Friday, 31 August 2012

OSR and Worlds of Possibility

One of the best (and clearest) statements on the principles, practice, limitations and possibilities of “sandbox” is found in Stars Without Number.  Here we find something of a manifesto that seems to encapsulate the very core of what OD&D, its offspring (thanks Erik) and derivatives do well.  In effect, OD&D (OSR fantasy) and sandbox seem destined for each other.

But let me digress.  Regardless of my thoughts on OSR, if as David Macauley argues “Broadly defined, the OSR is an online community centred on amateur publishing that has taken advantage of the OGL and SRD to produce TSR D&D compatible gaming materials”, then nothing I have to say about either ‘offspring’ or other systems seems worthwhile.  But if, as David also suggests (I think?) that the “OSR was all about getting old school games into the mainstream and getting people playing them” then there may be some virtue in considering other older games, even if the system was different and the corporate logo the same.  Maybe?

Having enjoyed JimLotFP 2008 posting “Is this how D&D is supposed to be played?” (, I’ve begun re-reading some of the early non-D&D TSR material with the question broadened to: Is this how these OS RPGs are supposed to be played? 

So far, I’m struck by the ways in which such notions such as D&D as template, Sandbox/Storyline and “game balance” (in the Matthew Fitch “Primer sense”) germinated and evolved.  Based on the reading of early TSR non-D&D line, namely Top Secret and Gangbusters, I will explore the ways in which these notions changed over time.    

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Skinning Cats: The OSR Mold

In an interesting posting, serial (and I mean that in good way) blogger Erik Tenkar discussed what he perceived as a connection between complexity in rules and mortality in play. Key to his argument were two questions: “Does Pathfinder not mesh well with old school dungeon crawls? Is the risk of character death in a rule system that encourages players to plan out their skills and feats in advance too great for the "Oh Shit! Run!" style of play?”

At one level I fully agree.  After all, who wants to spend a session making a character that ends up finding out how a bottomless pit trap works…the hard way. 

Having never played Pathfinder, I can’t speak to the rules, character generation or modules.  Yet I do recall that there were OSR era games that did have some very substantial generation hoops.  Early-ish RPGs such as Traveller, Rolemaster, James Bond 007, Palladium Fantasy come to mind.  I would imagine for such games, "Oh Shit! Run!" style of play” might have been less than satisfactory?  Perhaps the answer might lay in reading old non-D&D modules?

Indeed, OSR as "Oh Shit! Run!" may in fact, be more specific to D&D or even perhaps the D&D dungeon crawl? Perhaps "Oh Shit! Run!" might have largely been a notion found mostly in fantasy (D&D?) games?  I wonder if the same phenomenon was experienced at game table favouring other systems?  In my experience, other early games such as Top Secret, Gangbusters and Boot Hill, while not ‘first generation’, rarely followed such a tempo (and play principles).  Indeed, there was ‘running’ but many of the virtues (fun and frustration) found in D&D was simply not part of the equation.  Seen in this way, is "Oh Shit! Run!" more suggestive of OSR-D&D rather than OSR?  Surely OSR can also mean: “Other systems…remember”?

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Burden of History

In my ‘Golden Age’ (early 1980s), a rumour circulated through the pre-pubescent gaming community: somewhere in the city, a professor ran a [insert preferred variation of rumoured game here] RPG campaign.  In the particular version I heard, it was Runequest.  This game, we supposed, must be truly magical but even more importantly, accurate. 

In retrospect, part of the imagined supremacy of the game resulted from our belief that surely such an esteemed academic could create an authoritative world.  Who better, in fact, could make the imagined real, mastering ‘subject’ as well as style and substance?

In a few days, I’m back in the office, back to lectures, grading and looking for a parking spot.  I will have to split time again, between my one love, teaching, and my other, research and writing.  I’m a historian.  I’m also a professor but I’m not THAT professor.    

Given my day job, I’m regularly asked by players whose interest and knowledge of RPGs extends beyond the ‘golden chains’ of D&D, if I will create a historical RPG campaign.  As I did in 1981, they must imagine that as a historian, my world will be authentic, imaginative, perhaps even inspired.  Indeed to some degree, I do enjoy historical settings.  At OSRcon 2012, I volunteered to offer ‘Boot Hill’ in a session that proved more ‘historical’ than ‘cinemagraphic’.  I also prefer keeping Cthulhu in the 1920s and appreciate the role of class and ethnicity in any good Gangbusters game.  But, here’s the terrible secret: Real history is boring at best and downright nightmarish at worst.  In most cases and places, one’s existence, Hobbes quipped, proved decidedly “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”    

In my (gaming) experience, this is often countered by focusing solely on exciting people doing exciting things.  Not a bad idea in theory but in practice, this tended to boil down to killing things.  Here is where I appreciate a proxy, be it orc, alien or Red Skull.  Perhaps it’s what I teach that scares me away from ‘historical’ gaming.  At some level, I fear trivializing suffering.  Frankly, history is real, not a game.

In the end, the enduring unpopularity of historical RPGs free on some kind of genre mash-up (weird wars, history-horror et al) remains a gaming norm.  While I do appreciate some effort at historicism, I prefer to leave my job at the office and not at the game table.  And If I’m looking for “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, there’s always Tomb of Horrors isn’t there?

Monday, 27 August 2012

Google +/Google :S

In response to OSR blogger John Bell's posting today "I'm on Google Plus" (, commentor JasonZavoda (sic) wrote: "I'm on google+ as well but I have no idea how it works."  Bravo, JZ.  Thank you for writing exactly what I've been thinking.  

I fear that I am experiencing 'Emperor's New Clothes' Symdrome.  Like JB and JV, I feel Google Plus is something I should be "on" and suspect something really fun is going on and I'm missing it.  I've managed to 'friend' people but have no idea what this does, means or how it impacts my life at all.

Can anyone please tell me a) what the &%$# is it?  b) why and how should I use it? c) what am I missing?  d) in what ways will it change my perceptions of reality itself? 


You Can't Go Home Again?

Unlike some others I knew, in ‘olden times’ my friends and I never enjoyed a monogamous relationship with D&D.   Quite simply, we loved games too much to be faithful to a single system or genre.  At the time, for a whole bunch of reasons, I imagined a particular game was, quite simply, the best thing ever.  In no particular order, games such as MERP, Marvel Superheroes, Star Frontiers, Palladium Fantasy and Twilight 2000 reigned, obsessively, supreme. 

The years have tempered obsessiveness and time has separated me not just from the ‘the group’ (‘the guys’?} but also from the feelings and energy of those moments.  Again, for a whole bunch of reasons, I’ve tended to label these experiences (and preferences) with some flippancy, filed away in big folder labeled: It seemed like a good idea at time.

Of late, I’ve begun to recognize the intensity of the torch I still carry for (some of) them.  Perhaps it wasn’t the game itself that left such a lasting impression but rather a particular GM, character, campaign or player?  Of course, even if I pull the old books off the shelf, I can play those rules but I won’t be able to play that game.  But I think I have an obligation to find out.  Don't you too?  

Friday, 24 August 2012

Reading, not reading about...

At the recent OSRcon, I had the great pleasure of a tour of the Lillian H. Smith Library Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy (  Without a doubt, the crown jewel, at least for me, was the pulp magazine collection.  Yet, in retrospect, seeing the rows of stacks produced an odd sense of exclusion, perhaps voyeurism, not unknown to academics.  In short, while necessary (and preservationist), the magazines sanitary, inaccessible, orderly, sterile and ultimately lifeless entombment presents them as objects to be studied rather than enjoyed.    

So, where then can we find the ‘pulp-spirit’?  Where can we find stories and poems to be devoured simply because they are fun to read?  

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Renaissance, Revival or Revolution: Does OSR Gaming Evolve?

Erik Tenkar posting at his Tavern ( subtlety (perhaps unknowingly) raised an important consideration that lurks on the fringe of the OSR, namely questions surrounding ‘substance’ and ‘style’.  To date, in my admittedly recent foray into the OSR, I have tried to get a sense of both ‘substance’ – by which I mean what to game and ‘style’- meaning how to game. Indeed, while other ‘substance’ (and surely ‘style’) options exist, a short Google search or a weekend at OSRcon, fantasy - OD&D fantasy- highlights the reality that for the moment, OD&D puts the ‘O’ in old school.

If Mattew Finch’s 'Quick Primer for Old School Gaming', taken together with the tone of online commentary, and my (again very limited) experiences of contemporary visions of OS ‘play’, prove representative standards defining the nature of the OSR, in what ways can other visions, styles and substances be incorporated?  Indeed, can they be, without a significant re-think of what OS in fact means?

One of the subtexts I noted in (or read into?) Sean Robson’s recent post (, was that perhaps the boundaries of the OSR are being reached so long as OSR itself is, in reality, a code word for a particular substance (OD&D-inspired mechanics) and style (dungeoncrawl, hexcrawl).  Not surprisingly then, just as historically the hobby evolved, so too must its revival (or is that renaissance? revolution?)

Perhaps, as we have seen with Goblinoid Games recent efforts, republishing out-of-print games marks one evolutionary direction.  But what of games that never actually disappeared?  Systems still in print such as T&T, RQ, HARP, Traveller and Palladium Fantasy may not be first, but they are, to my mind, definitely first wave.  Yet, while owing a debt of both inspiration and degree to OD&D, each offered different substance and, more often than not, style too.  

Surely, difference must be acknowledged before it can be celebrated.  Here then lies the rub: if a game is neither linked to the past trajectory of the OSR in terms of either substance or style is it still OSR?  Can OSR be broadened towards inclusion and evolution?  Is, in fact, OSR also something intangible, a reaction, or an attitude?  What effect would this elasticity have, as in the end (as we see in OSRcon’s suggestion), OSR is definable as little more than a historical time period. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Horror on the Orient Express. Oh yes.

I do have concerns about the nature of Kickstarter.  I do avoid “iconic” to describe most things, gaming related or otherwise.  And I do harbor an aversion for most thing labeled “re-imagined.”  Yet I was delighted to read the following email from Chaosium: 
We are excited to announce a Kickstarter campaign for the reprint of Horror on the Orient Express. With your support we will (hopefully) raise the money required to re-imagine the iconic boxed set, originally published in 1991.
The reprint of Horror on the Orient Express has been a hot topic in gaming forums, and has been eagerly awaited by many fans of Call of Cthulhu. We are planning to release a full boxed set, complete with campaign books, passenger passport handouts, stickers, a poster, and more. The more money we raise, the more fun goodies we will can include.
And, of course, we want to offer you fun goodies for your support. Perks include Orient Express tote bags, Chaosium ephemera, even a tour of Chaosium headquarters! Take a look at the site to see the complete list of perks.
Our goal is to be able to release the boxed set by GenCon 46 (August 2013). Thanks for your support, and Happy Gaming!
To view the Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter campaign, visit ORIENT EXPRESS KICKSTARTER.

The impending reprint of Horror on the Orient Express is the best thing to happen to gaming in a long time.  Not just because it was a fantastic romp across Europe in “iconic settings” (after all, how can you go wrong torching Italian Blackshirts) but also because it is virtually impossible to find a copy.  Chaosium doesn’t need me (Kickstarter goal reached), I need Chaosium.  And so do you.  Buy this.  Play it.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

What, How Why: Questions for the OSR Community

This September, I will make one small effort to spread the OSR (renaissance or revolution?) to a new generation.  My day job- I’m a History professor- brings me into the intellectual and cultural world of a very different generation.   In terms of gaming, there is a risk of never ‘jumping’ the generational divide and imaging the practice, process and meaning of gaming to be very different than my own.  In short, can “Old School” (whatever it might mean) really gain traction with those not there for the first run?  Is the virtue of the game merely familiarity?  Are old players simply more interested in old games?  And, most importantly, am I open to learn from new players as much as I hope they will learn from me?

Overall, the focus of the OSR (with a few exceptions) has been D&D derivatives.  I imagine much of this has to do with its popularity in the old-days as well as the great gift of the Open-License.  Put simply, why as the OSR yet to re-ignite the legion of genres and games?  Here I find the issue of the game and playing the game particularly relevant.  For example, in Matt Finch’s excellent A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, the question of how to play is more relevant than what is played.  In this case too, fantasy remains the ‘gold-standard’.   In terms of play, is there Old School beyond dungeon (or hex) crawling?  Perhaps clues can be found in early efforts (such as Top Secret and Gamma World) to entertain new genres?   Perhaps in these cases, we may find that OS play just didn’t work?  

The question then is whether playing the games we played differs from how we played them?   If, as luminaries such as Greenwood and St. Andre stated at OSRCon 2012, the players matter, not the rules, am I just interested, like an antiquarian in showing people things I liked?  Or was there something unique and special about that time, something this generation doesn’t have or, perhaps, doesn’t want? 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

OSRcon Reflections,Pt. II

The Panel: Saturday afternoon, OSRcon VIPs James Maliszewski, Ed Greenwood, Ken St. Andre, and Lawrence Whitaker spoke to the assembled.  For about 90 minutes each had an opportunity to talk about their path to gaming, their personal notions of the hobby and their current interests.  Perhaps more interestingly, this 90 minutes also showcased a variety of idiosyncrasies.  This ranged from quirky to downright bizarre.  Remember though, this IS an RPG convention.  Overall, St. Andre and Greenwood seemed to wrestle for the spotlight – big personalities sitting beside each other.  For their part, James – the only one really part a key figure in the OSR – seemed content to observe and chose his comments with care.  Lawrence talked mostly about his current Runequest project and seemed to enjoy cryptic answers about his days with Mongoose.     

After ‘story-telling’ about the old-days, quite a bit of attention was given to industry publishing in which the prolific Greenwood confirmed that a piece could be ‘good’ or it could be ‘now’.  He also noted writing was indeed work and that completion trumped art.  Cormac McCarthy he is not nor does he pretend to be.  That said, his pragmatic (gotta get paid!) approach proved refreshingly (brutally?) honest.  In was particularly struck by his subtle inference that his writing for Penthouse was, in important ways, little different than for Dragon. Ken's most honest moments came when he triumphed the hands-down superiority, longevity and overall playability of his long-in-print T&T.  Oh, and he was also very honest in recounting his enduring dislike for Gygax and friendship (of sorts) with Arneson.

On the whole, the audience did not ask ‘hard questions’ and seemed content with just letting the guests talk and throwing out the occasional soft question.  Of course, the panel was intended to be informal and informative and not an academic conference or parliamentary question period throwdown. Perhaps the most interesting question posed was: “What is your favourite game and why?”  Universally, the response came that the game didn’t matter but rather the players.  While all noted their preferences (Runequest, D&D, T&T), it was refreshing that play always trumped rules.  I thought this particularly relevant given that overwhelmingly, OSRcon featured D&D (in various shapes) rather than a buffet of genres and rules.  

Impressions: The venue – the Lillian H. Smith Library in Toronto- was a solid choice.  In general, a room is a room.  The bad: loud room, lack of parking and traffic in downtown Toronto was a nightmare.  The good: excellent atmosphere and the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy (  While the collection had nothing to do with the convention, I had an opportunity for a personal stack tour.  An amazing collection and resource, the tour was worth a visit to the library itelf.

Organization: Chris, OSRcon organizer, did a great job of securing a location, booking guests and running a con.  I spoke with him at great length about the convention experience and he was quite open and honest about the ‘ups and downs’.  A thankless job, I’m delighted that Chris CHOOSES to organize the con and hope he continues to do so.  I encourage those with differing perspectives on how to run OSRcon to offer Chris their skills for next year. 

I hope that Chris did not lose money on OSRcon.  For a variety of reasons, it’s my sense that the hoped for attendance levels were not reached.  While clearly this impacts the ‘bottom-line’ of the con, the tables were full and kind of attendee ensured quality over quantity.  In a related area, I was a bit surprised that no vendors (even amateur ones) brought wares to the con.  I have seen ‘flea markets’, exchanges and desktop publishers at some smaller cons, but OSRcon held none.  As the focus was OSR – itself at best a small press venture – this seemed odd. 

Gaming needs events like OSRcon.  Beyond nostalgia, conventions bring people together.  No computer screen, online table-top, pdf or blog will ever fill this most important human space.  While I hope to see a broader scope of genres (beyond fantasy), that is up to attendees not organizers.  Perhaps an event such as OSRcon can be the perfect stage to showcase the diversity of the past- and hopefully connect that to the present. 

Fanzines - We Hardly Knew Ye...

It is banal to observe that the internet changed gaming. In some ways, more possibilities exploded.  But in other areas, the heady mix of access, content and distribution bricked over some exceptional (and vital) niches.  The Fanzine - the kind you get in the mail that comes to your residence, not your inbox - suffered a fate worse the death, namely irrelevance.  Beyond the face to face conversations, discussions and debates in around game tables, in clubs and at conventions, fanzines were perhaps the most important participatory 'push-back' from the grassroots.  Unsanctioned, largely unrequited and often unapologetic, fanzines simultaneously measured the direction, desires and pulse of gaming.  In this case, amateur proved a virtue. And there was virtue in the waiting...     

Below is a listing of fanzines. 


OSR Fanzines





Miniatures & Wargaming

Source: Thanks to: The Perilous Dreamer (poster), Original D&D Discussion []

OSRcon Reflections, Pt. I

OSRCon, 2012

Ahh, the mini-con: large room with tables, high volume, “game shopping” and bad food for lunch.  Thankfully, OSRcon 2012 did not alter the formula.  Some things don’t need to change.

The Games
On Friday, the con began strangely.  Arriving at the appointed hour, the GM – Ken St. Andre (of Tunnels & Trolls) was not yet in the building.  After waiting 45 minutes or so, I elected to leave and explore Toronto.  I never did find out what happened and I’m not sure if Ken’s T&T game actually went off.

Friday evening, I ran Boot Hill, the only non-fantasy game at OSRcon.  Well attended with seven players, the group began the task of taming the town of Brimstone, NM circa 1869.     

Not surprisingly, after 4 hours, we had just about completed the first ‘game-day’ of the four I planned out (on my cue cards).  Heavy on the role-playing with short bursts of violence, none of which was epic or ennobling (thank god!), the game lived up to my hopes of more ‘Unforgiven’ than ‘Silverado’.  The PCs – seemingly to their surprise- attempted to bring law (of a kind) to a town that was ‘living’ before they arrived.  In short, I attempted to make the town itself a character for them to interact with.  Overall, they embraced this and began to grope around in a place where one had to chose a side(s).  Ending seemed intrusive but necessary and the players seemed to enjoy the game as a welcome expression of the genre-richness of a bye-gone era.

Saturday, fantasy reigned supreme at the tables.   Deciding to play a game, I joined James M. dungeoncrawl.  An enjoyable group and an engaged DM meant several hours of level 1-2 monster crushing and puzzle crunching.  Again, the obvious challenges and constraints of “convention play” resulted in a rather limited and stilted perception of James’ Dwimmermount.  I would certainly have preferred a more ‘regular’ session but did enjoy this sampling.

Next: The Panel, The Impressions

Monday, 13 August 2012

OSR Products List

Bat in the Attic ( provided a fantastic resource, a link to Hoard and Horde (Hoard and Horde an OSR Timeline), an OSR product list.  A great resource and compilation of material.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012


This weekend Brimstone will be tamed.  Perhaps.  Agents of severity only need apply.  Violence of biblical proportions to follow. for details.