Thursday, March 08, 2012

The OSR and Me, part 3

While it may be controversial enough to say that Matt Finch's old school primer document "speaks" for the movement, it may be even more controversial to say that James Maliszewski's blog Grognardia does.  That said, he's got a lot of followers, and many of this attitudes are reflective of other conversations I have with other OSRians in other venues.

In reality, the only thing that the OSR really has in common is a liking for systems that are reflective of older edition D&D--a kind of do-over if you will of the direction the game went after the mid-80s or so.  But also in reality, many attitudes, while not necessarily univeral are nonetheless very common and prevalent among OSR discussions that I've seen.  Grognardia does a good job of distilling many of these ideas.

Now, the idea of rebutting an entire blog is, of course, ridiculous, so I'm going to just cherry-pick some things that I see frequently over there, and offer my take on it.  Why?  I dunno.  Like I said, I find the OSR a fascinating piece of social history within gaming, even if I don't really identify with it on every level.  In many ways, I think the OSR is a great thing; a return to some of the ideas that I miss in the hobby.  In many other ways, I think it's a disturbing thing--a return to some of the ideas that I thought were long gone and was happy to see them dead and buried.  The fact that the 5th edition (or D&D Next or whatever they're calling it nowadays) discussion from the designers seem to really cater to the OSR market and that they are clearly trying to woo them back to the fold will have the likely effect of pushing me out.  That said--well, I'm already not a customer of 4e anyway, so I doubt it's any big loss to them.  But anyway, my "relationship" with the OSR is kinda funny.  I like a lot of guys who are OSRian.  I read their blogs, I interact with them online, and I think that they sound like really stand-up guys.  I also get into very odd, bitter ambush-style arguments with others who are rather sanctimonious and self-righteous about the way they play, and the way one should play D&D.  Of course, every population group will have people that I like and dislike, but it seems like lately, if I "clash" with someone on the internet in a D&D related discussion, there's a better than normal chance that it's an OSRian.  This has cause me to--if nothing else--give a bit more serious thought to the OSR, what it really is, what it represents, and what I think of it.  And the end result of that is that my own tastes have come into sharper focus, and things that I never really thought much about, I have now managed to crystalize and put into words about what I like about gaming personally.  So, the OSR has helped me home in on what my gaming style really is, and how best to maximize my own fun in the hobby.

Anyway, a few OSRian points from Grognardia.

Megadungeons are IN.
"I've become ever more convinced that a 'tent pole' megadungeon is pretty much a sine qua non for an old school campaign."

I can't tell you how much I hate megadungons.  How much I think they are boring.  How much I think they resemble nothing at all from the source literature.  How much I never want to see one again.  How much I think that the wave of gamers who came in with the mainstreamization of gaming didn't enjoy this paradigm all that much either and forever changed the face of D&D because of that.  I don't even want microdungeons.  I don't want dungeons at all.

Why do old-schoolers like them so much?  In Grognardia's case, it's often because 'that's the way Gary Gygax did it' and frankly, that's good enough for him (more on that later.)  But in many cases, it's because site-based exploration  is in with the OSR crowd and more narrative structures are out.  So out, in fact, that they even developed their own pejorative vocabulary to describe them.  A railroad, of course, has always been a pejorative term leveled at really bad linear gaming--the kind where the players feel that the GM is removing viable options by fiat--just because there's only one way that he can see this all playing out.  But the ability of many in the OSR (and elsewhere, to be fair) to call anything a railroad that's not a pure "sandbox", site-based hexcrawl game is absurd, and the coining of terms like storygames, and the attempt to exclude games that use any narrative function at all, no matter how non-railroadish, as not even an RPG is disappointingly frequent, yet self-indulgently quixotic at the same time.

"I think it's fair to say that two of the lasting effects of the old school renaissance are the popularization of the term 'sandbox' to refer to an open-ended campaign setting and the holding up of Judges Guild's The Wilderlands of High Fantasy as the premier example of a sandbox setting.  The term 'sandbox' is one I'd never heard, let alone used, in a tabletop RPG context until a few years ago, being, ironically, bonrrowed from the world of video games.  And, while I knew of The Wilderlands of High Fantasy and even used it (briefly) back in the day, I never held it up as a model I wanted other campaign settings to emulate.  How things change!"

Personally, I'm a fan of structuring a D&D (or other RPG) campaign not unlike a season of a television show.  Chris Perkins, in his ongoing column at Wizards is probably the best place I can think of right now to get more info on how that's done, but even before I read that column, I'd consciously been paying attention to narrative issues, like pacing, drama, characters, etc.  In my experience, actually very few players like the feeling of total freedom that the sandbox offers, and wander around aimlessly 'wondering where the game is' if presented with that paradigm.  Plus, unlike the OSRians that I occasionally argue with at ENWorld and elsewhere, the fact is that every game that isn't a pure sandbox is not a railroad.  It's not binary, it's a spectrum.  I also, actually, happen to be very strongly opposed to too strong a hand as a GM, and want my players to drive the game.  But I don't do that through hexcrawling.

Idolization/fetishization of Gygaxian play.
"OD&D I have played only a handful of times, but I rever it as an important historical artifact and quasi-philosophical text."

As mentioned above, I note a very frequently expressed desire to play the game the way Gary played it.  This is a fine enough goal, and I don't doubt that Mr. Maliszewski enjoys his games--but curiously, he rarely expresses descriptions his gaming style in such a way that he's doing things because he likes them.  Rather, it's because he believes that's how 'Gary did it.'
Now, granted, within the OSR there is quite a variety of playstyles and even rulesets that deviate from the core D&D rules quite a bit.  But a significant portion of the movement sees such things almost as heresies, and approach their play more like a worshipful religious rite than something that's being done for fun for its own sake.  I'm sure they do find it fun, but it's curious how that's rarely given as a reason for doing something.  I can't find or remember seeing any reference to Maliszewski deviating on purpose from a Gygaxian paradigm on even the slightest angle because he liked something better that way.
This also leads to a rejection of anything new, even if the old is laughably bad.  They still defend the indefensible.
Of course, there's no accounting for taste, so it's hard to say that it's "wrong" to like something older and dislike its newer counterparts all the time, even when the old stuff is cartoonish and silly.  But it does lead me to certainly be a bit skeptical of frequent claims among OSRians that nostalgia and romanticization of the so-called "Golden Age" of D&D don't really play a role in their taste now.  Riiiight.
"I often feel quite alientated from younger gamers, because, other than a vague commitment to 'roleplaying' (however defined), we simply don't have a common frame of reference anymore."

Rejection of high fantasy in favor of sword & sorcery.
"Ironically, though, it was the Tolkien elements that many players of D&D latched on to and emphasized, which inexorably dragged the game away from its roots and toward what came to be known as 'high fantasy'."

In this respect, curiously, I have a little more sympathy towards the common OSRian perspective.  Not because I think high fantasy is terrible, but just because I think its become a bit tired and overdone.  And absent high fantasy, sword & sorcery is the obvious alternative.  However, to be perfectly honest with you, I'm not that big a fan of sword & sorcery either.  It has a lot of great ideas.  A lot of great concepts.  Most of the implementation of it that I've seen is honestly not very good, though, and makes high fantasy start sounding much better.

The episodic "short story" nature of the genre, the over-the-topness of the protagonists, the shallowness and poorness of many of the texts--every time I find myself diving into one of the classic S&S authors, I find myself getting bored and tired quickly.  Howard can wander into overblown territory and his barbarians vs civilization philosophy is silly.  I've read almost a dozen Moorcock books, and haven't liked a single one yet--plus, they're annoyingly repetitive.  Leiber has some good work, but loses steam; really only the first few Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collections are worth reading, lest the later books taint the earlier ones.  I tend to dislike Jack Vance, although I'm willing to give more of his work a try.  Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp (particularly the latter) seem to have been important to Gygax's own conception of fantasy, but I dislike de Camp immensely.  Carter I appreciate more as a less talented but earnest fan writing pastiches, but that hardly makes him good.

Rather, my tastes in fantasy lean more towards the darker, more modern--yet still deep and lengthy--anti-heroic fantasy epics.  Douglas Hulick's book is a great example of what I like, and is definitely on my "one to watch" list.  Although not secondary world fantasy, Jim Butcher's fantasy noir Dresden Files is one of my favorite series ongoing currently.  Glen Cook's Black Company books are hugely influential.

Although there's some superficial similarities to sword & sorcery, those similarities really arose out of a completely different environment, and it's easy to trace where they came from; it's not simply what's old coming around as new again, it's what's new resembling what's old in a few ways for completely independent reasons--while also still being quite different from what was old at the same time.

Anyway, like I said, Grognardia doesn't really speak for the entire OSR, and it's debatable how much my snippets and whatnot really represent Grognardia.  But what I've posted are elements that seem to me to be very common amongst the OSR, yet which I'm really kinda sceptical about; if not outright disagreeing.

I hope this small little series of articles doesn't feel like I'm "picking" on the movement, because that's not at all my intention.  Rather, in an era where the OSR seems to be informing the design direction of 5e to an inordinate extent, I felt like it was important to get my tastes in print, so that at least I come to an understanding of them sufficiently well that I can articulate them.  And that's easiest done through a compare/contrast exercise.

Oh, and to give an alternate example--a description of the OSR that encapsulates the great side of it, check out this post instead.


Kiltedyaksman said...

Part one was quite good, the rest is simple cherry-picking.

Don't believe the hype re: ORSians informing the style of 5e. When it comes out and is all min-maxy these posts won't won't stand on their own.

Joshua said...

I don't know anything about any hype. I'm talking about my own observations from the Monday morning design posts at WotC.