28 November 2009

What is the Old School Renaissance?

Over at the RPGsite I’ve become involved in a rather irritating debate with the ‘RPG Pundit’ over what constitutes the ‘Old School Renaissance’ (commonly abbreviated ‘OSR’). (Also participating that debate, among others, is estar of the ‘Bat in the Attic’ blog.)

My view is that the OSR consists simply of the following folks:

a. those gamers who like to play ‘old school’ RPGs (typically ‘Original,’ ‘Basic/Expert’ D&D, and pre-3e versions of AD&D, but other games as well);

b. those gamers who play (and sometimes produce) the retro-clones of those ‘old school’ RPGs (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, BFRP, and others);

c. those gamers who play (and sometimes produce) ‘old school flavoured’ games (e.g., Castles & Crusades, Spellcraft & Swordplay, Mutant Future, Mazes & Minotaurs, etc.; ironically, I would include the RPG Pundit’s game Forward to Adventure! In this category – the Pundit is part of the OSR whether he likes it or not!);

d. those gamers who play (and sometimes produce) ‘old school’ modules or settings (which can range from classic-feeling settings, e.g. Robert Conley’s Points of Light books, to modules with a ‘classic-with-a-twist’ quality, e.g., Matt Finch’s Spire or Iron & Crystal, to entirely ‘different-from-the-past’ fantasy settings, e.g., the ‘steampunk’ fantasy setting of John Higgins’s Engines & Empires);

e. those gamers who contribute to ‘old school’ fanzines like Knockspell, Fight On!, and Footprints, produce ‘old school supplements (like Jeff Rients’s excellent Miscellaneum of Cinder) or who simply put their ‘old school’ ideas up on the internet (typically on blogs) for others to look at and use.

In short, the OSR consists of people who like certain kinds of games (‘old school games’) and sometimes product things (modules, rules books, settings, fanzines, etc.) for those games.

That is it.

Really, that is it.

There is no ‘ideology’ or ‘party platform’ for the OSR. A fondness for older games and older play styles simply does not comprise an ‘ideology.’ While there is the ‘Old School Primer,’ it is not a ‘manifesto’ in the traditional sense, and I know many members of the OSR who reject parts or all of the advice and views presented in it (myself, I agree with about two-thirds of it).

If the OSR ever evolves into a movement with ‘leaders’ and ‘spokespersons,’ with views that are dogmatic or reactionary, then I’ll be the first one out the door. But I just can’t see that happening. The alignment of the members of the OSR is ‘Chaotic Creative.’


  1. Haha, last time I posted that I didn't consider myself part of the OSR, I was immediately told something to the effect of "Oh yes you are!" in the comments.

  2. What game is that chit from?

  3. Very nicely summarized. Having read the thread, though, I can't imagine any debate on the subject with RPG Pundit would make any difference. He obviously holds a grudge against anything associated with the OSR simply because it gets the attention, effort and acclaim of which FtA! was never worthy. I can see no other motivation for taking a stand over how other people have fun. In order to support his argument, he and his (few) followers feel the need to mischaracterize the so-called "movement", the people and the games themselves. Some raise themselves up through achievement, others must try to push everyone else down.

    His huffing and puffing is meaningless. I was able to introduce 6 new kids this year to the hobby because of Swords & Wizardry (for example), and I'm not the only one. To me, that alone is evidence that the OSR is already achieving what it set out to do. Pundit's contribution, OTOH, seems to be trying to create conflict where there is none.

  4. I think you answerd "Who makes up the OSR" more than "What is the OSR".

    >OSR consists of people who like certain kinds of games (‘old school games’)

    Is recursive and a non-definition. It's the same as saying fans of foo are people who like foo. The interesting part is 'why' people like foo.

    For me the OSR is a resurgence in certain game play styles. Largely due to a backlash against character build focused, rules heavy, plot/story telling games in which power and flexibility has been taken from DM in the name of "balance" and "fairness" (and to a lessor extent to the "indie" game scene The Pundit is at war with)

    But, that's just me.

  5. @ rmckee78: The chit is from a Tom Wham game. I'm not sure which one. I found the picture on Jeff Rients's blog a few months ago. The dazed expression on the elf pretty much reflects my reaction to this whole kerfuffle.

    @ Norman Harman: good point about my answer. However, I have no idea how to be more precise about the OSR than to point at the people who self-identify with the movement and look at the kinds of things that they are doing. That aside, I agree with you that 'play style' has been a major factor in shaping the OSR.

  6. The chit is from Kings & Things, which is indeed from Tom Wham.

    Where would you put guys like myself who have been playing since the beginning, but prefer to take from all worlds - the options and flexibility of modern RPG design with the flavor and style of "back in the day" gameplay?

  7. The one organizing group for the OSR that I am aware of and a founding member of, TARGA, is even laid back and we have all agreed to keep the games and ideas that constitute the OSR from the point that we support it VERY open-ended.
    Heck, I offered one of the critics a position on the organizing team, and while it was turned down, the offer still stands. TARGA is completely mellow and very eager to assist people in getting into OSR games.

  8. "Where would you put guys like myself who have been playing since the beginning, but prefer to take from all worlds - the options and flexibility of modern RPG design with the flavor and style of "back in the day" gameplay?"

    Where do you want to be put? ;)

  9. @ Thasmodious: thanks for the game identification!

  10. @Norman - it's no more recursive than saying Trekkies are people who are fans of Star Trek...as long as Star Trek isn't defined as that which Trekkies are fans of there's no circle. It's not quite as easy to point to exactly which games are old school as which shows, films, books, etc are Star Trek because it's not controlled by a single movie studio concerned with protecting the brand, but it's not hard, either. If a game is old enough (or a clone of an old enough game), nobody argues about whether it's old school--the only disputes about membership in the set come from things that are much more modern but obviously derivative. But having fuzzy boundaries has never stopped terms from being useful.

    As proof that it's not circular, it's perfectly understandable to say things like "Even though its old school credentials are impeccable, I've never cared for Empire of the Petal Throne." In fact, that kind of thing is a very common sentiment to express.

    The only thing that I think Akrasia's missing is the element of a Renaissance; OSR is mainly about those newly playing or newly returned to playing OS games...the people who've been playing OS with the same OS folks all along may (or may not) appreciate the increased interest and influx of new blood, but they'd be doing what they're doing with or without the R.

  11. This debate seems to pop up monthly! It seems we are a movement united by a somewhat indefinable cause;) My best attempt:

    Old School Gaming: "refers to content and/or tone that is from, or reminiscent of, pre-1984 Dungeons and Dragons."

    Renaissance: "As a cultural movement, it encompassed a resurgence of learning based on classical sources..."

  12. I would add one category, maybe two, to your list.

    Definite add: "Those people who play the games we call fantasy heartbreakers that are essentially house ruled D&D." Palladium is the most commercial example but there may be others. Many of these people have been as true to old school play as any group still on the 3 LBBs and others. I'd also include the T&T community in this.

    Maybe add: "Those adapting more modern games to an old school sensibility." Here is where I agree somewhat with the RPG Pundit. I believe you can run a game of D&D3 that is fairly old school. In fact, the first D&D3 game I played in was much more like 1982 than 2002.

  13. "The only thing that I think Akrasia's missing is the element of a Renaissance"

    Yes, I should have emphasized the 'renaissance' element more than I did. The 'rediscovery' of 'old school' play styles is an important feature of the OSR.

  14. I lurk at the RPGSite on occasion, and I think the Pundit's stance on the OSR is a bit odd as well. Most things he says are perfectly in line with OSR philosophies, but he attacks it. I think he sometimes jumps to conclusions and then can't back down.

    The most interesting, and promising part of the OSR, to me, is all the young kids asking questions of the grogs on forums and blogs. And the new willingness of the OSR players to talk to the kids instead of slaming them.

    I think this comes from the new confidence in the future of OS games due to the growth of the OSR itself.

  15. We in the T&T community gracefully accept that inclusion. I think quite a few of us consider us part.

    BTW what the heck is the point of RPGSite anyway? I always see links to it when somebody said something crazy. Isn't rpg.net big enough for everybody?


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).