Tuesday, March 12, 2013

OSR v. osr: A Reply to Erik Tenkar

Yesterday, Erik Tenkar posed the question, how inclusive is the OSR? Is it specific to D&D, or is it a tent under which all 'old school games' - and there's a slippery phrase in itself - should be covered?

I normally steer clear of these discussions here as they don't really pertain to RBE - Backswords & Bucklers is really the only OSR game to receive regular mention - but it's something that I've addressed a number of times on different discussion forums, so please forgive me for indulging in a bit of meta today.

For my part, I make a distinction - and by no means does everyone agree with that distinction - between the O[ld] S[school] R[enaissance], which is publishing retro-clones of pre-3e D&D and associated adventure modules, settings, and supplements, and an o[ld] s[chool] r[enaissance], which is a general renewal of interest in playing games from roughly the first decade of the roleplaying game hobby.

The OSR began as an effort to get new 1e AD&D modules on gaming store shelves by using the d20 SRD to create a cloned 1e rulebook - OSRIC - that publishers could reference instead of AD&D, allowing them to skirt copyright issues. With hundreds of products released since OSRIC became available, returning beer money and pride of accomplishment to their creators, it proved to more successful at what it set out to do than I think most of the gamers who put it together imagined.

Soon, gamers decided to clone the other editions, for a mix of reasons - sometimes they simply liked the other TSR-era versions of D&D better, sometimes as a vanity thing, in my experience. Soon there were clones for just about all of the different versions of the D&D rules published by TSR - most prominently Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord - yet most of them weren't 'true' clones, in that the author's editorial voice was present to one degree or another, from everything to rules interpretations to adding house rules.

This is where I think it starts to get confusing for some people, I think. That inclusion of editorial voice led some gamers down the same path taken with Tékumel and Arduin, of making what was essentially campaign-specific versions of D&D. It was this 'wave' of the OSR that produced titles like AS&SH, ACKS, and LotFP as well as Carcosa.

Finally, there were those who decided to take the original rules and concepts in different directions - the OSR equivalent of Marvel's 'What If?' series - and thus they released 'clones' like Stars Without Number for sci-fi space adventures, Mutant Futures for post-apocalypse campaigns, and Flying Swordsmen for wuxia martial arts adventures.

One of the important features of all of these games is that, because they draw from the same root stock - D&D, and more specifically some variant of the SRD - they are often highly interchangeable with one another.

That, in a nutshell, is what the capital-O, capital-S, capital-R OSR is about.

At the same time this was occurring, and with some degree of mutual feedback and support, other gamers were noticing older games were still just as playable and just as fun as the stuff they could readily find on gaming-store shelves. Games like TFT and Chivalry & Sorcery popped up in discussion on rpg forums, as did Boot Hill or Champions, and with the help of second-hand retailers and eBay, they started finding their way into gamers' hands, and onto their tables, once again.

A few games never really went away. Fans of original, 'classic' Traveller were quietly humming along for years; their reprints were still available, supported by a ton of fan-created content that Marc Miller didn't attempt to stamp out the way TSR did. Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon received new editions, but remained close to their roots. GURPS was always there. Closer to home, Flashing Blades remained in print and En Garde and Maelstrom were republished, the latter with a new companion volume as well as adventures and supplements.

The presence of these games in online discussions began to grow. Awareness of availability went up. This was an old-school renaissance of a different sort, less publishing oriented and not fixated on D&D, but rather on digging up and playing older roleplaying games, discovering that once the dust was cleared away, they still held their shine. This lower case-o, lower case-s, lower case-r osr is also producing some clones of its own, like Legends of the Ancient World and Heroes & Other Worlds for TFT, FASERIP for MSH, and Classified for the James Bond RPG, but these are not OSR, which is a publishing effort specific to TSR-era D&D.

There are edge cases, as in all things. Is Castles & Crusades the first OSR retro-clone? Some say yes, others - including me - no. Is DCCRPG OSR? I don't know enough about it to have an opinion, but I know it's been argued both ways as well.

If I understand him correctly, Erik seems to argue that the OSR is the tent under which all these games fit. I think it's the other way 'round - that the OSR, the family of games with a shared D&D heritage, are part of a larger renaissance of interest in older roleplaying games. The OSR tends to get the most attention - or sucks the air out of the room, depending on your perspective - by virtue of the fact that it's derived from the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game™, but we cannot forget the games that kept chug-chug-chugging along through the long White Wolf and Whizbros night to those which enjoyed a true renaissance after being long forgotten by all but a handful of stalwart fans.

I suppose where I most disagree with Erik is that 'all roleplaying games are D&D.' I certainly won't argue that's the perception from many outside the hobby; I don't know that there's any advantage to us accepting or adopting that label for ourselves, when it tends to maginalise the broad range of subjects, genres, and games of which the hobby is actually comprised. Erik argues that D&D is to roleplaying games what Xerox is to photocopying or Kleenex is to tissue. I believe that's self-diminishing. I would say that D&D is more like what poker is to card games: arguably the best known and probably the most visible, but nothing like the only game in town.


  1. Well reasoned, well said and well done!

  2. Well put, Mike. I would just add that, for myself, one of the most appealing aspects of the OSR (or osr) is a return to the DIY roots of the early days of the hobby (what you once called "Frankengaming"). This often goes hand-in-hand with the kind of on-the-fly-rulings approach to gamemastering that was discussed in your previous post.

    1. DIY is what I like about those old games, too...I really don't nees hundreds of pages trying to cover every possible eventuality.

  3. The history of the OSR is becoming revisionist as people re-write it according to what they are seeing now. And surprisingly, some who were active online several years back and more, back during the roots of the OSR, have seemingly forgotten what it was all about back then. It's always been about TSR D&D. All the other stuff was added much later. Non-old school publishers are now happily using the term OSR in relation to their products, products that have very little in common with TSR D&D. This watering down of what the OSR is about is unsurprising, but a little sad.

  4. I find all the OSR blogs and articles I come across are more about telling me how the writer is a "grognard" and how he's been into D&D since Day One. I find it very off-putting and exclusive as the tone is (largely) that everyone else is johnny-come-lately. Frankly I never thought D&D was a very good game so it boggles my mind that anyone would copy it. It's fun for what it is, but there are so many other games I find better even for the fantasy genre. I do like the lower-case osr as I hope it will help me find players for all these old games on my shelves that I'm dying to play.

    1. Well, I can only agree with the above, including about the tone. Give me lower-case osr, thank you!
      And I can freely use ideas from the OSR, whenever I feel like it.

  5. I think some of the OSR vs. osr issue stems from the fact that D&D is, in all honesty, one of the only games that actually requires a sort of movement to restore it to its "older" state. Most other games from that era either didn't undergo such an evolution or change over time, and as a result there wasn't really an osr movement for them because they never actually went away. T&T, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Runequest, GURPS, Traveller and all the rest are still functionally very close to what they were twenty-thirty eight years ago. In the only non-D&D retroclones I see a lot of these days are all TSR-related, due to the fact that most TSR games either went unsupported after their print runs (Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, for ex) or were similarly warped like D&D (Gamma World, Metamorphosis Alpha).

    However, the idea of an old school movement is definitely more encompassing than D&D....look at how many variants of the D100 BRP system are floating around now, as a counterpoint. That said, a lot of the OSR seems to be about "D&D rules in other games," as you point out. This really isnt "old school" to me, as no one in their right mind back in the early eighties thought D&D was the be-all and end-all of systems to hack into other genres; it was much easier to construct a new system tailor-made to suit the game idea than to force-fit D&D into whatever mold people wanted. Not to mention, except for a few genuine grognards back then no one I knew ever, EVER thought OD&D was anything more than a milestone that had been passed and left in the dust. Now OD&D is regarded like some sort of "Adam & Eve" of gaming, a perfect archetype by the OSR crowd around which All Else must exist. This drives me nuts. I like S&W Complete, and some other OSR clones, but....seriously. There are much better systems out there to do stuff like AS&SH, SWN, LotFP and other systems try to accomplish, and frankly it drives me nuts that so much of the OSR crowd is fixated on one-true-wayism and a firm rejection of not just modern game iterations but every other not-powered-by-D&D game as well.

    So....yeah. I sort of like the OSR vs. osr distinction and will count myself in the latter camp, if only because I think that umbrella includes the OSR in its entirety. The OSR may not include the "osr," but the "osr" definitely includes the OSR in its camp.