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Meet the Publisher: Yochai Gal talks Cairn 2e

I’ve been writing the OSR News Roundup for nearly 2-½ years, and one of the most popular systems I’ve seen people using – whether for adventures, supplements, or hacks – is Cairn. Written by Yochai Gal, it’s a short book, yet like Knave or Into the Odd, which inspired it, Cairn provides a full set of tools to run a game; like many great rpg systems, it is designed to run a specific style of game, which it excels at. 

The Cairn 2e Kickstarter has just launched, and Yochai was kind enough to answer some of my questions. You can also catch Yochai on the excellent Between Two Cairns podcast he co-hosts with Brad Kerr.

Question: First, I alluded to this above, Cairn was written to run a specific kind of game (chiefly, one of hardened adventurers exploring a mysterious wood). Can you tell us your intentions with writing Cairn: what inspired it and how you went about writing your style intentions into the rules? Does the second edition build on this theme, or does it branch out into other styles of play?

Answer: Originally, I wrote Cairn as a means to an end: I wanted to run old school modules using Into The Odd style rules, particularly adventures set in Dolmenwood. I’ve written a bit about this on my blog in an article called The Why of Cairn, so I won’t belabor that point here too much. Chris McDowall (the author of Into the Odd) got it pretty much perfect, but his rules implied a particular setting, and not one super compatible with traditional fantasy roleplaying. So I had to adapt it a bit, adding spellbooks and an inventory system (both from Knave), as well as fatigue, conditions, and so on. People often say that I wrote Cairn only for forest fantasy, which isn’t true. I wanted to be able to use it for any old school adventure! That’s why I licensed the game under CC-BY-SA; so folks could hack it apart, just as I’d hacked parts from other games.

The Second Edition of Cairn Player’s Guide was developed with a few key features in mind. The first is the rules, which received a minor (albeit thorough) overhaul. There were a number of places where the rules were too vague, or not vague enough (ha!) that felt like they needed an update. But for the most part, the rules to 2e are 99% compatible with 1e. But honestly the rules were a minor (albeit pesky) aspect to this project. I also wanted to clarify a lot of the assumptions that went into the gameplay but aren’t so clear in the rules text. Sure, there were always principles for the Warden and the players, but there is a lot of old school rhetoric implicit in the way Cairn was written that doesn’t really make sense to someone brand-new to the OSR. So I developed dungeon, wilderness, and downtime procedures to help with that, to “make it a complete game” as some would say.

The last major change was the character generation. I’ve always wanted to put Electric Bastionland style Failed Careers into Cairn, and to help players feel more connected to their characters, and each other. Additionally I saw this as an opportunity to give players a sort of window into the implied setting of Cairn, which is called Vald. So I wrote 20 unique yet strangely familiar (in my view) character backgrounds, and they were a huge hit! They really speed up the process while giving all the PCs something to do right off the bat.Of course, that’s just on the player-facing side of things. I’ve also written a Warden’s Guide, which is significantly longer and far more explicit. It contains robust guides for creating a setting, a dungeon, custom backgrounds, as well as advice on developing foreground growth, adjudicating rules, and so on. It also includes an illustrated bestiary, updated spellbooks (they have personalities, now!) and other fun stuff like that.

Q: Tell us about what we get with the Kickstarter. I’m excited about the boxset, and I caught a glimpse of the character sheet pad online just a day or two ago.

A: By default, the box set will include the Player’s Guide, the Warden’s Guide, a starting adventure (set in Vald), a pad of character sheets, and GM screen.Our stretch goals are pretty crazy. We have an adventure anthology (written by some of my favorite writers in the OSR), multiple copies of the player’s guide, a fully online character keeper, an expanded bestiary, and so on. I can’t reveal all of those just yet!

Q: You’re partnering with Space Penguin for this crowdfunding campaign. SP is spearheaded by Jarrett Crader, who’s got tons of experience in the indie side of gaming. What does that partnership look like? How has it been working with Space Penguin, and what do they bring to the table that you think will make this a successful Kickstarter.

A: If I went through every RPG book I have (and I have a lot, as I review at least one a week for Between Two Cairns), I think at least 30% would have Jarret’s name in them as editor, developmental consultant, etc. He’s been on the back end of nearly every module I’ve fallen in love with, and I cannot begin to express how helpful that is. He knows everyone, from creators to industry partners and advertising people. But more importantly he’s done it all before! He knows how to do whatever it is you need (like, say, making a box set!) while at the same time can recall with encyclopedic knowledge who else has done it before and what went wrong. So in short, it’s been really great and I’m super happy we finally got to work together.

Q: Finally, tell us what you’re excited about with the second edition.

A: I am very happy to finally have a set of books that I can point to that says, THIS is all you need. Not this plus the website, or plus some FAQ, video, or wiki article. The player’s guide is really all you need to run the game, but the Warden’s Guide will help teach new players not only how you should run the game, but how to do some stuff that is (still!) buried in blogs and discord servers. I really want it to be all that someone needs to start playing old school games using rules that are easy, comprehensive, and flexible. That’s why I made the playtest free to download from the get-go! For accessibility and ease of access, I mean. On that note, I do plan on making the final release of the Player’s Guide available as print on demand AT COST from Lulu/Amazon/DTRPG/etc in the next few weeks, and we are hoping to do as many translations as possible, depending on stretch goals. I am also going to release a free standalone adventure, Rise of the Blood Olms, sometime later this week. That way people can download both PDFs and just… play.

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