Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The New Kid at the Old School - Part 2

This is the second half of my first post on my perspective on the "Old School Renaissance," or OSR. Part 1 can be read here.

Arguably the most famous Magic: the Gathering card is the Black Lotus. It's essentially an easy way to get a huge advantage over your opponent if you play it very early in the game, when both players are scrambling to build their resource pool. It was also one of the first cards ever to get banned because it was so ridiculously overpowered. It is usually cited as the most expensive collector card in the game.

I bring up the Black Lotus because it's an example of Wizards of the Coast (the company that has produced Magic: the Gathering since its humble beginnings in 1993) enforcing a sense of fairness and balance into its games. I doubt anyone reading would debate that such a player-vs-player game shouldn't be fair to a large degree.

In 1973, a mere twenty years before Magic: the Gathering changed the face of gaming, Gary Gygax founded the company Tactical Studies Rules (later simply TSR). The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published soon afterwards in 1974. But on April 10, 1997, TSR was sold to Wizards of the Coast, which had become a major success overnight by developing M:tG's collectible card game model only four years prior.

Whereas TSR settings like Dragonlance and Dark Sun might have contributed to the rise of the "railroad" in published adventures, The change in company ownership seemingly led to the rise of the modern versions of the rules. TSR did publish an insane amount of supplemental material for the 2nd edition of AD&D, but it wasn't until the 3rd Edition rule set, the first published by WotC, that the game felt, well, different.

Ironically, 3rd Edition was the first not to have two different versions of the rules, "Basic" and "Advanced." There was just the one rule set, and so it was simply called "Dungeons and Dragons," despite ramping up the complexity of the rules. It's not that the additional rules were any more complicated, but rather they were much more inescapable. In my opinion, these new rules were incorporated to introduce the concepts of fairness and balance to the game. The 3rd Edition rules expected that encounters with monsters would be something that would pose just enough difficulty to challenge the PC's, but would more often than not result in their survival. After all, just like a streamlined M:tG deck, there's an inherent investment put into your custom character that would go to waste upon his or her death.

A lot of existing RPG players didn't like this new approach, and many simply stuck with playing whatever edition they were most comfortable with. As time progressed, many new RPG players could only learn with the new, well-balanced system, and some experienced frustration at the sheer amount of structure and rules rigidity that was in place.

Anyway, I'm starting to seriously deviate from my original intent with this post. An interesting by-product of the 3rd Edition rules was WotC issuing the Open Gaming License, acknowledging that a game's mechanics could not be copyrighted, only the game's product identity. Essentially, anyone could call for the procedure of calling for dice rolls and applying modifiers just like D&D in a game they wanted to publish independently, but the flavor that makes it D&D Proper could not be copied.

At the beginning of the OGL era, everything from the original days of D&D onward was not only copyrighted, but also long out of print. For this reason, many so-called "Retro clones"--carbon copies of previous D&D games that changed just enough in detail to avoid infringing on copyright--became popular. For example, if you wanted to play the Moldvay/Cook Basic Set, the Original D&D White Box, or the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, you could use Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, or Dark Dungeons, respectively.

Very recently, earlier editions of the game were reissued and made available for download by Wizards of the Coast. It's for this reason that I'm now able to have my own new hardcover version of the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia (see below.)

My one-off printing of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia

One would think that this would spell the end of the OSR era. After all, why seek out cheap imitations of D&D when at long last it's possible to get copies of the exact D&D edition you wanted to play in the first place? Well, the easiest answer is that many clone games have free downloads, but that's also not the primary reason that OSR games exist. The answer comes in the OGL itself: Because you can't explicitly copy D&D, you have to have some originality.

Sometimes these are relatively simple improvements, which could be as minor as improving presentation (I've heard that Delving Deeper is an improvement compared to the relatively poorly-presented Original D&D White Box). In other cases, the changes that are inherent in an OSR game are significant enough to alter the entire feel of the game. For example, compare the Basic/Expert version of D&D to one of the games that is closely based on it, Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The latter is dedicated exclusively for weird fiction. Although a lot of that comes from the published LotFP adventures, the mechanics themselves lend to a grittier game. (For example, encumbrance is greatly simplified and adds an extra dimension to resource management.)

As of now, the biggest players in the RPG market are still Pathfinder (which started thanks to the OGL) and the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, which is still owned by Wizards of the Coast (which itself is owned by Hasbro these days.) This new D&D Edition has earned a lot of praise primarily for giving a nod to earlier editions of D&D, namely in that the sheer bulk of the rules machinery has been stripped away, especially compared to 4th Edition, the most rules-heavy machine of them all.

While 5th Edition continues to try its best in merging modern and classic play, it is now easier than ever for players (like me) who started gaming after the 3rd Edition paradigm shift to discover the charm of the earlier games of the roleplaying game hobby. Once that discovery is made, there's a wide world of new material that is available, with many new innovations coming every day.

It really does feel like a Renaissance in some ways.

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