I'm a seasoned D&D 3e/5e DM, and I'm interested in learning how to run an old-school game. The trouble is, the 3e/5e "way" is trained into me (e.g. I'm very used to calling for skill checks to resolve things, I am used to characters having mechanical actions to take in combat other than their normal attacks, etc.). I'm concerned that if I don't shift my thinking a little bit, I will make the system feel boring and restrictive to my players.

How do I learn to run a successful old-school style game for my friends who are also used to later editions?

The appeal of the whole old school thing, to me, is the simplicity of it. I figure that having fewer rules than 3e and 5e might speed things up and also encourage a more immersive and less "gamey-feeling" playing experience. I'm not tied down to any particular OSR system, but Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess both have piqued my interest.


2 Answers 2


I like the definition of OSR gaming 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"

When I went back and ran some 2e after running 3e+ for a while, I found it very refreshing - full writeup at https://geek-related.com/2009/05/03/some-thoughts-on-2e-and-3e/ but it absolutely helped immersion and game speed.

As with learning to do anything - watch some on YouTube, try to play in one at a con or something to get the feel, then just do it. The more stripped down rulesets will be somewhat of a forcing factor, and you'll just also have to be explicit about the assumptions (give them the Primer) and iterate into it. There will be some frustration about not having so many "buttons to push," but if you make it clear that there's actually infinitely more buttons because you can do anything, not only things on your character sheet, you'll get there.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The "Primer" is still a pretty good text for laying out the principles better than sifting through blogposts can, but the actual examples in it are so bad. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Jun 8, 2018 at 20:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I found that running a system specifically designed for OSR-style play (Adventurer Conquerer King) really helped me get the hang of the whole thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 8, 2018 at 22:56


There are many pick-up and open table OSR games being run on the 'net, usually with very low barrier to entry. Playing in some and discussing with the referees is a good way of learning the craft.


There are three nice works that each try to introduce OSR play, each from their own perspective and to a given target audience. These are all free. In chronological order.

  1. Matthew Finch's Quick primer focuses on surface features that distinguish old school play from third edition of D&D. The presentation of modern D&D play is something of a strawman, so one should read it charitably as exaggerating those features for pedagogical reasons.

  2. Principia apocrypha by Ben Milton, Steven Lumpkin and David Perry focuses on the more refined understanding of old school (or maybe NSR) play also informed by Powered by the apocalypse design school. Principia focuses on problem solving via encouraging and empowering player creativity.

  3. Muster by Eero Tuovinen focuses on conflict simulation (i.e. wargaming, need not include armies or domains) and modelling heroic fantasy as the virtues of old school play. It builds up a coherent philosophy of play and also offers some particular examples.

Note that Principia and Muster document different types of OSR play. Quick primer is broad enough to be generally compatible with these both.


After getting some handle of these ideas, try running a game yourself and seeing how it goes.


After some experience, go back to playing in others' games, reading the guides and blogs and so on, and discussing, now with experiences from your own play. Reflected practice is a good way of learning anything and everything.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Coincidentally, Matt Finch is currently updating the Quick Primer (from 3E examples to 5E examples, etc.), and we interviewed him about it on our D&D talk show today. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 29 at 4:55

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