Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Old-school "Revival": Origins, Current State, and Future; An open discussion

It's been called various things, such as the "Old-school Revival," or "Old-school Renaissance." But why is it happening, and where is it going? I've been thinking about this for some time and decided to write down some of my thoughts. This isn't an exhaustive treatise or anything of the sort, but is presented as an open discussion. So here is how I've been structuring my thoughts. It could definitely be fleshed out, but here are the basics.

Origins of the Old-school Revival

Before we can really talk about the old-school revival, we have to define what we mean by the phrase. To me it means the resurgence of interest in old out of print games and game styles that has happened over the last several years.

An interest in old-school games has always been on the internet. The internet is the main thing responsible for the revival, since people with the same interests who would otherwise never meet are able to share common interests. For many years communities have come together to talk about older games, and have produced a plethora of support for the games in the form of netbooks and other sorts of internet postings. However, I think old-school gaming got a major adrenaline shot in the arm, ironically enough, with the advent of Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5 along with the Open Game License (OGL) and system reference documents (SRD) by Wizards of the Coast.

With the WoTC D20 license and the OGL, suddenly people could legally (or maybe more accurately, safely) create supplemental material for the D&D game. The result is the birth of the electronic book/supplement market for RPGs. There is a whole lot that could be said about that, by people who are much better informed and experienced than I, so I want to jump to the part I think is most relevant to this discussion.

So we already have in the background small internet communities that support old-school games. One of the marketing tools used by WoTC when they released D&D 3.0 was the rhetoric that the game was getting back to the dungeon, or in other words, back to its roots of game play as opposed to AD&D 2e which placed considerable focus on wilderness settings, and game worlds overall. A few prominent 3rd party publishers (or I should say, publishers who became prominent) used this idea to help sell their products. Goodman Games came up with their line of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure modules, using a sort of "back to the dungeon and simpler times" theme. This was and is an extremely successful product line. Then we have Necromancer Games, with their trademark phrase, "3rd Edition Rules, First Edition feel."

So we have an atmosphere in which consumers are being told that old-school=more fun, so long as you are grabbing that "old-school feel" and using it with the current published rules. So I think in a sense the old-school revival owes something of a debt to these marketing elements, because it communicated to gamers that there is something worthwhile about the "old-school" that should be preserved. There is so much more that could be said about the effects of this, but I will move on. Of course, as is always the case, you can't please everyone. Some people got tired of the rules bloat in 3.0/3.5 and decided to use the OGL for purposes it wasn't intended for.

To be fair, it wasn't the first time. As soon as publishers realized that the d20 logo didn't help for most of them with sales (which IMO is there own fault, but I'll discuss that somewhere else), many dropped it and used only the OGL for supplements and, unexpectedly for WotC, to create entire RPGs that actually compete(d) with D&D. Someone can correct me if I am off here on the timeline, but at about the same time, the Basic Fantasy RPG was created, and Castles & Crusades was created.

Basic Fantasy (BFRPG), by Chris Gonnerman and a number of other contributors, was the very first of what is now commonly called a "retro-clone" game. It uses the OGL and the SRDs to essentially recreate many of the rules from the Moldvay/Cook edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but the rules are tweaked with AD&D elements and other elements to allow a number of other features. Castles & Crusades (C&C), on the other hand, is created as a game that is really a mix of Basic D&D, AD&D, and D&D 3.x. C&C really made a lot of people angry in the old-school community, because they were hoping for a product that more closely emulated AD&D. the battles around that were bitter and continue today, though they have diminished, but the important thing that came from that dissatisfaction, and I think the event that really changed the course of the "old-school revival," was the advent of OSRIC by Stuart Marshall and Matthew Finch.

OSRIC was created as a reaction to the dissatisfaction of C&C. OSRIC emulates 1e, and it met a firestorm of debates about its legality and so on. The positive outcome of those debates is that it really made a big difference in drawing attention to itself, so that the name OSRIC is recognized by the majority of gamers who frequent online RPG communities. OSRIC opened a lot of peoples' eyes to just what might be accomplished with the OGL, and it somehow inspired people to begin producing material, not just for 1e through OSRIC, but for several other old games.

So to draw things together, the old-school revival, in my eyes, is the result of the following. An existing presence of old-school game fandom on the internet, combined with the advent of the OGL and SRDs, advertising from 3.x publishers that "old-school" is a desirable style of play, the creation of C&C and OSRIC, and all of this combined with the ease of PDF publishing and, in more recent years, viable print on demand services. Suddenly, anyone with a computer and minimal desktop publishing software can produce not just a PDF, but also a physical, high quality product.

Current State

So today we have a number of games that are either "retro-clones" or near clones, of games. As already mentioned, we have BFRPG, OSRIC, and then came Labyrinth Lord, and then Mutant Future, and soon also Swords & Wizardry. I group these together because they were/are produced within sort of the same "circle" of creators. There are now several other similar efforts, probably most notably the 4c System.

These are the "big" projects that were taken on early in the "movement." Now it seems there are old-school periodicals popping up with great frequency, the first of which was the Old-School Gazette, then the Scribe of Orcus, Fight On!, and more that are planned by various parties.

The big question right now is how far will things go, and will old-school games ever become more mainstream. C&C has been very successful, as they were able to dip into the D&D 3.x buyer pool, but other efforts that stick more closely to older rules have not enjoyed quite the popularity, and though some success has been achieved in traditional distribution (Expeditious Retreat Press with their Advanced Adventures OSRIC modules) most efforts are still circulating only with a small audience "in the know" on the internet.

The Future

It will be interesting to see how things progress. Rather than offer too many predictions, I will note some challenges (in my opinion) the "old-school revival" faces.

Probably the biggest challenge is that older games do not broadly appeal to younger gamers who play D&D 3.x or 4th edition. I think that while there are many reasons for this, we can narrow it down to three big ones.

1) The idea of game "evolution." It is true that in our culture there is a misconception, broadly, that cultural evolution evolves "upward," so that changes are for the "better." This social Darwinism is deeply ingrained. It is only natural that people translate that false assumption to games, often equating role playing games with technology, as if the next edition of an RPG is quantitatively better just like the next generation computer games that have better graphics. Of course this is false. An RPG is only "better" in the eyes of the beholder, not quantitatively.

2) Taking advantage of #1 above, in the case of Dungeons & Dragons, WotC encourages this thinking because it justifies creating and buying a new edition. I'd argue the push was less with TSR in the shift to AD&D 2e, greater with WotC in the change to 3.x, and the rhetoric was drastically increased in the shift to 4e. In order to sell more books WotC communicated strongly that 4e is better, and more evolved, than previous editions. They even took this so far as to create a video in which they depict earlier editions as being silly and primitive.

3) Gamers have changed. Or rather, the next generation of gamers have a very different gaming culture than the previous generation of gamers. Popular culture has influenced how gamers play (it always has), especially with MMORPGs that present a different kind of actual play, and with what they expect from imagery. Gone are the typical Tolkien races (what was, I think, the "conservative race lineup"), and in are the more "comic bookish" images of bizarre races. The entire artistic representation, and sources of inspiration, have changed. All of this makes it difficult to attract younger gamers to older games, because older games seem less fun due to the absence of super-power like game options that minimize character death, combined with the imagery around the games, making them seem quaint and primitive (see 1 and 2).

Finally, reaching a wider audience is a problem. It is difficult to reach a wider audience so long as the old-school games remain solely on the internet. To that end some people are making efforts to get the games out there in physical stores. There are also various psychologies at work. People often question the need for retro-clone games, citing the fact that to one degree or another used books are available of the original systems. This is true, but the problem is that it is hard to appeal to a new audience with an out of print game. Desire for and sales of modules for 1e games, for instance, in theory would be better if 1e is actually in print. Many gamers simply will not look at out of print games, and I think "bringing them back" through retro-clones is the answer to that dilemma.

The whole Old-school Revival is still in its infancy, so it will be interesting to see where it goes. I think a good conservative prediction would be that there will be some break into the "mainstream," but at least for a while it will exist as primarily an internet phenomenon. Print on demand technology makes it easy to create books, and if there becomes a cheaper and more effective way to get these books into distribution then I think all bets are off on what might happen. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that the current produced by more "modern" expectations of games is far to strong for the old-school to ever gain much popularity. We'll see.


James Maliszewski said...

An excellent essay. More, please.

Mr.Castle said...

I`m not quite sure if the third point is 100% correct.

The LotR Films were very successful, and this is what I would call "High Fantasy", with most of the times heroic elements, and sometimes superhero elements (Legolas). But the visual presentation was very standard/generic in my opinion. And this is (maybe) representative how fantasy is viewed in general. Here, some statistics of the age of the viewers would be interesting.

So what I`m trying to say is, that maybe the newer gamers aren`t as far away as one might think. The movies remember me of my "youth" (ok, I`m still young) playing AD&D 2nd.

But I admit that the graphical style of mange/anime has become quite influencial, as well as the stories they tell. Same goes for MMOs. Again, statistics woulf be helpfull.

Maybe it would be a good idea to do it like Nintendo:Try to reach people that aren`t so much influenced by anime/manga/MMOs (if this is possible), that are influenced by LotR. For these people, it wouldn`t be attractive (in my opinion) to play an rpg like in the 70`s (sandbox-style), but like in the 80`s (2nd edition).

And I know, 2nd Edition isn`t what most people of the retro-clone movement would call "old-school".

But it would be a starting point.

P.S.:Another idea:
Make a retro-clone, but use the newest graphical representations (depending on the above mentiond statistics), and make the layout as perfect and up-to date as possible.
This is in my opinion a must-do if the clones want to be successful in the stores and reach new gamers.

Dan of Earth said...

An excellent essay. More, please.

Thanks, will do!

Dan of Earth said...

I`m not quite sure if the third point is 100% correct.

I think you have a point in one sense, but I wonder if comparing film to gaming is completely valid. When I say that D&D has visual and game influences from different sources (several of which you mention)I'm not saying that there are not gamers out there who have different tastes. My main point is that WotC is specifically rageting gamers with these tastes, who are influenced by these modern sources, because that's where the big bucks are. It's a solid business plan, but it has changed D&D into something completely different than what it was as OD&D, Basic D&D, and AD&D 1e.

Mr.Castle said...

"I think you have a point in one sense, but I wonder if comparing film to gaming is completely valid."

I`m not sure about this either. Here, some statistics would be helpful.

But I was refering to the public in general, and how they may see the fantasy genre.

"My main point is that WotC is specifically rageting gamers with these tastes, who are influenced by these modern sources,"

I completly agree. And this is, why I think that 4e will fail to bring in new gamers.

"because that's where the big bucks are."

Maybe not. Maybe there is a market outside the "hardcore crowd" (those influenced by MMos/Video games/RPGs,...)
Those who have only came into touch with fantasy via movies (LotR).

Big maybes, but this is where I would put my money in the market research.

"but it has changed D&D into something completely different than what it was as OD&D, Basic D&D, and AD&D 1e."

I completly agree.

Anders said...

For me, as a younger person and as someone who only recently (as in since the early days of 3e) got into gaming, I kind of find myself as perhaps an exception to number 3. Though I do like the newer stuff, and I did grow up with video games and more modern comic books, part of the feeling of the older editions being archaic or simply old is one of the things that attracts me to them. They seem ancient and mysterious just like the play worlds that exist within them. I also just find myself turned off by all of the super powered, crazy races characters. I'm simply tired of it, it's what I've seen my entire life and I'm finding myself more interested in the grimmer, grittier world of the older editions, where dying was easy and the world was strange and mysterious. It just seems to facilitate that feel so much better and it's something I like a lot. It seems more like a real, distant and mysterious world.

Mr Baron said...

Excellent post. I am going to quibble a bit with your comment #3, as I think its the environment that has changed, and therefore the young gamers have different expectations of fun. Its very close to what you wrote, but I think there is a subtle difference.

I think the strength of table top gaming is the shared experience around the table. That is something that I do not think the computer will ever be able to replace. However, this is a bit foreign in today's computer world.