On the OSR versus TSR eras.

There's a lot of dislike in the world for things like old school play and retro-clones.

One of the most common ways this dislike comes into play is when someone mentions the creativity of the current OSR compared to material that has been published by TSR/Wizards of the Coast.

Rather than make any sort of claims, I wanted to take a minute to share my experience.

Earlier this week, I was working on designing one of the contested areas inside Numenhalla. It is effectively a sewer, and I knew several things about it. I knew that part of the level is flooded, that it had a non-functioning water pump that if fixed could unflood the section of the dungeon and several other things which I won't mention because dozens of my players read this blog.

So, before I start on any sort of design, I look at what came before. We have decades of material from TSR and nearly as much accumulated information from years and years of the OSR blogosphere. This is a common practice among writers known as research.

What I find is interesting and fairly consistent with my experience is this.

I looked for sewer/water adventures in Dungeon Magazine and found three things:
1) An adventure about a merchant who lost 10 dinosaur eggs in the sewer. The adventure consisted of a random encounter table (all attack on sight) and miles and miles of sewers to be explored until all 10 dinosaurs were killed or recovered or winter arrived.
2) A short introduction adventure where players chase a vampire chasing a target through 4 very simple sewer encounter areas (Hidden entrance, bat swarms, black pudding, secret shaft to surface)
3) A plot by a were-rat to take over a small town with a three room sewer dungeon containing were-rats.

In Dragon Magazine, I find a few articles.
1) Issues 326 contains "Down the Drain" exploring the history of sewers and how they might appear in a fantasy setting. It contains such gems as "The earliest sewers began as storm drains" and "Maybe no one knows why sewers exist. . . Players and the DM might think the mystery worth investigating -- or not". Also: "Disease and poverty run rampant [in the sewers], and many of the inhabitants turn to crime to survive".
2) Issue 238 contains 4 sewer monsters in 4 pages: Necromantic sludge, plague moth, albino crocodile, and water cat.

I mean, that's all ok, I guess.

What Happened Next

I type in Sewer.

This article pops up on the first page: Sewer Tables That I meant to do awhile a go by Scrap Princess

Just a random sample includes:
cults ("The Bell Drowners. They drown bells. The music of a efficiently drowned bell is rather unsettling |ultrasonic abilities"),
Thief gangs ("Snatch and grabbers , ride trained climbing goats"),
Alchemical Horrors ("A symbiotic second skin. Now lurching around looking for someone to attach to. Not a good idea."),
Lost places,
Enigmas ("Statues hanging from chains around their feet, so the head remains in sewage")
critters ("Sewer Manatee"), and
Predators ("Murder Weasel").

I mean, it's 685 words that somehow manage to be more immediately useful and helpful then the thousands and thousands of words published over the course of years by TSR.

And lest you think this solely has to do with the savant nature of the prodigy that is Scrap Princess, other articles that popped up on OSR search include this three article series from Hereticwerks on interesting things found in the sewers.

A comment on table I "One of the best things about this table is how it avoids the obvious. Even ordinary things here are extraordinary in some way, or at the very least a great lead-in to an encounter or an adventure. It feeds naturally into your worlds, and references all kinds of material, but could easily be used in any weird sewer. Imagination and practicality"

So what's the conclusion one should draw here?

I know that sounds facetious, but I ask it with some seriousness. Are players more interested in saying at the end of an adventure "Yep, that was completely logical!" instead of enjoying the mystery of swimming mirrors? Is that what sells and we're just an odd group wanting to focus on the strange? Should we be instead be writing articles about how "sewers are built from bricks" and "Waste and rainwater fill the sewers"?

I'm not sure today's post really has a point other than read Monster Manual Sewn from Pants and use OSRsearch.blogspot.com.

Hack & Slash


  1. I agree. After a couple of years spent shaking the need to reiterate out of its system, the Old School became New Old School and set about exceeding its forebears. Key, I think, is the greater awareness of what makes for interesting adventure ideas, good rules and usable adventure descriptions - both from the 20 intervening years, and from the development of theory since the OSR began.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. i thing dragon 81 with busty caldwell lady had city module with city i used for years and was very inspired by for my own designs - Newhon box and Waterdeep had sewers on note. The OSR isnt really just TSR DnD - These is nostalgia for that stuff but if you look at what white dwarf did in first 80 issues and Judges Guild I think you get a better idea of the feverish imaginations that were in play then. Was more of Appendix N mentality - the gods removed from Deities and Demigods put back where they belong. Not just nostalgia for old DnD TSR but the kids of retro weird fantasy we see hints of. A literary revival of 20s-30s deco weird fantasy is going on also as these books like Clark Ashton Smith and HPL are being printed as Classics and thus have become works of literature. The other thing about OSR is preference for older simpler rules to accompany this Baroque weird fantasy.

    I will dwell on this more....

  4. This is something I, as an OSR player, need to do a better job evangelizing. I think many people outside the OSR assume it's just about playing Keep on the Borderlands and trawling for white booklet minutiae.

  5. I'm not sure what this comparison proves beyond the fact that the OSR has a huge contingent of swords-and-sorcery, weird fantasy, and gonzo-friendly designers that didn't really exist back in the TSR Silver Age. This left a huge vacuum which various OSR blogs have been adept at filling. But if you actually want to do something that involves historical or high fantasy settings, then you're likely to find the OSR a bit disappointing relative to the classic body of work produced by TSR.

    There's a strong undercurrent of "hobbits are boring and here's a goat-headed monkey instead" sentiment in certain quarters of the OSR, but skeptics of the OSR who don't agree with that aesthetic assessment are going to keep looking in vain for the old school version of Forgotten Realms -- or really any deeply developed setting that focuses on priorities like familiarity, consistency and naturalistic ecology. Unless you think that those people shouldn't exist at all, the OSR is going to remain a complement to classic TSR and not a replacement.

  6. Where is the hate for OSR play? I occasionally see something in the comments on
    Wizards's site ("Down with wandering monsters!"), but I usually see it cutting the other way, old school guys ripping the newer games just because it's not a game they want to play, so it must be definitively awful and nobody should play it.

  7. Of course, rather than just Dragon and Dungeon (which came pretty late, at the tail end of the 1e era), there is White Dwarf, the various JG magazines, and all the dozens of fanzines


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...