I’ve been running a weekly OSR D&D game for three years now. It’s morphed into a sandbox-y science fantasy thing with dinosaurs (as you do), with five regular players. We’re wrapping up the current campaign (and one of my players is off to Scotland), so I’ve already started planning the next game. I’ll try to publish a record of the new campaign here (yeah, right!).
I’m thinking I want to run something from the British old-school next. I’ll probably use Dragon Warriors as the basic system (because it’s so close to B/X, meaning I can port in OSR content relatively easily), hacking in bits of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 1e, Maelstrom, and even the old 1979 game Heroes.
So, what exactly IS the British old-school? A few attempts have been made at a definition down the years, including by the Fighting Fantasist, Trollish Delver, and some bloke on Reddit. The Grognard Files podcast gives an excellent sense of what it was like gaming in Thatcher’s Britain.
I’m going to call it the British Old-School Revival, or “B-OSR”. I think the B-OSR is adjacent to, but distinct from, the American Old-School Revival (A-OSR). And, if you haven’t guessed, my tongue is firmly in cheek when I talk about “A-OSR” and “B-OSR” (I realise old-school tabletop gaming is already a niche within a niche within a niche).
Nevertheless, there is something to the idea of a B-OSR. I think the most important influences on it would be:
– Early White Dwarf magazine (issues 1-100)
– Games Workshop (and Citadel Miniatures)
– Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (and, to a lesser extent, Lone Wolf)
– British comics (principally 2000 A.D., but also older fare such as Action)
– British fantasy art (e.g. Russ Nicholson, John Blanche, Iain McCaig, etc.)
– British comedy (e.g. Monty Python, Blackadder, The Young Ones, etc.)
– J.R.R. Tolkien (of course)
– Michael Moorcock (e.g. Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, etc.)
– British heavy metal (Iron Maiden being very influential, though I much prefer the doom-y sound of early Sabbath)
There would certainly be other influences, including the books of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, British horror films (e.g. Hammer Horror, The Wicker Man, etc.), and British television (e.g. Dr Who, Blake’s 7, etc.).
principle principal [Whoops. Well spotted, SJB! – Ed.] games involved in the B-OSR would be the ones I’ve already listed above:
All of these games have new editions currently in print, or are available legally online. Of these, I feel Dragon Warriors fits the idea of a B-OSR best, not least because the PDF is available as Pay What You Want. Plus, as I said, it’s clearly influenced by B/X D&D, meaning it should play nicely with all the great OSR content out there.
In terms of what makes the B-OSR distinct from the A-OSR (and bear in mind I’m generalising here), I think it’s a couple of things:
– Historicity / Urbanism. The A-OSR has Hommlet and the Keep on the Borderlands. The B-OSR has Middenheim and Port Blacksand. Put crudely, the American OSR is a free market frontier fantasy (i.e. the Wild West with elves), whereas the B-OSR is coloured by the historical European urban experience. All of the B-OSR games above include details about things like crime and punishment, legal matters, guilds, taxes, bureaucracy, etc., whereas a game like B/X D&D is more likely to include rules on wilderness survival, hunting, foraging, etc. Of course, the A-OSR does include urban adventures (e.g. “City-State of the Invincible Overlord”), but they tend to be weirder and more fantastical, and less grounded in historical reality. Exceptions exist, and this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
– Class. All the suggested B-OSR games listed above include some kind of social class mechanic. British old-school games tend to be embedded in the historical feudal system, with more rigid class structures, more obvious inequality, and less social mobility.
– Grimdark. Blood, guts, disease, corruption, insanity, mud, shit, and piss. Critical wounds, mutilations, and fumble tables. Of course, B-OSR games don’t have to be played like this (and plenty of A-OSR games include such elements), but British fantasy gaming tends towards a darker, grittier feel.
– Comedy / Satire. Critics might rather call it “cynicism”, but there is a goodly-sized dollop of black humour in many early British tabletop RPGs. Bad puns abound, and Pythonesque grotesqueries lie round every corner. Moreover, the humour is often satirical in nature; the rich and powerful are invariably buffoonish or venal, the church is craven and corrupt, and the establishment exists to keep the working man (or woman) down.