Luther left me a comment under my last post asking if I planned to publish play reports from my upcoming British Old-School campaign. He’s interested in seeing how B-OSR games differ from A-OSR games in practice.
The answer is: yes, I’d love to. I don’t want to bore people with lengthy sagas [Then how about you stop writing here, eh? – Ed.], but a couple of brief write-ups might be acceptable.
However, it got me thinking. How would a B-OSR game feel different from an A-OSR game?
Much of the difference would be relatively cosmetic. Different points of reference, different humour, different funny accents. Nonetheless, differences in tone and emphasis can go a long way. Plus, I suspect there might be more fundamental differences lurking beneath the surface.
I think British Old-School gaming tends toward a sort of mundane or “everyday life” quality, with everything being just a little bit shite, grubby, poor, and ugly compared to the shiny, clean, handsome, beautiful, big budget, automatically superior American fantasy (yes, we have an inferiority complex, despite, as Shock Slogans points out, Britain often looking down its collective nose at all things American – hey, it’s a complex relationship!). American trolls – the fantasy variety, not the online kind – are wild, free, and feral. Our trolls are employed as nightwatchmen in Port Blacksand and Ankh-Morpork.
I’m generalising again (I always generalise) but it feels akin to the difference between American Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns; both share the same trappings, there is violence and death aplenty in both, yet one is somehow more earnest, confident, and hopeful, the other more cynical and nihilistic. Italian neorealism (and British kitchen sink realism) versus Hollywood.
I have several caveats to add, though. Firstly, I think a lot of this is a historical divide. Cross-pollination of culture (thanks, in no small part, to the internet) means that the differences between gaming today versus gaming in the 1970s, ’80s, and even the 1990s are, I think, greatly reduced.
Secondly, the A-OSR and B-OSR are more similar than they are different. Old-School American games will, by their nature, also involve (at least at low levels) physically weak and economically impoverished characters rolling around in the mud and dying ingloriously. This was true in the 1970s, and it’s true today.
To be clear: I’m not saying British Old-School gaming is somehow “better” or more serious. We are talking about pretending to be elves and speaking in funny voices here, so neither is Serious with a capital S (though see my earlier post for my feelings on the division between so-called “high culture” and “low culture”).
It’s just that British and American culture have different textures (particularly so in the 1970s and ’80s). For example, look at The Godfather versus Get Carter; both are morally complex and challenging, but the former is lush, epic, and sweeping, whereas the latter is grimy, provincial, and was shot on a
shoestring modest budget. Even something like Taxi Driver, which is every bit as gritty as Get Carter, feels more epic just by dint of being shot in a global metropolis like New York as opposed to atop a multi-storey car park in Gateshead.
It’s more that everything British is a bit shit, and we like it that way. The Yanks have Conan, whose steely sinews glisten and ripple as he slices through ten men like a slicing panther. We have Elric, a pale, weedy guy with long hair who mopes a lot. When it comes to gaming, WFRP is perfect for playing constitutional peasants, working class characters scrabbling around in the muck for a couple of copper pennies.
It’s possible to overstate things. Elric does, after all, do plenty of slicing and dicing with Stormbringer. And it doesn’t get much more epic and po-faced than Tolkien. Nevertheless, British fantasy – from Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones to Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling – seems to have a long tradition of fantastical things happening to ordinary folk with otherwise boring lives, and of bringing out the mundane details in the magical.
Maybe it’s because growing up in Britain, back in t’ day, meant coming of age in the shadow of a lost and exhausted empire (and unpicking its colonial legacy), whereas the first rays of American hegemony were only just cresting the hill in the late 1980s – bright, rich, and full of sunny optimism. Even as kids, that stuff filters through: it’s Blake’s 7 versus Star Trek as a microcosm of Britain and America [That’s enough pretentious wank from you – Ed.].
Thus far, I’ve been talking in general terms. As I prep for my upcoming campaign, I want to start being more specific. How will my British OSR campaign be different from the typical (if such a thing is possible) American OSR campaign?
But I’ve blathered on enough for today, so I’ll leave that for a future post…