Thursday, June 4, 2009

Too Much Stuff?

Am I the only one having a hard time keeping up with all the new old school products coming out these days? I'm not complaining exactly, because it really is awesome to see so many terrific adventures, monster books, collections of house rules, periodicals, and other collections of miscellanea. I suspect the last 18 months have seen the most old school gaming products published since the demise of TSR. That most of them are the result of individuals or very small companies is even more remarkable.

That said, I increasingly find myself swamped by the output. I still haven't read all the way through issue 4 of Fight On! and issue 5 is already out. People keep sending me products to review and, while I am grateful for this -- really, I am -- I can't help but be struck by just how much there stuff is out there nowadays. And the sad thing is that I use so little of it in my ongoing Dwimmermount game. With the exception of the Swords & Wizardry rulebook, I don't think there's a single recent product I keep at my table while playing. I probably refer to Supplement I: Greyhawk or the Moldvay/Cook rules more often than I look anything I've bought or been given in the last year or so.

I don't think it's a bad thing that old school publishing is so active these days, but I do sometimes worry, in my darker moments, if we're not just recapitulating the history of the hobby in condensed form: creating a glut of products that will, of necessity, be mostly read rather than used in play, in the process sapping our creative strength and laying the groundwork for a huge crash in the near-future. Perhaps not. I don't know. All I can say is that I now spend an inordinate amount of my spare time reading new old school products so that I can review them in a timely fashion. I also know that I now have more such products than I will ever use. I have to wonder if maybe the old school renaissance has become too focused on publishing as an expression of its creative vitality at the expense of actually playing these games and sharing our love of them with our fellow gamers.

I am by nature a pessimist, so don't take me too seriously. Please.


  1. I'm not surprised you're not using any of these new things coming out. the beauty of RPGs is that all you need is one set of rules and you can keep running new games until doomsday.

    Nobody needs supplements.

    However, people like getting supplements because it makes them feel as if they're playing in the same way as people watching the OC think that they're participating in a glamorous lifestyle. Supplements are aspirational purchases. They're ways to express your individuality and your interest in something without any more effort than downloading or buying something.

    Additionally, the RPG hobby's professionalisation has created a metric whereby instead of just putting stuff online for use, people feel the need to publish stuff and pretend to be writers.

    Throw these two things together and you have every new RPG niche being swamped with largely useless product.

    If I were in your position, I'd continue to review but the gold standard would be "did I use this in my game". If not then said product is useless.

    The last thing old school RPGing needs is a culture of people buying to read like in the mainstream of the hobby.

  2. What's most needed IMO, are adventures, preferably short. And stuff that has never been to much explored: end-game, masscombat, city adventuring

  3. (continued, sorry) - monsters, spells, rules, classes, crunch, we already have enought of this.

  4. >>at the expense of actually playing these games and sharing our love of them with our fellow gamers.

    I'm not sure why this would really be done in public. I know I consider it a moment of silly weakness and blah blah blah when I actually talk about what happened in my games to people that aren't participating.

  5. I think that the "refreshed enthusiasm" for old school games coupled with the ease of electronic publishing these days is what has led to the excessiveness. If players had had the same access in the 1970s and 80s, they would have done the same (self-publishing adventures and "supplements" of what amount to home-brew rules). Because of the difficulty in the past, published games/supplements were limited to those die-hards that really, REALLY "wanted it."

    I'm not sure I'd be too concerned with the "glut," unless you think it will make it harder to make money (ha!) off these games. As long as there is MORE PLAY going on, I think that's the important thing, and the variety of retros just gives folks more to pick-and-choose from when creating their around-the-table game.

    Isn't that what the old school movement is kind of about? Re-discovering the joy of play from the time when play was eclectic? As opposed to buying every slick D20 edition that gets shoved down our throats?

    Personally, I don't have any attachment to how the game is going to look (hell, I'm playing with my old Moldvay set, but I'm not going to fault those who learn using LL or S&W). We can't be too "purist" without being elitist. And that means giving free reign to folks creative expressions.

    James, you've got a great voice, but you don't need to take too much on your don't have a responsibility to read, review, and play EVERY old school design concept that gets published! : )

  6. Part of the charm of Old School is that it encourages a DIY attitude, and practically mandates that people create rules etc. according to their own gaming needs. An integral aspect of the Internet is that it allows people to easily produce and publish (via sites like Lulu etc) these materials. If the Old School Renaissance were a single company, yeah, you'd have a meeting and discuss whether or not this was a viable long term growth strategy. But it's not, it's a grass-roots phenomenon, and therefore uncontrollable. Take this explosion for what it is, a sign of growing interest and vitality.

    Remember that one of the sins of early TSR lay in its quashing fan-made supplements and materials, which lead to the homogeneity of vision that you so often decry.

  7. A glut would be bad if everyone producing products were little TSRs - or at least if everyone was thinking that they were going to make their car-payments off of OSR writing.
    In the end I don't think that we can have TOO MUCH being published. Of course, I'm not trying to review them all... ;)
    The RPG archaeologists of 2160 will look back on 2009 and wonder if there was a radiation flare that mutated our brains. In a good way.

  8. I suppose an identified niche is also an identified market. Major record labels putting out "indie music" or goth clothing showing up on a WalMart sales rack reflect this same sort of thing.

    I would rewrite Santayana's saying in this way, "Those who have learned from history are doomed to an unhappy life while those who haven't learned from history repeat it." Again and again, like a broken record.

  9. Is the Old School becoming as product-driven and consumerist as other rpgs which are often seen as less hobby-ist ?

    As for the quality, I wouldn't worry, for good things to grow you need a whole lotta compost.

  10. James, you're not the official (or unofficial) spokesperson for the Old-School Renaissance, so don't take the weight on your shoulders to comment on or review every new product. There's just no way you can. I do think things will start to taper off in time, for a number of reasons, and I think the current state and the way it is expressed will change. "What's hot and what's not" will be completely different in a year.

  11. AT THE TABLETOP, the only books I have are Moldvay / Cook and the Labyrinth Lord rulebook (sometimes). Really, to keep a game running quickly and smoothly there's no time to mess with books - I consider it a bad thing if I have to crack open a book at all.

    I feel strongly that it is the DM's duty to memorize all the important rules and to have quick-access copies of the relevant charts. Most of my players don't own any rulebooks.

    BEFORE THE TABLETOP I appropriate ideas and encounters freely from the stacks of modules and supplements I have, old and new. I also just enjoy reading casually through Fight On, Knockspell, etc. I don't feel saturated because I pick and choose and most of this stuff doesn't cost a lot of $$. Bring it on, I say!

  12. I personally love to read the stuff coming out (that is free). My bathroom towel cabinet is full of Footprint issues I printed out and read in there in my favorite reading spot. I love reading it, but I haven't really found anything I want to use in my current games.

    And the last couple of games, including last night, I rode my bike from Venice Beach to Santa Monica to the game (running games on weeknights, I find a bike ride to the game a great stress relief rather than driving straight to the game after a long day at work). I only have so much room in the backpack, so DM's guide, PH, and UA, small figure case, and notebook are about all I can manage so not a lot of room for superfluous material.

    One exception I make, especially as an old schooler, is the awesomely useful Old School Encounters Reference. I wing so much of the game sometimes (especially if an important player is missing and side adventure is needed), that thing has been invaluable a couple of times already. And even if I don't need it, I feel good having it nearby (like a loaded gun or something). Page for page, it's the best thing to come of of the Old School Renn for free or for money.

  13. The better answer, I suppose, is that Goths don't buy their clothes at WalMart. We can't control what's on the market, but we can control our consumption and use. Don't like it? Don't buy it. Bought and didn't like it? Don't use it. Not easy an easy lesson for an obsessive completist like myself, but I'll never own every history book, jazz recording, or RPG book/item.

    As my wife gently and lovingly points out from time to time, "How many of your history books are still unread?"

  14. I am totally for keeping the OSR something messy, chaotic, wild, with no unifying force. Let people publish what they want, as fast as they want, whenever they want.

  15. I do think things will start to taper off in time, for a number of reasons, and I think the current state and the way it is expressed will change. "What's hot and what's not" will be completely different in a year.

    Agreed. I'd guess 70-80% of those publishing now won't be in two years. I'd never discourage anyone from trying their hand at it though. New voices are what the hobby needs.

    But it does look like you need to get selective about your reviewing, James. Don't burn yourself out.

  16. Heck, I have trouble keeping up with your blog. Not to mention all the other blogs and fora I’d like to keep up with. ^_^

    I think I’m similar to Bobby. I don’t think it matters whether any of the stuff I collect gets directly used at the table. I tend to look at it more as priming my imagination and judging skills.

  17. We're definitely in a bubble now. Years of pent up creativity meeting a new (renewed) audience and the means to distribute to them leads to the explosion we seen now. Amount of new material will wax and wane but never go away totally. And when conditions are right there will be another bubble.

    Personally I'm having trouble keeping up with all the blogs and commentary which is a much larger torrent than released products.

  18. No such thing as too much. You dont need to get everything, but having choices is very nice.

  19. Fair enough, all. I guess I'm personally just getting burnt out with all the new products and periodicals being published these days. I am finding it impossible to keep up and, more precisely, to maintain the same level of interest in each and every one of them that I had before. That's not necessarily a reflection of their quality, since, by and large, most of them are excellent these days. It's more a statement of the fact that I now have more old school gaming goodness than I could ever use, even if I ran six weekly campaigns. And given how much material I produce for my own use, it's hard to stay enthusiastic about it all.

  20. "I now have more old school gaming goodness than I could ever use"

    Well, that's a good thing I think. To be honest, I didn't run about 60% of the classic modules I bought back in the day, but I sure did mine them for my own creativity. Just reading through the countless pieces of gaming material helped to spark some great ideas.

    I say the more the merrier, because even if I don't intend to use all of it, they can help keep the creative juices flowing.

    Just looking at the maps from Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage puts encounters and traps in my head.

    The words "see a microscopic basilisk"from Raggi's GDF inspires great imagery and a want to be more imaginative in my own work.

    So again, the more the merrier. Even when I don't "use" the materials, I still use the materials, see?


  21. Having choices is nice.

    For me, however, making choices is the problem. ^_^

  22. I generally focus on [i]Knockspell[/i] and [i]Fight On![/i] -- and little things like Matt Finch's 'Edritch Weirdness' and Jeff Rients's 'Cinder Miscellanium' -- but I'm having trouble keeping up even with those. There is so much stuff that I actually [i]want to use[/i], let alone read, that I can't keep track of it all.

    As for my own contributions, I've been working on 'my version of D&D' (using S&W as the base) for the past several months. So long as I'm still working on my house rules, and so long as Matt and Calithena agree to publish them, I'll keep contributing. :)

  23. I would beware of trying to deflate or restrain bubbles: my guess is you just make the peak smaller and the tail shorter, rather than ever getting a low, steady burn (mixing metaphors like crazy). The heavy output of "publishable" work today would have been fanzine output in the 70s and reflects a general cultural shift, but the enthusiasm and commitment are the same, and are the necessary fuel for keeping the hobby alive.

    "I am finding it impossible to keep up and, more precisely, to maintain the same level of interest in each and every one of them"

    This is the lament of every Renaissance Man after about 1530. The Internet + ubiquitous large hard drives have made librarianship and the filtering of data everybody's problem. The OSR, like everyone else, will have to come up with elegant ways to collectively sort, filter and promote the weird and wonderful over the same and pedestrian. Wiki? Seriously, a group blog devoted to the new and cool, like an OSR-specific boingboing, might be a great solution.

    As for what needs to be published, as my wife observed: you never have to go back more than 10 years in physics journals because collective memory is so poor, older research just gets repeated. The compost comment strikes me as spot on.

  24. I think what you've just described, James, is the game-hobby version of the business cycle: boom and bust, rinse and repeat. :)

    You're right that it's hard to keep track of all the new products coming out, even more so to discern which are the good ones, but this blog has been a great help. Through your reviews, I found Brave Halfling, which puts out some of the nicest retro-style products I've seen in a long time.

    Don't worry that there's too much product: instead, enjoy the fact that you have so much to choose from. :)

  25. Each and every new Old School product that ends up floating around out there is not just new fodder for current OSR gamers, but also a future gateway, or hook, for those not yet in the game. All this stuff reinforces the foundations of the OSR by adding to original material, and will eventually end up traded, or sold, and end up in the hands of young non-gamers, or first timers and provide an entry point for them into The Game.

  26. There's probably more OSR bloggers out here how could unload James and review stuff, right? I will soon. :)

    At my game table I have two copies of the T&T7 rulebook, graph paper scribbled with dungeons and a few tables for generating weird shit on the fly. Preparing the scribblings I've used a lot of my gaming library and I have hundreds of gamebooks...

  27. In the spirit of not taking you too seriously, my first reaction to this post was: "Hey you grognards! Get off my lawn!"

  28. Dont bother keeping up with it. You cant. There are a ton of thrid party products. If something tickles your fancy, great snag it.

    I had the same issue for 3.x I have so much I'll never use it all, but its better than just having a couple of core book and nothing else.

    No one ever said "I dont want more support" or "I have too much support."

  29. Well, I'm someone that hit the "old school" community via the recommendation of grognardia. Like so many "old school" was my "new school" back in the late 70's. I'm finding all of the activity -- blogs, rule sets, megadungeons (e.g., .net), products -- fun. I would only suggest that the community could do with something like Instead of so many trying to be the primary support, it would be nice to have a central repository that would contain discussion, freebies, recommendations and so on.

  30. Mark,

    You do know that the Chaos gods rule the OSR, right?

  31. 90% of everything is crap - and most attempts to capture past glories (ahem) fail. Completism is for adolescents and OCD sufferers, always has been; same with talking Every Little Goddamn Tic and Oddity of one's hobby. The good stuff will make its way around.

    Oh, and LotFP - if your game were baseball instead of D&D, you'd find your comment silly. When more gamers figure out how to talk about the content of their games in interesting ways, a wider audience will become interested. Starting point: less juvenile fantasies, less defensive postures. Ho hum.

  32. (i.e. If your public accounting of your games is like a book report - 'This happened, then this happened' - no one will care. Nor should they. But then the field of literary/narrative analysis is thousands of years old, as is game analysis oddly enough, and they can give some advice on how to talk about what was really happening when Xend'weeb the Goblin slew Holfax the One-Eyed Cleric of Dickcheese, etc.)

    (...which might be lipstick on a pig, but why should a pig-lover be ashamed of that? As long as he knows he's a pig-lover...)

  33. >>Oh, and LotFP - if your game were baseball instead of D&D, you'd find your comment silly.

    You don't find athletes talking about their last game to be boring? I certainly do. And I certainly like playing baseball, basketball, whatever, a hell of a lot more than I do watching them or reading about results.

  34. The more, the merrier, IMO. Our enthusiasm will naturally wax and wane. I know I plan to keep creating gaming material, if possible, for the rest of my life. The times when little is being published are the times to go back and look at what was missed in the rush.

  35. Jonathan M for the win. Instead of being a fan, everyone is now a publisher. I miss APAs, zines that could had for a simple trade, a few stamps or a nice letter.