Monday, April 12, 2021

Before the OSR

I must confess it still baffles me that, even after all these years, the nature of the Old School Renaissance remains a matter of contention in some quarters. Given that, I suppose it should be no surprise that there's no universally accepted start date for the OSR, though I think a good case can be made for 2007 or 2008. I favor 2007 myself, though 2008 is also a good choice, since it's the year in which Gary Gygax died, as well as the year in which old school blogs really exploded in number and influence. 2008 is also, not insignificantly, the year in which the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was published and I think we'd be remiss in overlooking 4e as a symbolic Bright Red Line. The OSR owed much of its early energy to the shudders of revulsion many felt at the marketing campaign that presaged Fourth Edition's arrival.

One of the reasons a start date is difficult to pin down is that, prior to both the dates I mention above, no less than three significant rules sets inspired by old school Dungeons & Dragons appeared. To varying degrees, each one exists outside the OSR ecosystem, despite the fact that the OSR owes huge debts of thanks to all three. Without their trailblazing examples, I'm not sure retro-clones would have existed, or, if they had, they might well have appeared later or taken different forms than they did. 

The first of these was Castles & Crusades, first published by Troll Lord Games in 2004. Though I do not play it, I have a personal affection for C&C, since it was my gateway to old school gaming. Like a lot of people, I'd returned to playing D&D in 2000, with the publication of Third Edition. Also like a lot of people, I grew tired of 3e and was looking for an alternative to its ponderousness. C&C was the very first game I checked out in my quest, having been drawn there due to Gary Gygax's association with Troll Lords. The designers of C&C were, I think, among the first people to recognize that Wizards of the Coast's Open Game License (OGL) and System Reference Document (SRD) gave publishers the raw materials from which to rebuild something akin to AD&D

While one can quibble about the final result, C&C was close enough for my tastes at the time that I readily embraced it. More importantly, the game eschewed all the skills, feats, prestige classes, and other cruft that made Third Edition such cumbersome mess. Better still, C&C built up an active, enthusiastic, and imaginative community around itself. Reading the C&C forums was joyous: every other thread wasn't devoted to dissecting the rules or arguing over the best way to "build" a character. People were just playing the game and having fun doing it. As a new refugee from WotC D&D, this was revelatory and I'll always be grateful for it.

Around the same time, I also came across the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (BFRPG), which was first published in 2006. Basic Fantasy takes a similar tack to C&C, in that it leverages the OGL and SRD to recreate a defunct edition of Dungeons & Dragons, in this case, as its name suggests, the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic and Expert rules. BFRPG went farther, in my opinion, than C&C in using WotC's resources to present a game that played like its inspirations. This was important, because it demonstrated just how much could be done with the OGL and SRD if you were determined to do so.

BFRPG is significant in another way. Castles & Crusades was the invention of Troll Lord Games and some aspects of its design, such as the Siege Engine core mechanic, remained proprietary, which limited the ability of third parties to support it. By contrast, everything about BFRPG is completely "open," allowing anyone and everyone to add to it as they wished. Even more, the game's site actively promotes supplements and adventures produced by others, which is the same spirit I associate strongly with the earliest days of the OSR, when ideas flew fast and furious and everyone involved was sharing and promoting one another's wacky ideas. 


Also released in 2006 was the Old School Reference and Index Compilation, better known as OSRIC. The original purpose of OSRIC was to provide a legal framework for the creation of adventures and supplements to support Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. However, because, at the time, AD&D was no longer readily available, except through the second hand market, some gamers began to use OSRIC as its own ruleset, playing it rather than using it for its original purpose. In doing so, OSRIC effectively became the first retro-clone.

OSRIC went far beyond C&C and BFRPG in terms of its willingness to make use of the content of the SRD to recreate an earlier edition of D&D. Indeed, at the time it was first released, there was some concern that Wizards of the Coast might object and take legal action to suppress it. OSRIC was thus the veritable canary in the coalmine. Because no legal action occurred, it emboldened others to follow suit and, within a couple of years, there were many retro-clones released. Without the boldness of OSRIC, that might never have happened.

Nowadays, I don't see as much talk about Castles & Crusades, Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, or OSRIC as I once did, but the fact remains that the contemporary OSR owes a great debt to each of these pioneering games. Without them, I doubt we'd where we are today.

34 comments:

  1. For all the complaints about WotC's handling of D&D over the years, they're truly the ones who deserve credit for the OSR existing in the first place. Not by encouraging a reaction against them as you seem to be suggesting, but by permanently enabling legal third-party publishers with the OGL and SRD - both of which were crafted to outlast WotC's own period of complete self-determination, which effectively ended with the Hasbro purchase. WotC saved D&D from the death throes of TSR, they opened up the core of D&D's game engine for legal use by the entire industry after decades of TSR's furious opposition to the very concept, and for better or worse all three editions of their games sold well (yes, even 4e) and brought unprecedented numbers of players into the hobby.

    It may be unfashionable to say it in the OSR community, but I'll go on record as saying thank you to Wizards in general and Peter Adkinson in particular for what they've done for (not to) the roleplaying industry. Be nice if more people acknowledged that contribution.

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    1. I am more than happy to express my thanks to Peter Adkison and, especially, Ryan Dancey. They OGL and SRD are great gifts to the hobby.

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    2. My group drifted away to other games long before 2e arrived, but I remember lots of third party stuff in the early 80’s still. Was there legal action by TSR at some point that prompted all of this?

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  2. The coming of 4th Edition sparked me to find another version of D&D to play. At first I checked out some D20 variants that had sprung up such as Microlite20 and Microlite74 etc. I soon discovered Castles & Crusades, followed quickly by OSRIC. Finding that was like a revelation. Somehow I missed BFRPG back then.
    There's a pretty strong 1e AD&D presence in my area now, and the groups always point out that OSRIC is a free option for the rules if you can't get ahold of the 1E books. I also see BFRPG come up from time to time as a cheap option for those that want physical copies of rules (seriously, if you haven't seen the prices on Amazon you'll be amazed).
    I'll add the Hackmaster is worthy of note here, though I think it often gets overlooked due to being a parody, and that it can be seen as a continuance of AD&D rather than any sort of "revival"

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    1. You're right: I should have mentioned HackMaster. It's even earlier than any of those mentioned here (2001). Unfortunately, I have no experience with it whatsoever.

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    2. Are the hard copies of the 1e AD&D volumes available at DriveThruRPG of poor quality? Those don’t seem unreasonably costly, especially if shared within a group.

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    3. I bought a 1e Slave Lords hardback, binding seemed fine.

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    4. There has been a significant amount of time when AD&D 1e books were not in (hard copy) print (and even a slice of time when the PDFs were not available). Sometime after 2006 or so, the used 1e books (and actually all early RPG material) started to be snapped up and prices shot up.

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  3. I have always wondered if there was something in the air in the early 2000s that prompted so many people to look back to older editions of D&D, particularly OD&D. In 2003 I began to wonder if OD&D might be a simpler, more satisfying alternative to 3E, and it seems lots of other people did as well. I couldn't get hold of a copy of the original rules at that time, though, so nothing happened until I became aware of the OSR in 2009.

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    1. I think the something in the air in the early 2000s was the gamers of the 1970s and 80s becoming empty nesters, and having time for the nostalgic hobby of their childhood once more. That, and how the internet enabled us to find each other easier.

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  4. Yeah, to me HackMaster (2001) was the beginning of the then-unnamed OSR. It was the answer to 3rd edition D&D (2000).

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    1. "Answer" in what sense? I thought HM was born out of unrelated matters predating the release of 3e.

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    2. Well, an "answer" in the sense of HackMaster (2001) following closely and happily upon the heels of 3rd edition (2000). Purely a chronological thing of happenstance.

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  5. Yep, I was just going to write Hackmaster, but others have beat me to the punch. I first came across it in an Olympia, WA shop round about 2002 or 2003...about the same time I’d become disenchanted with 3E. It is a glorious mess of AD&D, snark, and balls-to-the-wall house rules. A lot of credit should be thrown their way.

    Perhaps surprisingly, the original Hackmaster did not print/reference the OGL, despite claiming up front (on the first page of both the DMG and PHB) that they are “based on the original Dungeons & Dragons rules by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.” Perhaps they were able to get away with this due to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the books, their relationship to Kenzer & Co., and/or a perception of “non-threatening” nature. However, they did (eventually) end up overhauling the entire system to make it something other than an AD&D clone.

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    1. My understanding is that Kenzerco had a special arrangement with WotC to borrow liberally from AD&D in compensation for Knights of the Dinner Table strips being distributed electronically (on the Dragon magazine CD-ROM) without Kenzer's express permission to do so. Mind you, I can find no evidence that this is in fact the case, so it might well be hearsay.

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    2. Actually, here's some evidence that the story is in fact true: http://retrogamingmagazine.com/2016/08/07/revenge-license-dragon-magazine-archive/

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  6. OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord were my introductions to the retroclone and OSR movements. I never actually played or used OSRIC, but my kids learned D&D playing LL (and a little S&W). Those early days were exciting and a little scary, with everyone wondering just how close you could get to the originals without getting in trouble and a tsunami of new oldschool creations.

    I think over time that the "OSR movement" has diverged more than a bit from the classic style of play and the infighting between various schools of thought about classic games and the new games modeled on them gets tiresome fast, but there sure is a lot of great content out there these days.

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  7. I'd like to mention Mazes and Minotaurs. I'm unclear when this game was first published (2003? 1972?), but it's an early pioneer in the OSR.

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    1. I have always wanted to play this but have never got around to it...

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  8. For me, old school was 2nd Edition and earlier. I dropped out with 3rd edition, tried and hated 4th edition, but have not tried 5th Edition yet. I do have OSRIC, Castle & Crusades, Rolemaster, MERP, and HARP. I also picked up Pathfinder 1e, but I do not have any 2e. So now, what it old school; it it still 2nd edition AD&D or has it been reset with Pathfinder 1e?

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  9. I am going to out on a limb here is say that the OSR started with the release of Basic Fantasy RPG followed by OSRIC. Of the two, OSRIC was more well known after it release due to the controversy it stirred.

    Hackmaster 4e and Castle & Crusade were nice but the fact of it they were missing the crucial legs of being able share one's original material and publish one's original material. Both were not open content and their fanbase wound up following the same path as any other RPG. A game that is loved and played but growing into a niche and stopping there.

    In contrast Basic Fantasy and OSRIC by relying on the D20 SRD and not being C&Ded or sued out of existence offer a clear path for anybody to most (because it was not all in the D20 SRD as open content) of they wanted with the classic edition.

    If it wasn't for OSRIC and Basic Fantasy The OSR would have still born and both Hackmaster 4e and C&C a curious niche in the hobby as a whole.

    This can be seen in Fullerton's Hoard and Horde. The ramp up in the number, and variety of classic D&D product can clearly seen happening AFTER 2006 not before.

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1LUFmadXbg67pp9dEu_KsLc2-2Gf-0t5mVOvzetAqdFw/edit#gid=0

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    1. Hi Rob!
      Mr. Maliszewski, per usual, great write up, and wonderful comment section. Rob, I would respectfully split hairs here.

      Does OSR *MEAN* a licence to produce? I've heard this "arguement" (a harsh term, and I don't mean for this to become one, just thinking) both ways. I, personally, feel OSR is merely "old school feel", putting HackMaster early in, and letting C&C ride the tide as it has that feel in spite of the d20 chassis.

      Feel free to reply.
      Big fan of this blog and yours.

      Cheers,
      Laramie

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    2. Thanks Laramie,

      My view is that OSR is a convenient label for a group hobbyists who play, promote, and publish for the classic editions of D&D and similar games.

      Playing and promoting part started happening way before OSRIC and Basic Fantasy. Along with a little bit of publishing like with the shared files on Dragonsfoot, C&C, and Hackmaster.

      But things only started expanding wildly after the introduction of OSRIC and Basic Fantasy. Why? Because with the freedom to publish, this made all the in-between stuff far more easier to deal with.

      This got hobbyists far more excited about the classic editions than what happened before OSRIC/BFRPG. Which in turn encouraged other to do even more playing and more promotion.

      So while the OSR wasn't just about publishing. Being able to publish is what threw the gates open for the other aspect of this part of the hobby.


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  10. I'd peg OSRIC & BFRPG in 2006 as the beginning of the OSR. C&C does feel 'pre OSR', one step on from Necromancer's "Third Edition Rules, 1st Edition Feel", while OSRIC is one step further on to the full retroclone. Swords & Wizadry ultimately was more influential in the full Flowering of the OSR God-Tree, and Labyrinth Lord first got the OSR into games shops, but BFRPG & OSRIC were first.

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  11. Castles & Crusades is the game I have been running the longest, since 2014!

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    1. Just revived our C&C campaign after taking a hiatus to mess around with other OSR games. Loving the smoothness of play & AD&D feel even more than the first time we played it a few years ago. The Siege Engine is kind of genius and amazingly flexible.

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  12. I've always been out of touch -- I didn't find out that there even *was* an OSR until 2015 or so. I thought I was the lone grognard, still playing AD&D in a world that had long left me behind. :-)

    My personal breaking point was 3.5. I didn't much care for 3e, but I had made peace with it; then Wizards put out a revision that doubled-down on all the munchkinism and crunch overload I'd found offputting in the first place, and it drove me right away. I was cautiously interested in 4e until they actually unveiled it, at which point I concluded that if I wanted to play a World of Warcraft miniatures wargame, there already was one -- I didn't need that in my D&D also.

    I wad pleased to discover, after all these years, a cadre still enjoying -- and making content for! -- the D&D I want to play. So I'm glad you guys were out here, even if I was a big dummy who didn't know about it. ;-)

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    1. Same with me. "Discovered" the OSR in 2016 and started with Castles & Crusades. Have played lots of the other retroclones, most recently OSE, and just circled back to C&C. So now we're alternating between the two depending upon how much complexity we want.

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  13. I think it's worth a sentence to note the obvious, i.e. that OSRIC also contributed the not-insignificant matter of a name for the burgeoning OSR movement. And once a thing has a name, it becomes much more of a thing than before it had a name.

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  14. I also think of Hackmaster as an early effort in the area of nostalgia/retro playing vs the more decadent style of even 3e; i still think they missed a great opportunity to get out in front of 5e with their retooled HM but alas they are but a small shop...

    The first thing I remember along the lines of ‘current rules are laborious, let’s try stripping things down and playing a rules-light system as we imagine the games’ creators did’ appeared on the WOTC site in 2001, as ‘lunchtime dungeon crawl’. From the sentiment expressed to the OSR popping up a few years later seems like a straight line.

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    1. Whoops, i had a link i forgot to post if anyone's curious:

      http://archive.wizards.com/dnd/article.asp?x=dnd/cg/cg20010323a

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