Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lack of Originality in the OSR is Driven from the Top Down

Two prevailing assumptions which are promoted implicitly by the 'thinktank' within the OSR are damaging to the OSR if it has any serious intent to produce work rising above the mediocre.

The assumptions are that,
(i) it is 'good' to produce material which can be read swiftly and referred to with instant gratification at the gametable. The material is all surface; ideas are tiny and pop-out at the reader.

(ii) all campaigns are generic with atmospheres as coherent as the toy-stuffed child's playroom. Tonal cramming ensures a campaign is disorganised enough to receive bleeding chunks surgically removed from any other campaign.

These assumptions are *opposed* to originality.

In my opinion the most important elements of Fantasy are originality and language. The great fantasy novels benefitted from attention paid to both. I believe language in the hands of someone who can write is a powerful tool in D&D but it is not essential. Originality remains essential. The more wildly creative D&D material is the less likely it can be slapped in thoughtlessly into someone else's campaign but surely strange and powerful sub-creation remains the most valuable contribution a writer can make to the D&D community.

Opposing the assumptions I say,

(i) no, don't only use the surface of language. I need something deeper than convenience, more thoughtful, if I am to be inspired by your ideas or believe in your world. 

(ii) no, I don't want to use your material directly. Give a good account of what it is like to adventure in your world. Make me envious of your campaign and your creativity. Inspire me to improve my game. 

It may be true that plug and play modules are what most DMs want, in which case I ask, in the interests of modesty and honesty that it is admitted that these kinds of works are pieces of shit compared to original work.

The OSR Thinktank

"Oh my gawd, is that Kent?" (fag voice)

OSR vs TSR thread at theRPGsite.



  1. I would like to know a bit more about how you conceive of originality. Obviously you aren't opposed to pilfering ideas, places, and characters from your favorite fantasy novels for use in your campaign, nor should you be. However I think it obligates you to substantiate how exactly the kind of idea trading which goes on in the OSR is opposed to your variety of source material appropriation.

    Personally I don't like the term originality because there are no new ideas, only new uses of ideas which have come before.

    For my part I think there is affinity between the stagnation of the OSR with my observation that Lovecraft-inspired horror stories which use Lovecraft's tone without reference to his entities or affected use of his style are much superior to those which seek to write a story exactly as he would.

  2. You appear to be arguing in bad faith because I know you are not foolish. You don't know the difference between origins and originality? You are not familiar with notion that music, art and written works may be derivative, imitative, formulaic, 'from the school of' or hackwork?

    My argument is easily made by referring to the very words of those I am criticizing for they view imitation of the standard module form and generic reusability of material across campaigns as the highest accomplishments.

    >> Personally I don't like the term originality because there are no new ideas, only new uses of ideas which have come before.

    That, Im afraid is a stupid comment. You are not aware that with time the scope of possibility within music, art and literature broadens following innovations by highly original individuals. Robert Hughes book on Modern Art, The Shock of the New, has a meaningless title for you?

    Originality is a component of creativity if the creator attempts something new. In the post above I made it very clear how this clashes with OSR principles.

    1. >>Originality is a component of creativity if the creator attempts something new. In the post above I made it very clear how this clashes with OSR principles.

      You're right, I oversimplified. I don't completely dismiss originality as an aesthetic concept, but I am wary of placing too much importance on it. My notion of originality comes from my reading of Arthur Koestler some years ago. I agree that originality is an important concept, but when someone uses it as a blunt device I want to hear what they think it is. You have described your own campaign as "a fantasy unlimited ragbag of plundered sources" but accuse OSR dweebs of tonal disjunction and faddish omnivorousness. Your own material is consistent with the values you express in the above post (as reflected in the second two observations) despite having superficial similarities to that which you decry. This is what interests me. I'm not accusing you of hypocrisy. I'm agreeing with you but trying to work out what exactly makes for originality in fantasy settings consciously patched together from literary or gaming precedents.

    2. You should be aware that you are asking an extremely difficult question and the answer would explain the difference between a poet and a professor of English Literature (1) among other questions. Why impressive professors produce dreadful poetry for all their skill with language, analytics and good taste is a deep question. If you can find the answer to what makes a poet a poet or where does artistic creativity and originality come from please let me know.

      Note how much easier it is to identify a poet than it is to explain why a professor can't write poetry. It is a different thing to recognize originality than to explain how it arises. I am identifying a simpler problem above which is that the community is disinterested in originality, it is considered alienating and anti-communal. In the same way I consider the prevailing taste for material promoted by the 'thinktank' to be anti-creative as I have explained above.

      Also note in all this I am talking about potential original works, written by *others*, that I want to read.

      (1) I exclude all brainwashed cultural theorists, feminists, marxists from the title "professor of ... "

    3. Ive been thinking Mathias if there is a way to address your comments more positively.

      While I believe the substance of invention is obscure there are, in the beginning, simple questions which should be asked such as, "Is this a cliche?" and "Am I borrowing heavily here from someone who is frequently borrowed from?"

      Newness can open the door to randomness, foolishness and inconsistency and yet the notion of sufficient difference from influences is crucial to the sense of originality.

      In future posts when I describe adventure material related to exploration of Africa at the least I can list the order in which ideas came to me and identify which ideas are sustaining and important to me in an effort to open up the process of creation to some sort of inspection.

    4. That would be very interesting!

      I agree that true originality is an essence which defies re-production through imitation, but I think we can benefit by careful scrutiny of the methods we observe being employed. Creativity and originality are inborn capacities but anyone can improve on whatever talent they have by careful thought and practice. The English professor may not write Good poetry, but his poetry will be better for his studies. We are of course talking about Dungeons and Dragons, not poetry, so the stakes are smaller (though I agree that shouldn't excuse mediocrity).

      I was thinking about Koestler's idea about "bisociation" ( briefly, the presentation of old ideas in previously unrelated contexts) and it occurred to me that it was very similar to the method you proposed some time ago about re-producing the ideas of one author in the idiom of another to produce original scenarios.

    5. OK I see. Koestler I know only from Darkness at Noon. I agree that the stakes are small, and arguably should be small, for Dungeons & Dragons and yet as an outlet for creativity I approach it with dedication because this pleases me ... until I find some other outlet.

      We can agree that The Hobbit is somehow less than poetry but the history of its composition, which I am currently reading, is messy and the origin of the fancy that people such as Hobbits might traipse about in the world of the silmarillion was murky even for Tolkien.

      'One writes such a story out of the leaf-mould of the mind,' he said. You know what he means? From the disorganization, the corruption, the disintegration of old ideas new ideas grow.

  3. I think you've missed the mark here by neglecting the differences in variant reading practices. You want to read game material to be inspired; this is reading game material novelistically, so it makes sense that you want attention to language and unassimilable originality. Others read game material because they actually want to use it in play; this is a different reading practice that favors utility and terseness. In the second case the originality you're looking for should be born at the table of a DM interpreting a "tiny idea" and deploying it to the players in his or her own evocative language and fitting it to his or her own unique setting conventions.

    1. >> I think you've missed the mark here by neglecting the differences in variant reading practices.

      No. I clearly identify the differences in the post. If you look at my opening sentence what I am saying is that the desire for gaming material to be immediately useful and superficial and reinforcing this idea culturally within the community consigns gaming material to mediocrity. That does not mean such material cannot be useful to some.

      >> In the second case the originality you're looking for should be born at the table of a DM

      If you are shifting the originality to the DM then I simply say publish the creative campaign material which resulted from the superficial utilitarian module. Where are these innovative works?

      I don't believe that creative DMs capable of original thought have much use for the 're-arranging the furniture' style of supplements which provide twenty times as many tiny low watt ideas as wil ever be used at one gametable. Why not take the best one twentieth of the ideas, develop them and publish that.

  4. Kent, your blog makes me want to be a better all round DM and creative person.

    1. Good stuff, and better person too I hope.

    2. I have deleted the identifying shell of your second comment assuming you wanted to post as **Bexley North** instead.

      ==Bexley North said:
      Indeed. Your Shakespeare posts made me dust off my old penguins with the cool illustrations. You should do more posts on incorporating different stylistics into gaming. Pure genius.

    3. I don't own any but penguin do seem to put out great cover illustrations for shakespeare. What year roughly are yours from?

      There is a downside to reaching far and wide for inspiration among all the books which interest you in that it becomes harder to get away from D&D. You are always on the lookout for ideas. So every now and then I just put all the D&D stuff completely away.

      Something I want to take from Shakespeare for a couple of npcs is his handling of lovers with ludicrous phases of fortune and misfortune almost as if they are engulfed in a mist of perverse minor wishes firing off randomly.

  5. Thank you. I do prefer my nom-de plume when posting about gaming on the internet.

    I'm not sure what year. There have been so many reprints. Judging by the condition I would say they are from the mid-80s. I had a lot of Ardent editions for school but I fell in love with Paul Hogarth's covers and so I've been collecting them.

    Hm, that is true. The breadth of Shakespeare helps, more than say Homer, at least for me. I find very little D&D inspiration in Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure. Luckily I run on a grad-school timetable, so I tend to have large parts of the year where D&D is the furthest thing from my mind.

    Sounds interesting. Don't you find romance a tricky element to employ though? I doubt my players would give two shits about lovers, star-crossed or otherwise.

    1. >> Don't you find romance a tricky element to employ though? I doubt my players would give two shits about lovers, star-crossed or otherwise.

      Oh they would give two shits all right.

      Lovers are conceived as Unlikelihood Machines. Usually separated, pcs coming within the orbit of one or the other has an alarming effect on their dice rolls. Critical successes & critical failures abound. As I said the lovers are wrapped in a perverse mist of minor wishes.

      A little like the playful mechanic distortions here:

  6. Oh, I see what you're saying. Very clever. Might give this a whirl myself!

  7. Late, as usual:

    I would like to think that it's possible to use intelligent layout and economical language to create something which affords depth when read closely (learning the game and planning the world), yet which can also be consulted for quick reference during play (there is nothing in gaming quite so frustrating as wading through the quagmire of squalid flavour text in a White Wolf book to find the actual mechanic for which one's looking).

    While I admire the "tell me about your world in terms of gameable concepts" approach advocated by some in the OSR, I think it's easy to implement badly and take that as a licence to scantiness and brevity. No, no, a thousand times no - it is an admonition to those who half-arse, who put things in their game-worlds without some framework, however abstract, by which they can be interacted with. Have nothing in a game world which cannot be part of the game - that doesn't mean have nothing in a game world which cannot also be complex and meaningful beyond the ordinary framework of play.

    By the way, I've been reading Eddison, at your de facto recommendation. I see what all the fuss is about, indeed. Lavish and heroic stuff, this, and effective like a scouring pad to the brain after the tedious bafflegab which people normally drop on my doorstep.

  8. Assumptions 1 & 2 are valid if one believes that is what the majority of people that will use someone else's works want. Doubly so if one is also wanting to make a buck of the material (and most OSR works seem aimed thus).

    As for your counters, indeed that is how one creates a successful campaign setting/line of adventures. It's a wholly different level than creating generic adventures.


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