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

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

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.

  1. June 4, 2022 at 12:58 am

    hi richard! this is marcia; i wanted to say, first, thank you for your thoughts on my post 🙂 it’s a relief to me that it turned out ‘legible’ and it also means a lot to talk about it with someone else. if it’s alright with you (feel free to delete this comment!), i wanted to clarify my view because i agree with a lot of what you said.

    first, i agree that the OSR (as a play style) is not dead. it’s a way i also like to play games, enough that i mostly write about how to apply that OSR mindset to different contexts. my goal with the post was, in fact, a criticism of how often the discourse turns into arguments about whether the OSR is ‘dead’ or ‘alive’, which is basically a politically loaded question about which communities you are a part of or align yourself with. instead, i wanted to suggest that the founding myth of the OSR (that it is a return to some original style of play) is a false history which people exploit to propagate their own particular vision, often to denigrate others’ work as not OSR. treating the play style as something which was, indeed, constructed over the past 20 years, and embracing the term “OSR” as a self-referential signifier rather than a historical description, is something that i think lends much more freedom and prevents people from asserting their own vision of what it really is in the name of gygax.

    i also cannot overemphasize how much i agree that OOO is not a good fit for trying to pin down the OSR! however, i had two reasons for working with a hypothetical OOO analysis of the thing. first, i think it represents a naive attempt to look at each “instance” of the OSR on its own terms (even if someone might not do so using harman’s exact jargon). it might sound like a good-faith approach, but it doesn’t pay special attention to how the term “OSR” becomes the focal point of all these communities and for what reasons. by then taking the lacanian angle in talking about desire and semiotics, i could more directly criticize how the term “OSR” is used to enforce a particular myth related to the play culture being propagated. again, though, the style at this point is fixed to the label; there’s not much you can do about that except reject the words that make up the acronym. i added a paragraph in the conclusion specifically because i was worried about being sloppy on that point! there exists a play style called the OSR which people play; this is distinct from the myth around which OSR communities are often built.

    my wording, i think, was pretty poor about the “first grognards” not representing a proper play culture. i agree that play should be the goal of any community, and that’s exactly what they were doing! i just wanted to distinguish it from later developments in that community, where they began creating materials to reproduce their play style (where the reproduction of social norms acts as my working definition of culture, rather than just the social norms in themselves). i’m sorry if this came off as unfair, especially because i do admire that group of people for getting together and holding out on their own thing!

    finally, i don’t want or expect anyone to stop using the term (which is another reason why i added that paragraph to the conclusion). the “OSR”, as a now-established play culture and an identifier thereof, is not going to go away no matter what anyone says or does. i think that asking everyone else to go by a new term or, even worse, calling other people by a term they never identified with, is sort of chauvinistic–especially because then it often turns into someone implicitly claiming ownership over the thing! it’s the founding myth, or any variation of it, that i think is responsible for a lot of the weird discourse surrounding the OSR. the more we recognize it as a modern invention, and the less we cling to a nostalgic ideal of what we think D&D was, the more freedom i think we have to do our own thing.

    again, thank you so much for your thoughts and feedback on all this! hope you have a nice weekend 🙂

    • June 4, 2022 at 3:33 am

      This reply is so nice, I now feel bad about putting words in your mouth in the post. Thank you for the clarifications!

      I agree the founding myth is an invented history (as is most of the history of D&D, AFAICT) – I was also subjected to some gatekeeping when I first ran across the OSR, which took me by surprise. It made me realize early on that being old _school_ was quite a different thing from merely being old!

      • June 4, 2022 at 3:15 pm

        of course! it was a reading that i realized was possible and would, then, possibly serve as fodder for more “let’s make up another brand for ourselves!” discourse (which is why i was quick to correct the conclusion on it).

        but absolutely, it’s really interesting how “old-school” came to have its own really deeply held notions of what constitutes “old-school” play, contrary to how D&D was played historically. as for the history of D&D itself being often made-up: i ordered the wrong book by jon peterson, *game wizard* instead of *the elusive shift*, but what you said makes me excited to read the former anyway!

        p.s. i realized that i forgot to give my second reason for developing the hypothetical OOO example; it was just because i already had beef with OOO and wanted a reason to talk about it, haha

        • June 4, 2022 at 5:37 pm

          re invented history – how could it not be? First, so much of it is oral history – traditions about what happened at Gary’s table etc. Second, all the sources are self-described fantasists!

          The big missing part of RPG history as far as I’m concerned is everything other than D&D. I want someone to devote equal attention to roleplaying tout court – Traveller and Runequest and Bunnies & Burrows and Bushido and so on. It seems to me there must be a whole history of RPG intertextuality, quite apart from the individual histories of particular games. At least the play groups I was part of in the 80s always played multiple games and mashed up systemlets from different sources. When Delta Green came out we went “oh, this is like the Bond/Cthulhu game we play.”

  2. June 4, 2022 at 10:37 am

    The OSR has been declared dead about every year since 2016 and onwards, always by the same crowd. I suspect there is a magical thinking associated with some resentful branches of it that causes them to do so.

    Look at recent years: OSE rakes in huge kickstarters. Mörk Borg is terrible but it is unargubly succesfull. There is still fine work being done by the likes of Greg Gillespie, Gabor Lux, Gene Wiegel, Anthony Huso & Zzarchov Kowolski. On the more artistic front, my No Artpunk Vol 1. competition demonstrated, conclusively, that there are still plenty of people that care about the craftsmanship and style of play of the old ways.

    The philosophical incoherence of the OSR will be resolved, definitively, one way or another. There are those that maintain a link to the old ways, and those that spurn them. Gatekeeping is fundamental to this, and is practiced by every group.

  3. June 4, 2022 at 11:17 am

    If you define an existing Actor-Network as being connected by being anti-WotC publications and label that OSR, then sure, you got something.

    But there are plenty of people who don’t mind 5th editon and are happy with occasionally playing it, but also apply various practices that have been popularized under the OSR banner a decade ago and are busy creating lots of content that lies outside the type of fantasy presented in 5th edition products. Which would be a very different Actor-Network, and specifically excluded from the OSR definition.

    Yet I feel that this group is very much continuing the spirit of a revival of practices that had been faded from the mainstream for a while.
    Though I don’t consider that particular Actor-Network to be “OSR” either, simply because they don’t seem to identify with that label themselves. And I think in some cases even actively distance themselves from people who do.

    But I think when the defining trait of OSR is “we don’t like 5th edition”, then it does indeed serve no purpose anymore.

    • June 4, 2022 at 12:13 pm

      Actor-Network Theory has its virtues but it’s actually not that good at defining the boundaries of actor-networks – it tends to absorb the whole world in a single entity composed only of connections, where nodes are themselves just more bundles of connections.

      So sure, you could absolutely state your boundary as “those who reject WotC’s works,” but there’s nothing necessary about that boundary. And it’s not obvious why a movement that formed against 4e should be forever bound to reject things that enter the world afterwards, just because they came from a particular publisher – that smacks of religious purist thinking.

      As far as finding hard definitions for the OSR, I’m not going to claim to be able to do that – instead of trying to find hard, bounded definitions for the term OSR, I’m more interested in explorations like Marcia’s, which are more about what kinds of work language can do to help us. If you look at the total gamut of people who identify themselves as being part of the OSR, I’ve no doubt it contains some who would specifically exclude me from it, because I don’t even write D&D. And yet I find it useful to align myself with it, because there are aspects of my play that align with values that have been part of the movement. From a theoretical standpoint, that’s pretty wishy-washy, but practically it’s a handy way to find players and discussions that I find interesting.

  1. June 26, 2022 at 11:11 am

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