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D&D as a folk game and the future of the OSR

January 10, 2011

So,  this exists:

These are collectible cards, sold in booster packs a la Magic: The Gathering, that offer players various bonuses during combat encounters.  The idea being that a player will purchase several packs and build up a deck in the hopes of acquiring certain rare and powerful cards to enhance their characters.  I note that they are explicitly optional, but I presume that they are optional in the same way that heroin might be considered optional:  when everyone else is doing it, you might be more inclined to give it a try, and once you start it’s hard to stop.  Hyperbolic, of course, but probably no more so than their business plan.
I guess you could say I’m not a fan.

But whatever, I don’t play that edition anyway, and the man who holds a gun to my head and makes me buy things filled his quota this month  by forcing my purchase Agricola, so no skin off my teeth.  But, but, BUT it does offer a bit of fuel to the fire for something I was going to post about anyway!

Here’s a definition:  “Folk games are a form of structured play, have an objective, have rules, have variability, and generally need no special equipment or specific playing area. Institutional games, on the other hand, are highly organized with codified rules, played in a regulation area, and generally require special equipment.”

Interestingly, early D&D,” a game for pencil, paper and miniature figures”,  meets the criteria for the former definition to a T.  Later editions, and especially 4th Edition, with its battle mats and online subscription model and rigid rulesets and now booster packs, have increasingly drifted toward the “institutional” end of the spectrum to the extent that the play experience of what is ostensibly the same game as that produced in 1974 has been radically altered.  This makes sense:  it’s hard to make money on the shape-shifting dreams of the public domain, which is where any “folk game” will soon find itself, BUT there is an immortality there that any game designer should be happy, on some level, to have attained.  D&D has always flirted with that promise, just look at the early Gygax editorials in Dragon where he fantasizes about a future where D&D has an eternal place on the shelf next to Chess, Checkers and Monopoly (a folk game with an institutional veneer), but the (perfectly understandable and by no means to be condemned) desire to make money off the IP has been an obstacle since the beginning.  Witness Gygax’s push toward standardization, his hostile actions toward companies that advertised their perfectly legal compatibility, and his increasing stridency in proclaiming what counted as “Official D&D” as the 80s wore on.  Of course, things would only get worse after his tenure, leading to an odd tug of war as the years wore on between a game that was special because of its ability to be “owned” by any group that cared to play it and an ever-increasing attempt to change the game so that players needed official products and support to do so.

Which brings me to a love-letter for the OSR:

The GSL/OGL/D20 thing planted the seeds, perhaps unwittingly, for a return to the “folk game” of D&D, but the Old School Renaissance were the ones who actualized the return, who more or less blew the doors down and gave the original game explicitly back to “us”, to the hobbyists, to the small gaming groups in both literal and metaphoric basements, and to any small-time designer who’d care to try tinkering with it.  To the “folk” if you will.  And if D&D DOES attain the immortality of poker or Mancala, or, yes, Monopoly (whose heart is still public domain) it will be in large part because of the OSR willingness to exploit the OGL.

So, when I see a post like Chgowiz’s, which expresses a real frustration with a lack of innovation in the OSR, I can’t help but think that he’s missing the point.  The OSR’s purpose wasn’t to innovate, it was to liberate.  No doubt, there are many talented people involved in this peculiar little scene, who have been brought together by a love of old style gaming and given a certain degree of confidence to pursue their designs by the success of the retro-clones.   And they may have some really knock-your-socks-off games in them that push the RPG envelope in new and unexpected directions, and like Chgowiz, I’m excited to see what they come up with.  But, I think it bears noting that when they do, their work will necessarily fall outside the scope of the so-called “OSR”, whose limits are already being pushed near to the breaking point by slightly altered spell descriptions and a changed thief-mechanic, not to mention a controversial plumbing of the Lovecraftian influences that have been a part of D&D since the beginning.

I don’t think I’m being very clear.  But what I mean is this:  the OSR should really be considered something that happened as opposed to a catch-all name for an ongoing design movement.  By choosing to view it as the former, it becomes a starting point for new and exciting things to come, whereas the latter makes it a category, a set of limitations, “rules” if you will, about what can and can’t be included, which is anathema to creativity.  So, when the innovators get to innovating, they should be willing to use the OSR as a rallying banner to promote what they’re doing, but with an understanding that the label should be abandoned the moment it acts as a limitation on their work.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. velaran permalink
    January 11, 2011 6:23 am

    You seem to boil down the OSR issue to 2 criteria: mechanics and tone. I’d agree, personally.

    From what I’ve observed the Old-School preference is largely for mechanics. Frustration with complex and time consuming character creation and combat spurred the return to the classic forms of D&D. Then the games were lovingly examined, with their segments picked apart, and certain elements were considered for alteration or deletion, especially Thief skills(or the Thief generally[my crew ridiculed the idea these skills were unattainable to Non-Thieves and the need for a class that mechanically differed from the others because they stole stuff]) and the Cleric’s abilities(or once again, the class itself). This was not terribly controversial, but seemed to be acceptable tinkering. There was also the occasional re-examination of Humanocentrism(always leading to keeping the status quo: always mystifying to me, given my stance that worlds of fantasy should differ from our real world: but the core of (A)D&D rules supports the former view, so.), with little fanfare. Also agreed was the exclusion of large alterations like Action/Fate points which mystically alter actions the game environment with no in session explanation.

    This has varied since Gygax’s campaign: PC’s entering the Starship Warden, Don Kaye’s PC Murlynd from Old West/Boot Hill, Robilar(though he was LE)trashing the Temple of Elemental Evil and freeing Zuggtmoy for no reason at all, trips to Skull Island, ‘China’, and wherever the Hells Alice went in Wonderland/Through the Magic Mirror.(And that’s just what we know about!) The fan made Carcosa supplement generating such heat was ludicrous, especially given the complaints illustrating most of those(if not almost ALL) hadn’t read it.(Especially the issue of child harm, there are stats for children in the MM, and several adventures. It’s up to the PCs not to wantonly slaughter.) There was also the Sorceror Class, given it required rituals that differed from standard spellcasting, being longer, more involved, and for the work: little payoff.(Seriously, they need to get some new Evil Overlords, or go on strike, or something.) Of course, they could elect to do banishments only, which didn’t really require much in the way of moral excess. And, of course, there was the race thing: purple people vs. blue people, etc… This of course, was ONE guy’s reading of the HPL, CAS, etc… ‘source’ material, and in no way definitive for home play(much like MAR Barker’s Book of Eibon Bindings, far freakier than this product), despite the whole Supplement 5 thing.(Which I never understood, but I guess this is part of some people’s desire to maintain the look of older product.) It was lauded for being something different, i.e. a new setting, which seems to be the desire of a ChicagoWiz and those who agree with him, not rejecting the Old, but coming up with new variations on the Old. In other words, in the OSR’s orbit.

    I look forward to it, it looks like a fun ride. But that’s just me, I love Oerth and Tekumel, they’re of a piece to me. I think similar, and even Wierder Prime Materials can be added without number, with no harm to the original!

  2. January 11, 2011 8:09 am

    It’s definitely a strength of the OSR and its multitude of retro-clones that it provides a platform for endless varieties of setting material. Really, as many “settings” as there are groups. I personally rankle at the idea of “fully produced” settings, like Carcosa, as I think that they undermine one of the OSR’s main strengths– the idea that you will play in YOUR world– and hearken a bit too much back toward the 2e days of official TSR worlds taking precedence over the glorious and very personal hodge podge of a typical grassroots style D&D setting. BUT, as food for thought it would make a nice addition to my bookshelf.

    For the same reason, although I very much like Raggi’s stuff, I don’t think a fully fleshed out “World of the Duvan Ku” would be a good idea. I loved Death Frost Doom, and think it’s a perfect bit of what-the-fuckery to drop in the middle of my personal campaign. It enriches *my* world, whereas a full setting of Duvan Ku World with in-depth descriptions of politics and the history of the cult would actually be a limitation.

    Christian over at Destination Unknown made a brief comment about wanting “modules like cookbooks” (, that would provide some how-to, but more just insight into the author’s own campaign and techniques. In other words, the material would not be saying “here’s how to run a game in this world” but rather “here’s how I ran my game”. This idea is very intriguing to me, and I hope somebody takes him up on that.

  3. velaran permalink
    January 11, 2011 12:15 pm

    ‘hearken a bit too much back toward the 2e days of official TSR worlds taking precedence over the glorious and very personal hodge podge of a typical grassroots style D&D setting.’:

    This started in AD&D, after that rules set was codified. All AD&D adventures previous were now set in Greyhawk(the 1983 box set makes this clear); D&D adventures now in Known World(now called Mystara around 1990 or so[settings for early adventures mentioned in B1-9: In Search of Adventure]). Dragonlance was an official side product promoted for more High Fantasy fans. At the tail end, you had Forgotten Realms in 1987; though the Nation of Sembia was supposed to be off-limits to in Official products. Detailing of these realms started before 2nd Edition(Waterdeep, Gazetters, Dragonlance expansions, etc…), which simply kept these and added some new ones.(Which, in its defense, Dark Sun and Ravenloft are pretty damn good. Especially as they are not some variation of Greyhawk somebody was likely to come up with at home. Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Al-Qadim, Mystara[became 2nd Edition in 1994!] with Kara-Tur and Maztica providing ‘other-culture’ flavor.) Not to mention Gygax regularly updated Greyhawk info in Dragon, and promised series of Box Set upgrades for that world. ‘Make this world your own’ was a D&D thing, lost in the (A)D&D era. 3rd Edition added ONE world. 4th Edition, none so far!

    Of course, many people loved the details, and used it to launch their first forays into gaming, and later started their own from scratch; I’d say it evened out in the end.(Love of Oerth doesn’t mean the fan’s homebrew doesn’t count!) Generic sourcebooks would’ve looked much like the Branded products released, imo. I don’t think creative time was lost, in other words.

  4. January 11, 2011 2:31 pm

    You may be right. The last time I played D&D for any length of time before last year was back in, oh, say, 1995 or so, and there was a great deal of emphasis on the different world settings. And each one seemed to have such a convoluted mythology and history and, at least in the case of Dark Sun, meta-story that I found them claustrophobic. Fortunately, my group didn’t care too much about that stuff, so we just continued doing it our own way, but it did seem to be TSR’s main thrust and we felt a bit like we were being left behind.

    Obviously, many people do love that stuff, and I can’t begrudge them that. Just not my thing, is all, and it’s nice to see my preference reflected in this niche-of-a-niche-of-a-niche OSR thing.

    Actually, during my last attempt at getting a face-to-face campaign going (which fizzled and is a post for a different day), one of my potential players opted out because she found a great deal of enjoyment in the official worlds and their reams of background material and was disappointed with my “it’s my own world but I don’t really know anything about it yet, let’s explore it together!” approach.

  5. velaran permalink
    January 11, 2011 3:50 pm

    Would that person have happened to be a hardcore Forgotten Realms fan? I’ve read instances where they have exhibited that attitude, but never met them.(Alternatively, there are those who believe that the average person doesn’t possess the skills to come up with a creation on par with the ‘true professionals’. Perhaps this was her motivation? The Great Man theory applied to RPGs, really?) Most people seem cool with a brand new world from scratch(Hell, me, I’d be elated!) or homebrew worlds with their own legacy, ime.

    As for potential players, have you acquainted non-gamer friends with the hobby? They might be open to it; it’s worked for me. In any event, good luck starting a campaign!

  6. January 13, 2011 10:00 pm

    Oh yeah, totally into Forgotten Realms. I asked her what world she had played in before and she said “Faerun” so you KNOW she was hard core. As far as why she preferred that style? From talking to her she seemed to really enjoy the digging into the background and learning about the history and so forth, and you know, my fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style just can’t provide that. To each their own.

    I do have a game currently going, btw, but it’s over skype and I had kind of wanted to get a face-to-face thing started. Long story short, I kept getting people who said they were coming but then wouldn’t and I just found I didn’t have the time to run two campaigns at once if one group just wasn’t committed to showing up regularly. Oh well, maybe sometime soon.

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