Stuck Between Worlds | OSR vs. Modern D&D

Modern vs. old school D&D and why you shouldn't pick just one.

Polyhedral dice close up.

I love D&D. I love the kind of D&D you see streaming on Critical Role. And I love the old school style of play you find on more niche streaming channels. I enjoy modern adventures like Wild Beyond the Witchlight. And I enjoy old school dungeon crawls like In Search of the Unknown. For some, these styles of play are so different from one another as to be incompatible. You either like one or the other. Not both. That is the point of the social media age after all—love one and hate the other. And thus I feel stuck between worlds.

But we know it's not that cut and dry. If you took either "modern" or "old school" styles at face value by what you see on social media, you'd be mistaken. The loudest voices from each wield a megaphone of ignorance, hate, and vitriol. And that's what the algorithm will promote to your feed. So we need to discard that and get to the good stuff.

Before we can, what the heck do I mean by "modern" and "old school" styles? They're hard to define. Luckily, smarter people than myself have tried.

Let's start with "old school." It's often referred to as OSR—old school renaissance or old school revival. Ben Milton characterizes it well:

"The more of the following a campaign has, the more old school it is: high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system (usually XP for treasure), a disregard for 'encounter balance', and the use of random tables to generate world elements that surprise both players and referees. Also, a strong do-it-yourself attitude and a willingness to share your work and use the creativity of others in your game."

I haven't found a great definition for the more "modern" style of play. So I'll offer up an overly-simplified one:

Modern games tend to focus on a tighter narrative, centered around the player characters, their stories, and decisions within the setting.

As you can see, modern isn't the opposite of old school. And that's an important thing to note. They're more like a Venn diagram—a lot of overlap.

On social media, it's not unheard of for modern players to associate "OSR" with fascists, racism, and bigotry. On the flip side, it's not unheard of for old school voices to associate modern-day D&D with censorship, hidden agendas, and gatekeeping.

Neither is true. But unfortunately, some of the loudest proponents of each "style" of play absolutely fit that mold. Block them and move on because the style of play you associate them with requires none of their BS. And you might even find something you like.

Best of Both Worlds

If you're interested in more information, I've added some recommendations below for just a taste of what other styles offer. Remember that OSR vs modern isn't binary and many of these resources aren't purely one or the other. Rather, they can introduce you to new ideas.

Curious about what the OSR can offer your game? Read Principia Apocrypha. It's so well done and encapsulates principles and axioms of old school play in small bites. It's free and you can read it in a day or less.

Curious about what modern D&D can offer your game? A lot of modern products are lightyears ahead of what was being published during the early years of D&D. And they're not antithetical to old school play. I've added a few examples below:

  • The Monsters Know What They're Doing. Keith is King when it comes to understanding monster design and extrapolating tactics to fit. Add flavor and deadliness by reading his stuff.
  • Xanathar's Guide to Everything and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. Stellar magic items and loads of awesome random tables.
  • SlyFlourish's The Lazy DM's Companion is one of the most valuable tools for anyone running D&D. Immerse yourself in concise tips and tons of random tables.

Don't block out play styles different than your own because of internet impressions. You'll miss out on a lot.

The best advice for finding and building what you like is offered by Bruce Lee:

Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own.

Play how you like and enjoy it with good people.