I've been meaning to start writing on this thing again for several months, and like most meanings this too was elusive.
Melan's post discussing the end of the OSR, and Anthony Huso's response, offered a chance to have -if for a small moment shared by only a few people - that sort of chained conversation that kicked the whole mess off and running.
I say "mess" with mixed feelings ranging from fondness to good riddance.
I was a lurker in the first years of the OSR, but it was the OSR that gave me a reason to lurk. For the first time since the earliest days of rolling dice, suddenly there was more to read than I had time to consume - and being stationed on jobs for long periods of time away from my home, I had a lot of time to consume. It was beyond heady.
Like all things, the seeds of its destruction were sown in its early period of success.
The OSR confirmed something few believed - that there was a market for old school material. And boy was there a market. Determined to support the home team, the earliest days were an avalanche of sales and support regardless of quality. It didn't matter if what was offered was a fantastic new adventure such as Mythmere's Spires of Iron and Crystal, or an utterly redundant rewriting of the paladin class for Labyrinth Lord - it got cheers. And sales. And noise.
In many ways RPGers are a captive audience. The hobby is time-consuming if pursued to any degree of "seriousness"; and while running an engrossing campaign is harder than it looks, writing material that allows someone else to do so easier than if home-brewing is harder still. Most DMs simply do not have time to tend their creative garden well. Life calls with more urgency and frequency. So they buy, and buy, and buy some more. DMs read for inspiration; isolated players often read for the daydream of games not found and characters not played. The hobby pulls so strongly on unmet or unmeetable desires of our subconscious that, even if only vicariously, consumption of its offerings takes precedent as much as our bank accounts allow.
So when the noise of celebration grew loud enough across the internet to be heard above the din of masses disaffected by either 4th edition's rules or the arrogance of its propagators, a relative stampede occurred. THIS was the spice long missed, the seasoning slowly overwhelmed across years by new ingredients. A flood of 25 years worth of yellowed notebook pages poured forth in sparkling PDFs and print-on-demand; and the masses said yea, verily, The Man doth suck with a mighty sucking. Perhaps we never really needed them after all. The cafeteria that always served meatloaf on Tuesdays suddenly had both an entrance and an exit.
And revenue in any noticeable amount always, always pulls in those seeking it however they can obtain it. Gamers are not the dungeon delvers they imagine, they are the dungeon treasure; the gold pieces. Some who buy $500 faux leather-bound deluxe versions of what everyone else buys for $50 are the jewels whose value are bumped up repeatedly beyond the base. The rumors had reached the tavern, and the writers-for-hire were fresh out of in-print OGL games under which to ply their wares.
These points have been made before as the fruit of sour grapes from those whose offerings didn't catch fire while watching the flames grow. But this is not that sort of essay. It is recognition and proper tip of the hat to the semi-professionals who entered the scene at this time and kicked it up a notch in presentation with diligent, sustained raw effort translated into playable page count. A good content provider is not found befuddled as tastes move and shift.
But here's the thing - no tribe has ever prospered in the long run by relying on mercenaries. They come for the pay, not because their heart is engaged to the same degree as the volunteers. The OSR tearing itself apart was as inevitable as gravity pulling down an escaped helium balloon as the molecules eventually pass back through the latex. When you have no other options, you write what other people want. When you have clout, you persuade people to buy what you really want to write.
As more people with contrary desires all flew the same flag, the flag meant nothing in comparison to the specific captain flying it. Everyone still mingled together, but more and more it was as agents for their chosen champions as much as it was members of the same tribe sharing the same interests. Whenever captains contended with each other, we saw what came first for many people - personal allegiances and interests; i.e., their friends.
The clock continued to turn, the tent continued to grow, and nearly anything popular writers wanted to include under its roof was enthusiastically accepted as OSR. Gamers love the idea of community and hate the word "no". And for a long time, everything could co-exist in this dramatic scene of ever more varied offerings that attracted even more people who only tangentially enjoyed undiluted early styles of play - but were observably creative even so. Momentum only slightly slows right after people stop pushing in similar directions. It takes a while for anyone to notice.
5E, and then G+, made this all much more plain. Semi-professionals were again flying the flag offering the highest pay. Hasbro had made several homages to the game's roots, often sufficient to entice gamers wanting a seat at any table both full and offering familiar names on the menu. And most importantly, it was OGL. More and more people were grumbling that stuff they bought no longer easily dropped into their campaigns, and it didn't feel so much like real old school play, but like an airline who convinces you that the two fewer inches you have in a coach seat this year was never that important, complaints were shouted down. Again the choice was given - community or what you really want: take your pick. Just like it had been given before; in 1989 and 2000.
Many new-ish and younger members of the OSR had never given games they didn't quite like the finger and rode on; I don't think they either expected or noticed the grumblers pulling away and taking a teensy bit of that momentum with them when they left, along with a large part of the live-and-let-live mentality for a wide gamut of personal choices that gamers of many decades experience have almost always had by pure necessity, if a full table was any sort of goal.
All that was left was the pure primordial chaos of general creativity born from overwrought personalities who couldn't get along. There was no single other factor tying everyone together except a social media platform.
Which went poof.
And that was it. Many had joined something already running, and the choice was: join or not. This is where the tent is. Selecting new ground for a tent, and who will be allowed to come in this time, is an entirely different matter. The captains of course could not agree because most of them had been trying to get one or another kicked out of the tent for years, and their individual followers also didn't care to unify; they had nothing in common with those other people except an acronym no three people could agree on the meaning of, and even the use of that was now subject to feud.
This dynamic has played out thousands of times across thousands of scenes. Everyone wants to think that people join something you consider yourself part of because they're just. like. you! Conversely, people joining a scene in progress assume everyone else in it is just. like. them! Nobody wants to believe that their needs are truly only served best in a small segment, or that in a big tent they're mostly seen by the popular captains as a dollar sign. Our egos cover our eyes.
So is the OSR dead? Yes. If you consider the OSR to be mainly the good memories of possibly hundreds of responses to a conversation started over lunch. That illusion is dead; and it was always as illusionary as the tip of an iceberg seeming the whole of it.
The simple truth is that our fantasies are deeply personal and only partially compatible. The more people you try to fantasize jointly with, the greater the tug-of-war over where it goes. And the less it satisfies all involved. It will seem most vibrant while its cracking at the seams; the point in time when receiving the most communal energy in unspoken desires to mold its final form.
So is the OSR dead? No. I've found the most enjoyable material has come after the mercenaries have left and the volunteers have persevered. Once again I have more material than I can possibly use, but which drives me to my own creative heights just in the reading. I continue to have full tables of younger gamers at my convention games who hang on every roll of the dice. I no longer get daily updates on the latest round of insults between the captains.
Harmony reigns once again and even in the diaspora, the old OSR did a yeoman's work - I don't think anything as jarring as 4E will ever again see the light of day. Too many people gained a taste for something different, even if applications vary.
So I do not mourn the splitting of the OSR any more than I mourn the setting of the sun at the end of the day. It is a cycle which will repeat over and over again.
I throw dice still, if temporarily by candlelight. Which is the warmest light of all.