Updated: Apr 1
Today's interview is with Yochai Gal, author of Cairn and a major influence behind the scenes in what is being called the NSR movement. He's also pretty active with the burgeoning community of indie game writers on itch. I mentioned it on Monday's News Roundup, but there's currently an itch game jam going on (through April 15th, 2022) focusing on Cairn.
Question. You're known primarily as the author of Cairn, a game based on Knave and set in a "dark and mysterious Wood". Can you talk a little bit about what influenced/inspired you to write Cairn? It's proven to be very influential, with a lot of people using it as a base system or contributing to itch game jams.
Answer. I'm a longtime fan of Knave. I love the game's ingenuity, flexibility, module compatibility, and inventory system. I especially appreciate that it was released under creative commons license as well. However, mechanically I much prefer Into The Odd and its successor, Electric Bastionland. Its minimalist design, quick combat and design assumptions really work for my playstyle. I talk about my journey to the OSR/NSR play style a bit more on my blog if anyone wants to read more. I buy a lot of OSR products, the majority of which are written for B / X compatible games. I especially love the Dolmenwood setting presented in the excellent Wormskin zines by Necrotic Gnome, as well as the standalone Winter's Daughter and Hole in the Oak. There is something deeply unsettling about the series' Welsh-inspired mythology and characters that I absolutely adore. I love a good forest realm, especially one that hints at something strange and mysterious hidden deep within. I live near the forest, and find its quiet presence quite unnerving and beautiful. How can something so full of life also inspire such dread? I love it. I was therefore presented with a serious design conundrum: how could I run all these excellent adventures with a system like Into The Odd? On the Into The Odd discord server, I'd spoken to a few people that had some success running system neutral or OSR adventures and dungeons, writing original stats for monsters and traps, discarding what didn't work, etc. I knew it was possible! But what was missing? How could I make the process easier? Chris McDowall (the game's creator) is known for his ability to hone down mechanics to their bare essentials while continuing to facilitate an OSR play experience. Many of the assumptions inherent in its design perfectly allowed for the kinds of games I wanted to run. The challenge was building support and resources for classic dungeon crawls, as well as converting existing content into an Into The Odd compatible format. And since the game was written for an industrial setting without classes, spells or traditional fantasy tropes, I needed a way to facilitate traditional fantasy adventures that didn't add mechanical complexity or change the fundamental rules of Into The Odd. Finally, Chris had yet to release the Mark of the Odd, an SRD for hacking or making content for his game. In the Fall of 2020 I co-hosted the Eclectic Bastion Jam on Itch.io. We received a host of hacks and adventures for Into The Odd; it was quite a success! One of the submissions was a sword & sorcery hack called Weird North, by Jim Parkin. I was brought on as editor under the condition that Jim released the game text as CC-BY-SA, because I wanted to use the Into The Odd ruleset for my own fantasy hack. In the end, Cairn borrowed its classlessness, inventory system and character generation system from Knave but the remainder of the game's mechanics were taken wholly from Into The Odd. The opening principles (which I helped Jim whittle down into a style even Chris McDowall would be proud of) were taken straight from Weird North. I also added a few bits from Mausritter, as well as my own spin on magic and magic items. Of course, I released the text under a similarly open license as well. And thus Cairn was born! I released it on Itch and DriveThruRPG, including the Affinity Publisher source files. I set up a website and put up the entire ruleset for anyone to use. I wrote up additional procedures, resources and rules hacks. I added adventure conversions for some of the more popular OSR adventures, as well as instructions for others to do the same. I also wrote up a guide on hacking/forking the website itself, particularly those wishing to localize the game in their own language. I also made it available for print at home or through high quality Mixam prints. Eventually I added an at, cost print-on-demand option as well. I'm saying "I" a lot here, but it really isn't the truth. I had a ton of help, every step of the way. Folks donated their time, expertise, and goodwill to make this thing a reality. Someone wrote a FoundryVTT system for it for online play. Someone else wrote 200 classic monsters. Someone else converted the popular learning adventure Tomb of the Serpent Kings, and another translated the game into Italian, then helped me get the PoD going on Lulu and Amazon. I had a ton of help along the way. And so, a community was born, and I think that is what draws people to the game: the people and support built around it. As a game, Cairn isn't particularly original, but it is useful. The resources and community are frequently cited as a reason to recommend the game, particularly to players new to the OSR. The ideas developed in the game and since its release have taken on a life of their own, and I am immensely proud of what it has become.
Q. I also really like how you've been focusing on accessibility and have read aloud and ebook versions of Cairn, making it easier to use for people who may have visual or other similar impairments. My daughter was speech delayed when she was little, so she, my wife, and I all learned sign language to communicate (she has no issues with speech and I regret that we've let the signing slip). What inspired you to make Cairn more easily accessible?
A. I struggled with vision issues for most of my life (asymmetric near-sightedness, astigmatism and partial color blindness) until I had corrective surgery 8 years ago. I used to get headaches reading, so I can appreciate the struggles some might have with this sort of thing. There are many barriers to the hobby, but only a few I can actually do something about. Accessibility is an easy one, fortunately! Other creators were doing it, and my day job is technical in nature so the idea of converting between formats and such wasn't as daunting for me as for some.
I remember some comments on DTRPG that pointed out how hard the zine was for TTS readers to process. I know how to convert to epub (i use pandoc and calibre) but there were some more complicated bits around tagging that led me to request help from the greater community. For the audio read along, a guy in Australia mentioned that his wife had vision issues and struggled reading RPG material. I know how to use audacity so I simply took a weekend to record myself reading it, then Tony Tran volunteered to make an animatic for it.
I'm not sure how helpful the audio read along was, nor how good of a job I did. But I think for future games I will likely release text accessible versions on launch day.
Q. Can you talk a little about the NSR as a movement and how you think it contrasts or compliments the OSR?
A. This one is fresh on my mind as I just recorded an episode of Wobblies & Wizards about the NSR!
I think of the NSR as about 10% movement and 90% community. Let's start with the first part, because it gets all the attention!
Some history, first. The NSR started as a feeling of sorts, and although it absolutely grew out of the OSR I think elements of it came out of earlier RPGs (there is of course nothing new under sun). I will speak only on my experience here, but I seem to recall a sense of change in the air around the end of the G+ era. I had spent many years in the story games space, which occasionally flirted with aspects of the OSR community, but tended towards the narrative, fiction-first approach that centered player characters and the story above all else. Meanwhile the OSR "movement" had splintered into shards of die-hard grognards, artists, theorists, marketers and even revisionists. Out of this space sprung a "modern" design philosophy that quickly gained in popularity, especially among those looking for a quick, "old school" D&D experience. If you took a newbie into the hobby and showed them Knave, Into The Odd, Troika!, Tunnel Goons, Maze Rats, DURF... What do you think they'd say were the common elements? Here is an non exhaustive list:
They were considerably "rules-lite" even when compared to relatively lighter games like Labyrinth Lord or B / X Essentials (now OSE).
They were typically deadly, where violence was to be avoided at all costs and problem solving became central.
They focused on random tables and emergent results.
Player agency was key, as was making the world feel lived-in.
They didn't always adhere to classic dogma about compatibility.
Some of the content and design choices reflected a flair of whimsy or weirdness.
Most of the designers of these games have not claimed any allegiance to the NSR. And yet many of their players would certainly feel comfortable in one another's games, playing by the new rules but in the same style, regardless of game. That is the NSR! It combines an OSR-style philosophy with an inclusive, story-games inspired attitude. What distinguishes it from being solely OSR is that many of these games fail to adhere to a strict compatibility with other old school games, dropping or replacing "sacred cows" in favor of mechanics that better stress the designer's intent.
That's the "movement" part of it. The community however is something else. Essentially we are a Discord server and an online forum made up of over a 1000 people, probably ~300 or so actively participating on a regular basis. We encourage a spirit of good faith discussion, as well as a zero tolerance attitude towards gatekeeping, bigotry, platforming intolerance, etc. There is no "right" way to play a game, there are only different ways to achieve a positive subjective gaming experience and only you decide what that is. We're just here to help you find it! Of course, we do have preferences (see above) and work hard to help folks get acquainted with our particular style of play. We also have folks from both the OSR and story games spheres, and I think it only drives innovation and ingenuity.
Finally, there is certainly an element of open source/creative commons licensing common to the movement, though it finds a presence in other communities as well so I'm not sure it really counts.
Q. Finally, can you tell us a bit about your gaming background? What sort of games you like to play, how you got involved in gaming, etc. Also, feel free to plug any upcoming projects you might have. A. I've always played board games and such, but I only started playing RPGs in high school (in the late 90s), specifically Palladium Fantasy 2e. I then took a looong break, and started playing again in my early 30s. My (now) brother-in-law was hit by a car and was told he would be unable to walk for some time. I knew he liked Pathfinder, so I bought the 5e DMG and began running it for him. Soon after I started running games twice a week! I got into story games via The Quiet Year, and then fell into Dungeon World for many years. I made my own hack (One Shot World) which is a hack of Dungeon World built for... one shots. I ran over 200 games in a 1-2 year period, almost always with strangers. We'd build a shared world together and then play in it. It was amazing and heavily influenced my improv-heavy GMing style. Eventually I grew tired of character-focused RPing and moved over towards OSR-style play. We are halfway through a Cairn Jam on itch.io [Editor: See link at top of page]. I'm very excited to see what folks submit!
I am currently putting the finishing touches on a Jewish-themed adventure for Cairn. It is going to be very different from what folks in this space are used to, I think. I don't know how well it will be received but I'm quite proud of it. There is a dungeon based on Kabbalah, an overland adventure heavily inspired by Jewish folklore, and a ton of beasts from Jewish folktales and religion. I'm working with three other Jews (layout and two artists) and I think their own perspectives will make it really POP. Later this year I'm going to kickstart a second edition of Cairn. The rules will be largely identical but I'm going to replace the character generation system with a Failed Careers/Backgrounds style system, including shared debt and such. I'm also going to include a ton of advice, FAQs, optional procedures and such from the website, and the 200+ beasts, 216 new spells, and all that. I haven't decided whether it will be a box set, series of zines, a hardback, etc. That's the next big project. Thanks for taking the time to ask me these questions!