Let Us Speak of That Old School Way

In which the author discusses the Old School Renaissance of Tabletop Gaming.

That fearsome Red Dragon in blue from the Holmes Basic D&D Set – the Sutherland Classic.
That fearsome Red Dragon in blue from the Holmes Basic D&D Set – the Sutherland Classic.

Let Us Speak of That Old School Way

Dear Reader,

How should artists respond to the art that has come before them? Should they pursue novelty with absolute singleness of purpose, disentangling themselves ruthlessly from the past and its influence? And is such a project even possible?

Or should they instead slavishly devote themselves to preserving the best that has come down? Cataloging and analyzing and recovering ever scrap? Mummifying it? Parodying it? And even if they try, can they really do the past justice?

Of late, I’ve encountered an ongoing community response to this question in a quarter I didn’t expect it from. And the answer they present – along with the model it represents – is quite interesting.

I am referring to the Old School Renaissance (OSR) in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.

A Question that Leads into History

So, what’s the right way to play classic Dungeons & Dragons?

For a long time I thought this was a relatively straightforward question to answer. There’s a 1st edition, 2nd edition,, all the way to 5th today – so just go play the 1st edition of the game if you want that classic feel (warts and all).

Then I ran into the OSR movement and I learned a lot that I’d heard about in passing but never investigated in depth.

Here's a brief historical survey:

From the 1983 Basic Set by Mentzer.
From the 1983 Basic Set by Mentzer.

They’re all different takes on the same core concepts. You can essentially use them all together – from OD&D to AD&D 2nd edition – though you have to make certain mutually exclusive choices.

Why? Why all this variety, yet compatibility? What was going on? The answer is in the DNA of the art.

An Open Creative Sandbox

Gary Gygax, one of the co-founders of D&D, explained this DNA in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. The rules are a “framework.” Decisions have been made and set in writing as a standard so that more players can share in a vetted, communal experience of the game.

But dictums “are given for the sake of the game only.” Because without uniformity the game wouldn’t survive and grow. But he doesn’t just express a desire to protect the game. His stance toward the reader is deeply respectful: “As a creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another.”

I find this an intriguing position: Gygax claims he is speaking from the seat of authority because it has to be done, but he considers the people reading the book to be his equals in this creative sandbox.

Let’s hear some more, further on:

“Variation and difference are desirable, but both should be kept within the boundaries of the overall system. Imaginative and creative addition can most certainly be included; that is why nebulous areas have been built into the game. Keep such individuality in perspective by developing a unique and detailed world based on the rules of Advanced D&D.”

Dungeon Masters were to consider themselves free – they were encouraged to make of the game what they would using the “broad and spacious” boundaries to play within.

The art was to be a sandbox for creative minds to come play.

The classic cover of the AD&D Player's Handbook.
The classic cover of the AD&D Player's Handbook.

Codification Comes to the Playground

From 2nd edition through 5th we see a movement away from this open sandbox mindset to a rule for every instance. (To be clear, I’m not hating on later iterations of D&D, I enjoy both 2nd and 3rd, as well as Pathfinder – and I consider every edition to be an expression of the same DNA that Gygax spoke of.)

If you take an analogy from the field of law, over the last 30+ years the game designers have consistently moved from more of an apodictic system to a casuistic one.

In an apodictic system you have general laws (like the Ten Commandments or the American Constitution). Casuistic law is case law – a law for ever conceivable instance or case. Mosaic Law tends to be more apodictic and Roman Law more causisitc. In the former, you need a judge (or referee in D&D parlance) who makes rulings in the spirit of the broad framework. In the later, lawyers hone in on the precedents in question, focusing on the most relevant of minutiae.

One could say that an apodictic system is best served by judges who are both learned and wise, with the further benefit that the citizens have a much better chance of actually knowing what the law in question is. A casuistic system requires much more memorization – and a professional class to explain it to the rest of us.

In the New School, there’s a rule for what you want to do in the game. In the Old School approach, the systems were more rules light but the framework was still expansive. Or as Matt Finch, one of my favorite OSR authors, puts it: the Old School favors rulings not rules. (See his free Old School Primer).

From History to a Creative Model

All of this would be so much historical trivia if not for one of the most exciting developments in the history of tabletop role-playing games: the Open Gaming License (OGL).

When Wizards of the Coasts acquired TSR, the company that created Dungeons & Dragons, they decided that part of their approach to relaunching the game would be to make it easy for third party publishers to create products via the OGL, using the core rules outlined in their System Reference Document (SRD).

In 2000, this move opened the sandbox of design and adventure to the whole world. And the response was an explosion of third party companies and products.

Part of that explosion took the form of a return to the Old School rules. For example, in 2006 OSRIC brought the rules of 1st edition AD&D back. In 2007, Labyrinth Lord focused on a B/X (Basic/Expert) for its core framework. In 2008 Swords & Wizardry brought back that OD&D feel. In 2012 For Gold and Glory went for an AD&D 2nd edition flavor. Each of these are examples of retroclones, games attempting to recreate the systems they’re modeled on.

Swords & Wizardry:Core Rules the cover is a homage to AD&D Player's Handbook
Swords & Wizardry:Core Rules: the cover is a homage to the AD&D Player's Handbook

But then there are games that take greater liberties: Knave, Whitehack, Black Hack, Five Torches Deep, Worlds Without Number, Mothership, Maze Rats, Into the Odd, Forbidden Lands, and more. Each of these games is referencing back to Old School paradigms, but with a great amount of variation in game design. (See this short but informative video survey to learn about some of these.)

(I won’t even try to be exhaustive because that would be madness – here are the OSR games that have free versions.)

An Interesting Model and Inspiring Content

That there are so many different fan-created game variants would be fascinating on its own, but what particularly captured my interest about the OSR movement is that it is a movement.

You have a wide and thriving blogosphere, YouTube channels that interact with one another (not all are exclusively OSR), a vibrant Subreddit community, a culture of Kickstarters, Patreon support, and an active marketplace – the OSR is a flourishing subset of the Creator Economy all united around a general love of Old School Roleplaying. There is slavish devotion and innovative novelty and everything in-between.

Already thanks to my time digging into this creative world I’ve discovered a number of great tools for creating worlds and generating stories: Sandbox style worldbuilding, Hexcrawling, Gary Gygax’s 75 Challenge, a whole lot of what’s in Worlds Without Number, and Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design being amongst the most promising.

None of these concepts are new – but their power remains. And they're proof that Gygax's dream of a game that belongs to the players endures today.

Ah, Dear Reader, we must pause our conversation for now. I hope you enjoyed this letter.

Next week we’ll pick up “Let Us Speak of Magic” with more on Elric. You can read the first three parts here, here, and here. I’m enjoying a re-read through the Elric books and have made it about halfway. I think there will be more to share from the Prince of Ruins in the days to come.

Till next we meet,

Best regards,


P.S. Want more links to explore the world of OSR?

Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

Was this email forwarded to you? Come and visit my outpost to choose a path through Perilous Realms.

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Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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