Old School Revival or OSR has attracted a lot of attention lately. But what is OSR and who is it for? Why do some players prefer older edition of roleplaying games like D&D, rather than the latest and highly successful 5th edition?

Strange! My oldest kid is now the age I was when I started playing roleplaying games. It was way back in AD&D days, you know, only yesteryear. Or so to speak. Despite the fact that I practically haven’t aged a day (only gained a few pounds according to my wife) there have been so many changes to roleplaying games since then that sometimes I stare fondly at my bookshelves, lined with roleplaying books, and think to myself: “Man, I’ve sure had some great moments with these!”

Perhaps because of some silly nostalgia, I very often think about those game nights the first year or two I roleplayed. We were five players and a game master, all packed like sardines in a very small room. Obviously, the smell in the room after 6-8 hours wasn’t something you’d put in cans to sell. One such session we forgot to open the window (Hey, it can happen when you’re 14 years old!) and the air got so warm and moist that pages in my Player’s Handbook got all wavy and still are! Happy times, man! 

Much as I liked roleplaying with my friends, I don’t miss spending hours in a small room with limited ventilation. But back then we played differently than we do today. In my old group there was more emphasis on enjoying the stories, than having the perfect character build. The rule of cool was probably the only rule that wasn’t regularly bent, changed or simply ignored for the sake of narrative or player immersion.

Therefore I must admit I felt quite intrigued when I first encountered OSR.

What is OSR?

OSR stands for Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance. OSR isn’t a game or a system as such, it’s more a movement than anything else. Players from all over the world that are inspired by the roleplaying games, especially D&D, as they were played in the early days of RPG, in the 70’s and 80’s. 

Few years ago, in 2008, a fellow named James Maliszewski started his Grognardia blog and it quickly became widely read and loved by older roleplayers. The same year Matthew Finch released a free paper called Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, and I think it’s safe to say that it was quite influential. In it Finch tried to describe and sum up what OSR is all about.

Roughly speaking, OSR is all about playing roleplaying games as they were played in the first decade of the game’s existence. Where the games weren’t all about the linear adventure plots and some overarching metaplots. In OSR more emphasis is put on player agency and less emphasis on keeping things rules-heavy. Players are supposed to engage with the fantasy as much as possible and the game master, instead of being a rules encyclopedia or having one at hand at all times, acts as a referee or arbitrator, judging the outcome of the player’s actions in real time.

The idea of game balance is also de-emphasized in favor of a system which tests players skill and ingenuity in often strange or unfair situations. The players should expect to lose if they merely pit their numbers against the monsters, and should instead attempt to outwit or outmaneuver challenges placed in their way.

A change of pace

When WotC introduced 3rd edition D&D there was a sort of paradigm shift in the game. Of course, there were huge systematic changes, but in many ways the atmosphere of the game changed as well.

Perhaps it was due to the fact that at a similar time MMO’s were getting ever more popular, where the is a huge emphasis on building your character in the most optimal manner. Of course, there were powerplayers in older editions, but with the 3rd edition, 3.5 and 4th I felt that powerplaying got more evident, easier and even systematically encouraged.

Just as you could build your Magic the Gathering deck, you could build your character through feats, classes and prestige classes. Wizards released book after book on player options until I felt that all editions got bloated and full of loopholes.

This also affected how we played the game. The introduction of the skill system changed the way we approached many encounters (if I had a dime for every encounter that we solved with a good diplomacy or intimidation roll) and how we used skill rolls to “do our thinking” or solve our problems.

The threat of death wasn’t as evident as before. In older versions of D&D I always felt like I was playing a regular person in extra-ordinary situations who, as he or she got more experienced, could become a hero and even quite powerful as one. I often feared for the life of my characters. In newer editions this changed. I felt more like I was playing an extraordinary person who could, as he or she got more experienced, become almost god-like in power. I must admit, when I play these editions I never feel very stressed that my character might die. 

Mind you, I played along – oh, man I played heavily along. I still play games using this system. I still love playing these editions. I’m not trying to naysay or speak ill of these edition, I feel I’m pointing out facts. When I play games using these edition I accept these facts and play along.

The meatgrinder?

I’ve seen some people talk about OSR and say that it is about a “meatgrinder” playing style. I can’t say that I agree to that statement, but I can see why many players who started playing in the late 90’s or this century might feel that way. This is a different approach, a different playing style. It’s not better or worse than any other playing style, it’s just different.

In fact, the actual lethality in practice is a matter of taste and GM style. If you don’t want to play a 0-level funnel in DCC, or play a relatively unforgiving module like Tomb of Annihilation, those are specific tastes – it doesn’t mean you’re not playing old school style just because you aren’t killing characters constantly.

However, one thing that I feel needs mentioning and can, in a way, explain why many players feel that OSR playing style can be a meatgrinder. In OSR you don’t have as strict tradition or condition to level all encounters so that they fit the group’s average character level. This means, you could as 1st level PC’s encounter monsters or traps that are way above your paygrade. This might seem strange or unfair to some, but in OSR (just as with every other playing style) players need to choose their fight wisely.

5E as OSR

Despite the fact that most OSR-dedicated systems are derived or updated systems of 1st and 2nd edition D&D (games like OSRIC), you can, in my opinion, adopt any system to facilitate the OSR approach. That goes for not only 3rd and 4th edition, but also 5th edition.

Many older players who like 5th edition often mention that it has everything you need from a modern game system but has the spirit of old school D&D. If you look at the advice and options in the 5E Dungeon Master Guide and then browse through OSR blogs and games, you might find that many of these are the same or at least very similar.

However, in order to run games using these editions in OSR style, both game master and players need to approach the game with that mindset. A little less optimisation and more player immersion.

To put it into perspective, when creating a rogue, you’d not necessarily max out Perception and Disable Device, because you, acting as the character, would need to discover the trap and find ways to disable it, instead of simply rolling for. In OSR you would need figure out where the trap is hidden and think of ways to bypass it, where in more modern edition the rules RAW say that you could just roll for perception followed by a disable device skill check.

Other games as OSR

As mentioned above many OSR games have a strong link with old D&D versions, games like Swords&Wizardry and Castles&Crusades. However, there are games out there that have a distinct OSR streak, games like Trudvang Chronicles and Forbidden Lands. If you are interested in OSR playing style, make sure you check these games out as well.  

When to choose OSR

There are many reasons to choose OSR. Whether you choose to go full OSR and use a game or a system that has been developed for OSR playing style, or simply adopt the mindset of this movement, I strongly recommend that you first read the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

Choose OSR if…

  • You want the players to start out playing characters that are slightly-better-than your average Joe.
  • You want to play characters who will slowly level up into competent adventurers.
  • You want the game to focus more around exploration and discovery than combat.
  • You’d prefer fewer rules (with more being adjudicated by the GM on the fly).
  • You want death to be a serious and real threat to the party.

The Golden Rule

Whatever playing style, game system or edition we choose, we should always keep the Golden Rule at heart – It’s supposed to be fun for everyone at the table. You can opt to play 5E with fully optimised character builds or you can choose to adopt the OSR mindset. Both approaches are good and I don’t feel that one necessarily negates the other.

OSR is a great way to enjoy roleplaying games and I would like to encourage players who haven’t tried it or don’t even know what it is, to give it a chance. Just as there are more games than D&D, OSR is an option for a different approach to roleplaying.