Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Final Take on the Latest OSR Debate

Here's my final take on the whole damned mess.

First, I like and respect Rob and James as people as also like and respect their work.  They're both very creative people.  I've spoken to them both via email and the phone with Rob, and via chat and blogs and boards with Jim.  Rob consented to a very long interview, full of personal questions, which will be posted to my blog one of these years, when we ever finish it.  That being said, I'll attempt to speak my mind rather than mealy-mouth and worry about offending.  I'll just state how I feel, my observations based on my understanding of the two individuals, without sharing personal info, and let the dice fall where they may.  They'll probably both hate me after this, but whatever.  I have to say it as I feel and see it.

As to the OSR:  I don't like revisionist history and dogma.  I do see some of that, and it grows as the OSR grows.  Then comes bull and politics.  Then the judgment of the good/bad/right/wrong way to play D&D rears its ugly head.  It's what happens in every organization/movement/type of thing where people come together.  It's a natural occurrence.   It's inevitable.  Some people see it growing, some people don't.  I see a lot of the early signs of it, being a hater of it, and my early warning system is going off.

Some people say they won't be affected, that they play how they want to regardless of the groupthink.  Fine.  Maybe you won't be.  But for every one strong individual there are at least 10 or more insecure follower types, without a strong a personality, who can be infected with groupthink and Kool-Aid drinking.  That's undeniable, though the ratio may be debatable.  That's who I'm worried about.

As it stands now, the most vocal among us are, unsurprisingly, the people with perhaps the strongest streaks of individuality.  To an extent, those people are in common agreement on certain things, and post their shared views to the world. Those shared views become impressed on the impressionable as “the way it is” just by virtue of being the most common and available reading material.  All things are compared against it.

Then impressionable follower types then preach the one true way to the world, as read on the blogs and boards of the OSR.

So then what the heck is the OSR spreading?  If it's spreading at all in any real numbers, which is something I question, it's spreading groupthink instead of unlimited creativity and play, which was the intent of the creators of the hobby, and some of the earliest desires of those who starting rediscovering their gaming roots a few years, and coalesced into a group of people we now call the OSR.  (I'll note for the record that there's a ton of people that never left, like some at Dragonsfoot, and thousands all over the world, who still play the games they grew up with.)

People then lose focus on the whole reason for the thing in the first place:  to enjoy playing older D&D games, and to share our games, creativity and fun with others.

As to the labeling of who is part of it, and who is not, I've stated my opinion on that here:


Let me just add that the problem in my with Jim's post on his opinion of who is in the OSR and who is not, is this:

You can self identify and part of a group.  No problem.  You will always have others consider you part of a certain group or subset.  That's just part of life.  There's nothing you can do about it.  However, Jim's post made it sound like he was telling others that they were part of something, defined by a certain set of subjective criteria, and THAT THEY THEREFORE HAD TO CONSIDER THEMSELVES PART OF IT, WHETHER THEY LIKED IT OR NOT, BECAUSE THE GROUP AND THE GROUP'S CRITERIA MADE THEM PART OF IT.  That's the key difference.  In other words, it came across as telling people what to think.  It smelled of the dogma I spoke of earlier.  Hence my speaking out about it on my blog, as I hate dogma.

After speaking with Rob and corresponding with him via email for close to a year, I can honestly say he has one of the strongest streaks of individuality I've ever encountered.  He has his own sense of integrity and set of personal beliefs which he tries to live by every day of his life, which compels him to speak out like he has.  As such, you can understand why he was riled up by Jim's post, which made it seem like Jim was implying Rob was part of a group and should consider himself thus.  Rob's not a follower.

He also isn't a guy who constantly goes out there and says “I deserve respect for my accomplishments.”   For the most part, he lets his creations speak for themselves.   I know Jim is a big fan of Rob's work.  He has stated so many times.  I'm a fan of Jim's work and Rob's work, and have stated as such to each of them about their own work, and about the other guy's work.  In terms of the products each produces, I think both guys have a lot in common.  Both exhibit a lot of creativity, and their modules are great examples of pushing the limits of what's out there today.

Rob doesn't need to OSR for sales or credentials.  He was there at the beginning, and doesn't need the name recognition.  Jim does.  Of course he is going to push the OSR as a brand under which to market his products.   I think Rob gets that, and doesn't mind outside of the groupthink component of it.  What really pissed him off I believe is the lack of respect not to himself, but to the whole thing HE was part of, and the group of people at TSR he worked and played with in its earliest days.  I honestly don't think Rob is as personally offended, as much as he is offended at the revisionist history, creeping dogma, lack of focus on play and creativity, and a betrayal of what he considers the core of D&D, and a lack of respect for people who made the whole thing happen in the 70's, culminating for him as the blog post that broke that camel's back in some of Jim's posts recently which exhibited some of those things.   It wasn't all about Jim, is was building for a while I think.

Also, I think Zak S made a valid point above when he said “I don't know man--has there EVER been a renewal of interest in a thing where the originators of the thing being renewed didn't clash with the renewer?”

I think that's a lot of what's going on here too.  Different generations always take things in different directions.  The earlier generations, the ones who created something,  are often shocked, offended, and outraged at where their creation goes.  Jefferson was not pleased with where America was heading when he died, and Einstein hated the fact that his theory of relativity was needed in creating atomic bombs.   I think its the same thing with Rob and Tim, and maybe others from the old days who haven't spoken up yet.  It's just human nature that some bit of ego is involved, though it seems more so with Tim than Rob, and feelings are hurt as people feel due respect isn't being given or shown, not so much to the people, but to what the people created and what they believed and intended it to stand for.

Rob did a ton of work and out a lot of effort into the game in the early days, and as such he deserves the respect of anyone who has ever rolled a d20.  I suspect that Rob would consider the highest form of that respect to be creating something that breaks the boundaries of the games we play today, and the games we played in the 70's---or at least don't do crap that impedes others from being able to do that, through regurgitation of old tropes, misrepresenting the past, or being part of something that dogmatizes and sets rules and boundaries on creativity.

I think Jim has a helluva future ahead of him.  He is doing what others aren't in his modules, and he is trying to open the tent wider to grow what he considers to be the OSR, by bringing the works of other publishers to his display table at conventions to sell.  His take seems to be that a rising tide raises all ships.  I think for that he needs to be commended.  But he still wants to earn a buck, and he honestly believes that the OSR exists, that it is a good thing overall, that the dogma is not there in any damaging degree, and that its useful in bringing others to the table.   It's also useful in growing his business.

Plus, he has a bit of an ego himself.  I think everyone who goes to blogspot and creates a forum for themselves to speak to others does.  It takes a certain level of ego, if not narcissism, to stand up on a soapbox uninvited and say  “Here I am.  Hear what I have to say!”  With Jim its also tooting the horn of the OSR so as to keep the movement alive, so the business opportunities grow.  That's completely understandable., but also its understandable why it may irk others as it has.  From ra-ra comes dogma.

That being said, I think Rob may be off in one area:  many if not most people don't care about the spread of creativity and play, and other ideals of his and the founders of the hobby and TSR.  I understand that Rob is a person who wants to put that out there and make it grow, and so the fact that he sees a group which takes on the trappings of earlier his creations and is using it to stifle creativity through dogma and revisionist history is especially galling to him.  However, his ideal is not the greatest and highest form, because ideals in themselves are subjective.  To criticize one group's ideals primarily because those ideals create something that runs counter to your own ideals, is inevitable perhaps, but since ideals are in themselves subjective, from a higher perspective the battle over ideals is the same as the battle over raisin bran or corn flakes.  I don't think its a black and white as Rob describes, but I understand that his core set of beliefs make him feel as he does. I think that there is perhaps some good that can come of the OSR, mixed with the bad.  I'm sounding the early warning bell of dogma though, and I think if it continues, not much more will come of it in terms of spreading the hobby's original core values of pure unstifled creativity, which is what attracted most of us to the hobby in the first place I think.  But understand that the good and the bad are also subjective, especially when it comes to something like this.  It ultimately comes down to what an individual wants for their own individual games and the hobby.

Some ideals are perhaps more important than others, because of their ability to affect more people through belief in those ideals, but ultimately as any student of history knows, ideals come and go based on the time and place you live.  You just have to pick and choose a set of beliefs to get you through the day, and let you live a life that makes you happy, and let others do the same, because in the end it doesn't matter anyhow, we're all worm food.  Anything we leave behind is going to be used and perhaps corrupted to suit the needs of those using it.  It's depressing but true.  I think Rob believes he is seeing that now, and I can understand why he thinks it sucks.

As to points of view on the matter, imagine a brand new car that has been sideswiped.  A person standing on the side that was smashed looks at the car and says “what a piece of crap.”  A person on the other side says “What a beautiful car.” 

We all come to this with a certain viewpoint, based on out life's experiences.  That creates a certain point of view.  In spite of our differences, and the differences of opinion on this matter and where I think they're coming from, which I've tried to outline above, at the end of the day we all roll a 20-sider to hit something and like to have fun with our friends playing DnD.  On that basis, we have far more in common than we do differences.  If we try and understand the other side's point of view, I think each side can find some truth on the other side.  Life is rarely black and white, and is usually full of shades of gray.  Hopefully we can find some common ground and work together to grow the aspects of the game and hobby that we all love and share and have in common.

I've not really spoken about Tim's post, because honestly I don't know the guy, or of him.  No offense intended to Tim.  I'm not a scholar of DnD history.   I know the role he played in the early days of TSR within the company, and as such I give him the respect he is due for helping to create a game and a hobby I love.

My personal hope for whatever we consider this OSR thing to be is that it breaks loose among the general populace before dogma takes hold and stifles it, and my nephews and nieces have lots of people to play old versions of D&D with in the style of game they played with their uncles and aunts around a kitchen table when they were kids.

Hopefully it gets there.


  1. Something that keeps occurring to me throughout this whole thing is my personal list of favorite D&D modules of all time. About a third are TSR modules, about a third are Judges Guild modules, and about a third are OSR modules. And these two specifically are on the list:

    Bottle City by Rob Kuntz
    Death Frost Doom by James Raggi

  2. Good lucid post that cuts straight to the core of the issue. Well done. I hope this article gets cross posted everywhere so that people can get back to earth on this whole thing.

  3. I think there has been a huge misunderstanding about what James intended with his post "Are YOU part of the OSR". I really think that his main point was that there shouldn't be any ideology about the OSR. His point was more to say that the OSR should not exclude people based on some obscure beliefs, but that anyone playing or publishing in the "old style" games should be included in it regardless of their opinions, political orientations or culinary habits.

    Written coomunication is always tricky. Several people reading the same text will end up with different understanding.

  4. " It takes a certain level of ego, if not narcissism, to stand up on a soapbox uninvited and say “Here I am. Hear what I have to say!” "

    And it also requires a healthy dose of confidence to stand up to criticism, but you still have to be able to recognize an idea as not just better than your idea, but one just as equally valid.

    This happens alot in the collabrative patronage projects I run. You have to have an ego to be a game designer, but you also must be humble in your glory :)

    Steve Russell
    Rite Publishing

  5. Corentin said...
    I think there has been a huge misunderstanding about what James intended with his post "Are YOU part of the OSR"

    What MR. Raggi actually meant, isn't convenient. Some folks wanted a Paper Tiger to fight, so they're inventing one. The fact that they're insulting a whole bunch of people in the process, is apparently, irrelevant.

  6. "...and more to the point, who ARE doing something to grow the hobby."

    The implication of course being that ONLY the elite members of the OSR are spreading the good word and growing the hobby, which is of course a load of crap.

    Joe and Matt Finch have by far posted the most reasonable and lucid responses to the latest tempest. Basically, acknowledging the effect the OSR has had on the hobby but not inflating it to unheard of and unsupported legendary status.

    Along with Joe I simply don't understand the "either/or" mindset that comes over some hobbyists like a blood red tide. Like Joe I blame groupthink for a lot of it, as the responses I see are rarely insightful but pure dogma promoting a favored point of view.

  7. "As to the OSR: I don't like revisionist history and dogma. I do see some of that, and it grows as the OSR grows."

    Um, who is spouting 'revisionist history' and 'dogma'? If you do indeed see these things (and aren't simply imagining them, which I suspect is the case), then it would be helpful to everyone concerned if you could provide some references -- i.e., specific instances of 'revisionist history' and/or 'dogma', as well as an explanation of how such instances are representative of the 'OSR'.

    Good luck with that!

  8. As longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer observed,

    “every great movement begins as a cause,
    eventually becomes a business,
    then degenerates into a racket.”


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