Each of these writers has a very strong personal voice; but, as I've mentioned before, they also have a strong body of shared aesthetics. One could be boringly reductive and describe it as 'weird science-fantasy horror', but the patterns of imagery which recur throughout their works are actually a good deal more specific than that. More specifically, one of the things which links a lot of them together is a shared interest in the aesthetics of ruin.
|'Jupiter Pluvius', by Joseph Gandy.|
Ruins, of course, are central to D&D, and always have been. The original dragon in the original dungeon was Smaug in The Hobbit, who lived in a ruined Dwarven city, and 'it's an ancient ruin' has always been the go-to explanation for why the holy D&D trinity of vast underground complexes, dangerous monsters, and valuable treasure should all be found in the same place. (The basic pitch for many D&D adventures is essentially 'imagine if the Tomb of Tutankhamun had a hundred rooms and half of them were full of killer monsters.') But the ruined-ness of such settings isn't always given much attention; often, the ruin just acts as an excuse for having a dungeon out in the middle of nowhere, with everything and everyone inside it being in a basically non-ruinous condition. The traps are functional. The treasure has retained its full value. The magic items still work. The monsters are in tip-top fighting condition. Even the walls and ceilings are usually in pretty good shape.
In the works of many OSR writers, though, I've noticed that ruin tends to be something which operates on every level: not just in the boringly literal form of physically ruined buildings, but also biological ruins (decaying corpses, malfunctioning ecosystems, unstable mutations, degenerate bloodlines), social ruins (fallen empires, disintegrating social orders, lost knowledge, dying traditions), moral ruins (madness, perversion, fanaticism, corruption), and so on. Their works are full of broken machines that no longer function, lost knowledge which no-one understands, degenerate clans sinking into feral barbarism, once-brilliant minds declining into madness, and scavengers living among the corpses of giants. Their preferred fauna are vermin and scavengers: frogs, snakes, rats, toads, insects, and spiders. Their preferred flora are usually mushrooms and fungi. Frequently-used motifs include rust, cannibalism, insanity, mutation, disintegration, mutilation, and biological decay. Rather than a perfectly healthy tribe of orcs practicing perfectly functional evil magic, their ruin-settings are more likely to be inhabited by clans of mad and degenerate morlocks practicing weird semi-functional cargo-cult sorcery based on badly-misunderstood fragments of ancient knowledge that they found scratched onto the dungeon walls. They don't just live in ruins: they have ruined bodies, ruined minds, ruined societies, and sometimes even ruined souls, as well.
|Print from Piranesi's 'Carceri'.|
Over and over again, these writers cast the PCs as tiny figures wandering a world of dead and dying titans, stumbling amidst the wreckage of mighty forces they do not understand. (In fact, this could pretty much serve as the plot summary of every LotFP adventure I've ever read.) Whether they're delving into Stuart's Deep Carbon Observatory or Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Environment, navigating Gus L's HMS Apollyon or Chandler's Slaughtergrid or McKinney's Carcosa, trying not to die in Crespy's Castle Gargantua or on the slopes of Raggi's Deathfrost Mountain or just about anywhere in Arnold K's Centerra, they are going to be out of their depth and know it. But this is almost never because they're going up against a superior force operating at its full potential; instead, they're usually picking their way through the ruins of something so vast and powerful that even the random flailings of its last malfunctioning machines (or the dwarfish and degenerate descendants of its guard beasts, or the fragmentary and corrupted remnants of its arcane lore) are quite capable of smashing them to bits.
(Look, for example, at the layers of ruination built into the Dragon Hole dungeon that Arnold K is writing right now. A ruined reservoir complex once built to pump water into space, now inhabited by the remnants of a family of dragons, all of whom are insane. Each dragon served by a cult of brainwashed lunatics. The dragon's lair full of broken weapons and crippled would-be dragonslayers. The rotting corpse of their mother at the very bottom. The ruin goes all the way down. Gus L's adventures are even clearer examples of the same thing.)
|Untitled image by Zdzisław Beksiński. If you don't already know his work, you should.|
Andy Bartlett was onto something when, back in 2013, he wrote about the Old School as having a 'pathetic aesthetic' - using 'pathetic' in the old sense of the word, as something capable of arousing feelings of pity or pathos in its audience. But that's only half of it. The fear and vulnerability of its protagonists - and of many of its antagonists, come to that - can and should arouse pathos, although it can also be played for comedy value. But the immense mismatch between their fragile, mortal lives and their huge and ancient surroundings also inspires feelings of awe and grandeur: the aesthetic which used to be known as 'the sublime'. A man bleeding to death in a gutter is pathetic. A man bleeding to death in a gutter in the middle of a pre-human city of mile-high spires combines pathos with sublimity.
(The technical term for the deliberately incongruous combination of sublime and non-sublime elements was 'the grotesque', which is an aesthetic that the OSR also gets a lot of mileage out of. But there's a difference between an aesthetic which deliberately jumbles up high and low elements and an aesthetic which simply places them both on the same stage in order to call attention to the vast disparity between them.)
This 'pathetic sublime' has become a bit of a trademark of much contemporary OSR writing, to the point where it takes a moment to recognise that it's actually a bit counter-intuitive. Real people don't get a choice about whether to encounter a civilisation at its height rather than as an ancient ruin, but authors and GMs do: and if the premise of your set-up is 'something huge once happened here', then why isn't that the focus of the scenario? Why not use a sublime sublime, rather than a pathetic one, and make the PCs as the equals of the world they encounter, mighty men in a mighty age, rather than dwarfish outsiders creeping fearfully through its wreckage? Take something like Gus L's (very good) adventure The Dread Machine. It casts the PCs as adventurers exploring an ancient site which has been stricken with no less than three layers of ruination: the ruin of the empire that built it, the subsequent ruin of the religion that brought that empire down, and the more recent ruin of most of the creatures which once defended it. Why start there, three crashes down the line, rather than having the original baddies up and running in all their evil glory, and the PCs being the Sublime Epic Heroes whose job it is to try to take them down?
Here's where I think it becomes more than just coincidence. Quite apart from their preference for lower power levels, OSR game styles tend to be very open, giving PCs as much liberty as possible to run around an environment and explore it in whatever wildly self-destructive ways they can dream up; but that openness requires and implies a certain set of absences. If PCs can run around the inside of a giant machine pulling levers to see what happens - and they should be able to, because that stuff is classic - then that implies that whoever first built this amazing machine, with all the technological and organisational prowess which its size and complexity implies, is no longer around to stop them. If they can rove from place to place, butchering or befriending the occupants of each area as the whim takes them, then that implies the absence of any kind of overarching authority able to control the movements of this gang of freakish desperadoes. Well-maintained social order is the enemy of free-wheeling adventure, and so the more ruined everything is, the more freedom PCs will have to run around inside it.
(Note that this is much less true of the 'scripted combat encounter' model of play that became the norm in the 3rd and 4th edition eras, where 'break into the fort and fight your way through an escalating series of set-piece battles as the defenders desperately try to repel your invasion' would have been a completely legitimate scenario design. In fact, for adventures like that, too much ruination might well get in the way: you don't want PCs circumventing combat encounters by climbing through the holes in the walls or manipulating the superstitions of the Morlocks, after all...)
|'Twilight Castle', from Vampire Hunter D.|
I guess what I'm getting at here is that the more wrecked things are, the more open they are to free-form adventure. Malfunctioning AIs, senile liches, mad and delusional immortals, glitching magical security systems... all of these things are open to manipulation in a way that their fully-functional counterparts wouldn't be. Sane and organised beings are going to react rationally, efficiently, and collectively to an intrusion into their territory, which tends to short-circuit adventures; but if they're weird and superstitious and crazy then they can react in much more varied and interesting ways - a possibility which the classic module B4 The Lost City employs to great effect. The World-Shaking Magic of the Ancients probably isn't much use to you in your game: either it actually turns out to be not that much more powerful than anything else, in which case it's going to be a massive disappointment, or it really does have world-shaking power, in which case letting it be used either by or against the PCs is likely to end the campaign. But the fragmentary and poorly-understood remnants of the World-Shaking Magic of the Ancients are great - and precisely because of their ruinous condition, they can be given non-game-ruining effects without actually reducing the mystique of the Ancients themselves. No matter how fantastical something may be, familiarity will breed contempt: but only ever encountering things in fragments prevents them from ever becoming fully known and defined, which is great both for atmosphere and for actually enabling the kind of exploratory gaming which most OSR games are set up to facilitate.
I don't think this is the only reason why ruin is such a prevalent motif in OSR writing. Part of it comes from the rules: if you're a 1st-level character with three hit points exploring a mysterious underworld with dragons and demons in it, then a certain sense of being dwarfed by the world around you is inevitable. Part of it comes from the fascination with horror, which is a genre that was literally born out of people's feelings of discomfort with the ruins of the past. (There's a reason for all those ruined abbeys in early Gothic novels.) A lot of it is inherited from 1920s and 1930s weird fiction writers like Howard and Lovecraft, who were trying to get to grips with the new vistas of 'deep history' revealed by the science and archaeology of the period. But I think the reason that it survives as a design principle, rather than just as an aesthetic choice, is because it actually works for the desired mode of play. 'Five guys take on a fully-garrisoned temple (or castle, or lab, or whatever)' is always going to be either a heist or a commando raid. But 'five guys take on a ruined temple'... Now that can be an actual adventure!