Friday, July 3, 2020

Myths of the Early OSR 2: The Only Old-School Game Was D&D

This is a continuation of a previous discussion about myths of the "Early OSR." The term "Early OSR" here means the development of Old School Renaissance (or Revival) from about 2008 to about 2018, with an emphasis on the early part. I use the term "myths" loosely. I might have said misconceptions, but that creates a tone I don't intend.

Note for the OSR-aligned reader

I know that OSR has come to mean a lot of different things to different people, especially after about 2018. That's why I am discussing it as "Early OSR."

My impression is that some self-identified OSR gamers can be a little sensitive about critical analysis of their play-style and the development of its rationale, so let me say up-front that I think you should play however you enjoy playing. There is nothing wrong with the OSR play-style as far as I am concerned and we'd probably have fun if we played together. My goal is to look at the claims in the foundation of the movement, what "old-school" has meant, and to consider how that has affected the ongoing evolution of role-playing games and contributed to factionalism among gamers.

Myth #2: It was always about D&D.

If you read early OSR gaming blogs and publications, you might think that the history of role-playing games went like this: Dungeons & Dragons was a brilliant new game in 1974. For a time, players were one community who all played D&D. Gradually D&D was corrupted with successive editions that veered away from the design of he Founding Fathers and their sources of inspiration. Finally, after too many divergent, blustery D&D editions, too many rules, too much alienation from the good old days, players around 2008 had had enough. They dug back and recovered the original practices and the fun that they brought. They broke away from "modern" games (newer D&D editions and indie Story Games) and got back to the roots of how role-playing games were.

Divergence from the Original Way

This is just how the knowledgeable OSR co-founder James Maliszewski described it in 2008 in his highly influential Grognardia blog:

It was a heady, exciting time to enter the hobby, because it was still a single hobby at this point [at the end of 1979/beginning of 1980]. ...

Though only a young person, these were interests I shared with the older guys and together we formed a single hobby. Of course, the reason we formed a single hobby is because I had adopted my hobby from the older guys. ...

But then something happened and that something was the mass marketing of D&D to appeal to people outside of this little brotherhood into which I'd been initiated. The Basic Rules of 1981 (Moldvay) and 1983 (Mentzer) were attempts to broaden the appeal of the game and make it more accessible to people who, either by circumstance or disposition, weren't able to hook into the network of masters and padawans that I'd so gleefully joined a few years previously.

The mass marketing of D&D succeeded and succeeded brilliantly, bolstering the ranks of people who bought TSR products. However, it was also a hammer blow to the common culture of the old school. The people who entered the hobby with Moldvay and Mentzer were (largely) those who discovered fantasy in the post-D&D world. They weren't into Howard or Moorcock; they were into "fantasy," this suddenly-popular genre of literature that had sprung up in the aftermath of D&D's amazing success.

In sum, the idea is that there was a single hobby and that hobby was D&D. Old "masters" were nice to young guys in a "brotherhood" (as he calls it). The common culture was simply original D&D, and the fun way to do it was handed down from master to youngster in apostolic succession. Mass marketing to new audiences, however, ruptured it by spreading the game to casual fantasy buffs rather than those who knew the correct sources personally.

More recent views (of the recent OSR) rightly point out that the OSR developed into new independent streams of game mechanics and play-styles derived from or merely inspired by the earliest forms of D&D. The idea is that current OSR players, having discerned some of the original design principles of D&D, could take it from there in new directions.

The essence of the old style is expressed as a variety of features. These are supposed to have included sandbox adventures, DM fiat (rulings) instead of dice-rolling, characters with minimal stats, high lethality, emphasis on game-play over storytelling, fantasy art aesthetics of the decade '74-'83, whimsical ("gonzo") encounters, random tables, and lots of humongous dungeons. Discussions about what constitutes "real Old-School," "real OSR," are easily found on the internet.

As it has evolved more, the common landmark for the OSR seems to have settled around the second edition of the D&D Basic set, the one by Moldvay, from 1981. That was my first D&D set, the one that Maliszewski identified with the beginning of the end of the good old days.

What's missing in this idea of old-time gaming?

What's missing from this account is most of the hobby from '74 to '81. Starting in 1975, it was never just about D&D.

If I think about role-playing games up to 1981, the year that Maliszewksi identified as the beginning of the end, I come up with this list:
  • Braunstein (played circa 1969)
  • Blackmoor (played circa 1970-71)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (1974)
  • Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974)
  • Tunnels & Trolls (1975)
  • Empire of the Petal Throne (1975)
  • En Garde! (1975)
  • Boot Hill (1975)
  • Bunnies & Burrows (1976)
  • Metamorphosis Alpha (1976)
  • Monsters! Monsters! (1976)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (ed. Holmes) (1977)
  • All the Worlds’ Monsters Volume 1 (1977)
  • The Fantasy Trip: Melee (1977)
  • AD&D Monster Manual (1977)
  • Traveller (1977)
  • Chivalry & Sorcery (1977)
  • Arduin Grimoire (extensive D&D variant) (1977)
  • RuneQuest (1978)
  • The Complete Warlock (extensive D&D variant) (1978)
  • AD&D Players Handbook (1978)
  • The Fantasy Trip: Wizard (1978)
  • Gamma World (1978)
  • AD&D Dungeon Masters’ Guide (1979)
  • Bushido (1979)
  • Tunnels & Trolls Fifth Edition (1979)
  • Villains & Vigilantes (1979)
  • Adventures in Fantasy (1979)
  • The Fantasy Trip: Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard (1980)
  • The Fantasy Trip: Into the Labyrinth (full RPG) (1980)
  • Thieves’ Guild (1980)
  • Basic Role-Playing (1980)
  • DragonQuest (1980)
  • The Morrow Project (1980)
  • Space Opera (1980)
  • Land of the Rising Sun (1980)
  • Rolemaster (beginning with Arms Law, 1980)
  • Top Secret (1980)
  • Call of Cthulhu (1981)
  • Stormbringer (1981)
  • Aftermath! (1981)
  • Champions (1981)
  • Merc (1981)
  • The Mechanoid Invasion (1981)
  • Thieves’ World (1981)
  • Crimefighters (1981)
  • Wild West (1981)
  • Universe (1981)
  • D&D Basic Set (ed. Moldvay) and Expert Set (ed. Cook and Marsh) (1981)

This list does not include the countless variants published by enthusiasts in independent zines and professional magazines. It does not include the innumerable supplements, setting guides, adventure modules, and expansions. (If you have more from this period through 1981 that I should add to the list, let me know!)

Many of these games used mechanics far divergent from those of D&D. There were games without character classes, hit points, armor class, levels, and experience points. There were many kinds of magic rules. There were games with nothing like dungeons. There were games with more abstract combat systems and games with combat systems that aimed at detailed realism to the point of unplayability. There were games with rules for religions and cults, rules for character personality features and for character disadvantages, family background and personal relationship generators, world generators, random adventure generators. There were games for competitive tournament play, games for story-telling, games with rules for PC biography generation. It was a massive outpouring of creativity, most of it, in its published quantity, non-D&D.

There were games about dungeon adventures, wilderness adventures, fantasy city adventures, outer space adventures, Bronze Age adventures, post-apocalypse adventures (both soon after and distantly after the apocalypse), super-hero adventures, horror adventures, far-distant alien future adventures, alien invasion adventures, fantasy Asia adventures, cowboy adventures, roaring '20s adventures, modern tactical insurgency warfare adventures, early modern European adventures, pulp action adventures, and adventures emulating very specific works of fiction. There were games about playing monsters instead of heroes. 

Within a few years of 1981, when Moldvay Basic D&D came out, we would also have mafia games, dystopian future games, cartoon games, Vietnam War games, humor games, games based on specific big-budget films, and many other kinds.

Before the end of 1981, there were many other table-top role-playing games that did totally different things. The differences between these games and D&D make the differences between any edition of D&D with any other edition of D&D into minor matters of taste.

If Moldvay's Basic D&D has become a leading standard for "Old-School" gaming, then by the list above, that kind of D&D may seem late, not "old-school." It all depends on where your point of view begins.


OSR propagators knew about these other games but decided to ignore them politely.

All those other games and their different mechanics, purposes, intended play-styles, and genres are not something that early OSR founders discussed much explicitly in their effort to recreate "old-school" play-styles, because they were busy reacting to recent editions of D&D to recreate better versions of old editions of D&D sanctioned by the Open Game License. If you asked them in 2008, some would have said, yeah, of course there were some other role-playing games in the Old Days. But the early OSR gamers show very little awareness of what those numerous other "old-school" games were like. Not to single out Maliszewski too much, but he did write a lot of foundational OSR material and has been called "King of the OSR": take his 2012 commentary on Tunnels & Trolls, a system that from my point of view is one of the most important landmarks in the history of table-top role-playing games, or his 2010 commentary on RuneQuest. He tells us that the older gamers who introduced him to D&D explicitly warned him off from these two popular early games. He respected these games but they were not for him. It's an example of the hand-waving that goes along with the Early OSR: "Yeah, yeah, those other games, sure, not that great. Now, back to early D&D editions..."

Maliszewski's testimony is important. It shows us that some gamers, including those who introduced him to role-playing games, were really fixated on D&D to the exclusion of most everything else. The reason for this is probably to a large extent the very marketing of D&D that he identified as the cause of the decline. D&D players had been warned by Gary Gygax that other games, including D&D variants, were lesser. Whatever the reason, the older gamers he knew as a boy didn't even want him to try those other games.

In short, the Early OSR was almost always just about D&D. It was a D&D-focused reaction to other kinds of D&D aimed at recreating the magic of an idealized early D&D. Thereby it skews the history of the hobby with a highly selective take on what gaming was in the first bloom of table-top role-playing games.

If you genuinely don't care about those other games, and just love D&D, there can be no argument on that count. Go forth and play D&D! But a major consequence is that "Old-School" gamers who tinker with D&D are missing dozens of precedents for mechanics and play possibilities, accepting a skewed stereotype about "the old days" instead. In a way, TSR propaganda from Gygax's time at the helm of TSR has conditioned how later revivalist D&D gamers imagined the early hobby.

A single hobby?

Maliszewski was right that there was a single hobby around 1980, because nobody had dreamed up "Story Games" and "Old School" sects that were to go their separate ways. If anything, the early proponents of the OSR contributed to fracturing the hobby by fostering a group that emphasized its own separateness.

But compare Maliszewski's rosy and nostalgic view of the good old days, when real gamers knew their Conan and Elric--formed in his childhood, less than two years before I started playing in my own childhood--with that of Glen Blacow, one of the preeminent (grown-up) DMs of the East Coast in the '70s. In his influential article on play styles, published in Different Worlds 10 in 1980 (Nov/Dec)--when Maliszewski was a kid just getting going in D&D--Blacow wrote,

A bystander, reading the furious discussions and noting the feuds that develop [between gamers who play differently] might be inclined to feel bewildered. "Are we all playing the same game? Do the terms used mean the same thing to everyone?"

The answer is no. While the people arguing may be using identical sets of rules, they are not necessarily using them the same way or for the same purpose.

This was the article that formulated the quadripartite distinction between Power Gaming, Wargaming, Role-playing, and Story-telling styles of play. (Note that he was not the first to use all of these categories. Note also that these distinctions existed explicitly, including "story-telling" games, even before Moldvay's Basic D&D was published.) Near the end of his article, Blacow remarks, like a prophet,

I'd say that there are enough substantial questions in the field of adventure gaming to keep us arguing for decades.

The idea of one community was born of aging gamers' nostalgia for childhood exposure to D&D. The idea of an OSR, meant to recapture that feeling, had an opposite effect: it contributed to division among gamers who felt left behind by later editions, carving off a smaller community.

An unspoken myth

Nobody ever said that the role-playing games I listed above didn't exist. That would be stupid. But the OSR evolved as if it had been declared that those games really didn't exist, largely in a closed-off discussion about D&D #1 versus D&D #2 versus D&D #3... etc.

The idea that the only old game worth notice was D&D was not a "myth" in the sense of a false narrative, because nobody said that. It is a myth in the sense of a misleadingly incomplete narrative, because all the other games were ignored almost entirely, to the point that the founding concept of the OSR--reviving how role-playing games used to be--makes little sense. There was no original way of playing, not even of D&D, even in the very earliest years of "the gilded hole" (to borrow Mark Swanson's expression from the '70s for pure, context-free dungeon adventures with one dungeon per DM).

The short-sighted concept that "old-school" means D&D and variants of D&D has consequences for the entire hobby. Many other kinds of games from the first seven years of table-top role-playing games vanish from view, along with many other ways of handling all the things that OSR players are interested in with respect to both theory and practice. Likewise, "Story Gamers" who believe that they are breaking away from "trad games," imagined basically as D&D, lose track of early games that sometimes did some of the things they want to achieve.

I am sure that some readers will want to jump in now to point out that such-and-such OSR discussion mentions RuneQuest in a serious way, and things like that, but I think it is fair to say that only the most recent games popular with OSR players derive inspiration, and only occasionally, from older games besides D&D. That's because OSR has split up and moved on. There are only so many ways you can meaningfully rewrite early D&D rules and sell it with new pictures. (Or are they limitless?)

The one "OSR" game with a different early genealogy that jumps to mind is Troika! (2018), by Daniel Sell, barely acknowledged as a retroclone of Advanced Fighting Fantasy (1989), which has a system developed from the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks (1983 onward)--which was modeled, in turn, in key respects of mechanics, on innovations from Tunnels & Trolls (1975). (It jumps to my mind because this is the inspirational branch of the TTRPG family tree from which my own home rules have sprouted.)

Such games as these are quite recent phenomena within the OSR. For the Early OSR, D&D was the only "old-school" game in town, making for many missed opportunities and giving non-OSR gamers and young newcomers to the OSR the false idea that D&D and sandbox dungeon crawls and hexcrawls were all that anybody played in the Old Days.

To close with a personal note, the gamers I knew in the '80s regarded D&D as training wheels. You took them off and moved to other games once you knew how to play. I think the OSR demonstrates that you can find a lot of depth in old D&D rules and make it deliver more fun than my friends and I were willing to give it credit for. It's unfortunate, though, in my view, that so many early goods and innovations are eclipsed by this recent change in perspective, and that this has skewed how "Old-School" gaming is imagined to have been. For many of us, gaming in the old days was not really much like what the OSR has created by magnifying selected little early features to an enormous extent while omitting the rest.