Has the Student become the Master?
That’s the claim that James Raggi made yesterday at his site. On one hand, it’s very difficult to argue that we are seeing some high-quality products right now that generally beat some of the old TSR product in terms of accessibility, layout, and usability. That’s largely to be expected, a few decades later; we’ve had over 30 years to refine the product, and new tools to use when designing that product.
In terms of game content, well, that’s tricky. Are we talking 1981 products or 1986 (Jim makes it clear in his post he’s discussing pre-1989)? Some of the later modules (past about ’85) definitely weren’t the peer of the older adventures. And I sincerely place works such as the Castle of the Mad Archmage or Death Frost Doom at least in the same company as some of the early TSR modules. But I still think that there’s a reason modules like Keep on the Borderlands have lasted in our gaming consciousness as long as they have. Those were our first products, our introduction to the hobby. To supplant those types of legendary adventures, well, you’re battling against nostalgia, and you’re battling against a shared experience. Some of the dungeons currently being designed out there are probably technically superior to a number of earlier TSR entries. Fair or not, though, that’s what they’re fighting against—an established legacy.
So yes, I think in terms of layout and accessibility, what those currently participating in the neoclassical movement are creating is something that could give the organization and display of those old modules a run for their money. In terms of enjoyment, fun, and dungeon design, I’m not sure I could pick a single group as better than the other—I can’t judge TSR’s work as one lump sum, nor should I even try.
In the end, though, the thing that the current old-school community has for it over TSR is how much it’s seen me involved in creating and sharing with others. The accessibility, the countless outlets for expression—sure, those are signs of the times and the internet, but it wouldn’t be the same without all the cool people making it happen. That doesn’t often happen like that under a strict corporate umbrella.
So, to review, I find myself cheerfully indecisive on the whole business. I’m sure Jim’s original post will be delightful cannon fodder somewhere, but that it’s even being discussed shows how far the entire OSR idea has come.