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Good Old Plays: The throwback RPGs giving modern roleplaying “a breath of fresh air”

OSR designers are reviving the genre’s roots with compact rules, player-led storytelling and creativity in abundance.

Two pages from Mörk Borg, a tabletop RPG known for its doom metal aesthetic and brutal gameplay.
Image credit: Johan Nohr/Stockholm Kartell

Garth lived for nine minutes. He was born in half that time, a trio of six-sided dice rolled six times and the results assigned to strength, intelligence and so on in strict order. Exploring a maze of tunnels under an old tree, he met his end at the hands of a spectral hunter that his weapons could not harm.

The adventure’s author, Gavin Norman, would have told him to run away. “This is probably the biggest lesson that players need to learn,” he tells me. “Just the sight of a spectral monster should instill caution in a low-level party.” But he’s clear that Garth’s case was not hopeless. “Many monsters which are immune to mundane weapons can be harmed by silver, and a beginning party should be able to afford a silver weapon.”

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Norman is the author of Old School Essentials, which he describes as a “restatement” of the old Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons rules. It’s a long way from today’s Fifth Edition: elves and dwarfs are classes, not races, there are no feats or skills and few special abilities. It’s part of what’s known as the Old School Renaissance or OSR, a design movement taking tabletop roleplaying back to its roots. Rather than giving players tools to optimise their characters, it asks them to shape what the dice give them with tools of their own devising.

The sheer level of danger encourages a focus on clever play.

“The sheer level of danger encourages a focus on clever play,” Norman explains. “Roll up a character with two hit points and no ability score above 10? Go with it! That person could turn out to be a hero.” Old School Essentials points newcomers to the Principia Apocrypha as an OSR primer. As an example of the kind of clever play Norman refers to, imagine a player poking the floor with a pole to find a pit trap, rather than a rogue rolling a skill check.

“This is one of my favourite aspects,” Norman enthuses. “I love seeing the creative solutions that players come up with to solve tricks, traps, and environmental challenges. Even something as simple as a 10-foot chasm can be a lot of fun. How would you actually cross a 10-foot chasm while laden with gear?”

OSR RPGs such as Old School Essentials typically draw from the rulesets of older games, including the original first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Image: Necrotic Gnome

Making this work, however, relies on a fair dungeon master. This is a big part of the OSR philosophy, which tasks them with being an “impartial arbiter”, making open die rolls and honest decisions. Norman has some advice to help. “Ask the players what they think,” he suggests. “The ensuing discussion can change my judgement, especially if one of the players happens to have some real-world knowledge that's relevant to the situation.”

In turn, the players need confidence in each other and their DM. “The players should trust that the GM is not out to get them but equally is not going to fudge things to let them ‘win’,” Norman says. “Whether this kind of approach is fairer than making a skill check, I'm not sure. I personally find it a lot more fun!”

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Because Old School Essentials is a cleaned-up, better-organised rewrite of old versions of D&D, it’s compatible with all the modules released for the roleplaying mainstay over the last four-plus decades. These are now easy to come by in places such as DriveThruRPG. Reading them is a reminder that RPGs were once very different. The famous Keep On The Borderlands, for example, has almost no plot. It throws the players into the Caves of Chaos with nought but a rumour table to guide them; it’s up to the group to build their own narrative.

Player actions in the game and their consequences are more productive and juicy than pages of character backstory.

“Player actions in the game and their consequences are more productive and juicy than pages of character backstory,” Norman says. “Adventure hooks that tie in with something that directly happened to a character in the game are going to have a lot more impact than something dredged up out of someone's backstory.”

While very different from modern D&D, Old School Essentials will feel familiar to fans of the current game. If you want a 5E take on OSR, there’s Five Torches Deep, which strips its mechanics back to their bare bones. The focus, as in all OSR games, is on speed, emphasising DM rulings over written rules. (The creators of Five Torches Deep do not permit any media interviews, as Dicebreaker was informed while researching this article.) That approach has encouraged some designers to distil things down even more - and there’s no better example of this than Mörk Borg.

Mörk Borg's rules only take up a fraction of its gloriously vivid rulebook. Image: Free League Publishing

Mörk Borg has 96 pages but the basic rules, built around four stats, take just a few. The rest is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of riotous colour, grotesque art and supporting detail. “It’s an experiment, it always was,” says co-author and artist Johan Nohr. “We wanted to see what would happen if we pushed the limits, if we broke all the rules, if we didn’t hold back.”

We wanted to see what would happen if we pushed the limits, if we broke all the rules, if we didn’t hold back.

The result has garnered critical acclaim like a fanged berserker collects skulls. But newcomers used to more directive systems might feel a little lost amidst such a blank canvas. Nohr encourages them to get right into it. “Creating ad-hoc in games that are thoroughly fine-tuned and striving for balance will always be more difficult and daunting,” he opines. “You’ll always worry about fucking up the balance.”

His co-designer, Pelle Nilsson, strikes a similar note. “Mörk Borg is a combo of story games and OSR do-it-together, which was a design goal I had,” he explains. “It’s very hard to break things and I think the game appeals to people that like to make up things on the fly.” This punk attitude extends to the RPG’s community, who are encouraged to contribute their own hacks and creations via its official website.

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Among its host of innovations is the Miseries system, which asks the group to set a time frame then piles apocalypse after apocalypse on the game world until it ends. Even this is seen by the designers as a tool to make the game your own. “They’re so impactful and potent you’re clearly allowed to wipe out entire cities from the map and kill important NPCs,” Nohr says. “This makes it clear that nothing in this setting is sacred or off-limits.”

Miseries also timeboxes the campaign, another common hallmark of OSR play. “It puts everything in perspective and effectively adds a hard timer on the game,” Nohr continues. “Are you sure you want to rest for a week or do you press on? You have roughly a month before everything ends. You better fucking hurry.” Nilsson picks up the baton: “The written content of the Miseries also contributes to the setting, and there are lots of adventure seeds in the entries.”

Five Torches Deep combines OSR sensibilities with the modern experience of D&D 5E. Image: Sigil Stone Publishing

With its focus on how things used to be, OSR might look like a nostalgia-fest for older gamers. And it is, a little. “I wanted the rules in Mörk Borg to be like the old days but without some unnecessary fluff,” Nilsson says. You can see the same attitude reflected in the clean layout of Old School Essentials, and the ruthless trimming of Five Torches Deep. Ease of use should be something any gamer can get behind.

“It’s ‘renaissance’ rather than ‘revival’,” Nohr points out. "If you’re used to more rules-heavy, less hackable games, this could be a breath of fresh air.”

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