Innovation: settings, rules, or… what?

Just like the good old days, there’s a debate flying around certain centers of the OSR blogosphere, and naturally I’ve got a thought or two. The debate is (yet again) about innovation in the OSR. Some people seem bound and determined to shoot down anything the OSR has produced as derivative and stale; “just another orc with a different flavor of pie”, so to speak. Others seem to swing the other way, claiming that giving a fighter a +2 bonus instead of a +1 bonus is worthy of an Origins Award. (I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)

Concomitant with this is the question of where innovation from the OSR should or will come. Is it in new sets of rules? Settings? Adventures? Some combination of those? Or something else entirely? Empire of the Petal Throne and Tekumel are being bandied about in these conversations as the yardstick by which such innovations are measured.

Before I get to where I think the path to innovation lies (hint: it’s a combination), I would like to point out that there has been plenty of innovation coming from the OSR over the years. Doesn’t anyone remember Carcosa? Like it or not, there’s a setting that was unlike much of what had come before, and had some interesting mechanics (something involving magic as I recall *ahem*) that reinforced what the setting was doing. And Yoon-Suin? There’s some weird and layered and in-depth stuff going on there, to be sure.

What about Vornheim? There was a product (a setting/toolbox) that was innovative not only in content, but in its very physical design. The book itself was a tool you used to flesh out the city. And what about Adventures in Oz? Sure, Oz is hardly an innovative setting, but it’s not something that had been done to death in the RPG field at the time, and there was an entirely new, kid-friendly and violence-averse (and yet somehow still quite recognizably OSR in its way) rule system behind it. Neither of those were Greyhawk or the Realms warmed-over.

And what about things like Realms of Crawling Chaos? Some would label it as “just a reskin”, because it’s made for Labyrinth Lord, but I don’t recall any of those rules for insanity or the new magics or new races or new monsters in the original LL books. Speaking of monsters, there has been a boom in OSR monster books over the years; Teratic Tome, Lusus Naturae, Malevolent and Benign, Creature Compendium, etc.

So don’t tell me there hasn’t been innovation coming out of the OSR, both mechanically and in terms of setting (and even physicality). So when people complain “where’s the OSR’s Tekumel?” what I hear is “where’s the OSR’s Tekumel for this month?” They forget what has come before, and just want something new to slake their jaded palate, or it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for, so they discount any innovations it might otherwise have contained.

Now, personally, I don’t like weird settings that take months or years to get to know. I’m on record as saying that I like plain-Jane, Tolkienesque fantasy. Much as I respect and enjoy reading about Tekumel, I just don’t like Tekumel itself. I personally don’t find it approachable, and I simply don’t have the time to get to know it the way it deserves. The same goes for a lot of other settings and rules (and board games, for that matter) that I’m sure are fine in their way, but I’m pretty stuck in my ways, and I want rules that I can relate to, that are similar enough to the rules I’ve been playing since 1977 to not have to invest gobs of time I don’t have in learning them. 5th Edition D&D was an exception, partly because so much of it did feel familiar, but I digress.

As for where I see the next wave of innovation coming? Well, as I stated a few years back, I think we’re pretty well served for core fantasy rulebooks, and we’re now well into Phase II of the OSR. As I wrote then:

But while the first phase of the OSR has seen foundational works such as those mentioned above, what we are now seeing in the OSR is a flowering of material that take off in wild new directions. Now that the final holes in the retro-clone coverage have been filled (the basic game-play of (A)D&D 0E, 1E, and now 2E are covered by multiple products), the OSR as a whole seems self-confident enough to break off in new directions.

Personally I would like, and think we’re going, to see different genres explored within the context of the pretty-much-stable corpus of OSR “core rules”. That is, rules expansions to cover different possible facets; settings with distinctive cultures that have associated sourcebooks with relevant rules (new classes, spells, races, social or combat or whatever other rules, etc.), different genres (which we just saw with White Star, which some complain, again is “just a reskin of White Box”, to which I would say that not all innovation has to be mechanical), different sub-genres (we’ve seen Realms of Crawling Chaos for Lovecraftian horror, but there are tons of other possibilities out there; how about a Pendragon-like supplement with rules for chivalry, Courtly Love, and multi-generation gaming? There are tons of similar possibilities), different planes of existence (you could literally make a whole supplement for each plane, each with its own weird physical, social, magical, and even mechanical laws), and I’m sure there are a hundred things I’ve not mentioned that someone is thinking of doing. Not so much new restatements of core rules, so much as toolkits to be used with the existing core rules that we have.

That’s what I want to buy. Not a straight-out setting, not a restatement of core rules, but supplements containing new rules and new slants on existing rules, whether tied to a particular setting or not. I’m sure others have other priorities, and that’s certainly their prerogative, but that’s what the guy writing this post wants, for everything that’s worth. And monster books. I’m always a sucker for a new monster book.

My advice? Do it. Don’t worry what people will say about your work, or whether you’re being “innovative enough” to please some folks. The OSR is all about the hands-on, DIY ethic when it comes to games. There’s no DIY unless YDI.

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 “Innovation: settings, rules, or… what?

  1. Interesting thought. I noticed a while ago that the time of talking about basic rules and trying out ways to improve them seems to have been pretty much ended. I didn't notice the shift towards exploring new genres, but now that you mention it it really seems to be there and going for a while. Though it probably goes back at least as far as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, if not even further.

  2. Valley of Blue Snails, Wampus Country, HMS Apollyon – some of the OSR's best settings are in blog posts and free.

  3. Hi Joe,

    So let's call a spade a spade – I'm "that guy" that you're talking about. Except…

    "Some people seem bound and determined to shoot down anything the OSR has produced as derivative and stale; " – not really. It was actually watching Tenkar going on about JB pissing in the White Star Wheaties that made me go, look at the rules, look at the criticism and think "Yep, they've got a point. It's a reskin." Then that led to me thinking about "why do we obsess on rules so much, when we should be working on some kick-ass settings. Maybe it's a good time to ask that question and see what the ruleset-lovers think."

    So no, I don't shoot everything down as derivative, but we do have quite a bit of derivative stuff.

    " So when people complain "where's the OSR's Tekumel?" what I hear is "where's the OSR's Tekumel for this month?" " – Nope, because honestly, I don't see very much on the same level as Tekumel, Greyhawk, Blackmoor coming out. There are some, and you've named a few for sure, but not every single PDF represents that level.

    For sure, there are kernels and nuggets.

    But the real reason I raised that question was to (hopefully) to cause the discussion and get some folks digging deeper. Rather than a reskin, shoot for running a campaign for a few years and then write it up.

    I do hope that exploration happens that you're talking about, but I'll tell ya, there are a lot of people who are just really rabid about making yet another orc with pie. Cause, you know, dusty rooms with 2000 gp.

    Me… I hope for more. I know that I'm not going to release something until it gets to that point of where I can say "this is something nobody's ever talked about before." Because, you know, eat my own dog food.

    And it's Ok to call me out, I'm not worried about it.

  4. Actually, no, Mike. "That guy" was an amalgam of several people, commenting in several places, of whom you were only one.

    And that exploration has been happening for years. I'm just sad that you can't see it. All you see is orcs with pie, and rooms with 2000 cp, because… I dunno. Maybe because it's not exactly what you're looking for. But that doesn't make it any less innovative and exploratory.

  5. Actually, Joe, I do see it.

    "Nope, because honestly, I don't see very much on the same level as Tekumel, Greyhawk, Blackmoor coming out. There are some, and you've named a few for sure, but not every single PDF represents that level. For sure, there are kernels and nuggets."

    I just don't see every orc with pie as the next best thing. At some point, it's just another orc with pie. Not everyone wants pie or wants the same pie over and over again.

  6. You guys should have got behind my kickstarter to bring Labyrinth Lord to a new platform (the computer). That would have been innovative for the OSR, to have moved beyond the table top. Instead what happened was Tenkar's Tavern was allowed to tear it to pieces, Dan Proctor got nervous and the whole project had to be pulled. Ah well, keep arguing about 2000cp in a room people, those are the really important issues, right?

  7. Seems like as good a place as any to plug my OSR project —

    Ultimately, I do hope to make it a buy-able product where a portion of proceeds go to a charity of the buyer's choice, but for right now, everything I've done is free.

    SPOLIER: It's basically OSR Bunnies & Burrows, with scaling rules that allow any animal species to be played as a PC, alongside other animals, or even the standard orc with pie.

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