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!

59 Responses to “The OSR Has Won, Now What Does It Stand For?”

  1. January 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Wow… I’ll definitely be pondering the implications of this post for a while. (As well as pondering the picture at the top!) Mentally, I’m probably still in that early phase of “getting back to basics,” since I’ve only been seriously back into OSR grognardism for a little over a year. You guys who’ve been involved for the whole time are now like the blowfish character from the very end of “Finding Nemo:” you’ve escaped the dentist’s office, you’re in your little baggies in Sydney Harbor, and you’re looking around, saying “Now what?” :-)

  2. 2 thezaksmiththatpaints
    January 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Pay-to-play, as a widespread model, is disgusting.

    Once in a while at a con or for some special event, fine. But I don’t ever want to hear some dipshit claim we should all be using ascending AC or descending AC or whatever Because I Am A Professional GM or because A Professional GM Told Me To.

    The best thing about this hobby is it’s DIYness and the eccentric, divergent (insanely, cacophonously divergent) creativity that promotes. Published modules and splatbooks have done a lot of damage to that diversity by suggesting to the dimmer bulbs that there’s a “right” way to do things and the cult of microcelebrity that any pay-your-GM scheme would _necessarily_ require in order to be worth anyone’s while would only harm it further.

    Next thing you know we got ranking systems and “this path” vs. “that path” wars and people not getting what they thought they were paying for (“You said MEGAdungeon”) and all the evils that attend when people start doing a job that should be free and so become engaged in a lifelong propoaganda struggle to prove they’re necessary and important.

  3. January 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks for the stink detection, Zak!

    So one of the ways humans use money is to flaunt status. Anyone who is like “my way is the right way because I get paid to do this” is a dick, whether they are getting paid to write RPGs or run them. I’d argue that this is a worse problem for professionalization via products, because if you are a dick it will impair your ability to run games but not so much your ability to write them.

    Note that a number of micro-celebrities in the RPG scene (guys much more famous than a minimicro like me) do run professional games for fans who approached them with offers to pay for it. These pros just keep quiet about it because of the stink. I think this is good for the hobby because getting paid to play can counteract the economic pressure that normally means modules and splatbooks are written by people who rarely actually game.

    But another thing humans do that involves money is providing nice places to play games in. We are happy to pay for this at a convention because it’s a clear value. The truth is probably somewhere between “all the value resides in making the venue available for us to DIY in” and “conventions are ripping off GM expertise by having people pay for entertainment services that they con GMs into volunteering.”

    Given that Gen Con was one of TSR’s four pillars from the beginning, and that it grows every year while the other pillars struggle, I’d say that some kind of pay-to-play is already a widespread model.

    But one of the most valuable assets of the OSR is its capacity for disgust!

    Is this a non-starter conversation where you are like “I do not think there should be any jobs in RPGs and it should all be free” and I am like “interesting I don’t share that premise?” Or are we just agreeing on some disgusting things involved in professionalization and commercialization that we’d like to avoid?

  4. January 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    I left a comment on the last post with some ideas before reading this one. But let me say something that is probably considered more radical than it should be. Why does there need to be an industry?

    If what is so valuable is making things ourselves and tapping into all the cool, weird creativity Zak mentions, why isn’t this enough? Does an adventure need to be sold to validate the maker? Does a DM need to be published to be considered a master?

    People use words like “hobbiest” and “amateur” in limiting and denigrating ways. Why? Maybe we don’t need people to sell us stuff.

  5. January 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Cygnus, seeing the d20 Burlesque performance means I have pasties on the brain. I;ve seen their show once before but it gave me a lot to ponder nonetheless!

    I wanted an image of pasties in the shape of dollar signs, but strangely the elf (yeah I know it’s actually Klingon) ones were at the top of that search and no $ $s.

  6. January 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Ach, you replied to Zak while I was composing. I think the riddle is: Sell a product that doesn’t undermine the idea that people can do things themselves.

  7. January 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Telecanter, a lot of why there is an industry is that we want to work in one. Whether it can do something beyond self-gratification is a larger question, but we can’t talk about the industry without taking that into account.

    For my part, I feel like founding a RPG industry was essential to Gygax’s great work of building the cathedral in which so many of us could come and discover the glories of gaming. If it wasn’t for some kind of commercial activity, I think RPGs would be the greatest thing no one outside a few hundred guys in the Midwest ever heard of.

  8. January 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    I think the term “pay to play” has bad connotations because it makes us think of a fixed video game experience.
    What you would really be paying a DM for is a performance of some sort. Like a musician or or theatrical type, you are paying them to help facilitate your fun and enjoyment, not paying them to teach you how to use a system. (however, musicians will go to live musical shows to widen their technical knowledge) We generally don’t bat an eye when we pay to see a musical act or buy their music, sometimes we even buy their t-shirt or colored vinyl EP as a form of creative support. You can always jam with your friends in your garage, but is there anything wrong with paying to see other people play? We do it all the time at conventions. What’s the dif if you are paying a single person or small group instead?

  9. January 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    “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.”

    I dunno, man. I pretty fine with keeping it a hobby. Not every worthwhile endeavour needs to be monetized, does it?

  10. January 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Lots going back and forth to agree and disagree with… but let me just say that one big danger (implicit in Zak’s original comment, I think) is that once a hobby evolves into “hobby plus an industry,” the industry starts to see itself as BEING the hobby. This usurpation is the origin of much the disgust from DIYers. When industry types talk about charting the course to the future, many of us want to say “Sit down, industry — you’re just an outgrowth of the central hobbyist experience. We decide where this ship goes, not you!”

    Whether that response is right or wrong is a more nuanced question. The “few hundred guys in the midwest” argument is a powerful one that shouldn’t be ignored. I remain thankful to Gygax and pre-1980 TSR for bootstrapping this whole megilla, but my intuition is that we’ve now evolved beyond the need for that kind of (hyperbole alert) Soviet-style central planning. (end hyperbole alert) :-)

  11. January 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    And bingo was his name-o.

  12. January 6, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    So one of the victories of the OSR is to put the industry side of things back in its place. I think the effect of our mass demonstration that we don’t need no stinkin’ products to do our thing cannot be understated. Taking away the old-edition PDFs set up a big daboo doray sing-along that I think was not lost on the Grinch.

    But without some kind of Soviet-style central planning or armed insurrection we can’t make the industry go away. And my feeling is that we’re entering an era where the industry looks to the OSR for inspiration and guidance, just as the Forge shaped the mainstream products in the era that’s ending.

    And even if I don’t need the OSR’s commercial output, I really want it. My game is better because of products like LotFP:WFRP and services like Gary Con and NTRPG Con.

    It’s tempting to talk about grand theory and TSR historical revisionism because that’s how I roll. But here is a way to put it in practical terms:

    Think of an old-timey gamer whose contributions to the early hobby you value. Which would you rather see them spending their make-a-buck time on: writing new gaming products that they try to sell to some kind of larger audience, or running sessions demonstrating their refereeing style and approach to a small number of devoted fans?

    What things we decide we want as hobbyists matter because like it or not there is an industry eager to supply it. As a fan it pains me when they make such wrong guesses at what I want; as a semi-professional I find that I can spend more time exploring things my fellow gamers will enjoy doing if I can justify the effort by making a little money.

  13. January 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    “I dunno, man. I pretty fine with keeping it a hobby. Not every worthwhile endeavour needs to be monetized, does it?”

    Jeff, I love that you do stuff like the Miscellanea of Cinder as a eccentric, insanely, cacophonously divergent creative DIY endeavor. I would still love you if this was part of a Lex Luthor scheme to cash in on the collectible status of the few existing copies. If gaming is popular, someone is going to make a buck off its most awesome artifacts. I would just as soon see that person be you instead of a collector, but I’m fine with whatever you are.

    I see our scene as a happy one, which offers a number of options for balancing DIY and paying for creative effort as well as for printing costs or event space. I am untroubled by arguments about whether commercial publications of retroclones or auctions of gaming collections are a bad thing. My interest is in exploring new ways to do things, whether monetized (e.g. solving NTRPG’s celebrity GM crush by allowing some of the seats to be sold at auction) or not (e.g. arranging for donation of gaming collections to research archives).

    Is the way we already commercialize the OSR less stinky than the mainstream? It seems that way to me. Is this only because we are too small to generate a lot of B.O., or are there things we know that could be adopted by industry that any hobby tends to secrete around itself like a shell?

  14. January 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I guess it’s all about what one chooses to spend their time thinking about. When you ask about the old-timey gamer, “Which would you rather see them spending their make-a-buck time on?” my answer is… Why should I care, when there are so many OTHER awesome old-timey gamers who are sharing their material for free, via blogs and PDFs?

    LotFP:WFRP is great, and I’m thankful that Raggi puts out the no-frills PDF for free. But if he didn’t, then I’d have something like 47 PDFs of interesting variants on TSR-era D&D on my hard drive, instead of 48. This is what many of us mean when we say the “industry” is no longer relevant or needed.

  15. January 6, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    It’s weird to read these posts because the first thing that comes to mind is ‘when did being a gamer become being a communist?’. I’m a capitalist, through and through, and have no problem in money being exchanged for goods and services of any nature.

    The point that always seems to be missed is business vs. industry.

    In simple terms the ‘hobby business’ is the model that works the best for gaming. It grows and contracts on its own accord organically. Things are made and they sell or they don’t. The market adjusts itself.

    The ‘industry’ isn’t about gaming. It’s about units moved. It follows its own path of increasing sales by whatever means deemed necessary. It is toilet paper and dog food.

    The ‘industry’ has managed to screw everyone including itself to the point that gamers now make their own product. How bad do you have to suck to make your customers all go make their own materials?

    Like a billion other people (or so it would seem) I have been working on a system and the best part of that system? No one gets to come out tomorrow and tell me ‘that’s old s***. Here’s the new…spend more money!’

    The ‘industry’ is dying…THANK GOD!…the ‘hobby business’ is increasing every year…THANK GOD!

    My problems with the ‘industry’ go back to the 80’s when everything got turned into the Giant Suck…when TSR abandoned its customers and retailers, of which I was both, by letting a group of people tell them what was allowed in gaming…big middle finger salute to that group…and by allowing the core of the company to be torn apart by money. I could write a book on this and one day I might.

    But think of this: If ALL publishers stopped making ALL products would gaming go away?

    For me this is the year that we finally put the 800 pounder down. I myself have decided to never buy another D&D product from WotC no matter what it is. I ask others to join in the boycott and will start promoting this idea every chance I am given. I will also ask, later in the year, that you talk to your local game store about dropping WotC D&D product from their stores and if necessary institute a boycott of that as well. I think Paizo would be able to help retailers with store events and well stocked shelves to replace the undead abomination that D&D has become. I would also encourage players to talk with store operators about stocking more OSR / O.S.S. / Indie product and PoD product.

    Someone brought up that we should just raise the money and buy out D&D. I take it one step further and say make it public domain.

    And if this doesn’t work then it is time to step it up.

    Hasbro reported that WotC, in total sales, is less than 2% of their business. I think given the right incentives they may just part with the ‘loser’ end of WotC and hang onto M:TG until the patent runs out.

  16. 16 James Nostack
    January 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    That’s an impressive amount of back taxes you owe, but I’m the last one to talk. It’s an interesting discussion.

    I’m happy to pay Zak some money for Vornheim for a couple reasons. It’s a decent product in its own right with decent production values. In the context of Dungeons & Dragons specifically, there have never been good procedures for “city adventures,” and Vornheim meets that need better than anything I’ve seen (though hopefully it’s not the last word in this area) so as someone who cares about D&D I’m very happy it exists. I don’t have the time to do it myself even half as well, so I’m happy to pay Zak to do it for me. And also, Zak’s blog is often entertaining, so if forking over a few extra bucks helps to subsidize more gaming shite then I’m happy.

    Same for Matt Finch, same for the ACKS crew. Same for . . . well, not too many people because I am poor and very stingy with my gaming dollars. I’d be glad to kick some dough toward Dyson and Jeff because they do good work and I’d like them to have more to show for it than just my esteem.

    There’s some kind of spectrum between Matt Finch’s commercial endeavors and Hasbro’s. But I don’t think anyone will mistake one for the other any time soon. I think the OSR can handle people making small amounts of money on the side.

    Nobody ever will control D&D “in the wild” – people always did whatever they wanted with the game. Thanks to the OGL, nobody will ever control 99% of D&D as a commercial product. (That last little 1%–the name, the logo, the special monsters and other IP–are currently Hasbro’s property.) So it’s not like making a few pennies is going to affect actual issues of control. We’re free: we’ve always been free.

    Outside of control issues, there are issues of status. But, at least in a really small niche-of-a-niche, status != money. Dyson, and the World of Thool guy, and Joesky are much missed.

  17. January 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    I’m pretty sure I agree with nearly everything ADD Grognard says… except maybe for the implied definitions of “communist” and “capitalist.” :-) Choosing to freely share the things you create isn’t communism. Okay, it may not be capitalism, either, but the latter term was first popularized (as a strawman) by Marx anyway. More things in heaven and earth, Horatio…

    I walked into a game store last week thinking… gee, if they happen to have Carcosa or Isle of the Unknown (I know, dream on), I’d pick that up in a heartbeat. They didn’t, of course. I did buy one thing — actually my first in-store gaming purchase since 1989 — a used copy of the Call of Cthulhu core rulebook. Never read it before; very cool.

    Another data point: I’ve never given one dollar to WoTC.

  18. 18 dbv
    January 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    I think any roleplayer with internet access has “won”, given the amount of amazing material, free or otherwise, that has come out for our hobby. Whether it’s from an industry source, a small time publication, or free on blogs, it’s almost impossible not to find *something* awesome to play. There are dozens of styles of gaming, almost every genre is actively represented, you can find old products, new, or make something up entirely on your own. You can connect with potential players (and DMs) even if you live in a remote bomb-shelter in Alaska. The connectivity and mutual support out there *can* even dwarf the random vitriol of one-true-wayism.

    It’s a great time to be a gamer.

  19. 19 Bargle
    January 6, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    A great jazz drummer once told me that he plays for free–at home and eith the music he chooses if you want hi to schlep his set to a venue and play the tunes you want to hear…you gotta pay him.

    Zak, I’m sure paints daily and nonody pays him (it’s called practicing the craft you love), but if someone wants him to paint something particular for them–they pay for his time and talent.

    Why can music or art be a hobby and a trade, but wargaming/role-playing has some magical status that precludes the latter zak?

    Some hobbiests are good enough to get paid for their work (Vornheim), why is being as good a DM as you are a supplement writer also not worth being paid for?

  20. 20 James Nostack
    January 6, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Bargle, I’d say there are some practical questions about getting paid to GM (is this dude any good? am I getting the experience I’m paying for?), but also some more abstract questions too.

    Among them:

    when Tavis and I sit down to play as friends, I have a lot of respect for him, but we’re fundamentally equals. If we sit down to play as payor/payee, does that screw up our table vibe? If it does screw it up, does it do so in a way that affects my enjoyment? The experience of going over to a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal is one thing. The experience of going out to a friend’s restaurant to eat is different, though I’m not sure I could say exactly how.

    another one–if I’m getting paid for this, what does that do to the inherent conflict of interest in the GM’s role as traditionally construed? In D&D, the GM is both the rules-referee and a source of meaningful adversity. The constant debate in some corners of the gaming internet regarding whether it’s permissible or even desirable to fudge die rolls indicates that even among amateurs these aspects of the GM’s role are in tension. To what extent are my judgment calls influenced by the desire for repeat business? I would like to imagine that there’s a market for integrity, but who knows? And how do I know I’m being honest with myself? (And from a player’s perspective: does the awareness of this temptation influence my enjoyment of the session?) (I think a variation of this problem is faced whenever an group is playing for the first time together, regardless of money. But money certainly increases the stakes.)

  21. 21 rorschachhamster
    January 6, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    @Bargle: Just a not-too-serious thought: Would you pay a good player to play in your group?

  22. 22 Bargle
    January 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    As a classical musician, I am often paid to be a ‘ringer’ in an otherwise all amateur group–of course to be paid, I have to be objectively head and shoulders better than everyone else and improve their experience; in a game the players are the orchestra and the audience.

    Leaving the musical analogy aside–To be a DM is fun, but what if a retirement home asked you to DM not once a week, but every day? Would you feel they aught to pony up for that? At some point it stops being a fun diversion and becomes fun work.

    I’m playing a concerto with an orchestra next week (from the blues and beyond, with christopher brubeck); they are paying me to do it, they could probably find someone who’ll give it a go for free…but for some reason they want to pay me. Why do they want to pay me when I willingly play for no money every day at home? Why do people pay to play duets with me when I personally love to play duets? I donno!

  23. 23 Lord Bodacious
    January 6, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    While I don’t necessarily have a horse in this race – there are certain situations in which you want to pay someone so that you know they will feel obligated to deliver to a certain level.

    I wanted to make custom shirts for my family for christmas. Sure, I could have asked my designer buddy and he would have done it for free, instead I insisted on giving him $40 to build the image, make a few rounds of changes, do outputs etc. It allowed me to be comfortable asking/expecting a bit more, and it justified/motivated him to spend a bit more time than he might have and not feel resentful.

    Now, is this a good bar to set for weekly D&D with your buds? No, it’s not, but then I don’t think anyone here is proposing that. It DOES make sense when you’re having an “event” of some sort. Whether it’s a party, corporate function, or whatever, there is an opportunity here.

    While this is a bit of a derailment from Tavis’ original post, the concept does extend to all media discussed. A promise or guaruntee of money can often justify a creator in adding an extra layer of thought, polish, time to the final product. There is room for this to cohabitate in a world where people do all of this for free.

    I can easily see a world where mini-publishers proliferate, have money to invest in doing cool shit, and these products freely intermingle with the free stuff. If the market doesn’t demand it, it will wither and die. I don’t see where this becomes controversial.

  24. January 6, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    @Bargle: I am told a Brazilian effort to organize a professional GM thing foundered on the question “Would you pay a good player to play in your group?”

    The problems about who contributes to the success of a fun RPG experience, and how compensating some of those people for their contributions would change things, are real. I don’t think they’re insoluble. foner is a friend and a gaming-equal, so it took some negotiation of the different roles when he was also the client for my professional bachelor party GMing, but it turns out roleplaying is something we’re all well trained to do.

  25. January 7, 2012 at 1:46 am

    @ Cygnus- I’m sorry I didn’t clarify that. Being an OGL publisher I fully plan on releasing material as OGC with every thing I release. I believe in giving back to the community that has given so much to me. I can’t thank OGL publishers enough. Without them I couldn’t work at the scale I’m working at. There is nothing wrong with releasing work at no cost.

    I’m talking about the people in the community, many who have left, acting like if you try to earn money for your work that you are mucking up the water, that you are ‘bad for the hobby’. I fully support all of the individuals and companies who, for free or pay, contribute to this community.

    I’m not a fan of Pathfinder as a rule set (tooo heavy) but I appreciate how Paizo treat there customers and the game community in general and even release new material as OGC so they get positive press from me on a regular basis.

    The OSR didn’t just win…3.x won…now played, in its many forms, by more people than any other system. Congratulations to all the OSR / O.S.S. / Indie designers.

    And a special thank you to Ryan…for giving us the candy, the store…and the keys…

    The revolution is complete…now where is that big ape hiding out?

  26. January 7, 2012 at 2:48 am

    I feel that if someone can make a buck out of being a pro DM or player, more power to them. Shit, I’d be happy if my players bought me a beer or three whenever we played. :) I know what Zak means about the stank, but I really doubt that the whole thing will ever reach such a critical mass of pro’s that their ego’s or their “way of doing things” infect the rest of the hobby, especially this little corner of a niche of it. Maybe if Paizo/Pathfinder or WOTC suddenly announced a DM/Player Certification system, that might happen. But out in our little world, would that really matter?

    Tavis, if I remember right you make a buck here and there doing D&D bachelor parties and running games for a school program. Good for you. If you can expand that to a full time job, even better for you. I seriously doubt that would fly with the rest of Mos Eisley, (aka the OSR) in terms of making you more credible than you already are. Your games you run and your creative contributions to the OSR get you the cred, not your professional title as a game master for hire. (And his games are fun to play—I’ve played in a couple of them and so far managed to survive. They seem a lot like Zak and JRients’ games in terms of style and substance.)

    I’m more and more coming to believe that we don’t need the industry anymore. The hobby will continue, tied together with the Internet for growth and support, no matter what the big guys do. As for monetary gains for producers of material in this little microniche, I pay to support people, as opposed to buying the product. Getting a good product is just a bonus, and I’ve been fortunate to get some nice bonuses so far.

  27. January 7, 2012 at 3:28 am

    I get paid a lot of money to paint every day.

    which is good because otherwise i wouldn’t be able to afford to do them the way i do. my paintings take 30 14-hour days to finish give-or-take.

    GMing well does not take nearly that much time –and it shouldn’t. professionalizing suggests it’s harder than it really is.

  28. January 7, 2012 at 6:06 am

    When I think about a hobby-oriented rpg industry I can’t help but think of Etsy. Mostly just a bunch of individuals lovingly handcrafting wonderful things and sharing them with others for fun and profit. That’s harder to do with ideas than with physical items, but products like Vornheim that consolidate a bunch of cool ideas within a useful format that helps you apply those ideas is one way it can be done.

    You said, “GMing well does not take nearly that much time –and it shouldn’t. professionalizing suggests it’s harder than it really is.”

    I don’t know, there are lots of things people get paid for that aren’t particularly difficult or require any significant training. Driving, lawn mowing, dog walking, house sitting, holding up the “stop” and “slow” signs at road construction sites. Many people are ready and willing to pay for things that they either don’t want to do or don’t have the time to do themselves. It doesn’t have to be just about having the skill.

  29. January 7, 2012 at 6:29 am

    @c edwards
    if it just becomes “pay a gm because you can’t be fucked to do it yourself” that’s even worse than “pay a gm because you think s/he’ll be better than you”.


  30. 30 sean wills
    January 7, 2012 at 6:47 am

    PayBacker – Trickle down profit sharing via Kapiitalist Kollectives:

    Start projects – if they end up as products that make profits – share a significant portion back out amongst the contributors.

    This acknowledges that the OSR frequently relies on Scenius rather than Genius, feeding on the input of the hive-mind rather than the Mozartian Auteur. OSR publishers often use a design forum to cream off good ideas to develop their product – S&W, Goodman Games etc.

  31. 31 sean wills
    January 7, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Here is James Raggi’s Shot & Sorcery form blurb:

    ‘By posting in this forum, you are giving permission for me to use your ideas in the game, possibly without credit and definitely without compensation’

    At least he’s being upfront about it, but bloody hell, it’s INDUSTRY thinking. Welcome to the machine.

  32. January 7, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Sure, people will do it for free. But not necessarily the people you want to do it, when you want them to do it, with the game you want to play.

    Probably 90% of my play time is GMing. Most of the GMs I know have very limited time and a full plate in the play department, of games I’m not super excited to play. If I had a certain level of income I might seriously consider paying someone to run a game I really want to play at a time that was convenient for me. It’s not really that much different than paying to go to a convention, except in this scenario the GM is getting the cash and I don’t have to play in a loud, crowded room that is either way too hot or way too cold.

    Does “professional GMing” have the potential for the risks you’ve mentioned? Sure, but reputation/celebrity is a doubled-edged sword. It can make you AND break you. I don’t buy the rpg products of certain people because of the way they carry themselves and interact with others. Professional GM’s would probably have to deal with what would be a pretty rigorous level of scrutiny for rpg land.

  33. January 7, 2012 at 7:21 am

    @sean wills

    don’t crucify the guy just yet. it’s hard, book-keepingwise, to both get the hivemind input AND give everyone a check from finland for 12.50$ or whatever. I know because it comes up every time I try to talk him into a crowdsourced RPG product.

    James is the most honest and upright and reliable businessman I have ever worked with and I have worked with quite a few

  34. 34 Spawn of Endra
    January 7, 2012 at 7:41 am

    I would just like to thank Mr. Tavis for provoking and hosting a really fruitful discussion, and to all the folks commenting here.


  35. 35 sean wills
    January 7, 2012 at 8:17 am


    I was pleased that he made the disclaimer. That awareness matters. Fair play to him, man’s got conviction and talent. I just wish there was another way.

    But better that than the ‘Hey be part of this kule thang – we’re in it together chaps!’ hustle where the publisher plays on hobbyist enthusiasm and false consciousness even through to the marketing ‘Hey, look what we all did, support the hobby, buy it in print or PDF!’ – like having a circus where only the ringmaster gets paid.

    Let’s be better than that.

  36. January 7, 2012 at 11:15 am

    @sean, you’ve seen me do that hustle with ACKS and I think it’s better than the alternative where the publisher doesn’t engage with hobbyist enthusiasm at all. Patronage and backer projects are good for gaming because the people who will actually play with the product are helping shape it to their own ends, not receiving dictates from on high.

    @Joethelawyer, I dunno where Zak learned to be such a kick-ass GM, over in his G+ thread he seems to be saying that he doesn’t even recognize GMing as a craft in which someone could seek to develop. But I know that for Jeff and I and lots of others, running games for strangers at a convention was a big part of the learning that let me make creative contributions to the OSR. Someone was making money on those conventions, but it wasn’t the GMs. As a consumer I would pay more for a convention game with a GM who was really good, as a wanna-be pro I would work harder to be a good GM if it led to better compensation.

    I think the role for the OSR is to define what a GM does that is worth paying for. Lots of the rest of the hobby thinks it’s being an auteur or doing lots of prep, we know where those lead. Awesoming up your players and sharing the fun are valuable skills learned through practice, and getting paid to do them means getting more practice and being more committed.

  37. 37 sean wills
    January 7, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    @ tavis

    With ACKS the difference has been that it was obvious from the first few blog posts that the ideas and methods were there, Alex wasn’t just asking ‘hey what would make the game cool?’ after pocketing the pledges. Similarly with the DCC rpg Joseph Goodman had ideas before the DCC community were invited to contribute, then coped admirably with the ensuing avalanche of forum posts. At the end of the day, they’ve done the heavy work and I’m just happy to do my bit to shape a game I believe in. I’m a sucker for inclusion, solidarity and community. The kickstarter projects that don’t utilise their punters beyond taking the money have no future, people may collect the initial product but without involvement why not shift to a newer shiny product. I suppose there are loads of Kickstarter patrons who make a pledge and just sit back without contributing but they will probably never play the game.

  38. 38 sean wills
    January 7, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    – but if they were getting a slice of the action for enhancing/testing the game…..

  39. January 7, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    “Someone was making money on those conventions, but it wasn’t the GMs.”

    For at least 90% of the con games I have run no one was making money but the Hey Let’s Have A Con Next Year Fund and the vendors. I know because I’ve seen the books.

    Amateur cons kick all kinds of ass. For-profit cons frighten and confuse me.

  40. 40 James Nostack
    January 7, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    One thing to think about: does any of this change if the money comes from a third party? (I.e., a parent paying you for glorified babysitting services, or doing a birthday party?)

  41. January 7, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    The problem with the musician analogy is that the people who are paying are not active participants. The musician performs, the audience listens, and the quality of the experience rests almost solely on the performer. While the DM is important to the game session, everyone else is an active participant as well.

    The best case for the paid DM I can see is the convention scenario, where the organizing group might pay some better-known names to attend/run/tell old gaming stories to draw interest. I think that’s fine and likely to expand in the future if things continue to de-centralize.

  42. 42 James Nostack
    January 7, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    @ Lord Blacksteel wrote:
    “The problem with the musician analogy is that the people who are paying are not active participants…. [in gaming] everyone else is an active participant as well”

    That’s kind of what I was getting at about third parties. RPG’s as popularly understood are a type of, I don’t know, a parlor game like charades or something. But it’s also improv storytelling within certain fixed and randomized constraints. People pay lots of money to consume stories passively.

    I can (with great difficulty) imagine a type of RPG that would be satisfying for an audience to watch. The output would have to be a satisfying story, and the process of play would have to be dramatically interesting. For the most part, Dungeons & Dragons fails in this category–it’s fun to participate, but usually not much fun to watch. Zak’s “I Hit It With My Axe” web-show could be seen as an attempt at addressing this problem, though I dunno if that’s his aim. (I confess I haven’t watched.)

  43. January 8, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Inevitably … hobby: people having fun doing something entertaining … business: people trying to make money selling something … industry: Investment bankers, MBAs and corporate attorneys endlessly manipulate the market to generate maximum ROI for shareholders. Pen and paper RPGs represent a flea on a small dogs ass in terms of entertainment industry wide numbers. D&D for a good portion of the history of pen and paper RPGs has been the flagship property and thus the first to really go corporate. Where has that taken things? Even in the later days of 2nd edition things were heading down a path of no return. That hasn’t changed. The same thing is true with miniature wargames, board games, collectible games, etc. etc.

    On one side of the coin you have people making games to play, simply out of a passion to create and to build something they themselves want to play and on the other you have paid employees churning out whatever the MBAs, Attorneys, marketing department, etc. etc. tell them to. The more money consumers pump in … generally the lower the quality the product we get in return. Look at how the video game industry has been changing, hollywood, etc. etc. consumers settle for what they are sold en mass generally and we get the kinds of products we deserve. I think that the nice, refreshing thing about OSR is it is in large part a desire to return to a previous era, to turn back the clock a bit and move away from the more mass market (if you can call anything in RPGs really mass market … though much more known and acceptable its still a small niche) products. I think part of it is out of nostalgia, part of it is out of common sense and a desire to focus on what matters most in a pen and paper RPG and part of it is just to passionately create games outside of the cycle of profit and business. At least those are the qualities of the OSR that I’m drawn to. As I’ve seen tabletop gaming go more and more mainstream and more and more of the standard consumerism seeping in I’ve been saddened and actually found myself losing a little interest, but with RPGs that hasn’t been the case as somehow there are still strong bastions which stand against that … hopefully they remain true and strong for years to come.

  44. January 8, 2012 at 7:39 am

    Personally I believe that as people inevitably try to find ways to make money off the OSR … inevitably those will be the paths towards the end of what is good, clean and refreshing about OSR. It will come eventually. If OSR continues to gain popularity. I know that statement will likely be derided as heretical poppycock … such is life … I stand by that view. I think that attempts to make money from OSR will simply open the door to the things that people dislike in the “main stream” RPG “industry.” I’m not saying that John Doe game developer selling his wares means doom for all … but people trying to turn OSR into an “industry” will lead down a dark and dirty path towards bad stuff. I don’t know if one is going to get the OSR (especially as fragmented and stubbornly independent as it seems to be) “community” to really be more than it is presently. I’m sure someone could co-opt it and simply stamp “OSR” on their corporate product though … and perhaps that is what we’ll see with 5th edition … who knows.

  45. January 8, 2012 at 7:48 am

    I also think that Hasbro and thus WoTC could care less about OSR, I think they are far more concerned with the 3.5/Pathfinder guys handing wads of cash to Paizo. Nice platitudes can be offered to keep the torches and pitchforks at bay by the guys in charge at WoTC these days but only time till tell where they actually take things. The Hasbro folks have long, long ago been looking more towards WoW and competing against media companies via the D&D IP not just via the pen and paper stuff but with video games, etc. etc. we all know that had someone back in the day had the foresight … we’d never have been playing Ultima online, Everquest or WoW we’d have been playing D&D online. That never happend. The Hasbro/WoTC people are in business to make money. Are they going to make money from angry grognards? No. Not at all. Its a vocal, proud, yet very small community and certainly not a major source of fat revenue. They are and probably always will be looking towards their MTG set and then towards new customers, hoping that somehow they are going to attract kids (and I mean 10 to 20 year olds here) into their games. I don’t think that has changed. People can hope, people can be happy that the lip service coming from WoTC seems to be nods towards OSR … but we’ll see what they do. A return to 1st-2nd ed style stuff after years of grid based 3.0-4e era games would cause just as much of an uproar as 4e has … if not more. So how does anyone reasonably expect WoTC to seriously release some sort of OSR friendly product? I’m not holding my breath for that. I’d love to see it and I’d happily eat my words and chow down on humble pie … but … to me its beyond a pipe dream. 5th edition will likely be some odd mashup of 3.0-4e era with new proprietary crap (I’m thinking we’ll end up with some kind of Warhammer Fantasy 3rd edition style product, more than a throwback to 1st ed). Just my two cents though.

  46. January 8, 2012 at 7:56 am

    *yes I know D&D online did eventually come out, way late and terribly executed. The point was simply that they missed that boat and look at how much money was made off of effectively just the video game application of their core product. WoW, EQ, etc. are at the core just D&D the MMO.

  47. January 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    @Lord of Excess: “I also think that Hasbro and thus WoTC could care less about OSR, I think they are far more concerned with the 3.5/Pathfinder guys handing wads of cash to Paizo.”

    At the time Wizards sat down to design 4e, their main concern was that people who wanted to kill orcs were handing wads of cash to WoW. Some of the way they tried to deal with this is by aping WoW directly. But they also tried to boil it down to a more theoretical problem: their current product was too complex, they needed something with the simplicity of WoW.

    So the 4e design team looked to the abundance of ideas and theories and practice that the storygame movement coming out of the Forge. Lots of folks in that community embraced 4e because it did the things they’d been wanting out of games for years – laser-like focus on a single play style, transparent rules that made consequences explicit to everyone at the table, techniques for scene-framing, and dissociated mechanics aimed at generating narrative rather than simulation. They got what they wanted not because they were any kind of commercial force visible on Hasbro’s map, but because they were a big pool of DIY stuff that was acclaimed within the RPG community and easily borrowed by designers who didn’t have a whole lot of time to put together a WoW-killer sufficiently different from any previous edition of D&D to warrant a new, non-OGL version.

    Now that they are boiling their problem down to the fragmentation of their customer base, history predicts the OSR is the hotbed of theory and excitement among hardcore RPGers that WotC is going to borrow liberally from to address that problem.

  48. January 9, 2012 at 2:09 am

    @Tavis: I’ve been nodding my head at many of these replies, but then I come across something like this: “I think the role for the OSR is to define what a GM does that is worth paying for.” I’ll put aside your use of “the role” where I hope you really meant “a role.” I agree that one of the reasons the OSR is great is because the shared discussions really DO help awesome up both GMs and players. But I still ask why must there be this constant drive toward monetizing the experience?

    @Lord of Excess: “I think that attempts to make money from OSR will simply open the door to the things that people dislike in the ‘main stream’ RPG ‘industry.’ “ Yes. That. +1.

  49. January 9, 2012 at 3:04 am

    @Cygnus: Yes, I just meant “the role [in this dialogue about professionalization]”. One of the important roles for the OSR is to maintain and express its disgust for anything that’s not the purest expression of amateur DIY hobby virtues. That’s not my strain of the OSR, but I respect those virtues and am glad they have their paladins (or at least fighting-men whose schtick is zealous defense of Law but don’t need no stinkin’ paladin class). Maybe listening carefully to that strain will help solve some of the problems inherent in commercial activity around the RPG hobby; if nothing else, the insightful critique of the mistakes made to date in the transformation from hobby to industry ought to allow us to make a new set of mistakes! And the preservation of a defiantly anti-commercial faction within our productively divergent community will maintain the root stock from which a new movement could flourish if the current wave of growth does become unrecognizably tainted by Mammon.

    I don’t mean to speak for the OSR; people can, will, and should have their own opinions and go their own directions. I do want to assert my right to be part of the movement – to insist that there is room in our cacophony even for Hasbro-check-cashing greedheads like me – and to give credit where it’s due. My interest in professionalizing the craft of GMing as well as the craft of writing RPG material pre-dates the OSR, but my current thinking would be very different if it wasn’t for engaging in this process with y’all.

  50. 50 NUNYA
    January 10, 2012 at 3:03 am



  51. August 21, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    While I think of something more intelligent to say, that chick is not an elf. She’s a vulcan. Check out the eyebrows. And not to mention that those pasties are in the shape of the Star Fleet insignia. That’s all I got to contribute to the conversation at the moment.

  52. August 21, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    I”m glad you said it so I didn’t have to :p

  53. August 21, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    I think the next “wave” of the OSR is going to be Neo-Clones. What is a Neo-Clone as opposed to a retro clone? The simple rules of the old school mixed with the open options of the new school. If fact check out my links I just released a rough draft.

    Easy to Run and Easy to Play!

    Players Guide

    Book Of Spells

    Book of Encounters



    It will need corrections. Note them and then get back to playing!
    Add more classes and races!

    Shareware copyleft/middle

  54. August 22, 2012 at 5:08 am

    “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.”

    Yup. Starting with having what-his-name shit on TARGA right as we were doing the first serious fundraising for more than just a game got that ball rolling on me about the negative aspect. After the Black Blade Publishing/Frog Gods Swords & Wizardry dosey-do happened, I realized I wanted to just go back and play games and pretend none of it had happened. Didn’t work out that way, Life gave me another path, but that’s probably true for a lot more people than you might think.

  55. August 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    From comment #5: “I wanted an image of pasties in the shape of dollar signs, but strangely the elf (yeah I know it’s actually Klingon) ones were at the top of that search and no $ $s.”

    @Chwiz, good to see you! I was going to mention TARGA in the OSR seminar at Gen Con but it got left out due to the pressure of space, but I do think of that as an important path-not-taken if someone someday does an OSR of the OSR.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2012

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