Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 21 October 2022

The Other OSR—Cairn

The Old School Renaissance continues to evolve although in small steps. Thus we have Cairn, a small Old School-style roleplaying game derived from two other designs, Into the Odd and Knave, both highly regarded. Designed to be played by a Warden—its term for Game Master and a handful of players, it casts the Player Characters as hardened adventurers who undertake to explore a dark and mysterious Wood populated with strange folk, hidden treasure, and unspeakable monstrosities. As a system, it does not use character Classes, eschews Experience Points in favour of in-world experience to gain new skills and abilities, has death firmly placed around the corner, and play has the Player Characters working together towards a common objective. Thus, from Into the Odd, Cairn employs three attributes, deadly combat with automatic hits which make armour a wise choice and forces a player to ask whether combat is always the right solution, armour deducting damage suffered, whilst from Knave, it uses the equipment slot mechanics for everything a Player Character carries, including the one-spell spellbooks and similar tables for determining traits for the character.

Where Cairn starts is in presenting up front its principles of play for both the Warden and her players. For the Warden these deal with how information, difficulty, danger, choice, preparation, narrative focus, treasure, and fate are handled during play, whilst for the player they cover agency, teamwork, exploration, communication, caution, planning, and ambition. For example, when it comes to danger, the Warden is told that the Player Characters face real risk of pain and death; that she should telegraph any danger clearly to the players and their characters; traps should be obvious allowing the players and their characters time to work out to disarm them; and she should provide opportunities to solve problems and interact with the world. For the players and their characters, they are advised to use teamwork, seeking consensus before rushing to act, agreeing to follow the same goals and limits, to respect each other, and consequently accomplish more as a group than single characters. Many of the points are obvious, but here they are placed up front for both player and Warden, and direct and to the point. It is a case of, “Here is what you are playing and here is how you play it to get the best out of it.” It is solid advice and both sections should be read by the Warden and her players.

A Player Character in Cairn has three abilities—Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower. These are rolled on three six-sided dice. He has between one and six points of Hit Protection. This is not Hit Points in the traditional sense of roleplaying games, but rather a measure of resilience, luck, and gumption, rather than health. He has an Inventory of ten slots, which includes backpack, both hands, and upper body. A player rolls for the three abilities, and then on tables for name and background, and various character traits, including physique, skin, hair, face, speech, clothing, virtue, vice, reputation, and misfortunes. He also rolls for armour, helmet and shields, expeditionary gear, tools, trinkets, and a bonus item. In addition, the Player Character has some rations, a torch, and some gold. Optional Gear Packages are listed if the Warden and her players want to play a more traditional style of fantasy roleplaying game. These include Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Magic-User, Ranger, and Thief, but also the odder Dowser, Friar, and Knight. Most of the traits are roleplaying and appearance cues, but the Player Character’s Background suggests an area of knowledge and skills, though this not reflected mechanically in the game itself. It is left up to the Game Master to decide whether that is the case or not, but mechanically, this would have made each Player Character stand out a little more. The process is straightforward and takes a few minutes.

Name: Esme Hunter
Background: Smuggler
Strength: 07 Dexterity: 10 Willpower: 08
Physique: Scrawny Skin: Soft
Hair: Filthy Face: Rat-like
Speech: Formal Clothing: Bloody
Virtue: Courageous Vice: Craven
Reputation: Respected Misfortunes: Cursed

Armour: Brigadine
Helmet and Shield: None
Weapons: Dagger, Cudgel, Staff
Backpack: Three days’ rations, torch, Wolfsbane, Drill, Dice Set, Metal File

Mechanically in Cairn, a Player Character rolls a Save against an appropriate ability, aiming to roll equal to or under. A one is always a success and a twenty always a failure. It is as simple as that, and combat does not much more in the way of complexity. In combat, a player will primarily be rolling to gain initiative and to inflict damage. Gaining the initiative—and therefore either the high ground or a point where an ambush can be performed—is important because it means that the Player Character can get a strike in first, inflict damage first, and hopefully defeat an opponent. This is because very attack hits and inflicts damage. Damage is rolled by weapon type, from a four-sided die for sling shots to a ten-sided die for a polearm, but attack damage can be reduced to a four-sided die no matter what the weapon if the combatants are fighting from a position of weakness or increased to a twelve-sided die if fighting from a position of strength.

Armour reduces damage, which is then deducted from the Player Character’s Hit Protection. Once that is reduced to zero, it is deducted from the defendant’s Strength. When this happens, a Strength Save is required to avoid taking critical damage. This is immediately crippling and lethal not that long after… If a defendant’s Strength is reduced to zero, then he dies anyway. If the Player Character’s Hit Protection is reduced to exactly zero without any Strength damage. The amount of damage suffered determines the result. For example, a two means that the Player Character suffers a Rattling Blow, and is disoriented and shaken. The player describes how his character refocuses and rerolls his character’s Hit Protection.

In the long term, Scars are the primary way in which the Player Character improves. Most have the player reroll his character’s Hit Protection. If higher than the character’s maximum Hit Protection, then the new maximum is kept. Others though, do the same for the Player Character’s Strength, Dexterity, or Will. In this way, suffering Scars becomes a learning experience for the Player Character. An uncertain one, but a learning experience nonetheless.

All Player Characters in Cairn can read and cast magic from a Spellbook, each of which holds one spell. The secret to writing spells is unknown and Spellbooks are mostly looted from dungeons and tombs. It is fatiguing to cast spells—modelled by having one Inventory slot filled temporarily to reflect tiredness and ability to carry items. A list of some hundred spells is included, such as Astral Prison, Flare, Ooze Form, or True Sight. Casting a spell can be done again and again, but the caster’s Fatigue grows, until he is exhausted and cannot cast any more. The variety of spells, their relative power, and the fact that they cannot be replicated makes them worth searching for.

Also worth searching for are Relics. These are items of magical power, perhaps imbued with a spell. Although they do not cause fatigue when used, they have limited use and the examples given possess strict means of being recharged. For example, the Honeyclasp is a rusted ring which can shrink the wearer to six inches tall and has three charges. To recharge it, it must be bathed in a thimble-sized cup of royal jelly. The few Relics here are clever and pleasing and different.
However, Relics are not Treasure. Treasure—as stated in the principles at the start of Cairn, is always specific to the environment from where it is recovered, tells a story, is highly valuable, likely bulky, rarely useful beyond its worth and prestige, and in terms of game play, used as a lure to exotic locations under the protection of intimidating foes. However, there are no examples of treasure of Cairn and that contributes towards the primary issue with the roleplaying game.

Cairn includes a short bestiary of creatures, such as the Root Goblin, the Wood Troll, and the Frost Elf. These are nicely detailed and possess a certain flavour, and the bestiary is paralleled literally with a guide to creating monsters. Much like the rest of Cairn, these guidelines are short and to the point, and they include guideline for converting creatures and monsters from other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games.

So far, so good. What Cairn does is provide a simple, sturdy set of rules that play quickly and are quick to set up by the players, plus a few examples of what might be found or encountered when playing the game. Then nothing. In fact, not just one nothing, but rather three nothings, all of which could have been addressed in a handful of pages. The first omission is a lack of setting. One is implied, that the Player Characters are exploring a mysterious woodland, filled with all manner of creatures fae and fell, searching and pillaging ancient barrows, stealing powerful spellbooks, and slaying unspeakable monstrosities. Bar the half dozen monsters and four relics presented in the book, there is none of this implied setting on show, and hardly even that… So there is no example of a mysterious woodland at all. One such wood, Dolmenwood, is mentioned in the acknowledgements and that is a possible example of such a wood, but that wood tends towards a certain whimsy that Cairn does not necessarily lend itself to
—as written. Nor is there a discussion of what such a woodland might be or any help and advice for the Game Master who wants to create one. That is the second omission, whilst the third is a lack of a scenario, and all three together means that Cairn is not only incomplete, but also fails to follow through on its implication.

Physically, Cairn is well presented, the writing to the point, and the artwork, all public domain, does much to suggest a dark forestial setting.

Cairn feels like it should be suited for a dark and gritty, grubby and mouldering campaign involving intrusions into the wilderness, exploring ancient woodlands, and delving into tombs and barrows of the ancient past, played by fragile men and women who might just learn from their experiences. It has the mechanics and rules to do this, quick and brutal, but backed up with some excellent design philosophies and principles placed at the front of the book. Yet as solid as the rules are in Cairn and as solid as its inspirations are in Into the Odd and KnaveCairn ultimately fails as a complete RPG because it never follows through on its implied setting. It only tells you what that setting is, it never shows you what that setting is. When Cairn, Second Edition is published with either the setting, setting advice, scenario, or all three that current edition only implies, it will be a complete roleplaying game and all the better for it.


  1. Implication can be more evocative prescription.

  2. Yes, but I come back to the point of show not tell, and that is something that Cairn does not do. Whereas it should.

    1. That was pretty much my impression, as well. A problem shared with another promising game, X-plorers!

  3. I read Cairn last year as a possible new system to run Dolmenwood and, like pookie, just reached a point where I asked.. where is the rest of it? I don't need to be spoon fed.. but...