The Confucius Maneuver

Image sources: HobbyLark / NatGeo

Is there a “founding myth” of OSR? Here is one proposal:

The founding myth of the OSR, that it is based either in an original play style or in the Gygaxian style, … My view is that many of the communities, past or present, which identify with the “OSR” are based on that myth despite it being inconsistent with the multi-various ways in which hobbyists played in the 70s and 80s, as well as with the specific vision of D&D which Gygax propagated.

— Marcia B., Addendum

At first glance, it does seem like discovering an original play style, or original authorial intent (and perhaps design principles) is an attractive project. For example, here is James of Grognardia writing in 2008:

… “D&D is always right,” by which I mean that the ideas and concepts we got in OD&D, whatever their origins, must be the standard by which we judge everything else. Enough things weren’t added to OD&D that I can only conclude that, if they were there, they were there because Gygax and Arneson both signed off on them and deemed them a good fit for the game they’d created. … In the end, though, OD&D was written according to a certain vision and I think that vision is both recoverable and worth investigating.

— James M., June 2, 2008 comment

However, in the context of other discussion around that time, and in further recent conversations, I think it is clear that the goal (here at least) is not to recover some pure Gygaxian canon, brilliant and untarnished, but rather to assume that there may be some value in a rule or game element, whether or not it was an intentional creation, and see where that assumption leads. This was certainly the approach I took when, inspired by Dwimmermount session reports, I started my Vaults of Pahvelorn campaign taking only the 3 LBBs (core OD&D) as base rules chassis. This necessitated substantial interpretation and invention given the patchy disorganized nature of the game and text, but for me was more about personal creative constraint than about traditionalism for the sake of tradition or about nostalgia (I didn’t even know OD&D existed until around the time I discovered Grognardia).

Many strands make up artistic or hobby movements and scenes, arising from the various and idiosyncratic priorities of participants, so it would be surprising if one could come up with a simple explanation or single goal that unifies a scene. While some of the impetus might have been exegesis, other motivations might have involved connecting with old friends or (as Richard writes) resisting the then-current dominant practice that was being marketed by Wizards of the Coast. That is by no means an exhaustive catalog.

Trying to distinguish between genuine cultural genealogy and founding myths has led to claims about the invention of tradition, where someone (or a group) takes a novel idea but frames it as traditional in order to increase legitimacy. One can find many examples of this in the history of ideas. Here is one that approaches prototypicality. In ancient China, explicit innovation was not a winning rhetorical strategy. Instead:

Authorship as an act of creation was a fraught notion in traditional China, since true “creation” (zuo 作) was reserved for sages. Already Confucius embraced instead “transmission” (shu 述) as a weaker form of agency indebted to an imagined higher authority.

The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature, p. 344

That is, Confucius (and the others associated with his school of thought) presented his ideas not as invention or even synthesis, but rather as transmitting the already revered wisdom of sage kings, the original culture heroes of China. Though I am curious about the historical development of play styles, I am not sure Sage Gygax has much cultural currency in this manner. Maybe someone could find some forum scenes that lean in this direction if one looked hard. And many OSR norms and assumptions do not seem to reflect past practice or texts. For myself, as grab bag of inspiration and techniques, how people actually played (or what is written in old texts) seems potentially useful, but not as prescription with sacred imprimatur.

9 thoughts on “The Confucius Maneuver

  1. chiquitafajita

    good evening, this is marcia! hope this finds you well 🙂 i wanted to say thank you for your thoughts on my post! sometime in 2018, i started snooping around OSR blogs because the DIY culture of running games seemed to open up so much freedom, both as a player and as a GM. so, i really appreciate you bringing up that for many people (like yourself), the OSR isn’t about returning to gygaxian tradition, but figuring out what works and running with it.

    the gygax mythists absolutely don’t speak for everyone in the OSR/DIY D&D scene of things, and it’s comforting that their ideas aren’t predominating the discourse. seeing it pop up in certain places made me uneasy, though, so i wanted to specifically criticize in my post (1) the existence of one true OSR and (2) the idea that the OSR as such is grounded in blind fidelity. it’s worrisome to me that some people propagate or readily accept those claims, partly because it ignores the significant contributions to the OSR play style by people who moved past those ideas.

    so, my hope is just to reintroduce criticisms of those ideas back into the discourse! many people after G+, including myself, are unaware of all that has been said during that time period. sharing the contributions to the OSR from then, while contextualizing those contributions as being innovations rather than rediscoveries, will hopefully encourage people to investigate what they really want out of their games (and not feel indebted to some holy word). of course, there’s nothing any one person can do about it, but it feels better just having vented about it!

    thank you again, and i hope you have a nice week 🙂

  2. Mufn

    theres always been a ton to unpack from the get-go, especially from the early rumblings of OSR thought; some saw their recollections and tabletop traditions as the original interpretation, some saw themselves as carrying on the tradition through taking the ‘original’ text (usually ad&d or b/x but sometimes od&d or even 2e), some as above are more interested in critique of the text itself from design or sociopolitical stances, some wanted to build and change the text from the start (either to reach an ‘essence’ of roleplaying, to fit their needs, or sometimes as a purely maximalist experience), and lastly some people were just attracted to the space for its creative vigor and (at that time extremely unique) thematic/tonal environment.

    alls this to say that the scene, even if it felt at some times small, was really a massive tent. now, when people are looking back at the beginning, they are also seeing it through the lens of what THEY remember (or have heard) about it. You spoke of inventing tradition, the past few years has also had serious and multifarious inventions of history, or at least, historical narratives around the whole space.

    I look forward to see how it evolves further, what new traditions are ‘discovered’, what are changed, what aspect of the scene gets critiqued/lambasted/’improved’/mythologized/forgotten, and what voices new and old show up to reinterpret this massive, unruly, unguided, chaotic, anarchic tapestry if a scene (especially now that i think its on its slow decline in activity).

    Thanks for the food for thought as always, this has been something ive been percolating on for a long time as well

  3. Daniel Boggs

    The R in OSR was always as much about rules as renaissance, but style – well, as was mentioned that was always a big tent, that grew even bigger after the indie-games movement moved into, and morphed into its own branch of the OSR tree. Pointing to something like “Against the Cult of the Reptile God” as a fossilized exemplar of “a” style is rather empty. The first decade of D&D was heady days with the game ever evolving. It is foolish to claim “Gygaxian” style held sway over TSR like a monolith by the time N1 was published. And what is Gygaxian style anyway? Was it not always changing it’s public face? If “rules-lite” OD&D style is meant, is it not as meaningful, more meaningful to say it is Arsonian in essence? Was it not Dave Arneson and Dave Megarry who taught Gygax how to play and did not Gygax then collaborate with Arneson to write and publish – in a matter of mere months – the style of game Arneson had been playing for several years? We might well ask what or which myth of Gygaxian style is being imagined by the purveyor using the term.

    This statement is also interesting:
    “For myself, as grab bag of inspiration and techniques, how people actually played (or what is written in old texts) seems potentially useful, but not as prescription with sacred imprimatur.”

    in that it feels like a defense against a straw man. Is there anyone, anywhere who doesn’t innovate from their preferred “grab bag of inspiration and techniques”? Again, it seems necessary to point out the past is a moving target. Even hard-core AD&D players must pick and choose their rules and style of play- everything from whether or not to use minis or Thaco or character classes and on and on. As a game archaeologist I’ve spent more than a decade now digging into and publicizing Arneson and friends play methods as foundational springboards for new/old approaches to play, because, as is very true of any game or sport, fundamentals form foundations, sure, but structure is built individually and uniquely from there.

    At the core, OSR was/is a commercial label that is a handy way of distinguishing games that rely on rules that stem from OD&D and have enough interchangeable familiarity and compatibility to allow a referee to run the game or the adventure on the fly without massive conversion headaches. Beyond that “OSR” is an amorphous animal that many in the imagined “OSR community” don’t and have never particularly identified with, including, for example me.

    1. Necropraxis Post author


      We might well ask what or which myth of Gygaxian style is being imagined by the purveyor using the term.

      A fair point. When I was looking through some of the older Grognardia posts, I came across a good one about the “two D&Ds” at war with each other, even just within OD&D and the earliest supplements. Lighter versus heavier rules are not my focus here; nor is credit for styles. But it would probably be more historically inclusive to mention both Gygax and Arneson, so thank you for bringing that up.

    2. Necropraxis Post author


      Is there anyone, anywhere who doesn’t innovate from their preferred “grab bag of inspiration and techniques”?

      Yes, I think there are such people, though it is usually more a matter of emphasis than of black and white.

      The split, as I see it, could be slightly oversimplified as follows.

      1. Those who want to play a game that they assume (often rightly) exists and is playable. This group of players is not necessarily trying to innovate at all. They are just trying to play and enjoy a game, at most creating some campaign content along the way. (This is not a pejorative judgment at all, and sometimes I play this way.)
      2. Those who want to assemble some cluster of rules and other elements into a game, either to hack the existing game or to somehow approach the hazy outlines of some other distantly imagined game.

      In the bit of mine that you quoted above, I was trying to emphasize that I was more camp 2, using OD&D as inputs to help me realize such an imagined game. Hopefully the distinction is clear?

      I am sure the result had some elements in common with play in the 70s, but it also ended up with a lot of quirks, even at the mechanical level. For example, the strictness with which we asserted that the best AC in the world (almost at a metaphysical level) was 2. Or the way we did XP (by GP spent, with nothing for victory in combat). The posts associated with that campaign show many other examples (the earlier ones are probably more useful in this regard). Obviously, house ruling has been there from the start, but the way in which I and the players of this game went about it seems to me to be different than what I often see in other games or in discussions online.

      In your work doing game archaeology, have you come across a sense of dominant traditions, or would you say that the differences largely overwhelm the similarities in play cultures?

    3. Necropraxis Post author

      The meaning of OSR (and related terms) seems to still be contested. I agree with you that commercial labeling is an important function. Whenever anyone brings this up, or starts to talk about some potential replacement term, I always ask: how is that going to work regarding the categories on DriveThruRPG (or other similar platforms)? That sort of taxonomy tends to be sticky, and for good reason, since it is costly and confusing to revise quickly. That said, there are a lot of non-commercial uses as well (and of course many so-called OSR products have minimal relation to or compatibility with OD&D or B/X, even just skimming that DriveThru link above).

      Empirically speaking, there seem to be several clusters of consensually recognized meaning here. The linked results are a few years old now, and I would be curious if anything has changed substantially due to the post-G+ balkanization, but I suspect the broad outlines remain the same.

  4. Tom Van Winkle

    You make a good point. Plenty of players are interested in the OSR scene as a repository of resources from the past for use in play in the present *without* being invested in the meaning of the past. What marcia wrote concerns the meaning of the past and how it’s used in the present.

    If one reads back in the OSR blogs even a three years ago, however, one finds a lot more of what marcia wrote about. Go back several years more and it’s abundant. My impression is that the end of G+ and the subsequent diaspora to different internet fora, combined with the influx of new and often younger participants, has changed the meaning of “the OSR.” At large, it’s less about rediscovering and recreating an original good and a reaction against “modern-style” games (which once was an explicit goal). Today, it’s more about rules-lite, procedure-heavy priorities and the dungeon feature checklists that arose out of OSR musings in its earlier years, less about pedigree. Yet, as I’m sure you know, there are still plenty of OSR-aligned folks who are determined to root out the new alleged “enemy within” of change, and to maintain a sense of purity and continuity with early D&D. I have a feeling that the latter are slowly being outnumbered as the years tick by, so that your more practical, less ideological point of view is increasingly representative.

    It’s a demographic change. The munchkins of the late ’70s and early ’80s who grew up to foster the OSR were fascinated in middle age by the neglected rules of their first D&D sets. “What if we finally (or, again) played those rules as written (or, as intended)?” The new youngsters who stumble on “the OSR” today are much less interested in playing Grandpa’s Rules (eew!) than they are in “hacking” their own rules with experiments of fun, inspired by early possibilities.

  5. Nick LS Whelan

    I wonder sometimes: is it a coincidence that investigation and interpretation of Gygax’ “true vision” really started to take off shortly after the man died, and couldn’t be tagged on forums to answer questions any longer?

    1. Tom Van Winkle

      Nick, you’re right! It’s not fortuitous. New discussions of the “Gygaxian” vision flourished within a few months of the man’s death, and the hero worship reached new heights as the early OSR took off.

      That said, Gary Gygax wrote and then endorsed products concerning “Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds” in his own lifetime, starting in 2002 to the best of my knowledge. He had commodified his name as a brand of fantasy well before his death.

      In the absence of the man today, investigations that rely on what he actually wrote and said, and that take into account the changes in his views over time, are more reliable than the ones based on a general apprehension of what early D&D was “supposed to be.”


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