Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Against the Giants

And now for a bit of controversy.

There's a lot of hubbub in the RPG blogosphere and on RPG forums about the so-called "old school renaissance" right now, a movement that started to build a few years ago and has only grown in popularity. Many of the strongest voices in the tabletop RPG blogosphere are part of this movement. I appreciate a lot of what those folks are doing, and such sites as James Maliszewski's brilliant Grognardia are on my daily circuit through the blogosphere. But there's a streak of puritanism there that makes me grit my teeth every time I see signs of it.

Make no mistake, the old school renaissance is not about nostalgia. So its enthusiasts claim, anyway, and while I'm largely willing to take them at their word that nostalgia is not the dominant driving force behind the movement, I don't think I believe that it's not a factor at all. Witness terms like "golden age" being thrown around so commonly, for example, and recall that in any kind of context that term implies that we are currently living in something other than a golden age.

I think that the old-school movement that exists right now is profoundly unhealthy for the gaming hobby, because it means that there are voices (in James' case in particular, a strong and eloquent voice, and one of the most regressive,) which are looking backward instead of forward. Not everybody in the movement would admit to thinking so, but implicit in the whole idea is that our hobby's best days are behind it.

I reject this notion, and I reject the rose-colored glasses through which the old school movement views the history of our hobby. One of my reasons for starting this blog was to serve as a counterpoint, in however small a way, to the inertia that I see in RPG punditry today.

Take careful note, however - what I'm emphatically not saying is that nothing that comes out of the old school movement has any value. Quite the contrary, some of the retro-clones that it's inspired have a ton of solid work behind them, and while I don't agree on some of the major tenets of this ideology, one of the points I do agree with is a renewed emphasis on adventures as opposed to setting-heavy sourcebooks and rules expansions which change game systems so rapidly (and often radically) that they can only be called "unstable." In fact, I'd say that one of the reasons why the old-school movement has gained as much traction as it has is because so much good stuff has come out of it.

But it's difficult for me to accept that there have been no advances in RPG design in the past four decades that are worth adopting universally, and impossible for me to accept that the very pinnacle of RPG design lies in three moldy white booklets from 1974. I've seen those booklets, and there was a reason many people started designing their own games almost immediately (Ken St. Andre very famously designed Tunnels & Trolls to be a game that was D&D-like but actually playable.) And there's a reason early issues of the Dragon (and before that, the Strategic Review) are so filled with rules clarifications and expansions; the rules as written did not cover the stuff the people playing at the time wanted to see covered.

I can look back at classic Traveller and see an elegant, simple game, but it's really not there - I'd be putting it in three decades after the fact. What's really there is a game that is, to put it politely, incompletely imagined, and the years since then have filled in a lot of the gaps. In Traveller's case it took all three decades to take the simple, elegant elements that were already there and turn them into something polished and comprehensive. This fact belies another - that this process is not as easy as I'm making it sound. There's a fine balance to be walked when simplicity and flexibility are equal design goals. OD&D, although it has elements of both, is neither when viewed as a whole.

Thus, especially in the light of the towering complexity of something like D&D3.x, I can certainly see the desirability of something leaner. Even AD&D 1e/2e, while simpler in comparison, is a complex and incoherent design, which no longer has the advantage of near-universal familiarity to mask this.

But why, then, does the old-school movement eschew the simple, clean, elegant D&D Rules Cyclopedia? Being out-of-print is no excuse, since OD&D is even more out of print and far harder to get. To address this issue there are retro-clones like Swords & Wizardry (pictured above,) which emulates OD&D, or OSRIC (at left,) which does the same for AD&D1e/2e. But why also steadfastly refuse to consider the terrific Castles & Crusades a part of the movement, even though it does both with, I would argue, greater elegance and superior flexibility?

"Nostalgia" isn't the word we're looking for here. Lacking better terminology, I've taken to calling it "Golden Age-ism," the position, conscious or not, that roleplaying games were somehow better in 1974 than they are today. Most of the reasonable participants will frame this in terms of playstyle preference, but does anybody seriously believe there's anything that can be accomplished with sloppy old OD&D that can't be done with the lean, mean Rules Cyclopedia, one of the finest RPG products of all time, and completely self-contained in one handsome volume?

I'm not arguing against people using whatever game system they like, of course, be that OD&D, GURPS or even Rifts. System matters, but even so RPGs are what we choose to make of them. What's I'm arguing against is the echo chamber, and for the need for other strong voices. But the blogroll at right is not stocked with Old School Renaissance links for no reason. You'll be reading plenty about an approach to D&D gaming that one might describe as "old school," but I reject the label for what it has come to stand for. I think I'll use the term "traditional" for now - and at any rate, I intend to talk more about what I'm doing rather than grousing about what other folks are doing. Teach by example.

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