What is Old School, really?

I have a game in the works. Still very early in development, but a few ideas are already in place. The point is, I am trying to recreate the kind of experience one might get from an “Old School” style of play… but with modern tools.
I assume this is the right forum to discuss this kind of project :stuck_out_tongue:
But this post is not about my current design.

Instead it is about the vague, confusing, contradictory and frustrating stuff that people tell me when I ask questions about their idea of what OS, which elements are important, and which games could fall in such definition.

And… I mean… I was part of the Old School, for crying out loud!
My first rpg was Mentzner’s Red Box D&D, when I was 12 in 1993.
I got the box and learned to play from it… I was my own first GM.
I was there.
I lived through that.

But then why my conversations seem to go like this?
Me - So what is old school roleplaying to you?
Someone - I would say A, and B and definitely C. You can’t have old school without C!
Me - Ok, so this game that delivers A, B and C would be old school for you?
Someone - Oh God no! How can you even say that?! It is nothing like it!

What am I missing?
Has any of you ever felt like this?

I found it pretty confusing, as well, but two things helped sort it out for me. One is this post on “Six Cultures of Play,” which lays out three different visions of what it means for a play style to be “old school.” The other was the episode of Wobblies & Wizards discussing that article, which made it click for me that sometimes people mean Gygax-style, open table challenge play, sometimes they mean linear narrative “trad” play, but often all they’re talking about is how they navigated the difficulties and complexities of earlier editions of D&D/AD&D at their own tables. That’s part of the reason there’s little consensus over what old school play actually entails. The term covers not just a range of different editions of a game that often gets talked about as though it were a decade-spanning monolith, but also the myriad regional and hyper-local variations on how people adapted those editions to their own needs and desires.


If you are delivering A, B, and C, then no matter what those initials stand for, then that person is probably reacting to the modern tools that you are incorporating. Does that sound fair? Do you mind being more specific about what those are?

The suggestion of @SymbolicCity of Six Cultures of Play is an excellent starting point.

Indeed, it is not clear what you mean by “Old School”.

Referring to Six Cultures of Play, do you mean Classic or OSR?

This is essential to answer with clarity to your questions. Let’s find out a common semantic ground for this conversation.

I have a clear answer about the OSR to give you. Instead, I do not have a sound position regarding the Classic label.

I knew about the article, but not about the podcast. Thanks :slight_smile:
I have to admit that I disagree with tRA taxonomy in a few fundamental ways. But it’s a topic for a different thread :sweat_smile:
It’s still interesting and partly useful for my current predicament, though, especially the conclusion you draw from it all:

. . .

If the question is
What kind of play experience do I want to facilitate through my game’s design?

Then, with tRA taxonomy in mind, probably OSR.
If the question is
To which culture have you been asking questions?

Then the answer is… I don’t know :stuck_out_tongue:
The article draws a nice line between Classic and Trad and OSR, but none of my sources (various vlogs, blogs and posts devoted to “OSR”) seem to identify as anything other than “old school D&D players” … which is in and of itself frustrating when they cal “D&D” anything they put on their table :tired_face:

Some are old players like me that actually remember those days.
Some are younger enthusiasts.
Not to mention those that just scoff at the idea of ANY set of rules, because they know better … so anything different than the old rulebook they (don’t) use anyway is not true OSR™ :tired_face:
(the fact that their “freedom from rules” is an illusion never helped the conversation with those ones, so I quickly stopped even mentioning that at all)
(but I hope it won’t be a problem here :heart: )

. . .

Doing research I haven’t presented my work (yet).
I just ask for their experiences, their opinions, maybe mention example RPGs, and do follow-up questions to dig deeper in the (mostly vague and nebulous) answers.

Doing so I had people label the same game as perfectly OSR because a+b+c reasons, only for the next person to say that it is totally anathema to OSR because of the same a+b+c reasons.

Also, I got people swear that something is not OSR even though the game ticks a lot of the boxes one might imagine fit the genre, while also praising as OSR some other game that on paper ticks very few of them.
(boxes taken from stuff such as the Principia and other manifesto-ish statements about what OSR play should ideally include / look like)

One thing I might be starting to notice is that “specialist players” that exclusively live and breath OSR (grognards? fanboys?) seem to basically define old school as “whatever I like”, while more “generalist players” seem able to find that old school vibe and feel, that experience, in a much larger variety of titles. Sure, they might find it not 100% true to the hypothetical ideal, but they also don’t discard it as unholy heresy :stuck_out_tongue:
Although, it might be my current frustration talking here, a bit :sweat_smile:

Trophy Dark apparently is NOT old school for many “grognards”, while most everyone else gest strong old school vibes from it.
Trophy Gold only dresses up like old school but really isn’t (again, for grognards), while others find that it gets even more in line with old school sensibilities and expectations than the Dark version.

Torchbearer, same thing.

Zweihander DOESN’T tick many boxes, but many grognards consider it a classic old school darling.

Etc… uff…

. . .

Shoot! I happily accept all input and ideas :smiley:

. . .

Anyway, sorry for the rant-y and vent-y post :sweat_smile:
In the end I will do my thing, as usual.
Especially because I have gmLess proclivities, so I feel that no matter what else I do with the game, it will be instantly disqualified in the eys of grognards from the get go :stuck_out_tongue:

For me “Old School” is a marketing term or term of group (scene) affiliation. This isn’t to say it’s bad, it’s just like calling something “indie”. It’s also highly contested, has multiple meanings to the point where it’s not especially useful.

This confusion is compounded because the style of play in olden days wasn’t itself especially well defined or unified. I like six-culture of play, and find it a useful short-hand, but very few systems, scenes and designs are all or nothing. Even in the mid-1970’s, even within the text of the 1974 OD&D white box I’d argue there’s internal debates about what D&D and by extension RPGs consist of. The various OSR scenes have at times focused to a greater or lesser degree on the claim that they seek to revive or teach play in the manner of the past, and this is an largely an earnest conviction. However, it’s also largely nostalgic projection – given the past itself is in conflict, even for people who played RPGs in the 70’s and 80’s how could it not be? Hermenutics of old texts - say Totten’s Stretegos or Issue 1 of Strategic Review are fun and useful for sparking ideas, but they don’t really tell me what “old school play” was. Early RPG communities evolved quickly and had far less interaction - one learned how to run D&D from some other referee, read a few limited texts, amd made it up and hashed it out table by table.

So any conception of Old School play is inherently nostalgic. That is it’s a feeling of a lost ideal, a sense of rupture, originally diagnosed as the disease of patriotism - lethally potent melancholy, felt by expatriates, mercenaries and refugees far from their homes. Unlike the medical nostalgic (last diagnosed in WW1 btw), the more contemporary meaning usually involves (per William Kurlinkus) a rhetorical structure where the idealized past is offered as a truth to return to, this is a wonderful community building tool. However, trouble occurs if/when the nostalgic is forced to explain why the fictional ideal cannot be realized but cannot admit it was always a fiction/dream. Instead the nostalgic often proclaims the failure the work of a destructive/corrupting force that needs to be expunged before the idyll can be realized. The late Svetlana Boym and several psychological studies suggest that nostalgic energy can also be personally positive, but that to do so one must look critically at the nostalgic subject and desire; to accept that it is a fiction, a retelling useful as a way to link the past and present as a continuous striving for something better.

In games this is not a high stakes issue, though I think understanding the OSR as not actual old design so much as an effort to find a set of design tools and create a scene or a larger culture of play that provides something like the remembered sense of wonder and excitement one felt when first introduced to fantasy RPGs is a more useful avenue then revivalism or a search for some kind of true “old school”.

For me again, rather then focusing on era, specific system, or such I tend to think the first question of design is defining what play style you want. What is the core focus of the play experience? I build from there.


Let me start by tackling the elephant in the room.

This is a long and complex historical topic regarding the roots of the old-school movement. I recommend reading as a starting point the following:

If you read the article of OSR Simulacrum, you will notice one thing: the OSR began as recovering the playstyle of the pre-BECMI edition of D&D. So, OD&D, Holmes, and in particular Basic\Expert by Moldvay and Cook. However, the OSR became more interested in hacking with rules beyond older editions of D&D. That is why we have the NSR nowadays.

What is not very clear to a lot of people is that D&D is not a particular game. D&D is not the same thing as Dungeons & Dragons. It’s an expression referring to any campaign and ruleset focused on:

  • Exploration & Adventure
  • Problem Solving
  • Sandbox Open World campaign style.

Quoting Zedeck Siew’s Sentimental Thoughts about the OSR:

A facet of the OSR scene is its willingness to use popular rulesets as a shared language.

Dungeons & Dragons ™ not as a WOTC corporate property, but D&D as a community vernacular. (And D&D is just one example.)

Folks like Emmy Allen and Luka Rejec have talked about this quite eloquently, I think?

I think the OSR prioritises making stuff for games rather than crafting the bestest, most elegantly-designed game possible. If you are stuck arguing about which language works best for poetry, you’ll never get to the point where you actually start making and sharing verse.

It’s just a historical coincidence that D&D has been the shared language. It could have been anything else in line of principle.

Quoting A Brief Introduction to the OSR and Some Recommendations, OSR D&D can be:

  1. New campaign/source material directly compatible with older D&D systems (“retroclones). The biggest thing in this area is the Old School Essentials 1 series.
  2. Reconfiguring (“hacking”) of older systems to sort of “update” them. This is often a distillation of systems to make them easier to learn to play. This is also often done to piece apart D&D’s mechanics from its setting, so you can use the rules of D&D to play a game not set in a generic fantasy world. The Black Hack is a great example of this.
  3. Totally new systems “inspired” by the ideas of the OSR itself. This is where the fun really begins.

Anyone can build their own D&D with their own hacks and rules. See the community of GLOG.

Pay attention to this use of language in the OSR community of blogs. Though, such use does not coincide with the common use of the expression: it is an observation about how people in the OSR community use the expression D&D.

My invitation is renouncing to find a definition of D&D and embrace Wittgenstein’s family resemblance. D&D is a network of resemblances between games, at the end of the day. There is no way that you can reply in a single way to what is OS\R D&D. It’s a conceptual enterprise destined to fail.

Let’s move then to what OSR is.

Shoot! I happily accept all input and ideas :smiley:

You said that:

Also, I got people swear that something is not OSR even though the game ticks a lot of the boxes one might imagine fit the genre, while also praising as OSR some other game that on paper ticks very few of them.
(boxes taken from stuff such as the Principia and other manifesto-ish statements about what OSR play should ideally include / look like)

I see your point. Going back to the definition of the OSR:

OSR is everything that complies with the gameplay principles of the Principia Apocrypha.

That’s it. As long as it ticks the boxes, what you are playing is OSR.

I concede – and I had a nice conversation with Ron Edwards on the topic – that there aren’t per se OSR games. Indeed, the Principia Apocrypha do not provide ontological criteria to define a game. For example, one could even play 5e in an OSR style way. Instead, the Principia codifies an oral tradition about how to play a game and a series of expectations. If a ruleset facilitates the application of the Principia Apocrypha, then such a ruleset is OSR. This is the best definition we have although not perfect. Of course, the above point entails that you can have OSR games that aren’t D&D: Into the Odd, Mouseritter, Knave, Cairn, TROIKA!, and so on. OSR can be D&D, but it is not necessary.

In addition, I would say that it is OSR any game and campaign in which you play worlds and not characters – citing again Zedeck Siew. If you care about neither narratives nor characters but worlds and challenges instead, then you are playing OSR. And it is OSR if you want to build worlds rather than stories.

To summarise: OSR is the mash-up of the Principia Apocrypha plus the desire to build worlds over stories.


So I don’t need to fight about this, but I profoundly disagree with the conclusions of these OSR Simulacrum posts - to my mind (as someone who dropped into the OSR circa 2011) they are a revisionist history focused on lionizing the “forum OSR” of Dragonsfoot and KKA etc. This isn’t coming from a malicious place necessarily, it’s just a “history” from its own perspective. Sadly the post are frequently the first source of definitional history cited by folks in the forum/Revivial/Early-OSR who wish to expunge the G+/Rennissance/Mid-OSR (2011 - 2016) and Commercial/Late-OSR (2016-2019) from the scene.

As above noted above, I also have questions about the possibility of “recovering” a play style from an era that doesn’t actually have much coherence and is filled with rapid changes. Look at the core sources: OD&D can’t decide if it’s a skirmish war game or a fantasy RPG, The Lake Geneva/Cal Tech conflict is heated by the early strat reviews, Ravenloft and it’s focus on set narrative was first produced in 1977, Rahasia published in 1980 (a year before B/X).

While I agree that the goal of the early OSR was, and still is for some today, to “recover” a lost or forgotten play style from OD&D, B/X and most importantly AD&D I don’t think there was a uniform play style and that recovery is largely a matter of a fanciful recreation in line with the Brontosaurus on a good day and the Piltdown man on a bad.

I like OSR design and playstyle, but it makes far more sense as a novel creation, a response to 90’s trad design, then it does as a return to a 1970’s or 1980’s form.


I more or less acknowledge your point. In the early days there wasn’t a single way to play D&D and other RPGs. I do not see why we should disagree. :slightly_smiling_face:

To be precise, what the Principia Apocrypha codify is one of the cultures of the early D&D. In particular that of Philotomy Musings. Many people took that document as the way D&D was played back in the day. In truth, people played OD&D in a multitude of ways. However, that was the gameplay style that the early OSR took as reference and generalised as “how the game was played”.

Honestly, I’m at your point as well: I do not care whether the Principia correspond with the “historical” D&D tradition. The OSR (and the sub-genre of the NSR) is a style of gameplay and adventure design I deeply enjoy — and that’s it.


Thank you all for the clear, articulated and thoughtful answers :heart:
You are helping me get a more reasoned picture out of the subject matter, making sense of the many contradictions I stumbled upon.
A shout-out to @LordPersi for linking sources and citing authors, as I plan on using this game project as material for my BA thesis, and having sources will be exstremely useful :wink:


Sure, feel free to contact me in private for any bibliographical need you might have.

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Yup - all in agreement here.

The Principia is interesting, as it was a crowdsourced document towards the end of the G+ period originally as an effort to bridge the perceived gap between story (PbtA largely) and OSR play styles. It’s quite a nice codification of Mid-OSR design principles, but it’s also in some ways already retrospective, it’s own form of nostalgic re-imagining at the time it’s written. Much in the same way Philotomy’s musings is a nostalgic re-imagining or even a idiosyncratic archeology of early rules design.

For me the unsteady and crumbling meaning of OSR is why I go a bit more in detail about the kind of play I’m looking for: “Procedural Dungeon Crawl” is my current description, because then when I say get into a discussion with someone about the importance of encumbrance we can figure out first if they’re even playing a game where it might be important e.g. a “ultralight one-shot system” doesn’t have as much need as PC generation already severely limits equipment and a lack of campaign play precludes accruing much additional equipment.


So strange to see my blog listed in one of those “early ones” but I suppose it is 15 years old after all.

I agree with Gus that the summary does leave out a lot of the conversation/theory-crafting that occurred during the G+ days. Those conversations were very different in nature than what is found on the forums, at least based on my exposure. I’ve only ever really treated OSR as a label to identify others that might have an interest in these older games (and to muse at how the conversations are all centered around solving the same perceived problems, over and over!). I do concur that there’s quite a bit of “nostalgia for something that may not have actually been” or a pursuit to re-kindle/capture this via a revisionary lens.

To me personally, “Old School” is a bit like one of the entries on my Three Hundred Smells/Scents tables: Describe the scent of Your First Love. Everyone’s description of this will naturally vary wildly and be very difficult to reconcile most of the time :slight_smile: