The Old School Renaissance is still something of a niche interest, despite some of its leading titles, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry having appeared on the shelves of your local gaming store. Even with those two titles freely available, the biggest “Edition 0” title to have reached the notice of the roleplaying hobby at large is The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design from Goodman Games, though that might well change with the release of that publisher’s Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game in late 2011. What The Dungeon Alphabet provided was some twenty-six entries that in turn examined a particular element to be found in the classic Old School dungeon, each with a table of random explanations, additions, and further inspiration. Oddly, Goodman Games have not yet followed this tome up with a sequel that took the idea outside. James Pacek has though, with The Wilderness Alphabet: A Collection of Random Charts, Tables, and Ideas for use with various Games of Imagination.
The Wilderness Alphabet does not come as a hardback, but as a slim, A5-sized paperback. It too comes with some twenty-six entries comprised of themed tables full of appropriate, but still random elements. It is a self-published affair, so is never going to be as professional a product as its inspiration. Even so, The Wilderness Alphabet is heavily illustrated, primarily with publically available artwork, and it is neatly laid out. Not all of the artwork is appropriate, particularly the author’s own. Much of the choice of artwork though, does give the book a more classical, romantic look and feel, rather than the “Old School” stylised Dungeons & Dragons look we saw in The Dungeon Alphabet.
The book’s tables to roll on are not just confined to the entries given for each letter of the alphabet. They start with the Table of Contents, so that a DM with his handy percentile dice can randomly determine what table to roll if he is short of inspiration. Of course, he could just flick through the pages... The actual lettered entries go from the obvious “A is for Archway” and “B is for Barrow” to “W is for Waterfall” and “Z is for Ziggurat,” but the author has to work hard for some of the other letters, or rather be “inventive.” Thus we have “J is for Jousting,” “K is for Krokus,” “X is for X Marks the Spot,” and “Y is for Yangtze.” Of these, “K is for Krokus” is actually devoted to trees as “T is for Tower” and “Y is for Yangtze” covers rivers because “R is for Ruins and Residences.”
Appropriately, most of the tables have twenty or so entries, with the minimum being eight. Many of the entries have subsidiary tables. For example, rolling on “T is for Tower” I can determine its construction, colour, surface, style, size, occupant, and oddities, if any. Thus the Bone Tower is a hexagonal shaped structure built of iron, but tiled in ivory. It is relatively short, with just three levels, and its primary denizen is actually a vampire! It should be noted that rolling for the tower’s colour is one of the few times that I have had to roll a thirty-sided die.
Most of the table are simple and straight forward. “R is for Ruins and Residences” is the one exception. It first determines the sub-type, each entry referring to a sub-table; then its condition and the nature of its corruption. The complexity comes in working out the inhabitants of the ruin or residence, their shops, businesses, guilds, and other structures, the DM purchasing them using a pool of points derived on the place’s population size. This process actually takes more time than the primary point of The Wilderness Alphabet, the quick creation of outdoor elements during play.
The Wilderness Alphabet though, is not limited to its alphabeticised tables. The Bonus Tables cover adventurers and NPCs, magic and powers, curses and the undead, other places, strange sounds, mines, and gods. Amongst their number is a double entry, this for “L is for Labyrinth.” None of these extra tables come with the book’s most interesting aspect – the author’s voice. At the end of some entries, he discusses how each element figured in his own “Queston Campaign.” For example, under “A is for Archway,” he describes how the ancient wizard Urk built and left archways that enabled instant travel across the land, but with the unfortunate side effect of partially draining the traveller’s life, his magical items of their power, or having some otherworldly creature travel with him. These asides are not only entertaining, but they are just a further little bit of inspiration for the reader.
Whilst it is definitely “Systems Neutral,” the feel to The Wilderness Alphabet is not particularly “Old School.” Part of that is due to the choice of artwork; another part being due to its content which by its very nature is more expansive and devoted to creating and exploring the world at large; and one last part due to the need to fit the weirder elements into a more natural setting, that of the world at large. Nevertheless, The Wilderness Alphabet: A Collection of Random Charts, Tables, and Ideas for use with various Games of Imagination is one of those books that is best described as “handy.” It sits as easily alongside the DM at the table, its contents ready to be rolled on when he needs to fill in certain details of his campaign world when his player characters are out and about, as it does ready to be pulled off the shelf when the DM is preparing his next session and wants inspiration.