[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints.
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]
IntroductionDue 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 SettingsThere 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.
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).
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.
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.