Saturday, March 18, 2023

Atomism in Old School Gaming

Travis Miller at Grumpy Wizard recently posted a summary of his article for the Gary’s Appendix II zine on Gary Gygax's principles for campaign creation. Travis refers to this as a bottom up sandbox approach:

A bottom up sandbox campaign is a structure where a referee creates a starting location with a homebase for adventuring and places for the characters to explore, fight monsters and get loot.

This is a principle that can be seen at work in the Gygax ’75 challenge, based on Gary’s famous 1975 advice for campaign creation. The “bottom” here is the starting dungeon level, intended as the starting point from which the campaign emerges.

Travis’s article got me thinking about the design process required to make a bottom-up campaign work. It’s not just that you start at the bottom, by creating low level encounters suitable for starting adventurers. The starting point is essentially a small individual “atom” of the game world, considered in isolation from the wider campaign setting.

Atomism was something I studied quite a while back in philosophy. As soon as I made this connection to RPGs, I started seeing atomism everywhere in “Old School” gaming.

What is Atomism?

Atomism is the principle that you can divide a whole into individual units and consider any one in isolation from the other units. At its extreme, any “atom” could be removed or replaced without affecting any other unit. Any relation it does bear to other atoms are entirely external to its identity.

An example is probably helpful here. For a husband to be a husband, they need to have a spouse. Taking their spouse away has a fundamental impact on their identity. But whether or not they wear brown shoes seems neither here nor there; they could just easily be in green shoes. It’s “external” relationships of this latter sort that characterise atomism.

There is a tendency towards atomism in much of the modern world. Bosses find it in their interest for their employees to be replaceable cogs, facilitating short-term contracts.  Labour is divided into small repetitive tasks, requiring no understanding of its relationship to a wider organisational purpose.  If you fire the only person who knows the company’s bank details, the company is in trouble. Smart companies avoid this by ensuring employees have only an external relationship to crucial business functions.

Atomism in RPGs

What has this got to do with D&D?  I’d suggest the “old school” approach to the game has some strongly atomistic elements. The player characters for example, are not too far from the replaceable cogs found in the modern workplace. The high lethality of old school games is designed to be offset by the easy replacement of characters, sometimes from the ranks of the party’s own retainers.

Compare this to the high fantasy 5e campaign, where a particular character’s backstory can easily become integral to a story arc. The absence of such a character can be a problem for the continuation of a campaign. I’ve heard of gaming sessions cancelled simply because one of these essential players can’t make it. There exists here a holistic relationship between the character and campaign, in contrast to the relative atomism of the old school approach.

The OSR’s fondness for random tables is a key area where atomism comes into play. For a random table to work, any entry you roll must be replaceable with any other entry. Entries also need to have an external relationship to the adventure in which they are inserted. If you roll an encounter with a merchant wagon, this is insertable into most settings. By contrast, an envoy delivering terms of a peace deal seems a bad choice for a random encounter. The envoy’s identity is intrinsically link to their being a war in your setting, breaking with the principle of atomism.

Atomism is also evident in the structure of old school adventures. If your next is encounter is determined by the direction you choose at a dungeon crossroads, either choice must be substitutable for the other. By comparison, a railroaded adventure limits player choice because the next encounter is intrinsically related to the story arc. E.g. the players must discover a vital clue or they won’t proceed to the final confrontation.

Atomism in Published Adventures

Atomism seems relevant if you want to publish adventures intended for use by others. If this adventure is to slot into a range of campaign settings, it needs to be conceived in atomistic terms. There can’t really be important relationships in it to elements outside of the immediate adventure. E.g. the snow queen can’t be holding the whole world in eternal winter, or the adventure won’t slot into a jungle-based campaign.

What I’ve noticed in published modules is a technique used to get around this issue. They will often contain internal relationships, but these tend to be localised to the immediate context of the adventure. An internal relationship is one that goes against atomism, because it is intrinsic to the identity of the atom involved.

I’ll give an example of this from Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) - warning, this will include spoilers. Uli Guria is part of the “cannibal conspiracy” of brain-washed towns-folk, feeding on the bodies of their fellow citizens. Now, if you decide on running the adventure and not including the cannibal conspiracy, this has a pretty big impact on Uli Guria’s character. In fact, taking away the cannibal aspect, there is not much left to Uli beyond their name. For this reason, I’d say it was an internal relationship to their identity in the context of the adventure.

Similarly in DCO, there is the witch who is responsible for the cannibal conspiracy by taking possession of the towns-folk. If you decide to leave out the witch, there is suddenly no explanation for the cannibal conspiracy. Uli Guria becomes a messed up individual with a taste for human flesh, which is bizarrely shared by other local citizens. Here, we have a web of internal relationships between the Uli, the cannibal conspiracy and the witch.

On the other hand, Ghar Zaghouan has a collection of magic sniper bolts. Perhaps I want to omit the “thaumo-conductor” bolt from my adventure, because I find it too powerful (it sucks harmful magic into the target’s flesh). This seems no big deal, as any nasty poison could replace this bolt. The character is essentially the same if I substitute it. Most of Ghar’s relationships are probably external in this way. You could likely swap out Ghar entirely for another scary NPC, and the adventure would work largely the same.

Other encounters in DCO are pretty much independent atoms, with no relation to anything else in the adventure. For example, the Alpha Platypus is really just a formidable monster. It could be substituted for any entry in a generic random encounter table. It could also be inserted into such a generic table and for use in other adventures.

The easiest way to populate an adventure is with independent atoms like the platypus or externally related encounters like Ghar. But this can make for a quite a flat experience, with not much to characterise an adventure from other modules. There would be little “intrigue” to tie up elements of the scenario in a meaningful way. Published modules will often therefore add in the type of localised internal relationships that define Uli Guria. The cannibal conspiracy is deeply enmeshed in DCO, with lots of its NPCs and encounters tied up in it. But its significance does not spread beyond the immediate adventure local. Effectively, it is a big self-contain “atom” that can be inserted into many campaign settings.

Patrick Stewart does like to throw in the occasional outlier to mess with you. One adventure hook has you so riddled with debt that your bankruptcy will tank the economy of the entire civilised world. This would create a vitally important relationship between a character and the economy of your whole campaign world. But it has almost no relationship to the rest of the DCO adventure, meaning you can very easily leave it out.


Why all this atomism in all old school games then? It seems to stem partly from the bottom-up approach described in Grumpy Wizard’s post. Essentially, the starting point of this is a highly localised atom of a game world, typically a starting dungeon. As the rest of the game world doesn’t exist yet, there are no wider elements of the setting to determine the initial features you include. Atomism here facilitates ease of use and freedom in adventure design, without the mental load of pre-empting what you will later include in the wider campaign.

I’ve suggested in a previous post that materialism is the philosophy of the OSR, but atomism seems a pretty strong contender to be combined with this. I don’t mean to imply any value judgement about whether this is a good or bad thing. There are certainly challenges associated with atomism, but a more holistic approach to campaign design will equally bring its own advantages and disadvantages.


  1. Hi thanks for reading my blog. I started writing a response in the comment section here but it got long. I'm going to turn it into a blog post and I'll link back to you in response. I'll give a few points which I'll illuminate further in my response. In short, while you do point to a phenomenon that exists, it's not a philosophical position, its an emergent property having to do with referees trying to be as efficient with their time as possible.

    There are many approaches to OSR games. Some of them address the issues you bring up. Others do not mainly because those referees are focused on playing and less concerned on perfection or a high ideal of play. Good enough is good enough.

    The primary reason for doing a bottom up campaign is efficiency of time and being able to get a game to the table without spending months or years building the setting. Most veteran OSR referees would like to create complex connected campaigns but time limitations keep them from it.

    Unless an adventure writer is creating something for an established setting, they can't create connections to elements outside of the adventure. It would be a stronger argument if you were talking about an adventure for a specific setting that didn't tie back into the setting.

    Random encounters don't have to be atomistic. They often are because referees don't take the time to develop more sophisticated encounter tables.

    I use a modified form of bottom up sandbox campaign creation. One reason I don't use the Gygax 75 method is because I want more connections in my setting. I create an outline of the world but only detail what is necessary for the campaign as we play. That way I can introduce events, characters, and connections to the broader game world as the campaign progresses but without spending time developing huge amounts of information that players may not engage with.

    I shared section of a book that I'm working on that describes my process. It is in the shared folder that I provide for my email newsletter subscribers.

    1. After looking at it again, I don't think I need to say anymore than I have in my above comment. What you describe isn't intentional. It is a side effect of being busy and trying to get a game on the table quickly and easily. Referees that prefer highly connected and dynamic settings produce them. The most extreme example is Alexis of Tao of D&D.

    2. Thanks for the detailed analysis. I've been working through your book draft. The principle of "Top-Down-Zoom In" you borrow from Arbiter of Worlds does seem a departure from atomism. I think it would be hard to create a contemporary campaign exactly in line with the Gary 75 method, as experienced players will expect more integration. You would end up with something more akin to a roguelike computer game. Even Ray Otus's Gygax 75 Challenge document seems to have a more Top-Down-Zoom In approach than the original article.

      Pure atomism is a very difficult principle to stick to, and I agree it is more like an emergent property than a "philosophy of the OSR". In relative terms, I do think it remains more of a tendency in old school gaming than a 5e campaign. But certainly less a defining quality than perhaps materialism. The use of factions to populate a setting seems almost universal in OSR games, which is consistent with atomism. I agree that sophisticated random encounter tables will be more integrated into a campaign, certainly the embedded story variety you suggest in your article.

      What I'm finding really valuable from this thought process is the concept of internal and external relations. It feels a useful way of assessing an adventure I might want to run, in terms of how it will fit into my campaign. It is always a matter of degrees, as even the most atomistic adventure will have some internal relations.

    3. I would say that 5E adventures tend to be more atomistic than OSR. The reason being is that 5E adventures are connected in a superficial way. They can be epic where the PCs are traveling all over the setting and doing stuff with a variety of factions. However, because the encounters are heavily scripted and pre-planned and totally focused on this specific set of PCs who almost cannot die because their "story" would end if it did, the rest of the campaign setting is effectively in stasis until the PCs arrive on the scene. Maybe that's something else. It seems to me that WotC published adventures tend to be focused entirely, or mostly, on the PCs to the exclusion of all else in the setting.

    4. I think that "internal relations" can refer to something slightly different in the context of a 5e campaign. In an OSR game, it will be more of an objective relationship e.g. the wizard being the brother of the king. In 5e, it can be intrinsic to the continuation of the story e.g. it's not just that only one artifact can destroy the big bad, but the players need to learn this.
      From my experience of 5e campaigns, they don't seem very atomistic. In Curse of Strahd, most NPCs are strongly connected to Strahd. There is an NPC which resembles his lost love, the Vistani give a prophecy about how the characters will defeat Strahd etc