Signs of practice

Newcomers are the primary beneficiaries of organizing labels, which make sense of as yet unmapped territory1. It is possible to take a scenic route to the same semantic destination by reciting minor arcana: resource depletion, lethality, creative problem solving, exploration-focused play, location-based design, and so forth. However, doing so is a cumbersome and awkward method of evocation, perhaps occasionally justified by greater precision, but suboptimal for widespread comprehension.

I run mostly old school rules. That is, I draw from a school of thought based primarily in the original 1974 D&D and Moldvay’s 1981 Basic D&D. I participate in a renaissance. That is, the explosion of creation2 and discussion3 informed by old school gaming traditions. This continues, at a constant or accelerating rate.

So, there was and is a renaissance of tabletop roleplaying games with old school genealogy. What is in a label? Without a label to organize and bind the concepts in these traditions together, it is unlikely that playing tabletop RPGs would be on my radar at all at this point in my life. I got into gaming back in 2011 only because a coworker invited me to a fourth edition D&D game, and that led me to OSR conversations online. If all I experienced then was mainstream fourth edition D&D, I doubt I would have persisted.

Rather than helping a marginalized group or suffering individual, polarization4 weaponizes substantive political concerns to sow divisions and play status games, sometimes to bolster egos, sometimes to build name recognition in service of selling products. I am not the neighborhood watch, or, even worse, an officer of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. But my conversations, are, I think, pretty chill.

I choose to focus on similarities rather than differences. I choose to ignore the changelings, those malevolent intelligences consciously or unconsciously adapted to coopting your attention, generating social reinforcement, and harnessing your emotion. That is my perspective. I doubt it will change any time soon.

1. Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Principia Apocrypha

2. An incomplete and idiosyncratic list in approximately reverse chronological order: Blasphemous Roster, Mothership, Dead Planet, Echoes From Fomalhaut #1, Echoes From Fomalhaut #2, Thousand Thousand Islands, Frostbitten and Mutilated, Through Ultan’s Door #1, B/X Essentials: Classes and Equipment, Krevborna, B/X Essentials: Cleric and Magic-User Spells, Kidnap the Archpriest, Operation Unfathomable, Gardens of Ynn, Megadungeon #3, Epochrypha, Eldritch Cock, B/X Essentials: Monsters, Faux Pas, The Dolorous Stroke, Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom, Knave, B/X Essentials: Adventures and Treasures, Witchburner, The Stygian Library, What Ho Frog Demons, Umberwell, XQ1 The Castle that Fell from the Sky, Ultraviolet Grasslands free extended intro, Field Guide to Hot Springs Island, Dark of Hot Springs Island, Veins of the Earth, Hyqueous Vaults, Tomb of the Serpent King, Macchiato Monsters ZERO, Mageblade! Zero, Marvels & Malisons, Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow, B/X Essentials: Core Rules, Dungeon Full of Monsters, Fever Swamp, Nameless Grimoire, Megadungeon #1, Maze of the Blue Medusa, Broodmother Skyfortress, A Market in the Woods, World of the Lost, Black Hack, Misty Isles of the Eld, Perdition, Nightmares Underneath, Maze Rats, Hubris, Do Not Let Us Die In the Dark Night of This Cold Winter, Comes the Mountain, Black Sun Deathcrawl, Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Yoon-Suin, Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Hearth of Hell, Into the Odd, Lusus Naturae, Castle Gargantua, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, Wizard-Spawned Insanities, Perilous Wilds, Wormskin, Troika, Dread Machine, Along the Road of Tombs, Wreck of the Anubis, Lone Colossus of the Akolouthos Sink, Cthonic Codex, Vacant Ritual Assembly, Warband, No Salvation For Witches, Red and Pleasant Land, Excellent Travelling Volume, Adventure Fantasy Game, Terrors of the Ancient World, Dungeon Dozen, An Illustrated Bestiary of Fantastic Creatures, Deep Carbon Observatory, Undercroft, Sleeping Palace of the Feathered Swine, Servants of the Cinder Queen, Barrowmaze Complete, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Goblin Punch Book of Tigers, Pergamino Barocco, Hexenbracken, Teratic Tome, Hulks & Horrors, Beyond the Wall, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Rules & Magic, On the NPC, Better Than Any Man, Seclusium of Orphone, Evil Wizards in a Cave, Pits & Perils, Space-Age Sorcery, Corpathium, Prison of the Hated Pretender, Tempus Gelidum, Obelisk of Forgotten Memories, Red Demon, DCC RPG, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Dungeon Module ASE2-3: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Hamsterish Hoard of Monsters, Other Dust, Rappan Athuk, Grimmsgate, Barrowmaze, Theorems and Thaumaturgy, Tales of the Dungeonesque and Grotesque, “An Echo Resounding”, Dwarf-Land, Small But Vicious Dog, Carcosa, Vornheim, Dungeon Module ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Demonspore, Challenge of the Frog Idol, Tome of Adventure Design, Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, Realms of Crawling Chaos, Red Tide, Shadowbrook Manor, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Deluxe Edition, Tower of the Stargazer, Dyson’s Delve, Stars Without Number, Death Frost Doom, One Page Dungeon Codex, Cursed Chateau, Stonehell Dungeon, Eldritch Weirdness Compilation, Knockspell, Spire of Iron and Crystal, Miscellaneum of Cinder, Tomb of the Iron God, Fight On!, Random Esoteric Creature Generator, Philotomy’s Musings, OSRIC, Mines of Khunmar

3. OSR blog list in OPML format, Links to Wisdom wiki

4. OSR logo controversy

17 thoughts on “Signs of practice

  1. absolitude

    Genuinely intrigued by this post. My reading might be flawed, especially since I lack the context of conversations taking place elsewhere (such as in G+, which I do not use/read), but this post is coming off to me as saying “my (this blog’s) stance is having no stance”, which is odd given my previous impressions of this blog in particular.
    I’m obviously not entitled to clarifications or anything of the like, but I’d appreciate it if anyone could shed some light onto what Brendan is talking about when he mentions “polarization”; my understanding is that saying “bigotry/hatred/being an asshat is *not* cool” is as basic (and human) a statement as it gets, so I am kind of confused.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Basic statements of the good/bad variety are categorical and throw away a lot of information. Circumstances sometimes demand oversimplification, such as in the voting booth.

      Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke”; but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, “Let us march.” — Adlai Stevenson, introducing John F. Kennedy (1960)

      My spaces online are not the voting booth and my way is not that of Demosthenes.

      In spaces I control, people must respect each other. This involves avoiding bigotry, respecting identities, and reading others’ words charitably. Is that clear?

      1. absolitude

        “In spaces I control, people must respect each other. This involves avoiding bigotry, respecting identities, and reading others’ words charitably. Is that clear?”

        Fair enough, and thank you for the reply. Apologies if anything I said came off as disrespectful; I hold this blog in high regard and was concerned if that would change, hehe.

        My semiotics knowledge is super lacking, but I lean toward believing the reader has a lot of participation in the making of the meaning of the text. I’ll admit your answer was somewhat disappointing. But, as you said, this is your space and you can ask for commitment of time/attention for more nuanced readings. I guess that’s all?

      2. Brendan Post author


        Your reply was perfectly respectful.

        I don’t entirely follow the point about semiotics or which part of my response was disappointing. If you want to talk directly rather than in a public comment thread, you can find my direct email in the “About” tab above.

      3. absolitude

        Don’t worry, I don’t think my doubts are significant enough to warrant emails, hehe.

        As for the semiotics bit, I meant that I can be frustrated when “too much” is left for the reader’s interpretation; I’m not entirely certain one can avoid binarisms* in the perception of other participants of discourse, such “us against them” on the logo controversy. And so I’m usually more comfortable with clear-cut statements. But at this point you have clarified enough, and this is ultimately your blog and you know your readership better than anyone else (hopefully).

        *: It might be ironic that I could be reinforcing said binarisms by saying how inescapable they are, but that’s too much digression.

  2. Brendan Post author

    Addendum: anyone is welcome to comment on this post or respond to my comments, but please avoid responding to the comments of others. I want to avoid big side arguments between third parties. Start your own conversation somewhere else if you want to pursue such discussion.

  3. Ben L.

    Thanks for posting this. I appreciate it, and the cool, sane quality of your contribution to every conversation I’ve seen you be a part of on G+. (I’m also going to appropriate that flag, if that’s OK with you.)

    Here’s a substantive question for you: how do you think we (folks who play OSR type games as specified above) should handle the trollish types who, for example, post trans-mocking statements, or generally go on screeds about “liberal swine”, etc.? I ask because I think they do give the general label a bad name to the outside world, and also periodically drive away some voices that would contribute to a more diverse OSR.

    1. Brendan Post author

      @Ben L.

      Re: flag: feel free.

      Re: trolling behavior: I am unsure what the best way is to deal with attention seekers that are insincere or have ulterior motives, especially given the social accelerant of the Internet. Even counterargument can provide a form of validation and publicity. This is, of course, a problem that extends far beyond communities of hobby interest.

      I can help increase diversity and tolerance through my own participation and approach to interaction, which may be unsatisfying depending on particular goals, and almost certainly insufficient, but it’s a start. Regarding your second example, assigning someone to an essence category such as swine based on preference in tabletop roleplaying games is absurd on its face. Expecting position statements on every inconsiderate, thoughtless, or malicious hot take is also probably unproductive, not to mention tiresome. Let me think more on this.

  4. Gus L.

    You know I don’t agree with your stance, but i can respect the way you lay it out. To me the OSR label, like many great things, has outlived its usefulness. The OSR ‘design principles’, as you quite interestingly refer to what I call an ‘ethos of play’ (these may interestingly be different things – and that’s a worthwhile discussion for another time), are now subject to cautious interest among the larger RPG community, in a way they didn’t seem to be back in 2011. This is largely the work of the OSR and many of its individual members. At the same time the OSR itself is a rather battered and dingy label that seems to bring up bad associations in a lot of people, especially outside its embrace. Now I don’t think it’s wrong to want to keep using it, I just think it’s tactically unwise and self-limiting.

    You’ve always been a rules hacker who borrows freely from a lot of play styles and games – what’s in it for you (I know it’s not money) in retaining the OSR label? It seems like something that get a rolled eye and dismissal outside its own community – where it’s now, perhaps unfairly, linked to some bad actors with hateful views and has long been considered an ‘edition warrior’ stance (I’m guilty of this one, I admit). Plus it lumps together so many different ideas, mechanics, rules and such that it’s unnecessarily confusing and totalizing. As I said elsewhere – why should I want to carry water for the politics of some neanderthal, unintentionally promote some terrible cash in efforts on RPGnow, and justify elves as a class (the second one isn’t hard – but it’s distracting) while trying to explain why encumbrance is cool to a more new school player?

    1. Brendan Post author

      @Gus L.

      The only obvious alternative current positioning I can see is Dungeons & Dragons itself, which has drawbacks as a corporate trademark, not to mention a significantly different dominant mainstream playstyle. Arguably, the conceptual category must differ from Dungeons & Dragons (the mainstream signifier), otherwise the possibility of other approaches will be obscured for people who start with 5E core.

      It is a challenging collective action problem, as the landscape is distributed; no single individual has control over the organization of knowledge under this umbrella. The biggest relevant wiki is the OSR links to wisdom. When Ram hacks together a blog collection import file, his post title is OSR OPML. When Patrick describes the style of play implied or expected by his work, he calls up the OSR Witchfinder, retaining the referent despite the the ironic literary device. Pretty much all Skerples’ blog post titles start with an OSR: prefix. The tag line for Questing Beast, the relevant YouTube channel with largest audience, is: Flip-through reviews of the best new books from the OSR DnD scene. When you respond to comments in a recent post of your own about balance and challenge, you use the term OSR/OD&D sensibilities to organize your thoughts. On DriveThruRPG, What Ho Frog Demons is in the “Old-School Revival (OSR)” category, because that is the parent category for products using Labyrinth Lord rules. At the time of this writing, a DriveThruRPG query on the top level OSR category returns 3416 results. I agree with you that many, probably most, of the entries in this category considered as a whole are probably uninspiring, but if you sort by highest rated (which is the default I think) the list of results is an okay place to start.

      Apart from those two options, I see only incoherence and balkanization, which fails to live up to the potential of these games.

      The most compelling contender for me, actually, is Dark Souls, which is different enough from mainstream 5E D&D culture to be useful, and has decent cultural recognition, but also has the drawbacks of being corporate intellectual property and overemphasizing the importance of combat with respect to the kind of game that you and I appreciate. (This is no criticism of Dark Souls; video games are, after all, a different medium.)

      1. Gus L

        I don’t know that fission is bad, I think it sounds liberating. The OSR has long been many communities – from ad&d nostalgia archeologists to diy setting builders of every stripe. That these different groups have enough individual clout not to need a single tent to hide in, especially when any prior communal fellowship is being exploited by commercial hacks, manosphere monsters and malignant narcissists, is a good thing.

        I think it’s possible just to say “This is how and why a classic dungeoncrawl works'” or publish that and find acceptance, interest and fellowship without needed the poisonous label of OSR, or even a new one like ‘Darksoul D&D’ (not least because Darksoulism would be real hard, to do in party based D&D no matter how much the aesthetic meshes with a common old school one).

        I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not fretting over labels. The community is fractured. There was never a consensus about the object of that community and the stakes are low.

        It’s time to hare off doing ones own thing and trust that there’s a big enough audience for it. RPGnowcand the other carrion crows of comnercialization might demand labels, but who cares if one isn’t in this for commercial reasons. If one is – get a career counselor.

      2. Brendan Post author


        While writing this post, I asked on Google Plus: What are your favorite OSR or OSR-adjacent releases so far from 2018?

        From that thread, I learned about:

        • Cepheus Light
        • XQ1 The Castle that Fell from the Sky
        • The Red Prophet Rises

        There were several others too, but those are the ones that stood out for me personally. I likely would not otherwise be aware of them.

        It strains credibility to think that I could have performed such an effective query without the label, or some other proxy label that everyone would mentally translate into OSR before providing any info. And I am a person into the scene enough know how to ask the question the roundabout way, with enough detail to make sense, in the right place. Ask a Pathfinder player how and why a classic dungeon crawl works and you are going to get a substantially different answer than something you might have written for Dungeon of Signs.

        In any case, whatever artistic school of art term you want to apply to the things you make, I want to keep up with it. Just let me know what blog to follow or whatever.

  5. Brendan Post author

    It occurs to me that it might be useful to preemptively clarify that “chill” means several things to me, none of which entail a call for civility over all. More than anything, it means the freedom to be yourself without worrying about bigotry or prejudice, as long as you can treat others with dignity in the process. “Because it’s what my character would do” is an even worse justification for being cruel in real human interactions than it is for being antisocial in the guise of a fictional avatar in a game world.

  6. Evan Webber

    Because my participation in the community is so limited, the label is quite important for me.

    I play a fair bit, or try to, and as often as not that’s with people I’m introducing to the game, people I’m trying to describe an ethos and a set of rules to. (“No it’s not that complicated! No it’s not a video game!”) My version of the OSR story was part of the DIY roleplaying games pitch. That story has to change now, big time. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, the story is still unfinished.
    But from my perspective, practically, a little balkanization of the OSR would actually be useful.

    I get what you’re saying about polarization. But that’s baked in to social media.

    Glad you’re gonna keep your blog going though. Hope to play more games soon!

  7. Em

    I remember when the GNS model was the big revolutionary idea in gaming, and then it got overused until everyone was sick and tired of it. The better ideas merged into the general gaming community, and the label was discarded, and then we went toward the next thing.

    Do you think the OSR will end up doing the same? It seems like successful creative trends end up being victims of their own success, and I can imagine that OSR concepts will merge into common design practices like they did with D&D 5e. It seems like that takes a lot of the impact out of the OSR, just like total retroclones took a lot of the wind out of Castles & Crusades’ sails. I’ve known of OSR authors who dropped out because D&D 5e gave them what they’d wanted and they didn’t feel like they needed to stick with older editions anymore.

    I think the ten billion zillion controversies, increasing toxicity, and collapse of Google+ will probably kill the OSR as a thing people identify with, but I do hope the game design philosophies remain.


Leave a Reply