Into the OSR – Post Zero

Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here.

What is the OSR?

OSR stands alternatively for Old School Revolution, Old School Revival, or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask and when it is you ask them. The term OSR dates back to the mid-00s when people on a number of online forums began trying to re-connect with a style of gaming associated with the origins of the hobby and the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Some people re-connected using dusty old tomes such as Tom Moldvay’s now famous 1981 D&D Basic set (usually referred to as BX) but the problem with using old rules is that a) they were not always written in a way that made them easy for modern audiences to understand, and b) there are only so many surviving physical copies of the old rule-sets. As a result, some people took it upon themselves to re-write the old documents and republish them for modern audiences. These are now referred to as retro-clones and while they come in a range of subtly varied forms, the first major retro-clone to get a release was Stuart Marshall and Matthew Finch’s Osric (the OSR credentials are right there in the acronym title).

While I will leave it up to future RPG historians to explain the cultural context behind the emergence and popularisation of the OSR, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the OSR started to become a thing around the time the D20 era had come to an end and an unpopular fourth edition was losing ground to Pathfinder as heir to the D&D legacy. Nor do I think it a coincidence that the simpler mechanics of early D&D came into vogue at a time when third edition, fourth edition, and Pathfinder were all emphasising tactical complexity while award-winning indie RPGs were all experimenting with mechanics designed to disrupt traditional table-dynamics to produce gaming experiences radically different to those of traditional RPGs.

Read enough blogposts or watch enough YouTube videos and you will soon realise that there are a number of different ways of characterising the OSR experience based upon what initially drew you to that scene: For some, OSR is about rediscovering the specific genre of heroic fantasy that was (more-or-less) unwittingly baked into early D&D by Gygax and his fellow travellers. For others, OSR is about using certain types of mechanic to reconstruct the feel that RPGs had in the early years of the hobby. For some people, the OSR is about rediscovering and leaning into the free-wheeling weirdness that pervaded a lot of the material that early RPG companies hurled into the marketplace. Just as there are many explanations for the rise of OSR as a scene, there are many explanations for why individual people have been drawn to it and the types of things that have been produced under and around the OSR label.

My Experiences with the OSR

I must admit that I was very wary of the OSR when it first started popping up on my radar. Some of the arguments swirling around the OSR reminded me of arguments put forward by TSR towards the end of its existence when it became clear that the company’s attempts at diversification had been disastrous and so they were pivoting back towards more traditional styles of products like the early mega-dungeon boxed-set Dragon Mountain.

This act of aesthetic retrenchment by a failing company was seen by some (including myself) as a response to the kinds of ‘artier’ and more culturally expansive games that were then being produced by companies like White Wolf. At the time, it felt like someone was drawing a line down the middle of the playground forcing me to choose between nerds with battle-maps and goths in fishnets and I couldn’t turn my back on D&D fast enough.

While TSR’s rediscovery of dungeon-crawling happened over ten years before anyone had even invented the term “OSR”, I always associated that strand of RPG culture with the aesthetic conservatism of TSR loyalists. An impression that was in no way attenuated by the fact that later editions of D&D seemed to be growing ever-more mechanically complex and combat-focused.

Back in the 1990s, I was no more ‘woke’ than the next middle-class white guy but I loved art house film and loved alternative music because they expanded the range of views and experiences I encountered and I always felt that TSR’s aesthetic conservatism was rooted in an unspoken cultural conservatism. If you are telling me that real RPGs are all about a bunch of tubby white guys playing with miniatures in their parents’ basements then it follows that the people who don’t look and play like that must be some form of illegitimate interloper. This impression that aesthetic nostalgia was joined at the hip with political and cultural conservatism only grew when I saw that a lot of right-wing nerds involved in reactionary projects like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies were also singing the praises of old school gaming. Indeed, the book on Appendix N was literally written by one of the beneficiaries of the Rabid Puppies slate, a guy who is still out there cheering for old school D&D.

The passage of time and the acquisition of cultural distance mean that I am now a lot less concerned about these kinds of right-wing nerds than I used to be. Aside from anything else, today’s right-wing money appears to be flowing into different pockets and the heat of the culture war seems to have shifted away from nerd spaces and towards feminist spaces that allow the right to harass trans people while also appearing respectable to middle-class female voters. But even if the right hadn’t lost interest in the geekier corners of popular culture, my lack of engagement with said geek culture is now so minimal that a bunch of fascist wankers aren’t going to stop me from finding what I want in the cultural detritus of end-stage capitalism.

Learning to love the OSR

One of the most striking things about today’s hobby is that the energy matrix appears to be the complete opposite of where it was when I last paid attention to the hobby. Back in the early to-mid 00s, D&D was on its arse and indie-gaming was still in the business of producing weird little PDFs of games you couldn’t understand without reading half a dozen threads at the Forge. What buzz and heat the RPG industry was producing seemed to be centred on traditional RPGs other than D&D. Fifteen years later and that energy matrix has completely reversed in so far as D&D is generating a lot of heat while non-traditional RPGs are a hive of boundless creativity. Meanwhile, traditional RPGs outside of D&D seem to be mostly expensive re-printings and re-editions of old rulesets as well as the occasional variation on an established theme. I have always kept an eye on the OSR as it was a stream of RPG culture that was neither a part of mainstream D&D, nor a space given over to non-traditional games.

I think what drew me to the OSR was the sense that people were ridding themselves of assumptions that had been baked into RPGs by forty years of commercial decision-making. This wasn’t steering contemporary D&D in a slightly different direction or interrogating the fundamentals of the RPG experience to produce new kinds of games, it was an attempt to look back at what people were doing right in the 1980s and re-run the history of RPGs using a different set of assumptions and market conditions. The OSR is practical hauntology and I find that really quite interesting.

One of the primary things that drew me to the OSR was the idea of rulings over rules. As someone who has always struggled to learn rules and who takes precisely zero pleasure in mastering systems, I have always seen RPGs as the stuff that takes place outside of the rules. When I run a game, I want people to be looking up and engaging with each other, not looking down at their character sheets and rulebooks. For a long time, this preference has been metabolised as a fondness for systems that ‘just work’ and which ‘disappear into the background’ but time and distance from the hobby has helped me to realise that the ability of systems to disappear is as much a function of familiarity as it is of mechanical complexity. Back in the day, my aversion to the more mechanical aspects of the RPG experience lead me to the world of non-traditional games but I soon realised that non-traditional gamers spend just as much time fretting over mechanics as D&D nerds, all that had changed were the language and the genre trappings.

Mileages vary and tipping points do exist, but OSR attracted me as it seemed to embody the style of gaming I preferred; one where the rules have just enough substance to give weight to the players’ decisions whilst also giving the GM the space and authority to run the world, react to players ideas, and make decisions on the fly without having to refer to specific rules and sub-systems.

On a more thematic level,  I was also drawn to the OSR by the fact that large sections of the scene seemed to be leaning into the idea of dungeons not as places of violence and tactical engagement so much as horror and bafflement. I wanted dungeons to be like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker or the monolith in Budrys’ Rogue Moon, and while official releases of D&D have become ever more epic and trended away from that vision of dungeons, the OSR scene appears to have gleefully leaned into it. I am not interested in epic tactical battles and super-powered heroes triumphing over evil… I want to run games about small people who are terrified for their lives and where survival is less a matter of learning the mechanics and more a question of thinking, learning, and talking things through as a group: I want rulings over rules and problem-solving over optimal builds.

Another thing I love about the OSR is its commitment to a DIY ethic. Like most cultural spaces, mainstream RPG spaces seem to have become increasingly defined by patterns of hollow cultural consumption where you are forever being hectored to buy new editions of old games and to purchase ever-more expensive pre-written materials. At first, I was fine with running pre-written materials but, as my reviews have shown, I am starting to realise that my profound ambivalence towards a lot of pre-written RPG materials is probably just a sign that I should be writing all of my own stuff.

The OSR seems to embody an alternative to consumerism by emphasising the personal nature of a lot of the stuff that is being produced. Sure, people make money off of their games and some people do very well as full-time gamers and designers but every OSR blog I read seems to come from an intensely personal set of preferences and it is from the personal nature of this output that the OSR gets a lot of its weirdness. Reading these blogs, I am inspired to put more of myself into my RPG sessions and get into the habit of writing things myself.

Another factor in my decision to run an OSR-inspired campaign is the fact that when I ran an few sessions of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the people I played with really responded to the weirdness, the horror-inflected vibe, and the presence of puzzles and things that had to be solved by working them out together as a group. As someone who hadn’t run any kind of dungeon since his earliest years in the hobby, I was surprised not only by how much my group seemed to get out of it, but also by how much I enjoyed running it.

Strategic Choices for the preparation of My OSR Campaign.

This blog post was written, in part, to serve as an introduction to a series of pieces in which I write up the creative decision-making involved in the prep I am now doing for my next campaign. I’ll be getting into tangible stuff like character-creation, adventure-design, and world-building in later posts but when I decided to run an OSR-inspired campaign, I started to make creative decision that narrowed the field of possibility and so helped to shape the decisions that would come later.

Firstly: I wanted to maximise player agency by focusing my preparation on spaces rather than stories. Looking back at how I have tended to prep and run games, I realise that while I am happiest and most comfortable improvising and letting the creativity emerge organically, I have often tended to stack the deck in favour of certain outcomes by preparing for those outcomes and allowing the players to naturally drift towards the areas of most creative richness. For example, if the players are faced with a fork in the road and one of those forks leads to an eloquently described temple full of mystery and symbol and the other form leads to ‘like a big forest’ then players will naturally drift towards the temple because it seems richer and more interesting.

While my own tendencies are not quite as pronounced as in that example, I do want the players to have complete freedom and so everything I create will be created as a sandbox with all avenues of adventure treated equally. What this means in practice is not only non-linear design at an adventure level but also non-linearity and horizontalism at the pre-adventure stage when players are still deciding what it is they want to do in a given session. Do the players want to delve into a dungeon? I can do that. Do the players want to get involved in local politics? I can do that. Do the players want to start burgling houses? I can do that. Do the players want to ally with the bad guys and rise up through their ranks? I can do that too. While I would like there to be a mix of violent and non-violent adventures, I am perfectly prepared to allow the players to open up a bakery and have the game develop into something you might find in a romantic slice-of-life anime series. I want the stories to emerge organically from their interaction with the world rather than from my ideas about what constitutes an interesting story.

Secondly: I want some of the week-to-week experience of the game to be devoted to resource management. I mention this as I have long had a tendency to view stuff like travelling, encumbrance, and expenses as being quite dull. I don’t always enjoy managing that type of stuff as a player and so I often hand-wave it when I am serving as GM.

This campaign will break with that tradition as I realise that dealing with this type of stuff is a challenge and overcoming challenges is fun. Failing to overcome challenges can be fun too and I expect the players fucking up their resource management to be a source of fun and plot-devices in-game. If it turns out that the players really don’t want to serve as their own accountants and quarter-masters then they can hire some NPCs to do that work for them… which opens up a whole other set of narrative possibilities. The template and inspiration for this kind of stuff is unquestionably the Knights of the Dinner Table strips in which the group would mistreat their hirelings to the point where said hirelings would rise-up and become the campaign’s primary antagonists.

Thirdly: One of the harder decisions I have had to make thus far relates to hex-maps. My original concept for this campaign was inspired by stuff like Viking Greenland and the idea of adventurers trying to eke out a living on an unexplored land-mass. I wanted to do hex-by-hex exploration with rules for foraging and stuff like that. The problem is that I have never played with a hex-map and while I have spent some time looking into the best ways of running a hex-based game, I don’t feel that I am ready to step up to that particular plate as a GM.

In the future, I would like to be at the point where I can design maps using software, fill the maps using one of the various hex-mapping systems that have been produced under the auspices of the OSR, and have the group develop their own maps as they explore the world. However, given that I have never run a hex-based game and my players are all quite inexperienced, I will probably use some variation on point-to-point mapping while hand-waving some of the mechanical rigours of travel. The hex-maps will come as will the map-building software but I think I’m already going to be asking a lot of myself as well as my players and I don’t want anyone getting overwhelmed.

 Fourthly: I wanted the world to get gradually bigger and to unlock new options as it grows. The first few sessions will probably be spent exploring a specific geographical area containing a dungeon and from there we will move to a campaign hub, which will be the centre of the campaign world (itself an island). I am also planning on limiting the players to human characters at first because the world in which the campaign is set is going to be mostly human-based. I am planning on introducing meta-humans as playable characters but I want the group to encounter those cultures in-game before allowing them to play the characters. This will give me the chance to come up with an interesting take on each of the races.

Fifthly: I want my campaign to have quite a specific tone that will move between horror, fantasy, and black comic satire. The big influences here are going to be the works of Michael Moorcock and the first edition of Warhammer.

At first, I kind of struggled to reconcile this with my desire to let the players tell their own stories but it then occurred to me that plot is one thing and theme is another. Plot is a way of describing actions taken by PCs as well as NPCs while theme is a way of describing the context in which those decisions are made. I will write a bit more about this when I look at adventure design but I am thinking that I can introduce certain themes and ideas into play by shaping what the world looks like and who inhabits it. For example, one of the themes I want to touch upon is the idea of communities trying to keep themselves together in the context of a failed state that has lost all interest in them. As such, the first adventure will probably revolve around the group exploring a military emplacement which, though ruined, used to be home to the imperial military that enforced the authority of the state. I imagine that this will take a bit of fine-tuning as there’s only so much theme-setting you can do before you start littering your own game-world with books of Skyrim-style irrelevant lore but I am planning on giving this campaign a satirical edge whilst also allowing the players to tell their own stories of heroism.

I realise that this is all very abstract but take this as a Post Zero and an attempt by me to get a running start on writing up my own creative decisions.

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