Monday, April 11, 2011

The OSR, Part I

There has always been a disconnect between the manufacturers of Dungeons & Dragons and the people who regularly play the game.

The reasons for this disconnect are simple, and have to do with the enormous popularity of the D&D, and the subsequent interest in cashing in on that popularity.

This is not unnatural or in any way unexpected, but rather a natural outgrowth of the culture we live in. When Gygax and co. realized that the war game campaign supplement they had was selling and selling and just wouldn’t stop, the most natural thing in the world was to reorganize Tactical Studies Rules into TSR. One was a hobby, while the other was to become business, and potentially big business.

Since that point in time, it must be understood that nearly every design (and redesign) decision made about D&D was informed by a capitalist, money-making motive.

And again, there is nothing wrong with that, if the purpose is simultaneously to create a better beast. Thus, there is a residual fondness for 1st Edition and Basic/Expert D&D that later editions don’t match, both are which were seen as more genuine attempts to create that better beast than later iterations of the game.

The exact mix of ‘good intent’ and greed can be calculated differently by different people, rendering some editions more pure than others. But the impression that the ‘best’ editions of D&D are OD&D, 1st Edition and B/X-BECMI remains a palpable one.

The truest answer may be that any edition of D&D, and by extension any RPG, is best if you and your group enjoy it. But, as I like to remind people, one person’s version of fun is another person’s piss pot.

In my mind, 1st edition held many of the flaws that plagued later editions; too many rules, not well explained, and the organizational flaws that made the Pentagon a model of efficiency. It was at least as compromised as nearly every other edition, as its main impetus in design seems to have been to re-create the game without Dave Arneson as co-designer.

Yet the dream persists of the one, true edition, which would wipe away the flaws of the newer iterations of the game.

This does not explain the motivation of the actual authors and writers of the Old School Renaissance movement, but it may explain why the OSR has become so successful.

Perhaps the most important point to make about the OSR writers (and I will refer to them in that manner) is that they are a collection of individuals, rather than a monolithic party of hard-liners. There is no one true way among them. If they agree upon anything, it is the belief that those who played the original game had a play style – a manner of playing the game – that was rendered increasingly obsolete by each further iteration of D&D. This is most apparent in the Thief and trap paradigm, where the presence of the thief obliterated the need for a play style that centered on the exploration of dungeons, and had in no small part to do with the discovery of traps. The original paradigm – which had no thieves as a character class – required that traps be circumvented by clever and careful play, which had the players describing what their characters were doing, rather than the later ubiquitous, “I search for traps. (rolls dice) Success! Was there a trap?”

This is not the only difference in play style between the original versions of the game and more current iterations, but it is instructive of divide that took place as further versions of the game not only provided new rules, but also implicitly demanded new ways of playing, in keeping with the designer’s belief about the ‘proper’ way of playing the game, whatever that might have been in the minds of the designers.

As more and more iterations of D&D piled up, the amount of players who stopped playing, dissatisfied with whatever current iteration was being marketed to them, also increased. The OSR writers, bloggers and designers include self-described fossil gamers who haven’t touched a RPG, much less D&D, since 1st Edition, to those who left 3.5 or Pathfinder last week.

Next: More OSR


  1. I completely agree Doyle, and only wish to comment on the way some computer games have taken away player's desire for pencil-and-paper gameplay experiences.