Over the last day plus I embarked on the longest twitter thread I ever did post, an impromptu susurration about OSR games powered by caffeine and sleep deprivation.
Why I thought it was a good idea to do a completely unplanned top 20 list starting after midnight when I had to be signed in for work at 7am I will never know. What I can say are the 3 things that brought it about:
- My recent NSR post
- Someone else on twitter asking about OSR system comparative reviews
- Trying desperately to organize my dropbox, currently sitting at 29.74GB of roleplaying games alone
Thus was born an 80ish tweet long thread, which, I think we can all be honest, is not the best way to interact with twitter.
All that said, while I called it my top 20 OSR list that wasn’t quite accurate. What I wanted to do was talk about(mostly) fantasy OSR games, what makes the OSR interesting to those of us in the thick of it, and highlight some hidden gems. Below is a slightly cleaned up version of what I ended up posting. Please forgive that I simply don’t have the time for a full re-write, so twitter-isms will make it in. Also I mentioned things being more or less “NSR-ish” in here. I realize it may not have come off the way I intended, so for clarity: that was largely snark. I consider all of the games that I joked didn’t count as OSR as OSR, and arguments surrounding that term is why I’d rather just move to NSR as a catch all. All that said. 20ish games in no particular order, commentary in between, and manic humor as I fought off sleep. With some exception the default link for games will be the drivethru link. Many of these games are available through Exalted Funeral in the US, Melsonia for Europe, or itch.io should you prefer. This was born of my love for all these games, so do take the time to check them out at your preferred source and let the creators know what you think. Please enjoy.
The Thread Itself
All 6 classic stats but they’re roll under. Its secretly a percentile system! No saves or skill system. Spells are push your luck. You get a # equal to lvl and after every cast you roll to see if you keep. Armor is interesting in that the value is the number of attacks you can ignore before the armor stops working. Famous for usage dice, a clever way to abstract resources while tossing the excel sheets. Let’s say you have a d10 of arrows. Post combat you roll the d10 and if its 1 or 2 you now have a d8 of arrows, otherwise you’re still at full. You just keep the relevant die sitting on your character sheet, mark it down between sessions and thats it! Super simple to teach and play, a bit harder than others to convert items and monsters.
Its 7 glorious pages. 6 classic stats. No skills. No classes(forgot to mention black hack has classes but no races). Characters are defined by the items they pick up. A wizard is just someone whose using an inventory slot for a spellbook. A “fighter” is someone who finds and keeps a sword instead. Suuuuuper new player friendly. Roll over like most of these so the math is easy to port between other systems.
It was this minimalist masterpiece that first made me start questioning what the fuck even is the osr. It only has 3 stats. There are no spells. You dont roll to attack. Its a weird duck. And yet, it plays shockingly similarly to a lot of other games on this list. Kind of makes you wonder what sacred cows were keeping around out of nostalgia or bad assumptions rather than necessity. But I digress. 3 stats. Hp. You take the highest stat and hp and you crossreference those to get your starter package. Items “balance” the random stat distribution. Items are, much like knave(which was a child of this) items define magical abilities, although this game cares much less about inventory management.
It’s at this point, as I chug caffeine and regret my life choices that I should mention something important about the OSR and this list. It’s largely compatible. It might look all different, and some of it is. But if you go to 10 different OSR blogs that use 12 different systems, you can take the vast majority of the content and use it anywhere else. An adventure written for Labyrinth Lord(which shall get no love on this list I lie to myself) will most likely be run in something else. Spell lists can transfer with a little work. Same with items. Monster stats are written in minimalist shorthand because the number scales will change anywhere from subtly to drastically. So instead of a large 5e stat block you might see Average hp, damage dice, an ability or 2, loot, thats it. The systems are all light weight and flexible and encourage GM’s to think of themselves as designers, changing whatever is necessary on the fly. So, as I’m going through this list, consider. If you see something interesting for any single one of these games? You can use it with almost all of these games with little to no work. It takes a different mindset than something more clearly defined like pathfinder or adventurers league 5e etc, but thats kind of the point. And if you have questions? Ask! Me or the 100 far more talented people floating around will be happy to help. End digression.
Our first double hitter! This is a clear direct descendant of Into the Odd. 3 stats+hp. Unlike ItO you roll your way through character creation. No reference chart. Also you roll to attack. Difference between attack and armor defines the damage dealt. fwiw this is also one of my favorite things from the new warhammer fantasy. There is little more infuriating than rolling a critical hit only to see a 1 on the next die roll. THE WORST! You roll higher on the attack you deal more damage. Satisfying. Spells are rolled randomly and to create the name and the gm decides what it does based on the name. Keeps it interesting, although perhaps more so for single session dungeon delves than campaign play?(I believe the game was designed with that in mind so a success).
5) Whitehack by Christian Mehrstam
Whitehack is… wait what is that link?!?! So Whitehack isn’t available in pdf. It’s only available via Lulu, a print on demand site. There was a period before dtrpg became what it is today where Lulu was the primary way to buy and sell print on demand books, and Whitehack isn’t the only gem hidden away there. So what’s the deal? Whitehack is weird. It did some things early you might recognize, and experimented with some systems other games just don’t use. It has the classic 6 stats and hp. Classes are flexible archetypes with some overlap: the wise the strong and the deft. Its roll under like black hack, but unlike black hack what you roll under matters. In BH if your stat is a 16 theres no difference between rolling a 15 or a 2. In Whitehack that 15 is way better. All that said there are 2 unique things that make the game stand out. First, magic or miracles. The player says what they want to accomplish. The gm says how much hp that costs. Done. It’s incredibly freeform. The second unique thing it does is auctions. For special circumstances you do hidden rolls and bid. You’d do this for things like a competition or a chase.
6) Beyond the Wall by John Cocking and Peter Williams
Oh this game. I like all the games on the list but this one holds a special place in my heart. It is so unknown compared to other loves and punches so far above its weight class. Im gonna start somewhere I probably won’t with anything else on the list and that’s art. It has 4 artists, 2 of which you’ll probably recognize from other games: Larry MacDougall and Jon Hodgson. Larry recently funded the gorgeous Gwelf kickstarter and Jon you might recognize as the lead from a tiny unknown game Cubicle 7 put out called The One Ring. So fine. It’s a print on demand book that has good art. What does it do?!?! BtW does small village friends discovering the world like nothing else. At first glance it looks like a boring offbrand version of AD&D. 6 stats, hp, 3 core classes, yada yada. But then you get to the playbooks. They’re a group character creation system. A shared lifepath. The person on the left of you saved you from bullies when you were younger? They get +2 strength. Saved the village when you were younger? Maybe you were rewarded with a farm. Creating characters together also creates the village, sets the mood, provides the starting tone. It connects you all and gives a reason to care. You map your village together. Then, it does the same for the gm. It provides scenario packs that let you set up unique stories. Maybe it’s an angry fae, upset because the father of one of the characters, established during playbook settup, killed a protected deer. It gives you the threat, the reason it’s there, quests, weaknesses, events, all through random tables. It builds the whole world on the fly. And if you don’t believe me, ask Richard Ruane. He’s smarter and better looking and he went out and created a game based on it. So you know it must be good!(Regretting all those nice things you said about me now, aren’t you Richard?!?! This is the spot and I am putting you on it)
7) Mazes & Minotaurs by Olivier Legrand
Once upon a time Paul Elliot wrote an essay on rpg.net posing a pretty fascinating question. What if Gygax, Arneson and crew had been doing wargames in Greece rather than medieval knights? What would d&d look like? Olivier Legrand decided to answer that far more completely than I think anyone could have expected. He created a what if original d&d, a what if ad&d. He created a zine series to match dragon magazine. He made a massive megadungeon. He made supplements. And the kicker? Its all 100% FREE. … So thats it for this one. No explanations because it costs you nothing more than time to check it out. It is a massive amount of legitimately good design work. It’s thematic. And it works!!! Its a kind of magic
Old School Essentials is maybe the last of the retroclones, a new take on B/X with…sorry, whats that? “What is B/X? And what is a retroclone?” Oh. Oh! Well B/X and retroclones are ANOTHER DIGRESSION
In the early days of what would become the OSR, basically every game was a retroclone. They were reprints, sometimes with minor tweaks, of older editions of D&D. Importantly, different versions of D&D before 2nd edition. If you’ve come to D&D recently this may sound bizarre. We are on 5th edition. Before that was 4th then 3rd then etc. If we’re on the 5th, why are there so many more than 5 editions? It basically comes down to: TSR was figuring things out, and minor revisions have large implications in a rules light system. So you might see Holmes or Moldvay or BECMI referenced and these are different versions of old box sets. B/X stands for Basic/Expert and is the most commonly used rules base for OSR games. Basically? Don’t worry about it! It likely doesn’t matter to you. If it does, you probably already know most everything in this thread.
So back in the day, everything was retroclones. Sword & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Blueholme, and on. Some had minor tweaks, house rules etc. This has largely dropped off, first as WotC has released the official versions as pdfs, and second as people have taken the principles of the designs and used modern rules innovations(depending who you ask) to streamline them. Thus all the different variations in our list. Back to our #8. So along comes Gavin and releases B/X Essentials, what is YET ANOTHER RETROCLONE. A lot of people asked why and he basically said this. The rules are good, the presentation is bad. Let’s use layout innovations to make this eminently useful at the table. And then he did. One major tweak of note: B/X uses descending AC by default, which a lot of people hate, so it adds ascending AC as an option to match modern tastes. He then realized, as you might have, that B/X is a nonsensical term to anyone under 40 who isn’t attached to the OSR. Its nondescriptive and keeps people away. Thus Old School Essentials was born and there was much rejoicing. The layout is good. Real good. Everything is on 2 panel spreads. If you’ve ever been looking at the class you’re playing and had to flip back and forth between pages(and who hasn’t?) you can appreciate this. It is incredibly easy to reference, which means easy to use at the table. If you only get one retroclone get this. And if you turn your nose at retroclones? Still check it out. It’s the only one on this list for a reason.
DCC uses 3rd edition D&D as its base, I think uniquely within the osr. Really when talking DCC there are only 2 things worth mentioning, because they will either sell you on the system or keep you away regardless of the rest, and thats spellburn and funnels.
Spellburn. This lets a caster spend ability points to boost spells and if you roll poorly gain all sorts of bizarre corruption effects. This famous picture from DCC is your wizard on spellburn. A slow and steady descent into power and decay.
But me? When I think DCC I think funnels. See, you don’t start as level 1 heroes. You start as level 0 peasant shmucks. You EARN level 1 or die trying. All the players get 4 of these barely statted meat puppets with rakes and shovels and try to survive a meatgrinder. You will never have so much fun seeing characters die. My recommendation is try Sailors on the Starless Sea and never look back! Also, there’s a free character generator for your 0 levels. Print a lot of them!
10) GLOG by Arnold K
How do I explain this…
The GLOG is like a memetic virus that has infected large portions of the OSR.
Not wrong, but also not helpful? Ok. Let’s try again. The GLOG is a set of houserules that looks like a game and will make you do work but you will enjoy the work? I dont know. Here is Skerple’s homebrew of it, Rat on a Stick. And here are a bazillion people using it as the base of their monstrous castles of ideas. GLOG has interesting ideas about magic which translates into all these amazing people constantly pumping out content for it. At some point you just accept it and then you like it and then you start posting upsetting goblin faces as reactions in discord. And then?
Stepping back a second before I talk about this one. A lot of these rpg’s are technically setting neutral, but they do imply certain things. ItO is steampunk adjacent. Black hack has stats for future people with laser-guns. And every single one so far is at least flirting with high fantasy. But that isn’t the only tradition. Fantasy had Tolkien, but also Lieber. It has Elizabeth Bear, but also Scott Lynch. Let’s talk tropes. Magic is corrupting and mistrusted. Cities are dirty. The rich got rich by robbing the poor. Wounds fester. Duels area noble, they’re fought drunk outside bars for minor slights.
And thus we return to pick 11. LFG is a fascinating mix of old and new. It has 7 stats instead of 6, splitting wisdom into willpower and perception. They serve double duty, acting like Black Hack for most situations(roll under checks) but adding bonuses to roll over specific actions. It has a luck score used to do saves, and your luck gets used up and runs out over time. It has skills, like 5e, but the modifier is small. Its used mostly instead for rerolls on failures. The 2 things that earn it the low fantasy moniker though are injuries and magic. If you hit near death? Expect a broken item if youre lucky, or permanent damage if youre not. Torn muscles, scars, and pestilent wounds are some of the nastier things on the random table. Meanwhile any time you roll a 1? BAD THINGS. Sometimes you get lucky. You get a bonus to your next spell damage. But also maybe youre possessed. Maybe things go real bad you lose control and turn into a demon. The other PC’s are looking mighty tasty all of a sudden. If you want o try low fantasy for a change this is a really cool option.
Remember Whitehack and Black Hack? This is their baby, with adorable coffee stain style coffee themed art. So what makes baby different? How about this. At creation you get one each of all the main dice: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and then you choose what tables you want to roll them on for starting equipment. Food, wealth, weapons, armor. Take your pick, apply a die and see what happens. Usage dice are expanded to almost everything and called risk dice. The system is also now completely classless. When you create your character and when you level you choose what you want. Maybe it’s to do more damage. Maybe it’s to learn a spell. Maybe it’s to pick up more traits. You tailor your character to the style of play you want as you go.
The first thing you need to know for this one is there is a free artless version. I haven’t gotten a chance to read the new edition but given the premise that shouldn’t stop you. You are adventurers delving into nightmare incursions and looting the treasures that keep them anchored there. You can take the treasure back and spend it in town, improving access to goods and gaining status. 6 stats, 5(!!) alignments.
And we’re back to low fantasy! The interesting thing by this point in the list is that depending when all these games came out, new “tech” has proliferated out. So this has usage dice for instance. The system is roll under using 4 stats: physique, agility, intellect, and willpower. It has a luck roll, which in this game works by rolling the die type associated with your archetype(classes) and if you roll 1-2 something bad bad happens and the die gets one size smaller. One of the best things about the game though, despite being such a small thing, is complications. You roll some dice and have a problem. Maybe you have an addiction, or a secret. Maybe you owe fealty to an organization. Maybe someone powerful wants you dead. In all cases it adds that wonderful layer of grit on top of everything. The players are immediately connected to the word, and those connections are going to cause problems.
15) Neoclassical Geek Revival by Zzarchov Kowolski
The free version is linked above, but he actually funded different versions with different artists:
- The Luka Rejec Edition
- The Dyson Logos Edition
- The Chris Huth Edition
- The Alex Mayo Edition
- The Scrap Princess Edition
NGR uses 7 stats(strength, agility, health, perception, intelligence, charisma, will) using the same ranges as dnd. It lets you choose from a small number of species, and put points among the original 4 classes plus bard and fool. The more points you put into a single class, the cooler specialty stuff you get. But it’s an elegant way to deal with multi-classing. It’s an odd feeling trying to describe this one. I don’t think I’m doing the flavor justice. It as a…casualness? built into the language of the mechanics that makes it feel very very different. It gives the sense that the author didn’t like core dnd and kept doing house rules on top until the game was borderline unrecognizable, but also it still feels like it is a shift rather than something forged anew. I don’t know. Maybe it just feels like it’s approaching the same game but from a different perspective with very different expectations. It doesn’t read like anything else I own, and for that alone Id say its worth the time to download.
Prehistoric D&D. My god did this knock me sideways when I first saw it. If you haven’t heard of it but like Emmy’s newer stuff like The Gardens of Ynn or Stygian Library I’ll save you my nonsense and say go buy it. It’s just as insightful and just as clever. 6 stats and…whats that? Not just hp! So the first cool thing the game does is split hp into flesh and grit. The first is basically classic hp. Nothing bad happens if it gets low all things being equal. It’s a measure of exhaustion. But once you get to taking flesh damage, bad things happen. The game also gives you rules for attracting and growing a tribe, which is a really good downtime system but I am going to be lame and skip ahead to my favorite part. Magic.
Hey here’s a question. If the majority of D&D magic is memorizing spells from books, and humans havent invented books yet…
So theres basically 3 ways to deal with spells. The first is to cast within your sanctum using the images painted on walls. The second? You start casting there and then hold the spell almost but not quite done in your mind. Because magic isn’t so defined you can try modifying the effect. You also have to save against a magical backlash. Finally, you can bind magic in totems and fetishes and potions for later use. The game is wonderful. Also? Good dash of horror which I always love.
Look I told you earlier I was going to cheat, we’re like 60 tweets in and also Kevin isnt here to stop me. So this is happening. Important note: there are free versions of Godbound and Stars Without Number so if you are feeling overwhelmed at this point(I know I am!) download those and check them out later.
Kevin does this fascinating thing where he takes largely boring rules and just builds the most fascinating structures around them. Godbound is D&D but you are gods. You have specific words to define your pantheon, your wars span the world, but also if you’ve played D&D you understand most of the rules. Stars Without Numbers is D&D in space. It has amazing gm facing rules to run factions, it has some nifty ideas about ships and psionics and… but if you’ve played D&D you’ll understand most of the rules. Silent Legions is Call of Cthulhu with D&D rules. It has amazing rules to build your own mythos but…you get it. But heres the thing. All of these are incredibly modular. Want to create a new mythos for your Cthulhu Dark game? Silent Legions is great. Need factions for Mothership? SWN is still worth your time. It also means you can tailor these games incredibly easily. SWN for instance. It can do space opera, it can do science fantasy. Incredible.
Black Hack in spaaaaaaace! Look, I know I promised a fantasy list, and this is NSR territory, but Im at game 18 and reality is breaking down. Twitter hath become the event horizon.
In Golgotha you travel to the edge of known space to explore and loot the giant should be dead but are definitely not husks of technological behemoths. If you saw Rey climbing the star destroyer in Force Awakens and thought “this is the coolest shit” its that but with more things trying to eat you or shoot you or infest you.
This is horror fantasy. It’s inspired by Maze Rats, ye olde #4 from ancient days. It has 3 stats, and 2 resource pools: classic hp(titled vigour), and grip. Grip is kind of a sanity pool, and kind of a mana pool, and kind of morale? Here’s where I need to give the game some props. There is no monster book. There is advice on how to set stats, a bunch of abilities you can add on, and a great piece of advice. Don’t ever name the monster. Let your players do it. Horror works best from the unknown. I might not be afraid of the bear even if I should be, but The Creature of Teeth and Claw which Hides in Darkness? That thing is terrifying. The players don’t see “bear” they see claws move faster that the human eye mauling their henchman and they hear the wet sop of the body dragged away. Maybe down which is concerning since the ground is flat for what little the players can see. It knows what genres it wants to swim in and makes it happen.
This is not a game. Why is it here? Look, anyone who has been following me long enough will not be surprised by this. Its my favorite OSR book, Im obsessed with magic systems, I love implied settings, and I have yet to maintain the premise of a thread for the whole thing. But for all that, let me take a moment to convince you that not only is this not me cheating, this book being on this list is kind of the point of the whole list.
Through 19-ish previous products I have shown you variations on dnd. Variations which in many cases might let you play the same adventure to similar result. But they feel different. When you dont have complex webs of rules, small changes have large consequences. W&W can replace the magic system of almost any other game on this list. And those games will not be the same. What does it do though, this replacement magic system?
The basics(although the details are so very good) All spells are the same level. You get one spell per caster level. So a lvl 3 mage gets 3 spells. If something goes wrong a catastrophe happens. But heres the deal. All the spells are basically mini quests. They have knock on effects. Let’s take a look at one of my favorite examples, Trapped Lightning. Step 1: use a bottle or copper rod to entice lightning. Step 2: either keep it in a copper rod and brain people with it, or let the lightning go blasting everyone in its way as it leaves. So without catastrophes yet, already you have to prepare specialized items and get it all set up. Once you do, all sorts of amazing things can go wrong. Maybe an air elemental decides to chill in your throat and make everything you say boom out into the world. Maybe you spew forth water for a month and create a new river. Maybe you just expel all the energy out of you and light everything in fire.
But notice some of the words in there?
“Entice” wasn’t my word, it was the books. There is a secret setting. You are not a mage controlling the forces of the universe. You are a shaman going forth and convincing the elemental spirits that reside nearby to help you. They may appreciate it, or they may resent it, but either way it changes the nature of what magic is. It stops being purely tool and metamorphoses into communication, interaction, intent. It becomes magical.
All done but what the hell should you buy? My 3 recommendations on where to start if this feels like too much. These aren’t what I think are the best games period, but what I consider the best starting place.
- Download all the free shit. Theres no reason not to.
- OSE. This is the choice if all you want is the keys to the blogosphere. Getting the core book will give you most of the terms necessary to use most of the free content out there on most of the blogs. Patrick Stuart called B/X in a recent post the lingua franca of the OSR, and he’s not wrong.
- Black Hack 2e. If you’re coming from 5e and want to dip your toes in OSR play this is the one to get. Of the 120 odd pages, about 100 of those are gm tools and advice. It will teach you the style of play in an approachable manner.
After the Thread
So that’s it. A massive off the cuff thread about a bunch of games. As I said in the opener, I do regret joking about OSR or not OSR. It really all should just be called NSR. To that effect here is a short followup list of other games that if you like most anything on the above list will probably hit your fancy.
- Mothership by Sean McCoy
- Troika by Dan Sell
- World of Dungeons by John Harper
- The Rad-Hack by Karl Stjernberg
- Trophy Gold by Jesse Ross
- Offworlders by Chris Wolf
- Esoteric Enterprises by Emmy Allen
- Deep Morphean Transmissions by Emmy Allen
- Crypts and Things by Newt Newport
- Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyberborea by Jeffrey Talanian
- Cepheus Engine by Moon Toad Publishing
- Forbidden Lands by Free League
- Mutant Year Zero by Free League
- Symbaroum by Free League
If you have any questions about any of the games on the list, hit me up. And if you find something new you really like? Let the creator know about it and show them some love.
Happy holidays everyone!