Thursday, July 9, 2015

Surprisingly fitting settings for OSR games

Even before the D20 boom there were folk designing their own worlds to share with other gamers for their favorite iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.  The Judge's Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy is probably one of the earliest known third party settings out there.  The trend continues onward with OSR and Pathfinder self-publishers, and there's already some folks using the 5th Edition ruleset to make their own material.  I'm rather worried about the last bit, as nothing approaching an OGL has been released yet by WotC, leaving the safety of said products in a sort of legal limbo.

Still, in my collecting of various gaming products, I found more than a few campaign settings which are highly appropriate for OSR games in spite of being made for newer rules engines in mind.  The mechanical rulesets of D20 D&D may be different, but a lot of the following settings are versatile enough to squeak into an old-school-style  game without much trouble.

Freeport is probably one of the most iconic pirate cities in Dungeons & Dragons, even if it's an unofficial product.  Although it originated as an early entry into 3rd Edition, over time the setting's popularity saw it converted to a variety of rulesets, from Savage Worlds to Fate and even Castles & Crusades.  The Pirate's Guide to Freeport is a system-neutral book, and the beauty of it is that the material present clearly calls out several D&Disms with a piratey flavor.  The setting has a vibe of Lovecraftian horror lurking behind the tropical seas, what with hidden cults dedicated to Great Old Ones and a former empire of serpent folk existing among the ruined remnants of former civilizations.  Freeport tends to be more down to earth; it has its fair share of mages and monsters, although the city isn't packed to the gills with high-level world-bending individuals.  Many of its more interesting denizens have something to distinguish themselves other than a character class or magical discipline, such as a muckracking journalist, a vigilante paladin stalking the drug dens and sewers for evil to thwart, and even a scholarly orc clan who seek to uplift their kin through a cultural renaissance.

Although Pathfinder can be run in all sorts of settings, Paizo's Golarion has always been its flagship product.  Their renowned adventure paths all take place in this shared world, which now expanded into a veritable Inner Sea World Guide along with numerous sourcebooks dedicated to specific regions and groups.  Golarion vies for a kitchen sink approach, where its 50-plus countries are more or less organized into distinctive themes.  Ustalav is modeled off of Gothic Horror, the River Kingdoms is a frontier region of upstart lords and independent city-states, and Cheliax is a totalitarian empire where devotees of Asmodeus direct the nation's fate.  There's something for everyone in the Inner Sea, and you can't go wrong with homing in on a set location by finding the appropriate material for it or building inspiration off each nation's 4-page overview.

The Inner Sea's most iconic organization is the Pathfinder Society, an pseudo-Masonic lodge of scholars and delvers who travel the world and record their findings for the pursuit of knowledge (and to make money off of their findings).  The Pathfinders serve as a great way for adventuring parties to explore the world and its many secrets, while also lending an Indiana Jones two-fisted archaeologist vibe.

The main pitch of X-Crawl is that it's set in a modern alternate Earth where elves, dragons, and other fantasy elements are real.  The repressive neo-Roman Empire rules over the North American continent, and one of the most popular means of escapism and entertainment is a reality game show where contestants fight through a constructed dungeon full of monsters and traps for fame and prizes.  That is, if they manage to survive.  I forget who made the connection or where (I believe it was RPGnet), but one person stated that this can make a great setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics.

In addition to the game show aspect of the setting, one of X-Crawl's more entertaining ideas is the implementation of a DJ, an in-character "Dungeon Master" responsible for the dungeon obstacle's oversight.  Many DJs keep in touch with adventuring teams via television sets and cameras, focusing on stellar performances for the crowd's delight while taunting their competency and recording every failure to push them further.  There are also limited rules for the use of fame, where particularly renown X-Crawl teams can gain the many privileges of media stardom (as well as its faults).

Primeval Thule Campaign Setting

Designed by Wizards of the Coast veterans, Primeval Thule is a setting which harkens back to an era of Conanesque Swords & Sorcery for Pathfinder, 13th Age, and 4th Edition D&D.  Interestingly, the majority of the book is not system-specific, instead dedicated to setting detail with the hard mechanics largely confined to appendices in the back.  It has a lot of classic Hyperborean goodness, such as magic being a mostly an unknown factor capable of terrible things.  Even the spells of priests and the like are learned via an inner circle of mystery cults part of the city-state's upper classes, so even the divine aspect is just as unknown and feared.  Demi-human races are present but tend to take a backseat to the dominant human powers.  Virtually every region of the world is brimming with adventure, from roving bands of warlords in the western plains to seemingly sentient glaciers threatening to engulf the north, with even individually-themed locations having enough variety for several kinds of adventures.  The elves are truly in decline, their people addicted to a vile drug disseminated by cultists of the Crawling Chaos so that their masters may feed upon their hallucinogen-fueled dreams.

Things I particularly like about Primeval Thule is the implementation of backgrounds, unique elements about your PCs to make them unique in the game, such as the Bearer of the Black Book where your spellcasting hero is pretty much the owner of the Necromonicon.  Also, ironworking is an art guarded by the dwarves; in the 4E version they're treated as magic weapons and armor for the purposes of game mechanics, an aspect which I'd adapt to other editions to preserve this metal's vaunted status.


All but X-Crawl is largely mechanics-free for most of its content, even if they were made for specific game lines.  I have a long and good history with Freeport, and the other three are so full of good ideas that it would be a crime to restrict them just to newer game engines.  I included links in the titles to storefronts in case you want to check out reviews and previews for yourself.  It shouldn't take much work converting them to Basic-Style OSR games, considering that a lot of their main pulls do not rely much upon 3.X tropes.

If you have any non-OSR campaigns of your own to recommend as good old-school fits, feel free to reply!