Archive for June, 2022

Have you tried ANT? A response to Marcia’s “OSR is Dead” post

June 3, 2022 12 comments

I don’t usually indulge in talking about “the scene” or categories like OSR or Storygamers, but this article was so nicely and lucidly written that I couldn’t help worrying about its theoretical underpinnings.

I should explain my own stake: even though I don’t consider myself part of the OSR, I find it a useful category more than a constricting one: if a game or group describes itself as OSR then it gives me some loose ideas about what it’s interested in – what Tom McGrenery calls “fantasy non-fiction,” where you’re not here for “writer’s room” play or some pre-written fiction so much as the range of possibilities for how a situation could evolve exclusively through having PCs interact with it. Where problems will kill you unless you try to anticipate their particular challenges. Where things are probably more or less compatible with B/X DnD. As a writer, I think my constellation of interests is more likely to find an audience among OSR players than other well-known categories.

So reading that the OSR is “dead” (again) or should be dead is not really welcome news for me. Happily, I think reports of its death are again greatly exaggerated, partly for reasons of humanities theories, partly because of simple social mechanisms.

  1. Harman’s “object oriented epistemology” might not be the best fit for describing something as loose and debatable as “the OSR.” Marcia concludes that Harman is naive for putting faith in some discursive constructs that aren’t really real – but if those discursive constructs include identity formation – the identity of “being in the OSR,” for instance – then she’s implicitly using a false consciousness argument against anyone who identifies themselves with the OSR. If the OSR doesn’t really exist, then neither do is adherents – or at least they’re mistaken in thinking there’s a movement there.
    But there are other theories for describing loosely-knit communities of thought, which do not get so hung up on whether the group agrees within itself on its own definition. The OSR might be better described by one of these. EG:
    (a) Ben Anderson’s idea of the “imagined community” describes a social category (eg a nation or ethnic group or community of interest) that people identify with, that is understood to be separate from other categories (ie nation/ethnicity/sect/identity A is separate from nation/ethnicity/sect/identity B), but that does not have to be more coherent than that, in order to have self-identifying members. Anderson’s main focus is on how the idea of a nation or ethnicity gets propagated and used by political actors: individuals appoint themselves as spokespeople for the group in order to imagine it in detail for the rest, generally excluding some of the people who were previously imagining themselves as part of it. That seems relevant to the OSR.
    (b) Actor-Network Theory deals with how connected bit and pieces of technology and ideas and people can organize themselves into working groups, in order to achieve certain effects. In this theory, people and abstract ideas are on the same level in deciding who/what is part of the network, which is collectively imagined. Big networks must be simpler than small ones/individuals, because they rely on being imagined by their constituent members in mutually-compatible ways). Individuals who appoint themselves as representatives/leaders of the network must put forward simple ideas that the whole actor-network can follow.
    Neither of these ideas requires a common understanding of the community so imagined, both of them allow for something more like first language acquisition from community adherents, who are individuals who find a thing called OSR and decide whether it’s for them, without needing to be paid up members of a sort of club of agreements.
  2. The OSR can be understood as a resistance movement. Resistance is defined primarily by what it resists or, groups that define themselves in resistance/opposition to some existing entity don’t need/don’t tend to produce strong self-definitions – their bonds of cohesion depend first on their opposition. This is a classic issue for all resistance movements: “what is the Left?” or “who is a true revolutionary?” are the standard questions that bedevil movements the minute they’re not being shot at by the Right/reactionaries. The OSR started as a break-away from the direction of published DnD: “let’s do our own thing instead!” Constant arguing over what that other thing might be is, I would argue, a sign of a healthy resistance. And unlike, say, Maoism, the OSR can have a successful life as something other than a unified movement: so long as an individual table of players can form a temporary community of thought around an idea, they can generate a play culture.
    This last point goes in direct opposition to what Marcia says about “those first grognards.”
    “At first glance” she says “there is not much going on with these folks on a productive level; any materials being made were mostly adventure modules and maybe house rules, rather than any introspective work on what exactly they liked about these games or what they wanted to see more of.” – she regards the latter self-reflective work as “a proper play culture,” more than than “just playing the game” – but, notably, one of the big tenets I’ve seen in OSR discussions is that you should in the first place “just play the game.” Dissing that seems like dissing the OSR without addressing it.
  3. once you make a category like OSR, people will use it, outside your control. Marcia notes this, but doesn’t follow through with the corollary, that they’ll apply it to you whether you agree or not. Exactly this happened, btw, with postmodernism and a set of authors with which Marcia seems to be only partly familiar (Deleuze, for starters, and his fellow admirers of Lacan, but also Foucault and Derrida and so on – many of the people who have since been ascriptively labeled “Cultural Marxists” by various right-wing hacks).
    So, in spite of Marcia’s plea to stop using the term, it will continue to be used (for at least another 20 years, if it follows postmodernism’s trajectory). And if you feel like resisting the magnetic pull of D&D’s published output, then you might want to have some sort of term to identify other people who also feel like resisting. And if you don’t try to own the term, then it will only be owned by people unfriendly to it – like “Cultural Marxism,” which was invented by right-wingers, has no defenders, and is therefore an ideal whipping boy for right-wing writers – the fact that there’s no there there does not matter, a fact that should be familiar to anyone who trawled through Imagined Communities or ANT, above. Or anyone who lived through the past 10 years of US politics.

So overall, I think I’d prefer not to kill the OSR just yet.