A Q&A with The Bard
Hail all and welcome!
The Bard of Bardic Broadcasts has been kind enough to indulge us in a sprawling discussion spanning old school roleplaying games past and present.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this fine fellow (as preposterous as that might seem!) the Bard is an expert reboxer, as well as a seasoned collector and dissector of models, sculptures and art. So too has he made the ultimate and final case for Heroquest being the best boardgame ever. You may also choose to indulge in his literary works by reading The Dwarf King’s Quest from the Dungeon Saga series by Mantic Games.
Old School Role-playing Games
Tom: Hail Bard, thanks for taking the time to chat. I can clearly recall my first encounter with a roleplaying game. My brother had a gnarled copy of Deathtrap Dungeon, which was one of the early Ian Livingston Fighting Fantasy books. That might be why I come at RPGs as interactive fiction first and foremost.
What was your first encounter with a role-playing game?
Bard: Similar to yourself, the earliest definite contact I had with an RPG-like product was a crusty public library collection of adventure books called 'Wizards, Warriors and You'. Some of the records pages were missing, but I had a grand time with them all the same. I call them RPG-like these days, of course, because they aren't really RPGs. I would personally hesitate to classify RPGs as interactive fiction; however, it’s a good label for the game-books of old. Interestingly, reading those did not really give me a concept of what an RPG was. I only really associate them with RPGs retrospectively. It's only retrospectively that I came to see how they were influenced by RPGs, and how they echo them.
I'd have to say that my first contact with an RPG can only be defined as the first time I sat down to play Dungeons and Dragons. It was a revelation. It was very quickly apparent to me that there was a gulf of difference between what an actual RPG was and other games that wear the title or have it bestowed upon them.
Tom: I think it is fair to say that (right or wrong) I’ve probably conflated ‘interactive fiction’ with traditional role-playing games, a fact that is reasonably evident in my work to date. One thing that does unite those two fields are the importance of rules and narrative mechanics. Some of the major limitations of interactive fiction as a genre (in my view) has always been that it is made up of a finite set of linear paths, offers a limited novelty and is ultimately constrained by the ability of the writers to describe everything that exists pre-emptively. There is a great documentary on the subject called “Get Lamp” - I’d suggest anyone interested in storytelling to watch that one.
Bard: There was a time not too long ago where I would describe roleplaying games with terms like 'interactive fiction' and 'storytelling game' or even 'communal narrative' and other variations. When I started to look at them seriously, I realised that all these terms failed to describe what they actually are. I also realised we already had a term that perfectly encapsulates the essence of the subject at hand. That term is: 'Roleplaying Game'. It's the only accurate term there is.
Tom: I’ve always been more interested in designing games than in playing them, I prefer to watch other people play games - I always have. What interests me most is the setting. When I’m creating a setting, I’m generally trying to explore some pretty basic themes: What is the point of it all? Where are we all rushing? etc. Do you think that the creators of franchises like D&D are doing the same thing, or were they once? If so, what do you imagine they might have been exploring thematically?
Bard: D&D is an interesting point of reference regarding the creation of settings. This is because, traditionally, the core rulebooks of D&D have no interest in defining a setting. They're more interested in reflecting the genre and themes of heroic fantasy adventure. It has usually done this in an admirable and decisive way over its various rule structures, but the earlier efforts are certainly the most decisive and least scattershot.
Tom: Heroic Fantasy Adventure is a vast topic! I think that one of the most admirable aspects of D&D is that it has proved to be such powerful synthesis of so much fantasy and science fiction that had come before it. Even more impressive perhaps is that the minds and works of Tolkien and Lovecraft have made such an indelible mark on the world and how we choose to express western heroic archetypes. I know it is unfair to only pick out two names from what I’m sure is a large list, but...
Bard: If you can only list two you might as well list some greats; though I find it interesting that you list two authors who make such use of anti-heroes. Lovecraft's name rarely comes up when discussing heroic archetypes at all; if ever! Are there any Lovecraft heroes? I said anti-hero just now but I’m not sure I could call the likes of Randolph Carter much more than protagonists but it bears thinking about. For now, I tend to pair Tolkien with good old R.E. Howard.
But aye, one of the things I like less about D&D since the turn of the century is that it’s drifting farther and farther from the classic modes of fantasy that inspired it in the first place. When I make myself confront this fact honestly, though, I have to concede that it is not wrong for doing so.
Tom: This might sound like a strange way to frame a question, so stay with me. I have a passing interest in digital synthesizers. I won’t bore you with the details but effectively digital synthesizers were developed spontaneously in a few separate geographic locations. Because of this, they sound very different and ultimately the music that was generated from those three (or so) locations are entirely distinct from one another (e.g. East Coast sounds versus West Coast sounds). I wonder sometimes if the distinct voices in role-playing went through a similar gestation. If you were to split the early role-playing styles up, do you think there would be a European role-play style and USA style of roleplay? How were the voices distinct and are they still detectable today?
Bard: That's a pretty interesting idea. I don't think I am equipped to answer to the question, really. That said, it's probably worth looking into. One related thing I have always found quite fascinating is the Japanese conception of D&D. If you want an old-D&D flavoured study in divergent roleplaying styles, Japan is where I would look. Japan is famous for reforming western cultural traditions in fascinating ways and I am sure role-playing games are no different. Then I would probably look at other non-English RPGs, probably starting with ‘The Dark Eye’, which has long been on my list of games to take a serious look at.
Tom: A German RPG, I think I’ll need to look into that. That is such an interesting idea. It actually made me think about trying to source some old Australian RPGs. So much of our content here in Australia comes from America or the UK. I just assume we have the same voice, but perhaps not.
Bard: There's probably some kind of Australian voice. You might have to dig to find it though, especially if you want to make it a gaming voice. There is a lot of rich Australian folklore, but I am not sure it has made its way into the realm of games as yet. What would be the quintessential elements that would feature in such a game? Surreal locations like the Speewah? Or the kind of fantastic wilderness adventures that I recall being epitomised by the likes of Dot and the Kangaroo and the Magic Pudding?
Not long ago, my mum was reading a book called ‘Great Australian Working Dog Stories’ and I remember thinking it would be a neat basis for an RPG. I'd love to play as a brave and loyal sheepdog!
Tom: The genre of old school revival/roleplaying games obviously hints at a return to presumably simpler systems of the past, but I think the term might be more loaded than that. It seems a little "anti-establishment’. It almost seems to have an outsider art appeal to it.
Where do you think OSR has sprung from?
Bard: The more I think about this the less I see it as a return to simplicity so much as a return to innocence. And not just a return - many OSR enthusiasts were not playing in the early periods of the hobby so they can't return, exactly. Instead they get to discover innocence.
Why 'innocence'? Well, mainly because of the connotation of earnestness and non-corruptness. That goes both for the rules and where the game came from; so much of it is reflective of a labour of love not at all dissimilar to the passionate industry of individuals that gave rise to D&D and its popularity in the first place. OSR might be seen as an effort to capture some of that innocence and then share it. Let new folk discover it who might then value it instead of having it locked away in some imagined past when the games were 'different' but no one is sure quite how.
That's the experience I had when I first played an RPG. There we were, all gathered around the (now) venerable AD&D 2e listening to our DM relate how there were cabals of players who played even older games. And we had to imagine why they would do that - what on earth could 1st edition have that 2nd didn't? And what are these fabled editions that are even older? Well, we didn't have access to those games and there was no present effort to retain and iterate on them for posterity. Unless one of us got lucky at the local book exchange and got a glimpse at some out of date module we just had to guess! And now there is a, well I suppose it is a movement, that seems determined in its way to preserve the value of the past and place it within reach.
I'm not sure if that's anti-establishment or what have you, but I can certainly see an anti-establishment theme present, especially for those who come from the modern games and discover the innocence of the old. As RPGs have become more modern, they have in general become more and more permission based. By that I mean, if a character wants to do a thing they need special permission for the mechanics of the game. D&D's disastrous 4th edition was rife with this; full of examples like Rogues needing to be level 7 before they can kick sand in someone's face. To someone who has only ever asked for permission, the freedom of simply being able to declare they are kicking sand in an orc's face must seem rebellious indeed!
Tom: Personally, I don’t know that I agree with the fundamental distinction between narrative based games and story-telling, so when it comes to figuring out what labels are meaningful, I struggle to have anything but a weakly held position. OSR is interesting in that it seems to have varied meanings depending on the particular lens of whichever bubble you care to inspect. With that said, I find your perspective to be a sensible one.
Bard: The reason I veer away from words like 'story', 'storytelling' and 'narrative' when considering RPGs in detail is that I think they imply a fixedness that RPGs don't possess to my reckoning. RPGs are quite chaotic and I am dubious of any advice on how to 'structure' them in a narrative sense, although I know it has become a feature of modern games and there is quite a bit of (I think suspect) advice out there on how to 'pace' your game to serve the 'story'. Things like when and how often combat should occur, sometimes using structural terminology like 'action beats' and the like. These ideas are seemingly drawn from the narrative mechanics of other media, but I don't think those actually fit RPGs all that well (except, perhaps, meta-media ones that are about being like films etc.) because they aren’t narratives or stories – they're games and the imaginative act of play is the source of the distinction. When RPGs are made to take the shape of narratives during play, they lose something vital. They start to turn into computer game RPGs where all the outcomes and positions are mapped ahead of time. They need chaos to truly be RPGs; for players and DMs to actually have the freedom of imagination that is the grail of the genre.
It's after you're done playing, when you talk about your adventures and relate them to others that they are shaped into narratives and crystallised as stories. By then, you're not playing them. Playing or running an RPG is not storytelling. It's game playing. Not that this sort of theory is all that useful while you’re at the table, of course!
I do remember a story, though, of a friend who ran a game of D&D many years ago. He'd drawn this wonderful map and in the first session he placed the players on the road leading into this fantastic new land. Their first action? Head straight back off the map. Sometimes the only response to chaos is “do you clowns want to play D&D or not?”.
Tom: In creating an OSR influenced game I can say that the major principles I took from a survey of titles in the genre were first, that the writing is generally overtly stylistic, second, I noted that the art direction was usually very evocative, closer to traditional art, and third, they are artefacts that seem to hold some fascination in their own right. The fact that a game system or set of rules are attached are only important to the degree that they barely exist.
What do you think attracts people to OSR games and what are some of the defining characteristics of that genre for you?
Bard: It’s easy to get in the OSR mindset and put art and evocative language up on a pedestal but I would warn against the habit of trivialising or even developing a disdain for rules. A rule is what allows the ideas represented by language and art to make meaningful contact with the game. OSR has a tradition of fewer rules but the rules it employs are precious.
Rules are, in fact, the defining trait of the varied D&D retro-clones that seem to form the spine of OSR. They are favoured or disfavoured by individuals on the basis of the different ways their rules represent the same set of ideas.
Art, language and rules are all invaluable for guiding the imagination in roleplaying games. I have seen arguments like “who cares about the art, it's about the rules!”, and I have had my own experience with D20 Judge Dredd where I love the ideas (Judge Dredd is my favourite fiction) but the rules and the art choices were generally poor. And here in your question the importance of the rules is linked proportionately to their non-existence.
It sometimes seems to me that the great tragedy of quite a bit of OSR material that it is sometimes valued, sometimes quite deservingly, as artefacts of beauty first and games second (if at all). I wonder if the ideas beneath the art and the words sometimes don't actually translate to worthwhile games? I also wonder how often some of them are played rather than simply read and enjoyed in solitude? To date, I have never had a practical use for Veins of the Earth but it is a fascinating read and a lovely book. I think it would be quite challenging to share its ideas effectively at the table but very much enjoyed reading it alone.
I would make a comparison of such OSR artefacts to an actual old game: White Wolf's HoL from 1995. That book is definitely an artefact: an absurd satire of the roleplaying genre as a whole. In terms of art and language it’s one of the most memorable RPG books I have ever come to know - and there is even a complete and functional ruleset in there. But I have never run a game of it. I don't think I have even met anyone who has, though plenty of people have certainly read it.
Tom: First, I’m a big Dredd fan, I have a few hundred 2000AD issues taking pride of place in my living room. Second, I can really only speak for myself when I say that when I have created rules for an OSR style game, I had in mind reducing things to their kernel or to their generator, almost like crafting an algorithm that would facilitate the full breadth of immersive interaction required to not only explore but extend the setting. It has been interesting to note the number of people who have told me that they actually just enjoy and choose to pair it with other (heavier) rule sets. Also, Veins of the Earth is a wonderful artefact. I wish I had a copy – it was pricey last time I looked. . . . I suggested earlier that perhaps OSR was a movement towards ‘simplicity’, which might infer that modern games are becoming needlessly complex. In truth, I don’t think that is the case. I’ve seen some older RPGs that would have needed someone to have a mathematics degree to play them. I’ve not successfully put my finger on what it is about OSR that attracts people, but perhaps it is just filling a gap.
What do you think is something that has been lost in the AAA role-playing titles that needs to be re-discovered?
Bard: I suppose it might be more an answer to the previous question, but I would be tempted to disqualify simplicity as a true marker for defining OSR. It's common enough that you could make a case for it but to rule out more 'ruly' approaches would be a mistake and would arguably be less authentically old school. After all, as you point out, many old games - true classics - that are not that simple. What do we seek when we look to old games? The answer is: whatever we're missing. Something that is absent now, which we can't just conjure back into existence, is the relative independence of the roleplaying game from other genres. We can't resurrect the culture that the early RPGs were played in. In that era, players seem to have had a tendency to come to the game from other imaginative strongholds besides games. Fantasy literature, of course. Film. Comics. Computer and video games barely existed at the time and even later, well into the 90's in many cases, they were hardly in a position to do your imagining for you.
Today, I note many new players come from computer RPGs first - and they often seem to carry a lot of baggage with them, a lot of expectations from another genre of game. They expect there to be lots of rules (computers don't have imaginations - all they know are rules!), and normally they expect combat tactics to be the actual 'game' part of the game as it has developed into in computer roleplay. No surprise either - combat tends to be the most dangerous thing a character does with any regularity in an RPG and thus combat tends to have the most rules. It's very computer compatible in that sense.
Another OSR virtue worth noting: it tends to try to divorce itself from the influence of other games, especially cross media games. It earnestly seems to want to be influenced only by idea-driven sources and not system or mechanics driven ones (that is to say, other games). Is this what you meant by 'anti-establishment', maybe? I still wouldn't call it that.
Tom: I know I’m the one that planted the seed, but I tend to agree with you that ‘anti-establishment’ isn’t such a relevant term. I can only really speak for myself, but the measure of affinity that I feel with those other people making OSR style role playing games is that I’m approaching it without many popular points of reference. I draw more from influences like Jorge Luis Borges than the meta-verses of Tolkien, and the systems that I’ve built happen to be more of the ‘kernel -or- generator’ type - something less associated with current games (but give it time). Even then and to your earlier point, that affinity is really only to a subset of those content creators and perhaps when all is said and done ‘OSR' may prove to be another instance where we have categorised beyond any rational meaning.
Bard: What do you think of the term 'content creator'? To me, it's such a stillborn term. It's like the name of a machine. There is nothing about it that suggests creativity. It's barren old label, isn't it? I would look good bossed onto a steel plate fixed to the side of some jostling mechanism.
Content creators themselves didn't invent it, I wager. I bet it came from a board room on the axis of a bar graph alongside 'revenue' and 'retention'.
Tom: Well there is no harm in stating the truth, it is certainly a commodifying term. In my day job I am one of those corporate types that chart human endeavor into four quadrants and pretend to ’strategise’, a word that evokes in me the spectacle of some kind of gyrating communal exercise routine set to the quickening tempo of delirious babble. Still, when the suits are grousing and simultaneously fawning over the huge monopolies like Amazon, Apple and Google I make it a habit to interject and remind them to include Games Workshop in the mix!
OSR games often have very soft rules that are clearly secondary to the setting and content. That means that the idea of releasing system editions iterations doesn’t really work, because you’ve already invited the players to behave largely unfettered by the rules. What do you think the future is for this style of revenue raising disguised as value enhancement, are people getting burnt out by it?
Bard: Well, as I said, I don't think rules are or should be secondary even if they are 'soft'. I think they're very important and that they enhance the ideas of the game in practice. I think they matter a great deal. Look at how many OSR variations of old D&D there are. OSR seems to have been built on them. There is at least one for every old variant. The ideas shared by these games, the model of fantasy that they all represent, is by and large the same. What's different between them? It's the rules. It's what defines the appeal of one over the other. The same ideas manifest very differently when they are borne up by different rules. A basic example would be the idea of a halfling adventurer. Sometimes the rules present it as a class unto itself. Sometimes it’s a race with an adventuring class attached. The idea manifests itself in the imagination quite differently in each of these - not because the idea is different but because the idea is shaped and re-enforced by the rules.
I don't think that by and large people are getting burned out by iterative rules and sweeping edition updates. Some folk are, sure. But in general, a new edition of a game is still something to remark upon and be interested in. So too are supplements which may or may not contain interesting (or abysmal!) new rules. It's evidence that your game is alive and has not become a historical artefact and can still attract new players who aren't asked to descend into some kind of cultish underground to do so. That has a lot of value.
Some of the finest roleplaying books ever published were supplemental material. WFRP's Apocrypha Now, AD&D’s Faiths and Avatars, and Shadowrun's The Neo-Anarchist's Guide to Real Life are some personal favourites. Even the previously mentioned Veins of the Earth has the logo for the OSR game Lamentations of the Flame Princess on its spine - a game which I have never even looked at. A very good book, is Veins. Strong in its ideas and its rules, sparse though they might be, are very associative and emblematic of the things they are trying to reflect. I don't really see new editions and rules supplements as some kind of scam or trick as a general thing. Sometimes they are of dubious value but I'd have to go out of my way to get worked up about it. That said, it is easy not to like the direction role playing games head in as a whole based on edition updates from time to time. D&D's 4th edition was a nightmarish glimpse into the devolution of a noble and respected game. Likewise, was WFRP 3rd edition. WFRP is my favourite RPG of all time and I kept playing the earlier versions (a luxury we RPG enthusiasts can afford) while lamenting the future. And today there is yet another edition. I have not yet had occasion to look that one over. I might like it, I might not but I am cheered by its existence because yea in this world where we have survived the ravages of the End Times and the Coming of the Age of Sigmar, folk still love the old Warhammer Fantasy world and material is still being professionally written and published for it to this day. It's heartening.
Tom: I had to chuckle to myself there, because despite counting myself among those who are burnt out on the system, I really can’t say that I mind enough to dust off my own soap box. I certainly can’t see any way around it. While every new iteration isn’t guaranteed to be better than the last, our favourites are still there to be enjoyed and little if nothing is really lost. It is perhaps a little farcical to imagine that things should stay static, that stories shouldn’t be retold, and rules not altered to appeal to the wants of those bound by them. We are all kind of telling the same stories over and over and tinkering with the same set of rules as we were on day dot - or so it can seem.
By Thomas O’Beirne (@WarpGamesCo)