Into The OSR: Gygax ’75 (Week 1)

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.

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ZC: Bayt al Azif – Issue 1

Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool.The rest of the series can be found here.

I grew up in the interregnum between two eras of fanzine creation: On the one hand, I am a bit too young to remember when mimeographed amateur zines were the only way that fans had to communicate aside from face-to-face meetings. On the other hand, I had drifted away from the hobby when online payment infrastructures and improved access to on-demand and off-set printing began to make zines a popular means of getting your stuff out there while also by-passing professional publishing.

Having returned to the hobby to find a flourishing (some might even say over-heating) market for zines, I am now playing catch-up and this series will give me an excuse to actually do some thinking about both the format and the kind of stuff that is being put out there.

My memories of RPG zines are dominated by two very different sets of titles. The first was a Nephilim fanzine I got based on an advert in the back of a magazine and that included a load of weird stuff about the author’s local cathedral and an absolute head-fuck of a campaign in which the PCs wound up inhabiting the bodies of the players. Despite not being able to remember the name of said fanzine, I remember being blown away by the complexity of the ideas and the fact that the whole thing felt intimately personal to one person’s vision of the game. My second set of memories is of The Unspeakable Oath. While that particular Call of Cthulhu fanzine was resurrected in the early 2010s, I can remember buying a few copies of the original Pagan Publishing run in which John Tynes laid out a vision that I now realise has since become not only the default understanding of Call of Cthulhu but of all Lovecraft-inspired games of investigative horror.

Billed as “a magazine for Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games”, Jared Smith’s Bayt al Azif first appeared in 2018 and has since seen four separate issues.  I got my copies in the form of a PDF from DriveThruRPG but you can also use DTRPG’s print-on demand service to get it in the form of a hard-copy.

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Into the OSR – Post Zero

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.

What is the OSR?

OSR stands alternatively for Old School Revolution, Old School Revival, or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask and when it is you ask them. The term OSR dates back to the mid-00s when people on a number of online forums began trying to re-connect with a style of gaming associated with the origins of the hobby and the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

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Thoughts on Adventure Design and Nephilim’s “Les Veilleurs”

Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.

The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.

Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?

The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.

Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.

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GHR: Scales

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Published in January 1994 by INS/MV publisher Siroz (who later changed their name to Asmodee Editions) and written by the legendary designer Croc, Scales is an urban fantasy game with a contemporary setting that feels very much like it was inspired by Nephilim, the World of Darkness, and older French initiatic games like Hurlements.

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REVIEW: Tickets Please for Call of Cthulhu

Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.

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GHR: In Nomine Satanis / Magna Veritas

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

In Nomine Satanis – Magna Veritas (usually referred to as INS/MV) is unquestionably the most famous French RPG of all time. This is largely due to the fact that Steve Jackson Games decided to produce an English-language adaptation in 1997. While the SJG version would turn out to be a bit of a disappointment, it was released not only within living memory of the anti-D&D moral panics of the 1980s but also at a time when White Wolf were making a lot of money selling urban fantasy-inspired games. The hype-game was strong, the game-game and setting design considerably less so but in order to understand the failure of In Nomine, you really have to understand what made INS/MV so memorable in the first place.

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