Friday, March 11, 2011

Top 15 Classic OSR Blog Posts: On Game Design and Campaign Resources

What follows is part two of a three-part list of individual blog entries that fulfill my criteria for being "classic." Let me again emphasize that these are MY picks for blog posts I return to again and again, posts that have been most influential to ME over time. It is therefore likely that my using the term "classic" is a misnomer, as that status should really be conferred via some process of group / community consensus.

Part one of the list included Classic OSR Posts on the subject of "Theory and History," i.e., general ruminating or ranting about what our hobby "means," discussing the role our blog community plays in the development and sustenance of that hobby, and/or documenting the real-world history of D&D, TSR, et. al.

This post deals with Classic OSR Blog Posts about in-game matters like setting design, DM strategies, good role-playing, creating new game content, and the like. At times, the distinction between the two broad topics was a difficult -- and ultimately arbitrary -- one to make. For example, is Zak's "How Much Do You Want To Be A Wizard?" simply about what happens at the game table (hence justifying its inclusion here), or is it a more general philosophical manifesto about good DM-player relationships and gaming-group chemistry? (I suppose it's both.)

Criteria / selection process:

1. I went with relatively well-known or "popular" OSR blogs. My main way of determining said popularity was by consulting Cyclopeatron's December 2010 report of Old School Blog rankings -- no post could be deemed an OSR "Classic" unless it came from a blog that scored fairly high up in those rankings. I didn't have a specific numerical cutoff point in mind when I started, but in the end, the lowest-ranked blog represented in this second part of the list is in the 18th rank; some are un-rankable (i.e., Wordpress, etc.); and I make a special exception for Gorgonmilk, a new blog by a veteran blogger.

2. The "test of time" was a factor, but an extremely minor one. While some readers could (rightly) argue that "Classic" implies something that has been around for awhile, remember that this is MY fucking list so in a few cases I included much more recent posts that happened to capture the "Classic" ethos or strongly spoke to me as I was compiling this Top 15. But overall I tried to favor posts that had been around in the blogosphere for a little while.

3. I play Labyrinth Lord in a Tolkienesque / Gygaxian mode. That preference surely colors my choices here, since (for example) there are no posts listed that deal with Gamma World / Mutant Future, Traveller, T&T, etc. -- believe me, it was hard enough narrowing this thing to a mere 15 posts as it is.

4. Lastly, in terms of my engagement with the online community, I mostly just read OSR blogs. I do not visit the discussion boards, I am not an avid web-surfer, etc. So everything on this list is stuff I found via my own primitive knocking around in the OSR blogosphere. Many apologies in advance if my own ignorance diminishes the interest or accuracy of the list.

All that said, I strongly urge anyone who disagrees with what I've included here or who spots obvious omissions to offer corrective comments below, or, even better, create your own "Classic Blog Post" lists as well -- I'd love to read them!

Note that this list is NOT in order of preference or "rank," but simply organized in a way that makes for interesting reading if read in this sequence.

1. James Edward Raggi IV, LotFP, "Guide to Adventure Writing"
Still my favorite general guide to good adventure design, written by the best module writer in the OSR.

2. James Maliszewski, Grognardia, "Locale and Plot"
This characteristically sharp analysis by James M. of old-school module design principles should be required reading for anyone wishing to design adventures with an old-school feel.

3. Zak S., Playing D&D With Porn Stars, "Riddles In The Dark (or, Earn It)"
More from Zak Sabbath, this time about why game balance (in the contemporary sense) sucks (my words). This post outlines how PCs should develop during game play, NOT as a result of complex character "builds," an idea I emphatically agree with. It is a relatively recent post but one I could not resist including.

4. Greg at Gorgonmilk, "On Boiling Down Your Setting to its Essential Salts"
The most recent offering on the list, this post by Greg (formerly of Eiglophian Press fame) offers a list of possible concepts that can be used to generate a "post-Tolkien" fantasy campaign setting. The post itself may not be "classic" yet, but the ideas it proposes surely are.

5. James Maliszewski, Grognardia, "Of Ancient Empires"
James' comments in this inspiring post refer to the background of his own megadungeon project, Dwimmermount, but the core idea is applicable to all of us megadungeon creators. A terrific idea!

6. Al Krombach, Beyond the Black Gate, "Megadungeon Resources"
Al Krombach is one of the great champions of megadungeon design philosophy and toolkit provision currently working in the OSR blogosphere. His list of megadungeon design resources is succinct, accessible, and absolutely essential reading for anyone wishing to design a megadungeon. I might especially wish to single out his superb (and fun!) Random Area Name Generator, which I have used many times. Also deserving of honorable mention are Al's yearly Beyond the Black Gate Compendiums for 2009 and 2010 -- chock full of great stuff!

7. Rob Conley, Bat in the Attic, "How to make a Fantasy Sandbox"
Rob Conley's thoroughgoing series of blog posts on Sandbox Design is required (and therefore "classic") reading for anybody in the OSR who wants to sit behind the DM's screen. Indispensable!

8. Michael Curtis, The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope, "With New Old Eyes"
Curtis' reflections about what make a good megadungeon, written just as he completed the first volume of his Stonehell, constitute "classic" and essential reading for any megadungeon creator.

9. Dyson Logos, A character for every game, "Maps"
Though my Arandish campaign owes a huge debt to many of the classic posts listed here, I would say that the biggest practical contribution has come from Dyson Logos' excellent wordpress blog, A character for every game. Dyson is a very talented cartographer, and I have used three of his maps / dungeons -- Goblin Gully, Coruvon (which I used for the Arandish town of Swampsedge), and Level 1 of his mini-megadungeon, Dyson's Delve -- in my campaign so far. I will continue to use them. And while my praise here focuses on Dyson's maps, please check out his blog's other offerings as well, such as his Random polearm Generator and his great posts about elementals.

10. Dyson Logos, A character for every game, "2d6 Thiefing"
There has been much debate about and tinkering with the thief class waged over the years. Some have argued that it is an unnecessary / oxymoronic D&D class, others have expressed dissatisfaction with the B/X thief mechanics and have offered their own versions (e.g., Al K. and James M.). Yet Dyson's simple 2d6 system for handling thief abilities is the most elegant and appealing solution to the thief "problem" that I have yet seen.  In fact, I am such a fan of "2d6 Thiefing" that I have both installed it as the standard for thieves in my Arandish campaign, and Spawn of Endra and I have borrowed the concept in order to create 2d6 Bardery.  Dyson also reprinted this piece in Dyson's Dodecahedron Vol. 1 Issue 1, which is well worth downloading in its own right!

11. bat, Ancient Vaults and Eldritch Secrets
I cannot single out one post here, but must simply include the whole blog as one huge, ongoing, excellent resource for old-school gaming ideas.  The fact that bat cranks out a new spell, monster, or magic item pretty much every day of the year astounds me, and the fact that so many of them are so goddamn good is the sweet icing on the cake.  I cannot begin to tell you how many spells I have horked from "Ancient Vaults" -- but if I ever finish those Elementalist NPCs for my Arandish campaign, my great debt to bat's work will become readily apparent.

12. Jeff Rients, Jeff's Gameblog, "How to Awesome-Up Your Players"
Great DM'ing advice helping you to "empower the players to make the game a non-stop high-octane freak-out"!  Who can resist that?

13.Zak Sabbath, Playing D&D With Porn Stars, "How Much Do You Want To Be A Wizard?"
Zak is the best blogger around when it comes to discussing the intricacies of DM-player dynamics, and this is his most "classic" post on the matter. I am also fond of his more recent posts comparing RPG groups to rock bands and discussing RPG group "Design Specs", but I still choose this earlier post on player buy-ins as more "classic," nuanced, and outright true.

14. Alexis, The Tao of D&D, "30 Ways Not To Cheat At D&D"
I admit that Alexis' work at the Tao of D&D is at times daunting to me, both due to his high level of granularity and his sometimes inflammatory prose, but I am nevertheless glad that Alexis exists. And once in awhile, he hits a nail so squarely on the head that I am glad I check in over at his blog from time to time. This list of 30 player principles is one such post -- a great assessment of what we might call "gaming table ethics" that I feel would improve play for anyone who rigorously followed them. Not quite as impactful but still deserving of honorable mention is Alexis' post on the role of the DM, "The DM is Not a Player."

15. Noisms, Monsters and Manuals, "Gaming Advice #1: Don't Be A Dick Head"
How much more succinct can one get? Noism's key piece of advice here is fundamental to keeping our time at the game table enjoyable, and is certainly deserving of timeless, "classic" status.

And a Bonus Post Deserving of Honorable Mention:

Zak Sabbath, Playing D&D With Porn Stars, "Urbancrawl Rules For Slacker DMs"
Sadly for me, this is one of those really conceptually brilliant ideas that it is very difficult to see myself ever using in play. I am a bit too much of a Gygaxian naturalist / in-depth world-builder to likely ever need to use this elegant system for figuring out city travel distances, because I already know the basic layout of most of the major Arandish cities my PCs would visit. But nevertheless, this is one of the most memorable blog posts I have ever read on any subject, and I think Zak's idea here perfectly embodies the on-the-fly, random-dice-rolling, old-school gaming spirit I so dearly love. Bad ass!

Next time: "The Best of the Rest: Classic Posts from Less-Followed Blogs"


  1. Thank you much for the kind words!
    I actually run a very Tolkienesque/Gygaxian game myself (with a litle gonzo in there for good measure to stir the pot from time to time) mainly out of nostalgia of a simpler time.
    More than anything I am glad that people can use my posts for their games.

    Be sure to check out Rustfoot, Tower of the Archmage and Strange Stones, just three other blogs off the top of my head that post a lot of great content.

  2. Hey, right on! I've been meaning to write a sequel to that one covering NPC archetypes. Thanks for including it here.

  3. My list of 30 ways not to cheat was entirely ironic. I would consider any player a complete idiot if they followed such pedantic, soul-stealing rules, just as I would despise any human who pronounced proudly that they had never J-walked in their life. First, such a person would be obviously a complete liar, and therefore never to be trusted, not to mention a prig who would consider such a pronouncement a matter of praise.

    So please, take me off your pretentious, self-aggrandizing and infantile list, since you totally missed the fucking point. And you can shove that up your inflammatory prose as well.

  4. Funny stumbling across this today. Three times Zak is quoted here, while my work is the one that's tagged, "inflammatory." Hilarious.