Friday, December 21, 2018

Aloha 'Oe to the OSR

I know, I know. Overly provocative title. I'll explain below.

*          *          *

I have three concurrent gaming-related projects going on in my life right now. Surprise, surprise, it's the same three as ever.

1) Dungeons & Dragons. Despite losing a few weekends here and there to school and holidays (including this upcoming weekend, naturally), my Saturday D&D campaign has continued to be fairly steady and consistently enjoyable. The player roster has changed as players come and go, but we're only just now reaching the one year mark, and still no player has surpassed 6th level, and still they continue their slow crawl through the Barrowmaze. (They've explored maybe 20% of it, tops.) 

And just reflecting back on this past year of gaming, I've noticed a few things. (a) Once a dungeon crawl campaign settles into a rhythm, it's really remarkable how good the players get at making their own fun from a simple formula like "go into the scary place, fight monsters, look for treasure". (b) While I do feel like I'm missing something vital by using pre-published adventures (Barrowmaze, Caverns of Thracia, and many others) in a pre-published setting (Mystara), I'm also gaining something else. I'm both saving on a heck of a lot of prep-time, and participating in experiences that other old-school gamers have shared. It's kind of a warm fuzzy feeling. (c) I'm also content for the first time in a very long time with my D&D house-rules, and I find it funny how often I've had to dismiss a house rule and just go back to the "standard" way of doing things in the past year. There really is a lot to be said for just letting D&D be itself.

*          *          *

2) Retro Phaze VI. The semester is over; I've more or less survived with my health and sanity intact. (I think.) That means I should have at least a few weeks to get back into re-writing the game. 

The distance from the project that I've developed over last couple of months, however unintended, has hopefully given me some perspective, so that when I get back into it, I'll be looking at my new rules with a critical eye. For example, I don't know whether the addition of Action Points to the game will survive the next round of edits. It adds some player agency (good), but also some complexity (bad). So far, I've yet to think of a different way of doing what I want to do that spares complexity. And while Action Points do add both a widget for players to play with and and extra monster stat the referee will have to keep track of, they also synthesize whole swaths of the system (multiple attacks, counter attacks, surprise, fleeing, quickened spells, and others). And pulling disparate parts of a system together, even if it can be a little bit complex, makes the system more elegant, which is nearly always a positive. So… we'll see.

*          *          *

3) Engines & Empires. I know that I won't get around to writing any E&E adventures (or RP6 adventures for that matter) until RP6 is all revised and illustrated and published. So it's going to be a while. But wanting to write E&E adventures is always in the back of my mind, and will probably remain so until I finally find the time to get all my ideas put down on paper and properly developed. 

I'm also always wondering, when the time finally comes to get into this project seriously, whether I should do what I did with my first published adventure, Castle Thadrian, and lean hard into the OSR connection; or do what I'm now doing with Retro Phaze VI, and back off from it altogether. There are good arguments for both.

Obviously, branding my stuff as "OSR" opens up a market for it. But I'm consciously removing all references to the OSR from Retro Phaze VI, precisely because I'd see that as false advertising.  RP6 won't be even a little bit compatible with 0e/1e/2e O/AD&D anymore. (Despite the fact that the original Elegia and Retro Phaze were based on OD&D and Swords & Wizardry, only hacked to replace all the d20 rolls with 2d6 rolls, these earlier editions already mostly weren't compatible with D&D either. The monsters and some magic items were trivial to convert; that was about it.) So it's more than fair to say that RP6 simply is not an OSR game, according to my definition of the OSR, which I think is the only meaningful one: compatible with TSR D&D, not just inspired by TSR D&D, or inspired by the old-school grognard aesthetic, or aspiring to old-school cred by relying on Gygaxian prose and 70s fonts and Otus art.

Engines & Empries is a bit of a different story. Before it became a standalone game, of course, it was compatible with old-school D&D because it was a "mod" for BECMI. Now it's a riff on B/X with a different magic system. But the core rules underneath it, the engine driving the game, is 100% B/X. So even though E&E has its quirks, it's still mostly "TSR-compatible". That makes it an OSR game as far as I'm concerned.

The problem is, as we're now learning, what the OSR means to people doesn't have very much to do with its original intent. Every day, "the OSR" seems to mean less and less what it meant to those who started the movement circa 2005–6 (namely, reviving old-school D&D as a counter to the dominance of WotC's d20 System). Nowadays, more and more, the OSR is about indie games and micro games that don't share any mechanics or compatibility with TSR D&D; gonzo subject matter and the edgy artpunk aesthetic; and (I shudder to type this) a rules-agnostic "play style" defined by various primers and musings that mostly got it really the fuck wrong.

In short, if you think that "old-school" gaming is defined by few rules, loose play, gory chiaroscuro sketches, watercolor paintings of postmodern blobs that allegedly represent people or monsters, "rulings not rules," and searching-by-pixel-bitching, you're probably right in the center of the OSR Overton window—and I'm just so, so very tired of all that. Mentally and emotionally exhausted.

I mean, I shouldn't be surprised that this is what the Old-School Renaissance hath wrought. A renaissance doesn't bring back the good old days; it appropriates them to its own ends. And on those grounds, I would be comfortable letting it go. Consider the following: classically, the Roman Empire lasted for about 500 years, not counting the Eastern Empire that persisted right up through the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was maybe 200 (historians typically benchmark it at 1450–1650). It lasted 40% as long as the classical period it drew inspiration from, and when it was over, we didn't have a new classical period, we had modernity. Which was arguably a big improvement on both classical and medieval times, though it took some time to get there.

Well if you take the dark days of the d20 boom and 3.0/3.5 to be our Dark Ages/Middle Ages, we're looking back to a classical period of TSR gaming that ran from '74 to '99, about 25 years. And we should expect our own renaissance, by analogy, to therefore last about a decade. Just as a good ballpark estimate, I like to peg the start of the OSR in 2006–7, with the release of OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord. (Sure, Castles & Crusades came out in 2004, but that's more proto-OSR.) Going by that metric, the OSR is now at least twelve years old. Well past the 40% mark. I'd say it's a good bet the renaissance proper is over and done with, and we're onto gaming's early modernity.

That's right, kids. As far as this shoddy analogy is concerned, the gaming equivalent of Shakespeare already came and went; welcome to the age of Milton, and being of the Devil's party without even knowing it.

*          *          *

So what does this have to do with Engines & Empires and the price of tea in China? Well, for the same reason that I can't call Retro Phaze an OSR game anymore because that would be disingenuous, I can't not call E&E an OSR game. Again, truth in advertising here. Engines & Empires was born with the OSR; grew up with it; it's a creature of the Old School Renaissance, through and through.

So what to do when the Renaissance has moved beyond me and mine, and left us behind? It's been my gaming home for more than a decade, but as it abandons TSR D&D, it goes where I cannot and will not follow. It sails off into the sunset while we stay on the shore and play Hawaiian music like Bugs Bunny (hence the post title).

(Plus, on some days, it feels like the OSR is being carried off by alt-right wingnuts. Like army ants hauling off a picnic, you know? And once they've touched the pie, fuck, they can just have it. At that point, I just don't care anymore.)

After the logo kerfuffle, when the nastier half of the OSR's soul—the troglodytic protoplasm, if you will—revealed its ugly face and its absolute willingness to produce, direct, and star in a classic internet shitshow of vitriol, hate, ignorance, the banal complicity of the "apolitical" quislings, and unneeded proof that the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory doesn't really require anonymity after all, that for me was it. The beginning of the end. The moment that I knew in my bones that this cool thing we all had going on really was over and done with for good.

So there's the dilemma: on the one horn, E&E is an OSR game and must declare itself as such if it is to remain honest; but on the other, referring to the Old School Renaissance is both kind of pointless this late in the game (we've already done all the renaissancing we're gonna do) and semantically burdensome. I don't want E&E to live in the same weird half-measure penumbra as an old-school-adjacent game like DCC or Lion & Dragon or Maze Rats.

So how, then, do I emphasize the connection to the old TSR rules and at the same time repudiate the ever-encroaching rejection of those rules by the OSR as it wanders ever-further afield?  Well it's a silly, minor thing. Childish, even, if I'm being self-aware. But I think it's warranted, particularly since we can't use that ubiquitous OSR logo anymore. If I'm letting that piece of branding go the way of the dodo, I think I can also leave behind the renaissance terminology too, and use it as an opportunity to rechristen the way I look at the games I publish. A rebranding; a reinvention.

I like the acronym "OSR," precisely because it hearkens to "TSR." You can make logos that homage the old TSR logos. I just want to change what the letters stand for, for me. And after giving it some thought, I decided that what's really meaningful to me about "the OSR" as it developed over the course of the last decade and a half (going all the way back to C&C) was the callback to the original rules system—the organic mish-mash of sub-systems at the heart of basic D&D and AD&D which was more or less ruined when WotC streamlined it into the d20 System.

For me, the OSR isn't just about reviving the old editions. And it's definitely not about discovering some lost play-style that could be used for any old game. It's about playing by the old rules. The original system of rules. And, boom, there it is. (After all, TSR stood for "Tactical Studies Rules".) The OSR can be lots of things to lots of people: old-school renaissance, old-school revival, old-school roleplaying. But for me, from now on it stands for the Original System Rules.

That Hawaiian phrase from the song, aloha 'oe, means both "farewell to thee" and "welcome." And that's why I titled this post with it: I'm saying goodbye to the Old School Renaissance and at the same time a big hello to my own personal concern for the Original System Rules—the quiet engine at the heart of OD&D (including Basic & Expert), 1st edition AD&D, and still mostly there in 2nd edition AD&D. If lots of people were to do this, one could have a much more dramatic post tile ("The OSR is Dead; Long Live the OSR!"); but since it's just me being idiosyncratic and alone, I'll stick with the aloha.

*          *          *

To the meat of it, then. When I published my Castle Thadrian adventure module for the old version of Engines & Empires, it was a fairly easy thing to "dual stat" it for use with or without E&E, but assuming Labyrinth Lord as the base game. Just note where this or that monster was different, have ascending and descending AC in every stat block (same thing Swords & Wizardry always does anyway), and maybe toss in a couple paragraphs at the beginning to point out where actual rules differences might impact things. ("This room with a dead technologist can have a dead wizard and a few magical items instead, if you're playing in a different setting…")

Going forward, publishing Engines & Empires adventures in such a way that they can also be compatible with other retro clones is probably going to be a little bit trickier. I think, what I'm going to have to do, is include a blanket "conversion guide" appendix in every one. Something that notes equivalences between old-school D&D spells, and E&E spells and rituals; and then does the same thing for technological inventions and gadgets, so that those can be consistently replaced with magical items whenever they're discovered during an adventure. AC is always descending in E&E now (albeit on the 10 = unarmored scale, so Basic players will need to subtract 1). And there will need to be a simple rule for adding Constitution and Wisdom scores (which are missing from E&E characters) to NPCs if they're to be used in standard games. But that's all honestly pretty easy to deal with.

It's the branding on the outside of the book that I going to have to alter going forward.  I've come up with two logos, one subtle, the other more explicit about what I mean but also uglier for it:

I'm not sure yet which one I'll settle on using, but for now I prefer the look of the dragon logo. It's cool and it's simple.

*          *          *

Anyway… that's where I'm at this morning. Now back into Retro Phaze. Let's take another look at Action Points…


  1. I also prefer the dragon logo, although the dice logo would be perfect if the number of pips on each side was the same as the "edition" number (leaving the left side blank).

    1. That would look better, but then I don't know how well it would convey the idea that it's referring to D&D editions. Unless the pips were little "e"s… nah, maybe not.

    2. Some pretty poignant observations about the OSR there, mate. Deep stuff.
      I came to discover the OSR otetty late, about a year and a half ago. Though some of the stuff put out by various OSR authors is very interesting, I find ImI always drawn back to the classics: BX (be it BX Essentials, LotFP minus the setting, LL...) and E1 (ASH&SH mostly)
      Those rules from the late 70s and early 80s were so elegant, they're very hard to improve or innovate ipon without ending breaking something.
      I dunno where I wanna get at with this post, just saying I share your thoughts (and I rue the fact I didn't discover the OSR 5-6 years earlier)
      Also, your assessment of internet drama and alt-right problems is spot on.