Friday, September 22, 2017

The OSR, 5e D&D and Broadway Theater

A funny thing happened on the way to the gaming market. Ig you have never seen the delightful Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, do yourself a favor and check it out some night you want to laugh. In a nutshell, the farcical play is about a Roman nobling who seeks the help of a family slave in procuring the heart of the girl next door. In fact you might want to watch it before, or at least after, reading this post as it will make much more sense in the light of the dramatics therein.

I mention it here today because I can't help but realize recent irony over the OSR, the current gaming powerhouse Wizbro and what role the market plays between them. The play mentioned above more than aptly offers an amusing metaphor of the "drama" buzzing about online.

The beautiful young maid, or the paying gaming customer, is desired by Hero next door, the OSR crowd, and yet betrothed to Gloriosus, Wizbro and the hilarities that ensue in trying to rectify the situation so that true lovers can unite is what makes the play and this gaming drama worth watching at all.

The fact is the play ends with everyone happy, except perhaps for poor Senex, still stuck with his shrew of a wife, and gets what they want in the end. As is the gaming industry, with the OSR busily churning product out to the tune of thousands of downloads on RPGNow and other sites, while Wizbro laps up the profits from its recent old school revival simulacrum, 5e. Which, truthfully is the real meat of my post today.

5e is OSR. Yep, and no matter what anyone says, it is basically an D&D based OSR variant as much as several others that take similar bold new school options and have tacked them onto what is essentially designed to be a rules light game that plays like the old days. Now, I have played 5e for the last couple of years and tried to make it "more" old school and failed. It just doesn't quite do anything you want it to, but it also plays "enough" like an older game that it seems to satisfy lots of old school gamers as well as the new kids on the block. So whether you want to say in this case the lovely Philia is able to marry both Pseudolous and Gloriosus or simply that they are both happy having gained a wife and a sister respectively they were able to divide the pie. Much as the OSR and Wizbro crowd have done to current crop of D&D aficionados.

But, if 5e is old school after some sort of fashion, and we owe that fact largely to the influence of the OSR and the anti-4e crowd as well, then why do so many continue to play other versions? This, dear audience, is the $50,000 question. And we could just as easily ask why so many old "die hard" OSR fans have chosen to move over to 5e? That question however, is worth not nearly as much. It simply seems to confirm that 5e is OSR enough to satisfy a large number of gaming consumers. Although I can;t quite help but wonder if a certain portion of the 5e converts are there simply because Wizbro made them feel welcome in the manner they conducted the playtest and solicited their feedback so openly. A smart market move and a possibly genuine one to boot. Time will only tell us how genuine.

Which leaves us with why some simply continue to play other games. A part of the answer is undoubtedly wrapped up in simply loyalty to their current preferences and perhaps disgust with the other guy. Enough OSRers were very vocal about never giving Wizbro another dime for another edition with umpteen splat books to boot. It was simply corporate-sanctioned robbery and they would have no part in it. That nor its associated similarity to the high dollar shininess of the 3e, 4e, and now 5e production quality. It was just something too may gamers associated with bad games in their view. Games that had strayed from the truth and been eternally tainted by their outland wanderings.

But it is yet a final option that interests me here. A cultural phenomena thus far best captured in the "There and Back Again: The Construction of Nostalgia in Advanced Adventures" by Darren Allen Crouse, a paper presented for his master's in Popular Culture. In this paper Crouse argues that "The authors of retro-clones strive to regain control, or restore, immutable qualities believed deficient in the latest edition of D&D." Some of these immutable qualities Crouse outlines are: style, feel, mechanics, playability, and the images of the old school sensibility. The challenge, Crouse points out, is doing so without the violation of copyright law. In other words if we get too close we risk prosecution, and so must chart our course carefully. In achieving such a delicate balance the author mentions such advanced concepts as textual analysis and process and production to align this new material to be accepted in an old school context. In other words, to be truly accepted as old school by those seeking to reconnect with their gaming past in the gaming present, a product has to look and feel and play like the old games did. They recreate an experience through these vehicles.

I would argue, some have continued to do this in producing material that is similar in mechanics and style and feel of old school material as well as playability an content imagery. Such producers as New Big Dragon, Expeditious Retreat, Three Sages, Maximum Mayhem, Goodman Games, BRW Games have all produced content that reads almost identically to old TSR modules and rulebooks. The key here is that we are still playing with products that look and sound like the material which we consider endemic to the game. Or in some cases looks like or sounds like. New style is a step away, as are new feel in terms of prose and rhetoric, but step away with both feet and such products are less culturally connected to the past.

At the risk of stepping out of my depth, allow me to refer to cars. I am not a "car" person nor a "vehicle" person of any type, but the example may help make my point. The muscle car known as the Mustang had a typical look and feel. It became iconic, as many such cars did, and is a model continually revived or resurrected to draw on the nostalgia and love for the old models. Inevitably, however, such productions are received critically by car-lovers who carefully critique how close to or far from the original each new "version" is. But if you notice, all Mustangs have drawn on a similar look in order to hark back to that original classic.

So too are games designed to summon the style and feel of the original games. But I also think it is more than style, feel and aesthetics generally. The mechanics and writing of the old games are also best mimicked as closely as possible in order to harmonize with the vibe players of the original games recall and are looking for. Which brings me to a foreshadowing of my next post: are the clones, simulacra and variants doing that? Or are they doing something else as well?