...Roll for initiative.
Dungeons and Dragons is more popular than ever. The myriad of live-play shows, accessories, settings, game rules and novelty wares on etsy are a testament to that. And if you're coming into the RPG hobby now, you're absolutely spoiled when it comes to choices. There's the ever-popular 5th Edition, Pathfinder 2nd Edition, All of which provide the Dungeons and Dragons experience on some level, whether they bear the official name or not.
While a lot of these newer and shiner rulesets have their legions of fans, a growing number of gamers are flocking to indie RPGs which emulate the old-school feel of classic D&D. Due to their accessibility, "Old-School" or OSR games were my intro to D&D and in my personal opinion, they're the best entry point possible to players wishing to check out the tabletop hobby. But before we get into why that is...
What's the OSR, Anyway?
OSR, short for "Old-School Renaissance," is a term for games and materials that emulate the original feel of Dungeons and Dragons. This means extremely simple rules, flexible gameplay, a focus on roleplaying and problem-solving over video game-esque skills, and a focus on house rulings over rules.
So while they're not officially a Dungeons and Dragons-branded product, it's best to think of them as indie "editions" of the game rather than separate things. Even my rulebook says "Basic Fantasy," I refer to my games as "Dungeons and Dragons," because copyright aside, that's just what it is. As such, it's best to think of all the games I list as "Dungeons and Dragons: Swords and Wizardry Edition" or "Dungeons and Dragons: Labyrinth Lord Edition." Because when you get down to it, it's all just different flavors of the same game.
|The original OSR gamers|
These games started out as "retro clones," rules that effectively worked as a way to play streamlined and updated variants of Dungeons and Dragons. The most famous of these being OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Swords and Wizardry, and Labyrinth Lord. But over time, people began experimenting with these rules, making new games with new mechanics which used the retro-clones as a blueprint to create wildly experimental and fun new ways to play. These range from the sci-fi themed White Star and Stars Without Number, to the gonzo pulp fantasy of Dungeon Crawl Classics and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, to offbeat indie titles and settings like Cha'alt and Troika!
For the most part, I'll be focusing on the easy to play "retro clone" games like Basic Fantasy and Swords & Wizardry. Having purchased both (multiple times in the latter case), I feel confident enough to recommend them, although I've included a few other rules systems, including non-fantasy ones.
But anyway, here's a few of my personal reasons why OSR D&D is the best version of D&D:
Look, let's cut to the chase. You're probably not made of money. The coof's been hard on us all, and even if you're reading this in an idyllic, coof-free future (fingers crossed), chances are you don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a hobby you're just starting with. What's more, you probably want all the bells and whistles to run a fun, basic game with friends. Dice, a dice tray, a nice DM screen, and decent miniatures.
While Fifth Edition has a free version, it's little more than a "demo," which gates much of the content behind the paywall of physical retail books. And hoo boy, what a paywall it is! If you want to run a game with optimal rulesets (and you should), you're looking at at least 80-90 dollars for a set of three books, plus tax and shipping, plus whatever accessories you want. For me at least, that's kind of ridiculous. Especially since I absolutely refuse to play without miniatures, a dry-erase mat, DM screen, and an arseload of dice (nearly two pounds in my case).
But with rules such as Basic Fantasy and Swords and Wizardry? Yeah, the buy-in is friggin' free. If you wanted to be super barebones, you could run a full, no-content-gated game of D&D with free rules, free character sheets, and a dice app on your mobile device or laptop. Whereas doing that with Fifth Edition PHB, Monster Manual and DM's Guide means you're plonking down almost a hundred dollars before you can even play like that.
This of course, means you can print out and distribute all the rules you need to your players, with only the cost of ink, paper and whatever binders you have lying around the house. Again, not for gimped "starter editions," but for the full game. And if you really want that premium feel, good news! A Swords and Wizardry physical book is $25 dollars and the Basic Fantasy rulebook is a mere five dollars on Amazon.
"But hey, that's only one book, don't I need a monster manual or Dungeon Master's Guide," you may be asking. And to that I say, that one book? It's all of them combined. Yes, really. Everything you need to run and play a full-blown game is included in the core rulebooks of the games I mentioned.
So not only is it way cheaper, it's also easier for newbies to pick up and play. Which brings us to....
I remember wanting to get into D&D back when Fifth Edition first came out and flipping through the books at a Barnes and Noble. I couldn't make heads or tails of it all, shelved it for a while before checking out Swords and Wizardry a few months later. While a few rules like THAC0 were hard to wrap my head around, the Ascending Armor Class made it easier. And the simple approach to classes, spells and the game in general made it easier for me to figure things out.
...Which isn't to say 5e is super difficult or anything (it wouldn't be anywhere near as popular if it wasn't), but for someone with zero experience playing tabletop games more complex than Monopoly, the simplicity of most OSR games is a huge plus. Basic Fantasy in particular is so easy to run, that as the Amazon page claims, "it's simple enough for children in perhaps second or third grade to play, yet still having enough depth for adults as well." Meaning literally anyone can pick it up and start playing, even if they have zero knowledge of RPG mechanics.
For newbies with more experience playing video games or even reading things like LitRPG books, Swords and Wizardry might be a better choice. And yet it's still light enough for anyone to modify and tweak the game as they see fit. The same can be said of most OSR games. There's a wonderful amount of leeway you have, with most OSR games using essentially interchangeable rules, making it a sort of rosetta stone for game design.
So even if you are a more seasoned RPG veteran, the ease of rules means DM prep and homebrew are easier to implement. Which is why so many RPG veterans swear by OSR rules. It's the best of both words, simultaneously hardcore and so newbie-friendly it's almost stupid.
Wealth of Content
To be fair, this one's kind of subjective, but it's a biggie for me and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Like I said before, OSR games range from classic fantasy, to sci-fi, to superheroes, WWII, post apoc and complete and utter acid trips like Cha'alt.
To date, I've never seen anything approaching this level of creativity in any of the official Dungeons and Dragons settings by Wizards of the Coast. And it's this wildly experimental punk rock edge that gives the OSR movement its signature feel. When I wrote about the death of mainstream nerd culture a couple years back, I brought up the OSR as a positive example of nerd culture done right. A largely DIY movement made by and for fans with independent creators and gamers at the forefront.
Granted, most people will be just fine playing epic fantasy or sword and sorcery campaigns, and the official Dungeons and Dragons settings are awesome to run games in. But therein lies the beauty of OSR's simplicity. Want to run a game in Ravnica, Eberron or Ravenloft? Thanks to the simple rules, converting settings from 5E to OSR is a snap. Plus, you can run all kinds of older modules like Ravenloft and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks pretty much out the box with OSR rules. And when you mix it with OSR games like Operation White Box, you can have incredibly fun mash-ups like a platoon of World War II soldiers crawling through Castle Ravenloft.
But if hundreds of sourcebooks across compatible OSR rulesets, 5E and original D&D books weren't enough for you, there's all kinds of free content for your games across a newtork of blogs devoted to bringing you new ways to play. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but I've provided a list of free resources below if you want to dive into the OSR proper.
When looking at core rulebooks, you have a few options. If this is you or your fellow players' first stab at role-playing games or complex board games, I recommend Basic Fantasy. You can get it for free as a PDF, or in softcover form on Amazon. Alternatively, you can check out Swords and Wizardry White Box for a more stripped-down and even older-school variant of those rules. It's not my thing, but some people swear by it. Again, you can get that for free, or buy it at cost on Amazon.
On the other hand, if you've played D&D 5th Edition, complex board games or CRPGs like Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age or Pathfinder Kingmaker, your rulebook of choice is either Swords and Wizardry, or if you're looking for a more "grounded" campaign, Low Fantasy Gaming. Both options have free PDFs on DriveThruRPG, and physical editions (you can get the Swords and Wizardry one on Frog God's site)
And lastly, if you're an old fart looking to relive the glory days of AD&D but haven't played in a while, or if you just want the "crunchiest" option for your OSR game, then Advanced Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC are some of your best choices. The latter is what many consider to be the "OG" of these retro-clones, but is relatively dry compared to newer books.
Also, a few honorable mentions for non-fantasy games if that's what you'd prefer for your intro (or re-intro) to the hobby. For the sci-fi fans, White Star is a simple yet deep variant of Swords and Wizardry which trends towards fun, Star Wars-style Space Opera. If you're looking for Lovecraftian horror, then Eldritch Tales is your game. And finally, if pulp fiction and historical games are your thing, then there's a few good ones to choose from, but Raiders! is a fun Indiana Jones-themed ruleset that plays well with fantasy supplements and bestiaries.
While kind of obligatory, it can't be overstated just how awesome Tomb of the Serpent Kings by Skerples is. Because of how basic the presentation is, it's fairly easy to introduce into any campaign, even the non-fantasy ones. You wouldn't even need to change anything for a Lovecraftian or Pulp-style game, as it's already got that Indiana Jones vibe. And if you're running a sci-fi themed game with White Star, simply make the serpent-men aliens, replace any mention of "magic" with "ancient technology," and change the succubus NPC into a hologram or alien ghost or something.
For further fantasy adventures, Dragonsfoot has a list of free AD&D modules you can print and play right at home. Basic Fantasy also has modules available for free or very cheap. So if you want new adventures after running TOTSK, these would be the first places to go.
Also, I'll be doing a post rounding up the best places to buy dice, screens, and miniatures, as well as free alternatives. So I'll post that here for all you new or returning hobbyists. But for any new player, any of the core rulebooks plus Serpent Kings, plus a free dice-rolling app for mobile (Google, Apple, Amazon and F-Droid all have them) should suffice if you just want to take the OSR for a test drive.
Lastly, if you're a totally new player to tabletop RPGs, here's a few Youtube channels and videos I strongly recommend!
Questing Beast: What is the DnD Old School Renaissance? (OSR) ( <<< START HERE)
D&D General Channels:
Negative Legend: What Happened to Dungeons and Dragons (basically a history lesson of classic and new editions)
Wyloch's Armory (Crafting)
So feel free to check these out and keep an eye peeled for any other channels with similar content. Questing Beast and Negative Legend's videos are the best intros to the hobby in general (though ignore NL's advice about Adventurer's League, as it doesn't apply to OSR), and Dungeon Craft in particular is a great primer on the OSR mentality for running and playing games (even when he uses other rulesets).
I hope you enjoy these rules, materials and resources and wish you all the best in your new adventures. May your rolls be good and your XP generous!