Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two Common Complaints

Lately, I've been noticing two different, though actually related, complaints about the direction of the old school renaissance. The first is that there's too little originality in the OSR. "Where's our EPT and Blackmoor?" asked ChicagoWiz in one of the better stated recent examples of this complaint. I'll be frank and admit I just don't understand this line of thought. Perhaps it's because I've been playing D&D for over three decades now and still find it endlessly compelling, I don't know. I also think "originality" is overrated, or at least over emphasized as the be-all and end-all of creative endeavors. Over the years, I've probably gotten more fun out orcs guarding chests than I ever have out of exotic, avante-garde "reimagings" of the fantasy RPG and I suspect that I'm not alone in this regard.

I'd wager that the primary reason we've not yet seen another Empire of the Petal Throne (though I think we've seen plenty of Blackmoors) is that there's not much interest in such a thing. If the history of the hobby has taught us anything, it's that "vanilla fantasy" will always be a bigger draw than something more outré. Tékumel, which I love dearly and consider one of the finest works of 20th century fantasy in any medium, has had a lot of kicks at the can, going all the way back to 1975. If there were a huge, pent-up demand among gamers for something like it, I suspect Tékumel would have been more widely known and used for RPGs. Ditto for Jorune, Talislanta, and many, many other very fine games that are probably more talked about than actually played.

Lest I be misunderstood -- goodness knows that's never happened before -- I'm not denigrating the notion of something other than vanilla fantasy or the desire to see "new" old school RPGs. My point is simply that gamers like what they like and, if we haven't seen enough "originality" (by whatever measure), it's because most gamers don't actually like that kind of thing. Again, let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that gamers aren't imaginative or interested in ideas that break the mold, but what experience has shown me is that, when forced to choose between a game/setting that's closer to what they're familiar with and one that's not, they'll choose the former by a large margin in most cases. Those who prefer the exotic will always be a minority and, more to the point, there's no way to predict what game will finally be the one that makes a breakthrough.

This brings me to the second complaint, namely that the old school renaissance is "too D&D-centric." Quick quiz: what's the most popular tabletop RPG in 2011? How about 2001? 1991? 1981? The answer now, as it has been since 1974, is "Dungeons & Dragons" (or some variation thereof, if the claims that Pathfinder is in a dead-heat with D&D IV are at all true). Consequently, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the OSR is dominated by D&D. I've noted before that, when I post about games other than D&D, there are significantly fewer comments. Why? Because now, as in the past, D&D remains the 800-lb. gorilla of gaming, especially so when you're talking about old school gaming.

I'm personally very interested in a lot of other old school RPGs, which is why I'll continue to post about Space Opera and Stormbringer and Bushido when I have some thoughts to share on them. But I recognize the fact that most gamers, even most old school gamers, aren't as interested in these games, many of which are, for all intents and purposes dead and buried. I mean, is there an online community devoted to, say, Universe that I've never heard about? Are there bastions of Superhero 2044 fans hidden away somewhere? It's not like there's a conspiracy on the part of the OSR to exclude these other old school games (or the gamers who love them) from our discussions. It's simply that, from my perspective anyway, there's no interest in them whatsoever, beyond a handful of guys who like to use them to bash the old school renaissance with a convenient club.

Ultimately, as Rob Conley has said again and again, the old school renaissance belongs to those who do. Thanks to the OGL, cheap and easy-to-use layout programs, and print-on-demand, anyone can do what Gary and Dave did back in 1974. We're all empowered to follow our passions and create the games and game material that we want. So, if anyone's frustrated that no one's created another Tékumel or there's no retro-clone of Bunnies & Burrows, that's not the fault of the old school renaissance. By the same token, just because there is an old school renaissance doesn't mean that anything that calls itself "old school" will be embraced enthusiastically. Now, as then, gamers will like what they like. I'm sure Dave Nalle wishes that Ysgarth really took off and became a popular fantasy RPG, but it didn't, because it just didn't catch gamers' fancies back in 1979. That's always been the way of things.

It's now easier than ever to produce and distribute tabletop RPGs and RPG materials, but someone has to create them. Since the old school renaissance is a hobbyist movement made up of individuals rather than a hive mind, it only stands to reason that we get what we get based on the interests of those individuals who're putting forward their creations and sharing them with others. Don't like what's on offer? It's trivial to be able to put one's own stuff out there and that's one of the guiding principles of this crazy little thing we've got going.

With that in mind, and in accordance with the Joeskythedungeonbrawler Protocol, I offer the following from my Dwimmermount campaign. The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Fetish of the Rat King: This small wooden carving of a rat that functions much like a ring of animal control on rodents, but with some differences. First, the number of rodents that can be controlled at any one time is 10-60. Rodents that are inherently magical or possess magical abilities are immune to this item's effects, which last as long as the user concentrates. The user can also speak with and understand the speech of all rodents while possessing the fetish. There is a cumulative 1% chance per use of the fetish to command rodents that the user will be cursed with lycanthropy and become a wererat.

32 comments:

  1. What would be more useful is not a new EPT but new stuff published for the old EPT (and for Carcosa).

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  2. Point #2 is spot on. Less complaining, more doing.

    Point #2 really covers my response to point #1. Thinking on it more though, there is plenty of interesting stuff out there in the blogs, a lot of it's just not in published form. I for one am eagerly awaiting a Planet Algol book.

    And yeah, tons of people even on the blogs are straight-up orcs'n'kobolds. It's popular.

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  3. Some of this may be a function of scale and distribution. There were a lot more people playing any given module in 1975 because of the rarity of them. Now, the choices are so large and so cheap to acquire that people have a hard time finding a shared experience.

    That said, I am actually working on an epic-scale RPG setting/module product but it is in the very early stages. And it is fairly vanilla fantasy, especially compared to EPT.

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  4. My campaign has Elves living in forests, Dwarves living in mountains, and humans living most everywhere else. They tend to fight things like Orcs, Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Gnolls. My players and I love it. I am not sure they'd want to play Grondaks locked in battle with Fragwumps on the floating spheres of Zok'kr'nust'a.

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  5. RPGs will always be more about established genres than new paragenres simply because people read books and comics and play video games and see movies and -then- want to go play games about them way more than they read a game as if it were a form of fiction and suddenly discover a world.

    Maybe people who are ALREADY gamers (and therefore already probably pro-D&D or some game that already exists) read Tekumel like it was new fiction, but newbies won't.

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  6. @Welleran - your point about Zok'kr'nust'a is correct. The reason why is that it's going to be completely alien. Anything that is heavily dependent on setting is hard, because players have no grounding in that world.

    You can go gonzo and still be grounded in a common mythology, however. Lovecraft is ingrained in the collective gamer conscious, as is spaceships & rockets, post-apocalyptic mutants, and much more.

    Where D&D shines is when you recycle elements from the common culture you share with your players. It's not a great place to be wholly original - but it is a wonderful place to regurgitate fantastic elements (from any number of sources) that your players are already familiar with.

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  7. I'll take orcs, gnolls, and goblins sprinkled with some elves, dwarves, and halflings any day. It's kind of funny because it is rare indeed that these exotic games become dominant among gamers. They're fun to tinker with now and again, but in the end we all go back to the familiar, and for most that begins and ends with some form of Dungeons and Dragons.

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  8. @Pat

    I'd put it this way:

    The -product- is the starting point of a setting. It helps if the starting point is familiar--or it helps get a game started if it is: people have "seen the trailer and know who's in it".

    The -game itself- that grows from there due to the players and GM, can be extremely original and new. There's a difference between what we want from a published product and what we want from ourselves.

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  9. To tell you the truth, I hadn't heard of EPT until 3 or 4 years ago. I've played it and liked it, but I see why it hasn't really caught on outside of a small niche.

    I agree that product wise, it's great to see innovative stuff. But when it comes down to it, people really want a basic fantasy setting. It's like a second home and people want to be reminded of home.

    Besides, i

    It's a great idea to have really weird things that clash together like robots and fantasy, or urban fantasy. They're great ideas, but they're also not new ideas. They've been done by many people over the years.

    I think true originality comes out in game play, there's no other substitute for the randomness that players and GMs can bring forth in play.

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  10. One way to rephrase your first point is "Who actually plays EPT and Blackmoor?" These are brilliant settings, but as you said most D&D players like the flavor of vanilla. Both EPT and Blackmoor have very weird things in them - the type of material I only see discussed on a very small number of blogs. Again, as you said, I think there's a very limited audience for this kind of stuff.

    Furthermore, I think the kind of gamers that appreciate hyper-creative settings like EPT and Jorune (i.e. myself) also tend to be the gamers who favor homebrewing their own worlds over using prepackaged settings.

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  11. Glorantha has been doing pretty well and it's pretty gonzo. It is in a somewhat different situation as it's still a published setting (noth RQ and HeroQuest) and BRP/RuneQuest has changed so little over the years there is little need for an OSR.

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  12. @cyclopeatron

    "furthermore...."

    Goooooooood point.

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  13. Zak pretty much hit it. Speaking for myself, I like my game settings the way I like my rules: generic, and easily tinkered with. I just don't like having a straitjacket applied to my imagination.

    EPT, for it to remain EPT, is the kind of thing that can't be tinkered with without having it lose what makes it distinctive. It's an OK place to visit, I suppose, but I wouldn't want my gaming-imagination to go there and set up a permanent shop.

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  14. It's interesting seeing "innovation" being essentially reduced to "creating unusual games that no one really ever plays" (ie EPT). I don't really see the point. Seems almost like wanting change for the sake of change, not necessarily to make anything better.

    And, I'm not really sure what ChicagoWiz is looking for. He wants "originality" like EPT and Blackmoor. Is that original?

    He asks for something different with Orcs as an example, like crossing them with Mr T and putting a laser in his hand...like they have done with Warhammer 40k.

    Anyway, I don't see value in doing something "innovative" simply for the sake of it, especially if the end result isn't actually used.

    As an aside I like the idea of there being hidden cults of Superhero 2044 players somewhere in the world, attempting to secretly dominate the world of OSR from behind the scenes as a first step to taking over the world...

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  15. @Coldstream
    "As an aside I like the idea of there being hidden cults of Superhero 2044 players somewhere in the world, attempting to secretly dominate the world of OSR from behind the scenes as a first step to taking over the world..."

    I finally have a group to put on my blank Illuminati! cards. Superhero 2044 Players Association. Awesome.

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  16. I think cyclopeatron definitely made a good second point above. I know if I really want to be excited by what's in my game, I make it happen--and I think any good GM works more or less that way.

    That being said, there is a lot of room in my mind for modules and small-scale supplements and materials that are inspiration fodder more than sourcebooks.

    The upcoming Petty Gods book that someone (I forget who) is working on currently is one good example of an item that will do a lot to share people's creative directions without imposing a setting on anyone at the same time.

    My thought: big creative setting and rulebooks = too niche and largely unmarketable, while small-scale and specifically inspirational rather than authoritative = highly marketable and well worth the effort.

    Heck, I saw the Dungeon Alphabet in Borders the other day.

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  17. @James, thank you for the link to my post and the great comments. It's been fun to read the "yeas" and "nays" and learn something from them.

    That being said, there was a sort of clone done for Bunnies and Burrows back when microlite20 was all the rage. I present vermin20: http://www.scribd.com/doc/18915891/verminM20

    @Coldstream - what am I looking for? More of the sparks that I find from Jeff Rients taking EPT and making it "big and dumb" (his words), from Carcosa, from Urutsk, from the places that people have gone that have gone beyond just taking the same orc and restating it over and over.

    Some of the context of my original thought was lost because I linked to a forum post. This all started because someone suggested that we take the Core S&W Monster Book and restat it for WhiteBox and publish it. My first thought was "What a waste of time and publisher's resources when he could be working on the next crazy thing..." and it went from there. EPT and Blackmoor were the earliest examples of where there was variation from the straight OD&D/Greyhawk thread, so I went with that. Ultimately, what I hope for is that this OSR doesn't do what TSR/WotC did and just create a glut of the same-old, same-old, restatted stuff.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, yes, I did restat Core crap into WB crap for my ref sheets. I made beer money. You're free to come visit, play D&D/warmgames with me and I'll buy one of those beers for ya.

    I'm really glad to have seen a lot of unique, personal stuff be spoken about since this discussion. If we're playing up the groundbreaking stuff, the stuff that pushes the edges and shows the creativity, whether it's an orc with pie, lasers, concrete shoes or ballerina slippers, then I think it's awesome.

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  18. PS, the link to vermin20 above seems to be broken, but I have downloaded it from here: http://sites.google.com/site/copycat042/verminM20.pdf

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  19. There goes my idea for a Floating Spheres of Zok'kr'nust'a mega-module.

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  20. @matt:

    Don't give up! It just adds an extra step to your process.

    1. Publish a gonzo boundary-shattering setting and system into which the Floating Spheres can be incorporated. (unprofitable)

    2. Publish a resource (module, sourcebook, etc.) for your gonzo setting/system that features the Floating Spheres. (also unprofitable)

    3. Translate your Floating Spheres product into WB. (hugely popular!)

    4. Profit!!!

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  21. @Pat:
    "Where D&D shines is when you recycle elements from the common culture you share with your players. It's not a great place to be wholly original - but it is a wonderful place to regurgitate fantastic elements (from any number of sources) that your players are already familiar with."

    I agree! The fun is to use the basic building blocks in new and interesting ways - not necessarily alien, but entertaining for the DM and players. I have no problem with the strange or the intricate - in fact, I strive for both at times in my own gaming. But I would rather create something truly unique to its core, rather than just dress up the ho-hum with superficial/fancy names and weird appearances.

    @Matt: I guesss I can put you down for a copy of Zok'kr'nust'a White Box Edition.

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  22. It’s trivial to be able to put one’s own stuff out there...

    Trivial? In making this point, let’s be sure to still recognize the—not insignificant—time and effort you and others are putting in to turn ideas into works. (Even blog posts.)

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  23. First off: Bog standard D&D is great. I've played it. Love it.(With some mods, as I'm sure everyone would agree.[Houseruling=fun])

    Secondarily: No RPG has ever had D&D's distribution network and/or finanacial resources. No-one at this late date is likely to try, out of fiscal conservatism.

    Thirdly: Come up with the game you want to play, and show it off. Who knows what can happen. People at least might enjoy it. Maybe you're the next 'Blackmoor'.(Whitemarsh?)

    Fourthly: I'm a fan of the EPT/Carcosa/Jorune/Encounter Critical/Vikings And Valkyries, etc... stuff as well as Greyhawk, so....

    That said:

    @welleren:
    'I am not sure they'd want to play Grondaks locked in battle with Fragwumps on the floating spheres of Zok'kr'nust'a.':
    1)Are your players imaginative and adaptive?
    2)Is this setting developed?
    3)Have you asked them?

    @Pat:
    'It's not a great place to be wholly original':
    Have you tried? You never know...

    @Zak S:
    'RPGs will always be more about established genres than new paragenres simply because people read books and comics and play video games and see movies and -then- want to go play games about them way more than they read a game as if it were a form of fiction and suddenly discover a world.'-The substandard imagination of the creators(and more importantly that plus creative inertia will come from bankrollers) of most media will influence this greatly. I. e. everything has to look similar to the stuff that made money before.(And hopefully spawn a franchise.)

    @ChicagoWiz:
    Thanx for providing a starting point for this discussion. You've hit OSR Big Time now, right?
    Grognardia! Thanx for the link!

    I was wondering when you would blog on this, James. Thanx for the forum!

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  24. [i]I mean, is there an online community devoted to, say, Universe that I've never heard about?[/i]

    Actually, you have - back when you wrote about [u]Universe[/u] I posted a response that (I think) included a link to a Yahoo group devoted to Universe. Hasn't seen any real activity in awhile, but it does exist.

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  25. Are there bastions of Superhero 2044 fans hidden away somewhere?

    Yes! Dr Ruby never died!

    On a more serious note, I think a big problem facing the OSR is that the the rules are much more established now than they were back in the day. By that I mean there wasn't much in the way of examples of how to create a campaign, so everybody went in different directions, stealing stuff they liked, and ignoring stuff they didn't. So you got a wide plethora of worlds, usually working on a hodge-podge of official and home-brewed rules. There was no real uniformity in anyone's campaigns back then.

    But now everybody knows what a D&D or Traveller game is supposed to look like. So they generally feel uncomfortable about taking the rule set and adapting it in new ways, to express new cultures and new campaign ideas. So its all a variation on a theme, rather than anything startling new. There is a reason that Tekumel and Glorantha drifted away to their own rule sets to better support their games. To produce something new and iconic you have to throw away the old palette and paint something new.

    And it was a lot easier back then for something new to be noticed than it is now. Even though it is easy to put something out there, it is generally harder for it to be noticed amongst all the other noise generated on the web.

    And even if you are noticed, it takes a large investment in time and effort to involve yourself with something new, especially a complicated world where you might have to learn all the specialised cultural rules to operate in successfully. People are lazy. So it's easier to just relax and continue in the same old plain* worlds that you gamed in before.

    [* I refuse to use vanilla as a substitute for plain. Proper vanilla is delicious.]

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  26. ...besides, D&D is really one of those crazy Ben n Jerry everything but the kitchen sink concoctions.

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  27. Bizarrely having a parallel argument about vanilla fantasy in books as well - why is it that all high fantasy books (even the new, highly-praised ones) use the same tropes over and over again?

    Well, because that's what readers want...

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  28. @richardthinks:
    Oftentimes, at its best, it is... Robots chunking Bulettes out of a spaceship onto a wizard is the BIst thyng EVAR!

    @Jared:
    Or all they're offered! Plus, if there are people asking for more than just 'vanilla'(which is delicious), they obviously want more, right?

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  29. Plus, if there are people asking for more than just 'vanilla'(which is delicious), they obviously want more, right?

    It is amazing how often what customers ask for is not really what they want. (Which is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to customers. Merely that you have to go farther than simply asking them what they want.)

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  30. Or all they're offered! Plus, if there are people asking for more than just 'vanilla'(which is delicious), they obviously want more, right?

    But that's not really true. There's a fair amount of deviation within fantasy from the "norms." But even the most popular among those "new" forms of fantasy end up being niche publications that aren't often imitated. I'm thinking of something like China Mieville here; he certainly does new things with fantasy, but how many people are following in his footsteps?

    Other guys are changing things up more subtley; Joe Abercrombie reverses some of the tropes to create an anti-fantasy, in many ways, but even that's not really doing something different, it's just a mirror image of much of what you'd expect to see. For example.

    But there's unusual stuff out there. It just isn't taking the market by storm. The only thing that is taking the market by storm that deviates from standard fantasy is the modern, urban fantasy form, with guys like Jim Butcher and others. And even then a lot of that is migrating into the romance genre territory (Twilight) or the soft porn genre territory (Anita Blake) and it's arguably as much horror as fantasy anyway in its roots.

    It is amazing how often what customers ask for is not really what they want. (Which is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to customers. Merely that you have to go farther than simply asking them what they want.)

    Indeed. What customers say that they want and what they actually prove willing to buy are not necessarily strongly correllated.

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  31. @Joshua:
    'It just isn't taking the market by storm.':
    Just as long as alternatives exist; the 'new stuff' is defined vs. mainstream. I don't think anyone was calling for say, Jorune, to be the new standard for D&D. Just for more Jorunes now and then.

    urban fantasy:
    It took awhile, Charles Delint was doing this in the early 80's before Kim Harrison and those upstarts came along. :-)

    @Robert Fisher
    @Joshua
    'What customers say that they want and what they actually prove willing to buy are not necessarily strongly correllated.':(I love this old canard; my department used to toss this out in R&D all the time![And it worked, too!])
    Varies due to many factors, but there's also the well-documented fact that many companies don't care about customer desires if it conflicts with their ideologies and/or would require(in their opinion) too much outlay of resources. There's wiggle room on occasion, though.

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