April 12, 2024
5min read

What is an OSR RPG?

What is an OSR RPG?

What is an OSR RPG and how does it work?

Now, before we go into it, we’re going to try to stay as neutral as possible but there might be some takes that don’t align with everyone's personal opinion. Apologies in advance, as OSR has an impressive amount of diversity to itself. 

So let’s step on this mine and talk about Old School Renaissance / Old School Revival RPG!

What is an OSR RPG?

OSR stands for Old School Renaissance / Old School Revival. Since there isn’t even complete agreement on the name, we’ll try to stick with OSR.

Since the release of the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons by Wizards of the Coast, there was a bit of a split in the community.

Maybe not exactly “split” but a lot of players were looking for a more classic experience. The older, less rule heavy roleplaying. And around 2006 OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) was released to the public.

ORSIC system 

OSRIC is a “retro-clone”, basically drawing heavy inspiration from early versions of D&D, it is a rules-light system. “Ruling, not rules”, there’s still dice rolling of course, but it was leaning more towards roleplaying, finding creative solutions and interactive story focus.

Since its inception there have been hundreds of systems that were compatible with it, allowing players to enjoy the original D&D with a new flavour.

Key characteristics of OSR RPGs

To vastly overgeneralise we’ll try to focus on the most prevalent characteristics, as there are hundreds of different OSR RPG systems out there.

Simple and streamlined rulesets

Generally speaking, OSR is meant to be a light system. A lot of rulings come from the DM after the player explains his actions and what his character would do, instead of using their stats and skills to solve problems.

This makes the OSR games very easy to pick up by newcomers, as they won’t need to create very game orientated characters and instead focus on roleplaying a fun character.

Emphasis on player creativity and improvisation

As mentioned above, DM is pretty much your skill check. You are meant to explain how your character attempts to solve the problems. 

Found a chest? No rolling required, explain how you’d attempt to check it and its vicinity for traps. Persuade the DM that your character can tackle the problem and if you’re convincing enough he’ll let you reap the benefits. Fail at it and prepare for consequences!

Either that or slide some money their way…

DIY ethos

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the other TTRPG don’t have it, but there’s a big focus on getting things done yourself in OSR. Be it maps, rulesets, characters/NPCs figurines etc. The setting itself is quite often adapted from multiple sources, homebrewing is a very quintessential part of the whole experience.

A very do it yourself mentality is prevalent in the genre, which is always impressive to behold. No shame in using pre-made sources though, games are meant to be fun and a lot of people get enjoyment from putting everything together!

Retro aesthetics and art styles

The gritty aesthetic of classical dungeon crawling. You never know what's around the corner.
Source: hollywoodmetal.com

Another important part of the OSR, the Old School feel to the game and art. It’s meant to return to the classic feel of Dungeons and Dragons, where rules were simpler and character interactions were more through communication with the DM.

The rules still applied but were a lot more lenient and focused on the storytelling aspect.

While a lot of the art wasn’t very high quality at the time, it had a certain charm to it. 

Gameplay mechanics

OSR are meant to be quite loose with the rules by design, so the focus is a lot more on the interactions between the players and the DM, with some very light dice rolling.

Core resolution systems

Your character isn’t just your character. You can “supplement” his skills and abilities. 

If you, a player, can convincingly come up with a creative solution to a problem despite your character not being able to perform a task mechanically, the DM could allow it.

It does create some problematic situations if abused of course. 

A low intelligence (or equivalent mental attribute) barbarian would probably struggle to come up with a solution to a complex problem, no matter how versed in the subject his player is.

Dice mechanics

You can still bring your dice to the session to show them off you know.
Source: tabletopstor3d.com

OSR doesn’t “do away” with the dice completely. But it isn’t impossible for the DM to not roll even once in a session. Plus it does give players an excuse to flex their characters personal abilities and attributes. It helps maintain the believability of situations. 

As it might be a little bit tough to have a character with zero social skills to bluff his way out of an encounter with bandits. No matter how convincing the player playing the character is.

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Player agency and narrative freedom

OSR are TTRPGs in their core essence. So it’s not a surprise that they are player focused. DM creates their campaign and has general plotlines established before you even join, there’s no doubt about that. But a good DM understands that without the players to interact and potentially shape his world, it’s not a very interesting place.

Players have a freedom of choice to do what they want to (within limits of course). It’s up to the DM to offer interesting quests and gently entice the party to follow the story he had meticulously created for them.

How it pans out is up to them and the DM, a part of TTRPG experience that will always keep it interesting, as long as there are creative DMs.

Resource management and exploration

Since it is an adventure, characters, especially low level ones, need to keep track of the necessities. Food, travelling/rest supplies, maps, torches, ammunition etc. 

Bear in mind this isn’t always the case, as some DMs give a lot of leeway when it comes to day-to-day maintenance. It definitely does create an extra level of tension and risk if you introduce limitations such as running out of food/ammo or being overburdened with loot. 

Giving an extra level of immersion to the exploration of dangerous locations. 

  • Do you continue forward hungry and tired?
  • Risk eating unknown plants and mushrooms?
  • Head back and hope your loot will get you enough money to resupply?

Such choices can really enhance the experience of adventuring.

Adaptable and hackable systems

Another enticing part about OSR is how well it fits into homebrewing your own rules and mechanics.

Some systems allow more customization of the existing rulesets while not requiring a lot of time to spend on learning them. If something doesn’t work for you, there’s probably some system that either fits well into what you’re looking for or allows for change without ruining the whole system.

Playing and running OSR games

Now the fun part, playing the dang thing! Let's go!

Game mastering tips and techniques

“Ruling, not rules” should be your mantra. The main point is to have fun in an interesting setting and have players interact with the world you’re DMing in. 

Railroading, while necessary, should be done with a carrot rather than a stick. Entice your players, give them hints and of course, make it interesting enough for them to get immersed in the adventure.

Players are individuals first and take time to grow into a party, never forget that. Especially if they’ve not played together before.

Creating and running sandbox-style campaigns

Campaign doesn't mean just a single mission. It's important to have a world that the story takes place in.
Source: inkarnate.com

If you wish to indulge your players a bit, consider doing a sandbox campaign.

The main difference is that instead of an overarching main storyline, you sprinkle a lot of content into the world and let the players seek what they wish for themselves. It is quite a bit of work, as it is with regular campaigns, but the amount of freedom and lack of “railroading” into plotlines can be a really cool experience for the players.

Make sure the world is dynamic enough though and don’t be afraid of scrapping concepts players don’t respond to. No need to force feed them things they don’t enjoy.

Balancing challenge and player agency

Always remember that your players are the main characters of your world, but don’t let them take it over.

They still have to feel that they are participants, rather than masters of it, that is your role and they may on an occasion need a bit of “reminder” if they get too complacent.

The world is full of powerful beings and creatures, so make sure they feel that. Giving them an impossible challenge can tamper their overconfidence but don’t use it as punishment, rather a lesson.

You want them to enjoy the game after all… right?

Interested in a more modern RPG?

Our company Dreams Quest is currently producing a mobile ARPG called Origins: The Fall of Azoria. It’ll include a colourful, intricate world full of mysteries and secret knowledge, deep lore, fun puzzles and of course action packed combat. 

Check out our social media links to Twitter(X), Youtube , Discord and more on top and the bottom of the article for more relevant info!

FAQs about OSR RPGs

Is OSR better than 5e?

Well, that comes down to the personal experience. Do you enjoy more mechanics, rules and less ruling from the DM? Then probably 5e is your thing. Are you more interested in a very light system where a lot depends on how you communicate your actions to perform actions, rather than a roll of the dice being the main decider? The OSR could be more up your alley.

Is Mork Borg an OSR?

It’s considered an OSR but not a retro-clone. Your heavy metal adventure will probably play out differently than what a classic D&D experience would. Not in a bad way though, for sure. If you like metal, D&D and rule-light systems, you’ve just got your wish fulfilled!

Is Pathfinder an OSR?

Pathfinder is quite confident in making your character be able to do what your character can do. Or rather what your stats/class/skill set allows them to do.

If you’ve got no points in athletics, you’d struggle with anything that requires physical activity etc. There’s a very high focus on sticking to the core mechanics to perform actions within the world, unlike OSR where you can actually “convince” your DM how you’d approach a situation whether your “character” possesses such knowledge/skill set to succeed at something.

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