On the NSR

Unlike maybe the majority of role-players, I didn't come to the hobby through D&D. Nor via GURPS, or Pathfinder, or one of the other big names that did so much to define role-playing early on. The first game I actually sat down and played was Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, an Old School Renaissance game. At least, it seems like an OSR game to me. These things are debatable.

In short order, though, I found out about the New School Revolution. Almost immediately, that felt like a natural home for me in the hobby. In part, that's because early descriptions of the NSR emphasized its opposition to gatekeeping and social barriers, which chimed with my perspective on the politics of hobbyist spaces. But the descriptions of NSR as a style also overlapped a great deal with what I wanted from a game: rules light, emergent narrative, weird, etc. That was the point, right? “Just a brief list of stuff to help find games that match your taste,” as Pandatheist put it.

But a big part of NSR discourse has always revolved around the question: “What is NSR?” To some degree, that's natural. If the point is to help you find a game that suits you, then it's reasonable to expect the term to draw some lines. Historically, I'd say there's been a remarkable degree of consistency to the games people within the scene would identify as NSR. I have yet to see anyone hold up a 100-page DM's guide as indicative of the NSR. Which makes it all the more surprising that there's so much resistance within the scene to any attempt to put a finger on what NSR means. “It's whatever you want it to be” is a common refrain.

For my part, I tend to see it in terms of design history. The OSR can be understood as an explosion of creativity ignited when Wizards of the Coast put their SRD in the hands of a generation of burgeoning designers who had, over decades of practical experience, arrived at a range of ideas about what made that style of role-playing rewarding. The games I associate with the NSR grew out of that explosion, but took as their point of departure the idea that you could open up new spaces for creativity by stripping away much of what seemed fundamental to D&D.

I'd go so far as to say that “rules-light” is misleading when applied to NSR. It strikes me as a quintessentially OSR attitude, meant to rescue some conception or another of old school from the excesses of the official game's subsequent development. At their most integral, the games I think of as NSR seek to break with the past, and they do that not by chipping away at later accretions, but by dismantling the patterns embedded in familiar structures. Lightness is a side-effect of deconstruction. (So is, I would argue, weirdness.) Games like Into the Odd and Knave demonstrated how removing seemingly core elements like Ability Checks and the six-stat character could open up the design space and make room for new ways to play. They proved you could make compelling games not by re-imagining RPG history, but by breaking it in interesting ways.

Those lessons seem to me the sort that justify calling that shift a “revolution,” and I try to apply them when I design my own games, but it's mostly pointless to talk about them in the context of the NSR. I'm reasonably convinced that the history I've traced points to a real shift, and that it has a palpable impact on the state and scope of the hobby. And yet, pointing to it as the impetus for the NSR will usually grind the discussion to a halt, for sheer lack of any agreement on what the NSR might be. I could put my foot down and insist that the NSR is best understood as the result of that historical shift, but to what purpose? The point is not that there's disagreement within the scene over what NSR means; the consensus is that it needn't — maybe even shouldn't — mean anything at all.

Which is fine — for now. I still participate in NSR spaces, including the recently renamed and reorganized Discord, but my suspicion is that it can't last. Already, the Venn diagram that once pointed me to games that suited my tastes is growing diffuse to the point of uselessness. Without some agreement around what the NSR means, there's nothing to prevent those spaces from drifting away from what drew any any given member to them in the first place. Indeed, that seems almost inevitable. This home is only temporary.

#nsr #osr #into-the-odd #knave #discord #theCauldron