Monday, July 20, 2020

Back When The OSR Was Bad

Recently,  Jeff Gameblog was reminding everyone the reason he got started blogging back in 2004 was that the forums sucked, and he wanted to get away from them. The Old School Renaissance he helped start with that blog is a teenager now. Maybe it's looking at colleges.


The OSR authors started as bloggers, and they blogged instead of forumed because forums generally suck but the ideas behind the suck took on three major shapes:

The TSR D&D Fan Critique 

This was an online scene that was basically an extension of the fan activity that'd been around in magazines since the '70s:

  • Their first objection to OSR stuff was that it was new and not old or, as they might put it, not in the same spirit as the things they liked.
  • This morphed into "the OSR with their blogs and using their real names are tall poppies and we hate that" or, as they might put it "preening, money-hungry, arrogant..." etc. 

The WOTC D&D Fan Critique 

At the time this was D&D 3.5 and then D&D 4e in 2008:

  • They saw old school as fundamentally creaky and pointless and said the only reason to play was nostalgia.
  • By the time of 4e this changed to "the only reason to play was nostalgia and everyone who likes it is a white Republican and uninclusive". Which is weird because Jeff "universally accepted lefty" Rients had been blogging for 4 years at that point but whatever.

PostForge/Indie Gamers/Story-Gamer Critique

This was a self-consciously "let's change things" avant-garde scene which started in the early '00s.
  • They had a critique of D&D in general that it mechanically somehow failed to be a fun adventure game.
  • Some of them had another critique of D&D in general that it was bad to want a fun adventure game anyway because it wasn't deep or about crying and didn't involve role-playing. And violence is bad and of course games have instructions? idk.
  • Their main problem with Old School was that, first, it was a kind of D&D, so already had problems, and that some of the bloggers actually were trying to be articulate in a defense of the game as fun which made it all worse.


After five years of  mostly blogging, then five years of tentative steps into the market and then five years of being important enough that everyone in the industry knows at least someone in the OSR, things have changed. Summarizing all the reasons why is another post but basically OSR designers made hard-to-deny commercial headway on all fronts and so now....

The TSR Fan Critique was always kinda doomed because none of them could put out their own product without being muddled in with the existing OSR. And the OSR was nice to people who put out things it liked.  And were they not Old and School and Re-Nascent?

Their critique eventually just became "All the OSR people are preening, money-hungry and arrogant except these few dozen specific people who made the games I like".

The WOTC D&D Fan Critique softened because of the 5th edition of D&D, basically, which was, if not old-school, than way more old-school friendly than the previous two editions and 5e's marketing involved using the '80s legacy (Stranger Things, etc) as a cool retronew thing rather than trying to go "D&D is still relevant despite..." which they'd been trying to do since the '90s.

(The weirdest part was when Something Awful stopped being like "Old School is all Republicans" and actually started an ongoing Old School thread.  They switched to "Ok, we just hate Zak and James who we will say are Republicans and uninclusive despite running the most diverse shops in RPGs" but this was actually an improvement.)

The PostForge/Indie Gamers/Story-Gamer Critique suffered because of larger social changes. They had to go from the post-'90s snobby-rejectionism-as-the-cutting-edge-of-creative-critique to talking-about-inclusion-on-the-internet-with-people-you-avoid-irl-is-the-cutting-edge-of-creative-critique. It was cool to say "If you like Twilight that's great! Sparkles! (Even though it's problematic! Sparkles!)" and so it became uncool to yuck on someone's yum. 

Also: as a movement interested in not just game design principles but also self-publishing and engaging a wider audience for independent games, it was hard to argue with people who were, well....self-publishing and engaging a wider audience for independent games. And making things that looked good doing it. And being, objectively, more inclusive than everyone else. The most popular indie gamer forums now can't shut up about Old School games.

The most interesting thing about this was how they did deal with their old critique. They often would flatter OSR creators by saying "Well Old School D&D was bad back in the day, but you guys fixed that with clearer procedures and prose", though the condescending edge that somehow old school is a guilty pleasure for when you just really want mcnuggets has not gone away, mostly because social media still incentivizes rageposts about What Popular Media Doesn't Get About Itself That I Personally Do And You Will Too If You ReTweet This.

The current hip line on old school play and D&D is that Ok, it's fun but that isn't well-explained by the products and some will be confused.

Honestly, I used to have some sympathy for this argument because it was often made by people who'd flatter me and Jeff and other bloggers by saying "Oh now I get it since you explained it" but I've come around to hard elitism on the subject: 

No, the prose and marketing aren't ever perfect, but seriously even '70s D&D at its creakiest is easier to understand than, like, Paradise Lost or Cronopios and Famas and if you can't understand those I don't get why you think you get to tell creators how you'd do it better. If you played any kind of D&D and didn't have fun and blamed the game instead of your friends you're probably a moron. Children play it. Get a grip.

Basically all the designers who have made these 180 turns on old-school games are still around and none of them have apologized for taking stands that they now admit are completely wrong despite buying, promoting and even making Old School-style RPG stuff by the thousands.

Or, to put it another way, they haven't learned anything, and learning is the only good reason to be wrong. 

I've said before: it's weird to have a popular blog whose audience is made entirely of people you're pretty sure can't read, but maybe some future civilization will appreciate this message in a bottle. Don't do what we did. Don't expect things of people. Light the fuse and run. 


teamslope said...

you haven't made a post like this in a long, long time, and I'm happy to see you slowly moving back into your stride: when is the next book out

Zak Sabbath said...


It's difficult to find a reason to write posts for, like I said, an illiterate audience. But whatever.

As for the "next book":

Demon City will be out like 6-8 weeks after Shawn Cheng finishes the graphic design.

As for the rest, my policy hasn't changed: it only comes out after the community shows some fucking spine about all the harassment going on. I'm not going to go to all the trouble to deal with physical publishing and shipping for people who are unrelievedly shitty. I've got other shit to do.

Until then: PDFs are avails.

Zak Sabbath said...


Erased. No anonymous comments allowed

Paul said...

What about print on demand?

Zak Sabbath said...


The quality is not worth it.

Want a book ----> grow a spine.

Kyle T said...

"No, the prose and marketing aren't ever perfect, but seriously even '70s D&D at its creakiest is easier to understand than, like, Paradise Lost or Cronopios and Famas and if you can't understand those I don't get why you think you get to tell creators how you'd do it better. If you played any kind of D&D and didn't have fun and blamed the game instead of your friends you're probably a moron. Children play it. Get a grip."

Seems like the obvious response there is that the examples you're describing are literary texts where a struggle for understanding is an inherent and desirable part of the piece, and games are technical manuals where a struggle for understanding is counterproductive to the manual's purpose.

Children may have played it, but they played it *incorrectly* and therefore 70's-era games were failures at their purpose.

I think both of these arguments are shit because a set of rules can't make me want to play it without inspiring me in some fashion that approaches the literary in the case of the former, and the latter assumes that taking a game apart and doing what you want with it anyway is axiomatically bad, but those are the responses that come to mind.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle T

You are correct.

I’d also add that -being able to play DND and a have fun (if you want to ) is effectively an intelligence test- and not a hard one.

And that’s not because D&D is special if someone really wants to go fishing and just can’t figure out how after years we would say they are a moron.

At a certain point, with the resources available now, you just have to say there’s enough information out there to be getting on with.

So regardless of whether individual rules writers have done their job or not (they may not have) there’s just not much point in talking to people who have literally proven they are morons merely via the question they are asking.

It’s like being asked to prove the world is round and complaining that all the "the world is round" manuals out there suck and are inaccessible.

Maybe they are: some of the stupidest people on earth still figured it out, so if someone's challenging it, they're stupider by far.

Teamslope said...

I find it extremely annoying that people are constantly suggesting meta currency as a way to make up for players misbehaving. Like, they can't even just accept that someone who runs away in every encounteror roleplays being evil or anything thats contrary to the enjoyment of the rest of the table.

"In my rpg, I have solved pvp issues! You see, you can teamkill but then that adds murder tokens to the death pool and-"

I think 90% of the storygames I see are just an attempt to create mechanics arpund someone being an asshole!

Zak Sabbath said...


I used to think that.

But then I talked to the people who created those games. Then I realized it was 100%

Teamslope said...

Theres a handful that dont, but those dont seek to make dungeon exploring or even combatty games.

Call me Daddy said...

It's very interesting that the same people that can't figure out how to make players be interested in your world, story, mechanics without making an entirely new game that forces the issue by penalizing people playing it "wrong" are also the same people that cannot work out their differences with someone like an adult and play into social media dogpiling campaigns. Almost like control was the point.

Zak Sabbath said...


It sounds crass and glib but in the end, after trying to talk to them and seeing them talk to each other and fail to sort even the most simple differences out for a decade im pretty sure that’s actually exactly right.

They'd rather cancel each other over whether it's raining than open a window and check.

Call me Daddy said...

I just remember seeing a discussion repeated on multiple occasions on one of those tg
discussion sites and they simply couldn't come up with a reason to get their players interested into going into what I think was Barrowmaze, and people started suggesting all kinds of fucking terrible ideas like "give them a pool of non-barrowmaze exploration tokens that they can spend to do something else that session that they can only get from exploring rooms in barrowmaze" or "make them cursed and they HAVE to explore 2d6 rooms in the barrowmaze or they lose 1000xp that day" and when I attempted to explain that "if your players literally cannot be dragged kicking and screaming into megadungeon play, then don't fucking make them" and I got told to shut up because that wasn't a good suggestion and how dare you tell me that I can't use the book I spent XX dollars on who do you think you are blah blah blah and that's about the time I decided to join the perpetual lurkers.

And then everyone started yelling about how the OP should've been using Dungeon World anyway, because the system he was using (LL, I believe) was a bad game mechanically. These convos go the same way over and over again over the years. I see repeats of it every six months and the only time it STOPPED was when you were getting pretty popular around '17 or so. Once you got "cancelled" less than two months later the "no, introduce a shitty metacurrency and honestly just play dungeon world" trolls came back in legion

Zak Sabbath said...


Ever wonder why lots of people like all kinds of music but K-Pop fans are so powerful on the interent?

Because K-Pop's popularity in the english-speaking world is post-Internet. It occurred through the internet so they are all more densely connected and unified than, say, R&B fans.

That whole scene is post-internet. They came up on the same handful of sites, they use the same jargon, they follow the same nerd celebs on twitter, they retweet the same outrages.

To exaggerate only slightly:

Call me Daddy said...

I guess but I don't think these people have a single leader. The leader is changable, since Ettin getting sued didn't seem to put a stop to fuck all, people were calling you a pedophile in the comments of that tweet he had to post.

Zak Sabbath said...


Of course they don't have a leader. They just have a more unified and densely-connected scene.

Like flat-earthers have more in common than round earthers

Zak Sabbath said...


erased. misinformation isnt allowed.
if you contest my designation of any of your assertions as misinformation present evidence in your next comment