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Monday 19 October 2015

Dark Albion and the Third Wave in 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.


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  1. Dude Phoenix Barony (2007), Carcosa (2008), Majestic WIlderlands (2009), Vornheim (2011) among others. In fact equaled the number of rule sets released. It great that you released Dark Albion but lets get the facts straight. And if you don't believe me click on my Hoard and Horde link over on Bat in the Attic and do the math yourself.

    1. Um, I didn't suggest anywhere, nor mean to suggest, that Albion started the 3rd Wave. It's been building up for a long time. I explicitly mentioned Vornheim as an example of it above; and the others you named are part of that too. Red Tide is another, for example.

    2. Sorry for not being clear. What I am contending the waves are not as distinct as you contend. By the time the OSRIC preview was released in June 2006 there was already 80 or so adventures, supplements, and magazines out for classic D&D.

      Between the preview and the formal release of OSRIC in Jan 2007 there were a further 40+ adventures, magazines, and supplements released.

      As for othersystems the count is
      2007:OSRIC, BFRPG, and Labyrinth Lord
      2008: Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC 2nd
      2009: Swords & Wizardry
      2010, 2011, 2012 saw a increase of systems being release including Lamentations, ACKS,etc your 2nd wave.

      This all dwarfed by the release of adventures, supplement and other products in support of classic including games like Ruin & Ronins in 2008.

      The sequence you talk about isn't supported by the release of actual products.

    3. Not distinct, they overlap. There's lots of second-wave stuff happening now and likely to be in the future.

  2. I purchased "Dark Albion" hardcover book, the book is really good. I am a fan of fantasy-historical settings and I really appreciate your work. (Except for this strange story of frogs that invade Frankia, the kingdom of the Franks ! we eat frogs ... not the contrary ... :) )
    As it is a low level setting, I am wondering to use may be runquest system (Ok I know it may sound heretical to you, but I also purchased the official FHnW to keep me away from bonfire).
    By the way, using the Ars Magica rule system could also be a good idea. If you reduced the magical power-level or if you use only hedge magic, you have a good ruleset that stick to the historical contexte (see virtue "Magister in Artibus" for exemple)
    So I really do not see any probleme to have no official Ruleset inside the game. You save space !
    One question, do you plan writing further books for "Dark Albion" after "The Gost of Jack cade" ? a campagne ? you know ... fans have never enough :)

    1. Thank you very much! The frogmen are a bit of Anglo anti-French prejudice. Anyways, note that I didn't make all of you frogs, just your ruling class. I suspect at least some Frenchmen would be a bit more amenable to that.

      I honestly don't know if I will do more Dark Albion stuff or not. There are things that could be done for it, certainly. Expanding the setting (there's tons to do with Eire Land, that was barely touched upon, for example). Or more adventures.But I can't promise anything with my schedule and my tendency to get drawn away to the next big project I want to do.

    2. I think you have a good potential with this game, historical games settings are not so many neither are scenario and campaign, I cross my fingers :)

      Back to this "no rules in book", for me it normal, it follow classique D&D use : 3 main books (player, GM, monster) and then settings like : Ravenloft, Lankhmar, Forgotten Realms ...

    3. Yes, in many ways there is a kind of precedent in that.

  3. How about "I have no use for published settings except for inspiration for my own settings."

    1. That's ok. But then it means you do have a use for the setting.

  4. Not to get all ZakS on you here, but where did Jeffro say he had no use for settings?

    1. In a conversation we were having on Google+, not on his blog. On his blog he did say that he doesn't understand Albion, mind you, and by definition most 3rd Wave OSR stuff

    2. You mean the one where he said, "Rpg settings solve a problem I don't have." It looks like a leap from that to, "I have no use for settings." Unless there's another G+ conversation, it looks like you're flying off the handle on this one.

    3. How else do you interpret "solves a problem I don't have"? He got embarrassed at his own confusion and inability to accept 3rd Wave OSR, and then decided to talk tough about how he's a real man who doesn't need RPG settings. Which, like I said, would be like a musician saying "listening to music solves a problem I don't need".

    4. Nah, that analogy is too broad. It's more like an improvisational jazz musician saying that he doesn't need the sheet music for a Mozart concerto to make decent music, and the guy printing sheet music jumping ugly and accusing the jazz musician of being a philistine. Which is fine - I loves me some good manufactured outrage as much as the next guy.

    5. No, sorry. This is like a Jazz musician claiming he gains nothing from listening to other jazz musicians.