity of LotR at the time, the lower end of the target age group, and that it was aimed at those with no RPG experience, I have to vote for it being "Elegant and Simple" in B/X.

I think it was interesting in 1982 that a game run at the LGS/comic/record store a few blocks away had different players (ranging from their pre-teens to 40s) using OD&D, 1e, and B/X depending on what they owned, all at the same table. And it seemed to work fine. Once I saw different race/class mixes in action, that certainly made me want to grab 1e though.

I guess my biggest question (besides the shift in alignment between the character sheet and story later) is why LotR (or at least Hobbit) didn't make the young adult fantasy list.

View attachment 151513
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My guess is Moldvay didn't want to take up two different lines for Tolkien, and probably considered LotR an adult work, so he included The Hobbit along with it in the Adult Fantasy section.
 

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