Friday, September 6, 2019

Non-Core Underworld & Dungeon Alphabet Dozen

I was going through some old files on my computer recently, when I came across an idea I had before I started blogging, one that I actually continued to write about even after I started my blog, although I never posted it about here before.

The idea was for a "non-core campaign" - a campaign that excludes all core classes, monsters, magic items, and spells. Non-core gaming would use only supplemental materials, only additions and extras, and no core-rules materials at all. (I suppose you could also call this a "peripheral campaign", after the core-periphery binary from geo-politics, but I like sound of "non-core" better, personally.)

There are as many possible non-core campaigns as there are core rulesets and coherent bundles of supplemental material, but in addition to thinking about non-core gaming as a general concept, at the time, I was also thinking about a specific non-core campaign set in the Mythic Underworld, using only the supplemental materials from 1st edition AD&D, as well as the things added new in AD&D,  and the things from OD&D and the two Basic editions that weren't included in AD&D.

Although it was something I used to think about, it wasn't originally my idea. I got the idea from seeing a series of posts about gaming using only the classes from the Unearthed Arcana, and only the monsters and gods from the Fiend Folio.

Jeff's Gameblog first proposed the idea of running a game using only materials in the AD&D module S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. Then years later, Jeff's Gameblog again suggested running a campaign using only the gods and deities from the Fiend Folio.  Around the same time, Vaults of Nagoh created wandering monster tables using only the Fiend Folio, and City of Iron considered what it would look like to only allow spellcasters to use the spells contained in Unearthed Arcana.

So I'm hardly the only one to toy with these ideas, although to-date, as far as I'm aware, all anyone has done is toy with them. At one time, I fancied myself the publisher-to-be of this project, although I've since abandoned that idea. I like to write, and I would like to publish, but I don't want to become a publisher. Also, depending on your perspective, publishing anything for this project is either unnecessary, or inevitable, or something that's already been done.

It's already possible to run this particular non-core campaign using the original supplemental rulebooks, and I have no doubt that as long as Necrotic Gnome continues to exist as a company, they will eventually publish versions of these materials, doubtless in their trademark smartly organized two-page spread format. The logic of the Old-School Essentials project makes this inevitable. (Especially since he already expressed interest in the idea back when he was City of Iron.)

Also, the more I've thought about it, the more I think that Veins of the Earth is essentially a non-core campaign, using the canonical non-core races of the Underdark, but combined with False Machine's own supplemental bestiary, which is mostly better than the admittedly hit-and-miss menagerie inside the Fiend Folio. (Whether he intended it that way, I don't know, but the result is that Veins fills a very similar niche to what I'm talking about.) It's also inevitable that, sooner or later, someone will publish another non-core campaign setting in the vein of Veins of the Earth - it was simply too popular to not inspire both imitation and response.

So this idea actually has been given form - at least a kind of form - already, and it's likely to appear eventually in a form very close to what I originally imagined reading those old blog posts. This is a project that doesn't need me to do anything.

However, what I find most interesting, thinking about the non-core underworld, is trying to imagine its implied setting. Over the years, I know I've seen many people discussing the "implied setting" of OD&D - the kind of world that's implied by the available classes, lists of spells, monsters, maps, and campaign-building advice. Semper Initativus Unum did a particularly through examination. Aside from one post by Swords & Dorkery however, I've never seen anyone ask about the implied setting of the non-core underworld, which is a shame, because it's worth asking about.

I mean, what kind of world has barbarians, cavaliers, paladins, and rangers, but no ordinary fighting-men? What kind of world has assassins, bards, and mountebanks, but no regular thieves? Druids and monks, but no clerics? Illusionists without general magic-users? Half-elves and half-orcs, but no elves and no orcs?

What kind of setting has all the weird latter-edition spells, but none of the originals? All the extra monsters, but none of the basic ones? No familiar magic items, but crazy high-tech gizmos from S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and random artifacts from the Dungeon Master's Guide? A pantheon of "gods" who're all arch-demons and lords of elemental evil?

The non-core underworld is gonzo AF.

By now, most of those additional classes, spells, and monsters have become nearly as canonical as the originals, but there's still something inherently weird about making them stand on their own, without any original material alongside them. There's still something unsettling and uncanny about an Underdark-only campaign, where the most familiar entities are like funhouse parodies of the ones we really know and love.

By this point, I consider most of what I originally wrote for the non-core campaign (back when I still had "when I grow up" dreams of being the next star publisher of the OSR) to be unneeded, or derivative, or both. But there is one bright spot in my old files. For awhile, I worked on my own "dungeon alphabet dozen" - a combination of the Dungeon Alphabet and the Dungeon Dozen as a way to generate gozno content to help fill out the campaign world. After all, if good artists borrow, and great artists steal, then surely the greatest artists of all time are those who do mash-ups, right?

Anyway, back then I actually finished a few of the 12-item lists I started, and wrote a decent amount for a few more. I never put any of them on my blog before, because I was both afraid of success and afraid of failure. I was afraid that if I posted them and people liked them, that I'd attract the wrong kind of attention, and become subject to harassment. I was also afraid that I'd disappoint people. I feel like there's an implicit promise when you start something like this, that you'll post every letter, in order, in a timely manner, and they'll be good. I think maybe I was always more afraid of success than I needed to be. As for failure, let me make you an explicit promise - I probably won't post every letter, and they definitely won't be in order, and it definitely won't be in a timely manner. As for their quality, I'll trust that if I like them, you'll like some of them, though maybe not all.

So for now, until Michael Curtis and Jason Sholtis team up to take me for a long walk off a short lawsuit, viva la non-core underworld!


  1. I think this idea follows a general theme of constraint yielding creativity. As somebody who often lacks constraint in my worldbuilding, I've grown to appreciate its utility, at the very least as a creative exercise. I think this is why the 10 monster setting challenge appealed to me so much (and why I did so many of them).

    1. You're right, this is kind of like the "10 monster setting" thing isn't it?

      It still just kind of intrigues me to say "start with a core of standard fantasy tropes, build outward from them in whichever way strikes your fancy, then remove the center and enjoy the weird donut bonus content."

  2. Recently all my high-concept campaign ideas are just chargen from X resource I have,e Y campaign setting, with bonus monsters/spells/whatever from Z. A good way to try and actually *use* all the books on the shelf.
    Currently running Pernicious-Albion-in-Yoon-Suin but too early to say how wacky it'll get

    1. This sounds kind of like that #3bookrpg meme that was going around awhile back - except that instead of choosing 3 books for their similarity, you're choosing 3 for their difference.

    2. I think there's fertile ground for some emergent synergy - often, unnoticed themes from each text are repeated or overlapped in the others. Plus it can be interesting just as a thought exercise. "How would I run Veins of the Earth using Mothership?" etc etc