Saturday, April 4, 2020

OSR as Invented Tradition and Commodified Authentic

One of the most fascinating developments in tabletop role-playing games during the quarter century that I was away from them is the genesis of OSR, the “Old School Revival.” Already it appears that the OSR movement has been dissolving or mutating into something else, not without its micro-scandals, but it is also evident that the OSR had a big impact on the way D&D is played now. OSR preferences were clearly considered in the forging of the glorified Fifth Edition.

The more I look at the OSR materials, now, as a latecomer who missed the party already, the more its participants really seem to have done their little movement a disservice. Just by the way they talked about their priorities, they undermined themselves, guaranteeing a rift in the hobby in which they would lose out.

Matt Finch’s 2008 essay “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” clearly had a big influence on the way the OSR developed. Finch himself was the author of Swords & Wizardry, a D&D clone that he promotes in the essay in parallel with “Original D&D.” These contrast with “modern” games. If you’re either “original” or you’re “modern,” which will you choose? What kinds of people do these adjectives appeal to? The terms have political connotations that cannot have been thought through at the time.

On a small scale, of course, nobody cares what you call it. It is just you and your friends and their friends. But when OSR developed a fan base and became an industry, the politics started to matter.

Some gamers seem to have taken to heart the quest for the “original game” all too dearly, as “original” can mean authentic, true, and, ultimately, correct. Despite Finch’s, and others’, emphasis on an Old School inspired by amateur creativity, in-house rulings, and imaginative player skill, OSR gaming seems to have latched on to old D&D rules and held on with a mummy’s grip in the claim to authentic originality. This is a matter of how OSR products were received and promoted, which is, I think, different from the founding impulse behind the OSR: distaste for complexity in D&D editions after 2000 and a nostalgia for the fresh and amateur feeling of the early days.

It’s been noted in blogs and gaming news items that the OSR came to be popular with alt-right and conservative-minded gamers and anti-social and anti-progressive individuals. It seems that the associations I mentioned turned off one large group of players, leaving the movement increasingly to seekers of the “authentic original game.” This should not have been a surprise. If you frame an aesthetic taste in creative gaming as getting back to the pristine origins and rejecting innovation, you are pitching your goods to a mindset shared with religious revivalists, racial purists, and others of that ilk, even if you have no intention of doing so. Innovation = bad? Original = best? You know groups that favor these values. Just ask religious hard-liners who believe that they have the original goods while all the rest are damned, or racial nationalists who want to get back to how things were before mixing with people superficially different from them. It’s not that OSR authors all wanted this, but the quest for the original authentic appealed to those impulses, like it or not. You don’t have to search far now to find alt-right OSR connections on the internet. Alt-right people have a right to play, of course, and I hope they have fun, but if they politicize their participation in the hobby, there will be political ramifications. They can’t justify their whining when they run into the reactions they provoke and act oppressed. It’s just a look in the their own mirror.

OSR, then, was not old-school. It was innovation clad in retro gear, like so many other pop culture products, like “punk bands” in the 2000s. OSR was a “new-school” rejection of current mass-marketed trends. It found inspiration in older iterations of D&D that antedated the features OSR proponents disliked. This was not possible without the Open Game License that Wizards of the Coast created, giving entrepreneurs the right to repackage and resell old goods. But nostalgia was a powerful source of appeal.

The Invention of Tradition is the title of a famous scholarly book by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983). The essays in the volume explain several exemplary cases in which cultural innovation (usually on a scale much more significant than the table-top role-playing game hobby) has been presented as a return to origins, when it is pure novelty drawing on present-day shared mental associations with the past. Invented traditions are especially characteristic of modernity. When they tell you it’s “original,” “the real thing,” you should know that they are trying to persuade you not just to try it, but to buy it.

OSR products are also a neat example of another scholarly idea, that of the “commodified authentic,” a term that speaks for itself. (See Elizabeth Outka’s 2008 book Consuming Traditions: Modernity, Modernism, and the Commodified Authentic. Her concern was literary modernism in the UK in the late nineteenth century, but the concepts are applicable to innumerable examples of the commodification of human culture.)

Take Greg Gillespie’s OSR megadungeon products, like Barrowmaze Complete. (I bought it, and I very much enjoy it, despite its problems—perhaps for another post!) Gillespie is an associate professor of popular culture at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. He has published some scholarly essays on OSR gaming culture while also pursuing the publication of OSR role-playing game adventure books. In his article on Dungeon Crawl Classics, intended for a scholarly audience, he discusses how DCC products “use branding, design, and cover art to construct idealized nostalgic retroscapes” (G. Gillespie, “Remember the Good Old Days?: Nostalgia, Retroscapes, and the Dungeon Crawl Classics,” in Loading: The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 6.10 (2013): 1-29, p. 24).

Never mind that anybody who cared knew that about DCC already! But note rather that Gillespie quite self-consciously brands his products as “classic fantasy megadungeons.” He’s a fan, but one who knows his market, and he sure knows how to commodify the feeling of authentic with branding and design (even if his essays don’t cite the likes of Hobsbawm & Ranger or Outka). (And speaking of marketing his products, this is just embarrassing.) The point is not that commodities are bad. I enjoy gaming products and I probably have spent (or wasted) far more money in my life on them than most gamers ever will. The point is to understand the OSR as a fun movement that evolved into making money from a claim to authenticity which is fundamentally false and unselfconsciously appeals to a polarizing political stance.
The OSR, then, was not really old-school. It was a product of its time, I suppose circa 2007-2019, a reaction to the scene that it sought to displace. It thrived on the illusion of originality and authenticity, but that was a veneer for a new style of creative play caught in several contradictions. One of them is the contradiction between the rules-light mentality, on the one hand, and an obsession with nearly identical clones of a very specific rules set, that of early Dungeons & Dragons, on the other.

As an old-time gamer, I feel the appeal of OSR nostalgia. I mostly enjoy OSR fantasy art and the retro packaging. I very much like the OSR style of play. Some of my games with my family use it. But I don’t do it because it’s “old-school.” I do it because it’s fun for me and my players. Fun belongs to no school, and there are lots of ways to have it, all in the present.

1 comment:

  1. That "review" is hilarious! Thanks for pointing it out.