One topic which comes up repeatedly within certain elements of the roleplaying world is the nature of the OSR. What is it, what defines it, and what does or does not belong under this often difficult to define banner? Over the course of this article, I tread into this quagmire in the hope of shedding some light on this potentially polarizing topic. Within the following paragraphs, I aim to show that the definition of the OSR may not be as difficult to pin down as one might be led to believe. However, this definition is not likely to be as satisfying as some may hope.
Before we begin the analysis of what might place a given game or gaming product within the OSR, let us first look at an informal fallacy commonly known as “No True Scotsman”, and why it is important to this discussion. More appropriately known as “The Appeal to Purity”, the “No True Scotsman” fallacy seeks to protect a generalization from contrary examples by changing the definition to exclude the contrary example. This is often done without any reference to an existing objective rule or accepted idea to support the refutation of the contrary example. The example offered in Wikipedia reads thusly:
Person A: “No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “My uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge”
Person A: “But no TRUE Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge”
In the above example, person A, when presented with a contrary example, has “shifted the goal posts” to allow their original statement to remain correct. No evidence, nor rule is provided to support person A’s modified claim, they just simply attempted to protect the original generalization by subjectively altering their interpretation of said generalization. Ok, so how does this relate to the OSR? Well, I am glad I asked. Let’s dive into those murky waters and try to avoid drowning under the swell of this much debated topic. (Continued below)
Many of the professed markers others use to identify the OSR readily fall under this “Appeal to Purity”, and it is this fact that I believe causes much of the confusion in identifying what the OSR actually is. In the effort to untangle this strangely subjective title, I will look at many of these identifiers and discuss why they exist more within the realm of an “Appeal to Purity” rather then being legitimate hallmarks of the OSR.
One of the most commonly promoted concepts I hear as an identifier of the OSR is the phrase “Rulings not Rules”. An interesting, and admittedly old feeling idea no doubt, but is this the core of the OSR? Though the idea certainly exists in older games, I believe some measure of this is vital to the idea of roleplaying itself. Considering that roleplaying is a form of structured, cooperative imagining, it is important to have a certain amount of flexibility in how the myriad of situations can be handled. Conversely, this would mean that any game that promotes a flexible take on its rules has a claim to being a portion of the OSR. The Fate system utilizes this very idea to the extreme, as it promotes vast levels of hacking its system. Fate also promotes an often ambiguous “let the game master decide” type approach to many of the game’s vital aspects (see what I did there?). However, even in the most well intended efforts, Fate seems to fall short in its attempts at feeling “old school” (Fate Freeport comes to mind). Lastly, “Rulings not Rules” reeks of an “Appeal to Purity” as the idea is actually both common and somewhat undefined. As such, it can be applied or withheld at the whim of the user.
In the end, is the idea of “Rulings not Rules” important to the OSR? Yes, but it shares that importance with a great number of non-OSR games. Thus, it cannot really be a defining feature, as it borders on some level of ubiquity within roleplaying world, The prevalence of the crowd favorite “Rule Zero” and its application to gaming in general goes a long way to proving this point.
The next concept I hear regularly as a possible defining feature of the OSR is “Less Plot, More Player Agency”. This one is interesting, though not really because of its merits as a defining feature of the OSR, but rather because it is more of an approach to how any given group chooses to play the game. Similar to the “Ruling not Rules” concept above, the idea of “Less Plot, More Player Agency” is in no way specific to the OSR. Many games take the approach of a strong sense of player agency without feeling remotely part of the OSR (again Fate comes to mind here). However, this is no doubt a facet of what seems to make up basis of the OSR. Though I would argue that this fact is driven as much by the type of player and game master that are common purveyors of the OSR, then the rules themselves. So again, we arrive at the “Appeal to Purity”, as this potential feature is not so much a facet of the rules as it is those who use the rules.
Another idea I hear a good deal about is “Equipment is the Original Skill List”. Now this one, as strange as it may seem, warrants a good examination, but not for the reasons one might first assume. While it is true that many early roleplaying systems did not make use of long skill lists, or even much in the way of skill mechanics, that is not the real reason this concept is so interesting. When a fan of the OSR says “Equipment is the Original Skill List”, they are actually saying something else they might not know they are saying. This idea of equipment defining what a character is capable of doing is based upon a strange but very interesting portion of many truly “old school” roleplaying games. It is built on the assumption that a character knows everything the player knows regardless of what the character would actually know based upon who they are. This is the original meta-gaming, and it is because of this idea that many fans of “old school” games feel as though they are being challenged more directly by the experiences within the game. Thus, the sense of “intellectual accomplishment” is much greater. In such systems one does not simply roll one check to find a trap and another to disarm it, one must actually use their wits and knowledge to find and disarm the trap. It is here that I believe a good deal of what we might consider the OSR comes from, the sense of being personally challenged by the game itself. This is an element commonly overlooked by modern games, and though complex skill mechanics go a long way toward keeping players on a level field, such mechanics reduce the feeling of being directly challenged by the situations encountered during any given narrative.
However, is this the core of the OSR? Is this the heart of the elusive beast? I am again inclined to say no. The reason is again simple, there are games without complex skill sets and mechanics, that rely heavily on player meta-gaming which in no way feel like part of the OSR. Thus, we are again stuck with something being a feature but not a defining one. Again, this allows the “Appeal to Purity” to be invoked at a whim.
So the rules, it would just have to be the rules right? It would seem that a vast majority of the games that fall under the moniker of the OSR are built around an extremely narrow group of very similar rules. Thus, this concept just has to be the core of the OSR, I mean if not this then what, right? Again, as strange as it may seem, I am inclined to say no. While it is true that a very narrow set of rules has become the basis for a large portion of the OSR, it is equally true that the OSR has pushed beyond those borders and into the wholly unrecognizable. Thus, even the very rules themselves fall to the “Appeal for Purity” too easily.
It must be stated however, that out of all the concepts offered thus far, this one does carry the most weight. If someone starts talking about running a game with: 3d6 six times in order for attributes; races like elf, dwarf, human; classes such as fighter, cleric, magic-user, thief; armor class, hit points, and levels of experience it becomes hard not to feel nostalgic. Even if you were not there in the beginning, most will understand the roots of these ideas to some extent. Just like the I-IV-V progression in music, this will feel “old” in a way the other ideas presented cannot claim.
As a side note, It is my belief that the regular use of nested systems in old school games is an often overlooked feature of what makes a game “old school”. I believe that the oversimplification of a game’s mechanics can lead to a sense of mechanical tedium during a session. Most old school titles had a new sub-system for almost everything that could happen within within the game. In my opinion, this is a feature of immeasurable importance. If you are playing a d20 centric game and your game master tells you to roll a d% out of the blue, you have no idea what is going on! That uncertainty adds to the emotional impact of the situation, and can completely change the vibe at the game table. (Continued below)
Back to the matter at hand–
If the rules themselves cannot even be the defining aspect of the OSR, then what is left? How can we put a label on the magic element that provides that warm fuzzy comfort of the much lauded OSR? Well in truth, here is where we come back to the informal fallacy discussed in the beginning of the article. It has become my belief that the whole idea of the OSR is a giant “Appeal to Purity”, a very complex version of “No True Scotsman”. The OSR is, in no uncertain terms, bits of everything spoken of above. Yet, any attempt at a concrete definition is almost guaranteed to be riddled with subjective opinion. Is there a clearly definable set of attributes that is the OSR? No, I do not believe so, but there is an OSR. In my opinion, the OSR is intended to be as mutable as memory. It is a label we can place on a game to indicate it feels a certain way, even if we cannot adequately define what that is. I have come to think of the OSR as another version of “back in the day”. As such, it becomes a euphemism for the way something is remembered as opposed to what it may have truly been.
This look at what the OSR is has not been in vain however, on the contrary, what it has shown is something deeper. What is the OSR? In the most simplistic terms, it is anything that provides a sense of nostalgia and prior understanding for the player. The OSR is, in my opinion, simply an idea or concept that indicates a basic adherence to one or more properties within a game that might appeal to a certain mindset. It is in the fluid nature of one’s relationship with these identifying properties that aids in creating the the “Appeal to Purity” so often seen in the attempts to describe the OSR.
The idea of “old school” is in no way unique to the world of tabletop roleplaying, nor are the endless debates about what constitutes “old school”. In music, the term “old school” is found in hip hop and punk rock (among others) with some regularity, with the title often imparting some quasi-mystical sense of “street cred”. These topics can be both polarizing and alienating, as they often form a sort of elitism behind their application. The connotation that a certain subset of a knowledge base has more validity because more time has passed since its creation or understanding, is actually a bit bizarre but it is none the less a very common ideal within the vastness of human expression. It does serve a purpose however, and that purpose is to offer a “road sign” toward certain portions of the topic at hand. To that end, the idea of the OSR is of near vital importance for those who pay attention to its utterance. It is the weight of expectation behind those initials that speaks to us an a subconscious level. It is here that the true heart of the OSR rests, as it whispers in the ear of those who know, “It’s alright, you will find solace here…”
Enjoy the coming holidays friends! Feast well and remember to avoid unnecessary conflict with family and party members.