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.
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.