Normally, a D&D product published in 1990 would be well outside the focus of this blog, but I was cleaning my basement this past weekend and came across my copy of the Hollow World Campaign Setting by Aaron Allston. Naturally, I opened up the box and started reading it again, something I hadn't done in a very long time. Though released at the dawn of the Bronze Age, I was immediately struck by how many old school elements could still be found within its pages. Indeed, I suspect that gamers who entered the hobby well after 1990 would probably see many aspects of this product as hopelessly "old fashioned."
That's not say that the Hollow World can be called old school without qualification. The mere fact that it contains over 128 pages of descriptions of nations, cultures, and races is sufficient to dispel that notion, as are the very rail road-y scenario outlines included in the 32-page adventure book ("However you do it, once you have the PCs aboard ship, their fate is sealed."). Yet, this boxed set details not a subterranean realm filled with inhuman horrors or angst-filled dark elves but a lost world after the fashion of the pulp fantasies that inspired early D&D. This lost world is filled with anachronisms -- ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Vikings, and Aztecs share the Hollow World with lizardmen, Hollywood-style pirates, high-tech elves, and Lilliputian animal-riders. It's a gonzo fantasy setting with only the thinnest veneer of plausibility, which probably explains why I enjoyed re-reading it over the last few days.
Hollow World's atavistic old school-ness manifests in a couple of ways, most notably the sandbox nature of its setting. There are no grand plots here and the adventures, while poorly constructed in my opinion, are almost universally local in their focus. The Hollow World is thus a very open setting in which individual referees can create their own adventures without fear of being contradicted by the whims of frustrated novelists turned game designers. New game rules are minimal -- another old school hallmark -- and what rules are present are largely consonant with the Old Ways. The rules for generating Hollow World characters, for example, not only assume but demand that the players use 3d6 in order for ability scores. Of course, like all D&D setting products of this era, Hollow World includes a needless and lengthy skill system that detracts a great deal from the more minimalist approach to rules evidenced elsewhere. Equally troubling is how often the books reference AD&D, as if TSR really didn't have faith in D&D as a separate product line and would rather have killed it off entirely (something they did in fact do several years later).
The Hollow World Campaign Setting is thus an interesting artifact from the last era of TSR D&D in which the game showed any vibrancy whatsoever. It's still a product from a decadent time, but, even within that decadence, there are still echoes of the Golden Age -- faint ones, to be sure, but they are there nonetheless. Hollow World comes from a time before adventure paths and "story über alles" came to dominate the roleplaying scene. Though containing more detail than I think necessary, there's still a degree of minimalism present that I wouldn't have thought likely, given its late date. Furthermore, the literary homages present here appeal to me greatly and serve as a reminder that pockets of D&D's literary heritage survived beyond the Golden Age far longer than I sometimes care to admit. Re-reading Hollow World thus opened my eyes to the reality that even decadent ages sometimes produce works worthy of appreciation.