Is the OSR mainly driven by nostalgia?

I am not sure what got me thinking but recently I asked myself why all the retro clones have to look like they were produced back in the day? In most cases, the layout, the artwork is reminiscent of the RPG products of the 80s or even the mid to late 70s.

I don’t know a single new old-school product that tries to combine modern look with old-school rules. So, my theory is that the OSR is mainly driven by nostalgia. If the idea behind the OSR were to bring the game of the 70s to the players of today, it would definitely help to release books, PDFs, etc. which look more like what modern players are used to.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend to bash the OSR here, I enjoy games like Swords & Wizardry very much, and the look of has a certain appeal to me personally, but I am just surprised that there are no products that present the classic rules in a modern guise. That lead me to believe that the main reason for the OSR is nostalgia. The old-school advocates just try to bring back the type of game they enjoyed when they were young. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that may be one reason why the interest in old-school games is limited.

What are your thoughts on this? Am I totally wrong or is there some truth to my theory? Would a “modern-looking” retro clone work? As always I am interested in your comments.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

22 thoughts on “Is the OSR mainly driven by nostalgia?”

  1. It depends on what you want to define as "OSR". Is Planet Algol OSR? I don't think I saw anything like that in the 80s. Is my Weird West Game OSR? We use CCG style character cards.

    Additionally to this point:

    "I am just surprised that there are no products that present the classic rules in a modern guise"

    I give you this: Spellbook for the iPhone 😉

  2. I can't claim to be much of an expert on this, having mainly played fourth edition, but I did play first edition once, and I've read through OSRIC. I had just assumed that nostalgia was quite explicitly the point. To a non-expert like me, it seems clear that the message is, "Now you can play the game that you remember!" Rather than, "New players – check out this cool game!" Is it expected to be otherwise by insiders of the old school community?

  3. I dunno, man. My current group has an average age of 25. I've got about half a dozen or so college kids bugging me to run something old school. Maybe nostalgia's what all you old folks are in it for, but that's definitely not the end of its appeal. 😉

    In fact, I find that the best ground for OSR converts is in new players, people who either haven't played much before, or have played a bit of more modern games and decided it's not for them. So in that sense "modern" trade dress doesn't make a difference either way, since it wouldn't be any more or less familiar.

    And… have you seen what LotFP is up to lately? Do you think his boxed set is mostly nostalgia-driven?

  4. OSR publishers have little or no budget for art — especially those who are publishing PDFs for free download — so you aren't going to see the lush artwork that fills many new RPG books.

    As many OSR publishers are PDF only, they may also choose to avoid lots of ink-wasting fancy stuff like page backgrounds and may use line art where possible. This reduces the cost of printing the game for those who choose to print their games. Personally I prefer this. If I want an art book, I'll buy one. I prefer my game rulebooks to be easy to read and functional. Black text on clean white pages is far easier for me to read than text print over background art or even most background textures — even in offset printed hardbacks.

    Yes, there is a conscious choice among some OSR publishers to use artists who have styles similar to Otus, Trampier, etc. as their market tend to prefer this type of art to the anime-influenced art of some popular modern games. There's no point in turning off your audience when you can avoid it. Is this "nostalgia"? I guess this depends on how you define "nostalgia". Personally, I think what art one likes is a matter of taste and one is not required to like what is current to avoid the "nostalgia" label.

    OSR games and modules tend to be better organized than the products of the 1970s and early 1980s, more like modern games. Layout is generally better than games from back then as well.

  5. I don't think it's nostalgia. The OSR has created wonderful books when you look at their content, even if artwork or layout has not "evolved" to modern standards.
    Would a retroclone be better if it included pretty artwork? No, it would be prettier–the contents would be the same.
    You should also consider the costs to hire top-rated artists–the whole idea of free rules systems would be unfeasible when someone has to spend hundreds of hard cash to create a WoW-like retroclone. The art is beautiful? Yes. The costs to hire their artists are high? Yes.

  6. I'm with Randall…a lot of the similarities between the look of the products comes from similar (cheap/amateur) constraints on production.

  7. I think you may be suffering from too narrow a look.

    Read The Metal Earth, Planet Algol (as mentioned), or Savage Swords of Athanor for a look I did see in the late 70s some, but nothing from big publishers.

    Nothing from James Raggi looks like it's from the classic TSR era IMHO…his new boxed set certainly not.

    1. Thanks for the comments everyone!

      And I think Herb may be right. I am not part of the OSR community and I have only seen a few games that could be considered old-school. So my look may be a bit too narrow. I will definitely check out a few of the games mentioned.

      By the way, personally I would like to see a game like Swords & Wizardry with the production quality and artwork of a game like Dragon Age (which could be considered faux old-school). But that's just me. But I agree that might put off a lot of the current fans, which is probably a bad idea.

  8. I think the whole OSR is dominated a lot by nostalgia and elitism. The whole idea that there's a huge change in the way games are run doesn't appear to be very valid to me. Especially considering the late start of the whole "movement". Apart from some fringe games (the whole story-gaming crowd), you could probably find precedents to almost any rule in the first couple of years of RPG history.

    Nostalgia, i.e. playing the game people started out is one big part of the whole scheme, but I think a lot of minimalistic gaming is mixed up in that area. Whereas ten years you'd just have a rules-lite game, today it's often branded as "old school".

    The whole label just isn't very appropriate, and this will only get worse with time. "Old School" is the "Classic Rock" of RPGs.

  9. I think it depends where you’re looking. Certainly certain versions of Microlite and Castles & Crusades have made compromises towards keeping an entry point for those weaned on d20 as well as the earlier versions of D&D.

    Certainly there are aspects that are nostalgia-driven, and why not? Nostalgia’s fun. But now that’s there’s the baseline of retro-clones out there—S&W, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and all the others—we’re seeing more and more innovation and change. It’s a process, just like it was from ’74 onward. There are some similarities in the creative growth, I think.

  10. I'd like to repeat the question from the first comment and just throw it out there: "(just) What is 'Old School Roleplaying'?"

    Is is the particular game design imposing a particular gameplay method i.e. class/archetype/function based and attribute tied, akin to vanilla D&D (this seems to be the consensus I feel)?

    Or is it perhaps inspired by the classic type of the adventuring modules popular in late 70s early 80s – the dungeon crawls (and derivatives) of monster bashing and treasure hoarding?

    Where does the particular flavour of the setting come into all this?

    I admit that the whole concept eludes me somewhat, I mean I understand what the ingedients are and I would be able to recognise OSR games but the category seems very fuzzy. For example I own several games which I would consider retro but a few of them are also (or could be) considered new editions e.g. Star Frontiers (available online), Dragon Warriors (Magnum Opus Press), and Metamorphosis Alpha (Mudpuppy Games). It would appear therefore that the retro-clone moniker needs to be taken literaly as "a game based on classic product but not the new edition of the product", does it? Vague…

    Which brings me to another idea. Perhaps this whole OSR movement is a veiled reactionist initiative against the "new editions of old favorites". Too far fetched? Maybe, but the timing is thoughtprovoking – let your inner-conspiracy-theorist loose ;D

    On a different note, I find it interesting that the retroclones typicaly referred to are D&D based (posibly reflecting similar tendencies of publishers back in the day), sometimes almost to the point of replicating anachronisms which were canonical in the old products. I personally hadn't discovered the hobby before the 90s so my perspective is entirely different. To me "old school" is more about the setting then the gameplay, so I can use my system of choice and visit Greyhawk, Grey Box FR or, heck! even Spelljammer and that would be pretty old school.

  11. I think you are right on, actually.

    Look at the major OSR blogs and you will notice how many artists from that time period are revered when they die.

    It is similar to people who insist that the original movie of yesteryear is superior. Sometimes, there is a legitimate case to be made. But usually it is nostalgia. I dont think anyone can seriously analyze a movie like Oceans 11 or Count of Monte Cristo and argue that the older versions had better cinematography, acting, etc; without strongly relying upon nostalgic pull.

    We have simply gotten better over time. Just as cinematography has improved since 1960, so has graphical layout for print products. Refusing to embrace those innovations is just the tip of the iceberg.

  12. I will also add that I have only been doing layout work for 2-3 years now, self-taught. And I am better than the 1980s already. So intentionally making your layout worse, I just don't get that at all.

  13. I'm going to go with nostalgia as well due to the fact they leave the warts in. My understanding is that most retroclones, which seem to be the heart of the OSR, are exact clones of the old rules. If I was a big fan of an old game and went to remake it would I make an exact clone? No, I'd fix the holes. Every rules system has problems that aren't found until it is shown to the world and OD&D has decades of playtesting. Shouldn't they be fixing things if they wanted to make the best game possible as opposed to the one they remember?

  14. I’m going to go with nostalgia as well due to the fact they leave the warts in. My understanding is that most retroclones, which seem to be the heart of the OSR, are exact clones of the old rules.

    Who plays the retroclones straight? There've been all kinds of changes and fixes made to those games. Just different ones by different people. There's no universal platonic perfect D&D out there, waiting to be discovered, so publishing the rules "as is" creates a baseline for everyone to tinker with, without having to have an argument about what exactly to "fix."

  15. If it wasn't driven by nostaliga TACH0 would be dead.

    Does OSRIC use THAC0? I haven't played that one, but I know that Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord don't. They use descending AC, yeah. And there the "nostalgia" charge probably does have some merit. But there's good reason to stick with what everyone's familiar with.

    Me, I'm ascending AC all the way. And I'm not alone in that; LotFP WFRP is going ascending AC only, with no descending option like S&W has, for greater accessibility.

  16. I'm not a huge fan of the D&D retroclones but I think it is just that the few I've read ended up feeling either too wordy for the amount of rules they're actually presenting or they read as if they're coming off a soap box. I think it is less nostalgia and more "Hey, you new guys are doing it wrong."

    My favorite of the retroclones right now is ICONS which takes the old FASERIP game and improves on it in ways that feel no-judgemental.

  17. I know I am a bit late to the party for replying to this post, but I think you should check out James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess retroclone! He's made it look quite flashy and, IMHO, more "modern" in appearance than other retroclones. Again, just my opinion. I think he's stated it somewhere on his blog that he wanted to make an OSR/retroclone product that would appeal to a wider audience (i.e. not just old grognards!). Take a look (if you already don't know all about it):

  18. Dark Dungeons(Rules Cyclopeida clone) is my personal favorite, though I have to admit I wish it had ascending AC. That's probably my only beef the the OSR games, I don't like THAC0/decending AC. I think Basic Fantasy, Dangers & Dweomers, and maybe the 2e clone that is being developed, Myth & Magic, are all ascending AC.

    I haven't read them yet so I won't can't say for sure.

  19. Definitely not nostalgia. I’m playing with rule sets (B/X) and styles (megadungeons) that I didn’t back in the day (’90s).

    It’s just that TSR and the OSR are doing it right while WotC is doing it wrong. It’s just a coincidence that when someone screws up (3e) it’s better ‘in the past’.

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