Saturday, November 12, 2011

D&D and the Old School Renaissance

Every now and again, it's useful to remind ourselves of a couple of facts about the history of our hobby:

First, Dungeons & Dragons, by virtue of its being the foundational game of our hobby, has always commanded the largest number of roleplayers. This remains true even today. No other tabletop RPG has ever come close to the popularity of D&D at its height.

Second, Dungeons & Dragons, by virtue of its age, has a significant advantage over even its oldest rivals in terms of making its name nearly synonymous with "roleplaying game" in the mind of many people, including gamers who know well there are plenty of other RPGs.

Third, Dungeons & Dragons, by virtue of its being fantasy, is extremely open-ended in nature, making it a lot easier to accommodate a wide variety of not just content but also styles of play.

Given this, is it really any wonder that D&D has such pride of place in the old school gaming world? I'm regularly baffled by the periodic kvetching about how old school gamers are only interested in D&D, because I think it can fairly truthfully be said that the interest of old schoolers in D&D is no greater than that of most gamers in D&D. Indeed, I'd even venture to say that old schoolers, particularly those actively involved in this amorphous thing we call the old school renaissance, are probably more likely to talk about and play lesser known RPGs from the past than are most gamers.

Even a cursory examination of old school blogs and forums would show that their denizens evince far more genuine interest in hoary games like Boot Hill, Gamma World, Stormbringer, and Empire of the Petal Throne (to cite just a few examples off the top of my head) than does the general gaming population. Does such interest come close to rivaling that in D&D? Not by a long such, but, again, I would argue forcefully that's that true of the hobby as a whole and always has been.

Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives was, is, and probably always shall be the 800-lb. gorilla of our hobby. D&D was the first published RPG ever and has had nearly 40 years to ensconce itself as the king of the hill. Even taking into account the game's rocky history, particularly in the '90s, no other RPG has ever displaced it in this role -- however much some might wish it were otherwise.

28 comments:

  1. I get the sense this post is in response to something specifically said "out there". But the only thing I can think of is the discussion of Pathfinder's sales versus D&D sales. But they're almost the same system, so I doubt that is the topic that sparked this conversation.

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  2. It is the ruler that all rpgs are measured by in some way. The funny thing is, it wasn't the first rpg that I played, mine was Chill. Which to me has as big a place in my heart as D&D.

    I think another reason for it's long lasting appeal is the whole campaign system. You can create a living breathing setting that will last for multi generations of characters. That's hard to beat.

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  3. It is and it isn't a response to something specific. Over the past two weeks, I've come across several posts on blogs and forums that were complaining about the OSR's supposed D&D-centricity, but I'm also speaking more generally than that. I'm personally of the opinion that the OSR doesn't get enough credit for its embrace of a number of older games that had largely been forgotten by the wider hobby, even if those games still get only a fraction of the attention that D&D does. Most RPGs have always had a very small fan base, so I find it frustrating that people single out the OSR as if it were somehow unique in not devoting all its collective attention to these other RPGs, when in reality I think we're doing a better job than most of the wider hobby is.

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  4. I for one am happy to see the amount of pre-4e Stormbringer love out there. And as you rightly point out, the OSR blogs often reference older games such as Traveller, Top Secret, James Bond and others, and thus spread the word to younger readers. The D&D bias is inevitable and understandable, but has the effect of drawing lots of other equally playable (and thus valuable) old or OOP games back into the spotlight.

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  5. I think another fact that needs to be brought up is some 'old school' games are still supported by their creators or are being supported by publishers. I think they don't really get represented in, or considered part of the OSR, because the a lot of the need or desire for content pertaining to those games is already being filled by said creators or publishers.

    Classic Traveller, for example, can still be acquired from creator and for the most part has a community that remains largely invisible or separate from the OSR culture. Traveller is also currently published and supported in an updated version that is fundamentally very similar to the original little black books so there is not a significant segment of the community that feels abandoned by the publisher or mainstream culture of the game that might otherwise be philosophically inclined to self identify with the OSR. Runequest, Tunnels and Trolls and some others are to various degrees like that too.

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  6. I believe that the basic foundation of everything that has been accomplished by the OSR is Wizard's Open-Game License for 3.0/3.5 D&D. This allowed us to write and publish new material in support of the all versions of D&D up to that point in time.

    Other games manufacturers simply have not opened up their rules and copyrights in the same manner. While there is quite a bit of aftermarket content for a game like [i] Traveller [/i] it is not the same as what we would see if a retroclone appeared or new material was published in old little black book format appeared due to a similar Open Game situation from the Mongoose end.

    Official support from the publisher for old games and the ability for third parties to generate, and sell for profit, new materials are two very different things.

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  7. I think another fact that needs to be brought up is some 'old school' games are still supported by their creators or are being supported by publishers.

    That's absolutely right. One of my favorite RPGs, Call of Cthulhu, has never been out of print since it appeared three decades ago. It's not unique in this regard, as there are many other older RPGs that have maintained a continuous existence in print since their release. Had the same been true of TSR-era D&D, I suspect the OSR might never have made as much of a splash as it did.

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  8. There is also a semantic difference between the phrases old school gamer and old school Renaissance that leads to quite a bit of confusion in many blogs I frequent.

    This first merely refers to gamers who still actively play, read, and write about older, possibly out of print games.

    The second refers to an internet and publishing based movement that arose out of Wizard's OGL, originally in support of D&D based rule sets.

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  9. I believe that the basic foundation of everything that has been accomplished by the OSR is Wizard's Open-Game License for 3.0/3.5 D&D. This allowed us to write and publish new material in support of the all versions of D&D up to that point in time.

    That's another excellent point. It's much, much easier to support old school D&D and its derivatives than it is other games because WotC gave us the tools to do so for free. Until recently, the same couldn't be said for games like Traveller or RuneQuest, a fact that's certainly played a role in their being comparatively sidelined by the OSR.

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  10. There is also a semantic difference between the phrases old school gamer and old school Renaissance that leads to quite a bit of confusion in many blogs I frequent.

    Very true. Many people conflate them and, though there's a lot of overlap, they're not identical.

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  11. You are spot on with this post. Everytime I see this come up, like the theRPGsite, I point out the OSR is what it is. Because of it's grassroots origins reflects the desires of the gamers not the business plans of a company or companies. And the simple fact is that most old school gamers prefer an older edition D&D over all other games.

    As Ndege Diamond pointed many of the other popular old school RPGs are still supported in someway by active publishers. This takes away a lot of the reasons for a grassroots movement to form around those games. And explains why the OSR is so overwhelmingly focused on older edition D&D.

    And concur with that not enough know that large segments of the OSR are involved in preserving other older edition games or creating new games for different genres of interest to old school gamers.

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  12. Timely. I've been running my players through Stonehell using hoary old B/X D&D since the summer, but right now I'm preparing a Stormbringer 1e one-shot for tomorrow night. And a couple of my players have expressed interest in running games of Call of Cthulhu and Traveller soon.

    So, aye, spot on.

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  13. D&D will always get the most attention... deservedly or not. It's just that way.
    The only time I perk up and complain is when someone suggests RQ/BRP/Traveller/T&T are NOT 'old school'... like happened on theRPGsite recently.
    Yes, you can be the center of attention... but you don't get to claim you're the one and only!

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  14. Original D&D and Classic Traveller have set the bar too high. I've spent thousands on alternatives and new iterations - nothing has displaced these two systems for me as providing the most fluid and fun.
    I'm baffled at the vitriol surrounding a few of the current systems. Co
    Complicated mechanics and tedious shuffling of punchboard are not innovations or improvement. Supposed pro-designers who simply offer mechanics discussed decades ago or even in the current systems indicate a bloated business -printed on poorly-bound books.

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  15. "I'm personally of the opinion that the OSR doesn't get enough credit for its embrace of a number of older games that had largely been forgotten by the wider hobby"

    I agree 100%.

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  16. I used to know a guy who called D&D "boot camp for role-players." At the time, it seemed like every gamer we knew got into gaming through D&D. It's an exaggeration, but an exaggeration with a core of truth, perhaps.

    I wonder whether the lack of a detailed campaign world in the early years actually helped D&D? Because it was so open, because you could do with it what you wanted, did it have a broader appeal than a game that featured a world into which you had to fit your stories?

    Obviously one can enjoy both types of games. I'm just wondering if the encouragement to develop one's own world was part of D&D's success. Or did the bits and pieces of world-building, the hints in spell names and odd references to, e.g., the City of Brass, help spur the imagination of GMs and keep them involved with the game?

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  17. Zak S. had a good post a few weeks back about D&D as a platform, which rang fairly true to me.

    You will notice that of the four games you listed, all but Stormbringer are mechanically D&D variants.

    D&D is not a great universal system--I spent my whole college RPG life playing GURPS (too crunchy for my current tastes)--but it works *well enough*, and everyone already knows how to play it, because it's the 800-lb. gorilla. Even if it wasn't your first game, you probably know more or less how it works, because everyone else you ever played with did.

    And thus it becomes the default system. The most you have to do to tell new potential players how to play your game is to say "it works like D&D, except for...."

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  18. "No other tabletop RPG has ever come close to the popularity of D&D at its height."

    True, but I am still not convinced that D&D is not at a new height right now as far as actual players. There was never a time in the history of the game that I can remember were so many versions of it were being actively played and published. Between Hasbro with 4E, Paizo with Pathfinder and 3.5, OSR with the rebuilt old school, and all the support and popularity of the old TSR versions (non OSR) it seems like the game is everywhere, in every version. That was never the case before. In the past, you just moved from one version to the next and the previous version immediately shriveled and died. Today the entire history of the game is actively being played and expanded.

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  19. I started during the dark age of DnD, and I don't think I was even aware of another table top rpg until someone showed me Rifts after about 3 years of active gaming.

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  20. I always thought that "OSR" referred to the renaissance of Old School *D&D* - not RPGs in general. Grognards may branch out into appreciation of other older games, but surely that is ancillary.

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  21. " In the past, you just moved from one version to the next and the previous version immediately shriveled and died. "

    You're talking about stuff being in-print, right? There are lots of people who like OD&D or AD&D 1e, and didn't "upgrade". I mean, a new edition doesn't mean the TSR/WotC police kick in my door, burn my old books, and melt my lead minis, and foist a new edition on me.

    I tell you something else the so-called OSR community doesn't get enough credit for: playing new games. Lots of people gave 3e a shot, for example, before returning to an older edition. Yet, I still see people who play OD&D/AD&D written off as crazy hermits, clinging to their dog-eared Lizardman logo 3LBBs, decrying anything new as bad, without having played it. (Hell, I ran 3e for 3+ years - when I grouse about it, I do so from experience.)

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  22. Also, none of the terminology was created in any sort of purposeful or theoretical way, it just developed from chances and nicknames. The name "old school" actually originated on ENworld, coined by (mainly) newer-edition players to describe those of us who play older editions of D&D specifically. We just adopted the tag in our community. And then people loosely started calling the later developments a "renaissance."

    From what I've seen, Traveller fans don't have the same mindset; a lot of them prefer classic Traveller, but as a group they seem to be much more focused on the Traveller worlds and settings without so much time spent on the differences between the rule editions.

    Those of us who are Traveller fans probably hang out in both communities; there are plenty of Traveller sites, and I doubt that they really care whether or not a bunch of OS D&D players include them or ignore them in the coverage.

    In other words, we're really a D&D group who use the tag "old school" because that's what we were tagged with; a randomly assigned tag-name doesn't make us about all old school games. It's mainly fantasy games, and out of that, it's mostly D&D. Trying to be more than that ignores the realities of how the various different old-school games (in the broader sense) actually interact. Which is to say, not much.

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  23. I agree.
    Though I do acknowledge D&D to be the most famous RPG ever, I nevertheless make the "renaissance experience" with my party of fellow player of yore playing less-known titles such as the Fighting Fantasy RPG or Dragon Warriors, or italian little-known RPGs as Kata Kumbas or I Signori del Caos.

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  24. Yes, you can be the center of attention... but you don't get to claim you're the one and only!

    Well, anyone who claims that D&D is "the one and only" isn't someone worth taking seriously.

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  25. True, but I am still not convinced that D&D is not at a new height right now as far as actual players.

    Given that 3e at its height -- which was very successful -- never came close to the number of players the game had back in the early '80s, I'd be amazed if there's been an increase in the years since. I suspect that 4e and Pathfinder split between them some portion of the larger 3e audience rather than having attracted many new players of their own. And while the old school segment is more visible now than it was a few years ago, it's still a very tiny number of players -- insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

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  26. I tell you something else the so-called OSR community doesn't get enough credit for: playing new games. Lots of people gave 3e a shot, for example, before returning to an older edition. Yet, I still see people who play OD&D/AD&D written off as crazy hermits, clinging to their dog-eared Lizardman logo 3LBBs, decrying anything new as bad, without having played it. (Hell, I ran 3e for 3+ years - when I grouse about it, I do so from experience.)

    Oh, I agree. I played 3e for about six years in several long-lived campaigns. It's precisely because of my experience with those campaigns that I returned to old school D&D.

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  27. In other words, we're really a D&D group who use the tag "old school" because that's what we were tagged with; a randomly assigned tag-name doesn't make us about all old school games. It's mainly fantasy games, and out of that, it's mostly D&D. Trying to be more than that ignores the realities of how the various different old-school games (in the broader sense) actually interact. Which is to say, not much.

    That's very well said.

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