As Dungeons and Dragons became more rulebound and combat-oriented, some players revived older, more expressive forms of the game. But is the Old School Renaissance itself just more nerd fundamentalism?

Over time, the rules governing classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons changed and took on a weight of their own. Role-playing elements sank into a mire of charts and tables and special abilities. This rules-heavy play really took hold when, in the late 1990s, publisher TSR was suffering financially. Wizards of the Coast, coasting on the sales of card game Magic: The Gathering, bought them out.

Not surprisingly, D&D—the way it was packaged and the way it was played—started to look a lot like Magic. The emphasis was heavy on combat, skills, and special feats. For many people D&D became more about creating quasi-Medieval superheroes than adventurers looking for the simple things like treasure, or a little boost in their archery ability.

What Wizards of the Coast did was take an experience so open as to allow group improvisation, and turn it into a tabletop game where the players merely pretend that they are the miniature figurines pushed around on a combat grid. Playing D&D began to mean buying all kinds of other stuff. Where figurines were once optional, the new rules made them essential, along with cardboard tiles and an enormous number of supplements. (The newest version of D&D has three different Players Handbooks).1

To put it another way, Dungeons & Dragons has become a game preferring combat to role-playing. It favors prefab characters acquiring new skills and powers over a character that the player comes to identify with; a character whose development determines the course of the game.

In the wake of this, a small but mighty band of mostly middle-age gamers has tapped into a larger current of nostalgia that (like vinyl records and analog synthesizers) is trying to recapture the interactions with ideas and people that digital media have all but made obsolete.

Sometimes referred to as the Old School Renaissance (OSR), this loose gathering of gamers and designers are bound by a common message: all you really need to play a table-top fantasy role-playing game is notebook paper, pencils, dice and a few charts you can download for free.

OSR is also representative of a current obsession with how open things used to be, and with how much the culture and technology felt more participatory. When they were growing up, we weren't just consumers, but pioneers. It was about being able to crack things open and look inside, and maybe even come up with your own changes&mash;be it computers, or audio hardware, or game rules. It's about fighting back a little against a culture of consumption that's become stripped of its sense of participation, where everything is ready made and sealed, where you can't even be trusted to change your own batteries.

It was copyright law, however, that made the old school renaissance possible. Copyright can be very complicated, especially in the internet age, but one thing remains clear: you cannot copyright game rules. You can copyright their presentation, the associated artwork, and the accompanying text, but not the rules themselves: that a dwarf gets a constitution bonus +1 cannot be copyrighted.

The earliest iterations of OSR games, like the Old School Reference and Index Compilation, are simply various editions of the early D&D rules with new art and accompanying text offered as PDFs (often free) or print-on-demand at cost. While many felt the original D&D had a kind of biblical authority, others realized that since the rules were not protected by copyright, they could be modified. Creators started to offer their own brand of old-school RPGs such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics, not only fixing what they thought was broken, but re-instilling the game with all that was gloriously weird and pulpy about the early years.

Wizards of the Coast finally got around to acknowledging that some people like to play the earlier versions of the game and, seeing a small but flourishing market, tried to capture the spirit of OSR with a number of publishing initiatives. The first started in 2012, with the reprints of the three core books of the first edition of AD&D; The Monster Manual, The Players Handbook, and The Dungeon Masters Guide. This year Wizards published Unearthed Arcana—the much-maligned collection of Gygax's Dragon Magazine writing—and Dungeons of Dread, an anthology of the four original TSR AD&D adventures.

The books are lovingly bound, detailing on the cover one small aspect of the original art. The books include a "red ribbon" bookmark: the universal publishing shorthand for "collector's edition." The paper stock used is high gloss and heavy weight, but feels kind of cheap, as if photocopied. To preserve some of the lighter drawings, the printing tends to be too dark, giving and almost-wet look to much of the art. The book most undermined by this is Dungeons of Dread: none of the colors in the art are preserved, and the lack of removable maps and other supplemental material makes it a difficult book to use.

The bigger news earlier this year is the online PDF store Dungeons and Dragons Classics where for a few bucks you can download the "classic" D&D material, including the Basic and Expert guides, as well as versions 2.0, 3.0, and 3.5. The site is not actually run by Wizards, but piggybacked onto the terrific DriveThru RPG, a stellar resource for role-playing. There are missed opportunities here, including not making these available as print-on-demand, an option that has become central to OSR culture.

A more cynical observation, and one I can't help but make, is that the cost to post these items online is negligible. The operators are able to make a profit on material that it had no hand in producing—content that has long been available in OSR clones. This is not to say that it isn't terrific to have these items available, as some of them are fairly collectible and Wizards deserves credit for buying TSR when the alternative might have been the end of the game itself. But there is something uninspired in the whole effort. It is as if Wizards does not really see new value in the old D&D material, but merely recognizes the opportunity to make money from those who do.

Nevertheless, reading through these items—particularly the AD&D hardcovers—is a joy. Here is Gygax describing playing a character: "Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by—you will acquire gold, magic items, and great renown… This game lets all your fantasies come true… Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made." Sure, it's over the top. But it evoked wonder.

Maybe we don't need to keep looking back. Is the spirit of OSR really just a bunch of throwback nerds, staring into the abyss? The biggest criticism of OSR, voiced by bloggers such as RPGpundit, is that what Gygax and Arneson were trying to do was create something new that would rattle the cages of the hardcore wargamers and make games something that were more open, less restrictive. Today's old-school misanthropes are merely holding fast to something without any kind of creative impetus to push roleplaying into new territories. In this respect, OSR is itself a kind of fundamentalism. OSR gamers counter this by arguing innovation in D&D has merely meant more rules. And more rules means less wonder, less imagination.

Child psychologist Donald Winncott describes the pure play of youth, where an unboundedness is the required work of a healthy developing mind, and continues to be an vital part of being an authentic self into adulthood. Is this was role-playing is about? Authenticity? And is someone supposed to find authenticity imagining they are, say, a magic-user in search of arcane lore?

For the last year, once or twice a month if we're lucky, some friends of mine gather to play AD&D. We've ended some sessions without any combat or dice rolling at all, all that precious time we are able to get away from our other responsibilities spent elaborating on a world and its inhabitants that has no other meaning outside of these hours together. I can't be sure this is how Gygax and Dave Arneson meant the game to be played, but they certainly invented a game that never makes us feel like we are cheating for not adhering to every table and chart. And they also made a game capable of unbounded play, where I don't have to pretend to be kid to pretend that I am not me.

[1] But one of the more telling changes in the D&D rules is not about the rules at all. The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' Dungeon Masters Guide includes an Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading, in which Gary Gygax reminisces about his father telling him fairy tales, as well as a list of books he names as inspiration behind much of the D&D game's original inception. Appendix N also includes a remarkable little nugget: that the major influence on D&D's gameplay is not J.R.R. Tolkien, but Edgar Rice Burroughs and Fritz Leiber, among others. No subsequent edition of D&D included an appendix of this sort.

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