Thursday, September 14, 2017

The OSR Wasn't Started by the Creators of D&D

I almost started this post with the title "The OSR wasn't started by Old School Gamers". But, it should be fairly obvious why I decided not to. I mean, the OSR was started by old school gamers. What I was trying to say was that the OSR was not started by Gygax, Arneson, Mentzer, Kask, or any of the other early gaming luminaries that had a hand in creating Dungeons and Dragons. Now, granted, they were sort of the "reason" for the movement if not the raison d'etre. I bring this point up in response to some recent conversations that have been happening around the internet TRPG community.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of D&D knows Frank Mentzer. Mr. Mentzer wasn't exactly in on the ground floor, but by '79 he had been hired and soon became an invaluable fixture in the middle ages of TSR. He pioneered the most well loved edition of the Basic line of D&D which began with the famed Red Box. Not to put too fine a point on it, but next to Zeb Cook, Mr. Mentzer was probably one of the most instrumental figures in shaping the evolution of D&D through the 80's. 

So, his preeminence established as a forgone conclusion, let us move into the modern day. Recently, and I have no desire to go into the ugly details (you can peruse them over at Tenkar's Tavern), there was a falling out between Mr. Mentzer and the Dragonsfoot forum over his interaction with some trolls on that site. As I said, I will not go into the details of the interaction, as I simply cannot keep up with it all. However, what I am concerned about here is the ensuing discussion that even Mr. Mentzer encouraged gamers to have. That discussion centers around the purpose of the OSR and its relevance to the current gaming culture, especially to the D&D-centric gaming culture.

In communication with Erik, Mr. Mentzer mentioned the following:

"A common characteristic of most Old-School sites is adherence to one specific point in the Past, generally out-of-print games systems. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that, most systems have value to many. But of all the tabletop RPG fans, the OSR buys the fewest New Products. This is fine I want to give things away ... strongly preferred in these circles of course. Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

Whatever you make of this comment, what has resulted in it's wake is a discussion of the various "kingdoms" within the OSR and what defines them. Two strong demarcations are among the kingdom of what I will call the "traditionalists" and the kingdom of the "alchemists".

The traditionalists are those who prefer a certain edition of D&D (or any other game) and seek to continue to play by those rules, with those rulebooks preferably. They are usually supportive of supplements to those systems if they are in the spirit of their preferred edition of published rules and generally do not violate the spirit of the rules themselves. They will readily admit that they may not play with all of the rules in a given edition, but they are the rules they play with. They are comfortable with the rules "as a guide", much as Gary Gygax outlined, as long as the rules we are talking about are the originally published rules. Most of the 3rd party supplements created by and for this group involves adventures in a style reminiscent of old school production qualities. Products like OSRIC have made this work possible, and truthfully many of these pure traditionalists are focused on AD&D, though Basic line and Original edition purists also exist.

Alchemists on the other hand, I almost called them mad scientists, are those who are revolutionizing old school D&D and have produced products like DCC RPG, LotFP, C&T, HM, AS&SH, C&C, ACK, LFG, and others who are coming out with games "like" D&D but also very different from D&D. Some claim to be seeking the true spirit of the game, others riffing on what D&D "was meant to be" or "how cool it could be" but in general are a much more active, open and productive bunch. Something else all of these publishers have in common is that they are selling out there in the rough and tumble place of the market.

Frank Mentzer's comment seems much more squarely aimed at the traditionalist group, as he makes clear that they are seeking to adhere to some point in the past. Their irrelevance to the market aside, they are a much less productive bunch since they are targeting their products and their play on a very narrow band. Most have little desire to mix with other editions or games and rarely produce product outside their chosen field of play.

I think the general point of view among the internet community in response to this discussion is that the Alchemists are very relevant to the market. Quantifying the market share of D&D trademarked, clone and variant products is likely to require an economics degree. I tried a simple hunt for how much Hasbro reported from its WoTC D&D line versus Magic the Gathering recently and about gave myself a migraine. I found some data, but extrapolating details is very hard indeed. The fact is none can doubt that the amount of new old school product coming out and being paid for digitally has to be fairly significant even if it is only 10 to 20% of what Paizo and WizBro pull in. And that's not to mention the general effect the OSR had on the abandonment of 4e and the rise of 5e. Again, even if it was a 70 / 30 split to Paizo, there was still a profound influence. Consumers vote with their pocket books OSR or not.

Now, having said all that, I am left with a sort of no man's land between the Traditionalists and the Alchemists. What about Labyrinth Lord, especially the AEC and Basic Fantasy RPG, and S&W Complete? What about that no man's land between pure clone and the way we all remember playing it? I'm not sure where these fit, but I have a tendency to settle them a lot closer to the alchemist camp than the traditionalists. The reason for this is that those in this group who are clearly producing solid, innovative product for gamers are doing so a lot like the alchemists instead of the traditionalists. They are not mimicking style or production. I mean they have--as some have presented clear "white box" rule sets of their clones--but what I think they are doing is producing work that is meant to be played with any similar ruleset, not just the originally produced rules. And they are doing so with very high quality production values. Companies like Goodman Games, KenzerCo, Frog God Games, Lesser Gnomes and others are clearly producing innovative old school product as well as often producing for the 5e.

Now, many of them are doing this because they know producing 5e adventures nabs a portion of the market share of 5e enabling them to produce stuff for the older rulesets as well. But this is not a condemnation, rather a mindset more in tune with the alchemists than with the traditionalists. However, if you were to corner them, many would readily say they prefer this or that older edition and certainly prefer an older school style of play. But I've noticed something else as well. They are not quick to knock other systems or styles of play.

Which brings me to another point from Mr. Mentzer. He refers to a sort of "meeting" or "gentleman's agreement" between several big league designers and game developers that agreed all this rancor of games and editions and styles was not doing gaming any favors. If you recall one of my posts on Jolly Blackburn being an example of magnanimity among gamers you will know what I am talking about. He was one of those who decided he was going to be a builder and not a destroyer. Mr. Mentzer too has taken the same pledge that he is here to build up the hobby, not tear it down.

However, Jolly Blackburn, Matt Finch, Dave Kenzer, Joseph Goodman, Steve Jackson, Erik Mona, James Raggi, and I could go on, all have one thing in common. They are trying to make money producing products others want. Frank Mentzer, did it, Tim Kask did it, Gary Gygax did it. And from everything I read, it aint easy. There is a portion of the gaming community, and just about every community these days, that feels product should all be open source and as free as can be. I laud that notion, truly I do. I also have benefited from it. However, I also hold fast to the notion that artists should be paid for their work. And the fact is the better the art the more value it has. This has also been an issue in the current brouhaha, but I think it is aught but a tempest in a tea kettle. Turn out great product and people will pay for it. Release free product and people will pick it up. Both camps are entitled to do what they will and nothing will change that.

The fact is, noone can escape the clearly ironic situation that one of the few still active luminaries of early D&D (Mr. Mentzer) is calling out the OSR. He did not create the OSR, even though they venerate him and others as icons of the hobby, and he has no special allegiance to it or beef with it. The same could be said for Gary Gygax when he was still alive. Sure, I'm certain they are flattered that people consider them so highly and are very interested to see if they still have contributions to make to the hobby. However, if these contributions aren't in accord with whatever certain OSR traditionalists or alchemists have in mind they certainly shouldn't be shooing him off. Who are they anyway? They certainly don't speak for me, and I do consider myself a part of and supportive of the OSR. I think what Mr. Mentzer has done, inadvertently or not, is asking us all to take a good long look at ourselves. What do we really want?

So, in the very long end, all my opinions on the matter aside, what did it mean for me personally? Well, it was like a cold splash of water in my face. In trying to take a look at myself and my role I have begun to come to some conclusions. I wanted to share some of the thoughts I have had since I came across the discussion.

I have tried to give the impression that this blog is more or less a defense of my favorite edition: AD&D. However, I have talked about other games that have caught my fancy, played every edition of D&D that has existed, and spent posts ranting, frustrated, celebrating and enjoying just about everything and anything that turned my crank remotely associated with gaming. And I'll be honest. This blog is a product of the OSR. It came about at a time I was technically playing 4e, but the OSR had just taken off. So, I was still playing 4e while trying to be firmly rooted in the old school ethos. Obviously that internal personality conflict didn't last for long.

I have found other games that I thought might become my new gaming home. I became excited about how they seemed to be the heir apparent of AD&D. In rules, in spirit, in tone or some other manner they reminded me, at least in part of what I recalled from my past gaming days. But nothing quite stuck. Nothing really seemed to do the trick.

The other thing this blog has done is to allow an intermittent stream of consciousness venue for me to work out my own thoughts and ideas about gaming and my relationship with it. Am I traditionalist? I have certainly wrote at times like I was. But I don't think I honestly am. I mean hell, I play 5e. I am certainly not a new school gamer who really loves and latches onto the current editions either--I have complained about every one since 2e. But am I an alchemist? I don't really think so. Though I absolutely love the products that the swords & sorcery, punk rock wing of the OSR puts out. However, I can never quite bring myself to be cool with embracing them in play. They're more like cool stuff others have done that I buy, but seldom play without hacking it for my own use. This blog attests to the fact that I spend most of my time wrestling with my current edition and trying to make it fit the way I want to play.

I have also wasted tons of pixels on considerating of what AD&D really is, along with other early editions of the game. And one thing has become clear. I never played AD&D. I played "at" AD&D. I played a roughed down version of the game with the AD&D content. The more I read and study the rules of AD&D I realize I wouldn't "want" to play that way. Those rules as written are not the game I recall playing.

So what the heck does a guy do when he can't tweak the new games to play like he remembers and the old games are actually not as he actually remembers them being? 

What does the OSR have to do with it, and what has Mr. Mentzer inspired me to do? I'll try and tackle that in the next post.