Today, I’m going to talk about the existence of Old School Rules (OSR) tabletop games, and both the niche I see them filling as well as why they shouldn’t be the industry standard.
OSR stems, essentially, from a sense of nostalgia – older gamers who lament the complexity of newer tabletop games, mainly, and younger ones who’ve heard how free-form and flexible games were in the days before 3rd Edition and the existence of the Open Gaming License that permits OSR games to exist in the first place. In this fashion, it permits those who long for the days when D&D could be crammed into a single soft-cover book to get their fix without inviting lawsuits.
These games serve a vital purpose in the current gaming environment; in addition to enabling those who want to play these relatively rules-light games without risking damage to their decades-old rulebooks, and letting them play games their own way, they also let new gamers experience what games used to be like. These games aren’t Wrong Bad Fun, regardless of what fans of a given system or edition will tell you, and as long as we’re not talking things as deliberately offensive as F.A.T.A.L. there’s no reason everyone shouldn’t give it a try once in their gaming career. Con games are great for trying OSR games out.
However, the reason OSR games have to be remade and set up as replicas of the past is the same reason the more rule-heavy systems of 3rd edition and later came into being. The same easily modifiable and flexible nature of the system that let a GM hand-wave a player having a wizard who cast frostballs that were cold-style fireball spells or spin off entirely new races without much complaint from the rules lawyers was the same thing that kept new players from easily joining. Not being very well laid out and full of inherited rules and special cases made it difficult for new people to easily jump in.
3rd edition solved that by much more tidily codifying everything. Can your wizard cast a cold-theme fireball? Absolutely, here’s a feat for it and rules for how it works. Can you do this cool jumping trick? Sure, if you have a sufficient Acrobatics skill and roll well, and here’s how you can get modifiers to improve your chances. Having it all set down in tidy rules and neatly arranged in the book made it much, much easier for new players to pick up. The tabletop gaming hobby is bigger than ever thanks to these changes, and the presence of the Open Gaming License that let people take these neatly codified rules and make them their own.
Could you still play a wizard whose spells are all cold-themed versions of regular spells without taking the Element Spell feat? Sure, the GM just needed to approve it – but I’ve heard (and at one point not long after 3rd edition came out, expressed myself) the opinion that these rules suck the flexibility out of the system. Why house-rule a special case when rules for doing something like that already exist? The need for OSR games was born from that opinion – for people who really didn’t want to feel like they were working against the game’s rules or essentially building their own custom edition of the game in order to have the fun they were looking for.
I’ll also admit there was a point when the grognards voicing these opinions prompted me to snort and blow their complaints off. After all, you can houserule the later editions and not worry in the least about it. What was their problem? Since then, I’ve looked at the solidly built complexity of the later editions and spinoffs, and the rules-light simplicity of the OSR games, and I see where there’s room – and a need – for both.
We need the more heavily built rulesets to bring in people who’d find the lighter OSR systems intimidating by having what feels like too many options. These systems also give us spaces for game developers to explore ways of twisting and warping the rules in new and unexpected ways, and that can lead to exciting new ideas.
On the other hand, we also need the OSR games – because sometimes you need a D&D-alike that you can toss down and teach a table of six people in just five or ten minutes and have a game full of player-created characters ready to go in under half an hour. And sometimes you just don’t want to have to keep consciously breaking rules and house-ruling things that will get the more literal and rules-oriented people uncomfortable. OSR games are built on Rule Zero first and foremost, more than any other rule, and there are GMs and groups for whom that will make them much more comfortable.
I love that they exist; I wouldn’t want them to be the industry standard. I certainly hope that everyone who reads this has the chance to play one, and to settle into whatever ruleset they’re most comfortable with.