Nostalgia(s) and the OSR

We just posted this review from Marcia of Marcia’s Blog about John Battle’s Pokemon Dungeon Crawler, and I think it’s a very interesting review.

Specifically the discussion of nostalgia being used as a setting creation/design tool both in aesthetic choice (something we’re all pretty aware of) but also in the form of vestigial mechanics.

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I get that someone (like Marcia) can be put off by the ostentatious nostalgia of a Pokemon “OSR game” that was produced as a labor of love by an amateur (in the best sense of the word), but I wonder whether nostalgia really extends that much further for the “post-OSR.” Most of the amateur designers I’ve talked to around here, at least, are not really interested in nostalgia, though talk about what old rule sets can do, as part of the range of possibilities, may make it seem so. There’s a difference between looking at old rules and hankering to recreate a golden age.

Here’s something about nostalgia and the OSR. OSR originated partly as a reaction to later editions of D&D, especially 4e, coinciding also with a sense of crisis at the death of Gygax (and Arneson a year later). The ensuing rush ad fontes back to the three ODD books and the “rediscovery of original principles” (actually usually the formulation of new principles mixed with the abstraction and exaggeration of old ones) that this entailed left the world with two different things shared among several cliques:

  1. lots of cloned and genetically modified materials and 2) just the principles for cutting away accretion deemed “late” and finding new ways to make do with less.

Some cliques in the OSR continue to play with (1). I mean, take a look at OSE. So lovely to behold! And marketed specifically as nostalgic (“Old-School” “Classic fantasy” etc.)

Most of the amateur designers lurking about in this Cauldron so far, by contrast, took some of those “OSR” principles and applied them further and still further, hacking in that direction beyond OD&D regardless of the chronology and the clones. How far would these principles take players? My sense is that this was now not about nostalgia. It was experiment. These designers (some of whom are around here) have cared not so much about the matter as the methods. I’ve heard folks like Yochai Gal say that they don’t give a darn about what somebody’s grandpa played (to paraphrase). They just like to apply principles abstracted in the OSR effort, which can be described vaguely as “rules lite” or “play worlds not rules” and the stuff that usually has come to go with that. Just look at the principles articulated in Cairn to get the idea. Nothing nostalgic there.

So my question for somebody like Marcia (and I’ve written to her to see if she’ll come here!), put off by nostalgia and “the simultaneous guilt and pleasure of nostalgic consumerism” (as Marcia nicely puts it), is whether that person would make the distinction between nostalgia through cloning and pathological revisiting of memory and the quest for pristine origins, on the one hand, and the “progressive” application of side-effect principles that became post-OSR preferences for a niche audience, on the other.

Because I make that distinction.

I also don’t see what’s wrong with nostalgia for old games, even commercialized nostalgia, but then, I’m getting pretty old. Don’t judge the olders because you will get there, too–if you’re lucky (?).

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Oh I don’t read Marcia as saying nostalgia is inherently bad. I think she’s saying that A) the specific nostalgia of the Pokemon game isn’t for her, as she’s younger than it. B) That POSR works of nostalgia focused on 90’s culture are no less about nostalgia then OSR works focused on 70’s nostalgia for Gygaxian fantasy.

What I find interesting about her review is that she specifically comment not just on the nostalgic subject matter of Pokemon, harkening to a 90’s childhood, but the use of mechanics, or at least thier implication that present a nostaglic face.

For me at least the nostalgia of the OSR is interesting because of both the fundamental relationship between the historical subject and nostalgia (nostalgia implies a sort of constructed cultural mememory of a thing, not the thing itself) and secondly the interest of part of the POSR in expunging percieved elements of D&D’s aesthetic (e.g. imperialism or racial essentialism).

The uses that nostalgia, and with it a claim of authority from history (almost always a fictionalized monumental one) are put are something I find fascinating. In context of the OSR for example we see often an insistence that it’s a return to form, but even where the system may be (as in OSE) the interpretation of the mechanics, and thus the procedures and play style don’t much follow the advice one might find in Strat Review or the 1e DMG.

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GusL, I agree! I didn’t read Marcia as saying nostalgia was bad… just off-putting to her in this case, and she described this as post-OSR (and I take her to represent a set of people who will have the same reaction). As she said,

it is also a call for authors in the post-OSR to not so readily rely upon nostalgia as a premise for play.

Maybe the issue was that the rules-lite Pokemon RPG (yes, we are actually talking about that) describes itself as “OSR” at all, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a big issue, particularly if it is used merely designate a game as not 5e-based but kinda sorta like older D&D, as many now at large seem to use the term “OSR” to mean.

(I asked Marcia to come and comment and she said “soon.” Maybe by commenting on her blog post here you will have, in effect, induced her to join the Cauldron, which I’m sure we’d all welcome.) (Join us, Marcia…)

I’m with you all the way, Gus, about the uses of nostalgia in the OSR. I find those uses fascinating, too! [Here is one of my first coherent takes on the OSR immediately after learning about it. I should have learned more before I wrote it, but I’d like to think it retains some value as a “fresh take.”]

I don’t feel as confident assessing the use of nostalgia by post-OSR cliques, though. It doesn’t seem the same to me. Partly it’s that post-OSR is so varied. It’s not one thing. The move to rid the perceived imperialism and racial essentialism is not simply post-OSR, of course, either–I know you are aware of WotC’s recent efforts (concessions?)–but are more of a sign of the changing world around us, I suppose, and I don’t think that the Cauldronian creators I’ve interacted with are hung up on expunging so much as tinkering, experimenting, and pushing principles of rules and play to their playable limits.

Let’s hope Marcia does come along to represent herself. If not, we can ponder her critical views here by ourselves… sniffle.

Now, I’d like very much to hear from you more about discrepancies you see between implicit playstyle direction in OSE versus that which we find in Strategic Review or Gygax '79–but that deserves another thread, I should think!

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Likely it does, and I don’t necessarily know that I want to parse the OSR (which I speak of in the past tense because I mean a specific era of a play style/scene) too finely, but basically it seems to me that the contradictions between what Retired Adventurer calls Classic (not my Classic which I will admit is a bit of a dodge to encourage procedural dungeon crawl play) and Trad go back to almost the beginning of the hobby, and the advice one finds coming out of Lake Geneva is a far cry from “rulings not rules” and the basic creative push I saw as an OSR cornerstone. In early Strat Review we see Gygax lambasting the Cal Tech folks for trying to run games with a less war game focus or on a shorter campaign time scale then his own. In the DMG he talks about using GM fair aggressively and punitively for not following GM story structure, and in Tomb of Horrors’ advice he almost lauds antagonistic play, and certainly buys into the idea of the referee’s duty to challenge the players mechanically rather then producing any kind of collaborative narrative.

Now it’s undoubtedly possible to say none of these are not OSR, but the tone and advice I find in a lot of early work seems very much at odds with the gamey impulses it suggests to me. Though I’ll be the first to suggest that “OSR” never had a fixed meaning.

I should add that your take on OSR per your post is fundamentally similar to my own.

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I agree with you completely about wide variation in the early days and the contradictions between actual old-time gaming and professedly OSR dogmatics. Retired Adventurer drew distinctions useful for many (including naming “OC style,” alien to this here oldster) but I bet he’d admit that his six types are a lot neater than the reality (he even has the dump zone of what he calls “proto-culture”).

I note, though it may not belong here, that Gygax knew about the CalTech guys only from Lee Gold, who was the person who originally (it seems) dubbed those guys “Dungeons & Beavers” disdainfully after a bad experience trying to play with them after making her way to Pasadena to join in. Gygax read her APA and that’s where she reported her negative take on the ultra-nerds of that university; I don’t think Gygax knew any CalTech gamers directly. I think the thought of 100th-level characters was, to him, a sign that they broke his game, so to speak… okay but I am getting far off topic from commercialized nostalgia!

Basically, I think, you and I are on the same page. But is Marcia? And what about the rest of the loiterers around here?

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Hi y’all, happy to be here! :blush: I missed participating on The OSR Pit, and this seems like a similar sort of environment.

I absolutely agree with that distinction! I sort of fall in the latter camp, if only because I prefer the playstyle techniques that are labeled as OSR but I don’t ascribe my preference for them to a yearning for a bygone gaming culture. Though, I also enjoy what some people have called “games archaeology” because it’s basically an inconsequential school of lit crit. So, maybe I’m not exempt from an appreciation of old things. (i.e., I’m not at all!)

W.r.t. this, I appreciate @GusL’s clarification that I don’t think nostalgia as such is problematic, but that (1) it’s not for me in this case and (2) this work is no less nostalgic than are the previous ‘problematic’ works of the OSR. What Battle’s works remind me of is the Vaporwave movement in art which experiments with appropriating aesthetics of nineties-era consumerism. Eventually, this tacky VHS glitch aesthetic has spread to TV specials and YouTube channels without much thought behind it at all.

I guess it irks me specifically, besides the uncritical indulgence in old toy commercial cartoons, because the target audience of the aesthetic is only a couple years older than I am, so it’s put onto me by indirect exposure. I’m a zoomer calling millenials boomers, or at least asking that millenials look at their inspirations with a bit more of a critical eye. Gus said in a Discord server that Pokemon, being a fantasy dog-fighting game, has enough baggage that could be picked apart; need we turn also turn Pokemon into a loss-of-childhood-innocence fantasy to indulge our (not mine, I guess) own feeling that enjoying Pokemon is a thing of the distant past?

I didn’t mean to speak broadly about post-OSR works! Just in particular the Pokemon one and the more ‘official’ publications by John Battle, .dungeon and My Body is a Cage. Nevertheless, they’re popular enough that I figured it was worth questioning their broad appeal (though it was not actually my original choice to review the Pokemon game; I think My Body is a Cage serves as a better case study overall).

Finally, I agree with Retired Adventurer’s distinction between ‘classic’ play and OSR play, including how ‘classic’ play itself was not a singular playstyle that could be reduced to anything. My own preference is for gamey games that lack aspects of performance, which is why I got interested in old materials (and their new readings) to begin with. Not interested in playing out a game master’s story, nor in creating my own original character for my friends to indulge me through, etc.

(To put it another way, I prefer games that don’t strictly favor Jaquays-style-exploration on the part of the players, but that don’t discourage or prevent it either. And logistics is fun!)

Sorry if I missed anything! Thank y’all for having me on here :smiley:

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Hey, you came by!

It sounds that there is broad consensus, on several points, between the three of us who have written on this so far.

  1. OSR in general is/was inspired by nostalgia and the reclamation of an ideal and notionally uniform past (often, either one’s own reimagined childhood or somebody else’s)–not always, but a whole lot of the time.
  2. OSR is/was not the same as old-time play (what I’m still reluctant to call Classic) because old-time play was not uniform at all (as has been amply demonstrated elsewhere).
  3. The commercialization of nostalgia leaves one with mixed feelings. (This is something to explore further.)
  4. What comes after OSR is not easily defined.
  5. We are all very interested in games archaeology, for different purposes (myth busting; history for its own sake; discovery of techniques of fun; experimentation; inconsequential lit crit; probably other stuff).

Thanks to your entry here, I see now that the post that prompted this discussion (your critical thoughts about a Pokemon game that styles itself as OSR) turns out to be about something I had not considered: an intergenerational discrepancy in aesthetics, based on stuff I (for my part) realize that I don’t understand, between two age-groups both younger than me. Vaporwave? I guess I have to poke around the internet to understand what that’s about.

For further discussion in another thread, perhaps: what are the limits of disinterest in performance among those who like gamey games? After all, there are much less performance-oriented yet engrossing games like chess. Presumably one undertakes role-playing games because of some affinity for limited identification with a character, or to contribute to a story. Yeah, that’s clearly another thread.

This one has Nostalgia in the heading.

if only because I prefer the playstyle techniques that are labeled as OSR but I don’t ascribe my preference for them to a yearning for a bygone gaming culture.

I think that this is one of the major characteristics of the folks frequenting the Cauldron. Stick around @traversefantasy!

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Due to Growing up under christian fundamentalism Pokemon still feels dangerous and rebellious to me. I had to be very careful to keep my cards a secret.

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