Monday, July 20, 2009

OSR - Meta Ideas

Mr. Sean Wills posted a question to the Swords & Wizardry forums asking:
What new ideas do you think will drive future adventure and rules-supplement design in different directions to the path OD&D took ?

Are there zeitgeist ideas ? What is 'so NOW it hurts' ? Why hadn't those ideas surfaced previously ?
I like this question. As usually happens, as I was writing an attempt at an answer I was discovering more ideas with each sentence I wrote. So, a little more writing to try to tease those out.

I think the biggest thing that the OSR can offer that is different from the development that roleplaying games of the past took is that Hobbiests can usually offer better what other hobbiests want than a big publisher.

What the publisher needs is sales and to get sales you have to offer things players want. But the great irony of this hobby is that what players want often ruins the game.

One great product for a publisher is a setting. Because Detail is Expensive, the company is better set up to offer something so detail intensive. The company can even offer it in installments, slowly revealing the area while earning a steady stream of income. Remember all the I.C.E. products, detailing Tolkien's world region by region? I remember when I saw one of those I wished I had them all. I didn't like the idea that I wouldn't know the canon detail on Mordor, for example. Wasn't the Known World handled in a similar way? I'm not sure, Greyhawk was the world of my youth. I clearly remember the excitement of getting the Greyhawk boxed set for a birthday. It encapsulated a lot of the things I love about roleplaying games, different cultures, languages, hints at epic events of the past. I ate that thing up.

And yet I have never set any adventure in Greyhawk. I was always afraid that I would do something "wrong." Part of the reason I liked the setting was the sense I got that it had a real history, that a lot of it got developed through play. But that feeling also gave me the sense that a real person had developed this and was an expert on the history of his world. Now its true that I could have ignored that, and many people must have, but I think that eventually there will be a level of detail that is unassailable to a DM, a level of detail where a setting wants stories set in it not adventurers exploring it. Tekumel is an example of this for me too.

Because Detail is Dominant, the more you put in your product the less likely I will use it.

Along those lines I was fascinated to read that the original Forgotten Realms boxed set promised that certain areas would never be developed that those areas would be left to the DM. What better evidence that what the DM needs is not what the company is offering. In effect, TSR was saying, "We have this setting we are selling as a product line and we realize doing this makes it less useful to you, so here is a little bit of it we'll leave for you to use." It doesn't really work, though, because your area would border on their areas, and eventually, they'll do some world changing event that will be hard to ignore even in your backwater.

Anyway, what about the OSR? I haven't checked out Points of Light yet, and I don't have the old Judges Guild Wilderlands, but I wonder if these are closer to what would be useful to DMs. I think the setting has to manage the fine balance of saving the DM the grunt work of setting up a plausible array of cultures and countries without closing off any possibilities. But maybe this is really tilting at windmills. Because placing cultures implies a history, and trade routes and climates and you are quickly immersed in implied detail again.

Maybe the solution is: forget the damn big picture, my players and I don't need more than the briefest idea that there is a Lemuria, we certainly don't need a whole continent mapped to play first level characters. So what do we need?

The common answer is adventures! Modules! I think this is another thing that is deceptively desirable. You have an adventure like the The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, packed with goodies and bad guys, your players go in clean the place out and . . . never think of that location again. At least that's what we did as players in my campaign.

What I want are locations. I keep reading this term that old school adventures are "location-based", and maybe this true in comparison with later developments in roleplaying-- the adventure paths and such. But without those later developments I think the term would be laughable. The classic modules were set up as adventures. They were designed to be run at a convention in a matter of hours, with a goal. This was not, "hey let's go explore that cool series of caverns" it was "we have to neutralize the Drow threat".

This is great for the company, they can reuse the detail developed for use in their conventions, because Detail is Expensive, remember. But for me the lowly DM it causes a lot of problems. The adventure implies you have Drow in your world, and mountains in a certain relationship to settled lands, and that certain events have happened in your world. Where do you stick these modules? And the excitement of wildly different locations for modules means, what, I have to have my characters travel to the jungle one week, the mountains next week, underground the next?

Where is the product that gives a rough sketch of a swamp area with monsters and features that are plausible for such a terrain? Or a product that outlines a system of caverns. Oh, wait that was B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. That module seems to be critically acclaimed, and yet where are the similar products that give the brief outlay of a small area that a DM can drop into a their world wherever they want?

Where are the towns? The only one that seems to ever get mentioned is Hommlet and that is pretty closely tied to the TOEE and the world of Greyhawk. I want some generic, semi-realistic medieval towns to plop down in my world, and cities, and castles.

Maybe what I'm talking about is not detail, but the tools to make my own detail. The flurry of hireling generators and things Like James Raggi's random Inn generator spring to mind. While these kind of things have been offered before, I think they are counter to the goals of a company. If you sell a hireling generator, and it's a good one, well the DM will never need another one, and they'll never need a list of hirelings.

Wait, wait wait. I'm realizing that I'm rambling on here and just sort of freewriting instead of deriving some ideas as I had hoped. I think I'll publish this anyway, in hopes it's of interest, but try a fresh post to boil it down more.

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