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. 

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?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Criticism, Philosophy and Gaming


Cultural criticism is often described as the process of describing, interpreting and evaluating a culture. It often breaks down the difference between levels of culture and uncovers the political, historical and sociological reasons why certain aspects of a culture are valued more than others.

Philosophy can be described variously, but at its most simple can be understood as a study of the theoretical foundation for a particular school of thought or body of knowledge.

Some time ago, James Maliszewski described the role of the OSR bloggers as the philosophers of the OSR movement. In this light, OSR bloggers are investigating the theoretical basis of old school gaming--what it is and what it is not.

I think that is part of what I have done on this blog, but I also think I have spent a lot of time doing cultural criticism. In particular criticism of the gaming culture. Especially the the table top role playing game community, and much more relevantly the OSR. But when you come right down to it, philosophy and cultural criticism really go hand in hand. In fact, Kant made it clear in his foundation of critical philosophy. Not only did he argue all philosophy is critical philosophy, his whole body of work has come to be called The Critical Philosophy. In a nutshell, Kant believed it is not philosophy's job to come to any ultimate conclusions about life, the universe or everything. In fact, says Kant, philosophy can't really do that. It can only evaluate and judge the accuracy and coherency or a proposition, subject an idea or a thought to critical inquiry and judge its worth in relation to other ideas and thoughts.

Whatever you may think about Kant, criticism, philosophy or critical philosophy, one has to wonder what the real purpose of bloggers are today. In a world where opinions are cheap and everybody has one, or more, what role do bloggers really play? Reviews, criticisms and judgments are had aplenty in the blogging world, and it requires no more than a decent computer and an internet connection to get yours out there. But what the hell good is it? And what's more, why would anyone engage in such a practice?

In fact it brings to mind Shaw's Maxim 36 from the Maxim for Revolutionaries, "He who can does, he who can't teach." As like to say it is easier to write about something than to do that something. Cultural critics are often decried as making their point on the backs of others' work. And this is certainly true to an extent. Critics require something to evaluate, understand, interpret and judge. For some it is visual art, for others movies, for others literature, or fashion. For me its games.

The question is, is what I'm doing really of any use at all. I look around at blogs, circles, feeds, Facebook, Kickstarters today and Lord, it's hard to keep up with it all. Half of the sites that were around in the opening salvos of the OSR aren't even active anymore. A whole new crop of interactive media has opened up, and most of it focused on new content and new games. I can't help but ask myself if I keep doing what I'm doing here because I can't do anything else. Which of course is not totally true. Regardless of the "quality" of my game design, I spend upwards of six hours a week prepping game material for my current campaign and generating new gaming material, some of which I may never even use. When I go to "put it out there" though, I always hesitate. Is it not good enough? Hell, I'm not sure. Most of my work is a lot like the van they loaded up with Dave Arneson's old papers and files. A disorganized avalanche of half scribbled papers and out of order files that may have made perfect sense to Dave, but were nothing but chaos to anyone else.

I mean I certainly could make my work more suitable for commercial consumption, but I don't. Why? Well, honestly, it doesn't interest me. I'm not a production person. I create my stuff for use in my game and, largely, for my own entertainment. At times I dream about owning a gaming and comic book store, a common enough day dream among gamers. But I've done the numbers. Read what it is really like to be a business owner--and I have no desire to do that. I love going into gaming stores, hanging out there, talking with other gamers and collectors. But I do not want to run a small business--even a game shop. It is close to the same thing with creating content. I do not want to go to the trouble to edit, polish, produce and make understandable, not to mention, playable by others my creations. That's a lot of work that isn't about gaming or creating--it is about polishing, editing, and marketing a product. I lose interest in that about as quickly as I do the sports report on the evening news.

So, what do I do? I whip off these little essays at about 30 minutes a pop. I don't have a lot of time during the day, and yet I think about gaming, and speculative culture in general, all the time. And my mind has a natural philosophical bent. This blog has become my outlet for those thoughts. It takes little time, and the thoughts are already there. Writing them out actually helps.

But ... Then there's Mr. Mentzer. As I said last time, there was another part of what Mr. Mentzer taught me. And this part is what is not as easy for me to process. Is what I'm doing actually worthwhile?

I've been struggling with my place in the larger gaming world ... and, my influence in it. Clearly there is less and less taste for what I do, which could be called a cultural critique of the gaming world, and its product and process. Its history and its politics. I do not claim to be the best informed, nor the most erudite and incisive. I am however, a voice. A voice offering not just another review, or news of the latest and greatest, or even new product; but a voice offering a barometer of how one old gamer sees the gaming world--and reflects on its relation to the rest of the world in which gaming, and gamers, find themselves. I also come by this sort of pontificating rather naturally, as well as by training. My first degree is in cultural anthropology, and I ended up there because my natural proclivities predisposed me to be fluent at observing and analyzing social and cultural groups. My second degree is in English Language & Literature, and my two strengths there, besides a love of reading generally, were a talent at rhetoric and penchant for literary criticism. So, though it hard's to know whether the chicken of education or the egg of interest came first, my blog is what it is because of who I am, what interests me and what I do.

But Mr. Mentzer has caused me to pause. The whole idea that he and other game designers (some of whom I truly admire) came together to intentionally be supportive and non-critical, because it is "good for gaming", sort of pours salt in the eye of much of my rantings here. Of course, just because Mr. Mentzer and others are seeking to pursue one path doesn't mean I'm obliged to jump on board, but I do have to ask: is what I am doing useful? Does it serve a purpose beyond the limitations of the length of my nose? Would I be better off biting the bullet and shifting my site to yet another review site? Or a homebrewed content site? A campaign log blog? A gaming news feed? Or even shuttering the doors for good?

Well, considering I've tried all three and none has ever quite stuck--it isn't likely. Yes, even closing the doors--lasted for all of a few months at best. I simply love communicating about gaming far too much. What then is the core of Mr. Mentzer's message in this regard? I've come to the following conclusion. I'm going to keep doing what I do because of what Mr. Mentzer himself is doing. It's odd really, that I should give this much time and thought to a short phrase, that in itself is a form of  cultural criticism. Yes indeed. Mr. Mentzer is offering an insightful critique of the OSR community. What he points out is true--in a certain light. And the very discussion it has engendered is proof enough of the value of such criticism.

And, as my last post alluded to, scrubbing off all the sharp bits that can scratch you is part of what society did to the early days of gaming. Making everything nice and complimentary is nothing but a mutual admiration society and we know what those turn into: dogmatic priesthoods of the status quo. Yes, philosophy and cultural criticism have a very valid place in the human experience. As does asking ourselves what we are about and why. Gaming has always been more to me than just a game. And yes, I understand that it is just a game, but we all know it is more than that. Culturally, gaming shifted the world, and the world would literally not be the place it is today without it. Good, quality criticism is required if we are to act as responsible and aware stewards of the great gift we have all been given. And yes, Mr. Mentzer helped me realize that. Thank you again Prince of Empyrea.

D&D 5e Official Alternate Classes

The Classic 4: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User and Thief This started with one of my players wanting to play the new Blood Hunter class. I...