Getting Started In The OSR: Part 4: Is the OSR Anti-5E?

The internet is an amplifier for extreme and negative emotions. Human beings have a negativity bias. Because people have that bias, we are more likely to click on something inflammatory. The title of this blog post is a good example.

Algorithms of the various social media sites have one purpose. Keep you on their site as long as possible. If negativity is what gets the job done, so be it.

Because a few prolific bloggers, YouTubers, and OSR designers are very vocal about their intense dislike of 5E, It may seem like everyone who considers themselves part of the OSR is anti-5E.

In the comments to my previous post, commenter Daniel mentioned that he runs his 5E games with an emergent story style and that well known 5E bloggers have given similar advice.

Daniel goes on to ask…

This is where I get confused. A lot of OSR talk I see is aggressively anti 5e, but when I see articles like this it seems that OSR is, well, just good DMing.

Am I wrong that OSR is anti-5e? Is it instead an approach, that is system agnostic?

I think both questions are worthy of consideration.

Is the OSR anti-5E?

Sort of.

The OSR is largely apathetic about 5e, the game. Most of us do not dislike the game enough to be anti-5E.

It is merely a game we find no desire to play. It’s not a bad game. We’re just not into it.

When 5E first came out, a lot of OSR fans gave it an honest look. The development team for 5E had interacted with the OSR and hired a few well known bloggers to consult on the project. The game, at least on the surface appeared to be playable in an “old school” style. Some people say it can be played like an old school game.

There was some discussion for a time that it might be a game that could bridge the “old school” and “new school.” It didn’t turn out that way. The game was definitely a shift back toward old school principles but didn’t go far enough for most of us to stop playing OSR games in favor of 5E.

Quite a few in the OSR play 5E in addition to old school games. It’s what their kids or friends want to play. 5E, the core game, is not so bad.

The OSR is anti-WotC

The OSR is anti-Wizards of the Coast.

There are a lot of OSR folks who feel that WotC doesn’t like us, doesn’t like the game we play, and want to us to go away. I have written about this previously.

There are a lot of business practices and policies that WotC has in place that I don’t care for. The DM’s Guild is digital share cropping for example.

The OSR doesn’t like the adventures, tone and aesthetics of 5E.

The OSR is definitely down on the supplements and adventures WotC has released for 5E.

The adventures are very plotted and railroady, which is antithetical to typical OSR practices. Even people who like and play 5E have to give the adventures significant rewrites.

Much of the content that is produced for 5E has a different tone and feel than OSR products. That has to do with the pop culture touchstones of the old school. The original game had its roots in myth, folklore, adventure stories, horror, pulp fiction, and sword-and-sorcery fiction. 5E is more inspired by more recent epic fantasy fiction.

Some of us would go so far as to say that some of the modules produced for 5E are outside of anything we would recognize as D&D. Strixhaven for example.

Aesthetically, a lot of people in the OSR don’t like the look of 5E products. I include myself in that camp. The art is well executed but not evocative of the kind of game I want to play. This also goes back to the pulps and the cover art of trade paperbacks sword-and-sorcery books. Compare the covers of any Brandon Sanderson novel to a Michael Moorcock Elric novel and you’ll see what I mean.

5E’s art is a lot closer to contemporary middle grade fantasy than the 1980’s Tor Conan paperbacks I read when I was a teenager. It’s good work, just… twee, and not to my taste or the taste of most people in the OSR.

The culture issue…

One of the things that many of us in the OSR do not like is the culture that has emerged out of the WotC era of the game. Examples include…

“Is it instead an approach, that is system agnostic?”

The OSR is not system agnostic. It is built on the original classic fantasy adventure game published in 1974. The “old school” in OSR refers specifically to that game and it’s variants.

Many techniques of the OSR playstyle can be applied to other RPGs, 5E included. In that sense, it is system agnostic. One can pick up many excellent tips about how to run your game from the OSR.

My approach to this blog has been to present concepts and principles of the OSR in a way that you can apply them to a number of other table-top role-playing games. TTRPGs have a great deal in common regardless of dice mechanics, genre, or narrative context. They have differences but you can learn a great deal from these old school games because almost every RPG has some old school DNA.

Not all those tips are going to work in every game. The way 5E recommends social encounters be resolved, the power and durability of 5E characters, the way characters are balanced for combat, long/short rest mechanics are contradictions to the old school playstyle. While you can use some old school techniques, there are certain mechanisms of 5E that make it a “new school” game.

One of the reasons I recommend that you start off with a retro-clone is that the mechanisms of those games require old school playstyle’s and technique. Many of the Nu-OSR games alter the mechanisms in ways that take you away from important things to understand about the old school style of play. An example would be replacing resource tracking with a random die roll to determine if you are out of torches or ammo.

Calumniators shall invariably calumniate.

I hope I have answered Daniel’s question.

Yes, the OSR dislikes 5E. Some of us dislike it enough to be vocal and nasty about it. Some of us just don’t like it and ignore it. Others play 5E with friends but prefer OSR games.

We have our reasons for our dislike. However, I think it would be a little strong to say that the OSR is anti-5E.

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5 thoughts on “Getting Started In The OSR: Part 4: Is the OSR Anti-5E?

  1. Daniel

    This is incredibly clear and helpful. Thanks so much! I think I get it now. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    I was confused because low level 5e (which I’ve played the most) seems close to OSR, particularly in terms of lethality, but when you talk about the style of the WotC campaigns published I completely see what you mean. I don’t mind them, but a lot very much lean into a different kind of play. And it doesn’t seem that you can run any of them, in any style, without a lot of work from the DM which is weird when you think about it. Why is WotC so bad at writing adventures? I don’t know but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the gap between writing campaigns and selling campaigns unfortunately. Still, I do like taking them apart for parts.

    I’m totally going to start the next adventure I run with a 0 level funnel (tossing up between Sailors and Hole in the Sky) and see where we go from there.

    Thanks again 🙂


  2. Ricky Moore

    I think 5e, at core, is the best edition of D&D since pre-Splat 2e. However, it is not the same kind of game as old D&D, not even splatbook 2e. It has different assumptions, influences and norms, as you have elaborately examined here.
    To be blunt, I like dark fantasy and sword & sorcery, plus weird/pulp fiction. If I play a fantasy game, that’s what I want. If I am playing powerful characters I’ll play a different game than old D&D – perhaps Mythras or Stormbringer! – but it’s still going to be a dark fantasy world with a lot of danger and character tragedy.
    A lot of modern ‘fantasy’ is too modern, too normie, too cutesy, too juvenile, for me to enjoy. I don’t want to read about superheroes in a bad impersonation of a medieval world – I want to read about killers, warlocks and thieves in a well-thought out society drawing on real history and mythology. A lot of modern fantasy, and cinema in general, is specifically leaving out everything I like and filling it in with pop culture tropes. A game designed to emulate that is just going to annoy me by being exactly what I don’t want.
    5e would be OK to me, if completely different people with different taste wrote the adventures and settings and players would accept being told ‘no, I don’t care what WotC printed, that doesn’t exist’.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: How Does a 5E DM Get Started With OSR Games? : Part 1: The Key Concept – Grumpy Wizard

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