OSR colloquially stands for ‘Old School Renaissance’ or ‘Old School Revival’ and represents a broad community as well as range of game systems.
OSR can refer to the RPG systems inspired by the original editions of D&D from the 80s, basically the games the kids from. This ranges from OD&D, to the Basic & Expert sets to AD&D.
These games are incredibly diverse, they include straight retro clones like Old School Essentials which try to as accurately as possible recreate the rules of B / X D&D as well as more esoteric systems like Esoteric Enterprises which uses B/X as a basis but is ostensibly about Occultists
B/X itself derives its name from the ‘Basic’ and ‘Expert’ sets which were released for D&D. These were effectively like
OSR can refer to the OSR community which are a mix of game designers, gms, players and bloggers who play, run design and write about OSR
OSR can refer to a ‘style’ of play.
OSR games and ‘styles’ tend to include the following elements…
OSR games aren’t written with any particular story in mind, they favour exploring the wilderness via hex crawls and dungeon crawls with player set goals. A GM may draw out a map with various areas of interest and let the players explore that area however they want. A GM will avoid using things like ‘quantum ogres’ where whatever direction the players go they’ll end up in the same place but instead create a mix of different areas for players to explore.
XP for gold: This tends to be a rule in a lot of OSR systems and the intent is to encourage exploration and discourage just murdering everything as murdering stuff doesn’t necessarily provide a reward and is also pretty risky. GM as a neutral arbiter of the game world: A GM in an OSR system isn’t trying to tailor a narrative experience to the group, they’re running a world that follows certain rules and logic and reacts appropriately. For example if there’s a 1% chance of a encountering a dragon in “MurkyWoods” and the GM rolls that 1% then the players are encountering a dragon, even if it will kill them all.
Random encounters: These feature in OSR systems as they tie into the emergent gameplay, you never know if you’re going to encounter a friendly group of traders , a pack of goblins or a dragon and that’s the risk you take adventuring. They also create a natural ‘clock’ in dungeon crawling for if players dally about too long they’ll suffer more random encounters, none of which provide much loot and therefore XP.
Lethal combat: Combat in OSR system is fairly high lethality, players don’t particularly have inherent advantages over monsters and have limited health and resources. They can also encounter monsters at times far tougher than they are. This encourages use of tactics and strategy rather than just murdering through everything.
Rules lite: OSR systems tend to strip things down to the basics. Classes have simple features, spell lists are fairly compact and in general there’s not a lot of specific rules on say ‘flanking’, ‘tripping’, ‘grappling’ or in a wider sense on how ‘diplomacy’ or ‘insight’ are meant to work. In fact such skills don’t even exist within the system.
‘Rulings not rules’ : In OSR the onus is put on the players to think on how they would like to approach a situation and the GM to create a ruling that fits based on context if one doesn’t exist. So instead of a player just rolling diplomacy to convince an NPC of something they have to actually try to make a deal with an NPC that seems reasonable and the GM can based on context decide if that seems reasonable or not and they can roleplay it out accordingly. If there’s doubt the GM may call for a roll but that is the exception more than the rule.
You may say this is unfair for a player who isn’t charismatic but playing a charismatic character but that’s why context is important. A GM can factor the characters natural charisma into this.
This has wider implications as it means the players are free to approach situations in any way they want and the GM can adjudicate the actions accordingly. For example players may deal with a group of goblins in a dungeon by luring them towards a gelatinous cube and hoping it swallows them.
You can argue that’s possible in any RPG but the general philosophy is that if players have a bunch of skills and combat abilities in front of them they will try to solve situations with those rather than interact with the environment.
So let’s say in our OSR system an Elf has a 1/6 chance to find a secret door. This isn’t very high. It would be far better for the player playing the Elf to physically search for that door by actually interacting with the environment. This could mean pressing in stone blocks in the wall to see if any trigger a door or pouring water on the floor to see if any flow into grooves on the ground that may reveal a trapdoor ( or pit) ) This is actually better than a random dice roll and the dice roll is mostly a last resort.
Generally if you’re rolling a dice you screwed up because you say triggered a trap and now need to make a save against poison or failed to find something so are rolling for it, arguably even resorting to attack rolls can represent a last resort if you’ve run out of other ways to defeat opponents.
The major selling point for me personally is that it brings traditional fantasy roleplaying to its roots, it makes players care about NPC’s, the monsters and the environment they are in rather than what skill they can use or combination and it creates unique games based on player choice rather than whatever story the GM wants to tell the players.
I hope that explains OSR to a degree!
Old School Essentials
A faithful retroclone.
This is another variant, race and class are split in this edition and there’s lots of good monster and treasure info. Really useful for GM’s in particular! This is free to download.
This is the official 1983 basic version of D&D. This and the expert set form the core of ‘B/X’ D&D. It’s currently $4.24.
This is the official 1981 expert version of D&D. It’s currently $4.24.