Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Old School the New Cool?

Mr. Lizard is a very clever guy. He recently started a thread at which accused the OSR of indulging in historical revisionism when it comes to how D&D was played way back when. He used terms sure to get the blood pumping (“rose-colored-backward-facing glasses”). He discussed the way people did play the game back then (in his experience) with how people talk about and play the game today.

But that was all just bloody chum in the water, an attempt to get a feeding frenzy stirred up. The point of his article, the true thesis, can be found in the final paragraph:

To me, old school is not about freedom or lack of rules, but attitude. To me, the ultimate old-school is the Arduin Trilogy, just pure ideas pouring one after another so fast you can't even stop to evaluate them. I like to consider my work "old school" in that sense, I like variety and options and things which are hinted or implied but rarely explicitly said, things which inspire the DM to create on his own.

See what he did there? Of course you do. It's the same thing that Monte Cook did when talking about his Dungeon-a-Day project, the same thing we saw a bit of in the build-up to the launch of 4e. I think we saw a bit of it in the latest issue of Kobold Quarterly. Everybody seems to want a bit of the Old School magic.

Why? Is the OSR really that popular? Damned if I know. I doubt anyone has any real solid numbers. What can't be denied is the creative power that the OSR has focused and unleashed. Knockspell and Fight On! have gone from blabberings on chat boards to multi-issue magazines with impressive art and page counts in the three-digit range. I would have given a pinky for either magazine back in the day, and I'd hold up Knockspell against any other professional publication out there right now in terms of layout, editing, art, and writing. And now there's talk about a sci-fi mag too.

On top of that, we've got creative output coming out all over the place. Mr. Maliszewski has commented that he can't keep up with it all. Mr. Raggi's officially gone pro, and is churning out that doesn't look like anything the industry has ever seen before. Chgowiz has produced a quick-play packet, complete with adventure, for Swords & Wizardry. We're up to our eyeballs with bloggers publishing houserules, adventures, character classes, spells, monsters, treasure, on a daily basis. I can't keep up with it all; I know I'm missing cool stuff every day, and don't have the time to hit every blog on my blogroll every day anymore, and I have a growing list of blogs I really need to add to it.

The OSR might not be the most lucrative sector of RPGs right now. It might not be the most recognized. But it certainly seems to be the most exciting right now. It's no longer a question of whether or not anybody plays these old games. Now we're wondering if we're spread too thin, if projects like Fight On! are stealing the thunder from other projects, or whether or not we really need to reference the OGL.

In short, the OSR has arrived. It is, we are, now all players in the industry. Future products will take us into account, at the very least, in their marketing if not in the actual content. Now is not the time to let up or slow down. Now is the time to strike fast and hard and continuously, and leave our mark on the industry for the sake of the games we love so much.

Photo credits: egarc2 and Matti Mattila.


JimLotFP said...

This has been a week for attacks on the OSR... and then when someone bites back, we're accused of being confrontational. :D

I wonder if I'll have any problems at the con this weekend.

Unknown said...

To be fair, the "Old School" feel as marketing tool predates the visible resurgence of traditional adventure games, but it is interesting to note this sort of attempt to co-opt it by redefinition.

"Old School" is partly about attitude, but it is not only about that, otherwise we would all be playing D20/3e/4e and celebrating them.

Jack Badelaire said...

Old School is to gaming what "Green Solutions" are to business right now. Slap a "Green" sticker on a product that you haven't done anything to and sell it for 10% more and you'll sell 10% more product for nothing more than the price of the stickers.

This OSR movement might be nice for some and all, but trying to spin it to "Now we're the cool kids on the block and everyone wants to be our friends" seems a little much.

trollsmyth said...

Jim: It would seem to me that their enmity would prove our points, and give the lie to many of their arguments.

Only their indifference would be a convincing argument. And if they gave us that, we could game with much less interruption. ;)

Matthew: That is true, but it seems none the less to be a recent development that's acquiring some momentum to it. I don't, for instance, recall or run across any "old school" arguments from when 2e launched, or Vampire came onto the scene. But that could also be me not looking in the right places, I'll admit.

Badelaire: Hmmm... Maybe not the best example to use since I live in the hippy end of Austin, but I'd counter that if it's worth 10% more, that is much less than insignificant.

Hey, JimLotFP, did you see this? 10% more! Stop undercharging, you damned long-haired commie! ;D

Natalie said...

Seeing OSR stuff used as marketing buzzwords kinda ticks me off. Especially when it filters down and people start massively misunderstanding what it is that these games are actually about. Guess we'll just have to be extra-loud, huh?

And if I'm remembering correctly, this isn't that far off from a lot of the 3e marketing. "Back to the dungeon!" wasn't it? But the specific co-opting of a subculture is new.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree though that the specific focus of the OSR is a specific subset of "old" gaming styles. I mentioned back in May that I thought the "rules, not rulings" statement was pretty revisionist. Many gaming groups in the 1970s/early 80s did NOT do it that way.

But that's OK - it's the real answer to "what is this OSR stuff bringing us besides just rewriting old rulebooks most of those who are interested have already, or can get at a Half Price Books?"

trollsmyth said...

Oddysey: Yeah, I think I remember a "What the heck is a 'bayatezu'?" add on the back of Dungeon just before 3e came out. You're right, that probably started the "old school is cool" thing.

So yeah, not that new, and maybe I'm jumping the gun a bit. Though I still think Lizard is engaged in some clever guerilla marketing. ;)

mxyzplk: Yeah, but you live in Austin, where the Half Price Books are many and awesome.

I'm still hesitant to say that people played those games "by the book", honestly. I mean, you literally can't play the LBBs by the book, and I don't know how anyone had any characters get past first level if you didn't embrace "rulings, not rules" with Moldvay Basic.

Anonymous said...

I don't know man, with liberal use of "you can't do that" it works. At least using BD&D as it was rewritten into coherency from the earlier OD&D. Sure, you *could* be more freewheeling but that was the exception in my experience until later games/GM advice specifically about letting folks go more crazy.

Unknown said...

BD&D is pretty clear about how to handle unorthodox actions, so I would say that the "you can't do that" phenomenon was a result of game master inadequacy rather than the game itself.

What it comes down to is that we expect game rules to define what actions can be taken within the game (as that is generally the case), and when those rules say "anything you like, just decide on a probability" many of us find that hard to process and simply ignore it as a "non rule".

Anonymous said...

I admit I only have the Mentzer version, but I just reread it and don't see a single thing about handling unorthodox actions. In fact, it's pretty all about "stick to the rules." (DM Rulebook, p.2) Not saying it's not a good way to play, just saying that saying the older products explicitly support it is revisionist.

Natalie said...

Isn't "revisionist" sort of the point of the OSR? It's about recovering the assumptions that the old guard made when playing the game, and didn't pass on because they thought they were obvious. It's not so much about how "everyone" played them back in the day so much as how they were "supposed" to be played.

Unknown said...

I admit I only have the Mentzer version...

I do not know about the Mentzer version, I was thinking particularly of page 41 of the Holmes version; not sure if that passage is also found in B/X, but I seem to recall that it is.

trollsmyth said...

I haven't read Mentzer, but page 51 of the Cook Expert book has this:

Player characters will often want to do actions not specifically covered in the rules or by their character descriptions. The DM should be prepared to handle such requests. A Dungeon Master must be flexible enough to be able to decide how to deal with situations that the rules don't cover.

What follows on that page is a suggested mechanic of rolling under ability scores for actions not covered specifically by the rules, a section on swimming, how to handle climbing for non-thieves, foraging, and some very vague suggestions as to what happens to characters who don't eat.

Unknown said...

Page B60 of B/X also has a section entitled "That's not in the rules!"

trollsmyth said...

Page B60 of B/X also has a section entitled "That's not in the rules!"

So it does, I'd forgotten about it. And here's part of what it says:

One quick way for a DM to decide whether a situation will work is by imagining the situation, and then choosing percentage chances for different possibilities... (There follows an example of a character who wants to escape combat by leaping into a deep chasm.) However, there should always be a chance to do something nearly impossible. A player should have, at the very least, a saving throw or a stated percentage chance for a miraculous occurance saving the character.

Damned if that doesn't look like "Say yes, or roll the dice."

Anonymous said...

I think the popularity of the OSR is what it represents. The games belong to the gamers. You don't have rpgs built around specific settings, but rulesets the players use to create their own. It's something that has been lost to a certain extent today with all the tie-ins with current games.