It’s already two months late, but everyone else seems to have missed it too. The first printings of the Basic and Expert rules by Tom Moldvay and David Cook were done all the way back in January 1981.
And what a game they made!
After I started playing D&D when 3rd edition came out, I went for many years before I ever even heard of something that was occasionally mumbled about in the background called B/X or BECMI. And it completely stayed under my radar until six years ago when I took my first actual look at it, having it filed away as “that D&D light version where elf is a class”.
From the way that I remember it, the oldschool revival seemed to have started very much as an AD&D thing (though Basic Fantasy was actually the first retroclone) and that was a game I had tried getting into but bounced off very hard. But in the later years, when the return to older games morphed more into a forward evolution of those old concepts, B/X really seems to have established itself as the primary focus and reference point for oldschool roleplaying. Hard to say how things will be in another 40 years, but I am quite confident that this game will be staying with us for a long time to come.
After I had my initial idea that Night City with its districts and gangs could be an interesting setting for an alternative Blades in the Dark game, I soon decided that I’d actually rather run something more along the lines of Apocalypse World. Blades’ system of fighting for turf really only makes sense if you want to play aspiring crime bosses, but doesn’t fit for parties who simply want to secure their neighborhood or megabuilding. Apocalypse World is in many ways based around the idea of the players establishing themselves as a powerful force in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, even though it doesn’t say so outright, which I think is a better approach for up and coming lowlifes in a cyberpunk city.
And after several days of fiddling around with Apocalypse World to replace the psychic powers with a hacking system, I discovered that someone else had already done something similar many years ago, and turned it into a full game and a proper book.
If you are familiar with Apocalypse World, then The Sprawl immediately shows that it’s a very close descendant. There are of course many different games that use the underlying dice mechanic and principles of Apocalypse World, but this game is much closer to the first game that started it all than for example Dungeon World or Blades in the Dark. The Sprawl is the first other game I’ve seen that retains most of the basic moves from Apocalypse World mostly as they are. The names have been changed to a style that (the author assumes) have a more cyberpunk feel, but you still have the Go Aggro and Seize by Force moves that make conflict scenes in Apocalypse World so unique. The playbooks for different character types are all completely different from those in Apocalypse World, and while I think the Hardholder and Chopper could have been really fun in a cyberpunk setting, the ten playbooks of The Sprawl really cover all the character archetypes you could ask for in a cyberpunk game very well.
The Sprawl seems to be particularly well suited for a game set in Night City and I’ve seen people even describe it as an unofficial PtbA version of Cyberpunk 2020. The names are different, but it does have playbooks to play a Ripperdock, Media, or even Rockerboy. I looked at the new Cyberpunk Red once and was immediately “yeah, no thanks”. Even though I find the setting quite compelling (as genetic cyberpunk as it is), I really am way past the point where I want to deal with a four page flowchart to get all my little +1s here and +2s there. Those things don’t help getting invested in the story and spontaneous going with the flow of a chaotic action scene. They do the opposite. PtbA rules really are the way to go for the kinds of games that I actually have an interest to run.
Unfortunately, The Sprawl suffers from the same problem that almost all PtbA games seem to have. The bad example set by Apocalypse World that has been slavishly copied by anyone else. The game attempts to make the rules filled with style by using elaborate slang everywhere it can when a normal, self-explaining word would have done the job. I don’t know why the mechanic for hoping that an ambulance reaches you before you die is called “Acquire Agricultural Property”. Apparently it’s a joke on “Buying the Farm”, but I am a German fluent in English. I don’t know what that expressions means either, or what it has to do with dying. How am I supposed to explain this rules to players who are just as clueless? It’s only the most annoying example, but the issue is persistent throughout the whole book. Which, when you are trying to explain a very unconventional game system that is completely different from mainstream games, is bad!
One thing that I’ve seen people criticize rightfully is that The Sprawl presents a system for doing jobs for hire and does it in a way that implies that all the game will ever be is “Mister Johnson of the Week”. Get a job, prepare for the job, do the job, get paid for the job. And repeat until everyone gets too bored to continue. That seems like a good system for a couple of casual one-shots, but not for an ongoing campaign. But the mechanics as written actually work for a much wider scope than this. Since the real currency in The Sprawl is not money but reputation, there’s nothing stopping the PCs from giving them “jobs” themselves, or doing something for others for free. And almost all roleplaying adventures in any genres consist of an initial investigation followed by an infiltration. Looking for a friend who’s been having trouble with a gang really is no different from being hired to look for someone else’s friend who’s been having trouble with a gang. The PCs still pull of the same heroic and leave behind the same chaos in their wake, so their street cred should be affected the same way too. Calling the first and last phases of the cycle “get the job” and “get paid” creates the false illusion that it’s really about the exchange of currency. Which it is not. I think that The Sprawl is actually much more versatile than it Mission Structure falsely implies. Because as I said, even in a sandbox campaign, you always have the same cycle of establishing what the PCs want to do, preparing for it, doing it, and then raking in the spoils. To run The Sprawl as an open-world sandbox, one does not really need to make any changes to the rules. All it takes is a more open approach of what fiction the mechanics can represent. It only happens rarely, but The Sprawl is one of the very few games that I read and want to run as they written, without immediately having a number of house rules in mind before I’ve reached the end.
Well, this is a bit akward. But it has been bothering me for quite a while.
I was just browsing through Old School RPG Planet (which is a great thing to have again) and ended up at Beyond Google Plus, and Fixing the Internet, which Melan wrote back in october when the Google Plus shutdown was announced. Good points are being made, and I fully share the distaste for Google and Facebook (and also Apple) permanently trying to monopolize internet communication for the sole purpose of making money by tracing as much of our activities as possible.
I would have liked to just give that old post a simple “Yeah, you’re right!” to give my appreciation, but I ran into my old bane again that has constantly been getting in my way for the last half year or so. When you click on “Select profile…”, there is only one option to pick from:
No! If my only choices are to use a Google Account or don’t comment, then I don’t comment. I think in this day and age, I don’t even have to explain why. We all know very well what Google wants and Google does. It didn’t used to be that way, with Google Account just being one options among many on almost all sites. But at some point, I believe last year, the majority of blogspot sites seemed to have all other options removed at the same time. I kind of suspect that Google made that change quietly for all users and you now have to opt-in to allow people to comment in any other ways.
I think comments are a very neat feature and a great thing to have, since we are really interested in sharing ideas and not just shouting into the void. But there is only so much I am willing to give to Google by choice, and somewhere you have to draw the line. And I think I am not the only one who does. So if you are using blogspot, please check if your comments are restricted to Google Accounts and consider whether you want to enable other options. If you don’t want to, that’s your choice, but given that this changed happened so suddenly everywhere at once, I believe that most people don’t even know the settings were changed without their knowledge.
Years ago there where two sites that listed all the recent posts of private RPG websites. Both have disappeared a while back, as far as I know, but Alex Schroeder has now created a new one, in reaction to Google Plus closing.
As someone who never used Google Plus (because I try to limit my interactions with tech megacorps to the bare minimum of Youtube and Android), I’m actually quite happy to see that people have started posting a lot more in recent weeks.
The new aggregator is called Old School RPG Planet, and I am not in it. Yet. The description says that “The Old School RPG Planet is for Old School Renaissance (OSR) or Do It Yourself (DIY) bloggers.” I feel that I am sufficiently do it yourself to qualify and it does say “OSR or DIY”, so after some consideration I send Alex a mail to add me.
But I still hesitated because it says “Old School RPG”. Am I sufficently oldschool to qualify as oldschool? One the one hand, I recently started to appreciate D&D 5th edition and am right now working very energetically on setting up a campaign. I think, by definition, WotC games can not be oldschool games. But on the other hand, my style is all about unscripted wilderness adventures, random encounters, resource management, and interactivity, and I am hugely into both 30s and 80s Sword & Sorcery. And isn’t that what oldschool has always been really about? Before the Gygaxian orthodoxy?
I was just peeking in again at Dragonsfoot, and unexpectedly, though it really shouldn’t have surprised me, I almost immediately came upon onother recent discussion of “What is OSR?” And my first reaction was “probably better not click at it, it’s almost certainly just more bickering and doom mongering about the state of western society”. This is the point where we are now. Where I think we’ve been for quite a while now. And I very much doubt that I am in a small minority of people having this reaction. I did end up looking into that thread and yes it was primarily about bitching about the collapse of western society. I didn’t read very far, but there were some intitial points raised that made me come to a conclusion about the various feelings I’ve had on the subject.
OSR has been over for a couple of years now. It’s not dead, it’s been concluded.
From how I experienced it, that thing that later became known as OSR began in the mid 2000s when the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons kept bloating and bloating until it was eventually discontinued and the plans for the new 4th Edition were increasingly looking like a drastic departure from all that had come before. And for a lot of people, that was the point where they said “I’m no longer wishing to keep up with current developments. I’m just going back to play the game the way I had enjoyed the most and stick with that.” OSRIC had actually been out since 2006, two years before 4th Edition. But I think the end of 3rd Edition really was the point where a lot of people paused to reflect about whether they wanted to hop onto this new thing or stick with their current thing, or perhaps even go back to an older thing.
And I think it is this reflection that really was this thing that went on to become known as OSR. Old School Reflections? It wasn’t just people thiking to themselves with which game edtion they had the most fun, but engaging in a wider conversation on why they feel they had more fun through the medium of blogspot sites. It was a period in which people dug into old rulebooks to critically analyze the mechanics and advice given in them, and exchange their experience with other GMs who were doing the same. Many things that had been discarded and dismissed as silly where quite literally rediscovered, and with the great wealth of experiences that had been gathered over the decades could now actually be much better understood. Old School Research?
The thing with research of this kind is that you often make lots of easy big discoveries early on, some more difficult discoveries later, and after that only very rarely minor and obscure discoveries of little impact to the bigger field. And I think this is exactly what we’ve been seeing here. All the really big and exciting stuff in OSR happened between about 2008 and 2010. Then the ocasional neat new idea up to maybe 2014, but since then I don’t think anyone has been making any new major contributions to the field. The Rennaisance had reached its end, it’s work been done.
It’s not like all of it went up in smoke and feded into the wind. I would argue the opposite. Of course, it seems quite ridiculous to say that the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is an OSR game. It really isn’t. But it is also very hard to deny that during the creation of this new game, the creators did draw significantly from this knowledge reintroduced into the sphere of fantasy adventure games by the old school revivalists. Not everything has been widely embraced, some things remain the domain of fringe enthusiasts. But the creative and intelectual space of roleplaying games today is fully suffused by ideas that came out of this period of reflections about what made early RPGs tick. If the term Old School Rennaisance makes any sense, then this is what it’s really about.
This does leave us with this somewhat strange position in which we are finding us today. Today, when something gets labled as OSR, it really is an “Old School Roleplaying Game”, which is “D&D Editions released by TSR”. It is a group of games, one among many other options that groups can chose from. But I think many people are fondly remembering the creative movement from a decade ago and are still somewhat under the impression that the two are still the same thing. And when there is nothing really left to discover or create, the only thing left to “the movement” is an endless cycle of self-reflection. Which is a conversation lots of people see little appeal in, which in turn provides much more space and attention for people who relish bickering. There probably has always been bickering, but with the intelectual and creative conversation having been concluded, that little bickering is now the only thing that is still going on.
Looking at my archive of posts, I stoppded using the OSR tag in mid 2017, almost two years ago now. It’s not that I no longer care about reaction rolls and morale checks, random encounters, encumbrance, noncombat-XP, and monsters that are safer to circumnavigate then to fight. I still love them, and I discovered their value from the great ongoing conversation about older RPGs. But all the things I am doing and writing now don’t feel to me like contributions to this discussion. A discussion that has concluded.
When the Basic Rules pdf for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was released, I was not impressed by it. I had had high hopes for it when the playtests started, but it didn’t turn out as the game I was hoping it to be and I lost most interest in it. What I had been looking for at that time was an improved version of the ancient Basic/Expert rules, or at the very least a polished version of AD&D. Which is not what this game is. I was not impressed.
But now I find myself in a rather different position. As my apprenticeship, and accordingly my current living arangements, are coming to an end in a months, the stars will be right to get my new campaign off the ground. I created the setting deliberately avoiding making it a D&D world, inhabited by D&D races and D&D monsters, with the D&D classes making up the ranks of influential figures, and societies being build around the presence of D&D spells. I wanted it to be something that has its own identity first and gets rules applied to it later. I envisoned something very much like Dark Sun, which technically is AD&D, but with some tweaks to races and classes and serious reflavoring turned out into something distinctively different from Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Dragonlance.
For the last week I have been playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate, the game that first introduced me to not just Dungeons & Dragons, but also RPGs, and made me see that fantasy is more than just The Lord of the Rings. And it got me interested in running D&D again. I had briefly flirted with Dungeon World, but that game is neither D&D, nor Apocalypse World; something less than the sum of its parts. I got excited again for actual D&D, with classes and levels. Which for me meant B/X. The game much simpler than 3rd Edition and much less messy than AD&D. But when talking with people with a general interest in playing a campaign in the forseeable future, I got to consider the possibility that there might be an overwhelming popular demand to play 5th Edition again. And I wanted to check if this is a game that I could be persuaded with sufficient force to run, or something that I would fight against with my dying breath.
This time I sat down with the actual Player’s Handbook. Not just the Basic Rules or the SRD with their limited coverage of all the class specializations. And as it turned out, it really has quite a bit to offer for a Green Sun campaign. While talking about systems, the conversation came to the big problems that made me regard 3rd Edition and Pathfinder as completely unplayable by now: Ever growing gaps between modifiers as levels go up, way too many small situational modifiers to remember during combat, skill points and feats slowing down character creation and especially creating NPCs and monsters, and spell slot preparation. And all of these have been adressed, quite successfully, in 5th Edition. The proficiency bonus and fixed saving throws keep modifiers from escalating, the advantage mechanic takes care of most situational modifiers, and skill points are gone and feats are much rarer and optional. Spell slots are still called spell slots, but they are actually a kind of spell points now. Regarding the mechanics, this is a game I can definitely run without any pain.
When it comes to character races and classes, I am still feeling somewhat ambiguous. Humans getting +1 to all ability scores still feels very wrong. Rogues getting 1d8 hit points per level still feels too much. Superiority Dice and Ki Points let characters do nonmagical things only a limited amount of times per day. And other things like that. But with some I can live, and when adapting the system to the setting, I am going to have to limit the options of classes and specializations anyway.
The first thing that really draw me to the system is the bard. Because I soon realized that the bard makes for an awesome shaman. If you say that the character does not use inspiring music but chants to the spirits for blessings and protection, you got yourself a solid shaman. The class has access to all the basic healing spells and the enchantments and illusions can be treated as spirits messing with the targets’ minds and perception. There are a few cleric and druid spells that would round out the spell list very nicely, but even with just the default bard spells, you can have a campaign setting that has only bards but no clrics, druids, and paladins.
That already had me intrigued, but what really got me excited was the warlock.
The warlock is just the thing that I need to represent the sorcerers of the Green Sun setting. The Fiery Spirits of the Realm Below from which the Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend gain their powers are perfectly matched by The Fiend. The Sorcerer Queen of Halva is an Archfey. And the Old One is just what the Dark Spirits of the Realm Beyond are meant to be. The warlock is a class that to my Baldur’s Gate defined sensibilities has always been inappropriate and out of place. But this is different now. I don’t want to run 90’s Forgotten Realms. I want to run Green Sun. And shaman bards and warlocks fit it perfectly.
Here is my current idea how the campaign in D&D 5th Edition could look like:
E10 style world: Without unlimited feats, actual E10 makes no sense, but both PCs and NPCs are capped at 10th level. Spells of 6th level or higher do not exist, though they might still appear as monster abilities.
Coming home from work today, I did my daily browsing through my list of RPG links to check for anything new. (RSS is witchcraft.) And turns out today is another one of those days where some people are expressing their unhappiness about their own RPG related reading including confrontational things about non-RPG-related things written by certain other people. Certain people who are being a dick about their hateful right wing views, and certain people who are being a dick about their hateful left wing views. Some of who really seem to enjoy ticking people off and getting the attention that comes with it. If you’re reading this, you probably know exactly which people I am thinking off. And if you don’t know who they are, then I won’t be naming them because they don’t need any more special attention.
This time, apparently someone posted something on twitter, and someone else made a public statement that he does no longer collaborate with him on RPG material because of that. And now someone else is writing on his RPG site that he also doesn’t like what the first person did, but also doesn’t approve of the second person publically reacting like that. And another someone wrote on his RPG site that he doesn’t want to read RPG related content for a while now because he always gets stuff like this in his RPG reading and it’s really annoying him. To which he got a comment that “at least” he’s “not as much of a prick about it” as some other guy who quit completely some months back. (And it’s all guys. The only two women I know in non-professional RPG writing appear to wisely keep their distance from all this.)
That’s the news from today from a wide circle of RPG-related colaborations and internet discussions that at some point became categorised as OSR. Or rather “the OSR”. But this isn’t new. Nothing about this is new. As far as I can think back, it has always been that way. Since the very first days when I became aware that there is such “a thing”, the most creative and prolific creators were already very controversial and divisive figures. Unfortunately, because some of them create really amazing stuff that is consistently ranked among the best, but always comes with a sour taste because you feel uncomfortable with giving them any money.
Two months ago, Patrick Stuart wrote about his experiences with colaborating on RPG books, which includes such lessons as “10. The scene is dominated by large personalities who all have massive flaws. Never be in a situation where you *need* someone, including me.” And I couldn’t help to immediately think that I know which past colaboration he is refering two. And I feel kind of bad for doing so, not actually having met those people or having had a conversation with them.
Now being a red-blooded idealist with the heart on the left side with very firm opinions about labor and gender rights, I completely buy into this “everything is political” thing. It’s true, progress starts at home and you educate best by example. When injustice happens in your presence, you have some obligation to speak up. But there are limits to that. If I feel that one of my colaborators is voicing believes that I find appaling and I feel uncomfortable about being associated with that person anymore, I consider it legitimate to publically state that you do so. It concerns you personally and you want to let others know what you actually think about a subject instead of people making assumptions about you based on people you get associated with. But when then other peoply try to join in who have no personal involvement at all, things are getting out of hand. Which is why I’m not naming any names here, even though I think lots of people have at least a guess who I am referring to or read the posts that I read today. But as I said, I have no personal involvement in any of that.
Now the actual topic here is the question of why plenty of people seem to feel that these things do involve them personally and they need to speak up about an injustice that happens in their presence. And that reason is “the OSR”. The idea that there is a confined group of people with a shared identity in which they are all equally engaged. Since I am part of “the OSR”, everything that happens in “the OSR” also concerns my personally. But I don’t see that. There isn’t one community. Instead there is just a huge mass of overlapping personal circles, to get all pseudo-sociological here. Two people enjoying the rules systems of Dungeons & Dragons from the 70s does not give them any kind of relationship. Even two people producing content based on these don’t have any relationship because of this. Now many of these creators do. Many engage with each other in extended discussions or personally colaborate on the creation of new content. But that’s again just their own personal circle. It does not involve any of us other bystanders, even if we have read and used some of their content. It’s when people assume that things that are happening in other circles are happening on their own turf that we get these childish bickerings. It’s neither news nor ongoing debate. It’s gossip. And I feel safe leaning out the window and making the claim that most of use are just anoyed by all of it. And by “us”, I just mean “we people who enjoy reading material related to the rules systems of Dungeons & Dragons from the 70s”. Which is all that OSR ever was.
I was just wondering what has happened to the Witcher RPG and whether it is still in production. And it turns out to have finally been released after huge delays last friday.
The first print run was sold at GenCon and there’s probably a proper print release very soon. Meanwhile the pdf is already available for 22€ and runs at a total of 336 pages. According to the content table, the book is 158 pages of rules, 32 pages of setting information, 26 pages of GM information, and 48 pages of creatures and enemies, with the rest being a couple of other things.
Still have to properly read it, but I hope that even with 51 pages of character creation and 30 pages of combat rules it’s still actually playable.