OSR Handbook

OSR Handbook

Gah! Stupid holidays. Completely forgot that Brent Newhall had hooked me up with a copy of his Old School Renaissance Handbook. Several weeks ago I was complaining that it was hard to research OSR games on their gameplay merits, right? Like, literally everything online related to OSR and its products is framed ideologically. I suppose one could argue that since retrocloning is so part-and-parcel to the whole OSR thing that there’s really no point in talking about how the rules shape gameplay.

So, anyway. Brent’s book is exactly the reference I was hoping for when I went looking for more clear-eyed discussion of just what’s in these games. He covers 28 different titles, and shows what a suite of five distinct class fantasy adventure characters (wizard, ranger, etc.) might look like statted out under each system. There are also a bunch of reviews with designers, also very cool.

As ideologically neutral as I think Brent is, his own indie-slash-inclusive-friendliness still sneaks in. The big one is that, at least in my own understanding, one of the common hallmarks of whether something “is” OSR or not is interoperability. Like, there are absolutely minimal adjustments needed to take a character out of ACKS and drop it into DCC, or whatever. I say this as an outsider and I’m sure there are factions who will dismiss this hallmark. Cool, fine. But including stuff like Dungeon World felt weird. I get that, yeah, probably you could stat a Labyrinth Lord character up as a Dungeon World character, but is that really “interoperable?” Same with Paolo Greco’s Into the Odd. I … guess it shares some play style similarities? 

Basically I’m saying you can’t read the OSR Handbook and get a meaningful definition of OSR itself. It’s like pornography in that I guess you have to see it to know it, or something.

So, anyway. If you’re not an OSR grognard, I think this is actually just the thing you were looking for. 


0 thoughts on “OSR Handbook”

  1. Is my stuff still in there? Also not interoperable.

    Also: I feel you in ideology. So much. I have such strong feelings but there’s just no good way to have a discussion about it.

  2. Jason Morningstar yeah! Dungeon Squad, right? First time I’d even heard of it. Definitely intrigued, esp. since you built it for kids, yeah?

    Clearly the interoperability thing is arguable. But without it, it seems like the bucket is so big that it’s meaningless. Dunno. Still learning.

  3. Yes, I wrote Dungeon Squad immediately after trying to run D&D 3.0 for a bunch of enthusiastic but non-gamer youngsters, 10-14, at my local library. 

    Dungeon Squad gets around – it was published in its entirety, translated, in a  Mexican newspaper! There’s a boxed version with pencils and dice in Czech!

  4. I think labels like ‘OSR’, ‘story games’, and all that stuff are most useful when you’re looking at them from a distance. As soon as you get close, what looks like a clump resolves into a diffuse realm of variations.

    Each mote is held in the cloud in a different way – some by a shared love of particular games, others by artifacts (e.g. no-photo blue dungeon maps) other by principles, others by a sense of identity, others by relationships with other members – with no identifiable center. There’s no definition that’s both precise and useful. It’s like looking for the true meaning of Christmas or something.

  5. What Michael Prescott​ said.

    Into the Odd springs from the OSR DIY scene, and its lineage clearly stretches back to OD&D, but compatibility with old rules was not a design feature. However, I could pick up Into the Odd and Keep on the Borderlands and run it while converting on the fly.

  6. ItO is by Chris, not mine. I’m the humble publisher. I repeatedly tried to have Adventure Fantasy Game (my old school game, mostly stat compatible but with very different mechanics) reviewed and put in that handbook but Brent never cared to. So maybe I’m not OSR enough to judge his criteria?

    As for the bucket being too big or not, I’m not sure. I’m not sure about wanting to talk about it.

    What I know though is that the ideological rift might be partially due to hipsterism: the literal same people that in the nineties ranted that dnd is not an RPG and clogging the shelves of rpg shops, nowadays rant about dnd being racist and clogging the shelves of rpg shops. Or how the OSR self sabotages by ignoring forty years of gaming innovation. Or how any game where the gm keeps secrets or has a tinge of oppositional play is inherently abusive.

  7. I love that even “OSR has no hard definition” is itself a definition.

    Kind of didn’t want to get into the is-ness of OSR in this thread tbh. Just wanted to make a note that Newhall’s book is a solid intro to the games themselves if you’re way outside of the scene, as I am.

  8. Thinking about interoperability… when I’m running OD&D, something intended for DW is generally of more use to me than something intended for DCC. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of Metzger’s modules are dual-statted for LL and DW.) And Into the Odd reads to me like a set of OD&D house rules (I say that as a compliment).

    I do think interoperability is an important common factor, but I don’t think I’d place it in the number one definitional slot.

  9. I’ve seldom seen an OSR discussion that didn’t veer off into definitions territory, and never seen half a dozen people come up with fewer than a dozen definitions. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

    Though for me, depending on the definition, it’s either got some pretty interesting bits, or it’s something I don’t care for at all.

    Older versions of D&D aren’t my favourite rule set by a long way, and traditional dungeons are an occasional thing for me, and I don’t like the extreme player skill “pixelbitching” take at all. But old D&D does have a sometimes interesting take on fantasy, the universal language bit is interesting, and hacks and some of the more original setting ideas can be great. I also love the sandbox ethos.

    I don’t intend to threadcrap here. Maybe I should expand this into a post of my own.

  10. This is excellent! I will have to pick this up at some point and give it a read! The OSR (I don’t even know what the heck it stands for!) thing is something that I have never understood. Hopefully this will help dispel some of my ignorance!

  11. Michael Prescott Surprises. Yeah! 

    The obvious one is that interoperability actually isn’t a core value. Then that led me to several conversations online that all discussed mutually incompatible definitions. So Paul Mitchener is definitely right that OSR conversations always veer of into definitions territory. Own the language and you own the argument. Just like in indieland, Forgeland, theoryland, gamers in general I assume. Identity. Claiming the identity is the one common value.

    The fact that Jason Morningstar has a dungeon delving game was a surprise.

    The dWHATEVER design of DCC is intriguing. I don’t know how you execute a d27 at the table but I like where his head’s at. I’d probably just have some random number generating tool on my smartphone take care of that, but then that’s weird given the general nostalgia vibe of the whole scene.

    I enjoyed kirin robinson’s interview. I did not know he was a Designer of Note! So, cool.

    The secrecy + adversarial DM thing is less of a bugbear for me today than it was a decade-and-some ago. There are plenty of boardgames that rely on secrecy and adversarial play and not cheating. TBH I think it’s much easier to execute than secrecy + I think this is interesting. Adversity means everyone knows what you think is interesting, and that’s beating the shit out of the PCs.

  12. Apparently (I read somewhere; I can’t recall the source), for DCC the idea was to recapture some of the early wonder of people’s first exposure to D&D and first exposure to wacky dice that aren’t six sided. I think the weird dice DCC uses are available but expensive (really expensive in the UK).

  13. Oho, that’s interesting. I thought they were truly just arbitrary numbers on a dX, where X = the number of things he came up with on any given table.

    This reminds me: Bret Gillan actually has said some interesting game-rules-specific things about DCC, so it’s unfair of me to pout that literally nobody is talking about the rules in these things. But boy it’s rare.

  14. Looks like a cool book! Although Whitehack didn’t make it in, which is one of my favorites. On the other hand, there are a few in there that I haven’t heard of.

    Are mechanics discussions of OSR games more rare than mechanics discussions of, say, PBtA? They both seem fairly rare to me.

  15. Phil Lewis I think they’re extremely common – there are bazillions of threads about geometric progression vs. linear, whether race ought to imply class, ascending vs. descending AC, maximum level, how to incorporate skills (or not) etc. etc.

    Leaving aside the acrimony, I have the impression that the emphasis is subtly different. PbtA moves are so.. structural that eight of them can produce a completely different gaming experience. The undulations and gyrations of OSR games give me the vibe of a community of hackers looking for the most comfortable fit possible.

  16. Michael Prescott Yeah, my feeling is that they both occur with similar frequency – but I’m sure that’s colored by the communities I frequent.

    Here on G+ I probably belong to about an equal number of OSR sorts of groups as PbtA or Fate sorts of groups. So roughly equal amounts of content fly by on any given day.

    That said, I definitely agree that the emphasis is somewhat different.

  17. ..With the proviso that every now and again someone sneaks in something radically different, like Whitehack’s very open ended (almost FATE-like) spells, its dice bidding (!), or Beyond the Wall’s super-collaborative map-making process, which feels a lot like Dungeon World.

    I honestly think there’s a sort of OSR-ness score you could compute on the basis of look, appeal to nostalgia, mechanical similarity, playstyle similarity, ‘subcultural affiliation’, layout styling, and other things.  Some of these OSR games are basically reprints of B/X, while others are quite different mechanically, but happened to grow up in OSR-friendly communities with liberally applied ‘eau de OSR’.

  18. I like the comparison to Story Games actually. As a semi-outsider in multiple communities I find it endlessly hilarious to watch groups of my friends talk about how each others shit is all ideological, as though that was a bad thing, and then defend their own incoherent shit with fire, as though that were not ideological.

    But aside from that, I gotta go with the OP. I found the book useful back when I was looking to start a retro clone game.

  19. I don’t think of old school play as adversarial, really. At least not adversarial like board games are adversarial. There’s an element of performative challenge and deviousness I suppose, but I don’t think of it as oppositional, like the dungeon master is ever working against the players’ interests.

    I think some DMs do that and I think it results in shitty games – it’s too imbalanced a power relationship for a fun DM to be anything but… (seemingly) engagingly and mysteriously impartial. And while the pragmatics of the game may lead a DM to sometimes be malevolent, and sometimes be benevolent; if the DM ever deviates too much from a purely reactive stance, they lose that important sense (illusion?) of impartiality.

  20. kirin robinson agree.

    Given the necessary latitude around referee rulings, I’m not sure actual early D&D adversarial play is really possible without the ref winning every time anyways. For me the key principle is impartiality which is almost as much an opposite of adversarial-ism* as benevolence is.

    * What’s the noun form of adversarial equivalent to benevolence?

  21. I do think a trad D&D ref can be proactive just as much as reactive, it’s just that the proactivity can’t be of the “rocks fall” variety for functional play.

  22. Brendan S Right, the reactive stance should be a default for a lot of the play, but that heavy hand needs to fall on occasion for most of the situational positioning.

    It’s a really interesting role, and I never really saw a solid deconstruction of DMing behaviors geared towards plain and simple Fun Of The Group until the OSR started having conversations about it with regards to Agency and Engagement – it’s pretty telling that there’s been strong movements against DM fiating and the DM power role (Mother May I, etc) given just how… not articulated or examined the dynamic ever was, originally (well, that’s not true, there’s some strong stuff in Gygax’s DMG, but it’s a little obfuscated and layered); leading to DMing styles all over the map.

    That leap from Wargaming Rulings Judge to World Explainer & Articulator to, eventually for many: heavy-handed Story Shaper was a crazily organic evolution, and not to every style’s benefit. And the OSR rolling back that clock and using “Judge” and “Referee” language was an interesting epiphany to me, having filled so many notebooks with  authorial campaign intentions

  23. Similarly I had little idea that that proactive/reactive DMing stance effects the morality play of the game so heavily – there’s a reason old school D&D leans towards murder hoboism: bad guys (well, selfish/greedy characters) bring their own motivations into the sandbox, good guys need much more clearly outlined Bad Things Happening to be altruistic about, which requires a much heavier DM hand (which consequently affects play and, interestingly, may turn out to be MORE of an adversarial dynamic)

  24. Another observation: though I do notice a certain streak of ruthlessness in my players’ OD&D characters, it doesn’t generally conform to the stereotype of murder hobos. In fact, if anything it seems like they want to bolster their humanity in the face of the wicked world, sort of like The Walking Dead. This is probably helped system side by not awarding XP for killing things, but it’s also probably partly a function of player disposition.

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