Alternative D&D (or, toward a simpler, more inclusive definition of "OSR")

The best source for what "OSR" means in 2020 seems to be David Perry's post, "What We Talk About When We Talk About the OSR," written in the last days of 2019. In that post, David describes the OSR in no less than 18 bullet points.

In Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design, which I never grow tired of referencing, there is a section where Schell attempts to define the term "game." After he ends up with an unwieldy listgames have goals, conflicts, rules, can be won and lost, etc.―he says:

That's a lot, isn't it? Alan Kay, the computer researcher, once advised me: "If you've written a software subroutine that takes more than ten arguments, look again. You've probably missed a few." This was his way of saying that if you need a long list to convey what you mean, you should find a better way to regroup your ideas. And indeed, this list of ten things does not seem complete. It is likely that we have missed a few.

I think we can pare the definition of "OSR" down to the following:

All that which is associated with Dungeons & Dragons but which the third, fourth, and fifth editions of the game support poorly or do not support.

Let's check this against this David Perry's list: OSR as

  1. an Early Scene. People who used the OGL to make non-3E, but still D&D content.
  2. Reactionary. Returning to what old editions support that new editions do not.
  3. Progressive. Incorporating what old editions support with modern sensibilities.
  4. Do-It-Yourself. 3-5E are considerably less modular and harder to modify than earlier editions―it supports DIY-design very poorly.
  5. a Unified Scene: X. My definition excludes this, but I don't think I mind. It strikes me as a false impression of the reality.
  6. Individual Scenes. 3-5E assume a broad community playing by the same rules, rather than unique rulesets suited to the tastes of the table.
  7. In-Group Signifier: ?.  This seems more like a side-effect of boasting, "I prefer [thing which 3-5E do not support]," than something that needs to be in the definition itself.
  8. Nostalgic: . There are plenty of things to be nostalgic about that 3-5E do not support.
  9. a Playstyle: . The playstyle that coalesced around Matt Finch's Primer―rulings-not-rules, "player skill" over character abilities, low-power PCs, and unbalanced encounters―is less an accurate description of how D&D was played in 70s / 80s and more a list of things 3-5E does not support.
  10. Conservative: . 3-5E made changes.
  11. Innovative: . This is a restatement of point 3.
  12. Specific Games. 3-5E do not support versions of D&D that are not 3-5E.
  13. a Body of Work. Emphasis on "All that which…" in my definition.
  14. a Game Genre. You can run a dungeoncrawl or hexcrawl in 3-5E, but the support for them in, say, the 5E DMG is poor. The Alexandrian has complained that 5E no longer teaches DMs how to run a dungeoncrawl.
  15. a Quasi-Literary Genre. It is difficult to run anything outside of generic fantasy in 3-5E.
  16. a Set of Aesthetics. 3-5E have a defined, polished, "safe" aesthetic, apart from the darker, more amateur look of earlier editions.
  17. a Marketing Label. "My product supports [thing which 3-5E do not support]. Buy it!"
  18. a Play Experience: . To play a variant of D&D is, indeed, associated with D&D but unsupported by 3-5E.

That's 16 or 17 out of 18. So, what can we learn from this new definition?

If the OSR is defined, first, by what it is―Dungeons & Dragons―and, second, by what it is not―third through fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons―you would expect these things to somehow be reflected in the name "Old-School Revival / Renaissance."

Instead, "Dungeons & Dragons" is nowhere in the name. The name implicitly contrasts itself to a "new school," but in doing so it posits an "old school" that never existed.

The first is somewhat excusable, because "D&D" is a copyrighted term. The second is less so, because it's bad history. There was no unified "old school" to revive.

The truth is that there were lots of non-D&D RPGs in the old days. There were lots of D&D DMs who ran "combat-as-sport," war-gamey games. Who ran superheroic, "Monty Haul" games. Who discarded dungeon-crawling procedures. Who ran story-focused, dramatic campaigns.

It's not that third edition represented a "new school." It's that third edition chose to serve certain playstyles which had existed since the early days of the hobby, to the exclusion of other playstyles.

A better name, in my estimation, might be alternative D&D.

It parallels "alternative rock," something defined by both what it is and what it is not.

It is broader, more inclusive and welcoming, while still conveying the movement's overwhelming (though not exclusive) focus on Dungeons & Dragons.

But, then, we come to that pesky copyright on the phrase "D&D." No one would be able to include "alternative D&D" in advertising for paid products.

Is there a euphemism we could use? I don't think "adventure game" or "elfgame" or "dungeon game" works, because there are a lot of games about adventures and elves, and not every OSR game uses dungeons. "D&D" conveys a broader range of ideas.

What about 4&4? Is that anything? You know, since 'd' is the fourth letter of the alphabet. I'm not especially happy with it, since it doesn't immediately convey what it is, but hey, neither does "OSR." It has something of a wonky, off-beat feel, which I like.

…I'm going to end the post now before I suggest any worse ideas. In the words of YouTuber Matt Lees, "Byyye! *incredibly well-produced outro sting*"

NEXT-DAY EDIT: I’m really unhappy with how I ended this post, so I’m updating it!

On the OSR Discord, I made a parallel with common wisdom on skill-lists for players: if you make a list of skills, some players will think those are the only things you can do. Likewise, if you make a list of things the OSR is, some designers will think those are the only things they can do.

This post was an attempt to come up a broad definition, a “unified mechanic” approach to defining the OSR genre. It doesn’t quite work, because it is too vague... It can be interpreted either broadly (isn’t every RPG D&D-associated?) or narrowly (what about Fighting Fantasy and Traveller?). This is probably because the lines between RPG genres are not nearly so defined as we like to think.

“Alternative D&D” was received a bit more warmly than the definition itself, I think, but that doesn’t erase the copyright problem.

Ultimately, as I have alluded to in the comments below, I’m probably going to avoid labelling my games, to avoid audience preconceptions as much as my own preconceptions about what “OSR” is supposed to mean. I expect to move beyond D&D-like games at some point, but I’m too obsessed with dungeoncrawls right now.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of rules and playstyles I like that have come out of the OSR community, and I’m not ashamed to admit that to whatever audience my games find. But I’m probably still going to complain about how the name is misleading, and my loyalty will first and foremost be with the broad recognition of weird and interesting things.


  1. My mind has often gone to 'old school evolution' but then Old School Essentials already has that acronym. My thought on that is that often the OSR games are more a side branch evolution of what came before 3E, but aren't usually directly so, they all have some sort of adaption or change (sometimes dramatic!) that sets them apart from their OD&D, B/X, AD&D etc roots.

    1. Well, I would argue third edition itself is an “old school evolution” or “side branch evolution” of what came before 3E, haha. If it weren’t, then why would so many D&D players who played in the 70s and 80s be happy with D&D today?

      On some level, it’s all the same game. That’s why I think “the OSR is what 3-5E is not” is more useful.

    2. Hello, there. It looks convincing, but then, I've met players who still use 3, 3.5, 4, and 5e, and they say they are playing OSR styles.

      We used to call it all "Fantasy Role-Playing Games"!

      There was a time in the late '70s when gamers wanted D&D to be a generic term, the way Xerox meant "photocopy." Gygax said people couldn't do that. That is when FRPG took over.

      I think that label still works. :)

    3. I did say “support poorly,” haha, in addition to “do not support.” You can play with certain “OSR” elements in 5E, but it does push back against you if you don’t like perception checks, long combats, complex classes, etc.

      To tell you the truth, I think I will increasingly describe my games merely as “exploration-focused role-playing games” and let the rules speak for themselves.

      I do expect the “OSR” will probably be more receptive to my work than other communities. But, who knows! Maybe I’ll be surprised with who comes around once I drop the narrow, unappealing label.

  2. I still quite like Tabletop Adventure Game (simple; TAG). It focuses on in-game characterization by interaction with the environment, with character developing because of adventure. This differentiates itself from the heavily character-first mainstream Tabletop Roleplaying Game (cumbersome; TTRPG).

    It also usefully includes the "New School" branch of the OSR.

    As for the term OSR? I like Open Source Roleplaying instead of Old School.

  3. I suppose each person involved might have their own definition. For me, the word "Renaissance" was the key. Here was a whole group of people that played the game in their youth, coming back to it as adults and applying the best of their intelligence and creativity to recapture that fun again. It was never about going back to a ruleset for me; I had never played 3.5. Because of the internet, we could share our best ideas and riff off of each other in ways that weren't possible when we were kids. It was never about marketing or selling products for me either. Do it yourself, make your own rules, share with others.


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