Wednesday, April 17, 2013

S&W Appreciation Day: An Opening Reflection

To be perfectly honest, my first encounter with Matt Finch's work—a reading of his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming—initially helped to turn me off the Old School Renaissance. The Quick Primer is a manifesto, a polemic making a case for old-style games, and so, as genre dictates, it has to make strawmen of its opponents. Matt's depiction of a "new-style" GM is self-admittedly extreme, but it still rubbed me the wrong way back in early 2009—especially since I, who was playing and loving Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons at the time, considered myself to be a gamer of roughly equal vintage to the self-professed Old Schoolers. I didn't appreciate being lectured about "rulings, not rules" and a great many other "old-style" principles I had been applying to so-called "new-style" games for decades.

My reaction to the Quick Primer didn't make me charitable to the earliest versions of Swords & Wizardry either. What I saw in those texts was a version of D&D even more "extreme" than the one I had abandoned in the mid-1980s for such games as WEG Star Wars and the Second Edition of Talislanta. I came to D&D through first the Holmes and then the Moldvay Basic sets; I had no emotional or historical connection to OD&D. So I deleted my downloads of S&W and moved on.

Or so I thought. I loves me a good controversy, and so I had quietly followed the various flame wars between advocates of the OSR and the "new-style." I even took part in a few debates in the comments section of James Maliszewki's Grognardia, defending the honor of post-1985 games against James and his fellow Old Schoolers. Because I knew James personally from our 1990s days as freelancers for White Wolf, there was nothing personal in these exchanges. Moreover, I had to admit that there was an awful lot of awesomeness emanating from the Old School blogs: I didn't accept their basic premises, but I appreciated their creativity.

So when I decided to launch a Barbarians of Lemuria-themed blog of my own in February 2010, I did so with an eye toward dialogue with the sword-and-sorcery-inclined members of the OSR. James did me a solid by promoting Vargold on Grognardia, and I began adding OSR blogs to my blogroll. Updating the blogroll led in turn to lots of reading, and reading led to sympathy and a better understanding of what Old Schoolers were up to—even if I still occasionally find myself gritting my teeth in response to certain comments about "new-style" games and gamers. I was also playing Fourth Edition at Urbana's Armored Gopher Games just a few tables away from Jeff Rients's Wessex game, and it was easy to see and hear the raucous good time all those Old Schoolers were having.

(It didn't hurt that the OSR had Peter Mullen producing artistic gems like the covers of S&W White Box and S&W Core and Knockspell #1. I'm a visual guy, and the OSR's cultivation of interesting artists really spoke to me.)

Long-time readers of Vargold were there for this transition, reading along as I discovered such OSR games as Kevin Crawford's Stars Without Number, Chris Gonnerman's Basic Fantasy RPG, and John Stater's Blood & Treasure. I'm not a convert to the Old School: conversion reeks too much of purity for my taste, and so I've continued reading and playing newer games alongside older ones, Dungeon World in conjunction with Dungeon Crawl Classics. Not surprisingly, it's clear that my favorite OSR systems are precisely those presenting themselves as hybrids, neo-clones, and chimerae.

This was my mental state earlier this year when I gave S&W another look. I'll admit that it was the striking Erol Otus cover to S&W Complete that grabbed my attention: the illustration contains everything that I love about Otus's work without being a slavish recreation of his earlier glories (something I thought the Hackmaster covers indulged in too much). It's also true that I can't resist a $9.99 gaming PDF. I summoned PayPal and bought the game.

What impressed me most about S&W Complete was the capacious tone undertaken by Matt and his collaborators: optional sequences for combat, rules for ascending or descending Armor Class, guidelines for replacing demi-human level limits with XP penalties, and all manner of sidebars suggesting alternative approaches and solutions. This version of S&W seemed to me to be less about strict re-creation and more about awesome recreation. (I've subsequently downloaded the latest free versions of White Box and Core and found them to be similarly loosened up and self-conscious.)

There also seems to me to be a friendlier, less-defensive tone in the OSR community these days. Maybe it's the G+ interface, or maybe it's just that the OSR as a group more or less gave up its agon with Wizards of the Coast (or at least largely agreed to stop going on about it). Whatever the cause, I find that Old Schoolers are spending more time creating wonderful things than on policing their boundaries against "new-style" interlopers. I feel as though I can now confess to liking Barbarians of Lemuria and Crypts & Things at the same time without getting critiqued for doing so—and that's a significant change since 2008.

So that's how I've come to appreciate Swords & Wizardry. I'm still more likely to run the game in its Crypts & Things incarnation: the changes made to the system by Akrasia and Newt Newport are more to my liking. But I can also begin to see ways to work those changes back into the more traditional D&D-style setting that S&W assumes. Indeed, I'm sure that many of the posts published today will help me to do so. Thanks!

Up next: a party of Crypts & Things adventurers to send a-tomb-robbing.


  1. I'm glad you got past the Mr. Hyde appearance of the Primer ... it was written not as an argument for or against anything, which is where everyone gets mad at me. It was supposed to be for a very specific purpose that I kept running into people on ENWorld who said "I tried playing OD&D but I had to fill in the rules from 3e because OD&D is incomplete." So, really the Primer's addressed to someone who is going to try OD&D from a 3e background, and explain how to grok that it's not incomplete. Unfortunately, and it's no doubt my fault for not being clear about the purpose of the essay (but I had no idea that thousands of people would read the thing), it has come to be read as a polemic against "new school" gaming. If it's a polemic, then the description of 3e gaming is a straw man ... but as a prep for the coming game, the description of what you're trying to avoid is certainly going to sound like I'm saying to avoid it. But that was the premise, not the conclusion, which is what people don't seem to get (and which might definitely be, as I said, because I wasn't clear about it). I only expected to use it when someone said, "We're going to try out OD&D tonight," and I would say, "Hey, read this first, it might be useful." Only ... it was like a genie out of a bottle the way people started using it to define what they meant by "old school gaming." It got used for purposes waaaaay beyond what it was actually written for.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Matt. In retrospect, I can see how what you're saying here is reflected in the Primer--but at the time I was clearly reading it through the lens of the online furor around it.

  2. Believe me, I totally understand. If it's handed to someone as the expression of one side of an edition war, it looks utterly poisonous. It really is a "primer," not in the sense of "edumacatin' them youngsters 'bout how it's done," but in terms of making the paradigm-shifting jump into how DM-fiat/rules-lite gaming actually works. Unfortunately, in the edition war context, that "Primer" part of the title is enough to set one's teeth on edge right there before the first paragraph. For the task it's supposed to do, I still think it's a handy guidebook, but it's very incomplete and high-handed if it's read as a manifesto.