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Old School Gets Old

Same as the Old Boss or, Am I Completely Missing the Point?

The rise of the retro-clone has me baffled. Aside from my nit-picking the oxymoronic label (something cannot be both retro and a clone), I do not understand where the Old School Revival (OSR) came from and why it's become so apparently popular. Don't get me wrong—I cut my teeth on Moldvay's Basic D&D, and much of my old-schoolery can be read at breeyark.org. But with the cloning of the retro-clones themselves, it's getting harder to see where this is all going.

There are some common—and appealing—denominators in OSR games: Each is geared toward a single genre, each is written under the auspice of the OGL, most are rules-lite (meaning that rules are more like guidelines, requiring consensus interpretation to use in actual play), and each makes character generation a breeze, so players can even relive the glory days of TPK and roll up new characters as needed without too much stress or bother. For those gamers looking for the OGL version of their old-school favourite, there's Swords and Wizardry (1974 D&D and "White Box" versions), OSRIC (1st Ed. AD&D), Labyrinth Lord (1981 D&D), Spellcraft and Swordplay (xD&D), Basic Fantasy RPG (xD&D), and Mutant Future (1st-2nd Ed. Gamma World).

All in all, a fairly robust crop of options for the old-school gamer. But, not far below the surface, it gets hard to justify the glut: genre-specific systems and settings have narrow focus, and the business model is capricious at best (which is maybe why OSR games tend to be free). Granted, these games are aimed at the old-schooler (or the children of same, who may lack the experience to evaluate the merits of current systems against those of old-school originals). But given the prevalence of D&D versions back in the day, do we really need six versions of D&D retro-clones, particularly if they replicate—warts and all—the games whose vagaries and mechanical inconsistencies inspired the advanced and refined systems that followed?

Assuming terms like "advanced" and "refined" are subjective, one might conclude that the spate of OSR titles appeals more to flexibility and ease-of-play than the supposed improvements of the old-school descendants. Certainly a valid point, but it makes me wonder why the old-schoolers don't simply pull their originals off their bookshelves and have at it.

Unless old-schoolers don't have the originals on their bookshelves anymore, which is possible—I've lost books when moving, or loaning, or even using—it's hard to keep those originals intact. Unfortunately, finding an electronic copy to replace an original is difficult, thanks to WotC's knee-jerk foolishness over piracy. Much like TSR did to its doom, WotC has demonstrated their disregard for the "25-years-and-up" segment of the RPG market by cutting off the only sales outlet for gamers who don't fit the current version's demographic. Not surprisingly, the old-schoolers' solution is to publish and play free retro-clones based on the OGL. For whatever reason WotC chooses to profer, they might care to acknowledge that they're being hoisted on their own petard.

Still, this is a hobby, and, as Kellri intimates, players—not company board members—should be (and are now) driving the market. WotC's sad and colossal arrogance aside, maybe the OSR is about nolstagia more than anything else, and no refinement, flexibility, or ease-of-play will ever trump that. There's a reasoned argument that old-school gaming is less of a style than it is, literally, playing old-school games. If that's true, then the definition of old-school becomes dramatically relative: it's simply about playing like you did when you were 12 years old, and the concept of roleplaying was new, the game was to be explored, and interpreting the rules required group discussion and a dictionary.

Perhaps nolstagia is the primary driver behind OSR. And why not? In truth, there's really nothing new in the way of mechanics or playability that OSR games offer to the hobby. There is a long roster of creative and well-considered house rules to address whatever a given GM didn't/doesn't like about this-or-that aspect of the "canonical" ruleset, and many of these are truly brilliant (e.g., Kilgore's musings on the thief class). But by and large, OSR titles repeat the same, absurd inconsistencies as the original games upon which they're based. There are different die mechanics for different situations, arbitrary class ability/level limits, even—inconceivably—special instructions for bridging disparate systems by the same publisher (e.g., Mutant Futures, "Section 9: Mutants & Mazes" (1st Release, June 2008, pp. 145-53) where Goblinoid Games authors suggest how to "blend" Mutant Futures with their D&D clone, Labyrinth Lord; if the desire to do so is indeed "inevitable," as the authors suggest, then why not build compatibility into each game instead of replicating the same limitation that existed between TSR's Gamma World and AD&D?).

Which leads me (somewhat pedantically) to my original question: Am I completely missing the point?

Jaded as I am, it's entirely possible. But perhaps reading a page from my own book might serve. Could it be that using the OGL to write a retro-clone is really just an old-schooler's way of making a game his own? Maybe OSR isn't about nolstagia, or inventing new tools for playability, or even tempting a new segment of the market. Maybe OSR is about taking our hobby to a level that ignores the boardroom and focuses instead on the gamer, the player, and the imaginative GM. We all have our tweaks and variants and house rules. We all have our gaming groups and styles of play. Maybe OSR is really just a statement to the industry that says, in dutiful 10-point Futura, that we can do it too: Let us play, and stop trying to tell us how to go about it.

If so, that's quite encouraging. Let me know what you think, and tell me what I'm missing.

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  1. September 24th, 2009 at 13:31 | #1

    One of the things that gives tradtional old school role playing games its appeal is the fact that it 1) allows the players to use their imagination a bit more and 2) allows dungeon masters to flex their sadistic creativity. I say this with a bit of tongue and cheek as I can fondly remember such comic fantasy authors/dungeon masters (such as Terry Pratchett) come up with such inventive devices as the sapient pearwood luggage that would follow a gamer throughout an adventure while at the same time wander off and fall off of a cliff that became permanent characters in some of their fiction.

    While it is true that nostalgia does play a part in some circumstance, at least initially, I believe the primary appeal is the social interaction between players. It is sad that kids do not know the joy of playing board games on a rainy day, much less a non electronic RPG. The allure that friends can get together and for an hour or two pretend to be someone else and go on a mindless rampage without actually hurting anyone is invaluable and great stress relief.

    But, please take this from a person who was hoplessly addicted to the text version of Zork.

  2. October 5th, 2009 at 21:21 | #2

    Imagination and interaction are key, and the only reason I’ve stayed with this hobby for 25+ years (and yes, Zork is good for alone times). As has been said many, many, MANY times before by just about every level-headed gamer, it doesn’t matter what you play, so long as you have fun.

    Or, put another way, whatever game gives you the most satisfying virtual rampage…

  3. Robert Weber
    October 31st, 2009 at 03:47 | #3

    I just skimmed over your essay, and I think you have some good questions & concerns. I don’t know how well I can answer them, but I’ll try:

    As far as I’m concerned, the retro clones are a legal way around the OGL. If you want to publicly publish a mod for OD&D, B/X, AD&D (1 or 2) or BECMI, you aren’t allowed to label your work as any of these titles, as that infringes on WotC IP.

    By creating the retro clones, we are free to create, distribute & sell any mod for nearly any of these OOP games, because we can’t legally by WotC’s current version of the OGL.

    So if Thorkie creates, distributes or sells a mod specifically for B/X D&D, WotC might take notice & come after him, tell him to cease & desist, take all his stuff off the interwebz & if he doesn’t comply, they can take legal action.

    However, if he labels the same mod “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord, BFRPG, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Castles & Crusades, Mazes & Minotaurs, Encounter Critical, Advanced Fantasy RPGs” etc., and puts that page long disclaimer in there somewhere, WotC legals can’t touch him (as far as I know…).

    However, the leap to the consumer has produced an unintentional side effect: now everyone wants these rules in print. And they want quality prints.

    This is a good thing if you like OOP TSR games more than the crop of current RPG offerings that WotC would like for us to buy. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the heart & soul of the “Old School Renaissance”, and it seems to be spreading to the likings of newer gamers too. This means more players for us old timers/old schoolers.

    I think this goes beyond “nostalgia” as you put it. It’s not that we in the OSR want the old & confusing rules, as the retro clone rules have cleaned a lot of this confusion up, its that we want the freedom to PRODUCE adventures (modules) for our beloved rules without interference from some company that has every legal right to sit on their IPs & refuse to let anyone else make games for them.

    We want games that are simpler, not restraining our creativity when we design our games by having a rule for every little thing that is stuffed into the newer game rules, and for every rule that covers possible PC actions, instead of letting our imaginations loose & come up with creative solutions, now we have to roll dice to search a room or find a trap. The OSR
    is our way of taking our games back & playing them the way we want to, and in the process hopefully we teach some newer players the joys of thinking “outside of the box”.

  4. October 31st, 2009 at 04:10 | #4


    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: Freedom to produce is key, as I intimate in my post. While nostalgia may be the initial attraction, the desire to produce without harassment is the motivation. Which I respect – to be clear, Chimera 1.x was built on the OGL, and (as I’ve said before), the whole system is built off of house rules that began with B/X D&D.

    What had (and, to be honest, still does, at times) vex me is the precision with which some clones replicate the originals, without investing more improvement. On one hand, I respect deference to the originals, but not when that obedience espouses bad mechanics or arbitrary rules.

    Still, the ability to produce may trump that. After all, xD&D made its following on those who tweaked house rules out of the canon. Why not with the retro-clones? If core rules duplicate what came before them, then maybe history will repeat itself and build a new following, each with his own ideas. If so, at least we’ll all have the ability to produce, literally, with creative license.

    But I still think WotC are bozos for shutting down sales of OOP material in PDF while concurrently supporting an Open Game License that lets their OOP PDF market make, distribute, and sell their own games for free. We’ve all heard the arguments that TSR, then WotC, then Hasbro are businesses, so, ultimately, we can trace their decisions back to the bottom line. But when WotC cuts their own bottom line, deliberately, then they’re just being foolish, and, as hobbyists, how much can we trust their quality?

  5. Mike Harvey
    October 31st, 2009 at 20:32 | #5

    Interesting essay, Erin.

    I can’t speak for others but for me it really boils down to three things:

    (1) making the game my own
    (2) bringing the game to a new generation
    (3) sharing

    The second point I think is very important. I play D&D with my kids,
    but I’d feel funny teaching them to love a game if they cannot obtain
    their own copy of the rules; even if I buy copies of the old books and
    preserve them for 15 years, will they be able to find anyone to play
    with, and where will THOSE players get rules? If not for the OSR I’d
    honestly be nudging them toward non-D&D games that will be around.

    The third point: the internet has ushered in a new era of community.
    That did not exist when I was a kid. I was limited to my own
    imagination, plus some books, a few friends, and an occasional (and
    coveted) copy of Dragon. With the internet, D&D lives again in a way
    it never did before.

    IMO, This is the golden age of Dungeons & Dragons. We have it better
    now than we EVER did before. The legal encumbrances always existed,
    it’s just that before we lacked the ability to publish, to
    communicate, to even be noticed. But we also lacked the inspiration
    and the synergy of a worldwide community working 24/7 and
    communicating in real time. We could never have produced what we
    produce now.

    The OSR has a very real opportunity to “establish” D&D, but it also
    has the ability totally squander that opportunity. Thus far we have
    seen clones, but I think we’re going to start seeing games that move
    beyond mere clones. Something I really hope to see is the OSR jump
    past the OGL and into a truly free license, unencumbered by any WOTC
    IP. That will require the community to let go of the letter of the
    rules, and embrace the spirit. We’ve taken great pains to establish
    what Old School is as a gaming style, now we need to apply that to something other
    than “D&D”. This ultimately comes back to making the game our own.

  6. October 31st, 2009 at 21:13 | #6

    Good points, Mike. I do agree that the Internet has changed the playing field significantly. If we couldn’t publish so easily, we wouldn’t be exposed to so many legal considerations.

    That said, I do hope that you’re right that the clones are the initial steps toward some player-inspired innovation, propagated with the blessing of a community-based license.

    What I find interesting is that the common theme throughout this thread is the strong sense of community at the centre of OSR. I admit that I hadn’t considered that aspect as a motivator behind OSR, but there are strong relationships being built between OSR authors and players. Which makes all sorts of sense–wasn’t that the point of RPGs to begin with?

  7. Andy
    November 1st, 2009 at 01:54 | #7

    For what its worth, while simple nostalgia may play a part in the “old school revival” I do not think it is a substantial one. As you point out in your essay, Erin, if folks were creating retro clones purely for nostalgia then why not simply play the original games. Even if you had lost your books, on any given day you can generally pick up old rulebooks on eBay for several dollars; I don’t think “cost of entry” to replenish one’s shelves is much of a motivator either.

    If anything, I think the nostalgia is for a style of play – not necessarily the rules themselves – as well as the desire to share that style of play with younger gamers who are perceived as missing out on it due to the design of recent rules sets (3.x and 4e).

    For me, “old school play” is defined by a several things:

    1) “Loose” rules system. While many of the first generation (using a broad brush lets say 1974-1984) of RPG’s had quirky, sometimes illogical rules in most cases you could safely ignore one without significant side effects. In 1st edition AD&D for instance, you could replace the d6 initiative mechanic with the d20 mechanic from D&D 3.x, make a few minor adjustments, and drive on. The tight, interlocking nature of recent rules sets makes this increasingly difficult; for example, decide to remove attacks of opportunity from D&D 3.x and a whole range of feats, class abilities and combat strategies goes out the window requiring significant adjustment. While recent systems work well from the standpoint of being internally self consistent, they are more difficult to customize – especially should you have a resident rules lawyer in your player group who will howl like a banshee at the very prospect of tinkering with the rules mechanism.

    2) Short / simple rules system. Early RPG rules were lacking in many areas, particularly regarding non combat related activity by characters. As gaming developed, demand grew for skill systems and the like with some games being designed specifically to address these concerns. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way – and particularly in D&D 3.x and later – the systems designed to help with resolving non combat tasks took over the rules system. Many if not most players will follow the path of least resistance in play; if they have to think, plan and roleplay in order to overcome a puzzle or negotiate with an NPC they will. If they can just use a skill roll and “get on with it”, they will do that instead. While as a DM you can evaluate a players plan or roleplaying for an encounter and rule accordingly, if they make their Diplomacy skill roll in a negotiation you can’t arbitrarily say “you fail” without the player feeling cheated.

    3) Character fetishism. In older gams, character creation consisted of a few die rolls to generate attributes, some choices as to race and class and then purchase of equipment. Character creation overall took maybe 30 minutes to an hour and play could then begin if an adventure was ready. When characters gained experience, most gains in ability (spells, attacks etc.) were automatic and took little time. Character customization came primarily from game play in the form of set dressing (one fighter is a barbarian and wears furs and light armor, the next fightr is a knight who struts about in full plate mail and wields a halberd) and / or personality traits (the barbarian never betrays a friend and fights to save his henchmen in combats, the knight offers mercy to fallen foes if they are noble). With mechanics for many character interactions that were formerly roleplayed out, players of recent rules sets will often design their characters around one or more specific mechanics, so these mechanics begin to drive the game moreso than was formerly the case. In addition, the sheer complexity of building characters around such mechanics (in D&D 3.x, if the player eventually wants to use a particular prestige class at say level 12 they must start “building” their PC at character creation to meet the future rules requirements of their target class. This need to constantly “tend” the character as play continues (to make sure they eventually fulfill the rules requirement for a later class or specialty) leads to players spending hours working on characters when not playing (spending skill points, optimizing feats and spells, etc.) making the playr much mor einvested in the character and character concept they have been working on. While no player is happy about their PC getting killed or disabled (ability loss, level loss etc.) the sheer amount of work involved in creating and maintaining characters in later editions is a barrier to roleplay. As an example, in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories Conan begins as a warrior and thief, eventually winding up as king of Aquilonia. In 1st edition AD&D play, a player could roleplay this out with a fighter (or perhaps fighter/thief); when the character transitioned from being a barbarian fighting and thieving type to moving among nobles, the change could simply be roleplayed out. In a recent edition game, the character would be pigeonholed as a barbarian since by the time they reached say 9th level they would not have the abilities or skills to function in a royal court (since skills like Diplomacy, Sense Motive etc. are not allowed to barbarians).

    4) “Sandbox” style play. Old school play – in some cases simply by vitue of its simplicity (one might even say “primitive nature”) tended more towards loose narrative. That is, the default style of play was to run standalone adventures (either published or homebrewed) and let the narrative arise from the game play by use of recurring villains, players using found items as signature items for their character, etc. There was generally not some strong, overarching plot line that players were constantly herded towards and the DM tore their hair out trying to design around. From the late 80’s on, as gaming and fantasy fiction got more and more self-referential, strong storylines began to dominate both adventures and published campaign worlds. younger gamers have (near as I can tell) grown up in this sort of environment and it is their default play style.

    5) Rules volume. As time has gone, the sheer volume of rules as well as the size of campaign world supplements has increased exponentially. Early RPG’s generally had at most a few hundred pages of rules. The 1st edition AD&D DMG had 240 pages, the PHB 128 pages (368 total) and many of these pages were tables, not densely written text; The D&D 3.5 PHB alone is 317 pages, the 3.5 DMG another 320 pages – nearly double the length of the 1st edition AD&D rulebooks. Add to later RPG’s the legions of rules supplements (“splatbooks”) and learning the system is more like studying for a thesis than a fun hobby.

    Anyway, the point of all this is that the “old school revival” is not so much focussed on rules mechanics from the old editions as the tone of those rules and the style of play they encouraged. This is why the revivalists are not simply blowing the dust off of their old books. They recognize that to interest the younger generation of gamers in “old school play” they must adjust – one could say clean up – the rules to make them easy for younger gamers to adopt. Certain mechanics were arguably an improvement – the core d20 mechanic, increasing rolls being better for initiative and armor class, a skill system (albeit simplified) etc. The retro clones generally keep these – in keeping with the d20 OGL – but streamline the rest of the system in keeping with the original rules system they are cloning.

    The good thing about this is even if the retro clones never take off they should at least influence the gaming community – preserving through cloning and hopefully passing on the DNA of the early, more open style of tabletop roleplaying games. The brevity of the clones if nothing else should at least get them a seat at the table of gaming choices for younger gamers, and with any luck some will take to the spirit of the older versions of the games like ducks to water. Would that happen if one just bought several boxes of old Players Handbooks or Basic/Expert sets and handed tham out at conventions? Probably not..

  8. November 1st, 2009 at 11:52 | #8

    Andy, this is probably the most cogent summary of D&D’s progressive complexity I’ve read. I started D&D with B/X, then went to Advanced, then 2nd Edition. Yes, there were improvements along the way, but not always, and when it seemed that TSR had replaced all the fun of the game with endless edicts about how to play (e.g., “The Complete Drunken Peasant’s Handbook”), I needed a new system. When the Rules Cyclopedia came out in 1991, it became my standard ruleset, mostly for all the reasons you cite above.

    Looking back, if the Rules Cyclopedia hadn’t been available, I might’ve gone all the way back to B/X. If the OGL had been around back then, I probably would’ve made my own RPG. It probably would have been something built off of B/X and tweaked with my house rules (as opposed to a proper clone), but I can easily see how OSR has been facilitated by unwieldy systems and OGL availability.

  9. November 13th, 2009 at 19:50 | #9

    Actually, I do just use the old rules. “do we really need six versions of D&D retro-clones” — no, we don’t even need one. I really don’t understand it either. I can tell you why there are so many (instead of just one good one), is because gamers are a finicky bunch. They are more like cooks than anything else, and they don’t like to share the kitchen. We are pretty much ALL that way, especially those of us who create our own rulesets (no offense).

  10. November 13th, 2009 at 20:31 | #10

    None taken – I can’t disagree with you. In the weeks since writing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the OSR is probably more about gamers “taking back the night,” by writing the games they really want to play. The OSR folks writing retro-clones really aren’t doing anything different from me writing a multi-genre system. I still maintain that I’d like to see a bit less clone and a bit more innovation, but maybe that’s a phase 2 thing, as some of you have already said.

    BTW – good to see you here, Angelo. Welcome!

  1. February 17th, 2010 at 09:02 | #1