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.


  1. While I disagree with some of the suggested methods presented, I find this post fascinating, insightful and altogether masterfully written.

    It's not like any of the youth of today would want to play an RPG based on car-jacking, drive-bys, drug dealing, organized crime and gun fetishes, right?

    My 14 year-old complained quite tellingly so a few years back: "Why are all of the good games rated M?" as he held a copy of GTA.

    Let's face it, our hobby is quite simply far too abstract a concept for the minds of today's youth. There's no way they could grasp it.

    (Just playing along there!)

  2. >>I'm not saying Jim should be the model and/or mascot for a putative OSR youth outreach program.

    Hi kids! I was born during the Ford administration. I've never had a drink of alcohol, haven't played a console video game since 1993, and believe that downloading free music is morally wrong. Let me tell you about something cool...

  3. Yes, indeed. Warhammer, and Dungeons & Dragons were very much what the "older kids" were doing, and I lost interest in each successively because they lost their edge in my perception (relative to alcohol and girls). I still remember how Rogue Trader blew my mind in my early teens, but even now I regard regard these franchises as fairly childish pursuits, slightly better than collecting Transformers...

    Yeah, pretty sad of me to categorise things like that, but the lessons of youth are hard to put away. Making these things "cool again" has largely been a function of readjusting my own attitudes towards them.

  4. I know your heart is in the right place, but reading through this article makes me think of those comedic boardroom ad campaign meeting parodies where a bunch of middle aged advertising executives fumblingly attempt to figure out how to market their product as "dope" or "fly" or "tight".

    This whole "remember when you were told something was bad for you so you wanted it" mentality just shows how out of touch people contemplating this idea are. Carcosa, for all its debatable depravity, is shruggingly banal when you compare it to your average hardcore porno website. The promiscuity of information on the internet means that nothing so laughably "edgy" as a pen and paper RPG, no matter its content, will ever tantalize or draw in any but the most naive kids these days. When your average 12 year old can watch streaming hardcore porn on their iPhones, an RPG written by some 30-something that talks about underage sex, or cannibalism, or whatever, is pretty much a snooze-fest.

    Again...why do the 30-somethings feel the need to market their niche-in-a-niche idea to the XBox generation?

  5. On the other hand, Badelaire, it's one thing to have access to the streaming port, it's another thing entirely to do so. AND it's a third thing to have intimate, edgy role-playing with live human beings.

    Recently ran my nephews (age 15 and 12) through a B/X game (their first time with a traditional pen-and-paper RPG). For all Halo3 and Call of Duty 4 (not to mention films like Constantine) might have jaded them...well, they weren't. They thought it was awesome, they played till 3am and they were crazily perplexed when trying to figure out what to do with goblins they'd taken prisoner ("we can't just KILL them!"). When actually put into the perspective of their characters (as opposed to an FPS console), they really got hit hard. Or rather "bit" hard...with the D&D bug.

    They really wanted to come over and play more this weekend, but I have in-laws visiting. However, I am going to give them a copy of Labyrinth Lord.
    : )

    Oh...and their mother (who remembers D&D was once associated with Satan), is NOT especially approving.

  6. An excellent post! I think there is something to the idea of not writing just-for-kids, in an attempt to bring them into the fold. I loved that the game was obviously written with a non-childish view point in mind when I was a child myself. I've always hated kids stuff. The toy version of anything seemed insulting to me as a kid.
    I don't think James Raggi would be a bad choice as OSR outreach spokes monger.
    just imagine.
    "kids, this is James. He's here today to tell us about role playing back in the day."
    children: "Huzzzah! Lead us to victory, Mighty Lord!"

  7. "AND it's a third thing to have intimate, edgy role-playing with live human beings."

    Intimate, edgy mean like Vampire: the Masquerade?

    Look at it this way; despite its reputation, V:tM tried to do exactly what you're looking at something like Carcosa to do; take role-playing games away from their "safe-place" and make things interesting and new again for another generation.

    Looking back almost 20 years later, and we see how well that worked out. Yeah, it was edgy - it also got picked up by a bunch of The Crow obsessed dorks who thought they were being anti-establishment by wearing a lot of black lipstick.

    So by all means - promote "Old School D&D" as a game that's all about pre-teen rape and cannibalism and human sacrifice and doing the nasty with demons or whatever. Yeah, you might get a few of the "younger crowd" to check it out.

    But you'll probably also get a bunch who google "Carcosa" from their iPhones and what turns up isn't really cool, dark, edgy stuff; rather, it's a bunch of blog and forum posts written by middle-aged nerds arguing over Dungeons & Dragons.

    Yeah, that sounds appealing to your average sixteen-year old...

    (And for the record, I don't care a fig one way or another about Carcosa. I never read it, I only read snippets of it posted for review, and I'm fairly certain it's not as loathsome as many make it out to be.)

  8. Of course, we could leave off with all this recruiting nonsense -- especially by trying to pull transparent stunts like these -- and play.

    If people (of any age) are interested, they'll come play too.

    By the same token, we're better off setting out to write and play and promote what we want, not to create some image to try and lure people in. This is a hobby, not a political platform.

    And here I swore I was never touching this mess again.

    Failed my charm save, I suppose.

  9. For the record, I just googled "Carcosa RPG" from my iPod touch and, in fact, found a crap-ton of blog-drama. Go figure.

    And I'm even posting this comment from my iPod. How modern of me.

  10. Having been around when D&D came on the market, and having initially been opposed to it (I was into wargaming, a fantasy RPG just rubbed me the wrong way). What changed my mind about the game was simply this. I was talked into trying it and found out how much fun it is. The secret to getting youth into it is the same recipe as was used to convert wargamers. Get them to try it.

  11. Badelaire has a point. While I agree that going for the sex'n'violence as a marketing ploy would be silly, by the same token people shouldn't worry about sanitizing their work or keeping it "family friendly" either.

    Just do what comes naturally and make the best material you know how. If it's hardcore filth, so be it. If it's fluffy bunny feelgoodiness, so be it.

    Just don't posture in an attempt to grab an audience. Be an artist. Be a craftsman. Don't be a suit.

  12. I know your heart is in the right place, but reading through this article makes me think of those comedic boardroom ad campaign meeting parodies...

    So the tone and theme came off exactly as planned. /inscrutable

    I suppose I was suggesting the OSR try to fake integrity for the sake of sales, instead of actually retaining its' existing hobbyist authenticity.

    Tree. Wrong. Barking. Yep.

    Fek it. The larvae can google, and old school games are there if they want them. Evangelising a bunch of flighty, faddy oiks is too much like hard work.

    Me <== shut up and roll the dice. ;)

  13. If you really want to get younger kids into the game, don't make em google Swords and Wizardry or whatever. Run a game for some visiting cousins, your kids, or some friends of the family on a rainy day. If one of them really catches the spark, teach 'em to DM. They'll start corrupting their friends, and the hobby is a force of nature from there on out.

    When I first started DMing in the 5th grade or so (I actually started playing AD&D when I was 7-8 in my dad's campaign), I taught two of my friends from school to play using the Dragon's Den boxed set. One of my friends' younger brothers was intrigued enough to first join our group, then run his own game and teach five or six more players. Three of whom started up their own campaigns and recruited even more, and my own had increased in size to six or seven by that point...

    While that campaign didn't spark the *entire* D&D tradition in my hometown - there were a couple other groups around I hadn't heard about at the time - the act of running a boxed game in 5th grade for three people did end up bringing thirty or forty people into the hobby. As far as I know, that particular chain reaction is *still* picking up players.

    If you want more people playing your favorite games? Sit down and start up a campaign! It's how its always worked, and you don't have to 'spin' the game to make it happen.

  14. "If you want more people playing your favorite games? Sit down and start up a campaign! It's how its always worked, and you don't have to 'spin' the game to make it happen."


    I have a friend of mine who I've known for about twelve years now. We went to film school together and he was a roommate of mine after college for about six years. During all that time, he knew I played RPGs and had no interest in them (there was a lot of good-natured mocking that went on as well).

    Then about six months ago he started dating another friend of mine who was in my Castles & Crusades game, and he sheepishly asked if he could show up for a session and play. He rolled up a fighter, bought him some mail, a shield, and a mace, and started crushing skulls. When he defeated a minotaur champion at the end of the first session, he was hooked.

    By the same token, another boyfriend of one of my players would hang out and just chill with us while we gamed. He also eventually picked up a pre-gen I made up for him (since he was a fighter, under "Special Abilities" I wrote simply "You Kick Ass" - that caught his attention...) and once he got into the fun of slicing open bad guys and engaging in all sorts of adventurous hijinks, he was also hooked.

    Although I HATE Gaming/Religion comparisons, I have to say that "conversion", such as it is, works best for both when done at a personal experience level. Asking the interested party "What are you looking for?" and then coming back with "This is how you can get what you want" will work for you a shockingly high percentage of the time.

  15. Want to get "young people" interested in the game?

    It's really simple, and it doesn't involve publishing any sort of type of work or darker and edgier nonsense, or sending LotFP out to frighten the squares.

    Put the game in front of them! As said above, run a game for them, let them experience it and either love it or hate it.

    More so, stop selling the game to just gamers. Right now, unless you know what you're looking for (i.e., you're already a gamer), you'll never find any of these things. By the time somebody's already a gamer, they've already chosen the game they like, and chances are it's not going to be LL, S&W or Osric.

    Sell the book through book stores, hobby stores (not gaming stores), toy stores, supermarkets, and anywhere somebody who's not already a gamer might look and decide to give it a whirl. Even if only 1% of the people who see it actually buy it, you'll do much better than trying to sell to a gaggle of fickle gamers.

    Get them before they know they're gamers!

  16. Um…no, I was not talking about Vampire the Masquerade. I guess I should have defined better what I meant when I said “intimate, edgy, role-playing.”

    By “intimate” I mean the dictionary definition as in: close acquaintance; pertaining to one’s innermost nature; characterized by informality and privacy. By “edgy” I meant “pushing the envelope beyond the superficial what’s-okay-to-everyone.”

    Let me give some specific examples of each:

    There is nothing INTIMATE about on-line gaming; there is no closeness that comes from gaming with someone you do not see. On-line gaming creates separation and alienation in members of a community. Yes, one may be communicating and cooperating MORE THAN, say, playing a console game by oneself, but it is not the same as having a conversation with a friend or family member, let alone playing a face-to-face game.

    Likewise there is nothing particularly EDGY about games like World of Warcraft, as my teenage nephew can attest to. There is never a moral dilemma presented like “do you kill the prisoners” or “do you save your companions or save yourself.” On-line gaming provides no risk, other than wasted time (which, since its pay-per-month, I guess equals wasted money). Table-top gaming, as opposed to computer games, has the ability to make us care or feel more deeply.

    If you don’t want that in a game, then you don’t need to play RPGs. And I think it IS possible to make the games more appealing by making them more “adult.”

  17. "Hi kids! I was born during the Ford administration."

    Whipper-snapper, get your Scandinavian Metal ass off my retirement community's golf course!

  18. But you can leave those - drool, chomp - tasty snacks right here.

  19. I agree. I think we've been holding back too much in order to sanitize our image and it's been harmful in the long run. No creativity, no balls: no audience.

    I think a lot of the objections to this idea are coming from puritan christian types.


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