Thursday, 29 May 2014

What is the "Old School Renaissance"?

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Copyright  Dyson Logos. Used under these terms.
The Old School Renaissance, or OSR for short, is about playing and re-interpreting the original editions of Dungeons & Dragons which were released in the 70s and 80s. I have become very interested in OSR D&D in the last few months, and I am now running a campaign with some friends. I want to write about our game here on my blog. However, not everyone is familiar with this kind of game - this has certainly all been new to me in the last few months. So in this post I'll sketch out the nature of the game and in future posts I'll go into more detail.

First of all, I would like to thank Eero Tuovinen for his writing on this topic, and in answering the questions I posed to him.

There are many different views on what OSR means. What follows is just a description of the kind of game that I mean when I say "OSR".

The aim

Eero gives this great summary of the aim of the kind of game I'm talking about:

Our aim is "tackling a compelling fantasy world, recognizing opportunity for adventure, identifying challenges involved, and then figuring out how these challenges may be resolved. The payoff is the satisfaction of success or the bitter pathos of defeat brought about by the combination of clever decision-making and resolving the fictional events with flair. It's a real dynamic process in the sense that nobody's fudging, nobody's planning the outcome, everything's happening as just as real an interaction as in any boardgame, except that we have an infinite variety of moves available in all their subtle nuances thanks to the game being set in a shared imagined space instead of on a gameboard."[1]

The Shadow Lord

Copyright BlissInfinite (Paul Fini).
Used with permission (see below!)
The game is focused on giving the players real challenges that will tax their wits, and with real in-game consequences for success and failure. Every choice matters. There is no rail-roading, and the referee (the lingo for GM in this kind of game) does not protect the players from the consequences of their decisions.

In particular, character death is a very likely outcome of nearly any situation that is a focus of gameplay. This kind of D&D is famous for how hard it is to progress beyond level 1. But that difficulty is a very real part of the fun - learning how to keep your character from dying, knowing that the stakes are high when you make decisions, and of course being forewarned that death is quite likely, all contribute to the fun.

Of course, losing is not necessarily fun. But the "bitter pathos of defeat" is balanced by the "satisfaction of success" - you need both to bring this kind of fun.

The flipside to all this challenge-focused play is that this is not an RPG that aims to tell stories. There are other games we could turn to for that, and indeed there are even other interpretations of D&D that would give you that. Here, any stories that emerge from the roleplaying are secondary concerns: The primary one is that fictionally rooted challenge.

Other characteristics

Some other things that are characteristics of this kind of game:


Found on this forum post, copyright to that artist.

Rulings not rules

 The game has the bare minimum of rules, rather than lots of tables and mechanics for every situation. Instead, on the fly, the group comes up with rulings as they encounter situations that need them. Eero describes it as an "organically developing 'common law' set of judgments and practices, the best of which become enshrined as rules"[2]. The way we come with rulings is a compromise between the question "What would happen in this (fictional, fantastical) situation?" and the concern of keeping the rules simple.

An emphasis on strategic concerns

Players are likely to discuss things like how many mules they need to carry the siege equipment, whether they can convince the goblins they have met to ally with them, the time it takes to travel across the country, and which route they should take in order to beat the assassins. Battle, massively emphasized in later editions, is generally quick and simple (and lethal!). The real choices happen in how you position yourself before the battle, and whether you can avoid it.

Choice over which challenges to engage with, rather than imposed balance

Rather than trying to balance every encounter so that it is the "right" level of difficulty, the referee seeks to follow fictional logic: If it makes sense for there to be a dragon then there will be a dragon. If it does not, then there will not. Whether it is fair on the players or make for a satisfying story does not come into it.

Despite the lack of deliberate balance, the game is not overwhelmingly hard because the players can choose whether or not to pursue the challenges they find. If they discover a lair in the ground with a dragon in, that does not mean the referee is pushing them to go in - the right decision may be to run as far away as they can.

We have been enjoying playing so far. I hope to write more soon. In the mean time, here are some links for further reading:


  1. Sorry for the delay, Martin, but yes you can use the above image and I am the artist on it. Thanks for asking permission!

  2. Hi, thanks for the permission to use your art! I've updated the info above to link to your DeviantArt page.