ChicagoWiz and others around the OSR community have recently been pondering the current state of OSR, where they are and where to go from here. I am not part of the OSR community, indeed I didn’t even really get into pen and paper RPGs until some time after high school, but the OSR has been a fantastic thing in my book. My first pen and paper RPG system was a home brewed system developed by a friend and his father over 15 some odd years, later I dabbled in the MicroLite20 stuff, and eventually found my way into my current D&D 4e group. No where along that path did I ever get a chance to play an OSR system (though these days I would argue that the home brewed system I played could be considered OSR in spirit. Also there was Dragon Strike). I was familiar with the terms and some of the basic mechanics (spell slots, 3d6 stats etc), and had heard plenty of stories, and as I delved deeper and read more about it, I increasingly wanted to play it. And this is where OSR payed off for me in spades.
To someone who has never played a D&D before 4e, digging into D&D’s past and discovering the multitudes of versions oe, 1e, BCXMI, 1eAD&D, 2eAD&D, 3e, 3.5e and the variations within each of those categories, it was a bit daunting to try and pick out what system to run with. I wanted to play “Original D&D”, but as I was quickly discovering “Original D&D” didn’t mean the same thing to everybody (except for maybe if you said “Original original D&D”, and then most people assumed you meant Chain Mail). The first version I came to was Swords and Wizardry, either the first or second printing. I downloaded it and it seemed great, but simpler than I expected. Digging deeper into things and I discovered that while S&W was very very similar to 0e, it had been modified a bit to simplify some things. Also, it didn’t appear that 0e was the edition that I had in mind when I pictured “Original D&D”.
Eventually this led me to reading about the Rules Cyclopedia, which as near as I could figure was the most authoritative collection of “Original D&D” if I didn’t want to get into AD&D. Some more digging later turned me on to a retro-clone Dark Dungeons which appears to be an attempt to clone the Rules Cyclopedia as completely as possible. This seemed like exactly what I wanted, except for one problem: it was way too much information. If I was going to run an OD&D campaign with my group (primarily 3.5e and 4e players) I needed something simple and quick for them to pick up. They weren’t going to slog through all 344 glorious pages of Dark Dungeons. Besides, the advanced level play (strongholds, immortality and beyond) seemed so far away so I really didn’t need that stuff now.
Back to the drawing board, I next discovered OSRIC and then Labyrinth Lord, each brought a different version of Old School to the table and each one had things a liked and didn’t like. And that’s when it started to click with me. I had read plenty of times before about how OD&D games were full of house rules, and how almost no one played the Rules As Written™, but up until now, I had still been laboring under the delusion that this was because people didn’t understand all the RAW when they started playing, or were taught by someone else who had already house ruled and so they didn’t know any better. While that may have been true for some, I was starting to discover that part of the fun of OD&D. Part of why so many looked back so fondly on OD&D was because that little bit of tinkering to make a given rule set your own, that mixing and matching, permeated the entirety of the game from the wacky solutions to the wacky traps, to the wacky house rules that just make things a little bit more unique for your game. Tinkering was built into the very soul of the game.
Suddenly it was all clear to me, that I didn’t need to find the perfect rule system, whether retro clone or original rule books, I just needed to find a rule set that mostly matched my mechanical requirements, and then mix in the fluff I needed from elsewhere to make it my own. Which of course led me full circle back to S&W which I started last week.
So what was the payoff the OSR gave me? Well, this whole process of evaluating each system and learning my way through the history (and variations) of D&D took me almost a full year. Over that year I evaluated all 5 of the systems listed above, plus a few minor ones I came across. How much do you think buying all the rule systems to have them for a few months each to evaluate would have cost me? A quick trip to amazon shows the Rules Cyclopedia alone is over $50, other books are individually from as low as $5 to as high as $25 used. I haven’t done the math exactly, but I estimate buying and evaluating the same number of original rules would have cost me upwards of $100. Because of the OSR, the Retro-Clones and the generosity of everyone involved, it didn’t cost me a dime. And now that I’ve settled on a version to work from, making sure my players have their own copies won’t cost me a dime either. OSR lets me experiment, and lets my players and I get invested into a system without having to invest our money first, just our time.
So given that the OSR community has already given me so much to work with, who am I to ask for more? Well no one honestly, but since people are asking, this is what I (as someone new the OSR has brought to OD&D) would like to see next from the OSR community.
- More Adventures/Modules : Sure, making my own campaigns and epic worlds can be fun, but I love modules and adventures too. If not for running them straight out, then for the ideas they give me for my own things. This is especially important given that what really seems to have killed OD&D is that when new versions came out, people switched, and publishers stopped producing modules. Now that we have the rules, let’s get some adventures to play. OSR needs its own Keep on the Borderlands at the very least.
- More Generic Pieces and Parts : To go along with the above, I’d love for the OSR publishers to work together to keep module and add ons as generic as possible, and where not possible maybe provide some worked out conversion mechanics. Not that most people can’t figure these things out on their own, but a commitment to making things as generic as possible I think would also open up people to picking up modules that aren’t technically for their system, but with confidence that they can use them easily. Obviously not everything is possible to convert easily, but look at the One Page Dungeons, they do a pretty good job of being detailed while still being generic.
- A Better Comparison of the Major Rule Systems: As I said above, digging into what is “Original D&D” for someone that never played it can be confusing and overwhelming. It would be awesome if someone could get all the OSR publishers to describe exactly what parts they’re trying to emulate and what they each bring to the table, so that someone coming in can get a better grasp on what is available and what works with what.