Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Old School People's Front vs The People's Old School Front



Lots of talk (here, here, and here, just for starters) in recent days about some sort of association or organized effort to promote traditional role-playing games. There is movement happening in various quarters.

There's also a lot of non-direct communication happening via blogs and message boards (and I'm sure direct communication happening that I'm not privy to), and I have a blog myself, so what the hell, I'll go ahead and offer my thoughts on the situation.

First, the elephant in the dungeon: It's a very rough thing, because for all the talk, there is one inescapable reality: Our common bond is Dungeons and Dragons, and without being able to use the name Dungeons and Dragons, we're crippled. Not that being crippled is the end of the argument, but we need to be clear: We are talking about Dungeons and Dragons, and not all sorts of traditional games like Runequest and Traveller and such.

Second, the focus. Everyone thinks the way they play is the One True Way. At least everyone offering an opinion. We need to forget this way of thinking. OD&D is not the way. AD&D1e is not the way. Frankly I don't see very much difference between all these versions. It's D&D, and no matter which version you play, you're houseruling it, so as far as I'm concerned any discussion on this front is silly. You're just being divisive when the entire point is unity. D&D is D&D, it speaks the same language. Up to a point.

But we do need to decide what we're talking about. When we say "D&D," we are not talking Attacks of Opportunity, Prestige Classes, or Per-Encounter powers. So what do we mean?

Gygaxian D&D. Only versions of D&D that have direct input by Gary Gygax should be considered here, and all versions of D&D that have direct input by Gary Gygax should in included. OD&D, AD&D1E, and the Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer versions of the Basic set. That's it. Nothing else. Sorry 2E. (although if everything comes together, 2E is quite compatible with everything else, so...) We need to define a focus so we're not at cross purposes with our activities, and I defy anyone to come up with a better focus than "The versions that Gygax was involved with."

Third, the Goal. Why are we doing this?

I can't speak for anyone else's motivations, but I will offer my perspective:

Is it to enable play? No! Not a single one of us needs any sort of association to play these games. The materials are out there, they aren't scarce, and they're dirt cheap on pdf.

Is it to create a market for new products? Oh god I hope not. I know I'm a "publisher" now, but if there is any great traditional renaissance, I won't be cashing in on it. I'm not a businessman, I don't want to be a businessman, I just have some ideas and a near pathological need to publish stuff. I don't have the discipline nor basic desire to turn my passions into a proper business, so I really have no stake in the "industry" angle of this. It might be nice to have an environment where I can pretty much count on making my costs back, but I'm going to publish what I'm going to publish whether anyone buys it or not. I'm dumb like that.

My belief is that the only real purpose of a traditional renaissance is to re-establish the cultural line between the beginnings of the hobby to the present and ensure that they exist into perpetuity, and to promote the idea that "older game" does not mean "broken,"or "unplayable," or even "out of date." We have to defeat the public perception of editions, trends, and branding, not work with them. These are the weapons of the enemy that put us in a ghetto in the first place.

We need to promote the idea that the traditional games were not simple empty-headed dungeon bashes, and to engender an environment where stunningly ignorant opinions like these and these are removed from gamer consciousness. (yeah, the more ridiculous assumptions were challenged there, but I just have this sinking feeling that people don't listen)

We need to make it seem normal for current and new gamers to pick up one of the traditional games and play it, for fun, and not for any sense of nostalgia, irony, or historical value.

That's the goal. Not to take the gaming world back, not to rule the world, but just to make sure there is that timeless quality to RPGs that never goes away.

"Right now we're disco, a garishly out of style trend from decades past, when we should be Deep Purple, or Black Sabbath, or Iron Maiden - classics that never died, no matter what the "reality" of public perception was during the darkest days, and are now again increasingly listened to by the young. An unbreaking continuity that cuts right through four decades of development."

I like that line. :)

Fourth, The Methods. This is the tough one. No one can agree on this. But I have a few ideas.

PLAY. Each and every person involved in this "Renaissance" had better be involved in a game at home. Seriously. If you're not actively playing one of these games yourself, I don't see how you have anything to say about wider popularity.

Publish. If you're so inclined. "Out of print" = "Dead Game" for the majority of gamers, and "out of sight, out of mind," is human nature. That sucks, and I believe that fighting this thinking is the first thing any movement needs to do. D&D was formed out of unfashionable influences in the first place, so bowing to current mindsets is a betrayal of what D&D is in the first place. Getting new stuff out there brings the idea that these are living games to the consumer at large and brings current thinking into the pool of traditional ideas. Traditional doesn't mean static or untouchable, it's merely an understanding of how to do things and how not to do things. But traditional also means that people make their own stuff up, and all the tools are already out there. Everyone has material they can publish, and nobody needs any of it. Get it out there however you like, and search out what you might want, but "publish" does not equal "consume." The goal is to get more people playing the games and to dispel ignorance (15' radius), not to sell stuff. Any movement that requires consumption just isn't worth it. If you don't want to publish on your own, contribute to Fight On! or something. But the creative should create.

Educate. When you see someone defaming traditional gaming, or are merely ignorant about it, correct them. Don't be a dick. Ask for specific sources for a viewpoint. If someone that has never read a single word written by Gary Gygax is spouting nonsense based on what he's heard from D&D haters, he needs to be exposed.

Come up with a flyer that can be downloaded and photocopied locally, promoting traditional gaming and maybe even newer products and stick them in local gaming and comic book shops and such.

Those are things that anyone can do. But there is a next level.

Organize. This is what's being attempted right now. Some people have ideas that they are moving forward. My big idea concerning organization:

We need some sort of central distribution/publicity equivalent to IPR. I believe that site helped "indie" games tremendously and we can learn a lot from that. This central point would be an online shop and a new outlet, linking to all sorts of things like reviews and such. (something like this is badly needed, since OSRIC's site hasn't been updated since January 2007 and is a dismal, dismal failure as either an information source or rallying point). Acting as a one-stop, it would be easier for everyone involved to get into retail. If individual publishers start seeing any sales at all from such a thing, they'll be more enthusiastic about it than we can stand.

NO MESSAGE BOARD or comment capabilities. The one thing that will kill this movement DEAD DEAD DEAD if it does indeed gain larger traction is to have casual gamers see our internecine squabbles. If someone sets up an "umbrella" type site, it needs to avoid all of that. Heavy moderation creates ill feelings, so just leave it out. In fact, it's best if the people running the thing aren't active on message boards and such at all, just because traditionalists are so damn sensitive.

Fifth, the branding. The common language of D&D isn't copyrighted. If it was, half the computer games of the 80s would have been targets for lawsuits. "Armor Class" and "Hit Points" have been used all over the place. "Strength" and "Intelligence" and "Wisdom" and "Dexterity" and "Constitution" and "Charisma" have been used in different games for decades now.

If we follow the thinking that a proper "revival" has to include a retail presence of traditional games, and I'm not sure it can, even if it should, then that's going to take money. Instead of developing a clone rulebook to sell in stores, couldn't that investment be put towards an IP lawyer who could be consulted to create a document that would detail what you can and can not do in a product for the purpose of slapping "COMPATIBLE WITH DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS" on the cover? (I do wonder if a worthwhile goal isn't to make enough noise and make a movement big enough that WotC releases a "D&D: Classic" line... or that it becomes a big enough bother that when they transition away from tabletop gaming altogether, they just release the IP. OK, that last one's a pipe dream but we should set our goals where we want them, not just where we maybe think we can somewhat achieve.)

The OGL "retro-clones" use the OGL to achieve their goal, and that's fine. The OGL is awesome for this purpose. But is it necessary? One thing the OGL does restrict it the ability to denote compatibility. You can not use the OGL to say that it's Dungeons and Dragons or that it can be used to say Dungeons and Dragons. Which to me is a problem with the goal of creating a generational cultural continuity from the origins of D&D (and role-playing in general). Sure, we know what's going on, but what about all these new (and especially young) gamers that we're trying to bring into the fold?

But if we believe that traditional games need a commercial face, and if we are giving up on using the D&D name directly, then something new needs to be made, or one of the existing simulacra needs to go fully commercial. There's a problem there - how can these things, especially if they're manufactured POD, compete commercially against the multitude of dirt cheap copies of the original D&D books floating around out there? I think there's a good reason they were made to be free.

Take the case of Castles & Crusades. It's basically AD&D, with some mechanical fiddliness that's pretty inconsequential, and certainly it's compatible beyond reasonable expectation with traditional D&D. They had Gygax and Kuntz and now have Jim Ward working for them. And it isn't good enough for traditionalists. (Hell, you could say the simulacrum movement was in large part a reaction against the failings of C&C.) Why? That needs to be examined and dissected before we think about throwing in with a new brand on store shelves that would replace the D&D name.

One thing the "proper" simulacra did that C&C did not is make everything OPEN. You don't need permission to use the OSRIC name, you know? There's a possibility for a movement there because there's the freedom to do it. C&C? Proprietary property, closed, not for the community. And the "Renaissance" is about the community, or it's about nothing.

We do need to come up with a collective name for these things that doesn't use the word "old" or "retro." Anything that directly states that these things are copies ("simulacrum" or "recreation") is probably a bad idea as well. It's tough, as we can't actually call these things what they are, but someone has to figure this one out in a way that doesn't misrepresent the games, but doesn't make them seem like museum pieces or cheap knock-offs either. I suggest OSRIC change the acronym to mean "Original System" rather than "Old School."

Sixth, What Does This Mean To You? This is the problem. It means nothing to you, because, as noted, you can play what you like without any regard for what's happening in the gamer community at large. Hell, doing that is what defines us in the first place. If there is to be a movement, it's going to be initiated and enacted by busybodies who are concerned with what everyone else is playing. We really are screwed, aren't we?


  1. You're dead-on with your comment about *playing*. (I said much the same thing here.) I think this is the #1 way, maybe the only viable way, to really spread traditional D&D. Hell, it's the whole point. Play and show people how much fun it is; if people are playing, everything else (a market, product support, etc) will follow.

  2. Man, those threads you linked to, I remember just being stunned by the ignorance on parade when they first popped up.

    Anyway, I disagree with your final point. Even if you you've got everything you need to play, it's great to be getting ideas from others, whether it's advice on a forum for new traps, or a new dungeon from the pages of an amateur magazine, or a book full of random tables to generate monsters. The more people who are playing these games, the more ideas will be whizzing around that are directly applicable to your own games. Sure, I can steal ideas from Paizo's Pathfinder adventures or convert rules from WotC splatbooks. But that's a lot of extra work and effort. I'd far rather be able to just pull wholesale from the pages of a magazine like Fight On! That sort of thing becomes more likely with a greater population of players playing the same way you do. And at the end of the day, how we play, I think, is more indicative of Old School than what we play.

    - Brian

  3. Of course I've got a vested interest now in hoping people want more stuff, and stuff can be good.

    But people don't need it.

  4. No, we don't need it. It's nice to have choices, though.

    I mean, when you get down to it, we don't even really need to play RPGs.

    I mean it, seriously.

    I can quit any time I want... ;)

    - Brian

  5. Another perceptive entry and an interesting continuation of the subject. I think it's worth noting that there is something of a gravitation amongst old schoolers back to OD&D, rather than BD&D or AD&D. The reasons are hard to gauge, but I think what it offers is a freedom from discrimination with regard to playing the game the way you want to. That we had to rename it OD&D instead of leaving it as D&D speaks volumes as to the power of branding and our desire to compartmentalise.

    I think an old school equivalent of the RPGA is an idea that really has legs, especially if enough interest can be generated in forming 'chapters' that are active in the community, loosely allied, but essentially autonomous. Finding a name to describe them (and thus give them meaning? Maybe we don't need a name at all? Maybe we could signify by symbol, colour or a big rea dragon?) is very difficult.

    A website as distribution point seems certainly necessary.