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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Classic Rant: Dark Albion and 3rd-Wave OSR

So Jeffro Johnson (of the often-controversial Castalia House) has published a kind of non-review of Dark Albion. In it he kindly points out the significant amount of praise Dark Albion has received from all kinds of OSR corners, but for his own part expresses a kind of confusion as to why this 'game' (Dark Albion, that is) could get away with not actually having rules in it and just tell you to use the RPG you most like (even -gasp- 5e!) and then offer you modifications for how to run the game with whatever rules you like.

I think he's a bit confused about Dark Albion, particularly in calling it a 'game'. Dark Albion isn't an RPG, it's a setting. What might be confusing Jeffro is that for a long time, the OSR didn't really give a shit about settings. It didn't value them at all. It had Greyhawk, the Wilderlands, or Blackmoor, the old stuff that was venerated for being old, and some people just made their own homebrews. And that's fine, but since the OSR in its first wave was about venerating ancient history and not wanting to introduce anything new, there clearly wasn't much room for the idea of doing anything creative with setting.

This gave rise to people, like Jeffro claiming that they have no use for settings. I really fail to understand this mentality. Someone claiming they have no use for published settings is like a musician saying he doesn't need to listen to any recorded music beside his own. I don't care how good your homebrew is, there is stuff out there you literally will be INCAPABLE of thinking of. Be it because you're not as bright as me, or because you don't have the educational background I have, or because your brain is just wired differently from mine, there are going to be things I will have thought of in setting-design that you will never ever think of on your own. And, of course, other people will have thought up things in setting-design that I would never ever think of on my own.

And this is what the 3rd Wave of the OSR is all about. I talked about this before, but let's review, shall we?

1st wave osr: clonemania. As precise as possible copies of existing old edition versions of D&D. What I once not very affectionately termed "the OSR Taliban".

2nd wave OSR: Innovation of Design. OSR rules that worked within the old school framework but did radically new things. LotFP. ACKS. DCC. SWN.

3rd Wave OSR: Innovation of Setting. Games where the interesting part was less about what rules were being changed as how the D&D-type rules were being applied to fit radically different settings. Vornheim. Arrows of Indra. Yoon-Suin. Dark Albion. 

So Dark Albion is a 3rd Wave product (according to James Spahn, who knows a thing or two about making great OSR games, it may be the best RPG product of the last 5 years, period). It is not a full game that once again copies the D&D model, but it's also not 'just a setting' in the the sense of being a book with no rules in it at all.

The 3rd Wave OSR aesthetic is about a synthesis of rules meant to create emulation of specific (almost always non-standard) settings with the D&D framework. So you don't "only" get a setting. You get a full set of rules you can use to adjust your own favorite game. Why am I going to make a whole new RPG for Albion instead of letting you run it with the OSR game you already love most, whichever that is? The Appendix P rules are there, if you want, to replace huge chunks of the core rules of your game if you want to, making Albion ALMOST have a complete RPG in it (all that's really missing is the filler of explaining how the mechanics work, which every OSR guy already knows, and the descriptions of the spells, which you can find in any D&D book). But if you don't want that, if you like your S&W or your LotFP or your 5e D&D for that matter, and want to run Albion with that, you also have the much lighter guidelines to just show you how to tweak it (and stuff like the background tables, social class rules, authentic names tables, etc. to help out with that too).

That's the whole idea of what 3rd wave OSR is about: it's not just a completely barren setting, but it's not obsessive rules-wankery, much less obsessive OSR-taliban wankery where you jizz over some recently rediscovered scribble Gary Gygax wrote on a McDonalds' napkin in 1977. It's a setting with a bunch of very creative rules material to let you play an OSR campaign in a context that no other OSR campaign was ever done. It's Setting/rules Innovation.

So Dark Albion has some pretty big rule-changes (look at the Demonology stuff, or at the Appendix P rules, if you doubt that) but they are there in the service of making the game work for the setting, a setting different than anything that has come before. And in Dark Albion's case, that's particularly interesting given that instead of India or Fantasy Tibet or Wonderland, the "radically different" setting is the exact same place as almost all D&D campaigns ever think they are riffing from: medieval Europe. Dark Albion is "Medieval Fantasy Europe", those exact words we've heard to describe so many D&D worlds, but done like they have never ever been done before. Anyone can do weirdo-gonzo land in a different way, but Albion's triumph is that it takes the most trodden fantasy ground of all and does that with a new freshness of historical detail and rules to match the world.

That's the spirit of Dark Albion, which when you think about it, is the same spirit of the best of the OSR: to take oldest most traditional RPG in the world and do new things with it, within it's framework.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Horn + Gawith's Navy Flake

(Originally posted October 19, 2015)


  1. Jeffro's stuff is good but a bit myopic when it comes to his definition of 'pulp'. Dark Albion has two things going for it in my humble opinion, one is consistence of vision for the setting both historically & overall details. Dark Albion is as much setting DYI tool kit as it is a complete setting. The product line works because of its adherence to quality as much as the author's vision of history. This differs greatly with products such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess where each adventure is as much setting piece as it is an adventure. There are lots of pieces of Dark Albion that I dip into for other adventures and settings as much as I use the whole of Dark Albion as a setting for adventures and play.Don't forget I put down my own money for the Dark Albion book and its one that I continue to use, play, read, refer back to constantly. This is the mark of a good solid OSR product.
    Eric Fabiaschi
    Swords & Stitchery blog.