Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Everybody Loves Our Game: On the OSR "Scene"

I am just finishing off reading Everybody Loves Our Town, Mark Yarm's superlative oral history of grunge. It's a really entertaining book, phenomenally comprehensive and detailed, and compulsively readable even (I think) for people who aren't into that kind of music. It goes back right to the very early days, with the formation of the U-Men in 1981, and charts the emergence of a regional scene, its sudden blossoming in the early 90s, and its very rapid demise afterwards.

It's a huge nostalgia trip for anybody who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I think: while my home town can't exactly lay claim to being like Seattle circa 1991, I recognised a lot of the texture of the life that's portrayed in the recollections of the interviewees. So many of the elements of teenage life back then - forming bands, drinking and smoking pot and trying not to be discovered doing so, hanging out with friends just sort of wandering the streets or lurking in parks, listening to heavy metal on cassette tapes, going to all-age 'rock nights' and open mic nights at local venues (in our case, for some reason, the ballroom of a once-grand-but-now-faded large Edwardian hotel), wearing lots of denim - seems to have been a commonplace throughout the Western world (now much reduced). You could probably have grabbed the average 15 year old from Seattle and dumped him in Wallasey and vice versa and he would have fit it like a glove. We just had less heroin and guns.

What interests me most about the book is the social anthropology of "scenes". For a while, by all accounts, there was a Seattle grunge "scene". (One which became a monster, exploded, and then transformed into something self-referential, self-parodying, and destructive.) My home town had a "scene" when I was 14 or 15 - sets of familiar faces, names, people-who-knew-people, common cultural reference points, common slang terms, common hangouts. There are heavy metal scenes, Irish dancing scenes, horror fiction scenes, underground S&M scenes, communal sewing scenes, dining club scenes, single malt whisky scenes... Permanent or temporary conglomerations of people, habits, ideas, vernaculars, and interest surrounding a common geographical or cultural core.

For a long time now I've been dissatisfied with the use of the phrase "Old School Renaissance" or OSR. I prefer to think of us as a "scene". We are a DIY D&D (or, to widen it out, DIY RPG) scene. Maybe a collection of scenes: there is a DCC scene, a LotFP scene, a Black Hack scene, a true grognard scene, and so on and so forth.

The interesting thing about a scene is, while friendships might form within it, it's not really about being friends. Nor is it about pursuing a certain goal. In a music scene, for instance, there are rivalries and even mutual hatreds. Bands don't particularly pursue the wider goal of furthering the cause of other bands. Rather, a scene is something that simply forms by accident around a set of shared interests or behaviours, and as a consequence of the interactions of human beings who have those shared interests or behaviours - nothing more or nothing less. It's not formed by a group of friends getting together to share interests. It's formed by a group of people who share interests coming together as an inevitable consequence of those shared interests: teenagers who like rock music and drinking will find themselves forming a local scene without knowing it; people who like watching and making YouTube reviews of single malts (like yours truly) will find themselves forming an online scene of sorts - it just happens. The "OSR" is the same: people who like "old school" D&D and making RPG materials by themselves have ended up making a scene because that's how scenes happen. Nothing more or less.

Another interesting facet of scenes that bears emphasis is their definition of themselves as being unlike other scenes. The Seattle grunge scene defined itself as being against hair metal. Single malt whisky drinkers define themselves as being against chill-filtration, added colour, and no-age-statement whisky. The DIY D&D scene defined itself, very early on, as being against 4th edition. The rejection of orthodoxy is an important element in the formation of a scene.

Scenes can also end - or transmogrify into something else. The Seattle grunge scene didn't last long. The outlook for the single malt scene is much better. What about the DIY D&D scene? Things seem okay so far. We'll find out if it can last the distance.

23 comments:

  1. So in 20 years' time, we'll know who the Mark Lanegan of the DIY D&D scene is ...

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    1. There are probably 5 or 6 candidates already.

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  2. More interestingly will be the King Buzzo.
    Continually refining his craft while staying true to the source.

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  3. There is a somewhat heated discussion on EN World at the moment about the reasons for the rise/success of the OSR, and it seems stuck in a perpetual argument loop at the moment. I pointed the loop out, only to be replied with the same argument...


    Anyway.

    I think you're right on the nose about the formation of a "scene", although for the OSR/DYI thing it's a bit... vague as to where the boundaries of that scene are. Depending on how you look at it, I could be considered as firmly into it - or *not at all*. I think the question is in part dependent on weather this scene is made of people who *use* OSR products, or people who *create/publish* such products.

    Or to use your grunge scene analogy, is it made of bands, or of bands and the people who listen to it?

    Ancalagon

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    1. I think definitely the latter. A "scene" forms around the interest. Some are more "interested" than others, or more deeply invested, but you're definitely in the scene.

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    2. Has that topic been going on since 2013? :o

      I am at 2014 where someone trots out the "it is just momentary nostalgia, it will go away soon" argument. And I remember the same guy - different nickname, same avatar - making the same argument in the same generally unpleasant manner around 2006 or 2007. Or 2004. .)

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    3. In that case, it's not the topic that's stuck in a loop, it's the perpetually argumentative posters. Every forum has those same two or three That Guys who show up and turn any thread they participate in into a shitfest of bullet point refutation and citation of Latin-named logical fallacies; EN World just happens to have four or five of these stinkers.

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  4. Back in the early '90s, I had one foot in the RPG scene, and one foot in the local music scene, and I was always amused at the parallels between people in bands and people in gaming groups.

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    1. Except people in bands get laid way more often.

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  5. any chance of a link to those single malt reviews?

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    1. I don't make videos myself, just watch them and occasionally comment. I think everybody knows about Ralfy (look up ralfystuff on youtube if you haven't) but my favourite is Horst Luening, a German guy who posts videos as whisky.com on youtube. I want him to be my grandfather.

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  6. Hm, must get back into that Balvenie in the cupboard...

    I wonder if there's a lot of overlap between OSR and single malt whisky? Two great tastes that taste great together!

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  7. ==Horst Luening

    That makes for very enjoyable viewing, nice find. Glancing through his titles he doesn't appear to rate the Irish whiskeys. The nicest whiskey Ive been fortunate enough to taste was a Midleton 'very rare', but in the price range I can afford for a 'treat' the Scotches feature strongest, though I have been able to persuade others of the merits of the green spot or yellow spot.

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    1. YouTube is infinitely interesting, let's hope it lasts, (It won't).

      Thanks to noisms, temporarily I have a new hobby. This Scotsman and whiskey authority is like Laurence Olivier.

      https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=richard+patterson+whiskey

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    2. Youtube has just banned gun videos. Except drink to follow shortly, to be replaced by healthier food alternatives and food supplements. Particularly soy.

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    3. Maybe there is civil war within youTube right now, but if it wasn't for that platform, however long it lasts, there would be no means of broadcasting truth and scorning the doddering pious old media.

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  8. Interesting. I haven't read the book, but Seattle's been my main home since 1973.

    I don't agree with all of your assessment. For example, far from being "against hair metal" many early grunge bands were emulators of and desirous of being heavy metal bands (Alice In Chains were certainly trying to be "rock stars" in the early days, as were Mother Love Bone, the precursors of Pearl Jam). Bands with a more punk influence, like the U-Men, Tad, the Gits, and Nirvana may have been "against" the decadence and excesses of metal, but most of them failed to gain much recognition. The heroin use was most prevalent among the guys who WANTED to be All Things Heavy Metal...certainly this was the case with Layne Staley and Andrew Wood.

    [Kurt Cobain is his own ball of contradictions]

    The "jeans and flannel" look was simply the baseline style of the region at the time, not influenced by music...we all wore that. Being 17 and uninterested in obtaining a fake I.D. I wasn't participating in much of the music scene (most of the "all ages" venues still required you to be 18, from what I recall). Many musicians were rooming together or living in co-ops because they were BROKE, and this (as much as anything) led to the cross-pollination of musical styles.

    *sigh* If there's a parallel to draw, it may be that the main blossoming of the "OSR" has already passed (if it wasn't just an illusion) and those of us still clinging to it are simply self-parodies.

    Jeez, this is a melancholy topic for me...

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    1. Man, you should read the book. I think you'd love it. It's entirely comprised of interviews with the main players, and not-so-main players. The bitching about Alice in Chains because they were too metal and trying too hard to be rock stars... I think the only people in the book who are more bitched-about than Alice in Chains are Courtney Love and possibly Candlebox. (Although Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder are hardly widely liked.)

      Almost everybody makes the point that the "jeans and flannel" thing was just what everybody wore in Seattle at the time.

      I think the main blossoming of "the OSR" has already passed in a sense, but it'll lead on to other things. The really important point is that the battle has been won - all the old editions of D&D are back in print and you can find new material written for those editions easily again.

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    2. @ Noisms:

      I'll add it to my (too long) list of "books-I-must-someday-buy-and-read." I've actually been thinking a lot about the "early grunge years" the last week or so, when I introduced my children to the beautiful rock that was Hammerbox and wondered what the hell ever happened to Carrie Akre.

      [hint: Alanis Morissette. And what the hell ever happened to her?]

      I appreciate your optimism with the OSR (what it is, what it spawned). I don't know why my mood has been so down lately...need to find some more positivity myself.

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  9. The 'OSR' label is one I've been reluctant, if not wary of using. Do I use for simplicity's sake so people know what a post is about/with what rules it's compatible with? Yes.

    The thing is, does someone who started with 3e and switched to OSR systems later have a 'right' to use the label?

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