If you’re new to tabletop roleplaying games, or have been out of the hobby a while, you may hear a game or system referred to as an OSR RPG. You might even pick up from context that it is an alternative to D&D5e, the wildly popular Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. But what does it mean? Is it a rule set or game system? What games are considered OSR? And can you use World Anvil to play OSR RPG games?
Not to worry! We’ll answer all your questions about OSR, and even give you a little bit of background context (without covering four decades of history and discourse).
What is OSR?
Old School Renaissance (OSR) games, also known as Old School Revival or Old School Role-Playing Games, refer to a movement within the tabletop role-playing game community that seeks to recapture the style and spirit of early role-playing games from the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).
OSR is often summarized as “rulings over rules.” It aims to give gamemasters more flexibility and control, while offering players a greater sense of wonder and danger.
OSR games emphasize a return to the design principles, rules, and gameplay philosophies of early RPGs, focusing on simplicity, creativity, and a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos. Essentially, OSR is about restoring the sense that anything can happen in a session. For better or worse.
Elements of an OSR RPG
OSR is more a school of thought than a game system or genre. It’s more concerned with play style and philosophy than mechanics and rules, although it favors mechanics and rules that support a more fluid play style.
Here are some common characteristics of Old School Renaissance games:
- Rules Light: OSR games often feature simpler and more minimalist rule systems compared to more modern RPGs. They prioritize ease of play and encourage gamemasters and players to rely on their judgment and creativity rather than intricate mechanics.
- Player Agency: OSR games emphasize player agency and problem-solving, encouraging players to think creatively and devise solutions to challenges, often through exploration, interaction, and resource management.
- Deadly Gameplay: OSR games tend to be unforgiving in terms of character mortality. Characters are often vulnerable, and combat can be perilous, reinforcing the importance of strategy and avoiding unnecessary conflicts.
- Emphasis on Exploration: Exploration of dungeons, wilderness, and mysterious environments is a hallmark of OSR games. The focus is on discovering the unknown and confronting the unexpected.
- Retro Aesthetic: OSR games often embrace a retro aesthetic, harkening back to the art, layout, and style of early RPG publications. They may incorporate older terminology and terminology, such as “saves” instead of “resistances.”
- DIY Culture: The OSR community encourages creativity and a DIY approach to game design. Many OSR enthusiasts create and share their own content, adventures, and house rules.
- Open Gaming: Openness and sharing are fundamental to OSR. Many OSR products are released under open gaming licenses, allowing others to build upon and modify the rules and settings. This is exemplified by OSRIC, the Old School Reference and Index Compendium, an open source version of Advanced D&D rules.
Overall, the OSR RPG movement seeks to capture the sense of wonder, simplicity, and player-driven storytelling that characterized the early days of tabletop RPGs while fostering a welcoming and collaborative community of gamers and creators.
A (Brief) History of the OSR RPG Movement
Want a little more context? Then we need to delve a little deeper into the history of tabletop roleplaying games. Originally, Dungeons & Dragons was an evolution of medieval wargaming, with creatures and characters pulled from sword and sorcery fantasy.
Old school players of this era were often less attached to their characters. This is partly because they were used to playing with entire military units as opposed to individual personalized heroes. Also, early players considered adventurers comparable to “cannon fodder” – common folk motivated by greed, desperation or ambition – not legendary heroes capable of surviving an encounter with a mythical monster. In addition, a lot of early D&D materials were written under the assumption that readers would already be familiar with wargaming rules. They were a far cry from the “pick up and play” materials available today.
Fast forward to a new millennium. The advent of 3rd edition D&D added a lot of new rules and incorporated popular new paradigms introduced over two decades of gameplay. It also launched the open gaming license, or OGL, which made third-party content creation possible.
Some players wanted to return to the kind of experience they’d grown up playing, and to introduce new players to that style. The OGL made this possible. Fans could reproduce and reimagine older edition materials, updating them for new players who would have struggled to understand official, out-of-print rule sets (even if they were lucky enough to find them).
From those beginnings, the Old School Renaissance movement grew. In 2006, the OSRIC was launched, providing an accessible, open source version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Many OSR RPG games today are “retro clones,” or faithful reproductions of legacy rules.
Other OSR RPG games take inspiration from legacy editions of D&D, but either dramatically rework them or create something entirely new. These are sometimes referred to as “OSR-Adjacent” or “Nu-OSR” games.
Examples of OSR RPGs
The OSR (Old School Renaissance) movement has inspired a wide range of RPGs and retro-inspired games. Here’s a bullet list of some notable OSR games and settings:
Shadowdark: Described as “what old-school fantasy gaming would look like after being redesigned with 50 years of innovation.” Emphasizes real-time gaming and deadly exploration.
Swords & Wizardry: A faithful recreation of the original D&D rules, it captures the essence of old-school gaming.
Dungeon Crawl Classics: This game incorporates a lot of random tables and unusual magic, giving it a distinct old-school feel.
Stars Without Number: While set in a sci-fi universe, this game retains OSR principles in character creation, exploration, and simple mechanics.
Maze Rats: A minimalist OSR system designed for quick and easy play, suitable for new and experienced gamers.
Basic Fantasy RPG: An accessible and free OSR system that is a great entry point for newcomers to the OSR genre.
Labyrinth Lord: A retro-clone of the Basic and Expert D&D rules, staying true to the classic feel of early editions.
Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS): Focusing on domain management and large-scale adventuring, ACKS brings a strategic element to old-school gaming.
The Black Hack: Known for its rules-light approach and streamlined mechanics, it offers a straightforward and flexible gaming experience.
Beyond the Wall: A system designed for creating collaborative and character-driven adventures, with a focus on player engagement in world-building.
Old School Essentials: A modern reimagining of the classic D&D rules, offering various options for play and settings.
Whitehack: A minimalist system with a strong emphasis on customization and DIY game design.
Swords & Six-Siders: A rules-light system that uses six-sided dice and aims for a simple and fast-playing experience.
Troika!: A rules-light, surreal, and innovative RPG inspired by the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and classic British RPGs.
These are just a small selection of the many OSR games and settings available, each offering a unique take on the old-school style of tabletop role-playing.
World Anvil Supports OSR RPG play!
The words “old school” might make you think digital DM tools (like World Anvil) aren’t compatible with OSR games. But that’s a false assumption. OSR isn’t about rolling the calendar back to 1979 – it’s about reimagining that gaming experience in a modern context. It can be a “best of both worlds” proposition.
Can you use World Anvil to play OSR games? Absolutely! In fact, World Anvil provides great support for the foundational pillars of Old School Renaissance play.
- Our massive library of community stat blocks encourages game masters to quickly curate a dungeon bestiary for fast and deadly sessions.
- The interactive maps feature makes keeping track of party progress in even a massive dungeon crawl simple.
- The ability to create custom stat blocks supports the open source DIY ethos of OSR gaming and dungeon mastering.
- Our community of 2 million GMs, players and creators includes many OSR enthusiasts for collaboration and inspiration.
- We also have pre-made digital character sheets for many OSR games. So when your players’ characters die horribly, they can quickly re-roll and get back in the game!
Here are just two OSR games World Anvil supports with stat blocks and/or character sheets.
Castles & Crusades
Stars Without Number
Want to play in an old school style… but in space? Then Stars Without Number is your game. World Anvil has Stars Without Number character sheets and ship stat blocks.
Are there OSR RPGs that you think we should add to our community stat blocks library? Want us to do a deep-dive into any of these systems? Then let us know in the comments!