Saturday 20 August 2016

Thematic OSR Games

This is a taxonomic post; its goal is to establish a term referring to a subset of OSR products. Using the Pundit's terminology, these are a subset of third-wave OSR products, while in Dan Proctor's terms they fit the broader category of neo-retro games. Alternatively, you may just want to read further to find some cool games.

The OSR has many wonderful things to offer from straight-up clones (e.g. OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord) to neo-clones with refined mechanics (e.g. ACKS and AS&SH), from fantastic adventures (e.g. Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Deep Carbon Observatory) to innovative supplements (e.g. Red Tide and Vornheim). But one of the many kinds of products - one that I might enjoy the most - seems to attract less appreciation: thematic games.

By the term I mean games that are based on the fundamental building blocks of old-school D&D (i.e. they are not very different from other retro-clones regarding the basics) but are geared towards a very specific setting other than the great blender that is "D&D fantasy". Not only do they include races, classes, monsters, and items that fit the imagined setting, but they also implement specific mechanics to further spice up the gameplay experience.

Obviously one could argue that games like Dungeon Crawl Classics, Adventures Dark and Deep, or Monsters & Magic have an inherent theme, which would make the term "thematic game" pointless; however, I consider the aforementioned examples more as evolutions of a gaming system or collections of house rules patched onto an existing core rather than a series of adjustments or games rebuilt from the ground up in order to capture a specific feel or present a new setting.

Here is a couple of OSR games I consider thematic in the sense described above (note that this list is by no means comprehensive; for that, check back on Monday):
  • Five Ancient Kingdoms presents a loosely defined setting with Arabic flavour. Even though the game uses only six-siders, it has all the familiar D&D rules (AC, HD, the six attributes, classes, levels, etc.) and more (the details of classes, monsters, and magic items have been altered and their lists revised to fit the setting, plus there are a few paragraphs detailing religion, cultural issues, romance and marriage, etc.).
  • Ghastly Affair is a game that aims to evoke the sensibilities of gothic fiction by providing simple yet elegant tools. It has a unique list of classes with thematically fitting abilities and weaknesses, era-appropriate item lists, and useful tropes, antagonists, and keywords for referees to help them come up with conflicts and settings that fit the genre.
  • Helvéczia presents a 17th century fantasy Switzerland influenced by folklore and fairy tales as much as picaresque literature. Entirely new selection of foes and spells, a reworked magic system that feels both familiar and different, a Virtue system, and two methods of seeking external help (drawing from a deck of cards and randomly opening the Holy Bible, asking for infernal or divine intervention, respectively). According to the author, Gábor "Melan" Lux, an English translation is in the works.
  • Mazes & Minotaurs is an odd one, since it actually predates OSRIC, yet it is unarguably part of the OSR. It is a re-imagination of OD&D, trying to answer the question what OD&D would've looked like if it was inspired by Greek epics and Ray Harryhausen movies. It has a system that looks very familiar and rather alien at the same time, but its D&D heritage is undeniable. The setting is largely conveyed through the available classes and monsters, as well as region-specific articles in the Minotaur magazine.
  • Perdition presents a fantasy world run by devils without committing a single paragraph to explicit setting exposition. Instead, all the information comes through the mechanics (bargaining with devils, summoning demons, dealing with the Vile Conclave, earning Prestige, etc.). For further information, see my slightly more detailed explanation of the game.
  • Rabbits & Rangers is technically not a full-blown game but a supplement to Labyrinth Lord. Still, all the player-facing rules have been reconsidered with a cartoonish tone in mind (including available spells, mounts, and death). The product features a total of 50 available animal species players may choose from (or roll randomly), and their flavourful abilities combined with the illustrations make sure everyone at the table gets in the right mind.
  • Spears of the Dawn originally started as a proof-of-concept game (proving we the OSR can create games for less explored fantasy settings, such as the African milieu of SotD, without years of research and an unattainable art budget). It uses the same skill and background system present in the author's other games, but the classes, monsters, and treasure tables ooze of the African flavour, and the game presents an accessible African-inspired setting as well.
  • Wolf-packs and Winter Snow is a gritty game set in the prehistoric era. As such, the game gives special consideration to weather, travel, and environmental hazards. The equipment and monster list is trimmed down to better fit the setting, and there are special rules for managing your tribe. The game could be played entirely historically, but the chapters on undead, the spirit world, and an alternate set of character classes provide tools for a weirdly fantastic prehistoric setting as well.
The OSR has already produced plenty of genre-specific variants (such as sci-fi and western games) and a couple of fantasy games with different cultural backgrounds. What I'd really like to see more of, though, is setting-specific games. Necrocarcerus, HMS Apollyon, and Cörpathium come close to this as all three have very strong thematic presence in their settings, and they all have setting-specific rules. Unfortunately, neither of them have a comprehensive manual that contains all the necessary rules and setting information for another referee to run a game using those settings.

AS&SH seems like a good candidate on paper, but the actual book contains mostly rather generic rules (very clearly communicated and streamlines rules, though, just not specific to the setting). The monsters are generally flavourful, and the illustrations are gorgeous, yet it is pretty easy to divorce the rules from the presented setting and use it as one's go-to sword & sorcery game.

I guess what I want is a setting that is pretty loosely fleshed out, yet its core premise differs enough from the kitchen sink fantasy of D&D that it warrants tweaking multiple subsystems. Perdition almost hits the mark, but since it's the game's fundamental conceit not to include setting information, there are no referee tools to generate appropriate encounters, locations, and conflicts either.

I will definitely have more to say on this topic later.


  1. I am so happy that Helvéczia is getting a English translation. I have the Hungarian rules, but my players can't read a word of it! But on the good side it keeps them from being rules lawyers.

  2. Consider Into the Odd (especially combined with blog posts.)

    1. Into the Odd is probably somewhat better at this than Perdition, if one only considers the product itself. I'm eagerly awaiting Electric Bastionland as it appears it will have slightly more tools to generate content suitable for its setting.