OSR vs. Modern RPG Tabletop Games: Pros/Con
D&D has become more popular than I would have ever imagined in my youth. This is great for the RPG tabletop industry and RPG gamers. However, 5th edition of D&D / Fantasy is by far the most main stream. I grew up playing AD&D 1E, B/X, and BECMI primarily, and then Call of Cthulhu (1E-3E) with some Warhammer 40K – Rogue Trader mixed in. Today, our group play mostly OSR game/systems. I have played 5E and do enjoy it too.
There appears to be a pretty hardline with old school gamers in disliking 5E and Pathfinder / 3.5E. As with anything, there is a balance and OSR and modern systems (post 2000’s) both have pro/cons pending your gaming group preference. The strength of one system is the weakness of the other pending preference.
Here is a listing of my pro/cons from my perspective. I’m sure there will be disagreement – even from within our own game group which is fine. Play the way that you and your group have the most fun.
Less dice rolling.
Adventures – lots of dungeon crawling or location adventuring
|DM needs to determine balance and remember rulings
More character deaths.
Too many adventures on dungeon crawling
If you don’t have the core 4 classes, you’re probably going to fail at the adventure.
Focus is on leveling up, getting treasure, magic items.
|Modern||More game balance? With more rules
More character options (background, class, skills, etc.)
Can lend to max/min character optimization / building and some trying to find loopholes to power game.
Too complicated with too many options.
Too many expansion books to buy and to consult in.
I think a lot of it is how you do game balance in the session. Either the DM does the game balancing or there are rules that give you the guidelines to balance the game. OSR systems can lead to a lot of house rules and homebrewing as not everything is called out in the core rule books.
OSR systems are rules light. Less rules means less looking up some obscure thing in some supplement. As a result of less rules, there will be more narrative and description which results in more role-play vs. rolling skill checks with dice. Narrative descriptions makes the game more immersive and less meta. Many of the early OSR adventure modules were dungeon crawls and location based adventures. These make it a little easier for the DM to run as all you have to do is follow the map and run encounters based on the location the adventurers walk into. The focus of adventurers was gaining XP to level up via killing monsters, gathering treasure, exploring all the rooms etc. The only way to get more ‘power’ or skills was to level up so the reward system dictated the behaviour. However, playing a location / dungeon crawl adventure session after session can get boring after awhile. (at least for me). Adventures become a repeating formula of search for traps, kick down door, explore / loot room, fight monster, goto next room. The difference were different types of traps to get around and different monsters to figure out how to fight. Note: I do enjoy the Munchkin card game as that pretty much boils the previous point to a simple card game.
OSR adventures were typically deadly at earlier levels (like level 0-3). Miss a saving throw and you were probably dead. Not finding that trap would probably kill one of your party. We were on one adventure where the same pit trap killed our magic user and thief. Once you lost one of the core four classes, you were typically screwed for the rest of the adventure. No thief? Can’t open locked doors or find traps. No cleric? Everyone bleeds out after combat and basic undead monsters will tear your party up.
HP management would become a headache and barrier to the game then. No one wants to take risks when they are low on HP and you spend more time resting and being cautious than making progress in the game. Yes, this is realistic to actual life, but I don’t want to spend every game thinking about HP after every combat encounter. Resource management is important in the game, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus or main driving factor on decision making in every game. There are consequences to poor decision making (ie. poking the dragon), and injured characters need to be aware of their HP. However, if the game stalls because the party is severely injured, it doesn’t make for a very fun session. There should be a balance where you are injured but can continue the adventure at some pace vs. being injured and afraid of any encounters. This maybe a philosophical difference on Pulp / Super Heroic vs. Heroic adventures. Reference earlier blog article on HP recovery. However, if the adventure focus is survival, then resource management should be a focus area. Ie. stranded/lost in desert, adventuring thru the 9 Hells, etc.
Modern games (post 2000’s, Pathfinder, D&D 3.5E, D&D 5E) have more detailed rules on situations and character customization options (skills, feats, backgrounds, etc.). They try to put structure into everything so there is more game balance via the rules. I do appreciate game balance as power gaming drives me nuts. Making games rules heavy and results in a lot more books, supplements, expansions that you have to get. Trying to DM a modern system may you need to keep up with all the book and supplement releases which is annoying. I am also more of a traditionalist when it comes to character race options.
There are a lot of new race options for purchase in 5E, and it seems like a money grab in some cases. Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be interesting to play a goblin or a centaur like that where it’s a traditional fantasy race. I’m playing a gob rogue/killer in a different campaign system, and its quite fun. However, playing some sentient turtle magic user or some aquatic person or Iron Man type character is really too much for me. There are also a lot of classes and skills and feats and backgrounds and other stuff to add to character flavor. However, all these feats can lead to min/maxing a character and create some unbalanced characters in game relative to the rest of the party.
In 5E, character death seems to be a hard thing especially at higher levels. Recovering full health / HP after 1 long rest and then having like 3 death saves if you go below 0 HP seems a bit super heroic. Not having a fear of death changes the game play quite a bit on decisions made in game. I’m not advocating killing characters but not worrying about HP or death really changes the game dynamic.
More supplements and more books leads to the DM needing to get everything that comes out to keep up. With more rules/supplements, it can also lead to some players to turn into Rules Lawyers which no one likes. I’d rather players work with the DM to determine a proper game balance before trying to do something. For example, in one game we helped out a powerful wizard, and the wizard offered to enchant an item or weapons for us. As I was a relatively low level monk, I asked if I could get enchanted tattoos of protection. (this was like back in like 2017 or 2018 before the recent interest in enchanted tattoos for 5E). DM agreed to the enchantment with +1 enchanted wards of protection as I didn’t carry any weapons and used primarily martial arts unarmed attacks. As the character had a Yakuza type backstory, it fit the character too.
Best of Both Worlds?
As with many things, taking elements from both to balance out the game is best approach. Balance and flex the rules where it fits best for your gaming group so its fun and challenging for them. Put them enough danger and damage so they have to worry about hit points, but not instant kill them for failing a saving throw. Allow them to create characters with interesting back stories but have both strengths and flaws. Don’t limit them to just the skills listed in the core books. In one of the 5E campaigns I was in, we didn’t have a thief in the party nor a mage. So the DM allowed my monk character from earlier who had a criminal Yakuza background to do basic Thiefy stuff with a DEX check at a penalty. ie. open locks, pick pockets, basic skills that a criminal would have. Allow them to swap out core skills if it fits their character concept.
Taking elements from different areas will result in homebrewing a set of rules for your own campaign group to fit the play style of your crew. This can also be tricky pending the previous game experience of your gaming group. With our group, we started out with mostly OSR players as we all played like B/X, BECMI, or 1E/2E when we were kids in the 1980’s. Now as adults, we preferred playing OSR systems (S&W, C&C, etc.) as we were more familiar with the system. We have newer or younger members now who have only played like 5E as their only tabletop RPG or online RPGs while most of us older folks have played multiple systems. It does take a little time to get used to some of the OSR type of rules or style of play. For example, leveling up is fast in 5E and much slower in OSR games. Leveling up is usually only way to get more power in your skills. (there are rules on training to gain XP or additional skills)
Make it work for your group. The main goal is for everyone to have fun and create memorable experiences for the players and characters.