Sunday 1 October 2023

Old School RPG Thoughts

When I was young I was heavily into RPGs but, except for a few dabbles, I haven't played for a very long time.  I do have friends who still play and periodically I read up on the latest developments, especially on the OSR 'scene'.

So this departure from my usual wargames posts is another nostalgic indulgence, and although it probably won't ever come to any kind of fruition, I wanted to collect together my thoughts on running an OSR style RPG game.  Probably only for my own later review.

OSR Gaming

The Old School Revival, or Renaissance, is a an attempt to recreate the style of play from early RPGs, particularly TSR era Dungeons and Dragons. 

It's a loosely bound movement that in many ways is searching for a lost past that never existed.  Vainglorious fool's errand or not, this 'renaissance' has sparked a massive amount of creativity, much of which I personally like and feel an affinity to.  The OSR now runs from early retro-clones like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord to new divergent products like Into the Odd, Mörk Borg, Knave and Mothership.

The early attempts to explain the OSR philosophy came from Philotomy's Musings on OD&D or Matt Finch's Old School Primer.  Probably the most comprehensive statement to date is the Principia Apocrypha, David Perry's excellent assembling of OSR wisdom from Questing Beast Ben Milton and RollPlay: West Marches' Steven Lumpkin. Interestingly, the foremost champions of the OSR now are too young to have 'been there' in the 80s, and this probably accounts for the continued vitality of the movement.  

For an in depth discussion of the OSR's philosophy and history see Marcia B's The OSR Should Die.


To run my hypothetical a game I would probably use my original B/X D&D books, the retro-clone du jour Old School Essentials, or a mix of OSR concepts and modern mechanics like ShadowDark or 5 Torches Deep

West Marches

I would like to run a open world sandbox style of game with heavy emphasis on emergent play and exploration.  This concept was so brilliantly explained by Ben Robbins, in his seminal blog posts, that the West Marches name is now the archetypal shorthand for this way of running a campaign. 

West Marches: Secrets & Answers
West Marches: Layers of History
West Marches: A Survivor’s Story

The comments below the blog posts contain additional material from Ben. 

Matt Colville's video on the concept further revived the ideas by bringing them to a wider and less grognard audience. 

Steven Lumpkin's collection of West Marches resource links is here.

Point Crawls

Although the traditional style of play for such old school sandboxes was the venerable Hex Crawl, I prefer an approach using a linked matrix of locations joined by limited but intuitive paths.  I think it was Chris Kutalik, on his Hill Cantons blog, that coined the name Point Crawl to describe this type of structure but the concept had been around for ages and is very much how Text Adventure Games or the Fighting Fantasy books worked.


Here are some blog posts explaining the concepts and providing other handy GM advice for running sandbox or old school games.

Ars Ludi

Besides his iconic West Marches posts, Ben Robbins dispenses lots of great game design and mastery wisdom.  Here are just a few useful links.

Treasure Tells A Story - This is a great concept that is especially useful for West Marches exposition and when combined with the Three Clue Rule can point the players to undiscovered areas.

The Alexandrian 

Justin Alexander's blog is a mine of great material, far too much to list it all, but here, in appropriately Jennell Jacquays style, are a few entrances.

Jacquay(s)ing the Dungeon - A must read for sandbox adventure design.

Justin also has a book out soon, So you want to be a game master, which I have on pre-order and promises to be a nice synthesis of much of his blog advice.  His Alexandrian YouTube channel is worth a look too.

Other Blogs & Links

Point Crawls Series @ Hill Cantons - The Point Crawl concept explained

Why I Use Point Crawls More Than Hex Crawls @ Silverarm
The Wilderness is a Dungeon: Jaquaysing Your RPG Sandbox
A Web of Hooks: Quest Connections in a Sandbox Megadungeon Region

The Formless Wilderness @ Beyond Fomalhaut

Pathcrawl @ Detect Magic - A combinatio of Hex/Point Crawl

Guiding Player Movement @ Twenty Sided

Wilderness Hexes @ D4 Caltrops - A wealth of point ideas and lots of D100 tables too

Hex Crawling part 1 @ Prismatic Wasteland - Hex Crawling but useful ideas
Hex Crawling part 2

Settings series @ The Welsh Piper

Hexcrawls, Hex Maps, & Sandboxes Hexed Press PlayList on YouTube 

Not sure if I should run my game as a Hexcrawl or a Pointcrawl, would appreciate some guidance and perspectives. - A Reddit Post

Hex Crawls are Path Crawls @ Permanent Critical Damage

Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 1 - Introduction @ Sachagoat
Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 2 - Paths
Wilderness walls and halls: Streamlining hexcrawls @ Playful Void

Lots of great Dungeon maps @ Dyson's Dodecahedron


  1. Great post, and thank you for taking the time to include so many wonderful links. I'm a long time gamer (40+ years), who has been doing my own thing for so long, that I had missed much of the above.

    For me, your post has been been a bit like rediscovering a lost treasure. Thank you.

    1. Thanks. Glad you found the links useful. Questing Beast has a good newsletter that highlights what's new in the OSR.