The latest “great debate” going around the OSR blogsphere is about innovation — as in are OSR games and settings innovative enough and/or whether settings or rules should be the focus of innovation.
I’m going to be a curmudgeon and say that I don’t give a damn if a game or setting is full of innovative ideas or 100% derivative. All I care about is whether or not the result is something I’m willing to actually use. I’d rather buy a game or setting that is 100% derivative of everything that has gone before if it is something I like and will use than buy a game or setting full of innovative ideas that either turn me off or require a lot of work on my part to learn and/or use.
Innovation for innovation’s sake is pointless. If your innovative ideas make the game harder to play, take longer to do things, make it harder for those who aren’t into system mastery, make it more work to referee, is simply reinventing the wheel without really improving the wheel, or the like I’m simply not interested in the innovations. The same goes for settings — if your innovative setting requires a lot of effort to understand or get involved in, chances are few people will actually use it in play. Tekumel is often held up as a example of an innovative setting. I happen to be one of the people who loves Tekumel and has ever since TSR published Empire of the Petal Throne in the mid-1970s. However, I’ve seldom been able to play in a Tekumel campaign and have only ran a few short campaigns set there in all these years. Getting committed players for it is hard as it takes quite a bit more effort on the player’s part to get into than a more standard fantasy setting.
Remember also that true innovation in rules is rare. Many rules ideas I have seen listed as innovative recently were actually first tried back in the 1970s and 1980s. Advantage and disadvantage are often touted as innovative by D&D 5e fans. I tried (and rejected as they made lots of extra work for the GM) very similar rules back in the early 1980s in one of my homebrew rules sets. The D20 roll with ascending AC used in D20 games was seen as very innovative when D&D 3.0 was published, yet I first saw such a system published for D&D in Different Worlds circa 1980 in a two-part article by John T Sapienza Jr (“D&D Variant: Vardy Combat System” in DW #6 and #7). Chances are fairly good that your “innovative rules mechanic” has already been done.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against innovation in either rules or settings. I’m simply not interested in games or settings that try to be innovative as one of their primary goals. I want good rules and good settings, if they are innovative without reinventing the wheel or pointless complexity/change, great. If they don’t have a shred of innovation but work well for my needs, great. If their main claim to fame is “being innovative”, I’m not likely to be interested.
My advice is to concentrate on making your rules or setting work well in for OSR play. If that requires innovation, innovate. But don’t innovate simply to please those who seem to think that innovation is the be all and end all of good rules or setting design. There is nothing inherently right about innovation nor is there anything inherently wrong with innovation. The same, of course, is true of being derivative. Make the best rules or setting you can and don’t worry about whether it will be seen as innovative or derivative.