D&D General The Beating Heart of the OSR, Part 2

bpauls

Explorer
The qualitative part of this review turned out to be more of a challenge than I had expected, but I settled on a conclusion that satisfies me as to the nature of the role B/X has played in the OSR to-date.



The Old School Renaissance (OSR) turns 16 in 2022. It seems appropriate, in the midst of the movement’s teenage years, to assess the directions in which it has developed.

In Part I of this article, I use a quantitative approach to examine the claim that most OSR games are based on B/X—the 1981 edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game, as edited by Tom Moldvay in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, and Zeb Cook/Steve Marsh in the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set.

If you look only at OSR games based directly on B/X, and compare them to games based directly on its closest competitor—0D&D, the original 1974 edition of the game—this claim appears sound. There are indeed many more games based directly on B/X. The picture changes, however, when you look at OSR games based on other OSR games, which are themselves based on either B/X or 0D&D. In that case, 0D&D begins outstripping B/X by 2009, and maintains its lead to the present day.

Then there’s the issue, which I mention briefly at the end of Part I, of whether or not any contrast between B/X and 0D&D is a distinction without a difference. The former, after all, is simply a restatement of the latter. Is there something special about B/X that gives it an outsized influence in the OSR? While it may not have inspired more games, perhaps, in some way, it’s more important to the movement than 0D&D.

This isn’t a question that can be answered quantitatively, so I take a qualitative approach in Part 2, attempting to shed some light on the proper place of B/X within the OSR.

Has B/X inspired more influential games?

One way to look at this question is to examine whether or not the games B/X hasinspired are in some way more important to the movement than games inspired (directly, or indirectly) by 0D&D.

It’s possible. Basic Fantasy (BF), one of the two games (along with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons clone OSRIC) that kicked-off the OSR in 2006, is a B/X derivative (and still my favorite). It’s reasonable to assume this gave the B/X rules-set a “first-mover advantage”—Chris Gonnerman, the designer of BF, successfully based his game on B/X, and later developers may have chosen B/X for this reason.

A review of games either based directly on B/X, or based on a game itself based on B/X, reveals an impressive roll-call of OSR successes:

  • Basic Fantasy
  • Labyrinth Lord
  • Old School Essentials
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Stars Without Number
  • Adventurer Conquerer King System
  • Mutant Future
Without sales numbers, it is difficult to define “success” in concrete terms, but these seven games seem to have a significant following, and many of them have stood the test of time—as much as that characterization can be applied to a movement only 16 years old.

A review of games either based directly on 0D&D, or based on a game itself based on 0D&D (other than B/X, or another official D&D system) doesn’t show as many recognizable stars:

  • Swords & Wizardry
  • The Black Hack
  • White Box
  • Whitehack
Of course, these judgements are subjective. Others might not agree with my choices for “successes” and “stars”, or might champion games I have left off the list.

That’s fair, but in reviewing the OSR catalog linked at Ynas Midgard’s RPG Blog, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that B/X-derived games have indeed had a disproportionate influence on the OSR, with 0D&D-derived games tending to inspire more niche implementations.

Such is the first-mover advantage. If you help create a market category, you tend to get ahead (and stay ahead) in terms of market position. Perhaps this is where the impression originates that “most OSR games are based on B/X”. Maybe it’s not most OSR games, but the most widely-played OSR games.

Whether or not this is the case, publication data raise an important question. What is it about B/X that makes it such a great foundation for so many successful OSR systems? After all, OSRIC was also released in 2006, but there are fewer games based on it than on either 0D&D or B/X.

What’s so special about B/X?

There is a lot of passion for B/X in the D&D community, which seems a bit odd for a game system that had a run of about two years, from 1981 to 1983, before it was replaced by its successor edition, now known as BECMI (for the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Immortals rules). There’s a valid argument over whether these two should be considered separate editions, given that BECMI changes very littleabout the Basic and Expert part of the rules.

Still, it’s easy to find blog posts and comments defending B/X as a distinct product, differentiated from BECMI largely by style, tone, and authorial voice. These elements may hold the key to the importance of B/X in the OSR.

A Simple Style

The original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which we now call 0D&D, was released as three digest-sized booklets by then-hobbyists Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, and Brian Blume. Citing Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, and Sam Witwer, Wikipedia describes 0D&D as “amateurish”, published on a budget of $2000, with “$100…budgeted for artwork”. It has also been called “poorly written”, “poorly edited”, “poorly organized”, and “a mess” by players.

It’s hard to dispute this when Gary Gygax, himself one of the co-creators of the game, said as much in 1979, when explaining the need for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D).

J. Eric Holmes oversaw the first significant edit of 0D&D, published in 1977 as the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

Holmes Basic addressed many of the organizational problems with 0D&D, and was intended as a bridge between the 1974 edition and the more complicatedAD&D, which also began publication in 1977.

Due to a series of lawsuits beginning in 1979, however, TSR Hobbies Inc., the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, split it into two lines—AD&D, and in 1981, a revised Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, edited by Tom Moldvay, as well a Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set edited by Zeb Cook and Steve Marsh. The new Basic and Expert sets would become what we know as B/X.

Unlike the published version of Holmes Basic, Moldvay Basic includes no AD&D references. It presents itself as the successor to 0D&D, by way of Holmes, and refers players looking for more to the Expert Set. This allows Moldvay Basic to distinguish itself through simplicity.

Moldvay makes the rules less complex in a number of places, and where he adds rules, he generally does so to streamline the play experience. Perhaps the most significant (and controversial) example is the inclusion of race-as-class.

In 0D&D, Holmes Basic, and AD&D, race and class are defined separately, with rules as to which races can take which classes. In Moldvay Basic, players have a choice of seven classes, each of which then determines their character’s race. The three non-human classes—elf, dwarf, and halfling—are simply named for the races to which they apply. Elves are effectively fighter/magic-users, dwarves fighters, and halflings fighter/thieves, but racial and class elements are baked into a single class description with a predetermined advancement track. This makes it very easy for a player to understand what their character can do, and how they will increase in power as they level-up. This, in-turn, reduces the learning curve required to master the game.

Other instances of where Moldvay simplifies rules include:

  • Replacing individual initiative in combat with a default system of group initiative, determined randomly.
  • Limiting the number of third-level spells available to higher-level NPCs to six (three cleric spells and three magic-user spells), and referring readers who want additional spells to the Expert Set.
  • Reducing the number of crossbow types from two to one, and restricting them to simply firing last each round, instead of every other round, or every four rounds, depending on type.
This simplification and streamlining produce a game that is fast to learn and fast to play. New players can master the rules sooner, and their characters can accomplish more in each play session, potentially making for a more enjoyable play experience.

A Mature Tone

While Holmes Basic targets players aged 12 and up, the front cover of the Moldvay rulebook declares it is “For 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up”. The inclusion of the 10-year-old threshold, and the word “adults” are both important. Moldvay Basic presents itself as a game for imaginative kids who are mature enough to handle the subject matter of the sword & sorcery literature on which Dungeons & Dragons is based. Moldvay doesn’t shy away from using complex words (complex, at least, for many pre-teens), and includes a glossary explaining terms the reader may not know. He also provides a list of “Inspirational Source Material” that includes suggestions of both “young adult” and “adult” fantasy fiction.

As an 11-year-old in 1981, I found all this empowering. Moldvay doesn’t speak down to his audience. In the examples of play he provides, player characters die, alignment choice makes a real difference in specific circumstances, and the reader never gets the impression they should expect bumpers or guard rails during the game. This is fantasy adventure, with the characters experiencing all the risks, uncertainties, and (at times) horrors such a designation entails. That’s what makes it fun to play, and Moldvay knows it.

An Instructive Authorial Voice

In addition to speaking to his readers on an adult level, Moldvay presents the rules in a well-organized, straightforward manner, with minimal embellishment, while still conveying great enthusiasm for the subject matter, Cook/Marsh follow his lead in the Expert Set. This makes B/X easy to read and reference at the table. Forty years later, I still enjoy rereading clear and concise passages from Moldvay, when longer and more detailed sourcebooks from other editions have sat unopened on my shelves for decades.

What is the beating heart of the OSR?

So we’ve examined the influence of the games derived from B/X, and reviewed a few qualities—style, tone, and authorial voice—which cause B/X to stand out from other early presentations of the D&D rules. Is this enough to place it at the head of the OSR table?

It deserves a place of honor, certainly, but I don’t think we should single it out as the paragon of rules-sets. This is because, as I demonstrated in Part 1, the OSR has produced other derivatives of 0D&D—Swords & Wizardry (S&W) and The Black Hack (TBH)*which are also quite influential within the movement. These games share some of the essential qualities of B/X—especially good organization, and simplicity.

The success of B/X, S&W, and TBH in spawning games based on them, and the relative scarcity of games based directly on 0D&D, demonstrate that no single game system is the heart of the OSR. Instead, the key to success seems to be games based on systems that reorganize, streamline, and simplify 0D&D. There is no one right way to do this, but not every game hits the mark. Unlike B/X, S&W, and TBH, many other revisions of 0D&D have not gone on to inspire a significant number of their own clones. The three listed above, however, get it right. I expect there will be more in the future.

Without a doubt, 0D&D is a phenomenon that continues to this day. It first created, and now inspires, a gaming genre that allows us to live in fantastic worlds using our shared imaginations, in a way video games and virtual reality have yet to match. It’s not, however, some Platonic ideal of fantasy roleplaying. It has even been called the “ur-game” and (by Gary Gygax), a “non-game”. It’s a source of amazing creativity, presented in a style flawed enough to continually inspire others to want to rewrite it.

Not everyone, however, aspires to this. Some designers simply want a firm foundation on which to build. By reframing (literally “re-presenting”) 0D&D, a handful of coherent, self-consistent game systems have provided the foundations other game designers can use to realize their visions.

The original 1974 edition of D&D, and its supplements, may be the root of the OSR, but they are not its heart. That honor belongs—collectively—to those excellent revisions of 0D&D that have tamed its wild magic just enough to allow hundreds of new games spring forth. I’m a lifetime fan of B/X, one of those excellent revisions, and that’s good enough for me.
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*Part 1 of this article has garnered multiple comments to the effect that TBH is so stripped-down, it’s inaccurate to say it’s based directly on 0D&D. I think this is an overstatement. First, the game itself claims to be “An ‘OSR’ First Edition Hack”, and its marketing blurb on DriveThruRPG says it “uses the Original 1970s Fantasy Roleplaying Game as a base” (emphasis in the original). From the four basic classes (in a couple of cases, renamed), to equipment (10’ pole), to the monsters, to the spell lists, it’s obvious The Black Hack is a D&D derivative—if it didn’t admit this, the author would rightfully be accused of plagiarism. Second, the text itself backs-up the claim that it’s based on 0D&D—it contains magic-user and cleric spells (e.g. Meteor Swarm, Blade Barrier, Wind Walk) included in the 0D&D Greyhawk supplement, but excluded from B/X.
 

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Excellent analysis. I have, at one point, DM both AD&D and B/X BECMI in a continous campaign that ended in 1994 when my players and I parted after university for different horizons. We reached the immortal point of the second circles of immortals (of which I don't remember the name) but it was very fun. Our AD&D campaign ended with the birth of second edition and many players would not even hear of B/X, so I was stuck with the "current" edition. The OSR movement is slowly reaching my area with people searching for French translation and asking me for some almost weekly before the pandemic during our Friday night D&D. When the pandemic is over, I sure will inquire how the search for French OSR turned out.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
It's hard to argue with this thesis. For most of the history of the OSR, there were two co-dominant game systems: Labryinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry. These were the systems seeing all the new modules and supplements and settings coming out for them. These were the systems seeing their labels on actual shelves in brick-and-mortar game shops. These were the systems getting hacked and ported into "second wave" games that moved the old-school rules into genres other than medieval fantasy. The twin beating Time-Lord hearts of the OSR were LL and S&W for at least the movement's first decade, and because of that, it's still terribly weird and off-putting to me to see LL so completely and utterly (and even ruthlessly?) dethroned by OSE.
 

Thanks for this great write up!

Black Hack and White Hack are of course derivative of dnd generally, but not of OD&D specifically.

Black Hack is distinct from OD&D in a number of ways. It uses a unified resolution mechanic based on ability scores, complete with advantage and disadvantage, and using ability scores for saves which is very modern; it is roll under, universally; it doesn't have races; it doesn't have AC and instead uses an ablative armor system; spell level corresponds directly with class level; classes level at the same time and the game uses milestone leveling (you have to carouse after a trip to the dungeon); players roll to both attack and defend, using monster HD and class level to figure out bonuses or penalties; and it uses completely new (and great) mechanics like usage die. If you told some grognards you were starting a game of OD&D, and when they turned up it was Black Hack, they would be extremely upset (they should only be mildly upset, but these are grognards we are talking about).

White Hack (which I'm currently running) is even further removed. It is derived and compatible with older dnd editions, but it abstracts everything about dnd to create a ruleset that can handle all sorts of different genres. It's difficult to describe but the design goal seems to have been to make any character concept viable, fitting within the rules while still being unique. If you told grognards you were playing OD&D and when they turned up it was White Hack, they would be...extremely, super duper pissed, and probably take their dice and go home.

That said, I love both of these games. The Black Hack is fantastic for gonzo dungeon crawls, even if you don't use all the rules, while the White Hack is great for collaborative, player-led OSR campaigns. I would put them with other "new school" OSR games like Into the Odd, Knave, Maze Rats, Mork Borg, etc, all of which are compatible with early editions but take a much more modern sensibility.
 

bpauls

Explorer
Thanks for this great write up!

Black Hack and White Hack are of course derivative of dnd generally, but not of OD&D specifically.

Black Hack is distinct from OD&D in a number of ways. It uses a unified resolution mechanic based on ability scores, complete with advantage and disadvantage, and using ability scores for saves which is very modern; it is roll under, universally; it doesn't have races; it doesn't have AC and instead uses an ablative armor system; spell level corresponds directly with class level; classes level at the same time and the game uses milestone leveling (you have to carouse after a trip to the dungeon); players roll to both attack and defend, using monster HD and class level to figure out bonuses or penalties; and it uses completely new (and great) mechanics like usage die. If you told some grognards you were starting a game of OD&D, and when they turned up it was Black Hack, they would be extremely upset (they should only be mildly upset, but these are grognards we are talking about).

White Hack (which I'm currently running) is even further removed. It is derived and compatible with older dnd editions, but it abstracts everything about dnd to create a ruleset that can handle all sorts of different genres. It's difficult to describe but the design goal seems to have been to make any character concept viable, fitting within the rules while still being unique. If you told grognards you were playing OD&D and when they turned up it was White Hack, they would be...extremely, super duper pissed, and probably take their dice and go home.

That said, I love both of these games. The Black Hack is fantastic for gonzo dungeon crawls, even if you don't use all the rules, while the White Hack is great for collaborative, player-led OSR campaigns. I would put them with other "new school" OSR games like Into the Odd, Knave, Maze Rats, Mork Borg, etc, all of which are compatible with early editions but take a much more modern sensibility.
I don't disagree with what you say about The Back Hack, and being unfamiliar with White Hack, I'm not in a position to disagree with you there either. ;)

My limited purpose for this review was to identify where each OSR game started. I mostly relied on what the data I could find say about them, or what they have to say about themselves. The only significant point of contention seemed to be The Black Hack, which is why I included the footnote explaining my reasoning for identifying it as a fork of 0D&D. I acknowledge that it is so streamlined, it has removed anything that is specifically identifiable as 0D&D as opposed to, for example, AD&D, which inherited its characteristics from the same source.

I aspire to someday creating a D&D/OSR family tree, like the List of Linux distributions, in which case, there will probably need to be a lot of dotted lines.
 

I find a lot to like about OD&D - but for me it's all filtered through my existing RPG knowledge. I do not know that I could have run an OD&D game without the decades of RPG learning I had before I even saw a copy of it. And all that learning absolutely starts with a basic boxed set.

In the latest Plot Points podcast episode, they made the statement that the 1e DMG is not an OSR work. Controversial, but I can't argue against the fact that most OSR works do not resemble the 1e DMG. Hackmaster perhaps being the one strong exception.
 

I find a lot to like about OD&D - but for me it's all filtered through my existing RPG knowledge. I do not know that I could have run an OD&D game without the decades of RPG learning I had before I even saw a copy of it. And all that learning absolutely starts with a basic boxed set.

Honestly, the things that helped with running OD&D back in the day were 1. Low expectations (lots of people just did one dungeon crawl after another), 2. Learning from others (which could easily teach you to do things that were in no way in the rules) and 3. Not really taking the whole experience very seriously (which is where a lot of the wilder add-ons, houserules, setting elements and so on got their start).

Its a very schematic game. As others have noted you almost had to add on to it in one way or another.
 

Word of mouth was a huge part of D&D transmission in the beginning. Heck, even when I learned to game in the mid-80s, it was from a Hessian kid named Bill. People absolutely benefitted from the accrued understanding and interpretations that were handed over from person to person to person.

Honestly, the things that helped with running OD&D back in the day were 1. Low expectations (lots of people just did one dungeon crawl after another), 2. Learning from others (which could easily teach you to do things that were in no way in the rules) and 3. Not really taking the whole experience very seriously (which is where a lot of the wilder add-ons, houserules, setting elements and so on got their start).

Its a very schematic game. As others have noted you almost had to add on to it in one way or another.
 

Akrasia

Procrastinator
Interesting discussion. Some quick thoughts on the topic...

Given their relative simplicity, it's not surprising that B/X D&D and 0e D&D would serve as the foundations for many variants ("quasi-clones") and be popular among those who like to significantly tweak or house-rule their games. A game to which I contributed (Crypts and Things) uses S&W for this reason.

Also, one reason why some people try out older games is exhaustion with the rules "heaviness" of more recent editions (esp. during 3e and 4e DnD, when the OSR was especially robust). B/X and 0e (and games based on them) are going to satisfy the desire for "simpler" rules more than AD&D 1e (OSRIC) or even RC D&D.

IME players of AD&D generally do not want to modify the rules that much, at least not radically. Hence most of the products for OSRIC over the past 15 years have been modules -- and there's been a lot of them (I think more than any other OSR game).

The availability of the AD&D in POD may have undercut the demand for OSRIC somewhat. In contrast, B/X still is unavailable in POD.

Finally, regarding S&W, there are different versions that different groups find appealing: "White Box" S&W (the 3 "brown books" with combat rules), "Core" S&W (0e BBs + Greyhawk), and "Complete" (0e + things from all the supplements). By the time you get to "Complete" S&W, though, you're pretty close to AD&D.
 

Word of mouth was a huge part of D&D transmission in the beginning. Heck, even when I learned to game in the mid-80s, it was from a Hessian kid named Bill. People absolutely benefitted from the accrued understanding and interpretations that were handed over from person to person to person.
I'm not even sure for most people it'd have been possible to play or run the game without it. But it did mean, especially as you learned in one place and ran the game somewhere else, you could have all these accumulated conventions and house rules that weren't in the books, and in some cases that you didn't even realize weren't.

Add in the difference in thrust you had in some areas over others, and its not a surprise people from back in the day can hear someone else's characterization of how it was played and look at them like they'd lost their mind.
 


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