Deep Dive: OSR Critique from ZDL's blog

Our little hobby is filled with intriguing oddities.  One of the most persistent such oddities is our weird tendency to take what is already a fringe subculture and cut it up into further warring fringes.

In the '70s (and even a bit into the '80s) the hobby was divided into the camp of wargamers (themselves divided into board and miniatures camps, not to mention by era) and role-players.  This is where I entered the picture, and I came to it from a direction radically different than most RPGers of the time: I came at it from my high school drama flake crowd, not from the wargaming crowd.  I especially saw a lot of the disdain hurled at the role-playing fantasists crowd because I not only played them, I exclusively played them and really didn't like wargames.

As the great creative explosion of the '80s began, more and more weird divisions happened, usually in feuding camps based on genre (since most RPGs of the time still lived firmly in their wargaming roots).  This was also the era where "realism" vs. "playability" became an argument (despite no RPG ever written being even remotely realistic, and most were only barely playable: this is a hobby that demanded a degree of dedication to enter and be a part of!).

The '90s started to usher in the era of the "story-based" game (although the earliest of these were barely distinguishable in terms of rules focus from Dungeons & Dragons).  This is where the largest divide of role-playing games started and what is likely the largest single cultural shift of the hobby began, as typified by the (pretentiously idiotic) phrase "role-playing vs. roll-playing".

The earlier divides were arguments over taste.  Something in the loudest of the "story game" crowd stepped over a line from discussions of taste into very literal notions of "wrong fun".  In many ways it was the stalwart wargamer crowd's disdain of the role-playing crowd all over again, only it was the newcomers who held the most disdain.  The peak of this was likely the essays of people like John Wick or, worse, Ron Edwards who would start bizarrely hinting at (and sometimes openly stating) some kind of moral failing of those who preferred original-style dungeon bashes.  It reached the point that to this day I can't stomach the notion of actually buying a product published by some major names in gaming.  (And, naturally, because we can't have nice things, a lot of OSR advocates are just as disdainful of people who play differently as are people like the two I named above.  I'll just drop James Raggi's name here for that.)

And it was in the midst of this acrimony that sometime in the early '00s the OSR sprung up.  (OSR is an initialization I've seen expanded as Old School Revival, Recreation, Renaissance, and other such R words to the point I'm not sure which one is actually canonically correct, so I will just be using OSR.)  The OSR is a movement to return back to basics.  Back to E. Gary Gygax's original D&D.  To return to a time of simplicity.  It's a movement born of people wearing pink-tinted contact lenses because—hoo boy!—this is not a good description of the rules of the time!

There is a reason why the original edition of D&D was not the dominant one over the decades and that reason is not just, as has been claimed, a money-grab by TSR and others.

To establish my credentials, I have been playing RPGs of all kinds since 1977.  My first exposure to the genre was the 1977 "Blue Book" edition and I have backfilled experience with the original books, not to mention gone forward into both branches of D&D (Advanced and what would later become the Cyclopedia).  I played through the explosion of creativity in the '80s, witnessed the rise of story games (playing many of them, though not the White Wolf line of Storyteller games—I hated those), and continued through to the present day where I play intensely story-oriented games (FATE, Spark, Mythic, etc.) as well as some OSR or OSR-alike games (most notably Mazes & Minotaurs).  I am emphatically not a young-un telling grandpa what's what.  I'm one of the grandparents saying what actually was.

And what actually was was a mess.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't judge the OSR and, indeed, I like its ideals: simplicity chief among them.  I think modern games have gotten ridiculously and pointlessly complicated and as someone who works in marketing, I can even smell the marketing decisions that led to that.  I would love to have a game in the old style to play (and indeed do in the form of M&M).

I just don't want to play the original D&D.

So let's talk about why.

I have open on my screen the so-called "White Box" set of rules.  The three-volume set of Dungeons & Dragons published by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974 before they even had the TSR logo.  (Their logo looked like a bizarre stylized 'K' embedded in a similarly stylized 'G'.)  And already we're off to a rocky start.  On page 5 of the first book (Men & Magic) we have the recommended equipment which includes ... Chainmail miniature rules, latest edition.  Which, note, at the time of publication, wasn't even a TSR product.

Time to open another document.  (Picture me rolling my eyes here.)

The current edition of Chainmail at the time would have been 2nd.  The third was 1975, a year after D&D was published, while 2nd was 1972.  So this is the version we'll go with.

Back to D&D.  And here we get to the next problem with this edition of D&D (which I will refer to as OD&D from now on): the writing.  It's atrocious.  The information design is execrable.  Gary Gygax had a large vocabulary, but he had no clue how to use it to deliver information.  His writing style lies somewhere between the ponderousness of an academic frightened of clear communication because it would reveal how trivial the ideas under discussion actually are and a middle school essay writer earning his D+ marks throughout the term.  On page 6, for example, under the heading of "Characters", he introduces the 3 main classes of characters: Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics.  Then, buried in the description of what these classes even are, he throws in the fact that fighting men can "include" elves, dwarves, and even halflings while magic-users can only be men and elves with clerics limited to men only.

(From the way it is worded it is easy to mistakenly think that men can only be magic-users and clerics, incidentally.)

In the section on Fighting-Men (referred to multiple times as "fighters" in the text because consistency in game terminology is for cowards?) there's a bizarre section irrelevant to the topic at hand consisting of base income for fighters of high enough a level.  In the section outlining Magic-Users there's a sudden table of income costs for making magic items.  In the section on Clerics there's more talk of income from high-level clerics and holdings.  NONE OF THIS IS RELEVANT.  The game is discussing stuff that comes at "end-game" (so to speak) for characters before they've even actually finished off what a character is and how to make one!  It's very clearly written stream-of-consciousness and it's a chore to decode.  THIS is why the Basic line was started and expanded into the Cyclopedia.  Gary Gygax's writing style is just not suited to actually explaining things!

And it continues on and on in this vein: opening up with the classes, introducing the classes, and mentioning races only in passing, suddenly, on the very next page, right after talking about Clerics, races are introduced at the same heading level in a jarring transition.  Each is defined solely by what it can and cannot do.  There's no explanation of what a "dwarf" or "elf" or "halfling" really is.  Maybe that's what you need Chainmail for?  Yep.  That's where the races are described.  (Though there's no "halflings".  Only hobbits.)  Further the races' advantages and abilities are explicitly specified in Chainmail.  You really do need Chainmail to play OD&D!

Alignment is handled in the same kind of slap-dash way: character types are defined by alignment, but alignment itself is not described (not even in Chainmail!).

This mess goes on and on.  There's rules for changing character classes that reference prime requisites, but prime requisites for classes haven't yet been defined!  (They do have the decency to forward-reference this, but this is utter crap information design.  We've known how to write better than this for centuries before D&D was written!)

Once you do decode this, the rules for making characters are, indeed, very simple.  It's just that the writing is so phenomenally bad that D&D rapidly became known as a game that you couldn't just buy and learn.  You had to have it taught to you.

And one of the purported advantages of the aulde skool rears its ugly head here: it is explicitly intended (according to the introduction) to be merely guidelines.  So what you were taught wouldn't transfer well to other groups…

Of course when you played, again you needed Chainmail according to the rules thus far.  We're on page 18 of the rules and half the rules mentioned explicitly call out to Chainmail for resolution.  Page 19 introduces the "alternative" combat system that replaces Chainmail's in which we see the beginning of the THAC0 system that was so beloved in later years.  And again it's incoherent dross.  The hit table only applies to fighters.  Magic-Users and Clerics use different progressions mentioned in an asterisked footnote.  This is also where the infamously bizarre categories of saving throws make their first appearance.  To this day I don't understand these categories, why they were made, what they were intended to represent.  I only know that it was really weird seeing rules in later editions say "save vs. paralyzation" for things that had nothing to do with paralyzation, just because those were the numbers the designer of the monster or trap or whatever liked best.

And of course the saving throw matrix manages to be incoherent there as well, interlacing levels and classes in bizarre ways making it awfully hard to figure out which is which when using it.

Anyway, I think I've made my point here.  The rules were awful.  They were incoherently written.  They relied on an outside book (then published by another publisher!) to actually use.  And on top of everything else, they covered so very little that, quite ironically, to use them meant the referee (DM being a later term!) had to make things up on the fly all the time.  Just like the "GM fiat" games that many OSR advocates deride now.

They're god-awful rules!

And note, I'm not saying here that the rules should cover every possible contingency.  In that direction lies madness (also known as Chivalry & Sorcery)!  But what the rules should provide (and emphatically don't!) is a coherent framework for adjudication.

Now D&D has an excuse.  It was the first game of a kind nobody had ever seen before.  Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax deserve the accolades they get for having made it and popularized it.  I will never cast shade on the giants who made the very hobby I love so well!  But I absolutely will cast shade on the people who think that OD&D was the best of all possible times to the point of wanting to return to it.

Not casting shade in the "wrongfun" sense either, but rather in the "are you really sure?" sense.  Because yes, there is a lot of the OSR vibe I love.  I just don't like the game at the core of it and I think an attempt to return to that in specific, even if rewritten to be more coherent, is doomed to failure.  I think there is room for the OSR concept: simple, fun-focused, hack-and-slash or exploration-oriented, pick-up-and-play games that also have room for depth and soul but that don't have a need for the millions of pages of rules for every contingency.  For the concepts behind D&D, but concepts executed with now nearly 40 years of design experience to get it right.

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The Wall

Jun 29 '21
1) My overall thesis is that the initial release of OD&D was sufficiently coherent for its audience. And unlike 15 years ago, we have folks like Jon Peterson who done the research and documented what was going on. Which is often at odds with what people remember.

The problem with OD&D is that it quickly escaped the confines of that audience. Gygax and TSR played catch up throughout the 70s as a result.

2) I am not sure how you read "Rules for everything" in my comments on what good for novices. But I think we can agree that if you want to write a book that teaches people who never gamed how to play tabletop roleplaying, then you have to more than just be a concise reference for a system however simple or complex it may be.

Original OD&D was not written for novices to the miniature wargaming hobby at the time.
Jun 29 '21
As for the format of OD&D, of course it could be better. We are fifty years in and as a hobby and industry we learned a lot about how to explain and present OD&D.

THE issue of OD&D is that it assume the reader is part of the miniature wargaming community of the early 70s. If the reader wasn't then it a lot of important context was lost.

For that audience, OD&D was a superior presentation compared to what was currently available. It far more coherent than the other rulebooks for miniature wargaming that I read from that time period.

To say that Gygax should have done better assume that he had knew or planned for his game to spread beyond the miniature wargaming community.

Nor is comparing it to publishing standards outside of the wargaming community valid. The wargaming community of the time was it own world and publisher did what they could with the time and budget they had.

And today in 2021, we know so much more about what happening and what was being done. Thanks to collectors zines, games, and other material from the era has been found and documented.

As a result OD&D wasn't some poor first attempt but an important step and revolutionary in its own right. And because we have things better documented we can fill in the missing context and enjoy the game 'as is'.

And to clear there is no "lost' manuscript of missing rules out there. No additional rules. What documented that referee of the time used the rules as a framework and added their own research.
Jun 29 '21
@robertsconley "Thanks to collectors zines, games, and other material from the era has been found and documented." This is what interests me. Do you have links, book titles, ...?
Jun 29 '21
"Do you have any handle on pre D&D rules sets, scans or text files? Thanks."

I would sign up for the OD&D discussion forum or one of the old school facebook groups. There is

Also the Comeback Inn for Arneson and Blackmoor.

Prepare to be disappointed if you are looking for rules. The pre-D&D manuscript are pretty much what in the 3 LBBs of OD&D but specific details added or omitted as Gygax tried out things in his Greyhawk campaign.

Or in some cases some enterprising playtester got a copy and make their own take.

Don't get me wrong it is interesting and worthwhile to read and discuss about. But in the end in my opinion it all amount to what I outlined before. They thought of something to play, did the research, assembled or wrote some rules, played, tweaked and played again. Then repeat for something else.

Because of that most of what there are references, charts, and tables that supported this stuff. Everything else was word of mouth or ad-hoc inspiration.
Jun 29 '21

I recommend right off

Playing at the World by Peterson.
Warning: Very Academic and very through.

Hawk and Moor by Kelly
Gets more into the personalities not as academically rigorous as Playing at the World but far more readable and approachable.

The Elusive Shift by Peterson
Documents what happened to the hobby after the introduction of Dungeons and Dragons. It charts the emerging concept of tabletop roleplaying as something distinct from wargaming.

Also more relevant to how the hobby is today than the pre-D&D era because of the fact that D&D was written with an audience of miniature wargamers in mind. As a result everybody outside of that like hex and counter wargamers and science fiction fandom developed their own interpretation of what the game meant. And the consequences of these interpretations remain to us this day.

And it documents those who have some of the exact same objection about OD&D that that ZDL's article has. As well responses to those objections.
Jun 29 '21
Jun 29 '21
No problem, I don't expect folks to always agree with me but folks should be aware of the wealth of documented history we now have. That it is there for folks to read and draw their own conclusions if interested.
Jun 29 '21
> Original OD&D was not written for novices to the miniature wargaming hobby at the time.

Again, *I KNOW THIS*. This is why OD&D is *NOT* a good thing to fall back on for "simplicity". It is literally a set of guidelines written for a very small group of people in a very narrow area who'd been presumed to know certain things already (like Arneson's long-running proto-RPG campaigns), who had access to specific rulesets (Chainmail, chiefly), and thus knew what Gygax was talking about once you got through his absolutely terrible writing.

My thesis wasn't "OD&D was a bad thing for its time and place". It wasn't (Gygax's writing notwithstanding). It's a bad thing for *NOW*.

The goals of the OSR are laudable. Their weird worship of an incoherent mass of lore is not one of those laudable things. That is the point.
Jun 30 '21
Thanks that clarifies the thesis of your original post.

As for folks and OD&D in the present, what you are not taking into account is that w now know about that "small group of people in a narrow area".

It not a mystery to the OD&D community and more than a few folks including myself wrote out about it.

For example Philotomy's Musings.

Or Finch's Old School Primer

Folks talked to folks who ran successful OD&D campaign from back in the day and the few that continued to present.

It not 1995, when people only had the 3 LBB to go by and scratched their head at what looked like a incoherent mass of lore. By 2005 those who didn't dismiss OD&D found out there was more to its story, including myself.

By 2015 that story had become well known enough that folks figured out and expanded on the different ways to approach OD&D and it had regained some popularity and was supported again. Largely because OD&D did not turned out as incoherent as people thought.

So unless what had happened for past 20 years is addressed I don't see how a thesis that OD&D is a bad fit for *NOW* can be supported.
Jun 30 '21
I think I'm going to just start replying by quoting things already said that you apparently didn't bother reading.


I know a person here who does magical things with wood to the point I call him "the wood whisperer". I have seen him create wonderful works of art with a pen knife and a repurposed screwdriver. So obviously that's all you need for woodworking, right? Because in the right hands a pen knife and a screwdriver are great woodworking tools!


He wouldn't even agree with that. His workshop has about, conservatively guessing, 50 gazillion chisels alone: not one of which is a repurposed screwdriver.

The fact that a good craftsman *can* make miracles with subpar tools doesn't mean that a) they should, or b) they'd want to.
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Added Jun 26 '21


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