With my palette getting gradually spoiled by all of the efforts put out by enthusiastic amateurs and my current donation clocking in at a brobdignagian 400+ pages, I have been missing out on genuinely terrible material to laugh at. My edge grows dull and my body grows fat. Thankfully, the spirit of the TRVSR provided, and brought to my attention one of my detractors over on the angry side of the pond, where everything is dreadfully serious and there is but wailing and the gnashing of teeth. Yogai Girl spends a lot of time sulkily warning people away from buying my stuff and participating in No Artpunk (it did not work), time he, if a suggestion may be made, could have spent working on this book. It is that time, once again, to point and laugh.
I occasionally check out the work of people that, for whatever reason, move beyond a civilized dislike and into the joyless realm of perpetual seething where flowers do not bloom, if only to gauge my own merit. If Zak shrieks on the Lotfp discord that my work should not be shared because I am a liar, a terrorist and a harasser that is a cause for celebration! I have made it doll, I tell my fiance, as I smoke cigars, pour myself a cognac and put my feet on the desk, the reviewer big leagues where I can no longer be ignored. Now granted, Zak probably got up that day at twelve in the morning, accused his mailman of lying, went to the mall to buy new pink hairdye and antibiotics, accused everyone he met of harassment, called an uber, lying and harassment, went back to bed at four in the afternoon, texting his dealer about bad faith actors, then spent the fifteen dollars he made off of Cube World on getting an automation script set up so it automatically files a court order to anyone not on the Demon City mailing list, but its the thought that counts. A vastly overrated creator in his time, but by no means a talentless one.
Obviously, with Zak being banished to the Shadow Realm and now locked in a deadly struggle with Daniel Sell over who gets to be in charge of the crazy people, there is a rich market of newcomers, drug addicts, clowns and assorted fools that is left fallow. Enter Yochai Gal. He has the physiognomy, the cynicism, the rodentlike viciousness, indeed all the characteristics of becoming the next top guy in the NuSR! His only weakness is that he has no imagination and he cannot write. Gauging by the strength of the current entry, my star is either falling or there is just no one left in NuSR land with any fighting spirit. What about Luka Rejec? Why can’t I have a feud with Luka Rejec? I tried! Luka Rejec, for all his slavic Patrick Stuart doppleganger-like nature, is definitely imaginative, he has vision, he takes risks. I get how you can at least admire the Moebius Hexcrawl thing. The challenge with reviewing Cairn is how empty it all is. That’s it? you ask incredulously. And you get in return only a teary-eyed stare of simmering resentment.
Obviously there is nothing inherently wrong with making your own retroclone, a feat many people either attempt, or their current game has simply been expanded and houseruled until it becomes its own thing, adapted to the personal ideosyncracies of a GM and his group. The problem occurs when this personal creation is then taken to the market because daddy wants that RPG credit and it must be measured against a legacy of extant material. What does this add? Why has this been added? What does this do that is not already being done? There is a reason I refuse, or warn people away, from submitting their own OSR systems for review. A system is the most critical decision a would be GM can make, why would you ever go for something that is untried and all of 2 pages long if a superior and proven alternative has existed for decades? It must either do something new, or it must be a significant improvement on something extant.
A fourth generation rules-lite 20-page NSR game, maybe vaguely about exploring ‘an ancient woodland with all manner of creatures fae and fell’, the book acknowledges Into The Odd, Knave, the inventory system from Mausritter (???) and Weird North (???), it is perhaps best characterized by its generic approach, the smallness of its imagination, the sparseness of its content and its lack of distinguishing characteristics.
A somewhat vexed defender of Cairn, a Karen if you will, mentioned that I was slagging creatives not afraid to take risks, but frankly Cairn is the least creative work I have seen in a very long time. One could argue it is actually negatively creative. Its core ruleset is ported from Into the Odd but Into the Odd, while certainly flawed, was an bold experiment in minimalism, taking giant leaps and risks, combining its mechanical innovation with a bizarro landscape of industrialized hell, corroding machinery, alien visitation and lovecraftian horror in the manner of Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic or China Mevielle’s Bas-Lag. Magic is flung aside contemptuously alongside the class system, replaced with artifacts of three different strengths, porters and guns and ironclads. A bold proclamation is made: Extreme radical dudes only! Better wear your hazard goggles! And of course that is attractive to kids looking for the next kick. It is understandable.
Cairn takes that same system and half-heartedly turns it back to a medieval fantasy setting where a band of adventurers must explore ancient tombs, fight goblins, unearthing magic items and spells. SPIT TAKE. FUCKING EXCUSE ME? WE ALREADY HAVE THAT. IT IS CALLED D&D. IT IS CALLED BLACK HACK IF YOU ONLY HAVE 2 HOURS AND YOU HAVE TO PLAY ON THE BATHROOM AND IT IS CALLED KNAVE IF YOU ARE WEARING A FOAM HELMET. It then compounds that error further by making that original material less fantastical and conceptually dense then it previously was.
The aforementioned lite-games are an affront to some but they have their use and may be justified that at least they are broadly compatible with over 4 decades of supplements full of spells, monsters, items and adventures written for the world’s most popular roleplaying game and while the conversion from, say, Black Hack to AD&D might leave some holes that require filling, the conversion into simplicity is fairly easy to achieve. Cairn eschews this colossal advantage in favor of…well, that is to say, uh, maybe it’s own unique approach no wait there is nothing there, uh…to be continued.
We forget ourselves. After being treated to an attractive cover of choking brambles, Cairn lavishly spends 3 of its 20 pages outlining its general principles, thrilling us with such radical new concepts as:
Players should always understand the
reasons behind the choices they’ve made,
and information about potential risks
should be provided freely and frequently
Player characters may be powerful, but
also vulnerable to harm in its many forms.
Death is always around the corner, but it is
never random or without warning.
The Warden’s role is to portray the rules,
situations, NPCs and narrative clearly,
while acting as a neutral arbiter.
Which for a newcomer has so little context in terms of practical application as to be all but useless and from a regular in the OSR elicits perhaps a bored yawn or a tired nod. The few new additions such as this one
Characters are changed through diegetic
(in-world) advancement, gaining new
skills and abilities by surviving dangerous
events and overcoming obstacles
merit no further explanation whatever elsewhere in the text. It is not that the information is worthless, the principles for players and gamemasters would mostly serve as a useful primer in a game that is rich with principles, but what Cairn is or what its context is is never explained or explored beyond three sentences. Take this:
The game world produces real risk of
pain and death for the player characters.
Telegraph serious danger to players
when it is present. The more dangerous,
the more obvious.
Put traps in plain sight and let the
players take time to figure out a
Give players opportunities to solve
problems and interact with the world.
I know what this means. I don’t agree with point 3, but I know exactly how to apply it. This is because I already know about dungeons, I know tonnes of rules about listening at doors, finding traps, secret doors, encounter distance etc. If you gave me those rules, I might be able to figure out their spirit, but add a principle, and bam! blammo! We are in business. The spirit of the rules. Here you get the spirit of the rules, I mean, a bastardized version of the spirit of the OSR as described in half a dozen primers, throw in some storygame nonsense, and there you have it. Now you can Cairn.
So now that we have established that Yochai Gal has at least interacted with OSR material before or perhaps had someone read it to him quickly on his lunchbreak while he typed up Cairn, that places him into the unfortunate position where he must now explain why his game lacks rules for even the most basic elements of your standard OSR dungeoncrawler shitbrew that those principles concern. I am not talking about fucking medieval crop yields and inheritance law. I am talking about fucking listening at doors or disarming traps. Just use common sense, IDK. Trash.
Okay, so character creation. Roll 3d6 three times. STR, DEX, WP just like Into the Odd. Roll for your age for whatever reason, there is no other mechanic that interacts with it but sure, get someone between 12 and 52, roll background, roll 1d6 for starting hp, and…well that’s it. The game has no levels, you will not advance beyond that. I guess you could retroclone Into the Odd’s advancement back into Cairn but that might be against the spirit of the game, where the PCs wander throughout a vague enchanted forest perpetually stuck at level 1. A fitting punishment for a lack of discernment!
Encumbrance. Taken from another game. 10 slots, 6 in your backpack, helmet, body, two hands. What about your feet? What about a ring? Fuck you no feet. No fingers. “Most items take up one slot, and small items can be bundled together. Slots are
abstract and can be rearranged per the Warden’s discretion.” Ah yes, the old enemy, GM’s discretion. There used to be a time, and this would have been around 1980, that GM’s discretion was a necessary extension, a reflection of the fact the game is trying to do something that is almost impossible, simulate an entire world, and rules are ever a mere attempt at modelling something that is so infinetely nuanced, infinetely complex, that it cannot be grasped with rigid procedure. Today it is used mainly to avoid earnest effort by lazy hipsters without prospects, eager to call themselves Designer so they may transcend from their job at the Starbucks and become a graphic designer making brochures for a car leasing company.
How about this? And this is a general offer: Whenever you have a spare lunchbreak to write a game like this, simply write, ALL RULES ARE SUBJECT TO REVISION AND FINAL ARBITRATION BY THE GM. Done. Write it once. No need to repeat it. Small items can be bundled together? How many? Why is it important? Carrying capacity modifies movement speed, modifies torch useage and number of random encounters gained. Not here. Why not have an inventory of GM’s discretion slots if you are going to be lazy? You count as having 0 hp if your inventory is totally full, and some items count as Bulky, meaning two slots, which does indeed enforce some sort of consequence to carrying too much. Treasure is bulky! All treasure, always, everything. The granularity has been reduced to an absolute condition. The careful management of equipment, the gradually sliding movement rates, these are all gone, and little exists to prop them up.
There are backgrounds and random names but of course these do nothing and inform nothing. As a stand-in for professions in the old AD&D alternative to proficiencies it is defensible and this is of course, fully present in Into the Odd, but we should give some sort of minimal credit to Yochai Gal for coming up with medieval professions like Merchant and Performer and Ranger. The first genuine attempt at mustering some sort of creative energy should be celebrated, however minor. Well done. A list of 20 first names and surnames, generously provided. Fantastic. Consider for a moment, an alternate reality where the author had used this page to establish some sort of theme or mood. Consider if instead of merchant, gambler and Ranger, there was, say, a list of normal english professions, suggesting a more low fantasy or faerie-tale milieu? What if it had had more baroque professions? Witch-hunter, Faerie-slayer, Bailiff? Hexenmeister whatever? I think back to something like Dark Heresy RPG which not only devoted 1 of its more then 400 pages on d100 names for each of 4 different backgrounds but used those names to evoke or hint at the baroque atmosphere and endless history of the place.
A full page of character traits is given to flesh out the character, who, in lieu of mechanical abilities, must be differentiated by background and surface level detail. Notice traits like the state of the clothing, the manner of speech, the vices and virtues, each of which receives a lavish 10 options each, allowing for tremendous surface level variation.
Starting gear. Per Into the Odd Everything is random. You get random equipment based on your starting package, and you get more random gear based on some dice. Nothing here is fundamentally terrible. It is too primitive to be bad or good. The issue is that there is nothing else. Devoting an entire page to starting names is perfectly fine if you have a big book and have all your fundamentals covered and you want a little bit of flavor. A convenience. Here it is 5% of the book.
So unlike Troika Cairn does offer ye Aulde equipment list, and though none of the items have any sort of description, the game has so little in the way of mechanics that any effect can just be put in brackets behind the entry. Please hold on to your seats while you read this (extremely mindblowing risk-taking game design incoming).
Notice the way Bedroll prices have been increased from their initial appearance in OD&D yet Grappling hooks have retained their value. Ponder the mysteries of a setting where a crowbar costs the exact same as a lens of finely shaped glass or an unspecified amount of grease. Consider also, if you will, why you would ever purchase the more expensive and bulky Brigandine if the gambeson is available. Why has the rope been reduced to a mere 25 ft, yet the Pole retained its full length. We will likely never find out. Also, still using gold standard? Tisk tisk.
Page 11, rules. As Into the Odd, but slightly shittier. Consider, if you will, the following guideline.
Resting for a few moments and having a
drink of water restores lost HP but leaves
the party exposed. Ability loss (see page 14)
can usually be restored with a week’s rest
facilitated by a healer or other appropriate
source of expertise. Some of these services
are free, while magical or more expedient
means of recovery may come at a cost
Exposed to what, might one inquire? To BAD GAMEDESIGN? To HACKS? Being deprived of something essential all has the same effect. Each day means you lose an inventory slot to fatigue, but there does not seem to be an effect for getting full fatigue, with the exception of the penalty for full inventory, which I am sure is a deliberate game design choice made by the designer and not a sloppy omission because no one ever starves in Cairn because NO ONE CARES AND YOUR PARENTS GOT DIVORCED.
Armor uses the Into the Odd rules but removes the interesting element of having Archaic armor that required a shield hand and modern armor that required none, creating an additional hindrance. Helmet and shield effectively take up 1 extra slot and the maximum armor is capped at 3 for no reason but there is essentially the same simple tradeoff between protection and encumberance, and having an extra hand does mean you can do more damage. Just like in into the odd.
Reaction rolls are 2d6 flat, Morale is actually included and involves a Will Check. I was getting depressed so actually including morale, and then using a statt that you are using for it anyway because muh minimalism, is in a way heartening.
Gold rules are essentially vestigial. There is no Gold for XP in this game because there is no XP, and the most expensive item in the game is a cart, equivalent to 20 items of grease or 200 gp. There is no reason to accumulate wealth and nothing to spend it on. You could argue B/X or OSE suffers from the same problem but OSE shortcircuits this by giving you XP for it, making it your primary method of advancement. At least give people an out. Put an item on the fucking list. ‘Peace in our Time’- 10000 gp. ‘Patrick Stuart’s House’ – 1000000 GP. How much does gold weigh? Not answered. Could have gone for the virgin 100 gp = item, instead went with the chad ‘my shift starts in 5 min I don’t have time.’ Golf clap.
PCs can hire hirelings to aid them in
their expeditions. To create a hireling,
roll 3d6 for each ability score, then give
them 1d6 HP and a simple weapon (d6),
then roll on the Character Creation tables
to further flesh them out. Hirelings cost
between 1-3gp per day, or a share of
whatever treasure the party obtains.
What happens if I treat them poorly? What happens if I give them a dangerous order? How many hirelings can I have? Would you say ten million? What kind of share do they want? What if I ask one of them to kill the other for my amusement? What if I ask one of them to spend a lunchbreak designing a game that STINKS?
Instead of Oddities and Artifacts, Cairn has SPELLS. They are exactly the same but less compelling. Ironically, casting spells requires both hands free, and casting them does cause one point of fatigue, meaning wizards are, in some minor way, penalized for wearing armor, although 1d6 starting hp means you are going to want to stack as much armor as you humanely can. Spells cannot be transcribed, created, bought, sold or otherwise created, they function like magic items that lay around in magic ruins or whatever the fuck. SPIT. HAWK-SPIT.
If the PC is deprived or in danger, the Warden may require a PC to make a WIL save to avoid any ill-effects from casting the spell. Consequences of failure are on par with the intended effect, and may result in added Fatigue, the destruction of the Spellbook, injury, and even death
May require. Notice weasely conditional, arbitrary, cowardly refusal to make a definitive statement, allowing one to deflect possible criticism of shoddy implementation. It may sometimes, if you want to, mind you, and if you are in some sort of danger (if you think so), have an effect, maybe fatigue, or something, maybe the Kool Aid man crashes through the wall and begins singing.
ACTUALLY GOOD CONTENT INCOMING. relics a.k.a. magic items. They are actually faerie-tale like, hinting perhaps towards some sort of unique setting or idea. There are 4 of them. How many good items does D&D have? Would you say, a thousand? Several hundred? Cairn has 4. Even Into the Odd gave quite a few oddities, knowing full well this would be of primary importance. Here…
Honeyclasp, 3 charges. A rusted ring that
shrinks the bearer to 6”tall. Recharge:
place in a thimble-sized cup of royal jelly.
Falconer’s Friend, 1 charge. A bolt-shaped
wand carrying the Haste spell. Recharge:
fire from a crossbow and recover.
Staff of Silence, 1 charge. This blackened
rod temporarily disables all magic within
50ft. Recharge: bathe in the light of a full
Leycap, 1 use. Anyone ingesting this
green-flecked mushroom loses a Fatigue,
but is then required to make a WIL save to
avoid its addictive properties. A fail leaves
the PC deprived and unable to focus until
they can eat another leycap, providing
only a brief reprieve from the addiction.
And if we would find that in a normal game, we would go, oh, how nice. How many items are in the DMG? Try to view your effort in the light of something already extant. What a fucking gnat you are in comparison. What an absolute lowlife attoscopic noneffort this is. Empire of the Petal Throne? Nightmares Underneath? Shadowrun? Even Into the Odd. AT LEAST the Black Hack or Knave or something can boast compatibility with all that stuff that is already there.
Combat – Like INTO THE ODD but more abstracted, multiple attacks targeting a single target just roll and use the highest dice, a disgusting conceit. Cue a critical hit table if you go below zero. Just read my Into the Odd review. Note Burning Oil is available for sale, but is not covered separately in combat, meaning the effect is not covered anywhere. Firing into melee…whatever. Blanket modifiers are cynically boiled down to advantage and disadvange. Mass combat rules are added…and so what? There is no system or procedure to support it.
This is a section where I complain about the omission of exploration or dungeon crawling rules and Yochai Gal can’t in all honesty complain about this particular gripe since he has slowly and carefully, over geological ages or perhaps someone told him, come to the realization that you actually need those things, so if you want a particularly terrible and lazy rendition of procedures that were established before the internet existed then I invite you to look them up yourself on the website.
This is a section where I complain there is no level up and though the book discusses the option of diegetic (I think he means Diabetic because this is making me want to eat a bucket of ben and jerries) advancement, but there is no hint, nor procedure on how to handle it. You are left with having to do all the heavy lifting yourself, precisely what you don’t need if you play someone else’s game.
If this is meant to be an outline, something for people to develop for themselves, where is the fucking inspirational stuff? Where is the magic? I reviewed Ashen Void and it is nothing but impressionist tables and hints that your mind must piece together into your own ruleset. And its fascinating. Bizarre. Alluring. This is off-putting. Banal. Vapid.
Bestiary. Five creatures. Trolls. Boggarts. Wood things. No rules about the enchanted forest, no special gazzeteer, or environmental modifiers. No sample adventure, like Into the Odd, crucial, CRUCIAL, when you introduce a new or semi-new system. No 100 hooks about the magic forest about what an adventure even is. Nothing. Five things and a MONSTER GENERATOR. The GALL. The absolute CHUTZPAH, of taking this game with all of 2 stats and spending half a page on a CONVERSION and monster creation GUIDE. AN INFANT could make a new monster in Cairn. A man coming out of a six month COMA after cerebral haemorrage, could figure out how to do it. CAN YOU READ? Then you can make monsters for Cairn. Here I’ll do a medusa and i didn’t even check the generator properly.
Str: 8 Dex: 16 lol Wis: 14
* Petrifying Gaze single target must make a Wis save or lose 3d6 dex.
* Snakes Cairn doesn’t have poison rules but 1d4 dam str save or lose 1d6 str or something
Spells. Spells is the only part where maybe Yochai did a little bit of work. Not a lot, most spells are straight from D&D, but he did, somewhere, come up with a handful of spells that are not already there. Each is a single line. This is about the general level of quality.
We can ask questions like why the duration of Shield is one minute while the length of rounds is made arbitrary by design or what the statts of a summoned monster are or the range or whatever the fuck but it doesn’t matter. Just do something. No one who plays this gives a shit. Do something that looks like a game somewhere. All wizards in Cairn should carry Carts and ride on horses since that means they can take more fatigue. Take some solace from that notion.
I think it is charming that one of the 24 pages of this 20 page booklet with 5ish pages of rules, they took the trouble to include a rules summary that is just one page of rules. Why not just use that? Is the additional text that vital to the balance of the game? Will you ruin all the tournament play?
So it is unfair to assume everyone who likes Cairn is a complete halfwit based solely on the dozens of individuals that I have encountered online. Brad Kerr is considered decent and he wrote the Demon’s Maw for Cairn, granted a best on tenfoopole, before he came to his senses, shrugged off the evil mind-control gypsy spells of Yochai Gal and started writing for OSE instead. The point to take away is that playing Cairn does not ruin you irrevocably, and through patience, hard work and diligence, you can be cured of it and learn to enjoy normal games like everyone else already does.
What strikes one with Cairn is the general lack of ambition, the smallness of the imagination and the focus on minituae and trivia over innovation and substance. It evokes images of playing a game where one is perpetually at level 1. The way there seems to be no inspiration behind it. In Troika we get the idea of an uncontrolled firing of the cortex, of straining against convention but being unable to harness those energies and achieve flight. In Cairn we get a flatline, an intimation of burnt out neurons and benzodiazepam. The vaguest outline of some idea maybe perhaps. No appendix N, no introductory fiction god help us, no gazzeteer, not the merest hint of the world or backdrop of the world and only a handful of illustrations to guide us. In fact I could write an appendix N for Cairn right here that would instantly convey what it is perhaps vaguely hinting at.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunstany
Evenor – George McDonald
The Snail and the Slope – Boris & Arkady Strugatsky
The White People – Arthur Machen (Calm down Yochai it’s not what you think)
Lyonesse – Jack Vance
The women of the wood – Abraham Merrit.
I understand that by providing this short list of fiction I have invested Cairn with infinitely more thought, substance and value then Mr. Gal ever could so I should rightfully be made its primary author but I will decline the honor on the grounds that it is not an honor and I do not want my name to be attached to a ramshackle derivative piece of drivel.
To ye would be authors of rules lites, micro-games and other things OSR, treat this as a cautionary tale. Your mission is not impossible. Your goals are not always malign. If you, by your efforts, bring a person into this hobby and he learns the basics and moves on you have done something worthwhile. If you are reading this and you think, waitaminute, that could apply to my fucking game, then it probably does. Have some fucking perspective and put some fucking work into what you put out. If I was a guy trying to get into RPGs and someone left Cairn on my bed I would throw it in the trash and later ask them why they felt the need to print out the home-made game that they came up with for the scouting weekend. Its free. There’s that. I’m sure the second edition will cost money, but at least we aren’t being charged for this. Here’s hoping I didn’t pick on someone who is actually mentally disabled but I somehow feel a game made by a literal moron would have more soul, heart and a childlike sense of wonder.
A dead bird with a cigarette put out in it.