Wednesday, 29 July 2009
Old School: Not for the Likes of ~You~
A few weeks back there was some scuttlebutt bouncing around the echo chamber about how to get the younger generation into old-school/neoclassical (hat-tip: Trollsmyth) gaming. I think the best way to go about this is to play to the inherent wilfulness of youth.
Stop trying to convert people. Tell them that they're not welcome, and that this game is not for them.
Sounds perverse and counter-intuitive, I know. But kids, as a rule, are fascinated by and drawn to what - at least by adult lights - they can't or shouldn't have. We can all think of instances where prohibition and dire threats of calamitous consequences about foo, bar or skub actually pique interest in a way that sober explanation and parental indifference never would. It should be easy enough to make difficulty, obscurity and exclusivity a selling point to a price- and status-conscious group habituated to playing zero-sum 'pecking order' games by their everyday lives.
To paraphrase something I read on Grognardia a while back: think back and remember when you were playing Basic D&D back in the day. Fun, wasn't it? Right up until you heard about AD&D, the more complex, advanced game with "For adults 12 & upwards" right there on the front page. That cleverly worded caution was a siren call to many a young geek, just like the 18A (UK) or R-18 (US) rating on a movie became a lodestar for seekers of illicit televisual extremes. One look at those big hardback books and suddenly you didn't want the kiddy's stuff that came in a box any more: you wanted the big, difficult grown-up game. The fake sense of exclusivity was enough.
Moreso even that with TSR's own advertising, D&D was never so popular as when it was "the satanic game" which drew the wrath of lunatic pamphleteer and porn imagery appropriator Jack Chick, and gave the delightfully deranged Pat Pulling and her absurd MADD pressure group conniptions and sleepless nights. This odour of brimstone gave our tame little paper-and-dice pastime a faux-rebellious air of danger that the best Madison Avenue campaigns could only ever dream of. Heavy metal imagery and Anton Lavey's Satanic Bible became inextricably linked with the DMG and polyhedral dice in the minds of entire generations of imaginative teenagers with money clutched in their hot little hands.
A similar controversy = profit! outbreak occurred in the 1990s when the release of the first iteration of Vampire: the Cash-Cow lifted White Wolf to the top of the RPG market on the strength of its darker-and-edgier, bad boy imagery and subject matter. Of course, this was helped greatly by the fact that TSR had by that point lost any sense of what the paying customer actually wanted from their game. As WOTC later discovered with the interesting but less-than-stellar selling Everway, New Age simply don't shift product the way the adolescent rage and angst of SLA Industries did. (Just imagine if they'd bundled a Tarot deck in the Everway box though...)
How do you recapture that sense of edginess and danger? Well, assuming that trapping that particular lightning in a bottle twice is even possible, I offer you three words: Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa. By confronting and openly talking about subjects in his old-school release that the generally PG-13 mainstream games industry (honourable exception: Call of Cthulhu, and I bet this has a lot to do with its longevity and near-universal popularity) usually shies away from or tries to prettify Geoffrey McKinney made a name for his product. Love it or hate it: you've heard of Carcosa, and probably have an opinion of it.
I'm not suggesting that the OSR needs a darker and edgier Dork Age, or that many of the excellent writers out there should strive to be crass and outrageous for the sake of it (that way FATAL lies...), or so desperate for edgy topicality that they mimic Holistic Design's rather tasteless 'ripped from the headlines' Real Life Role-Playing war porn series. But there is a provable market advantage to not being entirely wholesome, clean cut, and the kind of thing your Sunday School teacher would approve of. Games Workshop made millions from their brand of war fetishism with a gothic flavour, and I understand Metal Hurlant and 2000AD have been selling well for decades on the back of their definitely non-Comics Code content. Outrage and controversy, if done right, get noticed.
Another few words for you: Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Some people consider James Raggi a loudmouth with a fine line in toe-stomping hyperbole. These are usually the same people who conveniently ignore the fact that the man has actually put his money where his mouth is when it comes to his (strongly held) opinions on gaming. I'm not saying Jim should be the model and/or mascot for a putative OSR youth outreach program. In fact, I'm pretty sure he'd run screaming from the idea. But who better than someone dramatic, loud and opinionated to proselytise young gamers desperate to find something worth investing their time, energy and effort in? There's a good reason that pompous, over-loud, overblown, outrageous rock music appeals to the 'young, unsubtle and all nerve endings' age-group after all. ;)
When the endless fekin' grind of WoWcraft becomes a chore, and the empty gaming calories of XboX achievements leave a sickly taste of ennui, there should be someone older and wiser standing by there to say: "Try this. It's the good stuff. First hit's free. We won't judge you, you just want some fun." (Hmm, I wonder what the current things you're not allowed to say taboos are...)
Stop letting lazy media hacks treat us as cheap punchlines and instead present old-school D&D as the kind of shady, slightly edgy and 'not for the likes of you' thing that outrages parents (quite regardless of the fact your Dad did it back in the day. The young have little, if any, sense of historical context). Watch the new players flood in.
note: I'm claiming no definite knowledge on this and am definitely not looking to start a new Mishlergate. I'm just another geek with an opinion. But I know what got me into old-school again. The sense (true or spurious) of it being a well-kept secret shared by a few like-minded souls.
Head back behind the parapet. Time to get back to game content for me.