Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Community & the Allure of the OSR

I’ve been exploring various games in the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) for their varied interpretations of the core material, interesting settings, and overall nostalgic connection to the roleplaying games of my youth. Along the way I’ve realized something beyond the game mechanics and settings: by working with a game engine based on Dungeons & Dragons, the original and most popular fantasy roleplaying game, OSR designers tap into a vast community of fans (and potential customers) who share that familiar experience.

I’ve seen various arguments about what defines an OSR game, how the OSR emerged from the Open Game License (OGL) of the 2000s, and, of course, which OSR games are the most popular, true to the originals, and innovative in their own right. I certainly don’t wish to delve into those issues here (if at all); but the OSR capitalizes on a confluence of familiarity – for both the designer and audience – with not simply a core game system but a shared gaming experience through some iteration of D&D.

I’m not sure quite exactly when the OSR became a movement in the gaming scene (that’s a subject for a more academic examination by someone more scholarly than me), but I certainly know the OGL released with third edition D&D in 2000 established the groundwork for such a trend to begin, develop, and flourish. In essence the OGL enabled third-party publishers to produce and sell game materials derived from D&D as outlined in the related System Reference Document (SRD) that defined open elements of the classic game. (This is all extremely simplified. Other, more complete histories of the OGL and other key elements in this part of gaming’s history exist and are not germane to the central concept of this essay. That said, I encourage folks to further investigate the conditions that led to the OGL and the subsequent games it enabled to better understand our current game hobby landscape.) At some point someone interpreted that the OGL allowed publishers to produce their own games derivative of third edition D&D and its previous incarnations, right to the earliest D&D materials. Perhaps this began when a host of former Wizards of the Coast employees, who’d founded Paizo Publishing and continued, for a time, to produce Dragon and Dungeon magazines, set out to make their own fantasy roleplaying game under the OGL; the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game became wildly popular in its own right when Wizards of the Coast, now owned by Hasbro, released a less-than-popular fourth edition of D&D with a far more restrictive OGL.

While Paizo produced material in direct competition with the then-current incarnation of D&D, others began looking back into gaming’s history for inspiration. Why not create an ideal game based off the original booklet form of D&D, or from AD&D, or one of the several versions of Basic D&D that brought many gamers into the hobby? Gamers have an almost natural tendency to tinker with rules, modifying game engines and adding their own nuances to best suit their preferred play style and setting. The publishing landscape also changed over the years to better enable the average gamer with a computer and internet link to produce and sell games through such online venues as DriveThruRPG, RPGNow, and the recently launched Tabletop Library. The OSR movement emerged from this “perfect storm” of conditions: an OGL allowing legal publication and sale of work derivative of D&D; a host of creators interpreting their favorite versions of D&D with their own innovations; and the technology to publish and sell such work to customers across the vast landscape of the internet.

Perhaps the more influential confluence of conditions comes from the ability to publish one’s own version of perhaps the most successful and almost ubiquitous fantasy roleplaying game focused at a community whose members have, by and large, come to the roleplaying game hobby through some iteration of D&D’s class-and-level system. Creating a game based on a existing common set of rules means some of the core game design work is already done, with years of “playtesting” behind its success. Some might criticize the lack of originality in OSR games, taking the framework for some past iteration of D&D and making it their own, assimilating the game mechanics of the past with house rules, preferences, and original setting and design concepts. Yet the OSR has brought gamers a host of free and paid games that really stand out on their own merit and find a ready audience in the large gamer population D&D has cultivated over more than 40 years. Every creator brings their own vision to the re-interpretation of their preferred version of D&D, whether that emerges through rules modifications, graphic design, or setting. As games released under the OGL, these works invite others to create supplemental material for them. The OSR hasn’t simply brought forth a host of new games but a flood of supplemental material – adventures, settings, zines – inspired by these re-interpreted rules and, in a way, spreading their influence and perpetuating them in the overall gamer consciousness.

Creators have an established design framework on which to build and an existing consumer/fan base familiar with the rationale and mechanics of their games. These fans identify with the average gamer modifying existing systems to suit their own play styles and settings. They find communities of like-minded people, including the designers themselves, vibrant places in which to discuss their own game-related experiences. The confluence of familiarity – for both the designer and audience – with a core game system and a shared gaming experience through some iteration of D&D enables communities where creators and consumers mingle, where ideas freely circulate, and where new energy and insights can inspire some who’d never consider it to create and share their own game materials, further enriching the gaming community and its experience.

I’ve maintained that my favorite version of D&D remains the Basic/Expert D&D rules (Moldvay edition); yet my exploration of the OSR has already exposed me to both new games using familiar core mechanics and supplements to inspire my gaming using whichever system I choose. Matthew J. Finch’s Swords & Wizardry and Marv Breig’s Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox Rules seem among the more popular OSR games, though I also enjoyed Chris Gonnerman’s Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game and several of its supplements. Al Kromback and Thomas Denmark’s Warriors of the Red Planet combines D&D system elements with the “sword and planet” genre, to which Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels belong. Noah Stevens’ solitaire adventure The Hounds of Halthrag Keep offers a twisted yet entertaining glimpse of the often gonzo action one expects in Dungeon Crawl Classics through a fun foray into solitaire gaming. Tim Callahan’s Crawljammer zine offered more inspired gonzo material for DCC. Richard J. LeBlanc’s Old School Adventures accessories, such as the D30 Sandbox Companion and Creature Compendium, evoke the nostalgia of B/X D&D by incorporating similar graphic design conventions. Simon Forster’s The Book of Lairs provides an “A to Z” compendium of lairs to drop into any fantasy game, complete with full-color maps and one-page summaries. Tim Shorts has offered up a broad spectrum of engaging OSR content, from his inspired Starter Adventures to his run of The Manor zine and a host of micro-adventures. Dyson Logos produces amazing old-school maps, some incorporated in useful compilations and many released for general use privately and commercially. Forster, Shorts, Logos, and others have established Patreon pages to release OSR material, engage their followers, and garner some additional financial incentive to re-invest in their efforts.

Perhaps James M. Spahn’s White Star best exemplifies the confluence of OSR game and community; it released with amazing sales numbers to an audience that, thanks to a carefully crafted usage license and the OGL, ran wild producing supplemental material to further expand the game’s scope with new adventures, classes, powers, starships, worlds, hex crawls, and other extrapolations based on the core game. (I’m tempted by Spahn’s latest work, The Hero’s Journey, in which I have yet to immerse myself).

I fully expect I have many more OSR games and supplements still to discover – among existing and future products – that further expand my horizons with innovative interpretations of core mechanics and engaging settings. Each of the titles above – indeed most any OSR release – finds a ready audience in the numerous fans of D&D and its various iterations. Some reach more people than others, some inspire larger, more active communities than others. Each stands on the shoulders of its D&D ancestors to speak to a common demographic among roleplaying gamers.

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