Thursday, April 8, 2010

Other Old School Renaissances

It's been regularly noted that the current old school renaissance would not have been possible without two things: the Open Game License and the Internet. I think this observation is dead-on and goes a long way toward explaining why the OSR is so strongly focused on Dungeons & Dragons rather than other old school games. Before I come back to that point, though, let's think back to the early 90s and the Dawn of the Wired Age.

In those prehistoric times, not one but two different old school RPGs experienced brief renaissances of their own, thanks to the increased communication made possible by the Internet. These RPGs were Traveller and RuneQuest. I was personally involved in the Traveller Renaissance, writing my first professional gaming articles and products during this time. I participated in online discussions on GEnie, joined the then-new Traveller Mailing List, and signed up with an organization of Traveller fans called the History of the Imperium Working Group, with whom GDW sometimes consulted when creating new products and from whom they drew when looking for new writers. Fanzines and third party licensed support for Traveller flourished. It was, frankly, a great time to be a Traveller player and an even better time to be a creator of material for use with Traveller.

Alas, the Traveller Renaissance proved to be an Indian Summer rather than a new Spring. A new creative team and a new direction from GDW threw a wrench into most of the existing fan and third party support for the game. HIWG and similar groups were sidelined or ignored entirely and communication between GDW and players became much more one-way. I don't blame anyone at GDW for these changes and, in many cases, I understand and even agree with the logic behind them. But, speaking as a fan and budding creator, it was very disappointing to see how quickly the winds had changed and how their doing so drove many of my friends and I away from the game. Nowadays, rather than being the premier SF RPG, Traveller is, at best, an also-ran.

In the 90s, RuneQuest (and its setting of Glorantha) lay in the hands of Avalon Hill and, by most accounts, they'd been badly mismanaging the property. Correcting course, RQ veteran writer Ken Rolston was made line editor of the game (or "Rune Czar," because, in the 90s, if you wanted to show you were serious about something, you appointed a "czar" to oversee it). Contemporaneously, the RuneQuest Digest, a mailing list for discussion, saw an upsurge in interest, as more and more RQ fans connected with one another through the Net. Under Rolston, Avalon Hill produced a number of highly regarded supplements to RuneQuest, often written by active and knowledgeable fans.

As with Traveller, there was a sense that RQ had turned a corner and that a true renaissance for the game was under way. Again, as with Traveller, this proved short-lived. Rolston left his position as line editor in 1994 to work on computer games. A falling out between Greg Stafford, creator of Glorantha, and Avalon Hill resulted in confusion for fans, as Stafford talked of creating a new, non-RQ RPG for Glorantha and AH talked of creating a new, non-Gloranthan RuneQuest. Another Indian Summer ...

What happened? Why didn't those earlier old school renaissances take and what does this mean for the current one? Well, from my perspective, the big difference between those earlier renaissances and the one happening right now is that they had the Internet but not the Open Game License. That is, both Traveller and RuneQuest remained wholly the property of their creators/publishers. When they decided to pull up stakes and change direction, there was nothing the fans and amateur creators could do but roll with the punches.

I'd also suggest that there's another factor at work here. Although both games could be treated as generic rulesets, they rarely were in practice, being instead heavily bound up in the example settings associated with them. Both the TML and RuneQuest Digest, for example, were generally focused on discussions of setting rather than rules. This fact, I think, colored the nature of those renaissances and made them more dependent on their origin points, namely the "official" game and whoever it was that currently held the rights to it.

Nowadays, the rules to both Traveller and RuneQuest are open game content, with RQ having, depending on how one counts, at least three different versions available for third parties to use in their own products. So far as I can tell, though, neither game has yet managed to engender another renaissance associated with it. There are probably several reasons why this is the case, but I think there are two big ones.

First, as I just noted, both Traveller and RuneQuest are much more strongly associated with their example settings than D&D ever has been. As an experiment, grab a random player of either game and start chatting with him about it; odds are very good that, before too long, the discussion will turn to the intricacies of the example setting rather than the game itself. That's much less likely to happen with a random old school D&D player. Second, despite being Open Game Content, there remain official rulebooks for both games, something utterly lacking for old school D&D. There's thus, at present, not a lot of incentive for a third party publisher to put out its own version of one of these games -- Voyager or SigilQuest, say -- and that has, I think, kept the focus on the official lines rather than a flowering of third party support as we've seen in the D&D-focused OSR.

None of this is to suggest that there couldn't be Traveller or RuneQuest renaissances in the future -- I hope there are! -- but, right now, if they're happening, they're happening very quietly and well off my radar. I'll grant I'm not as plugged into either of these games' online communities as I am with that of D&D, but neither am I unaware of what's happening in them. I keep hoping that I'll learn of the launch of a new Traveller fanzine or see some generic supplements to RuneQuest, but, so far, no such luck. I think that's a real pity, because, truth be told, I'd love to see a fuller flowering of old school gaming than just the very D&D-centric OSR. The fact that we don't, however, isn't the fault of the OSR; as Rob Conley regularly points out, the OSR is what its participants make of it and, right now, there's not much interest in making it about anything other than D&D and related games. If someone would prefer a wider representation of old school gaming, it's up to them to see that it happens.

The tools are there but is there the interest? Only time will tell.


  1. Okay, this seems like a good point to ask the question that's been niggling at me for a while now. I understand why the OGL is included in Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord, but why is there in Mongoose's Runequest and Traveller? Why is it in GORE? WotC have nothing to do with these games, as far as I can tell.

    Is it just that the developers of these latter games wanted to put some kind of open licence on their product, and simply chose WotC's version, because it's specific to rpgs, rather than a more generic Creative Commons licence?

  2. I think the biggest thing the D&D descendants have in the OSR, which you point out, is the fact that some developer can never "take his ball and go home."

    To some extent, Tunnels & Trolls has seen a bit of a re-flowering over the last 5 or so years, with the 5.5th edition box set and 7th edition. This has largely been due to Ken St. Andre and Flying Buffalo being very accommodating to other companies in licensing products. A change in the ownership of the T&T IP could result in something very similar to what happened with Traveler and RQ.

    You see a bit of the same thing with Star Frontiers and the excellent work being done with the Star Frontiersman. Something that would be impossible without WotC's cooperation. Again, a change in WotC policy and it's all over.

    The OGL makes sure that will never happen with the D&D clones.

  3. There is an old school renaissance of sorts going on around Star Frontiers. Still proprietary as far as I know, but somehow they have, or at least claim to have, permission from WotC to distribute the original rules material. They've got a fanzine going for it that's been running for at least three years and released its newest issue just this week.

    That is just another data point, though.

    I think that in the case of D&D clones, it's a result of enthusiasm and open license. I'd imagine that in the cases of Runequest and Traveller, the dropoff was a result of people feeling burned by their contacts with the original IP owners. Which AFAICT hasn't happened to the Star Frontiers group.

  4. Have participated in the first Traveller Renaissance as a player your analysis is spot on. Also I agree with your assessment of the current situation.

    With the OGL the hope is always there to ignite an OSR for these two games. What it will take is a critical mass of people interacting for it to be self sustaining.

    With the D&D OSR that moment happened when the early participants of the C&C beta combined with the existing older edition forums (like Dragonsfoot) and produced the first retro-clone.

    While everybody in the OSR accepts the retro-clone the sheer audacity of their creation gave the whole thing a shot in the arm. The result was increase in diversity and quantity.

    For Traveller and Runequest I think there are still in the ground floor and that sometime in the next few years we will see one or both of them start to expand greatly

  5. There is also the fact that Traveller and Runequest are at least in theory currently supported. If that goes away we'll probably see OGL'd retroclones. Is there much point to cloning a currently supported system?

  6. I think the observation about setting vs. rules is a good one, but I think Chris Goodwin makes a really good point - there's "official" support for both Traveller and RuneQuest that doesn't really exist for OD&D. So people have to do for themselves. I think that it also helps that the player base for all versions of D&D is much larger than for any other RPG out there, and older edition fans were already used to "doing for themselves" long before the OGL came out.

    kelvingreen - IIRC, Mongoose made the decision to release their rules for Runequest and Traveller under the OGL. I have no idea why they decided to do that, or what kinds of negotiations they had to do with the rights holders of the game to do it that way. GORE is OGL because it uses Mongoose Runequest as its "entry point" to making a BRP-like retro-clone.

  7. Both Mongoose's Traveller and Runequests use IIRC some terms etc. from the d20 SRDs and even if they didn't the OGL is a known factor for RPG companies and writers.

    I don't follow you on the current RQ and Traveller, especially if you include BRP with RQ. Both are more generic now than ever, with more settings published and fanmade (Mongoose just published the fan-made Reign of Discordia for that matter) than ever before. Most Glorantha hardcore fans use Heroquest or stick to RQIII and the only people still talking the Third Imperium to death don't play MRQ and most don't play at all.

    There are at least 3 Traveller fanzines, Freelance Traveller, Stellar Reaches and one or two I can't recall right now.

    Though it's a house organ, Signs & Portents has published lots of fan submitted material for MRQ and Mongoose Traveller, a lot of it generic and in the case of MRQ can't specifically be for the Third Imperium (not sure about MRQ and Glorantha).

    There's also BRP Central and the MRQ Wiki.

    And yes there are alt.MRQ or Mongoose Travellers out there, Openquest, GORE, Kyle's clone of Traveller as a completely generic set of rules, etc. but frankly both are generic enough now that really all you need is houserules, a campaign book or some rules addons (such as new magic systems for MRQ or new career books for Mongoose Traveller both of which exist).

    (shrugs) Having D&D3E in print didn't stop plenty of d20 and OGL based products back in the day. Having a single starting rulebook isn't a bad thing for inventiveness, didn't stop OD&D or AD&D either back in the day.

  8. My current players have little to no experience with Traveller or RQ, and I think that if I introduced them to my group, they would not have staying power. In the case of Traveller, they would be constantly asking me how they can improve their stats or abilities. I would say "you can't," and they would say "um, could be play some D&D instead?"

    And as far as Runequest, well, I think they would love the rules for improving, but the Glorantha setting might not be as appealing to them as the pulp fantasy universes they most enjoy. I will be doing some Call of Cthulhu in the future though, so they will at least get to enjoy those basic role-playing rules. But my point is, these particular rules and settings just don't seem to have the lasting appeal of D&D, Gurps, etc. They are doomed to come and go, I think.

  9. Perhaps the old-school focus on D&D variants is not entirely due to legal issues. For one, Runequest introduced a number of gaming concepts highly influential upon later games (including 3e D&D) but hostile to the resolution-rules-light and character-rules-light ethos that I consider the main advance in insight among the current old school revival. RQ, like many other games, was only a "logical" progression from OD&D if you craved more detailed and regulated rules for initiative, armor, hewing of limbs, weapons breaking, monsters statted like PCs, skills for everything, and so on. I can't speak to Traveler, not having ever played it, but certainly "character-rules-light" is not a description that springs to mind from what I have heard.

    To me, there's more to the Old School than just being an old game. Runequest and AD&D, while they are old in years, were actually the beginning of the end for the largely improvised game of adventure and exploration that D&D at its finest could be.

  10. The OGL is not needed and in fact I believe it is a problem rather than a solution. I try hard to avoid buying or downloading products which include it and if I publish anything at the end of my current playtesting it will not include the OGl text in any form.

    The Internet is the real cause of the OSR, putting a rarefied and fractured community in touch with each other.

  11. Inspired by the S&W boxed set and Raggi's upcoming box I've kicked around both on the Gore Forum and my blog the idea of a GORE boxed set trying to recapitulate the old Worlds of Wonder boxed set, although with horror instead of supers.

    In fact, when I put out a list of games I would run for a new group they were all BRP/GORE based for just that reason.

    But I think we would have seen a RQ renaissance centered on GORE had BRP not come out a week later.

  12. I can't really speak to Runequest as I've played the game exactly once and it was not a stellar adventure to my remembering. But I would like to speak of Traveller from the perspective of a player.

    I came late to Traveller in my gaming career. I started with Megatraveller and gave up right after TNE came out. To me Traveller means the 3rd Imperium setting, not the the system associated with it. In fact Traveller has had, I believe, 5 or 6 different rules systems associated with it over it's publishing history of various degrees of similarity. So to me it's the setting, not the rules that I think of when someone says Traveller.

    So when people discuss the idea of an OGL version of the traveller rules, I think why bother? It's the really cool, proprietary setting of Traveller I'd want to use, not the klugey, antiquated system that it has sometimes used.

    And there is the heart of the issue for me I think. Though both Traveller and OD&D are old systems. Not so streamlined, or rules intensive, as more modern games. OD&D was and is always about the system for me. where Traveller was always about the setting, often in spite of the system.

  13. For one, Runequest introduced a number of gaming concepts highly influential upon later games (including 3e D&D) but hostile to the resolution-rules-light and character-rules-light ethos that I consider the main advance in insight among the current old school revival.

    I think there may be something to this.

    Let’s call pre-2000 (A)D&D “level-based”; RQ and Traveller, “skill-based”; and Rolemaster and post-2000 D&D, “hybrid”.

    If you want a skill-based system, you’ve got lots of choices. This is the direction most of the industry took since splitting off of D&D.

    If you want a level-based system, the “current” D&D is out since it is a hybrid. There aren’t a lot of alternative level-based systems. Thus, going back to the older editions is a popular choice in this case.

    Traveller is a whole ’nother thing. First you have the fact that to some it is a system and to others its a setting. Then you have the fact that you have multiple variants of both system and setting.

    For myself, “Traveller” has always meant the system rather than the setting. As I used it, classic Traveller ends up being both skills-based and rules-light. So it has been an equal part with D&D in my own “back to basics”.

  14. see for Openquest, quite nice

  15. Traveller & Runequest Renaissances are happening but at a much more subdued level.

    Because of the heavy hammer of the IP Traveller owners - nothing like OSRIC has been allowed to happen. Notwithstanding, it still does. What one is witnessing is parallel developments and the tight reign of the licence holders and IP owners for both of those properties.

    Matt at Mongoose apparently favoured something looser but Marc forbid it.

    So, as far as Traveller & Runequest may not be in the Spanish Inquisition (although, one never expects one of those) they are at least in the throes of a Counter Reformation. Arguing canon against heresy but becoming heretical in turn.

  16. There are several reasons these earlier endeavors didn't take off including.

    #1 technology. There was no real self publishing to kick start the Renaissance. Instead of being "Indy" it was just a reprint of an old game.

    #2 Novel new games were out . The 1990's for example had White Wolf which at the time was seemed a very new thing . Right now there are tons of great games but nothing seems as revolutionary as that did to the players back then.

    #3 It was too soon. Old school AD&D was still strong and even 2e the then market leader whether you consider it old school or not (I think its transitional) easily supported old school play. There really was no need.

    #4 More than a few people were burned out on old school games anyway. This is partway why White Wolf/OWOD was a big success. It wasn't the same old D&D /CoC/RQW/Trav they'd played for the last umpteen years, well till they turned into that anyway.

    Now of course we have all of the elements needed. technology, nothing seems super novel its the right time (2e is 11 years old) and the burnout is over.

    Its our time.

  17. So it sounds like there's 2 vectors of threat from WOTC that could come towards the OSR:

    (1) Would be actually publishing an official old-school reprint/revision. (Echoes of the reputed upcoming red box cover.)

    (2) Would be challenging uses of the OGL over perceived violations (such as Product Identity). I certainly expect that if WOTC challenged its use, any defendant would immediately close shop, and be unable to fund a fight in court.

    I'm a bit surprised the latter hasn't occurred already. I suppose those sorts of actions tend to spring up when a company is in a serious decline; perhaps the bulk of Hasbro makes it a non-issue for now.

  18. Actually the RQ Renaissance was much earlier than Ken Rolston's stint at Avalon Hill, which was supposed to fix the problems the fan base had with the company and get the game moving back on track. The doldrums of AH's mishandling of the title occurred well before then. Whilst the announcement of Ken's impending arrival did raise much heralded hopes, it was too little too late (although it did result in a last gasp surge of really good product from AH), and he soon moved on.

    And whilst the game community was held together by the Runequest Mailing List, I'd actually cite the UK-based [and thus pro-Lunar <grin>] fanzine Tales of the Reaching Moon as the true movers and shakers of the renaissance, along with the Reaching Moon Megacorp that it spawned.

    The problem is that the upsurge of the renaissance lead to it's own surge in creative thought, which eventually lead to a large group of fans following Greg onto the Heroquest rule system. However this sucked a lot more of the energy out of the new movement.

    But a large group of the fan-base, still UK-based, didn't make the move (although they still talk with the Heroquesters). And I think the smartest thing Mongoose has done is to go back to this group with the production of their new Runequest II (which is actually Runequest 5, 6, or 7, depending on how you count).

    Which just goes to show, to borrow a Californian saying, if you are not willing to ride the popular upswell (and too many people were designing different surfboards at the time), you certainly aren't going to be doing any surfing any time soon.

  19. Delta, the latter probably hasn't occurred yet because the text of the OGL is pretty specific about what it considers Product Identity, making it easy to avoid transgressions.

    Jer, what I don't understand is why Mongoose use the OGL at all. As far as I can understand, the OGL defines what can be done with the work after it's created, but doesn't deal with what can go into the creation.

    I suppose the big benefit of the OGL is that it's a fully-formed legal document that's been put together by WotC/Hasbro lawyers, so you can copy it for your game without having to hire lawyers of your own to come up with a new licence. It's just always seemed odd to me to see WotC material turn up on the back page of Traveller and Runequest products. I can only imagine that the adopters of the licence see something more rigorous and/or specific in the OGL than they do in Creative Commons.

  20. Maybe it's slightly off-topic (and little bit an advert, so please delete this post if you view it as improper), but I've created supplement for OD&D containing additional rules, allowing transfer a game to more "Traveller-ish", cosmic style of playing :)
    Now I'm running only Polish version of site (it can be found ad Space), but currently my friend is translating it to English.
    Sorry for my poor English (and littering).

  21. And this is why I don't understand all the hostility towards WotC in the OSR; TSR would have never made an OGL, not the way it was being run towards the latter half of 2nd edition.

    I get that people might not jive with what Wizards has done with the license now, but Wizards is only doing what they think makes the most business sense - they're not going back and telling people, however, that they're not allowed to play or develop for the old game. And, due to the nature of the OGL, they really can't.

    Whether people want to admit it or not, WotC is one of the best things that ever happened to our hobby, IMO.

  22. Gotta mention, again, Star Frontiers Remastered with link. The Fantasy OSR has caught up last couple years but they were way out in front with very high quality "remasterings" (aka retro-clones) of SF games and an excellent periodical starting early 2007.

    They might even have been what led me to the OSR in first place... Memory fuzzy.

    Star Frontiers is tied to a setting.

    Don't cha think the immense popularity of D&D compared to other games is a strong factor in it's prevalence amongst OSR?

    Also, a few D&D specific things have fueled this OSR. WoTC's No PDF apocalypse. 4ed being such a completely different game that if you wanted D&D you had to look back. Many ended up looking further back than 3.X.

    Lots of factors including the ones you mention are creating the "perfect storm". I'm digging it like Cap Lt Dan!

  23. Eric M.: "Wizards is only doing what they think makes the most business sense - they're not going back and telling people, however, that they're not allowed to play or develop for the old game."

    Well actually, that is indeed a requirement that they force on anyone wishing to work with their 4E GSL. What's good for their business can be bad for our game.

    It is really specific people who are due our thanks for the OGL -- Ryan Dancey foremost. The OGL was made in spite of Hasbro/WOTC's corporate culture, not because of it. It was a conscientious "poison pill", if you will.

  24. Both Traveller and Runequest IP are owned by the original IP owners, Marc Miller and Gregg Stafford. Mongoose licenses them. Traveller: The New Era (TNE) didn't really see a change of design team, as Frank Chadwick and Loren Wiseman are both co-founders of GDW, have worked on Traveller from the start and GDW was just that, a Game Designers *Workshop*, where pretty much everyone contributed to a product (i.e. Marc Miller was involved in TNE). Virus was Chadwick's idea.

    Both Mongoose's Traveller and Runequest use material from d20 SRD(s) and also provide their own SRDs (well Mongoose Runequest II does not, but I did) for others to use in making their own material.

    Games using a CCL is still fairly new and gutsy, and was moreso back when both games were being worked on. As I said upthread, the OGL is familiar (10 years or so now) and has been used for non-d20 games, Fudge and FATE (and its spawn) coming esp. to mind.

  25. RP, yep, RQ has had several resurgences.

    Pete's History of Runequest article is good albeit biased account (and perhaps a source for the version presented here)

    Also the SPRQ (Steve Perrin's Quest Rules) fit in here somewhere, though to my knowledge they still aren't fully complete.

  26. Mongoose was obviously familar with the OGL. They may not have even been aware of the Creative Commons when putting the RQ and Traveller SRDs together.

    Another consideration, however, is compatibility. If all the content you want to use is under the same license, then you don't have to worry about whether the licenses are compatible. So it makes some sense to follow Wizards lead.

  27. RE: Delta; Yeah, I'm aware of the problems with the 4e game license, but to be perfectly honest, the companies that were interested in reviving the old school roots of the game weren't interested in jumping on board with 4e in the first place.

  28. I wish people would refrain from commenting on games that they had only "looked over" or "played once" or know only "from what I've heard."

    RuneQuest is actually very rules-light, setting-independent, and truly old-school in every sense. And every time I play it with people whose only previous experience has been with D&D, they never want to go back.

  29. RuneQuest is actually very rules-light, setting-independent, and truly old-school in every sense.

    Rules light it is and setting-independent it can be, but most fans of RQ have historically played it with Glorantha, much in the same way that Traveller fans have used the Third Imperium.