Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Why Joining the OSR Feels Like Joining A Mystery Death Cult


To clarify the click-bait title: A Mystery Cult is a thing from antiquity & a Death Cult (as far as I know) is more of a D&D thing.

The OSR, like a Death Cult, preaches a lot about death, specifically deadliness in games. And like a Mystery Cult the OSR is opaque and hard to immediately understand, especially as an outsider. 

Title roughly translates to "Fiend Folio" in English.

The only way, it seems to me, to gain a deeper understanding is by climbing into an unending vault of arcane texts: the Death-Temple megadungeon's library level, or the OSR blogosphere.

Many OSR ideas feel sort of confrontational at first. People talk about TPKs and metagaming and characters not really mattering as much as players and all sorts of things that are totally contrarian to the kind of ideas I had previously seen in more general RPG spaces on the internet.

At the same time, OSR content, (specifically for me the books by Zak S.) just blew every D&D thing I had ever read before out of the water. And then from there, I found that there are a lot of amazing books scattered in and around the OSR (work by Patrick Stuart, Scrap Princess(!), and others, like some of the stuff from Dungeon Crawl Classics).

When I actually started really using OSR ideas in my games, it was similarly revelatory. I found a lot of material online about sandbox games and how these were done in AD&D, and it sounded really cool. I ran a sandbox game this summer for a small group with 3 core members and a couple more people who showed up intermittently. It was easily the best campaign I have ever had the pleasure of GMing in my 6 short years of running games. More on that to come.

An OSR group, circa 1863. Zak S. pictured far right.


The biggest learning curve in my own experience trying to do OSR games was getting over an emotional fear about killing my party. Rationally I believe that making my games deadlier would make them better, but on an interpersonal level, I was worried my players wouldn't be down for this change and I didn't want to make things not fun just so I could try out some shit I heard about on the internet.

I had already heard a lot of advice in GM guides, and online (r/rpg specifically), and from my friends who also wanted to learn the craft, but I don't think any ever addressed how to respond to your own hesitation/worry about drastically changing your former way of playing the game even who you earnestly believe it to be a good decision.

Posts on r/rpg didn't help me much, OSR blogs really did. Which makes sense, because deadliness is a central part of what OSR is about most of the time, so people talk about it more.

I'm going to continually add stuff that I find/found helpful in my games, mostly just bits of what feels like good advice and links.


I don't know if any of this will be of interest or use to other people new to this part of the hobby but these are the things that were of most use to me.

  1. Zak S.'s 5e Hack: this is a super helpful + easy set of house rules to make 5e feel like old school games. I also think it's a great eye opener to the kinds of changes you can make to your system that can push it into different thematic/gameplay directions. 
  2. Zak S.'s 5e Character Creation Rules: this is also super helpful. I ended up writing my own version of this with some minor changes. I let my players choose how random they want their characters to be but I encourage them to roll to determine race and class because it's fun. The random starting equipment table where everyone probably gets armor and shit is so fucking fun it's stupid. My players love this stuff because if they're new they get less stressed about not knowing how to make a character and if they've played the game before then they are often at a point where they're like "fuck it i'll just roll for everything, I just want to play."
  3. Alexandrian's "Jaquaying The Dungeon" : really good dungeon design advice, if a bit too dense and academic for easy consumption. It is thorough at least. The basics that really stuck with me are that branching paths end up feeling like linear ones but if you have loops and dead ends and other weirdness then it feels like there is a real sense of exploration because there are things you could miss. 
  4. Last Gasp's "House of Rules" : Good house rules.
  5. Last Gasp's "In Cörpathium" : this is the first thing I ever saw from Last Gasp and probably the first OSR thing I ever read. I had no fucking clue what I was reading but I knew it was amazing. Still is. 
  6. Jeff Rient's Carousing Table : carousing tables seemed silly to me at first but it ended up being one of the most effective and fun and interesting plot-generating mechanics I've used.
  7. Crowd-sourced Pre-Built Hexcrawls! The story behind these as I understand it is that a bunch of people got together and everyone picked a few hexes and wrote like one or two sentences about what's in them following the general guiding principle that "connections are good". This is great advice as to what it takes to write a hexcrawl map, because it turns out that you can make something pretty great by just having a lot of really small ideas. I highly recommend reading these and shamelessly stealing from them for your own hex map, and also the framework used to create them will serve you well.
    1. The Hexenbracken
    2. The Kraal
    3. The Colossal Wastes of Zhaar


  1. I would like to argue that there is an another side to OSR as well, aside from Zak Smiths and Lamentations of the Flame Princesses edgy/gothic/metal aesthetic.

    If you're interested in more "wholesome" OSR experiences and adventures, things like Beyond the Wall (a system with a good amount of content), the old adventures of Isle of Dread and Rahasia and for example The Beseeching Parliament (full disclosure: I am the author) are out there!

    1. Oh, and Gone Fishing (an adventure module) is great too!

    2. Never tried to say that this was the only stuff that was OSR, just that it was what I thought was the best.

  2. No offense to the esteemed Zak S., who for my part, is a luminary yes. Zak represents about 1/4000th of the OSR blogosphere and while he is good, yes, and bleeding edge, yes, and even rubbed his wings on 5e, yes, there’s a million other jumping off points.

    Don’t be afraid to slaughter them mercilessly, of course, or at least telegraph that you will do so, but there is more to OSR style play than TPKs. There’s a bit of tension coming from threat, but more importantly mystery and exploration and uneasiness that backstories and character builds cannot provide.

    I’m not the boss of you, of course, and Zak and Scrap and Patrick are fine people. Hi Zak! You’re great. I swear. Check out some AD&D or BX or Castles and Crusades or Labyrinth Lord or DCC

    That thing that Evlyn M just illustrated is great. Jason Lutes. The Black Hack. Patrice Crespy. Paul Wolfe. DCC is brimming with free stuff and the community is generous and open to newcomers

    Don’t forget your lamp oil and a spare man-at-arms. Die well

  3. Glad I could help induct you into this filth <3

    1. thanks for making so much amazing weird shit!

    2. I blame you for my slow and inevitable descent into madness as well :P

  4. Other great stuff from the OSR, Fight On and Knockspell magazines. Stonehell, Dolmenwood, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Chthonic Codex, just off the top of my head.

    1. just recently found out about Dolmenwood and it looks fantastic. I'll have to check out your other recommendations as well, thank you!

  5. Can I entreat you to make the font size of your posts larger? White text on black is already an uphill battle for me.

    1. Yes! Thank you for letting me know. I'm still learning how to mess with stuff in blogger. I might change the white on black thing. I like how it looks but if it's making my posts inaccessible or difficult to read then it's a bad design choice.

  6. Goddamn Logan Knight got me into this too.

    I felt the same as you, full on wonder at what I had discovered. It was LIKE DnD, but so much... more. I was hooked.

    If you want more OSR, Coins and Scrolls is excellent. As is Marizan’s Garden, and Noisms. Especially Yoon suin. Yoon suin struck me as Corpathium (Asian) in the best way.

    Steer clear of the Drama though, I’ve been reading all these blogs for 4 years. For seemingly no reason, they will often be at each other’s throats or attacking a random publisher. Just a heads up. They’re... sensitive. Lol