Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Taking Back the Night

Hmm, it feels interesting to have a point to make without going into the "writing zone." (I'm completely phased out when writing most of my more colorful rants... and I read them back later and think, "Wow, I agree with everything this guy is saying... but he's completely out of his mind," as if it's a completely different person that wrote it...)

But yesterday, I read one of Grognardia's pieces that twisted me the wrong way a little bit. I agreed with most of it. Yes, we're a niche, and no, we're not going to make any money at this. But the statement, "Barring some utterly unpredictable turn of events, the old school renaissance simply won't have much impact beyond those of us who are already involved in it," really struck me as... defeat. The sense of resignation was probably made worse by the fact that the post was the subject of a several day build-up that had me hitting "refresh" quite frequently in anticipation. (and don't you love my linking to posts over there as if there's one single person that reads me but not him...)

I can't agree with the quoted statement. It doesn't make any sense, at least in terms of a renaissance.

First of all, it would make the simulacra games completely pointless. If us "old-schoolers" are all the people being reached by these things... why are we setting aside the real things to play the almost-but-not-quite-the-same recreations?

If the "old school" style is completely irrelevant and out of focus and completely unfeasible in the marketplace, why have companies like Goodman Games and Necromancer Games marketed their primary product lines as having that "old school" feel?

If the "old school" style is completely irrelevant and out of focus and completely unfeasible in the marketplace, why is it so? Why couldn't that be fixed?

I believe there are several barriers keeping the classic games from being truly part of the contemporary RPG scene.

The first, and most important, is that there is a rather large corporation backing and promoting a game called "Dungeons and Dragons" that has a vested interest in making sure that their version of Dungeons and Dragons is the version of Dungeons and Dragons. If 4e had merely been a clean-up and reorganization of 1E (or Mentzer, or oE, or whatever), it still would have been the runaway biggest seller in RPGs, and it still would have been the subject of mass complaints of "This isn't what I want in D&D," and there'd still be this Pathfinder thing in development and... and... and. It was a conscious decision to pull in a different direction.

The market for traditional releases is completely unproven. All we've had so far are essentially hobby releases available through mail order, with the few exceptions not exactly having the marketing budget of champions. Nobody that's an influential and visible player in the market will take the plunge and publish OSRIC, or even a straight OGL "1E" product as anything more than a convention curiosity. But nobody wants to stick their neck out and be the first "legitimate" player to "legitimize" this clone stuff.

But if we can take an example from the music industry (since it too is subject to a ridiculous swing in trends), we have a situation where Iron Maiden is a bigger name now than they have ever been, in terms of chart placement for their new albums as well as concert ticket sales, without changing anything to become modern or in-fashion. In fact, their darkest period after they became famous was when they were more with-the-times, and today fashion has come back around for them. Metallica (somehow) managed to never fall off the face of the Earth despite wild stylistic swings, but their new album, as much a throwback to the classic days as one could really hope for from them, dominates the charts worldwide. Now obviously these bands both have a long and storied history (not as long as D&D), and are backed by major corporations (which D&D has had for what, only the most recent 25% of its history?).

But the groundwork for all their new success wasn't just laid by their past glories. Their new success is merely the igniting of the flame kept burning by the faithful during the dead years. The ones who didn't accept where the "industry" was going. The ones that made their own records and formed their bedroom record labels and distribution networks and crowded five+gear into a van and toured around. They built an infrastructure that worked, and when Iron Maiden "got the band back together," the table was perfectly set for the feast to come, by people who had nothing to do with Iron Maiden or the companies that promote and sponsor them. So now, when you go see Iron Maiden in a packed-out arena (or stadium, here in Europe), you're not just seeing the aging old guard, you're not just seeing the kids who are showing up because it's the cool thing. You're seeing thousands that are into the whole culture, that like Iron Maiden but also a laundry list of bands and songs that virtually nobody else has heard of, or will ever hear of, because there's too many petitioners and only so much time available in the sun. I hate "scenes" because my allegiance and respect and sympathies are usually with these struggling entities and it's often blind luck or commercial factors having no relation to actual talent or creativity that determines who "advances," but the infrastructure that a scene provides is the key to publicity and influence and making a difference in your chosen creative outlet.

So no, time can't turn back but fortunes can reverse and tides can turn and we don't have to be resigned to any fate or niche at all. The stage is being set for greater things, but we're moving along slowly. It started with the websites and the sharing of free material. If the Grognardia commentary linked above had been written in and for those times, then I could agree. But we've moved on.

Things moved to the next step with the introduction of actual printed products in the past two and a half years and people investing in their work and asking other people to invest in it as well. Remember that the simulacrum raison d'ĂȘtre in the first place was the enabling of these publishing efforts. And now this has been bubbling around and now one of these "clones" has made headway into distribution and products still trickle out from different quarters at a steady pace.

But we are struggling to reach that next step. I think there is much we can learn from the Forge and/or Storygames communities as far as organizations go. In many ways their games are the antithesis of what the traditional community strives to achieve, but their methods are no doubt a success. It's possible (but not bloody likely) for a release from that scene to sell in the thousands. Their presence and jargon has influenced (some may say degenerated) online conversation to the point where it is ubiquitous. They built their own methodologies and co-ops and distribution and publicity methods and now they're increasing available out in the "real" business world of retail.

We can do the same thing. Just because "Dungeons and Dragons the way it used to be," isn't likely to ever going to dominate gaming again (which may be a good thing considering how many of us didn't quite "get it" back in the day), doesn't mean we should be satisfied to stay in our nostalgia/throwback ghetto. There is more to do, more that is possible. Maybe the current crew involved isn't interested in doing that legwork (I know I'm not the guy to lead this thing, and I'm sure a few of you are stifling a few giggles at the very thought), but there is someone out there with the interest in traditional gaming, the knowledge of "real world" business, a little money to burn, and the savvy to start making a dent. All it takes is that one person to show that yes, it is possible to do this and be viable, and others like him will follow. Those of us that want to be uninvolved and just sit in our caves and play our games will still be perfectly free to do so, and we might just have a few more people to play with to boot.

"Castle Zagyg, OSRIC Edition" would be a fine trigger. Or even "WotC Presents: Castle Greyhawk, Collector's Classic D&D Edition." But nobody's going to give us the spark that gets this engine rolling. It won't come from on high.

All the noise we're making down here in the underground is growing, and it can soon be a roar... we needn't fear the light.


  1. Perhaps I wasn't clear: anything you read as "defeatism" is simply my way of telling the old school community "Don't get your hopes up." That's not to say we dare not hope or dream that our efforts will reach more than those it currently reaches. I know for a fact that I've reached quite a few people through my blog that otherwise had little or no experience of old school gaming. I also know that some folks involved in the creation of new games read it and pay attention to what my commenters and I say. It's possible some of those new games might include some "old school DNA" in them that will ultimately expose a wider audience to the ideas and play style we all cherish.

    I don't think it's defeatist, though, to recognize that a) D&D's past popularity was a faddish fluke that can't be willed into happening again and b) there are no guarantees when it comes to trying to change tastes. The best we can do is to create the products we want to create for ourselves and for those who share our tastes and make them accessible to those not already in our community. It's remotely possible that accessibility will spark a wider interest, but it'd be foolish to expect that it will or that there's some plan of attack that will assure such an outcome. That's a recipe for disappointment and too many people are already disappointed in how the old school renaissance is panning out.

  2. Well the 'old school revival' as you put it is what has brought me back. I no longer have most of my old D&D/AD&D 2ed. books. Some of them are at my parents place in boxes, but many have likely been sold in garage sales by now. Unfortunately. This christmas when I visit them I'm bringing any left back with me.

    The revival can and will work. Its not going to surpass 4ed in any way in terms of player base or sales. However, it is going to bring a lot of people who had left gaming back to it. Its also going to cause some people who get tired of a ruleset that works best for video games, and will look and see what came before it, and if its possible to still play these.

    The main driver, I imagine, of most in developing new-oldstyle systems, is because its too hard for somebody to enter (or return to) the RPG gaming world today to get the original books. You can still go to gaming cons and find some, and even play OD&D, but outside of that and places like EBAY, its not so easy.

    As long as people have realistic expectations, and a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, no disappointment should be had. But an unrealistic vision like making OD&D style gaming, the primary way of sword & sorcery gaming, could lead to disappointment and an implosion of the "scene."

  3. As I mentioned over in the comments following James' post, I really would like to see an Old School Gaming booth at Gen Con Indy. There are a lot of gamers out there still rocking old editions who don't follow much online, and it could really expand the exposure and impact of a lot of old school products to a crowd probably quite receptive to them. And it would be fun, I think. :)

    We have resources, and there are ways to reach out to other gamers without being shills or annoying, in a way that's enjoyable. If the indie gaming folks could do it, so can the old schoolers.

  4. I'm a modern gamer. A few months back, I started becoming more interested in old-school gaming. A month ago, I became essentially an old-school gamer.

    My company is now working to produce a new RPG in the same vein as, but with a different system than, the old D&D boxed sets.

    It's called Vox Draconis, if you're interested.

  5. Honestly, you know what half the problem seems to be?
    Dungeons and Dragons.
    No joke. I can't stand it. That probably means that there's other people who don't like it either - people, who, like me, like the idea of old school gaming (or might like the idea of old school gaming), and simply aren't enamoured with the execution. People who read blogs like this one, and Grognardia, and all the rest, and enjoy them thoroughly, but find that their experiences simply don't mesh with those of the authors.

    One thing I remember reading, perhaps on the Goblinoid Games forum, was someone pointing out that some other guy at 4chan thought Mutant Future was awesome. Although I'm well aware that's an isolated case, I also note that MF gets some 75,000 Google hits, compared with Labyrinth Lord's 61,000 (I tried OSRIC too, but most of the results seem pretty irrelevant). It just seems to me that there's more interest being taken in the former than the latter, which is more slavishly adapted (you knew that).

    I am building up to something, by the way. It's this: this is the OLD SCHOOL revival, not the D&D revival. There are other clones being made which should be of as much interest to people who are looking to expand the scene - sorry for using such a loaded term, but I am trying to use it in a neutral fashion - as LL or BFRPG or OSRIC, and considerably more so for those of us who aren't especially interested in the aforementioned, but are getting piss all support.
    Who's heard of Mariner? It was a Classic Traveller clone which was relocated to the high seas of Earth, circa now. What a great idea. But it looks like development has crashed and burned. Why didn't anyone talk about it? It was interesting and original, but no-one seemed to care.

    Look, when it comes down to it, the whole 'old school revival' just seems to be about one thing. D&D.
    It's omnipresent on the blogs and forums - indeed, most of them never seem to talk about anything else. And then you wonder why terms like 'nostalgia' get bandied about by your detractors, when all you guys seem to be interested in is the one game you enjoyed most as kids.
    Unless the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming has lied to me, its the gameplay that you lot love, not just the game. And that's what you need to promote to reach an audience, because its independent of genre. Some of us are a bit sick of dungeons and their various denizens, you know? But you might be able to convince us to play a game of Boot Hill or Twilight: 2000 or Call of Cthulhu or Star Frontiers or ...

    Oh yeah, if anyone's on the therpgsite.com's forums and your interest was piqued by Mariner, would you send a PM to Ian Absentia asking about how development's going? I don't want to join up just to do that one thing. Cheers!

  6. Shit, I am thick. Mariner was a rubbish example as I just remembered it uses the ORE system rather than a Trav clone one. Should have done my refreshed my memory first, instead of just copying the bookmark I made.
    What a numbskull.

    Also, one of the most hateful modern trends is describing a ruleset as an 'engine.'

  7. I couldn't agree more with your post, with respect to the potential for growth and development of this niche of the hobby. I made a post about it not too long ago, and I nearly went into a tangent about the return of Led Zeppelin and the new AC/DC album hitting stores. I'm not sure if that was a fair comparison, so I didn't include it. But I think the point is that these kinds of things have staying power for a reason. Metal isn't dead. PC gaming isn't going away any time soon. And while D&D probably won't be the next GTA, it's going to keep chugging along so long as people keep playing it.

    To do that, we need to introduce this style and these games to the younger generation. Without new people, we're doomed to suffer some sort of inbreeding depression.

  8. >>Dungeons and Dragons.

    If that's the problem, I certainly don't have a solution. I'm not interested in Mutant Future because the genre holds nothing for me. Playing Car Wars would be enough, since the car chases at the end of the Mad Max movies are all that excite me. Westerns, don't much care. Sci fi? I'd play it (Traveller!), but certainly have not run it or have much to say on how a campaign should look... Same with horror/Cthulhu stuff.

    It's fantasy that gets my imagination going to create, and imagine, and to see what happens. I'm not saying that the other genres (and games) you mention are worthless, but they hold no special place for me, and it has to be left to other people to talk about them.

    (not to mention there doesn't seem to be much of a controversy over most of these other games, Traveller excepted maybe, over what the "real" version is or what the meaning of the game is or how it's been hijacked over time... really, if you want to play Boot Hill, there's not going to be some jackass showing up expecting and demanding to use feats or "at wills" and stuff like that.)

    >>People who read blogs like this one, and Grognardia, and all the rest, and enjoy them thoroughly, but find that their experiences simply don't mesh with those of the authors.

    I suspect a lot of people's experience's haven't... this blogging deal isn't merely an exercise in reporting facts, it's about exploration and discovery, and my interest and understanding and enjoyment of the game of Dungeons and Dragons has expanded greatly since I started reading the blogs... it can give an entirely new perspective and that perspective can definitely change how the game is experienced at the table.

  9. James M: I also know that some folks involved in the creation of new games read it and pay attention to what my commenters and I say.

    He's right.

    James M: It's possible some of those new games might include some "old school DNA" in them that will ultimately expose a wider audience to the ideas and play style we all cherish.

    I for one hope so. But things are very different than they were back in the day. How do you advertise an 'old-school simulacrum'? It's like threading a needle. The clones are safe. But when you start getting creative, your own interpretation is likely going to step on the sensibilities of what another might consider 'the essence of old-school'. It might be too retro for newcomers, or too new-fangled for old-schoolers.

    Personally, I think clones are appreciated by those that experienced the original in a way that isn't shared by newcomers. On the other hand, old-school simulacrum can be appreciated by newcomers, but are unlikely to ever cause a rally amongst the elders.

    Still, I do not feel the cause is hopeless.

  10. Certainly the elitist attitude of some, and the use of 'old school', will turn away some.

  11. Jim:

    Well, I wasn't trying to pressure you or anyone else into talking about things which you have no interest in (this is my favourite 'old school' blog because of your passion, maaaan!). But the old school community does need to diversify for its long term health. Grognardia touchs on this in part four of the Carcosa review, albeit in a more articulate manner than I did.

    I guess it's more the 'elitist' thing mentioned above. The old school sometimes comes across as a bunch of guys who say, 'THIS is the game we play, THIS is how we play it, and THESE are the themes we explore.' Not too welcoming, really.

  12. I think Lord Rocket has it right. If you want an Old School Revival the first thing you have to do is get rid of D&D. D&D has too much negative baggage (some of it deserved). Easy to say now, (but I only got into it recently) that why I think LOTFP is leading the OSR. It's old school but it's not quite D&D. It's edgier, newer, more daring and more dangerous. It respects the past but doesn't ape the past. This is the type of thing that will make the OSR matter - something new that still plays like Old School.

    FWIW my experiences with D&D were all horrible also.. I fell in love with roleplaying and other RPGs, but D&D was stale very quickly and I think that old dude smell is the thing that will keep the OSR in the ghetto.