What Is the OSR? Do We Need to Define It?

The OSR, originally short for "Old School Renaissance," and more recently in some circles altered to "Old School Revival," is undergoing something of an identity crisis--and has been for a number of years, now. There are people who with varying degrees of disdain, dismiss it as nothing but a marketing ploy. There are others who insist that it's not a movement, but a philosophy.

There are still others who try to enforce their personal definition with varying degrees of extremity--I saw one person recently insist that it only applied to Original Dungeons & Dragons, and nothing else. There are those who try to insist that Vampire the Masquerade is an OSR game, or even that with the advent of 5e, that 3.x has become OSR. For varying reasons, I'm somewhat dismissive of all three of these claims.

What exactly is the OSR? Was it a flash-in-the-pan fad? Is it an ongoing movement? Is it a philosophy? Can it be firmly defined, and does it need to be? Did it ever exist at all? These are the questions I'd like to consider.

This blog is almost certain to be controversial to some degree, given the diverse attitudes about the OSR at this point in time, and it's almost certain that someone is going to wonder where I have the right to define the OSR when I'm dismissive of others' definitions.

To be frank, without talking about how I define it, there's no blog here. That doesn't mean someone else's ideas are wrong, nor does it mean that my ideas are invalid. The point of a discussion is to express why someone feels or thinks a certain way, and I'll try to do that in as clear and thoughtful a manner as possible, without trying to hold some imaginary all-knowing authority. I want to re-iterate that these are my thoughts and my ideas, and nothing else. Certainly they hold no more validity than anyone else's, nor do I claim to be some kind of authority.

Finally, my failure to mention or acknowledge some aspect of the scene, moment in history, or specific retroclone or simulacrum game is neither a dismissal nor a denigration of that moment, aspect, or game. It is simply that one could write volumes upon volumes regarding the last 20 years of this hobby, and this blog is already long.

With that being said, let's dig in.



In the Beginning...

There are those out there who claim the OSR isn't a movement, or that it's irrelevant as a movement, because of the fact that there's a group of people who never stopped playing old-school RPGs. While one certainly can't discount the idea that there's folks out there who started with OD&D and never looked elsewhere, that's sort of an untenable statement. 

The OSR, as a movement, certainly had a beginning, and indeed the term "Renaissance" or "Revival" specifically and clearly references a rediscovery in popularity of these games. Because a section of the market never stopped playing AD&D doesn't negate the fact that somewhere around D&D 3.0 and 3.5, there was a major resurgence of interest in the older editions of the game. 

To my mind, there were certain benchmarks that led to the OSR. The publication of Castles & Crusades, which was endorsed by Gary Gygax (and who later worked closely with Troll Lord Games) was the first benchmark in this. Not precisely a retroclone, C&C was the first RPG in wide publication to take advantage of the Open Game License to produce a game designed to mimic the feel and style of First Edition AD&D in play. 

The second benchmark followed not long after: the creation and publication of OSRIC. OSRIC was an important milestone in the OSR, because it was the creators of OSRIC that demonstrated it was possible to use the Open Game License and existing open content to produce a near-exact clone of AD&D first edition. It's also important to understand that the original goal of OSRIC was not to produce a playable core game, but a set of resources for publishers who sought to produce materials in support of AD&D. 

OSRIC was followed thereafter by a number of retroclones, some of the more notable of which include Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, my own Spellcraft & Swordplay, and Basic Fantasy. 

On the Internet, the establishment of forums like the ODD74 boards and Dragonsfoot were important to the widespread communication and resource-sharing in the hobby. The Blogosphere was certainly a major force, and homebrew supplements as well as scholarship appeared all over the net. The OSR caught on full steam, and was a measurable and noted movement, so much so that it led to many publishers (Goodman Games being among the most famous, starting with their First Edition Fantasy adventures and culminating in Dungeon Crawl Classics) to adopt the idea of games that played into the old-school aesthetic. 


Changing Times...Setting Benchmarks

It seems clear that the OSR was never a formal movement; but then, few movements are. It was, rather, a common term applied to all of those who were rediscovering older versions of D&D during the content glut and options bloat, and varying design approach that arose during the Third Edition era of D&D. And here we have our first "benchmark" to help define what it is. The intent of the OSR, at the time, was to rediscover what gaming was like before 3.0, which formed a definite split from prior philosophy, and yes, the OSR was specifically geared towards fantasy gaming and Dungeons & Dragons. 

I'm going to make a statement here that may chaff some people: your personal preference of game doesn't define the OSR as a whole. Just because you only play OD&D, doesn't mean that anything other than OD&D isn't OSR. I haven't played second edition AD&D in almost 20 years, but I think it's clear that it should be called part of the OSR. 

Likewise, simple age isn't a measure of what is old-school. Vampire the Masquerade, for example, is difficult to place as an OSR game because its core philosophy of gaming differs strongly from the RPGs that fall into the OSR (which to me are largely D&D, AD&D, and the various clones and simulacra of these games). 

The idea of playing an ultra-powerful monster who is smitten with deep pathos and thrust into a darkly political world, while it certainly has its appeal (and I've enjoyed Vampire myself), doesn't fall into the same paradigm of gaming that Dungeons & Dragons does. In fact, V:tM was a deliberate effort to shift away from the prior paradigms of gaming and explore a style of shared storytelling that was entirely different. This unto itself disqualifies it from OSR. 

This, then, forms our second benchmark: The OSR as it was originally formed applied to Dungeons & Dragons-style games, and the philosophical and play-style paradigms these games represent. 

What, then, is the philosophical split to which I refer? In terms of D&D, there was an idea that began with third edition which stated that the power should remain in the rulebook, and not in the hands of the Dungeon Master. This was, indeed, part of the stated design goal of the team that put 3.x together--too many people claimed to have experienced bad DMs and wanted rules that covered every possible situation so that the problem of poor game mastering would be mitigated.

These two things: a rule for everything, and taking the power away from the DM, were the defining philosophical shift from "old school" to "new school" play.



Formalizing the Movement

There was, at some point, an effort to formalize the movement. Some people are dismissive of this as an attempt to "market" the movement and monetize it. In truth, however, the monetization and the movement grew hand-in-hand. The movement existed because there was a demand for new products that fit the old school paradigm. The formalization of it wasn't some sort of marketing ploy; it was a shorthand, and nothing more. This shorthand allowed gamers looking for old-school products to instantly identify them.

Because this kind of shorthand was needed, OSR labels began to sprout up. Many publishers created their own, with a couple of these logos becoming widely recognized, and others being restricted to use by individual publishers on their products. What was really important, however, was the recognizable bold "OSR" letters in the logo.

For awhile this made things really easy, and the OSR certainly enjoyed a period of several years where there was a flood of outstanding product, with independent producers enjoying fairly wide success. It even saw the successful (to some degree) return of a number of luminaries of the early days. Certainly these creative forces never really went away, but they suddenly found their names in demand again.

The important takeaway here, I think, is that the formalizing of the movement came later. The OSR isn't "just a marketing term," though it certainly has been used that way. The term was in place before anyone started slapping OSR logos on their product, and the initial use of said logos was to create an easy means of identifying those products that fit the paradigm, not a clever false-marketing scheme.



Cracks in the Wall

A lot of people may disagree with me, but I think the movement began to collapse in upon itself with the burnout that came from a number of unfulfilled Kickstarters. At its height, everyone started to see dollar signs in the OSR, and a number of well-known bloggers begam to produce content that people eagerly devoured. Some of these bloggers, then, went on to attempt to cross over into professional publishing. Some of these generated what at the time were record-setting RPG Kickstarter campaigns. 

A number of these, in turn and very infamously, never fulfilled and those who ran the Kickstarters disappeared. It cannot be understated how much this left a great many people embittered, both towards Kickstarter campaigns and towards the movement in general. This was also around the time when people started to add other games into the definition of what qualified--after all, there were hundreds of games around in the 1980s--why couldn't they also be considered old school? 

Around this time a lot of those involved in the OSR took a step back. It was getting too bloated, it had lost its heart and meaning, and when you think about it, did they ever need it to begin with? On the other end of the spectrum were those who championed expanding it. Why weren't they allowed to call themselves old-school just because they preferred Marvel Super Heroes, RuneQuest, Traveller, or Call of Cthulhu first edition? 

Here we run into a problem that's been an issue on the Internet since BBS systems and USENET groups: people taking something personally that has nothing to do with them. There was this idea that if it was old-school, it had to be part of the OSR, or it wasn't old-school. This idea, frankly, is ludicrous. The OSR began specifically as a rediscovery of Dungeons & Dragons, and that concept in no way denigrates any of the other games that were around at the time, nor does it somehow exclude them from being valid, nor does it say, "if you play these games, you're not one of the cool kids." A lot of D&D players also play Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, and Marvel Super Heroes (or any of the other games of the era). 

Just because you're not part of a specific movement, that doesn't mean you don't have value, nor does it mean that the movement is somehow invalid if it doesn't recognize your preferred "thing." Still, this became a problem unto itself, as it led to some people claiming there really wasn't an OSR, that it could be whatever you wanted it to be, or engaging in extreme definitions like "only this specific version of Dungeons & Dragons applies, and nothing else." 

These represent two extremes that cause many movements to fall apart. First, when a movement or philosophy becomes, "however you want to define it," that destroys the core idea that we need a common baseline to communicate. Blowing things up to hyperbolic proportions removes that baseline and the movement becomes meaningless (something many detractors are happy to have it become). The other end of the spectrum, when something is overly restricted, also robs the movement of much of its meaning, by reducing it to a mere fraction of a fraction of what it was intended to be.  



Politicizing the Movement

Now we're in 2019, and for the past few years, there's been a movement to politicize everything. Just about everything out there is part of one "movement" or another, and almost every one of these movements has validity to some degree, but the problem is that they all begin to infect other movements, demanding that everyone conform to their specific standards, and demonizing those who don't. We no longer discuss, we decree.  

This is a very difficult point to express properly, so please bear with me and I hope it doesn't come across as offensive to anyone. There comes a point, however, when someone says or does something untoward, whether deliberately or unintentionally, and not only is that person a villain for life who can never be redeemed, but an entire movement or group is then attacked and associated with that statement or attitude. 

This happened with one popular version of the OSR logo. The logo, designed quite a few years ago, recently came under scrutiny when someone known to use the logo expressed some controversial views. I'm not going to elaborate more on this, nor am I going to invite debate about the nature of those views, comments, or any of that, except to very clearly state that I do not support the use of hate speech in any fashion, at any time, or in any venue. I feel that just because you have the right to say something, that doesn't mean you should.

The point is, the logo, which had been available for everyone to use freely for a long time, suddenly became associated with that person, and anyone who used the logo present or past was now seen to hold those same views. Further, the creator of the logo began to threaten legal action against anyone who used the logo that didn't conform to certain political standards. Others lost their minds over that, and began offering their own takes on the logo free and without restriction.

Over a logo. Which had nothing at all to do with the creator's views, nor the views of the person who made the controversial statements. A logo. 

Frankly, the whole thing grew to be overblown on a ludicrous scale. But it was harmful to the OSR as a whole...because we allowed it to be. Should the logo cease to be used in the future given the public nature of what occurred? Possibly; that's really not for me to say.

But to retroactively attack everyone who ever used that logo in the past is insanity. To place the creator of the logo in a position where they felt pressured to impose political standards on anyone who used their logo is insanity. Should I now, before buying any gaming book, email or call the publisher and ask, "Are you now, or have you ever been known to hold racist or sexist or otherwise controversial views," before buying it? Should I clarify that my views are far enough on the correct side of the aisle with everyone I'm involved with before publishing anything?  

This, then, became another issue that caused even more people to back away from the OSR, dismissing it as "just another marketing term" and walking away from it. 

Again, the point here is not to attack any particular social movements, nor to take sides on what happened with the OSR logo. It's to point out that there was, in fact, a sociopolitical ramification that arose, which was directly harmful to a movement that was already suffering. 



Does the OSR Still Exist?

Honestly? I'm not sure one can say that the OSR does still exist, as a movement. It's become fractured, fragmented, and splintered to the point where as a philosophical movement, it may no longer have meaning. It has become shorthand for those who entered it at one point and who still play those games which they may have newly discovered, rediscovered, or never lost. Unfortunately, even the shorthand has become muddied. 

I don't think it's fair to call it a marketing term, because that implies the term has value from a marketing standpoint, and I think what value it has is, at best, faded. You might be hard-pressed at this point to find a gaming store willing to stock OSR products, and I doubt it's a common Google search term anymore. There's certainly still an old-school community out there, and the term has (perhaps unfortunately) been appropriated to refer to any old-school game, which is where the arguments arise regarding whether Vampire or D&D 3.x now qualify. 

To my mind, however, the OSR, when one carefully looks at its roots as a grassroots movement and not based on people who never stopped playing first edition or OD&D, is that it was a movement dedicated to the rediscovery and joy in playing pre-Wizards of the Coast versions of Dungeons & Dragons. To that end, and in my mind, all versions of D&D up until (but not including) 3.0 qualify, as do all the simulacra and retro-clones of those versions of the game. When I say "OSR," that's what I'm talking about. 

It's not "just a marketing term," and it does have meaning, even if that meaning became clouded and fractured over time. Like every movement, however, it is coming to its end, and has now become a sort of quiet shorthand that requires one to occasionally address what they mean by its use. Unfortunately, on the Internet, that also means other people going on the attack when they don't like your definition. 

How Can You Include Second Edition!?

It's hard for me to include second edition, because of the way Gary Gygax was ousted from TSR, and the wildly different approach to marketing the game of that era, but when it comes down to it, if I'm going to argue that 1st Edition AD&D should be included, which saw a similar ousting of Dave Arneson, it would be hypocritical to do so for second edition. Besides that, second edition in many ways isn't all that different in terms of rules than first, especially when one adds Wilderness Survival Guide, Oriental Adventures, and Dungeoneer's Survival Guide to the mix. 

There you have it. That's my thoughts on the OSR as a movement in the gaming community. Take them for what they're worth; just my own particular thoughts on the issue, and agree or disagree as you like.

Addendum (1/3/2019)

It's come to my attention that my conclusions above are coming across as unintentionally bleak. My intent was not to announce the death of the OSR community (though ironically it does appear that's exactly what I did). In the end, the success of conventions like Gary Con prove that there is still a vibrant, strong, and even growing community for old-school play. Certainly as a community, the OSR is strong, and growing stronger, even if it has devolved into factionalism in some ways. 

The point is, every movement comes to an end at some point, and I simply think that as a social movement within the greater gaming community, that's what has happened. It doesn't have as much value as it did as a marketing tool--publishers are no longer seeing the "OSR brand" as a target for making profit. It still exists, however, as a shorthand for pre-WotC D&D, and it still exists as a philosophy. 

So that's what I feel has happened. The OSR began as an idea, grew into a powerful movement, had its glory year or two, faded a bit, fractured a bit, and has now evolved into a philosophy of game play and a thriving and permanent community. It's left an indelible mark, and that mark definitely lives on. 


Comments

  1. A well thought out take. Personally, I tend to be one of those who thinks the OSR does mainly represent pre-WOTC D&D, but I also include other games of the era and their simulacra. To me, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Boot Hill, Marvel, Met Alpha- all OSR. Traveller, CoC, V&V, etc.? OSR. But as soon as I type that, when I imagine opening an OSR product I'm imagining AC, HP, 3d6, etc. So maybe I'm of two minds about all this.

    I don't think the OSR is dead. Not going to North Texas RPG Con every year. There's quite a following 'round these parts, and I'm continuously amazed and the young folk who know only 5e that sit down at my BX table and marvel at how fast and clean the system runs.

    Thanks for the article!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To be clear, I never said it was dead. I said I wasn't sure it was still a movement, in the same way it was when it first erupted. As someone who attends Gary Con every year, yes, the old school community is still alive and well and thriving!

      Delete
  2. Well said. I came to this article from a link shared on Twitter. I shared a link to this article across my social media.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It’s only broken if you let yourself see it that way. So long as we’re sitting down at the table across from our friends and playing in the old ways... it’s perfectly fine.

    Who did you write this article for? Who is the target audience?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My blogs are written for a general audience; whoever wants to read them. I put my thoughts out there and whomever they resonate with is welcome to engage.

      Delete
  4. I don't know that I can get behind that. I don't think that the "OSR", as an entity that people talk about and search for and identify with, has had that much of a drop in popularity. According to Google Trends, there has been a precipitate drop in the last couple of months, but nothing outside of the normal fluctuations of the last decade-plus. Take a look at this link (unfortunately, the embed code doesn't work in these comments).

    As for things related to hate speech being "political", I don't buy into that either. Hateful people shouldn't have any say at the public table. If someone wants me to die because I fit into the LGBT+ spectrum, my friend to die because she's Jewish, my other friend to die because she's African-American, or my other friend to die because he's Asian-American, I don't think that they should get an open place at the table of conversation to advocate for us dying on that basis. People advocating those things have nothing to add to the public conversation that hasn't already been said and rejected.

    But, more importantly, refusing a particular logo isn't a matter of politics either. It's a matter of exercising the right of freedom of association. The hatemongers are free to invent their own "OSR" logo, where it will become associated with their nonsense. I understand that they have, using rainbow colors to "troll the libtards" or whatever the current vernacular happens to be. Meanwhile, people who aren't emotionally stunted 3dg3l0rdz crying "freeze peach" tears to attempt to pretend to legitimacy can continue to use the earlier one without it being necessarily associated with that silliness. And, oh, noes! Some people are going to have to change their cover designs slightly for products sold in the future. That's been something that happens in game publishing for years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I hear and respect them, and I don't even disagree with all of them.

      Delete
  5. Well said! I would like to add one comment: I think a loss of focus was natural for a creative movement which has reached its goals. People wanted new products for old-school systems, and got them in spades. People wanted to rediscover styles of play which had been neglected or outright forgotten, and that creative mother-lode has been mined to exhaustion (I don't think old-school gaming is a particularly deep thing - its virtues lie in its simplicity and practical approach). People also wanted their game style to be seen as legitimate (after all, classic D&D had often been met with dismissal and contempt in gaming circles), and it has proven itself as a fun, creative branch of the hobby.

    I generalise, and there are inevitably counter-examples, but all in all, old-school gaming has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Where to go from there? It is inevitable a lot of drive will be lost; or that people looking for novelty will explore elsewhere; or that they will be turned off by this and that. (I believe the political junk is just a sad coincidence - it doesn't really belong here any more than it does in fishing, knitting, or BBQ enthusiasm.)

    Nevertheless, and this is my personal perspective, we have a working thing here. Refinement, cultivating a playing culture, letting newcomers join in and discover the fun stuff, and creating solid, practical game supplements are all fine goals. Something has been successfully revived (or renaissanced, whatever :)), so it is only logical it should keep on living and kicking orc ass.

    ReplyDelete
  6. There is a group of hobbyists who play, publish, and promote classic editions of D&D.

    There is a body of open content free (in both senses of the word) for anybody to use to make what they want for classic editions of D&D in the form they think best. Either commercially or just the share.

    Hobbyist who play, promote, publish for classic editions of D&D have other interests within the RPG hobby.

    It is these three points that make the OSR what it is, changing kaleidoscope of hobbyists and professional centered on but not limited to classic editions of D&D.

    The group, you and I have started out with 2006 to 2008 has changed as interests and life circumstances change. The OSR is both dead and alive and will be alive again in one confusing mess.

    If one want to be proactive in the survival of the OSR then promote open content. Explain how to leverage digital technology to do what whatever it they want to do creatively.

    Finally by all means folks should praise and criticize what they like and dislike. Just as long as folks realize that no one has the power to enforce our tastes and beliefs on others. Because of the reality of how open content and digital technology works.

    The situation with the OSR Dungeon Logo is instructive. It was used not because a single publisher or group created it. Rather an individual drew, people found it fun, and as a consequence it got widely adopted. When it no longer became fun to use it started to disappear. It is sad that it happened but in doesn't change the fact that the core of what we do as a hobby remained unchallenged. That the open content still remains available and the digital technology lowered barriers not only for us but anybody else who want to get involved.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well said. I wholeheartedly agree that 2nd edition is part of the gamut. (ie anything with descending AC). Whilst I agree with about 90% of this, there are some things I have a different perspective on. Which is entirely fine. This post, makes me want to re-read my 2e books. (which is great!). I should say that I'm saddened to see a fracture, but I think that some activities will continue (depending on the group of people you chat with, play with etc).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No doubt, and it's important to clarify that I had no intentions of coming across as negative or announcing the death of OSR at the end of the blog (though I get how it comes across that way). I'm supportive, in the end, of the idea that while the OSR began as shorthand for pre-WotC D&D, grew into a broad and recognizable movement, and now has evolved into something more of a philosophy among a stable, if sometimes fractured, community.

      Delete
    2. I don't believe that it came across as negative. The most important thing I think is to realize that the "OSR" that we knew is changing, has changed, will change (of course depending on your perspective). For the group that plays 1e in their basement (and have done so for years) nothing is going to change.

      Delete
  8. It's a good take. One thing - you imply the forums grew out of the OSR, rather than the OSR developing in the old school gaming forums.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really, I think they all grew up together. Certainly forums like Dragonsfoot were around before the OSR became known as the OSR, but it certainly exploded in popularity BECAUSE of the OSR. It's something of a chicken and egg situation, in the end, and I want to avoid trying to be too overly pedantic about it.

      Delete
    2. Which is not to say that you are being that way--just clarifying where I am.

      Delete
    3. Was there a big expansion of Dragonsfoot post 2007/OSR takeoff? I did not notice one. I thought the OSR tended to congregate mostly on blogs then social media. I think you agree that people who never stopped playing 1e and never tried newer games or followed the design trends are generally not part of the OSR. In Renaissance terms I think of them as Byzantium to the OSR's Florence & Bologna. :)

      Delete
  9. Good article Jason. Food for thought. I always had a love/hate relationship with the OSR. On the one hand, I love the games, love many of the people, learned so much and had some much fun in the communities connected to it. On the other hand, the definition debates too often made it clear that the things I liked weren't good enough. It wasn't so much that non-D&D games were excluded. I can live with that. But even within TSR D&D/AD&D too many made it clear that there was a hierarchy with some games on the top. How many times was I told that my favorite version of D&D to this day, BECMI, was a kiddie-D&D. How many times was I told that Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley's wonderful art wasn't as good as that of the 1E books. How many times was I told that there was a right and a wrong way of playing D&D, even though I know that both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax did all kinds of crazy stuff in their games.

    I like the creativity seen in many OSR publications and the general love for the older games and everything that came with them, but too many fans wanted to use it as a way to set up their tribe and define who was "in" and who was "out". It is a shame, because I also got to know so many wonderful people from this community. So, its a mixed bag for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Havard, you should definitely check out my blog on the evolution of Basic D&D. I address the people who have that kind of "it's for kids" disdain for B/X and BECMI.

      Delete
  10. You are a regular GaryCon attendee? Swing by the BRW Games booth and let's chat. Or in the evening over a beer. I don't agree with everything you say, but I don't necessarily disagree with it, either. Would be fun to chat; you're obviously thoughtful on these things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm actually a staff writer and the 5e line developer for Troll Lord Games. I'm there with them, so I'll be at the Troll Lord Games booth! ;). Agreed, though, it would be fun to have a beer and shoot the breeze.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Corellian Spike Sabacc with Betting Rounds

Lembas - Elvish Waybread: a real-world recipe