As someone who is trying to dip my toe into OSR gaming right now, I have been having quite a few conversations online about the style of play and the general community that surrounds that style of play.
While doing my research and prep I have observed what I think is a disconnect between what many think OSR is (or should be) vs a modern 5e system. So what does OSR mean? OSR is Old School Revival (or Renaissance) which bases the D&D game on the early D&D editions. I have spent quite a bit of time over on r/OSR and on Discord to facilitate my discussions on how to structure a game. I came into this process thinking that OSR = Rules Lite = narrative forward design. Many of the OSR systems I have seen tend to pull back a lot of the rules and complexity that modern 5e has. I think the assumption that OSR is narrative focused is incorrect based upon the feedback I hear from the community. Ironically, it almost seems like the OSR community wants more tactical, more grit, more number crunching for battle with out-of-encounter RP to get out of the way. That seems counterintuitive to me when you are pulling away the more complex math and skills you might find in PF2e for example.
I wanted to take a break from 5e with my group because I feel like I am getting burned out on the load of prep that is expected of the DM. Im spending hours each week to prepare maps, NPC's, encounters, etc and my players just roll up to the table. Now my group is pretty evenly split on the role-play vs tactical battle divide of how they play 5e.
I was hoping that by picking some sort of OSR/NSR style game I could get a more fluid campaign going where we can collaboratively, all of us at the table, build the encounter and narrative together. For example, I want to run a hex crawl and then have someone, not even me, someone else at the table, be "the architect" to roll up a dungeon and encounter that they come across.
That doesn't seem to be the case. The general vibe I am getting from OSR players is that they don't really want to run a "campaign" or at least a campaign in the sense of a modern RPG. I almost get the impression of they want to "board-gamify" the play system, in the sense that each week you play the game is a different experience, but the same game. A different dungeon, but still a dungeon. A different experience as if you were to sit-down and play a board game each week. You can a different win/lose condition, but it is essentially the same game that hits the same beats each play session. Everyone keeps talking modules, etc., but I've played D&D sessions where it is entirely role-play with no combat at all, and playing of skill rolls. I dont see OSR/NSR bring that mechanic. Now, these are generalizations of course, but I am pulling from some of the "tropes" that I think are present in any RPG system and that I at least am observing around the "OSR play style" discussions.
Now, I think and hope I can still take this rules lite system and try to apply it to a more modern campaign approach with my group. I decided to focus on some mechanics I think that are lacking in 5e to try and give my players a new experience by focusing on some things I think D&D is not doing well right now, namely A) a hexcrawl setup where overworld travel maters and is dangerous and B) trying that foreground advancement where treasure and money matters to your growth as a player. Will it work? I dunno.
I think as a DM I can pull back on some of the perceived lethality that so many OSR gamers seem to enjoy. There was a great point one of my players made to me on discord the other day and it was in regards to player agency and this perhaps can distill down the OSR frustrations that some seem to be coming into the system with.
When I approached him with the idea of a randomly generated character and stats, he felt that was taking away too much player agency in telling their story. That is a very modern RPG concept. I feel like from my conversations many OSR players would argue that the player agency comes only after you create the character, not from the creation. Also, a legit concept I think, but if the system is so lethal that you can't get invested in that player story, it sorta defeats the purposes of having agency after creation. Who wants to built something when they could easily die 2 sessions in?
I think player death needs to be real, and I have had my fair share, but every death that I have had come to has been on the player's terms. They felt like their character's death contributed to the story or campaign, and it wasn't just another adventurer ticked off the list to be filled in moments later from a random generator. OSR likes to say that the world continues to move when the players don't. Modern RPGs can do that too, and I do that at my table, but that doesn't mean that the world has to continue to move at the expense of allowing the characters to also impact that world simultaneously.