Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Once You Label Me You Negate Me - About the OSR, DIY D&D, Sword Dream, and the Rest

What's your label?

I was never a big fan of "OSR". I am not old school (I never played OD&D when it first came out, for the very good reason that I was not yet born); I hate the phrase "old school" to begin with, whatever the context (self-congratulatory stick-in-the-mudism); and the word "renaissance" is pompous and silly. Speaking strictly objectively, I always thought "DIY D&D" made a lot more sense: what I do, after all, is play D&D and make stuff for it myself rather than buy what others produce.

And I am also not by nature a joiner to begin with. Let's be clear about this: I am proud, vain, and self-motivating, and I don't get why some people seem to feel an intense need to be part of social movements or support networks. For some people, it appears to be important to feel like an insider - whether it's through energetically participating in online "communities", retweeting the latest hashtag, or being on top of the latest boxed-set everybody's talking about. I am basically the opposite of that. This is not a criticism of those people, because I'm sure that impulse comes from a nice place. It is  just the reflections of a man who is probably now at the threshold of middle-age, and is becoming able to look at his own settled personality with something approaching objectivity.

In short, I like people, I have lots of friends and a loving family, and I think those who comment on this blog are generally fabulous (I will refrain from naming the exceptions). But I have a very low level of tolerance for anything that seems to me even remotely like it might be a bandwagon. This is almost pathological: if people like something, I tend to go out of my way to hate it. Long-term readers of the blog may be familiar with this tendency of mine. I swear I'll get around to reading Harry Potter one day.

With all of that said, what the OSR has going for it is that is not, as others have rightly pointed out, a community. Attempts to turn it into one have pretty much universally been obnoxious, exclusionary in one direction or other, politicised, and dominated by superficially charismatic...I am trying to think of the right term here...I'll be polite and say "fevered egos". The OSR is a scene or, better, a genre - a style of play. It is at its heart politically and socially empty: really, it's just a loose set of principles about what play looks like. Not principles about who gets to play. Not principles about what the content should or should not be. Not principles about which type of designer gets supported and which doesn't. Not principles about who is a good person and who is a bad one. Principles about what happens at the table, and in preparation for it.

Where the OSR has been led astray in the past, and where I am sure it will continue to be led astray in the future, is when people have become sidetracked from just expounding on the relevant principles and making games along the guidelines which those principles provide. In other words, the whole thing has become corrupted when people have started trying to put up barriers of any kind, to create in-groups and out-groups, or to achieve certain ends beyond promoting the principles in question.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying, I will not piss all over any attempt to create a community if that's what the members of said community wish to do. But there is nothing wrong with "the OSR" beyond it being a bit of a silly name, if one concentrates on the fact that it is a style of play and nothing more than that.


38 comments:

  1. These debates can often be boiled down to the boring, general question of whether labels matter and/or whether they have power. Turns out some innocuous labels are secret dog-whistles etc etc.

    I think "OSR" does have a little of that dog-whistle quality. It's used (and by some of those "fevered egos") to mean older, white, male, straight, neckbearded butterballs. Let them have it.

    I honestly don't think "Old School Renaissance" is a label worth "taking back", for the reasons you state.

    I understand the reflex in our post-G+ world to seek solace in a familiar label, but maybe those days are gone for good. It feels like the scene has moved past much of what made that "golden age" anyway.

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    1. I do agree that the "golden age" has gone, but I don't think I'm making an argument to "take back" the OSR, because for me it hasn't gone away. I know some people make this allegation that it's used in an exclusionary or "dog-whistle" sort of way but I've never really seen that - have you got any examples of it?

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    2. "I think "OSR" does have a little of that dog-whistle quality. It's used (and by some of those "fevered egos") to mean older, white, male, straight, neckbearded butterballs. Let them have it."

      I've never seen such condensed, concise hypocrisy.

      Simultaneously shitting on them for being white male while accusing them of racism. Jesus. In the space of about once sentence.

      No one even brought identity politics up. You brought it up.

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    3. I know it's a year old, but this article (and the delightful comments) sums up my understanding of the "problematic" qualities of the OSR label, in some quarters at least - https://popcultureuncovered.com/2018/11/20/tabletop-tuesday-rpgs-are-done-with-edgelords-and-bigots/

      It's telling that the guy who designed the damn OSR logo felt he had to act.

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  2. Trendy terms will come and go along with the trendy people and scene hipsters, but people who enjoy playing the "old school" way have always been playing, are still playing, and will continue to play the types of games that support the play style. It doesn't matter if that game or those who play it are brand new or 40+ years old.

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    1. True enough, but the good thing about that label is that it allows people who like that play style to link up easily.

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  3. The need for some to have an OSR community would have to do with how central this niche hobby is in their life, maybe? I mean, I would discard DIY D&D out of my life way before, say, gardening or bodybuilding, so I don't really care to be "part of"... But from what I've seen, some people are, er, seriously dedicated, could we say?

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    1. I do think that some people are "very online" (there is a phrase for this, I think?) and that online community tends to be a replacement for real community for those people.

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    2. It's usually written as "extremely online" but close enough

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  4. I've moved away from the term OSR because I've found community labeling and thoughts overall more limiting than they are enabling. Beyond the personal creator ego stuff, stuff like playing with 5E, etc etc, have been treated with a level of disdain and strange argumentation that I find overall distasteful. DIY DND doesn't really mean anything to me either, as all DND is DIY DND.

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    1. I basically feel the same way, except about the DIY D&D part - I think there are quite a few people out there who just play D&D using pre-written material and modules.

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    2. "DIY D&D" always seemed an odd label to me because people buying products - even ones described as "DIY" - are definitionally not doing it themselves. There are DIY publishers, like our illustrious host, but being a consumer of the content they produce doesn't seem, at least to me, fundamentally any different than being a consumer of corporate-published content. I mean, I guess there's an attitude that you're only giving your money to DIY artists rather than corporations and/or that you're buying the stuff to support the movement and your fellow DIYers rather than to actually use, but it still seems weird and ironic to me to make "DIY" a guiding principle and then express it by buying a bunch of stuff created by others.

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    3. It has definitely become muddied in that way. But originally back in 2008 that's what people were doing: making stuff for themselves using freely distributed retroclones. It has changed a lot since then.

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  5. I never really thought of OSR as a community, but still used it as a label to mark a certain combination of gameplay and system. Of course, it's not an exact thing, more like a spectrum, like "folk metal", but I still find it a useful term. I must also add that I never really used it as an acronym, but more like a fictional word that happens to look like an acronym.

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  6. I'll slip into terms like "OSR" or "old-school" as comparative terms, but ultimately end up calling what I play "D&D", or to clarify things, "home-ruled D&D based on an older edition". There are dungeons, there are dragons, and fundamentally the rules derive from an older edition of D&D.

    Of course, that's all at home. If it comes down to selling something, it makes a lot of sense to pick the label that has the most brand-name recognition, and something like "OSR" or "OSR-compatible" is less of a mouthful.

    As a last point, I don't mind "old-school" as a term, but it strikes me as amusing, since all of the flesh-and-blood people I've met from the actual 70s-era of gaming were Californians, and their game descriptions - appropriate to the stereotype - come across as completely alien to the "old-school style of play" that gets talked about. But California is California.

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    1. Yeah, or "traditional D&D" or even just "original D&D" would work too.

      I have had my suspicions from time to time that other than Gary Gygax (possibly not even him), nobody back in the day ACTUALLY played in a purely "old school" way. If they did, it was for a very short period.

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    2. Rosenritter I think nailed the key takeaway from all this: none of this really matters to anyone who isn't trying to sell something.

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    3. Not sure I agree with that - I think being able to say "I like to play OSR style" or whatever could be useful getting a game group together.

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    4. The brand-name recognition aspect definitely helps with game assembly, especially online, since it gives a keyword to search for. It's handy in real-life, assuming the other person knows - and probably more useful than the term "old D&D fork" that I sometimes find myself using.

      I think a better way to phrase it is, in everyday use, it's just a nice tool; in marketing and sales, not having something to label your product is nearly insane. Not that "OSR" is exactly a dominant market force, but beer money is beer money.

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  7. Basic point: terms like that are useful inasmuch they enable and speed up communication. I am pro-SKUB, you are anti-SKUB; that clarifies things. There is a point where they cease to be useful, and may become limiting, but that basic drawing of boundaries is important to filter out the noise and focus.

    Further musings ("but then"):
    One: after a while, you have to move on from discussing definitions to actually doing something, even if the definitions are loose and a bit untidy. There are enormous diminishing returns in that area.
    Two: it may not be a good idea to give these terms more meaning than necessary. Some people had expectations about what "the OSR" was supposed to mean in a way that became damaging, and eventually self-destructive because it made a claim of ownership they didn't have a right to.
    Three: there is, however, nothing wrong with a little gatekeeping. If it means we actually like stupid things like dungeons and level limits, so be it. If this is a corner of the hobby for aging, boring troglodytes, maybe we deserve a little corner of the world to ourselves, too.

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    1. I've never been sure I understand what "gatekeeping" is supposed to mean in this context. Who can possibly stop anybody setting up a blog and writing game materials?

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  8. I am certain I donned the controversial 'aegis' because when I was first exposed to the AD&D community online in 2009 I was so disappointed, the people I met online were so dull compared to my pals. So I rejected the ''community" hard, and that community was largely american. I consider US gammers to be, unless individuals prove otherwise, Dim and tribal.

    AD&D for me is utterly a minutely scattered or dispersed party of friends. Each gametable should naturally be alien in rules and behaviour so players should be fearful approaching a new environment because they have no idea how the DM runs AD&D. This, being original, is a massive credit to a game group. In the US they are trapped in a feeble fearful 'am I doing it wrong' neurosis.

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    1. That sounds like something that Tao of D&D guy would say. Are you secretly the same person?

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    2. Nah. Even back in the 70's (in the US), we were kind of proud that we were playing a 'better' version of the game than the store-bought goods via our DM's aggressive ownership of D&D and innovative house-rules. (He even published his own version of the complete PHB in 1984 on a daisy-wheel IBM printer with ASCII-art graphics.)

      Also, I think 'renaissance' is a lovely label---an actual appropriate use of the word that (gasp!) preserves its original meaning because of the parallel with the European Renaissance's nostalgia for classical antiquity. It was/is apropos for what happened in the hobby around the turn of the millennium---facilitated by the explosive growth in communication enabled by the internet. The analogy can be continued since the OSR also marks the emergence of D&D from the 'Dark Ages' of 3e/4e.

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    3. "I consider US gammers to be, unless individuals prove otherwise, Dim and tribal." Calling folks tribal and then dividing the world into tribes seems a bit dim.

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    4. Oh! What's more, maybe the OSR shouldn't be applied as a current-product label (or group identity) so much as a identifier for a period in the early 2000's of aggressive retro-clone creation based on the OGL that preserved out-of-print editions. (...just like the historial Renaissance...)

      Also, Kent's baiting swipes at us Yanks doesn't bother me much. No worries (although I did enjoy your riposte, Ruprecht!).

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    5. Thank you. It was hard to avoid picking on his misspelling of gammers in the same sentence he called people dim. It was almost as if he was satirizing America-haters.

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    6. My advice is to take everything Kent says with a litre of sea salt.

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  10. I live in Brazil. I never had a G+ account. I don't have a blog. I started playing AD&D 2E in like 1999. Am I a part of the "community"?

    OSR, to me, is just the kind of game I like to play (and even that is a very cloudy definition). The label is important, the way I see it, as a way of (more or less) defining the approach to RPG games. So, if I want to buy a product, it will probably be a starting point. Nothing less, nothing more.

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    1. Yes, that is basically my stance too. But not just for buying things - also for following blogs and joining gaming groups.

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    2. Exactly. Buying something was just an example.

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  11. I have a problem with using OSR as a style of play-related term, because it still divides the general roleplaying community into people that play with this style vs. the others that don't. The problem I'm having with that is that this style of play doesn't really depend on the rules system used (a claim I've seen made by OSR gamers time and time again). So in my head, I simply translate the OS into "old systems" because in the end, that's what it's mostly about.

    I also like DIY D&D much more, but again, that doesn't seem to fit what separates the OSR crowd from players of D&D 3E,4e and 5E or even Pathfinder. Because thanks to the OGL, there are literally tons of DIY materials to be found for those more modern editions of D&D.

    So again, as I see it, as soon as you try to add meaning to the term above (I prefer those older systems) it gets difficult. From the comments above, the poster squeen would probably deny me the status of "OSR player", because I happen to think that 3E was and still is the best D&D version of all times. On the other hand, if I follow the definition used by Daniel Oliveira, I'm pretty much an OSR player, because I'm using the exact approach he is talking about.

    Tbh, I certainly consider myself the opposite of an OSR gamer as there are too many things I like in roleplaying that are generally scoffed at by that scene. One the other hand, I'm told pretty constantly that the modern editions aren't for me as well, because I sound like someone that prefers the AD&D playstyle (which is probably true because that's the system I started playing with). I don't care either way because I'm pretty happy with the way games play out at my table, but as it seems, that table stands somewhere in the middle between all those descriptors and labels.

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    1. I get where you're coming from, but I'm not sure it has to be divisive in that way. I like playing in the OSR style, but I also like story games, and I wouldn't necessarily be against playing an "adventure path" sort of game if it was decent. It is possible to have feet in all camps and still recognise the value of an OSR label.

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  12. I wouldn't deny you calling yourself anything. Not my place.

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  13. Genre is a good way of putting it, though perhaps to textual. "School" is I think better, as it incorporates a wider range of thought, text, and habitus. So, I don't really see why you have problems with "old school"- to me it implies a school of gaming thought and play rooted in a traditional and perhaps supplanted methodology.

    In the end though I think all the naval gazing in the world over labels is useless when it comes time to roll dice at the table.

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