In this series of posts I am going to discuss, as I see it, the current state of the OSR – the Old School Renaissance. If that term offends you – and it both amuses and saddens me that there are still people using the phrase “the so-called OSR” – feel free to translate the acronym as Old School Rules or something similar, if it makes you feel better.
Without a doubt the OSR has changed somewhat over the last 18 months or so. This is unsurprising as it has been evolving since its foundations. As such, I think any essay on the current state of affairs would read better if prefaced with an explanation of the what, when, where and how of the OSR.
The OSR doesn’t attract the same level of ire and criticism from some corners of our online community that it did only a few short years ago, although the sentiment can still be found popping up on various blogs and forums. Most of these folk tend to have a very limited view of what the OSR is and isn’t. Most of them over-simplify the origins of our scene and clearly seem to lack an understanding of the various ingredients that went into the mix that resulted in the OSR.
Firstly, here’s what the OSR isn’t...
The OSR isn’t about people who never stopped playing D&D. Now and then you’ll come across someone who says the OSR is crap because there can’t be a renaissance if they themselves never stopped playing the game. These folks are so insular that they have little idea of what has actually been happening in the online old school scene over the last decade or so. Don’t take them seriously.
Neither is the OSR purely made up of people new to old school gaming or coming back to it after falling out of love with WotC D&D. Sure, some of us fit this description, but others have been playing the original game right from the start and have never stopped doing so.
The OSR isn’t just about bloggers, although to hear some people talk on a couple of the forums you would think that was the case. Blogging has been and is a big part of it, but simply that – a part of it.
Nor is the OSR solely about people on forums. Quite hilariously I’ve read posts by a handful of disgruntled types on a particular old school forum who regularly pour scorn and hatred upon “The OSR” on the one hand, while claiming to be the “true OSR” on the other. Amusing stuff. Of course it’s hard to know what’s happening around you when your head is lodged firmly up your own arse.
The OSR isn’t just about D&D, but it mostly is. If that chokes you, get over it, it’s just how it is. It’s not a criticism of your favourite game. It’s simply what the focus of the OSR thing has largely been.
The OSR isn’t all about making money through publishing, but neither is it only about giving stuff away for free. Some people get hung up on one or the other, especially those who prefer the “revolution” label over revival or renaissance. The OSR is a bag of mixed nuts I’m afraid.
So what is it then? A quick history of the OSR...
The OSR is primarily about hobby publishing and the community that surrounds it. And it’s mostly based in the online old school scene, although some manage to identify with it while maintaining minimal online presence. The online old school community is of course much bigger than the OSR. The latter is simply a part of the former.
Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR in 1997 and released 3e D&D in 2000. The era of TSR D&D ended and the new school WotC D&D began. Ignoring pointless arguments over whether 2e AD&D is or isn’t old school, the core rules of official D&D changed and a large section of the D&D fan base dumped the company and went it alone – the beginnings of the old school community.
Many of these people found a home at the Dragonsfoot forum, with its 1e AD&D focus. Various other old school forums hived off DF, but the only notable remaining one is the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, home of those who consider themselves truly hardcore, I believe.
In 2004, Troll Lord Games took the OGL and SRD of what was now 3.5e D&D and produced Castles & Crusades. While not a retro-clone as such, it was intended to be a game that had a TSR D&D feel, but with some WotC D&D modern sensibilities. While some old school gamers were won over by the mix, a great deal many others wanted something more pure in a newly published game. What Troll Lords did give us, however, was the understanding that the OGL could be used to reverse engineer TSR D&D from WotC’s SRD.
Blogging had become a popular activity, but the old school scene was slow to adopt it. It really started to take off in 2005. Few old school blogs date back any earlier than this, but once the strengths and uses of this new tool became obvious, old school blogs began popping up like crazy. While not impacting the forum scene hugely, a large number of old school gamers moved their online presence from the forums to this new medium, for a variety of reasons. Blogging certainly began to dominate the old school scene, to the bitterness of some.
It was in 2005 too that, according to Rob Conley I believe, the first traceable use of the phrase “old school renaissance” can be found. It was used on a DF forum thread by an anonymous poster. This wasn’t when the scene was born, but it was certainly the beginning of our self awareness.
Finally, around this time Print on Demand publishing – that is, cheap and easy professional publishing for amateurs – became widely available and used, and on a global scale, most notably Lulu, which had begun its life in 2002. Throw into this mix the easy to use tools of desktop publishing, with plenty of free "Open" variations available, and suddenly any bugger could publish and if they did it right, to a standard equal to much of what was being produced by professional gaming companies.
Of great excitement to many was the publishing of OSRIC in 2006. Said to be the first “true” retro-clone, it was in reality an expanded Player’s Handbook, rather than a clone of the complete Core rules of 1e AD&D. It was, however, a gamble that paid off. A bitter feud arose during its development between the supporters of OSRIC and some of the C&C crew, with the latter predicting that WotC would rain down legal fire and brimstone on the old school scene, consequently spoiling it for those who did the “right thing”. That didn’t happen of course and we know from the last few years that many who are currently employed by WotC are very interested, in a positive way, in the developments within the OSR over the last several years.
So, the retro-clones were born, a sub-section of the OSR it’s true, albeit a rather large and dominant part of it. The first complete, true clone was published in 2007, Labyrinth Lord, followed in 2008 by the “near-clone” of Swords & Wizardry. And of course we’ve seen a multitude of variations published since then.
Over the next few years the major events and trends within the OSR included the nomination into mainstream gaming awards of various OSR products, with some even winning such awards, despite being in competition with big companies such as WotC. The magnitude and impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated. And then there was the exploration of the various elements that made a game “old school”, ideas such as megadungeons, sandbox play, etc. Much of this investigation was carried out on the blogs.
And now that brings us up to the recent past of the last couple of years. In the next post I will explore those things that have occurred and affected the OSR over the last year or so. Hopefully the above will provide good context to what will follow, making it easier to understand where we are at and why.