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Friday, November 23, 2018

OSR vs. DIY: Are They the Same?

It seems there’s never an end to the debate about “What is the OSR?” Or rather, there’s a reasonable majority of people in the community who know what the OSR is, but there’s never an end to others proposing competing definitions of what it is. Each Definition of the Month waxes, wanes, and waxes again in popularity. I’ve seen these definitions several times:
  • It doesn’t mean anything,
  • It’s just a brand,
  • It’s nostalgia for any old ruleset,
  • It’s one or more specific rules.
But here’s an entirely new Definition of the Month, or at least one I haven’t seen before:
The OSR is DIY gaming, or should be called “DIY gaming” instead of “OSR”"
I saw this one on Discord first, perhaps a few other places. My immediate reaction was “Those two movements intersect, but they aren’t synonymous.” But I should explain my reasoning.

First, it’s no secret where the term “OSR” came from and what it was first used for. It stands for “Old School Renaissance” and first appeared after a couple of significant events:
  1. The 2001 publication of Hackmaster 4th Edition, essentially a reprint of AD&D with house rules.
  2. The 2004 publication of Castles & Crusades.
  3. An ongoing interest in amateur old school D&D modules and resources.
Someone, probably either Sham (from Sham’s Grog 'n Blog) or Delta (from Delta’s D&D Hotspot) found a 2005 post by an unknown author on the Dragonsfoot forums.
From reading the posts on the various rpg boards over the last couple of years it does seem there is a shift in thinking amongst the gaming community concerning what they want from future rpgs. The illusion has been dispelled that the d20 ultra detailed number crunching method would lead to a better gaming experience. A pining for more narrative simpler play and a looking back to the old days seems to be the new way forward […] An old school renaissance could be on the horizon."
(Emphasis added.)

This appears to be the earliest use of the phrase “old school renaissance”, and it’s pretty clear what was meant, since the post’s author spelled it out: a return to “old school” games, specifically TSR-era D&D, to avoid ultra-detailed number crunching and refocus on simpler, more narrative approach to play.

Now, since the coinage of the term, there’s been a few other rephrasings of the term (“Old School Revival” is popular,) as well as more thought on what we prefer about old school D&D and what we dislike about d20 System D&D. But the fundamental core idea of rejecting d20 System D&D and either returning to older D&D or finding/making something similar to it hasn’t changed. There’s also been a lot of DIY material.

But some people use reprinted modules and systems, not DIY material. And others “do it themselves”, but with 3e, or FATE, or Savage Worlds, or PbtA. In fact, there was the whole Forge-spawned indie RPG movement that did a lot of DIY projects and publishing, but rejected everything D&D, old school, new school, and everything in between.

OSR vs. DIY is not a pair of mutually-exclusive definitions, but a spectrum of gaming. You can play with an old school group and never run a game or make up your own material. You can buy a reprint of a TSR-era D&D game (B/X is very popular right now) and either reprints of old modules or indie-published new modules and run a campaign with those, with no changes or just a handful of house rules. You can go completely DIY, download a cheat sheet and improvise off that, using completely made-up classes in dungeons you or a GM designed.

Or, for that matter, your DIY modifications to an old school game might be a bunch of new school rules, or you might run 5e with some old school modifications. Old school/new school is not a hard binary distinction and never was. Some of the earliest retroclones, for example Basic Fantasy RPG, include new school features like ascending AC, and OSR bloggers have commented about new school elements that were present in TSR D&D, such as skill lists in the form of non-weapon proficiencies.

It might be true that most retroclones are only 75% to 90% old school rules, and 75% to 90% of all OSR gamers are mostly either making or buying DIY products. But that in no way means that the term “OSR” is synonymous with “DIY”.

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  1. At some point I crossed the line from OSR to DIY without even quite realizing it.

    1. Are you saying you completely stopped doing anything D&D related or D&D compatible?

    2. D&D related maybe to some degree, but compatible not really. I would say what I have been doing for the past couple of years are my own designs informed by OSR sensibilities. What interests me is that until I read your post I didn't realize that I had crossed a threshold.

  2. Naming things makes it easy to fight about them!

  3. For my part, I'm happy to see the split articulated. When I look at something advertised as "OSR," I want to rest assured that it's compatible with TSR D&D. And I don't have any interest at all in the peripheral DIY scene. Let the artsy types go be artsy over there, and I'll play D&D over here, and everyone's happy.

    1. I don't think DIY gaming is specifically "artsy", although certainly "artsy gaming" would be part of that scene. There's also the "crafty" ones making their own maps and minis, or those making resources for 3e and 5e, people making stuff for Traveller, and people making their own games without any regard for compatibility with anyone.

      But definitely, the term "OSR" was coined by people looking forward to TSR D&D-compatible products and taken up by bloggers making freebie D&D resources. It's not so much a brand as a genre, or as you suggest a label identifying who might be interested. Lumping a whole bunch of incompatible material in with the D&D stuff doesn't serve anyone.

  4. Good words, T. DIY is a big part of the OSR community - partly from a cultural element of homemade adventures and rules, with perhaps a bit of that old punk sensibility of many of us of a certain age. A lot of OSR is DIY, but DIY isn't specifically OSR. I also believe that the recent logo kerfuffle is a good thing, as the OSR is not a cohesive, monocultural movement, as as such, should not be 'branded.' So go ahead and create and share your homebuilt stuff, whether it conforms to some old ruleset, the 'latest and greatest' edition, or some personal fantasy heartbreaker rules.