INSIDE THE OSR THERE ARE TWO WOLVES: OSR-V the Revival (Preservation) vs. OSR-N the Renaissance (Principles)

Cross your eyes to see two
(art: DiTerlizzi) 

I hate when I write a thoughtful response on Reddit and not this blog. So here it is repeated and maybe I am just tilting at windmills. 

Previously I have linked to this interesting series of posts over at the Simulacrum blog about the history of the OSR. Bonus points for Simulacrum using the frog card from Talisman as a graphic. Additional bonus point for editing of one of the new Battletech manuals.

And while the post divides the OSR into four categories, I think the preservation vs. principles divides things most cleanly, and in the end its these two factors that really matter the most:

Old-School Revival (OSR-V) is concerned with access and preservation of old-school D&D (mainly AD&D) as envisioned by Gary Gygax. The focus is on, not system mastery as 3e+, but at least system familiarity; includes non-D&D properties like Call of Cthulhu. 

Call of Cthulhu because, while not compatible with D&D, the system and even new adventure design hasn't changed really since its inception. Like AD&D, the adventures seem to ask players to use system familiarity to navigate tropes associated with the game. Mainly that most CoC adventures are oriented around a revelation not a true investigation.

Old-School Renaissance (OSR-N) is concerned with the re-imagined principles of old-school D&D (mainly BX) as expressed in the Principia Aprocrypha. OSR-N adds new ideas  also about at-the-table utility, layout, and information design (and in some ways 'zine-based publishing); includes non-D&D properties like MOTHERSHIP

MOTHERSHIP because while not compatible with D&D, the system and adventures ask of players similar things to D&D-based OSR-N modules: use player-skill to survive and explore strange environs. 

D&D Compatability is a red herring (?): I am not big on the idea of compatibility being a defining factor. As I alluded to in my OSR-N definition, if two systems are based on the same principles governing what is expected of the game-judge and players (MOTHERSHIP and BX D&D) then their systems most likely will "scale" with the adventures of the other. I think you could run most MOTHERSHIP adventures with BX D&D and vice versa. Also, the same system, like BX D&D, can straddle both OSR-V and OSR-N, so we have to look at the supplement/adventure/'zine/module/megadungeon and/or the DM's approach to play to understand what is intended.

Let's return to Call of Cthulhu for a moment because I believe discussing the OSR outside of D&D helps remove some "emotional baggage" that comes with the discussion. It also allows us a model that really only has, for all intents and purposes, a single edition (1). 

Looking at the rulebooks, CoC is a solid OSR-V because little has changed in rules since 1981. And pretty much all the adventures, big or small, follow a similar path of revelation. Act I established the mystery, Act II introduces the clues and antagonists, and Act III closes with the reveal of eldritch involvement (surprised/not surprised!). Familiarity with the CoC system will allow players to successfully navigate each act. Knowing where to apply Spot Hidden checks for plot-moving clues. Knowing who is most likely the secret cultist among the NPCs or has additional clues to hide. And knowing that while shotguns rarely work, dynamite almost always does. Strong preservation of the traditional method of play: mystery, investigate, then fight/big reveal + going insane.

But you can transmute CoC into OSR-N by altering the structure of the typical adventure from a revelation into an actual investigation. Now with an investigation structure, you achieve something more akin to asking players to use their own skill to explore a hostile landscape (figuratively and literally if they end up on Yuggoth) to solve a true mystery. 

The social landscape of victim(s), suspects, points of interest, and such is now more similar to a Jaquaysed dungeon, with vital points of interest and opposition spread out over a landscape that must be explored. This is very different from traditional CoC revelations which are like linear 2e "adventure paths" with their series of scenes strung together like beads. And the utility and layout required by an investigative style of CoC will also result in a change of art style. This is because the Keeper will have to have rapid access to critical information as players now will come by it through a variety of ways and methods instead of in the manner anticipated by the module writer. 

Summary: As before, I recommend the original series of posts. They cover a great deal of history with a lot of the movers and shakers. But at the core of serval debates of the OSR, I think are the cosmic forces and alignments of preservation vs. principles. Evidence of this is the recent "art-punk" dust-up where the preservationist/Revival faction felt the principle/Renaissance faction had gone a step too far. Mork-Borg being identified as the chaos daemon at the heart of it.

EDIT: And just for the record, I'm in the OSR-N camp. I prefer the weird, phantasmagoric, surreal, fey, apocalyptic, fairy-tale and dream-like over preservation of Gygax's exact vision of D&D.

(1) CoC is on its 7th edition, but it varies little in each of those editions compared to D&D's 5 editions plus basic lines.

4 comments:

  1. Hi, and thanks for your thoughtful commentary on my post. Looking at your criteria, I think (and correct me if I'm wrong) it reflects the difference in our starting points. Reading your post, I get the sense you're starting with the now, in which case I think it's self-evident that D&D compatibility isn't really essential to an OSR product, because it simply isn't any longer.

    For myself, I saw what I was doing as a history, and so I started with the then. From that vantage point, it's impossible to discuss the OSR without D&D; it would be akin to discussing various remakes and apings of the Roman Empire while trying to avoid reference to Rome. That having been said, one of the screenshots in my post had someone refer to "Principia Apocrypha-style gaming", as you do above, and I think that's a decent alternate label for the style of OSR games that is very largely (but still not entirely) detached from D&D, and yet has some of the actual design coherence that I often complained was otherwise lacking in games and related theory that came out of the OSR's fragmentation. This fits in the Nu-OSR, if using my categorization.

    As for the Call of Cthulhu angle you're taking, I have to admit I don't entirely follow that (I might be being thick here, as it is 3 am). Primarily, I don't get what "non-D&D properties like Call of Cthulhu" specifically refers to. In general, I see a generic focus on older games as too vague to really be a design movement per se; "old RPGs" is pretty nebulous as labels go. The sense of edition iteration that is so much a part of the original OSR is missing in a lot of these revivals, which are often focused on "bring it back" rather than "bring the proper (as we define it) form of it back" (though https://talestoastound.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/traveller-out-of-the-box-interlude-differences-in-classic-traveller-rules-sets/ makes for an interesting exception, regarding Traveller). How does one "revive" a game that has never left print, is now more popular than ever, and has hardly changed in terms of rules since it first came out?

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    1. So, thank you for taking the time to write a response! And yes, you bring up some important points that I should be clearer on and I’ll update the post above.

      Re: Starting Point
      Yes, you are correct. I really was thinking more about the here and now and if the four categories would be useful in defining the OSR in 2020+. And I agree that your posts takes a much wider and longer historical view about the OSR in which case it is important to talk about compatibility with D&D as an initiating principle.

      But I’m not sure that it is self-evident that compatibility is no longer a central and important factor. I feel like there are both supporters and detractors of the OSR who still view it as a central feature. Despite the publication of both the Finch primer and the Principa Apocrypha.

      I agree the Principa Apocrypha is a good statement for the design principles (especially when combined with ideas around RPG text-as-tool, layout, and graphic design) of the Nu-OSR. But I guess I think “old-school-renaissance”, which predates, “Nu-OSR”, still covers these ideas. My, maybe weak, understanding of “renaissance” here being using older principle to make new things. Which brings me to Call of Cthulhu.

      RE: Call of Cthulhu
      When is an old game just that and when is it OSR? Again, I agree with you it is not enough that a game be old to be OSR. I was trying to think of games which are considered OSR but are non-D&D. Call of Cthulhu and MOTHERSHIP jumped to mind first. MOTHERSHIP because it is stated as such. I also think Traveler, Shadowrun, as well as Cyberpunk and TMNT and Other Strangenesses would be there too? But let’s focus on CoC.

      So, is CoC similar enough to D&D to be considered OSR? And if “yes”, is it a revival? And is that possible with no edition heterogeneity? Or is it a renaissance?

      I would say that CoC, while not D&D, is similar enough to it because it asks the players to participate in investigation-focused (a type of unknown exploration), combat-lethal adventures where free-rein is given to solve problems. This seems in-line with D&D’s earlier editions and CoC even shares similar Appendix N authors.

      Can a ruleset with little to no meaningful variation between editions and not been out of print be “revived”? I think CoC has undergone a revival, I think its experienced a more heavily renewed interest due, in part, to older editions of D&D having a re-examination. I think players are turning away from other horror-based story-driven games and want to look at what one of the first entries into this genre has to offer. And this revival is also due, I’m sure, to on-line personalities like Becca Scott demonstrating how enjoyable this “old” game is to play. Even the Kickstarter for the “classic” 1st edition reprint box also pulled in ~$600,000 (I was a backer), which I think demonstrates renewed interest above the “hum” of continued print.

      But I don’t think CoC has varied their adventure design in the same way the “OSR-N” as done for BX D&D both in terms of philosophy or layout. A lot of CoC adventures, to me, seem to be a more linear reveal dependent on Keepers suppling clues (as sorta “quest-givers) more so than a true “open-world” investigation (great post on this: https://www.failuretolerated.com/a-small-rant-about-investigation-in-rpgs). And the adventure layout still cling to a text dense two-column format that requires the Keeper to make outlines and notes even for the lightest one-shots. Not difficult, but I think incorporating even Old-School Essentials layout would really help!

      So in summary, yes I agree your four categories were more from a historical context. And, yes, I think the key issues to define and frame the old-school scene today is more about continuing a preserving a playstyle established in the early days of the hobby or improving on the best principle of that playstyle even if it means deviation.

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  2. Thanks for the post - there's a lot of nostalgic rhetoric going around about the OSR these days and exactly what it was (or is if one still believes it exists), some of it in service of pretty corrosive and suspect goals. Part of this (not necessarily corrosive though) are the Neo-Revivalist claims around AD&D.

    I'm baffled by a lot of it, because most of the claims about the OSR don't really square with my experience and most of the claims about AD&D don't follow from the sources or history. While I was far more involved in the G+ Renaissance OSR then the forum and system based Revival OSR, people who were in the earlier forum based wave and who I talk with seem to have different memories as well.

    I suspect what we are seeing right now is nostalgia for the mid 2000's forum based "OSR" community. That is to say a nostalgic rewriting or idealization of a nostalgic rewriting and idealization of pre-1980's RPGs. As with all nostalgia, it leaves a lot out - e.g. it's worth noting that the CoC v. D&D debate echos one going back to the very start of the hobby - the Cal Tech v. Lake Geneva conflict that boils up in early Strategic Reviews and of course Alarums & Excursions. It's all the same: challenge based (with or without an appreciation of system mastery based meta-knowledge) play styles v. genre emulation based ones.

    Nostalgia is unavoidable in old games spaces of course, but the problem with nostalgic idealizations is that when they're a rhetorical device they work to create community (good) by obscuring history (unavoidable perhaps but not great when unrecognized) and blaming some group for a rupture with the idealized past they present (potentially quite bad).

    In the context of the post-OSR space (or whatever we want to call it) this seems to be mostly focused on building a neo-Revivalist community that rejects both the Renaissance (2010's era OSR) and the "POSR" as having poisoned the purity of Gygaxian D&D. Of course the POSR is also largely a nostalgic reinvention of the Renaissance style OSR by younger players and suffers from the reverse.

    As a larger community rather then growing an appreciation and understanding of older games and innovating on the lessons of both OSR's, it looks like we're at risk of recreating the OSR v. Storygames schism -- for the same reason -- would be influencers using rhetorical nostalgia to attack each other and build a following.

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    1. I see the Storygames vs OSR thing in the OSR Discord. I sense a...distinct lack of certain previous voices (from either having left, being drowned out or quietly leaving) and a massive uptick of others more vocal about storygames and 'indie' gaming.

      Say of this what you will, for those who enjoy those games the OSR is a lovely place, but the OSR will always have blog posts like these for those who want the playstyle.

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