Tuesday, 12 February 2019

On the Ends of Eras and Decline

There is a genuine fin de siecle feel to the OSR/DIY D&D/whatever-else-you-want-to-call it movement these days. G+ is dying. From what I gather, alternatives to it are Not The Same. If you are reading this you will also I am sure be aware of certain controversies surrounding important figures that confirm that sense of general malaise.

Human cultural movements (at least within capitalism) tend to follow a pattern: a sudden flowering of amateur creativity followed by monetization, then corruption and decline, then a long tail of continuing but diminished resonance thereafter. I know no better illustration of this than grunge, as told in the absolutely seminal Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge, by the journalist Mark Yarm. A group of bands start out creating a scene through the pure love of making music. Some of them through luck and hard work make it big. Suddenly the outside world is interested and then there's lots of money to be made and the soul is ripped out of what once was. The creative flowering ends up becoming a kind of thin pastiche of itself, and then a parody. Finally most of the big bands break up, people marry and move on, or kill themselves directly or indirectly, and there's not a great deal left. Pretty soon all that remains is Eddie Vedder going through the motions of singing "Alive" for the 20,000th time and Third Eye Blind. And the kids are all listening to Offspring and britpop.

The "OSR" (I call it that for want of a better term) is not on the same magnitude but it has followed that pattern. A sudden explosion of blogging and forum activity born of genuine passion. Gradual monetization and pseudo-professionalisation. Oversaturation and too much stuff to buy, too many people selling product. Then slow deflation. (D&D arguably also followed this pattern.)

What's important to remember about this, though, is that there can be a long tail. D&D didn't go away after its peak in the early-mid 80s. It went into remission and is now enjoying refound popularity - and perhaps a slightly more mature and less frothy version of that. "Grunge" doesn't exactly exist as a pop-cultural phenomenon anymore but the music still exerts an influence and many of the personalities involved have gone on to have much longer post-grunge careers (Dave Grohl being the obvious example). It might be that the "OSR" will also go into a period of diminution and perhaps even hibernation. But it also might mature as a result: fewer "fevered egos", fewer supplements, less selling and a back-to-basics return to the blogosphere.

That has been my hope and in this corner of the internet it's going nicely. I don't miss G+, and quitting it has actually made me realise that for a long time I've missed just blogging and interacting with the commenters here. Readership and commenting is much higher than it has been for a long time. In a funny sort of a way, decadence and decline is working nicely for me. And I don't just mean that in an "I'm alright, Jack", sort of way; I think it will be good for the "scene", too, because it might mean a renourishing of roots which have been allowed to wither of late.


  1. I completely agree re: the return to blogging -- I've really enjoyed reading your stuff as well as Kutalik's and it's made me feel the urge to start writing again.

  2. As with grunge music, it will all make more sense twenty years from now...when time and hindsight lends more perspective.
    : )

  3. I say that's exactly what we need re: egos - less "personalities" more writing. I'm not even against commercialization; in my experience, it usually leads to higher production values and more complete works.

    1. While I understand the use of making money off products (I wouldn't be above it if I had people willing to pay even 1$ for my stuff) but it seems to me the era of big egos and personality is smashing us hard as the culture war escalate and people seem all too willing to side with people like Pundit or Zak on certain nonsense issues.

      There's a good reason why Kevin Crawford's Sine Nomine work is so great to me and it is simple: it's *about* the gaming material, not about the brand and person attached to it, if that make any sense. The material is good on its own and doesn't need to generate buzz by having the creator's ego and politics writ large as that brand become associated with some pet cause or pet political stance.

      Hell even Macris and his game ACK is another milder example: people threw it and the guy under the bus for politics but I find that ACK *as a game* doesn't really need the surrounding brouhaha and brand of personality.

    2. I have a feeling (or at least, I really hope) people are not going to be siding with Zak anymore


    3. Wasn't Zak at the forefront of bullying Raggi over the Peterson picture? What I recall of Zak is that he is a diehard far leftist (and I mean the flat out self-proclaimed socialist type) snotty elitist who would look down upon people and declare them to be 'those evil people'.

      And oh look, now its HIS turn to be exposed and attacked. If he even tries to go and ask for mercy from the mob let me tell you he doesn't fucking deserve it as far as I can tell.

    4. Nope, he supported him, because, in fact, he first got onto the radar with James Raggi by supporting him in an internet argument.

      Later, he got on Monte Cook's radar by supporting him in an internet argument, got a recommendation of his work.

      Dude uses internet arguing as a career building resource.

      Basically, he will pull in any model of thought or analytical scheme that can be used to benefit himself; he is for absolute freedom for creative people, sex positivity, and an emphasis on art over language. He is an artist who draws pictures of sexy people.

      He is a libertarian anarchist when that anarchism means avoiding responsibility for your actions, a collectivist community-self-policing anarchist when this justifies building long term feuds and alliances against people he feels have wronged him.

      He is in favour of supporting marginalised communities, and against slurs, but he embraces accusations of mental illness and all kinds of associated slurs because they allow him to isolate people.

      He is in favour of explicit personal accountability, for the most curated versions of his public persona, and does the worst of his dirty work anonymously, and does not want to be associated with that.

      If you believe in free speech, and it's passionate defence, in accuracy, avoiding misleading accusations and distortions, then you will find a lot to like in Zak's positions. You will think, well maybe he's going a little more hardcore than I would, but he is making a good point about how bad that person is.

      Just like you might say that you don't like Trump, but you like the fact that he is not willing to be cowed by the liberals and their endless moral judgements.

      The problem is this, narcissists are always opposed to social control, because they think they are above everyone else, that everyone else has wronged them, and doesn't recognise them for what they are, and why they are an exception to the rules.

      If you feel like the latest batch of rules of polite and respectable behaviour are too constricting, then these kinds of borderline-rapists can, in their public persona, provide a kind of release, someone striking back against the broad crowd of accusing voices.

      It's like rooting for the villain in a TV show, they show a kind of freedom.

      But they demand more freedom than you would want, because they want license to abuse those around them to feed their egos.

      They thrive on conflict, they love to label their opponents, and play around with cruelty, hoping they will draw you into the joke. In fact they want to bring in the full spectrum of emotions for their defence, from sympathy to humour to angry "rightness", but always about taking your focus off their failings, and onto the failings of others, while taking everyone else's work that they can connect to as proof of their successes.

      They are fucking terrible allies, because they will always do something that will make you look bad, and try to throw off the blame on someone else, creating this kind of confusing storm around them of "toxicity", when people could just be getting on with their lives.

      Yeah I know, says some anonymous guy. But still, look at what I've said and his behaviour, he's just a little Trump with better lawyer skills, and the same fundamental appeal. It can feel good to have someone on your side who is willing to fight dirty, until you realise they were never really on your side, and they can just as easily turn that shit on you, they just thought they could use your shared interests to get you to ignore their behaviour.

      Noisms dodging "free cover art" for Yoon Suin was like avoiding a dragnet.

  4. Well said. Sometimes I need to know that DnD doesn’t inspire conflict.

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  6. the term osr might be fading but diy independent rpg stuff seems like it's bigger than ever. I've come across a dozen new creators making cool stuff in the past week who I never heard of on G+. And 5e is the most successful D&D yet. that's bound to produce a whole new crop of people wanting to make their own stuff.

  7. Sometimes your musical genre doesn't fade away, sometimes it morphs into something else.

    The OSR started with knock-off rules (for lack of a better term) and moved on to evocative settings books (Veins in the Earth, Yoon-Suin, Operation Unfathomable etc). It may or may not be still OSR but the settings books are amazing and I don't see them going away soon.

  8. Just wanted to thank you for not only having a fantastic blog, but also for being a stand-up guy and an absolute inspiration in the community. Yoon-Suin has inspired me to create in ways few other forms of art have--I cannot wait to see what you produce next.

  9. Right now I'm seeing a good number of games dancing on the line of whether they're TSR-D&D compatible or not. While there's a lot of value in being compatible with so much other stuff I'm looking forward to more games in the future that go over that line and tey new stuff while keeping what they think is valuable about TSR-D&D.

    There's a whole lot of baby and a whole lot of bathwater in the OSR and it'll be interesting to look at some explorations of which is which.

  10. I'm not going anywhere. Controversies never infected me. They won't stop me now.

    It's all made up and it's just for fun and I'll play if I want to.

    You can too.

  11. "But it also might mature as a result: fewer "fevered egos", fewer supplements, less selling and a back-to-basics return to the blogosphere."

    This one resonated. Many times on G+ have brought that old Bill Hicks line back to me, and I had comparatively few people in my circles.

    My page suddenly started seeing a lot more comments right around the announcement last year, and I hope it keeps up that way for everyone. I like it way better. And it's great to see you dishing it up more often.

    1. Glad somebody got the Bill Hicks reference.

      I would put a lot of people in the G+ crowd in that "fevered egos" bracket. I am not interested in stoking the Zak controversy flames - enough people are doing that already. All I will say is that there are a lot of narcissistic demagogues out there.

    2. Hi Dave, a short statement that you believe the accusers would go a long way.

    3. Why would it go a long way towards anything?

    4. It matters because it tells Zak he isn't welcome here or anywhere in the scene. That there aren't cracks he can widen to slip back in. That he doesn't have allies or safe havens.

      It matters because being believed when you thought no one would is important.

      It matters because you're a huge figure in a very small community. People listen to what you have to say because you put a lot of time and thought and care into it.

      It matters because this scene still has a reputation for being unsafe, a club of "good ol' boys" who all know and cover for each other.

  12. I don't think the OSR is dead or dying, and while RPGs certainly don't have the popularity of the original D&D boom, I think there's a false perception of it being a long and lowered tail. I think it's a long and gradually rising one. For all the criticisms levied at, say, D&D streamers or media aggregate websites with posts like "The Top Ten Weirdest D&D Classes", they're doing a great job at opening up more people to play RPGs. D&D is cool again, and even if few people who think that try it and few people who try it stick with it or move on to other, more niche things, they're bringing in those rare few all the same.

    Nowadays I would never consider running a Pathfinder or D&D 5E game when there are so many independent games out there that I enjoy more - and not just OSR games, but PbtA ones and even more experimental games as well. But I would have never even heard about them if it weren't for the success of bigger games like Pathfinder and 5E.

    I think the thing to keep in mind is that while Grunge is a great example it is a genre and not a form of media. Even if OSR games die off entirely, there will doubtlessly be other, newer forms of RPGs out there. And given enough time, who knows? Maybe there'll be an Old School Renaissance Renaissance, with the same treatment given to things like Lamentations or Yoon-Suin as we currently give to B/X D&D or The Keep on the Borderlands.

  13. For what it's worth, I consider the "controversy" surrounding a certain figure to be a clearing of the air, not a sign of malaise. When a dentist drills a cavity out of your tooth it may hurt, and things definitely change, but it's a change that leaves you cleaner and stronger than before - even if without the dentist's warning it would still have been years before you noticed the rot on your own.

    I don't know how common this story is. But in this case I was impressed with this person's work enough that I bought their first book and followed their blog for a time. But as often as they put out interesting new takes on the hobby, they would also include sneering dismissals of things or people they didn't like, or eclipse the useful content entirely with hateful screeds.

    Finally I had had enough and spoke up with some criticism. The criticism was no doubt clumsy and poorly-presented, but I was still surprised when the response from this person was an outpouring of - to put it bluntly - verbal abuse.

    After some back-and-forth they banned me from commenting on their blog, and this actually came as a relief. I unfollowed the blog and that was almost the end of it. But the sheer ugliness of the exchange sticks with me. It was so bad that for years afterwards, simply seeing their blog title in someone else's link collection would leave a bad taste in my mouth. It was so bad that I couldn't even use their book anymore; any joy that might be had from the interesting bits was poisoned by memories of the rage-fueled personal attacks that they brought out to confront any hint of criticism. Keep in mind that this person had plenty of supporters who also saw fit to pile on with attacks; in retrospect I can see that this was an example in microcosm of how a certain kind of powerful person uses their resources to silence their critics. It comes as no surprise to hear that others saw far worse abuse at this person's hands.

    All things change. The OSR is in flux, as it has always been since its birth, and after G+ closes it may wither or recede or hibernate or transform. But one thing that I will never be melancholy over is the truth coming to light. It's only by finding and drilling out the rot that we can save ourselves from the true malaise that would eventually destroy the whole if allowed to fester unchecked.

  14. A very interesting post, I'd not considered the music cycle/community analog. Personally I think that--as with other communities--anytime someone with a great deal of visibility is (rightfully) denounced for behaviour considered abhorrent by the majority there is inevitably a backlash against communities they are involved in and predictions of said communities dying.

    As an example of this, I've already seen a blog post in my Inoreader list this morning where someone has essentially posted that they've lost all faith in the OSR community and will no longer be participating in it.

    I hope you are right and that the seeming spiral into oblivion perhaps leads more to a focusing of OSR output and maybe openings for people with perhaps less professional publishing skill and money behind them but enthusiasm for their products (I humbly hope that I am one of those people).

  15. Old-school gaming had already been going strong for several years when Zak showed up. It will stick around as long as people continue to enjoy old-school D&D. Perhaps it will even come out of this boondoggle with a newfound appreciation for actual play, and shed some of the uglier personality politics that have come to dominate the "scene". A crisis is always an opportunity for something new.

  16. It definitely is kind of poetic that we learn this as G+ disappears, and I agree these patterns exist. But I don't think OSR is going away; I think it will go back to blogging and linking to weach others' blogs.

    1. I hope my use of the word "poetic" does not come across as if I was not taking the issue seriously, by the way. Sorry if it does sound like it.

    2. Not at all - I know exactly what you mean.

  17. It's curmudgeonly of me, but almost from its inception I've felt that social media is one of the worst things to happen to the internet and probably modern society in general.

    I didn't discover the OSR until around 2015, and I crawled my way around the blogs for at least a year or so before I even discovered that the G+ scene existed-- and even then it seemed like this impenetrable secret community that didn't have too much bearing on the content I was seeing as a lurker in the blogosphere.

    • G+ drama
    • The rise of the paid OSR adventures market (and OSR as brand identity)
    • The emergence of minor "celebrities"(I hesitate to even use the term) within the scene

    None of these things were even on my radar when I fell in love with old-school play, and the fact that they're gone makes no difference to me. I welcome a return to quieter times with open arms. Perhaps like others have said this will inspire me to start a blog as well.

    1. I am not active on any social media unless you count blogging and I do not miss it. It is the emperor's new clothes.

  18. I could stand to read a "the essense of OSR is blogging" manifesto post.

  19. I must say that I have to completely agree with you here. I've been following the OSR since it began, back when there was a number of really great products and ideas. Though they grew in number (exponentially), the end result was greatly diminished in value. Still, I too am hopeful things will revert back to their early origins. It sure would be nice. :-)

    1. I am a bit too kind to do negative reviews but I could do a lot if I was of a mind to...

  20. The old school nostalgia and revival has waxed and waned for a long time. For me, it's been ten years and it had some steam from Hackmaster and C&C a few years before that.

    We had Porngate, Dwimmermount and probably a few more that I missed from 11 to 15 -- these things come and go.

    The long tail is indeed the thing - because something that I think a lot people want to do is escape, to imagine, to have fun and to explore the unknown. D&D/RPGs give us that, and they aren't going away as a medium of telling stories and socializing.

    We'll see what the next movement brings us, I have a feeling it will be something unexpected. Will blogs revive a bit? I hope so! I'm still plugging away at mine, it would be fun to have some of the conversations we used to have in the late aughts.