Monday, June 6, 2016

What Is Old School Role Playing?

In a recent conversation, someone posed a very good question: What is old school role playing?

When considering this question, I can only speak for myself and how I feel about how the game is run. For me, it's a nostalgic trip back to a time in my youth when I got excited about the shared creativity of the group and the discoveries we made together.

Does it mean rules light, by design? Not really. 
Painting from The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth
Compared to some newer games, the campaigns I took part in did have less in the way of specific rules for every conceivable situation. Combat was certainly more simple. And I must confess, as a grizzled old grognard, that I find some of the rules in the later editions of Dungeons & Dragons to be superfluous or even down right confusing to me. In the old days there were no feats, no attacks of opportunity and spell casting seemed more intuitive. On the other hand, there have always been plenty of rules to govern the game. I would hazard a guess that even when using newer systems, most groups probably pare the rules down to their taste. That's always been one of the greatest things about table top role playing games. You take as much as you need or want and leave the rest in the book. So are old school games rules light by nature? I have to say no, not any more so than any other type of game if you get right down to it.

If there are new OSR games being created today, are they also old school? Maybe. 

Old school role playing is as much a style of play as it is the set of rules you choose to use. For me, it's a creative outlet to share my vision for a character, a story, or maybe even an entire world. Old school is as much about what you, as a player or a Dungeon Master, bring to the table as individuals regardless of the chosen rules system or the setting. It's the suspension of reality and a point of view steeped in classic literature and weird fiction. In my mind it is to take seriously that which is not serious, and to find personal meaning within that which holds no meaning in and of itself.

Is old school role playing a design philosophy? I have to say yes.

For me, old school role playing is absolutely about keeping the game basic yet expandable. I like it very much when the party begins play with little knowledge of the world around them and instead of playing the most fantastic races from the get-go, they explore the world together to discover and interact with these beings. We begin as mere mortals but become or at least brush up against the fantastic, the immortal, or the vastly powerful. From humble beginnings, we work to become powers in the world and maybe beyond the world. If I begin play as a divine or fantastic creature myself, for instance, what wonders will I find in the game to compare to what I already am?

So what makes a game old school? Is it a gaming system and style relegated to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, OSRIC, and any of the other OSR games out there? Yes, it is. But old school is also relative to the individual. What is old school for you may not be old school for me. What some might call outdated and antiquated, I might call RPG perfection.

Old school is a feeling. Old school is a window to the old days when the hobby was new and obscure and maybe even a little rebellious. And in the face of what might be considered the mainstream of gaming today, maybe it is again.


  1. Playing D&D in the 80's when I was in high school the game for me was all about running around a campaign world and killing everything in sight to gain XP points. 30 years later and people half my age still play D&D the same way I did when I was a teen. Old school D&D is like the spoon in the Matrix. There is no spoon.

    1. Oh, I don't know...I still like to use a spoon now and then, LOL!

  2. I think you have put your finger on it: you can't put your finger on it. Old school, for me, is about story not mechanics. As soon as you look at your character sheet or rulebook to see what your character can do, it's not old school anymore.

    1. Yes, OSR can mean different things to different people, no doubt about it. :)

  3. I think there are tenets of old school that separate it from newer RPGs such as:

    1. A rules lite set of mechanics where the player relies on the GM to rule on an action

    2. Non-linear adventure design. Players go and come as they please in the world and aren't railroaded into a story line or set of circumstances.

    3. Character death. In early editions of D&D and the like, character death was a very real thing. Sure, once you gained a few levels you became much harder to kill, if impossible to kill. But low level and even mid level there were very real threats that could kill you outright (save or die).