(with apologies to Samuel Clemens or Charles Dudley Warner)
Brad at Skull Crushing For Great Justice has announced he is “done with OSR games.” In the comments, your humble host asked if there is a commonly accepted definition of OSR. Other than an Alfred Whitehead quote Brendan presented as an allegory, I received no satisfaction. As pithy as Whitehead is, I feel that a definition should have more…well, definition.
I believe that most of the community thinks of the OSR in a fashion similar to how Justice Stewart considered pornography, “[P]erhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining it]…But I know it when I see it.” Everyone has their own notion of the OSR; a concept vague enough to accommodate an unspoken consensus. Isn’t that sufficient? Can’t we just leave it that way? My answer is “no.” If people are going to complain about it, if people are going to defend it, if people are going to espouse it, then we have to define it. This is hardly uncharted territory; we should see how people have attempted to define it thus far.
The best definition that Wikipedia has to offer is in its entry for ‘Dungeons & Dragons simulacrums.’ That article states, “The games are fostered and supported online by various forums and blogs, sometimes collectively referred to as Old School Renaissance (OSR), but are also increasingly finding their way into brick and mortar game stores.” Does ‘OSR’ refer to the games or to the various forums and blogs? Either way, it does not work as a proper definition.
Akrasia at Akratic Wizardry attempted to define OSR via the people who comprise it, but he acknowledged in the comments that merely identifying the demographic is insufficient.
Macauley at There’s Dungeons Down Under put some effort into establishing a definition of OSR and he listed contradictions of OSR criticisms. What is the Old School Renaissance? His answer:
A term used to describe the vigorous growth of activity and interest in TSR D&D over the last several years, begun online, but spreading beyond that medium.
Macauley is a follower of this blog, so I don’t want to offend him and I don’t want it to seem as though I am dismissing his work. The fact is I don’t like this definition. However, in the following paragraph, he makes a statement that is closer to what I think the definition should be.
Simply a bunch of like-minded individuals who love TSR D&D (and other games of a similar vintage) and want to share that passion with others.
Yes, this is merely the demographic, but it contains some useful elements. “Other games of a similar vintage” is an important point. Sadly, but perhaps understandably, there seems to be a myopic fixation on D&D. There are other old school RPGs. If the OSR is not about nostalgia, then it should not be limited to “the world’s most popular role-playing game.” Also important is the mention of “love” and “passion.” Ultimately, the OSR is the expression of a hobby, an activity to which people devote themselves. Yes, there is a business aspect, but that is ancillary. The OSR entrepreneurs (at least for the most part) display an undeniable affection for the material.
I have no delusion that the definition I set forth in this post will become the comprehensive meaning of the OSR, universally recognized henceforth, but this is what the OSR means to me. If you disagree with this definition, tell me why. I may even be compelled to revise it. If you think this definition is worthwhile, then use it; perhaps it is the seed from which a common understanding shall arise.
One definition of a renaissance is: a new focus on a subject, especially the arts. So my definition of Old School Renaissance is ‘the new focus by hobbyists on vintage role-playing games, including newly created material compatible with those games.’
Obviously, there are specific details that this definition does not address. When did the new focus begin? What qualifies as vintage? These exact details are open to debate, but I feel that my definition – as is – captures the essential nature of the OSR. Do you agree?