The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Friday 26 September 2014

Historical Blinders in the Origin Story of the OSR

So I happened to notice the other day that an OSR blogger came up with a list of "OSR release dates", as a "timeline" for a series on "OSR for the lapsed gamer", presumably meant to be an orderly explanation of what the OSR is, where it came from, etc.

Now, I just have to say that, from a historiographical standpoint, it reads a bit to me like someone creating a history, rather than an accurate portrayal of history.  It looks at the rise of old-school gaming from the perspective of the OSRIC project and Dragonfoot forums, which obviously was an important part of things, but was far from what helped old-school take off.

It may be unfair, you might think, to criticize what is obviously a very reduced list; but even the link in that blog to a much larger list seems to suffer from the same mistake: it has historical blinders, seeking to imagine that the whole Old-school Revival was exclusively started and owes its success to people wanting to precisely mimic and clone old D&D rule-sets.  You could say this is a case of "Revenge of the Clones", where although Clonemania has long since fallen out of favor, now the goal is to suggest that this was the real and true heart and essence of what the revival of Old-school gaming was (and perhaps what it should be?) about.

But you see, I was there too. And I remember it quite differently.  OSRIC was of tremendous interest to a tiny group of "grognards" who seemed to have relatively very little interest (at that time) in spreading the word anywhere and would likely have been relegated to a tiny corner of history were it not for some other important events that took place, and releases of games, that fueled people's imaginations.

Back in 2006, I (and most other people) might have had some vague idea that there was a group of obsessives that were trying to reverse-engineer AD&D 1e without violating copyright, and that for some damn reason they named their project after one of the lesser-known Princes of Amber.  But that wasn't exciting us, or most anyone.

No, what was getting a whole bunch of people outside that little circle interested in Old-School in a big way was something called Encounter Critical.

It had alleged to be a "rediscovered" very small-print RPG from the late 70s that was ridiculous in its Gonzo qualities; at the time, though many took it at its word, I thought it was just too perfectly nostalgic to be real.  And sure enough, it turned out to be a hoax, written by the incredible S. John Ross, who was destined to be a future co-Consultant of mine on the 5e project.

The thought of re-making an exact identical copy of AD&D 1e might have been getting the boys at dragonsfoot all wet, but pretty well everywhere else, people were really fucking excited about Encounter Critical.

And about Mazes and Minotaurs. Also released in 2006, this was a brand new RPG that alleged to be a "new edition" of a classic old-school game (that never actually existed).  It was the first OSR-Variant, a game that looked at the original D&D rules and then tweaked them in a way that totally fit old-school sensibilities but that had never actually been imagined in the 1970s.  In M&M's case, it was to say "let's take D&D but assume it is inspired by Greek Mythology instead of medieval fantasy".

So what's curious about our 'instructive' lists of an 'OSR timeline' above?  You'll note that neither of the lists actually have either Encounter Critical or Mazes & Minotaurs on them.
This in spite of the fact that BOTH of these games came out 1-2 years BEFORE OSRIC actually came out in its full form. They got a shitload of people excited (or re-excited) about old-school style and play before anyone had heard of the seemingly-endless march of precise copies of games people already owned.

But I guess that's the point: there's a certain interest, I think, in wanting to make it appear like what "owns" the OSR, what "made" it, was the Clonemania.  Like the whole point was the mindless endless rehashing of old ground, rather than being excited about the challenge of unleashing spectacular new creativity within the boundaries and landmarks of Old-School design.

So I thought I'd remind the Clonemaniacs of an inconvenient truth: the OSR-Variants came first. They not only ended up being what people were excited about more than Clones, they were what caught people's imaginations BEFORE the Clones (temporarily) hijacked the OSR.  And without them, the whole of the OSR might still just be a couple of dozen guys on dragonsfoot.


Currently Smoking: Castello 4K Collection Canadian + Image Latakia


  1. While you have some good observations for the rise in interest in old school gaming, you are not accurate as far as the Old School Renaissance goes.

    Old School Renaissance was coined by the people who were involved in the creation of cloned ruleset of old D&D editions. It was used by those in the community to refer to the community of people playing, promoting and publishing for older editions of D&D. And it gained traction when a Lulu storefront was named the Old School Renaissance which consolidated all the various lulu releases for older editions into one handy page, including my own Majestic Wilderlands.

    I document it here

    The name always had come controversy attached to it. Because it used the terms Old School Renaissance to refer to the community of those playing, promoting, and publishing for classic edition D&D. Because, as you point out, there was a larger renaissance of interest in older games and fans of those games thought the OSR was being unfair and trying to coop the wider movement to mean ONLY classic editions of D&D.

    Tenkar is promoting classic editions of D&D and things that support those editions. He also talks about other old school things and the wider world of gaming. That just makes him a typical member of those promoting, playing, and publishing for classic editions of D&D. Not a historical revisionist.

    1. Yeah, see, that's exactly what it feels like to me: like the Clonemaniacs were (and still are) trying to own old-school, to control a movement that doesn't actually belong to them, and act as gatekeepers of what is or is not old-school.

      Whether they like it or not, in part BECAUSE they went out of their way to insist on it in their takeover attempt, the term "OSR" has come to mean ALL the Old-School Gaming movement. So given that, it makes it seem disingenuous to try to use technicalities to try to erase the non-Clonemaniac stuff from the 'origin story'.
      They made a play on controlling old-school, it got away from them, and in the process they lost a term they invented when what people associate with it got away from them too. Now they can't go backward and try to say "we take it back, the OSR is just this stuff over here".

    2. You miss my point then. There are no gatekeepers. Never was. There is nobody attempting to take control of anything. Tenker doing what Tenkar do. You do what you do. I do what I do.

      This is not like the fight you had with the indie-press folks and storygaming. All that occurred just before PoD, PDF publishing really took off. Then you had to pretty much put stuff in print and distribute it if you want to get any traction. So there was a gatekeeper.

      But the OSR was born in the era afterwards and grew alongside PoD, Tablets, and PDF publishing. You are like the generals fighting World War I with 19th century tactics. It not the same battlefield anymore.

      Hell it not even the same OSR anymore. Individual publishers have established their own identities and their own brands. The close clones are still there and between them share the largest number of gamers but it not dominate. And because were are talking about flavors of classic DnD. The differences are of inches. So Majestic Wilderlands winds up being used by folks playing all sorts of rulesets and not dependent on Swords & Wizardry's good graces.


    3. Its a criticism based on their repeatedly trying to undercut and ignore anything that doesn't fit their own ideas of what's proper "OSR". If it were up to their kind we'd all just be spooging over the 50th absolutely faithful imitation of 0e D&D, or qabalistic pontifications about the murky origins of the game based on things scrawled on a 1973 chinese food receipt that may or may not have been delivered to the Gygax household and whether that proves that Clerics are an aberration caused by bad Kung Pow Chicken or not.

      Even you end up considering DCC an almost-doesn't-count game, whereas I consider it in the absolute ESSENCE of what the OSR is. And when we're talking about most people outside of a very narrow blogosphere and a couple of very limited forums, they share that vision of the OSR, and not the Clonemaniacs'.

  2. You also have the even more uncomfortable truth that Clonemania is genuinely redundant these days, thanks to making more or less all prior versions of D&D available again. (Yes, Wizards could pull them again if new management come in and second-guess the decision, but on the other hand I think this is unlikely. These days too many managers will understand that, once you've made a certain number of PDF sales, you really have to keep them going, because shutting off the official source of PDFs does nothing except prompt piracy from those who might have otherwise been paying customers.)

    They served a need while the older editions weren't generally available, but that need is gone, and in the long run the more slavish clones are likely to not be remembered for very long, and for an OSR game to get any attention from me these days it needs to bring something strikingly and obviously new to the table; mild variations on Basic D&D based on differing interpretations of the ideal progression of thief skill percentages or whatever don't really cut it, you know?

    1. Yup. What's more, as soon as the Fake-Nostalgia fueled Clonemania died down even a tiny bit, you started to see truly awesome games emerge that were more than just Clones, and lo and behold, people got WAY more excited by those.

    2. DnDClassic hasn't put a dent in the close clones if anything it made them more popular than they otherwise would be. DnDClassics acts like a funnel for people searching for more stuff on a classic edition.

      What being done here is criticizing Chess Club for focusing on Chess not Go.

  3. The Hoard and Horde list is not "seeking to imagine" anything. It's just a list of resources with dates stuck on them (because I'm obsessive that way), intended for me, but which others seem to find useful when looking for that kind of resource.

    It grew out of an exercise to observe whether this sort of resource was increasing in frequency over time:

    The Hoard and Horde list shows the prevalence of this sort of resource prior to the clones, but also afterward, or relative to any milestone in between. (I have non-public dated proto-lists of other different resources, but never had the impetus or drive to polish them up into something shareable.) The list is exportable, so anybody that wants to use it as a starting point to make a broader list is more than welcome to!

    1. Guy's last sentence is pretty much sums up how it goes with the OSR. If somebody thinks something is wrong. They have all the tools to make a go of it and show the rest of us how we are doing it wrong. Hell they will even get help most of the time.

  4. Lots of people seem to over value the retro rulesets.

    What was exciting about the OGL, was that it opened the floodgates for adventures, blogs, random lists, monsters, zines etc. that were applicable to the RPGs that we had all been playing for years.

    It didn't take the OSR to make older editions of games playable again. They always were.

    1. Absolutely agreed. And people were doing Old-School gaming, and writing creative and interesting rule-sets for old school gaming, BEFORE the dragonsfoot-crowd came along to tell us all how to be old-school, and that we have to slavishly stick to exact imitations of pre-1981 books if we want to be 'real oldschool'.

      For a lot of people, the thing went more like: the miniaturized AD&D reprints around the time 3e came out --- Hackmaster (and wishing Hackmaster wasn't funny but serious) --- the OGL starts leading to stuff like Goodman's old-school-style modules for 3e -- lots of people start pulling out their old 1e and RC books -- Encounter Critical comes out --- Mazes and Minotaurs shows up - Forward to Adventure - Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord comes out... and then, suddenly, there's a bunch of assholes on blogs saying that the OSR means you are only "old school" if you play their particular style of play and only with the particular clones they approve of with zero innovation allowed, and fighting over what the cut-off date is for The Year After Which Nothing is Allowed, and Talmudic-debate about the meaning and consequences of a recently-rediscovered set of scrawls that might (or might not) be an indication of a percentage-based system mechanic found scribbled on the back of a napkin from the restaurant M.A.R. Barker was known to have attended a dinner at one evening of Ramadan, 1974.

      Note that "OSRIC" and "dragonsfoot" don't even enter into this. To most people the very earliest exposure to the Clone-Obsessed wing of the OSR was when S&W or LL came out.

      And then I had to spend the next four years being told I wasn't "real old school" by a group of assholes who chose to idolize a White-Wolf writer and future embezzler who'd spent all of the 90s talking about how stupid old-school was, just because he sucked their collective balls and made them feel nostalgic for a mythologized past that never actually happened that way.

    2. "And then I had to spend the next four years being told I wasn't "real old school"..."
      As with your references to Maliszewski's statements, I'm trying to find these so I can read them. Where are they? What pointers can you give? (Venues? Topics of conversation?) Did they pertain to FtA!? Did they pertain to back-in-the-day descriptions of how you played? Help me understand.

    3. He's destroyed several of the old blogs but the "come to Gygax moment" can still be seen (for the time being) brewing in late 2007. In September, he's stockpiling 3E books ahead of what he calls the "apocalypse" of 4E. Three months later, the switch flips. Go back five years before that, he was really more about Exalted, Broken Wheel, Fading Suns, Tri-Stat versions of World of Darkness games and a certain religious politics that may look "neoconservative" in today's relatively soft light.

      Back in the '90s I remember him as one of many hustling writers eager to put a few words together for whoever happened to be paying. It was the '90s after all. People should change over the decades.!search/%22james$20maliszewski%22%7Csort:date

    4. @bombasticus: "He's destroyed several of the old blogs..."
      I'm trying to find these. (I already know about his livejournal, but as you showed—not destroyed. I also know about his blog & articles on, which is also still in existence.) Do you know the names of the now-destroyed blogs, or have links to them (even if no longer working)? Are they in the internet archive?

    5. was one of his domains from I want to say 2005-8. Looks like it's a squatter-cum-tribute site now. No archive. exists in fragmentary archival form. is gone.

      He also spun out a purely personal politico-religious blog at that to me reflects his mindset and personal brand in the pre-grognardia year but contains little overt gaming content. I recall a few posts there that no longer seem to exist -- we moved in adjacent circles between maybe 1996 and 2007, so I kept getting his politics pushed into my face. It happens!

      There might have been other blogs and outlets.

    6. Thanks! I had found the interlog one the other day. It actually does exist in the archive, but didn't see anything relevant to Pundit's points:

      I'll check out those others, thanks!

    7. Good luck and nice to hear interlog survives as well. I'd be surprised to hear about any scabrous screeds of that particular type. The mid- to late '90s might have been the era of D&D's lowest ebb in terms of perceived relevance in the industry and the online fans, so it really wasn't worth talking about in his world -- to bury or to praise -- until 3E reactivated the brand and then 2008 pushed them back to sources.

      On the other hand, it was interesting to see how he fit in with the people who had already come back or never left at all. Plenty of people found their old books or rebought on ebay well in advance of the clones. I'm one of them. Occasionally one hears that history begins with a bang around 2007-8 and thinks, how nice it is must be to be one of these OSR people who had no land before they found ours, so vacant.

  5. After reading his posts, it seems to me that Mr. Tenkar just wanted to provide his readers with some information about "old-school"-style gaming resources that might interest them. What's wrong with that? As a guy who just started playing D&D 1e again after a lapse of over 20 years, I really appreciate these posts.

    1. My main issue with it was with the implication that this is the right framework for people to understand the OSR today, specifically (according to how he describes it) intended for people who had not been gaming for a very long time and were not familiar with the OSR at all.

      Over on G+, the guy who originally wrote the spreadsheet that was also linked here asked if I had a problem with his spreadsheet; I told him that I didn't, because he wrote that not as some kind of introduction to the OSR as a whole, but as an internal document for people in the specific group he's a part of.

      My beef is not with the ultra-orthodox crowd of the OSR discussing the things that matter to them, but with promoting the perception that this was (much less IS) all that old-school gaming is about; that this is where or how it "all began", or that these meticulous and undeviating reconstructions are the "real" or truly important parts of the OSR today.

    2. ...for people the specific group I am part of, meaning just me. (There should be no implication of a "group" purpose, or a "internal" purpose that somehow got leaked to reveal an agenda. Because neither thing is true. It's just for me, full stop. It is not a tool for those who might wish to oppose an agenda that they project on the spreadsheet, because the spreadsheet has no agenda.)

      Pundit: I realize you are covering many bases in your many responses to many people, so I will cut you some slack. But this is also the third time in today where I had to clarify what is starting to feel like leverage for an agenda. If that's intentional, cut it out.

    3. Ok, fair enough, what I meant to say by 'group' was only that you obviously first posted that spreadsheet somewhere (Dragonsfoot?) and inasmuch as it was made for you it was also something presented to the like-minded people who you felt would appreciate and find it useful. The statement wasn't about implying ulterior motives.

    4. @RPGPundit - Tenkar is only listing links to free resources to help people, and gauging from his comments section he might not be aware of all the free resources available out there that cover the so-called OSR in other genres. Perhaps you should suggest a few to him to help him out?

  6. Of the dozens of gamers I know and have gamed with in real-life I was the only one who even knew there was a encounter Critical or Mazes and Minotaurs. There is a fairly large gaming population out there that is either entirely unaware of the rich range of options online or they simply do not care.

    The order that games are mentioned or not mentioned in multiple posts at Tenkars Tavern is really of no concern to me. If after a dozen plus posts no mention is made it might be a little disappointing but nothing keeps others from posting about them. But even if we do who is reading the posts? A couple months back on facebook a comment on D&D came up on one of my facebook friends updates and it turned out a fair number of folk played D&D, other RPGS, used to do so, or would consider it today but none of them knew anything about the current state of affairs of D&D and RPG. A few were thrilled to discover RPGnow existed, others were thrilled there were free pdf options out there but NONE of them had a clue prior to that single posting on facebook that I replied to.

  7. Loyalty to the clones is so intense in some circles. I don't know why. I hear over and over that one clone or another "supports a more 'old school' style of play" and that collectively the rise of the clones finally made it possible to play something like ODD in an era when the books were deep out of print.

    But is there more to the kremlinology that I'm missing that explains why Castles & Crusades and Hackmaster never appear? They acted as an in-print version of certain play styles, after all...

  8. I don't think I understand why there is a need for an argument about this. There really aren't that many clones--on average one or slightly more than one per edition, which is about how it should be, one would think. Why dis them? Encounter Critical and Mazes & Minotaurs are brilliant, but as JD points out, they hardly made a dent in terms of numbers or influence. (That's the way it sometimes goes with brilliant things.) You can think that, say, Arrows of Indra is a great and original game (as I do) and also enjoy dissecting the early history of OD&D (as I do). And it's completely laughable to say that Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry 'temporarily hijacked the OSR'. By 'hijacked' is it meant that the authors held a gun to people's heads and forced them to buy, download or play them? Why pick that sort of a fight?

    1. What I mean by "hijacked" is that around 2006/2007 there was what felt like the very exciting birth of a movement that would make new games or supplements based on old-school ideas and rule-frameworks (which, as many have already pointed out, the OGL made possible). But then S&W and LL came out, and Grognardia and its followers inundated the conversation on the subject of old-school with the notion that the goal should be to recreate a (nostalgic, fake) idea of "how it was really done" as faithfully as possible, with all innovation looked on with disdain. Suddenly, for a couple of years, all the idea of innovation (or almost all) ground to a halt and instead the OSR expected that "old-school" would be about talmudic research and debate over the minutiae of the history/lore of D&D's origins and trying to make a clone that most closely imitated increasingly-backward-looking litmus-tests of purity.

      This really lasted until a couple of breakthrough games came out, around 2009, and especially when SWN and LotFP emerged.

      So when I say hijacked I mean that for 2-3 years there was such an obsession with the "Clones" (and with the K&K/grognardia mentality of an exclusivist obsessoin with purity-enforcement) that the really interesting and worthwhile stuff just didn't happen.

      Rob Conley talks about how Arrows of Indra has been "accepted" as OSR. Well that's great, thanks very much. But if it had come out in 2008 I wager it wouldn't have been. It would have been too "deviant".

    2. Interesting to hear about some of the OSR politics that was going on in the background. And I definitely sympathize with your lament about stagnation, though I think it's safe to say we moved past that.

      To be fair, though, I think the clones really are a better fit for a lapsed gamer than Encounter Critical or Mazes and Minotaurs. OSRIC was my OSR gateway drug since it was similar to the DnD I was familiar with. Only once I got comfortable with those did I start exploring less familiar territory. It's possible that EC and M&M were a bit ahead of their time in that respect...

    3. Yes, we've moved past it. Now we're letting a thousand flowers bloom and the OSR is the better for it. We're defining OSR as what it always should have been:
      "within the landmarks of old-school system design, EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING. Outside those landmarks, nothing".

      It doesn't matter that no one did anything quite like Spears of the Dawn back in 1982 (or 1975) or even that no one would have thought to! That's irrelevant: Spears follows old-school design principles and has an old-school style rooted in D&D. Its OSR.

      On the other hand, a game that uses a bunch of mechanics from Fate, WoD or the Forge, no matter how many old-school airs it puts on, is not OSR.

      That's it. Its fucking simple. Within the Old-school everything, outside it, nothing.

  9. This blog post has a valid point. No, I don't think there's any kind of conspiracy, yet bias, favoritism, and solipsism exist. There's an unconscious fight to control how information is perceived by regulating its communication. One of the few ways that human beings can "master reality".

    I agree with his statement that the fun, energy, and enthusiasm came from the retro-compatible RPGs (like Dungeon Crawl Classics), not the retro-clones (such as OSRIC). Of course, that's also my subjective experience. For what it's worth...

  10. I think it was Castles & Crusades that showed us, what the OGL was capable of in terms of old school play.