2016-01-24 Rob Conley on the OSR

On G+, a thread I liked was deleted. I tried to save all the good comments on a blog post of mine, see Innovation and the Old School Renaissance. There was one good post about the Old School Renaissance (OSR) itself, however. Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic gave me permission to repost it. Thanks!

Here is what he said, slightly edited.

Man, you folks are reading more into the OSR than what there is.

The OSR is a collection of people interested in publishing, playing, and promoting classic D&D along with whatever else happens to interests them.

It is more or less an informal “chess club” that—due to technological advances of computers and the internet and the legal situation surrounding the d20 SRD being under the OGL—can do more than just play and talk. They publish and some do at a level that equal what the full time professional do.

Are their design philosophies, schools of thought, style of play, what characterizes the OSR? Sure, but then that is true of any other segment of the hobby and industry.

It neither a conservative or progressive movement. It is what the individual participants make it out to be.

Now, several factors combine into making the OSR a distinct branch of the hobby other than the fact of a focus on classic editions of D&D.

First, out of all the out of print RPGs, classic D&D from OD&D to 2nd edition AD&D has the largest potential fan base due to it past popularity. Even a tenth of a percent of classic D&D gamer becoming interested in playing again is still a large number.

Second, there is no dominant publisher. There are certainly tiers of publishers but unlike the situation with 3.5/Pathfinder there is no “Paizo” that dominates the OSR. Instead, you have a kaleidoscope of small publishers where most are one man operations like myself.

Third, coupled with the above, the use of classic D&D rests on the Open Game License. While no one has the right to make a 100% clone of an older edition, the various retro-clone are so close that the differences are insignificant. The implications of this is that anybody can jump in with their project, at any time.

Fourth, the OSR has taken full advantage of Print on Demand for their projects. This, coupled with the OGL means there are very low barriers for anybody to get their projects started.

Fifth, because of the above, anything that can be done with classic D&D mechanics is going to be done. This includes adapting it to other genres, making RPGs that feel like classic D&D but use newer mechanics, and so on. The result is no hard and fast line at where the OSR ends and independent RPG publishing begins. While the OSR is centered on the classic D&D mechanics it quickly blurs depending on the interests of specific publishers and promoters.

So, some treat the OSR as a conservative movement to preserve a classic game. For others, it is a progressive movement meant to take classic games into new directions that wasn’t possible given the interest or resources of the original IP owners. For most, it a little of both.

Name the flavor of OSR you want and I can probably point you to the place where they hang out.

Finally, some will get annoyed at my assertion that the OSR is centered on classic D&D. The deal is this: Regardless of the label, there is a niche of the hobby focused on classic D&D, and they use the OGL and the internet to get material out. It has been very successful in reviving the classic editions and getting people interested in playing them. It gained widespread use in 2008.

I happened to call those people members of the Old School Renaissance or OSR. And the OSR is part of a much larger old school renaissance (note the small letters) that encompasses a revival of interest many other worthy older games like Runequest, and Traveller.



I thought this discussion started by +Stacy Dellorfano on Google+ was interesting. She says: “I started seeing there was this sharp divide between what I’ve always thought of as the OSR (mainly the G+ DIY crowd represented by folks like +James Raggi and +Zak Smith and a whole lot of other of you [...]) and what the outside world sees as the OSR (genuine “old school” personalities re-entering the market). [...] I suppose we’re calling ourselves the ’DIY’ crowd, but it feels to me like there’s an even better distinction required there.” Zak Smith says he tried to get people to use DIY D&D and it didn’t work.

I’m not sure what to think of people quickly rejecting labels. I’m totally OK with using labels. People don’t have to self label. For me, labels are the tags and categories of thought we use to talk about groups. The people doing the talking are grouping other people according to some features – their income, their skin color, the games they play – in order to talk about them. And yes, this can be misused, see racism. But all in all it’s a useful tool to communicate.

In the old days, I never played OD&D, never played B/X D&D, played BECMI D&D for one session, bought some AD&D 1st ed books and ran it for a while, then we switched to AD&D 2nd ed, and within a year, we moved, and my gaming stopped. That’s it. Less than a year! That’s all the gaming I did as a teenager. It’s not much. It doesn’t qualify for nostalgia. I don’t feel a lot of loyalty towards the people that started it all, Gary Gygax and his players, the first TSR employees. I’m not sure how they played, I don’t know how they run their games now. In so far, I’m not using the label “Old School” to refer to how the game was played in the old days.

I am reminded of this old blog post of mine: Old School Affordances. I wanted to move away from a discussion of rules and feelings towards something closer to the truth at my table and still more quantifiable than “I’ll know it when I see it.” Affordance is a term I like because I can talk about the features that encourage the behavior I like to encourage.

“Affordance” is a term used by perceptual psychologists. Affordance is what an object suggests to us. For example, if you see a bench, you might think to sit down on it, or to lie down on it. Some doors have a panel on once side, and a handle on the other. If you see the panel, you think to push it. If you see the handle, you think to pull it. Perceptual psychologists use the phrase “object affordance” to talk about how objects make us think to use them. [1]

And that’s what I did when I talked about my game in the blog post B/X Affordances. In that list of features that encouraged the kind of game I enjoy the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethos isn’t named. It’s true that I like that part as well, but I’d probably be using some D&D variant like B/X or Labyrinth Lord whether there was a DIY community behind it or not.

Perhaps I’ll just have to agree with all those people that said we are stuck with the term OSR even though it doesn’t actually fit. It grew “historically,” i.e. it can only be understood in terms of looking at old blog posts, not in terms of the actual words that make up the label. Or perhaps we should simply emphasize the term Renaissance a whole lot more.

The Renaissance’s intellectual basis was its own invented version of humanism, derived from the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy [2]

We have a “our own invented version of D&D, derived from the rediscovery of classic D&D rules,” perhaps?

Old school D&D was rediscovered and we invented our own version of D&D based on that. We talked about new and different ways of doing it.

And that in turn reminds me of this old blog post:

D&D rules as oral history: If you remember the rule, apply it. If you forget it, it was not important anyway. Thus, no need to consult the rule books. Rules change over time, depending on the interest of players.
Fluidity in Rules and Setting

I still like it.

So, this thing we did, this invention after a rediscovery, this community we found on the blogs and then on Google+, this discussion of all the stuff, we can call it OSR, or DIY D&D. I guess I’m going to keep calling it OSR because that’s what so many of us do. And I shall remind myself that it doesn’t necessarily have to include the people that never stopped playing the old games. Those people did not invent their own D&D after a rediscovery. Perhaps those people were part of the great D&D inventing after the original discovery in the seventies. Quite possible, in fact. But those two groups don’t necessarily fall under the same label.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-25 10:44 UTC

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