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I'm aware that the old school renaissance (OSR) is all about hearkening back to old versions of D&D and the play styles of the 70's and 80's, but what characteristics really define this movement? What minimum set of qualities does my game play require to be "old school"?

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OSR is, for me, defined by gamers, games or publishers adherence to one or more of the following traits:

  1. playing or supporting one of the "old styled" games, such as D&D editions from the '70s, Tunnels & Trolls and so on
  2. concentrating more on players' skills and ideas than PCs' skills
  3. having a small body of rules, privileging rulings instead
  4. it's an adventure game, with adventurers delving in weird places finding creepy crawly things, odd magical items and hoards of gold. It's not necessarily about acting.
  5. incorporating sci-fi and gonzo bits
  6. self-created setting/rules, possibly published in A5 or digest size and available for cheap/free
  7. be very opinionated on ill-defined things ;)
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Play, write or referee one of the older editions of Dungeons and Dragon. Older edition meaning every version of AD&D/D&D prior to D&D 3.0. Although some will quibble on AD&D 2.0.

Some may talk about play styles but if you survey everybody that you could remotely include in the OSR. The only common thing you can say is that "They play older versions of D&D."

Also Old School Renaissance is an organic term that got accepted by the internet community as a way to describe the number of different groups playing older editions. There is no formal or loose organization. Some who play older editions vehemently deny they are a part of the OSR, others embrace it whole heartily, and some publishers use it as a marketing tool. Which is par for the course for this kind of meme.

My personal view is summed up by this from my blog

To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.

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You're going to get a ton of answers on this.

To me the single largest defining characteristic is DIY. This doesn't mean you don't buy modules or settings but that they are things to mine for creating your own world. I got involved in the OSR when it sparked my creative side and reminded me that there was a time when playing in Tom's D&D game was as different from playing in Harry's D&D game as playing Vampire is from playing Champions and both were that different from Dick's game.

If you check the big OSR blogs you'll notice the Dwimmermount is radically different from Raggi's weird world and neither are like The Metal Earth. Yet, despite all their influence on me (as well as a ton of others) none are like my World After/City States of the Apocalypse. Still, we are all playing essentially the same game, classic D&D.

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I do like a lot of osr labeled works, but diy is a defining trait of gaming period. –  Aberrant Hive Mind Aug 29 '10 at 10:56
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The reason I participated and why I classify myself as part of the OSR are:

  • rules light D&D
  • quick character generation
  • do it yourself spirit made popular on the blogs
  • lots of participating blogs generate a community
  • low budget art and cartography encouraged me to contribute my mediocre pieces
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Thanks for your personal perspective. I love how it encouraged you to contribute art you didn't think was high quality! Do you find there wasn't a community for "new school" D&D? –  Adam Dray Aug 27 '10 at 21:13
    
Well, at the time there was Dungeon and Dragon magazine. The barrier to entry seemed incredibly high. Even Kobold Quarterly had wonderful art. But Fight On! Magazine had stuff that seemed doable. It had maps that I could have done. I felt that this magazine was made by people like me. Ordinary folks. –  Alex Schröder Aug 27 '10 at 23:18
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Means you can afford to buy your own pizza instead of having to share one. To me OSR is not about how many magic items you can collect, how much gold you can horde, but how long you can survive. It's more brutal that the heroic versions of D&D. The body count is higher. The rules are a skeletal structure for the GM to fill as he or she pleases.

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Old school - for me - are playing traditional, original edition (or reasonably close clones/simulacra) that emphasize:

  • player skill over character generation
  • player decision and involvement over scripted story plots
  • rulings not rules, flexibility in how to resolve tasks/combat
  • the published rules being a flexible toolkit rather than something that is locked in stone
  • generally published before 1985
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I like the definition presented by Matthew Finch in "A Primer For Old School Gaming," available in pdf for free from Lulu.

In short, he refers to four major conceits ("Zen Moments") that define old school gaming.

  • Rulings, Not Rules - GM-driven world interpretation over a law degree
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero - even early supers games tended to be gritty in execution
  • Forget “Game Balance”

A related statement to the Game Balance part is old school presenting combat as war instead of as a "balanced" sport - see Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles on ENWorld.

Another viewpoint in the Old School Role-Playing Games entry on rpgtalk.wikia.com brings out four other aspects:

  • Simulation focused gameplay
  • Strong central narrative
  • Garage production values - this is the retro/nostalgia aspect
  • Lack of conventional wisdom - more unique trailblazers not worried about what "people say"
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The Primer and the Combat As War post are the touchstones I always point people to; +1. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 24 '13 at 4:17
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OSR is something of a rolling definition. Since it kicked in after 3.5 when Mongoose demonstrated what could be done with the OGL, it started around there. It was basically take an edition, look at the previous one, skip it, and go one earlier. So at the start the OSR was AD&D 1e or earlier, and on the same line, B/X D&D or earlier (but not including BECMI). That was 70s and early 80s. Since 4th Edition was announced, several people (I think there are at least 3 separate projects) have started working on AD&D 2e, and BECMI/RC also got OSRed. Once 5th Edition comes out, there might be a D&D3e retro-clone, and Pathfinder will probably stick around as is.

That also shows that Old School is relative. Since I was born in 1984, AD&D 2e is about as early as it goes for me, since I probably wouldn't have started playing at 4 years old. Older people would naturally go back to their first edition, which would be either AD&D, or BD&D red/blue boxes.

There's also the Old School style games, like Stars Without Number, which aren't a specific retroclone, but are done in the old school style. I've noticed in general there wasn't a great deal of mechanical innovation from 1974 to 1989, with the biggest difference being an alternate dice system, and WEG's D6 system for Star Wars that had Mechanics as a stat, rather than just a base attribute was about as forward thinking as it got. Starting with the 90s, there was significantly more innovation kicking in, going as far as Everway doing away with numeric stats altogether. That decade though is still rather significant in that it happened before the craze for a unified mechanic came about (obviously this was building up in earlier systems, but it seems d20 really shifted it in that direction).

Right now I've only seen old school style games identified as such if they come from the first 15 years, but I would be surprised to see 90s style games included in that in the near future as well. At this point 10-20 years old instead of 20-35 years old is still a significant leap back.

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Old School is when I started in the hobby (1977). For me, OSR means -

  • Simplified Rule Set. Figure base attributes, few if any skills, and few "save" methods. Think most advanced rule set being AD&D first edition.

  • No Focus on Balance. Classes/Archetypes are based on stereotypes rather than on balancing one class against another.

  • 10 minute character creation. Roll a few dice, name your character and play. Figure out motivation while taking a pizza break.

  • Original OR Generic Campaign. If its a premade campaign, its something described in 2-3 pages.

  • Lack of Political Correctness. Go get a copy of the original City State of the Invincible Overlord.

I recently played Metamorphosis Alpha for the first time since the 1980s, and I loved how combat was quick and all charts needed to play could be had on a single sheet.

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  • Focus on GM improvisation over detailed rules treatments
  • Focus on player skill over character ability.
  • Tendency to use attribute-driven mechanics, rather than skill-driven; often with class & level mechanics.
  • GM vs Players mentality
  • No careful balance; sometimes (BXCMI D&D, AD&D 2) advice on balancing encounters, but not detailed rules for it.
  • often, focused upon dungeon crawls in play
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