I've been known to say that the transition to 4e this year will be very different from the transition to 3e in one undeniable respect: the Open Game License. Even though Wizards of the Coast will no longer be supporting v.3.5, others can do so freely and legally, as Paizo is doing with its upcoming Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. What I suspect this means is that, if they play their cards right, Paizo will soon become the de facto inheritor of a large portion of the remnant v.3.5 community. How large a portion I can't predict and it's really not important for the point I intend to make here anyway. What is important is that v.3.5 will not die with the advent of 4e. Indeed, it now has the capacity to grow and evolve along a natural trajectory, according to the wishes of both Paizo and its fans.
For that matter, even if Paizo were to declare bankruptcy tomorrow, v.3.5 will survive, thanks to the OGL. Anyone who wishes to publish their own version of the game can do so, using rules and, more importantly, concepts that are available to anyone who is willing to abide by the terms of the OGL and WotC can't stop them from doing so. Whatever else I may think of WotC and what it's become over the years, I owe the company my thanks, as the OGL is an amazing gift to the gaming community. Besides preserving the v.3.5 rules (about which I am largely ambivalent), the SRD also preserves innumerable ideas, concepts, and terms from the history of D&D. I can now talk about magic missile spells and ankhegs and gelatinous cubes and I'm not violating WotC's copyrights or trademarks. That's a powerful thing. D&D's DNA is now there for anyone to manipulate, provided they play by a few very simple ground rules that can never be changed. Thank you, WotC, for this! (I suspect the reason why 4e is in fact so different from 3e and doesn't "feel" like D&D anymore is because WotC regrets having "given away the store" through the OGL and now needs to reinvent the game from the ground up in order to "reclaim" it, but I digress)
Unfortunately, no previous edition of D&D is open in the same way that v.3.5 is. There have been numerous attempts to reconstruct past editions through the clever use of the OGL. I'm fond of all of them, for they all attempt to preserve different aspects of the patrimony bequeathed us by Gygax and Arneson. The problem with these retro-clones, leaving aside legal questions that some have -- questions I generally don't share, I should add -- is that none of them has come close to being universally accepted, even within the old school community. OSRIC, which attempts to preserve AD&D for the ages, seems to have made the most impact, but, honestly, its acceptance does not appear widespread. The number of products available under OSRIC's license remains small and I have a hard time imagining its growing significantly. Anything is possible, I suppose, but I don't have the sense that there are publishers laying big plans to use OSRIC to help fuel the old school renaissance I feel percolating beneath the surface. (The situation is, if anything, even worse for retro-clones of Basic D&D, where we have two competing versions, each of which takes a different approach to adapting the source material.)
I don't think I'm being Pollyannish by saying once again that, within the next year or two, we will see an old school renaissance. There were rumblings of dissatisfaction with the direction of the hobby before the announcement of 4e last year, but I think its arrival next month will serve as a catalyst for a lot of people to look back to where the hobby came from and where it strayed from its original vision. I'm not (necessarily) saying that this will result in the rise of a game or a company that will take the world -- or even the hobby -- by storm in the same way that old school D&D did. As others have said better than I, tabletop roleplaying will never again enjoy the faddish popularity it had in the late 70s and early 80s. So, I have no delusions of grandeur. What I do have, though, is a powerful sense that a line has been crossed in the development of the hobby and that some gamers -- and not just older ones -- aren't well served by the overly complex, difficult to learn, and time-consuming to prep RPGs that have become the norm. These gamers are looking for something simple, exuberant, and fun. Combine that with the era-ending deaths of Gary Gygax and Bob Bledsaw and I think you have the recipe for a counter-reformation.
But there's no standard bearer, no unifying figure or company, to lead this counter-reformation. Everyone who wants to get into the old school game wants to create their own system, their own interpretation of the original editions. And I think these desires, while understandable, are making the old school renaissance harder to get off the ground than it needs to be. No one is in the position Paizo is likely to be with regards to v.3.5 and that's a shame. The reality is that, for all the various persnickety changes to the rules, it's not so huge a leap from OD&D to 2e that a product made for one edition couldn't be used, with very few changes, for another. By and large, the rules have a degree of continuity that does not exist with 3e, let alone 4e. This isn't meant to minimize the differences between editions, but the reality is that even the much-reviled 2e is light years closer to Gygax and Arneson than 3e is. Its rules, as written, can be played in an old school fashion, whereas that's mostly impossible with more modern editions.
What am I getting at? Old school D&D already has a common language. But for some "dialecticisms," an OD&Der can communicate intelligibly with a AD&Der or a 2e-er in a way they can't with a player of a modern edition of D&D. Despite this, there's no universally accepted or recognized "meta-system" for writing old school materials. Back in the day, Judges Guild had what it called its "Universal System," which was a not-so-subtle reworking of common terms ("Hits to Kill" or HTK, instead of "Hit Points," for example) so that meaning was conveyed without using terms specific to any single edition (or even game).
I can't help but think that maybe we need something like that again. In the absence of One Retro-Clone to Rule Them All, what old school gaming needs to kickstart its renaissance is a lingua franca that everyone, from a fan of the three little brown books to a Zeb Cook groupie, can understand and use without much difficulty. In a very real sense, grognards don't need new games; they already have the games they like and have had them for years. What they don't have is new products that are professionally made -- yeah, it always comes back to that -- that carry the old school spirit forward to the future. Part of the reason why they don't is because no one has stepped up to the plate to do that. And part of the reason why no one has stepped up is because, if they choose OSRIC (or LL or BFRPG or ...) to do so, they're seen as "one of them." The old school community, like many marginalized communities, is very fractious and insular. It's riddled with ancient rivalries, nursed hurts, and bad blood and I see so many missed opportunities because of it.
Finding a way to unite all these people under a single banner would be a monumental task and it may not even be possible. The reality is that pre-3e D&D players, regardless of their favorite edition, have far more in common with another than they sometimes like to admit. I understand the appeal of elitism and exclusivity; I sometimes engage in it myself. But, ultimately, it's destructive and self-defeating. Too many of this hobby's traditions have already been willfully destroyed in pursuit of the bottom line. Why must we do it to ourselves without meaning to? No, the time has come to bury the hatchets and make an attempt to build on what we all have in common rather than to fixate on what separates us.
How will we do this? I'm not sure yet. The projects I want to undertake are a part of it, but just a small part. We need to do more and that's where I'm seeking advice (yet again). What can we do to bring the old school community together and help it become the seedbed for the flowering I see in the offing? We have a chance here to reclaim much of what we love about this hobby and make it vibrant once more. Will we seize it?