Friday, July 24, 2009

Is the OSR spread too thin?

Something has been bubbling in the back of my brain for a while now, relating to the OSR and what we've got to work with. The success that certain games have enjoyed on Lulu.com, and most recently in the Ennie awards, has brought it to the fore.

That is, I wonder if there's room in them thar hills for as many games as we currently enjoy. Would we perhaps be better served if we only had one game to carry the flag, rather than the surfeit of choices that we now have?

Personally, I prefer to just go with the originals (in my case, AD&D, but I have nothing against those who are playing with the LBBs, or the various incarnations of Basic), but I can-- grudgingly-- understand the attraction of a game that is being currently supported with new products. Rules sets, expansions, modules, settings, etc. I accept it. I would be willing to move to a new game that felt like the version of AD&D I play.

But functionally, is there really enough of a difference between Swords & Wizardry (2 versions!), Labyrinth Lord, Spellcraft & Swordplay, Epées & Sorcellerie (there's talk of an English edition), Microlite74, and doubtless one or two I've forgotten, to justify them all? OSRIC, perhaps, because AD&D was indeed a different game than 0E, but it hasn't really captured the OSR's imagination as it might have (for a variety of reasons, including, if I may say, a hundred dollar hardback on lulu. Are you nuts?) But even there, one could put out a supplement that changed an 0E emulator into a 1E emulator in one nice neat package. Still no need for a completely different game, different branding, and diluted effort.

I don't have any particular dog in the race, because I don't use any of the rules in question, and I buy supplements and adventure modules for them all (and convert them for my own AD&D game). But criminy! Are we not shooting ourselves in the foot by having so many games all essentially saying the same thing? Is there really so much that S&W left unsaid that required LL to be published? Or vice-versa? Couldn't six pages of house-rules have done the job?

Please understand, I am not trying to knock any rule set, author, or publisher. I am trying to point out that we can still let a thousand flowers bloom if there was a single OSR game out there, and people felt like they had the freedom to simply fold, staple, and mutilate it to match their heart's content. That's what folks did back in the so-called Golden Age. Thus was born Arduin, just to take one example, and umpteen articles in Dragon magazine. DMs would pick and choose, and change what they chose, according to what they wanted and needed. And it worked!

My ideal model would be to have a single stripped-down rules set that was 100% open game content under the OGL. A version akin to the three LBB's stripped-down, but still "supported" so there would be a unifying branding that could attract new (or old) players. Want to play where elves are a character race that can't switch between M-U and fighter? Someone will have a supplement for that. Maybe several someones. Want a skills system? Ditto. Cavaliers a-la Unearthed Arcana? Ditto. Monster books, adventures, and campaign settings? Ditto, ditto, ditto.

But the difference would be that we wouldn't have the artificial barricades between a half-dozen games, which amount to a distinction without a difference. If we of the OSR poured all our effort into a single brand, yet caused that single brand to embrace all the various versions and visions of the game, I think we would be much more successful, at least in a commercial sense, and possibly in a sub-sub-cultural sense as well.

Hell, I've run into this myself with my CotMA project. I considered branding it as a S&W product, or a LL product, or OSRIC, but then I realized that doing so would probably put off at least some of the people who play a different game. Not that the mechanics would be even an iota different, but there is that branding, and that means you've taken a side, and that turns off folks who've taken a different side.

It could be that this will happen naturally, as a result of a sort of commercial survival of the fittest. Eventually one title or brand will prove itself to be the survivor, and the OSR will gravitate around it. But it's also possible that the OSR will continue to fragment itself, dilute its brand identity (and therefore its ability to get into brick-and-mortar distribution chains, let alone non-gaming venues), and be relegated to the footnote of a footnote.

Personally, I'd like to see a different outcome. Thoughts?

26 comments:

Grendelwulf said...

"Please understand, I am not trying to knock any rule set, author, or publisher. I am trying to point out that we can still let a thousand flowers bloom if there was a single OSR game out there, and people felt like they had the freedom to simply fold, staple, and mutilate it to match their heart's content. That's what folks did back in the so-called Golden Age. Thus was born Arduin, just to take one example, and umpteen articles in Dragon magazine. DMs would pick and choose, and change what they chose, according to what they wanted and needed. And it worked!"

This is the 'ripping the pumping heart out of the chest and holding it in front of its owner part', right here! It is what made roleplaying unbound. Yes, there were rules...or at least guidelines...and imaginations were unfurled to sail in whatever direction the adventurers sought to go.

For myself, I never limited myself to any one ruleset. It's refreshing to give new systems a chance and see how my players would work within them. New games often give inspiration, or at least better appreciation of ones played before. Adaptation is the key. What do your players want or need? What do the DMs/GMs want and need? To play. Plain and simple.

If there were a bare bones OSR system for all to use, that would be terrific. As new directions are sought after, make the changes you need.

I think that is where the later editions of AD&D went astray. Possibly other game systems too. The powers-that-be tried to reinvent the wheel too many times. At first, some expansions were intended to be helpful, but eventually hurt the spirit of the game. Too many supplements telling everyone what could be added to their campaigns...to make it easier for the players and DMs, etc. The problem was it DID make it all too easy. Playing became an afterthought, it became a methodology of rote, coglike behavior. Too many rules spelled out to remember. Where was the flying by the seat of your pants feeling that kept everyone really engaged? It got buried somewhere, lost and sometimes even forgotten.

A back to basics would be a great thing. If not in actual ruleset, at least in mindset.

Approach it as the great treasure it once was and can be again...

Ciao!

E.G.Palmer said...

I worry a bit about the diffusion too. I'm also an AD&D guy, and I think we're getting a bit out of focus when I see people say they're playing S&W, or LL, or OSRIC instead of saying OD&D, Basic, or Advanced. I'm glad they are there as publishing vehicles, of course.

Dan of Earth said...

"But even there, one could put out a supplement that changed an 0E emulator into a 1E emulator in one nice neat package."

Check out Advanced Edition Characters for Labyrinth Lord when it comes out later in the summer.

"Is there really so much that S&W left unsaid that required LL to be published?"

Sorry, can't answer that because Labyrinth Lord came first. White Box is probably different enough. The S&W core rules, not so much, but different tastes and all that.

But to answer your question, yes, it will continue to fragment. Everyone likes to house rule, and now that it is so easy to release your own tweaked rules many, many people over the coming years will do so.

JimLotFP said...

Remember that the "OSR" is just a label for individual, largely unconnected efforts.

There is no "us," just a bunch of individual "me! me!" that happen to be close enough together for government work.

I agree that the world does not need even one more separate ruleset or game "brand," but under that thinking, there would be one, and just one, RPG *ever*: The original 1974 D&D edition. (not so horrible an outcome if we knew about it but I dare say there would be no real hobby today if that's all there ever was)

Or if we're talking clones, it would be Castles & Crusades. They were first.

It would be wonderful to be under one banner, one game, one brand, and have both that promotional and commercial focus. Trying to figure out what system to publish for has been a gigantic pain in the ass, and while I think I've come up with a compromise that is pleasing to me (fully statting for OSRIC/S&W/LL/and a couple others would result in 3e-looking stat blocks in both length and ugliness), it's going to make selling to those outside our immediate scene tough, as it's impenetrable (and I've talked to "general RPG fans" who can't figure out what all this stuff is or why it's different).

But the idea of consolidation or at least stopping the diffusion is impossible. Who'd get to choose which one? Who gets to tell the next guy that he shouldn't work on his very own version of the rules? And who could enforce it?

jamused said...

In Tonto's famous words, "What do you mean 'we', white man?"

Some people might think that it would be wonderful if there was only one game, one brand, one banner. I think that's a vision of a nightmarish hell that could only be worse if that single game and brand was D&D 4e. Frankly, even thinking about it as a "brand" is enough to make the gorge rise. The do-it-yourself aspect is the single most attractive thing about the hobby, and I'm pretty close to feeling that if you're not busy tinkering with your own version, or at least making your own world and adventures, you're not doing it right.

ancientvaults said...

One thing about multiple rules sets is that nobody can "pull up stakes" and ruin the show for the rest of us. There are enough established retro-clones to ensure that the genre and the tradition survives. I would rather see a glut than what we had years ago: none of these games. I would rather be spoiled for choice than have no choices at all.

Geoffrey said...

I sidestepped the whole issue by not explicitly tying Supplement V: CARCOSA to any of the retro-clones.

ze bulette said...

minor pick: complaining about a $100 hardback nonprofit print version of OSRIC and not mentioning the other less expensive options that start at about $11 for a 400 page book seems, well, not entirely fair. maybe you just missed it on lulu?

S'mon said...

I think there's not enough different product - we need a 2.5e clone, for folks who like that kind of thing! :)

David Macauley said...

ancientvaults said...One thing about multiple rules sets is that nobody can "pull up stakes" and ruin the show for the rest of us. There are enough established retro-clones to ensure that the genre and the tradition survives. I would rather see a glut than what we had years ago: none of these games. I would rather be spoiled for choice than have no choices at all.

I couldn't agree with this comment more. Behind the scenes shenanigans recently saw one clone publisher try to pressure another one to close his down, while at the same time try to pressure a third publisher to halt an upcoming clone before it was published.

We don't need a Lord Sauron with one clone to rule them all. We don't need one person dictating what he thinks the OSR and our game is all about.

On another issue, Dan above modestly overlooked mentioning his Original Edition Characters supplement, which allows 0e-style play with LL. The LL rules themselves of course cover Basic and his soon to be released Advanced Edition Characters will cover 1e-style play. That's pretty flexible for the one clone.

But I don't think having a range of rule sets is a problem. As you yourself said in your post:

"I buy supplements and adventure modules for them all (and convert them for my own AD&D game)."

...and so do most of the rest of us. I know I do.

Joseph said...

I think some overlooked what I consider a key point in the original post:

My ideal model would be to have a single stripped-down rules set that was 100% open game content under the OGL.

That would avoid the "pulling up stakes" argument, since the whole thing would be available to anyone, in perpetuity.

White Box is probably different enough. The S&W core rules, not so much, but different tastes and all that.

Which brings us to the original point. How does "different tastes" come into it when the rules are essentially the same?

ancientvaults said...

@ David Macauley: Somehow I don't believe that the "behind the scenes shenanigans" are that "behind the scenes" anymore.


@ Joseph: I did read your entire post, however, somehow, in some way, there would be a caveat I believe, if there was just one set of rules. Depending, of course, on the origin of that set of rules. In a way though, with the SRD, that is already in effect, with different interpretations out there. What is stopping anyone from making yet another simulacrum? Nothing whatsoever. Do we need just one more? I don't believe so, but I wouldn't discourage anyone.

I believe that the current lineup covers a lot of ground and many different approaches to retro-gaming, I just hope that the lines of division within the OSR don't go beyond what they already have, which, inevitably, they are bound to.

Dan of Earth said...

"Which brings us to the original point. How does "different tastes" come into it when the rules are essentially the same?"

Well, I suppose I was being polite. Does S&W offer anything that Labyrinth Lord doesn't? No, in fact LL is more "complete" from one point of view, but S&W does have various house rules that make it different. It isn't really a "clone" in the sense that LL and OSRIC are, even though it is advertised that way. Truly I'd say it has about the same relationship to OD&D as BFRPG has to B/X. So I suppose that is where the "tastes" issue comes into play.

Now, I'm not defending anyone, but the truth is that the OSR is splintered and will continue to be. I don't find that too surprising because that's the way it has been from the birth of RPGs onward.

Robert Fisher said...

This is such an old issue. It constantly comes up in the free software community. (Which has fragmented into nigh innumerable communities.) It was part of the idea used to sell the OGL and d20L to the suits. It’s come up in the OSR community before, and will again.

No doubt some Sumerians had the same discussion about something. ^_^

And, I suppose, it’s a good discussion to be had from time to time. So, here’s my take on it for the OSR:

1. It’s herding cats.

2. I have a hard time telling someone not to follow their bliss. OSR products are products of passion.

The moment OSRIC was out, I was thinking that we should merely adapt it in the same way that Original Edition Characters and Advanced Edition Characters have since adapted LL. Yet, I look at LL, and I see the passion. I would never tell Daniel that he wasted his time or hurt the community by creating LL. And didn’t LL inspire OSRIC 2?

3. It doesn’t matter. Pretty much all the pre-2000 editions of D&D—Advanced or not—and all the retro-clones based on them (plus Hackmaster 4th edition) are close enough that one can mix-and-match without serious problems.

(Heck, one of my groups used AD&D modules with GURPS, Rolemaster, Hârnmaster, and Fantasy Hero on-the-fly.)

If anything, I think point 3 is the one worth spending energy on. Let’s make sure that when people discover the OSR, this is one of the first things they come to understand.

Dan of Earth said...

@Robert

I agree with you. I think one of the problems is that for some reason many people seem to want something "official." There is a need for validation, to have "the one" game. That's why despite all the bitching on Dragon's Foot about WoTC, many people there would worship them if they re-released an old edition. At the same time, there is a rejection of OSRIC, LL, etc. because they are not "official." There is an idea that the only valid material has to come from the original staff from TSR, and most other things are invalid, not worth buying, etc.

Now we can add the complication, as silly as it may seem, of egos getting involved, and what was once in the spirit of openness and cooperation (a "we should stick together" attitude, if you will) is splintering that much more due to A) some people wanting there version to be the most popular, and B) people wanting the attention that comes with having your own game.

It isn't for me, of course, to dictate anything to anyone, but this is how I see it at at the moment.

PatrickWR said...

Another way of looking at it might be: "What parts of this hobby managed to stir the passions of not one, not two, but nearly a half-dozen OSR rules publishers?" Each of them saw some creative vein left untapped by their peers, and they offered up a product that was just a little bit different. It's really a sign of success that we can even have this discussion about which excellent, mostly free OSR ruleset to support.

ancientvaults said...

@Dan: I agree that some people want official, I would rather have well written, ready to run, and made with conviction and care. :)

I also agree that some of the attitudes get in the way and this will certainly only result in backlash.

David Macauley said...

Joseph said...I think some overlooked what I consider a key point in the original post:

My ideal model would be to have a single stripped-down rules set that was 100% open game content under the OGL.

That would avoid the "pulling up stakes" argument, since the whole thing would be available to anyone, in perpetuity.


I don't think anyone here missed your point Joseph. It would be wonderful to have a single set of modular rules that cleave as close as legally possible to the originals.

Joseph said...How does "different tastes" come into it when the rules are essentially the same?

The problem I guess is that the clone movement has evolved over time. At the start people were unsure how far they could push the envelope without getting into trouble with the company. Dan has got the closest so far. Sadly S&W, which came next, seems to have taken a few steps back on the path to a "pure" clone, but no doubt Matt had compelling reasons why he felt that necessary.

So while "tastes" come into it, you can't overlook the evolutionary process here, taken in context with the murky world of legalities and the sue-happy nature of the company in the past. Perhaps the one "pure" clone you want will happen one day. Maybe it just needs someone with the courage to do it.

However, having said that, this all overlooks the original purpose of the clones, which was to enable third party publishers to legally produce product compatible with the original games. That HAS been achieved and is a success. And as I pointed out at the end of my previous comment, and also by...

Robert Fisher said... 3. It doesn’t matter. Pretty much all the pre-2000 editions of D&D—Advanced or not—and all the retro-clones based on them (plus Hackmaster 4th edition) are close enough that one can mix-and-match without serious problems.

And probably the most important point to come out of this whole discussion:

Robert Fisher said...If anything, I think point 3 is the one worth spending energy on. Let’s make sure that when people discover the OSR, this is one of the first things they come to understand.

It really doesn't matter that there are lots of different clones, it really doesn't matter that there's not one "pure" clone. The clones have done their job, original editions compatible material is being published, the old games are still being kept alive and in print. As Robert points out, we just need to make sure people within and without of the OSR understand this most important point.

Joseph said...

Perhaps the one "pure" clone you want will happen one day. Maybe it just needs someone with the courage to do it.

Then indeed you have missed my point, or I have not stated it properly.

I am not looking for one "pure" clone. I am looking for one brand, period. It doesn't need to be "pure" or "official" or whatever.

The issue is practical. While LL has made it into the FLGS distribution chain (although last I heard that was no longer the case, but I've not kept up; is it back in stores?), it's my understanding that it's the only one that has made it. I think that such distribution is important.

Call me old fashioned (and in many ways I am) but I think having a game available on a shelf, able to be thumbed through and evaluated as a possible purchase, is important.

When it comes to distributors, I cannot help but think that having such a plethora of options is a down-side. Which one to choose? The same goes for store owners. Shelf space is precious, and if they can't figure out whether to buy LL or S&W or OSRIC, it's much easier to simply skip it altogether. And who benefits then?

I'm not looking for "purity". I'm looking for books on shelves. I'm looking for games at cons. I don't see that happening as things stand, and probably never.

But hey-- a guy can dream.

Alex Schroeder said...

I'm not worried because effectively what's happing is that people "fold, staple, and mutilate it to match their heart's content" -- and then publish it. Publishing is easier these days, and so more people do it. It's great.

Sure, it would be better for distribution if there was only one choice to make, but is that really what players want?

Even if we had that. Even if we had only Labyrinth Lord, with Original and Advanced character options. Somebody would come along and create Ronin character options. And Carcosa character options. And then others would publish adventures, with stat blocks for none of these, and people would be sad. Or they would publish them for option X, and people would be sad.

It seems to me that all of the alternatives I can think of are at least as bad as the current state of affairs. And when I think about it, it ain't so bad. I like it.

David Macauley said...

But it is happening Joseph, books are getting onto shelves. Sure, not in any great numbers, but more than one publisher of old school stuff has had their products in bricks and mortar shops, or are about to. It's a start, just a trickle even, but that's to be expected too.

Convincing distributors and store owners to stock products for what they would perceive as out of print systems is no mean feat, one made much easier if there is an established brand attached to the product, which is where the various clones come in. That this has been achieved is quite stunning actually.

This whole clone business is still relatively new and young. It's got to walk before it can run. I don't think the pace is unrealistic given the history and nature of the movement. And certainly some recent events suggest that the pace is picking up, such as clones in the ENies, OSR material topping Lulu's and RPGNow's most sold list, OSR print products selling out at Noble Knight, etc.

The even bigger challenge is communication. Making it clear to customers the compatibility between the clones themselves and back to the original games, so that they will then buy the OSR products, or at least use the free items available, helping to keep alive and grow our little niche corner of the hobby.

Robert Fisher said...

My FLGS has The Random Esoteric Creature Generator For Classic Fantasy Role Playing Games
And Their Modern Simulacra
on the shelf. They’ve carried XRP’s Advanced Adventures line too. (Oddly enough, I didn’t ever see LL there ever.) They have a display featuring “indie” RPGs, along with signs that explain a bit about what that means. I could easily see them having such a display for “old school” RPGs at some point.

While it would be awfully nice to get everyone together under a single umbrella banner—even if it was nothing more but a unifying brand, my experience tells me that’s not the best use of anyone’s energy. Not a good ROI there. Yes, the OSR is spread too thin, but...you know...herding cats.

There are so many things that each individual can directly do to help the “movement”. I believe those things have a bigger pay-off per unit of energy. And, at the same time, do what we can to mitigate the lack of that umbrella

Zzarchov said...

I find the logic of the post confusing because it draws an artificial line around the OSR community. Could one not say "stop publishing retroclones. Just play current D&D and then houserule to get what you wanted so you don't fragment the D&D community"

The obvious answer being "But we don't want to do that". The idea to unify is a natural human one, but its a selfish one.

If others like S&W or LL or Mazes and Minotaurs or whatnot, then good for them.

If you can't jury rig another modules or statbook to work in your game then how would you manage to staple in rules?

Mark said...

Play games. Have fun.

Matt Finch said...

Who is trying to pressure people with the shenanigans? I've heard this mentioned a couple of places, and also lots of comments that the "competition" between the publishers is getting out of hand. I assume we're talking about something that happened with Brave Halfling (not the decision to go back to LL, I mean that Coleston mentioned something about an email that was sent to him, and that he didn't publish his Holmes clone)?

BTW - about the stripped down OGL framework, that actually fits all of three of these clones: BFRPG, LL, and S&W. Each has an open license to use the name as well (each with different restrictions), but I think all three games themselves are entirely OGL.

I know LL and S&W offer a text version of the rules for cutting and pasting (I bet BFRPG has this too, I just don't know for sure).

As to the differences between S&W and 0e, I agree that S&W backed off from the OSRIC level of cloning Stuart did - that's because I don't want to get sued (I am an easier target in the USA than Stuart is in the UK). The game is still completely compatible with the original supplements and resources; the only disconnects would exist if one person at the table is using the original rules for character generation and another is using the S&W rules for character generation. Which also tends not to be a big issue with 0e, where there's not really an "official" original version anyway - between optional rules, references to the use of Chainmail, and pick-and-choose supplements, there is no canon version of an official 0e set of rules.

Jason said...

Also, I'd say that S&S is significantly different than any of the other old school games, at least in terms of system. It's absolutely NOT another clone of OD&D, nor do I view myself in competition with any of the other old school publishers. Indeed, a lot of people have taken elements from S&W, S&S, and LL to make their own homebrew, which I'd venture is the end result of exactly what the OSR is all about.