Old School Gets Old

Same as the Old Boss or, Am I Completely Missing the Point?

The rise of the retro-clone has me baffled. Aside from my nit-picking the oxymoronic label (something cannot be both retro and a clone), I do not understand where the Old School Revival (OSR) came from and why it's become so apparently popular. Don't get me wrong—I cut my teeth on Moldvay's Basic D&D, and much of my old-schoolery can be read at breeyark.org. But with the cloning of the retro-clones themselves, it's getting harder to see where this is all going.

There are some common—and appealing—denominators in OSR games: Each is geared toward a single genre, each is written under the auspice of the OGL, most are rules-lite (meaning that rules are more like guidelines, requiring consensus interpretation to use in actual play), and each makes character generation a breeze, so players can even relive the glory days of TPK and roll up new characters as needed without too much stress or bother. For those gamers looking for the OGL version of their old-school favourite, there's Swords and Wizardry (1974 D&D and "White Box" versions), OSRIC (1st Ed. AD&D), Labyrinth Lord (1981 D&D), Spellcraft and Swordplay (xD&D), Basic Fantasy RPG (xD&D), and Mutant Future (1st-2nd Ed. Gamma World).

All in all, a fairly robust crop of options for the old-school gamer. But, not far below the surface, it gets hard to justify the glut: genre-specific systems and settings have narrow focus, and the business model is capricious at best (which is maybe why OSR games tend to be free). Granted, these games are aimed at the old-schooler (or the children of same, who may lack the experience to evaluate the merits of current systems against those of old-school originals). But given the prevalence of D&D versions back in the day, do we really need six versions of D&D retro-clones, particularly if they replicate—warts and all—the games whose vagaries and mechanical inconsistencies inspired the advanced and refined systems that followed?

Assuming terms like "advanced" and "refined" are subjective, one might conclude that the spate of OSR titles appeals more to flexibility and ease-of-play than the supposed improvements of the old-school descendants. Certainly a valid point, but it makes me wonder why the old-schoolers don't simply pull their originals off their bookshelves and have at it.

Unless old-schoolers don't have the originals on their bookshelves anymore, which is possible—I've lost books when moving, or loaning, or even using—it's hard to keep those originals intact. Unfortunately, finding an electronic copy to replace an original is difficult, thanks to WotC's knee-jerk foolishness over piracy. Much like TSR did to its doom, WotC has demonstrated their disregard for the "25-years-and-up" segment of the RPG market by cutting off the only sales outlet for gamers who don't fit the current version's demographic. Not surprisingly, the old-schoolers' solution is to publish and play free retro-clones based on the OGL. For whatever reason WotC chooses to profer, they might care to acknowledge that they're being hoisted on their own petard.

Still, this is a hobby, and, as Kellri intimates, players—not company board members—should be (and are now) driving the market. WotC's sad and colossal arrogance aside, maybe the OSR is about nolstagia more than anything else, and no refinement, flexibility, or ease-of-play will ever trump that. There's a reasoned argument that old-school gaming is less of a style than it is, literally, playing old-school games. If that's true, then the definition of old-school becomes dramatically relative: it's simply about playing like you did when you were 12 years old, and the concept of roleplaying was new, the game was to be explored, and interpreting the rules required group discussion and a dictionary.

Perhaps nolstagia is the primary driver behind OSR. And why not? In truth, there's really nothing new in the way of mechanics or playability that OSR games offer to the hobby. There is a long roster of creative and well-considered house rules to address whatever a given GM didn't/doesn't like about this-or-that aspect of the "canonical" ruleset, and many of these are truly brilliant (e.g., Kilgore's musings on the thief class). But by and large, OSR titles repeat the same, absurd inconsistencies as the original games upon which they're based. There are different die mechanics for different situations, arbitrary class ability/level limits, even—inconceivably—special instructions for bridging disparate systems by the same publisher (e.g., Mutant Futures, "Section 9: Mutants & Mazes" (1st Release, June 2008, pp. 145-53) where Goblinoid Games authors suggest how to "blend" Mutant Futures with their D&D clone, Labyrinth Lord; if the desire to do so is indeed "inevitable," as the authors suggest, then why not build compatibility into each game instead of replicating the same limitation that existed between TSR's Gamma World and AD&D?).

Which leads me (somewhat pedantically) to my original question: Am I completely missing the point?

Jaded as I am, it's entirely possible. But perhaps reading a page from my own book might serve. Could it be that using the OGL to write a retro-clone is really just an old-schooler's way of making a game his own? Maybe OSR isn't about nolstagia, or inventing new tools for playability, or even tempting a new segment of the market. Maybe OSR is about taking our hobby to a level that ignores the boardroom and focuses instead on the gamer, the player, and the imaginative GM. We all have our tweaks and variants and house rules. We all have our gaming groups and styles of play. Maybe OSR is really just a statement to the industry that says, in dutiful 10-point Futura, that we can do it too: Let us play, and stop trying to tell us how to go about it.

If so, that's quite encouraging. Let me know what you think, and tell me what I'm missing.

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