Archive for January 6th, 2012

06
Jan
12

The OSR Has Won, Now What Does It Stand For?

Hot elf chicks deserve serious discussion as the OSR considers how we want to reform the gaming industry. Click the picture to buy these pasties on Etsy, another condender for what the future of the RPG business will look like.

If the OSR is an old-school revolution, the revolution is all over but the shouting. The bulldozers are on their way, and it’s not too soon to celebrate the overthrow of the gaming industry. Sure, our share of the XP is just one among many, but how many hit dice does an 800 lb gorilla have? Enough that we will all level up for sure – even those of us who were name level already.

We wanted the leaders in the RPG industry to release introductory boxed sets, and they did. We wanted people like ourselves to be at the creative forefront of those industry leaders, and we got Mike Mearls and Eric Mona who have demonstrated their love of classic RPGs and Appendix N inspiration again and again. We’re going to be getting a lot more of the things we have been asking for. So what do we ask for now?

If the OSR is an old-school reformation, the work of clearing away the old is basically done. It’s time to start building a new RPG industry in our own image. Let’s start exploring what that looks like, beginning with the recognition that the best of us are already dead. If we the survivors want there to still be people to play with in our old age, there needs to be something that fills the role the game publishing business does now, because almost none of us would be in the hobby today if it weren’t for a commercial product.

If the OSR is an old-school renaissance, that implies its own business model. I am a big proponent of patronage projects and Kickstarter backing, which beat the pants off of both Medici princes and traditional “print first, see if it sells later” publishing. However, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that patronage is only better at getting committed fans to tell you what they’d actually find useful in play. When it comes to attracting new fans, this Renaissance-era version of a product-driven industry seems even less capable than traditional publishing.

One of the awesome things Zak S. does on his blog sometimes is teach his readers how to talk about things without devolving into the usual noise. It must be working, because Cygnus’s comment to my last post demonstrates a peerless mastery of how to build a conversation:

The thing I love about the multiplicity of gaming blogs is that it lets me encounter viewpoints that are far outside my own “head space.” Like in this post, when I saw the initial question…

“So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?”

…My initial response was something like “Well, maybe the people involved should reconsider whether they really want to BE an RPG business at all.” Rather than thinking up more ways to “monetize” the hobby, why not step back and re-engage with the amateur/D.I.Y. aesthetic that (presumably) was the thing that got us all interested in the first place?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking one’s players to kick in a few bucks to cover the cost of the snacks and drinks. But I’ve got to say that this “pay-to-play” model (or the related model of “pay nothing now, but here’s some hard-sell for a timeshare”) strikes me as the wrong direction for the hobby to go. I hope I’m not whacking at a strawman of my own making, but this whole deal of increased monetization just smells, smells, smells…

Let’s talk about “alternate” instead of “increased” monetization. At this point I don’t think we have to worry about increasing the overall commercialization of RPGs – the existing attempts to commodify play by selling products have become more pervasive because they were failing. Now that the old empire is collapsing, how will we fund the work of building something new?

The OSR is many things. One of them is people like me and James Maliszewski and Rob Conley and Melan doing  just as Cygnus suggests: reconsidering whether we really wanted to be part of the RPG business at all. Working for WotC and Necromancer and Goodman Games was supposed to be the highest level of achievement Gygax described in MASTER OF THE GAME, but it gave us a lot of chances to experience first-hand how the RPG business as usual has a negative impact on the culture of play. We take it for granted that game designers should be paid for their work, but many aspects of that whole deal just stink, stink, stink.

Another thing the OSR is people like me and Mearls and Calithena and Kesher and most of the New York and Vancouver Red Boxes who were around when the Forge was really digging into alternate business models for RPG publishing. Long before I heard the OSR’s rallying cry to “do it yourself”, I was attracted to the Forge’s practical advice on how to “sell it yourself”. In many ways, the OSR’s business model to date is just what you get when better print-on-demand technology and the Open Game License meet the Forge approach of small print runs sold direct to the customer.

If the OSR is an exercise in using exploring paths not taken, hindsight tells us a lot about the drawbacks of the decision to build an industry around gaming by selling products. What other ways could it have gone? Set one clock to whenever Napoleonics turned into Braunstein and Blackmoor and roleplaying, and another to whenever the OSR got started. Roll both forward three years, and we’re now reaching the same point when TSR answered “why should we do any more of your imagining for you?” with “because you will pay us to do so”.

“Pay to play” seems fishy to us because we are used to a world in which game designers are professionals and game masters are amateurs. But if we imagine that Gary was the great communicator and Dave the great storyteller, is there any intrinsic reason why only one of them should have able to get paid for the exercise of their talents?

Looking back to 1976, it seems to me like part of why Dave Arneson and Rob Kuntz left TSR is that they got wind of the bad smell coming from the now-traditional business model for RPGs: supplement treadmills and tournament adventures standardized for organized play and new rules editions designed to support organized play by reducing the role of individual adjucation. Could a different way of monetizing the role-playing experience prevented the loss of Dave and Rob, if it took advantage of their expertise running games and let them teach others how by showing, rather than telling?  Note that during Dave’s later career he did professionalize his GM skills at venues from a convention charity auction to a gaming cruise ship, and since Spinachcat’s account of one of these games is among the best documents of Dave’s style out there, I think our hobby is better because he wasn’t afraid of the “pay to play” stigma.

As the product-driven trends entrenched at AD&D’s roots marched toward their logical extension in 4E, one of the most valuable things the OSR has done has been to say “this stinks, let’s go back to basics.” We did that and now we’ve spent enough time reconstructing to reach the same point TSR was at. If we want to achieve the full potential of this thing we’re part of, we have to figure out a way to pay the bills.

Part of that will be making commercial RPG products that resist the market pressure to suck. Can we also take our hard-won knowledge of all the ways monetizing RPG play through products can go wrong, and use it to think about how to make making commercial RPG experiences not suck?

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. A few victory laps are in order before we roll up our sleeves. The OSR is dead, long live the OSR!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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