What Was Gygax Thinking?

migo

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b) No Challenge Ratings or Balanced Encounters, though warnings of dire things ahead are acceptable
This is revisionist history. Old school D&D explicitly had balanced encounters, and called them dungeon levels. Each level lower you had progressively more difficult encounters. Challenge ratings were introduced in 3rd Edition along with the 'Back to the Dungeon' motto, and just tied it to party level instead of dungeon level. You also had published modules indicating the total number of party levels that are appropriate and which character classes are necessary to complete it.
 

Arminius

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This is revisionist history. Old school D&D explicitly had balanced encounters, and called them dungeon levels. Each level lower you had progressively more difficult encounters. Challenge ratings were introduced in 3rd Edition along with the 'Back to the Dungeon' motto, and just tied it to party level instead of dungeon level. You also had published modules indicating the total number of party levels that are appropriate and which character classes are necessary to complete it.
With dungeon level, parties had (limited) control over the difficulty and (some) advance knowledge, which is different from each encounter being tailored by the DM.
 

migo

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With dungeon level, parties had (limited) control over the difficulty and (some) advance knowledge, which is different from each encounter being tailored by the DM.
The difference is like many things, as of 3e it was done better. TSR-era D&D let you eyeball things, perhaps also looking at XP value for the encounter, whereas 3.x gave you the tools to fine tune the balance. That wasn't a change in philosophy, merely an advancement in game design.

So to the extent that the idea of no encounter balance is true for the OSR, it's about moving to a system that's more messy and doesn't let you balance encounters as well. And then sells it as a feature rather than a system flaw.
 

Sable Wyvern

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The difference is like many things, as of 3e it was done better. TSR-era D&D let you eyeball things, perhaps also looking at XP value for the encounter, whereas 3.x gave you the tools to fine tune the balance. That wasn't a change in philosophy, merely an advancement in game design.

So to the extent that the idea of no encounter balance is true for the OSR, it's about moving to a system that's more messy and doesn't let you balance encounters as well. And then sells it as a feature rather than a system flaw.
This is simply not an accurate comparison.

When I'm placing things in a dungeon, I have two basic guidelines:

  1. I have a general feeling for how dangerous I want a given level to be, and place things using that as a rough guide. Finer balance than that is simply unnecessary.
  2. I make sure there are one or more things on each level that are significantly more dangerous, and likely to obliterate a nonchalant party.

Utilising the kind of tools found in 3.x would be a lot of additional work, and I'm not seeing any meaningful payoff for that over what I'm already doing. In fact, I'm not sure it would even make sense, because CR is designed around creating encounters, and a lot of what I'm putting in aren't encounters, but communities of creatures. How many and in what circumstances they are actually encountered isn't something I can determine ahead of time.

I'm not saying you shouldn't use whatever encounter balancing systems you want, simply that it is false to say that OSR design philosophies are objectively worse, when they're not even attempting to achieve the same thing.
 

Arminius

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M migo Not really. In white box or AD&D dungeon design there was an explicit risk that you could be teleported, dropped, or fooled (via a gently sloping passage) into entering a deeper level. And parties could opt if they felt lucky to voluntarily descend to a lower level if they found a stairway down. That’s very different from the DM choosing the difficulty for you. Better? Matter of taste.
 

Fenris-77

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M migo Not really. In white box or AD&D dungeon design there was an explicit risk that you could be teleported, dropped, or fooled (via a gently sloping passage) into entering a deeper level. And parties could opt if they felt lucky to voluntarily descend to a lower level if they found a stairway down. That’s very different from the DM choosing the difficulty for you. Better? Matter of taste.
Te idea that encounters shouldn't be adjusted to the party goes beyond dungeon levels. That's still pretty levelled, especially when you realize that in the example you offer it sounds like it's understood that the players will realize that by going down levels the difficulty rises. I don't take character level into account at all when I run OSR, and I frequently add monsters that are well above the parties 'level'. Part of being canny smart dungeon delvers is knowing when to run away or sneak around. IMO the idea of CR in 5E was a brutally bad idea and only leads to boring play. My two cents anyway.
 

migo

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This is simply not an accurate comparison.

When I'm placing things in a dungeon, I have two basic guidelines:

  1. I have a general feeling for how dangerous I want a given level to be, and place things using that as a rough guide. Finer balance than that is simply unnecessary.
  2. I make sure there are one or more things on each level that are significantly more dangerous, and likely to obliterate a nonchalant party.

Utilising the kind of tools found in 3.x would be a lot of additional work, and I'm not seeing any meaningful payoff for that over what I'm already doing. In fact, I'm not sure it would even make sense, because CR is designed around creating encounters, and a lot of what I'm putting in aren't encounters, but communities of creatures. How many and in what circumstances they are actually encountered isn't something I can determine ahead of time.

I'm not saying you shouldn't use whatever encounter balancing systems you want, simply that it is false to say that OSR design philosophies are objectively worse, when they're not even attempting to achieve the same thing.
It is something you can determine ahead of time. That's what the wandering monster tables are for. And when you put monsters in a room, you're determining how many and what kind. You can't fine tune balance because you lack the tools, so you're not going to try. It wasn't a conscious decision not to balance things, it was simply a result of the system not being deisgned well enough to let you balance it.

The idea that you're creating a community of creatures in old school dungeon design is also revisionist history. Old school dungeons by and large made absolutely no sense. They were just an excuse for a series of encounters. The only difference is you didn't know the order that the encounters would happen in.
 

migo

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That's still pretty levelled, especially when you realize that in the example you offer it sounds like it's understood that the players will realize that by going down levels the difficulty rises.
It is, it's indicated in the red box. Players know from the start that's what they have to expect.
IMO the idea of CR in 5E was a brutally bad idea and only leads to boring play. My two cents anyway.
It doesn't come from 5e.
 

Sable Wyvern

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I don't take character level into account at all when I run OSR, and I frequently add monsters that are well above the parties 'level'. Part of being canny smart dungeon delvers is knowing when to run away or sneak around. IMO the idea of CR in 5E was a brutally bad idea and only leads to boring play. My two cents anyway.
I wouldn't go as far as to say I don't take character level into account at all -- at the very least, I will make more effort to telegraph significant dangers -- but I am absolutely a huge fan of opportunities for PCs to encounter things that would be considered "too strong for their level" to see how they deal with it.
 

Fenris-77

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It is, it's indicated in the red box. Players know from the start that's what they have to expect.

It doesn't come from 5e.
But it's present in 5E, and the extent to which it informs a certain kind of gamers expectations in 2023 very much comes from 5E.

What the OSR does can't be encompassed by the Red Box. I am quite confident that the way I handle non-balanced encounter design is pretty standard for OSR play.
 

migo

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But it's present in 5E, and the extent to which it informs a certain kind of gamers expectations in 2023 very much comes from 5E.

What the OSR does can't be encompassed by the Red Box. I am quite confident that the way I handle non-balanced encounter design is pretty standard for OSR play.

The possibility to properly balance encounters came with 3.x, which was on the whole better designed. The expectation that you balance encounters came from having the tools to do it properly. Variance was tolerated in TSR-era D&D because it wasn't possible to do it better.

I'm not revising anything. I'm talking about how I design dungeons, right now. I'm talking about the OSR, which is a gaming philosophy/movement that started in the late 2000s.

I claim no special knowledge about how people designed dungeons in 1978.

The people claiming that it is an old school philosophy are revising history. This idea of no encounter balance is very much reactionary. It's not going back to the roots, it's doing something new in response to something they don't like.

I completely disagree with this statement, in as friendly way as I can. I think it's very much a change in philosophy, and not for the better.

Disagree all you like, you're still wrong.

Rather than waiting for a reply, I'll expand on why I disagree and why I think it's not a change for the better. When you have 'balanced' encounters, and by that I mean that the table expectations and more specifically the player expectations, are that encounters are at least roughly balanced to their level, it that it disinclines the players from fully engaging with the encounter. The baseline understanding is that they should be able to beat monster X, assuming they are somewhat solvent in terms of resources like spells and HP. My problem with that is that it really only engages the character sheet. You only need to know how fresh you are to make a reasonable decision. This has a knock on effect that I also dislike, which is that the default encounter management format tends to be combat, something that is only enforced by the notion that XP for killing shit is how you level. So the players spend less time being creative, because they don't have to and because engaging in combat is what earns them XP.

Your argument for preferring not having encounter balance is fine. But it's not old school. Old school dungeons had plenty of combat. While it was certainly possible to sneak around, that wasn't how it was played. The primary focus of any RPG discussion, including D&D, prior to 2000, was combat. Just as it is today. This particular aspect of the OSR is more informed by the indie RPG movement and the Forge than it was by how it was actually played in the 20th century. I don't have a problem with it, I'm just saying it's revisionist history.

The OSR, generally, and on the other hand, uses a more old fashioned gold for XP model and specifically doesn't balance encounters. What that leads to is the players have a very different approach to solving problems. They don't need to kill the beats to get XP, and they also are probably less resilient than the equivalent 4E or 5E character, which also disinclines them to see combat as the peg that fits every hole. When combat isn't the focus I find you tend to see much more creative use of skills, set dressing, and non combat spells of various sorts. In short, I find it's usually more fun.

Gold for XP is old fashioned, yes. Specifically making encounters that aren't balanced is an entirely new school conceit. Unbalanced encounters in old modules and adventures were the result of not being able to balance them better, not a conscious choice.
 

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Almost every playstyle and game mechanic and argument around RPGs was started in the 1970s, the only actually new idea since 1985 I can think of is class abilities being selectable at each level from a list (and renaming them feats).

Taking an example from this thread, balanced encounters can be traced back to the Monstermark system in the earliest issues of White Dwarf!
Wealth by Level guidance is an odd one, since originally level was by wealth...

Hence "old school" can be arguably almost any play style, since (for example) Old School Essentials is the BX game from 1981 and if you allow anything up to 1981 that's pretty broad. What is most important, I believe, is the thought that newer != better. Some people realised that 3E was not better than AD&D (just different), and then with the introduction of 4E it was blindingly obvious to all that 4E was clearly not a better game than 3E or AD&D in any meaningful way (though if you hate AD&D and 3E you may well prefer playing it) though it was not only marketed as such, they tried to bury the previous editions. Hence 4E was the real spur to the OSR movement.

Almost all the music I listen to was composed or recorded before I was 10, so almost all of it was old when I first discovered it. For all my life I've been told that things I liked were crap because they were neither new or popular on that day in question. In several cases I can think of, things I was told this about subsequently became popular, but the thing itself never changed quality. Whether its games or music, play what you like and don't listen to people who tell you it must be rubbish because it's not the cool thing of the moment.
 

migo

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Almost every playstyle and game mechanic and argument around RPGs was started in the 1970s, the only actually new idea since 1985 I can think of is class abilities being selectable at each level from a list (and renaming them feats).

How are you defining that? The earliest example of a kind of 'fate point' mechanic is in Prince Valiant (1989). And Wushu only restricting narrative influence is a complete paradigm shift, and I don't think there's precedent for it before 2003.
 

TristramEvans

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How are you defining that? The earliest example of a kind of 'fate point' mechanic is in Prince Valiant (1989). And Wushu only restricting narrative influence is a complete paradigm shift, and I don't think there's precedent for it before 2003.

Metagaming currency such as Fate points started with 1980's VG's 007 RPG, as Hero Points, and was perfected in 1984's MSH as Karma Points

They were already called Fate points in 1987's WFRP

Theatrix also predates Wushu by nearly a decade
 

migo

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Metagaming currency such as Fate points also started with 1980's VG's 007 RPG, as Hero Points, and was perfected in 1984's MSH as Karma Points

They were already called Fate points in 1987's WFRP

Theatrix also predates Wushu by nearly a decade

Are you talking about the one by PIG? That may have had a similar idea, but mechanically it's not like Wushu. Wushu lets your character win a fight by narrating them getting the crap beaten out of them following by the enemy dropping from a heart attack.
 

JoeNuttall

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How are you defining that? The earliest example of a kind of 'fate point' mechanic is in Prince Valiant (1989). And Wushu only restricting narrative influence is a complete paradigm shift, and I don't think there's precedent for it before 2003.
Karma in Marvel Super Heroes is the earliest version of luck points that you can use to alter the result of a die roll that I know of. After that everything is just variations on a theme (e.g. being able to declare after the roll that you want to use the points).

Ah, Tristram beat me to it on that point.

I admit I have little interest in story-games nowadays, so there could be more recent innovations there, but I played diceless freeform no-prep no-rules roleplaying in the late 80s which felt very revolutionary at the time, but I've no idea how long that concept had been going round for - we just copyied what other people said they had done. It wasn't very fair (the session was disastrously acrimonious!) so I guess it was only a matter of time before someone put some abstract rules onto it to say whether what you wanted to happen did happen or not.
 

TristramEvans

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Are you talking about the one by PIG? That may have had a similar idea, but mechanically it's not like Wushu. Wushu lets your character win a fight by narrating them getting the crap beaten out of them following by the enemy dropping from a heart attack.

"PIG"? Theatrix was from Backstage Press, a diceless storygame that the term "narrative gaming" was created for, as the author was the first major advocate for that style on usenet back in the day. It was actually arguments with him that led to the creation of the original Threefold model in 1997.

Edit: ah, I just realized you may be thinking of The Story Engine by Precise Intermedia
 

migo

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Precis Intermedia Games. It was what I turned up for 'Story Engine', published in 1996. If you meant 'Theatrix', you should have said that instead of 'Story Engine'.

And no, Theatrix is nothing like Wushu. In Theatrix the GM pre-writes the story, and the players are a kind of interactive audience.
 

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Honestly, I've always found the obsession with "how it was done back in the day" as kind of unnecessary. Not only has gaming been more diverse than some people think for much longer than some people think, it is interesting from a academic perspective I think but not really that useful at the table for me.

It's like, I don't need to figure out how Arneson did it or Gygax ran a game. I need to figure out how I run a game. If that ends up lining up with a specific "style" that exists so be it, but I've generally found that there are good ideas everywhere. And limiting how I do things to one specific style of GMing, one specific style of RPG, gets to be more about puritanism than making the game work for me.

And to me, how each person runs a game should be personal and individualistic.
 

TristramEvans

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In Theatrix the GM pre-writes the story, and the players are a kind of interactive audience.

Um, no? What? The players are given narrative control over scenes based on their attributes, the ratings of which are determined by how many story hooks they provide to the GM.
 

migo

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I admit I have little interest in story-games nowadays, so there could be more recent innovations there, but I played diceless freeform no-prep no-rules roleplaying in the late 80s which felt very revolutionary at the time, but I've no idea how long that concept had been going round for - we just copyied what other people said they had done. It wasn't very fair (the session was disastrously acrimonious!) so I guess it was only a matter of time before someone put some abstract rules onto it to say whether what you wanted to happen did happen or not.

I'm sure it just happened organically. It did for us. We had a rule at school that we had to be active at break, not just sitting around. So we had to play D&D on the playground, without rulebooks, character sheets, or dice. Just narrating has been a thing to varying degrees possibly even predating Braunstein. But to codify it as a system of play does seem to be newer.
 

migo

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Um, no? What? The players are given narrative control over scenes based on their attributes, the ratings of which are determined by how many story hooks they provide to the GM.

How about yes.


Notably, if (in the GM's opinion) the plot requires a certain result, then that result happens regardless of PC skill or conditions. So a PC has zero chance to, say, kill the master villain early by the normal resolution rules.
 

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I've made this comment before but...

Is it not broadly understood that pretty much any movement with Revival or Renaissance in the name is going to be a case of picking and choosing bits from the past to focus on, while ditching others?

I mean, if I walked into someone's Greek Revival home, I'd expect to see indoor plumbing and electricity, and not be shocked if the host was not wearing a toga. :hehe:
 

Doctor Wombat

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Most of the ideas and practices as outlined in the pdfs I posted were refined over two decades of playing GURPS.

I'm aware of that. But even your refereeing advice is usually pretty narrowly focused on what I'd call the "D&D genre". For example, your article on "The World Outside the Dungeon" assumes in its title that the game even has dungeons. And the other advice PDF that you linked to is full of D&D-isms like Classes, Levels, Armor Class, Hit Points, Saving Throws, etc.

So, yes, I've gotten useful ideas on fantasy world design from you over the years, but I run a lot of games that don't look anything like fantasy hex crawls. And I haven't played a game with mechanics like classes or Armor Class since the turn of the century.

I do let the players trash the setting though, so we have that in common.

On the subject of Theatrix, the author David Berkman was absolutely an advocate that a GM could write a plot ahead of time and run players through it. The book's filled with plot-writing advice inspired by the 1979 Syd Field book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Berkman was convinced that you could (and argued that a GM should) structure RPG sessions using the classic three-act structure:

1674324338235.png

Something to keep in mind about John H. Kim's review of Theatrix is that it was informed not only by the text of the book but also a multitude of conversations with David Berkman regarding the game that played out in the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.frp.advocacy in the mid 1990s. As a result, Kim knew a lot about how Berkman intended the game to be run.
 

TristramEvans

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I'm aware of that. But even your refereeing advice is usually pretty narrowly focused on what I'd call the "D&D genre". For example, your article on "The World Outside the Dungeon" assumes in its title that the game even has dungeons. And the other advice PDF that you linked to is full of D&D-isms like Classes, Levels, Armor Class, Hit Points, Saving Throws, etc.

So, yes, I've gotten useful ideas on fantasy world design from you over the years, but I run a lot of games that don't look anything like fantasy hex crawls. And I haven't played a game with mechanics like classes or Armor Class since the turn of the century.

I do let the players trash the setting though, so we have that in common.

On the subject of Theatrix, the author David Berkman was absolutely an advocate that a GM could write a plot ahead of time and run players through it. The book's filled with plot-writing advice inspired by the 1979 Syd Field book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Berkman was convinced that you could (and argued that a GM should) structure RPG sessions using the classic three-act structure:

View attachment 55098

This is no different than the way TSR designed modules after Dragonlance.

Something to keep in mind about John H. Kim's review of Theatrix is that it was informed not only by the text of the book but also a multitude of conversations with David Berkman regarding the game that played out in the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.frp.advocacy in the mid 1990s. As a result, Kim knew a lot about how Berkman intended the game to be run.

Well, it hardly matters since one sentence was cherrypicked from the review to support the claim made, ignoring the rest of it. But speaking as someone who actually owned and played the game, as opposed to just reading a review online, Theatrix was certainly ahead of it's time on the narrative front, and very much pushed the "GM as Auteur" approach, but it at no point advocated a pure railroad (just as no one actually reading through all of JK's review could actually come to that conclusion). Players were, as is even mentioned in the cited review, meant to colloborate with the GM to come up with a good story, and, as is also actually mentioned in the review, empowered to alter or dictate facts about the gameworld during play.
 

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Which only reinforces that there wasn't really ever a single play style. As soon as you had multiple groups you had different ways to play.
And that would be the picking, choosing, skipping part of a revival movement.
 

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Sure, do you base your study of “how they played” on Arneson? Gygax? Hargrave? St. Andre? They will all be different.
How about I pick Doric columns and Corinthian capitols and call it a day as I go inside and watch my 75” tv?

as opposed to f going into my Queen Ann revival and watching that TV in a turret?
 

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Some of my players dislike OSR style "turning the game into a 'Mother may I?' dialog with the DM" (according to them).
Unpopular opinion but I think this is a fair criticism that should be addressed. I don't think many 'Pubbers have a problem with "rulings not rules" and light systems that rely heavily on GM fiat. That said, I think it's helpful to step back from our collective perspective as very experienced gamers to look at things from the perspective of less experienced, more casual players.

My wife likes the gritty pulp-survival horror feel of B/X but she feels like she has to play "mother may I?" to do anything other than "I hit it with my sword" For D&D, she likes having consistent, hard coded abilities or actions that she can rely upon instead of having to make something up on the fly and pitch it to the DM any time she wants to anything more than a basic attack. I don't think this is a crazy expectation.

In my own experience, light or ambiguous rules often lend themselves towards arbitrary and inconsistent rulings and I can see why many players would favor systems that don't rely on GM fiat to do anything cool after a few bad experiences.

The best way to counter this attitude is, of course, to be as fair and consistent as possible with one's rulings. For B/X, I hardcode a few "stock" actions like charging, knockdown, grappling, shoving, and disarming that serve as a consistent base for ruling on other improvised actions. Right out of the gate players have tactical moves that are more interesting than "I hit it with my sword" without having to ask the DM for permission. Perhaps more importantly, if someone suddenly says "I wanna jump on the monster's back and stab the shit out of it!" I can adjudicate in a way that is fair and consistent with all of my other rulings.
 

JoeNuttall

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Is it not broadly understood that pretty much any movement with Revival or Renaissance in the name is going to be a case of picking and choosing bits from the past to focus on, while ditching others?
Well, yes, the OSR was slightly loose with what it chose - no one could ever really agree - but the list higher up the thread was a reasonable stab at it.

But, no, people don't understand that it seems, and try and apply the label OSR to pretty much anything now. It's a term that's in danger of becoming as much use as the OGL.
 

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I’m occasionally frustrated with the stand that seems common that nothing can ever be categorized or examined at all if even one area is vaguely fuzzy.
I’m truly not clear what that stand is meant to accomplish.
 

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I'm sure it just happened organically. It did for us. We had a rule at school that we had to be active at break, not just sitting around. So we had to play D&D on the playground, without rulebooks, character sheets, or dice. Just narrating has been a thing to varying degrees possibly even predating Braunstein. But to codify it as a system of play does seem to be newer.

Codifying more freeform play is only newer if one considers the mid to late 80s new as from what I've read there was codifying of freeform play in Australia at that time (growing out of CoC) and Amber (1991) seems to be an attempt to do the same thing, which becomes obvious if one reads the appendix.
 

Voros

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Also, and with respect to the original folks, the OSR has a lot more experience at this now than they did back in the 70s. Many of the folks who write about this stuff have decades of refereeing under their belt. Along with newer folks who have the advantage of building off of the old guys work and do a good job expanding on it.

This is true but it is also notable as many have seen from Peterson's The Elusive Shift how many of the ideas and debates in the OSR and rpgs in general were apparent in the early APAs.

I agree with one OSR blogger that a bit more knowledge of the history of those debates and the variety of play from the beginning of the hobby would help the OSR from spinning its wheels a bit.
 

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I’m occasionally frustrated with the stand that seems common that nothing can ever be categorized or examined at all if even one area is vaguely fuzzy.
I’m truly not clear what that stand is meant to accomplish.

It is pretty simple, in rpgs as Mike Mason points out in his excellent essay on the history of rpg theory among fandom, most attempts at 'categorization' has been a political attempt to present one system or style of play as superior to others.
 

TristramEvans

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It is pretty simple, in rpgs as Mike Mason points out in his excellent essay on the history of rpg theory among fandom, most attempts at 'categorization' has been a political attempt to present one system or style of play as superior to others.

Ah yes, I recall Mike Mason's "Only Wack Sucka MCs play Palladium" RPG Categorization essay in the APA Alarm Bells & Exconvicts
 
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