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? 


  1. I always hesitate to generalize from my own experience, but the "old ways" are definitely new to me. I started with Second Edition D&D in the early 90s, but then didn't play virtually at all in the 2000s (so I missed 3E).

    while I came to some of the principles that might be considered old school now on my own (and that's probably why I identify with the OSR now), many had to wait until I discovered them on the Internet last year. So for me, this style of gaming is definitely not rooted in nostalgia.

    I am also of a historical bent though, so seeing how things have developed is independently interesting to me, and I don't know how true that is for most gamers.

    There are certainly other genres represented in the OSR. Look at Mutant Future (in the tradition of Gamma World), and Weird West (not exactly in the tradition of Boot Hill, but within spitting distance at least).

  2. Indeed, there are some other genres but as they do seem rooted in the late 1970s - early 1980s. While MF is, as you note, close to GM, to me, WW seems closer to 1990s Deadlands than BH. For me, BH only came into its own through the short series of modules. My thought here would be that GM & TS really did try to emulate D&D style play (now old school?) in their early modules. I hope to post my thoughts on this later...

    My question then is what of the 1980s, which in many ways was a TSR highpoint. Here I'm thinking specifically of (in no particular order) Star Frontiers, Gangbusters and Marvel. Of these, I do believe there is a clone of Marvel (Four Colours?). In these games, at least as I experienced them, we really did have to 'evolve' our style of play. This was even pushed further when we discovered Cthulhu, Pendragon and Twilight 2000 in the mid-1980s.

    Overall, what I suppose I need to think through is how 'Old School' play worked in other genres - sort of a primer?

  3. I think that old school play definitely has the potential for traction with a new generation of players because it is more a style of play than a particular rule set. When I introduced old school games to my current group of players, several of the younger ones were reluctant. They had only known Wizards of the Coast vintage games and liked the crunchy game mechanics and rigidly codified rules of play. After trying old school, however, they came around to the limitless possibilities of open-ended play that are possible when you aren't constrained by the rules.

    I would agree that the players are more important of the rules, but also that the game master is the one who sets the tone and directs the play; a GM that encourages and rewards smart play will cultivate a group of smart players. I have found that once the players realize that a GM is willing to run with their ideas and reward creativity and novel approaches, they will break out of the box and really embrace this style play. It will become an intellectual and creative challenge rather than a purely tactical exercise of moving pieces on a 5'x5' grid.