A major challenge for people looking at the OSR is the overwhelming number of games that are considered to be part of Old School Renaissance. This is complicated by the fact that games with an OSR label on them can be extremely different in theme, motif and mechanics.
Some adventures are labelled “OSR” even though they were designed for 5E and were later converted to OSR rulesets to earn a little extra revenue. I do not call such adventures “old school.” They stray away from the pulp and mid-century sci-fi/fantasy paperback literary traditions that are foundational genres of classic adventure games. Such adventures are not designed with old school principles. They are transparently 5E products with an OSR veneer. The “OSR” label placed on such products confuses gamers new to the OSR even further.
I’ve played and run a wide variety of OSR games for more than a decade. I’ve played a variety of role-playing games outside of the OSR. My recommendation is based on that experience.
Start with a retro-clone.
If you are getting started in OSR games and want to have the experience of classic fantasy adventure gaming, I suggest you start with a retro-clone.
Retro-clones are the rules of early versions of the “worlds greatest role-playing game” presented in a revised format. Around 2006, Chris Gonnerman, Matt Finch, Stuart McRobert and others theorized that if they used the Open Gaming License that was appended to the 3rd edition of “the game”, they could publish modules for the earlier editions without running afoul of WotC’s lawyers.
It was the retro-clones and their fans who created the Old School Renaissance.
Why I recommend retroclones.
Retro-clones are inexpensive. All of the retro-clones I have listed below have a free PDF version and some have low cost print on demand versions.
There is a plethora of adventures and supplemental material for all the retro-clones that is inexpensive or free.
The adventures and supplements are creative and inspired.
Don’t think that “free” also means “crap.” The creativity and skill of the hobbyists in the OSR outstrips that of the “pros” who work for the big publishers. WotC has to make products that appeal to the largest possible market. They are making a commodity game for a commodity market. Oatmeal. Instant coffee crystals. Whitey tighty underwear.
Much of the free OSR product is better designed than the very expensive print books published by the IP owner of the “world’s greatest role-playing game.” That’s because the OSR isn’t beholden to shareholders or Wall Street analysts like Hasbro/WotC .
It’s hard to have creative courage when your business model is built on selling hundreds of thousands of copies of every game book you print.
The layout and information design is much better than the original rule sets and most modern RPGs. The original 1974 game is notoriously opaque. One of the ways the OSR has made a vast improvement is in making the game books easier to understand and use in play.
You can pick up the original rule sets from DM’s Guild. That would be as “old school” as it gets. Those versions are harder to use at the table than the retro-clones, especially for someone unfamiliar with them.
The retro-clone publishers were well aware that the layouts in those old books was not good and have improved on them greatly. Many of the adventures and supplements for OSR games are setting a new standard for layout and graphic design. The retro-clone Old School Essentials gets very high marks in this regard.
Adventures and supplements for one retro-clone are compatible with another retro-clone.
The adventures and supplements easily convert. You might need to do a little bit of conversion but not much.
If you buy a retro-clone, you are supporting an independent publisher who loves OSR games. You can buy PDFs and POD copies of the early editions from the mega-corp that owns the IP. I’d rather support people who love the game over a corporate entity that only cares about the dollar value of the brand.
The retro-clone market is a tiny niche, of a niche, of a niche market. Retro-clones are not going to make anyone rich. The people making these games, make them because they love them. Yes, they charge for some of those products and they make a profit. That profit mostly goes back into the next project.
Why not play one of the other excellent OSR games?
There are many great OSR games. I buy, collect, and play many of them. I even like some of them better than the retro-clones. Why do I recommend starting with a retro-clone?
Retro-clones are undeniably “old school.”
One of the big areas of contention within the Old School Renaissance is the question of what the hell makes a game “old school.” It is a subject with many opinions.
Some games are out on the margins of what can be called “old school” and others are unquestionably “old school.” Retro-clones are definitely “old school.”
If you want an old school experience you are most certain to get it from a retro-clone.
Retro-clones give you a baseline.
If you run a retro-clone OSR game, you gain a foundation to understand what the designers are doing with the other games that fall into the OSR category. Having a first hand experience with the rules, procedures, and style of play will give you a better understanding of why a designer took their game in a different direction. Some things can only be learned through experience.
There are only a handful of games mimicking a ruleset published by TSR. That makes the choice a lot easier.
Basic Fantasy Roleplay Game is my number one recommendation for anyone who wants to try a retro-clone.
The platitude “you get what you pay for” does not apply here. This is a great game that is published on open source principles. PDF versions of the game are available, in multiple languages, for free. They are also available in the file format used by Open Office (.odt) if you want to alter the files for your house rules or player handouts. If you prefer a print version, they are also available at low cost via Lulu.
The rules are tight, the presentation is excellent and the rule set is well supported with supplements and adventures. There is a wealth of excellent material on the website. You could have a great time playing this game for years and years and spend almost nothing. This is a labor of love for Chris Gonnerman and the other participants in the project. I highly recommend you check it out.
My go to game is Swords & Wizardry: Complete. S&W: Complete is a clone the original game plus the early supplements as it existed just before AD&D was published. I wrote a complete blog post about why I like it so much so I won’t say more about it.
OSRIC was the first retro-clone that I played. Like many others, I took a long break from gaming in favor of other interests and concerns. When I came back, my first campaign was a 1st edition AD&D game. Through the Dragonsfoot message boards, I became aware of OSRIC and the OSR in general. I got myself a copy and immediately switched over once I saw the vast improvement in layout.
Though Gary’s Dungeon Master Guide is required reading for anyone wanting to run an AD&D game, OSRIC makes the job a lot easier. The lay out, index and structure of the book is superior to the originals.
Labyrinth Lord is a B/X retro-clone that came out in the early OSR. I’m quite fond of it and have run a fair number of games with the system. It used to be one of the more popular retro-clones but seems to have fallen by the wayside.
Old School Essentials is a retro-clone of the 1981 B/X ruleset and the shiny game of the moment. It gets a lot of attention on the message boards and socials. I don’t own it but people I respect speak highly of it. The Necrotic Gnome resource page has free character sheets, GM record sheets and more. There is a enthusiastic fanbase putting out a lot of material for OSE.
Two other retroclones that I haven’t played and don’t know much about are…
Classic Fantasy Adventure Gaming Variants
There are several games that are house ruled variants of retro-clones. They maintain the aesthetic and feel of the original games with some minor rule changes that make them easier to play or clean up issues with the original game. Here are two of my favorites.
Majestic Fantasy RPG by Bat in the Attic games is a Swords & Wizardry variant by Rob Conley. Rob has some other old school material on his website that I recommend. I use his magic item creation rules and equipment lists for my S&W games. His Blackmarsh sandbox setting would be a good place for someone new to OSR games to start a game.
Original Edition Delta by Dan Collins is a great simplification and clarification of the original rule set. It’s almost a retro-clone. Dan is a math professor and used his skills to make the system about as simple as any version I’ve ever seen. I recommend a look at his blog too.
There are a massive number of OSR games and adventures available. You could spend years sorting through reviews, message boards, YouTube videos and never actually play. Pick a game and play it.
That’s the best advice I can give you.
Pick a game and play it. Do not belabor the decision too much.
Play. Play as much and as often as you can.