Dungeon Crawling Together

November 21, 2021 at 1:01 pm Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of OSR games and they remind me a lot of the “traditionalist” phase of the genre trajectory model from Lena and Peterson’s 2008 ASR and Lena’s book Banding Together. OSR games are attempts to recreate Dungeons and Dragons as it was played in the 1970s, often by using the OGL (think Creative Commons or GPL) for the 2000s version of the game but then changing the rules to be more like 1970s D&D.

For instance, here is the first two sentences to Labyrinth Lord:

Labyrinth Lord is not new or innovative. This game exists solely as an attempt to help breathe back life into old-school fantasy gaming, to do some small part in expanding its fan base.

And here is the start of the intro to Swords and Wizardry:

In 1974, Gary Gygax (1938-2008) and Dave Arneson (1947-2009) wrote the world’s first fantasy role-playing game, a simple and very flexible set of rules that launched an entirely new genre of gaming. Unfortunately, the original rules are no longer in print, even in electronic format. The books themselves are becoming more expensive by the day, since they are now collector items. Indeed, there is a very good chance that the original game could, effectively, disappear. That’s why this game is published. When you play Swords & Wizardry, you are using those original rules.

The intro to the first edition of OSRIC basically says we don’t expect you to actually play with this book but with your old copies of the 1978 AD&D edition however we are writing this so you can create new content AD&D compatible content without getting sued.

The games vary in whether they are attempting to:

  1. recreate a very specific edition of D&D (eg, OSE is a retro-clone of the 1981 “B/X” Moldvay edition, Swords and Wizardry is a retro-clone of the “OD&D” 1974 edition, OSRIC is a retro-clone of “AD&D” from 1978, etc)
  2. take the overall feel of 1970s D&D while using some rules that were invented much later (eg, Basic Fantasy RPG, Five Torches Deep, Labyrinth Lord)
  3. put a distinct twist on the game whether that’s distinctive new rules (Dungeon Crawl Classics), a more metal version of the game (eg, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Mork Borg), or change the genre of story entirely (Mecha Hack, Mothership, Mutant Crawl Classics)

Approach #2 seemed to dominate early on, in part for the practical reason that people didn’t know how far they could push the OGL, but more recent games tend to follow approach #1 or #3.

Anyway, OSR is a traditionalist stage but you can trace the whole game back and see all the stages.

  • Avant garde: Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax inventing the game as an oral tradition in midwestern wargaming circles
  • Scenes: The publication of OD&D and a distinctive split between the game as played by Midwest wargamers (who had access to the oral tradition) and Caltech students (who only had the incomprehensible published rules and so had to improvise, coming up with an unofficial addendum called Warlock which later influenced the published rules in part because the first revised edition of the official rules was by a Californian).
  • Industry: An explosion of sales in the late 1970s and early 1980s including tie-ins to other media.
  • Tradition: OSR community beginning c 2008

Anyway, this could be a dissertation topic for some grad student but this seems like an obvious mesearch trap and I am always of the opinion that research is not worth doing if it only says “case X (which I care about for reasons other than theory) fits theory Y.” Rather, research ought to say “case X fits theory Y in a way that suggests novel twist Z” and I’m not yet sure if there’s a novel twist here yet that leads us to reconceptualize Lena’s theory of creative communities rather than just saying “yup, as expected, RPGs are a creative community just like music.” If you find that twist, email me and let me know what you’re doing with it.

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