Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here
One of the things that has surprised and delighted me upon returning to the hobby has been the sheer amount of RPG-related stuff that people have been uploading to YouTube.
Don’t get me wrong… wanting access to RPG-related stuff was one of the primary engines behind my first forays online in the late 1990s. There have always been RPG-related blogs and websites but one of the more interesting things to emerge from the rise of RPG-adjacent YouTube has been the willingness to internalise YouTube’s fondness for how-to videos. As a result, you don’t just get reviews and opinion-pieces delivered to camera, you also get introductory videos addressing such perennial questions as ‘how to write and adventure’ or ‘how to start designing your own campaign setting’.
I got the idea for this series of posts from the YouTube channel Questing Beast who made a video about writing your first campaign and referred to a document known to the OSR community as Gygax ’75.
Gygax ’75 is based upon an article written by Gary Gygax less than a year after the original publication of D&D. Back then, the hobby was growing so quickly that the need for instructional content was outstripping both the material made available by TSR and the hobby’s ability to ‘teach-by-doing’. As a result, Gygax wrote an article listing a few ways in which you might get the ball rolling and start designing your own campaign world. This article was re-discovered under the auspices of the OSR and passed back and forth a few times before being updated and codified into a document by Ray Otus (downloadable here).
While this is not my first romp around the paddock when it comes to designing campaign settings and writing my own adventures, I have decided to take my cues from the Gygax ’75 workbook as a way of giving myself both a bit of structure and an excuse to acquire some new skills that I would probably try to skirt around if left to my own devices. While I won’t necessarily be in a position to post one of these every single week, I am going to try to abide by the work-rate suggested in the document.
Week one is all about basic ideas and sources of inspiration.
Develop your pitch. Write down 3-7 well-crafted bullet points that will both communicate and “sell” the world to your players.
- The old world is dying but the new world struggles to be born. It is a time of monsters. The known world was once ruled by a single imperial power but, drunk on its own sense of power and righteousness, the ruling elite of this power have fallen into moral and psychological decay producing generation after generation of insane, degenerate, sadistic aristocrats. As imperial power withdraws from the world, new powers will rise but what will those powers look like and what will the empire do to hold them back?
- If God did not already exist, it would be necessary for us to create Him. Clerics are first and foremost spirit-talkers who gain magical power from the spirits they serve. The more powerful and expansive the faith, the more powerful the spirit. The more powerful the spirit, the more power it grants to its followers. This is a world in which gods rise and fall but never completely disappear.
- Exploration precedes Identity. Starting player characters are all human by default; they are also limited to basic classes. This will change as the campaign progresses but the players will have to ‘encounter’ the different races and non-standard classes before they can create a character out of them.
- The Future is not Evenly Distributed. While the characters and the world they initially inhabit will be a relatively low-magic vanilla D&D fantasy world, the imperial core is both more technologically advanced and more magically sophisticated. The fact that the imperial power has seen its zone of control shrink means that the landscape will be littered with the ‘ruins’ of more advanced civilisation. While this will give the campaign world something of a post-apocalyptic feel, it will also serve as a satirical tool as the PCs will be ‘reasonable’ people looking in on the Regency-era madness of the empire’s ruling elites.
- Dark Fantasy, Dark Humour. While the primary trope-store for the campaign will be vanilla D&D, I would like to play up the horror elements as well as the satirical possibilities of both the horror and the fantasy. This will be a game about blood-soaked demons, degenerate sex cultists, and beings that aren’t members of the British Conservative party.
Gather your sources of inspiration. List them and provide a sentence or two explaining what each source brings to the setting.
- The Fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock. I am, I must admit, not massively well-read when it comes to this type of fantasy and I have tended to avoid reading it over the years. However, one body of work that has remained with me is the Eternal Champion novels by Michael Moorcock and, in particular, the way that virtually every story cycle seems to be set in a version of Britain where a degenerate and sadistic Empire is desperately trying to hold onto power: In the Elric novels, Britain takes the form of an island of sadistic, chaos-worshipping elves. In the Hawkmood novels, Britain is a technologically-advanced and morally bankrupt nation ruled by a group of animal mask-wearing savages.
- The Terror. Dan Simmons’ book and the resulting TV series were probably the primary movers behind my decision to start running a serious D&D campaign. While the original idea was to set the game in a polar region, my desire to not place too much emphasis on day-to-day survival means that The Terror has kind of shuffled further into the shadows. However, what does remain is the way that the book handles divinity and the fall of ‘civilised’ men into madness as well as the way that the TV series juxtaposes the Regency-era aesthetics of the ships and uniforms with the blood-and-filth reality of the dangerous lives the explorers live. That juxtaposition of styles is absolutely central to how I envision the game’s vestiges of imperial power.
- Ruin Me by Phanes Dionysos. I have written before about how porn games, by stressing the importance of the PC’s relationships with NPCs as well as NPCs relationships with each other, open up a new dimension for exploration that allows sandbox settings to expand vertically as well as horizontally. Ruin Me is a game of Lovecraftian erotic horror that plays with the idea of sexuality as this arena of self-discovery and transformation that allows people to basically re-invent themselves, transform themselves, and get lost in the process. While the erotic aspects of Ruin Me will most likely only survive as background set-dressing, I absolutely love the vibe and structure of the game’s setting of Barrowport, an isolated fishing port with a sinister history, a huge gothic castle and a vast folk horror-inspired hinterland.
- Martyrs. Pascal Laugier’s 2008 horror film is one of the canonical works of the New French Extremity and while I very much enjoy the film’s unflinching use of body and medical horror because medical horror in particular is one of my major personal fears. I want to use the ideas and visuals of Martyrs as a tool for drawing out my own fear of medical intervention and leaning into the idea of deranged doctors conducting medical experiments as a means of generating power and insight. This will be interwoven with the rise of crank medicine seen around the end of the 19th Century and explored in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel The Road to Wellville. My town hub is going to be maybe 50% Barrowport, 30% 1900s Battle Creek, Michigan, and 20% Mugsborough.
- The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Noonan. This is a semi-autobiographical novel set in a lightly-fictionalised version of the East Sussex town of Hastings. While working on an entirely different and unrelated project, I picked up a book about Hastings’ beach-launched fishing fleet and learned that this pretty coastal town actually has an extraordinarily violent and corrupt history that has seen town councils deliberately misplace medieval town charters in order to justify appropriating huge tracts of beach-side property that were then handed over to ravening landlords. Noonan fictionalised Hastings and turned it into Mugsborough where it is used to explore and explain Socialist principles and the idea of class conflict. While I don’t want this game to feel heavy-handed or didactic, the idea of class-conflict and land-lords versus fishermen is definitely going to feature quite heavily.
- Warhammer, the British tradition of satirical Dark Fantasy, and the modern Conservative party. I remember that people in Britain used to say that Americans couldn’t understand irony and while that has always been manifestly untrue, I was rather puzzled to notice that apparently there has been rather a lot of drama within the Warhammer community as loads of people seem to have taken the Empire’s perspective at face value and accepted that it was some kind of heroic force standing up against an ever-encroaching Chaos. Having started and abandoned a few of the more recent Warhammer 40K novels, I can definitely see why people have made that mistake and I would even go so far as to argue that contemporary Warhammer has no interest in being satirical… it just wants to sell overpriced miniatures. However, step back a few decades and you can see that Warhammer (much like a lot of the work done around the same time in 2000AD) was appropriating the iconography of reactionary genre fiction to satirise Thatcher’s Britain and the way that Britain has a tendency to cloak itself in nostalgic imagery as a distraction from growing inequality, endemic social problems, and a ruling class that has lost all contact with reality.
Assemble a mood board.