No, the OSR isn’t dead, and you can’t kill it

Ah, yes. Every couple of years, some genius thinks they’ve solved the problem with role-playing games. It’s the OSR.

The current culprit, as far as I can tell, is the Secrets of Blackmoor blog (which is putting together a documentary about Dave Arneson which I am very much looking forward to, and for which I backed the Kickstarter). But oh BOY has he gone off the mark on this one. He is himself (apparently, but maybe not) responding to a post on Beyond Fomalhaut. which proclaimed the OSR dead.

The Evil DM and Tenkar’s Tavern have both responded, and now here’s mine.

Let’s start with Beyond Fomalhaut:

The old-school community split this year, and its surviving pieces have gone their separate ways. It is gone. There has been surprisingly little talk about it, and most still speak in terms of a general scene, but in my eyes, the divorce has clearly taken place. The fault lines had been present for a few years, and the conflicts were visible for all to see. Google+’s shuttering by its corporate overlords provided a good opportunity for things to come apart, but it has also obscured the OSR’s disintegration.

Things are never tidy and clear-cut. But there is no big tent “old school community” in the way there was one on Dragonsfoot ca. 2004-2008, the blogs ca. 2007-2012, or G+ for a few years afterwards. These will be smaller groups with more focused interests.

Gods, the level of fundamental misunderstanding here about what the OSR is, is simply astounding.

So many people, even many of those ostensibly in the OSR, fall into this trap. Indeed, when I changed the logo in the OSR G+ group a couple of months before G+ went dark (I was the group owner), that set off an intense blow-up among the OSR along ideological grounds, about “you want to enable haters” vs. “you are bringing politics in”.

The liberal/progressives in that group went off and formed the laughable “Honorable OSR” and “Sworddream” nonsense (which might well have morphed into something else by now; it’s about as stable as communist splinter groups in the 70’s), while the conservative/ libertarian/ don’tcareaboutpolitics side went over to MeWe, where the conversation has pretty much continued as it did over on G+.

I don’t mention this in order to reignite any old wounds from the G+ OSR community (and comments to this post which try to re-litigate it will not be approved), but rather to point out the fundamental flaw in the whole argument.

The OSR is not an online community. It was never a forum on Dragonsfoot, it was never a bunch of blogs, it was never a G+ community, and it’s not a MeWe group today.

I tried to make this point back in June. The OSR is a mindset. It’s not even a bunch of people playing by the same rules that we played with in the 1970’s and 80’s (more about that in a second). It’s about playing those games, and playing games that are mechanically like those games, and it’s about playing games that evoke the “feel” of those games.

That brings us to Secrets of Blackmoor, and how he gets it very, very wrong too:

What is OSR?

I actually thought it stood for Old School Rules.

If it’s a movement how come most people don’t even know what it stands for?

How come everyone who does claim to be into OSR can’t really define it for you either. The main point of it seems to be that they are OSR and you aren’t!

No, no, no, and NO!

The fact that OSR as an acronym has many definitions is not a weakness. It’s not indicative of some flaw. It’s (ironically) one of its most defining and most inclusive features. Does it mean Old School Rules? Old School Renaissance? Old School Revival? YES! All of the above.

And can someone say “you’re not really in the OSR” if you use a different definition than they do? NO!

Which speaks directly to Blackmoor’s statement:

Maybe it’s time to dump the OSR label for good. It seems to have done the opposite of what it should be doing. It is somewhat elitist and it’s a turn off for some people.

I disagree most vociferously that the OSR label is in any way elitist, except perhaps in the most general “I think the way I prefer to play is preferable to other ways” which is hardly unique to OSR gamers. There are people who like 3E, 4E, 5E, Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy, and a thousand other games. Having a preference does not make one elitist.

Could it be a turn-off for some people? Sure, if it’s a style of play that those people don’t like. I don’t like to vast crunch of 3E/Pathfinder. I don’t like the tactical skirmish feel of 4E. Does that make the people who do like those rules elitist? Of course not! It means I have different preferences. And people are allowed to have different preferences, and doing so does not mean they think people with other preferences are objectively wrong or are somehow being elitist for liking a game that other people do not.

(Of course, there’s more than a bit of good-natured ribbing about edition wars, but when it’s done right, by normal people, it’s all in good fun.)

Blackmoor continues:

Lets get rid of OSR as a term and as a way of excluding people, and move forward with a much looser definition. Something will grab the attention of gamers as a new label. I would propose a term like Traditional Role Playing…

Yes, like “Honorable OSR” and “Sworddream” grabbed the attention of gamers.

I will point out that the desire to create new labels is often in and of itself an attempt to exclude people. It’s a way of saying “I refuse to be included in any label that also includes those people with whom I disagree. So I’ve invented this new label, which is just like that old one, but without those evil people.”

That’s what the “Honorable OSR” and “Sworddream” are. I submit that “Traditional Role Playing” will go the same route.

Like it or not, the OSR is here, and will never go away just because people think it’s too open (like the “Honorable OSR”) or because people think it’s too closed (like Secrets of Blackmoor). It’s amorphous by its very nature, and that means it is by definition a big tent. Democrat? Republican? Libertarian? Socialist? Christian? Atheist? Pagan? None of it matters.

It’s all about playing RPGs like they were played in the early days. Same rules, similar rules, new rules with similar feel; whatever.

And of course it all hinges on however you define “early days”. Some people might plant that flag at 1977. Some might plant it at 1984. I personally plant it at 1995, but that is entirely my personal preference. I have every confidence that the definition of “old school games” will eventually stretch to include 3.x just as the definition of “classic rock” has somehow inexplicably stretched to include ZZ Top and Nirvana.

And I have no power whatsoever to impose my choice of 1995 on other people, other than my own decision not to include anything past that date in the OSR on this blog. Another blog, or podcast, or YouTube channel, might move the date. If enough people agree, the date moves. For them. If not, they’re regarded as “eccentric” in their definition. Just like “classic rock.” But ultimately nobody controls it, nobody has the power to impose the ultimate definition of it, and nobody can declare it dead.

And that is entirely the point.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

15 thoughts on “No, the OSR isn’t dead, and you can’t kill it

  1. Thank you for sharing your point of view. It’s brave. And separately I am reassured by the views you express.

    Communities have gatekeepers and rules. People have to be in charge and other people have to be kept out. Otherwise it’s not a community.

    The OSR has never been a community. It’s a way of looking at our hobby. And if you aren’t 100% on board with everything, that’s okay, because it’s not 100% any particular thing.

    I reject “communities” and “lifestyles” and “brands” because those are all ways to get you to sit down and shut up.

    My OSR “community” has one guy in it and the only rule is No Politics on the blog and only rarely on others’. I guess No Politics is a good indicator of political outlook these days, and that’s so much the worse.

    I don’t care who you voted for or whether you like guns or not or any of that. I want to roll dice and talk like an elf and slay the dragon with you.

    I’m certainly not gonna listen to someone else, no matter how insightful, tell me whether the OSR is dead or not.

  2. While I agree with you that OSR is not meant to be one thing, but multiple, I wonder if the idea of scrapping it might not be a good idea anyway.

    When the big activity bloomed and people started blogs to talk about gaming like they did “back then” (whenever that was), people did mostly talk about those games. Now it feels like the definition of OSR or who or what it is kind of takes centre stage. It bores me.

    Dropping the moniker will stop people having those moronic conversations about definitions, and it wont stop people playing old style games or talk about it. Also, it might stop people calling it a movement, which takes much more aim and leadership than there ever was…

    Anyway. That’s my two cents.

  3. This is the response I also posted on Secrets of Blackmoor:

    Also back in the day I suppose there were various ways of playing the game. I still remember that dring the 80s we had discussions what games were proper roleplaying, and what games were merely rollplaying.

    The discussion about what constitutes OSR is another variant of such discussions.

    After all, games evolve in a continuum, with many overlapping trends, some games are avant-garde, some games merely followers. Some games are way ahead for their time, some games are lagging etc.

    As such, it doesn;t really matter what you call OSR or not. It’s like saying who’s GenX and who’s a babyboomer and who’s GenY or whatever. Such classifications sort of do work, but not all the time.

  4. When I realized that neither myself nor the guy who “taught” me D&D had a good grasp on whatever the LBB were trying to say, I realized that I was really ruling according to what made internal sense (verisimilitude) and was fun – extra chances of success if PC actions amused me. Rules? I swiped any which worked or were easy – RQ for realistic feel, TnT to get things done, and heavy on the implications from FFC. My youngest grandson playif any. s in a D&D group from school and has no idea what ruleset they use, if any. He almost quoted Arneson when he told me that “we just tell the DM what we want to do and he tells us if it works. Sometimes we roll dice.”

    Is that OSR? In my life, it is.

  5. Joe, you seem to have misunderstood my blog post.

    I personally have come to realize that the term OSR means nothing to me, and I suggest a new terminology.

    But I use the words, wait for it: I would suggest. It is merely an offering with no force behind it.

    Do I want the term OSR to go away, yes I do. It’s useless and has no semantic quality that I can use to explain what I do when I run a game.

    If I say I play OSR, what the heck does that mean?

    I play OD&D exclusively. I have even taken to not using the supplements and playing it in it’s rawest form with just the 3 little booklets.

    My reasoning behind playing OD&D is because it has a different play method than all other games except Original Tunnels and Trolls and a handful of others.

    I don’t thnk I am part of any movement because I am playing the same game I played as a kid, so no I am not OSR. A lot of other people may not be OSR either.

    I meet people who could not have been in the era of the old school games, but they play old games. They can’t be old school anything, they’re too young.

    I run Traditional Role Playing games, perhaps others do too, Griff

    😉

    1. I read and understood your post exactly, and I couldn’t disagree with your statement more. OSR as a label is not “useless and has no semantic quality” in the slightest. Its amorphous definition does not detract from its utility in defining what it means to be OSR.

      Many, in their quest to be edgier-than-edgy and cooler-than-cool, eschew the OSR label much as a Brooklynite hipster eschews the hipster label, while maintaining the ironic beard and glasses, but without the label to somehow be double-secret-ironic.

      You’re playing old games? You’re part of the OSR. You’re talking about how you play old games? You’re doubly part of the OSR. You have a blog about how you talk about playing old games? Yup. OSR. You make films of people talking about how they play old games?

      I’ll let you guess where that leaves you. 😉

  6. I don’t know about your thoughts about the political arms of the OSR. It is something I am really thinking about post G+

    Also, your “Name” and “Email” fields are required but NOT marked with an “*”.

    1. Yeah, well, when you use a burner email account to comment, and include a link to a political YouTube video which has nothing to do with the topic at hand (which I removed), you might figure out why I want to know who’s participating in the discussion.

      If you’re too much of a coward to put your name behind your words, I don’t really care what you have to say. I only approved your comment to make this point.

      You want to hear about my thoughts about the “political arms of the OSR”? Comment with your real name/address and I’ll consider it.

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