Scene Spotlight: The Dungeons and Dragons Old-School R(something), or: D&D goes Punk Rock

In 1974, a pair of historical wargaming enthusiasts from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin published what they termed “rules for Fantastic medieval wargames campaigns, playable with pencil, paper, and miniature figures.” Their initial print run was a thousand copies. They expected this quantity to last them for years to come– wargames of the sort they preferred were a niche hobby among niche hobbies then, and they remain one now. Instead, they found themselves on back-order within a month, having set in motion a phenomenon that would change the landscape of entertainment forever.

This is not their story.

Well. It’s a little bit their story. But mainly in the way that the story of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone or King Tut’s tomb is a story about the ancient Egyptians.

To put it another way, this is actually the story of something that only really began a couple of decades later, after D&D had already changed the face of pop culture.

If you ask ten people what the OSR is, you’ll get approximately 3d6 different answers. Hell, we can’t even agree on what the R stands for– is it “renaissance?” Is it “revival?” Is it “revolution?” As with so many questions on this board, the answer is “it can be three things.” But whatever it stands for, the OSR is the curious meeting point between the strange archaeology of an everyday artifact not yet even a lifetime old; a violent reaction against a mainstream scene that had become increasingly baroque, and a DIY hobby; a home to idealistic creatives, disaffected cynics, and, sad to say, opportunistic reactionaries; and underground movement that ultimately brought about a sea change in the very same . In short, I wasn’t kidding when I subtitled this spotlight “D&D goes punk rock”: the OSR is, in every way, the roleplaying hobby’s punk rock phase. For this reason, I’ve decided to provide you all with a soundtrack of classic punk rock tonight.

So how’d all this happen, you ask? One good starting point would be the acquisition of TSR, D&D’s original publisher, by Wizards of the Coast, primarily famous for innovating the collectible card game genre with Magic: The Gathering. TSR had, due to a series of misadventures ranging from embezzlement to excessive splitting of their own customer base, been in dire financial straits for years– in fact, some say the reason that Peter Adkison made the call to buy TSR was because he didn’t wish to see D&D lost like so much tears in rain.

Another at WOTC who felt the same way was Ryan Dancey, who in the process of the acquisition, became head of WOTC’s new roleplaying games division. Dancey felt that TSR’s zealous enforcement of their trademarks had been to their detriment, that the true strength of D&D was in its fan community. To that end, when D&D’s third edition was in development, Dancey drafted the Open Gaming License, a licensing agreement that designated huge swathes of third edition’s rules as open content that could be freely borrowed, modified, or rewritten by anyone. In an instant D&D was more democratized than it had been since the earliest days of the hobby.

The other element of Wizards of the Coast and Third Edition that brought about the OSR was a change in focus in the rules. With M:tG, Wizards had made their name by creating a game built around complex building and customization of decks and a steady supply of more material to collect and experiment with. D&D’s third and fourth editions, in some ways, applied this customization-oriented deck-building model to building a D&D character. This process had actually begun with the “Players Option” books of late second edition AD&D, but in third edition it was built into the core rules. This agreed with a lot of people, but it really, really didn’t agree with others. A move away from traditional medievalesque aesthetics towards a more eclectic, stylized look and feel likewise proved to be alienating for some longtime players, creating a significant market niche for third-party products that billed themselves as “third edition rules, first edition feel.” (This is somewhat of a massive oversimplification– the earliest years of D&D which ultimately formed a large part of the OSR’s DNA embraced “weird” sword-and-sorcery fantasy that often included elements of science-fiction, cosmic horror, or other even stranger subgenres, and even second edition had the stark, gritty bizarreness of the Dark Sun campaign setting and the distinctive fantasy-spacefaring Spelljammer setting.)

What happened next was probably inevitable– and in a sense, it may have been exactly what Dancey hoped for. At Dragonsfoot, a D&D fansite established in 1999 that had become a bastion of those who had preferred D&D’s earlier editions to 3e, the community discussed the possibility of using the D&D elements that had been cast out into the world by the OGL to reconstruct their preferred versions of the game, all of which were long since out of print.

The first such “retroclone”, Castles and Crusades, was released by Troll Lord Games in 2004. C&C was not a true clone of any prior game– in part because at the time it was feared that such a product might not be legal to distribute– but essentially an alternative third edition– keeping some of the push towards a unified system while treating the rules as first and foremost a framework for gameplay rather than a proxy-set of the laws of physics meant to resolve an imaginary scenario. C&C proved quite popular in its time, even playing host to some of Gary Gygax’s final published RPG work, and remains in print today.

Following Castles and Crusades, a spate of “first-generation” or “true” retroclones came out, largely between 2006 and 2009. These were very close analogues to the editions of D&D they were derived from, as close as was legally allowable. OSRIC, the Old School Reference and Index Compilation, a clone of first-edition AD&D, was the first. As the name implies, in its initial release OSRIC was not designed to be a usable game unto itself, but a resource for those who wished to publish supplements compatible with AD&D. 2007 saw Labyrinth Lordand Basic Fantasy RPG, both derived from the 1981 Basic/Expert D&D box sets. LL was a stricter clone than Basic Fantasy, which included a few options not present in the B/X rules, presaging the more derived second- and third-generation retroclones that would follow in later years. 2008’s Swords and Wizardry largely based itself on the original 1974 D&D boxset (sometimes referred to as OD&D for “original D&D”), and was available in three different variants– a purist “White box” version that featured only the options available in that boxset, a “Core” version which adds the first supplement, and a “Complete” version that incorporates much of the material from OD&D’s four supplements. Today “white box” is more or less a relic as closer equivalents to the original box set have replaced it, but Core and Complete are both still going strong, and Whitebox’s descendants number more than 30 other games that derive from S&W’s mechanics. These four remain among the most popular OSR games (a fact no doubt aided by the fact that all four have always been available for free in pdf format), and are definitely the most popular for producing supplements for. Later, first generation retroclones of the 1983 Basic-Expert-Companion-Master-Immortals set (Dark Dungeons), the 1977 Basic Set (Blueholme, Mazes and Perils), AD&D’s second edition (For Gold and Glory), and the OD&D boxset, with or without its supplements (Delving Deeper, Iron Falcon, Microlite74, would follow.

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Second-generation retroclones generally take the basic mechanical framework of early D&D (most commonly via either the B/X boxsets, which are generally the lingua franca of the OSR, or Swords and Wizardry) and put some sort of personal variation upon the rules, often born from the house rules used at the author’s own game table. In another time they would have been “fantasy heartbreakers”– games with one genuinely cool idea that are not viable competitors to D&D because apart from that idea they do not sufficiently distinguish themselves from the 800 pound gorilla that is D&D; but the democratized, DIY nature of the OSR means that it’s possible to create a quality game, self-publish it, and end up a modest cult success instead of a cautionary tale. They are almost too numerous to list, so here’s the hits.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is probably the most famous second-generation retroclone. The game itself is a B/X variant with a number of very smart (though sometimes punishing) rules changes, LOTFP’s biggest claim to fame is its tendency to court controversy with gruesome and/or heavily sexualized art; bizarre, dark, and brutally difficult adventures; and the rather… outsized opinions and personality of its designer and many of its supplement writers. The other big name in second-generation retroclones is Dungeon Crawl Classics, which originated as a line of adventure supplements from those early “third edition rules, first edition feel” days I mentioned before. DCC’s all about being over-the-top and weird (it even uses proprietary dice that are even funnier shapes than the standard platonic solids of most RPG dice), with an aesthetic that’s like the doodles a 14-year-old metalhead draws on his math homework in all the right ways. Other well-known second generation retroclones include Adventurer, Conquerer, King System, a B/X clone with an added system of “proficiencies” as secondary character options and creating a complex but enjoyable secondary game of graduating from an adventuring hero to a power player within the setting; Crypts and Things, a Swords and Wizardry variant with a bent towards Conan the Barbarian-esque sword and sorcery; and my personal favorite, Beyond The Wall and Other Stories, which is a B/X clone with a unique magic system centered around playing young heroes on the cusp of adulthood with strong bonds to their fellow player characters and the village they grew up in and protect together.

The third generation of retroclones is a young movement still that primarily distinguishes itself from the second generation by going further afield from the basic D&D framework, into other genres or modes of play. The works of Kevin Crawford and his Sine Nomine Publishing are the gold standard of this, including the space opera Stars Without Number and its post-apocalyptic sister game Other Dust, the African-influenced fantasy of Spears of the Dawn, the modern-day horror of Silent Legions, the single-player focused (and cultural mashup) of Scarlet Heroes, and the deific Godbound. The earliest ancestor of the third-generation retroclone may be another post-apocalyptic game, Mutant Future and the Star Trek pastiche Starships and Spacemen, both sister games of first-generation classic Labyrinth Lord. Third-generation retroclones run the gamut of settings from the old west to the paleolithic.

There’s another sort of game sometimes counted in the OSR as well– strongly minimalist or nontraditional games that don’t necessarily derive directly from older editions of D&D but approach the fantasy tropes from another angle. Some of these are only arguably part of the OSR, such as Dungeon World, a fantasy-themed derivative of the narratively-oriented Powered by the Apocalypse system. Whitehack is an oddish, ethereal one only available in print that has something of a fanatical following. The Black Hack, an accessible David Bowie to Whitehack’s Velvet Underground, has probably the strongest OSR bonafides of these (to the point that it’s borderline a second-generation clone) and has spawned a cottage industry of minimalist third-generation derivatives of its own

While the DIY nature of the OSR means that many, many games (and many, many supplements and adventures) have been published for it, the heart and soul of the OSR has been blogs, social media (for some reason, Google+ is the weapon of choice) and online zines. Grognardia, maintained by one James Malizewski between 2008 to 2012, was probably the greatest popularizer of the OSR in its time, perhaps due to being at the right place in the right time to both report many of the early retroclones and catch those looking for an alternative to the contentious transition between the third and fourth editions of official D&D.

Since Malizewski more or less vanished from the airwaves (only briefly resurfacing to release a promised collaboration with ACKS that came out years behind schedule) no one blog has quite had his dominance, although there are many that are quite good. Of the two that in my experience are most popular, I tend to recommend Tenkar’s Tavern foremost– the other big name I will not even mention, because I mean for this retrospective to be a positive thing and I have nothing positive to say about the other, whose critics have a habit of finding themselves the victims of mass harassment and threats.

Interestingly for a movement that was largely borne out of dissatisfaction with newer editions of D&D, one of the bigger blows to the OSR was the release of fifth edition. While it hasn’t won over everyone in the OSR, which remains a thriving scene, it takes many lessons from them (I sense quite a bit of Castles and Crusades in its DNA for one) and is popular among many of the less diehard members of the movement, who view it as the third edition that could have been. I myself have enjoyed it enough that since its release I’ve drifted away a bit myself, though I do tend to keep up with any book or zine releases that might hold my interest.