What’s so great about OSR?

What is so great about OSR? Genuine question. I gather people can get quite heated about this topic but… help a newbie out here.
Since I started playing RPGs again about 3 months ago, I’ve gravitated towards some of the more indie stuff out there (I have to say that it’s great to see the zine scene is every bit as strong as it was 30 years ago). One thing I noticed really quickly was that all of the writers and publishers I like keep going on about “OSR” in general, and “LotFP” in particular. I’d just started playing D&D 5th Edition but… these guys are great, the stuff they publish is great, so OSR must be muchly much better than 5e, right?
So I downloaded the free version of the LotFP rules and read them through. And I don’t get it.

It’s pretty much the old AD&D system I’m used to, plus guns. Whereas 5e seems to play much more nicely – especially character advancement and skills checks. And LotFP retains two of the things that bugged me the most about D&D when I played it in the 80s – ridiculously specific Experience Point requirements for different classes at different levels, and picking up coins as a mechanic for character improvement, something I can understand in Super Mario Brothers but which feels like a huge anachronism in a game that ought to be about roleplaying very different types of characters.

There are also an awful lot of rules in LotFP, many of them ridiculously specific (do we really need to know the precise costs and number of Hit Points for about a dozen different types of boats? Stick that stuff in a supplement if you must. At the very least keep it to a handful of examples, and let GMs extrapolate from there). I’m sure there are also a lot of – very likely more – ridiculously specific rules in 5e, I’ve not read the books (I’m only playing it, not GMing). In fact, the only RPG rules I have read in the last 30 years are those for the Cypher System.

Cypher is pretty much everything I’d hoped OSR would be: an incredibly light ruleset (there’s probably about a couple of dozen rules, but if you really want to you can whittle that down to just one rule), with huge scope for actual roleplaying, one that allows mature GMs to use their discretion everywhere, but with really good guidelines on how to apply that discretion.

LotFP on the other hand… it feels like it combines the worst of the old and the new. I don’t like it. You might have gathered.

I know there must be a good reason why 99% of the people writing incredibly creative RPG content that floats my boat do so for LotFP. But I can’t get my head around why. And while my points above appear to be (are) criticising OSR*, I really want to be put right by the people who I look up to.

At the moment, I can only think that the reason is one (or more) of the following:

  • The system is widely available and effectively open-source and so the default for anyone who doesn’t want to do 5e (although… can’t somebody come a better default? Surely? I really wish Cypher licensing were a bit clearer and more open, as I struggle to imagine a better rule system)
  • Ten or 15 years ago, OSR really was the best available, and it kind of stuck.
  • Nostalgia, because everything that’s from the past is just way better.

But none of those feels like a satisfying enough explanation.

Can anyone, please, enlighten me?
* I’m rather painfully aware that most of the time when I say “OSR” I actually mean “LotFP”, because that’s the only OSR ruleset I’ve read. But it’s also the only one I see zine and supplement writers repeatedly namecheck.
This is an edited version of a comment I posted on the Monsters and Manuals blog, but which nobody answered.







6 responses to “What’s so great about OSR?”

  1. Ruprecht Avatar

    The OSR flourished for awhile because 4E was such a different game folks didn't recognize it as D&D. Wizards hired a few OSR designers as consultants (Zak and RPGPundit, possibly others) and 5E recaptured that something again, at least for most people. Now, mission accomplished, the OSR draws folks who are not interested in Forgotten Realms and other vanilla fantasy settings and gamers who like to tweek rules. At least that's how I see it.

  2. dansumption Avatar

    Ah, so pretty muchtmuch second oh the reasons I gave?

    Seems a bit odd to me that nobody in the intervening period came up with anything better (or of they did, it doesn't seem to be talked about by the writers I'm reading). While nowadays OSes seem, to a newbie like me, to stand partway between 5e and Cypher, but with few of the benefits of either.

  3. Ruprecht Avatar

    Depends upon what you consider better. There are hundreds of flavors of fantasy role playing game. If they diverge to far from the original play style they don't get called OSR so that label is somewhat self-limiting.

    I would recommend you read Black Hack (which has a free srd online) and GLOG (which is free and online). Both change the basic core mechanics in interesting ways and both have launched a million DIY copies. A lot of the OSR energy seems to have gone in that direction.

  4. Ruprecht Avatar

    Also regarding "99% of the people writing incredibly creative RPG content that floats my boat do so for LotFP." I believe it has a lot to do with Raggi paying more than minimum to artists and writers. He took risks to go for higher quality production and it paid off until recently.

  5. dansumption Avatar

    Thanks for the recommendations @Ruprecht. Having a look now… very interesting!

  6. dansumption Avatar

    That makes a lot of sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *