What We Talk About When We Talk About The OSR

Regardless of the wishes of the OSR's prominent proponents, whatever they might be, the term OSR has become irrevocably applicable to a plethora of interrelated but distinct concepts. Necropraxis held a survey in 2018 where respondents rated how much they felt "OSR" referred to eight separate meanings. But eight is (necessarily for the purposes of a survey that folks will actually complete) reductive, compared to what I think the term encompasses, or rather, is applied to by individuals.

As they say, "ask a hundred people what "(the) OSR" is and you'll get a hundred different answers". So here's my stab at putting those hundred answers in one place. Though, this list sprang from my own mind, so I'm just one of those hundred. I'd love to know if anyone's done a similar analysis that identified aspects that I missed here.

Kircher's Tree of Life

I'm aiming to take a mostly-objective stance here; this is meant to be a resource for disambiguation and a reference point for other discussions. Any strong opinions I have I will be put forward in a separate post. This isn't particularly well-polished, barely more than my initial thoughts as I was formulating them (else this would never see the light of day as I tweaked it into oblivion). Likewise I'm not putting much effort into researching historical accuracy, so let me know in a comment if I have details wrong or have more context to share.

The only tidbit of opinion I'll express here, in the chance that I never feel comfortable participating more deeply in the discourse, is that in talking about changes in the RPG space, please, PLEASE try to use more precise language around what exact aspects of the OSR you're discussing. You don't have to use these terms, but I expect many disagreements and confusions to dissolve once all participants actually know what each other is talking about. Because it's not an atomic thing. It's a vast, amorphous concept, whether or not we want it to be.

Interpretations & Constituent Aspects of "(the) OSR"

In no consistently particular order
  • The Old School Revival as Early “Art” Movement and Social Scene
    • Initiated by the Open Gaming License, allowing fans to make retroclones and new content compatible with old and new versions of D&D
    • In a sense, this is a specific period of time and set of people that we can no longer participate in; it had a goal and that goal is essentially fulfilled
  • The Old School Revival/Renaissance as Reactionary “Art” Movement
    • A desire to return to the roots of the hobby as a reaction to rule changes (and thus gameplay feel changes) in newer editions (3.5 D&D, etc), and in the play culture, for various specific reasons
  • The Old School Renaissance as Evolutionary “Art” Movement
    • An appreciation and advocating for, of some or all aspects of original and/or Renaissance-ed rulesets and the OSR as Playstyle, within the context of contemporary rulesets and playstyles
    • Re-imagining what-if scenarios for alternate rules or content of the original games
    • A freedom to combine old school rules with more modern mechanics
  • The OSR as a DIY attitude, of enthusiastic, free sharing of personal creations
    • I imagine this was ushered in by the ability to freely share new, compatible content granted by the OGL in the Revival period, allowing a bustling marketplace of ideas evolving into the Renaissance
    • There's also an aspect of resistance to chaining your creative content to a large corporation
  • The OSR as a Notional, Unified Social Scene
    • This is what most people refer to when they say “The OSR Community”
      • The social aspect of the entirety of the Blogosphere and the broader (high-discoverability) social networks like G+
      • The set of people we could consider “influencers” and those reading them, commenting and discussing with them
      • The constituents of this Scene has shifted over time, from
        • the folks taking the Revival to the Renaissance, some of them then moving on to other things, no longer posting actively online or creating content
        • to
        • new blood, in waves, taking up the attitude of the Movement
  • The OSR as a Collection of Individual, Concrete Social Scenes
    • Each of these are more of a community than the notional, unified OSR scene is
    • The set of more focused online social sites:
      • Forums
      • “Groups” in the social networks that support them, like Facebook
      • To a lesser extent, cliques of mutual followers on the “less open” social networks like Twitter, Tumbler, etc
    • The community of folks who often attend Conventions, and perhaps establish personal/direct communications in between them
    • Groups of friends and acquaintances in certain real-world locations (big cities usually)
    • Finally, Tables - the players of individual OSR style games
  • OSR as a Social Signal and In-Group Signifier
    • Respect for the experiences of elders, or “war stories” (“Back in my day we rolled 3D6 straight down the line!”), or authority from an adherence to "original texts"
    • Social support for others in both actual and para-social friend group
  • OSR as a Fulfillment of Nostalgia
    • "Actual" nostalgia in those who enjoyed playing the original games in their past
    • A chance to revisit past experiences with new context
    • Perhaps (to a lesser degree), "wistfulness" or a nostalgia for a past one has only experienced vicariously
  • OSR as a Playstyle Paradigm, both for GMs and Players
    • GM principles, sensibilities, methods, approaches
      • May or may not be supported to any extent by the design of the ruleset being used
      • GM as Impartial Arbitrator, discouragement of favoritism
      • Emphasizing open-ended freedom and unpredictable interplay between systems mostly beyond play control, over railroading and storytelling
      • Etc. [Insert Principia Apocrypha]
    • Player approaches and sensibilities
      • The mindset of a player in a game with rules that may or may not have OSR design principles, and/or a GM running it with OSR playstyle principles
      • This mindset could be an innate tendency, or learned by experience, or just an expectation or preference
  • OSR as a Conservative Design Space and Principles and/or Sensibilities
    • Game Design that encourages, or enforces an OSR GM or Player Playstyle
        • Often but not always favoring light rules, in service of Rulings over Rules
      • Often broadly compatibile with, or easily converted to/from, the original games and their retroclones
        • Or very similar to original games/retroclones with any or all of...
          • cruft removed
          • streamlined/unified mechanics
          • added "house" rules/sub-modules
    • OSR as an Innovative Design Space and Principles and/or Sensibilities
      • Game Design that encourages, enforces, or merely allows or evokes an OSR GM or Player Playstyle, or an OSR Aesthetic, OSR as genre, or other aspects
        • Often utilizing new types of mechanics, game structures, campaign frameworks, etc not found in the original games or retroclones
      • Preference for player skill over mechanics that resolve challenges for the player
      • Often a preference for presenting tools for running open, reactive sandboxes and setting agnosticism, over prescriptive, lore-dump setting
      • Book layout/design prioritizing usability at the table
      • Preference for hackability - modular rules that allow removing or adding your own additions or variations
      • And so on
    • OSR as a Set of Specific Games and their Retroclones
      • Primarily:
        • D&D, from OD&D up to AD&D 1E
        • Traveller
        • Braunstein and others
        • Other UK and European systems
    • OSR as a Body of Work
      • All rulesets, supplements, and otherwise gameable pieces of content influenced by, or in support of any other aspects
        • Both products (published books), and ephemera (blog posts, little pdfs, etc)
      • Being broadly compatible means GMs have a vast collection of material to pull from 
    • OSR as a “Game Genre”
      • Any or all of 
        • Dungeon Crawl
        • Hex Crawl
        • Sandbox
        • Funnel
    • OSR as Quasi-Literary Genre
      • The way a campaign report might read if turned into a cohesive story, including any combination of existing literary genres, most often:
        • Sword and Sorcery
        • Low-leaning Fantasy
        • Science Fantasy
        • Picaresque
        • Tragicomedy
        • Antiheroics
        • Horror
        • Cosmic/Existential Horror
        • “Gonzo”
        • Weird
        • New Weird
    • OSR as a Set of Aesthetics
      • Visual Aesthetics
        • In service of Nostalgia (which the others may be misconstrued as)
        • Ameteur art, evoking a DIY aesthetic, intentionally or otherwise
        • “Campiness” for the fun of it
        • Mature themes, gore, etc (which might be seen as permissible or encouraged in the OSR since it would never fly with the big publishers)
        • Ruination and Apocalyptica
          • in service of other aspects such as dungeoncrawling gameplay
          • in stride with pop culture at large
      • “Game-Feel” Aesthetics (basically another term for OSR as Game Genre and OSR as Playstyle)
    • OSR as a Marketing Label, and/or Marketplace
      • This doesn't interest me enough to detail it right now but you get the idea
    • OSR as an Act of Gameplay, an Experience at your Table
      • The combination of all of these elements when present, coming together into the experience of playing a game with friends/acquaintances at your table/VTT

    I encourage you to comment below, rather than elsewhere.

    Long live the Blogosphere!


    1. Greetings! My name is Richard Sharpe, though my Internet handle is Stripe. I am *very* new to OSR, the whole scene. I played "D&D" in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Just recently, now approaching middle age, I returned to the scene. As someone completely new, I have absolutely no expertise or authority to add anything to the conversation.

      However, I do want to say that in my attempts to define OSR—the act of game-play—I used your "Principia Apocrypha," Matthew Finch's "Quick Primer for Old School Gaming," and Arnold Kemp's Goblin Punch blog post, "OSR-Style Challenges: 'Rulings Not Rules' is Insufficient."

      As this post explains at length, OSR is many things, from a community, to a concept, to style of game-play, to a great deal more. However, I think it's necessary when discussing game-play to recognize by name the exact material that established the entirety of OSR. To me, that is the book "Chainmail;" the three-volunme set, "Men & Magic;" "Monsters & Treasure;" and "The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures;" the first supplement to those books, "Greyhawk;" the second supplement, "Blackmoor;" and—often forgotten—Avalon Hill’s "Outdoor Survival" game.

      Last, I would also direct new arrivals to the OSR Discord channel. The OSR Discord channel's invite is here: https://discord.gg/6vqF25E

      Thank you for your blog's wealth of fantastic offerings!

      — Richard Sharpe

      1. Hey Richard, cool to hear about your return to gaming, and thanks for the kind words!

        I'm hesitant to list every individual influential piece of material, lest this to be taken as an exhaustive, objective reference, but your comment works as a nice addendum, and I think you hit on a good point - It might be worth distinguishing between conservative and more modern-ized types of playstyle in a similar fashion to the design spaces. I'll be updating this post with a few other changes soon, so I'll probably edit in make this distinction.

      2. Thanks for your reply!

        I make my suggestion to include, by name, those specific materials (can't say "books" because of the Outdoor Survival game) for a number of reasons, but _not_ to distinguish between play styles. As we know, play style isn't chained to rules; one DM's B/X game can be wildly different from another.

        If you're gonna define "Old School Renaissance," you're gonna have to define "Old School." It's certainly not *my* "old school" we're talking about. As another example, it's not Arnold Kemp's "old school" either; he started with Pathfinder. So, whose "old school" are we talking about here? What *old school* are we *reviving?*

        If you don't want your list to be taken as exhaustive, just say so. I certainly didn't suggest such a thing; I listed every material I personally would include and I didn't even keep the other two OD&D supplements!

        I _am_ suggesting the definition of old school requires a description of the genesis, the bedrock, the absolute foundation upon which the table-top role-playing game hobby was established. It's not enough to just say "Blackmoor" or whatever. We have to know what the very first games were like and to know that, we have to know what materials those games used.

        Listing the materials upon which OSR is founded would be the least controversial issue of this exercise, I imagine.

        Just my opinion. Start at the beginning, I say. It's really not a big deal, though. I've read time and again that most common OSR games run some form of B/X anyway, and B/X came much later.

        Whatever the case, good luck!

        Thanks again for the blog!

      3. Hope I don't come off too opinionated over a small issue! Broke my #7 rib (and other injuries), so I was sitting alone at night on New Years bored. Not a big deal! Love the blog!

    2. Thank you for this. I would like to add a note to the aesthetic section: in my circles "OSR" also connotes specifically a reactionary stance against the prevailing 5e aesthetic sensibility as seen for example on reddit. From my biased standpoint, I would characterize this "5e aesthetic" as cartoonish, silly, light, and jokey; and I think it is somehow related to the proliferation of character-generation choices.


    Be kind, approach disagreements with curiosity, enrich the conversation!