Friday, May 09, 2008

Jamie Mal is making sense again

Okay, as far as I know no one ever refers to James Maliszewski as "Jamie Mal". Sometimes I just feel the need to come up with stupid nicknames for people. I don't mean nothing by it. Anyway, here's a quote from over at his blog:

Honestly, I don't need yet another product that apes TSR's trade dress from 1980 or that use badly executed, amateurish black and white line art. And the "blueprint" style dungeon maps? You can keep those in the vault. As I noted elsewhere, I think the one area where modern games and game companies have it over their illustrious predecessors is in the field of graphic design and presentation. Most old school products simply look awful, even if their content has yet to be surpassed.

A marriage between old school content and new school presentation would make me very happy indeed and would go far to get old school products out of the nostalgia ghetto. Because let's face it: that's where most old school products exist. They're specifically geared to appeal to aging gamers who want to remember the good times of their youths. Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, I think nostalgia is a good and powerful feeling that, properly harnessed, will help the hobby immensely. But making products in 2008 with the production values of 1978 isn't what I'd call properly harnessing nostalgia. What it does is make old school products even easier to dismiss as irrelevant than it already is. Old school games face an uphill battle in gaining the hearts and minds of younger gamers as it is; why make it even harder by producing games and supplements that look terrible? The technology now exists for even hobbyists to make slick, well presented products without having to spend a fortune. Why not avail ourselves of that technology? Old school content kicks ass in so many ways.
Now, personally, I love all the nice folks who use old TSR trade dress on their products. It's a clear-cut sign that I'm in the target audience. To be honest, I probably would have never given Goodman Games and their Dungeon Crawl Classics line a shot without the old module cover design. Out of all the publishers slinging D20 hash, I was able to zero in on them because they took the time to send up a big ol' signal flare with covers that instantly invoked the heady days of the eighties.

But I believe this constant looking back is ultimately bad for the hobby. Ideally, we should be keeping on eye on where we've been and one eye on where we're going. Okay, maybe actually doing that would hurt, but I think you know what I mean. To put it another way, a few years back I didn't track down copies of the OD&D books because I wanted to join the Grumbling Greybeard Legion Who Likes The Way Things Used To Be. I signed on to this crazy retro movement* because there's lots of fun to be had with playstyles no longer fully supported by a lot of the mainstream publishers in the game industry.

Have you seen the Judges Guild modules released by Goodman Games? I bought several of them recently, because I didn't have the originals and, unlike some folks, I'm not afraid of 3.x stat blocks. I pretty much loathe 3.x statblocks, but I'm not prepared to turn my nose up at a good bit of fun just because a book is loaded down by 'em. Anyway, check out this cover:

I'm hardpressed to think of a cover design that so easily tells the story of adventuring in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. The cover literally depicts hexes full of adventure! That, my friends, is frickin' genius. More importantly, it's new and exciting and not just another ripoff of the cover of The Keep on the Borderlands. That's where we need to be going folks, blazing new trails of old school awesomeness. This trade dress thing so many of us do is symptomatic of stodginess.

But again, using the old trade dress makes it easy for me to find the stuff I want. If everyone starts doing their own cover design instead of relying on TSR's schemes, how will I find stuff I want among all the 4e third party stuff? Do we need a community logo, like the d20 logo was a signal to the 3.x crowd? I hate to even suggest a wizard with a pointy hat and a wand or a lizard man holding a halberd. What about a dragon in a dungeon? 3d6 showing a fairly average result?

I don't think Kenzer or Goodman or Troll Lords are going to be in a huge rush to adopt some new thing-a-ma-bob to clutter up their covers, but they aren't the publishers I need help with. It's the one-man shops run by amateurs and semi-pros.

*Note: I don't really think we have a 'movement'. That's way too grandiose a term for a bunch of people pretending to beat up orcs.