This is an article preview from July's Zine.
Over the past year, I've witnessed the growth of my channel and online reach, and it's made me realize just how much of a dumpster fire a subculture like the OSR can be within the TTRPG hobby. TTRPGs are a subculture, and the OSR is an even smaller subculture. In subcultures, certain things are bound to happen. I recently came across an enlightening essay that perfectly sums up what's currently happening in the TTRPG hobby. Its opening effectively captures the essence of the situation:
"One reason—among several—is that as soon as subcultures start getting really interesting, they get invaded by muggles, who ruin them. Subcultures have a predictable lifecycle, in which popularity causes death."
As a whole, Pen and paper roleplaying games have experienced an influx of members of the public (MOPs) and sociopaths. Surprisingly, the OSR appeared to be immune to such influences due to several factors.
Firstly, unlike the mainstream arm of the hobby centered around 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, the OSR operates in a decentralized manner. Secondly, the rules of old-school D&D don't seem to resonate with the broader sections of the hobby that have been infiltrated by MOPs. When faced with concepts like descending AC, emergent story sandbox games, and what they perceive as "outdated rules," they tend to dismiss them outright. However, the OSR, being a subculture, is not exempt from the invasion of MOPs and sociopaths, much like the wider hobby itself.
Meaningful Term or Marketing Label?
Moreover, the OSR has been grappling with an ongoing identity crisis for several years. I understand that this viewpoint might be controversial, and it's likely that many will disagree. However, I believe the existence of heated arguments surrounding the definition of "OSR" and individuals labeling others as "FauxSR" (even though some of them openly admit they are not strictly OSR themselves but still engage in purity testing) is indicative of the identity crisis. Such crises typically emerge when a scene experiences an influx of MOPs and sociopaths.
When people say that Index Card RPG or Knave are "OSR" while also claiming they are clones, but at the same time using the old-school rules to create something new, while simultaneously categorizing individuals who play original older editions under the same label, you know that the scene has grown due to an influx of MOPs and sociopaths who all want to plant their flag in the "new world" of the "OSR".
OSR as a term has become meaningless. At this point, and it may hurt for many to hear this, it has become a marketing tool. Slap "OSR" on your product and many will buy it.
RPGPundit has asserted that the OSR is a design movement. There is a segment where this is true. But because it has also been perceived in this way, some designers push things too far and this is how you get the confusion of people calling something like ICRPG "OSR".
I have encountered this situation in my own games. I made significant revisions to Atomic Punk 2160 to ensure it deviated further from being a mere reskinned clone of BX. The new version replaced the d20 system with 2d10, utilizing a target number of 11. In combat, instead of relying on AC, I implemented a weapon vs. armor table and range table, which determine the difficulty of rolling an 11. These changes have rendered the game more unique, evoking a blend of Classic Traveller and BX or Whitebox, rather than being a pure clone. It embraces old-school elements and employs old-school design, including the use of multiple tables. It aligns more closely with the type of game I initially set out to create. However, the question remains: does it still qualify as "OSR"? I offer conversions from AC scores to equivalents on the weapon vs. armor attack tables, though it is not a flawless conversion. The attack matrices in AP2160 introduce nuanced elements and emphasize the criticality of selecting appropriate gear for specific situations.
Yet, the question of whether it falls within the realm of OSR remains unresolved, as I have received conflicting opinions from many. Once again, these confusions and divergent interpretations of the "OSR" indicate that something peculiar is at play.
If the OSR is indeed a design movement within the hobby, does that mean it excludes individuals who appreciate and discuss older TSR editions? Take the BrOSR, for instance, who advocate for a specific style of play outlined in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Original Dungeons & Dragons, its supplements, and even delve into content from old "Strategic Review" issues. They also draw inspiration from precursor games like David Wesly's "Braunstein" and other wargames. While this may generate a polite disagreement with RPGPundit, it is wise to consider the insights of those deeply immersed in the older editions if the OSR aims to focus on old-school game design methods.
Certainly, the kayfabe of the BrOSR may have been somewhat irksome in the past. However, their blogs are readily available, and I genuinely believe there is always something to learn from someone, even if we may not necessarily see eye to eye with them (I have actually found many of the BrOSR individuals I encountered to be quite pleasant, even after engaging in online sparring). One could argue that their approach may not perfectly align with how the game was played in the past, and that may hold some truth. Nevertheless, it does not invalidate the existence of the rules and the original intentions of those earlier editions. Perhaps there is something valuable there that was previously overlooked, waiting to be discovered like a hidden gem.
The OSR emerged victorious, at least in its initial wave. The primary objective was to make older editions accessible to players and gaming groups, a feat accomplished through the production of clones. As a result, WotC was compelled to release older TSR-era editions as PDFs and print-on-demand. However, once this mission was accomplished, an identity crisis ensued. The OSR garnered significant popularity, but with it came the unfortunate consequence of attracting an increasing number of MOPs and sociopaths. These individuals gain influence through the ongoing culture war, luring people not for their contributions to the hobby, but by exploiting political affiliations. This phenomenon can be observed from both ends of the political spectrum. People purchase books or products merely to provoke those on the opposing side. Meanwhile, these games often take the form of unplayable art punk books or indistinguishable clones that offer very little, if anything, new.
These games are often doomed to sit on a bookshelf, never to be played.
The Drama is Tiresome
The drama within this particular segment of the hobby is truly exasperating. I find it incredibly bothersome. As of late, in both my videos and on my Twitter account, I have made a concerted effort to focus solely on discussing the games themselves and the principles behind running a successful game. I'm choosing my battles. I'm amazed that some of these supposedly grown adults have the time to run games, make products, and gossip like junior high girls in the girl's bathroom. I can only conclude that these people know very little about the hobby and actually do not play any games. Some are smaller "content creators" that have their own channels or podcasts and seem to think that picking fights over elf games and making bad blood is a smart way to grow their "brand".
It truly isn't. This is especially true when those conflicts are directed towards me or individuals similar to me. I have built what little I have by carefully choosing the battles worth fighting, immersing myself in rulebooks, actively playing the game(s), creating my own games, and striving to maintain a calm and approachable demeanor within this sphere. Therefore, it is incredibly frustrating when I witness talentless individuals attempting to attack me or others like me solely to boost their own reputation. It is particularly disheartening when such behavior arises from individuals whom I believed to be friendly and supportive. Unfortunately, these Grima Wormgtongues, who spread discord and deceit, can be found everywhere.
This is NOT how you win friends and influence people. I have coined this phenomenon as "The Real Housewives of the OSR," and I must admit that I possess neither the patience nor the time to engage with it.
I Just Like Games
I just want to chill and game. I'll call the BS out when I see it and it seems worth it. Not every random encounter with hostile monsters needs to end in combat. Some can be negotiated and some can just be bypassed or ignored. But this is all secondary to my real goal: Making and playing games.
I have reached a point where labels hold little importance to me. As I grow older, my priorities have shifted, and I find myself caring less about such distinctions. Consequently, I have developed my own mental classifications, which I refer to as "Classic Gaming" or "Classical Gaming," as well as "Neo-Classical Gaming." Classic Gaming entails playing the original games, while Neo-Classical Gaming involves engaging with games that draw inspiration from old-school design and preferences.
Personally, I don't place great emphasis on compatibility because I have no desire to repeatedly rewrite BX (Basic/Expert) with each new release. Doing so would not be fair to the fans or customers, and quite frankly, it fails to engage my enthusiasm. I firmly believe that the hobby encompasses much more than simply D&D and the repetitive reliance on rolling a d20 for every action.
I rightfully critique those who force everything into the confines of 5e, and it would be hypocritical of me not to recognize that the OSR sometimes falls into a similar pattern, albeit with a different system. This observation may stem from my inclination toward mechanics. I enjoy exploring new systems and game resolution methods that harmonize with the setting, as I firmly believe that rules inherently shape the setting. While D&D excels as an adventure and dungeon-delving game, it falls short in other areas essential for different settings. Additionally, when I play setting "X" using BX, it can become stagnant because I am acutely aware that I am still essentially playing D&D.
Therefore, I am determined to create the games I truly desire, adhering to my own vision and disregarding any restrictive labels. I no longer care about conforming to predetermined categories. In recent times, the OSR has unfortunately developed a rather cringe-worthy reputation, primarily due to the presence of MOPs and Sociopaths who possess little understanding of the old-school ethos and, in fact, seem to hold disdain for its principles. They arrogantly assume the authority to dictate what is right and wrong, what is genuine and "faux." That’s a bunch of noise I’m tuning out and do not care about. I don’t think you should care either. Just game and have a good time. It’s elfgame. It’s for fun. It isn’t changing the world.