So, there's been an ongoing debate across several blogs and fora for at least two weeks, perhaps more, about what counts as an innovative new product, whether the OSR is truly innovative, and which direction it should be heading: towards more settings (and more innovative settings,) or towards more rules? This post at Tenkar's Tavern was not the first such post, but it sort of redirected the debate from bitching about individual products to actually thinking about what people's ideals should be. And the Bat in the Attic blog raised some good points. So now I'm going to give you my thoughts.
Let's get this out of the way right now: everyone who reads my blog should know by now I don't think highly of rules, especially mechanics. I''ve said on more than one occasion that I think mechanics -- which dice you roll and how you modify them -- are the least important and least interesting part of an RPG. The rules that surround the mechanics, mostly conditionals like "if you are a fighter and you are facing opponents of 1 HD or less, you can fight a number of opponents equal to your level", are more important, but even those are subservient to the concepts of the setting they are meant to embody. Which, I believe, is the main point of that Bat in the Attic post.
But that doesn't mean I'm wholely behind setting as the goal. Not what we think of as setting, at least. I find the vast majority of setting products pretty boring and poorly put together. The preference is for setting books written like text books, like the writer is some kind of explorer reporting back on the customs and significant sights of some far-away land. It results in pretty much unusable products.
What I am more interested in is setting elements. Have you ever considered the fact that Vornheim is a setting book? Not an entire setting: it suggests some broad details about the world of Vornheim, but doesn't detail all the existing kingdoms or the surrounding geography, and it doesn't even detail every single part of the city. Instead, it tells you what a Vornheim-like city would be, and gives you tools to implement Vornheim-ish details, with the full understanding that you'll probably be dropping this into another setting and making any changes necessary to make it fit. I haven't seen Slumbering Ursine Dunes, but I understand it works in somewhat the same way: the writer has a broad setting in mind, but the product is not about cataloging minutiae in one section of that setting, but is instead a locale with a unique feel that you could drop into whatever setting you are using, with tools to help implement that feel.
Another example would be products like The Dungeon Alphabet. You're probably choking on your own spittle right now and screaming "That's not a setting product! It's just random tables!" Yes, but those tables are built with certain setting assumptions in mind. They are tools designed to produce that kind of setting. Compare the Dungeon Alphabet tables to those in The Dungeon Dozen, if you don't believe me. Like most OSR products, both assume a more or less bog--standard fantasy world, but there are slight differences in the kinds of things you get out of each.
This is what I think the focus of the OSR should be. THIS kind of product. Not necessarily a city or an adventure, but more like a locale or a thematic set, with tools to create something that looks and feels a specific way. For what we traditionally think of as setting products -- gazetteers or city guides -- there should be less "wall of text" and more like a short introductory paragraph and three to five significant features presented as bullet points (this RPGPundit post on his Arrows of Indra setting should serve as an example,) followed by random tables, monsters, treasures, NPCs, or events that you could drop practically anywhere as needed to reflect the look and feel of that area.
Innovation, in this case, means creating setting elements with a new look and feel. What kinds of kingdoms, cities, dungeons, or wilderness haven't been presented, or haven't been presented properly? What could we do that is different, that really evokes a distinctive style? That's what I want to see the OSR doing.