Cairn (2020)

Cairn (2020) is a neat little skeletal OSR system, born in part out of Ben Milton’s Knave and Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd. Yochai Gal’s stated intent is to make something that allows Into the Odd to be used for OSR settings like Dolmenwood. The result is a fast, light, classless game that feels, in a sort of surprisingly non-specific way, like a D&D experience, without any of the usual headaches.

A lot of stuff actually reminds me of other non-D&D-based systems. Reducing attributes to three (Strength, Dexterity and Willpower) feels pretty Dungeoneer to me. The combat reminds me a bit of HeroQuest, actually. You roll your weapon die, subtract the opponent’s armor value and subtract the balance from their HP. HP is Health Protection, not traditional hit points. They can be restored with a brief breather and a swig of water. If they are reduced to exactly zero, the character gets a scar. Damage exceeding HP is taken out of Strength — once that is gone, the character is dead. Magic is similarly unusual, facilitated by scrolls and spellbooks that any character can read. Casting spells (which are leveless and extremely open-ended) costs fatigue, which is logged in inventory, which I think is an odd, but exceedingly clever, mechanic.

And that’s about it. Light, flexible, keyed to OSR experience without feeling particularly OSR in its mechanics. This is a great introductory system. Its flexibility has sparked a surprising creator community which has produced hacks and Cairn-specific adventures. Good stuff.

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