Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Retro-Cool: How to Spread the Old School Games and Make D&D "Viral" Again

I think there's a certain demographic that older versions of D&D (via retroclones mostly) can grow with. It's the same demographic that Oddysey discusses here. I think the "retro-cool" approach is the best way to get it in front of the younger generation today.

The question I've been mulling over is how? How do you take a game that was poplar 30 years ago and repopularize it? How can we make older games of D&D trendy again? After reading this post from James Raggi, he converted me. I believe it can be done. It was just a matter of how. There was something nagging at me in the back of my mind about shoes from the 90's, and it came to me the other day.

Back in my salesguy days working in Manhattan, one of the popular books out was called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, a book by Malcolm Gladwell. It was all the rage. Click on the Wikipedia link above for a good summary. The book described the conditions and factors under which things became "viral", contagious, or a craze. One story dealt with Hush Puppy shoes. Apparently in the 90's no one wore them. The Hush Puppies company was going to phase the shoe out. They were basically sold only in mom and pop stores in places like East Bumfuck, Alabama.

Anyhow, some people in NY City in the Village started wearing them, as a fashion statement, a retro-cool thing. And it caught on. Like wildfire. Next thing you know, major fashion labels are using them in high end fashion shows, and millions of shoes are sold all around the world.

All this came from a few people wearing them in a small (but trendy/influential) section of NY City.

The book is filled with stories like this, and details the kind of people and factors that go into making something go from something a few people do, or are a fan of, to a contagious epidemic of cool that everyone has to have.

A lot of us remember the Grunge days well. Who wore flannel on a regular basis before 1991? People in the woods of Washington state where it was cold did. The clothing people in upstate Washington wore on stage, because its was only clothing they owned, became de-facto Grunge-wear. Again, high fashion eventually co-opted flannel for the runways (which was pretty much when I knew the scene was over, but thats another story).

I think the same thing is possible with older editions of D&D. I think the OSR could finally burst out of its shell of a half dozen boards and a few hundred blogs, and really become something mainstream. Right now it seems to exist more as a reaction to new gaming trends, or act as sort of a "coming back home to where it all began" event for many older players.

As far as getting new players to older games and their clones, the way the clones are written is fine if you're going to target it to a market that gets the new school game and is wondering what old school is all about. But to a demographic that doesn't know anything about the game at all, other than that geeks played it 20 years ago, the intro/description/flavor/character/style/feel/vibe that a reader has to "get" in order to describe it to his/her friends while they're hitting the bong needs to be whimsical/fun/funny/over-the-top/ironic/retro-hip. The current mood or vibe of the clones won't attract people who never played it before, since there is no point of relation.

I think the audience for it are the same types of people who Oddysey describes who collect vintage records, or who hit used clothing stores for the vintage look. It would be the latest "cool find" to share with friends.

I has to be a game that would be explainable to newbs in the time it took to have a drink, or pass around a joint. Simple and basic. Two minutes tops. Players shouldn't even need to reference the books during the game.

It would essentially be Swords and Wizardry repackaged to have some sort of retro-cool character/feel to it. Right now S&W is written to be a game that is bare-bones rules, but is lacking in character. Any character it has and any flavor it exhibits are language meant to distinguish it from new school games, and describe its rules-light approach, and the principles in Matt Finch's Old School Primer.

The number one requirement though is that it has to be a simple game.

And preferably in a format that can be played with everyone sitting on a couch, with maybe a coffee table in the middle of everyone for rolling dice.

It can't take itself too seriously. The whimsical approach to dungeon design exhibited in the early days would be the way to go to attract this audience. One minute you're running from a platoon of orcs, you jump down a hole, and the next you're in "Alice in Wonderland".

(I had hopes for Hackmaster Basic hitting this demographic, if they could keep some of the old whimsy, but they blew it with the level of detail in the game.)

After a new guy plays it for the first time with a group of friends, he can go pick up a copy of it at a bookstore, throw onto the shelf next to Pictionary and Scrabble, and then HE can be the cool guy who "found" this old/new cool game and introduced it to HIS other circle of friends. Of course he would have to tell his friends that when HE found the game, he didn't buy it at Barnes and Noble, but had to get it from some hard to get/exotic place, to keep the aura of mystique and exclusivity surrounding the game. He may let slip that it might be found on Amazon now though...

Eventually it will end up in the hands of people who are described in The Tipping Point as the types of people who get things to spread like wildfire.

Like I said though, I think in order for this to happen, in order for the game to be attractive to folks like this, something about the clones needs to change. The vibe is wrong to attract newer people who have never played the game before, and who have no experience with RPG's.

Next, good DM's need to play the game with people they don't normally play with. Try to expand the exposure of the game to others who don't know what D&D is. And for God's sake tell them where they can get the game afterwards.

The more people do this, the more exposure the game gets outside of typical gamer circles, the better chance the game has to go viral again.


  1. If there was only a pub I could game in I'd find a way to make it every nite ;) Seriously, a game friendly bar would be a great way to get something like that started.

  2. D&D as a bar game is a great idea. Instead of trivia game night that many bars have, you can make it drunken D&D night. With tables competing to see who gets what, if there are multiple DM's running the same scenarios.

  3. I like the White Box from BHP - really I think an old school "box" set of some kind might be just what it takes. Still, the younger folks (younger than me than me that is, if not young per se, call 'em 2nd edition kids?) are the ones who would probably be more likely to drive any new fad for retro-D&D. I could be wrong: I can't see so good through this new 40 year old's spectacles anymore.

    For something to take off like a virus now, it'd most likely use the same social networks that are most popular these days as a vehicle - these things are predominantly used by younger people. What this demographic is, precisely, is something a game publisher would do well to somehow determine!

  4. Joe, you don't just hit the nail on the head, you hit every damn screw in the box! This post ticks so many of my boxes, it's unreal. You have almost spoken my thoughts on the issue of widening the appeal of Old School games.

    There are some who would prefer that the OSR stuck to its little niche and served only those who somehow 'qualify' as Old School gamers. Yeah, sure, and watch us die off one by one until the OSR is a museum.

    But you've gone beyond just talking about it and actually done something, like getting a mission statement together.

    Consider that if 100,000 people (just to pluck a figure out of the air, I've no idea what it is really) play Old School games and if only 1 in 10 of them go out and bring in a new gamer each month, by the end of a year, we could see a doubling of the number of OS gamers. And think about the demand for OS products.

    I'm handing you the ROAR award (Reach Out And Recruit) - let's hope that this idea takes off!

  5. Nicely written! :)

    I try to do what I can do to put butts in chairs to make it accessible and fun for as many as possible.

  6. Sorry to be negative, please take it and I mean it in a Devil's Advocate way so that you may refine and improve your world domination plans.

    > go viral again

    Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert weren't enough to trigger a new fad.

    But if one was started, how would this help the hobby? How is having D&D become a fad again for a few years gonna do anything other than make a few people some money and screw some companies that don't ride the bubble/crash cycle well?

    I'm not sure the goal should be to grab a huge number of new players who will lose interest and chase the next fad as soon as it comes around.

    Slow growth, focusing on training DM's to be great. Changing public's opinion re games are for kids, D&D is for geeks, D&D is a fad.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. I don't know what that deleted post said, but I know lots of twenty-somethings that would like D&D.

    Make some really cool videos and go viral on youtube.

    Dragon videos.... oooo... Dragon animations.

  9. @Clovis - "One of the goals of the OSR is to GROW this hobby."

    You grow the hobby by running the game. End of story. If people have fun they will return. Return with friends they've told about 'this kewl new game' actually. As long as this is done, the scenario of a niche hobby slowly passing with the 'dying off' off of the old guard never happens because new blood is always being recruited.

    I'm not out pushing some kind of freebie 'viral' marketing plan to sell a clone-wars publisher's repackaged ruleset. Does that make me a 'traitor' to the cause? Maybe I'm not part of the OSR?
    Sorry, I thought games were for fun.

  10. I think that Journalizer is actually nearest the idea. I don't think that the OSR will really go viral without an unrelated source of entertainment (I don't mean celebrity plugs, either) that will get people curious.

    Look at the explosion of just the fantasy genre coming at us in films: a new Clash of the Titans, The Hobbit, Conan amidst the animated films coming out. There is a lot of potential out and about that can be used to expose more and more people to the OSR.

    Am I working on an angle that is outside the blogosphere and the OSR?

    You bet I am.

  11. Journalizer, the deleted post was some sort of asian language spam, hence deletion.

    When you say go viral on YouTube, you mean as in a vid of a game being played showing people having a good time? Or something else?

    On that note, Zack from Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog is doing just that, showing his game he plays with porn stars and strippers. That ought to be interesting---because sex sells and that will help it attract an audience. He has a great blog and is a fantastic writer, but I somehow doubt he would have a much of a following if not for the porn/sex angle.

    Ancientvaults--you working on a drugs or rock and roll angle? if we get all three of the big ones, maybe we can get more people attracted. :)

  12. Actually, I have been working with a musician on a few sounds. Mostly primal drumming and instrument solos.

    And with sporecery, the fungus is always a good tie-in.

    But alas, my main plot is still in the works.

  13. JoetheLawyer,
    Yeah, have a video of people playing the game, but have a twist. Have something --a unique motto, slogan-- or just a unique scene: a unique scene could be at the end of each video the dog sitting in the room as the players play morphs into a dragon that turns into the logo or something.

    ... it could be like the game turns into reality and all the game players are suddenly sitting at a banquet hall in a sci fi medieval castle, or some fantasy world... the slogan could be something like "when fantasy becomes reality" or such.

    Have it as a series on youtube that repeats that motif. The series could be simple and instructional but fun to watch because of all the fantasy elements. Then you'd have a brand and it would go viral.

    (or maybe that's too complicated. just film some of your games and accrue footage-- fantasy can be added)


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