What Makes a Game OSR?TLDR OSR has become a conglomerated label that encompasses so much, whether a particular game fits the label is determined more by marketing and partisan opinion than by whether it fits some sort of criteria. And what would those criteria be, anyway? I'm glad you asked, because here's what I think, in broad strokes, are the characteristics of an OSR game.
At some point, we’re going to move into a post-OSR game world where the term OSR will no longer be meaningful. Until that time, it remains a powerful label even if there is no strict consensus on what that label means or even what the R in OSR stands for (revival or renaissance, the choice is yours!). Originally refering to retroclones— games that directly or indirectly attempt to clone and mimic classic and vintage rule sets— the term has expanded to include games whose inheritance from older games is more spiritual than mechanical and more than that besides. So what does it mean for a game to be OSR?
As of now, the answer isn’t clear. OSR has become a conglomerated label that encompasses so much, whether a particular game fits the label is determined more by marketing and partisan opinion than by whether it fits some sort of criteria. And what would those criteria be, anyway? I’m glad you asked, because here’s what I think, in broad strokes, are the characteristics of an OSR game:
- expresses an unforgiving, hostile, externally-motivated world(view);
- is highly lethal, particularly at low levels;
- feature a zero to hero character progression;
- demands and rewards player skills and
- self motivated characters (and players);
- resolves conflicts through action;
- contains a relatively small set of character powers or abilities;
- relies on impartial expert referee; and,
- supports sandbox-style gaming.
Let’s look at each one of those in a bit more depth.
If an old school style game doesn’t require the game world to be actively hostile it almost requires that the world be inherently dangerous and, at minimum, unfriendly. The games are driven by conflicts in the world. Player characters are often agents of that conflict or its profiteers or both.
Places that embody or intensify that conflict are often placed at center stage: borderlands and wilderness, the depths of space, the wild west; those razor edges between an ordered civilization and unbridled anarchy.
Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons surprises many people with its lethality at low levels but it is never as lethal as its classic forebears. No death saves, no negative hit points, no slow bleed outs to help a character linger until help comes, old school games often punish their characters with lives both brutal and short. Even after the hard fought gain of a few levels adds some survivability, they are still subject to save-or-die and other effects with catastrophic consequences that are always just around the corner, one bad roll away.
Less Than Zero
There can often be a disconnect between new players and their characters regarding how powerful their characters actually are. A player has, in their mind, the concept of a master thief, but, in reality, they’re playing a level one rogue. Many modern games deliver that hero-from-birth experience and let a player skip the messy developmental phase and get right into the work of the high powered hero. Old school games, on the whole, do not.
Characters begin as, perhaps, above-average but otherwise normal individuals with the potential to be exceptional. That potential is not guaranteed and only through the crucible of play can be realized. The heroes are not the characters that are chosen. The heroes are the characters that survive.
Best of the Best
Ultimately, role playing games are games and old school role playing games tend to wear that gaminess on their sleeves more obviously than their modern counterparts. A big part of that emphasis is on players mastering the game, figuring out how to best approach the potentially-lethal situations and applying that approach successfully. It’s all about results, not an exploration of the process to those results. This is player driven, not character driven— the player will gain this knowledge through play and then transmit it to each character they play. There is little or no distinction here between in-game and meta-game knowledge. Maybe someone might have argued why Jeb the first level footpad knew a troll’s weakness to fire (though it seems few players at the time did), nobody argued why Jeb was prescient enough to pack a hundred feet of rope, a couple of ten foot poles, and a handful of door spikes in their adventuring gear.
With the highest stakes always at play, players who learn to navigate the hazards of the game better will outperform those who don’t. There is no expectation that players will progress equally or at the same rate. Death usually means starting over from jump even if the other characters in the game have already reached mid or high levels. Players gotta git gud, as the cool kids say.
Forget plot hooks and backstories and grand narrative arcs, characters in classic role playing games mostly adventured for the loot and the power and, if asked, what use was all that loot and power, if they had an answer at all, it might have been that such prizes were as much ends in themselves as they were means to fulfill other purposes.
There was a sense of winning, of accomplishment, in shepherding a character to high ranks, building gleaming strongholds or shining starships, and raising armies to make kingdoms or planets themselves quail in fear. But to do all that, you needed loot. Dungeons and other dangerous places did not need reasons to be explored, they’re very presence was enough. They were resources to be harvested. So harvest them you did. No other reason was required. Greed is good.
The Last Action Hero
Given the generally simple character motivations, it should be no wonder that there wasn’t much if any emphasis on resolving a character’s internal journey. As far as a character could satisfy a need or overcome an interal obstacle, it was done solely through roleplaying the results of external, physical action. There are no mechanics for measuring or rewarding such internal struggles.
Backstories tend to be simple if they’re required at all. Characters look forward rather than behind. Defeat the demons, rescue the prince(ess), storm the castle. If succeeding helps your character overcome the grief from the death of their father, great, but, if not, well you still did some stuff. And here’s some loot for your troubles.
The first fighters had no particular ability apart from being better at fighting. Clerics couldn’t even cast spells until reaching second level and wizards had no cantrips at their disposal to make up for having just one or two spells per day at low levels. Outside of their particular specialties, there was little to no mechanical support for what they could do.
Character classes are generally broad, shallow, and simple; and skills are often optional. Maybe your character gets a couple of neato abilities but they’re generally small and fixed in number, improved slowly, and have limited uses. What a character can do, especially outside of the mechanical confines of their class, and how well they can do it, is left to player improvisation and referee decision.
Referee decisions are important in every roleplaying game but, when you combine it with a generally limited and/or light set of rules, the result is a reliance on sound, impartial referee adjudication to make things work.
This was not a new development and was prefigured by the use of referees in war-games. In fact, the reliance on such refereees goes all the way back to the development of Free Kriegspiel war-gaming by the Prussians in the 1870s. The Prussian military faced the same problem we gamers face: what do you do when rule lookups are wasting precious game time? Their answer was to empower a referee to make decisions based upon their knowledge and expertise. They could do this because the referee was both impartial and an expert on the rules of the game being played. It’s an example to be looked up to by referees today. I wonder what the Prussians did with rules lawyers.
Around the World in 80 Days
Last but not least, playing in an open world or sandbox is a staple of classic gaming and those modern games that choose to follow in those footsteps. Whether it’s striking out into the wilderness or across the vastness of space, characters are free to go where they will, following their noses for treasure or whatever takes their fancy (usually treasure).
To help cope with the potential headaches of having characters literally march, ride, or fly off the edge of the map, games often relied on tables and other means (probably more tables) to generate content on the fly— whether they be random encounters, random hexes of wilderness, or random planets and star systems. It’s then up to the referee to make sense of those results and translate them into the expanding fictional world.
Because there’s no story to follow, other than the exploits of the characters as they rise and fall, there’s little harm in letting the characters roam as they will. Already exploited, empty places refill and new places are discovered. The rigors of exploration and the finite nature of a character’s resources naturally limit how far they can go without needing to return to a strong point to resupply. In the absense of finding anything of note themselves, notices, messages, and word of mouth can provide the necessary information to spur investigations.
So that’s my list. I don’t expect it to be complete or above criticism. I do believe that a game that ticks a majority of those boxes in one way or another would be fitting of the OSR label. It’s my hope, however, that, rather than continue to use that label, the community can move past it and begin to classify games according to some list of criteria or, better yet, split the genre into smaller subsets based on some shared critera, rather than continue to use and expand and make less meaningful the OSR term.