Monday, July 18, 2011

Where are we at? A reflection of old school gaming.

It's been roughly about 3 years since a little game called "microlite20" lured me away from the soul-sucking morass that was my 3e Ultima campaign design and back into playing D&D the way I remembered it. In that three years, I've seen some pretty amazing events happen in our little hobby, both old-school-wise and just RPG-wise. I've been wool-gathering on this for a little while (what the hell else are you going to do when you have no power... and it's middle of the night...) (OK, don't go there, ya perverts...) and I thought I'd share some of the mind-lint that I've found.

Old school is cool - but is it because of the "OSR" or because of the failure of 4e/success of Pathfinder? That was a bit of a puzzle for me, and still is. I'm pretty sure that 4e hasn't been the raging success that most at WotC had hoped for - the success of Pathfinder makes it clear that people like what they like and they like what they like and they'll BUY what they like. I'm pretty sure that this whole deal breaks the mold that had been established for the previous 30 years... that there is no other D&D than the official TSR/WotC D&D and thou shalt buy it or thou shalt be marginalized. No longer - Pathfinder said to the 3/3.5'ers "Come home to momma!" and they did. Going back wasn't just a bunch of fat-beards, there was real money, real impetus and a real concept of "going back to the basics."

Now I'm sure the grognards sniff at that.. hell, I did at first. But it's not as far fetched as you might think. You could say that the whole old-school/clone thing beget Pathfinder and beget the whole "go back" thing that people are talking about when they talk about 5e and "the future" but I'm not so sure. There's no doubt that C&C, OSRIC, S&W made a huge mark. Books like Dungeon Alphabet, Stonehell, and others staked out some territory that others have followed in. Yet I can't help wondering if the sheer size and impetus of Pathfinder pushing people "back" also made it easier for people to look beyond Pathfinder to see what else there is... momentum I guess you could say? Anyway, with the successes of the small print stuff, the hobbyist (and hobbyist-to-publisher/published author) path is alive and well. Yet I'm wondering if that path will slow down a lot...

... because there's nothing lately that has jumped out at me with the same intensity that OSRIC/S&W did back in 2009. Now that is completely a personal opinion. You can call me an ass, that's OK, but I found what I liked and wanted in those clones because they clarified and pointed me back to the games I love to play. What I play now is such a mashup of OD&D/AD&D/Holmes/B-X and the clones thereof that I can't call it any one thing. I also can't speak to the latest/greatest stuff - I haven't played nor was really motivated to play LotFP. The latest book that seems to garner a lot of blog attention - Vornheim? - never really piqued my interest and it's not something I'd shell out the hard earned cash for. These days, I've got so many riches from the free stuff on the web and the modules and information from the originals that it's hard for me to feel that "gotta buy it now" need. I suspect I'm not alone in that regard - the vast majority of my players in my AD&D tabletop campaign are very similar.

So I wonder if we're seeing what life would have been like had OD&D/AD&D been released and that was it. OK, so Matt Finch keeps fiddling with S&W Core and that's OK, that's his baby. S&W White Box has hit it's natural "final draft" which I think is appropriate. Anything further would be simply houserules tacked on. OSRIC has reached it's "fin" although we do see people creating supplemental stuff - again, houserules. I think the slow-down is good, even natural because it "feels" right - I've got what I need, I've got what works, I can find just about any additional piece from the "fanzines" of blogs/houserules and whatnot and that's an embarrassment of riches that will fuel a ton of games.

So combined with the "old school is cool", I have this personal satisfaction inside that we're all "set". OK, we could grind over Chainmail and reclarify it. We could even possibly do the same to Battlesystem. For those people who have a 2e love, I know there will be a time when a clone comes out... but in all honesty, I almost want to say "Mission Accomplished" and feel good about that.

Is there a desire for more clones and more clones and more houserules? Oh sure... and I get where that drive comes from. I'm going to keep digging into the old wargaming stuff to get a handle on it and plug it into my campaign, so I think that same drive will continue to get people to dig into the old stuff to mine new interpretations of it. I'm with Jeff Rients in "the more the merrier" although I have a personal belief that at some point, the spinning and respinning will hit an end point. I suspect that with the new movies coming out, we'll see more games about Mars and Hyboria and so on...

I wonder though.. if we haven't taken our best shot and it worked... and now it's just time to enjoy and play games and let those games show the way to where we want to go next?


Al said...

Iirc, we had FOUR different rulebooks being referenced during last Friday's game - 2 different core S&Ws, S&W complete, and a 1E PHB (tramp cover).

Its definitely becoming less and less important WHAT we're playing, compared to HOW we're playing it - "old school" play-style transcends edition to the point where we don't really even worry about it anymore.

2eDM said...

The problem with a 2e clone is multitude of splatbooks and settings. Very few groups still playing 2e use just the core rulebooks. There's also the issue of "are all those optional rules allowed to be used in a clone?"
That being said, there have been one or two stabs by small publishers to make a 2e clone. They just haven't received the kind of attention that Osric, Labyrinth Lord, etc. have.

RobChandler said...

In regards to a 2e clone, one called For Gold & Glory is currently available in a draft form and although it is not complete, it looks very good so far from what I've seen.

As to Vornheim. It has a different flavor, yes, but in my opinion, it is perhaps the most innovative supplement I've seen, not only in the OSR, but in RPGs in general in quite some time. I purchased it not to run Vornheim, but to make use of its various tables and creative methods to essentially run a city campaign on the fly. I'd recommend at least getting the pdf and having a look through because there is something for everyone in it, and especially so if you tend to spend a lot of time in urban areas.

As to the OSR and where it stands now, I think there is still much progress to be made. While S&W and OSRIC are well known amongst the small niche that is the OSR, they can hardly be called mainstream. Also, i think we're starting to see a lot of great stuff inspired by the OSR and old school gaming. Take Stars Without Number as a great example. A very well designed sci-fi rpg, with a classic old school feel with its roots in adventure design firmly planted in the old school format. And this is still a fairly new product. There's a lot going on in the OSR and i hardly think we've seen a peak yet.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I'm really enjoying the WOTC retrospective at Oaths and Fates.

The market truisms that are being revealed are apt for the OSR. Hopefully people will digest those truisms and adjust their actions accordingly.

Those WOTC retrospective posts make me think that there is a potential market that could be tapped, if there was sufficient humility and courage in the OSR community.

You may be correct that rules restatements have run their course. But adventures and accessories? I'm not so sure about that...

Gothridge Manor said...

I think I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. I know I am not going to invest in another system. For me I have enough and like AL said, system is mattering less and less. Our group mainly asks we going 3d6 system or d20? Nice write up. It was a good read on my lunch break.

Matt Finch said...

In terms of timetables, I think that the OSR was well under way before the 4e/Pathfinder split ... but the release of 4e with the attendant fury it incited in many 3e players, was a huge boost to the trend in terms of bringing new people into it. For exactly the reasons you mention -- it suddenly made the concept of "choosing" an edition into a viable idea for many people who hadn't considered it before, and many of those people went back further than just staying with 3e in preference to 4e. They re-evaluated their whole paradigm and realized that they wanted to go further back.

So, I don't think it was Pathfinder, but I agree with you that the announcement of 4e had a really big impact. In terms of bringing in new people - obviously it didn't have an effect on the existing group of old school players.

Anonymous said...

I think judging the OSR's success based on things on the shelf that you want to purchase is a big ole red herring. I wouldn't underestimate that free stuff available and would heavily weigh support to folks who want to play in an old school style.

Publishing numbers, Paizo, 4e, I'd say that these have nothing to do with the OSR, certainly very little to do with what happens when you roll the dice at your table.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

It's always interesting to put my thoughts out there and see the many ways they're interpreted. I don't judge success solely by what's on my bookshelf - the so-called "OSR" clearly has made an impact. What I wonder is how much is our own momentum and how much is due to the Pathfinder effect.

There probably are as many adventures and supplements as there are gamers... but I'm not sure with the riches we have from the freely available stuff that I personally will spend a lot of money like I did when I first got back into old-school gaming.

DMWieg said...

I think I've also hit my "point of diminishing returns" with regard to clones and near-clones of games I already own. However, I say keep bringing on the supplemental material. I don't buy it all, but I have a few gems on my shelf that I'm glad this little corner of the internet produced. Of course, everybody wants to have their own "brand" of D&D, so I imagine the clones will keep coming... maybe not in the deluge of the past couple of years, though.

Capheind said...

4e has been pretty successful, If you gathered together all the old school heretics and put is in the middle of a sea of 4e kids we'd be an easily missed dot in that sea. Monetizing D&D isn't because 4e has been a failure, its because their a games company and their trying to squeeze every last dime they can out of a big name property.

Pathfinders matching of 4e could be because of dissatisfaction with 4e, or it could be because of Paizo's marketing, innovative subscription and + pdf bundles, and their wealth of interesting and evocative new material. I bought the pathfinder core rulebook having never played 3e. The success of Pathfinder, financially, indicates that people are investing in a new system, and not just using their old books with the new.

I think OSR writers and gamers need to get a little perspective on what counts as success. The OSR is about remembering that games don't go obsolete, that rule systems are guidelines not laws, and that its all about having a good time, and by that measure we've been a success. Expecting deep market penetration of a retro-clone and the death of WoTC are somewhat less realistic goals.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming to the OSR late, I stopped playing any version of D&D 16 years ago after playing it for 16 years and just picked it up again in the last couple of months.

I have yet to spend any money buying anything from the OSR. I have spent money rebuying a handful of old AD&D items that went missing. I have spent money buying cheap 3E and 3.5E supplements on Amazon or at the local used bookstore. I've even bought a couple of 4E books.

Perhaps it's my comfort as a DM, but I have no qualms with or problems during the conversion of free/cheap modules (whatever edition) into AD&D. While I like some of what I've seen out of the OSR, there is a part of me that thinks that some folks are trying too hard to re-invent the wheel and write things exactly the way things were 25-30 years ago - Seriously?

We didn't find that stuff challeging then, we wouldn't now. I'm having fun introducing new players to the classics (B2, etc)and giving the older players a trip down memory lane, but some of these modules are just, well, bad.

That's where I think Vornheim and Flame Princess have some potential. I have no idea if I'll ever buy or play them - hell, there were a games back in the day that I didn't buy or play. But at least they are pushing the envelope on what "good" might become.


RobChandler said...

I don't think Pathfinder really had a significant impact on gamers going back further in editions. If anything, I think that its shown that there is a market for table top rpgs that exists beyond the dnd namesake. Perhaps its success has helped inspire certain independent publishers to follow the same path, but I don't think gamers are going back to old school products because of Pathfinder at all. Just my opinion anyway.

Unknown said...

Planet Algol.

That's what's struck me. After the rule books made their splash, the next innovation is quite naturally: all the people taking D&D in new pulpy directions.

I think you're missing them because you're calling them 'house rules', when in fact, they're closer to re-imaginings.

Verification word: dynatorc. Re-imagined Orcs - made out of Dyn-O-Mite! BOOOM Deyadda!

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I'm probably "missing them" because they feel like MA/GW to me. Yea, I know... swords & planets and all that, but honestly, those always felt like D&D to me anyway. In my head and scifi/fantasy reading, the Chocolate and Peanut Butter were already mixed.

Honestly, I am not really "missing" anything - I'm really happy with what I've got. I'm just wondering how many Barsooms, Thundercats, Travelers you can have?

Unknown said...

I have an upcoming article on my blog on this topic coming out in a few weeks, but for now...I think gaming in RPGs goes in cycles. D&D started out fairly simple and other companies/games added layers of complexity on it with their own game systems. For a time added complexity was all the rage as players clamored for more and more options/powers.

With 3E adding in its own complexity, and 4E bringing some of the highest complexity thus far in D&D, some people naturally went the other way and began to clamor for a simpler game. The OGL allowed for this simplicity/ease to be wrapped inside a package of nostalgia.

Where will OSR go from here? I believe the cycle will continue and complexity through added options will begin to rear its head in the OSR. You will start to see "optional" books detailing the "missing" classes/races/spells/powers.

However, in the end, no matter what happens to the "market", there will always remain the easier and simpler game style the OSR has provided for the gaming community.

Unknown said...

That's a good question. One I don't have the answer to.

What I do know, though, is that you can now play any version of D&D (but 4e) you like, forever, for free. After that, everything else is either modifying the rules a little or a lot - it's all house rules and fluff from here on out.

I'm pretty sure that that's a good thing.

john said...

To explain what I think is cool about Old-School-Gaming ... I'd have to sort of explain my gaming history.

Back in the early 80's, I was starting out with both the Red book (my brother's) and the green-ish cover intro that said it was basic D&D, but was sort of a hybrid between D&D and AD&D (had basic classes and racial, but 9 alignments, things like that). Within a year, we moved to AD&D, and the perception of that move was "Flexibility AND Complexity". I think that basically describes my mindset all through 1980's gaming. Flexibility and Complexity go hand in hand -- to do more, you need more rules, and those rules increase complexity.

I moved up from AD&D to RoleMaster and SpaceMaster. I was playing Star Fleet Battles. All of these things added charts for new situations, added rules for new capabilities, had endless expansions that didn't just say "how to use the existing rules for new things", but "here's new rules you need in order to do new things". Oh, and, throw Warhammer into that cesspool as well.

Then, around 1989 or 1990, I went to a Dragon*Con. I was walking through the open game room, and a guy was setting up a Civil War naval minis game. He asked me if I wanted to play. My response: those kinds of war games usually have volumes or rules, and I don't have enough time before my next game to learn yet another set of game rules.

His response: "It's one side of one printed page. I don't play games that take up more than one sheet of paper -- they're crap."

There's fundamental truth in that statement: the more rules a game has, the more charts it has (especially ad-hoc charts), the more crap there is in the game. Useless crap.

From there, my gaming purchases fit one of two choices:

1) obtaining rich setting material (without concern about rules -- Mutant Chronicles fits that set of purchases for me)

2) aiming toward lighter and lighter games (DreamPark was close, but had some issues, and then RTG dropped it). The holy grail RPG system, to me, is something of a cross between DreamPark, Fudge, Cyberspace/MERP, and maybe TWERPS... with the extensibility/scalability of Hero.

john said...

(part 2, sorry for the long winded essay/comment -- I'll understand if someone replies with tl:dr)

In doing so, I basically abandoned RM/SM in favor of trying to extend Cyberspace to cover material from SpaceMaster, and picking MERP over RoleMaster. Then I abandoned those in favor of DreamPark. Then I abandoned those in favor of Fudge (and tried to write an extension to Fudge that took flavor from MERP, DreamPark, Mage, and Ars Magica).

Then d20 came out... and I sort of grudgingly went back to D&D. It was better than AD&D2.0 ... and, IMO, better than AD&D1.0. But still clunky, still full of stupid choices (the hard link between character concept and class, the existence of Barbarian, Paladin, Ranger, and Druid classes, instead of those being variations of Fighters and Clerics, etc. ... and, of course, the lack of a true and well thought out mana based magic system instead of the old spell slot crud). I was able to house-rule a bunch of things, in order to run the game I wanted to.. and then I tried to work d20Modern into a workable fantasy RPG as well. Still, it was constantly trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It works, if you hit it hard enough, but ... why bother?

I went back to Fudge for a while. Still trying to work out my Holy Grail. Then I took a couple years off from gaming. And then ... I started to look at gaming again. That's when stumbled across your blog, and that lead me to S&W.

What I like about S&W is: it brings me back, in almost a full circle, to the beginning ... when D&D was still intelligent. And by intelligent I mean: you didn't have to be spoon fed instructions on how to handle every situation. You didn't need a chart that told the GM how to handle every little situation (like all of the common sense crud that was in the later AD&D1 books, like the adventurers guides and stuff).

I don't mean to be condescending about the d30 mindset ... ultimately, everyone should do what they have fun with. But, to me, the d30 is the poster-child of the worst parts of AD&D1... the "we need a chart, and a die, and a die-roll, for every little thing"... instead of just having the GM decide what needs to happen to serve the fun and story, and interpret an existing generalized mechanic, to fit the situation. That mindset is what made AD&D worse than D&D, and what makes Old School Gaming a good turn in the game industry -- a return to minimizing mechanics in favor of good judgement.

S&W, WyRM/RAG, and Stars Without Number are like a breath of fresh air to me. They're not perfect, but there a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, to me, there could/should be 1 chart. Think of it sort of like a slightly more general version of the Marvel Supers chart (which gave you "fail, slight success, good success, major success" ... now add "slight failure, bad failure, major failure"). Across the top, I have columns from -9 to +9 (is the PC equal to the NPC in capability? 0. Is he better, then that's shades of grey from +1 to +9 .. worse? shades of grey from -1 to -9). Then die results down the left side. You roll. You get a color result varying from "major failure" up to "major success. A major success means you probably took your opponent out of the fight. Did you kill him? Up to the GM. Did you pick a lock? Depends, how much of a success do you need? What does the GM think of how that fits into the larger scope of the game (both for plot, and fun)?

I don't need different charts for saving throws, hitting, damage, encounters, treasure, etc. Just the one. (and, yes, I really have worked up such a chart, and I'm really working on a mashup of Fudge, TWERPS, and WRM/RAG that can fill in for most aspects of S&W, LL, and OSRIC, to run those adventures settings ... I'm hoping I can run it by the fall)

Zak Sabbath said...

(haven't read all the comments, so sorry if this is redundant)

I don't think I want or think there'll ever be a slowdown in the production of houserules because I don't think they were ever really necessary.

I could play D&D before, I can play it now--it worked either way. Houserules there because for a lot of DMs, tinkering with houserules is just part of DMing and I think it'll always be that way.

Products don't interest me nearly as much as just the froth of stuff that's on the blogs every day. I don't feel like we're trying to "perfect" D&D any more than chef collecting recipes are trying to "perfect" cooking.

Just, hey, one good idea, one new perspective, one new monster, I'll take it.

Zak Sabbath said...

yeah, i count 2 subject-verb agreement disasters in that post i just made. you get the point i assume.

Anonymous said...

callin nailed it, i think.

The Dave said...

I think that the laws of diminishing returns are definitely settling in on the OSR community. I'm not sure how many different ways you can sell what is basically the same rules with some tweaks and expect people to buy them.

Randall said...

The Dave -- most OSR rules sets are available for free in PDF form (sometimes without the art found in the paid version), so there's generally no cost to picking up another set of rules. You can always buy the print copy if you fall in love with it -- but you don't have to in the majority of cases.

This is what I like about the OSR: for the most part it's a bunch of hobbyists doing what they like and sharing the results with other hobbyists. Making a buck is secondary for most of us and making game design decisions to maximize profits is not even on the radar.

The Dave said...

Randall.. there are some great free stuff out there.. If you are the Randall I think you are, I know you've written some yourself! I also can't say enough good things about Chris and companies BFRPG ruleset. I just recently came across this gem and love it. Its not rules light but to me its the perfect and everything I loved about OSR. But now that I've found it I don't feel the need to keep looking, and maybe thats what Wiz is getting at. We've hit the nail on the head in one form or another, yet people still keep hitting it.

Jeremy Deram said...

When I recently got back into RPGs after a 15-year hiatus, we did 4E, with the thinking that whatever the current version of D&D was, it was the only "legit" way to play. After a few months and some dissatisfaction that it wasn't the game we used to play, we went Pathfinder. My group still plays Pathfinder, but I have since gotten into all the old games and clones. Pathfinder showed us it was okay to go away from the current version of D&D, so I think you have a valid point. At least it's true in my case.

Anonymous said...

I've said more at my place, but I agree that OSR has hit the nail as far as new rule sets go (though bringing more to the table, as long as they aren't just plain rehashes of what is already there is great). What I really would like to see more of is new modules and adventures.

john said...

I definitely agree with "I'd like to see more modules/adventures". And non-rule supplement materials (spells, monsters, etc.).

It looks like several publishers on DTRPG/RPG-Now are doing dual-publishing of adventures in both Pathfinder and S&W compatible versions (separate purchases). I've also seen some things like a martial arts add-on for S&W. All of which are things I try to buy even if I'm not 100% sure I'll use ... so that there's a thriving market for "0e" "old school" "S&W" products that will draw in more publishers and products.

vbwyrde said...

I'm an old schooler myself, in so far as I began GMing in 1978 with my homebrew system and never bothered to look back. I figured pretty early on that TSR's business model was to sell books, and so they had an interest in expanding the rules and making them more complicated over time. I wanted a long term campaign that would not have to suffer repeated rules system changes over time, so I created my D&Dish clone which fixed what I thought were some problems with the original D&D, and frankly I've been happily GMing it ever since, with one major revision in 2006. That revision was to strip down my system to it's simplest components and slap on a 1d6 mechanics. Other than that it shares the common old school tropes of classes, levels, hit points, etc, but with my own take on things. So I can't really comment much on other systems. But I can say that old school has been where I've been living for 30+ years and it's been just honky-dory for me and my players. So yeah, old school. It's the shaznitz as far as I'm concerned.

richard said...

I see a few different arguments in this post: first, that the OSR is about providing OD&D rules - pure or tweaked or reflavoured - in a way that nostalgia recognises. I think that mission has been accomplished. But I also think that's a very narrow goal and doesn't come close to encompassing what the gamut of OSR people are interested in. For me, OSR is specifically "not new school" - it's not concerned with those concerns that came along with Rom Edwards and Turku and all those guys. And that's a really big field: it's the wider world outside that wider world that New School games staked out for themselves. And I reckon we haven't even started exploring it.

The second argument is that published stuff isn't as exciting as it was a couple of years ago. Well, there is a basic difference between self-contained games and supplementary material like Vornheim. And if what you wanted was D&D, and now you have it, then yes, that "inventing the wheel" moment won't happen again. But. (a) we should expect ebb and flow, even though there's a lot of us now. (b) there are whole other games waiting to be written that I think (some of us) will recognise as having an OSR sensibility, and they may be self-contained. (c) what if there were a wilderness Vornheim? Would that get your attention?

One way the OSR is different from the first generation of games made in the 70s and 80s: a consciousness that we ought to be able to use each other's stuff - cross-compatibility is king. That's good and bad: I don't want to play CoC with my D&Dclone rules. I don't want people to think my CoC game is really D&D - they'll play differently. But most of all I don't want people to think the problem space of RPGs is exhausted because one set of rules has been neatly replicated.

Matthew Miller said...

I'll just add that I think Gygax's death was a factor as well. It got a lot of people nostalgically reflecting on the hobby, dusting off their DMG's, and perhaps re-evaluating the paths that have been taken.