What is the OSR?

I say, comrades! Perhaps it might be good if you were to dedicate a segment of some upcoming episode to explaining and describing the Old School Revival.


(Moved to IRTD)

I’ve not had much to do with it, because dungeon-bashing isn’t really my thing. I’ll give it some thought, though.

I know what it is but since I gave up DnD of all sorts in 1979 and have not the slightest nostalgia for it I’ve never bothered to read a single one of the rule-sets.

I’ve once or twice used material printed for OSR games as raw material for other games but mostly maps and what have you.

I don’t think I could come up with fifteen seconds on the subject much less fifteen minutes.

There might be something to be said about my nostalgia for the games I did like way back then.

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I have occasional OSR impulses, but of kind of an odd sort. I’ve run experimental sessions both of D&D with combat entirely based on Chainmail, and not a d20 in sight, and of Superhero 2044 with my own original power definition system, quite unlike the Champions approach that evolved out of Wayne Shaw’s S44 rules. But I haven’t really looked at other people’s OSR projects, because I never experienced the kind of games that they’re nostalgic for.

I still play characters from 1979-82, under their original game systems, from time to time. This isn’t an Old School Revival, so much as “Never stopped playing the old school.”


I (and my contemporaries in Austalia) figured out how to play RPGs by reading AD&D (and RuneQuest, CoC, Traveller) in 1980–81. We had very little or no contact with the live tradition of Gygaxian Naturalism. So when it comes to the OSR reviving the playing styles and rules sets of the time before AD&D, I have absolutely no idea of what the OSR people are talking about. None. How were RPGs played in countries I had not visited in times before I was paying attention, by people I have still not met? What changed? What are the features and characteristics that the OSR is reviving?

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I ran D&D in 1976-77, even wrote a science fiction pastiche of it after Star Wars, and dropped it cold when I got my hands on Traveller in December 1977. Thus, I don’t see much validity in the OSR movement as nostalgia: it’s pretty clear that RPGs-as-played were heading for more and more-detailed rules even at the time.

On the other hand, having discovered the OSR movement after it had been around for some time, I found a lot of interesting and useful criticism on how RPGs have evolved over the last 40+ years under that rubric. I appreciate efforts to re-examine those very earliest games to capture what was best about them and update that kernel in light of decades of accumulated experience in design (viz., proto-Traveller, SJ and The Fantasy Trip). I’m not so interested in religious wars based on Gygax vs. Arneson, etc.

As a phenomenon, whether you agree with its assertions or not, I think there’s plenty to discuss.

Perhaps I ought rather to have asked “what was the Old School”?

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What interests me about games of that era (D&D, En Garde!, Traveller, Superhero 2044, Villains and Vigilantes are ones I’m familiar with) is something quite different from the re-creation of an older style of play that the mainstream OS$ movement seems to be looking for. It struck me that those rules sets were often incomplete and sometimes incoherent, and that when we and other people played them, we made certain decisions about how to fill in—and those decisions might have been made in other ways. So I have an interest in (a) trying to come up with more coherent interpretations and (b) so far as possible, basing those on what the published rules actually said. Hence, for example, D&D using the Chainmail combat rules rather than the d20-based rules that were presented as an “alternative combat system” and that all of us adopted back in theday.

This is more or less like a comparative philologist trying to reconstruct proto-Indo-European from traces in later languages, I guess; it’s mainly an intellectual and speculative interest. Though there are also notes of “What kind of play style might we have had if things had gone this other way?”

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I like this statement of interest.

With philology mentioned, Tekumel is what draws my attention to the OSR. Empire of the Petal Throne was inaccessible around 1985 when I got into D&D except for a reference in a library book on RPGs I found at the local University. I picked up the pdf of the original as OSR articles began to appear where I found them. I haven’t delved much into OSR but how Tekumel was played around original tables and what tabletop roleplay would look like today if that had been the driving ethos rather than 1e AD&D occupies my thoughts when I do.

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Like @Agemegos (perhaps a year or two later), my early role-playing (apart from a session at school which introduced the concept) was based on reading the books and trying to work out how to play from that. Specifically, that was the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert D&D, AD&D, then later RuneQuest and Traveller.

The role-playing historian will note that *D&D of that era, especially AD&D, was trying desperately to shed the wild-and-woolly image of its early days and be a Serious Game that you could play in tournaments. So the very free-wheeling approach that, for example, characterised @JGD’s early games was largely missing from mine. To me, “anything goes” is the main thing the Old School has to re-teach.

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As @RogerBW says, I’m not sure there ever really was an “old school” as such, in the sense of a coherent, shared approach to role-playing. Rather, there was the “no school”: a few examples of rulesets, very sketchy and tentative for the most part, and a lot of us necessarily making it up as we went along.

The OSR wants to make an intentionally constructed virtue of that necessity, but that is mostly historical revisionism. I don’t think we would be in a position to appreciate rules-light, minimalist systems if we hadn’t come through several generations of trying to bottle the genie and out the other side.


The way that En Garde! mutated into a powerhouse of the PBM hobby is fascinating. Like the legendary DIPLOMACY setting Slobbovia the game mechanics became purely the excuse for the game fiction and world creation, an approach that I find very useful today especially with games like the Powered by The Apocalypse stable.

TRAVELLER is the one I keep saying has an implied background built into it and people keep telling me nay. But I’m right because I remember the way the Third Imperium was quarried out of the ruleset the way people claim sculptors find their figures of animals and men buried in the stone.

SUPERHERO 2044 was clumsy and odd and the most innovative thing about it was the emphasis given to the time management game built into the patrolling mechanic.

S44 gave us the “spend so many points to acquire such and such power/advantage” concept, which became a central mechanic of Champions, Supergame, and Superworld, and later of Big Eyes Small Mouth and GURPS. So in that way it became a huge influence on later RPGs. Certainly the S44 version was, as I said, “incomplete and often incoherent,” which led to Wayne Shaw’s point build system and from that to Champions/Hero System. But the idea was fruitful.

But what struck me, on one of my rereadings, was that the way Shaw and his published successors did it wasn’t the only, or necessarily the most logical, way to do it. The original wording was that you acquired X points of, say, a projectile attack (which could represent, say, Cyclops’s eyebeams or Lightning Lad’s lightning bolts). And that was always taken as a measure of the magnitude, power, or intensity of the attack. But “points” were used to buy attributes that determined how well you rolled for your attack to hit; for example, with projectile attacks, you rolled a d6 and tried to beat it with another d6, with modifiers for the attacker’s dexterity. So I began thinking, what if the points you spend on the power are a bonus to effective dexterity for projectile attacks, or effective stamina for melee, or effective ego for mental attacks? And then the kind of effect you had and the amount of damage you did would be special effects. I thought you could do an equally coherent system with that model.

I’ve played with it a bit since then, and once tried running a session under my improvised rules. I’ve never found it compelling enough to replace running games with GURPS or BESM or FUDGE or other more recent systems, though.

I had a look at a copy of En Garde! recently (1975 edition), and the things that mainly struck me were:

  • the rules were very poorly expressed. I read a lot of rules and technical documentation, and I think I’m pretty good at getting the gist of things, but this took work to understand.
  • in addition, there’s quite a lot missing, like a list of things that should happen in a single week/month/turn. If I were to run it I’d need to make up quite a lot, and in effect write my own supplementary rulebook.
  • as with early D&D (and to a large extent even late D&D), there’s basically nothing in the rules about characterisation.

While I look at it with modern eyes and think that in rules terms it falls under the broad definition of “boardgame” rather than “role-playing game”, when I think about my own early experiences with RPGs there’s probably about as much intrinsic role-playing here as there is in Basic D&D.

I’ve played a certain amount of Arkham Horror (2nd edition), and if you don’t do incidental role-playing (i.e. talk that isn’t supported by the mechanics) it can be a very joyless exercise in rolling dice and collecting clue tokens. I suspect En Garde! would be the same.

I thought En Garde! had a number of amusing touches, such as the list of regiments, rather as Superhero 2044 had amusing touches such as the description of Inguria. But neither was a fully realized RPG, though it was possible to try to play either as one, using the provided material as a springboard. I played in one session of EG and tried running one of my own many years later with different people; in both cases its limitations became evident.

Face to face EN GARDE isn’t a fun thing and I still have scars from the time I tried it. I’m fairly sure you could run a game in which social climbing at the court of King Louis the (INSERT NUMBER HERE) was the theme with modern systems but EN GARDE was only fun in PBM. It seems no longer to be A Thing which seems a shame.

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I played it, once. I never fought a duel, or engaged in misfeasance of any kind. I just worked my way up the social scale and retired as one of the King’s best buddies. This took most of a day of play, which felt much more like a board game than an RPG.

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Maybe that’s how we should re-imagine it…

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