OSR (Huh! Good God, y’all!) What Is It Good For?

He who hath the Photoshop skills to alter that to "OSR" shalt earn 100 XP. Huh!

Over at the RPG site, Phantom Black started a thread called Why “OSR” at all?!?! which turned out to be one of those adventures where you set forth to slay a troll and then an unexpected reaction roll makes the monster apologize for all the bellowing and gnashing and exclamation points, and as the parlay ensues you realize not only are there going to be no XP from combat, you’re not even going to recoup your investment in flaming oil.

Determined to get something out of it (besides some fine dick jokes), I thought it’d be worth talking here about what I think the Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is good for. The sagacious Clash Bowley said:

Generally speaking, the OSR don’t think that all change is progress, and that what has been done since year X – the exact year varies – in game design has moved away from what made roleplaying games awesome in the first place. By getting back to the source, one refreshes one’s understanding of what gaming should be. Some see this as a touchstone to make real progress. Some don’t need your steenkin’ progress anyway. They were happy in Year X, and if they just go back to that, they will be happy again. Some just lost where they were going and need to go back to the last known position. There are a multitude of variations. I’m not an OSR guy, but they are pretty straight forward about what they are looking for. It’s just that there are really several OSRs which share some commonalities, but which are going in different directions.

I think that’s well put, but “refreshed” isn’t entirely accurate in my case. Even though I grew up with AD&D I never had a good understanding of what it was designed to do well and how I could get the most out of it. Thanks to the discussion and resources of the OSR, I currently enjoy playing old-school D&D much more than I did back in the day. (Experience with many other game systems, and twenty years’ worth of maturity and personal growth, must also get some of the credit.)

I think the OSR is useful as a movement for the same reason that genre is useful for a reader: if you like one book with a rocketship on the cover, having a label can be a good guide to where to go if you want to delve deeper into more stuff like that.

In my opinion, the body of work associated with the OSR is worth checking out (and experiencing for yourself through actual play with a group open to the experience) even if you don’t plan to make a habit of playing older games. I feel like the recent games of 4E and Rogue Trader I’ve run have been much more successful because of my immersion in the roots of gaming, and discovering that I really, really love the original D&D I never played as a kid doesn’t stop me from being interested in new stuff as well.

Because I think it’s worth thinking more about the “not all change is progress” idea that Clash identifies as an OSR tenet, here’s my response to another question of the quotation-mark-loving OP:

as far as these “old” mechanisms didn’t “survive” in most roleplaying games that are sold today, what does this hint at? Game designers being “morons” knowing better what rules to devise than their customers, just talking the customers into that the old rules were “obviously” bad? Or is it just a misdevelopment that game designers published what they deemed better, thus talking customers into believing those new mechanisms actually were “better”, or was it the broad mass of customers falling to actually believe the fallacy of “new & improved always equals better”? Is this a paradigm shift we are experiencing, or is it a “correction” of “wrong” developments that happened?

If you think “further down an evolutionary pathway” or “around today when other species aren’t” always means “better fitted to survive” then I’ve got some birds unable to fly because of their ornate plumage for you.

I’d say the fact that “old” mechanisms aren’t still around in the contemporary marketplace tells us that the people who felt the need to create new games wanted them to do different things than the original ones did. “Hey, Game X does exploration really well, but I hate its abstract combat. Let’s make a new game to fix that.” Since the designers and playtesters are starting from Game X’s approach as a point of divergence, they’ll spend a lot of effort on Game Y’s critical hit charts and encumbrance rules. They won’t waste word count talking about exploration because they all know how to do that using the techniques they internalized playing in Game X.

The result is that when a new generation of gamers grows up with Game Y, the knowledge of how to do the exploration that Game X was good at is lost, such that it takes a conscious effort to engage with the older games and ensure the survival of their best ideas. What the OSR means to me is a bunch of resources for that effort and a community devoted to this work whose shared or divergent perspectives I can benefit from.

Note also that if Game Y’s designers started playing Game X as pre-teens, the things they think need fixing, like a reliance on consensus adjucation, might not be problems at all to the 24-33 year olds who started it all. And let us not discount the economic incentives to publish lots of new books of RPG stuff on a regular basis. When all’s said and done I think there’s as much evidence for change in RPG design as a process of progressive degradation, like photocopying a photocopy, as there is to say that it’s inexorable progress and improvement. Not having anything to sell you either way, I’m as happy to pick out the good new emergent ideas as to retrieve the old dusty ones.

6 Responses to “OSR (Huh! Good God, y’all!) What Is It Good For?”

  1. 1 Mark W
    March 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I’m not at all certain that any narrative of change in game design is valid. There have been refinements, sure – rather than each game largely being a “fix” to what came before or simply a repaint of the accustomed set of rules to fit a new setting or genre, there’s more attention to tailoring mechanics to intended play experiences. But that’s not purely a good thing, for those who like the quirky mishmash style or prefer the One System For Everything model.

    What’s really going on with things like OSR is the same thing that happened with weird little Dirty Hippie Indie games in the 00s. A tiny niche market within the already small RPG hobby is finally a viable community, thanks to the internet. The mass market of RPGs was never going to cater to either of these groups, because the things they want out of game products aren’t economically viable in a mass-market world. Now that micropublishing and similar venues are accessible, they’re both developing their own sub-hobbies within the RPG umbrella.

  2. March 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Yes, in thinking about “let’s make Game Y do something that Game X didn’t” I’m more pointing out a force that drives change in RPG design which I haven’t seen discussed before, which is no more the whole story than the change-as-artistic-fashion or change-as-technological-progress ideas. What you get is too complex to reduce to a single narrative, though storytelling is fun.

    In that theRPGsite thread, Rob Conley makes some good points about the OSR being an emergent outgrowth of what happens when you add the Open Game License to the same factors that let the Forge take off in the oughts (desktop publishing, internet communication, etc.) Note that both Fight On!’s calithena, 4E’s Mike Mearls, and I were all posting at the Forge back in the day, and I shared the Forge booth at Gen Con in ’04 to push Behemoth3’s d20 monster books (where people were very supportive and helped introduce us to Jonathan Tweet, whose inclusion in the 3E design was what led me back to D&D after playing Ars Magica in the ’90s).

  3. March 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    I have this posted on the top of my sidebar on my blog.

    To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.

  4. March 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Rob, I think that points out that an important dimension of individual difference among OSR folks is how long one has been engaging with its ideas. I feel like you’ve got so many more decades of Wilderlands training that you don’t need the education I value. I’ve been very interested in understanding “how did folks do this originally?” and only recently am starting to have enough of a handle on the strengths of the old-school approach to start wanting to put my own stamp on it.

    (Note that an interesting difference between OD&D and 4E is that the mechanically well-defined design space of the latter meant that I felt comfortable creating new powers even before the playtest period was over: I didn’t have the same need to figure out what 4E was trying to do, the formal matrix of the mechanics suggested obvious avenues not yet explored: “what about a class that uses these attributes?” etc.)

    Even though I’ve been focused on learning to play in an old-school way, I agree that even among the OGs there’s no one particular way: at Gary Con and the Tower of Gygax I’ve experienced three different kinds of tournament games, and that’s without ever having played in a hexcrawl (though Rob Kuntz said wilderness and city adventures were actually the bulk of what he did as a DM).

    And even from the beginning I’ve been drawn to OD&D over more clearly defined versions like Red Box, so I agree that part of the appeal for me has been leaving a lot of avenues up to the players to explore.

  5. 5 Exxos
    January 29, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    I think what makes me gravitate towards the old school is the diversity. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, I could walk into a store and find easily forty or more different games, I could mail off for tons of adventures and modules from tiny publishers and garage printers, and there were so many creative people pumping out their hearts and souls – taking risks!

    Now I walk into a store and I see the latest mass-market, low-risk versions of D&D. Maybe something by Monte Cook and a farce of a Star Wars title (before Borders was gone, now we only have B&N here where we’ll just be offered a few D&D books and damn well like it!). Even if I venture online, the pickings are relatively slim. Modern RPGs have fallen into the same trap as movies, television, and novels – few people want to take risks, so you get the vulgar, generic blockbuster. It does well, but does not hold people, does not get them fired up.

    Then you consider all of the rights and holdings that companies like WOTC and WW hold these days. A lot of people are scared and disillusioned to even try these days and those with the intestinal fortitude to try often just tack themselves onto WOTC’s coattails because it’s safer than going against them and/or they already have a consumer base provided.

    I play the same RPGs for the last 25 years not because I am a stick in the mud, but because it is very rare that a new game with some new experience is offered to me. Today, these games just seem generic, cold, and soulless.

    And since a lot of these people were involved with the classics, there is no real reason for it. Come on! Light a fire in my gut like you did in the 90’s!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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