mr_orgue (mr_orgue) wrote in gametime,

The Old-School Renaissance: Actually New-School

"I think what's going on now with regard to old school gaming is indeed a renaissance; it's a rediscovery of the past and it's up to each of us to decide what lessons to learn from it."
- James M, at Grognardia

I love the Old-School Renaissance. This movement, and it is a movement, is centred on the wonderful Grognardia blog. It takes the form of a lot of people talking about and going back to the texts of early RPG designs, particularly early iterations of D&D. It has its own three-letter acronym: OSR.

I think going back to the early texts is incredibly worthwhile. I like the way a lot of these people talk about their gaming interests. I love the retro-clone movement that re-engineers free, legal versions of long out-of-print games and encourages new developments for them.

But I think almost everyone caught up in the OSR is wrong about what it is.

The rhetoric of the OSR emphasizes simplicity, fidelity and purity. The claim is that the OSR is about going back to how RPGs were played "back in the day" and rediscovering the lost joys thereof. Some OSR enthusiasts go as far as to denigrate other newer games as being misfires that for one reason or another betray the spirit of the early games.

Inherent in this rhetoric is the idea that these early games had the answers in them, but no-one listened, and instead the hobby rushed onwards into an endless cycle of new developments that took us further and further from the original version. Thus, it is a renaissance - a rebirth of the original ethos of RPGs.

More specifically, the rhetoric of the OSR is that the answers were always there, they just needed to be recognized. The old ways had been lost, and they needed to be unearthed.


The OSR is an entirely modern phenomenon. It could not exist without a number of recent developments in the field. It is not a process of unearthing forgotten insights, but one of creating new ones.

I've blogged earlier about how I view "old school" and "new school" and so on - in conversation here and elsewhere I've more or less come to view three general eras in gaming. (One of these posts can be found here. There are more but I can't find 'em just now!)

  • Era 1 - focus on action (adventure!) and, relatedly, setting - i.e. what you do

  • Era 2 - focus on character - i.e. who you are

  • Era 3 - focus on technique - i.e. how you play

The first era was about exploring environments, overcoming obstacles, and achieving goals. Setting became important here as a way of linking together all the actions that made up play into a coherent whole.

The second era couldn't happen without the insight that the player character, the avatar, was more than just a periscope for the player to use in peering down into the fictional environment. The PC was actually a part of the fiction as well. Here the focus switched to character, and ways of driving character play in different directions, sometimes using mechanics and sometimes directly eschewing them (and sometimes both, hello Vampire: The Masquerade).

The third era took another insight - that system mattered, that the procedures of play were an important part of the experience and structured the fiction far more than had previously been recognized. Along with that came the understanding that by trying out new mechanical forms, vastly different kinds of experience could be explored. This era started in the Forge-driven "indie games", but spread everywhere very quickly; its influence is clearly visible in D&D 4th edition, for example.

The OSR is an element of the third era. Put in the terms above, this is obvious - the OSR is about going back to the old rules and trying to honour them, because system matters. This isn't the entirety of what I'm saying, however. The OSR relies on modern RPG understanding in other ways, too.

First, the OSR relies on a technology of exclusion that took decades - eras! - to develop. In early RPG play, everyone was creating their own versions of the game. The OSR people like to remember this DIY ethos, but tend to forget that these versions of a game varied widely and many of them pushed in very different directions to the text. From the very beginning the RPG community of play was massively fractured, and there was no way of sorting through the morass. Make no mistake about it - honouring the original text wasn't something that was forgotten, or overtaken by new games that weren't true to the proper spirit. No, the original text was knowingly and willingly forgone, because it wasn't delivering the play experience that was desired. Now, of course, the RPG world is spoiled for choice, with many different games in many genres. The pressure is off - the text of D&D doesn't need to serve many divergent needs, because other games like Exalted, Pathfinder and Storming The Wizard's Castle exist as well.

Second, the OSR champions early games for their brevity and simplicity. That these short games can deliver the fun is significantly due to the fact that OSR gamers have already built up a broad range of RPG skills from their general gaming careers. A short, unclear pamphlet is much easier to interpret because years playing other games have given OSR people a clear sense of what is missing from these old-school texts, and an implicit understanding of how to compensate.

Third, the OSR couldn't happen practically without the current fracturing of the market (post D20). There are so many games of different styles available at present, and all of them pushing in different directions. In this atmosphere of potential, the OSR is able to assert itself much more easily than would normally happen.

So, the OSR is not a simple process of going naively back to older works. It relies on complex perspectives and techniques acquired with difficulty over time and passed down through active gamer networks. Without them, it would never have happened. The OSR is a thoroughly contemporary phenomenon.

(N.B. The death of Gary Gygax and other key luminaries of the early gaming world heavily promoted the OSR, but the first retro-clone OSRIC was released in 2006, two years before Gygax passed.)

[sleep now. will post this up anyways. if it doesn't make sense, it is because am sleepy.]
Tags: old school, theory

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