First Impressions: Worlds Without Number

Ever since I heard about Worlds Without Number, I knew I wanted to get it. Designer Kevin Crawford has earned a reputation for himself, largely on two fronts: his work tends to be based on old-school D&D, with some really clever tweaks and adapted into different genres; and even if you don’t use his systems, his GM tools alone are worth the price of admission (which, graciously, is often free). Combine that with a product intended to be a good old classic fantasy setting, and I was chomping at the bit to play that game as soon as possible. I backed the Kickstarter, got my hands on my physical copy about a month ago, and can now happily report that I have… read it. Mostly. More or less.

But I think I can explain why it’s at the top of my list of games to run next.

I’m going to be effusive in my praise so far, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the stuff that bugs me. I’m frontloading it because I don’t want to end on a downer, but keep in mind, I still think this book is rad.

  • The art is too generic. That’s not to say it isn’t good—I think it’s all impressive as far as technical skills go, and a lot of it is gorgeous. It’s just kind of boring, probably trying to be broad and neutral enough for any campaign. I think more distinct artwork would be more creatively inspiring.
  • The spells aren’t generic enough. For what is otherwise a fairly all-purpose D&D-type game, the spells lean hard into esoteric Vancian names. Aside from feeling out of place, they actively make things more difficult. “The Excellent Transpicuous Transformation” doesn’t tell you anything about what the spell does, which is turn someone invisible. And if you want to look up that Invisibility spell, you’re going to have to skim the descriptions until you find this one. I saw one user create a table to “normalize” the spell names, which is a bad sign. I’d rather have generic names, and encourage players to come up with their own verbose names to use in-character. Probably my biggest gripe about the game, to be honest.
  • The physical book is massive. It’s pretty much a coffee table book, which, in my opinion, makes it a pain to lug around and reference. I much prefer digest-sized books, like Old-School Essentials. It’s important to give some leeway here, though, since the book is still squeezing a lot of content into its 400 pages. While the offset print is a high-quality production, it kind of feels like a coffee table more than anything else.
  • The book still feels cramped. There’s not much artwork, so you’ll often have pages and pages of text. On top of that, some content had to take a backseat, most notably in terms of magic items and monsters. They’re there, but those sections are disappointingly short, and without much artwork. Cuts had to be made, and the text makes a fair point that there’s no shortage of material elsewhere on the internet and in other games, but still. In a game that otherwise evokes a nostalgic feeling of wonder, it misses one of my favorite things to page through.
  • The book has some tacky and awkward advertisements for itself. The Deluxe version of the game has 50 pages of bonus content, and the free version sometimes references these—pointing readers who might want heroic power levels, extra class options, etc., to consider getting the Deluxe Edition. That’s fine, I get it. But, the Deluxe Edition simply adds extra pages to the end of the book, without changing any of the text before it. So, even though I’m holding the offset printing of the Deluxe Edition, I still read the occasional passage telling me to check out the Deluxe Edition for more content.

With that out of the way, the shortest pitch I can give this game is what GMs running any sort of fantasy game would benefit from having it in their collection. I showed a friend of mine that fits this criteria, and he was immediately impressed by all the random tables he saw. On top of that, there’s great procedural advice for preparing and running a game, and a faction system that breathes life into the world by making it feel like it keeps moving even when the player characters aren’t even there to see it. All of this is in the free PDF, so go snag it.

To give a slightly longer pitch, this book contains some of the best GM advice I’ve ever read, over and above at least some editions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. (I don’t want to get into a debate about the much-loved First Edition DMG… but, as much as it still has useful information, I don’t think it’s held up quite so well.)

I started with Third Edition as a teenager, and was foisted into being the Dungeon Master. In hindsight, it was a valuable part of my life. At the moment, it was a nightmare of anxiety. I hardly had any idea how D&D even played, but I had to run it? For other people?! Reading WWN, I can’t help but think that this would have been a much better guide. It’s full of advice and tools to help you focus on the gameable material when you’re full of ideas, and random tables when you’re not. Even with nearly two decades now of experience as both a player and GM, it’s like cohesive explanation of some best practices, and tools that melt writer’s block in a flash.

Speaking of my early days in the hobby, this game honestly made me feel, at least a little bit, like a teenager reading 3e again. It’s partly due to the GM advice, which evokes the same feeling of excitement about wondrous possibilities. A lot of other books, as useful as they are, can be somewhat anemic when it comes to advice on running the game, or feel clinical as it explains its advice. WWN manages to stay polished, while not letting that excitement get taken for granted. It makes me excited just to prepare a game.

WWN feels like a version of 3e that never was, plucked from some alternate universe where the direction of the game took a different turn. There’s no unified d20 system, there’s a one-volume approach like the Rules Cyclopedia, compatibility with older material was a higher priority… etc.

So… is this an “old school” game? Or something more modern? My answer is, unhelpfully, “Yes.” And that’s why I’m excited that it exists.

I’ve long since been fed up with edition wars, or treating different styles of gaming as inherently at odds with one another. When it comes to OSR games and talking to people about it, that means I’m not a jerk about modern D&D. “Old School” vs. “New School” isn’t a matter of which one is better, but the fact that they are different, whether you prefer one or the other, or have room in your heart for both. And I have room in my heart for both.

I like separate race & class (issues with how race is handled in D&D notwithstanding, I don’t have the space to get into that here and now). I like the pathetic aesthetic of a lot of OSR content, but I also like the heroic levels of modern D&D. I like multiclassing, and feats, and combat maneuvers. I don’t need all these things to have fun in a game, but the reason that they’re present in modern D&D is because people like them, and we’re not wrong to do so.

It’s valuable in its own right that WWN can distinguish itself from other OSR games by offering a bunch of these things, and on top of that, it makes it an easier sell to get new players involved. You can get people to try something new much more easily if they don’t have to give up a bunch of the things they’re comfortable with. If you’re playing tabletop RPGs in 2021, you’re surrounded by people playing 5e, metaphorically and often literally. And as much as a rising tide lifts all boats, it’s kind of weird how little 5e’s explosion in popularity is lifting those other boats, and the amount of resistance some people have to trying something new. WWN replaces some of the acquired tastes of the OSR with some more familiar tastes, while still presenting something stylistically distinct.

WWN strikes a happy medium, but who knows? It might be a game that tries to please everyone, but ends up being no one’s favorite. I doubt it, though. I think it’s going to be a crowd pleaser, and a great way to bring old-school and new-school players together. It’s a breath of fresh air in both the OSR and modern D&D spaces, and I’m excited to get it to the table.

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