Monday, March 15, 2021

Cairn Capsule Review



This zine-sized "NSR" game (we'll unpack that in a minute) is published by a friend of mine, Yochai Gal. Yochai is a solid thinker and experienced player, and it shows in this publication. You can get an e-copy free at DTRPG and find various means to order a print copy at Yochai's website.

Let's break the book's 24 pages down into bullet points:

  • Cover and Credits (interior front cover)
  • Design Philosophies (1) - a half page explaining the designer's goals
  • Principles for Wardens (2) - essentially great advice and focus points for GMs/refs
  • Principles for Players (3) - same for players
  • Character Creation (4-10) - one page of process, the rest are inspiration tables
  • Rules (11-14) - a typical, but clean and tight set of rules used in playing the game
  • Bestiary and Creating Monsters (15) - a few samples and a process
  • 100 Spells (16-18) - punchy spell descriptions in roughly 10-20 words each
  • Character Sheet (19) - gorgeously designed
  • Rules Summary (20) - not needed, but nice to have, one-page summary
  • Illustrated back cover, inside and out

Layout and character sheet

First, what is NSR? A kind of cynical view would be to say it's a movement for rules that pay respect to old school simplicity but attempting to shed some of the "yuck" in the OSR environment. But really it's just about a strong set of principles for design that don't hold to any notion of tribalism or history. Yochai explains it clearly here.

Now for the book itself.

I really appreciate getting the design goals up front. Those and the rules summary (along with a glance at a table or the spell list) really tells you everything you need to know about the game: classless, fiction-first, three abilities, etc. You may recognize Cairn's lineage as coming from Into the Odd and Knave.

What to say about the Principles for Wardens and Players...? Well, as an experienced player they really speak to me. But they are, in my opinion, pretty advanced and may be a little hard to follow for new players. It's the kind of advice that, if you haven't already internalized it, you may not recognize the value of it (and may even think some of it is contradictory) until you have experience a lot of gaming, good and bad. It's well intentioned, a bit like mentor advice to try to save you some of the pain. I'm not sure that's possible, but hey, it's good to try.

The rules, and the way they are presented, utilizing creative tables heavily, are exactly how I like them. If I were writing my own rules light game it would look a lot like this. Especially the slot-based inventory that also serves as the holding pen/limiter for things like spells.

Two last things I want to talk about: the spells and the character sheet/rules summary.

The spells are a marvel. 100 cool spells in terse, clear sentences. Here is a run of four as an example:

I think those speak for themselves. If you are the kind of player who is immediately frustrated because there is no endless description of examples by case, this probably isn't the game you are looking for. (Though it might be the game you should be looking for.) Where needed, the spells list a radius in feet or a duration. But no more details are given than necessary so that the spells remain powerful and flexible.

The 1/2 page character sheet is brilliantly designed, very attractive, and includes the rules summary on the back. My copy came with two of these two-sided sheets, so basically what would be printed on one letter page and then cut in half. 

Overall, I'd say I have a very positive reaction to this game. The rules are solid. The design is really nice. (Not sure I'm in love with the cover, but it's at least attractive and to some extent evocative.) The layout is clear. The organization is useful. My only complaint might be placing so much text up front. Reading through the goals and then the principles means a lot of front-loading before one gets to the rules. I might either move the principles to the back or give readers a nudge to skip over them if they wish in their first reading. 

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