Friday, October 10, 2014

What is the OSR?

I don't care.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not one of those 'why can't they all shut up and just play?' people. Bloggers can't shut up. Nor should they. But as will be clear in a moment, I'm more interested in describing a type of game or a style of play that we shall call Old School, for lack of a better term. On the other hand, defining the OSR movement--when it started, why it started, who started it, and then of course the inevitable (for some) what went wrong, who led it astray, etc. etc, and so on and so forth--is not my bag. Among other things, I wasn't there. If you were there, that's great, and my sincere thanks if you contributed to resurrecting or bettering Old School gaming in even the smallest way. But in a certain sense (and don't take this in the wrong way) I don't really care about that either. Or rather, I'm not going to swoon because, say, in your opinion Encounter Critical was more important or characteristic of the movement than Swords & Wizardry or whatever. Indeed, if you make that sort of claim coupled with the logical fallacy of claiming that it's true because, well, you were there, that's just going to annoy me. Partly because I'm jealous of you. I'm lazy and usually late to parties anyway.

So what is Old School? Just to be scrupulously fair, balanced and non-confrontational, let's discuss that question partly in reference to an entity we'll call The Man. Also for the fun of it, and very uncharacteristically for this blogger, the following 25 propositions will be asserted briefly, with little extra detail or explanation.

  1. The Old School is not The Man.
  2. The Old School wants you to do the imagining. The Man wants to imagine things for you.
  3. The Old School treats you like an adult (even if you're a child). The Man condescends to you (even if you're an adult).
  4. The Old School wants you to roll up a character. The Man wants you to build one
  5. The Old School gives you 100 pages of rules (or 25 pages of rules with multiple columns and really tiny print). The Man gives you 400 pages of rules and 500 pages of description (see 2. above).
  6. The Old School's text is difficult to read because the text is small. The Man's text is difficult to read because there's an image overlaying it.
  7. The Old School wants to kill you (often or at least sometimes). The Man wants to hold your hand through 29th level.
  8. The Old School wants the wandering monster to be randomly determined. The Man wants your solving a puzzle to be randomly determined.
  9. The Old School isn't 5e. The Man wants you to think that it is. (If you disagree, that doesn't make you a bad person. I hope we can laugh together over a beer how wrong you were on this issue.)
  10. The Old School doesn't want your money, or at least doesn't want very much of it. Or when it does, it gives you a really nice collectors edition that you will always treasure (even if you get it two years late). The Man wants to sell you multiple 'Core' books at $50 apiece, and then wants to sell you additional 'Core' books with numbers added to them--'Core Book 2', 'Core Book 3', and so on--for $50 apiece. It will also cost you an additional $50 to have your hand held through 9th level (not including the battle mats).
  11. The Old School wants you to become a hero. The Man lies to you that you already are one.
  12. The Old School speaks Chaotic. The Man speaks Abyssal.
  13. The Old School defines you by your actions. The Man defines you by your character sheet.
  14. The Old School wants you to explore dungeons. The Man wants you to explore your character's sexual preferences.
  15. The Old School is sexy. The Man is a sex theorist.
  16. The Old School offends you (sometimes). The Man is offended by you.
  17. The Old School wants to see what happens. The Man wants to plan things.
  18. The Old School loves your unpredictability. The Man hates it.
  19. The Old School gives you good art, sometimes even great art. Or at least it wants to when it can afford it. The Man wants to pawn off tacky looking videogame-like images on you as art, thinking you won't notice.
  20. The Old School gives you art that stimulates your imagination. The Man gives you art that stimulates your torpidity.
  21. The Old School is C.L Moore. The Man is Katherine Kurtz.
  22. The Old School is a brilliant amateur historian repairing shoes in his basement to provide for his family. The Man is a $400,000 Kickstarter.
  23. The Old School embodies diversity. The Man preaches it.
  24. The Old School wants you to make choices. The Man wants you to be part of his story.
  25. The Old School is you and me. The Man is too. Or it's who we're tempted to conform with or suck up to. We don't have to.
Fight On!


  1. #22 Should include guys like you who are putting out good stuff for .. what ... hundreds of dollars per year?

  2. Haha, nice list. Defining OSR is the new OSR.

  3. This may be favorite post on the subject. I'm kinda in the same boat: nothing against defining the OSR, but I wasn't there and don't really have a horse in this race. Hell, I can't even call myself a grognard. A neo-grognard, maybe, but I think I'm ineligible for anything more than that, even if I feel more at home with this crowd than the new schoolers

    One major thing I'd add, and it's one of my favorite aspects of older editions: The Old School is information dense; the Man sells you useless padding. Seriously, just compare the older rulebooks and see how much more cool stuff they fit into fewer pages. So much of it's shit that you'd have to buy supplements for in 3e. Character customization's nice and all, but I'd rather that be in the supplements (minus fifty feats that all do the same damn thing) and domain play brought back to the core rules. I mean, who wouldn't want to build a castle?!

  4. As one of the guys who is in the running for having "started" the OSR, let me say that I agree very much with your list. Laughed my butt off. (And I love Jirel of Joiry, even if I can't figure out how to say either "Jirel" or "Joiry" right.)

    1. Zhee-rel of Zhwah-ree. Zh being pronounced like s in measure. The R sound is a beast, though.

    2. Just imagine it's French. Which it sort of is.

  5. I'm not sure where my first reply went? However, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. My view on the latest revival of the argument on old school? Opinions Shared Randomly!

  6. Fight on? Right on!

    Anyway, yeah, I just posted on this tempest in a virtual teapot, and I think that we are both in agreement that it is about play styles, not about movements.

  7. Good post, amigo. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  8. The OSR-calypse!

  9. Love. My one question being, can you actually stimulate torpidity? And is that anything like firing a torpedo?

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  11. Very enjoyable read (and so true, especially #21)!

  12. I missed this post but you are spot on!

  13. Just got around to reading this post. I have been around since the beginning of the whole OSR thing and I have been pretty unconcerned about it and I am not jealous of those who are concerned with it. I agree in large part with your entire post. I only have one bone to pick with you. :) What have you got against Katherine Kurtz? :) While C. L. Moore is most definitely Old School, I really have a hard time trying to see Katherine Kurtz as The Man.

    However, even though I have been around the whole time, I still am still not sure what the OSR is but you have crafted an excellent definition of what Old School is and that is what I for one hope that all those who call themselves part of the OSR are striving for and that is to truly be Old School.

    1. You know, I had been tossing around many of those ideas in my head for some time (most of them are pretty standard) but the Moore/Kurtz line just sort of came to me in a second. Yet it almost seemed that half of the comments were about it. :)

      I know this probably sounds disingenuous, but not every point is good vs. bad. There's a little bit of light-hearted deprecation about Old School as well. And of course a bit of exaggeration about it's rival. Much of it is unfair, obviously. I hope that makes it more fun.

      So, for Kurtz, part of it is based on Le Guin's observation that in a certain sense there wasn't any true _fantastic or exotic element_in her prose. You could replace the "medieval" names and places with contemporary ones and the dialogue would read like a boring exchange about late 20th century politics. And to look at it in a (probably unfair) negative light, one might say that the focus on the complex political intrigue might be contrasted with (again to exaggerate in a different direction) the simple fun of much of the "pulp" writers.

    2. It's interesting to me that we have reached a point where we can't assume that fantasy readers (and, given the ease of entering the field lately, therefore also writers) have read "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie". In a sense, that's a great thing, as it implies a massive democratization of fantasy. On the other hand, it's a sad thing, since that essay is so useful in the pursuit of the subject.

  14. The Old School is C.L Moore. The Man is Katherine Kurtz.

    While I get you're continuing a LeGuin tradition here (if you know it or not) what did poor Katherine ever do to you.

    Besides, the OSR is much more Leigh Bracket :)

    If you were there, that's great, and my sincere thanks if you contributed to resurrecting or bettering Old School gaming in even the smallest way.

    Want to hear a funny...I was kind of there and my old RPG blog, People To Be had its first entry in July 2007 (

    Yet when you replied to my new commentary on OD&D on G+ I went all fangirl given you're blog is a regular read (if not a regular comment) and Zylarthen is probably my favorite OD&D clone/rewrite/whatever.

    So thank yourself for embracing what it really is.

    1. My first fangirl! Yay! :)

      I think you're right about Bracket. I might have been reading Moore at the time.

      I think I followed your original blog and then lost track of it. I apologize. I will go back and look. Actually, I thought it was on my link list, but apparently not.

      Thanks for your kind comments. I really appreciate it. I'm sorry for letting down the side and not following up. There's at least one new product that I want to get out soon.

      It's weird. I felt good about what I did, but there was a point where I couldn't face tinkering with it anymore and had to give it a rest, at least for a little while.