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.

The Why

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.

The Basics

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.

The Good

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 Bad

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.

The Future

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.

16 comments

  • Would you care to explain the stigma behind your linking of OSR players with BMW drivers? I’m fairly new to OSR, but a long time D&D player from the 3e days, and thus far my experience has been quite the opposite. Everyone has been welcoming, patient, helpful, and a joy to interact around, aside from a few toxic people that everyone seems to be aware of and avoid.

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  • This review is essentially “Man I really hate silent films, let me do a review on silent films. WOW I hate them what a surprise. The Good: They’re films. The Bad: They’re silent. 5/10 BTW anyone who appreciates silent films must be an elitist BMW driver XDDD”

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  • Maybe an “OSR-adjacent” system would be more to your liking. Some common suggestions are The Black Hack (I prefer 1e, since 2e is – like Macchiato Monsters – full of “risk dice” which makes the rules a tad confusing), Knave, Maze Rats, Into the Odd, World of Dungeons (an abbreviated composite of Dungeon World (PbtA) and old-school D&D).

    Liked by 1 person

  • For an alternative, more modern and less simply nostalgic approach to OSR, try Dungeon Crawl Classics. The idea isn’t to recreate old rules, but to start from first principles about how to simulate the sorts of stories in “Appendix N” and create old puppy Adventure scenarios. The book is worth it just for the art.

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  • I’d second DCC. You could also check out Basic Fantasy Roleplay. It’s a bit more of a modernized old school game. It’s incredibly cheap in print or everything is free on its website.

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  • I third DCC RPG. So much fun. It has replaced D&D for me

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  • I have a recommendation for you… Crimson Dragon Slayer D20. By reading your critique, I think it may be just what you’re looking for. The PDF is FREE on DriveThruRPG.

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  • You might try Five Torches deep it[‘s hole point is to be a bridge between 5E and OSR. Uses a little from both.

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  • You might try Five Torches deep it’s whole point is to be a bridge between 5E and OSR. Uses a little from both.

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  • I have rediscovered RPGs and with them OSR only a few months ago. I think there is a spectrum of streams within the OSR movement and the specific one presented here (based on Old-School Essentials) is just one of them.
    I completely see how there can be unpleasant individuals in any group that has strong convictions about something but that is luckily not the experience I’ve had so far.

    I kind of disagree with the generalization the article makes, in that OSR is less about roleplaying and more about “playing the rules”.
    It all depends on how you define roleplaying; throughout the years RPGs have become more and more about “acting” in a story/play and in this I agree with the article, however, OSR is or can be (depending on the specific system) no less about “roleplaying your character”.

    The main difference is that the OSR philosophy promotes “spontaneous” roleplaying and emergent gameplay – i.e. being a character in an interesting setting / world, the stories and opportunities to roleplay emerge from that.
    The phrase I’ve heard a lot when looking at some newer OSR books was “create situations, not plots” (or “settings, not stories” and variations thereof).
    This naturally increases player agency since you can literally do anything (within reason and fitting the character / setting) but doesn’t really diminish the GM’s role, who has to be prepared for coming up with creative and interesting consequences based on unforeseeable player actions.
    On the other hand, many modern RPGs have become what is essentially an interactive book reading with most of the important outcomes being predetermined and the rules just controlling the kinks and bends along the way. Don’t get me wrong, everybody loves a good story and if you have a GM who is a good storyteller this makes for a wonderful experience.
    However, this also requires a ton of preparation before each campaign / session on the GM’s side (not to mention that not everyone is talented enough to be a good storyteller).
    OSR is much more suited for spontaneous game sessions in non-fixed groups and intervals, which I find incredibly refreshing.
    Given that I stopped playing RPGs mainly due to a lack of time and the impossibility of gathering up all friends every week / month / whatever (you cannot continue the play without the actors 😉 – I find this very liberating.

    Many OSR systems actually use – from what I can tell – very modern and sleek rulesets, the player-facing side of them oftentimes summarized on a couple of pages. Then, on the GM side, OSR favors giving him/her a comprehensive toolset for dealing with unexpected player decisions.
    “Playing the rules” alone for those game would make for quite a poor experience, if not enriched through the setting or the GM’s creative work.

    My own theory is that the change in Tabletop RPG philosophy was triggered mainly through a slow convergence with mainstream video games (cRPGs) that started in the 80s/90s.
    Since it is pretty much impossible to give a player complete freedom and possibilities to act out his/her own character in a non-multiplayer game, detailed quests and stories and plots and experiences with a clear start and finish started to be favored.
    In a way some modern OpenWorld Games are more like OSR than games that are now classified as RPGs.

    Phew – what a wall of text.

    Anyways, I can recommend Mausritter.
    This is how I re-entered the RPG world through my GF.

    https://mausritter.com/

    It has an incredibly friendly, helpful and active community and has had a print / boxed edition released in December of 2020.

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  • whereismywizardhat

    I always liked d6 skill checks better then unified rolling. Either you roll the 1-in-6 or you don’t, no GM having to mess around with “well this door is a DC15” or “This guard’s passive perception is 12 BUT his hound’s is 16”.

    Same with the saves. Whether your character can dodge an incoming attack is based off your character’s ability, not your character vs an arbitrary number on the monster character sheet.

    THAC0 is still garbage.

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  • If you’re wanting to check out another OSR alternative, I’d suggest Worlds without Number, which came out in 2021. It’s a roll over system that uses either d20s or 2d6. The free version is a full-fledged game missing a few optional rules.

    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/348809/Worlds-Without-Number-Free-Edition

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  • I don’t get the hate that Thac0 gets. I get that subtraction is a little more difficult to do but I’ve never struggled with it once I understood it was subtraction. I could understand if it was Thac0 4543 and AC 3287. But it’s 20 and at the beginning 10. Don’t get me wrong ascending AC is a better system, Thac0 was just extremely poorly taught and no where near as bad as most think.

    When it comes to rolling under on skill checks, that is like ascending AC for modern skill checks. Wears the fastest last mathy way to do a skill check? Roll under your attribute. Simple. With 5e you have to add all these things check it against the DC then if you fail by X then Y might happen or if you succeed by Z then Q might happen.

    A simple you look at your attributes that never really change and you know what you have to roll.

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  • I agree pretty wholeheartedly with chaeska’s points. OSR games – including OSE – or just older games in general have no less emphasis on role-playing. They do, however, encourage emergent gameplay more than pre-determined storylines and plots. A “campaign” was not initially intended to be a story with a specific beginning, middle, and end, designed for a static group of players. Rather a campaign was designed as a series of ongoing objectives, encounters, adventures, events, et al in a consistent game world managed by the DM, with players being interchangeable from session to session, all having their own things going on at the same time in-game, being able to affect the game world and even interact (and interfere) with other players. You are role-playing in the truest sense: you aren’t acting the part of a character in a story with an outcome that is already decided, with you just along for the ride; rather, you are assuming the mantle of your character, playing out the role that character would play in that world, whatever that role may be, developing a story far more organically. To quote you, “The players’ role isn’t to be the protagonists in a fantasy novel.”

    Onto your thoughts on Old School Essentials in particular: It’s perfectly fine to dislike a game, or parts of a game. I’d recommend, however, rather than asking “What were they thinking?” and dismissing it, you instead ask “Why is this designed as it is, rather than in a simpler format?”

    For instance, rolling an ability check versus a saving throw: Both of these require you to roll a d20. An ability check uses your ability score you rolled during character creation as the target number; this is a static number that doesn’t change (in most situations) throughout your character’s lifespan. If you rolled 16 dexterity, any time you roll a dexterity check, you’ll have an 80% chance of success if you have to roll at or under 16. Meanwhile, a saving throw targets a number that is based on your class and level, the latter of which WILL change, permitting you don’t die before that happens. If you start with a save vs. spells score of 16, you only have a 20% chance of resisting by rolling at or under the target. When that goes down to a score of 10, you have a 50% chance of resisting. Both of these are d20 rolls, but to codify them into always rolling above or always rolling below a number, you have to completely change how you calculate difficulty, and then you have players that have trouble doing remedial math at the table slowing the game down to add their bonuses and/or penalties from multiple sources at once on a skill check or saving throw. You have to commit the knowledge that you roll under for a saving throw, over for an ability check to memory, and you’re done.

    This is the same concept for d6 skills for all classes versus d% skills for thieves: The non-thief skills will always stay a d6, while the thief skills will increase with level, and not always at a rate that will go along with a d6 or d20; Climb Surfaces increases 1% per level, while Hide in Shadows may increase 4%, 5%, 6%, 10%, etc. Unless you go with a unified roll system like WotC did with the d20 system, where the difficulty of a task is not based solely on the prowess of the character, but opposing factors that will inflate the difficulty to contest with the character – which one may argue is better or worse than a character ALWAYS becoming better at what they’re trained in, and that’s all – the options are either use different dice for different rolls, or go for the lowest common denominator, which would have all checks being a percentile roll. To many people, 1/6 chance on a d6 looks a lot cleaner and is easier to remember than a 17% chance on a d%. (Side bar: D&D was created at a time where all the funny-shaped dice weren’t exactly easy to find; d6s were all most people had. School catalogues may have percentile dice you could order for math lessons, but most hobby shops or places with war gaming paraphernalia didn’t carry the dice we’re all familiar with today. Thief wasn’t an original class in 1974, the creators were using more types of dice by the time the class was introduced in the first supplement.)

    Descending AC, attack matrices, THAC0, etc. are a product of the time, and while I don’t find it difficult by any means, I won’t say it’s not at least a tiny bit clunkier than attack bonus. That having been said, you spent half of your “The Bad” section complaining about THAC0 while still acknowledging that OSE includes ascending AC. What you didn’t mention is that every single instance of descending AC or THAC0 in OSE is presented alongside ascending AC or an attack bonus. There’s no conversion needed; you just look at the number in brackets. As for the rest of “The Bad,” you said you don’t like the rules, thinking many of them are bad, yet all you could mention was THAC0(a non-factor, as ascending AC is never NOT present) and the lack of a unified rolling system(which I spent two paragraphs above rebutting).

    All in all, this article comes off like the experience of someone who went into a game expecting to dislike it, dismissed portions of it at first glance, and decided the expectation of disliking it was correct, disregarding that the expectation of disliking something often factors into actually disliking it once experiencing it. It comes off as though the author wanted to be right about a preconceived notion, more than they wanted to enjoy a game. If you didn’t like the game, you’re wholly entitled to your opinion on the game. I’d request that in the future, however, you not generalize beforehand, that you not generalize the audience of a product as of a specific mindset or view – OSR is just playing games in a way that contemporary game design tends not to jive with, not specific to any individual, group of individuals, or community that enjoys any old school or old school style games – and at least try to understand the reason for something you think is bad, rather than just deciding it’s bad and something else is better because you personally think it makes more sense. If you’re open to broadening your horizons, legitimately trying to understand old school games like Old School Essentials, and just okay with being open-minded and not dismissive when something seems weird or even bad, I’d highly recommend reading the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (First Edition) Dungeon Master’s Guide. You don’t have to know the game system, nor do you have to be interested in it; if you read the text of the book, it explains much of what goes into the design of a game, how choices for what’s published are made, what the reasoning for many rules that may seem odd is, and much, much more.

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