Monday, February 11, 2013

Why the OSR is Rather S&M

Okay, so the "Old School Renaissance" (or Revival) is on a roll right now.  Serious efforts are being made to bring back the days of D&D gaming from the original D&D up through AD&D.  There are quite a few products out and more on the way.  In addition, Wizards of the Coast is pouring gasoline on that fire by reissuing earlier D&D products as pdfs.

But I still don't understand the appeal of the early editions of D&D, particularly the pre-AD&D ones.  When I played D&D for the first time (back around 1978) my friends and I thought it really sucked.  My take away was that it was basically an exercise in sado-masochism.  Sadism is inflicting distress on other living creatures for enjoyment; masochism is the desire to receive said distress.  So what does that have to do with early D&D?  Allow me get all controversial here and provide a couple examples:

Straight-up 3d6 rolls for attributes.  This frequently has two negative results: getting stuck with one or more very low attributes and/or not being able to play a particular class because of those low attributes.  The sadism part is deliberately setting people up to have crap dished out to them by the dice and constantly play a class they don't want to play; the masochism part is coming back for more of this abuse over and over

Class level caps.  This creates a "glass ceiling" for certain classes, typically the demi-human elves and dwarves.  The sadism part is the arbitrary imposition of a level cap, apparently along racist lines; the masochism part is playing a class which is ultimately doomed to 2nd-class citizen status.

BTW, I recently bought Adventurer, Conquerer, King System (ACKS) which commits these and other sins.  However, I bought it for the interesting economic and political rules and will be doing a full review in a bit.


  1. I'm not sure S&M is the best metaphor, but I'll run with it. I enjoy OSR games because, after years of playing 'vanilla' games where the heroes are uniformly superhuman in their ability scores, you can play whatever class you want, and people rarely die, vanilla games have gotten boring. Give me shitty ability scores, vancian casting, and save-or-die poison; I want a challenge sufficient that when I do finally make it to 9th level, I can look back over the list of dead PCs and say "I earned this victory, though blood, luck, and cleverness. Mostly blood. I kicked ass to get here, and I deserve to feel awesome for it." In systems where awesome is the norm, I have a hard time feeling a sense of accomplishment or victory; these are merely expected and the norm. I won't argue that OSR games aren't rough, but I would perhaps argue that the point of a "Nintendo Hard" game isn't so much in the failing and sucking as in the fact that without failure and real difficulty, victory feels hollow.

  2. I understand what you're saying. I prefer to start with non-heroic abilities and grow through tough challenges as well. I just think that better rules exist now to get that sort of challenge without going back to the old school D&D. In the Pathfinder game I started it's clear the character power levels ramp up fast. It really takes work to keep it really challenging and gritty.