I've been doing some thinking about what makes D&D, and more specifically B/X, great and why they've endured for so long. Critics of the game will claim that it was just 'the first', and any other game (and they mean my superior game of choice), had they beaten TSR to the punch, would have been similarly successful.
This logic falls down to me because we know of several examples of roleplaying pre-D&D (in particular the Braunstein and Tony Bath's Hyboria), but these were restricted only to a handful of hardcore wargamers. Why did D&D spread so wildly? Was it just the first commercially-packaged game of its sort? Anyone who has looked at OD&D knows that it is in no ways newbie friendly, so that doesn't hold water. In fact, many early games were direct reactions to OD&D's "incoherence" (with the most notable example being T&T).
What, then, did D&D do differently? I think the answer can be seen in why Basic and Expert have become enduring classics while the later books in the Mentzer series have been largely forgotten. Basic not only teaches you the basics of roleplaying and how to create characters, but it specifically focuses on the procedure of building and running dungeons. Likewise, Expert expands not only character rules but details the hexcrawl for wilderness campaigns.
The dungeon and the hexcrawl are perhaps the greatest examples of what I call "campaign frames". They provide a structure for building and running a game, a framework for an experience which can be replicated by any number of DMs. Moreover, both have robust rules to allow the DM to adjudicate situations that may arise and (when well designed) give the players not only a variety of choices but clear choices to make. Should we open the door on the left or explore the hallway ahead? Do we take the road leading into the valley or the mountain trail? These are meaningful decision points rather than being so wide open as to be paralyzing.
Beyond the two examples laid down in B/X there are few great examples of 'campaign frames' to be found, although it is clear that a number of games early in roleplaying history struggled to do so. Examples include Traveller, En Garde, Gangbusters, and the Boot Hill module Ballots & Bullets.
This all changed with the introduction of the 'scene structure' of module design. Scene structure was not only flexible in terms of what it could 'do' (since it can be used with any system or theme) but also required the least amount of 'heavy lifting' when it comes to design by eliminating player choice. I suspect this becomes increasingly important as a new generation of game designers emerge from the D&D audience that do not come from a board game/war game background, and therefore are not exposed to a variety of games with very different 'frames'. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel with each new game, companies can just put out game after game with the 'scene structure' as the framework.
Which brings us back to D&D. Why did CMI fail? A lot of people have speculated that this is because few players reached those levels, and while that is at least partially true, I think the larger problem is that the frames were a lot less robust. While kingdom building is covered in Companion, I don't know anyone talking about using those rules for the 'domain game'. Likewise, the distinctive lack of chatter about planar scenarios indicate that the directions for building these were unclear at best.
Things have been quiet in the blogosphere as of late. There have been a number of assertions that the OSR has "won" and there is nothing left to do; I disagree. We have largely relied on the preexisting frames that were passed down to us by Gygax & Arneson rather than stepping boldly forward and inventing our own. So, here is my challenge to you OSR bloggers:
Build a campaign frame, large or small. A set of rules that provide:
A. Clear choices for the players to engage in, while still allowing maximum flexibility.
B. A model for the DM which guides them through the process of building this aspect of their campaign.
C. Rules for interacting with the frame in a meaningful way, from arbitration on the DM end (examples include: reaction rolls, wandering monsters, etc) to procedures on the player end (movement speeds, listening at doors, etc).
Alternately, look at the few new campaign frames that have begun to be sketched here or here, or even highlight preexisting ones outside of D&D (like those from the games mentioned above) with an eye towards adapting them. D&D is a big tent game, let's go ahead and put up a few new tentpoles!
Oh, and if you're looking for ideas for frames, here are a few I'd love to see:
* Gladiatorial Games
* Naval / pirates
* Planar adventures
* Kingdom building
* Urban crime / highwaymen
* Trade routes