Sunday, March 30, 2014

Introduction & the Primer for Old School Gaming

Welcome to Traveling Spellbook, a new blog focusing on OSR Gaming. What is OSR Gaming? Well, if you don't know you probably stumbled on to this blog by accident, but let's assume you're still reading.

OSR stands for Old School Renaissance or Old School Revival and generally refers to a movement among table-top role-playing game enthusiasts to return to a the style of gaming from the early days of fantasy gaming. Rules are light and fast, with lots of room for interpretation by the game master or referee. The most famous of these games is Dungeons and Dragons and the values of OSR gaming are reflected in versions of D&D that existed before the release of the game's 3rd edition.

Often drawing on the themes of pulp fantasy like that authored by Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, early fantasy game had the stereotype of being a game that was little more than “kick in the door, kill the monster, take the treasure.” But there is a whole lot more there if the gamer bothers to scratch a little bit beneath the surface of this over-simplified mentality.

Often early fantasy games told you what your character could do, not what they couldn't do. If you wanted to do something that wasn't specified on your sheet and hadn't been specifically denied to you based on the confines of the game, then the player told the referee exactly how they were attempting to accomplish the task at hand and the referee made a ruling.

Simple as that. No complex rules, no endless feats, no extensive rules. The players had faith in the referee to be fair in their ruling and the game moved forward.

Another “hallmark” of OSR gaming is a high rate of lethality. I've always found this convention to be a bit disingenuous. It implied that old school fantasy games were built around the mentality of “Player vs. Referee” or that it was the referee's job to try to kill the player characters.

To me the truth of the matter is that deciding you're going to go into the dark dungeons and deep caverns of the world where horrible monsters live is, by its very natrue, very dangerous. Players, and their characters, will need to be cautious, aware, prepared, and a bit lucky. But even then, sometimes things go poorly.

It's a high-risk/high-reward situation and sometimes people die. That's why not everyone is an adventurer and whether the characters are risking their lives for a great and noble cause or for fun and profit, what really matters is that they're choosing to embark on a very dangerous, very rarely chosen path to greatness – a path fraught with peril.

As for the player characters themselves, they are exceptional, but not necessarily extraordinary. In OSR gaming typically the roles taken up by the players are that of characters who are slightly better than the average villager or idle noble. That being said, if they manage to make their way to 2nd level or beyond, they may indeed rise to great heights of heroism. That being said, it has to be earned. In OSR, no one starts out a fireball slinging arch mage or a master swordsman. That's all part of the genre convention. Heroism and glory are often sought after and rarely achieved – again, it's a high-risk/high-reward situation.

As for Traveling Spellbook itself, his blog will discuss OSR gaming in general and review products designed for OSR gaming. To that end, the first product recommended by TS is Matthew Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. This product is available as a free PDF download from At 13 pages, it's a quick read – but no words are wasted. Finch cuts a brisk pace, describing what exactly old school gaming is and why it can be so darned fun.

Finch breaks this down for both players and referees alike. For the players he provides what he calls four “Zen Moments” that highlight how playing in an OSR game is different from its modern counterparts and why its awesome. His examples are detailed, but never long-winded. The author's energy and passion for OSR gaming is evident. For referees he presents the “Tao of the GM.” The insights here showcase the subtle (or not-so-subtle) responsibilities a referee has when running an OSR game when compared to the more modern style of running a game. Again, Finch's enthusiasm just jumps off the page and it feels almost infectious. By Orcus, OSR gaming is just too damned fun!

In closing, Matthew Finch recommends that those interested in OSR gaming pick up a copy of Swords & Wizardry – and while this feels like a plug for his own product at first, he goes out of his way to tell the reader that the recommended products are available free of charge. He's clearly in it for a love of the game.

There's a reason that A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming is the first product I'm reviewing on Traveling Spellbook: Because it opened my eyes up to the magnificent simplicity of OSR gaming. Personally, I came into fantasy gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have fond memories of the 1991 Rules Cylopedia compiled by the late, great Aaron Allston. But, having quickly moved on to 2nd edition AD&D and 3rd edition soon after, I never quite “got” old-school gaming. But with Finch's Primer, I truly had moments of zen and knew the tao that could not be described.

Whether you're a grizzled old gamer whose lost interest in the hobby with the advent of ascending AC or if you're of the newer generation who enjoys 4th edition's streamlined, modular approach to table-top gaming, Matthew Finch makes understanding, and more importantly appreciating, old school gaming an easy thing.

Matthew Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming is available as a free PDF on Give it a read, roll up a character, trust your DM, and get ready to have a helluva good time.

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