At the dawn of the hobby of roleplaying in the 1970s, there were no Internet forums or blogs through which gamers could communicate with one another. Rather it was through fanzines and amateur press associations, such as Alarums and Excursions and The Wild Hunt, that the earliest gamers shared their ideas and contributed to the growth and development of the hobby. These ‘zines and APAs were all amateur efforts, but they embodied a spirit of wild inventiveness and brash disregard for commercial viability that fostered the creation of new roleplaying games, not to mention launched the careers of many writers and designers. They were the crucibles from which the hobby as we know it today sprang.
The 1980s saw a great many fanzines and APAs die off, with professional magazines like Dragon and White Dwarf becoming far more important vehicles for communication between gamers. The rise of the internet in the 1990s changed this dynamic again, as Usenet newsgroups, ftp sites, and webpages made it very easy for roleplayers to share, critique, and argue with one another without being mediated through official organs of professional game companies, many of which, most notably TSR, publisher of the first RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, had a vested interest in keeping a tight rein on what was made available freely on the internet. In 1994, TSR promulgated a draconian web policy that resulted in a popular D&D ftp site at Stanford University being shut down for copyright and trademark violations. This led to much controversy and had a chilling effect on efforts to post RPG-related materials on the internet.
TSR’s policy eventually loosened, becoming more fan-friendly, particularly after Wizards of the Coast purchased the company in 1997. As a result, many new sites sprang up, including one called Dragonsfoot. Dragonsfoot began its existence in 1999 as the private website of a group of gamers in Salisbury, England. Initially, its founders, Mark O’Reilly, Steve Yates, and Ryan Coombes, intended the site to be a repository of materials created for their own AD&D campaigns. Due to the quality of the material they produced, the site attracted many more visitors than they ever expected, accumulating over 500,000 hits by 2000 and laying the groundwork for the great influence the site would one day exert.
The year 2000 also marked the release of the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast. This release had two long-lasting effects on the hobby. First, the previous two editions of the game, both which carried the “Advanced” moniker and whose rules were largely compatible with one another, were now officially superseded. Second, and more importantly, Third Edition was released in conjunction with the Open Game License (or OGL). The OGL was the brainchild of then-WotC vice president Ryan Dancey and was modeled on the various open source licenses used in the software industry. The OGL gave third party publishers access to a System Reference Document (SRD), which included the basic rules and elements of D&D, such as classes, monsters, spells, and magic items, enabling the creation of legal support products for the game.
Meanwhile, Dragonsfoot continued to expand, thanks in part to the online presence of the late Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, who regularly answered questions about the game in the site forums. The site soon became the biggest online community dedicated to the out-of-print D&D, which retained a large and vocal fanbase despite the release of Third Edition. Dragonsfoot benefitted from these fans that had little interest in the latest version of the game, whose rules and aesthetics seemed very different from their own preferences. “Old school” Dungeons & Dragons thus found a home at Dragonsfoot and, in the process, spawned numerous other forums devoted to it, such as the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, which would eventually become very influential in the history of the old school revival.
The dissatisfaction of many with the aesthetics of Third Edition did not go unnoticed in many quarters of the roleplaying games industry. Clark Peterson and Bill Webb launched a new game company in 2000 to coincide with the release of Third Edition. Called Necromancer Games, the company took full advantage of the OGL to publish products that displayed, in the words of its motto, “Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel.” Necromancer Games releases were primarily adventure modules written to emulate the content and style of TSR’s old AD&D adventures, circa 1977-1983, which many consider the “Golden Age” of roleplaying games.
This approach proved so successful that Goodman Games followed suit in 2003 by unveiling a line of their own adventure modules called Dungeon Crawl Classics. Goodman’s modules also used the Third Edition rules and even more explicitly imitated the past by including artwork from old school illustrators like Jeff Dee, Jim Holloway, Erol Otus, and Jim Roslof. Successful though they were, both Necromancer and Goodman’s efforts were nostalgia products. That is, they were intended to appeal to gamers who recalled the old TSR modules fondly and wanted to inject some of their flavor into the current edition of D&D. They were not written to support older editions of the game, let alone to spark an old school revival.
Several RPG publishers had already used the OGL and SRD to create more than just supplements to Third Edition D&D, such as entirely new games that re-purposed D&D‘s mechanics in innovative ways. By 2002, the idea of using the SRD to reverse engineer the out-of-print AD&D took root on Dragonsfoot and other old school forums. Many gamers felt that the SRD contained all the “ingredients” needed to concoct a rebirth of the earlier editions, albeit under a different name, since, generous as Wizards of the Coast had been in its commitment to open gaming, the company still retained the trademarked name Dungeons & Dragons (as well other proper names associated with it, such as those of a few iconic monsters).
The first serious attempt to transmute the SRD contents into “AD&D reborn” was the Castles & Crusades project. Named after the Castle & Crusade Society, a chapter of the International Federation of Wargamers whose members included both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, C&C grew out of discussions on Dragonsfoot in 2003 and was developed by Troll Lord Games. Over time, though, the focus of C&C shifted away from “AD&D reborn” and more toward a mechanically simpler version of Third Edition that drew significant inspiration from AD&D. Castles & Crusades was released in 2004 to some acclaim among gamers looking for a modern game that reminded them of earlier editions. Gary Gygax himself asserted on Dragonsfoot that C&C, “has much the same spirit and nearly the same mechanics” as did AD&D, an imprimatur that Troll Lord Games used to good advantage.
Of course, some old school gamers were unhappy with Castles & Crusades, which they saw as little more than a watered down version of Third Edition and utterly unlike earlier editions either mechanically or aesthetically. Thus was born the notion of a “restatement” or “retro-clone” game: using the SRD “to emulate as closely as is legally possible the game rules of another game.” The first such restatement was OSRIC, a First Edition AD&D clone created by Matt Finch and Stuart Marshall of the Knights & Knaves Alehouse in 2006. OSRIC, an acronym for “Old School Resource Index Compilation,” was “intended to reproduce underlying rules used in the late 1970s to early 1980s, which being rules are not subject to copyright, without using any of the copyrighted “artistic presentation” originally used to convey those rules.”
Though some feared that Wizards of the Coast would legally challenge OSRIC, no such challenge ever materialized, a happy state of affairs that encouraged others to produce further restatements based on the game and/or edition of their choice. Daniel Proctor’s Labyrith Lord, which emulates the 1981 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, was the second retro-clone, but many more followed, including another by OSRIC creator Finch, this time based on the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The number of clones, simulacra, and restatements has grown considerably since 2006, with many available for free electronic download, as well as in printed formats through print on demand services, thereby making a fully-fledged old school revival (or, as some call it, an old school renaissance) to take root.
[Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in retro-clone gaming, next week’s High Adventure column by Allen Varney has feature-length coverage of a wide variety of rules sets for all your classic gaming needs.]
As one might expect from a movement populated by crotchety, opinionated gamers, the old school revival has no grand unifying principle beyond a love — some might say obsession — with RPGs, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, which still commands the vast majority of fans. Forums like Dragonsfoot, Knights & Knaves Alehouse, and Original D&D Discussion all play vital roles by enabling old school gamers to discuss, share, and argue about their ideas with one another, just like the ‘zines and APAs of yore. In recent years, these forums have been bolstered by a vast network of blogs, each as idiosyncratic as its owner, and many of which have produced a significant amount of new — and free — material for use with both original and retro-clone games.
Blogs have proven a major engine of the old school revival, generating inspiration and controversy in equal measure, particularly outside the old school revival. If the retro-clone creators are the “engineers” of the movement, the bloggers are its “philosophers.” They provide the rationale behind the rejection of modern rules sets and in favor of the hobbyist approach to gaming that they believe harkens back to its earliest days. It is here that controversy often arises, since the opinions of many old school bloggers are seen — rightly — as a challenge to the verities of the modern hobby, especially its increasing commercialization and detachment from its own history.
This has led some critics to charge that the old school revival is essentially “fundamentalist,” while many old school players counter that it is in fact radical in its original meaning, which is to say, returning to the roots of the hobby. Many of these same bloggers are participating in campaigns using older rules or retro-clones and use their blogs to demonstrate the principles of the style of gaming they prefer: rules light, freeform, and placing a greater emphasis on player skill rather than on character skill. Taken together, along with a do-it-yourself spirit, the outlines of what the old school revival is all about become more apparent.
Though some outsiders charge that the old school revival is merely the latest bout of nostalgia, triggered by the deaths of roleplaying pioneers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and the general graying of RPG players, the charge rings hollow in the face of the remarkable creations the movements has already produced. Besides the retro-clones there are also entirely new games, like Mazes & Minotaurs and Encounter Critical, whose rules and aesthetics are more in tune with 1979 than 2009. These games are partially exercises in alternate history, imagining how the hobby might have been different if, for example, the first RPG had been based on Greek mythology rather than pulp fantasies. Indeed, imagining how the hobby’s history might have been different is a hallmark of the old school revival, many of whose participants see the do-it-yourself ethos of the early days as vastly preferable to the increasing commoditization of gaming that took place in the mid to late 1980s. The revival is thus equal parts a reaction to present trends in the hobby and an attempt to “re-start” it from square one, before the older ways of playing and producing RPGs diverged from those that the revivalists prefer.
Whether this will ultimately lead to a true renaissance in old school gaming or prove a quixotic endeavor remains to be seen. The old school movement is still in its infancy and its character and scope continue to change. What is certain is that the old school revival has already spread far beyond its original audience. Through forums, blogs, and new fanzines like Fight On! and Knockspell, the movement is now attracting the attention of gamers of all stripes, including many born well after the hobby’s early days. If enough of these younger gamers see something worthwhile in returning to the roots of roleplaying, the revival might have a lasting impact. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, there has never been a better time for fans of the roleplaying games that started it all.
James Maliszewski is a writer currently living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His blog, Grognardia, explores the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying.