Sunday, February 19, 2023

The OSR as Afternoon Culture

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

- M. John Harrison, The Pastel City

Probably about a minute after it began, the first proclamation that the OSR was "dying," or that it was already "dead," was posted to the internet. I've seen an upswing in chatter about the Death of the OSR lately, but in my view it lives on as long as someone out there is hammering B/X into a pleasing shape. 

Every attempt to pinpoint the OSR's date of death is asking the wrong question. Instead, I think it's more useful to ask "How has the OSR changed?" or perhaps even "How is it continuing to change?" 

What follows is my answer to the first of those question based on my remembrances and limited perspective. I was there for a good deal of what people think of as the height of the OSR on Google+, though I have no idea if it really qualifies as a height or not--better days could be on the horizon, for all I know. 

That "for all I know" is something I want you to keep in mind as you read what follows because there came a point where the OSR's online culture became antithetical to what I'm interested in; after that point I was merely a spectator, despite my earlier work in that vein.

I still continue to write for the occasional OSR or OSR-ish project. You can find my name in issues of KNOCK!, the Book of Gaub, Deluge, etc., if you feel the need to check my credentials. Nevertheless, I want to stress that I am not an expert on the OSR, I do not see myself as a central figure, and I am decidedly not a historian of old-school gaming. What follows is how I saw things and how I remember them. If you disagree with what I have to say, well, I'm fine with that. None of this really matters much in the grand scheme of things. Remember, Elfgames: Not Serious.

The Appeal of the Free-Wheeling Era

When I first stumbled upon the OSR, there were two things that made it appealing to me. First, the effort to keep older D&D rulesets available and in-print through games such as Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC felt like true labors of love. In comparison to modern retroclones, those games often featured clunky writing, amateurish art, and nightmarish internal organization, but their deficits were made up for by serving a purpose in an era where official, easily accessible pdfs of B/X and AD&D did not yet exist, so it would be childish to find fault with them--especially since they all had free versions that anyone could get ahold of as needed. A flawed version of a game you like is preferrable to 4e D&D or Pathfinder if you were one of the many people who didn't find much to love in those newer games.

Second, people were building on the free retroclone rulesets and, more importantly, they were often sharing the fruits of their imaginations for free! There were blog posts with new monsters and spells, pdfs of full dungeons and settings, and collaborative projects that came into existence simply because people enjoyed the act of creating together within their shared hobby. 

The uniting thread of the above two items was this: anyone could get in on it. There was no barrier to entry besides having a fun idea and following through on it. Those two elements, and the free-wheeling culture it enabled, persisted for a while, but a change just visible on the horizon altered both of them.

From Projects to Products

In my view, a cultural shift began when a few publishers and creators pivoted from retroclones as free, community-centered projects to boutique products intended to seize the moment (and the dollars). To be clear, I have nothing against people getting paid for their creative work; I have several gaming products I'd like people to buy, so I'd be a hypocrite to say otherwise. 

That said, I think the pervasive move toward monetizing the DIY hobby space was a more disastrous cataclysm for the OSR than the shuttering of G+ because it fundamentally changed the culture of the scene at that time. 

Free supplements gave way to Kickstarters promising deluxe books in hardcover, with fancy paper, color art, and honest-to-god ribbon bookmarks. You can see where that led; where once OSR folks derided the full-color, expensive hardbacks published by WotC under the Dungeons & Dragons moniker, they now prized the same level of production values. 

It's common for the bigger-name OSR-derived games to now come in expensive, over-produced packaging--in some instances these games and their supplements are pricier than what WotC and Paizo produce. The difference is more aesthetic than idealisticcultural, or intentional. It's clear that these are boutique collectibles, not a revitalization of the TSR era or a strictly hobbyist approach to creation. 

This change had additional detrimental effects on the the OSR end of the G+ experience. There came a time when the push for monetization meant that your G+ feed was, more likely than not, a wall of Kickstarter announcements, pleas to back various Patreons, and sometimes outright panhandling. It felt like a community that once saw each other as united in a shared hobby now looked at each other as walking wallets to be rifled.  

Truly DIY projects didn't end during this shift, but it became more and more difficult for them to find an audience and they often weren't seen as "serious" work within the community that birthed them. For example, I remember one prominent OSR blogger announcing that he would never again buy a print-on-demand product; only books made with offset printing and "real" bindings counted, in his opinion. I can't imagine a position more contrary to the OSR's DIY origins. That kind of hipsterism always leads to a demarcation of who matters and who does not, creatively speaking. And it did. 

Egalitarian Community vs. Personality Cults

One of the biggest changes in the OSR's culture that accompanied this shift toward products-over-projects was the formation of cults of personality. The introduction of professionalization in the OSR often separated the community into creators and consumers. Certain "Big Names" became the quasi-official writers, artists, and designers in the scene; they were the ones elected to create within the OSR space, and to an extent were also the tastemakers who decided what was orthodoxy, permissible, or "true" about the scene in general.

This was not always by design or an element of malfeasance. It's absolutely true that some people simply develop a solid track record of creating great products and achieve a measure of respect and name-recognition off of that. It's also true that even in the OSR's early days there were people who jockeyed for position and generally threw their microfame around in unseemly ways. Once a constellation of would-be luminaries was established, hopefuls sycophantically positioned themselves as willing to fight various boneheaded culture wars on behalf of Big Names who had less than stellar intentions--usually in hopes of "'winning" a seat at the Star Chamber's table.

The worst offenders in this period were the people who enabled obnoxious behavior. For a group that prided itself on rejecting corporate orthodoxy, many within it were amenable to following the loudest and most abrasive voices in the room. Of course, those same enablers have largely disavowed the jerks they previously hoisted around on their shoulders, but they should have been less spineless at the time and they should be more embarrassed now by their past behavior. 

The rise of the auteur class created casualties: collaborative efforts saw a sharp decline, the always-on-offer G+ games dwindled, and the OSR fragmented into smaller niches based on loyalty to specific retroclones, publishing imprints, cliques, or "manifestos." 

(Political views would later lead to more splintering into competing tribes, but that's a post of its own that I will never write.)

The kicker is that during the monetization and professionalization period it was clear that some of the Big Names who came to prominence as content creators didn't actually play rpgs very much, if at all. That should have been a clear sign that things had changed, and not for the better.

In summary, I have no recollection of the OSR dying, but that is how I remember the OSR changing in the period before G+ closed its doors. 

The OSR Today

Are things different now from when I bowed out? It must be, things always move on. I often think the amount of free (or at least cheap) stuff on sounds like a positive development, and I can find nothing bad to say about the occasional enthusiastic creation I see coming from the trenches, but I haven't delved into it in any meaningful way in years--and I'm not likely to as my interests are now elsewhere.

I still sometimes detect the fallout of the period under discussion that continues to not be to my tastes. The focus on zines in the OSR should be extremely my shit--I love a small, cheaply printed DIY project--but many of the ones I've seen are so slick and professional that they don't really count as zines under my personal definition. (If you are hiring a graphic designer to make your zine you are not actually making a zine, in my opinion. Please note that my opinion carries zero weight.)

When I look at the names of people currently working in the OSR space, I don't recognize most of them. That's probably both a good and a bad thing. I hope they're having fun. I hope they're actually playing games with their friends; that's the stuff that really matters. I also hope they've learned to avoid the pitfalls from the period I've been talking about in this post.

All of this to say: I don't know where things stand currently.

But is the OSR dead? No, I suspect someone is cross-hatching their dungeon map right now as I type this final line.