Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The OSR as D&D Stuckists

I am not a big fan of the moniker "OSR". I find it a little self-congratulatory, but also, being 36, I can't claim to have been on the D&D bandwagon long enough to feel comfortable adopting it. While I feel I have to use it, I regret doing so.

I have no expectation of any alternatives catching on, but I'd prefer to think of myself as a D&D Stuckist. Stuckism is an artists' movement which was established to promote "contemporary figurative painting with ideas"; it was started by a group of British artists in the late 1990s and took its name from Tracy Emin's accusation that Billy Childish, one of the founders, was "Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!" in the past. You can read its manifestos here, but in essence the group is about rejecting post-modernism in art, particularly in the way it is deployed in the contemporary British scene, and returning to humanist and universalist goals.

A lot of the Stuckist literature feels very teenage and deliberately provocative, although you get some nice soundbites out of it ("To call The Turner Prize 'The Turner Prize' is like calling bubble-gum 'caviar'"; "Today's critics display a disgraceful cowardice"). Two key concepts emerge: Remodernism and Anti-anti-art. The former is a plea for a re-engagement with Modernism - attempting to grapple with what it means to be human and with fundamental human truths through art. The latter is an assertion that Duchamp's insights may have been valuable in the context in which he was producing his Readymades, but that in the contemporary artistic establishment 'anti-art' had become the stultifying norm and true innovation was a return to 'spiritual art'.

D&D Stuckism doesn't need to be thought of as being quite so pretentious and porpentous as that. Quite the opposite. It's not about Remodernism and Anti-anti-art. D&D Stuckism (the 'OSR') has, rather, been about re-randomization and anti-anti-gamism.

Re-randomization is a return to, and re-engagement with, the creative power of dice, random tables, and sandbox play. It throws narrative control out of the door and reconnects us with processes which foster organic and surprising gaming session and campaigns.

Anti-anti-gamism is the reaction against two different movements which came to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s. The first strand ran through Dragonlance by way of the Old World of Darkness games through to 4th edition D&D. It emphasised story and deliberate construction and playing-out of narratives. The second ran through The Forge by way of Dogs in the Vineyard through Fate. It emphasised the spreading of narrative control from GM/referee to the players in order to make the creation of story the explicit aim of 'play'. Both of these movements were "anti-gamist" because they viewed the old ways of doing things - dice, dungeons, death saves - as embarrassingly like a game with winners and losers, and insufficiently high standards for hoped-for outcomes (a "story").

D&D Stuckism, in other words, isn't about reviving the old for its own sake; it's a desire to use old principles to revitalize what is current.

22 comments:

  1. Interesting post. I've been interested in, though not fanatical for, the OSR, and I'm also aware of Stuckism. The way I see it both are ways of saying this art form does not need to follow a linear path - it can branch out, and the 'old ways', such as figurative paintings and dungeon crawls, can be just as valid as new ways (pickled sharks, narrative-based play). For me it becomes more a matter of taste and popularity than there being a 'right way' vs 'wrong way'. I also feel that both with visual art and RPGs there is considerable middle ground between the two camps.

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    1. I think in both cases there was a strong reaction against a perceived orthodoxy which insisted on the new being necessarily better than the old. So perhaps you are right.

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  2. :)
    I'm 33, an' I feel ya on this! ;)

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  3. " isn't about reviving the old for its own sake; it's a desire to use old principles to revitalize what is current"

    Sounds to me like a ...Renaissance. An Old School Renaissance, you might say. :p

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    1. When the 'old school' has a Tintoretto or an equivalent of the printing press let me know.

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    2. I think there is definitely OSR material which in some ways surpasses the originals. D&D 1974-1985 never produced an actual published playable megadungeon. One reason this form of play declined; people came to see the 32 page competition module as normative. Now we have several - I'm GMing Stonehell currently, along with Dyson's Delves.

      Likewise the hexcrawl; Rob Conley does better work on this form of play now than Judges Guild ever published back in the day - I use his parts of the 3e Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

      Those are just my own favourites, other people like LotFP or whatever. Certainly the OSR relation to OD&D bears comparison to the Renaissance relation to Greco-Roman civilisation, at a much smaller scale of course. But it is not the case that all OSR material is inferior or trivial compared to the great works of the past.

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    3. Maybe I'll put it a different way: the use of the word "renaissance" in the context of something so trivial as role playing games is incredibly pompous in my opinion.

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    4. I find this attiude weird (especially from a smart chap like you); AFAICS you can have a renaissance in all kinds of relatively trivial stuff, the term is quite widespread. It's not a pompous claim for that stuff's deep importance. It's just a somewhat playful analogy.

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    5. Oh... I guess I don't see RPGs as inherently more trivial than other forms of entertainment - including certainly the vast bulk of art. A trip round the Tate Britain is fun, but few of the pictures are inherently more meaningful than some of the RPG sesssions I've played. And that's the good stuff, never mind the Tate Modern! :p

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  4. I got thinking today about post-modernism via post-punk. Both post-structuralism and punk were fresh in 1976, both showed disillusionment with the bold Tradition of Revolution they grew up in. It turned out revolutions weren’t so easy, or if they were then they probably didn’t really change anything. Or what they DID change was not what punks and post-structuralists wanted - a revolution can be all things to all people _up to the moment when it succeeds and has to take control,_ at which point it must disappoint nearly everybody.
    So there was a loss of faith in settling down, in looking past the revolutionary moment.


    The truth is, post-modernism and punk have been useful. There were things that needed to be torn down. There still are. But in the Academy now it feels like it’s time to build something again. And the lessons of punk are instructive - it turned out to be easy to commoditize punk as a style. It was easier to adopt its style than its methods, and much harder to take on its intentions or ambitions (because to do that you actually have to decide what those ambitions are, which is to say, decide what you want).

    I don’t think I’m a stuckist, but I am interested in making things my own way. Not in joining anyone else’s revolution, definitely not in continuing the anti-game trend, but in complicating whatever’s going on now with This Other Thing that I think should exist, that contains ideas put forward by various people over the past 40 yesars of rpging. What does that make me?

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    1. I think post-structuralism had/has valuable insights. There's a reason why people still read Foucault. The problem is that all that perceptive critique produces nothing - it's a dead end. Okay, you critique the present so that new possibilities can be imagined. Then what? Nihilism and consumerism and identity politics, it turns out.

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    2. I read Foucault and used his ideas for some successful police work chasing fugitives.

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    3. >"it turned out to be easy to commoditize punk as a style. It was easier to adopt its style than its methods"

      Frighteningly, I see this as true of the OSR as well.

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    4. Quite...

      By the way, you're not the brandy-swilling argument-starting John Higgins I used to know in Fujisawa, are you??

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  5. I'm 31 and I still felt every word.

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  6. I read something interesting a few weeks back. A child of the WOTC D&D 4th or 5th who took that game as the foundational concept of what D&D is, notions that you have "Minis" - miniatures with pre-published stat cards and "Mats" essentially single room encounter areas, that he considered any pencil and paper D&D game that did not use miniatures or used them minimally to determine marching order etc. He called any pencil and paper game "old school", especially one, where a DM creates "his own world". This got me thinking. There are several different games, that are called D&D. You have the animal that is the Chainmail and the White Box OD&D booklets, that were a direct outgrowth of the miniatures war-gaming. By the time the red boxes of the Moldway Basic D&D set hit the toy stores, you had kids taking up D&D, who never read the Lord of the Rings and never handled miniatures. They would graduate to AD&D and they would be a different demographic of the Chainmail gamer, who tended to be grad school level military history buffs. Fast forward to the post-Gygax marketing of the game to a larger audience of kids, making the game parent-friendly, and then the dumbing down of the game and lowering of the reading level of the game by WOTC, who introduced a cheaper version of action figures (dolls for boys) as the integral part of the game, and what do you have? You have an underserved segment of the hobby, those who were initially drawn to the hobby and nobody, except certain DM's to engage them on their intellectual level.

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    1. That in a nutshell is why the OSR took off.

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  7. What OSR fanatics tend to forget, is that any DM running any game is a narrator, and whatever minimalist information he, she, or the computer provides, by whatever media - spoken, written, picture, graphic, is a dominant narrative and thus, any fantasy role playing game is a story-telling game.

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    1. I dislike this wording because there _is_ a fundamental difference between traditional gaming and story gaming. It's not a binary thing but a continuum, but it basically comes down to this: when participant makes a decision, how much are they considering strategy/tactics vs. narrative? What I'm saying is that in certain games the players are expected to make a suboptimal choice from a purely tactical point of view. Granted, it can and does happen in traditional games, too, like "I know I'll probably die, but my character's in love with the prince, so she won't abandon him". But ultimately, you are expected to know about the weaknesses of monsters, even though your character has never seen a troll - because the goal of the game is different.

      Mind you, I'm not saying any point on this spectrum is badwrongfun (I've enjoyed both extremes), but these games appeal to different wants and needs.

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  8. I hear ya Ynas! My gm likes full narrative; I like the randomness of dice; it gets in the way... that's why I always suggest playing our old house ruled adnd2, it has that balance, over say Fung shui or that style that he is interested in...plus, I find it gives him more time to think 'on the fly' while I'm say, doing a combat...gives him a break to plan. I like losing in situations, but it's nice to have the dice responsible for sure circumstance, rather than 'narrative', you know? It makes me feel more like the gm and I are on the same team when we have the dice as the 'other gm' or the 'bad guy's role.

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  9. Stuckism is such a perfect analogy. I'm kicking myself for not spotting it.

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