It's New Year's Eve, the usual time when amateurs can choose to indulge in dipsomania or prophecy (or both!). Being something of a teetotaler myself -- except when it comes to very expensive champagne -- I choose prophecy. My record on this score isn't great, but it's better than most and at least I won't have a hangover tomorrow for having indulged in it tonight.
Consequently, what follow aren't exactly predictions. I'm not going to assign dates and times to anything. Neither am I going to say that either of my statements will occur. Rather, what I'm "predicting," if that's the word, is that 2009 will be the year that'll determine whether the much-discussed old school renaissance fulfills its promise or proves to be just another bout of gaming nostalgia in fancy dress. By my lights, at least one of two things must happen in 2009 for the old school renaissance to have legs outside the thousand or so people who read this blog:
1. New Product: With Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC 2.0, and Swords & Wizardry out there and freely available to any and all comers, we're now at the point where, reasonably, someone ought to use one (or all) of them to create new product. By "new product," I don't mean adventures; we have lots of old school adventures already. Neither do I mean campaign settings or monster books or collections of spells and magic items; we have tons of that stuff too. No, what I mean is something genuinely new, something that hasn't been done before (or at least recently) and that shows off the unique pleasures of the old school in a way we haven't seen (again, at least recently). This new product (or, dare I hope, products?) might be part adventure or part campaign world or part monster book, etc. but it wouldn't just be those things. It can't be or no one is going to care.
If the old school renaissance has one fatal flaw, it's that it's much too easy to dismiss it as simple nostalgia. And the reason it's too easy is because, like the poor Scholastics whose subtle philosophizing and fine distinctions looked like foolishness to people who weren't steeped in the quaestiones quodlibetales culture, we're too insular and self-absorbed to be understood, let alone listened to, by a gaming culture that, for good or for ill, has changed in some very profound ways. To reverse this situation and revitalize the Old School will require someone among us to produce something that's genuinely new and that nevertheless embodies the best of our preferred style of gaming. We can't just keep doing the same stuff we've done for the last 30 years -- not because that stuff isn't "timeless," but because that stuff has already been done, over and over. The closest we've seen in recent years is, I think, Rob Conley's Points of Light, but it's only a first step and the journey ahead is a long one indeed.
2. Big Name Adoption: The second thing that needs to happen is for a big name game company -- one with good retail penetration and distribution -- to show that old school is cool. To date, most old school products have been self-publishing ventures or sidelines by smaller publishers. There's nothing wrong with that, but the reality is that such products aren't going to reach gamers who aren't plugged in to the back alleys of the gaming world and the old school community probably doesn't even qualify as a back alley. We're a niche within a niche and, while we have a lot of admirers among the bigger players in the industry, that admiration only gets us so far.
Goodman Games has put its toes in the water with products like Points of Light and The Random Esoteric Creature Generator. If they catch the popular imagination, Goodman could well become exactly the vehicle I'd like to see. Likewise, it's possible that Necromancer Games, once it sorts out exactly what it wants to do in the future, could play a similar role, although I think the odds are less, given Clark Peterson's stated preference for supporting the latest edition of D&D, regardless of its pedigree. Much as I like Goodman and Necromancer, I'd much prefer to see a company like Paizo step up and promote the old school in some way. Paizo is uniquely placed to show that old school is cool. Even better would be WotC itself, but the design of the new edition of D&D suggests to me that that's not likely, at least not in a way that would benefit the old school community noticeably. Still, much as I dislike the current direction of the game, there's no question that there are some clever designers behind it, so anything is possible and I'll be the first to say I was wrong if WotC publishes The Big Book of Traps that puts Grimtooth's to shame in its fiendishness.
I expect 2009 to be a topsy-turvy year in general, so who knows what the future holds?