OSR Basics

What is the OSR?

OSR is an acronym for Old-School Renaissance (or, depending on who you ask, Old-School Ruckus). It refers to the resurgence of interest in early fantasy roleplaying games (e.g. — Dungeons & Dragons) and traditional play styles.

What do I need to start playing OSR games?

Download and read Matt Finch's free Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. It covers some of the material in this FAQ, but in greater depth. It also makes a great introductory hand-out for your players.

Pick a set of rules. A number of free retro-clone rule books are available. Swords & Wizardry Core Rules is a free download and inexpensive through print-on-demand. If you want brand name Dungeons & Dragons, the 1981 Basic and Expert rule books are now legitimately available for purchase as PDF's.

You may want an introductory adventure. It's hard to beat B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. Another very good option is B1 In Search of the Unknown. Of course, you can also make your own adventure or find a free adventure to download. B1 and B2 are classic adventures, though, and great examples of how to write adventures, so they're worth paying for.

You will also need dice, paper, and so forth.

What is a retro-clone?

A retro-clone is a new set of rules designed to emulate an old game. Popular retro-clones include Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord.

When TSR ran into serious financial trouble around 2000, Wizards of the Coast purchased the company and the rights to Dungeons & Dragons. In order to turn around the business, WotC embraced a new strategy that included the release of a third edition of the game and an Open Game License (full OGL text). The OGL gave third party publishers safe harbor from legal action by WotC in exchange for agreeing to certain restrictions on how they used WotC trademarks. This allowed Wizards of the Coast to focus on the most profitable product types for its third edition game, while relying on third party publishers to produce lower profit items like adventure modules. This strategy worked well for Wizards of the Coast, revived the commercial viability of the Dungeons & Dragons brand, and established a number of small but successful third party publishers.

Although WotC intended the OGL as a tool to support its third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the OGL incidentally enabled people interested in older editions of the game to produce work-alike rule sets called "retro-clones".

What is a megadungeon?

Players who started with the game after 1980 had an increasing number of commercial adventure modules available for purchase. The use of adventure modules created a style of campaign where characters would spend one or several weeks completely exploring an adventure site of finite size before moving on to the next adventure. Adventures modules originated from competitive convention events, and did not necessarily reflect the structure of campaigns and adventures early players experienced in their home games.

Play in the earliest campaigns focused on one enormous dungeon with many levels, where characters could adventure for the bulk of their careers. Dave Arneson had Blackmoor Castle. Gary Gygax has Castle Greyhawk. In The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gygax wrote:

A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). "Greyhawk Castle", for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20' high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.

The difficulty was in publishing a megadungeon. Despite significant interest from fans over the years, Castle Greyhawk never saw commercial publication, although several adventure modules (EX1 Dungeonland, EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and WG6 Isle of the Ape) are known to resemble small areas or demi-planes connected to Gygax's original Castle Greyhawk.

Stonehell, published in 2009, was arguably the first megadungeon published in a representative form. Since then, a number of megadungeons have been published, including Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Barrowmaze, and Castle of the Mad Archmage.

OSR gamers sometimes make a distinction between a true dungeon (i.e. — a megadungeon) and a lair (i.e. — a finite dungeon of the scope seen in adventure modules).

What is a sandbox?

Judges Guild. Player map. Referee map. Wilderness. Player directed.

What is a grognard?

Les grognards were elite veterans of Napoleon's army, who had earned the right to grumble openly about the tribulations of military life. Dungeons & Dragons has its roots in miniatures wargaming, so "grognard" refers to a player who started gaming in that tradition, with the very first editions of the game (typically before 1980).

The French would pronounce the word something like GRAWN-YAR (to rhyme with "drawn far"), although gamers often pronounce GROG-NARD (to rhyme with "frog lard").

Where is the line between old school and new school?

There is no bright line. Everything from the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons booklets through the 1981 Basic edition is universally regarded as old school. The 1989 second edition of Dungeons & Dragons is regarded by many as old school. The third and fourth editions of Dungeons & Dragons are not old school.

Which retro-clones emulate which old editions?

Why does OSR stuff look amateurish?

DIY. Value amateurism. Lovecraft.

Do OSR publications have a characteristic visual aesthetic?

Yes, many OSR publications share a similar visual aesthetic.

Does the OSR revolve solely around D&D

Not solely. There's some interest in games like Call of Cthulhu, Empire of the Petal Throne, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gangbusters, Traveller, Boot Hill, and Gamma World. But most of the community interest focuses on Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy retro-clones. This is probably because D&D has always had the largest share of the RPG market, and because the Open Game License makes it legally safer to publish D&D-like stuff.

Play style and philosophy

Is the OSR all about nostalgia?

It's not all about nostalgia, no. Nostalgia plays a role in the appeal of old-school games for many players, but it's not a universal sentiment and not the only factor. Some OSR players weren't born until after the original games were long out of print.

How do OSR games handle story and plot?

OSR games privilege player agency. They favor location-based adventures where story emerges organically during play as a result of player decisions and interaction with the environment.

Adventures with predetermined plot points reduce player agency. Undoubtedly there is pleasure in acting out a story from a script, but the pleasure of old-school roleplaying games comes from meaningful decisions and uncertain outcomes.

That gleaming pile of treasure is sweeter if your character seizes it by cheating death in a way the referee never imagined.

What's a murderhobo?

Murderhobo is a term used with variable levels of seriousness (and affection) to describe the player characters. It refers to the fact that player characters are generally heavily armed homeless itinerants with dubious ethics, who rob tombs and kill intelligent beings to take their possessions.

What is a quantum ogre?

The quantum ogre is an idea that describes a scenario where players appear to have a choice, but the referee presents them with the same outcome regardless of what they choose (i.e. — the characters come to a fork in the road, where one direction is littered with human bones and marked by a sign that says "WARNING: OGRE" and the other direction lined with well-tended flower beds, but encounter the same ogre not matter which path they choose). A quantum ogre scenario is generally considered bad, because it robs players of meaningful choice.

The quantum in quantum ogre is a reference to the quantum physics concept of quantum entanglement, as illustrated by the famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.

How do you balance encounters?

Not every encounter should be a pitched battle. In fact, the many encounters force the party to expend resources, rather than posing an existential threat. Some encounters would be likely to result in a total party kill. That's OK. Old-school games emphasize player skill, judgment, and inventiveness over character power.

Why give Experience Points for gold?

Original D&D (1974)

What is Chainmail? Do I need it?

Chainmail is a 1971 booklet of miniature medieval wargame rules written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Chainmail, and its included Fantasy Supplement section, heavily influenced the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.

You do not need Chainmail to play D&D. It is primarily of historical interest for the perspective it provides on the three original D&D booklets. Chainmail includes detailed mass combat rules you could employ if big battles are something you need for your D&D game, but more readily available alternatives exist (Delta's Book of War, for example).

What is Outdoor Survival? Do I need it?

Avalon Hill published the board game Outdoor Survival in 1972. The game has nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, except that it happens to include a large wilderness map covered with a hexagonal grid. Some early D&D referees, including Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, used the board to track character movement in the event of impromptu wilderness excursions.

You do not need Outdoor Survival.

Where are the initiative rules?


What is Appendix N?

Appendix N appeared in the first edition Dungeon Master Guide. It recommends authors and works of fiction which inspired the game. These are some of the entries:

"Appendix N" is sometimes used as a shorthand to denote a work or list of works in any medium that a referee considers canonical to their particular campaign (e.g. — "Ray Harryhausen's flicks top my Appendix N for the island hopping mutant campaign I'm planning.").

What's POD?

POD is an acronym for Print On Demand.

POD has some negative associations. With POD publishing, books are produced by photocopiers or laser printers rather than offset printed on a printing press. The binding POD books is typically of lower quality than traditionally printed books (i.e. — glued pages rather than sewn). To some, POD has the stink of vanity publishing, where authors of inadequate ability to survive professional editorial selection publish books no one will buy simply to satisfy their egos.

On the other hand, POD is much cheaper than traditional publishing, particularly for very small print runs. Traditional printing is usually not economically viable in quantities less than at least 500 volumes, whereas POD makes printing a single book affordable. Publication of books with limited or highly specialized market appeal (a collection of monsters for an out of print game, for example) become viable with POD.

Despite the drawbacks, therefore, many OSR books are published through POD services like Lulu or Lightning Source. The old-school community does not regard POD publication as an indicator of poor quality content.

What's a Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is a web-based crowd funding services. Indiegogo is another such service.

In the crowd funding model, small entrepreneurs propose a product they hope to produce if the project garners sufficient funding. Individual can choose to financially back the project if they feel it's sufficiently worthwhile and viable. Often, the projects offer rewards to attract investors, with larger contributions promising greater rewards.

Kickstarter can also be used as a generic noun to refer to a particular project (e.g. — "I got sucked into backing yet another kickstarter last night.")

What's the brouhaha about Dwimmermount?

In 2008, a few weeks after the death of Gary Gygax, James Maliszewski started a blog called Grognardia to document his exploration of what Dungeons & Dragons was like in its first years. He decided to run a by-the-book game with the three 1974 original Dungeons & Dragons booklets. Through play, he found that some of the rules that initially struck him as confusing, outdated, or broken worked surprisingly well in practice.

James ran a campaign in a megadungeon he named Dwimmermount, and posted play reports on his blog. Grognardia was the most popular OSR blog, and his posts influenced a lot of people.

In 2012, James decided to publish Dwimmermount, and started a Kickstarter project to raise funds. The project raised more than $48,000 — the most by far of any OSR project to that time. A few months after the Kickstarter funded, James Maliszewski stopped communicating with backers and stopped posting on his blog.

People who knew James in real life eventually revealed that his father had died, and he was having a difficult time. He transfered the Kickstarter funds to other people to finish the project, but by that time many backers and people in the OSR community were unwilling to forgive what they viewed as James' betrayal.

James has not posted on his blog or participated in the community since. Work continues on Dwimmermount.

What is Judges Guild? What are the Wilderlands?

Judges Guild was one of the first third-party publishers of D&D products, founded by Bob Bledsaw in 1976. Judges Guild published many adventure modules, including the highly regarded Tegel Manor, Caverns of Thracia, and Dark Tower. Judges Guild was even better known for its Wilderlands products like City State of the Invincible Overlord and Wilderlands of High Fantasy, which included large foldout wilderness hex maps and booklets describing the contents of each hex.

A number of classic Judges Guild products are available for purchase as PDF.

What is Carcosa?

In 2009, Geoffrey McKinney self-published an OD&D style booklet called Carcosa with the bold subtitle Supplement V. Carcosa is a grim alien world painted in colors unknown in our dimension, and filled with Lovecraftian horrors. The booklet follows the format of Judges Guild-style hex descriptions.

A handful of the spell descriptions in Carcosa caused controversy with descriptions of vile sorcerous rituals involving human sacrifice, torture, and rape, like:

The Curse of the Violet Mist: This ritual can be performed only in the desert area of hex 2116 where stand a few stones (the last remnants of a vast tower) rounded smooth by the winds and the sands. The sorcerer must obtain the weird copperish metal of the Snake-Men that, when melted, is merely warm to the touch. He must bind the sacrifice (a Purple female virgin of no more than 13 years and no less than 9) to one of the stones and cover her naked body with the melted metal. Over the next 2-3 days the sorcerer intermittently chants and performs cryptic signs while the desert sun claims the sacrifice. With her torments, the Violet Mist in its prison of the Angled Labyrinth is also tormented. When the sacrifice finally dies, the Violet Mist is cowed to the sorcerer’s will.

In 2011, James Raggi published a deluxe and expanded edition under his Lamentations of the Flame Princess imprint.

What are Zocchi dice?

These dice are made by industry veteran Lou Zocchi and his company GameScience. Zocchi maintains that many RPG dice from other manufacturers do not roll with sufficient randomness because of flaws in their manufacturing. Unlike most RPG dice, the sharp edges of Zocchi dice are not "tumbled" off after the molding process.

Zocchi dice may also refer to the new dice with unusual numbers of sides used by the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. These include d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, and d24.

At this time (April 2014), GameScience is not currently producing and selling dice, although Lou Zocchi has stated his intention to resume production soon.

Further Reading

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast. Its use in this document is not a challenge to that ownership.

This FAQ is maintained by Paul Gorman, and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License. Please email paul at paulgorman dot org with any corrections or additions.