The grab bag portion of this site is where I republish articles and comments found within less accessible place on the Internet, like social networks that are a nuisance or impossible to link to. This is all stuff I think is great, that wasn't written by me, that's been reposted with the original author's permission. (Usually.)
What People Mean When They Say 'Story Games' and 'OSR'
by Zak Smith
On the internet you’ll here people refer to the OSR and to Story Games. Zak Smith from D&D With Porn Stars tried to sum up what those two communities are all about for his friend Stacy in this comment to a post on Google+. I’ve cleaned things up and added a brief FAQ to his original post by drawing additional text from a discussion that this comment sparked. — RAM
Ok, It’s Not Complicated
Once upon a time in the Vampire: The Masquerade era (i.e. when that game was at the height of its popularity) there was a web thing dedicated to thinking about (and sometimes making) RPGs. It was called The Forge.
The Forgies comprised three sometimes overlapping sometimes not groups:
- Those interested in analyzing RPGs in a more systematic way.
- Those interested in experimental approaches to new RPGs.
- Those unbelievably traumatized by playing RPGs at that point in their lives. Especially ones that were popular at that time. Sometimes this affected their ability to do 1 or 2.
These people went on to do all sorts of different things. (As you’d expect.)
Some of what they did emphasized specific old RPG practices or created new practices that comprise a series of characteristics we call “storygamey” (because they were particularly characteristic of that group).
Here is a summary of some of them by the founder of the Story Games website, Andy Kitkowski.1
If I were to sum these up I’d say the games that came out of the Forge tend to have more rules that supported the integrity of the genre of game and the intended play experience whereas traditional RPGs tended to have more rules supporting the integrity of the fictional game world.
So the people who were in the Forge (a semi-social community defined more by a time and a place than by necessarily common gaming interests) kept hanging out together or at least knowing each other more or less.
One of the sites created by this “postForge” or “Forge diaspora” was called “Story Games” and on that site certain games were popular and other games were actually developed on the site.
All these games that were popular or made up on that site or which emphasized game techniques and approaches popular there could be designated “Story Games”.
This social stuff is also important: many folks from Story Games know each other, they’ve met at conventions over the years and they’ve played together and worked together on games. They share common assumptions and often back each other up out of personal loyalty. No sociologist could honestly say these people did not form a distinct social community.
So to define “Story Games” you can say 2 things:
Games produced by this social group (like “Jamaican music” is music from Jamaica. It’s easy to find Jamaica.) Games which emphasize gaming practices popular or promoted by this social group (like “Reggae” is music that has certain sonic characteristics related to a kind of music invented in Jamaica at a certain time.) (Many of them are in Andy’s chart.)
Now, the OSR:
Once upon a time in the 70s there was a game called D&D. The rules had certain (often unrelated) characteristics. (Like: high-lethality and descending armor class. These characteristics are unrelated.) It also had a certain group of post-wargamers who played it in certain ways.
Over time, the game itself became popular and the rules changed. The people writing it changed. The assumptions written into the official game about campaign structure changed, etc.
At some point in the zeroes people interested in the older rules and the play styles that were no longer implicitly supported (as much) in the official version of the game—and (importantly) who were involved in making both uncreative but helpful tools (retroclones) and creative new content for those kinds of games started to recognize the web was creating what you might call a “community”.
Someone named that community the “Old School Renaissance”. It was people who had rediscovered or never left these now-less-officially-recognized ways of playing.
Some people claimed that the practices espoused by the OSR were the only or primary ways of play folks used to play back in the day. These people are idiots and have never produced anything interesting or useful. The OSR is basically just people pointing to things and going “Oh look, this here was from a long time ago and I like this about it, I’l build something from it”. Much as a Renaissance sculpture does and does not resemble the greco-roman models it is inspired by.
Since many of the folks in this conversation were interested in different aspects of the older experience, and because some of them didn’t like each other, a lot of people didn’t want to say they were part of any group with a name. But in the end, they ended up talking to (and understanding) what each other were saying way more than what other folks were saying, so they used this collective name, even though they didn’t all like it.
People who think of combat when they think of old RPGs and think of PC interaction when they think of new ones are going to see any combat-oriented game as more Old School.
People who think of homemade production values when they think of old RPGs and associate computer-assisted production with new ones are going to see any handmade-looking game as Old School.
People who think of dungeons when they think of old games and think of widescreen epics when they think of newer games are going to see any dungeon-oriented game as Old School.
People who think of medieval eurofantasy when they think of old games and think of everything else when they think of newer games are going to see any medieval eurofantasy game as Old School.
People who think of sandboxes when they think of old games and plot structures when they think of new ones are going to see any sandbox as Old School.
People who think of railroads (because they looked at different old modules than the people in the previous example) when they think of old games and oppose that to participatory plot/world-building are going to see any railroad as Old School.
People who think of a vague attachment to genre when they think of old games and associate new ones with distinctive worlds and metaplots are going to think of generic systems as Old School.
People who associate a certain kind of pseudophysics toolkit approach to mechanics as Old School and associate holistically-balanced or narrative-balanced systems with new games are going to see anything with those toolkit mechanics as Old School.
And none of those ideas are contradictory or come from misinformation.
Point is, these people are able to (relatively) easily find topics they both are aware of to talk about–so like, Old Geezer (who played D&D with Gygax and has played much the same way ever since) and me (who plays D&D more recently than in times past and uses new rules but uses certain old campaign-assumptions) can have a conversation. People who don’t understand that conversation can explain their inability to understand it (and their being outside of it) by calling it “Old School” and if there’s a lot of us and we produce new material then it’s a “Renaissance”.
Now, an important footnote to all of this, is that one of the things the OSR noticed (and said a lot) when it began to emerge after the Forge, is that the analysis by many of the postForgies of what was going on in old D&D games was, at best, partial, and, at worst, completely wrong.
Since “The Forge” was not monolithic and because the ideas debated there were often controversial even within that group, it’s not fair to say “The Forge was wrong about D&D”, but it is fair to say “A lot of people who came out of the Forge had very vocal criticisms of D&D that other postForgies agreed with that were later proved wrong”.
This is understandable as (because of their time, place and various self-selecting features of the community) these particular Forgies didn’t much come into contact with that game. Or sometimes they did, but didn’t appear to canvas a lot of other different players/groups who had different experiences before making inaccurate generalizations.
And, as we all know, people suck at describing game groups they’re not in.
A vocal subset of the postForgies essentially complained that the only reasons for various characteristics of old D&D were accidental or now-outmoded. Much of the early work of the OSR was explaining how x or y now-unpopular practice of old D&D was actually, no, wait, possibly very useful and relevant now. And because some of the post-Forgies were kind of traumatized by their early gaming and kind of hyper-zealous about new approaches, they didn’t realize this and didn’t read the OSR when it was explaining it. So they fight.
Now, you, Stacy, being a Vampire fan, can see why this is strange to you: Vampire: The Masquerade was sort of the “last” game before the Forge came into its own and decided it needed to go “Whoa wait, let’s look at what the hell RPGs are because we aren’t getting what we want out of (for instance) Vampire”. And the OSR celebrates and (more importantly) builds on (many) practices that had become unpopular before Vampire even existed.
Here is a popular source of confusion:
Both OSR and Story Games try to open up new practices and try to avoid “the GM talks and everyone else is along for the ride”, but usually in different ways.
Story Games are usually about creating new and different ways for players to directly participate in the shaping of the world, the direction of the story or its themes. The players themselves are often challenged to come up with creative directions to take the story, themes, or their portrayal of the character.
The OSR tries to do similar things, but usually through the characters—not directly. And the focus is on finding ways for the characters to be able to interact with the environment in an increasingly wide variety of ways, while still maintaining a simple core system (like PCs can fit on an index card) and the aspect of challenging the player as a puzzle challenges the puzzle solver. The emphasis is less on players providing creative content for the game but on providing creative solutions to in-world problems which then (because of simulational rules) automatically create new situations in the game world to deal with.
Both types of games and gamers have other “clouds” of characteristics that surround them—like any social group.
These are just a few.
“I don’t think you can generalize the two into social groups that grew out of, respectively, Vampire vs. D&D.”
I didn’t do that. I said “the Vampire era” because that was the most popular game when the Forge was taking off. I made further reference to it as an example because Stacy (to whom the post was addressed) is a Vampire fan and can use it as a point of reference.
I am not dividing gamers into groups, I am clarifying what people are referring to when they use these words.
“First and foremost—more than anything else really—The Forge was about independent publishing, not thinking about (and sometime making) RPGs.”
That sounds like a boring quibble. If someone wants to say “everything you said is true except the Forge was mostly about independent publishing” then, really, it’s not a big deal to me. fine. This is a post about what people are saying when they use the words “OSR” or “Story Games” in conversations youre likely to hear now .
“The Forge was not a brand and wasn’t meant to be.”
I did not say it was. Note the judicious use of “some” “often” etc. I did not generalize much and when I did I qualified it. I am describing how people use words descriptively. Not prescriptively.
I am describing things that happened historically.
“I don’t like the terms ‘OSR’ or ‘Story Games’”
You use words to describe what’s there. Without the word “Story Games” or “OSR” you literally would not be able to describe certain things that are there now in the world without using way more words . The only way to get rid of words is create and use better ones that people want to adopt. Not by petitioning that using them is bad.
I don’t like the phrase “figurative painting”. But I know what it means when people say it. The purpose of this is to explain what these terms mean when people say them to Stacy, who said she didn’t know.