Friday, September 3, 2010

The Old School Gaming Community -- Current Drama Episode

About two weeks ago, there was an enormous blow-up over Frog God Games' acquisition of Swords & Wizardry, a retro-clone of Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson's original fantasy role-playing concepts. It is basically a simulacrum of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, which my friends and I used back in the early 1990s when we played during our middle school summer vacations. S&W earned loads of respect, even garnering an ENnie (2009, Silver for Best Free Product).

Frog God Games is a sort of successor to Necromancer Games. Back in graduate school, I had the pleasure of playing once-a-month in a 3.5 dungeon crawl as a Galen Servetus, a necromancer physician inspired by a combination of Galen of Pergammon and Michael Servetus. I love playing wizards in 3.5 because item creation rules make the wizard character far, far more survivable and incredibly useful--if you are smart. I had a nasty tendency in that campaign to use spectral hand to lob ceramic globes of alchemist's fire so often people thought I was a pyromancer. I had a backstory that the Order had sent me to research the plague, continue my inquiries into the nature of the circulatory system, and investigate cases of unlicensed necromancy (i.e. raising dead without a license, as well as without written permission of the deceased, compensation to the family, and contractual obligations, such as agreement to bury the remains when the terms of service expire). The priest of Pelor and I had a great time arguing the merits of scientific advancement vs. sacrilege regarding unholy acts like dissecting dead bodies.

Anyway, I digress (that was a fun game, by-the-way).

What got people up-in-arms was the "About Us" section on the Frog God Games website (it's since been changed). A lot of S&W fans were incredibly dismayed by what they read. Predictably, dismay turned into anger. Like, mob with torches and pitchforks anger.

What, precisely caused this row? The "Who We Aren't" section, specifically.
We are not the guys who are going to offer bargain basement junk for a quick buck. We won't sell you hand drawn maps and clip art laid out by amateurs and posted up on as a cheap book that you look at and discard.
That's a pretty ballsy statement. It throws down a pretty heavy gauntlet. It's almost a mission-statement. They are going to use professional cartographers with quality equipment to produce good maps. Serious artists are going to illustrate their books.

Well, this received a ton of negative press in the blogosphere. So, why such a backlash? Well, pretty much summed it up:

So you want to slag on pretty much half of the 400 people interested in your product? Because, by trashing those “amateurs”, that’s what you did. It reads as a hit against every fan magazine, every bare-bones supplement, and every weekend and late night spent creating something to celebrate and contribute to play in our hobby.

The Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic is a core part of not just this corner of the hobby, it’s been a boon to those of us who wanted to create something for the games we loved, but weren’t quite sure how. We saw our peers do it, and said, “hey, maybe I can take a crack at something like that, too!” Many products—good products, that I have used the hell out of for gaming—were from, and I can spot more than a few hand-drawn maps and bits of clip art.
This is taken as a direct blow to the amateur, do-it-yourself aspect of the entire old-school renaissance zeitgeist. In this respect, the entire old-school renaissance is a sort of gestalt entity--by attacking a single aspect of it (the amateur, grass-roots identity of the movement), one is perceived as attacking the entire whole.

And old college pal of mine, Wayne from over at Semper Initiativus Unum, commented:
This bothers me not so much because it's a foot in mouth thing, as because I am in this for precisely the opposite. I want things that are amateur, I want PDFs mocked up and thrown on Trying to make it a point of honor that you aren't that is BS and nothing more. The OSR is a movement that has embraced the ethic of the early years of the hobby, and to be honest I don't want to see more "professional" products. I want labors of love.
This is head-and-shoulders above most of the other comments toward Frog God Games, which made me think somebody needed to call the "waaaaambulance." For Christ's sake, even Frog God Games' Bill Webb himself got on saying that he'd gladly "switch paychecks" with anyone and that he does this for love of gaming.

But Wayne actually solidifies his position in another comment (on a different blog):
Most of us have been through what professionals did for D&D. And, most of us, have chosen to reject that. Why should we be happy or proud or even interested that a company touting its professionalism has picked up Swords & Wizardry? Seriously now. Your stuff is well produced and very interesting and you have some good ideas, but this whole touting of professionalism just sits outside of what the OSR is and should remain.


It was the same burst of popularity in the Silver Age that killed the Golden Age. Gary and TSR won out over the hobbyists and professional AD&D was the pre-eminent game for a decade. But by the end of that decade it was a barely recognizable hull of itself, tied to bloated settings and novel lines with a bare resemblance to what it had been. Dave Cook, who worked on the excellent Expert set, was the same guy who wrote 2nd edition AD&D. TSR's victory was a Pyrrhic one, and it's a lesson we should learn from.
Kudos to Wayne for standing his ground. I heartily disagree with a few of his points, but he actually encapsulates the arguments for the entire old-school gestalt better than many I've seen with these simple comments.

In effect, this is why guys like James over at Grognardia love for guys like Dave Trampier and Jim Holloway and his mild disdain for the impact of more realistic artists like Larry Elmore (although he appreciates Elmore nonetheless). It's a desire to turn back the clock to a more innocent time period in gaming. Through the old-school renaissance, these guys can go back to being twelve and thirteen again, building sandboxes and stocking them with anything their imaginations can devise. Coherency and continuity aren't so very important. Immersion is a choice, a matter of taste. It is as if the entire nostalgic "feel" of the material could be lost if the artwork were not black-and-white sketches inked over with pen. No higher artistic techniques should be brought to bear for fear of ruining things or turning all of the pictures into some sort of anime-inspired unrealistic freakshow like much of 3rd edition's artwork was.

So, Jim Raggi threw in his perspective over at the blog for his Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG.
I know for my stuff, I've done everything I can to keep the quality high. I fail in some places, some due to budget and some just because I'm a natural fuckup, but you better fucking believe I kick myself in the ass for every layout glitch, every typo, every picture that doesn't look as awesome as the most awesome thing I've ever seen. Every single thing I've ever released, I've looked at after the fact and thought, "Oh SHIT. This isn't good enough. The next thing has to be better."


If I had the budget, every damn thing I release would be printed on solid fucking gold with unique Cynthia Sheppard work on every damn page. Not because it makes the writing any better, but because if I'm going to do something I want people to marvel at it. Hell, I want to marvel at it.

The OSR has in large part prided itself on things that perhaps it shouldn't. The fact is if you're going to charge money for anything, let alone $20 or $40 or *gulp* $65, you better make damn well sure you've done everything you can to make it special. To make it cool. To make it quality. For something to be special it's got to be something that not anyone could do.
I totally understand where Raggi's coming from, although he probably didn't make many friends with this comment. The entire do-it-yourself movement goes beyond the old-school renaissance and into all avenues of gaming (see Ron Edwards and the Forge--their entire purpose is independently produced role-playing products). I'm sorry, art matters. It does. It helps to create a visualization of the setting and world with which the characters are exploring and interacting. Without it, something is inevitably lost. I should write a post at a later date about how much I adore some of the art of 2nd edition D&D (something that would probably horrify many of these old-schoolers).

Raggi's statement that he wants his books to be absolutely amazing is entirely understandable. From what I've been reading, his Lamentations of the Flame Princess is well-designed and well-written, and the illustrations are excellent. He's put a great deal of effort not just into the nuts & bolts of rules and gaming, but in the overall presentation of his work. This is a labor of love to him. And it calls into question whether or not raising the bar for quality in presentation isn't the inspiration for Frog God Games. They're serious about putting together a top-notch product, in my opinion.

As A Paladin in the Citadel said:
You realize that it was Clark Peterson saying that, not Bill Webb, who has since gone his own way with Frog God. And it was said in 2008, when Necromancer was still trying to find a way to participate in 4E, despite the imposition of a bum deal, aka the GSL. That Clark should try to diminish or dismiss OSRIC in 2008 is disappointing but not surprising.

...I understand your anger: something you participated in and promoted, as a hobbyist, is being co-opted by commercial interests. But Matt Finch and others have pointed out that the "offending remarks" are not a slight against old-school DIYers, but were a response to sub-par Pathfinder stuff.
And this sums it all up. These guys have nothing to scream and kick about, in reality. Those comments above were not aimed at the grass-roots, independent writer who wants to self-publish a sourcebook or module. They were aimed at a large number of shoddy Pathfinder material being produced and sold on Lulu for an easy buck.

So what is this entire blow-up really about?

What we have is a temper tantrum being thrown by a large number of people who are afraid that their special little secret is about to go mainstream. But that's actually a legitimate fear. Once a counter-culture becomes mainstream, it loses a lot of its edge. Much of what made it special goes out the door.

James at Grognardia threw his own two cents in with reservation, but hope:

This is certainly big news, although I'll admit to not knowing just what this will mean in the final analysis beyond the appearance of yet another version of Swords & Wizardry by yet another publisher. Even so, I can hardly complain about this and hope it means great things for both S&W and the old school renaissance.
Just for the record, I like James' perspective the best.

1 comment:

Chris Cesarano said...

It's probably because I jumped into the hobby with 3rd Edition but was exposed to 2nd Edition products, but when I read that "What We're Not" line it sounded more to me like "If you're going to spend money on our product, you're going to get the work of professionals. The quality that the price demands".

I would have expected it to be fanboys coming to defend their own preferred systems, but I wasn't aware the DIY culture was like this. It makes sense, though, as a lot of the D&D modules I perused for 3rd Edition from friends and collections were always so...lame. Every time I read one I wanted nothing more but to edit so much of the damn thing that I pretty much just wrote my own adventure.

Which completely defeats the purpose of using such a module. I have so many other hobbies that I don't want to sacrifice them all so that I might run a D&D game. I want to have adventures at the ready so I can spend longer on my own custom adventures. Yet what I found was a lot of product that I was not satisfied with and wanted to rework into something that was good.

So reading a line like that actually reassured me. Then again, I don't even know what is, though I will look it up now and see if there's anything of interest. When you get right down to it, of the 3rd Edition books I've read and browsed, Iron Kingdoms is the only one I've been truly happy with, and Privateer Press didn't even print all the product that they desired since it wasn't selling. Maybe adventures for it can be found on