James, author of the Grognardia blog, complained in a recent post about the tendency of "Old School" products to "go beyond homage to the past and verge on fetishization" in terms of layout and design. I agree with him, and that has been one of the major turn-offs for me when it comes to accepting Older D&D clones like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord. Why do we always have to hark back to a far-off golden age that might not have been all that golden to begin with? Why does using an older ruleset always have to mean older aesthetic sensibilities? Why is 'modern' like a four-letter word to some people?
Art is a minor thing, of course. Although it goes a long way towards setting the tone for a game, players are free to ignore it. More worrying for me is the tendency of these products to fetishize a certain tone of play itself - that is, the same hotpotch of influences, trends and game settings that were popular in the mid-late 1970s and 1980s heyday of the D&D genre. I often feel that to play an adventure like The Pod Cavern of the Sinister Shroom is to look at a museum exhibit as much as it is to play a D&D module; I almost feel like these pieces would be more accurately envisioned as exercises in cultural anthropology as they would role playing games or game modules. (Speaking of course as a non-grognard myself. To those who were there at the time, I suppose the analogy would be to somebody looking at old pictures in a dusty photo album.)
I'm not talking about mechanics, please note. To me, the Rules Cyclopedia and earlier incarnations of AD&D are highly eccentric systems, but they are systems that work surprisingly well, and which make up for their lack of unified mechanics with comprehensiveness and ease of modification. (There is certainly nothing about them that is any worse than, say, the Storyteller system or the Burning Wheel engine.) No; I'm talking about the use of the old tropes of game design, and the same old expectations of what a D&D adventure should be, that were present in the 70's and 80's.
To use a cooking analogy, it's as if the Old School world is mostly interested in rehashing the same old (albeit hearty and delicious) recipes: Take 100 ml of Robert E. Howard, 3 table spoons of Fritz Lieber, a dash of Michael Moorcock, a pinch of Tekumel and a good helping of Arduin, then bring to the boil. Baste your breast of Greyhawk with the resultant sauce, bake in the Mystara oven for 40 minutes, and allow to cool before serving. It tastes good, of course, and when it comes to a Sunday roast, there's little better. But it's as if all the curries, salads, bisques and sashimis that have become popular in recent years never existed. It's like Old School players are still eating lamb shanks and bread and butter pudding in willful unawareness that they could be tucking into a mutton dhansak that tastes even better.
For one thing, I yield to nobody in my appreciation of pulp fantasy and the effects it had on shaping early D&D. But there have been leaps and bounds in the genre since then - not to mention expeditions backwards to rediscover lost influences who were writing long before the likes of Howard. Why shouldn't we be incorporating the sensibilities of the modern greats - people like George R. R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison and Guy Gavriel Kay - into our games? Why shouldn't we be mining the works of Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald and Edmund Spenser for inspiration? And more to the point, why on earth shouldn't we be designing and writing new products which take these sensibilities into account?
For another thing, there have been great advances in gaming since the 1980s, too. I'm not talking about 3rd or 4th edition D&D, of course, or even other game systems at all; I'm talking about the fertile settings and ideas that have been and continually are being created and which are exemplified in games like Iron Kingdoms, Ptolus, and Reign, to name but three. Such settings show what can be done by people writing with imagination, flair, and a greater awareness of what is possible within the fantasy genre. Setting aside the mechanics issue entirely, their creativity should be spurring on the Old Schoolers to put their collective money where their collective mouth is, and use their much-vaunted retro systems to create something fresh.
In OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and the Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game we have the tools with which to do anything possible within the huge boundaries of the fantasy genre and beyond. Powerful, versatile tools. And yet still the vast majority of designers insist on using them for - oh look, a dungeon crawl in a mushroom infested cavern. I mean, don't get me wrong; I love dungeon crawls through mushroom infested caverns. But I rather think I have enough of those modules already, 99% of which I designed myself. Where's the imagination? Where's the Reign or the Ptolus - or hell even the Planescape equivalent in the Old School world?
Until somebody uses OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord to create something genuinely new, instead of churning out same-old same-old products, I don't believe the so-called Old School revival will amount to much more than pissing in the wind. You're telling me that a 16 year old player, new to the game and the mind-blowing things that fantasy has to offer, is going to be satisfied with what his Dad enjoyed playing back in his almost-forgotten youth? Well, maybe he will if he realises that though the system is the same, it doesn't matter because the system can let you create just about anything. That sure won't happen if all that's available are clones of 1980's Dungeon modules, though.