Friday, September 22, 2017

What Part of the OSR is Old School?

Ask a dozen old school gamers what old school is and you'll get two dozen answers. Because much of the time they aren't even sure themselves. Perhaps for that reason alone the OSR is not what we think it is--I mean, we can't even decide on a consensus definition. But there are some other realities lurking out there in plain site which we often don't openly address.

The genesis of the OSR movement was a confluence of events spurred by WotC buying TSR and the D&D IP; the looming advent of 3rd edition under an entirely new system (d20); the subsequent OGL for 3.5; and finally came to a head with the release, and subsequent failure, of 4e. 

The mission of the OSR, however, is a lot more complicated than the tracing of it's history. Generally speaking, we could say it was a desire to have the older versions of the game in print. But, if I were honest, the OSR was also spawned by the OGL of 3rd edition D&D. 3rd edition was hugely popular, the open market it created was massive. Yes, that created a problem for WotC. There was so much material out there for 3e that WotC was likely having a hard time keeping up with, let alone competing with, all the new material. I wonder if they truly worried that they'd sold the goods down river. Certainly their market share was falling and supplements were being supplied at least as much if not more from 3rd party publishers as they were from Wizards. They needed a new big revenue generator and 4th was the ticket. 

Sure, 3rd was broken in parts, and certainly couldn't all be used at the same table--there was just too damn much of it. But that is not what led them to create 4e. Make no mistake, even Mearls came out about how the 3e glut was the reason they were witholding a similar OGL for 4e. And that, dear readers, is as much a linchpin in the rise of the OSR as any yearning for the past.

For you see, all those disaffected gamers and amateur designers just had the creative rugs pulled out from under them. They were no longer going to be able to produce D&D product for the current edition. 4e was a closed chest. Closed and locked. Closed and locked and trapped. It was at this time that we get the Rise of the Clones. Wizards announces 4e in 2007, about a year after OSRIC had hit the sites for downloads. Now, to be fair, all the 3.5 OGL publications that were flooding the market had some gamers wondering about bringing back an environment that could support out of print editions via the OGL before the official announcement of 4e, but let's look back even earlier.

As a mistake of happy circumstance Hackmaster ended up in creation at the very end of TSR's life. Two events coincided synchronistically to make this possible: 1) the pressure of KODT fans to see the Hackmaster game become a reality and 2) TSR and D&D is sold to Wizards and 2e dies. It looked like AD&D was headed out of print and what a better time to arrive on the scene as a nostalgic, if humorous, look at AD&D in all of its arcane and chaotic glory? As a result, Hackmaster ended up being the first retro clone long before the OSR ever saw the light of day. Shortly after this, Troll Lords comes on the scene with the Gygax-approved Castles & Crusades, the first "true" clone if you like. The whole intent of Hackmaster was to create Hackmaster, and thus it needed to be almost identical to AD&D, just taken to 11. C&C was designed as a clone from the start. C&C came out in 2004, and I believe began the gaming world really talking about possibly using the OGL, not just for creating 3.5 material, but possibly for resurrecting the games of the past.

However ... something changed. With the production of OSRIC what you get is not a game designed to be used as a game in and of itself (as C&C was), though it certainly could be; but to create a legal platform to start producing 1e material again. Amateur writers and designers were looking for a venue in which to produce their own material for their favorite games. They really didn't want to create a new game, they were looking to produce material. The 3.5 camp followers were eagerly participating in the PF playtest (an industry first and a process that would become a standard of the industry) and planning on creating OGL material for their new 3.5: Pathfinder.

But something curious lurks in shadows as the OSR begins to develop. With C&C one could argue that it was an alternative game to D&D that gave you an old school experience with some new school speed. There was really no hope in the early 2000's that someone could resurrect 1e, and so C&C would fit the bill. At least that was the hope. In fact C&C was truly a monumentally well designed effort to bring AD&D into the new age. It married the best of the old and the new into a fast and flexible game. But, if it was so good, why did OSRIC arrive? It's my belief that OSRIC tapped a different crowd. I think this crowd was actually flying under two banners: the flag of the creators who were looking to create new material much like 3.5 had done; and the second flag, the traditionalists. Sometimes the two overlapped, but traditionalists had no desire to play a new game--they simply wanted their game back in print again. Creating material wasn't enough, it needed to be almost identical to AD&D. 

What the OSR gave us in terms of OSRIC is not quite either or. For awhile at least, the supplements for AD&D via OSRIC took off and OSRIC itself looked almost like a technical manual clone of the original AD&D rules. So we have the new wavers playing with C&C, but then some shift to the more accurate clone, OSRIC. But what OSRIC stole from C&C, is stolen from OSRIC when we get a flood of designers seeking to fill the void of 0e/Basic/Expert/etc. Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game come out in '07, Swords & Wizardry in '08 and something very different is occurring.

Labyrinth Lord, a beautifully done piece by the way, comes out looking like something from a Black Metal Album, Swords & Wizardry, also a work of art, like a Call of Cthulhu Weird Fantasy Mash-Up. People fall in love with them left and right. They are hard core old school--at least that's what we call them. But, this new ethos of old school takes its inspiration from a genre that Gary Gygax admitted was seminal to the D&D thematic tone but had never quite been done like these new retro-clones managed. The swords & sorcery, weird fiction, science fantasy and strange horror of the pulp fiction era is not only relegated to an appendix at the back of the book, but the heart of the hobby. Now, the exception was BFRPG, which managed to pull off a look somewhere between the presentation of the LBBs and the Holmes-Moldvay-Cook sets. Well put together and logical, though leaving out some pieces.

The critical point here, is that these 0e/B/X clones are the first productions in a new vein or expression of D&D gaming that heretofore had not been considered a part of the published sector of the game. By this time discussion about what was old school and what defined something as old school was rampant among blogs and forums. The culmination of these influence was in games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Crypts and Things, and Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. A dark, swords and sorcery, heavy metal, Lovecraftian feel descended over the games of this period. Many drew their inspiration from Gary's own Appendix N and claimed their territory to be what they considered the "true" spirit of the OSR, regardless of the fact that they were beginning to resemble something very different from the original games themselves. 

Now, while some of this quest for old school spirit is certainly valid, and it is true much of the early D&D production for the day was also a bit racy, edgy and dark. But it was truly nothing like the extended version albums of "old school demon" being summoned by most of the OSR material today. Now, don't get me wrong, I love most of this stuff. They are works of fine weird fantasy art. But I have begun to feel slightly uncomfortable calling such work strictly "old school". The new production market the OSR has generated has become a beast unto itself, not necessarily connected to old time gaming. 

In which case, you might ask, what the hell is old school then, if the OSR aint? Ya know, it's funny, but there is less and less production occurring that looks and plays like the games that were played in yesteryear. Good or bad, it simply is the way it is. We still have some die hard traditionalist producing material in line with old school values on Dragonsfoot and to a degree on the BFRPG site. Generally though, the OSR has taken off in a wild new direction from what we "think"  old school was like. The OSR has about as much in common with true old school as the later Star Wars movies do with the original three from the 70's and 80's. Or J.J. Abrams Star Trek does with the TOS or even STNG. Now don't get me wrong. I loved some of the other Star Wars and Star Trek movies. They just didn't seem like Star wars or Star Trek to me. And I think the same can be said for a lot of the OSR today--it just doesn't seem like the old games any more. 

Now, I know it's hard to make wholesale statements about something as big and amorphous as the OSR. And nothing I say here should be taken in a vacuum. The relationships are complex at best. But I do wonder a bit if we shouldn't ask ourselves what we are about in the OSR, and maybe call a shovel a shovel. I mean there is literally so much stuff on the indie sites now that I can't even tell what I'm looking at half the time, and it certainly doesn't "look" old school to me. OSR, OSR everywhere and not an old school game in sight.This may be the great new age of gaming liberalization, and that's fine. But I think we should be honest with ourselves about what our aim really is, about what we are doing.

Is the point to just get your stuff out there? Do we really need a new game just so you don't have to be compatible with LL, OSRIC, S&W, or PF or 5e whatever? Or so you can produce your own, stuff for your own game, instead of someone's else's that is almost 94% the same? We had a name for that in the old days--house rules. Or would your rather be compatible with all of the above to get the greatest market saturation? Frankly I see some cool little ditty on RPGNow come up on my email and I have to read and look to see--is it compatible with LL? LL+AEC? OSRIC? S&W WB? S&W Core? S&W Complete? DCC RPG? LotFP? 5e? PF? C&T? BFRPG? AS&SoH? ACK? DD? ADD? System Neutral? or some little known game I've never heard of that might or might not be compatible with any of the above. You get the picture? Yes, in one way this is all great, and in another it is really, really tiresome. Maybe I'm just too Lawful, or not Chaotic enough, but it is enough to give me headache.