Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Universal Ultimate Theory of OSR Play


After two decades of RPG theory, I have boiled down the principles of the Old School Renaissance RPG down to a single maxim.


(Oh wait before that, important announcement on the legal front:

That's the third case down if anyone's keeping track. Details here, anyway...)


This principle explains why we keep playing D&D despite the creator and copyright holders' tremendous flaws.

It explains why we keep playing old versions, with less detail in the characters.

It explains why we tend to disdain too much backstory or involved character creation.

It explains why we so often hack an existing game instead of playing custom-built games from scratch.

It explains why we favor compact, easily-portable and modular blog-sized bits of content that can fit lots of versions of D&D.

It explains why we don't do Session Zeroes much.

It explains why safety tools, while not incompatible with OSR play, aren't really a big thing in OSR.

It explains why "on-boarding" of all kinds--where the DM carefully explains to the players what the premise and expectations of the campaign will be, are--is disdained.

It explains why the GM is given as much power as the group will let them have.

It explains why we the OSR is so improv-friendly and the modules often ask for improv.

It explains why rulings (on the spot) are privileged over rules (new books, to be read).

It explains why 3d6-in-order, character-dies-roll-again is so common.

It explains why dungeons are so common.

It also explains why certain post-80s improvements to games have been picked up by the OSR--including expressing to-hit as a bonus instead of a chart value and improvements in layout and adventure packaging, and various rule-of-cool hacks.

It's this:

I wanna play.

That's it: I wanna play now. I want to play an RPG right away!

I am busy I am an adult. I do not have time for anything!



Any innovation to the RPG experience which extends the time between all the players figuring out when they can all meet to play and when they will actually start playing is unlikely to become standard across Old School play, no matter how great the other advantages of said improvement.

OSR is born of desperate, time-poor circumstances. We play 2 hour sessions before everyone goes to work or school, we play in hotel lobbies, drunk, because 3 people were all like....Hey! We should Play!!!, we play in a box, we play with a fox, we play with dice made from our own blood, we play. We need to play asap!!!!!!


An example

Several months ago I talked about the possibility of my suicide on this blog. This was occasion for great consternation on the part of the good-hearted people in the RPG-o-sphere.

I had a long zoom conversation with Jeff Gameblog and James Edward Raggi about the various problems in my life created by people who had been inspired to make game stuff by myself, Jeff Gameblog and James Edward Raggi. They had initiated contact because they were concerned, but they had no idea what to do.

Jeff finally said "Well...we should play a game."

I almost said "Go fuck yourself."

Like: given fake felony accusations destroying my life your plan is we play a game? Jeff my dude.

But I decided to play.

What did we play?

We played D&D. Not even LotFP.

What characters did we use? Whichever ones we could dig up fastest from games we already played.

What edition were we using? We still don't know.

What spell list are we using? Couldn't say.

Are we using LotFP or Holmes or AD&D or Moldvay versions of spells? Figure that shit out as we go!!

Why? Why not any of the other games or variants on games we have all had so much fun discussing over the decade-plus? Because we wanted to play NOW. Jeff runs his game in a tight 2-hour slot between waking up and getting his kids to work. There is not time for fripperies like playing a game we don't already know already.

No reading no figuring no planning. Get a character, get a dungeon, get a guy, get a girl, get a they, get a whatever, get in there and playyyy.

As the game expanded, we got new players.Who did out first recruit play? A henchman that was already there. Who did they play when that character died? An ogre that was already in the dungeon. What were their stats? We figured it out as we went.

Does this mean each rule we use is possibly not the most optimal one? Yes!

Does this mean the lore is an utter patched-together trainwreck devoid of subtlety? YES!

Is this reliance on the One Game totally fair to other games--including ones we ourselves wrote? NO!

Does this means over a dozen years of pondering all of us have done about clever hacks of the building blocks of D&D got ignored? Yes!

But we played! And so we had fun, more of it, faster! We logged more fun-hours! We are playyyyying. 

Efficiency is beautiful, efficiency is art.


Gem said...


Em from Yuggoth said...

Love this so much! One of the big reasons why I love the OSR

Becami Cusack said...

This is axiomatic
Thank you for writing it

Jeff Rients said...

"Go fuck yourself" would have been a fair response, but I'm glad you chose the alternative.

Sombodystolemyname said...

Well said, I hate getting bogged down, I love just figuring it out on the fly.

賈尼 said...

This confirms that Tunnels & Trolls is the ultimate OSR role-playing game. You wanna play? play. You don"t even need fancy dice, only D6's.

Zak Sabbath said...

@ 賈尼

No, because part of the issue here is familiarity.

Since D&D is more familiar than T&T to most gamers, _accessibility and simplicity_ are les simprtant than all the gamers already knowing the rules.

Even if a rule in D&D is more complex, for most extant OSR bloggers that's -still more accessible- than earning a simpler system.

Do you see the difference?

Zak Sabbath said...


Why do you say that?

Matrox Lusch said...

Back in the day we could play an entire D&D session, if need be, with just our brains and a nickel as the randomizer tool. Stoned at the bike racks and someone commenting about last game was like, "Well what happens as we pass from the Abyss portal over the Demon Empire into Ghinor Highlands?" and we'd be off. Ha, yes I suspect a lot of the skill was learned by necessity for the ability to move to a place where we could get high. (Note: And I don't remember how we knew the Demon Empire with it's spiky mountain peaks was south of Ghinor Highlands back in the 80s pre-Mishler's maps for Wilderlands of High Adventure, but I have a 1982 player's drawing of the event. Must be mentioned somewhere in City-State lore.)

Jeff Rients said...

Oh, shoot. Matrox, you just brought back memories of playing by coin flip during recess in 4th or 5th grade.

Simon Tsevelev said...

You had coins in 4th grade, capitalists!

Jeff Rients said...

How else would we play Space Invaders?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Venger Satanis

To repeat myself from 3 years ago:

"You're banned until you correct your incredibly lonnnnnnng record of misinformation and first-strike personal attacks."

Not sure why you thought this had (or could) change.

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

Now this is why I still read your blog. This is possibly the best blog post I have read all year. I need to "just play D&D" and quit system fucking myself. I am windmill casing the "perfect game" and all the while just not playin!

Geeze we need to make an online FLAILSNAILS and make that come alive again.

Zak Sabbath said...


You were asked a question and didn't answer. You've had over a month. I'm going to have to ban you.