Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Gespenwald, Cairn, and the NSR

Firstly, I have a new thing out. It's called Gespenwald, comes in the form of a PDF (printable as a double-sided A4 trifold), and can be downloaded here. I will have printed copies available in a couple of months.

It kicks off with a children's rhyme:

On Narren Night, my love and me
We met beside the Gespen tree
We kissed and counted, one, two, three,
And turned, and touched the Gespen tree

The Gespen Tree, the Gespen Tree
Her elbows wrapped around her knee
As old as bone and stone is she
The Gespen Tree, the Gespen Tree

In Gespenwald, around the tree
We spent the night, my love and me
Until the sun returned and he
Left me alone, beside the tree

Oh Gespen Tree, oh Gespen Tree
Return my stolen love to me
Next Narren night, please set him free
Oh Gespen Tree, oh Gespen Tree

Gespenwald is a freeform adventure written for the Forests of Another Name jam. Although it's written for the game Cairn, it can easily be played with Into the Odd and its derivatives; or adapted for other games; or even, like my previous publication Mostly Harmless Meetings, read as a piece of Oulipian fantasy fiction.

I thought I'd use the release of this new piece of writing as an opportunity to talk a little about Cairn, a game which many people won't be familiar with, and, via Cairn, to talk about the "NSR" community.

Cairn entered my consciousness a few weeks ago via an interview with its creator Yochai Gal on the Wobblies & Wizards podcast (I'd downloaded Cairn a few months earlier but, after a quick skim through, filed it away to "revisit later"). It's a game based on the (brilliantly simple) rules of Into the Odd, but with a fantasy setting, sprinkled with elements from Knave and other games. It's really good! Especially these principles that inform how it should be played:

Cairn philosophies (click to embiggen)
Principles for Wardens (click to embiggen)
Principles for Players (click to embiggen)

Via that podcast I also learned of the Forests of Another Name jam. I love joining game jams: they spark my imagination (which can sometimes be a little hard to bootstrap) and give me a deadline to work towards, without which I've a tendency to devolve into a stinking mass of unrealised ideas. So I joined.

In among the advice for the jam were links to the Cauldron Discourse forum and the NSR Discord server, as places to discuss submissions.

I'd assumed that these were fairly small-scale jam- or Cairn-specific spaces. But I found much more than that going on. The Discord server in particular was very very busy. I've a tendency to ignore any Discord that has more than half-a-dozen posts per day. And, initially, that's what I did with this one.

As I dug deeper into the Cauldron forum, I found an intelligent, creative, open-minded and friendly community who were throwing around a bunch of cool and disparate ideas which I found inspiring. So I dived back into the Discord, and found the same, only much much more of it.

When I first started to explore indie TTPRG content, I kept hearing the term OSR (for Old School Renaissance. Mostly). And I struggled to understand what it was. Plus I felt I'd missed the boat somewhat (everyone kept harking back to the halcyon days of Google+, which I'd missed), and perhaps it was an irrelevant and dying movement. My second ever post on this blog addressed this.

I soon learned that the OSR was not just Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which seemed to be referenced in every piece of OSR writing I encountered). It took me at least another year to really grasp the principles behind the OSR. And even longer to realise that the term OSR had accrued so many meanings that it was little more than a marketing label.

At the same time, I was trying to find my community in the RPGosphere. The comments section on Monsters & Manuals blog posts seemed the best place for intelligent conversation, though much of the discussion there revolves around old skool OSR, while my interests tend towards the "Nu-OSR". Elsewhere, significant parts of the OSR community seem pretty small-c conservative (it is, after all, a movement harking back to lost glory days), shading at the fringes into grognardian gatekeeping and some quite unpleasant politics.

On Facebook, the groups with "OSR" in their names cover a wider spectrum of ideas, but are mostly full of self-promotion. Then there's the group on there called simply "OSR", which is (despite being a place whose members' politics seem similar to mine) one of the most poisonous online spaces I've encountered: almost every post (certainly those which surfaced into my Facebook notifications) is a boast about trolling or "owning" right-wing gamers. When they came after one of my friends I realised that I'd long-since had enough of their bile, and quit the group.

And then there's Twitter. Which, as we all know, is a clusterfuck. Not only that but, because I've followed just about everyone whom I thought might be vaguely interested in Peakrill stuff, my feed is 99% D&D 5th Edition and Manga pics. #ttrpgfamily

After all of this, discovering the NSR (for New School Revolution. Mostly) community was like finally finding my home. Like I said, intelligent, respectful conversation across a wide range of topics. I've never encountered any gatekeeping, and there's very little policing needed because people there are just... nice. It's a big community (as I type this, in the middle of a UK weekday afternoon, the Discord server shows 325 people online). You can get helpful answers to just about any question, often within seconds, and often from a game's creator (it's great to see folks like Chris McDowall and Nate Treme post there fairly frequently). And, although it's very busy, if the posts build up while I'm not checking in I simply mark them all as read and start afresh.

 Is this what the halcyon Google+ days of the OSR were like? But fluffier?

NSR: no logo

NSR, unlike OSR, is not a set of gaming principles (although it started out as that). It's more a community, and a... feeling. Which makes it hard to turn into another marketing term. There is another Wobblies & Wizards interview with Yochai Gal which goes into more detail about what the NSR is (and isn't), but here's a handy summary from the Discord:

(1) You might hear sometimes that we're "the OSR but with a distaste for crusty old D&D rulesets," and there's a grain of truth to that, but really we have a wide spread of tastes (Into the Odd, story games, FKR, weird old RPGs, even some 5E and some old-D&D ruleset people!).

(2) We don't like strict RPG dogma. We have something of a slogan that @jeffszusz came up with: "Where the best game is the game you like to play, the way you like to play it." For example, we try to tailor feedback on your ideas to your preferences and design goals rather than our own.

This is a great place to be if you feel alienated from other communities and their focus on how everything has to be done a certain way, or if you just want to learn more about other playstyles.

Looping back almost to the beginning of this post, I believe a large part of the liveliness of this movement is down to Yochai Gal. I'm sure that, in his modesty, he'll rebut this claim and point to the giants on whose shoulders he stands. And, sure, Yochai came up with a great game, Cairn, based on the work of those giants. And he had the help of many others in curating a ton of content for Cairn, including adaptations of adventures designed for more D&D-like systems. But what counts is that he created this space where people feel encouraged to participate, and (again with others' help) has been shepherd and cheerleader to this great community, not just around Cairn but around all of the "games you like to play, the way you like to play them".

Cheers Yochai!

And looping right back to the beginning of this post: I made a thing. I'd love for you to check it out.

Update: Pandatheist has revisited the NSR and Yochai Gal set out his definition.

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