Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Copper Pieces on OSR History

Erik Tenkar has been writing guides to the OSR games out there. For his trouble, he's being accused of historical revisionism by the "RPG Pundit," a person who you may remember from "consultant-gate." Erik's post about it is here. I won't link to the Pundit's site but you can find the post by Googling his pseudonym.

The attack on Tenkar is based on the idea that the early / close retro-clones weren't really the font from which the old school renaissance came. Which is malarkey. The OSR became a single thing in 2009, when Dan Proctor made it one.

A history of the OSR can start in dozens of places. You can start in Dragonsfoot, with gamers who never really stopped playing AD&D or B/X D&D getting together to talk shop. Or you can start with Hackmaster, which put 1e back into print (albeit in a strangely modified form). Or with Castles & Crusades, which created a lot of the pressure for these games. Or you could look at Necromancer Games with its "First Edition Feel" and 3e reprints of Judges Guild products, or Goodman Games's Dungeon Crawl Classics series. Or you could look at WotC's early PDF releases, which included OD&D for a hot minute.

There were literally dozens of things contributing to an old school explosion in the mid-2000s. The RPG Pundit bizarrely chooses to look at two oddball projects. One, Mazes & Minotaurs, was an attempt to imagine what D&D might have been like with an ancient Greek flavor. The other, Encounter Critical, was an attempt to pawn off a fake late '70s RPG. EC has had some influence on the OSR, because Jeff Rients loves the thing. But I've never detected any real influence coming from M&M, and as someone who minored in ancient Greek and Roman history in college, I would be able to tell.

The problem with looking at it from the influences is that events like the OSR are not unitary things. No single event happened and then the OSR was on; it was more that several things were happening in parallel, and they only happened to be grouped together later. The old school buildup wasn't a single powder keg; it was several smaller fires that later merged, and later still drifted apart in ways.

But the most important events were the publication of BFRPG and OSRIC, because they changed things fundamentally. Once BFRPG and AA#1 Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom were in print, there were now rules and adventures resembling those of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with no apologies, no parody elements, no conversion to 3e or a "modernized" system. RPG products that were old school as a badge of pride.

OSRIC and BFRPG were fundamentally different. OSRIC was something of a fig-leaf, a system designed to be indistinguishable from AD&D so that you could use modules for OSRIC with your AD&D books with no conversion. There was no assuption that people would play OSRIC; in fact, there were at least 20 modules released before it was available in print. BFRPG, by contrast, was a community project meant to be played, B/X with a light clean-up to a few rules.

What was important was that the barrier was breached in the summer of 2006, and that's when the flood of material that we can now identify as part of the OSR started to happen.  The Hoard & Horde spreadsheet by Guy Fullerton makes it abundantly clear that things changed significantly at that exact point in time. Any history that doesn't frankly say that before BFRPG and OSRIC there wasn't what we identify today as OSR publication, and afterward there is, is being revisionist.

The derisive mentions of "clone-mania" and "Talmudic" interpretation of rules and Gygaxian minutiae make it quite clear what the Pundit's revisionist agenda is. He doesn't like the wing of the OSR represented by that play style, that sticks close to the old games instead of remixing them and re-imagining them. Ironically this misses a big chunk of the point of OSRIC and BFRPG, which has always been to get adventures and support material out there for these older systems. There are three hardback collections on my shelf of Advanced Adventures collections; each contains 10 complete OSRIC modules. BFRPG just released a book of adventures in print. Neither gives much of a damn about history or precise accuracy.

BFRPG wanted to get people playing old school B/X style games again, and it succeeded. OSRIC wanted to get new support material for original AD&D, and it succeeded. These are admirable goals, rooted in actual play and the continuity of a gaming community that are worthwhile in themselves. The OSR should be proud to say these games are where our prehistory ends and our history begins.


  1. To be fair to The Pundit, I take him to mean a broad history ought to avoid a myopic (I think that's the right word) look at just the clones. If that's his point, he's not wrong about that. There were major factors other than the clones. (Certainly the clones were significant. They just weren't _everything_.)

    1. They're so significant they might as well be everything.

  2. I'm trying to understand, "The OSR became a single thing in 2009, when Dan Proctor made it one." Are you talking about the abbreviation or the or the full form? Or are you making a more subtle point about "unification" in Dan's post?

    FWIW, the full form had been in somewhat common use for at least 6-9 months before Dan Proctor's blog post. (Look at the first three issues of Fight On!, and search for the term "renaissance" on odd74 for examples.) The abbreviation had already been used here an there for at least a month: (and elsewhere on Robert Fisher's blog)

    1. The funny thing is, if you read the comments on the article from Raggi you linked, there is a post from Geoffrey McKinney, if I'm not mistaken, where he says something like, "ok, this thing has to change focus from clones into new gameable things". So one could argue, that the start of the OSR, at least at the time that logo was first used, wasn't the clones, but the blogosphere starting to change them into something slightly different. Which makes RPGpundit's statement either moronic or somewhat justified, I'm not quite sure, what.
      And I never had the impression EC was ignored in OSR circles, either. Saw a lot of cool things about it and actually learned about it in the OSR-blogosphere.

    2. What I was trying to get at is that the OSR was several distinct streams in publishing and play, and that a bunch of people getting behind it as a marketing term was what cemented the whole idea that there is one unified "OSR."

    3. It’s funny... Since that blog post of mine, I’ve come to think of “OSR” as referring more to the commercial side of this thing.

    4. Wayne, thanks for the explanation!

  3. You misspelled awesome as strangely.

    "Albeit in awesomely modified form"

  4. BFRPG is now well into the AD&D era of rules and going in a very different implementation while still retaining the separate XP by Class progression method, and now adding in classes that would have been NPC-only or eventually find their way into the often maligned UA. It is a dynamic system that is changing as the player-core adds those changes, and additionally, it is very functionally open source with OpenOffice files for each release as well as .pdf and PoD.

  5. Got to say M&M seemed huge at the time.

  6. Indulging in some history and (very quick) pedantry:

    "Once BFRPG and AA#1 Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom were in print, there were now rules and adventures resembling those of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with no apologies, no parody elements, no conversion to 3e or a "modernized" system. … What was important was that the barrier was breached in the summer of 2006."

    Quick pedantry first: BFRPG has a number of "modernized" elements. I don't necessarily disagree with its inclusion in your sentence, given your parameters (it's not a "modernized" system), but it consciously brings various 3e SRD elements into play, like saving throws in the sleep spell, safer teleporting, and temporary energy drain. These choices probably contributed to its comparatively-limited impact, relative to other efforts.

    History indulgence:

    Using the parameters you outlined ("no apologies …"), 2006 included a number of other significant events:

    2006 Feb: 1e Dark Druids PDF available for purchase, though it's not unapologetic (it uses Creations Unlimited stats), and it's a quasi-3e conversion (originally 1e, converted to 3e, converted to CU), and it's not print:

    2006 May: You can pre-order Cairn of the Skeleton King, overtly billed at that time as AD&D-compatible, and in-print, though it won't end up shipping for 2-3 months:

    2006 Aug 1: PDF (but not print yet) Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom released, using OSRIC:

    2006 Aug 7: Cairn of the Skeleton King begins shipping, making it the first shipping print product of this type. It uses the OGL+SRD, and does not end up billing itself as explicitly AD&D-compatible:

    2006 Aug 10: 1e version of DCC #12.5 The Iron Crypt of the Heretics available at Gen Con, in print. It's a 3e convert, and might beat CotSK into some peoples' hands, given the vagaries of shipping. It uses the OGL + SRD content:

    2006 Sep: PRINT Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom begins shipping, and is probably the first unapologetic 1e OSRIC item into distribution to physical game stores:

    So even _without_ OSRIC, it was inevitable that unapologetic 1e print, for-profit products were starting to happen. Admittedly, OSRIC certainly accelerated the flow, both through simplifying the process, and drawing attention to the possibility (there was a fair bit of OSRIC controversy across a variety of venues and audiences).

    1. D'oh! I had a mistake in the above:

      Cairn of the Skeleton King wasn't OGL+SRD. It used Creations Unlimited stats.

      It wasn't until Tower of Blood (pre-order 2006 Aug 3, shipped 2007 Feb 16) that PPP released an OGL+SRD module.

  7. I have to respectfully disagree with one of Timeshadows' points. The core rules of BFRPG have not changed and retain the CD&D/BX origins of the game. It is only when you add in the additional material the game does move closer to a type of AD&D. The game is truly modular and was long before WOTC decided on that approach with 5e. The nice part is that the game works well either way you go with it.

    She is dead on about the game being very open source and by that it is very accessible. The at-cost print version of the core rules is worth the price and stands up well to most commercial ventures.

    For my own opinion, the accessibility of BFRPG mixed with being truly open and dirt cheap in print makes me wonder how another B/X based game even got off the ground.

    1. “For my own opinion, the accessibility of BFRPG mixed with being truly open and dirt cheap in print makes me wonder how another B/X based game even got off the ground.”

      One thing that C&C and some other projects made clear: We could all agree that the old games could use some updating, but we couldn’t agree on which bits should be changed. It became really clear that something that stuck much closer to the old games would be more popular—at that time—than BF. (Despite BF being really good and already closer than C&C.)


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