Saturday, March 20, 2010

Small but Beautiful

As is often the case in our little corner of the Web, there's a new topic du jour and this time it's the "marketing of the old school renaissance" -- how is it that so few gamers understand what a retro-clone is or why they exist, etc.? In short, why are there still so many misapprehensions about the old school movement? Two good examples of bloggers cogitating on these and related questions can be found here and here.

Speaking only for myself, such questions don't really concern me. As a player (and occasional producer) of old school games, I'm pretty happy with the way things are at present. As others have amply demonstrated, there's more of the kind of gaming materials I prefer being produced now than there has been in years, so many in fact that I can't keep up with them all. Better still, the variety of these materials is large enough that there are many I simply have no interest in -- and that's actually a good thing, because it suggests that old schoolers' tastes are no more identical today than they were in the old days.

Beyond that, though, I've been pretty consistent in my belief that most attempts to get old school games more widely recognized and played would inevitably repeat the history of TSR, which isn't something I have much interest in seeing. I don't want "old school" treated as a brand or used to attract large numbers of gamers disaffected with the current flavor of the month to our "banner." I'm quite happy living in a nice, quiet, out of the way neighborhood surrounded by folks similarly happy, even those crazy guys down the street who are into woodworking with power tools at odd hours of the night.

I won't speak for anyone else, but a big part of what appeals to me about the old school movement is its kicking "the industry" to the curb and focusing instead on one and two-man operations producing stuff out of a passion for the hobby rather than a laser focus on the bottom line. If outsiders take an interest in any of this stuff, good for us, but that's not what I think this is all about, which is why I won't wring my hands worrying about the fact that the wider gaming world doesn't understand the difference between Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry, assuming they've even heard of either.

That's not to say I wouldn't be very happy if a retro-clone or old school product managed to sell thousands of copies or if the Old Ways were suddenly adopted on a wider basis. But I'd prefer that such an outcome, if it's even possible, occur organically rather than as a result of a concerted business plan on the part of some company or organization. I like the chaotic, confusing, and occasionally off-putting little world we've carved for ourselves. Others are welcome to enter it and I'm always happy to answer sincere questions to help them do so, but I have zero interest in making it more "accessible" or "welcoming" by changing the very things I like most about it.

My feeling is that gamers are savvier than we give them credit for. The ones who have a genuine interest in old school gaming can already pretty easily find the sites and the products they want without the need for marketing. It's not as if we're hiding ourselves from view -- quite the contrary! Are we, by and large, an eccentric, cantankerous bunch? No doubt, but that's a feature rather than a bug and if it discourages some newcomers, such is life. Just about any community passionately devoted to any hobby is going to appear eccentric and cantankerous to others not similarly passionate. This is what the hobby was like when I entered into it 30 years ago and I expect it's the way it will be 30 years hence. That's not going to change no matter how one chooses to market these games we all love.

So, speaking only for myself, I'd be perfectly happy if the old school renaissance didn't attract legions of new players, if doing so means diluting the things I value most about it. History has already shown us what happens when a company makes that particular deal with the Devil. Why would we want to make that same mistake now?


  1. Since the Old School Movement hinges on personal creativity (rather than the automatic digestion of pre-packaged dross), it will never be a cohesive movement, as members go and do their own thing.

    Each and every Old School approach is correct, even if it disagrees with another approach. Use what fits best. Discard what doesn't.

    The more the merrier. After all, it gives me more good ideas to steal. <grin>

  2. A month ago I did not know of the OSR occurring in gaming, and at this stage still know only a little about it. The discussions here and on various connected blogs have certainly given me more to ponder and consider. While I doubt I will be tempted to play one of the OSR games like Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry, reading about them and perhaps purchasing them somewhere down the road might be in the works. When it comes to fantasy games, I am pretty much a slave to Dragonquest. This site and others have inspired to put a 2nd edition version of the rules on my website along with all the other stuff I have cobbled together over the years. I don’t know that I would place myself in one school or the other, just someone who has bought fantasy RPG material over the years to use with Dragonquest or to read and appreciate on its own. I really can’t complain about the horde of AD & D 3.X material I have purchased other than that I never sat down to try and play the game. Enough of its concepts and materials have infiltrated their way into the game. Sites like this and other OSR and contemporary gaming sites add to my enjoyment of the game. It certainly has given me an interest in restarting a campaign with some new players to the world of RPGs with the hope that they will enjoy the hobby as much I have.

  3. It's not gamers that I'm keen on attracting; it's non-gamers. People who have never known other editions. People for whom the OSR will be their first taste of D&D (insert game of your choice here). If we go out and try to take gamers from other ways, other editions and other systems, that can surely only lead to bad feeling amongst those who cleave to such.

    And if we attract those who have no precondtions as to what D&D should be, surely we don't have to change our philosophy to do so. We can just say "This is how we play. It's fun. Join us and see for yourself".

  4. @Zak
    Me too. Wanna rotate groups?


  5. More so than to see if the OSR gains industry force, I'm interested in seeing how it will influence the next generation of games to come out. There are a lot of things that people currently understand about RPGs that weren't really thought of back in the early days, but at the same time a lot has also been forgotten or unfairly dismissed. I think that some pretty exciting things could potentially come out of a fusion of the new and old schools of RPG design.

  6. Well, I have a question. In three sentences or so, could you enlighten me as to what this Old School I keep reading about all over the place actually is?

    I also keep stumbling across the buzzword 'sandbox' in conjunction with Old School. As far as I can tell, this is a term from computer-games, implying a non-linear approach to the game. This leads me to assume that 'sandboxing' is the opposite of 'railroading'. This puzzles me, as I seem to remember reading admonishing texts about force-feeding the players your plot in about every game I've ever picked up.

    So, another question if you please. Again, in a few sentences, could you explain the canonical definition of 'sandbox'?

    Thank you for your time.

  7. The next generation of games is out ... Check www. or or Guys like John Wick, Jared Sorensen, Ken Hite, D. Vincent Baker and many others have been ushering it in with great games for quite some time. I think in addition to the refreshing "old school" movement ... more and more people are moving away from standard fantasy hack and slash games in general and exploring systems that do other things and explore other genres and encourage role playing vs. just rolling dice.

  8. There seems to a mindset out there that for the OSR to be a success, it must get big, get shiny, sell lots. But the OSR is already a success. Just compare the situation two, three years ago to what's out there and happening now. Big dollars doesn't equal success, creative output does - and we've got that by the bucketful.

  9. @ Basic Fantasist

    Ok. Sounds like a good idea for season two.

  10. I'd love to see any and all the guys trying to make a living out of the OSR "succeed" but if we can produce loads of good product as a DIY scene personally I am more than happy.

  11. What DMs and players need and want more than anything else (dice, books, boxsets etc)is other players. Anything that can increase the number of those is a good thing.

    The trouble with RPG people is there is this inherent reticence surrounding the hobby. We revel in it here in the blogosphere with likeminded people, but out in the real world, outside of our gaming groups, I doubt most people would really talk about it with their work colleagues, non gamer friends and family. In a way this is good as it can add to the charm and mystique of D&D (which it had for me before I got into it) but it largely alienates non-players. I think it's a wall that needs to be broken. It doesn't need to involve big bucks necessarily, just raise awareness.

  12. @Dungeonmum - I totally agree with your comments (but then you knew I would, didn't you?) - the problem comes in getting past that sneaking suspicion that our beloved hobby is regarded with derision by the outside world. You have managed to recruit non-gamers (maximum respect) but being a wonderfully friendly lass, you have a wide social circle and a lot of potential newbies. Some of us are a bit more Billy No-mates and have to make an effort to socialise, let alone talk about D&D. I had the opportunity to raise it during a chat with the doctor the other day (kidstuff, say no more) but the nerd fear cut in and I clammed up. Same with teachers. I break out in a cold sweat. The raising awareness thing is vital, vital, vital - a lot of what goes on in the OSR is an in-hobby thing and we need to move beyond that.

    There I go again, flogging my hobbyhorse on someone else's blog. Sorry, James.

  13. Speaking as an unabashedly cheap bastard, I'd be happiest if nobody actually sold anything.

    Just sayin', ya know?

  14. Excellent post, James. I agree with almost everything that you say.

    While it would be great to expose a wider range of gamers to the idea that the Old Ways are a viable alternative to the style of play that they are familiar with, I'm not going to lose any sleep if that doesn't happen.

    And to be honest, I think that sudden financial success might also stifle the creativity of the OSR movement to some extent. at the moment the OSR movement can take some crazy creative risks because the economics of small indie games are different to the economics of gamers with large print runs. As soon as you are dealing with a game that sells thousands of copies, you have to play it safe or a couple of bad products can cause economic ruin. As a consequence, there would be a strong incentive to develop a successful formula and stick to it.

  15. Dungeonmum: "...out in the real world, outside of our gaming groups, I doubt most people would really talk about it with their work colleagues, non gamer friends and family."

    In my recent experience, this is true only for those of us who were around for the crazy pop-culture witch-hunts of the early 80's.

    Newer players who I introduce the game to have no such compunctions. I myself have to get over my habit of instinctively cringing when one of my other friends starts openly talking about D&D in mixed company.

    We have battle-scars not shared, and not understood, by newer players.

  16. I agree James!

    I actually think we're back to the place where the hobby was when I first became passionate about it.

    Back then, there was Role Aids, Judges Guild, Thieves' World settings, D&D articles in White Dwarf and more.

    It has always been my belief that this "outside" involvement in the hobby by 3rd parties has always been GOOD all around, both for the hobby itself, and even for TSR/WOTC's bottom line.

  17. I would agree with Dungeonmum & Daddy Gragnard about the general reticence to share the hobby with others. RPG’s often suffer ridicule as a “kiddie” game when you mention the fact that you are playing an imaginary character in a made up story. That fact coupled with the presence of mentally or emotionally unbalanced advocates or participants of the hobby make it hard to get past some lingering negative stereotypes. I know in the various groups I have played over the years there has been the occasion presence of people who would give the hobby a bad name by the fact that they are slightly off kilter or have some “issues” with the real world. Sometimes they fit into the game and the group, other times they had to be sent on their way. The entire hobby itself really had little to do with the predisposed attitudes or habits of its players.
    Part of me likes not sharing the hobby with the world at large; it is one area of privacy that I enjoy when most of my life is out there for everyone to see. Imagination is a great release, and even better in a shared experience with friends in a world or setting we all enjoy. Another part of me is a stalwart defender of the hobby and the good it can contribute to a person’s development. Just like sports, RPGing can contribute a lot to one’s personal development. While I have never preached on the hobby when it comes up in ordinary conversation I have no problem mentioning that I played the hobby for years and only don’t now for lack of time. Some of the best things about my adolescent years were in RPGing. It kept me for a lot of the crap that harmed others in my generation. It provided a fun and fairly free past time. I do think there is probably less stigma today than in the 80’s. Perhaps culture has become less hostile to imaginary escapes from life since the advent of Everquest and other MMORPGs and friendlier to diverse games because of things like Pokemon.

  18. Extending Old School is an interesting point pro, con, or taking an odd turn. However my post was mainly focused on a single idea.

    Pooling ad money so commercial OSR publishers can make a bigger buy than they otherwise can.

    Not about somehow lead the OSR on some magical expansion. The wrinkle I that threw that in a common website among these publishers there should be a section that anybody can have a link to their project posted commerical, or non-commerical.

    Finally a warning that politics has a habit of derailing these joint efforts so the group should be tightly focused on a single practical goal. In this case pooling ad dollars.

    That it, read into it what you will.

  19. Although I more often than not agree with you, there's typically one or two points of difference. Not this time.

    I am 100% behind everything you just said.

    And, is typical, you said it more eloquently than I could.

  20. Although I more often than not agree with you, there's typically one or two points of difference. Not this time.

    I am 100% behind everything you just said.

    And you know I'll call 'em like I see 'em. ;-)

    Good stuff.

  21. The Lord of Excess said: "The next generation of games is out."

    I actually meant specifically the dungeon-crawl genre in my initial post, which I probably should have specified. Even so, the next generation is totally already out, although I haven't quite found a RPG yet that really seems to combine the best aspects of both philosophies.

    I wouldn't call it a synthesis of AD&D and 4e so much as AD&D and Forge-philosophy, but Storming The Wizard's Tower ( looks like it'll be pretty interesting if it ever gets finalized. I'm sure more stuff will come out or is coming out, too.

  22. James - Good post. Nothing wrong with living in a gated community until it's run by a franchise - compare Snow Crash with DDI. :)

    Taking natural progression a step further, perhaps we need to think of our hobby as an ecology?

    @Dungeonmum & @Delta & Daddy Grognard - Absolutely right. Yet the ugly duckling concept will persist until we can look in the mirror without either flinching or being considered vain by our peers.

    @Zak - Keep up the good work.

  23. "www."

    That's the last generation, not the next. They're about as relevant to the now as Ricky Martin videos and hot new Phantom Menace trailers eagerly downloaded over torturous hours via 56K modem.

    And, in any case, they have nothing to do with the OSR, so why are you even posting that here?

  24. Now that we have Web 2.0 and Print On Demand, I'm not sure that I see any significant upside to recruiting new players.

    In the past the only way of getting RPG material was to buy offset-printed books through the three tier distribution model. Those approaches depend on a critical mass of consumers to be economically viable, and RPGs always seemed to be on the verge of collapse. So there was a strong incentive, as a player, to recruit other players to keep the hobby alive.

    Now that we can distribute content practically for free, I don't really see what is to be gained by evangelism. As long as I have a solid game system and friends to play with I'm set. I understand the urge to spread the good word, but I no longer see it as a matter of survival.

  25. I can't believe any activity involving reading books, socializing and having a good imagination can reach a very large audience.

    I know that sounds elitist, and to be honnest, it might be.

    TSR aimed at a larger audience, voluntarily turning an adult game into a more childish one (with the results we know), but in the end, Hasbro ate the Wizard who himself had eaten the Dragon... Sad but predictable.

    We must admit it: we, members of the "Old School Comunity" are the minority of a minority.

    Anytime we convince a newcomer to turn off his PC and seat with us to play an old fashioned RPG (or retro clone), we keep a(little) light on.

    And that helps us not to become a kind of Sect!

    We sure don't need any major game company for that.

  26. I don't need more *games* out of any kind of OSR. I have a game I like (AD&D, no UA). I have a bunch of other games I'd love to play if I ever had the time (LBB Trav., Top Secret, Stormbringer, CoC, WHFRP, GW, Meta. Alpha, etc.).

    I want usable fun products, like encounters and modules and maybe a monster book and maybe a few settings if they are *really* good or off-rippable (e.g., Thieves World, Lankhmar). What do I need with more games?

    And honestly, I want it free. Because I haven't seen much coming out worth paying for, and all the TSR stuff is out there for free if you know where to look.

    I'd pay for a few things, but not most of what I've seen.

    And when will people figure out that if you sell a printed version, the PDF ought to come with it free?