Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Support Fatigue

Over at Lord Kilgore's blog, Dan Proctor, creator of Labyrinth Lord, made a very interesting comment:
I think the real concern people have but have a hard time putting into words is that it is hard to support every clone (ish) game that is coming out or will come out. Many many more will come out, I have no doubt. I think what people are feeling is “support fatigue.” How many more of these should we high-five before we say screw it, who cares? That’s a legit question, and I don’t have an answer. Honesty I don’t think any of us should feel an obligation to support every new retro game that comes out.
Dan's comment resonates strongly with me, as I've occasionally felt that there was "too much" old school product being produced -- too much in the sense that there was no way I could possibly keep up with it all, let alone buy it and use it in the course of my weekly OD&D game. In fact, Victor Raymond regularly points out to me that, through a mere seven issues of Fight On! alone, the old school renaissance has produced more material (in terms of word count) than was ever produced for OD&D by TSR or through the pre-AD&D issues of Dragon. That's staggering, when you think about it, and it's a testament to the enthusiasm old school gamers have for their favorite games.

As the months have worn on, though, and as I've had more time to think about it, my opinion has changed considerably. I don't think it's possible for there to be "too much" old school product. There might be too much for me personally, but what does that mean? I'm just one gamer and my limited capacity to buy and use everything that comes out shouldn't dissuade anyone from producing more stuff for others, whose capacities for the same are certainly different. More significantly, I think variety is good. What the old school renaissance needs is more variety, not less.

I'm very critical of the way that TSR, with the advent of AD&D, did its best to marginalize and, in some cases, quash the beautiful riot of OD&D and OD&D-derived materials that literally created this hobby we all share. The company's attempts to put the genie back in the bottle and funnel creativity into only officially-sanctioned ways contributed greatly, I think, to the end of the Golden Age and, ultimately, to the decline of the hobby, even as it shored up (for a time) the profits of the industry. I don't want to see a repeat of that and I doubt that very few people in the old school renaissance do either.

That's why I take pleasure in the publication of every new old school game, retro-clone, and simulacrum, even the ones I won't ever buy and play. The more options out there, the less likely it will be that any one of them, whether it be OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, or whatever will become the old school game. We don't need a single standard bearer for our little niche; that way of thinking leads nowhere good, at least from my point of view. Some will no doubt say that the existence of so many retro-clones will make old school gaming confusing to newcomers and make it difficult for them to gain much traction with "mainstream" gamers. To that, I say: "So what?" The old school renaissance, while real, was never going to reignite the 80s RPG craze, which was (probably) a perfect cultural storm whose like we cannot simply bring into existence by uniting behind a single banner. Moreover, while there has been a noticeable increase in interest in old school gaming, it's no more than a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans of gamers who play video games, MMOs, and D&D IV.

And I'm OK with that. The old school renaissance, in my opinion, exists to support existing old school gamers and interested outsiders who possess the wherewithal to navigate the chaos of our little corner of the hobby. This is a good thing and it's important to bear in mind. History shows pretty clearly that the industry has rarely done old school gaming any favors -- the Open Game License being a rare example to the contrary -- so why would we want to imitate its methods? What distinguishes old school gaming is, among other things, its open-armed embrace house rules, variants, kit bashing, and wacky ideas, the kind of stuff that led Gary Gygax to famously declare that OD&D, the first RPG, was "a non-game." What Gary saw as a vice, old schoolers see as a virtue.

May it ever remain so.


  1. Well, you know what? I love the amount of old-school D&D clone stuff that's coming out. I'm buying it/downloading the free stuff/using it/enjoying it all.

    And I'm using it for MRQ2, Jim.

    You're right; I love all the dungeons and the spells and monsters, putting whatever I want of it in my little d100 world... I've been doing this since I played White Plume Mountain using TFT rules. If we can't bash open each other's stuff and go wild on it, what good are we, really?

  2. I love all the stuff that has been coming out lately! The more the merrier! I don't think we really need new clones that just rehash the rules again, but new supplements and ideas are great!

  3. James, I just wanted to clarify (because your discussion went in other directions too) that I was talking about full games specifically, not various support material. Even then I'm not saying that a proliferation of more complete games is bad (how could I, I'm one of the "proliferators" myself!). I'm just saying I can understand the perspective that asks how/why we should get excited about each one, or to what degree and in what form are we obligated to offer support. Personally I don't see anything wrong with having lots of systems out there. The more the merrier. I think the problem lies in that many people perceive the internet "community" as just that, a community that offers moral support to one another, and this "support fatigue" kicks in for some people regarding how many of these should we keep buying, how many of these can we actually play, etc. I'm not making a statement about what is good or bad, just an observation.

  4. TSR's business practices were definitely not great back in the day, but I am not sure that they led to the decline of the hobby. AD&D was an explosive fad when it came out, like Beany Babies or Rubick's Cube. It got a lot of people into it for a while, and then they got tired of it. The vast majority of players never played any material other than TSR product, or something that was compatible with AD&D (like the Mayfair modules). Talk to anyone in the 80s and they will tell you that they played the game -- once. And like all fads, it died.

    In my experience, the hobby declined for two reasons. (1) Play is highly variable and depends on the quality of the DM. Many people could not find good groups and eventually left the hobby because of bad experiences. (2) Computer games became good enough that they captured a nontrivial section of the market, particularly those that could not find good DMs (because they provided equal or better experience than playing with a bad DM).

  5. Well said. I think creating and sharing our material has become as much a hobby as actuary playing the games for people at this point.

    I'm very happy to see people share their house rules and settings. To be honest I'm much more likely to pick up a new S&W based rules set than a masterfully designed dungeon. I've got physical copies of Advanced Edition Characters, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, Original Edition Characters, OSRIC, Ruins and Ronin, Swordplay and Spellcraft, X-plroers and I'm looking forward to Darkwood Tower's Black Book project and a few more on the horizon.

    My home game is an LL based game that uses BFRPG's Attribute tests, OSRIC's Random Tables, and classes from MF, OeC, R&R,and S&S (and occasionally 4th ed's skill system.)

  6. Dan,

    My apologies if my use of your comments made it appear as if you were endorsing a position you don't actually hold. I used that quote because I think it nicely encapsulates a feeling I've frequently had myself. As a cheerleader for the OSR generally, I often feel an obligation to promote and support every retro-clone game and product that comes my way and it's a very tiring business. In the end, I decided that, though I simply could not keep up, I'm still very glad there are so many products and full games out there. I don't worry about "splitting the fanbase" or making our little niche difficult to navigate for newcomers. Compared to the benefits of a thriving, if small, "ecosystem," worrying about the off-chance that someone unconnected to old school gaming might stumble upon us and be baffled is small potatoes.

  7. TSR's business practices were definitely not great back in the day, but I am not sure that they led to the decline of the hobby.

    They certainly didn't help, as they increasingly favored slickly produced, pre-packaged "stories," which played right into the hands of computer games, which could deliver both to a degree and with a reliability that many gamers found them preferable to the sometimes-hard work of creating and maintaining a real gaming group. I'm not suggesting that TSR is wholly to blame for the end of what I readily acknowledge was a faddish popularity. However, I think the shift in the way TSR made and sold its games from the late 80s on exacerbated an already worsening situation in the hobby.

  8. I don't see new materials for the retro-clones as support for them individually, or exclusively. As each of the clones, and future clones are D&D by another name, I see support for them as support for My Game. Materials published for OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry etc... are all interchangeable with My Game with negligeble alterations.
    I think the important thing, as far as promoting the OSR goes, is making sure newcomers understand that they don't have to pick one and deny the others as the parts are interchangeable.

  9. Just as you can’t herd cats, you couldn’t bring the whole OSR into one agenda. We can talk “what ifs”, but it’s moot. The chaos isn’t a problem, however, because things are going to appear to help people navigate that chaos.

    I think this blog, James, is one of the things that have emerged that—whether intentionally or not—helps people navigate that chaos. I think it isn’t only the newcomers, but many grognards as well, that need that help.

    And like davidbhoward said, I think it is important to keep encouraging people to adapt any material to any system. It really isn’t as hard as people often seem to think.

    I ran a 3e adventure using B/X on-the-fly this weekend. For most of the monsters, I could just use the B/X version. Skill checks were either ignored or substituted with the appropriate B/X mechanic. Any information gated by a Spot check was just given straight to the players. One “templated” monster, I improvised stats for. Another monster, I could’ve improvised, but it suited my purposes to just drop it. The odd magic items were either substituted for B/X ones or I improvised something similar.

    If that was easy, how much easier it would be between any of the classic or retro-clones versions of D&D?

  10. You can never have too much, I myself have been writing feverishly to make Castles & Crusades more in AD&D 1e's image - keep it coming I say!

  11. Just like in the olden days, I always found new game products interesting, but I rarely ever needed them. My games of choice are AD&D 1s ed, Call of Cthulhu, and Champions. With the main rulesbooks, I have everything I need. Sure, I might buy a sourcebook or something every few years (such as the Night Below box set from Ebay last year), but I don't really need them and it's usually an impulse buy.

    Interestingly, in the last year the most useful old school items I have picked up are free - such as the awesome Old School Encounter Reference and various free module pdfs. Just like my music these days, I prefer nab it gratis.

    Guys - make more free stuff!

  12. I'll be the first to admit I scoop up OSR rule sets as fast as they are produced. Not are a perfect fit for me, but then the only one that would be is the one I write myself - won't be happening ;)

    The situation is great for the gamer, not so great for the author / publisher hoping to make some supplemental income of his / her hobby.

    If the OSR game to a crashing halt I have more material then I could use in a lifetime already ;)

  13. First, thanks for the link to my blog, James. Much appreciated. I was thrilled that Dan took the time to leave those insightful comments.

    Second, one of the greatest things about all this is that so many of the systems are so basic that borrowing back and forth is easy. And not just supplemental material but rules and systems. Sure, you can do that with later systems, too, but I don't think it's as quick and easy.

    I've got my favorites, but that doesn't mean I want everyone else to cease and desist.

  14. James,

    Could you point me to the source where Gary Gygax called OD&D a "non-game"? I hadn't heard that before and would be interested in finding out more about it.



  15. I was always really confused by this notion that there could be "too much support" for a game I liked.

    As a d20 writer, I pulled my hair everytime I heard someone use the phrase "d20 glut".

    Not every product is meant for every game, and having more choice, to me, is a self-evident good.

    Most of the products I write, like Legends of Excalibur, are books that WOTC would never in a million years release.

    So sure, "glut" I guess, but also good stuff that I wanted to see, and obviously others did as well.

    Seems like a good thing.

  16. I think creating and sharing our material has become as much a hobby as actuary playing the games for people at this point.

    That sums it up nicely, and folds neatly into my point, which that the whole old school movement to me feels no different than when I go to the historical miniatures conventions the HMGS throws.

    Considering that D&D sprung from wargames and miniatures, it is interesting to see that ancestor now, still niche but thriving on a separate evolutionary branch.

    It is rare to have any sort of 'hit' in the cottage industry, and certainly not one that sets any sort of standard. For every "Flames of War," there are literally hundreds of WWII rules, most of them homegrown, or the sort of long-tail distribution model that the clones are using.

    Except for tournament play (and the ancients field has over half-a-dozen official rules sets duking it out for supremacy), miniature gamers live by mixing and matching, and see new rules and new ideas mostly as a source for what they can borrow for their own home brews.

  17. My point being: no matter how many rules or games or miniatures there are in the historical side of the family, there will always be room for more.

    As the joke goes, the thing most often overheard at a HMGS convention is 'wait until you see MY rules' ...

  18. I'll keep my response to this post short:


  19. James, do not underestimate the group of people who were unonnected to OSR and by chance stumble upon it.

    A year or so back, I read on ENworld or the PAIZO board about your "Gygaxian Naturalism" article...
    Now I own C&C, Swords & Wizardry, the S&W Monster Book, Revised Labyrinth Lord & Advanced Edition Companion, Pied Piper's "City in the Bottle", Ruins & Ronin, Stonehell Dungeon, James Raggi's "Death Frost Doom" and dozens of PDFs.
    And I don't even play these games at the moment!
    So I think the best way for the OSR to thrive is to be open for "new blood" (be that long time gamers coming back or new roleplayers).
    The more people are exposed to old school gaming, the more might continue to play it. The more gamers playing the game, the more support for the various products is possible.

  20. Here's a thought: we support the ones we like & that give us value. The rest get honourable mentions and then work harder on their positives or release themselves in beta until they've worked out their kinks?

  21. Chuck, I think people start saying “glut” when the number of products outpaces their ability to tell which products are a good fit for them.

  22. As a result of this entry, I'm thinking of the recent media articles on the "glut" of iPhone apps as well as the debates about the value of publishers in the aftermath of the Amazon/Macmillan debacle. The price of entry into publication is now at its lowest ebb historically, and we're seeing production that--as Robert has just said in the previous comment--"outpaces" criticism's attempts to evaluate it and direct audience attention. This is why I'm happiest now with Grognardia's current Big Tent incarnation--James is an absolutely essential clearing house for interest in traditional gaming.