Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Marketing the OSR, Part 4 of 4: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

To the OSR publishers, I say, don’t limit your target audience by only taking one approach. If all you say about your game is “it’s almost exactly like the LBB’s, but easier to understand”, or “plays just like AD&D back in the early 80’s”, you will necessarily limit your audience. A thousand times moreso if your game is almost only mentioned on OSR blogs, Dragonsfoot, and the Knights & Knaves Alehouse.

Branch out! Explain why your game is a good game without any reference to its pedigree whatsoever. Go forth into the fora frequented by the under-26 set, and make the case why your game is great and they should play it, on its own merits! EnWorld, conventions, IPR, fan forums (for those doing games in a particular genre or with a licensed property); anywhere the gamers are, you should be.

I think you’ll find that you get some new blood playing and talking about your game, and I think that being a Good Thing is something we can all agree on.

Marketing the OSR, Part 3 of 4: Three Target Audiences

Three Target Audiences

There are at least three distinct sorts of people that could conceivably be brought in as OSR players. The first are people who are already gamers, are aware of the differences between the retro-clones and more modern RPGs, and have made a deliberate and informed choice to play the former (and not necessarily exclusively, either; too often the decision is painted as an either-or proposition, when it most definitely doesn’t have to be). For them, a broad comparison between rules is a good thing to get them hooked.

The second are people who are already gamers, are interested in games that are new, and are willing to give a new title a try for the sake of novelty, as long as it isn’t too expensive. The key here is that “new” is a relative term, and just because a given rules framework goes back to the 1970’s doesn’t necessarily mean that someone born in 1990 has ever played such a game themselves (or even knows what they're like). It’s new to them, and they won’t care that it’s “based on the 1974 rules set” or whatever. For them, a clear explanation of the rules, without comparison to others (past or present) is a good thing to get them hooked.

The third are non-gamers. They don’t know, and don’t care, about the historical antecedents of a particular game’s rules. They might not even know the basics of what an RPG is like. The fact that it is a clone of the LBB’s is completely irrelevant to this population; for them, a high-level introduction of what an RPG is, and why it’s fun as a general thing, and why game X is fun in particular, is a good thing to get them hooked.

Those last two, I think, contain an important lesson that is often lost by those creating and promoting OSR games. A lot of people don’t care that a game is part of the OSR. It’s new to them and that’s enough. But even having a good game isn’t enough. You have to get that game out in front of the target audience; let them know it exists, and then help them realize why would want to play it. This is a fundamental truth for any game publisher, and is no less true for OSR publishers.

Marketing the OSR, Part 2 of 4: Innovation


It should also be noted that the complaint that the OSR isn’t innovative enough is somewhat missing the point of what the OSR is. Of course the OSR doesn’t go off in bold new directions, exploring the bleeding edge of game design! It’s not supposed to, at least not on a grand scale. By definition, the OSR is a deliberate harkening back to earlier forms, attempting to get new and exciting modes of play out of them. People who are looking for deliberately (I might even go so far as to say self-consciously) new and innovative systems and settings should be looking at Indie Press Revolution and the like. The OSR is what it is, and condemning it for not being what it isn’t, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That is not to say that the OSR doesn’t innovate; quite the contrary. But its innovation is, for the most part, contained within the boundaries of the older forms. It is variation (sometimes inspired) and expansion (ditto), but it is not plunging into unexplored territory. If it was, it would be something else. And remember, that is not a Bad Thing! Castles & Crusades is a prime example of this; most of the outlines and fundamentals of AD&D are there, but the d20 universal mechanic is an innovation within those broad outlines. Change it too much, though, and it moves outside of the comfort zone.

This is an important facet of marketing the OSR because it speaks to one of its fundamental strengths; familiarity. For a segment of the target audience (not by any means the whole of it, as will be mentioned in the next installment), the fact that a game is so much like a previous edition is a selling point in and of itself. It's not necessarily a question of nostalgia (although that's certainly a part of it for some people); if it were, then the "movement" would begin and end with people buying the original rulebooks on eBay or breaking them out of the attic, playing for a bit to recover their lost youth, and fading off again.

What the retro-clones have to offer that segment is familiarity. If I know that I like the broad outlines of how the AD&D game system is built-- classes, Vancian magic, saving throws, fairly abstract combat, etc.-- then I can be pretty sure that a game that is close to AD&D will be something I'll be comfortable with, even if some of the particulars are different. This connects with compatibility; if a product is compatible with a game I already know I like, I'll be more inclined to buy it, because I know at least the basics will be familiar.

Marketing the OSR, Part 1 of 4: Compatibility

Marketing is vital to the growth of any industry, whether it’s done by professionals or amateurs. I’m not a professional marketing person by any stretch, but I do have a few thoughts to share on this particular aspect of our hybrid hobby/industry.


First, it should be noted that the various clones and simulacra are, for the most part, interchangeable not only with one another, but also with the 1970’s/80’s versions of (A)D&D they seek to emulate. This is an important point, but one which seems to be lost in the marketing and informational efforts not only of the new companies producing the material, but TARGA (the hobbyist organization founded to promote the OSR’s efforts in general, and of whose board of directors I am a member) as well.

Someone new coming in and seeing folks talking about OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, Mazes & Minotaurs, Dragons at Dawn, Dark Dungeons, Myth & Magic, Microlite 74, Spellcraft & Swordplay, LotFP Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, Adventures Dark and Deep, the LBB’s, Basic D&D, AD&D, etc. etc. etc. is bound to be overwhelmed and confused. Unless they understand that all of those games are basically compatible with one another, and just represent different emphases or expansions of the same basic framework, it will seem like a bewildering mess. But that vital datum seems to be completely lost in and amongst the noise. Those of us who follow (and participate in) the OSR daily are certainly aware of it, but it’s not necessarily obvious to an outsider.

How many more OSRIC modules would be sold if folks were reminded that they could play them with Labyrinth Lord? How many more Swords & Wizardry modules would be sold if more people realized that they could play them with their old AD&D books without batting an eye?

One of the problems with the OSR isn’t competition between a dozen or so rules sets. It’s the perception of competition, driven by the fact that compatibility isn’t emphasized.