Fantasy OSR and NSR games
This is a list of OSR and NSR roleplaying games, as well as some games that don’t really fit either description but are often mentioned whenever the topic comes up.
It is rather difficult to introduce the concept of OSR because, since its introduction over 15 years ago, it has become somewhat nebulous: a diversity of its manifestations is accompanied by conflicting orthodoxies and anti-orthodoxies. What is widely recognized as the uncontroversial essence of the OSR phenomenon is represented by the first two letters of its acronym: the OSR movement is defined by its relation to the so-called Old-School games. (The R, on the other hand, is variously expanded as Renaissance, Revival, or Revolution.)
It is less certain how this “old-school” category is to be understood: one popular approach conceives it as coextensive with Dungeon & Dragons games published by TSR, Inc. from 1970s to 1990s; but another tendency includes many other games from the same time that shared certain common design traits. In any case, the oldest and most prominent type of OSR games are the “retroclones”: modernized restatements of the rules of these classic games, sometimes streamlined and tweaked, but generally aiming for high compatibility with the original mechanics.
To complicate matters further, according to a frequently voiced opinion, OSR is not tied to any specific rulesets or game mechanics, but refers mainly to a spirit or a style of play. Its defining features include a focus on player skill (rather than character skill), the role of the Dungeon Master as a neutral arbiter, an emphasis on exploration and problem-solving, and a largely minimalistic and free-form attitude to game mechanics, embodied by the motto “rulings, not rules”.
Since OSR proliferated as an online phenomenon based on the free exchange of ideas between the fans, it developed another important characteristic: the ethos of DIY, open source, and personal creativity. Many published OSR products are so-called “hacks”: innovative modifications of existing rulesets (in fact, some of the most popular releases at the present are hacks of hacks of hacks!). Moreover, the players using these rules are encouraged to freely pick and mix between mechanical elements of various systems, rather than follow any single one of them to the letter.
This DIY and hacking mindset led to a formation of a category that can be viewed either as a subset of the OSR proper, or as a separate parallel scene. It is variously called NSR (New School Revolution), Nu-OSR, post-OSR, or “OSR-adjacent”. Again, there are multiple divergent definitions out there. But I think it’s best to understand the NSR strand as characterized by the focus on mechanical innovation, a more adventurous approach to settings, and a lack of strict mechanical compatibility with the original games of the 1980s. The NSR systems are often minimalist and treat the actual old-school games as sources of inspiration rather than dogmas to be followed.
I don’t claim that my list can serve as a reliable guide to this confusing landscape. However, it may provide insight into what is popular and most frequently recommended.
Because actual old-school games cannot be considered OSR by definition, there are no TSR products on the list, and no Tunnels & Trolls or The Fantasy Trip either. However, after some deliberation, I decided to include the games falling outside the D&D lineage, such as RuneQuest and Traveller derivatives. More controversially, there is also at least one title that isn’t OSR by any metric, but was so frequently and consistently suggested in my sources as an alternative recommendation that it managed to squeeze in: Shadow of the Demon Lord.
I restricted the list to the games with (explicit or implied) settings that could be conceivably described as fantasy. I plan to publish another list with OSR-style games belonging to less standard genres in the future.