Friday, January 10, 2014

Brett's OSR Tenets

For many weeks now I have been working on defining what the OSR means to me personally. After my multi-year hiatus from gaming, I decided that as long as I am apparently part of a movement I might as well try to define what that movement is. I've done a lot of reading on the subject and of course no two definitions are exactly the same. So, there was no choice but to develop my own! I've borrowed concepts from other sources with which I agree but I've also added a few of my own. Another goal I had was to be as concise as possible. So, without further delay, here are:


It is my position that Old-School Roleplaying/Renaissance/Revival (collectively known as the OSR) is not any particular game system, or only games produced during a certain time period. Instead, OSR is a mindset and not a ruleset. Below are the tenets which I believe define an OSR-style game:

De-Emphasis of Rules: OSR games de-emphasize adhering to the rules as written. Instead, the rules are a framework to facilitate game play but the Game Master (GM) is given license to utilize those rules, modify them or to make on-the-spot rulings.

Fast Pace: A primary goal of an OSR-style game is simply to keep the action moving forward. By not getting bogged down in written rules and giving the GM license to make on-the-spot rulings, OSR games progress more quickly.

Heroic Potential: Although Player Characters (PCs) have the potential to become heroes, they start out as relatively normal people. They might have one or two above-average ability scores and they may know basic swordsmanship or how to cast a novice-level spell. But at the outset, there isn’t much to distinguish an OSR PC from most of the rest of the fantasy world population.

Encourages Cooperative Play: OSR Player Character classes tend to have a focused area of expertise. This fact, and because they start out as little better than most Non-Player Characters (NPCs), means that OSR PCs are typically unable to survive an adventuring lifestyle on their own. If the PCs wish to be successful they must work together to form a cohesive, mutually-supporting team.

Encounter Balance is De-Emphasized: The campaign world does not exist solely for the benefit of the PC's advancement. Therefore, ensuring that every encounter or situation is balanced to the PC's current level is typically not a consideration in an OSR-style game. There will always be challenges which may be beyond the PC's abilities and it is up to the players to decide what those are and how to deal with them. This does not mean the GM should pit an ancient Red Dragon against a party of 1st level characters. But if that same party hears a (true) rumor that an ancient Red Dragon lives in the nearby mountains and goes actively searching for it, they will have a good chance of encountering it.

Abstract Combat: In an OSR-styled game, the interaction between weapons and armor is distilled down to a few simple charts. Damage inflicted is measured in terms of generic "points", usually without regard to specific wound type, severity, location, etc. It is left to the GM to flesh out the specifics, if that level of detail is even desired.

Resource Management: Keeping track of adventuring resources (rations, torches, arrows, etc.) is an important aspect of an OSR-styled game. But rather than being a mundane chore, resource management is meant to provide additional challenges for the players to overcome and it may require them to make difficult choices. “Do we push deeper into the dungeon while the goblins are still off-balance, even though we’re down to our last torch? Or should we return to town and re-supply first?” Seemingly routine decisions can have game-changing implications in an OSR-style game.

Player Empowerment: An OSR-style game also gives license to the players to attempt more actions, have more options and make more decisions. If you can think of it, your character can probably attempt it. He may not always be successful, but he can at least attempt it. This is in contrast to mechanics such as feats and skills, which might actually restrict a player's thinking about what his character can or cannot attempt.

In addition to the above, an OSR-styled game makes certain assumptions about the GM and the players:

Ability to "Paint the Picture": Because there are no formal feats or skills to roll for in an OSR game, it is up to the GM and the players to work together to determine what the PCs can see and do. The GM must first provide the players with an appropriate level of detail regarding their surroundings, which includes both the physical environment as well as any living beings. In turn, the players describe in detail how their characters are interacting with those surroundings. Based on those actions, the GM then informs the players what they have learned, affected, etc.

GM Consistency - Although OSR-style games de-emphasize written rules, the GM still has an obligation to be as consistent as possible in his rulings. This gives the players some degree of predictability over what they can expect to happen in a given situation. But in the end, the GM’s ruling is the final say. The GM should know the rules but is never bound by them.

Player Flexibility - Although the GM should strive to be consistent in his rulings, the players must still remain flexible about those rulings. Depending on circumstances which may not be readily apparent to the players, the GM might not adjudicate a certain situation exactly the same way every time. The players must be willing to accept this and trust that the GM is being fair to everyone in the long run.

I do realize others have gone into much greater detail about what defines an OSR-styled game. However, I think these tenets do a good job of summarizing the core concepts. If you ever find yourself trying to explain "Old-School" gaming to someone unfamiliar with it, perhaps this list will help!


  1. I would change the Encounter Balance point to specify that the players decide the difficulty of the game; either by going deeper into the dungeon or by abandoning the safety of the town and exploring the wilderness.

  2. Good post, decent set of tenets. I like how succinct you were able to make this...sometimes this sort of thing tends to bloat.

  3. Replies
    1. It's true, I have come across more interpretations than the three "R"s I used. But I figured three was enough to get the point across and those seem to be the most commonly used.