Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What the Future Holds

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?

38 comments:

  1. You're not thinking of new:

    adventures
    campaign settings
    monsters
    spells
    magic items

    That narrows things considerably.

    Hmmm...

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  2. To clarify: I'm not thinking of new products that are recognizably one of those things. That is, what I'm hoping to see is something that transcends such easy categorization, because, if it can be categorized simply, it can be dismissed just as simply, which is precisely what we don't need to see.

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  3. As someone who purchased both 'Points of Light' and the 'Random Esoteric Creature Generator' and is extremely pleased with both products, all I can say is PLEASE GOODMAN GAMES, PLEASE PUBLISH MORE CREATIVE STUFF LIKE THIS! Not that their other products aren't imaginative, but these two particular products force DMs to flex their creative muscles in ways that modules and pre-fab monster books don't. I enjoy those things too, but the wide open nature of the aforementioned products is very attractive. Downright sexy, really.

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  4. I believe that Carcosa hints at the sort of change you're thinking of, though I don't (yet) own it and can't directly comment on the text.

    However, based on reviews it's the first RPG design I've seen that has intrinsic links between mechanics and setting. I've never seen a game say, "To make use of mechanic X, go to hex 1011, find the purple stone, kill the manticore that guards it, and brew a potion using the manticore's blood and three shards chipped from the stone."

    IMO, that's a big step forward. It has certainly influenced the design of my own campaign.

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  5. What Mike said. When I read "something that's genuinely new and that nevertheless embodies the best of our preferred style of gaming." Carcosa sprang to mind.

    And I already thought GG was showing that old school or at least pseudo old school was cool.


    The problem with old school and market popularity is that there aren't enough products to sell. Don't need miniatures, collectible cards, endless rule expansions, piles of adventures, nor a subscription based online portal thing.

    Players and DM's are all that's really needed. If you can figure out how to monetize them then maybe. Otherwise periodicals like Fight On! are as close as old school is getting.

    Finally why do you want market popularity/success for old school? It almost always ruins a "scene" when it gets commercialized.

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  6. The thing that occurs to me reading this isn't that we just need a "killer app", for the reasons pointed out above - it would be hard to have one or a few singular products make the "old school" new again.

    I have a consulting background which means I had to learn how to make the ordinary or the expensive sound palatable. It occurs to me that what we need to do now is just play games. We've got the tools, what we need to do now is "market", so to speak, the fun and difference of old-school.

    We have several people who are writing campaigns in what I would consider old school style - your own Dwimmermount, Scott's "Thool", Sham's "Dismal Depths" - and a whole ton that's been published in FightOn and the like - let's play those. Play them at cons. Play them at libraries. LotFP has said it before - we need to get out there and play the *hell* out of these games and show that there are options, there are *fun* options to the shiney new editions that still exist.

    I believe that is the best thing I can do. We can't rewind the clock back to the 80s - we just have too much competition with video games, MMORPGs, and many 3E (and soon 4E) materials out there. What I think we *can* do is show that what we have is a whole lot of fun - and the only way to do that is to play those games.

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  7. I still think we need an old-school gaming booth at Gen Con. There are tons of folks out there still playing older editions of D&D--a nice market who might be interesting in many of the products going now--plus a lot of folks who have only heard of the old editions from threads and talk online. We should show them what its about--show them about rulings, not rules--show them how light and flexible things can be--show the grognards who thought the hobby had passed them by that it hasn't--and gets copies of LL, OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, and a host of support products in the hands of folks--be it print copies, CDs, cards with links to downloads, etc, to take back to their groups and FLGSs. Let's get more people inured to the DIY frame of mind, and see what turns up.

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  8. Ditto Chgowiz: play is the thing!

    If you turn on some "new schoolers," then that's great; if normal, non-"gamer" folks, maybe even better.

    That's not a matter of "product," just a matter of breaking out paper, pencil and dice and getting together with interested people.

    You can do that (schedules permitting) today, or as many tomorrows as you like ... no matter what WotC turns out or some other company does not.

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  9. I really cant wait to see what happens in 2009 with Paizo come August and beyond.

    Pathfinder releases and then the game is afoot.....

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  10. I'm not quite sure what a "new product" would be in this context, since I'd think virtually anything tied to old-school gaming *as such* faces the same issue current retro-clones and new supplements for them have: they're almost necessarily aimed right back at the people who already know about/appreciate the old school. The closest I can imagine would be entirely new RPGs that

    1. cover and extend similar ground to the retro-clones; but

    2. use entirely new (or sufficiently changed) rulesets for this purpose; and

    3. are primarily aimed at new audiences, *instead* of being advertised primarily to grognards. (The _Star Trek 2009_ approach?)

    Something like Ye Olde Gaming Companye's _Wayfarers_ would be an example of this, I guess.

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  11. However, based on reviews it's the first RPG design I've seen that has intrinsic links between mechanics and setting.

    Others have done it before -- RuneQuest, EPT -- but since Carcosa is admittedly influenced by them, that's not surprising. I'm on the fence myself as to how good a thing it is, but I certainly agree it's unusual nowadays and that alone makes it noteworthy.

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  12. Finally why do you want market popularity/success for old school? It almost always ruins a "scene" when it gets commercialized.

    It's not that I want to market it as such. Rather, it's that I don't think, in the long term, the old school can survive if it remains a secret society whose governing philosophy is esoteric to contemporary gamers. My hope is not so much that, say, Paizo or WotC will go full bore old school -- that just isn't likely -- but that they'll produce things that make old school principles of design and play less alien to younger gamers and thus make them more open to the deeper mysteries of our little cult.

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  13. What I think we *can* do is show that what we have is a whole lot of fun - and the only way to do that is to play those games.

    Absolutely. That's vital and the foundation on which all of this depends. However, I do think it's important that the principles of design and play found in the old school be disseminated through more modern products. As it is, we face an uphill battle in convincing younger gamers that the way we play is just as fun and enjoyable as anything they're used to.

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  14. Something like Ye Olde Gaming Companye's _Wayfarers_ would be an example of this, I guess.

    Interestingly, it's next up in my review queue.

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  15. except when it comes to very expensive champagne
    and
    2009 will be the year that'll determine whether the much-discussed old school renaissance fulfills its promise
    Amongst other things, I will think of you and the "old-school renaissance" when I open a bottle of 1995 Le Grande Dame later this evening.

    Happy New Year and keep up the good work!

    - Patrick

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  16. "If the old school renaissance has one fatal flaw, it's that it's much too easy to dismiss it as simple nostalgia."

    On the other hand, I'd consider the fatal flaw to be all the unneccessary hand-wringing over how to appease these detractors and become "cool" in their eyes.

    It's childish. Just have fun. Who cares if it *is* just simple nostalgia? I'm not about to lose sleep over whether some amorphous gaming elite may or may not think about my play.

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  17. As it is, we face an uphill battle in convincing younger gamers that the way we play is just as fun and enjoyable as anything they're used to.

    Interesting not-quite-tangent: A few minutes ago, I just finished watching Darkon, a documentary film about a LARP group, some of whose members also play tabletop. During a "playing D&D at home" session, the players--who appear to be mostly in their twenties to thirties, tops, and filmed sometime within the past two or three years at most--are clearly playing AD&D 1e: the "demon-idol" PHB and purple Deities & Demigods are lying right there in the table (and somebody flips through the PHB to double-check his use of Dispel Magic).

    That surprised me somewhat. Perhaps old copies of 1e are still more widely used than usually assumed, after all?

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  18. I think it's great to see stuff that's not exactly the same old thing, such as Carcosa and Mutant Future. Some people seem to equate "old school" with a bland menu hallowed by cliche-dom, rather than the smorgasbord I think it really was meant to be. I expect that on sober analysis one would find Arneson and Gygax somewhat closer to Barker and Hargrave than to the "purists" who scoff at Tieflings, Dragonborn, Genasi and whatever else is treading the Forgotten Realms these days.

    There's a happy OS medium between just another "generic" work and one that goes beyond inspiration to stifling with "canon." Keeping the page count down may be a help in that. Offhand, I'd aim for 128 pp. tops for a complete game; 64 for a major supplement; 32 for a "module" kind of thing -- and consider it desirable to halve those numbers again. Again, there's a middle ground in presentation between something as rough-hewn as the Arduin Grimoires and the excesses of (e.g.) a lot of 3E books (from which even WotC has backed off a bit).

    The personal touch really makes a difference. It tends to get polished away after passing through a development process like WotC's. It was not anything in a store that turned me on to D&D, but the lucky chance of finding someone working (with the LBBs, and IIRC Geomorphs and Monster & Treasure Assortments) on his dungeon when he probably ought to have been doing homework for school. Within a few minutes, I was playing my first game of D&D! There's one advantage over many newer designs. A 4E player has advised me that I should expect to spend at least 40 minutes creating a new first-level character. The big stat blocks for monsters are actually pretty helpful in play (versus a big drag in 3E), but the piling up of individually simple elements makes it seem complex to whip up a good scenario. The mechanics make for a looming "middle man" between imagination and action.

    Remember that what ultimately sets our hobby apart from computer games is the face-to-face interaction. D&D is a social thing. "After Daddy plays his [D&D] game, he'll play this [Lord of the Rings board game] with us -- and you can be the orange one!" ... "Help yourselves to [something tasty to eat or drink]." ... "Stravinsky or Black Sabbath for the next encounter?" ... ROTFL after a crit, fumble or whatever ... Good times!

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  19. Labyrinth Lord is in distribution and you can get it from regular bookshops here in the UK. My hope is to see Mutant Future in distribution, and ideally LL-branded modules along the lines of 'Keep on the Borderlands', in book shops and game stores. My local games shop sells OSRIC modules, but they're all for level 10+, which is something I don't understand. And of course you can't actually buy a copy of OSRIC. So for me LL is where it's at in terms of a commercial product that can introduce neophyte gamers to old-school gaming, just as Moldvay did all those years ago.

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  20. Dwayanu said...Some people seem to equate "old school" with a bland menu hallowed by cliche-dom, rather than the smorgasbord I think it really was meant to be.

    Agreed.

    To me, old-school is more about how you play than what you play. However, I'll concede some games lend themselves to the old-school style of play better than others.

    At the same time, I think an old-school renaissance means a resurgence of treating pencil & paper RPGs with a hobbyist approach. Just yesterday I downloaded J Higgins' Engines & Empires, a 'gaslight fantasy' supplement for LL. E&E could be more easily created because of the existence of LL. -That's a fantastic thing.

    With OGLs and the ability to publish almost instantly, combined with this emergent old-school blog community, I see some very cool things happening in 2009.

    In fact, I think blogs like Grognardia are a critical component of this new old-wave of gaming. Yet, I don't think the online formula has been perfected and I think we'll see some evolution in 2009. The old-school community is pretty fragmented, and there are a lot of forums and blogs out there. An effort to consolidate the pieces of this old-school online community might help it grow. -That might just happen naturally, however.

    At any rate, thanks for making a better 2008, James.

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  21. As a Non Grognard who is nevertheless interested in the history of the game and in adding more "old school" feel to his games, I think the one thing the old school community could do to maintain my interest and to help spread the old school renaissance would be..

    Stop Insulting Me!

    Stop sounding as if "real gaming" ended when GG left TSR. Stop sounding like you assume anyone who actually likes 3.5 or 4th or (gasp) 2nd edition D&D is a nincompoop who needs to be handheld through dungeons. Stop acting like we're the enemy!

    (I'm not really talking to James here, or even most of the fine commenters on this and other sites, but as the saying goes about one bad apple)

    I like the idea of getting out among the community and playing. But in order to do that, you hafta "join" the community. And its easier to do that if you don't hork off the neighbors.

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  22. Stop sounding as if "real gaming" ended when GG left TSR. Stop sounding like you assume anyone who actually likes 3.5 or 4th or (gasp) 2nd edition D&D is a nincompoop who needs to be handheld through dungeons. Stop acting like we're the enemy!

    This is a very good point and one I have tried hard to bear in mind. But old habits die hard and you have to remember that many old schoolers have spent the last decade or so being told that their preferred game and style of play is "outdated" and that they're "dinosaurs," etc. That's not an excuse but I offer it as an explanation for why the hostility toward more modern games (and those who play them) exists. Freeing oneself from a siege mentality is not easy and a lot of us lapse back into it with little provocation.

    But thanks for sticking with us and voicing your concerns in a positive manner. I appreciate that greatly and promise you I'll be doing my darnedest to ensure I do (often -- I have to be realistic) engage in the kind of behavior you describe. Considering, though, that we old schoolers fight amongst ourselves, is it any wonder we don't always play nice with others? :)

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  23. I am sometimes tempted to swear off playing with self-defined "gamers" of any stripe and stick with "normal" people ; ) ... but for now am recalling Dave Hargrave's advice to "take a troll to lunch." Folks savagely waging online edition wars represent but a small fraction of the players out in the real world.

    I remember back when some people -- including Mr. Gygax, in his public persona as "final arbiter of fantasy role playing" -- seemed pompously dismissive of all that was not AD&D. That I happened to enjoy other games (RuneQuest, frex) as well was no bar to my enjoying AD&D.

    That 4E is so very different, much more a board game really, makes a sense of rivalry somewhat moot. It's like comparing OD&D and, say, Avalon Hill's Magic Realm. To many people today, an "old-school RPG" is as new a concept as it was 30 years ago. This is especially true of those who were not even born yet when First Edition and Moldvay Basic dominated the field.

    Others have simply moved along to whatever was popular at the time, because their first concern was simply playing -- and it's easier to find players of whatever happens to be the Latest Big Thing. D&D itself more than fulfilled Gygax's 1974 prophecy "that of all forms of wargaming, fantasy will soon become the major contender for first place." So much for the species of "grognards" who borrowed the nick-name from Napoleon's Old Guard!

    I've met some fine fellows via 4E, and some of them have expressed interest in playing old D&D. I may even be running a short session on Sunday!

    Regarding the game as a pastime rather than a religion can open a lot of doors. An enthusiast of Chess or Scrabble would not "sell" me on its merits with a tirade against D&D. If I happen to enjoy spending time with him, though, then I might be willing to try something he finds fun -- and see for myself whether it suits me.

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  24. @ Blotz: Excellent point, sir. I like when folks remember we're talking about one slice of the pie here, one *preference*. Condescension doesn't get folks anywhere, and I hate when it pops up. I think James in particular here does a nice job of explaining why likes X or Y, and not just saying, "This is it, everything else is crap".

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  25. A couple of comments:

    1. I think we do need a killer app to make use of some of the older systems, otherwise this is just a fad that will be gone in two years. We have spend time developing and talking about old school systems, now we need something really cool to go with them.

    2. I like the idea of a Gen Con get together. Again, its back to the point of "so of bunch of us crusty grognards have gotten a bit grumpy and yapped a bit on their blogs, but what does this all really mean?" Gencon, or any high profile con, could provide the means of getting some attention in order to have this gain legs and start walking.

    3. I like what Jonathan is doing with his 2008 Anthology of Blogs. I hope this turns into a yearly thing. There are lots of good content that is being created on almost a daily basis, and we should make an attempt to save the best of it.

    4. Back to point #2, and let me throw a soft ball at James on this one. Maybe it is the creation of something like Dwimmermount, that gets played at conventions, gets some press in fanzines, that sparks some interest by a company like Goodman, Necro, Paizo. James, you have started something here, and it could be something special.

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  26. The semi-well-known French RPG Reve: The Dream Ouroboros had magic/setting integration mechanics, I believe. (More explicit than the ones James brings up from the old days, as are Carcosa's.) In this connection there are some useful things for designers to think about in boardgames from the high age of "Ameritrash", e.g. Divine Right and Tales of the Arabian Nights. That gum you like is going to come back in style.

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  27. That gum you like is going to come back in style.

    Bonus points to anyone who makes a pertinent Twin Peaks reference. Kudos.

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  28. I like some of the ideas in here.

    If there were a booth selling old school products at Gen Con, what would those products be?

    Could the booth make money, or have the old school fans already purchased these items online?

    Could the old-school audience successfully run a gaming track aimed at children and teenagers? What games would they play, and would their moms feel comfortable buying them at the Gen Con booth?

    Would the authors of those products follow up by running demos at local game stores?

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  29. @GoodmanGames

    If there were a booth selling old school products at Gen Con, what would those products be?

    Any/all old school products that we can find - obviously any old school rules/simulacra that wish to be part of such a booth - modules - maybe we can go *really* old school and reintroduce the old modules in bags... some people here could make a bit of scratch, while introducing people to good stuff.

    Could the booth make money, or have the old school fans already purchased these items online?

    I don't think anyone has done a market analysis on this kind of thing - I'm sure we'd have both old school/new school purchasing new items, and I'm sure there will be some crossover. Personally, I'd buy a special con-only copy of OSRIC or S/W or adventures. Gives it some cachet - and maybe get some of the old greats a chance to autograph something?

    Would it make money? Dunno - we can certain go with the goal of making money and see what happens.


    Could the old-school audience successfully run a gaming track aimed at children and teenagers? What games would they play, and would their moms feel comfortable buying them at the Gen Con booth?


    I'm curious why you focused on kids/moms? If you're thinking of the Carcosa versions, that'd be something to talk directly with Geoffrey with.

    Are you saying we run tracks aimed at kids only? Are you suggesting "Kids/Castles" style adventures? Or that we be inclusive? (I haven't ever seen anyone turn <18 away unless it's advertised for "mature audiences only")

    Would the authors of those products follow up by running demos at local game stores?

    I don't know about anyone else, but I'm already talking to my local library about hosting a game on National Gaming Day in November and I've asked the FLGS if they like my style, would they like me to run demo old-school games.

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  30. @goodmangames - I'm in UK so this may be moot, but there are a lot of old school products I don't have but would probably buy at a Con. The Wilderlands of High Adventure C&C stuff, for instance, and Fight On! magazine - things that I hear good stuff about, but (1) are not in general distribution, (2) I can't get them off amazon, and (3) they're expensive.

    I probably wouldn't buy any rules systems as such since I have a bunch already, like Labyrinth Lord, C&C, Mutant Future and the pdfs of Swords & Wizardry and OSRIC. Although my 19 month old son Bill has taken a strong interest in C&C and I may need to replace my PHBs soon... >:)

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  31. "Could the old-school audience successfully run a gaming track aimed at children and teenagers?"

    I'd think Labyrinth Lord would be perfect for pre-teens. Teenagers play regular RPGs, right? :)

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  32. I have this suspicion that most gamers (who don’t participate in our little online branch of the community) actually still have a healthy dose of old school style in their games.

    Chgowiz: “We can't rewind the clock back to the 80s - we just have too much competition with video games, MMORPGs, and many 3E (and soon 4E) materials out there.

    I don’t buy it. I mean—sure—we’re not going to get the RPG golden (or silver) age back. That has nothing to do with competition. My son still chooses to play marbles regularly despite all the competition for his attention.

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  33. @Robert Fisher "I don’t buy it. I mean—sure—we’re not going to get the RPG golden (or silver) age back. That has nothing to do with competition. My son still chooses to play marbles regularly despite all the competition for his attention."

    Oh, I agree. What I was trying to say is that we have to take all these things, these extras into account. I'm guessing he chooses to play marbles because he was shown that it can be still be fun. We're still competing with a lot of other things, and if we don't show that oldschool can be fulfilling play, we're not going to compete.

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  34. I'm guessing he chooses to play marbles because he was shown that it can be still be fun.

    Nope. He didn’t really know anything but the name when he started bugging me to teach him. I’d had some marbles when I was a kid, but I never played. I didn’t exactly jump on board or encourage him.

    But that’s drifting.

    Yes, it is important to be able to explain the trade-offs.

    e.g. It is important to be able to explain that while a computer-moderated game does a great job of enforcing a complex rule set quickly and with few errors, a human-moderated game can adapt to things beyond the rules and can provide results that feel right when the rules break-down.

    In any case, I really agree with your larger point. I do think any old school renaissance needs to (1) just play it and (2) just show it.

    I’m undecided if James is right that it will take a product and/or a company to get the message out to enough potential listeners.

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  35. Maybe it is the creation of something like Dwimmermount, that gets played at conventions, gets some press in fanzines, that sparks some interest by a company like Goodman, Necro, Paizo. James, you have started something here, and it could be something special.

    I've actually been thinking along these lines myself, so we'll see what comes of it. I certainly do plan to be at GenCon this summer, so perhaps I should try and run Dwimmermount and see what happens. I honestly have no idea how much interest there'd be in it.

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  36. If there were a booth selling old school products at Gen Con, what would those products be?

    Could the booth make money, or have the old school fans already purchased these items online?

    Could the old-school audience successfully run a gaming track aimed at children and teenagers? What games would they play, and would their moms feel comfortable buying them at the Gen Con booth?

    Would the authors of those products follow up by running demos at local game stores?


    All good questions.

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  37. I certainly do plan to be at GenCon this summer, so perhaps I should try and run Dwimmermount and see what happens. I honestly have no idea how much interest there'd be in it.

    You just signed one person up.

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  38. "I certainly do plan to be at GenCon this summer, so perhaps I should try and run Dwimmermount and see what happens. I honestly have no idea how much interest there'd be in it."

    Me too. It's been too long since I've been to a Con.

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