What exactly is the Old School Revival?
Roleplaying games came into being during the mid-1970’s. While ideas and practices of Roleplaying existed some years before, It can truly be said that Gygax, Arneson, Barker, and others truly fleshed out the first formalized rules. Since that halcyon time, an explosion of games has spanned the test of time. Everything from Runequest, to Traveller, Paranoia, MERP and many others offered alternative rulesets for figuring out essentially the same things. How does one interact in this theater of the mind? What can I do? How tough is that monster? Roleplaying games provide the structure that let’s pretend never could. So where does the OSR fit in?
Fast forward to 2000 and the epic Open Gaming License in which Wizards of the Coast gave free to use without approval most of the core mechanics that made Dungeons and Dragons function. This was done so that third party publishers had a System Reference Document with which to create original material in support of the 3rd edition. What it did was very grander though. It allowed for small publishers to product their own material aimed at previous versions of D&D. Now folks will generally point to the 2004 release of Castles and Crusades or 2006 OSRIC release as the first entry into the OSR world. You will see below I have a differing opinion on this matter.
The OSR movement is an attempt to scrub up the original rules and lay them out in a far more digestible format. It helps to keep alive the spirit of gaming without having to spend heaps of cash buying back your forgotten youth.
Thanks for the history lesson now why do I care?
The thing most folks need to understand about the OSR is the difference in gaming style. The OSR encourages folks to be a little looser with the rules, favoring the game itself. It is also often a bit more adversarial experience between the DM and the players. DM’s originally did not invest long hours into a riveting metaplot. Your murder hobos show up in a town, the town cries for help, and players answer the call by entering some dank hole and slaughtering other humanoids by the truckload until the residents of said village/town/Hamlet (or Hommlet :P) feel safe again. The DM’s authority was unquestionable in those days and “game balance” was not even a term thrown around back then.
Randomness was also part of the equation, something completely lacking in more modern productions. Just as D&D influenced the video game genre in the 1980’s, it has come full circle to being influenced by Video Game industry now. Players are given a bevy of choices in creating a character and can customize that first level character right out the gate if they so desire. Something most folks would not even have attempted back in the 1970’s. I remember having back up characters “just in case”. The older games were far more visceral in nature, similar to the literature that inspires them. In short, it was a different mindset and a dreaded 1 or celebrated 20 was an event at the table.
That brings us to the present
Today there is a multitude of systems. Percentile, Narrative, Tactical, Free Form and even diceless systems flood the market offering different playstyles. Yet still, the old engine that could D&D chugs along in its 5th incarnation. Many of us have come to embrace 5th edition, but as good as it is, we still yearn for those days of our misspent youth. Thus a lot of gamers in the 30+ age bracket have begun to dig in old storage boxes, used bookstores and online retailers to find those prize pieces.
There is another way though! You do not have to spend thousands of dollars buying up your youth. Thanks to the open gaming license you can find an OSR product that uses those rules you are so familiar with and builds off of them. They feel much closer to what you grew up with and yet layer on some interesting options to bring to the table. In what follows I will list off several OSR products and give a brief snippet about what makes each one great as an alternative to spending a fortune or giving up entirely. I will also present links for purchasing said products should one catch your eye. Finally, I will mention a few pros about this title and if I use it or not myself (which is no reflection on the product quality just what swayed me.).
Created by Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch, OSRIC takes the original ruleset of AD&D and presents it in a clean format. Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, not all aspects were able to be added, so many of the iconic spells named after famous wizards are missing. But for the most part, it is complete and without the High Gygaxian that confounded so many of us in our youth (but also encouraged us to use a dictionary and learn). Gary was not known for using one word where ten would fit in. It has a few side supplements by fans over the years but largely remains more of a clean recording of the original ruleset than an expansion on any of the ideas. Still, if you just want to play AD&D with no frills, OSRIC does the job nicely.
Pros: Much cleaner format and you get the Player’s Handbook, DM guide and Monsters all in the same book.
Do I use it? As a reference yes, as a game I run no.
Troll Lord Games first released C&C in 2004. At the time it was definitely a nod to 1st ed. AD&D. As the years have gone by, however, the trolls have redefined certain aspects of the game. It now sits somewhere in between 1st edition and D20 D&D with many unique twists. It holds true to some D20 conventions but does away with complex skills and feats system in lieu of attribute checks and primary and secondary attribute declaration. Challenge systems are still in use, though completely dependent on attributes in a similar fashion to Difficulty Challenge checks. In his later years, Gary Gygax did a lot of work with the trolls and certainly seemed to approve of what they did with Castles and Crusades. It also has the World of Aihrde campaign setting to support it.
Pros: Easily one of the highest production value titles in OSR offerings. Cleanly displayed and easy to read though for purists it does deviate quite a bit from the original formula. In more recent years it’s unique aspects have culminated into the Seige Engine, a multigenre system. Has a lot of product support from Troll Lord Games
Do I use it? I do not. I think it is a fine system, but my players prefer a more robust character creation without the Challenge system.
You can purchase it here.
Swords and Wizardry is the brainchild of Matt Finch one of the creators of OSRIC. Unlike OSRIC it does not just restate the rules but innovates upon them. Gone are the 5 traditional saving throws to be replaced with one saving throw. You have the option of using an ascending or descending (THAC0) armor class system. Some of the classes have minor tweaks here and there but the game you grew up playing is clearly visible. The rules are simple, no clutter and allow for ease of use in play. It also offers the 3 core rulebooks in one package, though arguably more condensed than OSRIC. There is also a Light version perfect for younger players to enter into roleplaying as well.
Pros: It is the game you remember, right down to its bare essence. It runs clean, it runs fast and really allows for focus on Roleplay. It has an expansive Lost Lands Campaign Setting to support it, making it one of the few OSR systems that are the full package.
Do I use it? Yes, all the time. I like to use it for bringing newer gamers to the fold. I also like to use it if I am traveling due to it being fairly lightweight to transport around. To sort of quote Erik Tenkar “I don’t even need to use the book anymore it is that intuitive!”
You can purchase Swords and Wizardry here
Labyrinth Lord is written by Goblinoid Games. It chooses to reproduce the B/X ruleset of Dungeons and Dragons. If you are unsure of what this means, this is closer to the original vision of the game. 4 main classes of Fighter, Cleric, Thief. Magic-User with Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling being racial classes. The biggest difference between this and other Dungeons and Dragons products from the B/X era is in the allowance of advancement to 20th level and the cleric class can cast spells at level 1. It has been well received as a whole and continues to be popular.
Pros: Easily understood, cleaner rendition of B/X rules. Plenty of product support since it is under a free trademark license. Easily usable with old B/X series of modules.
Do I use it? No, I do not. I leaped straight from the red box set into AD&D before coming back a couple years later. I could never get around the idea of a race being a class as a young man. Now I am far more open to it.
Dungeon Crawl Classics is the brainchild of Joseph Goodman and Goodman Games. I was hesitant to mention it at first because it truly is its own thing, but being it builds on the foundations of OD&D, I feel compelled to include it. DCC uses a 10 level system with the same classes introduced in B/X products. The attributes go by different names and there is a new attribute luck in the mix as well. DCC holds very near to its chest the pulp literature that inspired Gygax, Arneson, and others to create what they did. This is evident through the ruleset as it uses a lot of random factors to both enhance successes and make failures so much more gut-wrenching.
It still uses some aspects of D20 such as DC checks, but gone are most of the conditional modifiers and one-off scenarios of 3rd edition. It also makes full use of a wide range of Zocchi Dice (known as funky dice) All spells and criticals have easy to use tables for varying dice results. The spell can either go off normally or have earth shattering effects. Every caster has a unique mercurial effect on their spells as well, making them more interesting by far.
Another unique aspect to DCC RPG is its use of 0 level PC’s and the funnel system. Players create a few 0 level PC’s (usually at least 4) These are mere peasants wielding such wonderous weapons as a Stick, a begging bowl, a candle, Butcher’s Cleaver etc etc. The point is they go into a dungeon geared towards 0 levels in the hopes that at least 1 peasant will survive the funnel in order to become a fully fledged level 1 character on the other side. The dungeons are generally pretty brutal, but the interesting thing is, even the most anti-DCC player will become instantly attached to their plucky peasants as the funnel progresses. It makes you care and that is pure magic.
Pros: While using different statistics and changing a lot of conventions you can still see the bones of OD&D at its roots. The gameplay is pretty fast with a single dungeon session in DCC products taking between 3-4 hours from start to finish. Great to run at conventions, with lots of laughter to be heard, similar to games such as paranoia. Also, the art style of the series is simply amazing. Doug Kovacs and others knock my socks off.
You can purchase DCC RPG from Goodman Games directly.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the brainchild of James Edward Raggi IV. It takes the B/X version of Dungeons and Dragons and drags it screaming into the 17th century. It slaps on some makeup, hits several Iron Maiden and Judas Priest concerts come home and crack open some Lovecraft to relax to. Add some Hellfire Club sensibilities that would make the Marquis De Sade blush and the final product is an erotic romp through a very dark and sinister version of the old rules. Many of the ideas and conventions in use in LotFP are original. Truly it is the atmosphere of the product that sets it apart from other OSR offerings. Fair warning this game is NOT for kids.
The rules are painstakingly altered to follow the author’s vision. Thieves become specialists with skills more fitting to a cat burglar than a dungeon crawler. It does make the rather odd choice to not give any monsters or magic items. The author intends you to interpret your own vision of what should populate your world and as such leaves such details to the GM to decide.
Pros: For gamers who have a very close-knit group who are very comfortable with sexual and dynamically strong adult content. I could also see this being an easy fit for someone who enjoys white wolf products but wants to make the transition back to a D&D ruleset. The art is absolutely gorgeous inside the book.
Do I use it? I do not due to having teenagers in the house. My adult games rarely venture into any realm in which I feel my players might take offense. I do not want my gamers in any fashion to feel uncomfortable due to content so this game at least for now does not grace my shelves. However, if you have no kids at home, or have a group of adults that all agree they want a more adult-themed game, this product delivers in droves.
You can purchase Lamentations of the Flame Princess here
Here is the part where Chris ruffles a few feathers. While it is largely the thought of many that Castles and Crusades was the first OSR product made in 2004, I tend to disagree. In 2001 Kenzer & Company secured an agreement to use the original ruleset of AD&D as the basis for a parody game. Hackmaster was the fictional game in play during the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip. At first, folks thought it was all a joke. I know I did. Then I took a peek at the player’s handbook. What was lovingly found was not only a easily recognizable game but one of the most FUNCTIONAL crunch systems to ever grace RPG pages.
The point most diehard OSR folks argue is the K&C licensed the rights to use the AD&D material, instead of using the OGL. Personally, the whole point of OSR was taking the original rules and enhancing and cleaning them up. Hackmaster 4E does a marvelous job of this and no other OSR product comes close to the level of detail.
K&C lost the rights to make Hackmaster 4E around 2008 (approximate not exact). They instead chose to create their own vision of Hackmaster with an amazing second by second combat system, far less cumbersome critical mechanics and the most well-rounded priest/cleric system I have ever seen. Hackmaster New Edition is both visceral and fun to play. It is also very unforgiving of dumb gameplay. You better bring your “A game” to the Hackmaster table. The current edition is arguably one of the most gorgeous series of RPG products on the market.
Pros: Intensive combat and crazy critical tables with all the crunch a D20 player has come to expect and then some. If you enjoy taking 4 hours to make one character that has a full list of familial relationships, weighs every action for its honor generating merits and loves to micromanage every aspect Hackmaster might just be for you!
Do I use it? I ran Hackmaster 4E for about 5 years both in the military and as a civilian and I can certainly tell you it was a lot of fun. Playing the new edition as a player is a lot of fun. As a GM with 30+ years under my belt of gaming, I am astounded of how the new edition forces me to have to really think about my actions. You think you have seen it all but man, in Hackmaster you can take nothing for granted. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to GM this game if I can fill a table of folks wanting to play.
You can no longer purchase Hackmaster 4E new. It has become something of a collectible. The new version of Hackmaster is alive and well and you can read my review of it here. You can also purchase the new edition on Kenzer Co’s Website.
Adventures Dark and Deep is a definite labor of love. Joseph Bloch poured over tons of articles in Dragon Magazine and Imagine. He scanned thousands of forum entries by Gygax off Dragonsfoot, ENworld, and others. His goal is easily tangible. To try to create what Gygax’s vision for a 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would have been. While the author specifically states that this is not a retro-clone, I include it here simply because much like DCC RPG, it embodies the spirit and feel of Appendix N gaming.
At the time of this writing, I have only just begun to explore the player’s manual. Thus far it seems very close in crunch level to some aspects of Hackmaster 4E. Not nearly as over the top mind you, but it definitely adds layers of crunch not found in the original ruleset. I will most likely do a review at some point of this product so for now I just want to make sure I give it a mention so you fine folks know it is available.
Pros: A nostalgic walk down what if lane, where you get a chance to look at what Gygax probably would have done had he maintained control of TSR. Clean layout and easy to follow writing style with deceptively intricate details.
Do I use it? At the current time no I do not. This is not for a lack of desire to do so, but more because there is only so much time in the day. This might change when I finish up my current OSR campaign in ACKS system. I will definitely do a playtest of the rules for review.
You can purchase Adventures Dark and Deep at RPGNOW
ACKS is produced by Autarch LLC with a clear link to what I would suggest is the pinnacle of TSR products the Rules Cyclopedia. I often felt like 1st Edition AD&D tried and failed to capture the rise to power that BECMI eventually did. While titles and suggestions of strongholds and followers were present, they were almost written like afterthoughts. BECMI, however, took things to the ultimate extreme with characters rising from dungeon divers to wilderness explorers to movers and shakers across the lands and eventually gods. ACKS chose to instead take a slightly different approach.
Characters in ACKS will start out as adventurers. They will dive into holes and clear out dungeons but as their notoriety increases so will the demands upon their time. By 3rd level it is the expectation that characters are now clearing out and solving problems in the wilderness, eventually leading to them “conquering the wilds” of their area. Of course, once they have established a foothold they will set up strongholds, mage towers, guildhouses etc, with their own politics and intricacies that eventually lead them to rule these vast tracts of lands themselves. ACKS manages to offer at present through its products lines:
- 66 unique character classes – Race specific classes, so think basic elf, dwarf, halfling but with classes belonging only to that race (ex. Dwarven Vaultguard, Elven Nightblade) Also campaign specific to Auran, which even if your not using that setting is still a good way to gauge your own creations against.
- Spell Creation System – one of the cleaner, simpler versions I have seen over the years.
- Class Creation System – point buy system for balancing a created class, for campaign specific class creation, which is honestly kind of cool.
- Magic Item Creation System – on par with most I have seen but well laid out.
- Wargame System – Large Scale Mass Combat with a clean scale and balance.
- The Auran Empire Primer – which explores the authors campaign setting.
The product is cleanly written and just makes sense. Honestly, in my mind, this is the vision of D&D/AD&D I feel Gygax would have relished. It cleanly ties in the rise of the hero but in a methodical believable sense while holding true to the spirit of D&D.
Pros: Clean, easy to follow layout. Gorgeous black and white illustrations with full-color covers. Everything you need is in the core rulebook, while supplements just give more tools to the Judge to further embellish their own world. At the present, there are only a few campaign setting products available but that seems to be the focus now from Autarch so I expect this to change.
Do I use it? YES! This is my current adult campaign game I am writing. I have been testing out the world building rules and guidelines and mid-July I kick off my own ACKS campaign in an original setting. I feel like this game is a nice balance between Rule Cyclopedia D&D and Hackmaster, which puts it firmly in the light crunch realm.
You can purchase ACKS at RPGNOW in both PDF and POD
A few honorable mentions
I have by no means covered all the OSR products available. Instead, I have chosen those that seem to have the most buzz around them currently. I would fail you completely if I did not point out a few other products out there. White Star RPG takes OD&D white box rules and places them in a sci-fi setting. White Star pays homage to just about every space opera movie and bit of writing to come out in the last 30 years. In the same universe, you have clear reference to Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Transformers, Lost in Space, and even more. It all works too with light rules to guide gameplay.
The Hero’s Journey takes white box OD&D gaming and weaves Tolkien firmly into it. With light rules, the emphasis on the narrative is easily doable which I think is critical to playing in a Tolkien inspired game. Crypts and Things blend OD&D rules into British Fantasy (aka Warhammer) for a truly unique feel to the game. Finally, I would be denying my readers to not mention Astonishing Swords and Sorcerors of Hyperborea. ASaSoH interweaves low fantasy into a hybrid blend of 1st edition and 2nd edition rules. Perfect for running a Robert E Howard/ H.P. Lovecraft infused game in a human-centric world. In my opinion, it is the best pure Swords and Sorcery game on the market today.
I realize with the 800 lb gorilla of 5th edition on the market most folks will be hard pressed to look at other systems. It goes without saying gamers tend to polarize around a few products en masse. However, it is my strong feeling that the best roleplaying game is the one that lets YOU tell the story you are wanting to tell. The mechanics are simply tools to help explain actions and advance narrative in a logical way that does not feel unfair to all folks involved. The OSR takes us back to the glory days of gaming. In most cases, the rules are simpler and easier to use, but if your someone that needs every single nuance painstakingly clarified, they will probably not be for you.
What the OSR really represents to me is a return to a simpler form of gaming still very much relevant today. You can recapture some of the nostalgia of your youth while still running a game that is fun and every bit as interesting today as it was back then. The OSR is sort of like a pristine classic car. Sure it is not the most fuel efficient but man oh man does it purr nicely when you hit the gas, and look how pretty it is when it all cleaned up!
Until next time,
Keep Rolling Them Bones,