Monday, October 6, 2014

What are D&D and the OSR? - A Couple of Reactions

A couple of quotes have made me want to write a kneejerk reaction. I don't like blogging from kneejerks but I think these make some good places to hang points I'd like to make.

John Wick said some dumb things in a blog post. But one of them is actually worth responding to.
The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying.
Which of course is nonsense. The term "role-playing game" was invented by people trying to describe what happened when they were playing Dungeons & Dragons. Any definition which doesn't include D&D is, prima facie, wrong.

But I'm going to submit that Holmes D&D – which definitely fits in the "first four editions" – is actually a really good roleplaying game, by Wick's criteria. You see, Holmes wrote on page 11 that monsters don't necessarily attack, but instead reactions should be determined on the reaction chart lifted from OD&D. Strictly speaking, this chart in OD&D is used to determine monster reactions to an offer made by the PCs, but Holmes changes it so that it refers directly to encounter reactions. This means that some monsters encountered in the Holmes edition of the game will be "friendly" and involve some negotiation. If the referee chooses to ignore that, it's not the D&D game's fault; it told the players to roleplay, right there in the text.

In fact, I would submit that this makes D&D a really good roleplaying game. Roleplaying is not just play-acting your character; it's negotiation as part of a strategy for surviving in a ridiculously lethal dungeon and getting out with treasure. By the book, in Holmes D&D, roleplaying is a required part of the game and, in fact, is a really good strategy. If you keep negotiating there is a 50/50 chance that you will get a positive result. The worst thing that can happen is that you're forced to fight.

Did people play D&D that way? A lot of them didn't. But a lot of people don't play Monopoly by the rules, either. It's just what happens when you have a really popular game. But D&D is distinctly a roleplaying game, even if you don't play it that way.

Then there's Ron Edwards, who makes a wonderful flamebait comment in an interview on the Argentine blog Runas Explosivas.
"Old school" is a marketing term and is neither old nor an identifiable single way to play (school).
In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens pithily described his use of old school as "a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young." It's part of why old school gaming has always been somewhat associated with the grognards, named after Napoleon's veterans who were infamous for grumbling, even to l'Empereur himself. People misunderstand "old school" to mean "the way that people played back in 197x or 198x" when it really means a re-emphasizing of certain "classic" tropes and ideas, including adventure design, mechanics, and play style.

The marketing aspect is interesting. I almost want to agree with it, in that it's primarily a label for people and products to denote that they are oriented to the "old school," but I disagree with its cynicism. The community aspect of the OSR, from blogs to G+ and the associated forums, has been probably more important overall than the marketing. You can bicker and argue over whether it's one single thing or a lot of things, but what you can't argue is that there are a lot of people in a network creating and consuming content.

Honestly the rest of Ron's interview isn't really worth much response. The OSR isn't that close to most Forge stuff when you get down to brass tacks. What happens in the game play experience is simply too different. Back in his heyday, Ron called the classic era of D&D a period of cargo cults, while I find it to have been far more creative and unrestrained. (That essay also contains his total misunderstanding of Gygax and Arneson, and application of the "Big Model" to their D&D.)

It's unfortunate, after eight years of doing this, that we are still at a high point of misunderstanding old school D&D from people who ought to know better. I've always found that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and old school D&D is a real thing, and in the OSR period it's been great roleplaying.


  1. "old scool as a marketing term" That's rich. The first time I heard the term in reference to RPGs was in connection to retro-clone systems which, by and large, were FREE to download. Maybe this guy needs to look up the definition of the word "marketing".

  2. That's a terrific point - especially considering how Basic Fantasy, which has always been very big on being completely free (print copies are at-cost). Ron has always been very attuned to marketing, with the whole indie RPG scene that he was the ideological leader of. Indie was more of a marketing term than old school is today.

  3. "The term 'role-playing game' was invented by people trying to describe what happened when they were playing Dungeons & Dragons."

    Minor quibble (my favorite redundant expression), but "reinvented" would be more appropriate, considering the term had previously been used by Admiral McDonald about a decade before D&D was published

  4. "John Wick said some dumb things in a blog post."



Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.