Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Evolution of the Old-School Renaissance

One of the things about the OSR right now is that it's changing rapidly. I have this sense that there is a momentum building, and to use a tired old saying, it's like a snowball rolling down hill. Except unlike a snowball, I'm not sure if we can predict with certainty what it's going to look like after it's achieved a peak.

I've talked about how I view the history of the OSR before. What's interesting to me is how much things have changed in the last year. Since I was away and too busy to look in on things extensively for about the last year, I'm startled at what I'm finding now that I do have time to read up on the current state of things. I'm startled not just because things do seem to be achieving something resembling what many of us had hoped, and quickly, but I'm also concerned at some of the other trends that are emerging.

It's undeniable that the Sleeping Beast that is Old-School is waking up. People who are further and further from the grognard circle (which I count myself in, even if I'm a bit younger than many) are mentioning retro-clones in their blogs, people are trying them out, and in general we are seeing a shifting attitude about games and gaming. I think one of the major bugbears we are starting to defeat is the idea that out of print games are obsolete. I don't think many people realize how important this hurdle is. Companies spend a lot of money and time conditioning customers to believe that games are subject to evolution, and that you must buy the current edition or you'll be left behind. That conditioning it not easy to break down, but I think it is happening now.

Another positive thing that's happening is that more and more people are writing, creating art, and sharing it with people. We're seeing a major growth spurt in the number of people interested in old-school. We were all were very afraid about a year and two years ago that there just wasn't going to be much interest or a market...and part of that was because the people who we thought would be a receptive market were not. Many of the people who played AD&D or other OOP versions of D&D simply were not interested in any new fangled material. But now what's happening is that new people are becoming interested, and people who had left previous editions behind years ago are coming back to them now. In short, we're all finally starting to see that a new market is emerging. Granted, it isn't that big yet, but it is a hell of a lot bigger than it was at the start. Again, that snowball is rolling down hill.

However, there are some disturbing trends too. I just can't get over how, despite how optimistic things look for the OSR, we're seeing a change in tone. I don't know if it is just due to general depression because of the economy, but we've got a really snarky tone out there. There is definitely a pessimistic, aggressive component to discourse.

I have to admit that it's starting to look like I was wrong about something. It happens once or twice from time to time. There were naysayers early on who said that the various retro-clones cropping up would splinter the community. I thought that was nonsense, that everyone would stick together, and that system didn't matter. I thought that people might pick a favored system, but that there would be no competitiveness about it.

Well, from what's emerging, I think I was off a bit here. I think we're seeing the early stages of splintering. I think we're going to see more of it, and I think it's going to get ugly over the next year. I predict if things keep on the current course, the climate of the OSR will have broken down into mini-wars not unlike what emerged between OSRIC vs. Castles & Crusades proponents.

I've always felt that the most honest approach to all of this is to stay humble. After all, the foundation of what many of us are building on are restatements, mechanical emulators, of other peoples' hard work. We're like tribute bands. The moment any one of us decides our "brand" should be "the one" is the moment we've strayed. When it becomes more important to have our egos stroked and cultivate microcelebrity status, we've strayed. Most people will have a kneejerk reaction to this statement, maybe thinking this isn't a danger or "it couldn't happen to me," but yes, it could. Do I think we are there yet? Not quite yet, but like I said, give things a year at their current course, and the emerging world that is the OSR will have a very different climate. I'm not just talking about people who promote or produce retro-clone systems, I'm talking about anyone who has a blog, produces material, etc.

What can we do about it? I think that if we want to organize the community, and it's possible we either can't or maybe many people are not interested, we have to do it in an inclusive way. We can't do it under one "brand" name, or it loses its inclusiveness. The Old-School Renaissance group store at Lulu was named just that, not "The Labyrinth Lord Collective," or anything like that. Besides, the OSR isn't just about retro-clones. It's about a way of gaming, and a way of producing RPG material. It doesn't matter if you write a module that doesn't align itself with a particular clone game, its the content and feel that matter. It's not just about fantasy games, either. Old-school gaming includes all genres.

Even if you don't agree with what I'm saying in terms of where things might be headed, I at least appeal to people to consider it. Stop, take a look around, evaluate it. Maybe this thing we're all into is taking on a life of its own, and we can't direct it somewhere else. We'll see.


John said...

I don't think it's so much naysayers as the general nature of this hobby.

The problem is, in any effort like this you have issues. I have said before if the D&D property dies as an RPG (and I'm talking about the current edition here) and the trademark stays with Hasbro, you would instead of having "one true heir" to inherit the empire of D&D, at least a dozen different fifedoms forming with their own interpretations.

This has happened with publishers sticking with 3e. And it will happen with the "old school".

It's the nature of the beast. Even if the OSR is not just a fad, and even if the OSR is not for profit, many people have a lot of disagreements about the nature of the game, what "old school" really is, etc. If you are either seeking profit or popularity, then you naturally want your own creation to survive.

It might also be the nature of the beast of Internet culture. The "original" old school just had Dragon Magazine and the alternative was Apazines and fewer games. Now, with thousands of choices come thousands of opinions.

Dan of Earth said...

I think the OSR is a fad in the same way much is in this hobby. So as a fad among fads, I think it will last a while.

The real question I have is about how it will evolve. I'm starting to think that it's almost pointless to speculate. There is a momentum, but it's chaotic. I just have this sense that everything is on the cusp of solidifying...I'm I'm a little disappointed at what the politics of it might be. We'll see over the next year to two years.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I think if infighting does occur along the lines of C&C and OSRIC we can pretty much count our blessings. As I understand it, these were mainly conflicts between individual personalities, and the majority of folks were simply not involved.

To put it another way, there are bad apples on every tree, it is pretty normal. Interesting points, though.

Dan of Earth said...

You could be right Matthew. However, not all things are overt, and some things are quite subtle.

Wulfgar22 said...

If anything the only changes I've noticed over the last few months are a huge increase in creativity and productivity and a 'coming together' with publishers keen to promote the similiarities between systems and opening up new forum areas for other publishers and games, the Old School Renaissance publishing group growing week by week, talk of adventures with multi-stats for the various systems and, of course, the success of Fight On! and Knockspell. But then I'm just on the periphery and not privy to the politics at the centre. But then that is probably a good thing...as Matthew pointed out it tends to be 'personalities' at the centre who get vocal while the vast majority just enjoy the growth and creativity.

Chris said...

Dan of Earth said: "There is a momentum, but it's chaotic."

Best kind of momentum. That sort of roiling manic ferment is often where unexpected fun stuff crops up. ;)

Given the sheer cultural omnivorousness that seems to inform the ethos of the OSR (at least IMLXP), questions about old school doctrinal purity, and about whether the OSR ever can be formalised, commodified and commercially monetised, may ultimately be moot. The very nature of the OSR (contrarian, wilfully individual, and punkishly DIY) seems to militate against it.

I could be entirely wrong though, and we may be headed for the kind of infighting that makes the 3E/4E edition wars seems like minor spats.

Doubt it though.

alea iacta est

David Macauley said...

I think that if the authors and controllers of the clones work hard to support each other, the fans will follow suit. This process has certainly begun. Many fans feel a misguided sense of loyalty to their favoured brand and its author. If those authors continue to make strong and vocal moves to support their fellow clone authors and systems, I believe the problem of tribalism will be nipped in the bud.

E.G.Palmer said...

In my mind, when I say Dungeons & Dragons, it encompasses all TSR D&D, the retro-clones, and Hackmaster.
OE, Holmes, AD&D, 2E, BFRPG, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Hackmaster, are all tool boxes that I pull rules and ideas from as needed. Some I consider more usefull than others, but all have a generally shared phylosophy and attitude toward how the game is played and approached that defines the borders of Old and New.
That's my "big tent".

John Adams said...

While your suggestions are based upon solid observations that anyone watching the OSR could also make, I'm not so sure that things will turn out as badly as you suggest they might - but they could.

While the OSR is all about a certain style/type of gaming, there is another aspect to it that I think is even more important than that.

The OSR is a movement that, if not completely born on the internet, it is growing and thriving because of the internet - the blogs, forums, sites, pdfs, etc. BHP has people working together from four continents and almost 1/2 of our products go to folks world-wide. It is my hope that if we continue to work together and support each other and each other's retro-games, we will be quite a large (but close) community in a few years - so much so that we will be able to take the best that the OSR has to offer to the rest of the gaming world.

But as Matthew rightly points out, their are always bad eggs. In addition, as this OSR family grows, we need to remember that it is only thosw who know each other closely (like family) who know exactly what to do and say to cause us the most pain and hurt.

Dan of Earth said...

It is my hope that if we continue to work together and support each other and each other's retro-games, we will be quite a large (but close) community in a few years - so much so that we will be able to take the best that the OSR has to offer to the rest of the gaming world.I appreciate your optimism, John, it makes me feel better. I hope your right, and I hope if the majority of us can keep level heads we'll all have something to be proud of.

John Adams said...

Oh Dan, the stories I could tell you! There are days when my optimism is FORCED.
I'll share them with you on that day when we get to drink a beer together. :)

Brunomac said...

but we've got a really snarky tone out there. There is definitely a pessimistic, aggressive component to discourse<

Getting back into gaming last year after about 8 years off, I was really taken by all the in-fighting about old and new. Still kind of weirds me out.

I don't know if this reflects current status of things, but last year when I sought to find people to restart my AD&D 1st ed games I got 5 new people easy. I'm looking to add a new person or two right now, and it is starting to feel more like a job hunt.

disa said...


donna said...