Let's Talk About Campaign Settings III: OSR Settings

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Due to my own proclivities, when it comes to more recent settings, I’m going to narrow what I focus on to the OSR, and at that, only those I know something about. I know that I must be missing some great stuff (Strange Stars comes to mind). So, if anybody knows about other OSR campaign settings or even high quality non-OSR stuff, I’d love to hear about it.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some good OSR stuff that’s out there and see what they have of the good, bad, and mixed characteristics we identified for the 2E settings, and try to determine if those characteristics are important to new(er) OSR settings.

Published Settings

There aren’t that many published OSR campaign settings, at least that I know about. Several products hint at their own worlds (like Dwimmermount or Fire on the Velvet Horizon), but in those, the focus tends to be somewhere else, and the world that holds it is more of an added bonus. That being said, there are a few I want to look at.

Yoon-Suin: Yoon-Suin is the long awaited work from +David McGrogan  at Monsters and Manuals. It hits pretty much all of the positives we outlined for a setting above: it has a super strong theme/genuinely distinct setting, very high quality art and a strong visual identity, and it provides some setting-specific rules without being so changed as to be its own whole new game. The only thing I’m not sure it has is Play About Different Things - I haven’t looked into the final product in enough depth to know how much it changes the basic experience of play, but from what I remember in the blog posts about its creation, play was meant to allow for traditional dungeon exploration, wilderness exploration, as well as city based intrigue. It definitely avoids being “frozen” by presenting random tables rather than “one true answers” about the setting, and it definitely avoids moralizing.

Padding? I don’t think so, but it certainly is big. From what I’ve skimmed/remember from the blog, it’s all got a rather good cool-stuff to number of words ratio. It’s just that there’s a hell of a lot of cool stuff, so there’s a ton of words. I don’t think anyone else seriously jammed on it with David, it doesn’t work within the 2E constraints (and very few D&D constraints), and while it provides some rough and ready NPCs and events, it avoids highly detailed ones (Again, I think so. I might be missing something new to the final book).

Vornheim/Red & Pleasant Land: So maybe these should properly be two separate settings, since Red & Pleasant Land is only sort of technically the same world as Vornheim, and both products aim at pretty different feels and game support. That being said, +Zak Smith 's philosophy is loud and clear through both of them, so I think treating them together makes a fair amount of sense.

Being produced by a professional artist, obviously both of these have high quality art and strong art direction. Padding is pretty much Zak’s arch nemesis, so not much of that to be found. Play and concept are both pretty genuinely different from regular D&D, and the theme is pretty strong, especially in R&PL. Most of the mechanical distinction in Vornheim is DM-facing, but I think it helps to create a pretty different play experience. R&PL definitely has mechanical stuff to make it play differently from regular D&D and reinforce its theme. Both products have NPCs, places, and events provided in a level of detail that’s useful for play, and both definitely don’t moralize. I’m not sure how much the standard constraints of D&D affected either, but R&PL had it’s share of design constraints (making everything Alice In Wonderland flavored, for example). Other than playing with his group, I don’t know if Zak did much “jamming” on this one, but the general zeitgeist of blogging feedback and G+ interaction probably fed his creative processes to a degree.

Maybe the only possibly sad thing here is that neither of these have the expansive, immersive feel of a bigger setting. As negative as all that padding was, it may have contributed to the old settings feeling big, like a whole world. Neither Vornheim nor R&PL quite do that for me, even though both promise plenty of play, and I know from Zak’s blog that there’s a lot of world out there.

Qelong: Qelong by +Kenneth Hite is an interesting one in that it is explicitly packaged not as a setting, but as an adventure. It just happens to come with a lot of juicy setting elements. It has an extremely strong theme and feels very different from standard D&D, especially when you bring in the mechanical reinforcement of the magic poisoning. The art direction is strong, with a single artist providing consistency, lots of pictures, and all of them high quality. Play is theoretically a standard treasure-motivated wilderness exploration, but the strength of the setting and theme makes it come across rather differently.

There is just about zero padding, and I’ve long admired Qelong for its remarkable efficiency in terms of presenting usable, interesting content with a minimum of material. I haven’t seen any evidence of either the good or bad of working with other creative types and get the impression it was the Kenneth Hite show. No especial “wider world” constraints to work within, but the strong theme and small geographical area seem to have provided the needed constraints to spur some great creativity.

The NPCs and events are all geared towards how they can create interest in play, which is good, but they’re on a specific timeline, which makes sense for the adventure, but perhaps provides less scope for the players to have free rein in deciding where the setting will go. Much like Zak’s material above, the ultra-compact nature of the book and hyper-focus on the usable, interesting adventure that is the main point of the book makes the setting less open/expansive.

Blog Settings

There’s a ton of OSR blogs out there, and almost every one of them has a home setting of its own. So, I’ll be forced to stick to the settings that I know and love from my own blog reading. I’m absolutely positive I’m skipping  over some great ones (Hill Cantons is one I only know the barest bits about, but I hear great things).

HMS Apollyon: This one by +Gus L  over at Dungeon of Signs is one of my favorite OSR Blog campaign settings. It’s got a super strong theme, lots of mechanical differentiation, and strong art direction (Gus himself producing all of the art associated with it that isn’t a pull from online somewhere). The play is pretty standard D&D megadungeon exploration, albeit in a cool version of a megadungeon with its own quirks. One thing we get less of as readers is detailed background events and NPCs - we get glimpses of some of these in play reports, but I don’t think I’ve seen much of that stuff presented as play aids the way Gus has released player material.

Centerra: If +Arnold K.  weren’t so damn creative and interesting, it’d be tempting to label his Centerra posts as falling for the sin of padding. I assert that that temptation is wrong, however, because Arnold’s writing is exactly the sort of imagination fuel that grounds a potential GM’s imagination in the world and provides context to be able to improvise on what the players are doing. I think he accomplishes this trick of being voluminous without being tedious by, well, writing non-mundane interesting things. Even when dealing with matters of culture or society, everything is viewed through a lens of how it could interact with player action or create things for players to do. You know that expansiveness I’ve been mentioning recent stuff lacking? Arnold knocks that out of the park. If I had to pick one candidate for “Most Likely to End Up Like a 2E Setting But Better” it would be Centerra - in a gorgeously illustrated hardcover or boxed set. Man that would rock.

Swordfish Islands: Here’s a setting that I’m very excited to see the final product of. +Jacob Hurst  put the blog together specifically to get it ready for publishing. I’d say that the theme is moderately strong (islandy stuff), but the art direction and art are quite good (Jason’s a professional artist), and there’s a lot going on on the islands in the form of NPCs and events and rivalries, but it’s all presented in a way that emphasizes the dynamic nature of the situation and how it will react to characters. Being tightly geographically constrained, the islands lack “expansiveness”, but they have a depth that gives them the feel of something you could sink your teeth into and play a campaign there. This one is also notable for being one of the few examples where I know for sure the author is working with a creative team of friends, and that the project is at least partially the result of “jamming”.

Corpathium: The rest of +Logan Knight 's world is pretty vague, but his grand, vile capital of Corpathium has some of the best fantasy city building I’ve seen. I don’t think I’d say that Corpathium has a particular “theme”, but it sure does have a strong aesthetic. Logan’s voice comes through very clearly, and everything is very vivid, even when presented tersely in a table. What art there is is great, because it’s Logan’s own stuff, but I wish there were more. What play is about is maybe not as focused as some of these other settings, and mechanical differentiation from the player side is cool but a bit haphazard at this point (disparate blog posts on wizards and clerics and weapon rules and what not). There’s loads of people and places and activities to interact with as players, but almost all of them come in the form of hints and pieces presented in tables, rather than anyone or anything presented as really detailed. For all its vividness, Corpathium lacks some breadth or depth as presented to the world, and I get the impression that the depth is meant to be more emergent from using the tables and crawl rules and the like.

Middenmurk: Here is a world with astounding art direction (and I’m including here +Tom Fitzgerald 's remarkable prose as well as his art). Bonus points in the art direction category for having an entire inspirational tumblr full of good stuff. Tom hints at a richness and expansiveness that I’d love to see, but we only get tantalizing snippets. Everything is lovingly detailed and provides a nice counterpoint to the idea that only laconic things can be beautiful in the OSR. I don’t know if I can say much about mechanical differentiation, as we’ve only gotten bits and pieces of that, but the elf types by level 1 spell rule is a pretty good example. If only there were more of it!

Straits of Anian: Oh man is this stuff good. +Anthony Picaro  completely nails “distinct from regular D&D” and “Mechanical Differentiation”. The mechanical differentiation is light-weight but well placed, making maximum impact for minimal changes. There’s not a lot of detailed NPCs or events, but the gods, myths, monsters, and societies presented give lots of opportunity for interacting with the world. I’m not sure the “things you do in play” are that much different from standard D&D, but the fact that the cultures involved are so different might make that moot. Also, other than phenomenal photos of real life inspirational gear and people and artifacts, there is, sadly, no art and no art direction associated with this. Maybe one day.

New Feierland: A very sketchily presented world, I don’t know if +Trent B  has any plans to ever turn this into an official setting for others’ consumption, but I wanted to mention it because I really enjoy it. Mostly it has evocative flavor and subtle but effective mechanical differentiation, but I sure would love to see it with some great art and more developed action hooks.