Friday, March 02, 2012

The OSR and Me, part 1

I've always been drawn to the idea of the OSR, or "Old School Rennaissance."  I don't really like old-fashioned rules systems, but there's a lot about the OSR that is appealing to me.  Not only that, if you try to search the blogosphere for gaming related stuff, you'll quickly find that the OSR is much more prevalent in that arena than most of your alternatives.

Anyway, the OSR is a rather varied beast, and no one person can really speak for the the OSR as a whole conclusively.  That said, there are certain things that are common within the OSR, and so for the sake of simplicity--and acknowledging that it's an overly simplified vision of reality--I'm assuming for the sake of argument that two voices can effectively "stand in" for the entire movement.  Those two voices will be Matt Finch, the author of A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming and James Maliszewski of Grognardia.  For my purposes, I think using their voices to stand in for the OSR as a whole is "close enough."  In parts 2 and 3 of this little series, I'll address each of them in turn--or at least a number of topics from those sources--and point out where I agree and where I differ from the OSR paradigm.

Anyway, I recently got involved in a discussion with an OSR-themed poster over at ENWorld (one of these days I'll learn to permanently avoid that place) which eventually got shut down, so I've got the OSR and their preferred version of playstyle a bit on my mind lately.  After that discussion got shut down, I wasn't exactly feeling very charitable towards the movement, because the guy represented a lot of it's worst aspects, but now that a little time has passed, I'm feeling a bit more objective.

First off, what is "old school" in terms of the OSR?  Flippantly, I'd say for most OSRians, it's "D&D as it was when they started playing."  That's actually not too far off the mark for most of them, though.  Grognardia defines the "ages" of D&D, and his Golden Age--the age of "old schoo,l" as being from 1974 when the game was first published up until the mid-80s or so... certainly coming to a conclusive end with the publication of Dragonlance in 1984/5.  I didn't accept his paradigm of a Hesiod-like "fall from grace"--a Golden Age giving way to a Silver Age, which gives way to a Bronze Age, etc.--rather, I liked a more anthropological paradigm; the Paleolithic Age advancing to the Neolithic Age, advancing to the Bronze Age advancing to the Iron Age, etc.  But what I inadvertently hit on was that Grognardia's "Golden Age" is really two ages and there's a very revolutionary change that happens partway through it (i.e., my own paleolithic giving way to the Neolithic Revolution.)

It's not actually a change in the game as much as it is a change in the audience, though.  Coming on gradually enough that it's hard to pin down exactly, but somewhere between 1977--when AD&D and BD&D were first released--and 1980 when they'd been out for a while and the "mainstreamization" of D&D was fully complete, the game fundamentally changed.  And again, I don't mean at a rulebook level, I mean that the audience, and therefore the way the game was played at most tables around the world, fundamentally changed.  What's my evidence for this?  Well, I don't really have much.  I have my own experience.  And I can extrapolate from some circumstantial evidence here and there.  But at the end of the day, my paradigm is a "just-so" story.  Of course, I think the OSR message is a set of just-so stories as well, and I don't blame them for that being true; the fact of the matter is that there just isn't any available data, so we have to work with what we have.  And if that means anecdotes and circumstantial evidence leading to frankly pretty speculative talk about the game, well... it's the nature of the beast either way.

So what was this fundamental sea change that happened in the game at a player level?  In the mid-70s as D&D was first published and first growing, it spread largely by word of mouth amongst hobbyists and enthusiasts who were already part of the wargaming sub-culture in which it first spread.  That is, Gary Gygax himself and this very early audience--from 1974 until at least 1977 and maybe a bit beyond--were speaking the same language, came out of the same hobbyist environment, moved in the same kinds of social circles for their hobby, and otherwise were "on the same page" about a lot of things.  That's not to say that Gygax didn't reach out a bit--famously (or infamously, depending on your paradigm) he included a bunch of Tolkienisms.  Why?  Because although he preferred a more obviously sword & sorcery themed paradigm, he knew that Tolkien was huge among fantasy fans, and he wanted to sell to them.  So right from the get-go there were a lot of nods to high fantasy in the very original version of the game (despite the fact that the OSR almost religiously fetishizes sword & sorcery to the exclusion of high fantasy--but that's a subject for another time.)  Sometime after 1977 and the release of more mass market versions of the game in the Holmes/Moldvay books or the AD&D books Gygax himself authored, the game found a level of mainstream success, however, that brought untold numbers of people into the hobby that did not come from that same background at all.  Many of them were young kids (like I was) who--at best--had maybe read The Hobbit, The Book of Three, had seen Disney's Sleeping Beauty where the Prince fights a dragon, and that was our idea of fantasy.  More or less.

That's not to say that many of us (and by us I mean other kids my age who got into the hobby; this didn't happen to me or most of the people I've gamed with) didn't read the good old Appendix N, search down copies of Mr. Gygax's recommended reading list, and devour them, as well as embracing the game background from which D&D sprang.  Because obviously many did.  But many did not.  If I came to D&D as a kid in 1980-81 or so with a background in reading some fantasy books, liking them, and wanting a game that resembled that more or less, then much that was inherent in D&D was very strange and unlovely to me.  And I firmly believe that this experience was common.

Besides my own anecdotes, to what else do I attribute this percieved fact?  Basically the end of Grognardia's Golden Age.  It was inevitable.  D&D customers were well served by the so-called Hickman Revolution--the inclusion of some sensible backstory to adventure modules, and modules that were structured more like the outline of a decent story rather than being about how many 10-ft. poles you brought with you to "pixel-bitch" (to borrow a term from computer game design theory that is astonishingly appropriate here too) your way through the Tomb of Horrors or whatever.  How do I know this?  Because that style of product sold like crazy.  It was highly in demand.  They were like hot-cakes.

Mr. Maliszewski and others see that as the beginning of the end, and seem to imply that Tracy Hickman, in writing in that fashion, was doing something really revolutionary and that the market followed.  I disagree; I think it's clear that there was a lot of pent-up demand for D&D to behave more like that already, and as the writing of official products was finally opened up a bit out of the hands of a few eccentric older men, that the products were finally able to follow demand.  In other words, the real cause of the Hickman Revolution in game style writing wasn't the fact that Tracy Hickman took a job with TSR as a developer, it's that the mainstreamization of D&D brought it out of the eclectic and eccentric insular hobby circle that it used to circulate in, and out to the world at large.  This was a phenomenal success for D&D naturally, but it also meant that D&D as it was was unsuited for this new audience in many ways, and it didn't take very long before fundamental changes to the game started seeping in which were more suited to the audience of the game as it existed at the end of the so-called Golden Age. 

So the real "age break" takes place sometime between 1977 and 1980; that's the real change that fundamentally remade D&D.  And oddly, most OSRians that I've talked to came into the hobby after that change.  And, in fact, many of them are quite upfront about the fact that they just want the game to be like the games they enjoyed back in 1982 or whatever, or at least go back to that starting point and then go forward in a new direction from there.  For some OSRians, romanticization of the era right before they came in is important (for Maliszewski and Finch, it's almost religious, in fact.)  For others, though, it's not necessarily.  They just want to go back to when they enjoyed gaming the most and recreate that as much as possible, and then go forward from there.

But I find it curious that the OSR is attempting to grasp at an extremely fleeting and short-lived period in the history of the game.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but I think it's curious nonetheless.  It also seems a mite quixotic--the very forces that brought D&D to the "masses"--including most people who now make up the OSR--are the same forces that they're trying to undo in their own games, to a certain extent.

It's important to remember, though, that the OSR, despite it's name, is a modern trend.  It's not really just "play older games in an older style"--it's a trend that is driven in many ways by developments that happened within D&D and RPGiana in general in the years since, and it's recreating certain aspects of the game in a blatantly artificial environment and ignoring elements of the games from the target time frame that are not in synch with the modern OSR gamer.  But be that as it may, it's an important trend, or at least it appears to be.  Certainly, I can't Google up a D&D blog without stumbling across mostly OSR themed blogs, I can't converse about the game on any D&D messageboard without rousting up a bunch of OSR themed posters, and much of the design discussion about 5e that we've seen so far seems to be specifically catering to an OSR crowd.  So, I think it's important--or at least interesting (to me, if no one else)--to kind of put the OSR in context, and talk about what exactly it is, and what exactly it is not, from my perspective as an interested outsider who is sympathetic to many of its ideas--and who is wildly opposed to many others.  I don't pretend to think that my opinion or preferences are mainstream, or represent the majority of non-OSR D&D players or anything, but at the same time, I don't think the OSR does either, so I'd like to get my voice out there.

Even if it's just in the little dusty corner of the Internet that is my blog.  Coming next; my critique of Matt Finch's OSR primer, or "where it works for me and where it absolutely does not--and why."

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