Thursday, February 7, 2013

Winning the Battle, Losing the War (Part 2)

[continued from here]

Of course, most REALLY “old school” grogs still hang their hats on AD&D as the One True Edition, and while OSRIC has had its popularity, most of the folks I’ve seen playing the game around the game shop are still using their original 1st edition books (and I don’t blame ‘em: those old hardcovers were well-bound and built to last. I still have mine, too). Many of the OSR published adventures have been geared towards AD&D sensibilities, and most of the Old School D&D forums on-line have the largest following/volume in their (1st edition) AD&D sections. Despite being (until recently) out-o-print, I think it’s pretty safe to say AD&D has remained king of all editions.

And now the PHB, the DMG, and the MM have all been re-released (after being digitized, so they’re an easy transition to PDF form if they aren’t already available): the three volumes that form the cornerstone of the AD&D game. And with them come (from the same PDF site) the many classic AD&D modules that helped the game find such popularity in the escape-craving populace: the G, D, and Q series, the Slave Lords, the Temple of Elemental Evil, etc. It’s like someone grabbed hold of my closed and ran everything through the scanner. While this relegates the whole eBay scouring process to the realm of hardcore collectors (as opposed to hobby enthusiasts looking to play “the original versions”), the real question is what does that do to the burgeoning industry growing up in the (previous) lack of availability?

Think about this. Say I was a teenager or a kid in my early twenties, and my only exposure to D&D to date and been some great sessions with my parents or older friends/relatives using their badly battered copies of AD&D or B/X. Say it gave me enough fire/enthusiasm that I wanted to start my own gaming group with some like-minded individuals…perhaps in a high school club or on college dorm. The only with the name Dungeons & Dragons at the store is 4th edition, or perhaps some old 3rd and 3.5 editions, and maybe I pick them up…only to find them completely nonsensical or the learning curb incredibly steep to what my initial introduction is. Being young and tech-savvy, I hop on the Internet to see what I can find. A year ago, I would have ended with one of three options:

-        I could buy someone else’s old battered-tattered editions for an exorbitant sum on some web-site…and even biting that bullet wouldn’t give me anything I could load on my iPad.
-        I could “give up on the dream” and either skip D&D altogether or go with Hasbro’s latest-greatest.
-        I could stumble across the OSR…a passionate, dedicated community…and its retroclone industry. I could pick up copies of LL or OSRIC or S&W (free PDFs, plus available in print when needed), and the scores of adventures and material that had been written for them. I could introduce my like-minded friends to web-sites and blogs and give them links where they, too, could pick up the rules…and then we’d run the game. And the little OSR publishers could continue to provide their material in the vacuum of an In Print presence of the original editions.

But as I said, that was LAST year. Today, you can go and download the original stuff, and pay to have it printed if you like. And the OSR forums and blogs become little more than places to shout one’s house rulings as to whether or not clerics should receive spells at 1st level and how to make thieves “suck less.”

Is the OSR…as a movement to create new, good material in the Old School style (and thus to promote Old School role-playing)…is the OSR dead?

Did we win the battle to lose the war?

Because I for one was adamant that I wanted to “bring B/X back.” It was a gripe I had for years…since starting this blog anyway…that the original game that I’d grown to love and cherish through introspective analysis and a helluva’ lot of playing, was out of print for all time, and that I would be left alone as a reclusive hobbyist, condemned to picking up any old copy of Moldvay I came across just to “try to keep the fire alive” while all the while watching the books slowly yellow with age and disintegrate. Till nothing was left but my memories and Labyrinth Lord (with its bears that only do D4 damage and its clerics that get spells at first level). Like one of those doomed musicians playing as the Titanic sank, I would go down playing because the music was more important than clinging to the hope of finding a still-empty lifeboat.

Does that sound retarded…or at least melodramatic? It should; it is. But that’s how I felt often enough. Retarded and melodramatic in my “sticking-to-my-guns”…you can see it throughout this blog in fact. No, not in the way I rail against 4th Edition (4E is still an unmitigated piece of crap IMO)…but my holding up as B/X as the “be all, end all.” It IS a great game, and I did (figuratively) lament to the heavens that it would not be available to my own children, except as a carefully preserved collectable.

And now it IS available…my wish has come true (assuming WotC continues to find it enough of a “cash-cow” to keep it available). My lamentations have been heard…all our bitching (and by “our” I mean other B/X grognards like myself) that Hasbro should at least make the digital copies available…they’ve heard and they’ve done so and at an extremely reasonable price. And while the printed AD&D books were not nearly as reasonable, I still found myself purchasing all three (for reasons already stated on this blog); and as I said, there’s hope for their eventual digital release as well.

And has this skewered the heart of the OSR? It’s as if WotC said: 
“Okay, fine, you win. We know that some of you really don't want to play 4th edition or D&D Next (5E)...or even 3rd Edition should we somehow reincorporate that. You just want Basic D&D and if we don’t give it to you, you’ll just make your own, instead of playing the edition we’re TRYING to push on you, so here…take B/X. Take your Queen of the Demonweb Pits and B4: Lost City. Put some money in our pockets, download the file, and go knock yourselves out. Eventually, you’ll get tired of the old material and when you do we’ll be waiting with new stuff (and a new edition for you).
 “But what we’re NOT going to do is leave you no other option then to put money in the pockets of LotFP or Goblinoid Games or Brave Halfling Press. Put your money here…we’ll give you the ORIGINALS, exactly as you’ve been begging for, through word and deed.”
Why shouldn’t I put down the $10 to get original B/X over Labyrinth Lord? Why shouldn’t I take the original Erol Otus artwork over illustrations that are simply supposed to conjure nostalgia in my heart?

And if I am putting my money into the ORIGINAL works, then aren’t I likely to put my money into other original works…like adventure modules? Especially adventure modules that have been written about and blogged about and hashed about on forums for YEARS…instead of some little thing by Raggi or BHP that has little “buzz” and zero squawking fan base attached to it?

And I know money is tight for folks…the economy’s coming up but there’s been a definite drop-off in MY sales. Well, with regard to the new book anyway…and that's probably due as much to my lack of marketing/publicizing and “making the rounds” and whatnot (not to mention general lack of interest) as any lack of “ready-to-burn” income in pockets.

[on the other hand, it appears there has been an uptick in PDF sales of my B/X Companion over the last week. Any chance that has to do with B/X being back on the market?]

Like Hotcakes!
BUT if a large, well-marketed, well-known web site is producing PDF books of well-known, talked about, legendary adventures and supplements, don’t you think THOSE will be getting the lion’s share of folks’ less-than-ample petty cash (i.e. “hobby money”) before the largely unknown and obscure hobbyist publishers earn enough to even break even? Or to sustain their web sites? Or to sustain their INTEREST in doing this “hobbyist-publishing thang” at all?

Look, some folks reading this might be thinking this is all “sour grapes” coming from Yours Truly, but it’s not…the OSR movement and this blog has been a great blessing to me, because it’s opened me up to the possibility of writing and publishing and I’ve found a great love of it and will continue to do it REGARDLESS. I still fully intend to self-publish MY version of D&D someday, if only for my own amusement. AND because it’s awesome (IMO). And because I am one stubborn S.O.B. If the OSR dies, or if these little publishers go bankrupt or decide there’s too little profit to keep working (or too little recognition to keep sticking their hard-sweated masterpieces out there to have ‘em ignored)…even if that all disappears, well, I'll probably continue to do what I do: shouting in the darkness.

But IF those other folks that dip in and out of the OSR movement should dry up and go away, because they’ve been one-upped by WotC (who does, after all, own the IP we all know and love)…if they go away, well, I think it would be a damn shame. Not because I'll be losing a client base (or audience for my blog rants)…I’m sure there will still be people who check out what crazy nonsense is coming out of ol’ JB’s loony head, and some might even be tempted to throw me some cash for a book. Nope, it’ll be a shame because this movement…the OSR movement…is or was or has been or has become a GREAT CREATIVE OUTLET for many, many people. The chance to talk about their own thoughts and feelings and experiences with regard to gaming...and to have those things recognized and validated by other like-minded folks…is a great, great thing. And the creation of game works…whether adventures or rule systems or artwork or dungeon maps or whatever…is a form of artistry and creative expression, something that humans need as part of being fully fulfilled individuals. We all need an OUTLET…from playing the cello to cooking gourmet meals to painting landscapes…and the availability of that outlet through the OSR movement, and the encouragement that has come with it has been immensely valuable to people.

Because, let’s face it: when you have a passion related to a niche or hobbyist culture, it’s rare enough to get accolades…regardless of what it is. Look at that reality show about professional beard growing competitions, or that Full Metal Jousting show. Hell, until beer companies started making commercials about how their brew had won international competitions, I had no idea that there was such a thing as international brewing competitions! And gaming is such a FRAGMENTED culture…there’s so little “cross-pollination” between gaming groups, or editions, or games…that we can end up becoming insular and isolated just by the nature of the beast. Which is a shame when the game itself (i.e. role-playing) has the potential to bring people together and create deeper bonds and greater rapport between folks.

So the OSR has been a good thing…much more active and proactive than a simple “on-line community” hanging out at the WotC boards discussing what class specialization gnomes should have or whether or not attacks of opportunity will be included in 5th edition. The OSR has been vibrant, full of passionate, creative individuals who were given the space (and encouragement) to express themselves through their gaming passion. And if the release of the original Old School products sounds a death knell for that vibrant community, I can’t help but see it as a Not So Very Good Thing.

Even though I was someone who wanted to see B/X back in print.


  1. I don't see it that way. I actually think it could be a good thing. After all, lets say some teenager does go and buy B/X from WOTC. What then? They will probably do an internet search on B/X to see what is out there and see who else is playing and come across all of this awesome OSR stuff. Same for AD&D. I think it could potentially expose the creativeness of the OSR movement to a whole lot of new gamers and could bring some new perspectives and views on it.

    Combine that with the fact that so much of the material produced by the OSR is either compatible with each other and older materials or close enough to easily fudge, it could lead to increased sales as people new to B/X or AD&D go looking for stuff to use with it.

    What I do see happening is a lot more people joining the conversation which will take a relatively small community and make it bigger which means more noise and chaff to sort through to get to the good stuff.

    Will it be bad for the OSR? I don't think so. Will it change OSR? Probably.

  2. Being a bit of an optimist like Monkapotomus, I'm hoping that these releases will give more exposure to more people and bring more people in.

    Speaking only for myself, the new (old) materials won't stop me from buying OSR creations. I intend to buy both original TSR materials and OSR generated early-edition-compatible materials.

    Personally I can never seem get enough adventures, settings, new takes on the old rules, etc., and the major portion of what I've seen from OSR authors is really high quality material that I plan to keep right on buying.

  3. The OSR bloggers will still be where new material comes from... Hasbro made a simple business decision to get money for nothing. That doesn't mean they'll support the older rulesets with new material... they've got too much invested in D&D Next for that.

    I'm still waiting for my LBBs and the three supplements. If they're out there, I haven't seen them!

  4. If you ever release The Complete B/X Adventurer in PDF format, I'm sure you'll get even sales.

  5. I tend to agree with the above comments. I think the first of two relevant things I had to add were that most of the OSR folk I've met seem to fall into the "Stubborn SOB" category too - I doubt anybody who's already tweaking and working on stuff is going to quit just because an official version came out. The second echoes Dave, in the Hasbro's not going to be putting out new content, and even if they did, I'm willing to bet the OSR crew could do it better and for cheaper because (going back to point 1) we're stubborn SOBs, and because on the hobbyist level we're willing to do the work for love of the game rather than for the bottom line.

    That said, it'd be really neat to see some 'homage to the Q/N/B/??? modules' adventures come out of the OSR, cleaned up and improved but still keeping the essential themes of the originals...

  6. I'm of the opinion that the B/X PDFs won't be available for too long. WOTC needs some form of income to get them over the hump until 5E comes out. When 5E breaks, it will be back to business as usual at WOTC, and the PDFs for the previous editions will disappear.

    Or maybe I'm just cynical.

  7. Much (most?) of "old school" play is not in the rule books. It is in the gaming culture. That is the value of the OSR, not as a market for mostly derivative adventure modules or house-ruled systems (though there are certainly some gems there too).

  8. I'm going to repost what I said over at the Goblinoid blog:
    "The so-called OSR, however anyone personally defines it, will continue along it's merry way, regardless of what WotC does. It will do so because there is a strong "Maker" component among the bloggers, message board posters, and G+ folk. Whether the products people put out are adventures, setting material, add-on classes/spells/etc.., or "new" systems, people like to make their own stuff for D&D/D&D-derived games. And really, when you look at the output of TSR from 1974 to 1981, we **had** to make our own stuff back then (not discounting the contribution of JG and others...but they were not as widely distributed as TSR's materials). So really, in one sense, you can't get any more old-school than that."

    Look, I'm one of those hardcore AD&D guys who hangs around the Alehouse, who also played B/X back in the day and more recently, with my kids before they moved on to AD&D. I don't play any of the clones (not even OSRIC!), though I've purchased OSRIC, LL/AEC, S&W Core/Complete, ACKS, Crypts and Things, and and a bunch of adventures and supplements including your companion book. I'm happy to have other brains to pick, even though I haven't really used a whole lot of it (reasons run from, "thought of that in '85" to "me and this guy play really different styles of D&D"), but there exists parts of the "Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Game" that I completely dismiss out of hand, as well.

    So, OSR guys (however one might define yourself), continue doing what you are doing until you get tired of doing it. Reactions are going to range from "like it" to "indifferent" to "dude is clueless", from both self-identified OSR people and hardcore guys like me. I really don't think the re-release of the PDFs should or will change anything for anyone.

  9. Wasn't the whole point of this to play the original games and have a hell of a lot of fun with them?

    If those games being re-released could somehow be negative to the movement, than that movement polymorphed into something else while keeping the old name.

    People can still support the old editions with new stuff. If people walk away because their dream of writing a new rule system is now even more marginal, I don't see the loss.