First, let it be clear: I am a child of the pinkish-purplish-reddish box with the Erol Otus art on the cover, the “Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set” that came out and helped shove D&D into a full-bore fad. (It is my mother’s fault.) If anyone can be hit with the nostalgia bomb, it’s me. I have piles of great memories of being carefree with paper and graph paper and pencils, of running the Caves of Chaos countless times (but ignoring things like the mad hermit because who cared?), of Morgan Ironwolf and that poor unloved sap Black Dougal.
Therefore, I find the OSR — that movement to play as it was done in the olden days, with rulesets that are little more than tweaks to one’s favorite version of D&D circa 1977-1985 — intellectually fascinating. It’s all about the experiences people had back then, and moving them forward and refining them.
Intellectually fascinating, yes… but not emotionally engaging. That struck me as a little odd. Why doesn’t the OSR work for me? Why do I spend time wrangling with monster builders and power lists running 4e, instead of something more akin to the game of my youth? I played in an OSR game run by Justin Achilli some time back, and it was quite enjoyable. It didn’t suck me in, though; I certainly felt it was time well spent, but I didn’t get the fever to play again.
And when it comes down to it, I think the primary reason that the OSR doesn’t take root in my brain is the same reason I don’t use published adventures: I’m just not as interested in playing out scenarios that are designed for a generalized group. Old-school D&D, beloved a place as it has in my heart, is about one-size-fits-all adventures. The differentiation in the adventure is in what the players do; it doesn’t matter why they’re in there or what their goals are beyond money and power, the adventure is the adventure. And from the perspective of a game world that is what it is, not shaped by consensual reality or the players’ very presence, that’s a valuable thing. The Tomb of Horrors doesn’t care why your thief decided that going in there for riches was preferable to doing anything else with his life.
But the part I like about RPG worlds is the way they interact with players. Sometimes they’re player-agnostic “this is the way it is” adventures, sometimes they’re immensely personalized scenarios that result directly from player action. The OSR approach is that “character background is what happens between levels 1-5” — and I’m just not interested in playing a character that has had no meaningful interactions with the world up until the point he’s started play. It messes with my suspension of disbelief. I like a scenario that is at least a little collaborative, that the GM has gone out of his way to say “Here is a particular hook for you to get you started,” because that way I feel more connected to the events about to throw down.
Being a child of the B/X has apparently given way to being a product of my college gaming circle, where it was about the campaign. Characters fell in love, were betrayed, suffered weird retcons from time to time, set down roots, took over territories, had cynical conversations about philosophy and religion at all hours of the night. We played our characters without dice, paper or scenarios whenever someone had a loose idea like “Oh hey Thomas wants to talk to you again.” That was where RPGs became seriously addictive to me. Nothing quite beats that rush.
I’ll say it again, the OSR is fascinating, and I find it fantastic that a mode of play like that has a place to flourish. But I just can’t root myself in a play style that promises that maybe I’ll get the things I like — interesting NPC relationships, scenarios that spun out of decisions my character made, callbacks to background elements — if I play the game long enough and don’t die. For all that it’s a simpler, easier play style with fewer rules, levels 1-5 (or their equivalent) is asking a lot of investment, particularly in the adult “we have less time to play” phase. I don’t want to wait until 5th level to have a character that is not interchangeable, that has personal hooks embedded in the world, that may run into an old friend at any time. To me that’s not a reward for sticking through the “work” part of the game — that is the game at its finest, the part that I most delight in playing. Give me those early sessions to work on chemistry with my fellow PCs, and to work on some details refining the broad strokes. But as a personal preference, I’d rather not be asked to be interchangeable. There are plenty of other players for that.