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More on OSR

Neither new nor improved, but that may be OK

Not long ago, I admitted my ignorance over the OSR fuss. Some patient readers provided some reasoned responses, mostly about getting back to the game's roots, championing simplicity, and having less time to play. Well and good, but do they suit my evil plans?

Rebuttals from a Curmudgeon

My skeptical nature forces me to discard anything given at face value, and none of the arguments in favour of the OSR stands up to the fact that, if you really want to get back to the game's roots, you should just play the original game.

For example, the quest for simplicity is valid. Though I strongly believe that in the context of OSR, when people say "simple," what they really mean is "flexible." Simple gives you a set of rules that are easy to learn; flexible makes them useful. Besides, every OSR proponent I've read already knows the rules, and since every OSR game is a regurgitated version of an existing system, a gentle learning curve isn't a selling point.

That said, flexibility is required to accommodate the players' imagination and the GM's creativity. If the stuff you want to make up doesn't fit into the rule system, you either tweak the rules or find another system. But, by definition, the retro-clones are no more flexible than the originals, so I'm not seeing this as a selling point, either.

Less time is a quantifiable rationale. Follow me on this: A recent discussion on Goodman Games' forum touches on OSR's footprint. One contributor suggests that the top three RPG "platforms" for Goodman Games customers are 3.5, 4E, and some flavour of retro-clone. There's no data given to back this up, but I assume it's based on sales numbers and, intuitively, I suspect it's generally true. This is interesting.

If the age of the retro-clone's audience trends toward 25+ (a demographic traditionally ignored by TSR, then WotC), then you're talking about people with full-time jobs, family, kids, night school, etc. In all, people for whom game time is a commodity; it's natural for them to gravitate toward familiar games they can play with little prep and no indoctrination.

But, again, by definition, retro-clones are already familiar territory for the age 25+ audience. Because of subtle nuances introduced in retro-clone rules, one might actually spend a bit more time getting up to speed. Certainly, any time-savings enjoyed would be slightly less than that of the original games. Small point, but I'm building up to something here.

OSR proponents will quickly point out that they have to play retro-clones because the original games are unobtainable—maybe you get lucky on eBay or your neighbour's garage sale, but that's about it. Thanks to the Chicken Little, who heads up WotC's Ministry of Benighted Marketing, you can't even buy PDF versions of the the out-of-print D&D stuff.

And this seems to have hit old school gamers right in the dice bag. Since every piece of original D&D material on the planet has been raptured by Jesus Christ Himself, OSR is stronger than ever. Last week, the S&W boxed set sold out before it even hit the shelves. RPGNow, Lulu, and scores of blog sites are replete with S&W- and LL- compatible chotchkies. The titles are winning awards. It seems that few, if any, have tired of The Overlord's new clothes.

I Could be a Jaded Ass

All of this seems a little off to me, and I'm tempted to reach cynical conclusions about OSR. Like, the formula for RPG success is to slavishly replicate someone else's work, provided one applies token alteration under the aegis of the OGL. Or that originality was fine for the Old Masters, but not so important today. Or even that innovation is best left for those who'd rather design games than play them.

Spear and Spell

Spear & Spell?

Then I'm reminded of what Robert Weber said in response to my original post. To paraphrase, OSR is (among other things) about sharing old school stuff without fear of reprisal from WotC. Good point. The ability to create, distribute, and sell under the OGL is liberating.

But I'm not convinced it's that cut-and-dried. Could there be some hidden motivations?

Like being prolific. You know that bookshelf stuffed with all the cool D&D stuff you wrote in college? Well, trot it out, because it's easy to adapt it to OSR, assuming you have to make any changes at all. But you don't need the OGL to share--my OD&D site, breeyark.org, has been online in various incarnations since 2001 with not so much as a Cease and Desist from WotC.

How about profit? You know that bankers box stuffed with all the cool D&D stuff you wrote in college? Well, now you can sell PDF versions of the whole lot. But be wary: if there was any money to be made, WotC wouldn't have pulled all the out-of-print xD&D PDFs from the marketplace.

Maybe it's about good, old-fashioned revenge. You know that Trapper Keeper stuffed with all the cool D&D stuff you wrote in college? Back in the '90s, TSR would have brutalised you like a 1st-level magic-user for merely posting it on the Usenet. But now you can sell near-carbon copies of out-of-print material under their own OGL and demonstrate--quantitatively--how much better you are at game design and marketing than WotC.

Why it's OK

Personally, I'd go for revenge, but that's only because my heart is sometimes two sizes too small (and because I really do think WotC should be kicked in the fiscal nuts until they start coughing up Magic cards).

Lest I sound overly harsh, I hasten to point out that I am all about playing old school. I like loose rules, group interpretation, fast play, and sandbox campaigns. I think rolling up characters should take less than 15 minutes. I believe that a book of random tables is always better than a boxed set of scripted adventure. I believe the hobby grows as we innovate, just as the game's fun increases when we share ideas.

That said, I do balk at the idea of repacking old material and pretending it's new or improved or original in any way. At best, I can say that the OSR (in its present state) has nothing to offer me. At worst, it's just a shade north of plagarism, and I'm baffled as to how (1) gamers prefer it over the originals or (2) WotC lets it go on.

But they do let it go on. In fact, so long as the OGL remains a legally binding document, they encourage it. And that's the OK part. I submit that WotC will never, in their arrogant, laughable idiocy, cotton on to the fact that their OGL is costing them money. Every game published by a member of their potential market and sold under the OGL is another game whose profits they'll never see.

If S&W (however flawed I think it is) can sell out before its official release date, it means that WotC have missed yet another opportunity. Which gladdens my black heart. If gamers are happily rolling dice to the tune of S&W, LL, or OSRIC, then WotC can sit in the corner and think about what they did. Like, for example, why are we ignoring the 25+ year-old market who has more disposable income than the 15-year-olds we're aiming 4E at?

When WotC no longer represents a profitable extension of Hasbro, the OGL may change, but it probably won't go away. Given the sheer volume of OGL material out there, you may see OSR continue as a parallel D&D niche. If the OSR truly is bringing in new blood (as its proponents assert it is), then current OSR titles will become the new old-school. And so it goes.

So, in my own, acerbic way, while I continue to struggle with OSR's popularity, I do see its value in shaking the foundations of Big Dice, making WotC think a little harder about serving the markets they persist in ignoring, and hopefully being better gaming citizens. We'll see.

What do you think?


Spear & Spell cover image provided by Greg MacKenzie.

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  1. amp108
    January 20th, 2010 at 23:53 | #1

    WotC “lets it go on” because they don’t have a choice. Game rules can’t be copyrighted. See http://www.gamesdiner.com/2009/08/game-rules-arent-protected-by-law and http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl108.html for more on this.

  2. spiralbound
    January 20th, 2010 at 23:57 | #2

    Well said. Another possible benefit of OSR is that it’s shiny newness and it’s (mildly) controversial nature will bring attention to that style of play, which will appeal to a given segment of gamers and thus propagate more gaming in all it’s varied forms. No matter what the rules or style of play, so long as there are character sheets and dice in use, I’m happy.

  3. Nextautumn
    January 21st, 2010 at 00:26 | #3

    First of all, great post. Really made me think about my own motives. Here’s what I think, for whatever it’s worth: I think the OSR is using clones like S&W and LL to produce a whole slew of totally original and highly creative, quality material for people who like the flexible style of play you describe. And I honestly believe that a lot of it is better than the stuff it’s riffing on – for instance, I’d rather have a copy of Rob Conley’s Wilderlands setting supplement than Arneson’s Blackmoor (though I love the latter). I think the community is a friendly and thoughtful venue for the creative exchange of ideas. I think some people are making a little money now and they or others may one day make more – even if that’s not their goal. And I think we DO want WotC to notice the demographic they’ve ignored. Finally, as Dan Proctor recently pointed out on his blog, it’s a tribute.

  4. justaguy
    January 21st, 2010 at 01:11 | #4

    A lot of my thought process on those whole can be summed up with… I don’t care. Now I don’t really mean that dismissively (as it comes off, I know) as much as literally. I can’t be angry at WotC about their choices becasue, I don’t care. I either have, or did not want anyways, the PDFs they pulled… I’m not a publisher, nor did I avail myself of the vast majority of the OGL bounty, so changes to it don’t really effect me. I realize this is a self centered view point, but meh, ultimately that aspect of stuff is just not something I can get worked up about. And I tend to feel that people who seriously hate WotC and want to see it die aren’t really giving full consideration to what that means to the hobby in general. I don’t think killing the 800lb gorilla in the niche market is going to help us, so much as it’ll stink up the niche for awhile.

    I will also say that as a 35 year old gamer, I don’t feel ignored by WotC. They might be focusing on a younger gamer, but ignored? Nah. Again maybe I’m just not angry enough at them to feel that way.

    And unless the research has changed in the past year, I’m pretty sure that the disposable income thing skews towards the teenagers. Yeah, 25+ probably have more /income/, but they also tend to have more responsibilities. Student loan payoffs, kids, mortgages, etc. and they don’t have parents footing the bill.

  5. January 21st, 2010 at 03:37 | #5

    >>But be wary: if there was any money to be made, WotC wouldn’t have pulled all the out-of-print xD&D PDFs from the marketplace.

    Even if there is no money to be made on the Big Game Publisher level, there is money to be made on the small-scale. I have ambitious plans and have spent more than I’ve made so far, but I grossed around $4500 in the last 5 months of 2009 with very little distribution. This S&W White Box, by my rough estimates since I’m not a BHP insider, is generating a 4-figure profit for its publisher, or very nearly so. And the market is only growing, and as more of these things do get on store shelves, the potential for a real share of the market is there.

    >>In fact, so long as the OGL remains a legally binding document, they encourage it. And that’s the OK part. I submit that WotC will never, in their arrogant, laughable idiocy, cotton on to the fact that their OGL is costing them money.

    WotC does fully realize that, which is why 4e has the much more restrictive GSL and is not released under the OGL.

    However, the OGL is non-revokable, and any changes to it may be completely ignored since the original license states that any version of the OGL can be used, so… they’re stuck with it now.

  6. January 21st, 2010 at 11:32 | #6

    Ok, then, the disposable income thing may skew towards the teenagers but I also think that 25+ crowd is getting larger and every day older and older players are taking over the market … people who already have no student loans to pay off and may actually share the games with their own children so this could be seen as a family investment. I know many a gamer in his 30s and 40s!

  7. January 21st, 2010 at 21:04 | #7

    @amp108 : True, rules cannot be copyrighted, but that provision significantly predates the OGL. What strikes me is that the OGL grants access to IP that TSR used to protect vigorously. What I’m asking is: given the potential profit losses caused by the OGL, why would WotC continue to allow it?

    James answers this by pointing out that the OGL is non-revokable. WotC has no choice but to sleep in the bed they made.

    @justaguy : I wish I had your Zen mindset. ;)

    I don’t want to see WotC fail, but I do wish they would pay some attention to non-4E gamers. Ask OSR people what they like and what they want, find out where the 25+ segment is at, launch a line of “OSR-compatible” material. It isn’t a stretch for them to make the OGL work for them again. Unless WotC’s intent is to orphan it as a goodwill measure, which may or may not be good – I need more information before reaching a conclusion on that one.

    @James Edward Raggi IV : What I should have said was, I don’t think WotC will cotton on to how much profit the OGL is actually costing them. I had similar thoughts when the OGL was new, but the landscape was different then, because 3rd-party publishers were cranking out 3E stuff right alongside WotC. With respect to the OSR, the OGL isn’t augmenting WotC’s line–it’s competing with it.

    I’ll admit that accusing WotC of ignoring me (as a 38-year-old gamer) is somewhat hypocritical–after all, I’m not paying a lot of attention to them. But looking at WotC’s web site and product lines, it’s clear that they’re concentrating chiefly on 4E. I’m suggesting that they embrace OSR rather than ignore it. After all, it’s being published under their license. One would think they’d have an interest.

    Four figures for a few months of indie publishing is impressive, by any standard. While you state that you’re spending more than you’re earning, I’ll hazard a guess that your operating costs are much lower than WotC’s. For the effort and overhead required to produce a smattering of OSR titles, I can’t see why WotC wouldn’t want a finger in the OSR pie.

  8. Greg MacKenzie
    January 22nd, 2010 at 09:37 | #8

    My take on the OSR is that the OGL was not intended or designed to allow the near plaigerism of the old TSR product line but to allow authors to legally create supporting materials for the 3E of the D&D rules thereby increasing the 3E market share. That things have developed in an unforseen direction and what consequences will be forthcoming from the OSR has yet to be seen. That the OSR has not yet been tested in a court case is due to factors we can’t even begin to imagine. Misuse of the terms of the Open Game License may provide legal grounds for a lawsuit(s). WOTC may well be able to, and rightly so, demand and derive royalties from any intellectual property they can clearly demonstrate belongs to them. I’m sure that won’t be a popular opinion.

    Another point, OSR is not really a “new” market. It’s essentially the same niche market of people who were previously able to legally buy PDFs of the old TSR product line. Withdrawing them from the market was a tactical mistake in my opinion. Where WOTC could have continued to draw income from this niche now that money is going elsewhere. My opinion is WOTC should not have said no to people who want to pay them money.

    Personally, I’d love to see an official WOTC re-issue of the “white box”, including the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements. Why, because if you like that game there is no substitute for the real thing. S&W is a sad attempt really overall in view of the original White Box D&D content which it seeks to emulate. Free rules do not necessarily equate with good rules in my book.

    On the other hand Labyrinth Lord does a much better job of capturing the feeling and essence of Basic D&D as an old school revival clone. If someone were looking for a clone of Basic D&D and wanted free rules it is as good as it gets.

    An old geezer like me will simply trot out his old rules but my kids (now age 23+ adults) are unlikely to go out and buy the old rules off of the net when they can download a game like Labyrinth Lord for free. For them, it is about sharing a little of what they remember playing with Dad when they were teens. What will they play with their own children in 10-12 years time?

    For a developer of a new game the OGL and OSR are a bit of a problem. You can release product to take advantage of the current interest or you can continue on with what you yourself are interested in. One thing is for sure. The OGL/OSR Genie is out of the bottle now, what will eventually come of it all is hard to guess at.


  9. January 22nd, 2010 at 15:16 | #9

    I think nostalgia is still undersold in understand the OSR. Part of the problem is what there is nostalgia for. It’s not just for being 13 but being part of a community. In fact, I’m not sure it is nostalgia per se but an attempt to get into what we were too young to be part of.

    Most of the OSR seems to be 35-45. We weren’t writing all those great letters to The Dragon or all those cool articles. We were printing our own Xeroxed supplement and selling it in a baggie, but damn we wished we were.

    The nostalgia of the OSR is for being part of the community when the perceived distance from the pros and the guys in their basements wasn’t large and when the hobby was a creative hobby for adults not something kids did.

    I can’t completely discount revenge but I still think the desire to have been part of a vibrant (to our eyes 30 years later at least) DIY culture is a big part of it.
    .-= Herb´s last blog ..Wow… =-.

  10. January 22nd, 2010 at 23:53 | #10

    @Greg MacKenzie : Word.

    The lawsuit spectre looms. IMO, it’s just a matter of time before WotC realises their mistake and unleashes its lawyers. Unless someone else has some info on the publisher protections under the OGL, I think this is a real possibility…

    @Herb : The nostalgia factor is BIG, though it was dismissed when I mentioned it in my original post. It’s a highly subjective element, so it will matter much to some, little to others. When I rev up my RC campaign, I am reminded of the early days; when I run Keep on the Borderlands, I’m back in 7th grade. It’s not so much that I want to go back there, but I have to admit to a very real level of comfort. But as Sade says, it’s never as good as the first time…
    .-= Erin Smale´s last blog ..More on OSR =-.

  11. January 24th, 2010 at 15:29 | #11

    To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.

    It is that simple and that complex. The OSR is confusing and messy because it is not under the direction of any one group or person. Which is also it’s source of strength. The diversity of approach will allow people to enjoy the original rules in many novel and different ways.

    @Erin of course there is always that threat of legal action. But many of the retro-clones are based on a d20 SRD that has been pared down . Some, particularly OSRIC, have gotten legal help in preparing their ruleset. Even if Wizards tries to use Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and Sword & Wizardry it doesn’t change the fact that you are not require to use every item in the OGL. Omit enough d20 rules what you have is nearly indistinguishable from older editions.

    Finally as to why Wizards allows it is that they can’t revoke it. It is a perpetual license. All they can do is not license future editions of D&D under the OGL. Which they did in the case of 4e.

    @Nextautumn appreciate the compliment.
    .-= Robert Conley´s last blog ..Adventure/Supplement Format, a question =-.

  12. January 24th, 2010 at 19:53 | #12

    @Robert Conley : Thanks for the input. New and novel is a worthy goal, though I’m not sure OSR is there quite yet.

    I realise that OGL is non-revokable, and for the most part, I consider it safe. But, I take Greg’s point about use of WotC’s IP. In my paranoid universe, the worst-case scenario is that a particular OGL title allegedly misuses that IP, causes a legal stir, and the subsequent outcome is a negative precedent for existing or future OGL material. I strongly suspect that WotC painstakingly considered this possibility before releasing the OGL, and I would consider this scenario highly unlikely. That said, TSR was wont to be inconsistent about enforcing rights to its own IP, and while WotC is no doubt more responsible, the possibility exists.

    As you point out, WotC have given different treatment to 4E licensing. It may be correct to conclude that this is a result of lessons learned from the OGL, but given the recent rise of OGL use for non-d20 stuff, I’m sure WotC’s antenna is up.

    BTW, I really enjoyed POL I and II. Particularly the maps, which kick butt.

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