Thursday, April 22, 2010

OSR != Dogma

Over at the forums, there is a post currently floating around the top of the forum that asks whether gamers have heard of the OSR. Well and good, except that the majority of respondents seem to have chimed in to express their utter disinterest in or barely-restrained contempt for the OSR. Disinterest I can understand: not everybody wants to give up their shiny new d20 System, with all its empty bells and whistles, and go back to the really substantive sort of role-playing encouraged by, say, 2nd edition AD&D.

But contempt? This makes me... well, partly curious and partly cheesed off, but mainly curious. Why hate a group of role-players that you, by your own admission, want nothing to do with? (N.B., this naturally excludes Vampire players. It's always okay to hate Vampire players for pretty much no reason at all, except that they're Vampire players.) After all, we're all playing D&D here! There's plenty of room on all points along the spectrum, from crusty grognards to wide-eyed noobs; from munchkins and min-maxers and power-gamers (oh my!) to collaborative story-tellers with angst-ridden pacifist PCs; from hack-n-slash adrenaline junkies to world-building lore-masters who speak fluent Sindarin and Quenya.

So why hate the OSR? I've discerned three reasons. They go something like this:

1. Old-school "renaissance"? Where do you get off calling it a "renaissance"? Shut up and go play your stupid, outdated games in your mom's basement or something!

2. You old-school gamers are so stuffy and pretentious. You've got the nerve to tell us that (3rd/4th) edition is bad! You've got the nerve to tell us we're playing D&D wrong! I call "badwrongfun" shenanigans! Officer Barbrady, arrest that grognard!

3. The "old-school" movement is elitist and dogmatic. Clearly you're all marching in lockstep with Matthew Finch and Jim Maliszewski and that Philotomy Jurament guy. Dogmas are bad, elites are bad, so you're all bad too!

This isn't little, people. This isn't Gabe from Penny Arcade playing S&W "wrong". This is a major cross-section of web-savvy RPGers who hate us on account of a few misinformed stereotypes. And this frightens me enough that I think we ought to refute each point as publicly and as often as possible.

The first complaint is easy to argue against, because it questions the existence of the OSR on the twofold grounds of its purpose and popularity. The underlying idea is something to the effect of, if you're just a small group of people playing old games, you're not a renaissance, you're a small group of sad and self-delusional people. This idea, however, relies on the unfounded assumption that the OSR hasn't actually changed anything. "Whoo, you're calling yourselves a renaissance now, big whup." Except, things have changed. Are changing. The popularity of old games has grown, and people are now motivated to publish for old games under the OGL. I can waltz down to my FLGS and buy a copy of Labyrinth Lord or an OSRIC module. That was not the case only a few short years ago, where the only places to get old gaming materials were the "used games" bin in the back of the shop and Ebay, neither prospect being particularly reliable. That's key: the OSR has already succeeded in making retro games more popular, more visible, and more widely available in-print. So what if our little niche of the hobby always stays small compared to the legions playing the newest editions? At least there are more of us than there are [insert random indie heartbreaker game here, or better yet, anything written by the RPG Pundit] players.

The second and third points are more problematic. The OSR really has developed a bad reputation on these counts, and I'll be the first to admit that I've noticed a fair degree of, shall we say, narrow-mindedness among the more vocal elements of the OSR. But there's a fine line between formulating a dogma and simply stating an opinion in strong terms, and I think our intentions as retro-gamers really do fall under the latter heading. Are there people who hate 3rd and 4th edition? Of course. For crying out loud, there are people who hate 2nd edition for being too "new school". (As an aside, I personally like to call these people... what was the word again? Ah, yes. "Douchebags.") So how do we explain the perception of dogmatic elitism? I think it boils down to a combination of good old-fashioned nerd-rage and a classically vocal minority drowning out all the voices of reason.

Nerd Rage: Everybody knows that nerds love the things that they love. It doesn't matter what it is: RPG, video game, card game, comic book, TV show, movie, book. If you change it, expect the nerds to go nerd-berserk (+2 to Indignation score and "Be a Fucktard on the Internet" skill for 1d6 months). It doesn't matter whether you're ret-conning Spider-Man's marriage to M.J., canceling Firefly after half a season, or making AC go up instead of down. If you change something that nerds love, the rage inevitably ensues. Whatever results from that rage can be either destructive or constructive. Destructive examples include tribalist reactionism, insulting people with a different opinion, etc. Constructive examples include fan activities (futile campaigns to prevent a TV show's cancellation, the writing of fan fiction, the organization of conventions, the publication of retro RPG materials). The key is to recognize the difference and dismiss the not-so-constructive things for the puerile temper-tantrum that they are. Or maybe even call them out and stand against them.

The Vocal Minority. One of the reasons that I started this blog was so I could give a voice to my opinions about gaming, and especially about old-school gaming, and really especially about how "I do not think it means what you think it means." (Thanks, Inigo.) Take this p-o-s, for example: the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. I despise this thing. I can't condone a damned word of it. The tone really is elitist, and its caricature of the way 3rd edition D&D works borders on abject misrepresentation. Sure, I have my issues with 3rd edition, but railing against Search and Spot checks is pretty damned way-out in left field. In fact, I've got a freaking laundry list of points where I disagree with the received old-school orthodoxy (such as it is), and perhaps that will be the topic of my next post. (Since this one has lengthened into a full-blown rant.) For now, I'll just say this: if you want to put a good face on the OSR (and some of us may not want to, but I certainly do), maybe it's time to dispense with the attitude. Not all the attitude, by any means. Just the bad attitude, the whole shtick that says "skill checks are evil and dumb, miniatures are evil and dumb, anything even tangentially associated with 3e/4e is obviously evil and dumb."

Sigh. Farscape quote time.

"I don't know your customs for these situations—not that I care! So I'll give you the Hynerian Ceremony of Passage and be done with it! John Crichton, valued friend... no, wait a minute. Valued friend is a bit of a stretch. John Crichton, unwelcome shipmate, may you have safe transport to the Hallowed Realm. Actually, not our Hallowed Realm—no, that's for Hynerians! Go find your own Hallowed Realm! With the Ceremony of Passage complete, I declare you officially dead, and claim all your possessions for myself!"
—Dominar Rygel XVI, episode 1.8 "That Old Black Magic"

1 comment:

  1. Sadly we've had 10 years of having the old school forums being dominated by the nerd ragers and the vocal minority, who are usually one and the same. People who have spent those years berating those who love the WotC versions of the game, building a reputation in the process that tars all lovers of old school games with the same brush.

    The sort of people who base their manhood on how rude and arrogant they can be online, claiming they're just being themselves. But you know they wouldn't say face to face the things they say online, because they'd get a smack in the teeth. You know the sort.

    Sadly, because haters like them love old school games just as much as do those of us who identify with the OSR, to outsiders we are one and the same. Ironically however, any time there's a blow up within the OSR online scene, the one's stirring the pot are not usually those from outside the old school community, but the vocal minority from within. A testament to their small-mindedness, they hate the OSR more than the sort.

    It's not vocal elements within the OSR that are the problem, but the old school fundamentalists who hate the whole "renaissance" tag we proudly wear, and sadly often hang out on the same forums. Fixing the OSR's reputation is not so much the issue here, but rather showing the wider rpg community that there are two very distinct, very different groups among those who love the older games. But hey, you can tell 'em by their fruit.