The OSR and the Lifespan of Movements
I’m going to embark on a thought exercise that will likely end up drawing all kinds of attention that I don’t really want, but sometimes, you have to get those pesky thoughts bouncing around your head out in the open. Well, not everyone does, but if I don’t, it just gets really messy in there and I can’t function.
There are a lot of discussions about the OSR, and depending on where you direct your gaze, that discussion is going to range from “what counts as OSR,” to “is the OSR toxic.” If you don’t know already, OSR stands for . . . multiple possible things. Old School Revolution, Old School Renaissance, etc. In general, a return to the playstyle or actual play of the earliest examples of roleplaying games.
Disclaimer: Much of this is based on my observations of OSR communities on message boards, Google Plus, and other social media platforms over the years. I’m not an expert, and I’m a flawed human, so take everything here with a grain of salt.
The OSR Footprint
Before I dive into my thoughts on the ongoing existence of the OSR as a movement, I wanted to look at what the OSR has brought to the wider RPG hobby.
Because of the OSR movement, there has been a deeper examination of older games systems, and a discussion about what worked and what didn’t in those systems. There has also been a large amount of creative work done under the constraints of doing something new and different using a similar set of tools that were in evidence at the beginning of the hobby.
All of this has created a lot of new content, and spawned a great deal of thoughtful discussion on how games evoke the feelings that they do.
The OSR has also brought an identifiable division in the RPG hobby, and with the desire to create a defining sub-category, there are inevitable applications of identification that turn in to gatekeeping. While there have been many people from marginalized communities that have been very active in creating and participating in OSR content, there have still been many people that have been made to feel unwelcome because that one thought experiment they wanted to try was one step too far for the people to whom they were expressing the idea. That one unchallenged element of a beloved game system triggered a response from a devoted fanbase that was more greatly motivated by defending the game than expanding a community.
I say all of this so that it is clear that I am neither trying to paint the OSR as all good or all bad, but to try and give some context to where we find ourselves regarding the OSR and the overall RPG hobby.
Preparing for the Siege
Old school games are not bad games. There were different standards for publication, playtesting, and production values when the RPG hobby began. Sometimes this can create nostalgia for a specific look and feel of a product, and other times, it means that problematic content goes unchallenged and becomes an integral part of the setting of the game.
There is nothing wrong with preferring older games due to an affinity for some of these sensibilities, although this disclaimer should be, itself, disclaimed by stating that any unchallenged preference for problematic material will draw negative attention. Are you willing to call out what is clearly a bad element of the game, or do you reflexively defend the game in its entirety?
Reflexive defense of game elements needs to be examined to maintain intellectual honesty. The initial reflex to defend something that you enjoy from someone criticizing it is not, itself, a sign of bad faith. Unwillingness to hear a different point of view, or to realize that some aspect of what you love may cause harm and pain to others, is an issue. Can you love the thing you love without lauding the worst aspects of the game? Is that problematic section of the game something you actively defend because you think it’s integral to the game? In that case, you may want to spend some time thinking about why people may react negatively to your defense of the material.
There have been many, many attempts to define the OSR, and there have been just as many admonishments to avoid defining the movement. I think some of the difficulty in defining the OSR lies in the current shape of the OSR providing the shadow of a monolith that has since fallen.
A Limited Perspective on History by Not A Historian
I’ll be more than willing to be educated to the contrary, but from what I’ve seen in RPG circles, the OSR was largely a response to the ubiquity of the OGL, and the specific kind of gaming produced by the 3rd edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons. That version of d20, level-based gaming had highly defined rules, and was resistant to personal interpretation of the rules, favoring a homogenous application of rules to provide a similar experience to all tables playing the game.
At the same time that the 3rd edition OGL was dominating the RPG market, not only with Dungeons and Dragons, but with d20 level based versions of every genre and many properties, the most well-known narrative games were less focused on tactical representation, but no less focused on sub-systems and robust rules interactions. Because game discussion was dominated by forums that had their own preferences and sensibilities, truly independent games had a narrower audience, and sometimes the discussion forums where these indie games thrived were just as unwelcoming and unyielding to newcomers or dabblers as D&D favoring sites were towards more indie sensibilities.
In large part, this means that the OSR, as a movement, was a reaction to a gaming trend that is no longer in evidence. The very structured play of 3rd edition gave way to a 4th edition game that was similarly strict in tactical interpretations (if clearer in presenting the smaller, distinct rules packets that made up the overall system), and Pathfinder continued the tradition of the 3rd edition OGL. This meant that older games with less emphasis on strict interpretations had a solid home as a reaction to prevailing game trends for years.
The further from 3rd edition RPGs moved, however, the more the independent space, as well as a growing second tier of game publishers, started to change the landscape of the RPG hobby. Indie games became more accessible across the internet. Third-party publishers that survived the OGL bust turned their resources to creating their own content that wasn’t dependent on a single prevailing trend. In the 3rd edition era, one could see a clear set of poles for the expression of level-based fantasy gaming when looking at BECMI D&D contrasted to the current expression of D&D, but that sharp difference became less focused when measuring a BECMI derived clone against 13th Age or Savage Worlds.
While D&D, today, is a massive juggernaut that defies being measured on the same scale with the rest of the RPG industry, the “second-tier” of games is much more established, and the OSR successfully reintroduced concepts from the dawn of gaming that found new life with repurposed mechanics that were integrated into more modern games.
All of this is a very long way of saying that early in the life cycle of the OSR, it was much easier to say, “I can’t tell you what we are, but I can tell you what we aren’t.” The problem is, saying the OSR isn’t “modern” D&D is far less descriptive than it was previously, due to the modularity of 5th edition D&D and its ability to operate on the edges of both the more structured version of D&D found in 3rd edition, and the more nebulously house ruled territory of older versions of the game.
That means the distinct border between the OSR and the reactive material has blurred. The OSR championed games that may be out of date, but weren’t “outdated.” However, this didn’t give way to the hobby moving away from new games and playing games no longer in print. In many ways, it moved towards companies doing new versions of old games, and instead of publishing these games as d20 variations, as in the early 2000s, these games were often rebuilt from scratch to do what the game seemed to be trying to do when it was first released.
The OSR was a community of support for people that wanted to go back to an older way of playing the games they loved, and also grew to be a community that introduced people that were not present at the dawn of tabletop RPGs to the oldest examples of the art. This became a unifying purpose. When the OSR was initially gaining momentum, this meant that almost everyone “new” that found their way to the OSR had a similar frame of reference in reacting more negatively to the current edition of D&D, or with modern games that were overly mechanized for their tastes.
The problems began to develop when people weren’t joining OSR communities to find a new home, but to explore new territory. Increasingly, people were looking to OSR communities to see what it had to offer, but not because they wanted to dwell entirely in the OSR mindset. This meant more people more willing to question how and why things were done the way there were done. There wasn’t a diametrically opposed “modern” community so much as adjacent communities that did similar things, but in ways that was rebuilt from the ground up, instead of recreated directly from the original offerings.
I watched a lot of discussions where things went something like this:
“I really like how [Old Game] does [topic], but wouldn’t the way [New Game] does it fit in pretty well?”
“[Old Game] was around for decades before [New Game], I don’t know what [New Game] has to offer?”
“I mean, it does something really similar, but more logically. Let me explain.”
“Nope, I don’t need any new game trying to get me to do things in a new way when this has worked for decades.”
“Hey, I just designed a new retro-clone that does [topic] in a new way (just like [New Game] does it, but doesn’t advertise that), want to check it out? I’ve marketed it in a way that lauds every [Old Game] sensibility I can think of.”
“Sounds great! That’s how you make a new version of an old game, by carefully making sure you are explaining that everything good only comes from [Old Game].”
The OSR had a legitimate identity and distinct energy when it was offering something that was missing in RPG discussions and design. There was a clear message saying, “older games allowed for X and Y, and older adventures were structured in this manner, and there is value in examining all of that.” That identity was only strengthened in a climate where 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons had a marketing plan saying, “your old games were bad, and this new version is so much more fun, and you didn’t even know how bad the old version of your favorite game was.”
But that’s not today. Virtually any element provided by a game championed by the OSR is also provided by a game that is currently in production, possibly with a pretty healthy fanbase. That doesn’t mean “new is better,” but it does mean that the OSR, instead of providing something missing, is now a fully preference-based movement. It isn’t the only institution defending lost bits of RPG history, it’s a group of people that prefer games presented in a manner similar to how games were presented when they entered the hobby.
This isn’t bad, but it does mean that the vehement zeal for preserving a dying form of gameplay seems less genuine, and more like a constructed identity, and when that constructed identity is coupled with a rigid definition of who should be in the movement, in absence of a rigid definition of what the movement is, outside of preference for presentation, I am not shocked that the negative aspects of a self-identified corner of gaming is outweighing the value that people perceive from its continued relevancy.
Another Historical Perspective by Someone Outside the History Department
To cite a similar RPG sub-culture, The Forge was the foundational community for much of the independent roleplaying work that would eventually be done moving into the 2010s. While many people recognize that many of the voices currently active in indie RPGs were also active in The Forge, “The Forge” is not an ongoing identity in the RPG hobby.
That is not to say that The Forge is not still cited as a divisive aspect of the hobby. I have definitely seen The Forge cited as the beginning and end of a discussion on a particular topic related to RPGs, as if it is a closed canon of wisdom. But even with this misdirected use of implied authority, it’s clear that The Forge as an identity isn’t an ongoing concern, but rather is used more like an addendum to a resume in current circles.
The RPG hobby is not one monolithic community, but rather a series of interlinked and adjacent communities with various aspects that both bind and repel individuals from one another. However, I still see more rallying cries for the “OSR” to stick together than just about any other sub-group in the hobby (barring 5e D&D communities, which, themselves, don’t seem to do much rallying). This often means that there is still an implied responsibility to defend games with similar sensibilities than there is a simple adherence to certain game tenants, or even just a fandom for a particular game that might be considered an OSR game.
Those rallying cries to a formerly better defined RPG movement seems to attract many people to defend bad actors, which in turn seems to cause more people to quit identifying as OSR, which makes the movement feel embattled, which causes those remaining to draw closer to one another in an even more defensive stance.
I’m not saying the ideals of the OSR, keeping alive elements of older games that were fading from current sensibilities, was wrong. I’m not saying that seeing the value in older games and the playstyle they promote is bad. I am saying that it may be time concede that OSR has drifted from movement to preference, and that desperately clinging to a community that’s edges are more naturally becoming undefined is to court being manipulated by the worst elements of people that seek refuge in the OSR, because they have burned their bridges elsewhere in the RPG community.