Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Amateurs Against the Wine Snobs...

So last month, a certain (famously cranky) blogger eviscerated The Ruined Abbey of Saint Tabitha.  I don't care about that.  Hell, I requested the review knowing what I'd get.  But he crossed a line when he asserted that we don't understand the craft (wtf) or even our reasons for the choices we make, which is simply bizarre.  Olde House Rules has a mission we've proclaimed vocally from the start.  It's on our website, in the pages of the free previews of all our relevant titles.  It's present here.  Simply put, we make amateur games.

That speaks to the what.  But as to the why, we do it because we happen to think these products engender a style of play not possible otherwise.  Now here's the thing: amateur is more than just poor visual production.  It's what happens when people without advanced tools, a staff of editors, or professional freelance support make stuff anyway because they like it and -gasp! - just want to have fun.  This combination of deliberate and inadvertent elements gives rise to an emergent experience tied up in rulebooks...

Amateur rulebooks represent the initial state of the hobby. This alone lends them a certain historical value, and our attempts to relive the past an enduring legitimacy.  And they're certainly nostalgic for those of us who remember them firsthand.  But they're also quite exotic at this point, because they harken back to a time when the very means of production was fundamentally different.  Manual type?  Actual (physical) cut and paste?  I imagine the older stuff looks like an Egyptian papyrus to those born of the modern internet age.

But isn't this just skin deep?  Probably.  Except that amateur design and production had a material impact on the way these games were approached and played.  Again, we're talking about a fundamentally different experience here.  Their primitive style felt more accessible, like a peer-to-peer exercise.  This burrows deep into one's psychewhich lays the foundation for pretty much everything that follows.  And there's plenty to talk about...

First off, the amateur artwork left something to the imagination.  Do we really need to see everything to the smallest, perfect detail?  Yeah, there's some great stuff out there, and professional artwork helps bring a game's imaginary universe to life.  My gatekeeper's hat is at the cleaners, so I won't even try to say otherwise.  But when people are left to fill in the blanks, informed by their dreams and fears, we get something like true wonder.

Moreover, the earliest games were open ended.  This was most likely accidental, as the hobby was still in its infancy and too new for what would come later.  But often enough, this happened in the absence of experience, not to mention any sort of professional template, meaning the earliest publishers didn't know what to include.  At least not yet.  But deliberate or otherwise, this encouraged the emergent, work-it-out-at-the-table approach that would later come to define what should be recognized as a distinct style of play...

Now to be fair, our cranky friend never criticized our physical production.  But we're well beyond that now.  We're talking about an experience that permeates how a game's disparate elements are actually used.  Modern D&D mechanizes everything.  It absolutely imposes itself upon gameplay at the deepest level.  Amateur rulebooks from the 1970s did the same, albeit in reverse.  Crude art, omissions (deliberate or otherwise), and even the verbose Gygaxian prose brought the players in and redistributed the balance of elements.

Our friend (I like the guy) is free to disagree with this approach.  But he isn't free to pretend we don't have a deep, abiding philosophy behind our design choices.  There's a certain snobbery present in some (not all) modern circles.  Like we're sipping wine at the Cité du Vin instead of just having fun.  This comes with a cold, mechanical precision that shuts out the kind of organic, on-the-fly interactions humans are known for.  There's no wrong way; but we can agree that old-school, fueled by amateur production, is a viable choice...  

And that's what we do.  And why we do it.  We make amateur-style rulebooks meant to bottle an experience worth preserving.  The old days in amber.  It won't appeal to everyone (the reverse is definitely true); but we don't do it for them.  And we sure as hell don't do it for those who see the past as necessary for sure, but best left behind - or worse still, those who only understand the past as a failure to do better.  To them, amateur is skin deep.  But this mixing of ideas, omissions, and outright flaws enables an experience only amateurs can give.


  1. Oh, the fine snobbery of RPG reviews, were a piece of work is judged without ever seeing play at the table.

    And because of one of those reviews that dissect a module I bought Veins of the Earth, paying good money for it, just to realize it's not something useful for real world gaming, but to appeal to finer palates of people who put a dusty English Major diploma to use, in order to bash stuff made by players for players.

    1. In fairness to him, he's quite concerned with playability...

  2. Since you did ask Bryce to review it, and since you’re now defending yourself and saying Bryce is wrong: I have to say that his criticisms seem dead-on based on the preview of the product I can see.

    Not keying a dungeon and then asking for money for it… why would anyone pay for this? Your defence about this being an artisanal, “amateur” module that seeks to recreate the feeling of the earliest RPG products is frankly a little disingenuous. It reads like: “ha ha you dummies, you expected something you could PLAY? That would save you prep time in exchange for the money you paid? You just don’t get it man, this is an IRONIC RPG module. It’s like the original White Box — you’ve probably never heard of it.”

    The earliest RPG products were also full of errors, contradictions, and simply unworkable rules. Do you recreate those as well, in the interest of verisimilitude? No, because that would be too transparently insulting to your customers. To try to position your ($2.99) RPG product as some kind of ironic, retro curio of purely historical interest is a bit insulting to people who might buy it expecting it to make their lives easier instead of harder.

    If you want to make a joke product and give it away, have at it. If you’re going to charge money for it, it really ought to be labelled as a historical curio instead of a usable product.

    1. Oh, I don't object to his review. I object to his assertion that we don't know the reasons for what we do. Nothing more...

    2. Picador, I don't think the very low prices of Olde House Rules should be faulted. The sales really speak for themselves. The Ruined Abbey of Saint Tabitha is an Electrum selling product on Drive Thru RPG with an over 4 out of 5 rating and written reviews on Drive Thru. It is a product, in other words, which the fans appear to really like for what it is. At the same time, this may also be a reason for Olde House Rules to let this bad review just ride. Time to move on I think. You have your fans. And I am one of them.

    3. Thanks for the kind words, Tim! And you're right; time to move on from this - but not from our love of old-school games...

    4. To be clear, The Ruined Abbey was written for Pits & Perils (not a D&D clone) and comes fully KEYED AND STOCKED for that system. We provide area descriptions with blank space for those wishing to convert it to another ruleset, but that's a bonus effort. P&P fans get a useable product, and we're revisiting our preview to better emphasize that. We certainly apologize for any confusion...

  3. You nailed it. I’ve been trying to parse my thoughts down to figure out why I dislike the arthaus (my term) cult within our hobby. Their snobbery shines in their deep discussions on the artistry of a product and the scientific study of minute details of rule system. I find this behavior endlessly humdrum and boorish. One hundred page blog posts about some rule most people hand wave or their garishly colored rule supplement for Mörk Börg….

    I’m tired just thinking about it…though, that might be the drugs.

  4. One small comment from an happy customer : 2 years back, using Blood of Pangea ruleset, I GMed a small campaign (5 scenarii) for my older kids, 10 and 8 at the time. It was set in Lord of the Ring Middle Earth universe, Second Age (I realized decadent Numenorean conquerors sounded a lot like decadent Opherian ones...). I gently house ruled 3 points (more powerful magic, spreading damage over multiple foe per turn up to 5 damages, and allowing for Healing potions after one PC learned Alchemy).

    So I perfectly agree with your approach and loved to use your products this way ! "Amateur" feel is a nice approach for me to make it my own (inclusive some could say)...

    I also GM ed two or three scenarii of dungeon crawling with Diceless Dungeon, with a kid as young as 5... With as much prep as to print premade characters and a map to crawl, with glass tokens.

    I think your approach rocks !