15 March, 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part IV

Back of a TSR t-shirt advertising the upcoming third edition.
While TSR moved away from its original vision for Dungeons & Dragons (as explored in parts I, II, and III), not everyone moved along with it.  A minority[1] refused—whether due to their love of that older style of play and/or dislike of what replaced it,
or simply their reactionary natures—to adopt the new style.  They merrily continued along year after year with their dungeoneering and sandbox play, even as 2nd edition took over and the very concept of the dungeoncrawl became an oddity in D&D, still using those "rules you never used anyway".  These people became the old-school playerbase.

The release of 3rd edition D&D in August 2000, then, only altered the form of older players' scorn.  Old-school players soon began defining themselves in contrast to both the 2nd and 3rd editions: by 2002, to the existing list of perceived advantages old-school D&D had over newer forms had been added the concept of "rules-light" design, an idea that many newcomers to the OSR are baffled by and many looking for cheap gotchas point out as an absurdity: how can one ever look at 1st edition AD&D, they ask, and claim that the old-school is rules-light?  The answer is clear in the context of the time that the phrase first came into use: old-school rulesets were being contrasted against 3rd edition's avalanche of books and accompanying tidal wave of spells, items, feats, prestige classes and such, and the mammoth statblocks of its NPCs and monsters.  In this light, old-school rulesets, while less unified and sometimes more unwieldy, were obviously far simpler than 3rd edition.[2]

A modest example of dungeonpunk.
Old-school fans had by this point rejected the idea of Whiggish, progressive advancement that many gamers took (and still take) for granted: the idea that each edition was an improvement on the one prior to it, everything moving along a path steadily upward, twirling, twirling, twirling towards a superior ruleset.  While one of the marketing campaigns 3rd edition launched with was "back to the dungeon", its concept of the dungeoncrawl was rooted in superheroic play, a greater contempt for resource management than ever before, and an aesthetic that became derided as "dungeonpunk": moving away from the cliches of fabulous but entirely useless chainmail bikinis and such and moving to what rapidly became a new set of cliches based on fabulous but entirely useless straps, pouches, and belts everywhere (and then for 2008's 4th edition and 2009's Pathfinder to a different, World of Warcraft-based artstyle with an emphasis on exaggerated armour pieces that became derisively known as "pauldroncore").[3]

A similarly modest example of pauldroncore.
Third edition, however, introduced a key element that would make the OSR possible.  Wizard of the Coast's Ryan Dancey successfully pushed to allow third-party publishers to create new content for or related to D&D by means of a perpetual, free open gaming license (OGL).  The company followed this new license with a System Resources Document (SRD) that anyone could draw upon, containing much of what would broadly be considered D&D's intellectual and creative framework: its foundational stats, classes, spells, monsters, and terminology.  The fundamental idea was, in a nutshell, that D&D's popularity was now its greatest asset, and the best way to keep it on top of the RPG world was to make it easier to play than ever before, to spread it to every corner so that the RPG ecosystem was all D&D (or OGL derivatives) all the time.  For a social game, playerbase was everything; that one could make a "better" game (whatever that meant) was irrelevant in the face of the fact that everyone knew how to play D&D and owned the books and was comfortable with what they knew.  These innovations would help ensure that this phenomenon continued.

Bold concepts by themselves, the OGL and SRD (both released in 2000) would open to the public many of the elements that the notoriously litigious TSR had guarded so fiercely with numerous threatened lawsuits against fans and publishers alike.[4]  Now Wizards was offering to just give it away.  As Dancey explained in 2000,

The idea is to abstract the "game" inside Dungeons & Dragons and reduce it to a genre-neutral set of concepts and rules.  Then, we'll layer on a thick helping of D&D-type fantasy elements, like the standard D&D classes, races, spells, and monsters.  In the future, we might layer on a science fiction layer, or a horror layer, or any other genre we think would be interesting.  In fact, Jon[athan] Tweet feels that a very strong "rules light" version of D&D could easily be constructed from the existing manuscript; being completely compatible with but just smaller in scope and application than the full blown 3rd Edition D&D rules.

Jonathan Tweet was precisely right, but not in the way he envisioned.

Early Rumbles

Unfortunately, a great deal of material has disappeared down the internet memory hole.  One of the early hangouts for old-school fans was The Delver's Dungeon, where a decent amount of original OSRIC discussion was had, while the Swords & Wizardry and original Labyrinth Lord forums contained a lot of early information on those games: all gone now.  Google+ went too, even taking comments on non-G+ blogs made through its service (I lost a lot of early comments on this blog due to this ever so helpful Google solution).  Nonetheless, we can still piece together a decent amount of the early history of what would soon become known as the Old-School Renaissance.[5]

In the early 2000s, several proto-OSR publishers appeared.  The first was Necromancer Games, founded in 2000.  They produced products for the new 3rd edition that aimed to capture the spirit of 1st edition: "Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel" was their slogan, and they soon had a thriving forum with like-minded individuals (preserved here).  As co-founder Clark Petersen said in a 2000 interview:

First Edition is the cover of the old DMG (Dungeon Masters Guide) with the City of Brass; it is Judges Guild; it is Type IV demons not Tanaari and Baatezu; it is the Vault of the Drow not Drizzt Do'urden; it is the Tomb of Horrors not the Ruins of Myth Drannor; it is orcs not ogrillons; it is mind flayers not Ilithids (or however they spell it); it is Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard and Leiber, not Eddings, Hickman, Jordan and Salvatore; it is definitely Orcus and the demon-princes and not the Blood War; it is Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound not Elminster's Evasion; and it is Artifacts and Relics from the old DMG (with all the cool descriptions).

I always say we want to be the VW Bug of roleplaying companies, meaning that we want to have a modern style and appeal but an obvious link to the past.  One of the ways we do that is how we design the modules.  For example, we use full color covers (not that funky mono-color of the old modules).  But our modules have the same basic format of the old modules—inset art, module number in the upper left corner, diagonal band in the upper left corner, logo placement, etc.  I guarantee you, when you look at one of our modules you will flash back to the old ones—just like when you see a new VW bug.  And hopefully you will say "Man, that is just like an old module except cooler."

Necromancer would team up with Gary Gygax as well as TSR alumnus Rob Kuntz to release works by them with solid old-school credentials (although the company would not be able to keep either author long-term), and later some Judges Guild licensed products.  (Goodman Games would follow with their line of Dungeon Crawl Classics modules based on similar principles, initially created for 3rd edition rather than their own game—not released until 2012beginning in 2003 with DCC #1, Idylls of the Rat King.)


The second was Kenzer & Company, which released Hackmaster in May 2001.  This pseudo-parody game, based on an absurdist take of old-school D&D as filtered through the medium of the popular Knights of the Dinner Table comics, took every caricature of classic D&D and dialed it to 11.  Taking advantage of a unique legal loophole,[6] they were able to use the AD&D 1st and 2nd edition rules as a baseline for their work.

The original "Collector's Edition".
The third, close on its heels, was Troll Lord Games.  Founded in 2000, in June 2001 the company announced that Gary Gygax would be writing books for them.  These were aimed at the 3rd-edition market, but of course carried strong old-school credentials.  They followed this up with an adventure by TSR alumni Rob Kuntz, and later further Gygax works related to the legendary, never-released Castle Greyhawk.[7]  They also released their own game system, Castles & Crusades, in 2004.  While not expressly old-school in terms of rules, it aimed to create a modern take on the concept, and generated a great deal of excitement amongst old-school players in the lead-up to its release.  However, while it developed a decent-sized fanbase, numerous grumbles were heard over its modern mechanics and resulting deviations from old-school play.  C&C is widely credited as a sort of old-school gateway drug, luring many newer players to the old-school fold, but though still supported it has largely been eclipsed today in old-school circles by other games.[8]


The major hangouts for the old-school community in the third edition era were all forum-based.  The biggest by far was Dragonsfoot ("The home of TSR-era D&D"), its public website going live in May 2000, only three months prior to the release of 3rd edition.  A forum civil war over which editions should be discussed and how led to an exodus to the new Knights & Knaves Alehouse (K&K) forum in mid-2005; the new forum cut 2nd edition as well as B/X and BECMI from its list of approved editions, its members frequently deriding the latter two as "kiddie D&D" ("This board unashamedly and proudly supports Old School GYGAXIAN games.  Specifically: Original Dungeons & Dragons – the little books, First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and Judges Guild products for OD&D & AD&D.  This board is for the discussion of OLD SCHOOL style games and gaming.  We make no excuses and no apologies for other game systems not being supported here.")  And June 2007 saw the creation of ODD74, a forum dedicated to the 1974 original release and immediate offshoots.  There were smaller forum communities, such as the Grognard's Tavern, the previously mentioned Delver's Dungeon, the Doomsday Message Boards, Pied Piper Publishing's forum (which had a decent amount of participation from former TSR employee Rob Kuntz; a lot of material formerly there was lost in a board crash) and the occasional discussion on EN World and the not-yet hopeless RPGNet forums, and also a limited amount on Usenet (mostly rec.games.frp.dnd), now vanished Yahoo Groups such as Gygax Games, and even Livejournal (where a proto-version of Grognardia could be found).  But K&K and Dragonsfoot were the key places at the time, and these old-school D&D forums would be the centre of the birth of the OSR.
An important additional bit of context is that by this point all old-school books had been out of print for many years—in some case decades—and no legal PDFs were available.  Beyond the obvious fact that no significant support for old-school gaming was appearing,[9] it was increasingly difficult even to find the base rules, especially if you were a fan of 1974's OD&D.  There was a strong pent-up desire for support of all kinds amongst the old-school community that was not being met.  Dragonsfoot had been releasing free PDF-only products of all-new material support for old editions of D&D since 2000, without using the OGL, but this was not meeting the perceived need for wider visibility and distribution, or the creation of print product.  At the same time, fear of legal retribution by TSR's successor, Wizards of the Coast, prevented more ambitious approaches.[10] 
Discussion along the lines of what Dancey and Tweet were consideringon using the OGL to create something akin to a TSR-era edition of a game with the serial numbers filed offhad occurred on Dragonsfoot as early as 2003, but there was little hope at the time that it would amount to anything.

BFRPG (Basic Fantasy RPG), the first OSR game, was announced and released by Chris Gonnerman in a very incomplete form on the Dragonsfoot forums on 20 January 2006.  BFRPG was a new type of game, in that it was an unabashedly old type of game.  Built from the OGL, it was not merely inspired by older editions (as Castles & Crusades was) but specifically attempted to recreate the 1981 B/X edition of D&D.  It was not 100% faithful to B/X: it separated race and class, used ascending AC, and made numerous other changes, but there was no doubt overall as to what it sought to do, something made very clear by its creator (insofar as was possible: the OGL forbids any use of or direct comparison to Dungeons & Dragons or other elements of what it terms Wizards of the Coast "Product Identity", either in your work or as advertising, which is why OSR games are always so vaguely advertised as being "compatible with X edition of the world's most popular fantasy game" and the like; fear of litigation made designers even more vague and handwavy in these early days).  While unfinished when first released, BFRPG was rapidly iterated to the point that it could be run, with updates coming as much as daily early on, and received steady official support and soon a healthy forum of its own.

Cover of OSRIC v0.03
OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) was announced by Stuart Marshall on Dragonsfoot on 7 June 2006, with a PDF available by the end of the month.  I'm going to spend a lot of time on OSRIC, because its story is more complex than that of the other first-wave OSR games, and because today I see many people asking what is the point of it and other similarly close-but-not-quite "retroclones" (as they came to be known) of various D&D editions, and why did they not go that last mile and just make it a full clone (as Old-School Essentials eventually did with B/X, to great success).

The game which would become OSRIC was begun in late 2004, by Matthew Finch, a retired lawyer.  He wrote an initial 76,000-word draft before handing off the project to Stuart Marshall, who would become the project's main editor and driver and see it through to completion.

I don't credit myself with the success of OSRIC, only for recognizing the legal framework that allowed a true retro-clone.  The success of OSRIC was due to Stuart Marshall.  I did a lot of the art (all of it in the first release, which has thankfully been leavened with more skillful work from others in the later versions), and obviously my original draft comprised the majority of the text, but basically I was out of the loop before OSRIC’s release.

—Matthew Finch, 2011

OSRIC was unique for several reasons.  Most notably, it aimed to be a near-perfect restatement of a previous D&D edition—specifically 1st edition AD&Dsomething no third-party game had ever before attempted.[11]  That having been said, it had two important boundaries.  The first was that it was envisioned as a publishing vehicle, not a complete game.

The idea there is that the publishers will be able to say that their document is "compatible with OSRIC."  (Anyone can do this, without asking permission from me, and there's no need for a fee or royalty to me of any kind.)  I hope that the buying public will understand that this means your publication is compatible with other systems as well, if you follow that...  I realise this is vague but I'm under the constraints [regarding referencing Product Identity] I indicated earlier.

Secondly, it's an openly-usable label for your publication.  In other words, if you say you're selling something compatible with OSRIC, you'll benefit from the marketing that other people have put into their own OSRIC-compatible stuff, while they will also benefit from your own efforts.

I should say that I don't expect anyone actually to play OSRIC.

—Stuart Marshall, 2006

OSRIC was intended to allow people to make new supporting material for 1st edition from a legally sound basis, rather than to be played on its own: it was only a game insofar as it facilitated the release of content for the game it was emulating, and so was deliberately missing key material in its text: monsters, magic items, and treasure, in particular.  But enough was there that a designer could make a new adventure or other supplement, slap a "compatible with OSRIC" label on the front, and could rest easy knowing that by not directly referencing D&D and by using material that OSRIC had vetted as being okay to use, they were legally shielded, while anyone could look at that label and know that what they were truly getting was, at long last, new 1st edition AD&D product.  It is difficult to overemphasize the fear that people had in those days about attempting to employ the OGL for such a purpose: this is obviously not what it had been intended for, and the very recent and very rich history of TSR attacking others perceived to have infringed on their IP was in the back of everyone's minds.  OSRIC helped put that to rest; without it, many other games along these lines would likely never have existed.

The second important boundary was that, being the first of its kind and given the issues noted directly above, it was extremely cautious about infringement.  While BFRPG was shielded by being a more direct employment of the OGL and by adding in enough major variations of its own to make it legally distinct, OSRIC sought to be as close as it dared to 1st edition, and therefore was a riskier venture.  Breaking new ground as they were, Finch and Marshall felt that certain deviations were necessary to give them a better legal footing, to enable them to safely state that this was not a copy or legal derivation of 1st edition.

The first element is the reasoning that lay behind such things as the elimination of the weapon type vs AC table (unnecessary in a reference ruleset solely intended to allow third parties to make 1st-edition-compatible adventures), while the second element explains things like OSRIC's experience point tables being subtly different.

[The first draft of OSRIC] was done with legal considerations in mind all the way through, and there were lots of decisions and judgment calls.  Being a lawyer, I'm pretty comfortable with those judgment calls as they were made for OSRIC, but each [other such] game would require the same step by step process.  It's not going to be clear to a non-lawyer why I made certain decisions or even where the decisions were made - except in the various areas where there's something major, like the randomization of the base xp required to gain level (which, since OSRIC is designed for supplement creation, would be utterly invisible to users of 1e supplements).

—Matthew Finch, 2007

The release of the OGL is what made OSRIC possible, but it also helped that a) OSRIC had been initially developed by a former lawyer and brought to solicitors for consultation and b) the final developer and person in charge of its release, Stuart Marshall, was based in Britain, an entirely different legal jurisdiction.  He did speak with Wizards of the Coast concerning the project, but while they were unable to come to a firm agreement, Marshall felt he had the grounds to release regardless.

OSRIC's legality is between myself and WOTC, and I have discussed it with their representatives.  I don't intend to provide any further information on our discussions on a public messageboard, except to say that those discussions ground to a halt over a year ago now and OSRIC remains available.

—Stuart Marshall, 2007

The narcissism of small differences and a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal basis that Finch and Marshall felt compelled to operate under ensured that OSRIC would be castigated by some for its deviations from 1st edition core, but overall it was a clear success.  Its popularity was such that Marshall was eventually persuaded to "finish" it: OSRIC v2.0 was a complete rules system, 402 pages to the original's 132 pages.  With the assistance of an enlarged editorial crew, it was released in November 2008.  Now one could play OSRIC instead of 1st edition if they so desired.  But the increasing popularity of the simpler B/X and games derived from it, plus OSRIC's lack of direct (as opposed to third-party) product support and its more conservative licensing rules, has kept it largely as the publishing vehicle it was originally intended to be.

Click to enlarge.

With OSRIC having blazed the initial trail, the release of the next major OSR game, Labyrinth Lord, was fairly straightforward.  Daniel Proctor announced the impending release on Dragonsfoot in May 2007, and the game appeared in August of that year.  It was a full game, like BFRPG, and based on B/X, like BFRPG, but Proctor did not see the two as rivals:

[I want to] discourage the thinking that Labyrinth Lord is in competition with BFRPG.  I'd rather that people not think of it in terms of what Labyrinth Lord can offer that other games cannot.  ...  The goal of LL is not to replace any game, but to be a reference document for players and publishers to produce compatible material for a classic fantasy game we all know and enjoy.  This is same goal as OSRIC.

BFRPG is a great piece of work.  It represents very different goals than what I am trying to do with Labyrinth Lord....

—Daniel Proctor, 2007

Though greater fidelity was a goal, Labyrinth Lord still had a similar series of subtle deviations from core B/X, intended to help legally shield it, following the methodology OSRIC had pioneered.  It was a great success, and Proctor successfully pushed to see that it was available in game stores as well.  Together with BFRPG it was key in making B/X—a ruleset only in existence for two years—the dominant old-school edition in the modern community.  While the lack of long-term direct support from Proctor's Goblinoid Games helped Old-School Essentials take the top spot in old-school emulation, that Labyrinth Lord proved to be legally and commercially viable allowed OSE to be as bold a direct reinstatement as it is, and overall (like OSRIC) the importance of Labyrinth Lord cannot be overstated.

Rounding out the big four of the initial OSR games was Swords & Wizardry (S&W).  Announced on Dragonsfoot and a now-defunct blog in June 2008, S&W aimed at broad 1974 OD&D emulation (with some additional material from Supplement I: Greyhawk).  However, as creator Matthew Finch explained, it wasn't attempting 100% possible (i.e. legally allowable) fidelity; a prime example was its innovative single saving throw and its use of both ascending and descending AC.  His design goals wandered somewhat during its creation, but he was aiming for what he called a "Rosetta Stone effect", so that he could both have a (mostly) OD&D clone while at the same time achieving compatibility with and linking together, as he put it, "Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, 1e, Holmes Basic, Moldvay Basic, and a couple of other games that use ascending AC but which I can't name without permission."

S&W as a whole rapidly spiralled into a series of sub-versions designed to represent different versions of OD&D and give its players the creative freedom it was created to foster: 1974 plus Greyhawk (the original release, which became known as S&W Core), pure 1974/LBB (White Box), 1974 plus all the original supplements (Complete), stripped down (Light: 4 pages), and almost but not quite as stripped down (Continual Light: 17 pages).  Finch teamed up with Frog God Games (a successor to Necromancer Games) to handle S&W in 2010, and support for the game now largely comes from that company.

Click to enlarge.

In addition to the normal reasons for creating a retro clone (organized/beginner-accessible rules, shared brand name, preservation of rules in free format), Swords & Wizardry is a project to re-initiate the "hobbyist" approach to OOP gaming, the idea that you can tinker from the ground up and make the rules fit any sort of fantasy you want.  Too many gamers (and this is not limited to modern gamers, I have seen it on OOP sites as well) approach games like consumers.  If it's not in the rules, it's not in the game; if it doesn't fit into the rules, it's not in the game; if the rules aren't completely specific, they're bad rules - you see what I mean by this mindset.  But games used to be approached with the ASSUMPTION that the GM and players were going to hack them apart and make them fit the desired effect.  The same way we'd take rules for Napoleonic wargaming and tweak them into rules for Space Marines or 52mm green plastic army men.

—Matthew Finch, 2008

From this point the retroclone explosion began, with dozens of different variations on the same OD&D, Holmes, B/X, BECMI, or AD&D theme appearing in short order.[12]  The vast majority of these Noun Ampersand Noun games came and went without ever being noticed, as readers found themselves with more games than they could ever hope to keep up with, let alone play, and most designers happy with being able to put their house rules into a published state but lacking the ability to articulate a reason as to why they were good changes to make and then get that information out to the potential gamer (in many ways further examples of Ron Edward's fantasy heartbreaker phenomenon).  But for those seeking variety and actual support for old-school playstyles, this era was paradise after the long drought of the 2nd and 3rd editions.

Though my focus here has been on systems, the OSR was not just about rulesets.  Indeed, the original goal of the OSR was to provide vehicles allowing support (modules, etc) for old-school D&D, not to create systems to compete with it.  That having been said, these new rulesets were clearly the spark for the wider explosion.  Once the clones were launched, dozens of new adventure modules were released for them and, thanks to the largely unified base vision in the burgeoning OSR in this period, they were almost all broadly cross-compatible with each other and old-school D&D with minimal conversion.  While many of them were terrible, Sturgeon's Law said that was to be expected: the point was that at long last there was support once more.

In a final post, I'll examine the OSR's mutation, fragmentation, and transition to its modern state.


[1] Per Ryan Dancey's famous assessment of the death of TSR, the company performed no real market research, in contrast to, for example, the immense efforts of Strategy & Tactics magazine to understand their customer base.  As such, while it's obvious that old-school players eventually became a minority amongst the D&D playerbase, we don't know (and will probably never know) precisely when this occurred.  In particular, it would be fascinating to know if in the 1980s it was a case of old-school players abandoning D&D or D&D abandoning them.

[2] The idea that D&D was meant to be light on rules (or at least, lighter in that fashion than 3rd edition and later) was no modern rose-coloured-glasses reinterpretation of how things were done in the 1970s (a charge often levelled at various elements of the OSR, or the movement as a whole).  As the afterword to the original 1974 OD&D booklets reads, "we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!"  Similarly, Tim Kask wrote in the foreword to 1976's Eldritch Wizardry that “D&D was meant to be a free-wheeling game, only loosely bound by the parameters of the rules.”  As the rules of modern D&D became increasingly codified, old-school gamers embraced this philosophy with a vengeance.  At the same time, "rules-light" applied as a universal, contextless OSR principle would cause a lot of confusion and play a major part in helping the movement lose its way.  See Part V for details.

[3] For a brief look at the art direction philosophy at the birth of 3rd edition, see a note from the WoTC art director in Dragon #275, p. 4.


[4] In the 90s TSR was often either written T$R or said to stand for "They Sue Regularly".


[5] The earliest use of this phrase I can locate is a casual bit of speculation by an anonymous poster on the future of the old-school in the Castles & Crusades subforum of Dragonsfoot (since rolled into a collective "Simulacrum" subforum), in June 2005.  It popped up again in July 2006 on Dragonsfoot, used by long-time poster T Foster.  It was in common usage by 2008 to refer to the wider boom in old-school materials and play (see for example the influential Fight On! magazine, the first issue of which was released in June 2008 and which billed itself as "A Fanzine for the Old-School Renaissance").


[6] As the story goes, when TSR put out their 1999 Dragon Magazine Archive, Wizards of the Coast supposedly failed to get permission to reprint the Knights of the Dinner Table comic, which had appeared there.  A contract dispute was settled out of court, a part of which involved Wizards and Kenzer reaching an agreement about creating a derivative work, and that led to HackMaster.


[7] No, WG7 does not count.


[8] I'd be remiss if I also didn't mention Mazes & MinotaursReleased in 2006, it's one part game and one part thought experiment, positing a world where the very first RPG was based on Ancient Greek myth rather than D&D's Western medieval basis.  Pretending to have been first released in 1972, in many ways it is patterned on OD&D, including a Greyhawk-style first supplement, and some call it the first retroclone.  All reviews I've ever seen have been eminently favourable.  You can get the 2017 updated edition of the game completely free from DriveThru or the publisher's website.


[9] Rob Kuntz released a pair of old-school modules that year, though the first (Dark Druids) was not statted for AD&D specifically, presumably for the standard copyright reasons.  August of 2006 would also see Goodman Games release a 1st-edition version of DCC 12.5, The Iron Crypt of the Heretics, at GenCon, a conversion of a 3rd edition module under the OGL.  As such, it's possible to say that an eventual burst of large-scale 1st edition and other old-school support may have occurred even without the appearance of the retroclones, but the clear avalanche of support--especially commercial support--that appears from late 2006 onward makes it difficult to argue that retroclones weren't the key impetus.

[10] Thanks to T. Foster for adding this information in the comments below, which I then edited in.  At the same time, as this study is primarily concerned about what people would call the OSR rather than the "wilderness years" of the old-school prior to that, I'm leaving out a great deal of information on old-schoolers in the pre-OSR period.  A heavily neglected area, it probably deserves a write-up of its own.


[11] The idea in general for OSRIC was fidelity, which meant no house rules.  However, some items were left out because Gygax later said they were a bad idea and the fanbase generally agreed (this also made further differences in the ruleset, further protecting OSRIC's creators), while initiative specifically was a homebrewed modification--albeit with a solid foundation in 1st edition--simply because it is literally impossible (literally literally, not figuratively literally) to run 1st edition initiative 100% by the book.


[12] The Taxidermic Owlbear list contains many 3rd and 4th-edition games, but gives a strong taste of how enormous the explosion was (and continues to be).

07 March, 2021

In Memoriam — Martin McKenna

From "Revenge of the Vampire"


A few years ago people were chatting on the Hero Games forums about how the system lacks a really short and user-friendly guide to applying it to the fantasy genre.  The idea of tackling this as a personal project immediately grabbed me, and I quickly banged out a 28-page intro called the Fantasy Hero Primer.  But while it was purely a fan work, intended to be free, I didn't want to just throw it out there without art.  Casting about, I found some nice images online from that classic British CYOA-type series, Fighting Fantasy.  Rather than the cartoonish weird of early D&D or heroic realism of the game's 1980s period, the artists of Fighting Fantasy—Bob Harvey, Russ Nicholson, Ian Miller, Dave Carson, Alan Langford, etc—and their British Gothic style were absolutely formative to me in shaping what I thought "proper" fantasy art should look like, and none more so than Martin McKenna.


From "Daggers of Darkness"

McKenna secured his first paid illustration work when he was just 16, with Games Workshop.  Of breaking into the industry, he recalled:  

“It was probably more like a lot of little breaks.  Really early stuff like meeting Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in ‘86 was helpful.  They liked the fanzine work which had included a Fighting Fantasy spoof, and they recommended a submission to Warlock magazine.  Coincidentally Marc Gascoigne had seen my fanzine stuff and liked it, and he was then editor of Warlock.  Most importantly, an invitation came from John Blanche, then art director at Games Workshop, to produce work for him.  John’s initial contact came as a result of me entering an art competition featured in the Citadel Journal.  Instead of the hoped-for prize of a two quid postal order, I got a letter from John expressing interest in my stuff.  This led to my very first paying commission: illustrations for an Out of the Pit article in Warlock. So a bunch of things came together in the very beginning."

He provided a steady flow of work to GW in its early years, working on early 40K and WHFRP releases like Death on the Reik.  On the recommendation of Blanche, McKenna sent some samples to the editor at Puffin Books, and to his surprise this resulted in him being assigned an entire Fighting Fantasy title.  Daggers of Darkness was an early work and it shows: he told me, "I was 17 when I did that first book, still at school and doing it in my spare time.  I was very unsure of myself and it looks like I was emulating the style of John Blanche.  When Puffin amazed me by asking me to do another book I found much more confidence."


From "Howl of the Werewolf"



His style improved by leaps and bounds, and soon he was producing some phenomenal work, being regularly called in on some of the darker and more gothic titles in the FF line, like Revenge of the Vampire, Howl of the Werewolf, and Night of the Necromancer.  He wasn't just good: he had a fantastic imagination.  McKenna said that he had "pretty much a free hand on the look of the artwork, as long as it followed the important details in the brief."  Even his filler pieces—those small art bits the FF editors used to fill out page space during layout—were lively and full of character.







He was asked to avoid anything too horrific in his FF pieces, but his ideas on what that meant vs those in charge sometimes differed: for Revenge of the Vampire a Puffin editor edited out some rivulets of blood he had running across a female vampire's cleavage.  It was a series intended for the young, after all.


From "Revenge of the Vampire"


To return to where I started, I emailed McKenna with some trepidation, asking how much he would charge for the use of some of his old FF artwork in this primer I was making.  He was extremely welcoming, allowing me to use it for free as long as there was no profit involved.  A few years later, when I started to put together my homebrew Simulacrum, I asked him again to buy some older FF pieces, with the idea that this time I would eventually be selling it, even if I anticipated a vast audience of several dozen.  He charged practically nothing and was nicely complimentary when I showed him early drafts.  The two books will be full of his art, and I only wish I had the opportunity to acquire more to show off; I had hoped to commission an original cover from him.  In September 2020, Martin McKenna committed suicide.

There's a page where you can buy prints of his art, with the proceeds going to his family.  It also serves as a nice overview of his work.