Delving into OSR: Old-School Essentials
A couple of weeks ago I made my first ever trip into the dark, dank dungeons of Old-School Revival gaming with Necrotic Gnome’s Old-School Essentials. I returned a little wiser and a little more informed, but I can confidently state that I still don’t get it.
The entire trip through the rulebook felt, appropriately enough, like I was stumbling through something alien and obscure. Decisions that seemed obvious and natural to the authors – and, presumably, their intended audience – seemed like madness to my uninitiated eyes.
This isn’t to say it was a purely negative experience, of course. Just a rather baffling one.
My first ever RPG experience came somewhere in the middle of D&D’s much-reviled Fourth Edition. I was in my early 20s and despite living on the periphery of nerd culture my entire life I’d somehow avoided the world of roleplaying games – living in a tiny village nestled in a patch of lonely moorland can do that for you.
As soon as I got my hands on the dice, however, I instantly fell head over heels with the hobby. Since then I’ve played dozens of different games, written countless adventures and even managed to run an entire campaign from start to finish. My shelves strain with rulebooks and setting guides and you could choke a horse on my dice collection.
However, though I happily bounced from big-name adaptations to one-page indies, I never so much as dipped my toes into the murky waters of OSR.
There were a handful of reasons for this. One of these was that the genre had simply never appealed to me. Every game I saw seemed to focus on dungeon crawling and tout its high lethality as a selling point, neither of which really did it for me.
The other big factor was, frankly, that I’d never really gotten on with the online OSR community.
I don’t want to get into too much detail here, but you know how the rational part of you knows there’s no way that every BMW (or whatever the stereotype is in your part of the world) driver could possibly be a jerk, but it seems like every time you see someone run a light or overtake on the inside they happen to be driving a BMW? It’s like that.
However, over the years more and more people seemed to be expressing their love – or at least their distant respect – for the genre. People praised its commitment to simplicity and flexibility, which are both things I prize in more modern games.
With this in mind I resolved to try one of them out. I canvassed Twitter for recommendations for solid OSR games for a newcomer and almost every reply pointed me to Old-School Essentials, by Necrotic Gnome.
To be honest, a lot of my first impressions of Old-School Essentials were shaped by a misunderstanding. When I was pitched the game I thought it was simply inspired by the early editions of D&D, and in my defence this is the impression that the introduction to the book maintains.
Instead, Old-School Essentials is almost a direct clone of those games, but with a cleaned-up design and a few quality-of-life patches, if you’ll forgive the videogame terminology. The heart and soul of the rules are the same as they were some 40 years ago. For better, and for worse.
There are several modules for Old-School Essentials, which can be slotted in and out as needed, but when I picked it I only looked at the Rules Tome, which seems to be more than enough to get a game going.
To many this will be stating the obvious, but Old-School Essentials offers up an experience so far removed from modern D&D that it seems genuinely mad that they’re (more-or-less) from the same line of games. The difference isn’t purely one of rules, either. The entire structure and approach to gameplay is different.
Simply put, you seem to get a lot more game and a little less roleplay in your RPG.
Perhaps that isn’t quite fair, as you still get plenty of chances to roleplay with Old School Essentials. However, the idea of structured storytelling – the kind where you walk in with a plot all planned out in advance – seems anathema to the ideas it lays out.
Dungeons are expected to be populated with wandering monsters. Treks through the wilderness might end with a visit from a swooping red dragon easily capable of roasting the whole party. Treasures and dangers grow in equal measure as you descend deeper into the gloom beneath the world.
The GM is expected to remain a neutral arbiter of the rules, and of the world. If you have some bad luck and roll up a particularly nasty encounter in the next room, their job is to make sure things play out according to the rules and to common sense, not to provide you with hand-waved escape routes that can keep the story running. The players’ role isn’t to be protagonists in a fantasy novel, but rather to play the game.
Again, to plenty of folks out there I’m stating the obvious, but after a decade spent running games where the GM is expected to act as a blend of storyteller and shepherd this is rather a revelation.
Is this kind of dispassionate, mechanics-led experience the kind of thing I’m looking for in a long-term campaign? No. But is it something I’d like to try out for a few sessions? Yeah, probably.
Just maybe not with the Old-School Essentials ruleset.
The biggest issue I had with the entire book was that I just don’t like the rules. In fact, I think that many of them are close to being objectively bad.
The main combat engine uses the old THAC0 system, which involves either looking up results of your dice roll on a combat table or running through some rather fiddly maths every time you attack. For years I’d heard people complain that it was a nightmare to work with, and now I can rather confidently throw my support behind them.
Now, the motivation behind THAC0, descending AC and the combat matrix makes a lot more sense if you delve into its origins and context – explained rather well by this Reddit post from 2015 – but that doesn’t make it a good system to play with in modern times. Honestly, the only reason I can see for willingly using THAC0 is nostalgia, which is something I simply don’t have.
With that in mind I’m incredibly grateful that Old-School Essentials has included all the conversions needed to convert the game to more modern, ascending AC rules, but unfortunately THAC0 is just one symptom of a design I just can’t get on-board with. As I paged through the book, I kept running into rules that simply clashed with my idea of what makes a good game.
Take the difference between ability checks and saving throws, for example. One of them requires you to roll above your target number on a d20, while the other requires you to roll below your target number on a d20. Why? You tell me.
Searching for traps and listening at doors, meanwhile, can be handled by either a roll-over or a roll-under system. However, in both cases you roll a d6 rather than a d20. If a modern game slipped across my reviewing table with so many clashing mechanics I’d probably slate it as needlessly, pointlessly obtuse.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that the rules worked just fine in the 80s and can work just as well now. And yes, it works if you want it to, but so did dial-up internet. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to return to my old 56k modem just so I can hear the pings and whirrs it makes as it tries to get online.
It’s probably foolish to treat Old School Essentials like any other product to hit the shelves, though. I’m sure the vast majority of its audience already know what they’re getting in for and are happy with the results.
For all of my complaining, it was certainly a hell of a lot easier to read than the ancient Player’s Handbook I picked up at a convention a few years back. That seems to be the book’s primary aim, and if that’s what you’re after then you can take this is as a glowing recommendation.
Ultimately, though, it just isn’t a game for me. The trial sessions I ran through were needled with minor irritations and hulking great gripes that chewed away at my enthusiasm. It drove me crazy, and when I look around at all the people having a wonderful time with it I start to wonder if I’ve somehow missed something obvious that would make it – and all of OSR by extension – make sense.
I don’t think my search is quite over, though. When I get the chance I’m going to wade out into the mire of OSR once more and look for something that captures the enticing feeling of adventure but isn’t so wedded to aged rulesets (or made by the RPG equivalent of people who overtake on the inside and run red lights).
If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them below.