Recently a number of games have been released that attempt to fuse modern editions and games with old school principles. I like to think of these games as gateway drugs – modern players might be enticed to shoot up a little OSR, and grognards might be tempted to drop a hit of current mechanics. Speaking of gateway drugs, I started with a tab of dirty brown dropper acid and then worked my way back to weed, which I figure explains a thing or two. Whatever.
I tried to come up with a name for this sort of game, and had settled on New Wave OSR until I remembered this monologue from the Decline of Western Civilization and realized that I’d sound like a bigger douche bag than normal. So, like no labels, maaaaaaan.
Okay, let’s take a look at Five Torches Deep, King of Dungeons, and Into the Unknown.
Secret Sauce: Brevity, hackability, and a fucking Rubik’s cube.
Five Torches Deep is the simplest game we’re going to look at. It’s 5e for people with no attention span. It also has the best layout – people have been paying attention to Necrotic Gnome’s mac daddy design skills and it shows. Every class, and all core rules fit on a single spread or page. Bonus points for creating an additional mobile facing PDF that actually looks good on a phone.
A few smart choices make this game smooth as butter: a flat DC of 11 for most actions, class advances that could fit inside a fortune cookie, easy to grasp encumbrance, usage and resupply rules, clever travel rules, and so on. Smart, smart, smart. Basically, it simplifies all the stuff you fuck up anyway.
There are some rough spots. Humanoid characters are largely indistinct from humans, only granting slightly different ability spreads. If I was hacking the game I’d replace the humanoid descriptions with descriptors – for instance, replacing Dwarves who get automatic 13s in STR and CON with something like Tough, as in I’m creating a Tough Thief. And listen, elves, dwarves, halflings and all that other nonsense suck anyway. Fight me, cosplayers. And ability proficiencies get mentioned once and then are never mentioned again – might as well cut them if we’re being all Old School. If you create a warrior with Pee Wee Herman strength, tough shit. Play that -2 and don’t count on your ability proficiency to save you, cupcake.
Now for the awesome part: the game uses a Rubik’s cube as a way to randomly generate maps. Other games may harken back to 80s, Five Torches Deep doubles the fuck down on that shit. It’s one of the most novel things I’ve seen in a long, long time and you need to check it out. Brilliant.
Recommended for: Rubik’s cube enthusiasts. People who find Moldvay wordy.
Secret Sauce: Using 13th Age as its backbone, and being an absolute pleasure to read.
Most mainstream games read like technical manuals written by frustrated creative writing washouts (ok, that’s a bit harsh – you’re all lovely people but your company’s house style blows). Reading something that’s been written with style and skill is refreshing. King of Dungeons is an incredibly pleasant read – conversational, funny, compact and very, very clever. The section on encumbrance opens like this: “Oh, whatever.” Right? RIGHT?
The game itself is built on the skeleton of 13th Age – a criminally underplayed game you should all be playing instead of Pathfinder. Anyhoo. It’s a fun choice and helps the game stand out from the endless D&D clones, retro and otherwise.
King of Dungeon’s central conceit is that adventuring is a business – and so, your adventurers belong to guilds that need to compete for charters. Which is SO MUCH FUN. I mean, roleplaying a business pitch by a bunch of miscreant goblin hunters to the local duchess would be a blast. Think of the HR problems! The holiday parties! Interns! It’s not meant to be played for laughs, and in fact it’s probably funnier to play the game very, very seriously.
Ultimately, King of Dungeons feels very much like a master home brew – road tested and perfected over many years. It’s the most original of the three games being discussed, and is far and away the best written.
Recommended for: People seeking a fresh clone fix. Fans of writing that, er, reads gud.
Secret Sauce: A guide to running the game that should make the rest of you feel ashamed.
Into the Unknown actually succeeds at doing what 5e was supposed to do: merge older school thinking with new school mechanics. The result is a chopped down 5e that cuts a lot of fat and bullshit, but is compatible with the original version if you’re too much of a suck to give up all your feats. It’s faster, smarter, and more challenging. Now, that being said it’s the chunkiest version of these
New Wave games – nowhere near as radical a compression as Five Torches Deep or as much of a pleasure to read as King of Dungeons.
In a nod to the Little Brown Books, Into the Unknown is published as five separate booklets, which is awesome because like Old School Essentials it’s super easy to navigate or share at the table. But Book 4: Running the Game is worth the price of admission, even if you ditched everything else. I think it may be the cleanest, most interesting guide to running a game I’ve ever read and incorporates outside thinking like Fronts from Dungeon World. Its sections on dungeon and hex crawls are short and solid as a beer keg.
Recommended for: People who were disappointed by 5e. Fuck off, Stans.