Thursday 6 June 2019

Post-OSR Adventure Gaming with the Interactionist Set

So Zak fell, and G+ died, and people seem to have scattered and sorted. It's time to reflect on the adventure gaming movement known as "OSR" now that at least one heir contender to the title has popped up (see also this).

I have been following this movement for 9 years, both in the sense of interest and in the sense of dedication. But it took the splitup to see the fault lines that had always been there. Here's my analysis.

In the first place, the OSR was a reaction against 30 years of D&D development. Technically you could care about other games and be OSR, but in practice D&D was the big kahuna, the starting point for so many people's experiences, the touchstone often returned to, the market-share leader to watch.

Starting in 2008 or so with the release of 4th edition, people started to chafe at it it. And then in a kind of dance of the veils, they stripped away the previous layers of development, questioning each edition back to the Original books.

Fourth Edition: Away with the carefully balanced tactical game with roleplaying cut scenes, the blurring of class abilities.

Third Edition:  Away with the unified mechanic, the scaling treadmill, the bewildering character options and optimization, the rules that cover every circumstance in talmudic detail.

Second Edition: Away with even the tamest instances of all-class skill rolls, the slight tweaks to character kits and class specialization. (This was an easy veil to strip off, very lightweight.)

AD&D: Away with the late-era developments of plotlined modules, the crufty mechanics that nobody used anyway, the fancy spells and character classes.

Not everybody took that last step, but most of the "old school" took as role models either Original D&D or the Basic offshoot. But why? If game design is progress, why go backwards?

The different answers to this question, in hindsight, can reveal the eventual fractures in the movement.
  • Because nostalgia. Some people (concentrated in places like Dragonsfoot, Grognardia, and Knights & Knaves) just wanted to experience, or re-experience, the old rules, the old adventure tropes and clichés. Where they had an intellectual position, it was cultural conservatism -- the wisdom of the ages may seem irrational, but there is probably a good reason for it, and we should really strive hard to find the hidden brightside of things like descending AC or racial level limits. That position always struck me as silly. We are talking about game rules that aren't even 50 years old and have never gone a single human generation without substantial and multiple revisions. It's like going all-out G. K. Chesterton in defense of the original box design for Corn Flakes.
  • Because idiosyncrasy. Some people (most egregiously, Alexis of the Tao of D&D) wanted to strip the old mechanics back down to their roots in order to build their own layer of heartbreaker complication from the ground up. That impulse itself is very old-school, rooted in the hoary traditions of Arduin, Arms Law, and dozens of other bolt-ons. Implicitly, this: "Increasing simulationist complication and character options isn't a bad thing, but I'd rather just have them my way, thank you."
  • Because edginess. Some people (for example Raggi, McKinney) realized that stripping away the history of D&D also meant rolling back the layers of accommodation to prevailing social tastes: squeamishness over Satanism in the 80's and 90's, egalitarianism in gender and otherwise, but most importantly the "nice" style of gaming in which characters started with a lot already invested and it was hard to get killed for good. This left room to embrace all kinds of pulp-magazine nastiness: rape, slaves, body horror, morally blurred characters, meaningless character death, "nega-dungeon" effects that wreck the whole campaign world.
  • Because interaction. The most esoteric development, but also the one I find most appealing, was to realize that after stripping away all the conventions of play, you are left with a space beyond rules, traditions, and railroads. You are free to emphasize creative improvisation, interaction between GM and players, and to design situations and systems that make the most of this. Philotomy's Musings and Finch's Primer, for example, put this forth as a play aesthetic, but there are also those who have made it into a design aesthetic -- often known as the "artpunk" or "DIY" movement.  
I don't think too many people saw this at the time, but this Interactionist school was actually a fourth goal, not covered by Ron Edwards' Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist scheme that dominated discussion about RPGs in the 2000 decade. Significantly, it is the Interactionist perspective that has made it into the DNA of D&D's fifth edition, rather than anything else that Zak or Pundit could have given it as consultants. The game now realizes that exploration and social interaction are co-equal pillars with combat; that the rules should be loose enough for GMs to improvise mechanics; that players have a hand in building the setting.

But while today's D&D has Interactionist DNA, it is not a fully interactionist game, and certainly the official adventure material looks staidly conventional when compared to artpunk's open play and creative flourishes. At its best the DIY movement has given us: Borgesian monsters posing problems that go beyond combat; weird magic systems with flavor and creative effects; adventures that map out strange societies and oddball challenges.

Can we really still call it "Old School" or is it more like a "Never-Was" school? Certainly if anyone back in the 80's was playing or writing like this, I never heard about them. As the antithesis of nostalgia, Interactionist gaming uses the blank space around the stripping-down of the World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game to fill with its own peculiar objectives and ideas. That's what I like the best; that's my banner, right there.


  1. OSR, n.: people playing games the way they think they should have been playing them back in 1981.

  2. First off, I hate the idea of using the "M" word. Movement somehow implies a direction and a leadership, which is something I never saw. I always saw OSR as a theme to a bunch of bloggers who went back to the roots for their gaming.

    Too that I wanted to add a nuance not often mentioned in the "nostalgia" faction. While some of those wanted to "find the hidden brightside" of bad old design decisions (something which I always considered moronic, as lot of gygaxisms is just bad design, IMNSHO), there was also the attempts to try to understand why people played like they did back in the day. That kind of gaming archaeology I felt was quite valuable. Sadly, it seems like so much of those attempts to understand our history have drowned in retro clones...

    Well, well. That was me sounding like a bitter old man. Liked your post a lot.

    1. Sometimes rules are just picked up on authority without really cosigning their underlying logic - especially when young folks play. As with "maladaptations" in evolution, such features can linger on in the DNA of an otherwise overall successful species.

  3. Great essay. I think I probably qualify as someone whose writing has focused on the "interactionist" side of the game. I would add that I think there is still a ton of work to be done thinking through the procedures and role of decision-making and deliberation at the table. I think this work could serve as the basis of a continuing vital program of development coming out of the OSR movement if people were looking for problems to solve or expand on.

    Heads up, the link to "Borgesian monsters" is identical to the link to "weird magic systems" though it seems like they're meant to link to different places.

    1. Yep, fixed the link. It was Wonder & Wickedness.

  4. As one who probably best fits into your "nostalgia" category (though, like most people, I could easily be described by any of these monikers) I more than quibble with the sentiments equated with "Because nostalgia." Yes, I got nostalgic when Gygax died, and I did go back to my D&D library to remember how much Gygax meant to my youth; however, the reason I went back to 0e, Holmes and B/X was not nostalgia. I realized that though these rulesets were the entry point for many into the hobby, I never actually played them. Out of curiosity, I and others began to do a kind of archeological dig into the rules with the knowledge that these rules, at least at one time, did work. So, we began to try and figure these things out through actual play. The wonderful thing about the experience is that what looks ugly on the page (race-as-class, universal damage dice, initiative based on Dex) works really well in practice. There are some really good ideas left behind and forgotten by later editions that are really fun to use in play. I think a more accurate (and respectful) title might be Because history.

    1. Thanks for the perspective; it's good to hear from you after many years and hear about your experience.

      My POV on historical gaming is that a lot of not quite optimal things were allowed to survive in the early days because the whole experience was so heady. As people got jaded and used to dungeon delving, they got more picky about what was fun. But it can be useful to try to find the best intention in every rule. The ones you cite, certainly, I have no quarrel with.

  5. Interesting take, you define Intersectionalist as distinct from Narrativist. PbtA and Fate would fit that definition too, which would cause no end of angst with certain OSR partisans. I like it.

    1. Except to the extent that PbtA encodes narrative "moves" in its mechanics, I'd agree. Simple or not, systems that try to impose tropes from above rather than having them emerge from below are straight up N in my book.

  6. I was never part of the Old School but I am drawn to OSR games and methodologies because of my "Interactionist" nature. I think this is where I fit in the spectrum. Thanks for the enlightening post!

  7. I think the separation of what you (disparagingly?) call "Nostalgia" and (approvingly?) call "Interactionist" is untenable, if I understand your distinctions correctly. The creative freedoms you describe as interactionist are the inherent principles built into the OD&D system. To be a "nostalgia" player is to be an interactionist and likewise, you can't be an interactionist without swimming deeply in the tradition of the game, knowingly or not. I really don't see a point of separation here within the general old school genre.

  8. I dispute your syllogism. I feel "nostalgia" is a sentimental longing and wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations, where as "interactionist" is a person who favors reciprical communication and direct involvement with someone or something.

    "Nostalgia" tends to ignore that OD&D barely covered the issues involved, offered no substantial guidelines or definite boundaries, mostly because the original writers had no idea what those boundaries might be due to so little active experience, having been invested in the game for only four or five years as they were writing.

    We've had 40 years now to rethink their proposals and, in my opinion, there are BETTER ways to manage communication and direct involvement over the vague, indistinct and amateurish efforts provided in the original texts. You may disagree, but that would be your "nostalgia" talking, and not an opinion based on factual evidence or proper consideration of post OD&D circumstances and development.