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Thursday 2 October 2014

Another Entry In the Endless Series of Attempts to Define the OSR

Yes, just as written in the title. Only in this case, from the point of view of design.  I think that’s what makes the OSR what it is, which is not exactly the same as just old-school gaming, or traditional gaming, or vintage gaming.

I think you can view the OSR as a framework for design.  For some people, the first instinct is to think of that concept as limiting; as something that somehow hampers the opportunity for creativity.  In fact, I think there’s ample evidence at this point with what the OSR’s post-clonemania second wave has put out to say that the truth is the exact opposite of that.
Let’s say you were told to paint a picture, but you could only do it with certain colors, or a song with certain notes; what this means is that the creativity required to make something new and interesting out of this framework is a lot more than if you were just told “do whatever you like”.  It is the framework, those self-imposed definitional limits, that allow for the creation of something awesome.  Without trying to get pretentious about it, its not unlike the concept behind a haiku; the “rules of design” mean that it takes more thought to make something really viable and interesting, and it can be appreciated not only for itself but also because it was done within these boundaries.

So I think when you’re trying to define what is an OSR game, that framework becomes the most important thing.  Are the mechanics of a game something that was designed WITHIN the framework of old-school rules? If so, then however innovative or radical the application may be, it would be an Old-school game.  If not, then regardless of how much it tries to put on an old school “vibe”, “air” or “style”, its not really an OSR game.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + H&H’s Beverwyck

(originally posted June 25, 2013; on the old blog)


  1. This seems like a valid measurement of a game's OSRness. However, the framework still needs to be defined. For instance, what makes the following games part of the OSR - or what makes them not: OD&D, Stars Without Numbers, Deathwatch, The One Ring, Torchbearer, and My Life With Master?

  2. The OSR-ness of a game is subjective. It cannot be defined any more than can beauty, or fun. The community looks at a game and recognizes it. That is the definition. To the degree that more people label it so, it is so, but only if you value other people's opinions on the matter.

    I completely reject the notion that it is defined mechanically. Even if agreed, how much mechanical fidelity is required? Is it a list of sacred cows, or a certain percentage of rules? Whatever your answer, we are back to an arbitrary subjective decision.

    That said I do agree it's a framework. But the framework includes dynamics and an implied milieu. And the framework is broad and permissive, with fuzzy boundaries, not rigid and exclusive. I think rigidity and one true way-ism is anti-OSR by definition.

  3. Sorry, but I don't think that the OSR is some vague concept like "pretty" or "comforting". Its a concrete thing that can be defined. You can't define "Fun" as such, but you can define what is or isn't baseball.

    What mechanically defines whether or not a game is OSR is the use of certain landmarks: structure of mechanics that fall within those contextual/historical landmarks are usable, while those that fall outside those landmarks (specific mechanics that are outside the historical or contextual range of old-school) would NOT be OSR.

    Its not a checklist. Its not about what you don't include. Nor is it some kind of sacred-cow thing where innovation is blocked. It's about making certain boundaries, and then the test of seeing just how much creative stuff you can create while painting within those lines. And there is a huge vast spectrum of stuff you can do within those boundaries, as so many OSR products of such amazing variety have proven.

    1. I, surprisingly, agree; maybe the term itself isn't to everyone's liking (but I'm sure "D&D-esque" wouldn't feel right for some people, too), though.

      However, as I stressed in my previous comment, the next step should be an attempt at defining the structural elements that determine whether a game belongs to this group of games or not. Otherwise we're still throwing meaningless words at each other.

    2. I think that it would be easy to achieve a consensus as to what kind of things are clearly NOT within those boundaries.

    3. I don't see how it would be all that easy to exclude stuff as you have personality mechanics by 1981 and narrative devices by 1983. Those are two of the central concepts in story games AFAIKT.

    4. Simple. Anything informed by the stylistic concepts of the 90s (white-wolf style "storytelling") or anything that has a line-of-descent from the Forge is obviously and inherently NOT an old-school RPG.
      Only by cheap semantic nitpicking could anyone pretend that FATE or Dungeon World are OSR-games.

    5. I firmly believe that rules structure-wise WW games and *World games are further apart than WW games and early D&D editions (or Runequest or 1st edition WFRP).

      The definition of OSR games (whether it is reflects an opinion each by consensus or the ideas of a single person) is only complete if it's a proper definition.

      You see, until you provide the guidelines of the framework you mention in the article people probably won't agree with you - because it seems like only one half of an idea.

  4. “…but you can define what is or isn't baseball.”

    You can, but only if you’re dealing with reasonable people. Find someone who likes to play with words, and you’ll find that nothing can truly be defined to someone who doesn’t want it defined.

    1. Sure, that's true with anything. It doesn't mean one shouldn't attempt to make definitions that reasonable people will accept.

  5. I like FASA Trek. Am I in or out?