What the Old-School Reformation is Fighting For and Against

I’ve been thinking more about the Big Reality article in Rhizome I posted about earlier, specifically this quote:

“[I]t is assumed that the work of art,” Artie Vierkant wrote in The Image Object Post Internet, “lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum, the images and other representations disseminated through the Internet and print publications, bootleg images of the object or its representations, and variations on any of these as edited and recontextualized by any other author.” The RPG resonates with this condition as a thoroughly cross-media phenomenon, one that exists between rulebooks and games; its codes travel among tabletop, computer, and simulated battlefield.

If you’re an outsider, it makes sense to see role-playing games as part of this huge phenomenon in modern culture that involves having an avatar that levels up through experience gained in many separate but inter-related imaginary worlds. D&D is, after all, where all this transmedia stuff got started, and over at the GaryCon boards Emperor Xan is making a case that D&D is specifically responsible for the internet, via an article by Julian Dibbel:

n 1969, BBN had won the contract to build a new, decentralized kind of computer network for the Defense Department. Called arpanet, the network was the beginning of what would eventually be called the Internet, and while it would be a gross exaggeration to say Crowther invented the thing, it doesn’t seem too far off the mark to say he wrote it. Not single-handedly, of course, but if there was one coder on BBN’s small programming team who was truly indispensable, Crowther was it. “Most of the rest of us,” one teammate later recalled, “made our livings handling the details resulting from Will’s use of his brain.”

The guy he’s talking about there is William Crowther, and in addition to writing the Internet he also created the first computer RPG, Colossal Cave Adventure:

Here was where Will’s own historic moment began. As he later explained to an interviewer, he had lately taken to playing a new kind of game called Dungeons and Dragons, getting together with some of the guys from BBN whenever enough of them had the time. The particular D & D scenario they were playing involved a lot of imaginary traipsing through the woods and caverns of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and in it, Crowther role-played a thief character, called simply Willie the Thief. The game was intensely absorbing, and though he didn’t exactly play it to escape from reality, the distraction couldn’t have hurt: Will and Pat’s divorce was on its way and soon enough arrived. “And that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways,” said Crowther. “In particular I was missing my kids. Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward.” Between wife, kids, and cave, the divorce had taken from him most of what had given his life its shape, if not its meaning. Faced with such a loss, many men Crowther’s age would have turned to desperate consolations — drinking too much, having affairs with twenty-year-olds, blowing paychecks on high-end audio equipment. Others would have simply despaired. But Crowther, being Crowther, had a different idea: “I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps [include] some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing.”

So yeah, D&D is responsible for the modern age. But I think the OSR is against it. As Ethan put it in his Salon piece,

Pure and simple, for many, D&D represents a lost age: It was an individualized, user-driven, DIY, human-scaled creative space separate from the world of adults and the intrusion of corporate forces. As Allison rightly noted, D&D recalls that day “before orcs and wookiees were the intellectual property of vast transmedia corporations.”

The OSR isn’t into D&D itself; we love D&D because it was the original role-playing game, and we celebrate what it was originally. A thing you do in a room with other people, some of whom are maybe your wife and kids. An activity you do in a physical, social space that relates to your passions for similar real-life group experiences, whether that’s spelunking in Mammoth Cave (like Crowther) or recreating medieval life (whether in miniature, like Gygax and Arneson, or through the Society for Creative Anachronism like guys such as Poul Anderson who were their literary inspirations).

The Protestant Reformation started as an internal debate within the ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, but it wound up lighting a fire under all of Europe. Likewise, the OSR started out as an internal argument among hard-core roleplayers, but ultimately I think it’s the whole glittering transmedia edifice that we take issue with. When we say that modern editions of D&D are too much like videogames, we’re taking issue with videogames themselves. When we rail against dissociated mechanics, we’re saying that we want the things we do with our imagination to have traction in our day-to-day experience of the real world. And when we express dissatisfaction with the way the RPG industry leaders are increasingly chasing the development of intellectual properties that can spawn profitable transmedia enterprises, we’re fighting to prevent devaluation of the original miracle of role-playing games: the greatest way ever invented to collaboratively create ideas that soar in the mind’s eye and explode like fireworks, leaving nothing behind but memory and satisfaction.

Martin Luther wanted to save Christianity, not end it. Likewise, I’m not arguing for a Luddite overthrow of everything that’s come out of the intersection of D&D and computers. Internet tools like the New York Red Box forums are uniquely great for finding and organizing players for open-table gaming, maintaining narrative continuity, and mixing play-by-post solo adventures with big group heists. Desktop publishing has generated an unprecedented wealth of gaming materials. And this blogging thing is a great way to create a community in which to refine and share ideas.

Nor am I saying that transmedia is anathema to the old-school spirit; on the contrary, the founders scarfed up as much fantastic inspiration from as many different media as they could. Old issues of the Judges’ Guild Journal were happy to run cartoons spoofing Star Trek and Alien, and a disintegrator from Larry Niven’s Known Worlds fits right into Erol Otus’s Booty and the Beasts. But when movies and books started being about role-playing games in turn,  this circular, self-referential process started spiraling away from the DIY spirit that made D&D unique.

The Reformation fought for the primacy of the individual religious experience, and so they wound up fighting against the people who were invested in maintaining the whole glittering edifice that distracted from that experience. Here in the OSR, I think we’re fighting that same battle. We stand against the people who want to take imagination out of our real lives and make it a virtual commodity. We fight for the new ways that technology can enhance the experience of shared social creativity and make it more true to the original miracle of 1974.

23 Responses to “What the Old-School Reformation is Fighting For and Against”

  1. April 8, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    The part about the OSR starting out as “an internal argument among hard-core roleplayers, but ultimately I think it’s the whole glittering transmedia edifice that we take issue with” is well put and I totally see myself in what you said. Of course the various things we take issues with also have their positive sides. I like video games, for example. But the things you listed all come packaged in a mostly unpalatable package (to me). With the good we have to swallow a whole lot of bad. For every awesome multiplayer moment there are the insanely frustrating passages. For every explosion of shapes and colors and immersion we have boob cheesecake and terrible dialogues. For every level editor we have DRM issues. The whole is tarnished and people feel they can’t really pick and choose as they’d like, and they’re powerless to change things, and so they start to take issue with these things. Typical reactions include frustration, nerd rage, a turning away from commercial offerings, etc.

  2. 2 Nick Mizer
    April 8, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    As always, interesting thoughts Tavis. On the transmedia issue the thing that jumps to mind (because I’m presenting a paper on it next month) is that not all media carry narrative the same way, as you touched on in the previous post. D&D has been transmedia from the start, in the very limited sense that a game of oral storytelling drew on fantasy literature as an imaginative resource. Later, as imaginative resources became available in other media like movies, gamers drew on those as well, but the nature of cinema as a medium (for example, and imho) also changed the way the game was played. If you’re interested, I can send you the paper; I’d be interested to hear what feedback you have before I present it.

  3. 3 richard
    April 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I should point out that we’ve also always been pretty enthusiastic about bells and smells – video games definitely provide part of what early D&D players wanted, while failing to provide other parts. It’s really the runaway success of video games that’s the problem, as it bends the whole definition of roleplaying around to suit its own image, revenue-generation methods and problems that computers can solve.

    As far as speaking back, or imagining it for ourselves, or taking control of our hyperreality, I’d say we have a lot in common with Burning Man and Maker Faire and garage inventors, and that we would do ourselves a disservice by being too narrowly focused, even on the entertainment industry as a whole. We have some challenges: IHIWMA aside, our inventions mostly don’t make good youtube-ware. They’re not supposed to. But that limits their traction in the mediated information stream.

    I wish somehow we could take advantage of and subvert the new ways, like flashmobs, rather than defensively turning away from them.

  4. April 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    This post deeply resonated with me. My own return to tabletop gaming three years ago followed a direct decision to get out from under the yoke of computer screen meditation. Between work and too many years of falling back on computer games when feeling anti-social I just had enough, I needed something that engaged me more immediately and my mind when back to those great years I spend playing the game. I’d like to think it was more than just simple nostalgia.

  5. April 8, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    “…and a disintegrator from Larry Niven’s Known Worlds…”

    I thought it was known space? Also, are we talking about the Slaver version, that’s too slow to be used as a weapon, or the Puppeteer variant that can be?

  6. April 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Wow. This is some great stuff. I’ve felt a rising dissatisfaction with what pop culture has become and never know if it is just me being a misanthropic dickbag, lost innocence and nostalgia or what. It does become strange when absolutely everything somehow becomes a part of someone’s intellectual property fight… and I suppose that was probably a part of D&D from the start (witness Gygax & Company’s trouble over terms like Hobbit & Ent and the subsequent ‘shoe on the other foot’ of when TSR (first under Gygax and then without him) went after others whom they felt had intruded on their I.P.). Somehow, back in the day, I felt more insulated from such worries. But your essay, as usual, gives me tasty food for thought… thank you.

  7. April 8, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Very eloquent post, as usual. I don’t quite understand, though, why you think this appreciation of tabletop RPGs is particular to the OSR. It seems like most folks I know who are into tabletop RPGs, whether its World of Darkness or Aces & Eights or Fate or GURPS or whatever, are in the same boat as us in terms of what you’re talking about. Except for possibly the competitive RPGA types, they all appreciate the same social/creative experience that differentiate true RPGs from MMORPGs.

  8. April 9, 2011 at 5:11 am


    If we are ever in the same drinking establishment, you have one coming on me.

  9. April 9, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Isn’t this Daniel Mackay’s argument? That role-playing games, as a performing art medium, are inherently anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist? Table-top role-playing games are methods for structuring conversations, so they (are able to) bypass all structures related to buying and selling, or controlling how media is consumed and reacted to. Unlike pretty much every other form of media.

  10. April 9, 2011 at 10:45 am

    @Tavis: Great post as usual! I think there is plenty of room in within the realm of DIY for technology. Not only blogs, but the whole idea of getting in touch with gamers all over the world sharing ideas, house rules etc really adds to that experience IMO.

    @Johnstone: Anti Capitalist might be too strong, but there is a definate descrepancy between the interests of OSR type gamers and big business. Some OSR gamers might prefer a very minimalist approach to gaming where nothing but a few small booklets of rules should be bought and paid for while everything else belongs to the realm of DIY. I think there should be room for less extreme approaches to gaming as well. Not everyone will want to do everything themselves. Unfortunately Big Business seems to want to push the game in a direction where creativity is replaced by spoon feeding products from the corporations as it is their way to make money. Having said that, I think the power still is in the hands of gamers and even the latest edition of D&D can be played in a way that evokes “the miracle of old”.

  11. April 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Catching up on lots of great comments!

    @Alex, I like videogames too – I had my first successful ascension in the sweet roguelike Brogue on the night I posted that, and inspired by this Escapist piece I’ve been having a good time playing Borderlands – although I’d like it a lot better if it kept the perma-death feature along with the other procedurally generated, player-skill-driven elements it takes from Roguelikes. What I’m talking about here as something we’re fighting against is the tendency for tabletop RPGs to adopt design decisions from their other-media brethren that I see as going the wrong way (I, and many other 4E players I’ve spoken with, wish it was easier for my PCs to die permanently), and fighting for those other media to take cues from what I see as the right direction in tabletop games (like exploring the increasingly-neglected design space of RPG-typegames where there’s no save points and do-overs.

    @Nick, I’d definitely like to see that paper and if you’d like to do a guest post at the Mule about your findings & conclusions it’d be awesome to hear from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about!

  12. 12 Greengoat
    April 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Nice post Tavis. It makes me want to try an analogy between the designs of RPGS and automobiles across time and point out the feeling of “user-non-serviceable parts” creeping into the industry.
    Is 4E planned obsolescence? Can we have a non-profit standards organization watching over our favorite rules? Can we add “communist” to our alignment axis?

    Ah but I am lazy.

  13. April 10, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    @Richard, I like bells and hadn’t realized I want smells until you mentioned it. I had some great games using a digital projector – the only problem was that using maps and images from the Savage Tide adventure path we were doing signaled to players when we were on the rails, and they assigned a different reality-status to things I didn’t have images prepped for. A DIY toolkit of Creative Commons images that let GMs pull up visuals off the cuff with the same ease as verbal descriptions would be a great OSR project.

    I’m all for flash mobs and YouTube as extensions of our virtues, and have some projects in the works re: the latter. I should maybe have talked more about what we’re fighting for, but the nice thing about a manifesto is that you can advocate in the abstract without having to solve the problems of using new media and technology without falling under the sway of the directions they pull towards.

    @ckutalik, glad to have you back in the tabletop fold! Hill Canyons is a great blog.

  14. April 10, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    @C’nor, you are quite right about Known Space, and I don’t remember which disintegrator it was. Let this be a warning that (in Zak’s terminology) although I am an Arcanist and love pedantry, I am not always a Straight Shooter who checks the facts before posting.

    @Limpey, it is interesting that IP battles have been part of D&D from the beginning. I don’t want to say that all problems began when TSR turned a hobby into a business, because I do RPGs as business sometimes too and don’t think that automatically invalidates Gygax or I as having amateur passions. Rather let’s say that IP ownership is one of those powderkegs in our culture that the OSR’s sparks will tend to threaten.

  15. 15 Charlatan
    April 10, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    A DIY toolkit of Creative Commons images that let GMs pull up visuals off the cuff with the same ease as verbal descriptions would be a great OSR project.

    A good start is heading over to the Telecanter’s excellent blog and look at posts tagged “art”.

  16. April 10, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    @Cyclopeatron, I think what I’m talking about is that the OSR is initially a sectarian dispute with people making RPGs more like other media – wanting to have things be more cinematic, more likely to create a genre-fiction appropriate outcome – when the great strength of a game with dice is that it gives agency to players, not to the narrative. But you’re right that we may have common cause with the other sects of RPGers when we look at the larger culture. I think the old vs new Star Wars is a good example: we all liked the original because it left lots up to the imagination and we weren’t sure how it turned out: these are RPG virtues. The prequels moved away from this – everything was shown because the CGI technology could, everything was explained and merchandized for a mass consumer audience, everything was pre-ordained to fit into the transmedia IP universe. These are what we’re against, in our little world or the larger one.

    @Higgipedia: you can get the first round any time you’re in NYC, or at Gen Con or Gary Con or Anonycon or NTRPG, but I’ll buy the second!

  17. April 11, 2011 at 3:26 am

    @Johnstone, when I read that part of Mackay I dismissed it as something he put in to satisfy a Marxist on his dissertation committee. It seems like I had to forget his ideas were his and think they were mine to be convinced!

    @Havard, for sure the OSR owes its existance to technology. I wouldn’t have played OD&D without reading online about others doing so as a Gygax memorial, and wouldn’t have kept at it without blogs and forums and wikis to teach me. I want to say I’m not so much biting the hand that feeds me as saying ‘hey new media, you’ll have a really appreciative audience if you pick up on some forgotten-until-rediscovered ideas from RPGs to add to the RPG ideas you’ve been thriving on’.

  18. April 12, 2011 at 1:48 am

    Wow, Tavis, that’s really cynical! Thing is though, he’s saying Marxism isn’t good enough as a meta-narrative either, and that’s why we play role-playing games. The anti-capitalist part is that we make our own entertainment instead of consuming what others create for us.

  19. April 12, 2011 at 2:00 am

    @Johnstone: Sorry, that was my grad-school bitterness seeping out! (There aren’t Marxists on neuroscience committees, but that just makes their pet theories weirder and harder to keep in mind.) I’ll have to go back and read those sections to see if I have a different take on it now.

    @Greengoat, I think that the non-user-servicable parts of a design like 4E are some interaction between a) planned obsolescence is good for business, i.e. lots of hard-to-balance wonky bits sells books of wonky bits; b) the rise of a technical priesthood is good for priests (see my post about evolution & game designers wanting jobs); and c) unintended consequences (I’ve heard it said that the 4E designers expected people to make up more stuff on their own and were surprised that people just read the flavor text instead of using it as an example; see also evolution).

    @Charlatan, having Telecanter filter and select images for us is a great boon; the other thing we’d need is some kind of palette organizing tool, like a Heward’s Handy Haversack that makes sure the image you want is at your fingertips. Probably something like this has been developed for commercial illustrators and VJs and others who work with images professionally?

  20. 20 Emperor Xan
    April 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    @Tavis: Cool! I don’t think I’ve been quoted before. :) Thanks for mentioning my post.

    @Nick: I’d be interested in your paper as I think it may fit in with some of the things I’m doing in regards to my studies on the genres of power.

    Thanks in advance,
    Richard T. Balsley

  21. July 23, 2011 at 12:02 am

    Pardon me for coming late to this conversation. I’ve only recently discovered OSR, and your blog is fantastic; I’m sharing a number of posts on Google+ already. But I have to remark on your claim that D&D is the original transmedia property. I’d say that the first major transmedia property was Winnie-the-Pooh, which started as a collection of children’s toys, and was published with an understanding that the franchise would be heavily merchandised from the outset: Milne was quite active in seeking out licensees, including a radio show which came out almost immediately after the publication of the first book, and a play which was produced a few years later. He sold many of the rights to the Schlesinger family in 1931, and a confusing web of agreements, disputes and trials regarding UK, US and international rights has continued since then.

    I wish I had time to actually play an OSR game: for now, I’ll just enjoy the writing and look at some of the material that’s getting produced.

  22. July 23, 2011 at 12:15 am

    That’s fascinating: the Tao of Pooh came after the IP of Pooh.

    You should make time for the So Cal Mini Con: http://cyclopeatron.blogspot.com/p/socal-minicon-4.html – I had a great time at last year’s when I was lucky enough to be in the area.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2011

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