OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

 Art by Jason Sholtis, published in his book, Operation Unfathomable

Zak S, who wrote Vornheim, Red & Pleasant Land, Frostbitten and Mutilated, the majority of the forthcoming Demon City, and some other stuff too, has written up a little questionnaire for the OSR blog world to answer in the wake of news dropping that Google+ is finally being shuttered. After sharing it around via Twitter the other day, I knew I'd have to fill it out myself, especially since I really only recently actually began to join the OSR conversation at all to begin with. As I've said before on this blog and elsewhere, though I learned about the OSR as a group or movement ca. 2011 or so, I really did not involve myself in it socially until this spring and summer. It's interesting seeing the points of view from all of these folks who have been involved much more heavily all along, as more than just a casual consumer of the occasional LotFP PDF or what have you. 

So, here we are - I filled it out from the point of view of a long-time gamer, who has been buying OSR/DIY products for about six or seven years, who only just began to involve himself a few months ago in the overall community. Let's go:

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me: For me, the piece entitled "The Dungeon as a Mythical Underworld" by Jason Cone in his PDF of Philotomy's Musings exemplifies an important piece of wisdom to really internalize: the world of adventure is inherently going to be hostile to the players, and may not make earthly, predictable sense, because it is itself a living character central to the game world. Not all games must be gonzo or eschew Gygaxian naturalism and ecosystems and that sort of thing, but not all games must make perfect sense when compared to reality's rules, either, because we're not dealing with reality - we're dealing with fantastic fiction where the entire point is for challenges to arise and be overcome by would-be heroes and graverobbers. 
2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:
The answers are not on your character sheet (probably).
3. Best OSR module/supplement:
Assuming by "OSR" we mean "not TSR or original to the old games" I am going to say the best module is Broodmother Skyfortress for LotFP, by Jeff Rients/Ian Maclean/Alex Mayo/Jez Gordon/Craig Judd. This is a nearly impossible question given the preposterous number of exceptional products out there. The best supplement is unquestionably Vornheim by Zak S, I think.
4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):
Depends how we define house rule, but barring "stuff I've stolen from publish games and wedged into D&D" I'd say it's Jeff Rients' carousing rules, because they're hilarious and consequential.
5. How I found out about the OSR:
After a long break from the internet side of RPGs, during which I just peacefully played what I wanted to play in person, I resurfaced in around 2010 or 2011 or so to research something or other about AD&D and B/X. I was recovering from being severely injured, playing RPGs and completely burnt on years of largely meh 3.5E - I was playing 4E and enjoying it but finding it slow and crunchy and missing something I used to enjoy about games from when I was younger. Way back then, I was using B/X and 1E and 2E in some horrific mish-mash that only made sense, I am sure, to our group, but I wanted that experience back. I expected whatever it was I was seeking at the time to be an esoteric detail tucked away on some tiny forum or something, only discussed by three greybeards with no friends - which is more or less what the old school games thing resembled way back when during the heyday of 3.5E, when I'd stopped checking out internet forums about RPGs and such. I went on to quickly discover instead that tons and tons of other people from all over the world were in full swing playing and discussing these old games I was still interested in. I was amazed and purchased some stuff and got back into it - but still didn't involve myself online, thinking I had nothing to offer, until now.
6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:
Ramanan S produced some character generators that are so easy and great that you have no excuse not to generate a dozen and start every game as a DCC-style funnel.
7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:
Apparently it was G+, but I showed up late. For me, it's been Twitter, actually.
8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:
G+, blogs, etc. I also have social media accounts in varying states of disuse all over the place.
9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:
Dying hilariously is probably the most fun part of the game - I can't recall my first magic item successfully rescued from a dragon lair, but I can recall all kinds of preposterous deaths.
10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:
Traveller is OSR whether you like it or not so I can't really list it here. For truly new-school games I'd say D&D 5E, GURPS, or Unisystem.
11. Why I like OSR stuff:
It's the style of play I grew up enjoying, but benefits from thousands upon thousands of man-hours of clever, clever people figuring out infinitely smarter and more beautiful means to do so and present it over the course of several decades. It's like having your cake and eating it too - tremendous production values and honest care and desire to make a wonderful end product, created by people who aren't a giant corporation with specific marketing interests to assuage, being crammed into the very specific niche I enjoy. Seeing people just do things and share things they love is beautiful. Seeing them make money on it is beautiful. It's good stuff.
12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:
I don't think I've mentioned Yoon-Suin on this blog, but it's a super cool setting book. I'll get around to reviewing it sooner or later. I also haven't mentioned Hot Springs Island, which is not necessarily OSR but is definitely DIY and it rules and I will have some stuff about it published shortly-ish.
13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:

Toss up between Jeff's Gameblog and D&D With Pornstars
14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:
I don't make a lot of stuff, so I'd say the Random Advancement Shaman I made in the vein of the random advancement classes by Jeff Rients and Zak S (and others) is my crowning achievement?
15. I'm currently running/playing:
Mostly D&D 5E, tragically, as a DM. I would kill to have the time and group to play Traveller and B/X though. Fatherhood and job-having is currently killing off all of my time.
16. I don't care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:
It doesn't matter whatsoever. Descending is older-school. Ascending is more intuitive and you damn well know it. You can make, find, or steal a chart that will convert either way. It literally doesn't matter.
17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice:
It's at the top of this post. I am a huge fan of old school D&D art and I have tons of it, but that's old school TSR art. OSR art is sort of it's own thing, and the OSRest art of all is, in my simple opinion, possibly that of Jason Sholtis. It's blacks and grey washes, evoking the TSR aesthetic; it has high contrast and deep shadows; it shows the world of adventuring with ease; and like so much of the OSR, it's just a wee bit weirder than what came before. I could post a thousand examples of great art though. Thanks for being great at this, Jason!

There, I did it. I completed a memetic questionnaire - and on-time, this time, unlike how I did Jeff's 20 Quick Campaign Questions about a million years later than everyone else!

Review: Operation Unfathomable


Writer: Jason Sholtis
Art: Jason Sholtis, John Larrey, Stefan Poag, Karl Stjernberg, Jez Gordon
Design: Jez Gordon
Editor: Michael Haskell, Humza Kazmi, Chris Kutalik, Robert Parker, Anthony Pastores
Publisher: Hydra Cooperative
Length: Approx. 108pp
First Edition, First Printing 2018

Jason Sholtis is the man behind the ever-popular Dungeon Dozen blog and the books based on the same d12 roll tables project. He's also the mind responsible for Operation Unfathomable, a tremendously unique look at the underworld - or Underdark, if you're brand-loyal to D&D - that has received pretty much unanimous praise since it was released. Coming from his home game (and a companion blog), Jason's approach to the underworld is delightfully fresh, with a holistic view towards creating a self-sustaining campaign that is as fun as it is alien and dangerous. It's easy to go wholly grim or wholly gonzo or even fall, lukewarm, somewhere in between, but thanks to Jason's writing and inimitable artistic style, Operation Unfathomable suffers none of these fates. Let's talk about this book!

Operation Unfathomable was launched via Kickstarter last year and reached press early in 2018 thanks to the hard work of the folks at Hydra Cooperative. Hydra is the indie publisher responsible for the absolutely awesome Misty Isles of the Eld, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, which have gained well-deserved popularity amongst the OSR D&D community for being awesome and imaginative. Jason and his underworld fit in well here, as the Hydra brand seems to be focused on (and actually delivering) extremely playable, interesting, altogether special products.

Operation Unfathomable is a well-done book. Jez Gordon deserves a lot of the praise here; his layouts are extremely readable and well-organized. It opens with Jason's instantly-identifiable artwork in plenty to set the tone of the book and then follows it up with an introduction to the travelogue-style guide character and a very useful, clear table of contents. The black-and-white production of the book is extremely sharp and Jez makes good use of the art from all the contributors throughout. Jason's art is, of course, extremely unique, and recalls wonderful stylistic influences (such as Al Williamson's Flash Gordon or Secret Agent Corrigan, or basically anything in 2000AD) with its ink-heavy approach. It's as much old school comic book as it is old school D&D, and it is all the better for it. It's tremendously atmospheric and a joy to behold and I really don't have enough superlatives to laud it properly. The book is laid out in such a way as to make it almost impossible to miss the game parts; some setting books become easy to miss the trees for the forest, to awkwardly borrow and manhandle an idiom; they provide the tools needed to play the game, which is sometimes exactly what you want, but they provide only that, or are put together in such a way as to make it hard to find the connective tissue of the campaign. Operation Unfathomable does not suffer from that fate. Between Jason's direct approach to writing and Jez Gordon's clear layout, you never have to wonder how whatever is being presented is supposed to fit together.

Organizationally, the book is split into a few major sections: the introduction, covering Jason's explanation of the underworld, handouts, and his advice for running the game; the underworld itself including both the details of the setting and the events/phenomena/denizens; the actual meat and potatoes of the setting including DM's papers and encounter charts; and finally a series of extremely substantial appendices before the maps at the back of the book suitable for photocopying.

The underworld is weird, alien, and unique. I said before that it's easy to go too gonzo or too grim, or, in avoiding both, end up somewhere unoriginal in between. Jason makes that generalization look downright stupid. His underworld is deadly dangerous and involves the sincere assumption that most of your number will end up in shallow rock cairns made by tired survivors repeatedly throughout the campaign; however, it is also full of amazing, colorful things straight out of a weird fantasy or sci-fi anthology from that strange nascent era at the start of the 60s where lines between genres weren't so stark. It is amazing how varied and imaginative the creatures and characters involved are. I could spend the length and breadth of this article just describing, one by one, his awesome creations, from death ray myconids with six-shooters to straight-up ridiculous, grinning fat newt-like beasts of burden to magma creatures and beyond. Seriously if you were to buy this book just for the encounters and bestiary alone and throw out the rest you'd still end up with more original ideas per square inch than most of us will come up with in a lifetime. Jason makes everyone look bad. It's completely insane how many fun ideas are crammed into so little space - without being so overly dense as to become unreadable or intimidating or awkward. Like other aspects of this book, it's hard not to end up just lavishing praise on Jason. It's just such an electric feeling to open literally any page in the book and land on a bunch of polished, table-ready, new ideas.

Here and there ("here" being throughout the book and "there" being the end of the book) Jez sprinkles in some great maps in a couple styles that really suit the book and complement Jason's art style very well. Some of them are clearly the hand-drawn sketches of an adventurer, while others are like a BradyGames strategy guide cheat sheet for an unreleased game.

One of the cool aspects of the book is Bardolph, the lone survivor of the author's home game set in the underworld of Operation Unfathomable. He serves as a guide along the way, offering color commentary and the voice of personal experience on the various denizens and locations of the underworld, as only a caustic 15th century war vet transplanted into the deepest caverns of an alternate world could. It's a fun window into the home game and often reveals tiny clues through the text (contributed, I believe, by Barry Blatt) of his comments to the way the campaign went at Jason Sholtis' table. My sole criticism of this very fun travelogue series is the fact that the same art of the character often appears on every page for a stretch of the book at a time; there isn't even a mirrored version of the artwork on opposite facing pages, or what-have-you. I'd have liked more variety in his artwork; I know this is a petty concern but it's something that jumped out at me when compared to the absolutely bonkers variety of art pieces included otherwise and it detracted a bit from what I considered one of the funniest and most enjoyable parts of the book.

This book provides you with a pretty massive series of encounters and adventures built-in, as well as a summary campaign that will take players all over a gigantic underground expanse. It's so full of events and ideas that it'd be pretty hard to run out, period. You're given an entire introductory encounter line to drive the game into the underworld and a matching entry point on the map to begin the campaign in earnest; like any gridcrawl thereafter you simple explore and as the players interact with the world, the massive encounters/factions/monsters/events lists start to tumble like dominoes, taking your game in a different direction from mine. Any time you might feel lost, Jason has something to fill the space and push your game forward in a completely open-ended fashion. It really embraces all the best elements of the old school play styles and allows for players to become immersed in a really well-realized, living world with tons of activity happening in the backgrounds almost automatically. It feels alive, and it's very rewarding.

Other things to touch on and specifically praise:
  • The bestiary is worth the price of admission on its own, period. People often say the OSR needs more great bestiaries? Here it is.
  • The spells are brief but extremely cool and a perfect match for the setting. 
  • There is a full party (or more!) of index-card-sized pre-generated characters complete with sheets and artwork, perfect for use by players or as a rival exploratory group; these are ready to be photocopied and cut out, because Jez and Jason are galaxy-brain geniuses who want to make this book actually useful immediately.
  • The sequel, Odius Uplands, is in production now and will arrive soonish. I cannot wait; if you're excited by this book, I recommend buying it and getting the campaign underway immediately so you can transition to what will certainly be an outstanding follow-on when it drops!

You would have to be blind not to see this coming. I try to spend my gaming budget carefully and as a result I end up with great books that are easy to review. Jason and Hydra Cooperative get five smelly marsupials out of five with great ease. Keep up the great work, and please get Odious Uplands into our hands soon!

The Firewalker

A note before I continue here: If you share fire-related trauma or a fear of burning, this is probably not the post for you. It contains graphic descriptions and depictions of both. In order to prevent the possibly upsetting art from being previewed on the main page or used as the social media link thumbnail, here's a possum. I hope this helps warn those who might otherwise be troubled by this content. Have a great day!

The caution possum doesn't quite get it, but he's trying his best. Look at his happy little fruit!

What if wildfires were a literal scourge, a curse, and firefighters were exactly that? What if there existed a horrifying fate for some, forced to stalk the world as a flaming corpse, aware only of the agony of your crackling flesh and the searing flames licking every inch of your skin, spreading fire mindlessly? What if those unfortunate souls felt every single anguish and torment, but could only shriek aimlessly like a dentist drill through blistered vocal chords, just to finally collapse in death - only to stand back up seconds later and continue to march inexorably forward on an unrelenting path, undeterred, screaming as the flames scorch him endlessly?

Years ago, I worked on an ambulance. I saw many unfortunate things, but very little of it impacted me, because it sort of becomes normal and you probably need to have some basic tolerance for the worst and most unfortunate situations of life to begin with. Paramedics and EMTs are weird and we share a dark sense of humor to get through it, usually. However, one thing that stuck with me: a man who burned himself very badly. It was an inconceivably agonizing thing to witness. Those images - and much worse, those sounds - have never left my mind. I will spare you the details, but it did leave indelible marks on my memory. When I conceived of this concept back in early August [this has been sitting in my backlog forever, for some reason], I had been speaking to a friend who has been through several of the California wildfires of the last couple years and whose relatives were having to evacuate the Carr wildfire and I came to remember that dying man and to think about the horror of a wall of flame slowly marching towards you, chasing you, eradicating everything in its path unflinchingly. I doodled an idea down on a post-it note and asked my wife what she thought of it.

And so it was born. Wildfire as a tangible foe, a force of nature if nature were decided by a particularly cruel and torturous person.

The firewalker is a cursed thing. They were people, once, but set upon by vindictive magics until their bodies combusted. Not able to escape the earthly plane, when their anguished cries pierced the skies on their first death and they collapsed in a crackling heap of blackened flesh, their minds lost all grip on sanity. In the blink of an eye they clambered back to their feet, staring emptily into the world around them, and they began to walk. As they walk, burn, shriek, and die, snippets of memories blink in and out of their mind's eye. They notice almost nothing about the world around them; they fixate internally on the shreds of memories that flash within, interrupted and blurred and contorted over and over and over by the unrelenting agony of endless burning death after endless burning death. The memories - of life, death, family - maddeningly devoid of context and ever so slightly out of range of the grasp of their blank brains, like words on the tip of their tongue, torment them as much as the flames. Each time they combust and die in agony, and awaken again on fire to burn once more, they lose a little more of their vanishing tatters of humanity to the confusing haze of pain and flame. Should the firewalker itself slay a humanoid, rather than that humanoid dying to the heat or flames that spread and scour the countryside, that humanoid is consumed also in flames, and will burn and wither and collapse and die, and then rise again to walk a fiery path indefinitely. It is in this way that the fire spreads, that a spark becomes a conflagration consuming huge swaths of land. It is for this reason above all other horrors that the firewalker is considered a horrifying plague, and why firefighters are so revered - and why they are prepared to slay each other first, should the firewalker get close to finishing one of them off.

The Firewalker 
Notes:  The firewalker has 8HD, but does not die when these are exhausted. The creature merely collapses in agony, dead and not dead, same as when it burns to death. It rises once more shortly afterward, 1d12x10 minutes later, unless specific magic is undertaken to prevent this. To permanently end the firewalker, the creature must be laid down as if slain, and then, while it waits to rise again, it must be circled in salt and doused head to toe in blessed holy water. It must then be buried in sand such that none of its cracked, blackened flesh is exposed to the air. Finally, a Remove Curse or equivalent spell must be cast upon its form to release it from its material torment. Anything less than this, including if it awakens before the rituals are complete, is a failure, and the firewalker is restored with 8HD.
Notes: The firewalker attacks if hostilities are engaged upon it, and it will not cease attacking until it slays whatever troubles it. All in melee with it take 1d6 fire damage per turn, no save. All within a further 10' take 1d4 fire damage per turn, no save. Enchantments or equipment which reduce or immunize against fire damage are effective. The firewalker has two primary means of attacking foes: it may make 2x claw attacks for 1d4 damage each, or it may breathe a gout of white-hot flame causing 3d6 damage. If it performs the latter, that will be its whole attack action for the round, and it may not do so again the following round. The flame breath can be saved against (vs breath, naturally).
ATTACKS: See Notes**
MOVE: 30'
SAVE AS: Fighter 8