What Makes an OSR Game an OSR game?

The term “Old School Renaissance” has come to encompass a large number of games.

Some of them have quite different design intents and are different gaming experiences. This is confusing for people inside of the OSR let alone those on the outside looking in.

It was very clear what an OSR game was when I first became aware of the OSR.

In the last 10 years, the definition of an OSR game have become vague and confusing.
I’ll light a torch and illuminate room a little.

Where I pitch my tent.

I started playing AD&D in 1987. I got out of gaming in 1998.

It was something I didn’t have time for. I was going to school full time, working a late night job, and barely sleeping to get my homework done. Life happened. I got married. My wife got pregnant. We moved halfway across the country. I didn’t have time to come back to gaming for a while.

In 2009, D&D came up in a conversation with an acquaintance. We missed playing and formed a group. I ran AD&D. We played twice a month for several years. During that time, I started poking around on the internet. I figured I couldn’t be the only person playing AD&D and there must be others. There were. I found Dragonsfoot and through it, I found the OSR.

Since 2009, I’ve gone to some conventions where I was fortunate to play games and discuss them with old timers who worked at TSR or knew Gary. I was able to talk to people who were around when the “old school” was just “school.” I asked a lot of questions and paid close attention to how they ran games and their thoughts on the olden times. These experiences inform my thinking about the subject of this post.

The OSR of 2009 is very different from the OSR of 2022.

I have thoughts.

In 2022, Old School Renaissance and “old school” are not necessarily the same thing.

I’ve seen several variations of the same question pop up on Reddit lately. Paraphrased, the question is…

“Can you recommend an OSR game that plays like a game with contemporary design intentions?”

Am I the only person who sees the contradiction in this?

I want a Ferrari but with good gas mileage, cheap insurance and costs less than $5,000.

I got to thinking about this topic when most of the responses were game recommendations and not confusion and incredulity.

If a game uses some old school mechanics but plays like a contemporary game then is it really old school?

The answer to that question seems self evident.

2009 OSR was about classic fantasy adventure gaming.

The OSR started as a way for people who liked the old versions of D&D to publish modules and supplements for those games. The early OSR was not about using the some of the mechanics of original D&D to create new games with vastly different design intents and outcomes.

The OSR, at that time, was retro-clones and games that were largely compatible with the original game.

That doesn’t mean the OSR didn’t recognize there were other “old” games like Metamorphosis Alpha, or Tunnels and Trolls. The OSR of 2006 wasn’t trying to make adventures and supplements for those games.

The movement would have been more correctly called “The Old School D&D Renaissance” but with the OGL and concerns about being sued for copyright infringement, it was just called “Old School Renaissance.”

The OSR from 2006 to about 2011 was almost entirely about the early editions of “the world’s most popular role-playing game.”

If you want to understand how we got to where we are at now, I recommend this post.


How I define the OSR.

I use a simple heuristic to determine whether I think something is “old school” or not.

If I can use a rule set published in 2022 to run Keep on the Borderlands with little to no modification and do the conversion in my head as I play, its “old school.”

If I can run an adventure published in 2022 using AD&D with little to no modification and do the conversion in my head as I play, it’s “old school.”

You can run the Against the Giants adventure module with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventurer Conqueror King, or Swords & Wizardry with little difficulty.

You can run Death Frost Doom, Dwarrowdeep, or Winter’s Daughter using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

It is that simple. If the old thing is compatible with the new thing, it’s “old school.”

Where it gets fuzzy.

I have written that Old School is a Mindset, not a Rule-set. I used to believe that whole-heartedly.

I recant. I have sacrificed a fine bull in atonement.

Old School is both mindset and ruleset.

What rules you play by is just as important as important as how you play them.

Some games are inspired by the same pop-culture references that inspired Gary and Dave. These games are played in a style that I would call “old school.” The rules, however, diverge in very important ways.

I don’t think a game is old school when it lacks an attack roll or calls for a DC10 check to see a trap door that is obvious if you pick up the rug.

Rolling to see if you hit and the DM simply allowing you to do basic shit without a die roll are an integral part of classic fantasy adventure gaming. It just is.

I would include other elements of play that have been removed by many “OSR” games. Replacing the tracking of ammo with a die roll to see if you’ve run out being one example.

These games are “OSR inspired” or “OSR adjacent” if you prefer. Are they “old school?”

Not to me.

What is an OSR game then?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

I say it is a game that you can use to play old modules. OSR adventures are new modules that could be played with the old rules.

Other people have a much broader perspective than I do. They seem to have decided that anything that isn’t a WotC version of fantasy roleplaying and uses a few of the dice mechanics of the original game is OSR.

“OSR” has become a marketing stamp.

It’s a hashtag to put on an Instagram post. A keyword for your product description on DriveThruRPG.

For many people who don’t agree with my perspective, the thinking might go something like…

Is it 3e? 4e? 5e? Pathfinder? Nope.

The game uses a D20 and has a wizard on the cover.

Must be “old school.”

I am NOT saying those not-OSR games suck.

There a lot of cool games that are “old school” inspired, have a lot in common with “old school” games, are played in the play style of “old school” games but are not “old school.”

They are new games built on old games. They are good games and their innovations and creativity should be celebrated. I own a bunch of them. That doesn’t mean we should call them OSR games.

The Cleveland disc jockey, Alan Freed, noticed some of the dance music of the early 50’s was a sort of swing jazz, mixed with blues and country music and played with electric guitars. He started calling it Rock n’ Roll. The term caught on. In 1968, Black Sabbath was formed to play blues rock. A form of rock which was very popular in the north of England in the late 60’s. Ozzy, Tommy Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler made some creative choices that created a new version of rock we call “heavy metal.” That wasn’t what they were trying to do, but that’s what they did.

I think some of these games are similar in the sense that they come from OSR gaming and combine them with more contemporary design concepts. Nobody has come up with a name for them yet so we keep calling them OSR games.

A conclusion.

Does all this mean the OSR is dead as we’re told over and over ad nauseum?

No. It’s still going. It is as strong as it ever was. Just confused and confusing.

The original retro clones are still out there and people play them.

New games that are compatible with old adventures are being written, published and played.

New adventures and supplements compatible with the old game keep being written, published and played.

To me, those are “old school.”

Other people feel that games and adventures that emerged out of OSR rulesets or that borrow a some concepts and a few mechanics are still OSR games. Until someone can identify what makes them different and come up with a catchy term that will sell books, they will still be categorized as OSR games.

4 thoughts on “What Makes an OSR Game an OSR game?

  1. Joakim

    Interesting and clarifying! In Sweden we have KSR (Classical Swedish Roleplay), i.e. games based on specific Swedish games from 1984-1990. And as you say about OSR, KSR are both rules and a mindset.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. stonetoflesh

    Fantastic post with some really great points. I’ve seen some of those r/osr posts you mention, it really does speak to the disappointing reality that OSR as a descriptor has become diluted and vague nearly to the point of uselessness.

    Your assessment that it’s as much about rules as mindset is spot-on, and rings true with my memories of the proto-OSR/TARGA and early OSR forum and blogosphere scene. Great heuristic of “backwards/forwards compatibility of both rules and adventures,” it restores some much needed clarity and focus.

    Liked by 1 person

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