Friday 29 November 2019

The BX Commons

No doubt this is one of those ideas that someone had about ten years ago on a blog somewhere and I'm sure someone will link me to it in the comments.

What would change if we just started rating everything with how backwards-compatible to BX it is?

Because that seems to be what most of us are talking about, effectively, when we talk about something being "O.S.R.".

I'll rephrase that. When we talk about something being "O.S.R.", we all mean something different and we all use a completely different range of references and ideas but if there is one idea and one reference than is more commonly and consistently used than others, its probably the swarm of concepts hovering around BX D&D.

Curious thing about the dual-face of backwards compatibility is its simultaneous conservatism and democratic accessibility.

In terms of 'design' and 'progress', having everything hovering around, looping away from and then looping back to simple old-school D&D is intellectual and (to storygamers anyway) creative stasis.

The thing with indy games and storygames is you can't really write adventures for them as easily, and if you do only people who play that narrow, focused indy game will, or can play them.

Instead you need to invent or hack a whole new 'game', like an Apocalypse World hack.

All of this fits neatly into that storygame space where a game is this focused thing, like a statement or a thesis, and it’s about one thing, the game itself has a 'meaning'. So everyone goes around making new games but with a common, fluctuating store of mechanics.

Then you have an OSR space where the basic mechanics of 'the game' are broadly set, and where, ideally, the 'meaning' of what you are doing is open to investigation and interpretation during play and working that out is itself part of the game and where what people are mainly doing is making adventures, rather than making new games.

The conservatism of everything being backwards-compatible to BX, or something like it, means that everyone setting out to make an adventure has a shared language, and a potentially shared market. A huge market.

And because the rules are simple, free or easy to distribute and widely available anywhere, then you have strong equality of access to the basic ideas needed.

When you break away from that, like with the latest gen of retroclones, Black Hack, Into the Odd, Knave etc, not to mention Troika which is totally uninterested in being backwards compatible with BX, all of these bend the format, try to do something new, try to carve out their own little space. But in doing so they fragment the great, messy, dirty pulsating island of BX-compatible D&D

I'm commenting here not to condemn - most people have sound reasons for doing whatever they are doing, or even to largely persuade, at least not to strongly persuade people to any particular axis of action. I find generally, people are better off left largely alone to do their own thing.

But if I did want to persuade people of anything it would be more to persuade them of the potential value of seeing the world in a particular way, and of seeing this vast pool of backwards-compatibility, as low-status, dirty, common, messy, often very bad, and definitely not 'cool', not the kind of thing any individual creator can be 'proud of', but as seeing this big pulsating island as a kind of useful, even noble, commons of thought, and specifically, one that gives a really wide range of people, the people you might care about if you are a lefty, marginalised etc, but also just totally random people, people you weren't necessarily thinking of when you imagined 'accessibility', equality of a sort, fairness, or as close as we are getting, and a shared market.

So it is worth maintaining and contributing to this huuge, dirty pizza-slice swimming pool
'the BX Commons' because its hugeness aids everyone

Of course this is loathsome to anyone who cares about political and moral purity. The existence pf the commons, of true , actual democracy, means you have to, at least in theory, share a paddling pool with those you despise and wish to drive out of existence.

Thing is, if everyone’s wee microgames and personal versions work out and if everyone gets what they dream of, then the commons disappears and we all starve, which is interesting to think about.


  1. Thing is: I never played D&D as here in Germany, the OG RPG we had when I was a kid was DSA (Das Schwarze Auge). And it's horrible with incredibly granular rules and way too many dice rolls for (very ineffective) combat and character sheets that could have like six or seven pages if you knew magic.

    But we Germans come from that tradition when it comes to RPGs (most of us anyway. I know a guy at work who's been in the same D&D group for three decades). I cannot write stuff backwards-compatible with DnD. So I will just keep making up my own weird homebrew-stuff (where all the dice are the asymmetrical D4s that Mongolian sheep bones are, coz I have in-laws there).

  2. To build on what Marten was saying, an assumption in this blog post is that everything *does* share a common ancestry.

    You specifically mention Troika! which is derived from Fighting Fantasy and doesn't share DNA with B/X and so can't really be backwards compatible with it. It's backwards compatible with Fighting Fantasy material though.

    I agree there's a lot of value in having your games and adventures be broadly compatible with the larger mess of OSR stuff. However I think we'd be doing a disservice to everything that can be done in this space if we insisted everything work with B/X out of the box (I know this isn't what you're proposing).

    I personally find a lot value in the weird and niche stuff that doesn't fit, and I don't think it's too much to ask people to do a little work to make a B/X adventure work with Troika!, for instance. I don't think continued fracturing would cause the collapse of the commons like you're envisioning, it'd just require a bit more jurry rigging for the people picking up adventures.

    In any case, I think the market/audience for this stuff is growing large enough that we can likely have our cake and eat it too.

  3. I like this idea although I fear it would end up in bitter twitter arguments about whether Game F is 87% compatible with B/X or just 86%. There would be spreadsheets.

  4. Speaking personally, what interests me about OSR/Sworddream isn't the endless tinkering with different subtle variants of B/X D&D. I think it's interesting & cool that B/X has developed as sort of the Esperanto or Fusha of a certain sector of gaming, but I don't have a huge amount of interest in trying out "a new/old system that is like the other old system but handles skill checks and XP differently". Basically, I appreciate the existence of OSR/Sworddream less for the wine-tasting aspect of comparing Labyrinth Lord to LotFP to Swords & Wizardry and so on than for the ability to sample a lot of different modules/adventures which operate with a similar ruleset.

    More than the generally shared ruleset, what I like about OSR is common OSR-y themes: (1) a generally traditional-DM, non-narrative-sharing, challenge-based style of play and (2) a general tendency towards 'weird' or dark fantasy, as opposed to the more happy/heroic style of D&D5e (though I love 5e as a system and I'm grateful it's doing well and popularizing RPing). It feels like OSR is a broad umbrella community of a certain type of horror/weird/fantasy scenarios/settings and there's a lot of good creators working in it. (My interest way drops when the OSR 'ruleset' is applied to different genres, like the sci-fi/horror "Mothership", though I've heard "Mothership" is great and I do <3 horror so maybe I'll accept the science fiction to get to the horror.) Beyond OSR, it feels like the biggest communities (which aren't owned by a particular license like 5e) are (1) DMless storygaming and (2) PbtA variants, and my own tastes are just a little more OSR than they are the other two.

  5. Here's some wisdom by Jim. In brief, he says, and I agree, that "Games are nothing. Adventures are everything."

    Personally, my games of choice are LotFP and Labyrinth Lord, LotFP because their adventures and setting, and the system specifics; and LL due to it's almost total compatibility with everything OSR, that is, the adventures.

    1. I think it's interesting that "games are nothing" yet both of the games you prefer are very close emulations of B/X D&D in one way or another. That may support Patrick's idea of B/X as lingua franca--it's a functional system/concept/well-oiled machine that allows many other ideas to flourish in its space.

  6. Personal experience note: I have three main systems I play. One is b/x derrivied. One is LOOSELY b/x derrivied and mainly derrived by an old Goblin Punch project about gods on a dead space ship. And one is a single-stat storygame-ish occult investigation thiny I homebrewed in a feverish weekend. All of them are really fun, and extremely mechanically distinct and cause different decisions in play (one doesn't have classes, they have different stats, theres different tools and different contextualization of problems). Game matters, yeah, but game matters to facilitate adventures. Specific systems work better for specific types of adventure. It's my opinion that the type of adventures B/X tends to work for just seem to be widley loved.

    1. ...I meant to send this in reply to J Devine's post above.

    2. Good thing I came back to see it!

      I am similar--I mostly cycle between 3 games (B/X and derivatives, Into the Odd, & Vampire) but the games that have had the broadest appeal and have involved people coming back for more are the ones based on B/X because those games tended to match Patrick's description of OSR-like games. Any meaning derived from them is explored and defined through unpredictable play at the table. Like you said, that tends to have a wide appeal.

  7. But B/X is very much not the Old-School I'm interested in Renaissancing, it's 4 years later and a nice neat packaged corporate game with rules fixed in place, nerfed for safety and balance; even if not as many diatribes by Gary about not fiddling with the rules, the modules all gave clear level guidelines and "appropriate" loot to keep you from getting a rune sword, stealing a ruby throne, and ending the world.

    My world was then and since, OD&D and Holmes, and Gamma World, and Star Frontiers. Those three have almost no mechanics in common, but the tone of absolute freedom to make your own nonsense up, in extraordinarily lethal and unbalanced worlds. My own games have never been "B/X Compatible", they have mechanics that fit the needs of whatever campaign I'm running.

    I don't know why people write or buy detailed adventures. It's so trivially easy to make your own adventure and fill it; the obvious lesson of B1 & B3 (Jean Wells version). Maps have some value; Dyson's maps are a little smaller than I usually want, but they're free and easy, and there's a few good mega-dungeon maps. Big settings have some value; Carcosa is the best thing the OSR's ever made, just the right level of detail and setting.

    The thing that has value for me is creating a new world and system that simulates that world, that you can then place whatever adventures into, or none at all and let the players make their own fun burning it down.

    Troika is, of course, Fighting Fantasy, contemporary with B/X but unconnected, and insane in that way only a gamebook where you die a dozen times before finding a good path & lucky rolls to get thru to page 400 can be.

  8. I support this standard because over time my interest in learning new rulesets has declined to the "I would rather scoop out my eyes with a spork" level.

    Also like your thoughts about B/X as this creative common ground with minimal barriers to entry. Think it shifts the hobby emphasis from consuming/collecting shiny new products to making/expressing our own material.

  9. I like the B/X commons, I think this is a good point. But... why those pictures at the top of the post?

    1. Drat! I'd hoped you would remain all Keats’s negative capability by NOT explaining that to any who asked, because the mystery is funnier. Sigh.

  10. Great post. I think we already have a B/X commons by default, right? I mean, B/X is kind of the go-to gold standard when we'r talking about D&D compatibility. It is essentially a more fine-tuned OD&D and has the great benefit of being an ubiquitous gaming product in it's day. You can't swing a dead cat in the OSR without hitting twenty people who were touched by this game when they were young.

    It is HANDY AS FUCK for creating adventures.

    But also I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade people from creating new games (and I don't think you were arguing for that either).

    Troika! is fantastic and, like B/X-stuff, has old DNA that lends it gravity. I want to see more and more Troika! stuff in the RPG-o-sphere. I think people get hung-up on its implied setting (being "gonzo" sci-fantasy), but you can re-skin it a million ways just like B/X.


    1. Yup, I would love to see more Troika! stuff.

    2. Do you guys actually like Troika mechanically? Don't get me wrong, I love the backgrounds and the card-based initiative is fun, but the actual skill checks seem half baked to me, and don't stand up well in campaign play. The "TROIKA! CONS" section of this review puts it well (they also articulate the pros well):

  11. Yeah, for communication you need some degree of shared reality and shared signs. There's no getting around the tension between referencing existing memories or learning and expecting people to spend more effort learning a new system of signs and symbols. B/X certainly seems like the most widely shared rules basis within-scene, and I believe was the focus of some early attempt at an "OSR compatibility" standard. Maybe by Wayne at the initiativeone blog? I forget.

  12. I based my attempt in 2011 (2011!) on common elements to all editions. From the bottom up: