So: the Old School Renaissance, in tabletop RPGs...
|Jeff's Gameblog, back in the day|
This history is a Part Two. Someone else would have to write Part One: I wasn't there. Rob Conley (The Majestic Wilderlands), Matt Finch (Swords & Wizardry), Michael Curtis (Dungeon Alphabet, Stonehell) and people like that know more--as does everyone on small message boards I don't spend much time on where TSR legends hang out.
I'm going to forget things and people: sorry.
To summarize the impression I carry around in my head about this era I missed: People who'd been playing '80s D&D since the '80s and had been on the internet since the internet was invented were doing what you'd expect: enjoying talking to each other and making things. In 2000 the Open Game License had happened, allowing for legal clones of older, pre-Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D. OSRIC (based on 1st ed AD&D) came out in 2006, Castles and Crusades (an OSr style game with 3e-style bonuses and saves) had come out in 2004.
This hard work had been done by people whose names I don't hear much discussed long before I knew what a Moldvay even was.
This is back when people used to spend hours googling esoteric things, before we knew that doing so would just result in banality and weird tumblr sex. I was writing a book--about something else, but my mind kept running back to when I played D&D as a kid--and one of my porn friends (Satine Phoenix, nowadays at WOTC) wanted to play.
It was also the year Gary Gygax died, the year that the 4th edition of D&D came out, and
--all three of which contributed to expanding the OSR in different ways.
I got to googling esoteric things "...and D&D". Many first contacts occurred here: first storygame (Shock--"Philip K Dick" "D&D"), first game blog: Monsters & Manuals ("M John Harrison""D&D").
It must've been around November because everyone was discussing the controversial recent release of the original Geoffrey McKinney Carcosa.
Here was Jeff Rients on the Gameblog doing it (as usual: walking straight into controversy and coming out the other side unscathed simply by talking up only what he liked about the controversial thing) and here was James Mal on Grognardia doing it (as usual: conscientious, scholarly, but--really--not too bothered) and here was James Edward Raggi IV doing it (as usual: head first holding a broken bottle).
Jeff was an old hand at talking to gamers by that point, unlike James and James he'd been gameblogging for 4 years. Jeff was the original gameblogger at least as far as this scene is concerned, and was the beginning of the OSR I know and knew.
So I was reading these things--I was learning there was a scene. And--for the first time in years--I got around to playing. I bought my first D&D thing in years: Death Frost Doom. It was also the year Stonehell and Majestic Wilderlands came out and the first one-page-dungeon contest happened.
From Guy Fullerton in the comments: ...2008 events that created energy (or focused attention) around old school D&D: Fight On!, Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. Bob Bledsaw (Judges Guild founder) passed away. Castle Zagyg gets released posthumously, then Gail Gygax terminates the license with TLG.
That atmosphere was intimate, collegial, with lots of discoveries, ideas and just basic facts being traded back and forth.
The newly-minted Grognardia was setting the pace: the blogs gave more scope to an individual voice than forums, had less gibberish, and, crucially, made it way easier for people like me--who didn't know shit--to find things.
People were attracted by James Mal's scrupulous, humane style and his basic project: to take a look at all these old books--often contrasting the basic approach with modern mainstream games.
The Grognardia comments section became a forum in itself--everyone blogging at the time was there. The Grognardia bloglist was where all this came from.
And, crucially, perhaps surprisingly, many would not have called themselves "old school" or "osr" bloggers. They were just people with game blogs. Monsters & Manuals or TheRPG Corner, for instance, could just as easily be about Cyberpunk or some new hotness. It took a remarkably long time for all of us to realize that most of the things we liked were things the mainstream RPG scene had increasingly forgotten about. Probably because the mainstream RPG scene was so far away from anyone who is actually playing's daily experience of play.
What about the gameblogs that didn't eventually become part of the OSR? They existed but they didn't really connect to each other much--they seemed happy on the forums, as the same people now seem happy on Twitter.
The OSR I know is or was a blog thing. It involves a lot of people who like writing and who like books, and who like continuous, articulate and sometimes complicated ideas, sometimes with footnotes.
It's also worth noting that there was and still is a sort of "old-school-Nonrenaissance" which stayed on the forums and fucking hated the OSR as arrivistes and poseurs. They would rail against James Maliszewski as if Grognardia had been built on the graves of their mothers' mothers. They saw the OSR as carpetbaggers, claiming Old School cred despite having been out doing things like living and eating and gong to college and having jobs instead of just playing D&D and posting on Prodigy about it since the Carter administration. They're still around. This is also the year the hatethread "grognards.txt" started on Something Awful, which claimed to be just making fun of dorky posts but immediately descended into aggressive smears and eventually harassment campaigns against pretty much any OSR figure they noticed.
Anyway, that was the year I started my blog.
""James [Raggi] is one of the most interesting and daring writers *period*, no matter what school of gaming you like."
- Mike Mearls
The OSR was already becoming a thing.
Either because it was good or because people wanted to see boobs, this blog became popular. Jeff, James, James and Zak became the Four Horsemen of gameblogging for the next few years--though we were just entry points for a much deeper and bigger scene. Michael Curtis with his Dungeon Alphabet was way ahead of the game in terms of making sellable stuff, Alexis/Tao and Monsters & Manuals/ Noisms were doing the brainiest work, The RPG Corner was the widest-ranging and had great visuals. I'm pretty lazy about clearing dead blogs my bloglist over there exactly because I want people to keep looking back at that Devonian Explosion of creativity. Look at Valley of Blue Snails sometime--I hope that guy's ok, wherever he is.
Someone noticed that porn stars were playing D&D and we got a web show. This lead to the very first gaming controversy involving this blog. Part of it had to do with an internal OSR organization that put the show on its list of interesting things and somebody there was like "Fuck this bullshit there's swearing in it and they're not even playing our edition!" and part of it was just the mainstream misogynist gamers being misogynists ("They're all faking") and mainstream ("Wait, that's not how feats work! Let's cry!").
Gratifyingly, after a few weeks of being yelled at, these people fucked off. The OSR scene rallying around the girls was a big deal to us--certainly nobody else in gaming did it.
Notably, James Raggi of LotFP came to bat for us in a big way. I respected that a lot: basically all porn people get harassment online literally every day of their entire lives and James was one of the first human beings outside the industry to go out of his way to stand up to that. Most people won't ever understand how meaningful it is, when you've had to take the baseball bat to the fucking gophers every morning, to have another hand that isn't in the business helping. It's unheard of. Even today when I can get pretty much any liberal protest thing retweeted around the world in ten seconds you never see any of the dozens of reporters, gallery owners, authors or directors who follow me on social media lift a finger to mention SESTA/FOSTA. And if you have to google that to know what it is and why everyone in porn has a hard time using a bank account because of it, you're seeing my point: most people do not give a fuck. And James did.
I worked on the Grindhouse Edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess for free. James commissioned Vornheim (advertised as The City From I Hit It with My Axe!--over a million people had seen the show, after all) and a fancier new version of Carcosa around the same time, stirring the trolls to new heights of freaked-outness: LotFP was well on its way to being The Fucked Up One among the retroclones.
The phrase Gygaxian Democracy got invented, the Dungeon Alphabet came out, Kevin Crawford launched Sine Nomine Publishing with Stars Without Number, the prototype of Secret Santicore got launched (originally designed to celebrate Dave Arneson's birthday), Satine started the first Charity D&D Event in LA at Meltdown Comics--a small thing, but events like that where voice actors, comedians, celebrities and other Hollywood people realized they all liked D&D were what sprouted into Critical Role and its ilk. Here is the thing about Hollywood: Satine knows everyone.
Satine was also a key pebble and factor in another coming avalanche: she was the one who told me--on the way to my first San Diego Comic Con--that this Google + thing could be used for free multiperson videochat. Then this, then this, then this. Soon, Calithena of Fight On! magazine (very important in the old school scene up til that point) contacted me and Jeff Gameblog, and proposed to us the idea that eventually became FLAILSNAILS games. At the time I said online games would "revolutionize the hobby".
I googled "Dungeons & Dragons" in order to write this article--the first thing that comes up is Roll20--so maybe I was right. Either way, 2011 became the year of online games--but, more than that, it became the year of all these people who'd been talking to each other via blog comments for years actually seeing each other face-to-face for the first time. It was also a way for OSR types who didn't have the spare time to write eight-paragraph blog entries every three days to meet each other. The tech was big for a lot of reasons, but the biggest was probably: it made it a lot easier to become friends.
The storygamers before us had little conventions (like Camp Nerdly) where they met and decided they liked each other. We were a combination of busier and poorer, so we didn't--we instead met on G+.
It was magnificent and it changed everything. Beautiful, generous, excited, fascinated days--everyone sharing. We played every game, and things expanded rapidly.
On top of the new connectedness, LotFP's relatively risky publishing experiments were paying off: LotFP's Grindhouse Edition was an entire boxed set--including dice and a pencil, Carcosa was one of the most sumptuously bound printed books you're likely to see in or out of RPGs, and Vornheim was 2000 copies--unheard of at the time for an OSR book. And they were all making money.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the fanciness, Kevin Crawford was proving if you stuck to a schedule and put out a solid product (Red Tide and An Echo Resounding the next year) you could do this full time.
So the OSR was meeting itself and it was getting the idea that it could sell itself new things. I think the folks involved in Hydra Collective met and started working together around this period, and a number of other ventures that would soon come to burden Bryce Lynch on his newly launched quest to review every single goddamn module began to playtest and gestate.
But where to get the capital?
James Mal of Grognardia joined forces with some people we used to call "That Mule Abides blogger" to put out Dwimmermount--the megadungeon he'd been writing about for the past year or so. 30,000$. Thirty! Thousand! Dollars! We were stunned. In 2012 it hadn't occurred to anyone that people would pay 30,000$ for OSR anything.
It all went to hell very fast: Dwimmermount became a scandal (though one eventually somewhat rectified years later) and James Mal became a genuine OSR casualty. Being Top OSR Blogger had made him a subject of immense online abuse for 4 years already and the same trolls were now suddenly walking around acting as if it had all been justified. James did not take the harassment well. If you're wondering whatever happened to Grognardia? That. James made some mistakes, definitely, but he never took it out on other people--so the whole thing was that much more frightening to watch. This is one reason why I never believe anyone when they say prominent game figures "bring harassment on themselves": before Dwimmermount it would've been impossible to find a blogger more polites, deferential and more willing to state his taste as mere taste than James Mal, yet here he was attracting endless shit. People hate hardest on the tall poppy and that's all there is to it. Jeff Gameblog escaped this fate only by going to grad school instead of sticking around while the rest of us had started monetizing talking about games to each other.
It was our turn when me and the girls appeared in Maxim in 2011. One of the new harassers was an obscure Onyx Path author. I'd never heard of her or her company--or her endless waves of shithead friends that were soon to become a regular fixture of our lives for (apparently) ever.
This kind of thing, combined with the ease of trying new games via the technology not yet called "hangouts" fed into a new theme: finding out how bad various storygames sucked. We came, we played, we were like meh. A pattern became evident: The games weren't fun for us and when we talked about them the people who did like them were mean about it. And Google+ gave everyone a chance to find out just how mean on a scale never before seen. Especially since this was the year Dungeon World came out.
Y'know how people say things in games are "divisive" and people are in "bubbles"? Well: it didn't used to be like that. And it was terrible idea--in the early days of Google+ it was like as if the French and Germans not only shared a border but kept insisting on eating at one long picnic table at that border every day. Thank god for divisiveness.
But in the actual games, things were changing. After years of publishing retro-modules, Goodman Games came out with the Dungeon Crawl Classics game--another big and expensive tome that people nevertheless seemed eager to shell out for (plus buy weird dice), there was also Jon Peterson's Playing At the World--the first-ever actually-good book about D&D as a phenomenon or a game design --and Vornheim (after losing an Ennie to a bunch of dungeon tiles) got nominated for a Diana Jones, got noticed by a dude named Kenneth Hite, and was recognized outside the RPG scene at the Indiecade festival. Commercially and in the minds of designers, OSR stuff was being recognized.
If you read the old entries in this blog you'll see a lot going on in 2012 and 2013: people and ideas were colliding like crazy. The ability to play anything via hangout pretty much whenever and to meet the designer seconds later made theorycrafting second-nature. This game works like this, while this game works like that.
Meanwhile, Wizards of the Coast, owners of official D&D, did its best to give people more things to yell and theorycraft at each other about--announcing, over the course of the year:
-it would be retiring the controversial 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons--roundly unappreciated by old school gamers and worshipped like god's own precious milk in game form by the forum trolls who hated them most,
-Monte Cook would be the lead designer on this new edition,
-Monte Cook would ok wait not be the lead designer on this new edition, and
-it was hiring a team of RPG designers and gadflies as consultants including Robin Laws (Feng Shui), S John Ross (Risus), Kenneth Hite (Trail of Cthulhu), Zak Smith (Vorn..heim?), and......the RPGpundit (fuck-all).
Contessa begins, I believe, around now, as does basically everyone interesting finally all getting off or being thrown off RPGnet, as a direct or indirect result of the final convulsions of the Edition Wars (5e playtest documents were coming out all year) or OSR authors finally getting noticed enough to get yelled at. Everyone had better things to do on Google + anyway, which was humming at this point: community projects were getting made including the Hexenbracken, Kraal, and Colossal Waste. Secret Santicore was now just a normal thing people expected to get done, as was the One Page Dungeon Contest.
By this point Frog God Games was producing old-school style modules for S&W and Pathfinder, Goodman Games was doing well with DCC, Kevin at Sine Nomine was producing exactly the quietly useful work he promised and Lamentations of the Flame Princess was firming up its reputation as The Gross One That Was Easy To Make Fun Of but...then it threw curveballs like Vincent Baker's Seclusium of Orphone and Ken Hite's Qelong.
It seems so calm, in retrospect.
Now all this is a personal take, and I haven't done much new research this evening to prepare it. It's all just an impressionistic blur nailed down by the dates of old blog entries and some left-handed googling--so I hope I can be forgiven for saying at least my main OSR memories from 2014 were the frenzied bacchanal of harassment against me and the women in my game group that reached its peak with the release of the 5th edition of D&D in July and the coinciding realization on the part of the parties responsible that I wasn't joking when I said I worked on it. They saw it in print and they wept, and fell upon us like jackals in the cold night.
I don't know if it's it's accurate to say the years-long campaign of incredibly widespread bad behavior on the part of Fred Hicks, Cam Banks, team Green Ronin and co caused or solidified a real and lasting rift between the OSR and adjacent indie gaming communities whose principals aided and abetted it, but I fucking hope so.
The other big thing to happen this year was both the OSR and most of the rest of RPGs decided this 5th edition was Good, Actually. It seemed to be every experienced gamer's second favorite edition, and many newbies' first. The mechanics were within a stone's throw of fitting three or four different fairly popular styles, and things like advantage/disadvantage went over with most sane people.
Though I have no idea how much they took my advice, I did notice improvement from prototype to prototype, and our email exchanges about the rules were long. In terms of mechanics, if not writing, art and content--it ended up as close to the D&D I want to play as any other edition.
Closer to OSR home:
At this point the Google+ community has become a finely-honed you-want-it-you-got-it content-making machine, culminating in the Last Gasp instant generator tool being proposed, designed and programmed in less than a day, if I remember.
Contessa solidified its pre-eminence in woke gaming circles at bringing new people into the hobby, upsetting both conservatives and competitors in the process (which made people wonder: what kind of wokeness looks at something like Contessa and decides to compete with it?). Lots of new faces started coming in.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes--conceived, playtested and developed by Chris Kutalik on Google + came out.
There were personnel shifts: more of the folks from the early, Wild Westy, snarky/scholarly/pulpy/literary pre-Google+ days (like Huge Ruined Scott) were closing up shop and more surreal/postmodern/arty bloggers were taking their place. I could tell because people started asking me whether old TSR modules were any good--as if I'd read them or something.
Red & Pleasant Land--which, with it's gold embossing and whatnot, was a step more de luxe than even Carcosa had been--made insane fucktons of money for a cottage RPG project. I don't know if this counts as impacting the wider history of the OSR other than it got the guy in charge of Lamentations of the Flame Princess out of debt for the first time in his life, but it proved at least to me that either the OSR's appetites extended far beyond dying in tunnels or people far outside the OSR wanted OSR stuff.
The Year of the Goat.
5th Edition D&D is definitively a blockbuster success (with help from this new show Critical Role). Though this doesn't directly bear on the OSR, it doesn't hurt interest in 3rd party product at the Reddit level and it quiets a lot of RPG critics who sniped incidentally at the OSR on their way to performing disgust that either (depending on faction):
-the most popular RPG was still D&D or
-that it was D&D but wasn't 4e.
They withdraw quite a bit. The discourse in general gets about a hundred times more sane because of it. It becomes a lot harder to paint the entire project of killing monsters to get treasure as some kind of regressive neckbeard-man-only activity with Critical Role in the gamer imagination.
The bridge free of trolls, truly exotic stuff starts to roll out, and is justly (and almost exclusively) celebrated: Yoon-Suin, Fire on the Velvet Horizon. Break!--a hybrid of anime, mainstream D&D and OSR game--starts to be developed. We also get things like Strange Stars (retro weird sci fi) and Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid (literally a dungeon from when the GM was a kid) from Hydra Collective.
In worse news, Alexander Macris of Adventurer, Conqueror, King starts to turn into (or: reveal himself to be) the dipshit that would eventually become Milo's manager. We got away asap.
Then the Ennies: the early retroclones had won some awards 5 or more years back--but this was the first year that stuff from the OSR with brand new content won anything. Red & Pleasant got 4 awards--including beating the D&D Player's Handbook--which surprised everyone, me most of all. The wailing, gnashing and rending that followed was to become an annual event.
There's a lot of talent just lying on the ground at this point--the free pan-OSR collaboration Princess of the Silver Palace shows it off.
2016 is the point at which I completely lose track of how much is coming out how fast-- Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, Blood In the Chocolate, the new Swords & Wizardry, The 20k Operation Unfathomable Kickstarter from Jason Sholtis of the Dungeon Dozen, Misty Isles of the Eld, Hubris, Broodmother Sky Fortress, and Towers Two.
None of this stuff is normal. It all bucks Old School stereotypes and none of it trades on TSR nostalgia in its presentation. Marlinko is a hallucinatory romp, BitC is a Willy Wonka murderworld, S&W has abstract art and no men working on it, Eld is a whimsical sci-fi take on Elves, Hubris is hundreds of pages of tables as metal as a bull made of dead volcano gods drinking blood from the sun, Unfathomable is as gonzo as only an adventure made by stringing Dungeon Dozen table results together can be, Broodmother looks like a Jack Kirby comic and starts off telling you to get ready to destroy your gameworld, and Towers Two is literally written by the lead singer of Gwar.
Like frogs in a slow-heating pan, we're all quite used to this kind of thing now, but dial back just four years all of it would seem bizarre and half these books would've had a moral crusades launched against them before they even shipped. Towers Two alone contains more offensive content than everything RPGnet has ever complained about put together, but--blessed blessed divisiveness--nobody gives anyone any shit about any of it.
Ken Baumann also forms Satyr Press this year just to put out Maze of the Blue Medusa and the interesting thing about this is the company's conceived as a sort of pop-up LotFP: its got the LotFP production finish, LotFP authors, printed by a LotFP-equivalent press and even sold at the LotFP table at GenCon. As this results in LotFP-like sales and awards, it's a pretty solid proof-of-concept: you can spend a year putting out a fancy boutique RPG book, make a profit, and then go back to what you were doing before.
Jacob Hurst and Co's Hot Springs Island is a pair of black-and-white books retailing together for 100$, but the buzz is: the content is worth it. And it translates into sales.
In the larger game universe, RPG vlogging is increasingly a thing, people getting tens of thousands of hits giving basic 5e advice. Ben Milton's Questing Beast becomes increasingly important as pretty much the only OSR person with any juice on YouTube.
When you write something like this you necessarily are talking about events not in themselves, but as signs of things to come--about what seems important in retrospect--and I don't have much retrospect on the last two years. I can point to what happened, but it's hard to tell which parts are important--the noise from the footsteps.
So, knowing that the job's half-impossible, I'll describe what I think I'm seeing:
A clean upward slope since 2008 Since the OSR started, more diverse things are being made by a more diverse group of people and they're selling more copies and winning more awards. The only exceptions are people who've completely opted out of pointing up the novel or special aspects of what they've done (even when they're there). Commercially, even if the OSR is in a bubble, it won't burst all at once.
Professionalization People are Patreoning, Kickstarting, learning skills. You meet someone and four minutes later you're giving them fifteen bucks. This isn't as gross as it sounds--there's a genuine talent farm, building on a collective knowledge pool. People are taking the weirdness you give them and taking it three weirder.
Yet you still meet people You think you're done, you're tired, you've had your fun and...nope. Here's someone who wants to run a game, play a game, test a game, pay you to make a game, has an idea for a game, has a new blog, has a new blog idea... It isn't stopping. Which: considering how much content and how much theory has gone under the bridge, is a little surprising.
Non-OSR OSR Games I don't know if a bunch of other people besides me will work-, or are working-, on games like Demon City which are meant to be played in Old School ways but use completely new mechanics, but I do know a bunch of Old School gamers were happy to pay me to do it, so there's probably an interest. And there's Break! too for instance. Plus, if the rest of art history is any help: a lot of people will branch out sooner or later.
The competition is increasingly a mess Fans of Not-OSR will likely write this off as Zak being Zak but honest to god: shit doesn't look good for most of the not-OSR game companies working on the OSR scale. Many of the big non-D&D franchises are moribund (and the companies doing Savage Rifts and DC Adventures just tripped over sex scandals), Paizo's Starfinder seems to have fallen flat since Star Wars is already out in several iterations, the post-Forge/storygame indies have had twice as long to get their act together (that scene started around 2000) and they don't seem to be seizing the opportunities: the art and design aren't improving and few artists are involved as content creators, there's only one or two of them known as writers, and the theorytalk and functional social organizing that used to hold that cohort together seems to have evaporated when rubbed up against other people doing it better. WOTC itself is doing well, but they're focusing on spreading the Good News more than creating content--and what they do create is kinda what you'd expect. Basically, you can go to even the most hostile forum and ask what the good modules are this year and you'll get a face full of OSR.
(ADDENDUM A DAY LATER: Don't take my word for it. Take a look at that.)
In terms of people with genuinely surprising talent making things, there are a few independent voices (Third Eye, for instance) but I'm not seeing a lot of other big noises outside the OSR, Cthulhu and Fantasy Flight--with the last two relying heavily on established properties. There's a massive gap in the market for genuine creative content and the OSR seems to have the vast majority of personnel capable of filling it.
That said: the OSR still has very little on video--and that's where the action is now. Video isn't fun. Or: unlike drawing, writing or blogging, it isn't a kind of fun that has a lot to do with running or playing a game. If the OSR is going to get much bigger, someone will have to bite the bullet get good at that--or better. YouTube does love How To's.
So anyway that's the history, goodnight.