Sunday, April 6, 2014

Survey #5: The OSR Survey

Yes, yes, I am doing all of this stuff out of order. I reject your quaint notions about so-called "ordinal numbers," entirely! Here, then, is the survey:

For those who are interested in learning "Why do you have an OSR survey, anyway, Johnson?" a bit of background about this aspect of my research.

Clearly, the Open Game License (OGL) issued by Wizards of the Coast in 2000 opened the tabletop RPG world to a variety of results, some anticipated and some not. I won't go into that, beyond saying that it gave rise to what some call the Old School Renaissance (or Revival, or whatever), the OSR. At the risk of raising old controversies, let's look at how the term OSR, itself, is a point of contention.

Some posters on a recent thread at Dragonsfoot made mock of the very idea that a thing like the OSR even exists, attributing it a vast and ongoing delusion among various unnamed Personalities & Poseurs that their contributions to the so-called movement, matter. I'm engaging in a bit of hyperbole, here, but not by much. Poster Saunatonttu and Moderator skathros were particularly adamant in dismissing the very idea of a real thing called the OSR, the former saying:
Dragonsfoot is pre-"OSR" and it will be here when "OSR" has ended. DF was never built on the egos, posturing and other miscellaneous activities the "OSR" cretins engage in. DF was one of the things that carried the torch during the "dark ages" of OOP gaming and places like this (and people like those who published free stuff and talked about D&D on newsgroups, AOL and the early forums) are so often sadly forgotten when the "OSR" types start polishing their OSR Of the Year Awards and congratulating eachother on how they invented and saved OOP gaming.

No, Mr. OSR, you did not. You just added scene politics and posing to it and slapped a price tag on the product.
and the latter:
I very much agree with Sauna. Df along with DF publications and things like OD&Dities are the elements i thought would be kept in the OSR. What I mean is, i thought the OSR would continue the tradition of supporting OoP D&D. In the beginning, it seemed that this whole movement (for lack of a better term) was going in that direction. OSRIC and LL were there to give folks a legal way of supporting 1E or B/X, and with their availability to purchase, it gave the added bonus of preserving the rules (in as much as legally feasible). So, in the beginning, it was all about supporting and preserving. Why, because just like DF, the fine folks that brought us LL and OSRIC thought the original were good enough to merit such support. And then things started to change. People decided the rules needed changing and started offering up their house rules versions. They weren't adding to the game we loved, they were changing the rules of the game we loved. I remember thinking, wasn't this what WotC did? After that, the OSR decided to go in it's own direction, far removed from the ideals of preserving and supporting OoP D&D. And no, "can be used with any OoP version of the world's most popular roleplaying game" stamped on the cover doesn't cut it. Now, it's just a bunch of guys making their own games and putting it up for POD sale. Its become a completely meaningless term whose only purpose is to give a sense of belonging to a handful of folk who think they can do OoP D&D better than OoP D&D
It's an interesting bit of rhetoric, here. On the one hand, there's the "originalist" appeal from Saunatonttu, which (a) claims temporal primacy for DF and (b) attributes the very term OSR to unspecified bad actors, out to more or less hijack the non-existent "movement" for personal gain and ego inflation. skavros goes a bit further, making the claim that the "true" movement was about supporting and, more importantly, preserving gaming in the old styles and under the old rulesets. This appeal is a variation of Saunatonttu's originalist appeal, except that it is more interested naming the functions of the "movement" and claiming a purity of purpose for those involved in support and preservation (i.e., Dragonsfoot) rather than those who would monetize their own "houserules" version of the hobby.

Collectively, these statements could be reduced to the following base arguments:
  • There is an origin to what people call the OSR, and it has nothing to do with so-called OSR blogs, products, and so forth, nor with the preening poseurs who flog the OSR "brand" at every turn.
  • The people who originated the movement to support and preserve the hobby's connection to older rulesets, prior to the OGL and what followed, are the true hearts. Those who came later are charlatans who seek only self-aggrandizement, and hucksters out to make a buck from selling old wine in new bottles.
  • Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC are different, because they sought merely to preserve the True Text, instead of bastardizing it with unneeded content (e.g., houserules). The others, well, they're heretical texts and probably should be burned.

Essentially, being there first grants not only primacy in order of appearance on the "scene," but moral primacy and moral authority to separate the sheep from the goats, as it were. Basically, it's argumentum ad hipsterem (i.e., They were still into this shit when it was still underground.).

Nonetheless, it's still a rhetorical fallacy, because temporal primacy (I was here first.) is not equivalent to moral primacy (I'm the source of real knowledge about what is right.), unless we accept the unstated premise, "Being here first grants me the authority to tell you what is best." That, right there, is an assertion of power and description of ownership of something that, frankly, is the commonwealth of those who inhabit a cluster of discourses and practices related to gaming under old rulesets and their variants. The Old Game, basically, cannot be owned, even by those who claim temporal or moral primacy. The very fact that the OGL exists, suggests that such authority must be granted by an external authority (e.g., WotC). It's a very theological sort of argument, in that we're dealing with an argument about what is the True Scripture and who are the True Prophets thereof, with some attention directed as rooting out heresy and blasphemy. Funny Thought: What if I ran Dark Heresy: OSR Wars? What would that look like?

The rest of the thread degenerated into what became a very ugly Internet fight between +Zak Smith and a variety of people on the thread, until the mods shut it down. I understand that some people in the OSR, broadly defined to include DF and the Google+ community, think Zak's a blowhard and an asshole. I don't fall into that camp, but I'm not here to adjudicate that point. In truth, Zak's Escapist web series, I Hit It with My Axe, is the reason I even became aware of this OSR thing in the first place. After seeing that, I read his blog (all of it, every entry), and was blown away by it. I followed from his blog to others' blogs, and more or less figured out that this is A Thing I Like. So, I might be a bit biased.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I find it difficult to agree with the idea that the good folk of Dragonsfoot are in a position to put boundaries around My OSR experience, or to limit what about the OSR is good or valuable, or to determine who can speak for the OSR. I find it amusing, frankly, that those who attempt to do so are reduced to the ur-hipster bullshit argument, "I was here first."

The larger issue, as I see it, is the discussion about what the OSR is, if it even exists (Spoiler: I think it does), and what it is for. Ultimately, what the OSR is can only be determined by asking everyone who sees themselves as part of it. That's what this survey is about.

A few provisional observations:

  • The OSR is not so much a movement as it is an accumulation of talk and practices, a discourse formation, one that has a variety of elements, purposes, spectra of relevance to each other, and so forth. It's easy to categorize this stuff as OSR, because it coexists in time and is linked consistently to a small number of topics and genres of discourse, but not so easy to make all of the parts of it "fit" into a coherent whole, because no one person or group controls the content of it.
  • Some people get really pissed off when other people disagree about their particular interpretations the OSR (Yeah, not the biggest surprise, I know).
  • Even if I got everyone in the OSR to tell me what the OSR is, the answers would contradict each other, talk past each other, unnecessarily restrict or expand the boundaries of the "movement" (or whatever it is), and otherwise present itself as a sloppy mess. That's good. That means there's something real there.
  • Whatever it is, the OSR creates consequences. It may be consequential in the sense that it might have fueled the development of D&D Next and the reissues of a lot of old TSR/WotC products, to whatever extent is did so. It's also consequential in that there is cultural productivity happening. People are making things, doing things, and talking about things related to the OSR. It's an interesting time to be gaming.