Thursday, February 7, 2013

The OSR Ecosystem



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.

For additional views see Blackrazor's recent posts here and here, and Blood of Prokopius here.

14 comments:

JB said...

Well obviously *I* am just a negative Nelly!
; )

Thanks for presenting your thoughtful take on the new development; I can certainly see your point and hope we are 'transforming/evolving' rather than 'dying.'

Here's to Open Source Rules continuing to have an impact on the gaming community!

ERIC! said...

To be Honest, and I posted this on my blog, Paizo didn't seem to be affected by the re-release of 3.X books, so why should the OSR be affected by the re-release of pre-3.X stuff?

The OSR will chug along fine, becuae the OSR allows us to support the hobby we love. WotC threw us a bone by re-release their back long, they have no real intrest in supporting Old D&D, if they did they would drop the Pandering work they are doing with 5e and Just support 0e through 4e.

It won't be long before 5e is a memory and 6e will be all shiny and new, what in 4 or 5 years after the 5e release?

We don't need WotC.

Ouch.

Look I can only run my group through B1 and B2 so many times before they are ready to move on...then what...It gets to a point were I will need the OSR to continue playing, if I want new Material.

WotC is not gonna offer me new 0e material. Nor 1e, 2e, 3e or Gawds help us, 4e.

And regardless as to how 5e may be uber Module and compatible, I will still need to convert it, to make it work with my stuff, so why waste the money when the fine folks at Goblinoid continue to support my favorite edition?

ERIC!

Chris Gonnerman said...

I guess I never noticed all that. Gary was still alive and kicking when BFRPG was written. Not paying attention to the blogs must have been good for me.

Basic Fantasy RPG is the most open of all the Open Source Rules out there. We share everything, liberally, and as we are now beginning the push to get the 3rd Edition done, I'm feeling pretty comfortable with it.

Open Source is about "scratching your own itch," and growth, while nice, was never something I was worried about. That it has happened anyway is just cool.

Dan of Earth said...

@JB: I didn't read your posts as negative. Thanks for your perspective as well!

@Eric: The online scene gets really REALLY excited about some things, and then it follows the natural course of settling down. The WotC PDFs are a great thing, but I agree it won't kill the OSR.

@Chris: BFRPG, OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord were all written before Gary died. You might be better off for not having followed the blogs. There is and was a lot of great creative content, but the other side of the coin is that there is/was a lot of revisionist history and over interpretation of the text of the games, trying to intuit motives, etc. Sort of Lit Crit gone off the rails. I understand the exercise in thinking about "golden age" and so forth but it is totally artificial and IMHO implies structure and motives to a process that was much more chaotic and organic.

As far as BFRPG being the "most open," I'm not sure where you're coming from on that. If you mean the text and license, I would disagree. BFRPG and LL are comparable in that regard. OSRIC is probably the most restrictive, and the OGC declaration is intentionally vague to cripple parts of the OGC. IMHO that has been a problem all along, something I voiced. That battle resulted in some of OSRIC being made clearly OGC but not all. On the other hand, if you are saying that most support for BFRPG is not commercial and distributed more freely then I agree with your statement.

Rich Franks said...

I CAN'T HEAR YOU FROM INSIDE THIS AMBER!!!!! ;-)

The so-called OSR, however anyone personally defines it, will continue along it's merry way, regardless of what WotC does. It will do so because there is a strong "Maker" component among the bloggers, message board posters, and G+ folk. Whether the products people put out are adventures, setting material, add-on classes/spells/etc.., or "new" systems, people like to make their own stuff for D&D/D&D-derived games. And really, when you look at the output of TSR from 1974 to 1981, we **had** to make our own stuff back then (not discounting the contribution of JG and others...but they were not as widely distributed as TSR's materials). So really, in one sense, you can't get any more old-school than that.

Chris Gonnerman said...

Indeed, we did all release in 2006, didn't we? I've often wondered, though... when did you start writing LL? I was stunned by the quality and the quantity of material when you released the game, more so because (as far as I know, anyway) you wrote the whole thing yourself, while I did my project with copious community help. So if you did it all yourself, and started after I announced BFRPG early in 2006, then my hat is off to you indeed.

Regarding my "more open" comment, I'm referring to the fact that our core rules published in source format are the exact same version I put on Lulu, while, as I understand it, the free LL document is art-free. Decorative art in the BFRPG core is not OGC, but it is in there. But that is a fine distinction... I must have been crabby to have made it. My apologies.

Dan of Earth said...

Hi Chris, no need to apologize. LL was released in late July 2007 or the first week of August 2007, I don't quite remember. I started writing it in late January 2007 (so it took me about 6-7 months for writing, editing, layout, etc.), and yes I did write it all on my own (and the AEC, which is another story). At that point I had experience contributing to the OSRIC project, and decided that I would rather write LL myself so that I could have full say in what I did with it. My intention from the start was to try to get it into game stores, and that meant a semi-commercial approach so I didn't think it would be right to ask people to write for me for free.

When I started writing LL I don't remember if I knew about BFRPG at that point or not, having first discovered OSRIC, but I'm sure that I did before I finished. I intentionally did not look too much at BFRPG because I didn't want it to influence what I did with LL, and even to this day I'm sorry to say I haven't read BFRPG in much detail.

The first release of LL included art, but it was a combination of public domain art and stock art for cheap. I soon decided to improve the art, and for similar reasons as to why I wrote it all myself I decided to hire art instead of have volunteers. That's why today the version with art costs money. I needed to pay for the art, and also have the PDF as source of revenue for funding additional projects. I don't do any projects on a volunteer basis, I pay for all writing and art.

Benjamin Handelman said...

I agree with what you are saying, and would argue that WotC pulling the PDFs back in 2008 was more of a "threat" to the OSR ecosystem than 5 years later deciding to make those books available again.

Now I just have extra modules to use with Labyrinth Lord, or vice versa if I choose to use the DnD Basic set. More classic material being legally available is a good thing, and the idea that I can go on DriveThruRPG and buy Labyrinth Lord with AEC and some old school TSR modules to go with them at the same time is a plus to me.

Even if people buy all the TSR products and play through them, now they have the option of looking at Labyrinth Lord modules, or Swords and Wizardry products, or whichever OSR title and using that as well because as you said, OSR has become as much Open Source Rules as anything else.

This is good for everyone, expect maybe those planning on becoming rich through OSR products, and really those people weren't going to make much money regardless of what WotC does with their classic IP.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I agree that the "OSR" is not in any danger as a result of the release of the TSR back catalogue, a move that is more likely to contribute to its health. However, I think you may underestimate the brand loyalty that D&D enjoys. If WotC did decide to set itself up as a supporter of the "old school", releasing new modules and "official" rules clarifications, as well as articles, I suspect that a lot of people would return to the fold.

As to the open source versus non-open source aspects of the existing simulacrum games, it seems to me that it is a double edged blade. In the case of OSRIC it was intentionally made harder for people to reskin the system. The creation of a new treadmill was entirely predictable and predicted. That said, it was almost always the intent of OSRIC to engender supplements that improved on those released for AD&D. Not an easy task!

Dan of Earth said...

Thanks for commenting Matthew. I'm not sure what I said that implied I underestimated brand loyalty, because I agree with you that if WotC started to actively support old-school D&D beyond just selling OOP materials and the occasional reprint then I think people would love it. How it would affect the OSR in terms of commercial sales really depends on what sort of support and types of products WotC sold in print. I very much doubt they will do more than the occasional token reprinting because they tenaciously think D&D Next is the way to go. But I suppose we'll see.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I was thinking particularly of the new adventure that is going to be bundled with the reprints of A1-4 as the thin edge of the wedge. It seems to me that D20/5E is the centrepiece of a strategy aimed at reclaiming full authority over D&D, and I am wary of the potential impact this could have on the open source community. Releasing the back catalogue is no threat in and of itself, but as part of a larger commercial move it may be the first growls of a waking monster. :D

Dan of Earth said...

Could be. I include Pathfinder as an "Open Source Game," even if not an old-school game, and I think we have to view it most likely that Pathfinder is their big worry, though I suppose it's also possible that they have written that off and want to corral the rest of the D&D market.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I never really think about Path Finder when considering OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and the like, but you make a good point. When it comes to market share it is Paizo that are the main threat to WotC, and a competitive strategy is likely going to be built around being the more attractive option. Presumably that is why they are taking the "all editions" route. Only time will tell, I suppose.

Panglott said...

I heartily agree, as someone who has never been a participant in the OSR so much as an interested observer. Our group played a lot of Necromancer Games modules in the 3e era, but when Wizards went to 4e, we went with Pathfinder instead.

After years of playing Pathfinder, I'm just a little sick of the complexity, the bewilderedness of new players, the page-long stat blocks needed to run any encounter. Much as I loved the 3e shift to ascending AC, the appeal of OD&D/OSR gaming has been increasing for me.

And I think Wizards' release of the PDFs absolutely strengthens the OSR movement. The 3e ecology made the "Open Source Rules" really important to me: I don't trust any one company to have a monopoly on my hobby. But at the same time, there aren't so many modules written for OD&D/OSR games that are as famous or plentiful as the old TSR modules. I want to go back and run/play B1, B2, T1, UK2, &c., but I'd rather do it with an open-source rule set like LL.