Friday, January 6, 2012

Everybody Talks About the OSR but Nobody Does Anything About It

(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?


  1. If I had to define the OSR with a simple notion, it would be taking old rule sets seriously on their own terms.

    I also like Rob Conley's definition:

    To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It is about going back to the roots of our hobby and seeing what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.

    That's the one I stuck on the OSR Search page. I like to think of the OSR, much like that search engine, as an opt-in collective.

    Not that I really know what I'm talking about.

    I think that most people focus on the OS part, but I'm coming to think that there is quite a bit more R (i.e., innovation) than is commonly acknowledged (but my thoughts are still rather formless here).

  2. The problem with this work of trying to define it is that it's really hard not to exclude some people who currently fly the OSR banner (like me, for instance, even though I don't love D&D). The problem with not defining it is that eventually someone else will. The trouble with movements is that they move - given time they will no longer be about what they were about initially - ie some people will be eft out if them, like moraines (glacier-rocks, not morons). And movements are moved by micro-power: personal influence, influential products, sheer weight of production pushing in certain directions, who gets read more than whomever else, so that eventually you discover that it was all about Gary rather that Dave, or Zak rather than Babbling Bane or whatever, and that's what everyone winds up thinking is important.

    I say the OSR is the sum total of everyone who self-identifies as OSR. And those people share some common characteristics: a dissatisfaction with current published product and a love for the games and atmosphere of the early days of the hobby

  3. sorry, left out of, not eft out if. Damn phone keyboard.

  4. I like your definition, Perdustin. I'm sure it could be tweaked here and there, but overall it seems cool.

    Richard, I like your first part where you say that the OSR is basically just the sum total of people who identify themselves as being part of the OSR. However, I have to disagree with your statement that they all share a dissatisfaction with current game systems. We don't all feel that way. I personally actually really like Pathfinder and it's the core rule system of my campaign that's been running since May 2001 and started with the 3E rules. I also like Savage Worlds quite a bit.

    But within the past year I've also. DM'd an AD&D/ORSIC game, and that never would've happened if I hadn't stumbled across all of these OSR blogs and began to redevelop an appreciation for the older systems. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't like the new ones also.

    Just my two cents.

  5. Yes, the OSR is a movement and, yes, movements change. Nothing is constant. When attempting to define a movement, it is easy to be too broad or too narrow. I think that I have characterized the essence of the movement without excluding anyone who would self-identify as being part of the OSR. Also, I feel that the vintage games that are not D&D deserve much more attention.

    Brendan brings up a good point. I think that some critics consider the OSR to be stagnant and useless. I don't feel this way. Certainly, I don't believe that everything put forth under the supposed aegis of the OSR is worthwhile, but the OSR does inspire creativity. With this in mind, I hereby amend by definition thus:

    "The new focus by hobbyists on vintage role-playing games and the exploration of the potential of those games."

  6. I think to be completely honest, you have to add the following words to the end:

    ", and the sharing of ideas and inspiration through the medium known as the internet."

    Just saying. No internet = no OSR.

  7. That post by McCauley on the contradictions of the OSR is poor. Anbody can find two opposing points on the net about anything. To post them as he did and claim, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" is just lazy. The fact is there is a tremendous amount of dogma that has come out of the OSR echo chamber for years. To post such a comment, and then post another comment in apparent opposition to it is not addressing it. Jimmie Mal is the High Priest of Dogma, though Raggi is a close huffing and puffing second. In particular, the whole "Thou shalt play this way - and your characters are meaningless cyphers" dictum is pathetic. Gary and Rob didn't spend their delving careers poking everywhere with 10 foot poles, and their characters Mordenkainen and Robilar - by all accounts their first characters - were not throw aways, as they used them for years. The whole latter view point of "old school" characters are in direct contradiction of how the game was played - but that doesn't stop the dogmaticists.

    Oh, yeah, your point -

    Anyway, your revised definition is inclusive and seems fairly accurate, but Gorge has a good point. The net has been the medium it has all taken place in.


  8. I have added a sentence to the definition (as seen in the sidebar) to indicate the pertinent fact that the OSR is fundamentally an Internet phenomenon.

    I can't speak for Macauley, but the reason I linked to his post was to show the variety of ways people think about the OSR. No definition is going to resolve those conflicting views, but it can help establish what the OSR is and what it is not.

    In the comments of a previous post I said that D&D is like religion (you can still quote me). Unfortunately, dogma tends to accompany religion and, as you point out, there are dogmatic forces at work in the OSR. Their beliefs are valid but they need to appreciate that their beliefs are not exclusively valid. The only “true way” is to repent of anything that is not fun and to accept the eternal, unconditional love of Dave and Gary. “Old School” is not merely how Gygax may have played; it includes how everyone interpreted (and continues to interpret) the early editions. There is no single correct answer (except for what I believe).

  9. OSR = "the new focus by hobbyists on vintage role-playing games, including newly created material compatible with those games"

    I'm happy with your definition.

    As you say, just because a vocal minority of RPGers try and claim OD&D and it's many spinoff clones is the definition of OSR -> DOES NOT MAKE IT SO <-

    So, a big shout out for: Tunnels & Trolls (1975), Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), Boot Hill (1975), En Garde! (1975), Bunnies & Burrows (1976), Chivalry and Sorcery (1977 and my personal favourite!) and RuneQuest (1978)

    And then when the 80's hit it exploded so there are far too many to mention.