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Tag Archives: Usenet

[Tools] How To Use Usenet: A Biased Introduction

trn usenet client

trn usenet client (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usenet was the first discussion board on the Internet, way before there were things like the world wide web or anything really graphical. Yes, there was a time when the internet existed that was there before there was HTML.

A lot of people seem to forget that, but the net did not just pop into being in the beginning of the 90s to provide us with the unlimited stream of cat pictures and porn that we have now.
Usenet is actually a very interesting concept, not quite the same as email technically, but not so different either.

When connected to a server one can download a stream of messages connected with a certain newsgroup, not unlike one would download mails, then disconnect, read through the messages, write responses that also would be posted to this group, and the next time one connected to the server those would be posted to the group, and then distributed to all other servers that carried the group in question. At the same time one would download a new batch of mails.
For me this is one of the most well designed technologies of the last 40 years. It is decentralized (one does only connect to a server, which in turn connects to others), it allows for discussions even with unsteady internet connections (less of a problem today than it was before), and it is low resource (all the messages are barely altered plain text and can be worked on in most email programs).
Unfortunately it also is a little bit more complicated getting it running that a simple click on the browser and navigation to some message board is. That is also one of the reasons why it has been dying a slow death for the last 15 years or so.
But then again, it’s still there. It still survived the onslaught of spammers and distractions by shiny new HTML pages over time quite nicely. Right now most of it is used for file sharing, so at least part of the Usenet is brimming with activity: One can, in certain groups, attach files (so called binaries) to the messages, and distribute them like normal messages. This is used as an easy and secure way for file sharing, but it is rather resource intensive for the server, so most of the services that allow this have to be paid.
I am not really interested in that part of the Usenet anyway, I am more interested in the discussion forums. So this article will talk about those.
There are a lot of them, and not all of them are active. Actually quite a lot of them are not and never were. Estimates as to how much of Usenet is  still in use vary, but technically there are hundreds of thousands of groups, and the amount of really active ones is about 800-1000, with around 10.000-20.000 having at least sporadic messages. But those statistics are a few years old, so take them with a grain of salt.
But even then, there are a lot of groups that are still active, in use, and which still get a lot of messages. Well, comparatively a lot at least. There used to be so much more each day, but that was a long time ago. Read more of this post

Usenet Archeology

trn usenet client

trn usenet client (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This might be of interest for at least some people:

I recently came across http://olduse.net/ which is a historical exhibit.

It posts Usenet posts as they were posted exactly 30 years ago. The whole thing is also available as nntp.olduse.net, emulating the this time as a real time news server.

The interesting thing for me here is the roleplaying group: net.games.frp (yes, it emulates the group structure before the great renaming as well).

What we have here is, basically, the first internet forum about fantasy roleplaying.
Most of these things are of course available in the Google Groups archives (I guess at least. Google Groups is a terrible interface), but the server is nice for slowly reading the whole discussion along as it happens/happened, already with a lot of interesting topics, and a certain cuteness long before the big satanic panic.
Right now it slowly is picking up, it had some nice tables for AD&D posted on it, some people were discussing the merits of AD&D against other systems like C&S and RQ, and other people were asking confused questions what the hell the abbreviations C&S and RQ actually meant. Meanwhile in net.sf-lovers someone had to ask what LOTR stood for, and another person was looking forward to new Xanth books. Right now it’s September 3rd, 1982 on the server, and it feels weird, and a bit exciting to read the whole thing. Like time travel, just without the touching and killing grandfathers.

Whatever happened to the netbooks of yore?

One thing that I haven’t heard mentioned anywhere in the last few years are the Netbooks. Not those small and handy computers everybody went  crazy for the last few years. No, I am talking about files of the collected wisdom of the internet crowd on one topic or another (I know them mostly from Fantasy Roleplaying).

Whatever happened to them?
Okay, I know what happened to them, they still are at Olik’s and the Blue Troll’s websites, just as they were in 1998. But what happened to the idea of Netbooks? When I started with the Internet they seemed to be one of the biggest things on the Net.

Basically in the late 80s/early 90s people using the Net, and with that I mean mostly the Usenet and BBSs, were compiling wondrous resources for people with tight money but an internet connection. Now I hardly can say that those things were up to par with the best of the officially printed material of the time, because they were not.
But I can say that a lot of them contained a treasure of new ideas, rules, and mechanics to enrich (or bog down) the Fantasy Roleplaying of the time. And sometimes there would be the occasional little gem in between all the bad stuff. And this actually would be why they are not mentioned anymore: all the bad stuff in between.

The whole thing was a trend that already was over when 3rd edition came around. All of a sudden people took to the Open Game License like dwarves take to mead. But people still were remembering the old netbooks back then, and so at least one page was formed which wanted to create new Netbooks for the new system. They actually got quite far, building a few interesting things with new character classes and monsters, and had a lot of gorgeous ideas for people who were doing this essentially free, and then they quietly disappeared again in 2005. They said that the market was oversaturated with free d20 content and that they could not see anyone really taking to their books. I guess if you really were into publishing anything for the D20 system in that time you would just try to get it to a publisher. Or something like that.

Anyway, what I am interested in right now is the ways that I can use the old netbooks from the 90s for my campaign. They have a wonderful community-created homebrew vibe, not unlike the roleplaying blogosphere of today *coughcough*, and there should be some ways of putting that stuff into a campaign, even if a lot of the stuff in them seems to be a tad stupid.

But I am missing the concept as such, especially the fact that they seemed to be mostly just made up of Usenet entries collected into a larger text file, and then allowed to be distributed over the net. It just was so… what’s the word? Neat. Something like that would be hard to do today, where everyone thinks they’ll be able to  publish the next big thing with their own OD&D-clone. Although I do understand the attraction in 1. having the possibility to have your own things published and bound, and 2. not having to search for these things all over the Internet. Do you remember the days when every role-playing site around had a download page where you could get different files and programs to make your DM life easier? (or harder, depending on what you brought onto yourself) Roughly around the times when 3rd edition came around and the Internet bubble burst, all of a sudden the traditional download page was disappearing. I used to hunt through the webs for ages, trying to find new hidden treasures that I did not know about before, a feeling that is largely gone by now.