05 February, 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part I

There are a lot of articles about what makes a game OSR and what the Old-School Renaissance is.  Some are quite informative and succeed in boiling essential elements down into digestible morsels; many aren't worth the bytes spent to release them into the electronic wild.  However, even with all the writing on what is and isn't OSR, I still notice plenty of players asking "what is OSR, anyways?"  More importantly, just as many seem to skip the question phase and move right to operating under the premise that the OSR is, well, all sorts of things.

 Common assumptions lately are that it's a label for:

  1. any old game (where "old" is in the eye of the beholder, and as such has reached the impossibly distant 90s in some cases)
  2. any rules-light independently produced fantasy game
Ultimately, for all of the writing on what the OSR is from a gameplay and theoretical perspective, there really isn't much out there that explores it in a cohesive historical fashion.  Being a historian by trade, I figured I'd throw my hat in the ring, trying to arrive at the goal not by arguing in favour of a theoretical conclusion of how the game should be played, but working through what happened and why.  I wasn't paying attention at the OSR's start (I was more interested in BattleTech and Champions at the time, feeling that I had exhausted what old-school D&D could offer and not particularly interested in 3rd edition after the initial thrill had worn off), but "not having been there" is par for the course for most any historian, and with a blog mistakes are easily correctable.  If you have no interest in lengthy historical analysis, skip this series of posts.

The Decline of the Old School The Adventure

Dungeons & Dragons, in its original 1970s form, was conceptually a relatively straightforward game.  It featured a tight gameplay loop where characters explored dungeons and occasionally the wilderness to acquire wealth, which they then hauled back to civilization to go up in level, so that they could go and explore tougher dungeons and wilderness areas.  Add roleplaying to taste; rinse and repeat.
Early on this was enough for most people: just playing this novel new style of game sufficed to entertain.  In the same way that one sits down to a game of Monopoly[1] and doesn't ask about why they're competing for these very select set of properties or why they have to work under capitalist principles, early D&D largely focused on its own obvious gameplay loop.  In short, there wasn't much "what's my character's motivation?"  You play Monopoly because you're there to play Monopoly; most played D&D because it was an interesting game about dungeons and you wanted to go and see if maybe there were dragons in them.[2]  With the DM's connivance and the players' wishes, PCs could be anything they wanted eventually, but the default assumption early on was that they were not heroes (at least, not automatically) but professional graverobbers, seeking to get rich or die trying.  If you wanted more, there was certainly scope for that thanks to the flexibility roleplaying provided, but that was on the local group rather than the system as a whole.
As such, early adventure modules gave you settings and situations much more than they gave you deep plots. The Lost City, Keep on the Borderlands, White Plume Mountain, Castle Amber, The Isle of Dread: it's no coincidence that these are places rather than events.  With the assumption there that you didn't need to convince people who had showed up to play D&D that they should bother playing D&D, modules simply provided sites to explore.  Exploration (and the gold this provided, which allowed you to level up) was its own reward.
That having been said, exceptions appeared very early on.  The first official TSR modules were released four years into the game's existence: B1, D1, D2, D3, G1, G2, G3, and S1 all came out in 1978.  S1 (Tomb of Horrors) was an example of the tournament module, an adventure originally designed to be played at a tournament with strict time limits, players the DM didn't know, and in a competitive fashion.  Due to the limitations imposed by such requirements, these were often tightly constrained modules: there was no room for sandbox play, with players often unceremoniously dumped at the entrance to the site as the start of the adventure, and scoring systems were used to decide which party "won" the module.  Like the concept of ante in the Magic card game, the tournament module became a relic that vanished relatively early and is often poorly understood by later players.  Some tournament modules would later be redesigned into more freewheeling efforts for their official public release, but as clear and purposeful deviations from the norm, we can largely ignore modules like S1, the A line (the Slavers series), and the C (Competition) line, all devoted to / rooted in the tournament niche.
More notable was the G series (Against the Giants).  Also originally a tournament module series, it opens with players being given a clear quest (eliminate the giants) and on pain of death no lesswhat people would come to critique as railroading.  The story of the G series was continued in the D series, where we learn that the drow are the force behind the giants.  As such, the vast majority of the initial module line for D&D was in some fashion plot-based.

At the same time, there's plot and then there's plot: the "story" of the Giants series is a quick framework designed to get play going, an artifact of its tournament origins, and D 1-2 opens with the note that "Unlike the expeditions against the giants, no compulsion is placed upon adventurers to undertake this journey."  The players have a large amount of flexibility in how they accomplish their task, there's no unkillable NPCs, quantum ogres and other events, predetermined resolutions, and so on: to compare it to later efforts because both have a forced impetus and an overall framing arc / villain motivation is to distort things beyond a useful point.

Overall, the official style in this period emphasizes player agency: barring the immediate circumstances of their surroundings, the attitudes and approaches to the test at hand were largely the players' own.  Equally, the environment was generally not adjusted on the fly to better accommodate them or the perceived "needs of the story" (i.e., with the exception of random encounters, an encounter occurred when it occurred, as laid out beforehand: events might change based on the actions of the party—e.g. they sounded an alarm—but they weren't shifted about to better meet the current HP of the party or towards some perceived sense of the dramatic).  It can be a challenging style, in that it demands adventures crafted with that style in mind, DMs willing to improvise, and active players—those used to having their adventures and motivations served up on platters can easily be bored to tears if handed an adventure almost entirely determined by their actions and not armed with an understanding of what is expected of thembut it's an immensely freeing one for those interested and up to the challenge.

This broad style of play supportlocation-based exploration, perhaps with a thin veneer of plot to jumpstart things (e.g. U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh)predominated until about 1982.  That year had some good releases (B4 The Lost City is a particular gem), but also the first non-tournament TSR module that really broke with the above.  When making a list of the usual suspects credited for ushering in the demise of the old school, X3 (Curse of Xanathon), by Douglas Niles, is not generally featured.  And yet, it's the first clear break in the freewheeling exploratory trend that had predominated to that point.  It opens with a note:

The Curse of Xanathon is an unusual module, in that much of the players’ actions will be in the form of detective work

And indeed, X3 is a mystery module.  Why is the Duke of Rhoona behaving so oddly?  The players must find out.  Of course, mysteries have an annoying habit of not being as easy to work out as the author might think.  Niles is prepared for that, however, and includes this note:

If a group of players is unfamiliar with this type of detective game, they may become frustrated or disinterested.  The DM is encouraged to offer additional clues whenever these would seem to be necessary.  This can be handled in a number of ways.  For example, the High Priest of Forsetta, who moves around in a beggar’s disguise, is introduced in Scenario 1.  The DM should feel free to use this character whenever necessary as a source of information and guidance to the party.

Reviewers of the time noted the conceptual issues: Jim Bambra in issue 48 of White Dwarf called Curse of Xanathon "very much a programmed affair".  Players "move through a series of distinct and logical stages, discovering clues as they go".  He noted that if the players fail to follow the clues, the DM must direct them to the next encounter, which of course cut down on the amount of freedom available.  Similarly, Doug Cowie, in Imagine #3, had some observant commentary.  If the players do things properly, he noted:

they will progress in an orderly fashion through 5 scenarios, puzzling out what is going on and eventually setting things to rights.

Herein lies the problem of this module.  No party of players that I have known ever does what they are supposed to, in the right order, through five different adventures.  To assist in getting the players through the module properly, the DM is provided with Eric of Forsett.  He sounds like a steak & kidney pie manufacturer but is, in fact, a clerical heavy.  He pops up whenever the party is going astray and guides them back on course.  After he has appeared a few times, it is going to look a little obvious and players may feel overmanipulated.  Similarly, the first three scenarios are prompted by Ducal proclamation.  The first time the Duke's Herald comes round shouting his head off is OK but after that players tend to become a little cynical and ignore such an obvious ploy to guide them where the DM wants them to go.

The investigation / mystery itself would always remain a minority of adventures, difficult to pull off at any time and D&D being replete with spells that make a lot of mystery elements unfeasible except with awkward convolutions besides, but overall this was very much a new style of adventure, one that reduced player agency and provided hamfisted direction to better facilitate a plot.  It was a distinct harbinger.

Another notable element in the evolution of module design was the creation of boxed textsegregated blocks of text intended to be read aloud to the players.  The separation of DM text from player-intended information can be seen as early as 1979's T1 (The Village of Hommlet).  However, boxed text proper first appeared in 1980 with A1 (Slave Pits of the Undercity) and C1 (The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan).[3]  This was a natural development: it's the DM's job to convey information to the players, and a module would logically provide such.  Boxing it helps separate DM and player info, and if written well can provide good atmosphere.  That both of these were tournament modules was likely no coincidence: boxed text also ensures that all competitors get the same core of essential information, helping maintain a level playing field.

The downsides to this innovation became apparent fairly quickly: the practice soon moved from telling the players what they see and hear, to telling the players what they think and feel, and ultimately to telling them what they do or don't do, robbing players of agency as their very actions and emotional states were determined for them and removing much of the question-and-response interaction between player and DM that made up so much of the early exploratory playstyle.  Additionally, boxed text soon became a vehicle for writers to indulge their worst storytelling tendencies, a phenomenon referred to in some quarters as "failed-novelist syndrome".  Paragraphs soon grew to half-columns, full columns, and even page-long and multi-page-long narratives the DM was expected to read aloud and the players were expected to sit passively and absorb, with descriptive colour and essential facts haphazardly mixed together so that players easily missed key detail.[4]

Here's an example from C1, highlighting some of the tendencies that began appearing on day one:

Nine sentences in length, this is already pushing the limits of what players can easily absorb, though it does largely limit itself to useful descriptive room detail.  At the end, the players are presumed to be taking action, whether they want to or not ("upon approaching the other door").  (As an aside, it also seems confused as to whether or not it is describing action ("upon approaching") or potential action ("will come into sight"), likely an artifact of still working the idea out.)  Boxed text in many ways encapsulates the practices that would eventually kill off the old school: an item that was a logical outgrowth of existing gameplay, meant to be helpful, at its best capable of being quite useful, but in its most common manifestation detrimental to the playstyle.[5]

1983 was notable in that, with the exception of I6 (Ravenloft), none of the modules released that year are considered classics.  Some of them feature what would become the worst excesses of TSR (and later) module design, though Ravenloft and UK1 (Beyond the Crystal Cave) attempted to do some things differently.  A second generation of designers had arrived at TSR: Michael Malone, Garry Spiegle, Carl Smith, Merle M. Rasmussen, and Bruce Nesmith were writing material in a different mode.  TSR had filled sixty new positions in 1981, and as of August 1982 nearly 40% of its employees had been hired in the previous twelve months.[6]  Meanwhile, by the autumn of 1982 Gygax began stepping back from development duties, as the larger concerns of TSR as a corporation occupied his attention: particularly his presidency of TSR Entertainment, which saw him spend much time in Hollywood chasing after film and animation deals rather than writing or directly supervising module development.

Let's take a look at an early example of what would become typical in post-old-school adventure design.  1983's X4 (Master of the Desert Nomads) was written by David "Zeb" Cook, who had helped create the original Expert (of B/X fame) box set.  Primarily a wilderness exploration module (which the X series was intended to contain), the players are recruited as part of an army to battle a group of increasingly troublesome desert marauders led by "The Master".  However, the players arrive too late to the army's assembly area and must hurry on alone to catch up.  This is a strong framing device that tells the players what's happening and what they're up to, but as we've seen, such a thing isn't really different from several treasured modules released earlier.

More egregious, at least from an old-school perspective,[7] are the fixed, quantum-style encounters and overall assumptions of reduced agency that occur throughout the adventure.  For example, 

Encounters #1 and #2 should occur, in either order, before players reach the swamp: it is suggested that both occur some distance upstream from the village of Pramayama.  Encounter #3 should occur while the characters are crossing the swamp.[8]

The DM is advised that these programmed encounters should be carefully doled out, based not even on where the DM has chosen to place them ahead of time but on the perceived pace and status of the player group:

if several of the player characters are severely hurt, the DM should wait until the characters are almost to the end of the river before having the next encounter, The Watchers on the River.  The DM controls the timing of all the encounters.  He does not have to worry about the characters missing an important encounter by not going in the right direction.
Similarly, there is a later encounter delivered via boxed text based entirely on the premise that the players have agreed to do something, whether they would have wanted to or not:

Not finding the company of the caravan the most pleasant or sociable around, your party has accepted orders from Lamshar to act as an advance guard.

Overall, this is an important mission, the module stresses, and so the players

will discover that their mission has even attracted the attention of higher beings.  Appearing at one point in the module is an "Unknown Benefactor."  There is no explanation of who or what this being is, and the player characters are not able to observe it closely.  The being only appears in the most absolute of need, but it should not be used to bail the characters out of situations into which they have stumbled through their own stupidity or foolishness!  The Unknown Benefactor appears in the module for atmosphere and feeling, not as a cure-all to the characters' problems.
These are important caveats, but caveats or not, the appearance of what amounts to DM-placed training wheels (for characters levels 6-9 no less, ones presumably in the hands of experienced players) is a notable reduction in assumptions of player self-direction and responsibility.  David Cook would go on to be the lead developer of 2nd edition AD&D.

Reviewers were noting these changes, often favourably.  Future TSR employee Rick Swan's review of X4 in Space Gamer #71 commented that it provided "welcome relief from the tedious dungeon exploration all too common in TSR D&D modules".[9]  The release of more and more products like X4, and similar reviewer comments in this period about "the traditional dungeon crawl" and the like, indicated that the idea of just exploring a complex for the sake of exploration was becoming passé.  By this point D&D was approaching ten years old, and people were looking for it to provide something different.

1984's Dragonlance megasaga, the first five modules of which were released that year alongside the first Dragonlance novel (Nov 1984), provided it.  The immortal Dave Langford reviewed the novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight for White Dwarf #65 in his long-running book column, suggesting that it was "inspired by an AD&D campaign full of chunks ripped bleeding from Tolkien" and critiqued the "Deadly predictable questing, with stock D&D characters in familiar encounters."  Modules 1-4 were written before the first novel (which adapted them), a process reversed for the final two books in the initial novel trilogy.  In this new series, we had player characters on a fixed questnot just one to set up the game, like G1, U1, or I3 (Pharaoh), but to drive the entire adventure.  The PCs were heroes from the start, rather than characters that might become heroes if the players behind them were so inclined and managed to achieve that.  The storyto restore the presence of the gods to the world and defeat the forces of eviltakes primacy over anything the players might wish to do otherwise.  The series was notoriously railroaded.  For example, take this encounter from DL2 (Dragons of Flame), which jumps the party with two ancient red dragons so that they can be taken prisoner if they're not performing as expected:

This encounter returns the PCs to their epic path if they stray or dally.  Run the encounter when the party is in open terrain (plains or low mountains) and has no place to hide.

In short, the sandbox was closed.  Tracy Hickman, one half of the team that produced the novel (and also Ravenloft), also wrote five modules in the series.[10]  Its approach reflected his long-standing frustration with traditional D&D: around 1978 he had written a proposal for an adventure series to be entitled Nightventure, which had the following explanatory opening:

Some time ago, I found, with mounting frustration, that my so-called "epic dungeon" was rapidly turning into an "eternal dungeon"; one which even I would never discover the bottom of, let alone any player characters.  My evil wizard would never be routed from the tower--not because of the treacherousness of the way--but because of its tediousness.  There had to be a better way.

Presumably not everyone was happy with this new directionin particular, Imagine #26 had coverage of the UK's GamesFair '85, and it was noted that during a Q&A session with some TSR staff several members of the crowd expressed concern "about the Dragonlance modules and the direction that modules seem to be taking."  But the series was a culmination of already existing trends, and since the initial Dragonlance (DL) series eventually ran for 16 modules, presumably sales told besides.

No other module at this point took its plotting to the same extreme as Dragonlance, but from an old-school perspective, very little that comes out after 1982 is worth getting.  Mark Breault, a TSR employee from 1984-1989, saw no evidence of the near-mythical "no playtesting on company time" rule long rumoured to exist at TSR in the post-Gygax period,[11] but did mention that the general pace of development typically made anything but rudimentary playtesting difficult, a marked contrast to the early wave of tournament- and home-campaign-based module releases, which often had extensive vetting through play.  Overall, he painted a rather dire picture as to the overall development process at the twilight of 1st edition.  Rather than self-directed works, developed entirely by gamers for gamers,

Several months before the start of the year ... the entire design department (game designers and editors) would be called into a meeting.  There our manager would hand us all next year's schedule.  On it were all the products that were to be published by TSR over the following year.  Each product (module, hardback, supplement, etc.) would have its name listed, the product line it fell into, its page length, and the month it was to be published.  There would be much laughing over some of the stupid names the execs picked out for products, but altogether it wasn't a jolly process.

This schedule was presented to us as a fait accompli, set by upper management.  I believe it was also vetted by Random House, our publisher, which had a tremendous amount of influence on TSR's schedule and sticking to it (think in terms of how Wal-Mart dictates everything to its suppliers and you'll have some idea).  We could bitch about various products, refuse to work on them, point out stupidities, and so on.  We were able to push back sometimes and get products dropped or shifted around.  But our primary function at that point was to decide which designer and which editor worked on each product.  That was mostly on a volunteer basis.  When it got down to products in lines people didn't like to work on (Buck Rogers, MSH for most people, D&D [by that time a sideshow compared to AD&D], etc.), most of those were farmed out to freelancers as no internal employees wanted them.

Box text from 1987's I11.[12]
Of the later modules, 1986's B10 (Night's Dark Terror) is probably the best of the lot, firmly plotted but a solid classic regardless, with some elements of interest also in UK4 (When a Star Falls), X5 (Temple of Death), and X10 (Red Arrow, Black Shield).  Gygax lost control of TSR in October 1985 and departed in October 1986; most of the original wave of TSR employees either left with him or in the financial and managerial turmoil of the few years leading up to his departure.[13]  The prevalent module style at the close of 1st edition was largely the same as it would be throughout 2nd edition: the plot-heavy quest adventure, with its large amounts of read-aloud boxed text, essential NPCs that always got away or showed up as the plot demanded, events that occurred regardless of what the party did, and a base assumption of heroism ("the players must save X from the nefarious forces of Y!") regardless of the attitudes of the players or their characters.  Roleplaying as its own reward was increasingly emphasized and the dungeoncrawl increasingly seen as an anachronism, a primitive and even somewhat silly artifact of D&D's growth into a more mature modern form.  If your understanding and appreciation of D&D was rooted in freewheeling, sandbox-style play, where player-directed site exploration was both the means and often the end, you were no longer receiving official support.[14]
There was a long period of time when action, rather than role playing, was the major focus of gaming, and this was especially true with respect to tournament scenarios at conventions.  Thus, an AD&D® game scenario would typically stress combat with monsters to achieve the goal set before the characters.  Now, the pendulum has swung the other way much emphasis is being placed on how well the player takes on the role of his or her character.  Personification and acting are replacing action of the more direct and forceful type be it sword swinging, spell casting, or anything else.  Before this trend goes too far, it is time to consider what the typical role-playing game is all about.

First, it is important to remember that "role-playing" is a modifier of the noun "game".  We are dealing with a game which is based on role playing, but it is first and foremost a game.  Games are not plays, although role-playing games should have some of the theatre included in their play.  To put undue stress upon mere role-playing places the cart before the horse.  Role playing is a necessary part of the game, but it is by no means the whole of the matter.

— Gary Gygax, Dragon #102 (October 1985)

But Gygax lost control of the company that very same month and would be gone from it a year later, and the trend would continue.

Though the dates make it clear, it's important to emphasize that all this happens during the lifecycle of 1st edition AD&D, a ruleset with unquestionable old-school bonafides.  As such, it's clear that rules alone do not determine what is old school: if proper mechanics alone could secure an old-school playstyle, the above process I've laid out could never have occurred.  By the time 2nd edition came out in 1989, the old school was already dead: 2nd edition just placed a capstone on the mausoleum.
Though I'll continue to examine how modules develop as we move forward, next time I'll be focusing on the evolution of the ruleset.

[1] God help you if you actually willingly sit down to play Monopoly.

[2] I want to add an important caveat.  Overall we're talking about how the initial designers of D&D intended it to be played and what the rules and modules published by them were intended to support, rather than making a universal claim as to how DMs outside the initial Lake Geneva TSR circle actually played D&D in this era.  OD&D was so vague and AD&D so baroque that both lent themselves to all sort of alternate interpretations.  Additionally, D&D is attractive to creative minds, and so even with clear rules the first thing a role-playing gamer often does is tinker and modify, throwing out things that don't fit their style.  As such, people immediately took the ruleset in all sorts of different directions (as published lamentations from Gygax et al. in the period demonstrate; addressing this playstyle drift was one of the design impetuses for AD&D), and you could certainly find people who rapidly abandoned the open site exploration style of play in favour of what would become later norms (i.e. heavily plotted heroic questing) even in this early period; after all, the newer wave of TSR designers and their different design style had to come from somewhere.

[3] Dragon #34 (Feb 1980) also has Doomkeep, an adventure by Bryan Blume, featuring numerous text sections that, while not formally boxed off, are written in red ink and intended to be read to the players. 

[4] Back in 2005 two Wizards of the Coast employees conducted field research at GenCon about, amongst other things, the effects of boxed text on players forced to endure it.  The article is worth reading, but the key point was this: "My hypothesis was that boxed text longer than a paragraph probably isn’t worth reading, because players tend to have pretty bad listening comprehension when it comes to boxed text.  Their eyes glaze over pretty quickly.  What I actually saw was much more dramatic than my hypothesis.  If you’re the DM, you get two sentences.  Period.  Beyond that, your players are stacking dice, talking to each other, or staring off into space.  Time after time, players were missing the actual data in the boxed text – basic stuff, like room dimensions, how many doors exit the room, and number of monsters."

[5] Anthony Pryor, author of 1992's WGQ1 (Patriots of Ulek)—a module infamous for its large amounts of boxed text—said of the use of boxed text that "I don't recall it being a hard-and-fast requirement, but since everyone else was doing it, we followed suit.  It was an example of a good practice getting worn out by overuse and becoming a major tool in the 'railroad the players' arsenal."

[6] Per Jon Peterson.

[7] I'm not arguing that the old-school method is the one true way to play D&D, though it's the one I prefer.  It's simply the focus of this article series.  For those fine with more structured modules, X4 can provide a solid play experience, though you really need X5 (Temple of Death) for it to work, since it's not so much a sequel as the other (and better) half of the module.

[8] Not even Gary Gygax was immune to this sort of thing.  1982's S4 (The Lost Caverns of Tsojanth) has a hermit encounter with the advice that "You should place this encounter at a location that is most useful to the players.  Place it near the caverns if they are not doing too well, at some distance if they are highly capable."  There's also his last module for TSR, 1986's WG6 (Isle of the Ape), which has a full two pages of boxed text to open it.

[9] Swan's review of WG5 (Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure) in Space Gamer #73 is a much deeper exploration of his thoughts on how tired old-school D&D had become for him, but his review is written with the sense that this feeling is a much wider one.  "As roleplaying becomes more sophisticated, those early days of Dungeons & Dragons seem long ago indeed.  The once-fascinating attraction of assuming the identity of a mighty warrior or magician purely to explore a creature-filled dungeon in search of treasure now seems hopelessly quaint to today's experienced roleplayer.  I'd venture a guess that Gary Gygax's cheerful admission in the preface ... that 'this is what is generally termed a hack-and-slash' module will send many roleplayers running for the hills."  In the same issue, Swan gave a glowing review of DL2 (Dragons of Despair), despite noting that it was "tightly scripted" and "not particularly flexible".

[10] The author of the 2nd, 6th, 9th, and 14th volumes was Douglas Niles, the author of X3.  Niles and Hickman also co-authored the 11th volume, which though given a DL module code like the rest was a wargame module for the series rather than a RPG supplement.

[11] Frank Mentzer stated that TSR simply felt able to publish modules with little to no playtesting after its early days, due to feeling that they had acquired enough experience designing modules to not need it.  "Most of my later RGPA tournaments were never playtested."

[12] Note the caveat: "paraphrase the following ... or intersperse it with questions from the PCs to avoid reading it in one long section."  Future module writers would often skip this sort of warning, even as the amount of boxed text climbed even further.

[13] Per Jim Ward, "In 1984 TSR had 386 employees....  In five ugly purges the company went from 386 people to 86 people."  See also Jon Peterson, here and here, for details on earlier purges.

[14] The close of 1st edition is a little difficult to make categorical statements of with regards to modules, as TSR was performing a lot of experiments at the time.  The original short-adventure anthology and the Battlesystem / War Machine mass-combat module, both relatively short-lived things, flourished at this time.  And then there was the DA (Dave Arneson) line, the DragonQuest crossover, Castle Greyhawk....


  1. Very interesting. Eager to see the rest. That last quote from Gygax is golden.

  2. Well this is off to a very interesting start; I'm looking forward to seeing where you take this series. Speaking as someone who was "there" for the beginning of the OSR, I'm curious about the difference in perspectives.

  3. This is quite good. I look forward to the coming installments.

    What are the particular articles that you find to be informative and successful in conveying OSR principles?

    1. It's hard to say at this point: G+ is gone and so many blogs have shut down, and I didn't tend to save those posts in any case even as I appreciated them. But I think it would be a good fit to do a state of the blogosphere sort of thing at the end of my last post in this series with a series of links to good principles/theoryposting, so thanks for the idea.

  4. Wonderful article - a few comments:

    In terms of the "setting" modules you list: The Lost City, Keep on the Borderlands, White Plume Mountain, Castle Amber, The Isle of Dread - I would further distinguish Keep on the Borderlands/Isle of Dread from White Plume Mountain/Castle Amber. The former are true sandboxes, while the latter are more like quests in a sandbox. The Lost City is a rare hybrid of the two forms - a sandbox in which a quest can emerge.

    I totally agree with you that X3 marked a strong departure from prior modules, and can be regarded as the first true plot-driven "railroad", but I found that X4 was more like a railroad "through" a sandbox, and like B4, struck just the right balance.

    I've DM'd all of the adventures mentioned above, and my players rated B4, X2, and X4/X5 as among the very best experiences at the table.

    As a last note - yes, I would agree that 1983 was the end of the true/earlier "old school" era. BECMI/2nd edition is very different in tone and style, and could be regarded as "later old school", I suppose, up until the merging of the two lines in 2000.

  5. Interesting article.

    It’s a huge subject to tackle. I do think that the module is the death of the old school.

    You got me thinking. And then as I tend to do I kind of went sideways.

    I am tempted to delete this and not blather all over your blog with my rants.

    What I noticed in your article is the absence of early module references. I think you are onto something if you apply the creation of modules as a very good way to trace what OSR is. Sure, OSR players buy modules, yet OSR players use modules differently.

    As you mentioned there is a lot of debate about what OSR is.

    I would argue that the OSR mentality is an old play style with a new label. My experience with D&D is that I got sick of having the brand shoved down my throat and wanted to explore other methods of gaming. For me it happened very early on; when I opened my first D&D book and it said Wizards could only use daggers. That is the most stupid thing I have ever read.

    For the creators of D&D OSR was there from the beginning.

    D&D supplement 2 has a module in it, Temple of the Frog, that establishes a much different play style from what most consumers did. It has background, it requires stealth over a direct approach, it presents a setting within a much larger setting. Many did not understand how to run it. Tim Kask was not up explaining the level of Game Play in Arneson’s TOF and provided no editorial commentary on what Arneson was presenting. This is a huge failing on his part as editor of the supplement.

    1. Arneson was a loser and a flake who couldn't deliver.

    2. He delivered so damn much that an entire genre of games came into being because of him.

  6. Judges Guild was producing a lot of material that would require a bit more than just go down into the dungeon. Wilderlands of High Fantasy had limited background information, because it was assumed most gamers knew how to develop their own stories with the material provided.

    Gygax and company saw no value in Modules initially. They gave a very favorable license to Judges Guild to develop this market and JGGC went hog wild. For the founders, I base this on reading a lot of different commentaries from them, they simply assumed their consumers would want to make their own games. They were thinking in terms of a Tool Box game, or Legos and Tinker Toys. Here’s your stuff, go make your own thing up, because this is how Gygax and Arneson as game inventors approached all their own games.

    It wasn’t until they realized Judges Guild was making a killing off of modules that they decided to really dig into their own modules. And also there is the connection to the idea of competitive D&D which TSR was quite fond of. This is likely because it helped increase excitement and sales. They sure did blather on about it in the Dragon. I noticed your comments on it. I always found it perplexing to make RPGs like a race between teams.

    Yet if you look at Judges Guild products compared to TSR products, they are aimed at different markets. Judges Guild is providing play aides and TSR is moving toward a turnkey product.

    If you read Commentary by Gygax he is always conflicted. At heart he is one of us, a gamer, but he is also the figurehead for a valuable product line. Half the time he says, just make it up as you go it’s your game! The other half of the time he is saying that you have to use AD&D exactly as written.

    In model railroading they call it RTR for Ready To Run. And that hobby is seeing the same mass market impact as RPGs have, with the majority of hobbyists being RTR instead of scratch builders these days.

    The module expands the market for RPGs and kills the true flavor IMHO D&D as a product will always lean toward lowest common denominator in order to glean the most sales, and this leads to simplistic play by average consumers today. It is always going to be Modularized as much as possible to sell more product too. Compare Holmes to the 5e Start Set. Holmes was complete, the new Start Set is not. I personally found the 5e Start Set impenetrable as a set of rules. I read it. I put it aside. I got out my little brown booklets. I even reread Holmes recently and was amazed how informative it is on how to make your own games.

    The hobby in its original state was far more focused on exploring different games, just as the founders were. It’s that golden era before everything becomes branded and commoditized to extremes. And many of that kind of gamer, who now would be called OSR players, were more focused on DIY. They would buy products as plug ins, or for inspiration, but they were far more adept at home ruling and home brewing.

    If you look at what the fantasy OSR players are playing now, most of them are using OD&D/Holmes derived updated and expanded rules. Many others are simply sticking to what they know well, which is AD&D. These require a much looser play style than 5e does.

    The common thread seems to be a far more free kriegspiel approach to how the games are refereed and a deeply personalized gamer culture within each home group that you will not find within the mass media D&D style of today.

    IMHO That is the difference between contemporary RPGs and what I would prefer to call Traditional Role Playing, or Retro RPG.

    Lastly, I recently got introduced to the FKR tag by a group of Brazilian gamers. I think I have always been a FRK gamer.


    1. No need to delete: I always welcome discussion.

      I didn't include anything concerning Temple of the Frog or any of the other early supplements because this is a series about how TSR lost its way and the OSR came to be, and it didn't seem to make sense to talk about the original days in which everything was working as intended, beyond the quick generalist setup I gave at the start to set the stage. Blackmoor and Temple of the Frog as published likely confused as much as it inspired, but one thing it definitely didn't do was lead people away from the old-school style. Similarly, Judges Guild wasn't official and was generally seen as sometimes stellar, sometimes bad, but almost always on-point when it came to old-school sensibilities.

      I decided to start with TSR modules because, taken as a whole, they serve as a bellwether for the producer's official culture. They also have a big effect in terms of shaping how the game is played: a player buys a module and, whether it's good or bad, often gets certain notions as to how the game is "supposed" to work from it.

      I do agree that OSR is, as you say, an old play style with a new label: it's why I decided to start with TSR rather than just jumping to 2006: you can't understand the OSR without first understanding the playstyle it's seeking to emulate.

      I also like your observation between Gygax's dual nature. Ultimately I get the idea that he did want a freewheeling game, but within certain parametres, and that having failed to achieve that, he went with AD&D and nailing things down over attempting to reinforce the freewheeling nature. Also, I think he went through a design cycle common to a lot of game designers in the period, which was "start out light, steadily pile on the crunch as the old game loses its charm because you feel you've exhausted its possibilities, then retreat back to the beginning when everything starts to collapse under the added cruft, you get tired of all the complexity, and begin looking back longingly at the simple old days." I've seen this with multiple old games and multiple old designers.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. Brilliant article with great references. I've book-marked it for a future re-read.


  8. Box text was around much, much earlier than 1983, dating back to at LEAST 1980 in the module, "The Tower of Inverness". I highly disagree with you calling box text, "a recent innovation" in 1983. That's entirely too loose and calls into question the rest of your historical accuracy.

  9. And your example from C1 could easily be a printing accident where the printer accidentally included part of the DM instructions (which were below the box text and were not meant to be read aloud) in the box text. In fact, the very verbiage of the last two sentences supports my theory, as they appear to follow the grammar for DM advice and NOT room descriptions to players.

  10. And where in the holy hell is your citation for the claim that the X series was intended to contain wilderness adventures?? The X series was for the Expert ruleset, NOT as a container for wilderness adventures.

  11. You say, "highlighting some of the tendencies"; it's a typo, for Christsake; one typo does not a tendency make.