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Howling Tower: Old-School Renaissance

Howling Tower: Old-School Renaissance

Old-School Renaissance

A movement is happening in the shadows of the big fantasy RPGs. It calls itself the old-school renaissance, or OSR for short. You might have seen its logo popping up around the web.

Like most grassroots movements, there’s no specific date when this got started. It’s tough even to say whether what we’re seeing is a true renaissance or just greater visibility thanks to the web. Old-school blogs are easy to find. I run across a “new” one every couple of days. The best of them are outstanding. They offer some of the best RPG blogging out there.

Every edition has its adherents who never jumped to a newer version; they get everything they want from whichever generation of D&D they’re playing. What distinguishes the OSR from people who never stepped away from AD&D or OD&D is the appearance of retroclone games. Retroclones are newly written games that emulate the rules and frequently the writing style of D&D rules from the 1970s and early ’80s. These publications are made possible by the OGL and the SRD (and possibly by a lack of interest or time in the Wizards of the Coast legal department).

It seems that another old-school game appears every few months. Most of the early titles began as web giveaways, print-on-demand titles, or small press runs. Some of those, such as Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Microlite20, and Labyrinth Lord, proved popular enough to become lasting products and OSR leaders. Later entries have been commercial productions from the start, like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, The Secret Fire, and the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. All around the fringes are countless small indie games, sometimes comprising only a page or two of rules, and crowd-sourced games that are given away free or sold as PDFs for a nominal price.

So far, the OSR has focused chiefly (but not entirely) on early editions of Dungeons & Dragons: OD&D (the original 1974 rules), Holmes D&D (the edition assembled and edited by J. Eric Holmes in 1978), B/X D&D (the Basic and Expert D&D sets published in 1981), and AD&D. Initially at least, that focus arose from scarcity. You can’t play early versions of D&D if you can’t find copies of the rules for a reasonable price. A retroclone makes the old rules or something very much like them easy and inexpensive to get.

D&D’s appearance in 1974 triggered an explosion of RPGs that ran the field from terrific to terrible. There were simple games and complex games, simulationist and abstract games, class-based and skill-based games, games that stressed epic stories and games that stressed dungeon crawling for gold and magic. Up to now, there’s been a noticeable sameness to many of the OSR games. Maybe that’s unavoidable, given that they’re intentionally evoking early D&D. More variation seems to be coming; some recent games have taken bigger creative chances by stepping further away from the tried-and-true formula of D&D.

The OSR movement really harkens back to the small-press D&D variants that boomed in the 1970s, before TSR started aggressively protecting its trademarks. OD&D begged for home rules, and companies such as Judges Guild, Balboa Game Company, Grimoire Games, and numerous others printed what were essentially the publishers’ home rules as D&D variants.

What motivates this resurgence of interest in versions of a game that have been out of print for thirty years? Undoubtedly some of it is pure nostalgia. Some fans have been turned off by the corporate policies of big publishers. Some feel that the dominant games in the market are too complex, too commercial, too focused on supplements and expansions, too rigidly structured, or too dependent on rules mastery. Some prefer a game that’s geared toward dungeons stocked with traps, tricks, monsters, treasures, and little else. Some want rules that play fast, that disdain minutiae, that are easy for the GM and players to mutate on the fly, and that punish character mistakes with sudden death.

I don’t discount any of those attractions. The games are fun, the rules tend to be easy to learn and inexpensive (if not free), fans are friendly and active online, and if you were part of the hobby in the ‘70s, the nostalgia aspect is undeniable. I believe there’s another aspect to it, though. I sense a different atmosphere at OSR conventions from other cons. The difference is that attendees and OSR fans, like gamers in the 1970s, know they’re part of a niche. They’re proud to be part of a niche.

Here in the 21st Century, D&D is mainstream. Roleplaying games are just another piece of pop culture. To society at large, D&D and Pathfinder players are hobbyists not much different from muggles, gleeks, fly fishers, or Ikeafans.

The OSR community is small by comparison and not particularly well known even in the larger RPG hobby. Being part of it feels special. The games give the impression of being labors of love instead of products, even in those cases where they are products. That, I think, is the OSR’s distinct draw. It’s a special club just for those who’ve seen the light of old-school roleplaying, and being a member feels pretty cool.

29 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Old-School Renaissance”

  1. Well put! The OSR is indeed a small niche of dedicated enthusiasts who at the onset wanted to go back to the roots and make old school style gameplay viable again. I’ve been involved since 2005/2006 with Matt Finsh and Stuart Marshall and the Knights and Knaves Alehouse gang that came together to work on the first clone OSRIC. It has been a labor of love for sure. I’ve primarily been an artist (much of the work in the OSRIC hardback is mine as well as the Advanced Adventures line from Expeditious Retreat Press and many others). I think the greatest thing has been to contribute back to the game I love in the manner that I love. I like the grassroots feel and the fact that anyone can jump in and participate (I know there are some folks that say that there are some exclusionary groups but for the most part I think that is a smaller number than the overall number of enthusiasts involved). The past two are three years have been particularly interesting in that we are seeing the OSR branch out from simply cloning older systems, to really taking the older systems and do new things with them. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Stars Without Number, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea amongst others. There are lots of great blogs and MANY opprotunities to participate through blogs, message boards, crowd funded projects… even old school paper fan zines! Yes, I think it is a great time to be a hobbyist gamer!

  2. Morgan Boehringer

    Two more “old school revivals” just had very successful kickstarter campaigns:
    Myth and Magic, a 2e based game; and Champions of Zed, a pre-0e game ( apparently based on a “lost” manuscript of Dave Arneson’s and early manuscripts of both Gygax and Arneson).

    As for the pull of these retros and clones and reimaginings: I agree, nostalgia is a huge part of it. For me, the artwork and the “voice” of early Basic/Expert and 1e modules still fires my inspiration. It was at times, compared to today’s slick approach, clunky and outlandish, but when I think “fantastic adventure” I think Otus, Trampier, Sutherland, Willingham, Truman, Raupp (sp?) and Lakofka, Gygax, Turnbull et al… Innovators and initiators of a new movement, striking out boldly across a new frontier, making mistakes with the best of them and creating incredible richness, detail and mystery.

    P.S. That O.S.R. Logo is absolutely incredible. So simple yet so familiar. Square blue grid on white field… I love it!!!

  3. Nice article. I’m glad you challenge the conception that this is simply something born out of grognardian stubbornness. Much to the contrary, I find most of the high-level contributors are people who have played and are familiar with a vast number of games, but simply wanted to step back to lighter, more hackable rules and a certain style of play that has gone missing in later years. Hopefully you’ll inspire some people to take a look.

  4. Kairam Ahmed Hamdan


    I’d really like to know more about which OSR game is more like each of the old D&D, Holmes D&D, AD&D 1e or AD&D 2e. Btw, is there an OSR that goes like Rules Cyclopedia? I’m old to AD&D (playing since 1989) but a bit new to OSR.


  5. Kairam here is a quick primer:

    OD&D = Swords & Wizardry, Microlite 74
    1E AD&D = OSRIC
    2E AD&D = Gold & Glory, Myth & Magic
    B/X Basic D&D = Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game (BFRPG)
    Rules Cyclopedia = Dark Dungeons

    These are just the most well known, there are lots of rules sets out there emulating one thing or another from the old days!

  6. Kairam, here’s an off-the-cuff stab at retro-clones for different early editions – others will no doubt have their own preferred ones:

    Original D&D: Champions of ZED
    Holmes D&D: Swords & Wizardry White Box
    Moldvay/Cook Basic D&D: Labyrinth Lord
    AD&D 1E: OSRIC
    AD&D 2E: Myth & Magic
    D&D Rules Cyclopedia: Adventurer Conqueror King System

    The latter has contributions from me and Johnathan, plus rules for wizards building dungeons and cross-breeding monsters to make insane hybrids!

  7. James; I tend to conflate the two, since they’re both about old-school type play. For someone primarily interested in older style rules, you’re right, ML74 is the more obvious choice.

    The replies from Mike and Tavis are a good indicator of the variety of resources out there for OSR fans. Each edition seems to have more than one clone, some of which are now spawning variants and offshoots of their own.

  8. Tavis: Is Champions of Zed available anywhere? I thought it was still in its larval Kickstarter stage.

    A few of my favorite OSR games aren’t mentioned here, because they’re more on the order of new interpretations rather than re-interpretations. Those are Mazes & Minotaurs (http://mazesandminotaurs.free.fr/) for its laserlike dedication to purpose and its amazing, hilarious faux history, and Searchers of the Unknown (http://bit.ly/MShsy4) for how much pure game it packs into one page of rules.

  9. I think what Steve writes is part of it. I might have started out with some nostalgia (for a time of gaming history I was only a bystander for, not a participant). Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I don’t think it’s really nostalgia by this point. What I do have is resources going back to the beginning days of the game – a common language – with other people creating products that speaks to the interests that I have: Weird Tales, psychedelic experiences, adventuring (IRL), maybe a more “adult” version of the game (here I’m speaking strictly of D&D), that might have been had not the Satanic Panic of the 80s kicked in.

  10. To clarify more: it was definitely nostalgia for me…in the 90s. When I was in my early teens, I fell in with a gaming group with a DM a few years older and had an extensive, extensive, extensive collection of old D&D material. We declared ourselves an “old school” group long before the revival happened (or was it just that it kinda percolated on?) albeit what it was was teenagers interpreting a massive collection and then just playing in the DM’s homebrew world and system. I ended up spending a lot of time looking at my older brother’s collection that I inherited and trying to make sense of the various systems I got (Holmes Basic, Advanced PHB, Mentzer Basic & Expert) and the modules for them.

    Now thanks to the internet we can talk to the people who “were there, maaaaaaaaaaaan” (sans Gygax, Arneson, Bledsaw now to our loss) and suddenly, at least for me, it all clicked together. “Oh, I get it.”

  11. People who dig old-school games should probably take a look at Dungeonslayers. It’s free to download, and the 4th edition has just been released in English.

  12. Steve: I think that the ideal retroclones for OD&D and 2E have yet to be written. I don’t know 2E well enough to say whether Adventures Dark & Deep or Myth & Magic is going to get it right. I have a lot of faith in ZED on the basis of Aldarron’s insight on the OD&D proboard and having seen the early draft found in Barker’s garage that he’s working with.

    It’s interesting to see the order in which retroclones were made. Does the fact that 1E and Basic/Expert were the first to be covered suggest that these were D&D’s most popular editions? It’s also interesting to think about where the OSR is at compared to where TSR was at during a similar period. Seems to me that the move from pure retro-clones to second-wavers like LotFP, ACKS, and DCC comes at a similar period as when things like Runequest and Arduin are expressing their own particular vision of the D&D core.

    I’m doing a panel on the OSR at Gen Con, Saturday at 1 – hope some of y’all can make it!

  13. Personally, I think the appeal of the retroclones goes beyond nostalgia. A lot of it has to do with digust and dismay over the kitchen-sink plug-in anything and everything that Dungeons & Dragons has become over the past 12 years.

    We all grew up on the basic six stats and roll high to hit a monster. But with the continual Official tinkering of the game that’s turned D&D and AD&D into Dumb & Dumber and Attention Deficit Disorder, those of use who’ve been around for 20, 30, yes, 40 years feel like we’ve been given new Coke and told it’s for the better.

    The reason that retroclones keep popping up is that the system works. In 12 years WOC/Hasbro has given us FIVE editions of a game that had two editions in its first 26 years of existance. Granted, there were problems–Exactly how you learn to play the game comes to mind. Yet, the “apprenticeship” way of teaching our friends what was going on with those manuals and funny-shaped dice are what built this odd community, not constant over-priced revisions.

  14. Tavis: Wish I could be there at the Gencon panel. Should be interesting. Let’s hope someone records it for YouTube.

    “Ideal” is such a subjective term that I doubt it’s achievable. OD&D and AD&D themselves were far from ideal, so what would such a game look like?

    I, too, have thought about the OSR’s development path in terms of the hobby’s original evolution and noticed some interesting parallels. I haven’t delved into it deeply enough to draw any conclusions. That’s an analysis I’d love to see, but it will probably have to come from someone else. Can’t see myself tackling that one.

    I spent last night aggregating links to all the free OSR-type fantasy RPGs that I’m aware of. The page is over at Howling Tower, for anyone who’s interested.

  15. Tavis: I’d consider the S&W White Box to be a close clone of OD&D (Original Edition Characters does something similar from the Labyrinth Lord direction of things)

    At some point (hopefully soon) Brave Halfling with be releasing Delving Deeper, which should be yet another take on the OD&D White Box.

    ZED looks damn cool, and I kicked in on the Kickstarter, but it seems more like the OD&D that might have been, other than the one that was. Less a clone than a parallel evolution that diverged early on.

    Really, can you ever have enough clones? (why am I thinking Paranoia 1e now? heh)

  16. Good post! I said this before and in other places but it still my viewpoint.

    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.

  17. The OSR is more than just about the rulesets–it’s also about the style of play. It’s stripped down, down-and-dirty, kill the monsters and take their stuff before more monsters come and kill us first. There is a high character mortality rate. PCs are adventurers with skills, not god-like heroes with awesome sauce moves. Not every action needs a skill check, not every ability merits a separate stat.

    Of course, I’m over simplifying. But yeah, the games move faster when you are aren’t dickering over skill checks and special moves.

  18. The best bit about the OSR is that, in a way, there is no OSR. We are not really a group but a bunch of DIYers sharing a hobby, there is no cohesiveness, and that is a good thing in my opinion. Sometimes our paths cross, sometimes we just exchange conversations on a website. We delve into megadungeons, we have save or die situations and characters can die. Corporations can try to cash in on us, but that is the epitome of pointlessness. A pack of 3×5 cards, and oldschool set of rules (or simulacrum), character sheets, this and that from various blogs and other sources, funny shaped dice and a few friends is all one needs. There is no room for avarice because most of us know that we already have all that we need.

    I am very happy to see younger people playing these old sets of rules (and the retro-clones). I receive a lot of email or questions on forums or Facebook about this or that and seeing the wide variety of people involved is truly amazing and I am really happy to be able to freely give to this community.

  19. The only bad thing about the OSR is its own version of Godwin’s Law: the longer the list of comments on an OSR blog post, the higher the chance that someone will say that 4e (and sometimes 3e) are terrible, horrible, evil things that no one else should ever have fun playing. The games themselves (0e to 4e) are great, though.

  20. @Tavis: Just a slight correction; Adventures Dark and Deep is *not* a 2E retro-clone.

    It’s an attempt to explore what 2nd edition would have been if Gygax had remained at TSR, using the 1E rules as a base and Gygax’s statements about what the new edition was going to look like, both in Dragon magazine in the 1980’s and in various online fora over the years.

  21. I should add that a true 2E clone, For Gold and Glory, is currently in the works. Looks pretty nifty, from what I’ve seen, and it’s supposed to be a more faithful clone of 2E than Myth and Magic, which, as its tag line goes is “2E Revived and Updated”.

  22. This makes it sound as though OSR folk are the hipsters of tabletop games.

    “I play Pathfinder, what do you play?”
    “I play B/X Labyrinth Crawl ClasRIC. You’ve probably never heard of it, it’s pretty underground.”

  23. @LS The community around the OSR can seem pretty clique-ish, but that’s just in the chatter. Opportunities to actually play abound and they are extremely welcoming to new people as long as those people are really in it to play and have fun, not just to prove how much the older games sucked.

    Check out guys like Zak Smith (dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com) and Jeff Rients (jrients.blogspot.com) on their blogs or on G+ to see what sorts of interesting things are going on.

    (Yes, i said G+. Popular opinion may be that G+ is a wasteland compared to Facebook, but the roleplaying community (especially OSR) is active and vibrant there and many games are run over Google Hangouts, with Tabletop Forge shaping up to be one of the best virtual tabletops available.)

  24. Charles Lee Carrier

    Even setting aside the rule mechanics themselves, there is still a massive difference in the “feel” of 1st edition AD&D versus 3rd edition. (Don’t know enough about 4E to say anything about it.)

    In 1E the feeling I always got while reading the core books was that Gary had invited me over to share his toy box with me. It was friendly and personal – we were all gamers, having fun together.

    3.xE was slick and professional – and completely impersonal. Some faceless corporate executives hired a committee of game designers to ordain the rules to us. Yes, they were good rules, better thought out and better organized than Gary’s, but… I still miss my friend’s toy box.

    Also, I might add that the 1E core books were readable! I’ve read the old original MM, PHB, and DMG cover to cover, more than once, and enjoyed every word. I’ve been playing 3.5E for many years now, but I have yet to read any of the core books cover to cover, even though I’v tried more than once.

    Although I can’t prove it, I firmly believe that the tone of the rule books influences how the DM and players approach the game.

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