Monthly Archives: January 2019

Woodfall review

Woodfall bills itself as a dark fantasy mini setting. I would describe it as a setting toolkit, inspired in form by Vornheim, but with less emphasis on content generation tools and much more emphasis on particular realized locales. There are more fish in this basket than manuals about how to fish or tools for fishing. I backed Woodfall based on the strength of the sample art, and if you appreciate the gloomy storybook aesthetic (which I do), the final product delivers on that dimension in spades. For the physical book, the format is roughly digest sized perfect bound (print on demand) softcover. Within are 32 pages describing the settlement of Woodfall, 11 adventure locales of several pages each, and nine pages of new monsters. There are also subsystems for harvesting resources from monster hunting and crafting items. The PDF is 96 pages including cover and everything. Overall, the writing is concise, though more functional than artful, and play usability looks high. The art is profuse and evocative. On the downside, Woodfall’s tone is saturated with unsubtle, somewhat distracting satire.

Though I described the writing as lacking artistry, the illustrations more than make up for any shortcoming in the prose, and on balance the writing is fine but unexceptional. In terms of visual style, I find Woodfall to be one of the more enjoyable independently produced RPG products to have come out over the past few years. Even just the map of the Woodfall settlement alone is a fantastic, memorable locale that faces off respectably against any other town I can bring to mind from other modules. Memorable settlements breathe life into hexcrawls, but remain scarce as supplements. Visual presentation grants elements that might otherwise be overly prosaic or tedious a gloss of game utility, such as a a diagram of economic resource flows, though proof of this potential will be in the play. The visual component of Woodfall was clearly a labor of love, and nothing feels phoned in. Woodfall’s second strength is unfailing attention to game utility, with consistently inventive and generally non-generic ideas. Much of the complexity lies in relationships between elements. For example, the presence of a particular non-player character in the wilderness dampens the danger from a particular monster. Players can learn about and make use of this fact creatively. Another, in the form of a wandering monster: gossip earfish lurk around the swamp listening in on conversations have tiny mouths and communicate exclusively in very faint wispers [sic: caught a typo] (p. 74). These two examples only scratch the surface, and are the kind of thing that makes a module more than simply an exercise in stocking a map. The result is a rich, articulated framework that looks like it will respond in satisfying ways to player actions and choices.

That all sounds fantastic, but Woodfall does have one substantial weakness, which is a somewhat off key and inexpert sense of humor. Unlike Melan (see here for his review), I read Woodfall’s subtext as satirical rather than po-faced, more Addams Family than revolutionary vanguard. However, even tongue in cheek, the tone is a bit much and somewhat awkward. For example, the fairy liberation front—a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries (p. 31)—is the kind of charming nonsense that often (inevitably?) emerges from table chat organically. I consider this to be a true shortcoming, rather than just an expression of my taste, and independent of any particular politics, because the players at my table (or yours) will readily add this finishing noise themselves, and it will be funnier, tailored as it will be to events of the moment and the idiosyncrasies of your table. Noisms’ post about D&D as straight man expresses a similar idea in a more general way.

A handful of other points deserve mention, both positive and negative. The hex map is usable and attractive but lacks coordinate numbers. The secondary locales are evocative and well-illustrated, but only lightly detailed, so referees that prefer more complex puzzles or challenges may feel poorly served (though as noted above, the relationships between the elements are rich with potential for exploitation by creative players). The swamp factions matrix—which captures alliances and enmities—is filled with mostly game relevant entries, but would be more useful with text labels accompanying the faction icons. As written, the setting of Woodfall secularizes sorcery in the presented setting, which tilts the atmosphere toward disenchantment. Curiously, this is at odds with the evocative illustrations. A referee running a low magic game will need to adjust descriptions accordingly. Finally, there are few crafting systems available for classic/OSR games, and the approach here, fully illustrated of course, looks both tractable and fun.

Personally, I consider the overbearing humor to be a venial sin, especially given Woodfall’s many other strengths. Unfortunately, the increased reliance on associative rather than deliberative thinking in the current intellectual climate means that many people will likely tune out before giving it a chance. Put another way, the badge of humorless activist boyfriend (to mangle Melan’s stamp of disapproval) may ruin what seems like an otherwise useful supplement for readers with condescension detection meters dialed up to full sensitivity. Ultimately, I think using Woodfall’s framework with modified tone and references would involve minimal hassle, even improvising at runtime, and offer substantial payoff. Considering the strengths and weaknesses of Woodfall, I wonder if there is a place for the module equivalent of silent cinema, supplements having minimal text that deliver content primarily through illustration and graphic design. Inventory v1 (my review) or A Land Called Tarot (AV Club review) could perhaps inform this kind of product.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-07-11 (backed) & 2018-12-06 (POD order)
  • Price: €15.00 + $5.62 CAD (at-cost POD softcover) + (a few more dollars for shipping) = $25-30 USD total
  • Details: Woodfall: A mini hexcrawl setting Kickstarter project

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Children of the winds

You are children of the winds. At the beginning of time, the four great winds first gathered wanderers into four primeval clans. Now, though there are many more than four clans, each clan heeds first one of the four: the constant wind, the mountain wind, the cloud wind, or the hidden wind.

The traditions of your people are humble compared to the majesty of the great Citadel Principalities. You hunt, you cultivate gardens, you trade crafts for tools from the Citadels, and you guide travelers venturing on the plains of the great rivers. But also, you watch. Because the children of the winds carry a secret.

You know where Satan lies.

The stories, only spoken by your people—for writing about demons is dangerous—tell how Satan fell from the world above, and how a mountain came in train, plummeting from the sky to seal the dungeon. Impossibly old now, the fallen mountain has been worn down by time, hunched, rising gently above surrounding hills.

For uncounted generations, the magicians and doctors of your people have performed the rites which hold the dungeon doors fast. The children of the wind have kept this secret from greedy adventurers seeking wealth, wicked sorcerers seeking the council of Satan’s imprisoned lieutenants, and prideful princes from Citadel Principalities, which constitute hard dominion, leavened only slightly by internecine struggle.

You have tolerated the capriciousness and cruelty of the magnificent Principalities, as sentinel legions require the riches of abundant fields. Strong armor and machines of war depend on towers of learning. The sentinel princes may water the plains with the blood of their brothers more frequently even than the flux of floods from the great rivers, but the legions also shield the great river plains from ignorant foreign kings. The Citadel princes’ role in the secret traditions is as custodian rather than sovereign, honing the blade of legions for times of exigency.

But depredations have worsened. A detachment of Citadel cataphracts descended upon plains settlements, executed those that resisted, and enslaved anyone unable to escape. The remants fled to the hills around the fallen mountain. Following the attack, Citadel princes scour the hills for survivors. The magicians have been unable to perform the rites securing Satan’s dungeon, and divinations reveal the gates are weakening. The only way to maintain the prison will be to venture within, repair the wards, and reinstate the rites. Alternatively, there have always been people, even among the children of the winds, who object to the taboo against entering the dungeon. Some have wished to venture within to vanquish Satan once and for all. Others seek the power and magics hidden below. Such aims, or many others, could be yours, as the doorway stands open and the taboo abandoned.

In a secluded glade, nestled in wild, rolling hills surrounding the worn, fallen mountain, lies the first doorway, the gate to Satan’s prison. The glade is the terminus of no path, but the children of the wind know the signs and incantations to find the way. The doorway is primitive, formed of three monumental, roughly-carved stones, two as post and one as lintel, set diagonally into the hillside, painted with white and red warding sigils.


Your adventurers belong to a group of the displaced. You have constructed makeshift shelters, but your camp is precarious. Each player should create one adventurer and two to four other escapees. For each session, you may bring another camp member as a support character. Replacement characters, if needed, will come from the camp. If a total party kill occurs and remaining camp population is zero, you lose and the campaign ends.

Supporting or developing your camp and crafting gear will yield experience.

Gear wears out. A few clans, mostly heeding the hidden wind, have metallurgists, but copper or bronze implements are more commonly trade goods from traveling princes. You will need to repair and craft gear.

Within the high walls of the Citadel Principalities is foreign ground for children of the winds. Taking haven turns is impossible in a citadel. Entering a Citadel is equivalent to exploring a dungeon and will generally involve taking dungeon turns, as with other dangerous built spaces. Even communicating with the princes can prove challenging. Each Citadel speaks a different language, rather than the language that the children of the wind speak, which is an echo of the first language. Beware the princes, as their decadent ways have become inscrutable and Citadel panoply terrifies in battle.

No homework!

Forbidden Lands Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 6

I am somewhat averse to manifestos, in game design and elsewhere, but if I were to champion one manifesto for tabletop roleplaying games it might be this: No homework for players! This principle is implicit in many classic/OSR cultural traditions, but is rarely stated explicitly, even in the secondary commentary of blogs, forums, and other ephemera. But if you look, you can see the various traditions all working toward the principle of minimizing player homework.

Some such traditions include aversion to complicated character creation and aversion to canonical setting material (“lore”). Classic/OSR play culture tends to be relatively hostile to the idea of character builds, which really took off in D&D 3E with the profusion of character option (“splat”) books. Complicated character creation takes at least two forms, which I will call character optimization (similar to the older term min-maxing) and character backstory. (Character optimization seems to capture the idea better because min-maxing focuses on the competitiveness of individual players rather than the affordances of game or play instances.) Players optimizing characters engage with rulebooks rather than socially with other players. This is good for companies that make money by selling books, but character optimization moves game engagement away from play at the table. The mantra “we explore dungeons, not characters” captures the related aversion to extensive character backstory, prioritizing the definition or discovery of characters based on events that occur in play at the table. See the following discussions for representative examples: Hack & Slash on character builds, this wishlist for oldschool games, and Noisms’ Theorem of Character Generation Length and Player Cautiousness.

Forbidden Lands, which I have been reading recently, is one game that tries to communicate this principle directly in the text, and succeeds reasonably well, directing the referee to expose players to the setting only through play at the table: To convey the history and myths of the Forbidden Lands to the players in-game, you use legends. … In this way, the players build their own knowledge of the Forbidden Lands and its denizens (Forbidden Lands Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 6). Forbidden Lands also includes a fictional device, the Blood Mist, which functions like fog of war in a video game, obscuring both fictional geography and history: “The demonic Blood Mist that covered the lands for three centuries, draining the life out of anyone who dared to wanter too far from their village, has suddenly and inexplicably lifted. You, and other restless souls like you, are finally free to leave your homes and travel far and wide in the Forbidden Lands, looking for treasures and adventures” (Forbidden Lands Player’s Handbook, pp. 5-6). The Blood Mist works to identify the extradiegetic (player) experience with the diegetic (character) experience. What other games attempt to state this principle directly?

For a player that wishes to fictionally position their full engagement, the Blood Mist justifies lack of adventurer knowledge regarding locations and other details of the fictional culture. In effect, to use a buzzword, this kind of device mitigates metagaming through setting design choices. There is precedent for using similar strategies to kick off campaigns, such as adventurers in Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) beginning as barbarians fresh off the boat. Any establishment of setting truth independent of a particular play group (canonical “lore”) comes into tension with the no homework principle, because player-accessible lore affords extradiegetic learning (homework!), allowing players to discover the setting outside of play at the table.

Homework is engagement with a campaign outside of social play. Character builds, character optimization, and studying lore are all examples of player homework. Homework means that players can hone their effectiveness, what OSR jargon calls, somewhat contentiously, player skill (see Matt Finch’s primer), by dedicating effort on their own, apart from a gaming group. For clarity, I phrase the principle imperatively, but as with most aspects of gaming (and life), there is a continuum. One could see choosing a class in OD&D as homework too, but this would miss the broader point. The more a game or campaign affords or rewards player homework, the less engagement with the game will exist in play at the table, the social interaction between players.

OSR attributes

(This is one part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Along with beliefs about particular games, I also asked respondents about their attitudes toward several game elements and common approaches to rules. I chose things for rating that I thought might have a strong positive or negative association with OSR, such as random encounters (positive), 3d6 in order for stats (positive), and balanced encounters (negative). Some of these things are central enough that people use them to inspire the names of blogs. For example: save.vs.totalpartykill.ca, tenfootpole.org, and Ten Foot Polemic. Middenmurk writes: 3d6-in-order transports you into an entirely different world. Every single one of these attitudes differs significantly between self-declared OSR participants and self-declared OSR non-participants.

The predicted differences by group were more than a scale point for half of the items: 3d6 in order for stats (b = 1.48, 95% CI [1.29, 1.67]), Save or die (b = 1.31, 95% CI [1.11, 1.50]), Race as class (b = 1.26), Random encounters (b = 1.09, 95% CI [.95, 1.23]), Level drain (b = 1.03, 95% CI [.83, 1.22]), and Balanced encounters (b = -1.28, 95% CI [-1.45, -1.11]). In plain English, for example, this means that people who think of themselves as OSR participants on average Somewhat like 3d6 in order for stats, while non-participants are on the dislike side of Neutral. The average attitude across all attitude objects was higher for self-declared OSR participants than for self-declared OSR non-participants, but this is unsurprising given that I chose more attitude objects relevant to my associations with OSR play. I am unsure how to make sense of the result that OSR participants like Ascending AC more than non-participants. Maybe the non-participants have negative attitudes toward anything associated with Dungeons & Dragons of any stripe. I am open to alternative explanations though.

Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), everyone, even OSR non-participants, seemed to be positive about Random encounters and Reaction rolls, which are mechanisms that weave juxtaposed outcomes into surprising sequence of fictional game events. This leads me to believe that positive attitude toward play designed to produce emergent (as opposed to planned) narrative is a broadly shared preference. It seems that Railroading, Alignment languages, and Dice fudging are universally disliked, with Railroading being solidly in full Dislike territory across all responses. Perhaps the title I gave to the second figure is an overstatement, as slightly on the Like side of Neutral for Balanced encounters is hardly a ringing endorsement, but relatively speaking self-declared OSR non-participants like Balanced encounters a whole lot more than self-declared participants.

Gygaxian fundamentalism

I included one quirky item which I thought might represent a form of early D&D orthodoxy: attitude toward Alignment languages. The general reaction I have seen to the idea of alignment languages is either confusion or bemused contempt, with the occasional attempt to use the idea as a prompt for some creative (but almost always ironically satirical) world building. I rarely (perhaps never) have seen alignment languages actually come up in play any time recently. I am sure there are exceptions, but the point is that it seemed like a good candidate for looking at the attitude respondents might have toward something cumbersome but authentically Gygaxian. However, even self-declared OSR participants on average dislike Alignment languages. I interpret this reported attitude as some evidence that Gygaxian fundamentalism, or the regard for something solely based on the fact that Gygax did it, is less central to the meaning of OSR than many other elements in the constellation of meaning making up OSR. Similarly, while respondents generally agreed that AD&D was OSR (and to a greater degree among self-declared OSR participants: MOSR = 5.85, Mnon-OSR = 5.08), AD&D was rated less OSR than the games closer to Basic D&D in the set of games I presented.

Based on these comparisons, it is clear that a set of distinct attitudinal preferences toward game elements at least distinguishes OSR participants from non-participants, and perhaps underlies the division. However, the attitudes differ in ways that are somewhat counter-stereotypical. It seems that few respondents like the idea of experiencing a planned narrative, contrary to some assumptions I have seen in OSR circles, and old rules pedigree (or that related concept, nostalgia) is insufficient alone to generate positive regard among OSR participants, contrary to assertions I have seen outside OSR circles.


OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & participation
  2. What about the R?
  3. Meaning respondents associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR attributes
  6. OSR play behavior

OSR games

(This is one part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Beliefs about the nature of OSR, according to previous exploration of the 2018 OSR survey responses, seem to cohere around three broad themes or aspects: OSR as rules tradition, OSR as commerce, and OSR as social scene. Of the three aspects, respondents overall agreed most strongly that OSR is a rules tradition. There was greater ambivalence around the other two aspects, with commerce rating lowest on average. This naturally leads to the question of what kinds of rules and which games seem most OSR. In this post, I will discuss which games survey respondents believed were most (and least) OSR.

According to respondents, the most OSR games, out of the games I asked about, are Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and B/X D&D, all scoring above 6 (Agree) on average, across all participants, with LL narrowly taking the top slot. The least OSR games are Fate, Pathfinder, and Vampire: The Masquerade, all scoring below 2 (Disagree) on average, across all participants. I think this set entails reasonable coverage, though there are a few unfortunate omissions in retrospect, such as the lack of OSRIC. Respondents seemed neutral about whether the classic non-D&D games counted as OSR, with Classic Traveller, Runequest, and Call of Cthulhu all hovering around the scale midpoint. I was moderately surprised to see how D&D 5E rated (less OSR than Dungeon World!), given the high regard many people in my circles seem to have for this edition. This is speculation, but I suppose this means that the dominant associations respondents have with D&D 5E remain mainstream trends such as adventure paths, character builds, and tactical set-piece combats. The games respondents rated as least OSR seem to have associations with narrative focus (Apocalypse World, Vampire, Fate) and D&D 3E (Pathfinder).

Near the end of the survey, I asked respondents which games they were currently playing. Respondents could select all that applied from the following list: B/X D&D, D&D 5E, Pathfinder, Home-brew (OSR), Home-brew (other), Vampire, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Other PbtA game, Other World of Darkness game, Labyrinth Lord, B/X Essentials, AD&D (1E), GURPS, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Fate, and Savage Worlds. Combining these reports of play behavior with the aggregate OSR ratings of games described above allowed me to compute an OSR play behavior score for each respondent. More on this in a future post.

On average, respondents reported currently playing 3.26 different games (SD = 2.51). 34 respondents (1.86% of N = 1828) reported playing more than 10 different games currently, including one respondent that checked all 18 game options, which seems implausible, but I am going to chalk that up to careless responding/measurement error and expect sample size to wash out that messiness. Without those 34, the average number of different games played drops to 3.08 games (SD = 2.16), but I keep them for all following results, as I predetermined all exclusion criteria.

Keep in mind respondents could select more than one game. Apologies for the small fonts.

Unfortunately, the survey lacked an option to indicate playing DCC, which I suspect would have a substantial number of current players. That was an oversight on my part. I did include an open ended item for other games played, and 142 respondents indicated playing DCC there. Additionally, the two World of Darkness related items were Vampire (or other WoD) and Other World of Darkness game, which overlap. (Clearly I should have proofread this set of options more carefully.) The headline results here are the popularity of D&D 5E (which indicates the power of the market leader) and the popularity of games genealogically related to B/X D&D. In fact, in terms of the games people are actually playing, based on these results one could view OSR as a vehicle for propagating the B/X vision of D&D.

For those unaware, the B/X D&D rules tradition started with the Moldvay Basic rules (covering character levels 1 through 3) and the Cook/Marsh Expert rules (covering character levels 4-14). It continued with the Mentzer-initiated BECMI line (covering character levels 1-36 and collected in the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia), which TSR supported in parallel with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line. The B/X line lineage is notable for simple rules and treating character class as a more general abstraction, rather than something closer to profession. For example, “elf” is a class in B/X. Arguably, the modern “playbook” trend derives from the B/X notion of class.

As always, let me know in the comments if anything is unclear, if you have any questions, or if you have any suggestions.


OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & participation
  2. What about the R?
  3. Meaning respondents associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR attributes
  6. OSR play behavior