IN HIS OWN 1978 "SPECIAL REFERENCE WORK," The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, Gary Gygax wrote;
Considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on...(e)xploration, travel, and adventure in the "world" will eventually reveal the secrets heretofore hidden, and the joy of actually earning them will be well worth the wait. (p. 7)
This is an early articulation of the "three pillars" of classic Old School gaming: combat (the "adventure" part, the joy of getting your character into and out of scrapes), social interaction (the "travel" part, encountering all the odd NPCs with their quirks and motivations), and exploration. Really, all of this can be summed up as "discovery," and it was the thrill of discovery that kept players coming back to the table. Combat was part of it, but not as much as it would become in the decades ahead.
The Old School Revival or Renaissance (with a nod to George Lucas we might even call it "Return") is about the rediscovery of discovery. Instead of well-lit dungeons where half the party has infravision anyway, these are darker delves where your torch is your best friend (one of my favorite treatments of the "light is your best friend trope" is in Veins of the Earth). Instead of building a character, players roll them, and their "feats" and "bumps" will largely derive from what magic items they uncover. And instead of GMs planing narrative arcs and engaging in hours of world-building, the entire gaming group gets the thrill of discovering the world as they go along.
Now there is a lot of creativity in the OSR, but every now and again a product comes along that knocks you back on your heels and plants a grin on your face. Recently for me, a series of three books--On Downtime and Demesnes (2019), Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas (2021), and Bestial Ecosystems Created by Monster Inhabitation (2022)--did just that. I will let you, dear reader, work our the acronyms of those titles for yourselves. These are the brainchildren of one Courtney C. Campbell, who author's bio in the first work captures the flavor of the writing in general.
System agnostic, these books would make wonderful additions to a brand-new OSE campaign just as easily as they would a 1st edition AD&D game that has been going on for decades. I have even used bits of them in my RuneQuest campaign. It doesn't matter what "Old School" game you are playing. You want these.
The first volume, ahem, OD&D, is completely dedicated to what characters do when not in the dungeon. It focuses on creating villages, towns, and cities, on making them logical and believable, but chiefly on making them fun. With ideas ranging from "Influence" (characters building up power bases as they settle in a community) to what to do with all that gold (philanthropy? research? orgies?), it is simply brimming with brilliant ideas. One of the earliest, "Navigation," was a sort of lightbulb moment for me that I was embarrassed to confess to never once having thought of in running and writing RPGs for decades. Basically, it takes time to get around a city, and characters get lost. The bigger the community the more time it takes. Trust me. I have lived in Tokyo for a decade and I still get lost on a weekly basis.
There are rules on gaining optional skills and talents, but making them location and character-based, not generic class features. There are rules on henchmen and hirelings, there are hundred of quirky random NPCs. All of them clean, simple, and self-contained. The book is a buffet to add spice to your game.
AD&D (Courtney's book, not Gary's) has a subtitle that had me doing a spit take with my coffee, "Killing Characters Fairly." Like OD&D, this is a compilation of ideas, rules, and suggestions, this time on how to make hazards, traps, and encounters...fair. I don't mean "balanced!" Again, this is Old School philosophy. But as the author says on the back "No longer will your players complain about traps or unfair encounters. Now when they meet their doom, they will blame themselves for their own foolishness!" It is filled with images and examples of rooms one might encounter in a dungeon, truly devious traps that if players are cautious and logical they should be able to get around, and the kind of hazards (natural and not) that can get you killed while adventuring.
Finally, BECMI. This book is dedicated to the monsters, but this is not a collection of stats. Instead, Campbell goes monster by monster alphabetically, covering all of the truly classic beasties, and offering suggestions of how to make them different for each campaign. In some cases there are four, five, or six pages of clever ideas. Essentially, these prompts get you thinking, ensuring that players will forever be on their toes. Do unicorns, for example, "gain their power from the chaste and pure of heart" or are they "warlike fae sustained by bloodshed, righteous fury, and fanatical zeal?" There are scores of ideas, some dark, some comical, but mainly clever.
We are told not to judge books by their covers, but these are really evocative and quirky, throwbacks to the eerie and awesome game art popular in the pre-Dragonlance days. The art wraps around, so on the shelf they really stand out.
These books are currently available on DriveThruRPG in PDF and print-on demand. I link the bundle here, but scroll to the bottom of the page for other buying options. There are terrific examples of the energy and creativity coming out of independent and community content creators, at a time when we need to remind ourselves how valuable those folks are.