The recent re-release of WotC Classic D&D PDFs, and in particular the release, for the first time ever, of the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh basic game in PDF form has prompted some people to ask what the future of the OSR and Labyrinth Lord will be.
The unsatisfying reality is that at this stage I think any prediction of what this will do to the OSR is only speculation. But I think the future of the OSR would be equally nebulous even if WotC had not released its classic PDFs again. I've always held the view that the predominant boost in popularity of the OSR was due not to 4th edition D&D so much as the death of Gary Gygax. Much of the blogging scene that resulted from it reflected interest in revisiting or rediscovering the roots of D&D. So many blogger topics were related to dissecting the old style game and style of play, an exercise (though fun) that is most certainly not new, and neither were the majority of the insights. I never found much of the revisionist history going on (still going on) of much use. What was new and of tremendous value was the large amount of creative output that could be shared with a wider audience.
So the time we enter into now is further removed from the sorrow many of us felt at Gary's passing. People have revisited that youth and those old rules, and pretty much said what they needed to say. That exercise is over. The irony is that the OSR started as a means of preserving the old rules, but now in what has been dubbed by some as the "second wave," that objective has been altered to claim that the natural evolution of this process of rediscovery should lead to new "innovations." I would argue that a lot of what we're seeing is now that the exercise of self exploration through earlier D&D is over for a lot of people, those who declare it is time to move on are the same people who had moved on from earlier D&D in the past. So it isn't the original form of the game that needs to move on, it's that the interests of some have moved on.
The idea of innovations is what the OSR was directly opposed to at the beginning. Don't get me wrong, it is great for people to take D&D and make it "theirs," even publish it, but frankly any claims that this is the way it is supposed to be only benefit those who feel they need to justify the existence of another house-ruled D&D. Or put words into the mouths of dead men and claim that a new game is constructed the way it was meant to be. Or take something as extemporaneous as an "Appendix N" and sell it as a manifesto rather than a simple inspirational reading list. Those of us who helped build the foundation of what would be the (at least commercial) aspect of the OSR where doing it as a reaction against the edition treadmill, against viewing classic games as outdated. Little did we know that in so doing, a new treadmill from many sources rather than only one would spring from the seeds we planted. That people would take our work and do the exact thing we were opposing, claim it is past its expiration date, and here is a new improved version with fresh innovations. But one person's innovations look like a solution begging a problem to someone else, and what you find works for your home table is great but that doesn't mean other people should see it as the natural new path.
In retrospect, how could it have gone any other way? When OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord were written, they were the canaries in the coal mine. People watched and waited, mostly thinking we were crazy to want to publish obsolete games, but also waiting to see if we were sued into oblivion. That didn't happen, which emboldened others to follow in those footsteps. Except once the various ecological niches of the OSR were filled, the only way to spread was laterally. If you've decided to publish old-school products you have a choice to make. Do you create supplements for a game someone else publishes, supporting their brand, or do you release your own game? The answer lies in the moves LotFP, Autarch, and others have made in recent years.
If it sounds like I'm being negative about this, it is only from the perspective that rhetoric and marketing seems to want to stomp on others to justify the existence of the newer games. From an open gaming perspective, the various spin-off house rule systems are all natural, certainly inevitable, and overall healthy developments.
If you have the vision that the original games should go on unchanged like a termite caught in amber (e.g. many posters at the KnK Alehouse), then what has happened recently is a bad thing. But one of the often overlooked aspects of the OSR is that the movement is grounded not just in old-school games, but also open source moral values. It isn't enough anymore to just have old WotC PDFs available, or one-off print runs of AD&D. The OSR means, as Mario of Wizardawn once cleverly put it, not just "Old School Revival," or "Old School Renaissance," but equally as important, "Open Source Rules."
I can envision an OSR Ecosystem where there are a variety of retro-games, some more traditional like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord, and others derived from those works that add their authors' personal touches, like ACKS and ASSoH, where we view these in their creative open-source spirit rather than getting caught up in the competitive market-speak that wants to justify through supposed innovation. Even though there is a commercial element, almost no one is making an actual living at this work. At best people are supplementing a family income from this business. That's why I think people should keep things in perspective and ratchet down the competitiveness to properly reflect the low stakes. I don't see ego as a valid stake.
The future of the OSR is as much in the open source movement as it is in the old-school movement. Something some people may have forgotten (or never knew) is that when the OSR as we know it started in 2006, WotC had a lot of the 1e and basic catalogs available as PDFs. It was only later in 2008 that they were removed from sale. My point is that the presence of legal PDFs didn't prevent the creation or perceived need for OSRIC, and likewise once the excitement dies down I doubt it will influence the success or failure of the current commercial side of the OSR. Having books available as PDFs is great. However, many people would still prefer print copies. Even if reprints or a POD option happens for B/X and other rule sets, the open source element will still be there. Labyrinth Lord is still the best brand proxy for third party publishers who use the OGL, and the open content from Labyrinth Lord and other retro games will continue to give people the tools they need to create their own gaming materials.
The OSR Ecosphere is changing, not dying. WotC has added their material back to the ecosphere where it was in the beginning, and I think that will only strengthen the cause for old-school gaming. People have already been converted to the idea that the older versions of the game are just as valid as the recent ones, and WotC's recent business decisions only reinforce that. They obviously see value in these products now, even if they didn't seven years ago. When Labyrinth Lord was released I suspect they didn't think much if anything about the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh set of rules, but this time around it was among their first releases. They "get it" now even if they didn't before, and if Labyrinth Lord had some small part in that I consider it a success.