Monday, March 4, 2013

Deaths and Resurrections: Names and Anniversaries

I realize that it's a bit like Cthulhu resurfacing, but here I am at the keyboard, typing away at the blog again. In the long interim since my last post here, I have been generally experimenting with all the other "social media" that are buzzing around: facebook and google+ for the most part. Once the Swords & Wizardry Kickstarter went live, the Swords & Wizardry forum basically died, its oxygen sucked away first to a facebook page and then to a Google+ Community which has become very active with 435 members as of the last count.

Things have altered. Fight On! is fading away, or at very best it is changing. At one point in time, what we called the Old School Renaissance was a small corner of the hobby, with no real connection to the mainstream gaming world. How could there be, really, when the defining characteristic of our group was nonconformity, rejection of the broader "community" in favor of an out-of-print set of rules and a small band of other renegade gamers? And yet, here we are, at the remote side of the sea-change.
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
  Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The Tempest. Act i. Sc. 2.
 It is rich and strange, no kidding. Wizards of the Coast has published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, first edition. See it on the shelves. The original books themselves are in the works as a boxed set. The Kickstarter for Swords & Wizardry (retro-clone of OD&D) is the largest OSR venture I know of, having brought in $78,000. I don't know the numbers on publishers like James Raggi, Dan Proctor, or Black Blade, but the OSR, which was once about DIY projects that ran from "free" to "beer money," has been noticed enough by the mainstream of gaming that our "old school" material is suddenly a fairly big deal. I hesitate to mention the Dwimmermount disaster, but since it was also a five-figure sale of OSR material, it can't really be omitted from mention. The Kickstarter for the S&W version of Rappan Athuk was also in five figures, although I haven't even tried to do the exact math on it, that was a really complicated tangle of a sale.

And I'm blogging. Why? That was pretty much dead, wasn't it? I was writing in the Cyclopean Deeps, where Izamne hides in its mists of deepest dark, and I was on the dilapidated hill of Grimmsgate, a dying town on the ragged edge of Law's reach, in the intertidal zone where one is changed by, and can change, the ebb and flow of civilization itself.

It's all about change, these days. And at the center of it, maybe the eye of the storm, if one thinks of it that way, is Gary Gygax. No longer with us, is Gary: he passed away in 2008 -- today is the anniversary of that event. And looking at it in retrospect, I find something very interesting.

Whether he intended it or not, Gary himself is at the center of the new wave of old school publishing. That's a nice little term for it, Oldschool New Wave, since it doesn't imply a "movement," and you can remove the word "publishing" at will, when you're talking about the gamers who are surfing the wave. There are new surfers, there are old surfers. No Renaissance, if the term offends. And I feel that it's important not to offend here, since I am attributing something to someone who can't really argue back. But by agreeing with Troll Lord Games to publish Castles & Crusades, Gary set loose something that he'd never done before, which was to endorse the idea of going back. Part of that was simply a matter of sales; Gary understood sales, and clearly had no intention to spend his time and resources supporting someone else's brand name.

With Castle Zagyg, and Castles & Crusades, Gary kicked loose the "official" approach of the Oldschool New Wave (the publishing side, not the gaming side) -- slap a new name on the original concepts, a "code name," if you will, and then cut loose like it's 1976 again. The concept itself probably came from TLG, and TLG was probably influenced by Hackmaster, and so on. Here I am not focusing on the origin of the idea, but on the point at which it caught fire. After Castles & Crusades, which simulated AD&D, you had OSRIC, which was intended as a publisher resource to be AD&D's code word, like "Castle Zagyg" meant "Castle Greyhawk." Then Labyrinth Lord, then Swords & Wizardry, and then the huge breakout of modules, resources, and more retro-clones. Magazines, etc. And now we have the biggest name-grab of the process, the appropriation of the "TSR" trademark by a company partially owned by some of the scions of the Gygax family.

All in all, it is interesting to see that Gary's actions in allying himself with TLG was -- whether he actually meant to do it -- the origin of a second wave of old school publishing, the transformation of niche forums like Knights & Knaves and Dragonsfoot into big, well-known centers of discussion, the transformation of these platforms into the new social media of blogs, facebook, and google+. Eventually even the response of WotC in re-publishing our cherished books.

On this day, it's worth looking at the man not only in the farther past, the glory days of AD&D, when Gary was at the helm of TSR, but it is also worth remembering something rather more recent, that move toward gaming under the aegis of the open game license, because at that moment he quietly did something that has had ramifications of huge proportions: he gave something a name. He renamed Castle Greyhawk as Castle Zagyg. And by doing that, he set loose the immense flood-tide of the past, because he "made official" the act of renaming older things. Renaming, re-awakening, and then new vistas like the town of Yggsburg. And from there, OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry, and a thousand new adventures written for a new century.

Pretty awesome, Gary. Toward the end, you didn't let them keep it in the magic jar.


  1. Interesting, thoughtful and well-written, nice one Matt.

    Now, with 435 G+ fans, will there be another Knockspell ?

  2. Great read Matt. I try to keep up with all of the Google+ activity, but it's unbelievable just how many old school folks are out there. It is indeed wonderful to watch this evlove. I think it's particularly nice that we're now seeing several editions of D&D (with clones and spin offs and retakes/reimaginings) all pretty much being viable gaming options. What a great time to be a gamer. I'm sure Gary would be proud to see it come back full circle like this.

  3. Excellent thoughts, insightful. I wonder if Gary is somewhere smiling down at the thousands, if not millions, of people influenced by something he created.

  4. Great post, Matt. It's good to see you back and blogging!

  5. A good, timely and insightful post. Thanks, Matt.

  6. Matt, I'm loving my S&W Complete loot that arrived a few days ago - and great to see your blog active again! I'm inspired to once again tinker with my S&W homebrew ideas..

    This post explained why the S&W forums have been lifeless; I'd been wondering that...but I'm completely at a loss to understand why activity has shifted to facebook (which I don't do - at all) or Google+. I've been looking at the Google+ site and the format is a total fucking mess - how is it possible to have RPG discussions in that format?! It will take far more time to sift through for useful (to me) nuggets than a proper forum, and I'm not inclined to try. I spend no more than an hour per day on a computer.

    What am I missing with Google+? I just don't get it.

    And you kids get off my lawn, dammit!
    : )

  7. Hi Matt! Good to see you're back blogging! It's probably make believe, but reading about Castle Zagyg and the fact you mentioned it 3 times made me think: Are there any plans of getting the licence and making a new version for S&W?

  8. Good to see you blogging again, Matt!