Marketing the OSR, Part 2 of 4: Innovation


It should also be noted that the complaint that the OSR isn’t innovative enough is somewhat missing the point of what the OSR is. Of course the OSR doesn’t go off in bold new directions, exploring the bleeding edge of game design! It’s not supposed to, at least not on a grand scale. By definition, the OSR is a deliberate harkening back to earlier forms, attempting to get new and exciting modes of play out of them. People who are looking for deliberately (I might even go so far as to say self-consciously) new and innovative systems and settings should be looking at Indie Press Revolution and the like. The OSR is what it is, and condemning it for not being what it isn’t, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That is not to say that the OSR doesn’t innovate; quite the contrary. But its innovation is, for the most part, contained within the boundaries of the older forms. It is variation (sometimes inspired) and expansion (ditto), but it is not plunging into unexplored territory. If it was, it would be something else. And remember, that is not a Bad Thing! Castles & Crusades is a prime example of this; most of the outlines and fundamentals of AD&D are there, but the d20 universal mechanic is an innovation within those broad outlines. Change it too much, though, and it moves outside of the comfort zone.

This is an important facet of marketing the OSR because it speaks to one of its fundamental strengths; familiarity. For a segment of the target audience (not by any means the whole of it, as will be mentioned in the next installment), the fact that a game is so much like a previous edition is a selling point in and of itself. It’s not necessarily a question of nostalgia (although that’s certainly a part of it for some people); if it were, then the “movement” would begin and end with people buying the original rulebooks on eBay or breaking them out of the attic, playing for a bit to recover their lost youth, and fading off again.

What the retro-clones have to offer that segment is familiarity. If I know that I like the broad outlines of how the AD&D game system is built– classes, Vancian magic, saving throws, fairly abstract combat, etc.– then I can be pretty sure that a game that is close to AD&D will be something I’ll be comfortable with, even if some of the particulars are different. This connects with compatibility; if a product is compatible with a game I already know I like, I’ll be more inclined to buy it, because I know at least the basics will be familiar.

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.

7 thoughts on “Marketing the OSR, Part 2 of 4: Innovation

  1. Personally I have no problem with a million clones of D&D. The more the merrier and the more out clones there are the more likely this sort of rule system transcends its initial publisher ( or creators ) and becomes like Chess a ubiquitous set of rules with some variants.

    The only thing I take issue with is the notion that such derivative work is somehow "superior" to the work done by the founders of the hobby.

    When one stands on a foundation built by the sweat and inspiration of others, and then claims that their new derivative work is somehow superior, that person is either engaging in hyperbole or ignorant.

    ( I know us D&Ders aren't ignorant .. so I think the former is true but I digress )

    The effort of those guys who established a hobby out of pretty much nothing ( save the grognards with their sand tables ) is more impressive than a retro "movement" in self publishing that does nothing but recreate various incarnations of said rule set.
    As much as I love what you all are doing.

  2. I think it’s not only a matter of familiarity, but of the fact that any effort spread out among people is going to have some duplication. It isn’t as if the style of classical RPGs was a neat, orderly parade in the years between 1974 and the early 80s. Different introductory sets, slight to considerable rules variations, and different levels of presentation were only a few of the items that marked the differences between differences versions of supposedly the same product, D&D. When initiations, licensed and unlicensed supplements, new directions, and derivatives came on the market, there was no orderly march.

    And so it is now. Those variations, those explorations of different ways of doing things within the same general circle, is why there’s a Labyrinth Lord and an Advanced Edition Companion, and BFRPG, and Swords & Wizardry, and S&W White Box, and Microlite 74/75, and Dark Dungeons, and…)

    But, as you addressed in part 1, those are all within the same circle of compatibility.

    There’s such a thing as *emergent* innovation—taking parts and bits that have been used before, and presenting them in a new and unique way. It doesn’t mean every part is the same, but it does mean perhaps the finished product offers something new—be that in the field of gaming material, layout, rules clarifications, or otherwise. I think that’s where many companies are really excelling—at bringing emergent innovation out of these wonderful, familiar elements.

    Let there be a hundred retro-clones, each doing things a bit differently, or presenting the tools to do so. I’m not worried about the creativity, nor should anyone be who’s been paying attention to what people making dungeons in Fight On!, penning modules like the Grinding Gear, or making tools like the Advanced Edition Companion. Creativity isn’t a clean process, it isn’t orderly, and it doesn’t have quotas on how many iterations of any type of product there should be.

  3. delvecc: No one here has claimed any such "superiority", and I will thank you not to try to bring outside arguments here.

    Anyone else doing so will find their comments deleted. Please try to stick to the subject, folks.

  4. @delvecc – You seem to have read a lot more into the above post than I have. I can't see any reference to the fruits of the OSR being superior to its foundations. Perhaps you've lost your way in the blogosphere as that conversation is happening elsewhere. 🙂

    It's wrong to take the words of one person and attribute them to a group, just as it's easy to misinterpret those words in the first place – but again, that conversation is happening elsewhere.

    The point of this post is that some people convince themselves that one man's preference for old school games must equate to prejudice against other games. It's not a logical extrapolation, but there's a lot of it going around, a lot of baseless finger pointing. Just as baseless as the idea that all involved in the OSR think they're superior to the old guard.

    As for the subject of this post, I'm amazed at how many people are offended by the preferences of others, as if that preference infers disapproval or dislike. Smacks of defensive insecurity and is sad to see.

  5. Good series of posts. The only thing that may be better as far as the rules goes is presentation and clarity. I read a lot of people use OSRIC as a reference in their AD&D games.

    But it doesn't replace the originals which a lot enjoy as is.

    I think the best part of the OSR is the increase in diversity and to keep that going we need new gamers so this series posts on marketing is definitely great to have.

  6. I too have enjoyed this series of posts.

    Though, I literally (in the literal, not figurative sense ^_^) LOL’d at the mention of C&C as innovative.

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