The Why Of Cairn
In a recent Twitter thread, I spelled out some of my thinking behind designing Cairn, prompted by a misreading of a comment by wereoctopus. I decided to clean it up a bit and republish that diatribe here.
In The Beginning
I started playing indie RPGs about five years ago, after a few years running more traditional games like D&D 5e. As such, a lot of my design sensibilities came out of the PbtA world, where Principles, Agendas and Moves helped not only to guide a particular playstyle, but also in reinforcing the overarching themes of the game. I think principles and guidelines help play, because they set the expectations (just like safety tools). One could argue that OSR games do this as well, but I think it is less explicit. In short, PbtA games feel like they have more rules, but those rules tend to be focused on enforcing a playstyle. I think the most exemplary example of this is the game Monsterhearts 2 by Avery Alder. From a design point of view I think it’s brilliant, although it isn’t really a game that speaks to me.
After a few years, I discovered that the enforced playstyle common to most PbtA games was stifling for the type of experience I preferred; namely problem solving, critical thinking, exploration, and an emergent narrative. Obviously many of those goals can be achieved in almost any system, but personally I felt that most PbtA games, and especially Dungeon World, did not work for me in this regard.
And so, I began to seek other avenues. In my journey, I discovered a wide variety of indie RPGs, too many to list here. Eventually, I found my comfort zone in a weird hybrid OSR space; see the original NSR post that spawned this blog for more on that.
I remember reading about Into The Odd over a year before I actually ran it. It stuck in my brain, like a thorn. I recall telling myself: “If I read this game, I will probably switch all of my games over to it. But I’m so busy, maybe later!” Eventually, I bought the print-on-demand PDF (not the neat Lost Pages one, unfortunately) and found it to be a just what I was looking for; a game brilliant both for its simplicity as well as its flexibility. Here was a game that took all of 5-10 minutes to teach, and yet had rules for only the things that mattered. Everything else was up to the table. But more importantly, it seemed to satisfy the goals I listed earlier better than almost anything I’d come up against (here’s looking at you, Troika!). I dived in and never looked back; glad for what I’d learned, but even gladder that I’d never need to memorize a class move ever again. By the way, Into The Odd’s starting dungeon (The Iron Coral) is one of the easiest adventures I’ve ever read. I really wish Chris could sell it separately.
When Into The Odd’s successor, Electric Bastionland came out, it was like finding a room in my head that I didn’t realize had been there all along; a light had been switched on, and the cobwebs dusted away. The Failed Careers alone are worth the price of admission; I could stare at the book’s glorious art all day. As an aside, if I could remake Cairn, I’d probably do something akin to this excellent series of EB-inspired Backgrounds taken from Knave. Ah, well.
Putting aside the beauty of the game’s character generation (I could write a whole post just about that), the advice found in the GM section was like a lightning rod to my brain. Chris delivered answers to questions that had plagued me for years, and did so in his succinct, matter-of-fact way. “How much information should I give the players?”, I might wonder.
And he’d say, “What do secrets really give us? Aren’t we better off without them? If these kinds of games are meant to be about choice, how can one truly choose freely without maximal information?”
“Fine,” I might say. “But how much experience should a PC get for killing the big bad guy? Where are my level ups at?” And Chris would say, “What monsters did they slay within? How were they changed by their experiences? Why must growth always mean that you get better?”
These are but bits and pieces of the solid advice found in that weighty tome; if you haven’t read it already, I strongly suggest you stop reading these words, and go grab a copy now. The whole thing is only about 2 pages of rules! The remainder is made up of 100 beautifully-illustrated Failed Careers, followed by examples and play advice.
I am forever indebted to chapters like the The ICI Doctrine, Informed Danger & Death and The Conductor is a Game Designer. However, the most eye-opening to me was the chapter called Foreground Growth.
“Think of character change as growth, rather than advancement. You’re becoming more distinct, more interesting, and getting more options as you progress, rather than becoming more numerically powerful.”
In my actual EB campaign(s), diagetic growth (to use a popular buzzword) really shines. PCs are changed (mechanically or otherwise) by their actual in-game experiences. There are no XP or Levels in Electric Bastionland. And thus forth I decided that was how I would handle any kind of advancement: purely through the fiction. And as a result, my players were more invested & appreciative than in any other games I’d ever played. I’ll borrow an example I’ve posted about elsewhere.
Towards the end of my Weird West Electric Bastionland campaign, one of the PCs had extracted the consciousness of a defeated enemy using the essence extractor found in the rulebook. There, standing over the still-living body of a powerful - yet defeated - former foe, we all waited to see what the Player would have his character do. Surprising us all, he decided to have his character drink the man’s soul. I had not anticipated this turn of events, and needed to think quickly on how this might work! The enemy was a serious tough guy; high Charisma, physically very strong, and pretty damn evil.
In true OSR fashion, I made a ruling. The PC would swap their abysmally low CHA with that of his foe. However, I also ruled that going forward, he would to make regular saves to prevent his new, brutish inner spirit from taking over, particularly when faced with an opponent that was rendered helpless.
Such experiences are not unique to this system. However, here was the first time I’d seen it proscribed directly in the game’s rules & advice section, and as a result, felt license to really try my hand at it.
As you can guess, I fell in love with Into The Odd, and Electric Bastionland especially; the mechanics and setting worked really well with the kinds of games I wanted to run, as well as the stories I wanted to explore. Even better, both of these systems (while somewhat hardcoded to a specific setting) were also easily adaptable to any number of other types of worldbuilding, with minor hacking. For a long time, this would be the system I was - and still am - running. Then, one day a friend of mine had reached out to ask my advice.
“If I wanted to run an old school module, or like the classic Village of Hommlet, Woodfall, Evils of Illmire, and especially the Dolmenwood setting by Necrotic Gnome, what system should I use? The Black Hack? Old School Essentials? I would like something rules-lite like Into The Odd. Can I run that?”
I thought about it. “Sure,” I said. “Why not Into The Odd?” So I cracked open some of my old TSR PDFs. Then, I saw entries like “Hidden behind the cupboard is a Scroll of Haste,” Uh oh. I knew then that there was going to be a big problem: Spells. Into The Odd put magic in the hands of player characters - literally - by making magical items the core spellcasting system in the game. Arcana (or Oddities) were both the reason to plunder tombs and the reason the party was always in danger; as each contained a powerful magical effect that everyone wanted to get their hands on. Unfortunately most Oddities were nothing like traditional D&D spells, which meant that I might need to spend a lot more time prepping adventures than I was really comfortable with. I wanted something that I could just drop in.
Interestingly, there weren’t a lot of Into The Odd hacks that I felt it would be easy to run more traditional D&D modules, and especially Dolmenwood. I had run two campaigns of the excellent Into The Dungeon: Revived but had never felt totally comfortable with it; somehow my preference for in-world, level-less growth & classless gaming still gnawed at my enjoyment. It’s a great system and highly recommend folks check it out!
Eventually, I came across Mausritter. What a wonderful game! Free of charge, incorporating Into The Odd, a Knave-style inventory system, and GLOG-like magic. All put together in a tight little package. There was just one problem: in the game, the PCs were mice. And as cute as that sounds… it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Meanwhile, Knave & Maze Rats were a thing. Designed by the brilliant Ben Milton of Questing Beast fame, these systems had fascinating rules, robust tables and were borne of a barebones, do-it-yourself philosophy. But Knave still had levels & the six stats (three too many!), while Maze Rats was too far afield from traditional D&D and (dare I say) too rules-lite for my purposes.
And so here it was: a myriad of systems to choose from, yet none that felt perfect for what I wanted to do. Fortunately, many of these games were published under a creative commons license! So I thought: what if I borrowed the chassis of Into The Odd [three stats, no roll-to-hit, armor, etc], Knave’s character generation & equipment tables, and Mausritter’s inventory system? What if I took a page from the PbtA folks and added explicit principles for play?
It turned out to be pretty straightforward; the tricky bit was getting magic right. Fortunately the Into The Odd Discord is full of folks excited to help with whatever new hack or iteration one is working on, and a few - smcabrera, cosmicorrery, Jim Parkin, etc - were essential to the game’s development. We must have hashed out the magic system over 5+ hours of furious messaging, but eventually came to a place that made sense to everyone (and even spawned a few alternate magic hacks for Into The Odd)! In my system, spellbooks were held, and could be cast allowed as much as you like. There was just one problem: each time you cast a spell, a single slot of inventory got filled with Fatigue. That meant those who wished to cast spells couldn’t carry much on their person - and Magic Users now had a great mechanical excuse for avoiding armor that made sense within the fiction!
Since I was planning on running a lot of Dolmenwood with it, I settled on the theme: Forest Fantasy. That made it easier to hone in on the kind of play experience I was trying to create. Unwittingly, I also gave it a name that was already being used in another mouse-based RPG: Cairn. Ah, so it goes.
…And And that is the story of Cairn. A rules-lite, Into The Odd + Knave mashup, with a magic system I’m frankly quite proud of. I was super fortunate to have had CosmicOrrery’s help getting the cover worked out (what an amazing choice on their part, my gosh). We quickly put together a character sheet and tokens, and published it. Then Stephen Mariano Cabrera put together a FoundryVTT adaptation, and I (with a LOT of help from Nakade) made this nifty character generator. Next I’ll be publishing a new character sheet by Francesco Zanieri, a bestiary, and finally an adventure!
Thanks for reading.