OSR design is stuck in the past ... and it is a pity

Old School


Once Upon a Dungeon

There is no clear way to define what exactly is an Old School roleplaying game.
Some say AD&D2 was old school.
For others AD&D was old school.
No, you have to go for the Basic D&D books.
But only the BECMI.
No, only the Moldvay.
No no no, only the OD&D from 1974 is truly old school.
But then there were also other non-D&D games from back in the day, are they old school?

I’ve done some studying and research, some reading, some talking, some playing... and from what I was able to gather, the Old School way of playing was mostly an emergent philosophy, an approach naturally following from how the rules were designed, written and presented back in the day.


At the table this philosophy looked very much like what Erick Wujcik, author of Amber Diceless Roleplaying, describes in this brief but illuminating forum post; the text comes from 2003 but the memories are straight out of the pre-1979 era. What he describes neatly fits most of the tenants expressed by Matthew J. Finch in his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. And even the esteemed Steven Lumpkin seems to express a similar vision in his OSR Gaming series of vlogs.


A TL:DR version of all this could read like this:
  • the dungeon is a puzzle, an exercise in fictional problem solving
  • the players, not the characters, try to solve it with their personal experience and ingenuity
  • the characters are just avatars allowing the players to interact with the imagined ambient of the dungeon; at best they represent specialized tools
  • thespian interpretation of a role (aka roleplaying) is fun and welcome but ultimately should not interfere with the adventuring
  • story” is a byproduct of adventuring, not the main goal of play
  • dice rolls (combat, skills, etc) are statistically dangerous, a smart player avoids them at all costs

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In the book, meaning in the game design,  this philosophy existed in the most rough and immature form possible. Nothing was openly explained. Design solutions were as ham-fisted as they come. Rule books were mostly written in convoluted, unclear, even confusing ways. They were the lovechild of someone with a great passion but no professional skills. Readers were supposed to learn the hard way how to actually play and enjoy the game, that is to say by trial and error, lots and lots of it. A tough deal for the Players, but even tougher for the person taking on the mantle of Referee (as words have meaning, this is a very interesting difference in respect of the later concept of being Master of a game).
Then time passed. The rpg culture changed. Stuff like “stories” started becoming more and more important. And the rest is history. I’m not here to cover that. So let’s fast forward almost 40 years into the future, to our contemporary 2017. Enter the Old School Renaissance subculture.


But at the time this was enough. In the ‘70s this was the cutting edge of rpg design! And the overall gamer culture supported it fairly well. There were no fancy expectations of “cinematic” stories and fast paced game flow; roleplayers were in large part hobbyists coming from the wargaming world. It was a start. It worked out.


Old School Re... Re... Reenactment


In 40 years a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. Today we are finally starting to take rpg design more seriously. As a science. As an art. As a mature and powerful form of entertainment. We made lots of progress. And yet, something got lost in translation. The Old School way of playing is still alive and kicking, but somehow there are really no games (no designs) that support it. In my opinion, at least. Allow me to explain.


I look at the games that are supposed to keep alive the Old School way, to bring it to the new generations of roleplayers, and I feel perplexed. There is a big and vibrant subculture of people still playing the old games, or their so called retro-clones, or brand new game shaped in the image of the old ones. But... is this really a renaissance? Are we rediscovering the old philosophy and making it our own? I don’t see that. I see games that are painfully identical to the old ones. In game design, and sometimes even in text layout and art direction. They are mere celebrations of the old originals. The problem I have with such games is that they take what was the product of a technological limitation and treat it as if it was the substance itself. Pictograms on a cave wall, reproduced on modern building walls; the meaning is lost, but the shapes remain. It’s historical reenactment. The LARP of how people used to play in the ‘70s.

A cool thing, in and of itself. But a bit depressing if it is the only thing going on. Mind you, this has nothing to do with rants about “wrong fun”. I’m happy to see people play whatever they want and have fun however they can. If you are into them, these reenactment games can be lots of fun! No, my comment is purely about the game design scene and it’s development (or lack thereof) over the past decades. I find it's a pity that no design efforts are being directed at reviving the core values of the Old School way of playing.


Allow me to name some names, offering my very personal opinion of them in order to explain my point of view. Hoping no one gets offended.


First there is the vast amount of retro-clones. The White Hack, the Black Hack, the Red Hack, the Blue Hack, the Old School Hack, and so many others. Some don’t even have the word “hack” in the title! Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Into the Odd come to mind.

The problem with such games is that they do nothing meaningfully different in respect of the old originals. Granted, some manage to improve on the originals a little bit: some have better text style and illustrations, some offer simpler and more streamlined procedures, some even introduce a couple of novel and functional ideas. But by far and large they share the same game structure, problems, shortcomings and idiosyncrasies as the old books they celebrate: the GM is supposed to “do everything” while
innately knowing how to do it right. The rules are as hermetic as ever in regards of the underlying goals and values of the game, again assuming that the Players will learn the hard way.

But nowadays the surrounding game culture has changed considerably and the net result is that it is very easy for readers to misunderstand such games, either finding them dry and unappealing, or ending up playing them in a way that has little in common with the Old School and the design goals that (supposedly) the authors intended to communicate. It is enough to look at a bunch of YouTube actual plays to see this:
  • lots of combat
  • lots of dice rolls
  • games being played “on rails” because the Master has a story to tell

Then there are those games that just don’t get it. Some eschew almost completely the fiction to go in a boardgame-ish direction. Some make everything in the game be totally random and dice driven. A lot translate the idea of difficulty and survival into an endless series of fights and combat encounters. The main difference between the previously mentioned retro-cones and this “modern” designs is that while the former end up with lots of combat and randomness by accident, because gamers know no better and the procedures are unclear, the latter purposefully design for this play style in the belief that this is how Old School was. Now, everyone is entitled to their own subjective opinion about what Old School means; but taking as a reference the game philosophy outlined at the beginning of this article... well then these games have next to nothing in common with it.  The Italian game L’Ultima Torcia (The Last Torch) embodies this perfectly:
  • there’s a dice roll for anything and everything
  • combat is at the center and front of the game activity
  • the GM is mostly left to their own devices about how to properly run the game

Again, this comments are not about the quality of such games. Lots of people love and play L’Ultima Torcia in Italy, just as there is a great love and support for titles like The Black Hack.



Then there are the games that dig the Old School visual style and aesthetic, but offer a totally different gameplay experience. Such systems focus on “dungeon delving like in the old days” but ultimately pursue completely different goals. Two very good examples could be Torchbearer and The White Books, but some Dungeon World hacks might also qualify. Mind you, here the problem is not that they use modern techniques, but that they use them to concoct a system that is light years away from the Old School philosophy:
  • the focus is on telling the story of a dungeon crawl, rather than focusing on the crawl itself (meaning on exploration, survival and problem solving)
  • the mechanics highlight character skill and narrative impact
  • performance is more about rules mastery and resource management than using ingenuity to “work” the fiction

As a curiosity comment, I personally envision D&D as moving, edition after edition, from its early Old School days towards the contemporary story-driven incarnation, with a stint in boardgame-land with the  highly debated 4th edition.

A Future For The Past

So here I am, noticing with growing surprise how apparently there are no games (that I know of) that are trying to make something meaningful with our oh-so-beloved Old School play style. Nothing that can distill its original philosophy, values and unique brand of fun for the newer generations, for the contemporary game culture. Which to me is doubly surprising as at the same time the videogame world has been rediscovering the taste for its own Old School, with unforgiving games based on player skill: all the Dark Souls and Blood Borne craze, games like Darkest Dungeons, all kinds of rogue-like and rogue-lite designs. That, in my book, is a renaissance.


Can’t we do more than copy the old texts?
Don’t we already have enough stuff to address the nostalgia factor?
Isn’t it time to move past the limits of ‘70s design?
Wouldn’t it be possible to explore how to deliver on the Old School ideas and values through new and accessible designs, without the shackles of old forms and archaic techniques?