Thursday, April 2, 2009

Town Cryer: Rejecting the "Old-School"

Where I introduce the Town Cryer and through it expose some of my own opinions about various topics relevant to the Citadel of Eight.

I've never been fond of the term "old-school" and couldn't really put my finger on the reason. I knew it had to do with a strict adherence to the rules and what some consider to be the "one true game", be it Original Dungeons & Dragons, Holmes D&D, AD&D or any combination/other edition thereof.

Something was out of place. I would often find myself writing down thoughts about it but could never quite put my finger on it, so to speak. I believe this is ultimately what pushes me to use the original rules of 1974 for my own campaign.

Today, EN Shook over at Lord of the Green Dragons posted a fascinating piece of insight about how an "old school movement" would ultimately fall on its face due to the unavoidable fundamentalism it promotes. It's entitled "Old School vs. New School" and well worth a read.

This fundamentalism, this relative, subconscious zealotry Eric is talking about was present at the very foundation of what people call the "old school renaissance". Indeed, the very existence of the first retro-clone, OSRIC, owes quite a bit to the reservations fundamentalist gamers had against the Castles & Crusades game system when it was conceptualized. The "old-school movement" sustained itself via many gamers going through editions changes who, disenchanted and disheartened, finally decided to reach back to their roots. I guess I'm one of them. This is all fact: there's no denying it.

I think this kind of reactionary movement does have some good points to bring to the table, in the sense that it brings to our attention divergences from a spirit we would gradually forget in favor of more instantly gratifying, if erroneous, ways. But, in the same way revolutions and bloodshed led to the renaissance of the idea of democracy in the Western World some centuries ago, we should not succumb to extreme interpretations of our desires that would only lead us to stagnation and hypocritical ideals.

One of the fundamental idea at the core of this "old guard spirit" we are trying to seize, as I perceive it, is that the game itself is no more and no less than a gateway to fantasy and enchantment. Surely, in that spirit, getting back to the roots of the game helps us understand the ins and outs of what spawned our hobby, what its original aims were, and through them, how our own gaming can be more relevant to our lives.

As I wrote some time ago, D&D is just a game. If we dedicate years of our lives playing a game, if we really like it, we gradually invest ourselves in this game. In the end, the game itself ends up being the epicenter of a whole lot of things in our lives: we learned many things through it, met countless friends, maybe even a future loved one, accumulated miriads of fond memories, joined some groups or associations we wouldn't have otherwise known, contributed to its legacy, met opportunities through it we wouldn't have had any other way.

Whatever the case may be, the sum of all these things might explain why we feel invested with this game and the way it evolves. It quite literally becomes a part of ourselves.

This is partly why we feel so strongly about Dungeons & Dragons. We want to keep that part of ourselves alive. I think we can all agree to some degree. But here comes the hard part: what do we do with this part of ourselves? Which feelings within our souls do we want it to fuel? Is it nostalgia, self-pity, anger and despair, or is it vision, pride, hope and vitality leading to more constructive endeavors?

The choice ultimately is for each and every one of us to make. Personally, I hope we take all these wonderful tools given to us by other gamers, like Castles & Crusades, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry, Fight On! and Knockspell, and use them, not to recreate what's already been done, not to play tourists returning to shores which would have already been explored by others, but rather to create enchantment anew and reach new, unexplored regions like our forefathers did through this hobby.

This is ultimately what I feel my journey is about. I can only hope this somehow resonates with some of you so that together we might reach for the stars.


  1. Great post. I usually prefer the term 'classic' when referring to anything pre-d20 as, I too, find too many negative associations with the term 'old-school'. While I do have deep respect for the classic era and their authors I do not and cannot see that time as the pinnacle of gaming.

  2. Yes I think this resonates! Very well put.
    As much as I identify myself as old-school
    I do so in terms of commonality - diversity
    need not be divisive.

  3. Benoist, on the Lord of the Green Dragons blog, you commented:"I also witness the subtle revisionism you are talking about."

    I'm interested in where you see this (or the fundamentalism/new canon creation that Eric talks about). I just posted a comment over at chgowiz's blog saying that I don't see it; I'm wondering what I'm overlooking.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    It's interesting (and very much welcome) for you to comment here, PJ, since when I wrote that bit about the subtle revisionism I was thinking about your OD&D Musings in particular.

    There, you describe a whole list of particularities to the original rules: how modifiers affect the game play, how the dungeon itself is described as a mythic underworld with its own psyche, and so on, so forth.

    These characteristics did not seem to be discerned by the players of the Lake Geneva scene.

    You are a very keen scholar, and you see those details as defining a play experience on their own merit. I'm sure you do not intend this as any sort of OD&D canon, but I have no doubt that, out there, plenty of people will read your pieces and interpret them as such. This is where the revisionism takes place primarily, I believe, and that's why I qualify it as "subtle", or subconscious in nature.

    Now, don't read this as some sort of slap to your insights: they are sharp and very valuable for everyone who wants to get input on the nature of OD&D as described on the pages of the three booklets. If it ended up written in this particular way, then there was at least an impetus to present them that way, though that may not correlate with the actual experience of the players at the time.

    The flaw is the same as trying to pin down the thoughts of a poet through his own verses: we tend to overreach in the first place, while the poet himself wouldn't have interpreted his lines that way, and then, if our interpretations hit something important to the comprehension of the work, some other people will pick where we left and try to reach even further, thus creating a canon where there was none before.

    If you do not intend to create any canon (and it sure doesn't look like you do), your words themselves might take care of it in the eyes of the unwary.

    I think that now, with all the tools at our dispositions (retro-clones in print and magazines and networking), we truly are at a crossroads. Either with keep the horizons open, or we carve stone, dead effigies that will stand as negative images of what they try to represent. I feel the greatest benefit of this ongoing debate is to become aware of it before it becomes a real concern.

  5. I'm disappointed to hear that my musings have been taken that way. Certainly, the creation of canon or "one true wayism" has never been my intention. In fact, the concept goes against the way I see OD&D and what attracts me to the game in the first place. I think the one of the biggest draws for OD&D is its free-form nature and openness to interpretation. When I first started writing about it, I made a point of saying the web site was about OD&D "as played when I run it," but over time (it's been almost two years), perhaps that became overshadowed. I'm going to go through the musings to see if there are places where my choice of words implies "canon."

    For my site to be perceived as promoting an OD&D canon or encouraging a fundamentalist approach is especially disturbing to me because of how I look at OD&D. One of the main reasons I like OD&D, and especially like the "stripped down" nature of running a game mostly based on the little brown books without the supplements, is because of the opportunity it offers for the referee to make the game his own and stretch his creativity. I like that the text is "incomplete" and subject to interpretation. Rather than considering my own interpretations from being authoritative rulings on "the old school way" or even "how it was done back in the day," I often see my interpretations as consciously diverging from the path we all know the game took. That is, I see the open nature of OD&D rules as an opportunity to challenge (and maybe break down) the assumptions we all tend to hold. How do hit dice work? What does charm person do, exactly? How does elf multi-classing work, exactly? Can this rule, or this description, be interpreted differently than how it ended up in AD&D, or in the published modules? Et cetera. I treat text of the OD&D rules as a starting point for developing my own personal D&D -- part analysis, part interpretation, a dash of exegesis, a lot of "imagine the hell out of it," and a constant work-in-progress. (I do think that it's good to start off with a solid understanding of how the system works, though; that way you're building on a solid foundation.)

    I am not surprised that Eric and other members of the Lake Geneva scene might look at this and go "that's not how we played it." (Although I *am* disappointed that my site would be viewed so negatively; I've had positive feedback from others -- e.g. Mike Mornard -- who were involved at the dawn of the hobby). It's almost certainly not how they played it; I'm often consciously rejecting or changing or stripping away elements that developed in play during the Lake Geneva campaign -- maybe even elements they had a hand in creating. I'm also taking the "raw material" (i.e. the text) and putting my own spin on it. That's not a mistake, or a case of creating fallacious "old school canon." In some cases, it's quite possible that I'm doing things they tried and rejected. In others, maybe I'm doing something completely different. However, I take issue with any assertion that this is being "frozen in the past" or "entrenching." On the contrary, I think it's starting with the original pieces and using them exactly as they were intended to be used -- not as a rules straightjacket, but as a springboard for creativity and making the game my own.

    While I get what you're saying about an attempt to pin down the thoughts of a poet being fraught with peril, I don't think that's the flaw. I'm not trying to pin down Gary's game, or the one true authentic old school D&D interpretation. (If I were trying to do that, I'd probably be much more enthusiastic about adopting material from Supplement I.) I'm interested in what Gary and the others did during the Lake Geneva campaign, but I'm not trying to pin that down. What I'm doing is taking the OD&D books and interpreting them. I think that's very "old school," if I dare use the term. My musings aren't intended to pin down someone else's game; they're intended to talk about mine (i.e. "OD&D as played when I run it"). I suppose I thought that it almost went without saying; thus my surprise, and thus the flaw. I think the flaw is my failure to make that clear, or slipping into language that implies a "true way."

    Perhaps a "Making the Game Your Own" musing is in order to clarify where I'm coming from and to help avoid future misunderstandings.

  6. I just want to point out: that your Musings came to my mind is my own doing, not Eric's (I'm not sure exactly what he was referring to). It actually came to mind with the "subtle revisionism" bit, *not* when I was talking about "a worship of OD&D". Just to clear that up.

    I must say, I originally did not want to make that answer to your comment since your Musings have been inspiring me for quite a while in many unsuspected ways. I'll spell it out: I think you have one of the best sites of RPG musings I've ever read. You should know that.

    Since I actually did think about the Musings, I thought I owed it to you to say it and precise my meaning, so I took it upon myself to write the comment as you see it above.

    Now, I think a "Make the Game Your Own" is an excellent idea. I'd be very curious to see how that would turn out, for sure, and I suspect it would give me another handful of ideas to explore later on with the game!

  7. Thank you for the compliment; I appreciate it. I appreciate your candor, as well. If there's a problem, I certainly want to address it, but I can't do that unless I know about it!

  8. I think that now, with all the tools at our dispositions (retro-clones in print and magazines and networking), we truly are at a crossroads. Either with keep the horizons open, or we carve stone, dead effigies that will stand as negative images of what they try to represent.

    I'm not sure we're at a crossroads so much as the beginning of the next leg of our journey. The old school renaissance is in the process of leaving behind its early reactionary phase and gearing up for a more active phase. I actually think the likelihood of "fundamentalism" is much less now than it was a year ago. We have so many more voices speaking nowadays, each with their own distinct point of view and 'zines like Fight On! explicitly seek out a diversity of viewpoints and contributors. I have a hard time seeing much danger from One True Way-ism, even if some of the most vociferous and opinionated in the community have very strong feelings about what they like and why.

    Not that I'd know anything about that ;-)

  9. You might be right, James.
    Heck, I hope you are! :-)

  10. Hi Benoist - interesting that you and I have never met or traded comments and yet we're saying just about the same thing - it's a game, we have all these wonderful tools and we're injecting a lot of great new content into the hobby. I had a very similar post/response to EN Shook's essay - it's good to see an independent validation!

    Nice blog!

  11. Thank you! I've just become aware of your blog today myself! Will add it to my feed.

    I think many of us agree and are eager to move forward. If this discussion just makes us find each other and brings our convergences to light, this already is a very positive achievement indeed!

  12. Thanks for your post, Ben!

    Philotomy, I think your site is an excellent resource.

    The idea that certain "characteristics did not seem to be discerned by the players of the Lake Geneva scene," is entirely credible.

    The examination of those elements are important. I would only differ in suggesting that what was not discerned may well have been felt, and that mood may have been natural in the sense where one grows comfortable with the gravity of their native atmosphere and wouldn't think to leave it.

  13. Hi there, Eric! Thanks for sparking the conversation in the first place!

    I feel we're getting some productive exchanges out of this whole idea of Old vs. New School. It makes us all the more aware of what we have in common, and where we want this whole idea of vintage gaming to go. We couldn't have asked for anything better, really!

  14. I agree with James M. I think we have been through a reactionary period, and I think that was part of a broader effort to explain, to ourselves, why we play the classic versions of D&D. This was centered at Dragonsfoot, where first the gamers who'd never left classic games began to congregate (we owe a great debt to Steve), and then where those who were returning from the later games began to arrive, first in a trickle and then in a flood. For the vast majority of people, it was all just about gaming. The "philosophers," if you will, however, found an interesting topic in the question of WHY people were rejecting newer styles of gaming. What was the difference, because we all knew it was there. So, the first phase of that self-definition (and here I think things shifted over to K&KA from DF quite a bit) was largely reactionary - not in the sense used in the above blog post, but in the sense that a lot of the self-definition began by identifying what this community was rejecting. Now we're at the point where that self-definition has become more refined, and having gone through definition by the negative is able to elucidate a strong, highly flexible definition of what classic games PROVIDE, rather than what they reject. Trent Foster, in particular, has been a very cogent voice in this process as well as Philotomy. James has been able to build on these thoughts, further refine them, and (importantly) disperse them beyond the OOP community. Mainstream gamers are now, I think, starting to understand that there's more to this than mere nostalgia; there's a whole, internally consistent approach to gaming that's actually what unites the Old School Renaissance.
    Self definition was an important phase to go through, but that phase of a community's life is one that takes place early on in the process. What comes next is the forward-looking part. I'm fairly sure that Eric and Rob haven't actually looked around much recently at what's really happening in the various blogs and websites out there. They're criticizing something that's already been outgrown. The point about whether it's good publicity to be called "Old School" is fair enough (and I personally hate that term because it's overinclusive), but it's weak reasoning to assume that the name of a movement defines its ultimate destiny in a substantive sense, and to actually build the discussion based on that assumption. It's much more important to support people like James and Philotomy, who are seriously putting their shoulders to the wheel and creating value. That's the crux of the matter and the reality of the renaissance, not what you call it.

    I don't mean to minimize Eric's thoughts - as I said, I hate the name, too. I think you can make conclusions that the name can cause problems for public relations on the outside. I just think it's too big a stretch to continue reasoning that the name will change substance from the inside.

  15. Thanks for going in depth through the development of the renaissance, Matt. I'm not any more enthused by the term itself, though necessary it may be, but find myself in agreement on the substance of your comment.

    I particularly agree that supporting each others efforts is critical to the well-being of the whole thing going forward. We've got some brilliant minds among us. Sharing ideas and sparking discussions such as this one is also critical to put our actions into a common perspective. I think we can only grow from there.

    We are going through exciting times indeed. We gaze at the horizon and wonder what's up on the other side of the hill we're about to climb. We'll find out eventually - I have confidence we're going to make the best out of our journey as we keep reaching onwards.

  16. Well, I wasn't there for the first phases of this; I'm one of the people who arrived back after a stint playing 3e. One of the reasons I started the OSRIC project was because I failed my system shock roll trying to get back into the organization of the 1e books. That was mainly because I'd never actually played it with all those rules, but it got very clear to me that in order for the game to spread to (and be accepted by) modern gamers, the introductory material had to be organized in a way that matched the newer material.

    It's not entirely true to say, by the way, that OSRIC was a reaction to C&C. As a part of the story, that's right on the money; but there's more to the story than that. What you have to remember is that at that time, we were firing into the dark. The concept of actually cloning rules was utterly new, with no precedent anywhere. C&C had come close, but never touched the legal territory that rules aren't copyrightable. OSRIC was a leap across an abyss in the dark, not knowing exactly what was on the other side. Knowledge about what retro-clones are actually used for by the community at large came afterwards; the comfort that OSRIC walked safely through the valley of statutes of limitations came afterward; knowledge that the mainstream community would pick up OSRIC as introductory material, knowledge that Joe Browning and 0one games would actually publish using it as an SRD - none of it had happened yet. We had no idea what was going to develop afterwards, or even if a single person would ever download it. The launch was a nail-biter, and it didn't get less stressful when WotC contacted Stuart about it, and one of their private investigators certainly scoped me out to make sure I wasn't pretending to be a guy in England (no, there is no "Duke Marshall" living here, you have a wrong number. No there is not a person with a name that sounds like that living here.).

    Anyway, I'm off topic - I was just saying that although there was indeed a "C&C isn't the real thing" element, the CONCERN driving that, at the time, was that the actual rules would get lost in a shuffle of OGL mimicry that made sweeping changes to the original rules. We looked for a way to absolutely minimize changes with an ethical and legal way to return the game's rules (if not the original magic of the language) into effectively the public domain. And closed our eyes and jumped.

    In the present legal climate, the retro-clones are over-lawyered, and this comes in for some criticism from people who prefer simplicity of solutions. But if we ever enter a legal environment like the 90s (and all it takes is one change of management), the heavy legal armor of the retro-clones will survive, where certain other approaches to using that IP will risk getting blown away in the artillery. That was one of the objectives, not only to preserve the rules, but to do it in such a way that they are armored for when the heavy battle comes, if it ever does. These are the houses of bricks.

    The tack I've taken with Swords & Wizardry is more along the lines I would have taken with OSRIC if I'd had all the benefits of hindsight. And Swords & Wizardry, unlike the other clones, has an outside agenda of promoting the idea that hobbyist gaming is about taking a basic, open-ended rules framework and then building the custom van at the gaming table itself.

    Which is a point entirely missed in the Green Dragon blog, too, unfortunately.

  17. "I'm fairly sure that Eric and Rob haven't actually looked around much recently at what's really happening in the various blogs and websites out there."

    I strongly disagree.

    "They're criticizing something that's already been outgrown."

    I also disagree, or I wouldn't have posted. I'm well aware of how many good things are going on, or I wouldn't have valued them and stepped in with my post in the first place. I'd like to see those thoughts and values preserved. However, I also see things such as historical revisionism going on.

    "Swords & Wizardry, unlike the other clones, has an outside agenda of promoting the idea that hobbyist gaming is about taking a basic, open-ended rules framework and then building the custom van at the gaming table itself.

    Which is a point entirely missed in the Green Dragon blog, too, unfortunately."

    It's not too unfortunate, since that would be a different article. However, I should add that the importance of having open-ended rules is something Rob and I have been advocating for ages. I feel odd that you would introduce this as something we have missed....

    Frankly, the van has been built at the table by a very large number of FRPGers for 35 years now. It's the reason there's an "old school" audience.

    "it's weak reasoning to assume that the name of a movement defines its ultimate destiny in a substantive sense,"

    Tell that to the people that named Post Its! :D

    The movement isn't coalescing around old school values. It's coalescing around persistent and stable values. Many of these can still be found in 4E. I could express those rules in a way that would step upon these values even harder. Similar to politics, just because it seems extreme doesn't mean we can call it Hitler.

    I'm enjoying the exchange here, but I can't afford to defend my points in real time. This is a conversation that will no doubt continue down the road, and I'll have to rejoin it sometime later.

    By the way, I like your Primer, Matt. It's certainly in the right spirit.

  18. "...I think a 'Make the Game Your Own' is an excellent idea. I'd be very curious to see how that would turn out, for sure..."

    Here it is: Making the Game Your Own

  19. I maintain that the Old School movement (if that is what some wish to call it, though I do not, as it was not a movement to begin with, though rebuild and rename as one chooses, I guess) never died and what is important to maintain is the singularity of its parts and not deify sections of same as more important than others. Case in point: I attempt as the oldest contributor to the game here present to style myself as a part of that whole and not as a wellspring, and acknowledge along the way that that is indeed unimportant. One needs only look back in time to EGG's exhortations to DMs which derive from those days as to note why. No one person or "movement" stands above the game as intended or remade.

    I thus take issue with many of Matt's statements, not that that is important, either, but just to clarify. Plus I dislike having the assumption of my supposed inactivity or proclivity regarding any subject aired in a leading fashion as unfortunately Matt has done here. I am more connected to the imports of design and intent as distributed over my 41 years of involvement in this industry and in game design and not in the remaking of something which I already understand.

  20. To philotomy: Awesome entry!

    To LoGD: Matt's stab at you and Eric's "lack of attention" regarding activities around the internet and blogosphere certainly was unecessary, and there is issue to take in this assertion.

    I'm confident this was written in the heat of the moment, as the length of the paragraph testifies. Yet, if you write it, you own it.

    To people like Matt who've been working on games like Swords & Wizardry, put time and effort in the whole thing, it certainly might feel like nudging the big "old-school" sign out of their hands, and that's why you get sort of a knee-jerk reaction.

    I'm sure Matt will be able to elaborate on his comments himself.

    We've talked at length about fundamentalism and the "old-school" term. What about the notion of "movement"? If we brand what we are doing a movement, aren't we at risk to develop some sort of mob mentality, a limited idea that would have to "define" our work for us to belong to it, and thus confirm the concerns of fundamentalism and stagnation earlier expressed?

  21. [i]To people like Matt who've been working on games like Swords & Wizardry, put time and effort in the whole thing, it certainly might feel like nudging the big "old-school" sign out of their hands, and that's why you get sort of a knee-jerk reaction.[/i]

    I don't know if you meant it this way, I think you didn't, and it's probably irrelevant since this blog entry isn't near the top any more, so people won't read the comments, but ...

    You've just dismissed the opinions that I came to your blog to express quite honestly as nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction, and also basically dismissed them (and by connection everything I've written and done on the net) as little more than a disguised effort to hold the "Old School Sign" and gain internet celebrity for it. I think you can see that this is an unspeakably insulting thing to say to someone, even though I'm sure it was actually an attempt to characterize my comments in a kindly light.

    My comment wasn't intended as a dagger thrust, but it was indeed intended as a finger poke. The reason is that (a) I'm absolutely not seeing fundamentalism in the Old School Renaissance, and more importantly (b) I think blanket criticisms of a highly diverse, decentralized effort are divisive and hurtful. Eric's comments didn't really take the form of a blanket criticism - they were intended as a PR comment and a future-oriented concern about the direction in which nomenclature can lead. That's fair enough. When this expands, through the comments, into accusations that fundamentalism is actually pervading a "movement," I think that's a complete mis-read on what's actually happening. It implies that there's a "movement" coming from any single source, which is just wrong. There are hundreds of people who are the driving force behind something that's very much an emergent phenomenon. So I think the comment is dismissive of lots of people. I also think it mis-reads this last year's evolving change in approach from messageboards to blogs, from "we're not 3e" to "this is what we're about, including megadungeons and sandboxes and free-form rules," and away from comparisons of the distinctions between different OOP rules toward a focus on their compatibility. My comment was intended to say that if they're seeing fundamentalism in this, they aren't perceiving the arc of the trajectory going on in the multitude of internet venues for discussion of OOP rules.

    But yeah, that's a poke of the finger, because I don't think blanket accusations are productive, and I don't see the reality of the accusation, either.

  22. I'm sorry you felt insulted to such a degree by my characterization of your comments. I honestly think your misinterpreted it.

    I did not mean to dismiss [people writing games such as S&W] as little more than a disguised effort to hold the "Old School Sign" and gain internet celebrity.

    I believe you love the games you replicated through "clones". I believe you want to see them thrive and worked to find a way to do just that. You deserve credit for that.

    I further believe that, if we want this conversation to go forward, we have to give you credit for what you do and how dedicated you are to see vintage gaming live, but you also have to admit that Eric and Rob know what they're talking about, too.

    Dismissing their opinions will not solve any more than them dismissing yours, for whatever reason. There's clearly a difference in point of view, and we'll go forward by trying to understand what these points of view are, "where they are", and what we can each take from them, so to speak.

  23. Great post. Certainly, the Old School is getting more and more about an idealized form of gaming that never existed, and is seriously into remodelling history for its own purposes. One thing I though was really instructive was James M's interview with Skip Williams, which revealed that the "golden age" wasn't, and differences in playstyle start at the source.

    What troubles me more is that I think older games have soem great design insights in them, but you're not going to learn them through imitation. Aces and Eights is one game that I think returns to the old well to reinvigorate RPG design, but by and large the Old School movement's conservatism has created an atmosphere where there's no real motive to explore these ideas within the fantasy genre.

  24. My thoughts actually evolved a great deal about this. I still believe that there is a danger of fundamentalism for the "Old School Renaissance" (OSR) scene, and there is a constant danger of rewriting history in a way that would create some sort of illusory "Golden Age".

    I now realize, however, that the actual OSR scene is not the fundamentalist scene many people make it out to be. It has fundamentalist elements within, but it's is not the monolithic movement people would like it to be.

    Someone wanting to know more about the OSR really needs to check out publications like Knockspell and Fight On!, to find out about new games like Ruins & Ronins, look at all the new adventures and different settings, like Carcosa or Fomalhaut, that came out of it. Each have their own merits, each reflect new explorations of gaming based on the roots of gaming.

    We shouldn't just lump everybody in the OSR together, label the whole thing as a fundamentalist movement, and call it quits. It's a lot more complicated than this, in reality.