Old School Baroque

December 22, 2022

Lately there have been an increasing number of new tabletop role-playing games coming out that are distinctly different from the Dungeons & Dragons retroclones popularized categorized as Old School Rennaissance or Old School Revival. These games eschew simplicity in favor of complex or complicated rules, and often have remarkable layout and design or gonzo themes. However, they still are directly influenced by rulesets and design themes from several decades ago. I think we can characterize these as "Old School Baroque."

I did not coin this term. The first incidence I can find of it is on a forum post on RPGPub in 2019. A more codified version of it appears in a more recent blog article that carefully examines trends in OSR RPGs. While both the forum post and blog article use the term rather tongue-in-cheek, I think it's appropriate to describe this emerging category of games.

The Baroque period of history was dramatic and a reaction to the Reformation. It leaned heavily into art and sensory exploration. The word "Baroque" is derived from the Italian "barocco" and is roughly equated to an abberation in or avoidance of logic. Where OSR games strive hard to adhere to the rules and themes of 70s and 80s Dungeons & Dragons, Old School Baroque games instead throw caution and tradition to the wind.

One example of these games would be the much-vaunted Mörk Borg. The layout and design are heavily over-the-top and the game's setting is richly, even brutally, apocalyptic. It leans into a death metal aesthetic that cries out to the senses. The rules are clearly influenced by OSR games that came before it, but they're stretched and torn in ways that might offend more delicate OSR sensibilities. It is definitely more rules-light than other games in the Old School Baroque genre, though.

Another game in this vein is Errant, which presents itself as being "rules light, procedure heavy." That latter clause is what really makes it more of an OSB game than an OSR game. Well, that, and the hit-you-in-the-face aesthetic. While the aforementioned "procedures" are explicitly called out as not being rules, they are effectively rules in how to run the game. Even though Errant itself has a unified core mechanic, those procedures generally run all over the place.

This is a fascinating new genre. I'm looking forward to watching its evolution.