Few segments of the RPG fandom are as misunderstood as the OSR. At least, that’s what they keep saying on Twitter. The OSR, or “Old-School Renaissance”, are gamers who appreciate both the mechanics and implied playstyle of older editions of D&D, any of the TSR versions but usually Basic D&D and usually the versions of it (B/X, BECMI, or Rules Cyclopedia) that existed roughly from 1981 to 1991. The real problem with the OSR is a marketing problem; in the past it has been hard to distinguish those genuinely interested in the play philosophies of older D&D from those who were merely retreating to older games. Every time I’ve tried to look into the OSR and OSR games, I’ve come away asking the same question: “why are there so many hacks of Basic D&D and why exactly should I care?”
In theory we all know what worldbuilding is. The process of creating a fictional world isn’t technically related to role-playing games, but it has become inextricably intertwined with the hobby, given the preponderance of science fiction and fantasy settings in the most popular games. In considering and examining worldbuilding, I’m not going to spend a lot of word count talking about what it is, or even how to do it well. Instead, I’m going to talk about how worldbuilding affects RPGs specifically, which boils down to a lot of mistakes, missed opportunities, and general poor form.
The strong increase in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons brought about both by the increased accessibility of D&D’s Fifth Edition as well as the growth of the nascent streaming and actual play communities has meant that there are a whole lot of people getting introduced to D&D. Now that this growth has been going on for a few years, there is burgeoning realization that role-playing games as a medium are capable of a lot more than dungeon crawls and Tolkien derivatives. This is great news for everyone, right? We all know there’s a whole world of RPGs out there, from the big glossy traditional games to indie zines and everything in between. Well, something’s getting lost in translation for some, and in the #dnd world on Twitter you’ve likely seen questions like this:
“How can I make John Wick in D&D?”
“What can you do to run Star Trek in D&D?”
“It would be really cool if I could run Harry Potter in D&D!”
Fortunately, these all have easy answers: Don’t, please don’t, and I don’t think it would.
On New Year’s Day, 2010, the RPG hobby wasn’t feeling very lively. Dungeons and Dragons was plodding along with Fourth Edition, though a lot of players had abandoned it for Pathfinder, or, as your friends called it, “D&D 3.75e”. The New World of Darkness was out, but you were having trouble finding the new part. Shadowrun 20th Anniversary came out…but that was just Fourth Edition from 2005 with errata. Though things weren’t looking so hot, there was some interesting stuff going on. This new website Kickstarter had been causing a stir in tech news, and more and more of the games you’ve been looking for had been made available in PDF. Something’s going to change, you think.
In 1994, Richard Night had a vision for a new modern city. By 2009, that vision had gone awry, and what was supposed to be an urban utopia became an urban hellhole. As Bes Isis once said, “Nobody leaves Night City. Except in a body bag.”
On Christmas Eve, 2019, four enterprising RPG bloggers found themselves at a strange conjunction of parallel dimensions. Whether it was their campaign worlds, their characters, or Aaron’s insistence on reviewing Fate of Cthulhu while writing a time travel game, no one could say. Nonetheless, when they stepped through the strange, neon-colored portals that appeared in their respective homes, Seamus, Aaron, Aki, and Jason could not be less prepared for what lay on the other side.
Sent back in time, you must save humanity from its enslavement by a godlike overlord. You must
protect John Connor stop Cthulhu! …wait. What? We’ve talked about kitchen sink games before, and this mashup definitely edges towards that territory even while sitting firmly in Lovecraft’s Mythos. If you’ve seen one too many investigator go over the brink, spent one too many hours in a briefing room with Delta Green or can’t seem to get all of these Laundry Files out of your inbox, here’s another angle on Lovecraftian Mythos: Time Travel. That’s right, it’s time to go 30 years in the past to 2020 and help change the Fate of Cthulhu.
Welcome to another Review In-Depth! Here I explore and attempt to critique a game using not just a reading or even a mere one-shot, but rather a full short campaign of play. While reading may tell you about rules and ease of use, and a one-shot may demonstrate game balance and fun factor, it takes several sessions to really tease out how well a game accomplishes its stated goals. And because rules aren’t everything, I cast an equally critical eye to the content of the story the group ended up telling.
Today’s game tells a sadly real story about the gap that exists between enthusiasm and actually finding time to play something. Cannibal Halfling’s first breakout article was written in March of 2017, about four months after the site was founded, and it was about two Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) Cyberpunk games, The Veil and The Sprawl. This recent campaign was the first time I successfully ran The Veil, in fact the first time I successfully played it at all…it was over two years after I first read it.
There’s a wide world of RPGs out there. In that world, Dungeons and Dragons represents a small sliver of the gameplay experiences and stories that are possible, but a disproportionately large slice of the games that are actually played. It’s from this juxtaposition that comes the frequent and often irksome question “how do I hack D&D to play [insert genre]?” However, when you mix D&D mechanics with a designer who has actually played other games and given thought to how the mechanics must change, you can get something rather good. Carbon 2185 has taken 5th Edition D&D mechanics, given them a solid restoration to work better in the Cyberpunk genre, and then added some bolt-on systems which take inspiration from the best of sci-fi roleplaying.
The RPG space is filled with unchecked assumptions regarding what gaming groups actually do. We already know that market information is hard to find, but it’s even harder to find information on how people consume whichever RPGs they choose to consume. Are they playing mostly in organized games hosted at game stores? With a group of friends at someone’s home? At cons? How often do they play? How many different systems do they try? We have, as one of my players once said, no hard data but a lot of assumptions and circumstantial evidence. The one element which is most significantly reflected in how games are actually designed is how long a discrete ‘game’ or ‘campaign’ is intended to be played.
Role-playing games are perceived as complex due to their volume of rules. What really makes RPGs complicated, though, is the relative dynamism of these rules and the degree to which they sit in the text. In other words, the rules of a game you must know in order to play an RPG are not limited to those which are printed in the rulebook.
While this of course varies from game to game, it can be generally stated that a board game will contain all the rules necessary to play inside the box. This is not always true with an RPG. Given the significant breadth of concepts that a game could potentially cover, RPGs have usually needed a GM to establish a more concrete set of boundaries which make up a campaign. The key here is that what the GM is doing, from writing the world to tweaking the mechanics to actually running the game, involves making and enforcing rules which are supplemental to those actually written in a book.