Thursday, August 26, 2010

Proving Grounds of a Million Mad Overlords

A bit over a year ago (Friday, July 17, to be exact) I complained about the lack of outreach to potentially new gamers. Apparently, I should also start complaining about not having a million bucks because oh what a difference a year makes. Old conventional wisdom: box sets are impractical and led TSR to financial ruin. New conventional wisdom: box sets are teh awesome! It's like everybody and their grandmother has a box set coming out now. Troll Lord Games has something like a dozen of the things now, including rules, campaign settings, and adventure construction sets. The two biggies right now are, of course, the D&D Essentials starter set and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. Both of these are ostensibly aimed at new players. This is undercut somewhat in Flame Princess by the cost of the box and the game-store and online-order focus of Raggi’s distribution model, which seems more aimed at existing gamers, and the nostalgia-based design of Essentials. In spite of these issues, both boxes have contents clearly designed to get the neophyte up to speed. They both have a choose-your-own-adventure style introductory adventure (Flame Princess actually has two), they both sport simplified rules, and they both include an additional DM-run adventure as an example of how these games can be played.

Of course, I'm going to give the advantage to the OSR. Granted, it's a very slim advantage; the Essentials box is inexpensive, designed to grab the attention of lapsed gamers more likely to introduce the game to their children, and it'll show up in places where non- and lapsed gamers are likely to stumble across it. It's an exceptional piece of marketing, and is likely to sell 100 times more units than Flame Princess. And I, for one, hope this is a pessimistic prediction.

Still, I think the OSR has an inherent advantage in the simplicity and flexibility of its games. For instance, check out this character sheet that Robert gave out at the Old School game he ran at GenCon. In spite of the fact that over half the table didn't play these games regularly, we had no problem generating characters, even though there wasn't a single rulebook at the table. That's right, we did it all based on the character sheet and these other handouts. Now it is true, all of us were familiar with gaming. We were, after all, all attendees at GenCon. Still, making characters was a snap.

You can see this in Flame Princess as well. The last two pages of the rules book is an annotated copy of the character sheet, making it easy to understand what goes where and what rules apply to which parts. Even better, like with Roger’s character sheets, everything you really need is right there on it: skill rolls, to-hit numbers, even a quick and elegant way to figure encumbrance. If nothing else, the OSR is all about quick and easy.

It's going to be interesting to see where these developments take us. The starter set is, to the best of my knowledge, the only box set in WotC's Essentials line. Raggi still isn't sure if the next printing of his weird fantasy role-playing game is going to be in a box (which he prefers) or in strictly book form. 2011 should prove to be another very interesting year for RPGs in general, and the OSR in particular. And that's not even considering what Frog God Games might get up to.


Scott said...

I was hoping for Wizardry content. :)

Actually, I wonder how many non-D&Ders learned something very much like D&D from Proving Grounds ... I guess now the same thing happens with WoW.

Cole said...

I just love that if the priest is broke enough, he has nothing to wear but a barrel.

Roger the GS said...

No coincidence ... my d6 skills and line encumbrance are an adaptation/simplification/homage of Raggi's.

This is my party line on old school. It's useful because it taps a lingua franca. There are systems that make more sense, play quicker, and so on, but only one that almost absolutely everybody understands - if only from playing computer RPGs.

To this end my system wants to offer the peak point of maximum meaningful choice and minimum complexity. I'm not about promoting nostalgia for its own sake, be it crufty tables or wonky classes.