29 November 2009

What is the OSR, part deux: The Pundit Replies

The RPG Pundit has replied to my post on ‘What is the Old School Renaissance’ at his own blog here. The whole rant is rather entertaining, and highly recommended for a good chuckle.

It seems that the poor Pundit is frustrated by the lack of a clear definition for the OSR. Of course, that was the entire point of my post. It simply is impossible to provide a precise definition for such an amorphous, diffuse, cantankerous group of people. If the OSR is a ‘movement,’ it is one in which the participants disagree with each other about what truly constitutes ‘old school’ (aside, perhaps from a few ‘core cases,’ such as 1974 0e D&D and, perhaps, Holmes Basic D&D; even 1e AD&D is probably considered too ‘new school’ by some participants). I consider the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu to be ‘old school.’ Some other folks would not. Amazingly, there is not ‘authority’ in the OSR to tell us who is right and who is wrong.

What’s puzzling to me is why the Pundit has such animus towards the OSR. Perhaps he is bitter over the relative lack of success of his own ‘old school’ game, ‘Forward to Adventure!’? Or perhaps he simply likes to construct new ‘enemies’ to be the targets of his rants?

In any case, I found this remark rather sad: “I, as someone who defines Old School as an aesthetic and not a mechanic, already feel like I ended up in the wrong side of the fence…

Well, Pundit, nobody put you on “the wrong side of the fence” (whatever that means) except yourself. It’s only because you decided to construct an ‘enemy’ out of the OSR, and infuse that ‘enemy’ with a fictional consciousness and ‘ideology,’ that you are on the wrong side of some imagined fence. You could have been a participant in the OSR, Pundit, and you still can, if you like. Heck, I believe that Calithena even invited you to write an article on FtA! for Fight On! a year ago (I know that Jeff Rients positively reviewed FtA! in Fight On!).

Destroy that fence that you’ve built in your mind, Pundit. Join the OSR, if you like. Nobody is stopping you except yourself.

28 November 2009

What is the Old School Renaissance?

Over at the RPGsite I’ve become involved in a rather irritating debate with the ‘RPG Pundit’ over what constitutes the ‘Old School Renaissance’ (commonly abbreviated ‘OSR’). (Also participating that debate, among others, is estar of the ‘Bat in the Attic’ blog.)

My view is that the OSR consists simply of the following folks:

a. those gamers who like to play ‘old school’ RPGs (typically ‘Original,’ ‘Basic/Expert’ D&D, and pre-3e versions of AD&D, but other games as well);

b. those gamers who play (and sometimes produce) the retro-clones of those ‘old school’ RPGs (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, BFRP, and others);

c. those gamers who play (and sometimes produce) ‘old school flavoured’ games (e.g., Castles & Crusades, Spellcraft & Swordplay, Mutant Future, Mazes & Minotaurs, etc.; ironically, I would include the RPG Pundit’s game Forward to Adventure! In this category – the Pundit is part of the OSR whether he likes it or not!);

d. those gamers who play (and sometimes produce) ‘old school’ modules or settings (which can range from classic-feeling settings, e.g. Robert Conley’s Points of Light books, to modules with a ‘classic-with-a-twist’ quality, e.g., Matt Finch’s Spire or Iron & Crystal, to entirely ‘different-from-the-past’ fantasy settings, e.g., the ‘steampunk’ fantasy setting of John Higgins’s Engines & Empires);

e. those gamers who contribute to ‘old school’ fanzines like Knockspell, Fight On!, and Footprints, produce ‘old school supplements (like Jeff Rients’s excellent Miscellaneum of Cinder) or who simply put their ‘old school’ ideas up on the internet (typically on blogs) for others to look at and use.

In short, the OSR consists of people who like certain kinds of games (‘old school games’) and sometimes product things (modules, rules books, settings, fanzines, etc.) for those games.

That is it.

Really, that is it.

There is no ‘ideology’ or ‘party platform’ for the OSR. A fondness for older games and older play styles simply does not comprise an ‘ideology.’ While there is the ‘Old School Primer,’ it is not a ‘manifesto’ in the traditional sense, and I know many members of the OSR who reject parts or all of the advice and views presented in it (myself, I agree with about two-thirds of it).

If the OSR ever evolves into a movement with ‘leaders’ and ‘spokespersons,’ with views that are dogmatic or reactionary, then I’ll be the first one out the door. But I just can’t see that happening. The alignment of the members of the OSR is ‘Chaotic Creative.’

25 November 2009

The Future of Mongoose’s ‘Runequest,’ ‘Eternal Champion,’ and ‘Conan’ RPGs

Apparently Mongoose Games is now the biggest company that publishes RPGs exclusively (WotC publishes non-RPGs). My opinion of the company is not terribly positive. Their books, based on my admittedly rather limited exposure to them, often seem poorly constructed, poorly laid out, and poorly edited.

There are some exceptions. The Conan RPG, at least the ‘Atlantean edition,’ is a decent piece of work (it’s the only Mongoose book that I owned until my recent acquisition of the Elric of Melnibone corebook). Of course, the superior quality of the Atlantean edition was achieved only after Mongoose fixed all of the horrible editing problems with the first printing. Nonetheless, in terms of its presentation and description of the Hyborian world, Mongoose’s Conan RPG is second to none. It is only because I had wearied of the d20 system by the time that I purchased it that I never actually played it.

In contrast, while I was excited when I heard that Mongoose would be publishing a new version of RuneQuest (a game that I had played and enjoyed in the early-mid 1980s), I was so disappointed by the actual product when I perused it in a local games store that I passed on the line entirely. Only my recent interest in the Chaosium version of the Elric!/Stormbringer RPG led me to purchase the MRQ (Mongoose RuneQuest) version of Elric. The Mongoose book’s author, Lawrence Whitaker, gave me some extremely helpful on-line advice (he was involved in some of Chaosium’s products during the 1990s), and the magic system in the MRQ version sounded intriguing. I just received the book today. While the rules do look interesting (except for the use of ‘hit locations’ for the combat system – something that I find far too fiddly for my tastes), the text is lost in a wall of grey. *sigh*

Anyhow, every year the head of Mongoose, Matt Sprange, posts an ‘overview’ of the company’s progress over the previous year and its plans for the upcoming year. The ‘State of Mongoose 2009’ has just been posted here.

Some initial reactions:

RuneQuest II

RuneQuest is back, and is better than ever! …

I’m glad that I waited before checking out MRQ. I hope that MRQII includes an alternative to the ‘hit locations’ system for combat, but I doubt it. Still, I’m interested in checking out the core book.

Also, it seems that all of the core MRQII books will be bound in leather. Does this mean that non-leather versions will not be available? The post was not clear on that.

The Eternal Champion

With RuneQuest II, we have the opportunity to redress the Eternal Champion series too. The original Elric and Hawkmoon books are great examples of why we have taken a new approach with the whole RuneQuest line. Both were originally 160 page books, but 100-odd pages of each was taken up by the core rules!

By taking those core rules out (and adding more pages!), we can now bring you great volumes packed with Eternal Champion goodness. Elric and Corum will appear first (backed up with some suitably fiendish campaigns – Lawrence Whitaker has already staked his claim for the first Elric campaign!), but you will be seeing Hawkmoon and the fabled Multiverse sourcebook soon enough. … There are plans to heavily support the Eternal Champion series throughout 2010 and beyond, so if you are a fan of Michael Moorcock’s greatest works and find RuneQuest II to be an agreeable system, you are going to love what we are working on right now.

Given this news, I’m relieved that in my recent spending spree on all things Elric/Stormbringer that I didn’t pick up any of the Mongoose line (except for the core book). I’m not sure what I think about the plan to not include the relevant MRQII rules in the Elric and Corum corebooks. On the one hand, it’s nice to have everything essential in one book. On the other hand, if one already owns the core rules (MRQII corebook), paying for a slightly reworked version of those rules seems like a waste of money. Since I'll probably purchase both the Elric and Corum books eventually, I suppose that it's a good deal overall. Hmmm...

Hopefully the new ‘Eternal Champion’ line of products will still be compatible with the BRP version of Elric!/Stormbringer (5e), the fantasy system with which I’m presently quite enchanted.

In contrast, the future looks grim for Conan:


A disagreement between ourselves and the licence holders has resulted in Conan being suspended in limbo. It is a tricky position – we cannot produce more material for the game (sales of further OGL Conan supplements will simply not justify the work required), and we have been forbidden to move the sword-swinging barbarian to a new games system.

This is too bad, as I actually think that Mongoose did a decent job with the Conan, at least in terms of their treatment of the Hyboria setting (which can be used with other RPGs). It would have been very interesting to have seen a RuneQuest version of Conan produced. The system certainly would have been more appropriate than d20, in my opinion (at least a suitably modified version of the OOP edition of RuneQuest with which I am familiar – I assume that MRQII will be similar overall).

Another comment-worthy quote:

The last State of the Mongoose also stated that we were revising our editorial and proofreading procedures.

Um, yeah. After eight years it’s good that this is finally addressed. Good grief!


We also made a promise this year that we would only be printing books in the US – not China, not Thailand, not even Canada, but the good old US of A.

Huh? “…not even Canada”? WTF? What’s wrong with books printed in Canada?

Ruffled patriotic feathers aside, I’ll be interested to see Mr. Whitaker’s version of RuneQuest this year.

23 November 2009

Some Otus

Another extremely lazy post, I know, but you can never get enough Erol Otus!

22 November 2009

Two Great Tastes...

For some reason, I'm very tempted to combine these into a single campaign:

17 November 2009

S&W House Rules PDF

I can't believe that I forgot to mention at some point during the past couple of months of this blog that internet-friend Benoist of the Citadel of Eight kindly put together a PDF version of my various S&W house rules a few months ago!

It can be found here (note that clicking on this opens the PDF directly).

Thanks Benoist! This should give people interested a nice 'paper' copy of my house rules something to print up and read when they're on the bus, in the pub (or wherever).

14 November 2009

Why I Dislike 'Feats'

My participation in this thread at the RPGsite prompted me to reflect somewhat on exactly why I dislike 'feats' in 3e and 4e D&D, that is, why I loathe this game mechanic in the more recent versions of 'Ye Olde Game.'

'Feats' in 3e and 4e are an 'exception-based' mechanic. That means that if a PC/NPC/monster (hereinafter simply 'character') has a certain feat, the normal rules do not apply to him/her/it. Instead, other rules apply to the character. Feats provide 'exceptions' to otherwise universally-applied rules.

My dislike of feats has nothing to do with 'fairness.' Indeed, such a concern would be laughably misplaced, given how concerned the designers of 3e and 4e were to ensure overall 'balance' within their systems (i.e., all character classes, races, and so forth, are equally 'powerful' and 'useful' -- sadly defined exclusively in terms of combat ability in 4e).

Feats require one to remember more rules, or at least be willing to look up more rules during the game. The 'more stuff to remember' aspect of feats is irritating. I have to remember too many things in my job ("what is today's lecture on, again?"; "is there a faculty meeting on Friday?"; "what was Kant's argument for the 'Formula of Humanity' again?"; etc.) -- having to remember loads of fiddly rules for my hobby is a burden that I do not care to assume. I'm simply too old and lazy. Ultimately, though, my dislike for 'feats' is primarily that I find the mechanic aesthetically ugly. It is unacceptably 'clunky,' in my opinion, to have a game with the following structure:
(a) here are the rules to govern the actions of characters; and
(b) here are hundreds of fiddly exceptions to those rules (often with their own 'sub-rules').

Blech! In contrast, a system like 'Basic Role-Playing,' which uses skills, is not 'exception-based'. The same rules apply, all the time, without exception. Some characters will be much more skilled at certain things than others, and thus enjoy much greater success rates at those things than others. However, there is no need to provide 'rules-exceptions' for those characters. The overall mechanical structure is far more parsimonious, and intuitive in my opinion, than the feat-based mechanical structure of 3e and 4e. To some extent, the same thing is true of older versions of D&D. Higher-level characters will have a greater chance to hit, make their saving rolls, etc., than lower level characters, but the basic mechanic is the same for all characters. (I'll concede that there are some 'exception-based' rules in older D&D -- namely, class-based abilities -- but they are far, far fewer in number than 'feats' in 3e and 4e. Consequently, they do not really bother me.) So that's it, gentle readers. That's why I hate feats.

Phew! It felt good to get that off my chest.

13 November 2009

D&D Dreaming

More fun 'old school' art from the artist "Steve," who goes by the moniker "Ye Olde School," here.

08 November 2009

By Crom!

I just finished reading volume one of The Savage Sword of Conan. These volumes, published by Dark Horse Comics, reproduce the Savage Sword of Conan comics from the 1970s (originally published by Marvel).

Volume 1 was excellent, and I've already finished the first story of volume 2. My only complaint with volume 1 is that it presents only the second half of the classic Howard tale, "The Hour of the Dragon." I don't know why the entire story wasn't published in Savage Sword, although I suspect that the story was perceived as simply too long to be presented in this format.

Anyhow, that minor complaint aside, I highly recommend these books to anyone who is a fan of Conan (or 'swords & sorcery' tales more generally). I look forward to many months of further reading!

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).