The common narrative of OSR gaming is all wrong!

Boom! Giant exaggerated boast from someone who didn’t really know what B/X was until eight years ago and who never understood or played AD&D to this day.

But hear me out. The common narrative that I’ve always seen being discussed about oldschool roleplaying, classic dungeon crawling, and how the game was originally played in the 70s and 80s has it that the game is really all about going in and out of big dungeons, outsmarting and slaying monsters, and coming back out with huge hauls of treasures to piss away for ale and wenches. And then do it again until your number comes up. All like Conan, and Fafrad and Grey Mouser. Don’t fight the monsters. That’s really a fail state. Just be smart and grab as much gold as you can. That’s where all the XP come from and how you stay alive while doing it. That’s how Gygax meant the game to be played the right way.

And that all seemed fine and great. Easy to understand all makes sense.

But also clearly can’t be true.

Having decided to try my hands on a 1st edition Forgotten Realms campaign with Old School Essential Advanced rules rather than AD&D (because I have no clue how to decipher that editorial train wreck), but otherwise trying to stay true to the campaign setting as players would have received it before the 2nd edition overhaul, I checked the 1st edition Player’s Handbook to see if paladins and druids could possibly work as PCs in my campaign concept with all their weird special rules. And yeah, druids could be viable PCs, as are rangers, but paladins really seem incompatible with a wandering band of mercenaries.

The main reason I checked is because I wanted to be sure if the special rules for paladins in 1988 had already been as weird and convoluted like they’ve been discussed on the internet since I got into D&D, or if perhaps they were more sensible and paladins just made way more sense back then. After all, it’s second edition that turned the grim Forgotten Realms into a cloying dystopia of quaint and pastoral happiness. It would make sense that they go all overboard with paladins and making them Lawful Stupid. But to my surprise, no. The rules for paladin’s were already very restrictive even back in 1978. They are not too bad, and actually pretty clear and straightforward. But they include such thing as “a paladin will only associate with Good PCs” and “a paladin may only join a group with Neutral PCs as a one-time exception if the adventure is for a holy cause”. Also, paladins must give 10% of their treasure to charity, and may not take a greater share than what they need to make ends meet.

Wait a minute? Isn’t this the game about wild groups of rogues and scoundrels being motivated by their greed for gold to drink and whore away? Sure, campaigns in which player’s aren’t allowed to play Evil PCs would probably have been the most common. But parties in which everyone plays only Good PCs should be extremely rare. But the PHB seems to assume that this is a perfectly reasonable expectation for a campaign of AD&D. Also, why do rangers have to be Good? And characters who are not allowed to have wealth in a game that is all about hoarding wealth? And again, this is 1st edition, which came out in 1978, just four year after the first release of D&D. But the paladin goes back even further to the Supplement 1: Greyhawk, which came out even back in 1975, pretty much right on the heels of the main game.

Clearly, Gygax was having something very different in mind what D&D is than I’ve always been told for the last 10 years.

2 thoughts on “The common narrative of OSR gaming is all wrong!”

  1. The way you describe it up front – dungeon crawls & such: well, that was a lot of the way the game went when I started in 1980. But it wasn’t all of it. Not even in 1980 – at least not in my circles. My first ever campaign was soon spending maybe 1/3 of the time in town ‘doing stuff’. Only 1/3 to 1/2 the time was ‘in the dungeon’. Fights/combats in the dungeon weren’t that uncommon, and were mostly a lot of fun, but since most groups I gamed with were down there for ‘the money’ and ‘the exploring’ side of the fun, for every fight we had, we avoided at least 1, generally 2 (and it was more like 3 when we were 1st level). As the world developed along with the characters, the sorties into the Dungeon often became more directed, and then involved other locations around our originally undetailed ‘home base’, which grew into a very Lankhmar like city.

    Paladins and group alignment rules often got relaxed a little, but yeah: mixed parties with a Paladin got tricky very quickly. The group I first started with was large (20-40+ players eventually), with many players and several GMs, so it was more like a West Marches style game (if I understand that correctly). One GM in that group had an interesting world where Paladins could adventure with ‘any good’ and ‘any lawful but not evil’. So in that large group, PCs that fitted that criteria moved across into that GM’s games along with the Paladin (and later the Ranger + LN Cleric that were knocking about). Those games were more about cleaning out nests of ‘problems’, or doing missions for the “Lawful & Good” churches. There were plenty of ‘monsters’ and ‘criminals/bandits/etc’ to keep them occupied. Quite a different style of campaign that ended up spending 1/2 its time in town, and getting involved in some politicking between the temples and the guilds and the feudal hierarchy. And if we wanted different, we went with our other characters and did another Dungeon sortie in another part of the shared game world.

    …also, perhaps 4-6 of the players I tended to mix with (approx. 12-15 out of the larger whole) went in for adventures in the town, and just roleplaying the characters at pubs or gambling houses or whatever. Two of them started up businesses to provide a background income (they took the analogy of the AD&D 1e world to a gold rush environment seriously). So plenty of time was spent ‘outside the dungeon’.

  2. Is there a “common narrative of OSR gaming?” That’s not something I’d heard.

    The OSR, as a movement/phenomenon/whatever, has been splintered and Balkanized the last several years…at least five or six. There were always multiple, conflicting views of what the OSR was and meant, and how one would define “old school” gaming. Over time, different philosophies have congealed and hardened, with some proponents of particular paradigms becoming staunch factions of one concept or another.

    However, the “megadungeon” narrative was always a poor reading of the material. Or, rather, a very LIMITED reading grounded in literal interpretations of the game’s most primordial roots (i.e. the original LBBs of OD&D and…specifically…the procedures of play outlined in Book 3). Gygax dispelled those ideas in the DMG and various articles (both in The Strategic Review and Dragon)…some OSR aficionados “re-discovering” OD&D wanted to go through the same act of creation from the beginning, despite Gygax having taken his game OUT of the dungeon before Supplement I was even published (certainly at least as early as 1976). The wikipedia article on Greyhawk discusses the development of EGG’s campaign world and thusly his ideas regarding what “D&D play” was supposed to involve. His 1987 book Role-Playing Mastery is also highly illustrative of his play assumptions.


    That you’re only discovering this now probably says more about which sites you’re reading (or videos you’re watching) than the actual state of the OSR or its “narrative.” And that’s fine…everyone starts somewhere, and it’s only with the advent of the internet that interested folks can really start synthesizing all the unique bits and pieces of history.

    However, I would say you’re doing yourself a disservice by ignoring the original, first edition DMG. The rule system presented in the book is, generally, not the point of the book. Reading it will, instead, give you a glimpse into the Gygaxian mindset: the mindset of a Dungeon Master. The sections on forming and running campaigns is very instructional, as are his adventure writing forays PRIOR to 1985 (when TSR’s financial woes necessitated a sea change in the direction of material).

    Best of luck with your game.

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