Thursday, May 21, 2020

Weird OSR Quirks

I've been revisiting various OSR titles from the last fifteen or so years. OSR as a corner of the gaming industry is an interesting duck; it has a certain defined size and it's own specialized corners of what is arguably a cottage industry of gaming in general, and those quirks are often quite strange or unique. Here are a few of the oddities I have noticed or questions raised when I review the OSR titles I am familiar with or own in some form....noting of course that I used to be much, much more involved in the OSR games on this blog and have run campaigns in S&W Complete, C&C, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, SWN and White Star, so those tend to be the ones I am most familiar with. For my purposes enjoyment of the OSR movement stems more from appreciation for these rules on their own merits; starting as a gamer in 1981 left me with nostalgia more for the campaigns, people and general fun, but even from day one I was heavily modifying the rules to include skill systems, class freedom for demihumans, and other things some OSR circles consider sacred to the concept.

Anyway....the list! More musings than anything else:

1. What's the deal with Devils in OSR?

Devils appear in the AD&D Monster Manual, and are tied to the nine-point alignment system. As a result, a preponderance of contemporary OSR titles do not touch on devils because they often seek to emulate OD&D or B/X D&D, neither of which traditionally had complex alignments, therefore did not have need for lawful evil devils. In B/X they simply avoided demons and devils entirely. As a result of this you can only really find devils on OSRIC, and they tend not to show in games using only law/neutrality/chaos as the axis of alignment.

This has led to some oddities. For example: Frog God Games has adapted large tomes of monsters across multiple systems, leading to stats for devils which make sense in Pathfinder or D&D adaptations, but also leading to their appearance in Swords & Wizardry which otherwise is missing the parade of devils traditional to AD&D.

2. Weapon Proficiencies - Hassle or Mission Critical???

OSRIC is very faithful in catching the key salient rules of AD&D 1st edition while also making it a clear, comprehensive modern explanation of the rules. It is, so far as I can tell, the only version of the game to also faithfully adapt weapon proficiencies. Other games emulating later editions (such as For Gold & Glory) also do this, but aimed at AD&D 2nd edition sensibilities. Otherwise? You really don't see weapon proficiencies come in to play at all. B/X and OD&D variants need not worry, but for example even "inspired" ruleset like Castles & Crusades avoid these mechanics or bake them in to the fighter only.

3. Taboo Skill Systems

There's a compelling case made in Matt Finch's treatment on what Old School Gaming is that OSR treats the play experience not merely as a simulation letting you live vicariously through wizards, rogues and fighters but as a challenge to the player. There's an equally compelling argument going back to before 1981 when I first started gaming that says that having characters with a way to guage skill sets that may not be possible in the player allows for a better simulation. I once gamed with an avid GM in the early nineties, as an example, who argued that if you did not tell him in details HOW you saddled and rode your horse then you were doomed to failure. He allowed no room for players who were less proficient or knowledgeable in such matters than their characters might be; it was a sort of Villains & Vigilantes style thought process on gaming, the notion that your character was very much YOU in every sense of the word, just with a sword or superpowers or magic added on....but somehow not skills reflecting knowledge that a fantasy character might have but a modern gamer might not.

Back in the 70's and 80's when you decided you wanted agame system with a robust skill mechanic you wrote your own game. In AD&D land you waited until the Wilderness Survival Guide came out, a book which I distinctly recall I hated with a passion by then because I had already been exposed to smarter skill mechanics in Runequest, Palladium Fantasy and even GURPS (also the then late-great TFT). Today, in the OSR movement, you avoid skills like the plague, or maybe provide a simple mechanic such as a "skill" save or something....unless you're trying to replicate AD&D 2nd edition or BECMI, in which case go for it. SF retogames have skills....but see next!

4. It's always "Like Traveller, but OD&D"

Barring the Cepheus Engine which has lite versions of Traveller by Mongoose, few SF retroclones actually do retrocloning for the SF games of the 70's and early 80's, but they all have a habit instead of doing, "OD&D, if it were scifi" instead. Why is this? Stars Without Number is OD&D inspired with a loose Travelleresque skill system attached. Other SF games tend to be "retro inspired" rather than actual retroclones; I have seen nothing that even tries to actually emulate Classic Traveller, Space Opera, Universe or Star Frontiers, to name the Big Four I recall back in the day.

Some of this could be limits of the OGL, but the truth is the OGL has been applied very creatively to emulate mechanics of all types, so it should be possible. This unfortunate tendency to make the OSR all about OD&D and later iterations leaves a large hole, I feel, in the power of modern rewrites to bring back older systems as close to the spirit of intent while being legal as possible. For now, though, we instead have a field filled with games that evoke some of that, but maybe fill a niche of "this would have been an awesome game to have back then, but at least we have it now" type systems. Just imagine, for example, if White Star had been released in 1980....that would have clobbered Star Frontiers (IMO)!

5. OSR Is Weird and Sometimes Lurid but Also It Really Wasn't Like That

Okay, for some groups out there it may have felt this way, and maybe for some golden period in the early seventies there very likely were some groups that felt like Dungeon Crawl Classics as the genre is re-re-envisioned today. But the truth is: all the deliberately kitschy retro games out there from DCC, Venger Satanis, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and so forth, the original market was not predominantly about this. It's a better notion that there were definitely tables where such gaming went on, but the level of R-Rated content, X-Rated content, or just plain trippy hippy "too much LSD before the game session" content was not so common. The stuff we see today in the OSR movement which contains wild recreations of over-the-top madness is good now because it reflects a modern environment which lets people do really crazy stuff with their old buddies, but when I was a teenager the craziest thing we got up to was timid by comparison, totally PG stuff for its day and age.

Ultimately, the really crazy content out there today is great fun (if you're in to it; I admit I only like the DCC stuff of what I listed above) but its highly specific to tastes and tolerances of a subset of this cottage industry, a bit like how Heavy Metal is out there, but most comics are a lot more timid. Still, the prevalance of this content in the OSR probably gives the young'uns an interesting (and false) impression about the Wild West of the old days of gaming!

Anyway.....just random musings....


  1. Just to prove your point #4, there is, in fact, a retro-clone of Space Master. It is based on White Star, which is based on B/X.

    The author pointed out that White Star (D&D based) seems to be several times more popular than Cepheus (Traveller based).


    1. I believe it. Cepheus is nice, but it does nothing that Mongoose's version of Traveller doesn't already do better. White Star, on the other hand, is light lighting in a bottle.

  2. The only answer I have #4 is that the OSR sells and it sells best, in my experiences, with Old School Essentials and Labyringh Lord.

    I've written a lot of supplements for 5E, Savage Worlds, Cypher System, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Labyringh Lord, and Black Hack. The stuff I sell for LL & BH outsell everything by a mile.

    1. With Labyrinth Lord, at least, we have an example of a comprehensive system that tells it like we remember it (ALL is essentially how I ran AD&D with B/X back in the day, and I think many others did the same), it's got a friendly disposition (not pushing an agenda about how to play the game; just "here it is, do as you wish" and that's it) and it's essentially all in one book, add supplements to taste. I mean....I'd never bother with the original Starships & Spacemen, but I'd totally play the new LL-powered edition.