Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The OSR is Better Than TSR

There. I said it.

I just received about 70 pounds of books from the US (addressed to "James Elrond Raggi DCLVI" by some comedian). It is much of the combined work of the OSR. It's missing only two publishers of note - one didn't answer my emails (you failed yourself there bigtime) and one didn't have any non-rulebooks to sell to me (I'm being a corporate asshole and only carrying my core game for Ropecon).

I'm not counting Lulu-only publishers with that, even though two such publishers were able to give me good enough discounts that I ordered some stuff.

So I've been looking through, checking their condition and layout and this and that.

And really... the OSR is producing better stuff than pre-1989 TSR. Post-89 TSR as well but everyone already knows that.

Think rulebooks. Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and OSRIC are clearer in language, formatted in a superior manner, and are just all-around more usable than the original books while delivering the same game experience.

The supplementary material is far superior. Yes, there are some classic modules from the old days of TSR, a few of which stand so tall that we'll never compare. But not all of them are quite so classic. In fact, some of them are utter shit. Even the worst of the OSR published adventures are better than the worst of the TSR adventures, and the best of the OSR adventures stand proudly alongside the best of the classics in terms of quality.

The non-adventure supplements rock as well. From the Creature Generator to the Dungeon Alphabet to Mythmere's Design Deskbooks, our material certainly is better than the Treasure & Monster Assortments and the Geomorphs of days past.

The magazines are better. Dragon had great stuff, but every issue was packed with material for games we weren't playing. Fight On! and Knockspell are are directly relevant, cover to cover, to the games we are playing.

Eero Tuovinen made a great point to me over the weekend - TSR's great (creative) failing was that they didn't behave like a book publisher. A book publisher will release a great many books by a great many authors dealing with a great many subjects, and they generally do not treat every book as needing to reflect the "brand" or "image" of the company. The TSR releases were certainly all made to conform to the standards and creative vision of the company, whatever they were at the time of release.

The OSR is not bound by such restrictions. So many unique personalities with their own views of how things should be are showing us their particular visions. The variety available for anyone interested mind-boggling. Sure, this creates market saturation, but I firmly believe that every quality product, even if there are 1000 of them, increases our prestige and viability. And there seems to be no end to the quality products in the OSR.

I'm looking at the works of all these publishers, all these creators, and I'm looking at the success some are having with their work.

We're not a niche of a niche anymore. Still a niche, but we've moved up one niche factor.

And I'm goddamn proud to be part of it.

And guys... seriously...

Business is about to pick up.

PS. Matt Finch is a genius.


  1. I agree old friend,

    Since we are 35+ years in the future with global reach, an open-source community and product, a vibrant existing consumer and user base, and innumerable exposure opportunities to systems, and sources of inspiration...

    ...We had all better be better today!

    In other words, though not really really equivalent, is it a surprise my iPhone superior to Gordon Gekko's "Brick" from 1988? Or, Relativity to Newtonian Mechanics?

    Thus, in that vein perhaps we can concede the following:

    * GG and crew developed a new game and entire novel way of interacting with people, which had few predecessors - The new game was a far more daunting task that optimizing and iterating an existing product.
    * Related to the above: Nothing OSR, or any role-playing game does is inherently NEW per se, just version X.Xxxxx of what was created by the founders
    * Even the creators of the 70's and 80's only had mere years (at best) experience playing and writing these games, we have decades with more of us to tap into as a pool
    * Today we have the internet, globality, and a huge mass market that exists interested in role-playing as a source for talent, inspiration, and target market.
    * We have all tried GURPS, multiple AD&D editions, Flirted with Runequest, Saw how Palladium rules stunk, loved the Ultimate Powers Book even if Marvel system was doo doo, LARP'ed, been to numerous conventions, played video and computer games, seen Lord of the Rings brought to life for mass market, experienced bad and good house rules, had Good DMs, had Bad GMs - Point is, we have had a lot to learn from, that these guys in the 70's HAD TO CREATE FROM SCRATCH...
    * We have a cherished reverence and nostalgia for "founders" and that which is bygone - not that these things are inherently "overrated", but there is some truth to that notion. Is Jane Austen really better than Candace Bushnell?
    * Far lower barriers to entry with the internet now to get your voice heard, and even products distributed

    So, fundamentally, we had better be, better.

    Which, is even more of an indictment upon the marketeers in charge of Wizards at current for their soul-less focus group derived gaming principals and monthly splat book releases.

    I partially agree with Euro's idea concerning the book publisher approach to TSR being an issue, but I would posit that pre-internet environment that model in an extreme also was not tenable either.

    Plus, for all the hatred I have for the industry titans, they did a few years back magnanimously open-source 3.0/3.5 which allows much of the OSR or other stuff to have a pulse.

  2. The more material I read from the OSR (including all of the awesome material from LOFTP), the more impressed I am. My only point of contention with your post is the comment regarding Dragon magazine. What made Dragon a truly great magazine was its coverage of multiple game systems by multiple companies. Those articles and advertisements exposed me to games and genres I would have otherwise not known existed. Thanks to early Dragon advertisements, articles, and reviews I was introduced to Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Rolemaster, Runequeset, Thief's Guild and many, many others. It is exactly this kind of magazine that has been lacking in the industry since Dragon became solely a TSR house engine.

  3. The OSR isnt a niche of a niche anymore? WOO HOO! (in my best Homer Simpson voice)

  4. I pretty much agree with your post, James. I feel the OSR has picked up from where TSR began to mass-market the game (I see that around '83). and continued down a direction where many tend to believe the hobby (and I emphasize hobby) should have evolved. Building upon and improving what was already a solid foundation of free-form fantasy. One of the most fantastic things about the OSR are all the professional, well thought-out materials out there both for free and pay.

  5. I thoroughly agree.

    Gygax's writing style is missed, of course, but that's about the only thing that the OSR hasn't excelled.

    For me, the best TSR modules are the D trilogy and B1. B1 has its OSR counterpart in Rob Kuntz's high-level Bottle City. I must admit that I'm still waiting for something to beat the D trilogy on its own terms.

    Other than those 4 modules, the rest of the TSR modules get massacred by OSR modules, such as:

    Bottle City by Rob Kuntz
    The Garden of al-Astorion by Gabor Lux
    The Mines of Khunmar by Stephan Poag
    Death Frost Doom by James Raggi
    Stonehell Dungeon by Michael Curtis

    (And I still haven't read Joseph Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage.)

    So, really, James, you are right.

  6. A bold statement, but not without merit. I'm still trying to decide if I agree.

  7. A hearty amen and hear hear! It's heart-warming because there's this wonderful diversity and energy, and it's really roleplaying for the people, by the people. Not some mega-corporation dictating to the unwashed masses what an RPG should be! FREEEDOOOMMM!

  8. Jim,

    I can't agree with your statements. For instance, I can't find anything in the OSR that would compete with the originality of the classic Planescape boxed set. Also, I know many TSR modules were sub-par, but I can't name even one OSR adventure that would compete with Vault of the Drow or Ravenloft.

  9. 70 pounds of books? At a convention? Declaring the OSR is no longer a tiny niche?

    Someone call Maliszewski and tell him James Raggi is the new pope of the OSR :)

    I kid, I kid.

  10. Which is better? Pre-issue 100 White Dwarf that covered Warhammer, D&D, Runequest, Paranoia, Dr. Who, Traveller, etc., etc.,... or post-100 WD that covered Warhammer Fantasy, WH40K, Warhammer Epic, Warhammer EatMyAss, Warhammer BuyOurStuff, Warhammer ThinkTruth, Warhammer Obey, etc., etc.?


  11. The OSR has a long way to go before it beats pre-100 (I'd say pre-50) WD, pre-80 The/Dragon, TSRs pre-1983 modules, etc. After they jumped the shark, sure thing. The best of the OSR writing measures up to roughly the average of the pro RPGs around 1981. Not to say it can't get better, and LotFP's new box is a good start when it comes to trade dress.

  12. Great post, James. The OSR has a lot of great things going for it. Another thing it has started is small mini-cons specifically for OSR and related gaming. The North Texas RPG Con boasted and hosted Kuntz, Jaquays, Sustarre, and Kask for days of gaming. More such little cons are starting up. All we need to do is be patient with all other gamers and invite them to see the light.

    And not only is Matt Finch a genius, he's a really nice guy too....and a great DM.

  13. Linked to the Blog Widget O' Wisdom!

  14. Honestly, I can't agree.

    Yes the best of the OSR is much better in terms of game play, clarity, and layout of TSR.

    But as the man said, "we see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants."

    It is at best a straw man comparison.

    Had it not been for the OGL and really the D&D 3.x ruleset half of the products in the OSR would not even exist.

    There are some fantastic OSR products out there, but each and everyone of them is bought on the capital of the original rules that came before it.

    I love Labyrinth Lord and BFRPG, but no one will cry out in geek glee 20 years from now to find one at a garage sale, but people have, do and will do that with the D&D Red Box (something published after the so called heyday of TSR).

    Are the OSR books better? Yes, because they have the older books to learn from.

  15. I've got to agree with Tim. Recently I've been working on a series of reflective essays regarding lessons that can be learned from old school modules in designing dungeons, and what's struck me is this: At least 80% of everything we know about dungeon design had already been created by Arneson and Gygax before OD&D was even published. Another 19.99% of it was created and published by 1983 at the latest. And it's amazing looking back at these classic products and realizing that every single one of them was a fucking revelation when it was published.

    And I'm not even sure about the 0.01%. I honestly can't think of a post-1983 dungeon that has actually broken new ground at any kind of fundamental or conceptual level. Which isn't to say there haven't been some great dungeons published. It's just that they haven't done anything new.

    (I guess I can't think of any "In the belly of a demon/giant monster" dungeon pre-dated Mearls' In the Belly of the Beast, but I'd be shocked if it didn't exist.

    And I'd love to toot my own horn for non-Euclidean dungeons in FFG's The Lost Hunt and Halls of the Mad Mage, but then one remembers that Gary Jordon got there first with the famous "Tesseracts" article in Dragon #17.)

    Is the production quality higher? Sure. Is there a lot more polish? Sure. Is any of this meant to denigrate some of the really high quality material the OSR movement has produced? Nope.

    But is the OSR actually producing revolutionary material of the kind TSR and Judges Guild were producing from 1974-1983? Not that I've seen. (And if they are, I'd love to be pointed in its direction.)

  16. [T]he best of the OSR adventures stand proudly alongside the best of the classics in terms of quality.

    This judgment seems (to me) to be in error, even solely comparing OSR adventures to D&D adventures from the olden days, even given the constraints of old-fashioned pulp-fantasy gaming. Once you bring in the best work from other systems it's no contest. And that's without mentioning Kask's justifiable dudgeon about originality and absolute, inescapable indebtedness (not gonna touch 'derivative' though the word is obviously floating around the debate).

    But you have a lot to be proud of at the moment, so this kind of hyperbole is understandable and even welcome!! If wanting to kill daddy by putting out your own work is what it takes to make the work happen, for now, then KEEP IT UP MOTHERFUCKER

  17. I don't agree with you; I have yet to see anything that can hold a candle to the large majority of Gary's works, of course including my own in that "anything" (I'm presuming none of my stuff was in there as I only have PDFs of the WGH series and the two intro "DD" modules up).

    -Bill Silvey aka TheDungeondelver

  18. I liked all the articles about games I didn't play!