20 January 2022

Reflection on the Old School Renaissance

There’s a very interesting and detailed “historical look” at the Old School Renaissance (OSR) at the blog “Simulacrum: Exploring OSR Design.” It’s quite long and consists of five posts: part 1 (the 1st edition-era AD&D adventure modules, and developments away from “old school” style play), part 2 (post-Gygaxian rules developments in AD&D), part 3 (second edition AD&D), part 4 (3rd edition D&D and the early OSR), and part 5 (the OSR over the past decade or so). I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the history of D&D and the OSR (but unless you have a free afternoon, you probably will not be able to read all five posts in a single sitting).

I was somewhat engaged in the OSR in its “early years” (this blog is on the list of “pivotal early OSR blogs” in part 5 of the “historical look”). I even have at a post at Dragonsfoot in what I believe is the first thread in which the term “Old School Renaissance” was used (coined – appropriately enough – by an anonymous poster). (However, T. Foster referred to the “Old School Revival” in an amazingly prescient post a year earlier [2004].)


After a decade away from D&D (and relatively little in the way of other RPG activity during that time, despite frequent visits to gaming shops), 3rd edition lured me back in 2001. But by 2004 I had DM’ed two campaigns with 3rd edition D&D and had come to find it rather tedious. Once the characters reached 6th or 7th level (which took about 10-11 months in my groups, as I was deliberately giving out “stingy” rewards in order to keep things sane) the game simply became a joyless chore. My experiences did not match the fun I remembered having during the 1980s. (I also was a fan of Middle-earth Roleplaying back in the day – indeed, as much of a fan as I was of AD&D. But MERP had gone away with ICE’s loss of the Middle-earth license in 1999, and Rolemaster had evolved into a rules-heavy behemoth in its “Standard System” edition. Of course, I could’ve played MERP again anyway. But I did not consider that option at the time.)


So, disillusioned with 3e, I began looking for something different...


I was an early Castles and Crusades enthusiast, especially when it promised to be a vehicle for the publication of Gary Gygax’s Castle Zagyg (a version of his original Castle Greyhawk mega-dungeon). That project proceeded quite slowly, alas, and only saw one release directly related to the mythical dungeon: Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works (co-authored by Jeffrey Talanian). Then Gygax shuffled off this mortal coil, at which time the entire project ended. (I still have that box set, which I believe is now quite valuable, along with the other CZ-related products – all carefully packed in a box in storage somewhere. For an excellent, comprehensive review of The Upper Works, see this one by Grodog.) But I eventually drifted away from C&C. One reason was the end of Castle Zagyg. Another, entirely independent of the system itself, was the terrible editing by Troll Lord Games. While Upper Works was fine, almost everything else I read from them (including the core rulebook) was simply too badly edited for me to enjoy.


During this same period, fortunately, I also had dusted off and reacquainted myself with 1st edition AD&D, B/X D&D, the Rules Cyclopedia D&D, and the like. I played in some online (play-by-post) 1e AD&D games (in a Greyhawk one as a cleric of Trithereon). Unlike C&C, this interest in AD&D and D&D persisted. Then came along OSRIC (the 1e AD&D clone), Labyrinth Lord (the B/X D&D clone), Swords & Wizardry (the 0e D&D clone), the fanzines, and so forth. The OSR was well underway – and I signed on.


This blog started out as a place for me to talk about old school D&D/AD&D-based games, including especially Swords & Wizardry. I contributed articles to Knockspell and Fight On! back in the day. Having reread many of R. E. Howard’s “Conan” and “Kull” stories in the years immediately before I started this blog, I was interested in house-ruling S&W in order to play some “swords and sorcery” flavoured games. (Those house-rules remain available here; many were later incorporated into Crypts and Things.) I eventually became interested again in more “conventional” modes of play, including especially 1st edition AD&D, and made a minor contribution back in 2013 to the OSRIC supplement Dangerous Dungeons (“background professions”). I also ran a brief AD&D campaign around that time (2013-14).


But I’ve drifted away from active participation in the “OSR scene” in recent years. I never was active on Google+. I sporadically followed what was happening through forums and blogs. But in terms of actual gaming, I have spent more time playing Mythras, Call of Cthulhu, Adventures in Middle-earth, and the like, over the past seven years or so.


However, I never abandoned my interest in “old school” Dungeons and Dragons. So I found part 5 of the “historical look” quite informative. It filled me in on what has been happening over the past several years. In a nutshell: it’s largely been fragmentation, decadence, and degeneracy.* I guess not paying attention was beneficial – at least for my mental health. (Unsurprisingly, the pre-OSR, old “old school” communities seem to be carrying on just fine.)


 * I should add some caveats to this generalization. An exception seems to be Old School Essentials, which is both quite recent and very much a "clone" of B/X D&D (even more so than Labyrinth Lord was). It seems to be enjoying quite a bit of success. Swords & Wizardry continues to be quite popular (indeed, I received the most recent "box set" edition last year). Crypts and Things continues to enjoy support. And material for AD&D/OSRIC continues to be created, including free material at Dragonsfoot (which of course started before the "OSR"). [Note added 14:35 ET 20 January 2022]



  1. I was looking at the S&W boxed set myself, but... man. I just don't like the new covers. I wish they were more like the S&W Complete book, art-wise.

    1. I agree with you about the covers (the internal art is much better). I much prefer the covers by Erol Otus and Peter Mullen.

  2. "It filled me in on what has been happening over the past several years. In a nutshell: it’s largely been fragmentation, decadence, and degeneracy.* I guess not paying attention was beneficial – at least for my mental health. (Unsurprisingly, the pre-OSR, old “old school” communities seem to be carrying on just fine.)"

    You make it sound like you're one step away from calling for an OSRR movement - that being Old School Revival Revival, of course. The Google+ days are over with, but I wouldn't call moving beyond the already excessive number of faithful clones "decadent" or "degenerate" myself.

    1. Heh, I'm *not* calling for an "OSRR"! There already is a surfeit of clones and supporting material available to anyone interested (much of it free online). I'm actually a bit surprised by the success of OSE (given the existence of LL and the availability of the originals on DrivethruRPG). The OSR -- as a movement to resurrect TSR era style fantasy gaming -- is done. It's been successful. Those games are now entrenched as ongoing options in the RPG scene. (In fact, I think that the success of 5e is in part thanks to it's reincorporation of certain themes and ideas from pre-3e D&D. But that's a topic for another discussion.)

      I'm also not opposed to moving beyond pure clones. Crypts and Things does this, as does Astonishing Swordsmen + Sorcerers of Hyperborea (and many others). I really like both C+T and ASSH (I guess it's not surprise that I would like C+T).

      Games like Torchbearer and Dungeon World, though, are not "OSR" -- at least not if that term is to have any meaning. I think a different term should be used: perhaps "Old School Inspired" (OSI)? (I also would describe the DCC RPG as OSI.) In any case, going to DrivethruRPG and using "OSR" as a search term has become useless.

      As for my dig about "degeneracy," I *do* think that that term is aptly applied to the LotFP/ZS/Carcosa (and the like) branch of the OSR.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.