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What is OSR about?


Every time I see someone talking about the Old School Revival, I wonder what, exactly, are the supporters trying to “revive”?

Is it a specific edition of D&D? AD&D2, AD&D1, BD&D, OD&D?

Or is it anything pre-D&D3, or pre-WotC? That’s pretty broad – AD&D is vastly different than OD&D.

Is it a certain style of play? If so, what are the specific aspects of the style? I mean, different people have different definitions of “old school” style – often opposing definitions. (Someone says OS is X, someone else says OS is anti-X, and I can find examples of both X and anti-X in classic D&D materials.)

So what is OSR about? I’m just not getting it.

I like playing D&D nowadays in the ways that I used to play it 20-30 years ago, (or in the ways I wanted to play it 20-30 years ago). But I prefer to use a more recent edition of the game. I like what I consider the good aspects of “old school” (I prefer the term, “classic”), and I play with them today. I dislike what I consider the bad aspects of “old school” (“classic”), and I avoid them today. But I use a modern edition. So, am I an “old schooler”?


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First Post
Bullgrit, I just posted about what the OSR means to me at The Mule Abides. I see it as useful in the same way that a genre label like science fiction is: if I read a library book with a rocketship sticker on the spine, it's awesome to know that I'll probably like other books on that same shelf, and the process of reading all the works grouped together in that way will help me form my own take on what "science fiction" means and what I consider its unique virtues. Rob Conley's comments there suggest a writerly viewpoint: for a SF writer, it means a dialog you want to participate in and a set of concerns around which you want to write stuff that others haven't explored.

I agree that there's a wide diversity of games in the pre-WotC/White Wolf period that OSR folks are interested in, and very different approaches to playing the same game from that era. But in my experience, actively playing with those games and learning about how others play them now & in the past can teach you valuable lessons about how to approach gaming that are different from what you learn from new-school games.

For me - and my opinion about who is an old-schooler is worth as much as anyone's, which is to say "not worth anything at all" - playing older games is necessary but not sufficient. The other part is how someone thinks of themselves! If someone tries playing a game I think of as old-school and doesn't find any aspect of its approach interesting or worthwhile, neither of us would say they're old-school. If someone is like "that was awesome, I totally get what its unique strengths are and I see how I can change the aspects of the expectations/rules/adventure design/etc. of the RPG I normally play that get in the way of that awesomeness," I'm happy to call them old-school.

I'd only grumble only if someone claims that their campaign is old-school but doesn't base that on actual experience with old-school games, and that's more about the limitations of internet communication than paying dues or establishing cred. If I haven't been able to play in your campaign, I can't know whether it hits the notes I think of as uniquely old-school; if we've both adventured in the Caves of Quasqueton using a similar ruleset, we have a common reference point to compare whether we're coming from the same place.

Bullgrit, I've always found your own engagement with old editions of D&D to be inspirational and informative, so I'm happy to award you my own stamp of approval (that, and $4.95, will get you a cup of coffee). Whether you want to consider yourself an old-schooler is up to you!
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Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
It could be using the old rules, it could be using new revisions or interpretations of old rules, it could be using new rules to play the way you did with the old rules.

But I think it goes way beyond D&D versions. Classic Traveller has been very popular among afficionados in contrast to later versions like GURPS Traveller, d20 Traveller, and Mongoose Traveller.

In some ways, I feel it's a way to play in reaction to the advancements in design of game rules and/or adventures. In many cases, more recent game rules are slicker, more tightly structured. But, in some cases, while elegant, I think they're less artful. Less insightful. Over-designed. More sterile. Less intrinsically interesting.

I think there's a relationship between old school revivalism and preference for rules light systems as well. While even old games like 1e AD&D have LOTS of rules, vast swathes of what a character can and cannot do is left undefined, moreso than in later editions that worked harder to structure the rules to account for unexpected actions. I can't fault later editions for doing so since they did it to make the rules more transparent to the player and better foster appropriate player expectations. But I think it leads to a different psychological space for the game than old school rules gaming.


As far as games go, it extends well beyond various editions of D&D. Basic Role-Playing has its own old school clone, as does MSH (I think).

Nor does one have had to been active in the pre-1980 era. i myself was 10 when i was introduced to D&D through the Red Box in 1985, and discovered AD&D 1E and "Old School" play afterward and found that I preferred both the playstyle and the game designs inherent in the "old school".

I'll also note that the OSR does not seem to be limited to RPGs. If you look at video games, they are going through their own OSR right now. Sure, there have always been people that kept their Atari 2600 machines (AD&D books) up and running, but there's now a lot of emulators and remakes (OSRIC).

Honestly, i think it is more about easy, open communication between people who share a love for something, AND a dstribution system that does rely on market power: aka, the internet. Now we not only know we aren't alone, preferring the old games to the new ones, but we can talk about them, acquire them and play them, too.


Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
It's not limited to gaming either. There have been "back to basics" movements in other areas as well, like the roots rock reaction against new wave and highly-produced pop in the 1980s.

And if you've ever listened to Let it Be... Naked and compared it to the original with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound productions, you're witnessing an old school revival, at least with respect to Beatles' music.

Hell if I know. Part of the problem with trying to define it is that it wasn't a planned 'thing;' it's just a bunch of guys with some overlapping tastes and enthusiasm for certain games, all talking about their games and creating new material. Enough guys started doing that that somebody out there stuck a label on it. The tastes of the guys involved in the "OSR" aren't unified or dogmatic; they're just overlapping, so the "OSR" is almost certainly different things to different people. It definitely had its roots in older editions of D&D and the advent of retro-clones and similar systems. I think the 70s and 80s editions of D&D are still its main center of gravity.

For me, despite some interest in other older games (or newer ones in an older spirit, like Mutant Future), it's still all about playing and reading about the D&D editions I prefer. I don't care about the OSR as an organization or a "movement." I just like doing my thing, and hopefully sharing the fun with others.

I think the OSR is more specific than the more generic label "old school."

The OSR specifically refers to the blogosphere about old school games, the retro-clone phenomena, and the indie-publishing arena for material that supports those games.

Just plain old school is something else entirely. Based on what you describe, Bullgrit, I'd say you've got some old-school vibe, but you're not part of the OSR.

Well, by definition---if you aren't aware of the OSR, you can hardly be a part of it anyway.


First Post
So what is OSR about? I’m just not getting it.
I'm not sure it's "about" anything. I think it just IS.

Around the time that 3e came out a lot of players who didn't migrate to the new edition (or who migrated and weren't happy with it) started getting together on the internet to talk about their games and sometimes to write and distribute free gaming material for older editions (primarily 1e). A few years after that, some guys decided to use the OGL and the 3e SRD to clone the rules for several early versions of D&D, which helped to turn free distribution of gaming material into something (slightly) more commercial.

The fact that what were formerly free, amateur .pdf projects started to become available as physical print products with wider distribution and more exposure at cons, in gaming stores and through POD sites like Lulu coincided with what appears to have been a major uptick in blogs talking about old school games. The death of Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and a few other notable personages from the early days of TSR also created a lot of interest in the history of D&D and older games at about the same time and fueled interest in both the blogs and the old games they were talking about. There also seems to have been an upsurge in the number of small Cons going on that focus on old school or retro gaming as opposed to the newest, latest games. People saw all of these things happening, felt that they were probably interrelated in some way and dubbed the phenomenon the OSR.

So, from my perspective, there's no way to say "This group comprises the OSR." or "The OSR is trying to do X.". It's a label for a bunch of related events that all seemed to just happen within the same 5-8 year span, comprising a lot of different people, places and activities, most of which don't interact with each other in any directly observable way.
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So what is OSR about? I’m just not getting it.

It is about people playing older edition. 90% of the focus is on older editions of D&D specifically OD&D, Moldavy/Cook B/X, Mentzer BECMI, and AD&D 1st.

Beyond that it varies greatly depending on what group you are talking about which confuses many gamers.

The best way to learn about the OSR is to ask specific questions and remember that beyond playing older edition no blanket statement is true of the entire OSR.

Is it a certain style of play? If so, what are the specific aspects of the style? I mean, different people have different definitions of “old school” style –

A preferred style exists for most of the OSR. It was born of the minimalist nature of the oldest editions and the fact the rulesets lack much of what is found in more recent RPGs.

The best source is the free Old School Primer by Matt Finch.

Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch in Games

Again this not necessarily applies all of the OSR. For this particular example it is safe that that most (over 50%) of the OSR finds this useful in their games.

I like playing D&D nowadays in the ways that I used to play it 20-30 years ago, (or in the ways I wanted to play it 20-30 years ago). But I prefer to use a more recent edition of the game.

Many do, I ran the Wilderlands for 20 years using GURPS Fantasy before I starting writing Swords & Wizardry Material. I never strayed far from my original roots in AD&D 1st (orcs, elves, dungeons, etc) so it wasn't a hassle for me to switch to using another ruleset to write up the material I created while running GURPS.

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