Marketing the OSR, Part 1 of 4: Compatibility

Marketing is vital to the growth of any industry, whether it’s done by professionals or amateurs. I’m not a professional marketing person by any stretch, but I do have a few thoughts to share on this particular aspect of our hybrid hobby/industry.


First, it should be noted that the various clones and simulacra are, for the most part, interchangeable not only with one another, but also with the 1970’s/80’s versions of (A)D&D they seek to emulate. This is an important point, but one which seems to be lost in the marketing and informational efforts not only of the new companies producing the material, but TARGA (the hobbyist organization founded to promote the OSR’s efforts in general, and of whose board of directors I am a member) as well.

Someone new coming in and seeing folks talking about OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, Mazes & Minotaurs, Dragons at Dawn, Dark Dungeons, Myth & Magic, Microlite 74, Spellcraft & Swordplay, LotFP Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, Adventures Dark and Deep, the LBB’s, Basic D&D, AD&D, etc. etc. etc. is bound to be overwhelmed and confused. Unless they understand that all of those games are basically compatible with one another, and just represent different emphases or expansions of the same basic framework, it will seem like a bewildering mess. But that vital datum seems to be completely lost in and amongst the noise. Those of us who follow (and participate in) the OSR daily are certainly aware of it, but it’s not necessarily obvious to an outsider.

How many more OSRIC modules would be sold if folks were reminded that they could play them with Labyrinth Lord? How many more Swords & Wizardry modules would be sold if more people realized that they could play them with their old AD&D books without batting an eye?

One of the problems with the OSR isn’t competition between a dozen or so rules sets. It’s the perception of competition, driven by the fact that compatibility isn’t emphasized.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “Marketing the OSR, Part 1 of 4: Compatibility

  1. This is one of those ideas that sounds obvious, but that you absolutely have to say out loud or people won't really think about it. Emphasizing the compatibility of all of these disparate products would reduce a lot of the anxiety for someone first encountering the OSR.

  2. This is also one of those ideas that makes me go…. do we REALLY need 14+ different variations of the same theme? I think this is the point RJK has been trying to make recently on his blog… why do we need 14+ different clones of the same original cell? I mean… I can see a clone updating the 30+ year old version od B/X D&D….. but do we need infinite recursions of it?

    Don't get me wrong… I love all the creativity that is going on. But I can also see the other side of the fence on this one….

  3. Badger: Oh, I completely understand (and, unfortunate timing aside, this series of posts wasn't a response to either Rob or James; I've been working on it for a bit).

    But, to take your example, we don't really have 14 clones of the same thing. Some are clones of the LBB's, some are clones of B/X, one of AD&D (sans UA), one of 2nd Edition, and the rest are sort of variants on those (like LotFPWFRP).

    So… are there really 14 clones of the same thing, all saying the same thing? I argue that what you're seeing isn't infinite recursions, but infinite variations, which is a different (and good) thing.

  4. I've been saying this for a while now and have felt my voice has been lost in all the noise, and yet this is such a critical point. Us old farts are quick to point out that we freely mixed OD&D, Basic D&D and AD&D materials back in the 70s and 80s, yet so many of us throw our arms up in horror because there are TOO MANY clones.

    Truth of the matter is there are but 3 main clones – S&W, LL and OSRIC – and a host of variations that are often derived from one of the three. Those 3 clones themselves boil down to one game – TSR D&D. Just as the various versions of TSR D&D, stripped of their frilly bits, were basically the same game, certainly more similar than different from one another, so too are the clones.

    TARGA has a strategy of spreading information at conventions, and it's a worthy one, but I can't help think that this is a much more important thing that needs doing – to clearly communicate that the material published for the clones is easily compatible and that the clones are simply variations of one game. Win this battle and a lot of the crap that dogs the OSR will fall away, revealed for the baseless misinformation it is. Then we can move ahead with growing old school gaming and spreading the fun.

  5. Unfortunately, this is something I'm seeing every day in trying to recruit players. Because of all of the history of marketing, brand protection, and legal machinations surrounding D&D in the transition from AD&D 2E through 4E, it is very hard for newer players to understand how we played back in the 70s and 80s. I wrote in one of my most recent posts on my blog that I'm basically a syncretist at heart. Back in the day, everybody was for the most part. We all combined lots of disparate elements from a lot of different sources to make the rules of our games. We lost a lot of that feeling with the strong-arm tactics that dominated the industry in the 90s. Now the hard part is getting newer gamers to not associate the oldest editions of the game with the "one true way" arguments of the 90s.

  6. @Joseph: I think my problem is, to me…. it's all D&D. I never played the 3LBBs, so I have no point of reference with them. I started with B/X, then moved to AD&D, then 2nd ed, then got out of it for a long time. TO me… it's all one system. One is simple (B/X), one has more fiddly bits (AD&D), and one has a lot of customized fiddly bits (2nd Ed). But I always played all 3 fiarly interchangeably. Shrug. Maybe I was just ahead of my time. 8)

  7. I have the following old-school/OSR RPG core rule books sitting in my bookshelf:

    1. Swords & Wizardry – For play with my son.

    2. Labyrinth Lord & AEC – For B/X emulation and to mooch off from for my the S&W game I play with my son.

    3. AD&D (1st edition) – My encyclopedia D&D, as it were. These books are my links to the pure Gygaxian flavor of D&D.

    4. Warhammer Fantasy RPG (1st edition) – This is the alternate "advanced" ruleset that I turn to when I want to get away from D&D.

    5. Dragons at Dawn – Nostalgia and curiosity.

    6. A bunch of S&W supplements that I bought and printed out. Includes the unabriged version of Carcosa.

    7. A bunch of old adventure modules.

    8. Star Frontiers – This was my go to game for sci-fi action and I have a folder full of house rules for it.

    I find that I alway get very titillated whenever something with a whiff of the OSR is published but then turn to my bookshelf and ask myself "where will this fit in?"

    As it stands, I can see myself getting something to bridge the Fantasy/Sci-fi gap as well as something that will make my old Star Frontiers folder a mere thing of nostalgia rather than the old and beat up workhorse that it is. Also, perhaps something from the off the left field like Carcosa. Other than that it has to be something that can displace what I already have and that I think is a tough act to beat at this point in time.

  8. What do you think would be the best way to indicate this on a product?

    I like "for pre-2000 versions of Dungeons & Dragons." But that doesn't get across the important information that you can get these rules for free.

    "…and their clones" doesn't help people who don't know what that is, which is probably most potential buyers.

  9. " do we REALLY need 14+ different variations of the same theme?"

    This is the same argument that many people/corporations use when looking at the open source software world (I won't say the 'M' word – promise).

    And the answer is, "No, of course we don't NEED any variations." To pursue it further in our specific example, we don't NEED roleplaying games, period.

    However, each of those '14+' variations of RPG or web browser was created by at least one individual who thought that it was needed. He/she/they did not have to go to a single corporate entity and ask permission to create a derivative – they just went out and did it themselves.

    A common term for this among open source software developers is "scratching an itch". They do it because it satisfies them, and that is enough for them.

    Sometimes, one of these products catches on and exceeds (for some) what has come before (think Mosaic, Netscape, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc). Some products are put out, and fail to find a toe hold.

    And that's ok, too. Let there be creativity and the right to create, and ignore those who would stifle it. The cream will rise to the top, and the rest will at least have satisfied someone's itch. There is always room for improvement in any human endeavor.

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