OSR and the New GM

My superficial question is essentially “what game systems do you recommend for the new GM wanting to run a variety of published OSR adventures?” But I think that really only hints at what I’m interested in discussing.

Feel free to skip to the end for the TL;DR version.

From time to time I see people commenting on various game systems and stating that they support the GM or that they wish that the system did a bit better at supporting the GM. What does this actually mean in practice? Does it have to do with the way heavier systems go into detail in laying down rules and guidance on managing the system’s bits and bobs? DCC’s core book is something close to 500 pages. Knave is what… 7? And out of that approximately half the page count belongs to tables and the spell list. Personally, I’m really attracted to low-complexity systems that do what they need when needed but otherwise stay out of the way, so I’ve been looking with interest at a lot of the rules light systems. But I’m also really inexperienced and suspect that while a rules-light system might be ideal for me in the long run, they might leave me floundering as I learn the basics of running games. What should I really be focusing on to make life and learning a new skill set easier?

Related to this, I read a post on The Alexandrian blog titled “System Matters”. It discusses how, “Arneson & Gygax spelled out a very specific procedure for running dungeons in the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons” and then contrasts that against the current D&D5e beginner adventure, “The Lost Mines of Phandelver.” The author claims that Phandelver does a great job for the new DM in many areas, but then:

…the step-by-step instructions for how you’re actually supposed to use this material? It simply… stops. The designers clearly expect, almost certainly without actually consciously thinking about it, that how you run a dungeon is so obvious that even people who need to be explicitly told that they should read the boxed text out loud don’t need to be told how to run a dungeon.

And because they believe it’s obvious, they don’t include it in the game. And because they don’t include it in the game, new DMs don’t learn it. And, as a result, it stops being obvious.

My own experience was an attempt to run a D&D5e adventure for my teenage kids. The kids had fun. I had fun. That’s a success, right? But, despite the immediate fun of the session, the experience left me really dissatisfied in a number of ways—the juggling of monster stat-blocks, the focus on balanced encounters, and the struggle that new players have in terms of learning to use their character mechanics, to name a few—and motivated my discovery of Dungeon World, PbtA, and—off on the distant horizon—old school games. DW and AW brought into focus a lot of GM ideas that which were completely new to me despite having spent a couple months reading up on how to run a D&D5e session. From there Jason Lutes’ DW supplements introduced me to some old school ideas, like higher lethality, lower-fantasy, and more exploration focused adventures. Finally I’ve been dipping into the weird and less stereotypically fantasyland material of OSR modules and it’s been really exciting. But I haven’t a clue how to approach learning to run this stuff.

TL;DR Highlights

The resources for learning how to run PbtA games are readily apparent, both from the books, themselves, and from supplementary materials within the community. But approaching old-school RPGs isn’t as clear to me. I guess what I’m looking for is insight into the following concerns from an OSR & OSR-adjacent perspective:

  • Support for beginning GMs
    • Which systems provide a greater or lesser degree of it?
    • What supports exist, or what does it actually mean for a system to be easier to run?
  • Running of published old-school adventures with minimal adaptation
    • What things make a system more amenable to running existing modules?
  • Trade-offs between rules light systems vs more traditional retro-clones
  • What’s going to make a module easier or harder to run?
    • I absolutely love the madness of Silent Titans, but I have a feeling it would be a brutal experience for a new GM.
    • Tomb of the Serpent Kings states that it’s primarily a teaching dungeon for new players rather than new GMs.
      • What makes it less suitable for new GMs?
      • What are some adventures that are more suitable for new GMs?

If you’re still here, thanks for reading. And thanks in advance for any insight you share.


I recommend Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. This book is focused on how to get the most out of prep for a D&D style game.


Start with the classics.

Grab the 1981 Moldvay Basic book. In less then 100 pages it’ll get you started. Try reading B2 Keep on the Borderlands as well.

It worked for me back in 1984 and classic gaming hasn’t really changed.

ToS is one set of views on how classic adventures work. I suspect as a GM you might find the Principa Apocrypha helpful.


I second Principia Apocrypha. I’ll also add that the following blog posts by the designer of Into the Odd really helped me in how I approach running OSR games:

A Procedure for Play describes how to handle pretty much any situation that can be distilled to an interesting dilemma, but I think the example in this Twitter thread really helps crystallize the idea. (It actually feels very Powered-by-the-Apocalypse-ish to me: “Offer an opportunity, with or without a cost” as an entire approach to play, with some light resolution guidelines on top.)

The ICI Doctrine is basically offers an unwritten rule that you should be generous with information so that players can make informed decisions that matter.

A Player’s Handbook describes a specific style of play that feels peculiar to OSR games, to my mind.

It may be worth noting, since you said you want to use this for a variety of OSR games, that Into the Odd itself is not built to be “compatible” with many D&D-style OSR games (e.g., you can’t just use the same stat blocks, but there are easy enough ways to wing it). Still, this advice applies to a variety of games and systems, in my experience.


I agree with Gus that Moldvay Basic is a good basic version of D&D, and seems to be the most common starting point for retro clones. I think everything about the book holds up today.

LotFP Grindhouse Edition is one the best modern introductory OSR rulesets, which seems weird because it’s marketed to adults and is full of blood and guts and dongs. There are two books in that boxed set that haven’t been republished yet. A Tutorial Book and a Referee book. Both are really fantastic. I wrote a review about that set a long time ago now. There is a lot of positivity to them which I liked a lot, but is totally and hilariously incongruous with the art. I think you can grab both as PDFs. (The current LotFP rule book is really nice, but it assumes you know everything about running a game. There isn’t even an introduction, it opens with how you rolls your stats! And I’m not sure what the new referee book will be like in tone when it finally sees the light of day.)

I think the Blackhack 2e is what I would use now to run something close to D&D. The system is quite simple and hews close to D&D. It has the procedures of play for dungeon crawling, hex crawling, etc, all spelled out explicitly. It takes what made the first rule book so great and fleshes it out with an eye to the beginner.


First off, thanks to everyone for the responses.

@Deckard: I’ve heard of that one but haven’t read it… adding it to my list. Thanks for the suggestion.

@Gus.L & @funkaoshi: Would you reach for the actual Moldvay copy—looks like PDF is on DriveThruRPG—or Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials/Old School Essentials versions?

@Gus.L: Thanks, as well, for the Keep on the Borderlands suggestion. You mention ToS as “one set of views”—do you find it opinionated, or have a strong preference for an alternate set of views? If so, I’m interested. I know it probably seems a bit chaotic, but I tend to learn things by seeking out opposing views and attempting to absorb the perspectives and then try to make sense of the conflicts/contradictions.

@JasonT: I really like Into the Odd’s approach. It seems light, fast, and like it will just get out of the way. The one session playing with it in Silent Titans wasn’t enough for me to really have a good sense of it in play, but I love the book. I read the Player’s Handbook prior to that session, too. Good stuff. Looks like I’m going to be spending a fair amount of time reading through Chris McDowall’s blog—thanks for the starting point. Perhaps it’s mentioned in the links you cite here—I haven’t read them, yet—but is there specific advice around on how to approach converting modules to run with Odd? I think you mentioned the option of switching to Knave for hassle-free running of published modules.

@funkaoshi: I’ve actually previously done a quick read/skim through the LotFP Grindhouse referee guide to get a sense of what’s there. I haven’t seen the tutorial, though. I’ll have to see if I can track it down. I picked up the current core rule book for $2 recently thanks to the current sale.

Thanks again, everyone.

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In case you haven’t run into it before, I put together a document with all the Into The Odd stuff I’ve found since buying the book:

Into The Odd Syllabus

I hope it helps; let me know if I’m missing anything!


@yochaigal That’s new to me. Thank you very much!

I’ve seen conversion advice from Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which is pretty close to the Basic/Expert “B/X” edition of D&D, which is what a lot of OSR stuff is based on). I found more involved than I’m willing to deal with. Mostly I just say that monsters have 10 in every stat, or 15 in any they should be good at and 5 in any they should be bad at, with as many d6’s of Into-the-Odd-HP as half their hit dice. Into the Odd’s designer suggested a pretty different approach for converting from 5e, though.

As for switching to Knave: I do see the huge library of compatible material as a big advantage to Knave and other “OSR compatible” games, and Knave had some subsystems that worked well for a particular game I was working on. At the end of the day, though, I’m still working on (not one, or two, but) three Into the Odd hacks, in addition to two hacks I’ve already made of other people’s games with it, and I’m practically jittering with excitement for the Electric Bastionland Kickstarter—so I can’t say I’ve really “switched” away from it. :slight_smile:


I think the original Moldvay Basic is quite good. Now that it’s back in print I’m not sure I see the point in retroclones that hem too close to the original, because the original was pretty great. That said, Gavin Norman’s version does seem quite nice.

I think the Grindhouse stuff might exist as PDFs now. Otherwise it’s a bit of a collectible at this point.


Thanks for the conversion info. That’ll be really useful as I figure out what’s actually relevant/important in converting.

I’ve heard mention of Electric Bastionland several times. The only playtest version I’ve turned up was from, I think, 2017, though. Any word on when it’s going to hit Kickstarter?

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Tentatively planned for November, I believe.


I’ll disagree with @funkaoshi here - which is rare. I think the 1981 Moldvay is far superior to LotFP. LotFP makes some interesting changes to Basic and most are cosmetically or even mechanically good (ascending AC, and a better encumbrance system), but other changes add to the ways that B/X* combat breaks down in mid-levels due to AC inflation and the quadratic wizard complaint. When starting out this isn’t an especially pertinent concern, but I think LotFP, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord and such will all scratch the same retro-clone itch more or less equally well.

The reason I recommend 1981 Moldvay is because it’s both what everyone is copying and because it’s a very concise teaching text for classic play.

You asked about ToSK - well it’s not my bag. I feel bad about offering even these critiques given how popular it is. The heart is in the right place, but it misses a lot of the more useful slightly deeper understandings that help a GM understand the why and how of classic play - why is timekeeping important? why is encumbrance and supply important? how does XP=GP work and how does it motivate play? What are factions and why are they important in a dungeon crawl?

Again it’s not bad, it’s a largely linear vanilla fantasy tomb dungeon with simplistic ‘lessons’ (e.g. “Dungeons contain oozes”) that aren’t especially effective at aiding a GM running it. Running through it won’t hurt, and if your players think D&D should be like WOW it might even help.

I think you could just as easily run something with more interesting aesthetic like ASE, Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine, or Ultan’s Door that would offer your players more wonder and joy while “teaching” the same lessons as well as a few better ones. I don’t want to be harsh though, ToSK is fine, you could do much worse.

*B/X means Basic/Expert - the Moldvay books and arguably the Mentzer ones that followed aka BECMI)


That’s exactly the kind of info I’m looking for. Now, after I finish reading ToSK, I can go on to read the 3 others you mention with the context of your comment—just helps me focus a little deeper conceptually, as well as adding to my library.


Wait, we don’t disagree! I also think starting with Moldvay basic is the way to go. I was just pointing out that parts of the (now out of print) Grindhouse boxed set make for a good introductory text as well. Black Hack lacks the exposition, but includes explicit procedures, which is also good. I think now that you can get Moldvay Basic as a PDF without jumping through so many hoops, it makes some other retroclones less interesting. (Like Labyrinth Lord.)



Let me have a minor disagreement about retro-clone mechanics with ya! :wink:

You can pick Moldvay B/X on DriveThru for $4.99. Someone gave it a one star review because they confused it with the Red Box Edition which I find funny. “It only goes to level 3!”


@Gus.L (Dangit… I keep hitting the bright blue “Reply” instead of the monotone threading “reply”…) I saw that when I picked up the PDF last night. Funny. I grabbed copies of the adventures/dungeons you mentioned, as well, though I already had Ultans.

I’m in collecting mode right now, but all the info I’m getting here is giving me a sense of context on how to approach my increasing mound of materials to consume.

I feel like I should throw something out there to get you two to semi-disagree again, so I can hear more arguments that aren’t really arguments. It provides useful context which helps me make sense of things.

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I did manage to find a copy of the Grindhouse Tutorial and added it to my stack. Thanks!

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Well I do have a Dungeon Crawl Theory blog that I update every few months with a long essay. Plus my old blog with 500 or so posts of maundering, play reports and mediocre setting fiction. Ram has his blog as well which includes the most glorious of character generators and is OF COURSE the one and only home of the RAMMIES.

If you enjoy Ultan’s (and I did do the map, play a few sessions in Ben’s game so I am promoting it to a degree) Ben’s blog has excellent theory and such as well.

Old Blog:
Ram’s Blog:
Ben’s Blog:

There are lots of other great older blogs as well that get into a lot of theory discussions.


Oh, nice. Thank you for the links!