Oh, boy. Where to start?
Recently there have been a lot of "self-assessment" posts popping up around the blog-o-sphere: folks celebrating their 5th or 10th or 20th year blogging (and where they've been and how things have changed) and often including assessments of the "OSR," specifically where the "movement" is, how it's evolved, and reflections/opinions on its development.
I don't write much about the OSR...since 2013 I've got less than a dozen posts with that label (and before that, most of my OSR posts were reviews of "stuff" being produced by folks identifying as part of the OSR community), so it's been interesting to observe what folks are talking about. Especially as there's been more than a little discussion about how the OSR has fractured into multiple groups or "factions."
For me, I see it less as any kind of schism(s) and more just bog standard Balkanization...we (that is, the "D&D gaming community") never really were a "unity" of any sort. The only thing we really shared was a particular piece of geography of the tabletop gaming world...the piece that is most interested in Dungeons & Dragons and its specific pseudo-genre of fantasy adventure gaming. But we've always had different politics, design aesthetics, play styles, and objectives of play. We've always had different comfort levels with regard to both game complexity and subject matter (and individuals have seen these comfort levels fluctuate over time!) and some are simply incompatible with each other. Before there was a Black Hack RPG there were people cutting swaths of rules out of their game, and that style of play has always been antithetical and unsatisfying to some of the others. The same "always" line can be drawn between those of a more artistic bent versus the more staid designers.
We're just (re-)asserting our independence as individuals. No one likes to be pigeon-holed.
Recently, deadtreenoshelter coined the term "D&D fundamentalists" for the camp opposite the so-called "art-punks," a term I find exceptionally amusing, especially as I've been lumped into it. With regard to religion, fundamentalism is the strict adherence to the literal interpretation of scripture...a concept which could certainly be applied to any advocate of "By The Book" or "Rules As Written" D&D. But I've generally been one to question rules...or, at least, experiment with them...in order to gain insight and understanding into the game. If I have fundamental tendencies (I'm definitely not a fundamentalist), it's only because I've already tried the road of the heretic...and found it lacking in one regard or another.
What's a far stranger thing to me, though, is this strange way that the D&D game seems to be developing, as evidenced by the product being produced, both within the DIY crowd (the group that commonly refers to themselves as "OSR") and those followers of the flagship brand, AKA "5E." I'll be honest: until recently, I wasn't paying much attention to either of these groups...probably due to my being a rather busy adult human being as well as a narcissistic naval-gazer. But there seems to be something very different going on right now, and I've seen more than a couple people commenting on it, most recently in the comments of this adventure review over at tenfootpole:
Yeah, I understand this is a different play style. I don't understand the appeal but I acknowledge that it is the dominant play style today, and has been for quite some time.
While GusL wrote:
It seems to me that the 5E zeitgeist goes a bit beyond plot or location based. Ravenloft is clearly better than Curse of Strahd but 5E has changed even since that came out. When I look at contemporary 5E stuff it reads like something entirely new.
GusL has done a lot of respectable adventure analysis and (in my opinion) is a bit of a "5E apologist" (that is to say he really tries to give 5E a fair shake as much as he can, despite having the crustier sensibilities of a true grognard). As such, I am inclined to trust his impressions in this matter...he does, after all, read far more 5E material than myself.
However, it's NOT just the 5E stuff...there's been some paradigm shifts for the indie/DIY stuff as well (while I pay little attention to Ennies, it's impossible to disregard them as a measuring stick of what is popular and "trendy" at any particular moment; the last couple years "OSR" offerings are illustrative). While it's easy to be dismissive of "artpunk" offerings as more style than substance, I think there's plenty to be gleaned from the effect and impact such works have on indie publishing industry...such as it is...AND the possible reasons for its rise to popularity.
Have people forgotten how to play Dungeons & Dragons?
That's not meant to be rhetorical! However, the better question might be: Is the D&D community still playing D&D, i.e. something recognizable as the D&D game?
I feel like I've asked similar questions in the past (though I was probably being facetious). Look, regardless of what version of D&D happens to be a person's favorite, there have been some "givens" to what goes on at the table (virtual or otherwise). Off the top of my head, I might say the usual elements include:
- A group of players working together (a party of adventurers)...
- To overcome perilous challenges...
- Created and controlled by a referee (the Dungeon Master)...
- Using a specific set of game rules (mechanics, system).
There are, of course, other "usual elements:" inhuman monsters, magical items, dungeons, treasure, etc. But the presence of these tropes vary from table to table (some DMs prefer human antagonists, some prefer less magic, some make little use of dungeons, and some care little for treasure). But those four bullet points are pretty specific to "fantasy adventure games" of D&D's persuasion.
And yet these main elements seem to be shifting. There is little peril or challenge. Players are charged with creating their own drama and conflict. Rules are habitually ignored, thrown out, or subjugated to the whims of individuals at the table.
It feels a bit like D&D is less a game to be played and more a...a...hmm. Well, I don't really know what you'd call it. 'Something to do,' I suppose. Instead of reading a book or watching TV. It's still a form of play...but it's less and less of a game. Certainly not the same game it once was.
And the funny thing is that for many (most?) folks, I don't think this is a purposeful shift in paradigm. It's a plethora of things adding up, along with a lack of understanding about the game, and how the game functions. Or, at least, how the game functioned once upon a time.
And I think that some of the "knowledge" being put out there these days...especially some of the knowledge being put out as to "what Old School play is"...is misdirected or grossly wrong or non-helpful. God bless these people with their new "Old School Primer" but I read through the document and it's just a huge steaming pile of nonsense.
I suppose (*sigh* cranky) that I am more than a little fatigued by individuals who started playing D&D in the last 20 years telling me how and what "old school" D&D is...or even just what ANY kind of D&D is. But you try to correct someone's ignorance and they just tell you to fuck off because, you know, it's just an opinion and you're telling them how their particular brand of fun is bad-wrong-dumb. Please let us NOT be preached to.
Or taught. Or educated. Or enlightened.
Two days ago was my (insane) brother's birthday. It seems only fitting that the same day I stumbled across this (insane) post claiming that 5E is this wonderful version of D&D that has only recently been villainized after originally being lauded as a return to "old school" gaming, and that we all have such short memories.
Obviously, he hasn't read my posts on the subject of 5E from 2013-2015.
But much of what "Dwiz" is listing in his post regarding trends in Old School design aren't inaccurate...they are EXCEPTIONALLY accurate. They're just, mostly, bad or misunderstood trends that have been as detrimental to the development of the DIY ("OSR") scene as they have been to 5E ("New D&D").
This is something I want to write about in the next few days...as my time permits. Hope that's okay with folks.