Thursday, December 26, 2013

Kickstarting Madness

So if you've gotten some holiday cash or just have money and want to throw it at some creative projects, here are a few things going around the OSR that I wanted to highlight. I know I don't usually shill for things but with 2014 coming around the corner, I thought this would also be a good way to showcase some things I like that should be out next year.

The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence by Venger Satanis.

This one still hasn't reached its funding goal. Venger Satanis is best known for his previous module, Liberation of the Demon Slayer, a dungeon crawl; this one is an island module. The KS is $1,149 short of its $3,500 goal, but really I'd like to see it at least hit $5,000 and the first stretch goal - getting everyone involved a longer module. The current length of 32 pages is still a bit shy of what I'd prefer. But I think there's a good deal of potential here, and I'd like to see the module at least fund. It's high gonzo - space aliens, demons, Lovecraftian entities, fantasy tropes all mixed up in one big weird package.

Or as Venger puts it:
Specifically, adventurers will explore three islands in close proximity that have been visited by a wyrm-riding empire, extra-dimensional invaders, space aliens, Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and more. They'll find black pylons enabling time/space travel, an devil-god worshiping temple of extra-dimensional properties, a shattered dome city, and most importantly, The Thing That Rots From The Sky!
So what are you waiting for?

The World of Calidar. This is Bruce Heard's new project, a setting explored through skyship-related fiction like his "Princess Ark" series in Dragon Magazine that dealt with Mystara. This is a generic setting/fiction related product, and while I'm not often for gamer fiction, I do think Heard's work is a good way to establish a setting. And it has skyships! This has already funded and is pressing on towards stretch goals.

An Illustrated Bestiary of Fantastic Creatures. This is a project by an illustrator named Casey Sorrow that goes right after my heart: a richly illustrated bestiary for old school games. Sorrow lists the inspirational illustrators as "David C. Sutherland III, David A. Trampier, Tom Wham, and Jean Wells" - so you can get a feeling this is going to be a good one. Although really, our squid-type friend to the right should've told you that right off the bat. No stretch goals for this one but it's moving towards its finish line, with $970 out of $1600 raised so far.

One of the reasons I am promoting all of these Kickstarters is that they are relatively modest goals, with good pricing points and realistic expectations from the project creators. There are no stretch goals that will bankrupt creators, and the projects are manageable rather than epic products that will bog the authors down. You get the book for Venger's module at $20, a softcover book for Calidar at $25 (or the book plus a poster map at $35), and the Bestiary is a mere $16. So check them out and get your old school on for 2014!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A dungeon with an elevator

Spoliers ahead if you will be playing in the module Tower of the Stargazer.

Yesterday I ran another B/X game, and the players decided to check out some rumors outside of the Caves of Chaos. That was fine, as I have laid out some additional modules in an expanded woodland area (via a very rough sketch of a map that I drew). The adventure seed the PCs wound up following was the stories of mysterious lightning leading up to the Tower of the Stargazer.

This was a very interesting transition from Keep on the Borderlands, simply because the modules couldn't have been more different in execution. No huge sprawling caves here, it's a very compact area. Rather than every corner hiding a lurking creature, there was danger of death at every step, but in a largely abandoned area.

As Tower of the Stargazer runs, it feels like James Raggi read The Tomb of Horrors and considers it less of a one-off death trap and more of an artist's manifesto. His module is more focused on tricks and traps and puzzles, than on monsters and demons. Even exploration is blown wide open for this module by having the elevator system - which allowed the PCs to see, and get, the treasure in the lowest level.

The one PC who died did so because he insisted on looking in each mirror in Dungeon Level 1 and managed to fail every saving throw. (They did trigger the snake trap at the door but made their saving throws.) The surviving PCs figured out the switches in Dungeon Level 2 and got the treasure without a scratch, which gave each of them a level up. The wizard himself was a hilarious encounter for the already-wary PCs, who thought long and hard about trying to kill him but thought better of it.

Part of why I enjoyed this was that it made a total death trap that still felt appropriate as an adventure for low-level PCs (in this case, a level 3 now ex-thief, a level 2 dwarf and level 1 fighter and cleric). It also let me set the tone that not everything I'll be running is classic TSR in style, but felt like it worked well into the existing campaign. It's also a short module, but in a good way - whereas B2 gives you a ton of bang for your buck, Stargazer finishes smoothly without a dozen or more sessions.

It's also worth a shout-out to J.D. Neal, whose town from JN1 The Chaotic Caves I've nicked as a settlement not far from the Keep on the Borderlands. It's a good alternative to just sticking with the Keep.

In future sessions we'll have modules even further afield. But I do have to say, mixing Gygax and Raggi in a campaign isn't as hard as you'd think, and at least for Tower of the Stargazer it works to good effect.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Some B2 Notes

Apologies for the unplanned hiatus - being busy around the holidays and having a bit of writer's block doesn't help with blog productivity. I'll see about getting Dungeon Crawl 4 out before the end of the year but there's no guarantee there.

In the meantime I've run a couple games set in B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It's worth noting how much play I've gotten out of this module, and the players are a ways from being done. The humanoids have been totally devastated for numbers, while the deeper caves have only just been scratched.

The PCs played politics very well between the orc groups in the previous session, getting them to help in a raid that wound up killing both chieftains (with some PC trickery in the mix as well). The elf NPC with a vendetta proved quite bloody, though he wound up meeting his end last night, not at the hands of the orcs he hated, but from a group of zombies. He died having had his vengeance, so he was probably on his way out.

B2 encourages a lot of play that I really find enjoyable as a referee. For instance, there was a lot of roleplaying that led to the orc slaughter; the reaction and morale systems are really important for this. In a room further down the caves, the PCs cleverly destroyed a dozen skeletons before setting off the trap that would animate them - although this attracted the zombie guards that killed the elf NPC and one of the PC fighters.

In last night's game, surprise almost doomed a dwarf PC who's made it through many Stonehell and a few B2 sessions; he was in the path of the bear from my B2 wilderness encounter list. A 4 HD bear with 3 attacks per round is a formidable challenge to 1st and 2nd level PCs, even if they outnumber it. The bear won surprise and decided that the dwarf in his plate armor was a meal in a can, and he was determined to open it. High PC damage output did get the bear to break in morale and probably saved the life of Tybur.

I've also been doing some preparatory work in expanding the wilderness area. It's a good basis for a bit of a sandbox with dungeon modules around it; I won't spoil exactly what is lined up, but once the PCs finally finish with B2 I think there will be some good opportunities.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Dungeon Crawl #4 Art Preview & Remaining Needs

I thought I'd share a piece of art by Dungeon Crawl regular DL Johnson of Iron Image Industries:

This is from the adventure "The Sword, The Scarf and The Horn: The Tale of Varonus of Galvenais" by Nathaniel Hutchins that will be appearing in Dungeon Crawl #4.

Also appearing in the issue will be "Trouble in Trollwood," a Norse-themed wilderness adventure by Alan Brodie, and "The Green Chapel," a short Arthurian dungeon by yours truly. All of this is following the medieval mythology theme of the issue. Nathaniel and Alan have put together top-flight adventures that I'm proud to be putting forward.

However - the magazine doesn't have any non-adventure pieces yet. I'll write up an installment of "What Trap Charts?" but I don't want this issue to be covered with my byline. If you have monsters, magic items, spells, classes, NPCs, charts, tables, articles or short fiction that will fit with the theme (chivalric romance, Norse sagas, folk heroes, Arabian Nights) - please send them on to my gmail account, wrossi81.

Additionally, if you're interested in doing art for the issue please let me know and I'll get you the requirements once I have them.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: Spring-Heeled Jack

I wound up so busy last Wednesday that I missed out on giving you this entry in my series for Swords & Wizardry, which I had actually found the week before. I think he's good for the day before Halloween, though.

Spring-Heeled Jack

Hit Dice: 4
Armor Class: 7 [12]
Attacks: 2 claws (1d4 each)
Saving Throw: 13
Special: Fire breath
Move: 12 (18 leaping)
Alignment: Chaotic
Challenge Level/XP: 5/240

It is not clear whether the well-known Spring-Heeled Jack is a singular being or one of a variety of devils. In either case, it is a menace that dwells in towns and cities rather than the far-flung areas of the world. At first glance, bearing a cloak and hat, he is easily mistaken for a gentleman; but upon closer inspection his glowing red eyes and vicious claws distinguish him; reports of horns may or may not be accurate. Spring-Heeled Jack is capable of outleaping humans, hence his name; on foot he is no faster but he may close short distances in a series of quick leaps.

When he attacks, Jack is known for his blue-white fire breath. A gout of this breath will do 1d6 damage; if Jack breathes into the face of an opponent, they must make a saving throw (vs. poison) or be blinded for 1d6 turns. After he uses this fire he must wait 1d4 rounds before using it again.

Spring-Heeled Jack lives near settlements and has a habit of attacking lone travelers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A different approach to languages

In the last session I ran of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, one of the players noted that a paucity of linguistic skills stopped the PCs from having any kind of non-combat interaction with the kobolds. Someone would have had to actively take the language, and the PCs present didn't have high enough Intelligence to get bonus languages. It's a picky and difficult thing, and monstrous languages are kind of a crapshoot where players make guesses at what might be useful.

At the same time, the ability to talk to monsters is one of the more interesting parts of D&D. As an RPG, players can strike any bargain or make up any trick they want; the monsters don't have to be bags of hit points that deal damage. So this is an area of serious potential for roleplaying if the language issue can be fixed.

There could be a solution closer than people think: alignment languages. I've written about them before, and I don't have the strong objections to them that many people seem to. They are often ridiculed in no small part because the Dungeon Masters Guide makes it clear that alignment languages are meant for relatively abstruse and philosophical discussion, with practical matters all but verboten. I think this is wrong-headed.

Alignment language could play a very interesting role as a lingua franca between humans and monsters. I think this might work best with a Holmes-style five point alignment where some monsters have different alignments, but continuing to take the Chainmail-style stance that alignments are basically "sides." This works well in Holmes because goblins, hobgoblins and kobolds are lawful evil while orcs, gnolls and bugbears are chaotic evil. That means a character can realistically talk to goblin-types but not orc-types, and vice versa.

The shift would be to make alignment languages fully functional tongues - LG being something like Latin, CE being akin to the Black Speech of Mordor, CG as Sindarin, etc. While they have a ceremonial use, they are widely known and more importantly are complete languages. The other change is to make them learnable by individuals not of that alignment. So a PC could speak the CG and CE languages - and it might be suspect - but it would certainly allow them to communicate with all CE creatures. Elves would get CE in addition to their alignment language, and dwarves get LE. This is more or less close to the creatures they can speak with per B/X.

This approach has two benefits. One is that there is a "level safety" to this; if kobolds are only encountered in this one cave, your 12th level magic-user won't have a wasted slot with "kobold" on his character sheet. Instead he'll have "Lawful Evil" or the in-campaign name of the same language. The second advantage is that it lets the referee play around with different monster archetypes without making things totally incompatible. What if your PC took Orc and Goblin as languages but all you run into are beast-men? Then the slot gets totally wasted. But if there's a Chaotic Evil language you can learn in addition to your own alignment tongue, you can talk with both orcs and beast-men.

Of course, this is something of a worldbuilding question - but so is the default D&D language situation. Having "Common" and various monster and alignment languages instead of pseudo-historical or historical human languages is a definite shift away from most fantasy works, especially post-Tolkien ones that revel in their worldbuilding. The best way to do this, IMO, is to turn these alignment languages into a worldbuilding tool instead of a hindrance. Figure out why there's a common language among kobolds, goblins and that evil empire.

The one other shift referees may want to consider is whether humans have the alignment language related to their own alignment, or the prevailing alignment of their home area. For instance, in a Lawful Good town - how would a Chaotic Evil fighter pick up the Black Speech? More likely he knows enough of Church Latin to get by. It's another layer of complication but once we take it up, it makes a bit more sense out of the whole concept.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Actual Play: B2 Keep on the Borderlands

  1. My wilderness encounter list (available here) came in handy. The party encountered bandits, dressed as clerics. It made initial sense because, in downtime, the curate at the Keep ran the traveling priest and his acolytes out and the party thief had tracked them. The bandits wound up getting beat with a quick Sleep spell.
  2. In looking for a new NPC to help them, the PCs managed to find an elf (as per the notes in the tavern of a wanderer) coming along with a merchant group. The elf knew the Sleep spell that came in handy, and when facing the kobold chieftain managed to use the Wand of Paralyzation (and in so doing identify it in the breach).
  3. The thief, who had not used most of his skills in four prior sessions, got to move silently, backstab and open locks - all successfully. The first two did a lot to take out the ogre, but once wounded the ogre batted one of the party henchmen, baseball-style, with a massive club. He was knocked directly into a tree branch and died. Another henchman bit the dust at the hands of one of the kobold chieftain's harem.
  4. The kobold chieftain is kind of living the pimp life. Huge piece of bling around his neck, five kobold women - wow. It's a very profitable encounter, beating both the hobgoblin and goblin chieftains for money. But not getting slaughtered on the way in took some doing. After one henchman fell in the pit, a TPK was likely if the PCs held their ground. They wisely retreated to the mouth of the cave and beat the kobolds there, then picked off rats - who were not rushing in to fight - from a distance. Good tactics, no dead PCs.
  5. The kobold cave was a lot of fun to run. It was good that the PCs went to it after several other caves and had some idea of what to do tactically to win.
  6. I'm wondering what I want to do with the factions, since there have been two deprived of leadership (kobolds, hobgoblins) and two removed (goblins, ogre). But I have a couple of weeks to make the power vacuums interesting.
The module's gotten interesting. I'm also starting to think about that point every B2 referee comes to - the eventual follow-up to B2. I had been thinking of Caverns of Thracia but it is another faction dungeon.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wilderness Encounters for B2 Keep on the Borderlands

Doing some work for my next session, I've decided that B2 Keep on the Borderlands is really missing random wilderness encounters; it gets PCs to the dungeon more quickly but is problematic in terms of challenging experienced players. In the interest of making these wilderness encounters more interesting, I've taken some enemies from the Caves of Chaos that make sense as wandering scout parties and added some random encounters drawn from the Moldvay Basic rulebook and a couple borrowed from B3 Palace of the Silver Princess to round things out.

Wilderness Encounters for B2 Keep on the Borderlands

In doing this, I've tried to imply some new locations on and off the B2 map. I really feel like the existing map, where PCs can camp out with impunity as long as they stick to the road, sort of misses the "borderland" feel.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The First OSR Compatible Product!

You can now download the first ever OSR Compatible product. For Gold & Glory by Justen Brown is a 2e retroclone, reproducing the edition that defined most of my high school gaming. I've just downloaded it and skimmed it a bit, and the art is delightfully DIY (still better than the 1995 reissue art) while the system distills everything essential from the 2e PHB and DMG into a 318 page book.

The OSR Compatible website has been updated with a Products page that lists FG&G and will include all future OSR Compatible products. Also, Dan Hyland who did the layout on this book also did a .svg vector graphics version of the OSR Compatible logo, now available on the logo page.

On Holmesian Initiative


When two figures are brought into position 10 scale feet (or less) apart they may engage in melee. The character with the highest dexterity strikes first. If the Dungeon Master does not know the dexterity of an attacking monster he rolls it on the spot. Subject to the limitation of heavy weapons the two figures exchange blows in turn until the melee is resolved. If dexterities are within 1 or 2 points of each other, a 6-sided die is rolled for each opponent, and the higher score gains initiative — first blow.

Attackers who surprise an opponent or who approach him from behind always get the first blow. Characters who are wounded continue to strike valiantly until they are killed or the melee ends in their favor, unless they choose to break off the combat and flee. If combat is broken off, the fleeing party must accept an attack without any return on his part, the attacker adding +2 to his die roll for hit probability, and the armor class of the fleeing party can not include a shield.

- Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, Edited by J. Eric Holmes
The initiative rules above comprise the relatively simple "Dexterity based" rules from Holmes. It leads to a situation where combat takes place in a relatively static order, with each player announcing what they do in order by Dexterity. But as I've been thinking about it, the rule could actually work better in practice than the OD&D FAQ method of simply rolling off (which was duplicated in AD&D with some complications, and without them in Moldvay).

First: there is the question of monster Dexterity scores, which can be cumbersome to deal with. But monsters already have scores which are roughly on the scale of Dexterity - simply multiplied by 10 - in their Movement rates. In fact, this is probably the biggest utility those rates will have; chases are rarer than fights and it gives fast monsters a much more significant advantage. It's also less arbitrary than rolling Dexterity for a given monster. So the rule of thumb is movement rate divided by 10.

Second: This system works best if you treat every melee as an individual conflict. Rather than simply raffling through Dexterity scores each round, the referee should note which combatant went first and proceed through each mini-melee on the field. Dexterity is only referenced, and dice only rolled for ties, when first engaging an opponent. So three fighting-men taking on four orcs will be considered three separate melees, with the fourth orc having to compare Dexterity scores with the warrior he is going up against. But if a cleric arrives and wants to go up against the fourth orc, they compare scores again.

Third: For reasons of tension and balance, I think spell-casting should always be subject to a roll-off, and being hit in a round should stop a spell from being cast for the rest of the round. So if a magic-user is trying to Sleep a group of goblins, the one who reaches him can roll off to see whether it can try to attack the M-U and disrupt his spell. This accomplishes the goal that Gygax was getting at with AD&D initiative without the enormous difficulty.

Fourth: Note the attack of opportunity in the Holmes rules. It's worth noting that this actually accomplishes everything the 3.x rules were trying to do, again with far less complication. Let's say a fighting-man is trying to guard a magic-user behind him. An orc tries to sneak by and whack the magic-user. The fighter can try to enter melee with the orc, and if his Dexterity is 12 he gets a roll-off; if it's higher he enters melee with the orc. In those cases, if the orc tries to get to the magic-user and hit him, he has withdrawn from combat with the fighter and takes an attack at -2. So this really makes guarding a character or objective a function of initiative, which makes sense. Fighting-men are guards, but if only if they're fast enough and not already engaged.

Finally: When expanding Holmes, I think one of the natural moves is to give fighting-men extra attacks at higher levels. These can be treated as if the fighting-man is in melee against two separate creatures. So if a fighting-man at 5th level with 10 Dexterity is fighting an orc (MV 120 for Dex 12) and an ogre (MV 90 for Dex 9), the orc goes before him, but he goes before the ogre each time. If he had Dex 12, he would roll off once (for him versus the orc) and always go before the ogre.

With these points in mind, I think Holmes initiative can be the most straightforward way to run initiative in classic D&D. I'd still avoid the weapon speed rules which are a crude version of what wound up in AD&D, but it's worth using initiative with the tweaks.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My RPG Profile

Since I only follow trends that don't result in post-grinding for 30 days at a time, here's an RPG profile.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include: B/X Dungeons & Dragons.

I would especially like to play/run: Over the Edge, Runequest

...but would also try: Classic Traveller, d6 Star Wars

I live in: Collingswood, New Jersey

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: Caverns of Thracia, Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons, The Call of Cthulhu

2 or 3 novels I like: Dune, Elric of Melniboné, Les Misérables

2 or 3 movies I like: Bande à part, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Castle of Cagliostro

Best place to find me on-line: G+.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: Connected to the old school movement, by one of the pioneers of the hobby, or has a strong reputation.

I really do not want to hear about: Modernist RPGs and games with the "old school feel" that nevertheless are not actually old school. If you say "old school feel" you do not have it.

I think dead orc babies are a sign that you're playing B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and really unnecessary.

Game I'm in are like Murderhobos on the Borderlands

Free RPG Content I made for D&D is available here.

Free RPG Content I made for OD&D is available here.

You can buy RPG stuff I made about D&D here.

If you know anything about chivalric and medieval mythology it'd help me with a project I'm working on

I talk about RPGs on Google Plus under the name Wayne Rossi

I talk about RPGs on Original D&D Discussion under the name Cadriel

I talk about RPGs on Dragonsfoot under the name Cadriel

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Keying the Corridors

If you bought Dungeon Crawl #3, you know that there are several places located in the corridors where I've keyed the traps. I'm thinking more and more that this is a philosophy I want to use and see more of in published modules.

I've found in writing adventures for Dungeon Crawl that numbering rooms tends to lead to a "one thing per room" mentality to dungeons. You can only get so much detail into a single entry before you cause your reader's eyes to glaze over; but at the same time, there needs to be more in the dungeon than answers to "what is behind this door / in this room?"

A big part of this is the idea that there are interesting things in the corridors. After all, the stereotypical old school dungeon has 10' wide corridors; my office is narrower than that. A rat's nest that is in a room could just as we'll be in a corridor; a hallway can have niches filled with statues, or hollow areas where treasure or traps are hidden. Creatures, traps and puzzles in the corridors make for a more tactically rich environment.

A lot of creature types are well suited to corridor encounters. For instance, the "cleanup crew" - slimes, oozes, jellies - make a lot of sense in corridors. Rats and other creatures of unusual size, which I've talked about in the past as much more compact than the space they're usually given, are another good choice. Non-intelligent undead make as much sense in a corridor as anywhere else; why would a lumbering zombie prefer a room? Generally opportunistic creatures should logically be in hallways.

For mobile threats, one interesting wrinkle is to make their presence a numbers game. If there is a giant rat nest in a niche of the corridor, perhaps there is only a 2 in 6 chance that the rats are there. They can go in the wandering monster list for the rest of the time.

Obviously the corridor encounters won't have non-hidden, unguarded treasure, but the possibility of hidden treasures is real. A single gem in the base of a statue can raise the stakes of a dungeon permanently, with PCs vigilantly checking every possible location for treasure, at least until they find a trapped one, and of course pit raps, arrow traps etc are natural corridor hazards.

The intrigue is in the ability of PCs to avoid encounters. These should not be in places that can't be circumvented; instead they give certain paths a higher difficulty cost. Perhaps the players find a shortcut but there are shriekers, or green slime, or another obvious challenge. Or perhaps they found an empty giant weasel nest going down a hallway; do they risk counting on it not being home on their way back?

So you'll see more of this from me in the future. I'm curious what others have done with this and what you think of the idea.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: Shadow People

This week's cryptid is an urban legend inspired by that feeling someone is following you.

Shadow People

Hit Dice: 3
Armor Class: 8 [11]
Attacks: Choking grasp (1d6/turn)
Saving Throw: 14
Special: Paralysis, choking grasp, immaterial
Move: 12
Alignment: Chaotic
Challenge Level/XP: 5/240

Shadow people are incorporeal beings that resemble typical shadows thrown by light, but are not themselves composed of shadow. They are physically distinguished by their glowing eyes. Most (75%) of encounters with shadow people are fleeting; they are seen for only a few moments before flitting away. They are not social and have no language, although some shadow people may make an eerie high-pitched noise.

When a shadow person does take an interest in a human, it is generally when it is twilight or later and usually when the human is alone. Solitary travelers and characters standing watch at night are particularly susceptible. If a character meets the eyes of a shadow person, they must make a saving throw or be paralyzed for 2d6 rounds. If the prey of a shadow person is thus immobilized, subsequent saving throws are made at -2 to the roll. After this, the shadow person will attempt to strangle the human; each round, the character must make a saving throw or take 1d6 damage. (No attack roll is made.) Magic-users and clerics may not cast spells while being strangled. A character who has taken damage this way will have the skin near their neck turned white until a Remove Curse spell is cast.

A shadow person's immaterial nature means it cannot be harmed by non-magical means. Magic weapons and spells do it full damage. Likewise, it may pass beyond any mundane boundaries (walls, doors etc) but is stopped by magical barriers, including Protection from Evil spells. It can be turned as a Wight, but is never destroyed by turning.

If killed, a shadow person leaves behind no remains.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Moldvay and Holmes, and Fighters

I've been running games using the Moldvay basic set recently, and using the variable weapon damage rules therein, which are basically similar to the ones found in Supplement I: Greyhawk except that Moldvay doesn't differentiate between damage to small, medium and large creatures.

In Moldvay at least, variable weapon damage enforces the use of swords. A Moldvay sword (or a Greyhawk or AD&D one) does 1d8 damage, or 4.5 damage on average. Since an average 1 HD monster has 4.5 hp, the Moldvay fighter with a sword will kill it in one successful hit (this is enhanced by the likelihood of +1 or more to damage due to Strength). In Holmes the monster hp amounts are the same, but the fighter will only do 3.5 points of damage to it (1d6), leaving it 1 hp.

With Holmes, an orc has AC 7 and the fighting-man hits it on a 12 or better (45% of the time). Moldvay orcs have AC 6, but an average fighter should have Strength between 13 and 15 (due to additional points from other scores) and likewise hits on a 12 or better. On the whole, a fighter should hit an orc every other round. So the Holmes fighting-man should kill an orc in 4 rounds, while the Moldvay fighter takes closer to 2. If we assume that the average fighter has 4.5 HP and AC 4 (chain+shield) and the orc does 3.5 damage, the Holmes fighting-man is likely to win with 1 hit point left, while the Moldvay fighter has a good chance of getting out without a scratch.

The Holmes rules are fairly pitiless for our fighting-man. There's a lower chance of Constitution bonuses to hit dice, no Dexterity modifier to armor class, and no Strength bonuses to hit or to damage. A Holmesian fighting-man with scores of 13 in each score has only a Dexterity bonus to hit with missile weapons, while a Moldvay fighter with 13s in all three scores has +1 to hit, damage, AC and hit points. Plus, the Moldvay fighter's sword does d8 while the Holmes fighter's does only d6.

Looking at this situation, where I've said before that Holmes is clearly the magic-user's favored system, Moldvay seems to favor the oft-overlooked fighter. But one simple tweak could change the whole game: running Holmes, which is strongly rooted in OD&D, with d6 for hit dice. The earliest printings of the rulebook didn't have this, per Zenopus Archives, and without following it we find our Holmes fighting-man is much more capable. Now he kills orcs at the same rate as his Moldvay counterpart, and we didn't need to use Strength bonuses or variable damage.

The side effect of this is that clerics, who can't use swords, find themselves more or less at parity with fighters at low levels. Of course, clerics advance more slowly in fighting, and more importantly they can't use magic swords - which are far and away the most common magic weapons. The parity is sort of a good thing, though, considering how few spells clerics get at lower levels; it's sort of like they start off even but fighters branch off to more fighty stuff while clerics go towards more cleric-type doings.

The other advantage that Holmes has is that it's not locked into the B/X ruleset which does not feature multiple attacks. Pretty much any multiple-attack rules the referee chooses can be worked more easily into Holmes, using 4th level ("Hero") as the trigger point. So while Moldvay does have advantages for the fighter, Holmes is probably more amenable to being tweaked in the right direction.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More Troll Questions Answered

Because I like it (and don't like things like the 30-day challenge), I'm answering Top Ten Troll Questions Part Two.

(1). Should level drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do?

Yes. It should be reversible with some spell though.

(2). Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do?

I prefer Holmes's rule of 1d8 on the first turn, and 2d8 on the second. It does a lot for a group's tactics to have the fire option.

(3). Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicated instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work?

Poison is save or die unless specified otherwise. Specifying otherwise is good.

(4). Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead?

I prefer that characters die when killed. I do sometimes use a d6 to determine how many rounds dying takes; if a character is taken below 0 hit points, the "negative" HP are factored into the die roll (i.e. at -2 HP you take d6-2 rounds to die). Magical healing is possible while dying, but no "I bind their wounds" - it's a mortal wound.

(5). Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a "memorize and forget system" (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use?

Yes. Though I like the Holmes scroll rules, as I've discussed here multiple times.

(6). Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc...) for damage?

I go back and forth on this, because I mainly prefer OD&D and Holmes, but I also like different dice. If I'm running straight-up OD&D or Holmes, I use d6; when running Moldvay or S&W, I use variable damage dice.

(7). Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No?


(8). Should a character with an strength of 18 constitution get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics?

Holmes and Moldvay agree: 18 Constitution gives +3 per hit die. My ideal is that Strength gives +1 to hit for 13 or higher (-1 at 8 or lower), and Wisdom gives similar bonus/penalty on save vs. spells. Intelligence gives you languages, and if you read this blog you should know I think that's a terrific ability.

(9). Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else?

The third most popular post in this blog's history doesn't lie: Save vs. Death Ray!

So on that basis alone, 5 saves, as long as one is Death Ray.

(10). Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level?

B, no spells at 1st level. Clerics in older D&D should be gaining levels quickly. It also reduces the feeling that they are "heal-bots" that you get in AD&D, and makes their healing magic more of a valuable resource.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: The Dingonek

With my diminished blog output the last month or so, I have been remiss with cryptid monsters for Swords & Wizardry. Here's a classic from Africa.


Hit Dice: 8
Armor Class: 2 [17]
Attacks: Bite (2d8), 2 Claws (1d8)
Saving Throw: 8
Special: Sting (1d4 + lethal poison)
Move: 12 (18 swim)
Alignment: Neutral
Challenge Level/XP: 9/1,100

Found in the most remote jungles and deepest swamps, the Dingonek is a creature that resembles a long reptile with a leonine head, massive walrus-like tusks, and a stinger at the end of its body (an average 15 feet in length). It is covered in armadillo-like scales that make it strongly armored.

A dingonek will not tolerate other predators in its territory, and has been known to quickly slay crocodiles and even hippopotami as well as humans who intrude. It fights ferociously, biting with its massive tusks. Prey that survive this must face its scorpion-like sting and save or perish from its poison.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

OSR Compatible Website and Logo

I set up the OSR Compatible Website today, and it's officially a published standard. The logo above, based off of Stuart Robertson's Creative Commons-licensed original, is my first stab at this; if anyone else wants to release an OSR logo via CC-BY-SA and email me (my gmail address is wrossi81), feel free to design any alternate versions you want.

In the mean time, any publisher can use it. I just ask that you include a box indicating compatibility (there are instructions here) and attribute the image to .

Once people have published books carrying the OSR Compatible logo, there will be a Products page with a listing of all products available.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Different Approach to Setting Design

This post is a reaction to Erik Tenkar's post here.

The biggest thing I learned when I did the OD&D setting series of posts earlier this year is that more can be implied about an RPG setting in a well-designed set of tables than from ten times as many pages of detail. More importantly, setting tables are immediately useful in a way that detailed books aren't.

In practice, if you have a relatively civilized pseudo-medieval sandbox, you will need to generate more than one small settlement. Rather than detailing out dozens of such areas, I think it's a valid approach to provide a set of tables and charts to randomly generate one on the fly. This obviously has to be a fairly quick procedure, but it's been done - in the Village Book 1 and 2, Castle Book 1 and 2, Temple Book 1 and Islands Book 1 from Judges Guild.

While there's a lot of love for the bare sketch of the Wilderlands setting, I think these six books imply an approach that I think is really worthwhile: a series of charts that help you put together details about a location quickly. The Wilderlands setting has interesting implied variations in civilization levels, and I think things like this could really be exploited to define a setting.

Setting should be something you don't see, like the air we breathe. Unless a game session is really saturated in details drawn from sourcebooks, the majority of the time the characters are just in "the world," and I've run a number of fine games with barely a shred of setting detail. The challenge of bringing setting to life is to use it in incidental ways - for instance, artwork and treasure might be recognizably from a particular era. "The statue depicts a general from the expansion of the First Empire" or "the brooch looks like it's from one of the Athean League states" are ways to provide impression of a rich setting without going and actually detailing it all out.

I really prefer the kind of setting where players can be slowly drawn into the details, possibly as outsiders. This is the traditional approach to Tékumel, but it's also very doable in a D&D world where the PCs are, almost by assumption, outsiders. This trope is very heavily backed up in the source literature: Conan is foreign to most of the countries he visits; Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are not natives of Lankhmar, Bilbo and Frodo both go abroad from the Shire, Elric is a stranger to the Young Kingdoms - it goes on and on.

For a referee, then, a series of tables and charts and lists replete with little bits of setting flavor can easily add up to much more than the sum of their parts. They make it easy for a sandbox environment to be constructed on the fly that is nonetheless completely appropriate for the world that it is set in. They also have the advantage that the setting detail thus provided is entirely encountered in play; the referee only needs a sketch of the history and these fragments of setting detail to weave a richer picture at the gaming table.

Of course, this is different both from the traditional setting books and the current trend which is to provide Wilderlands-style hexcrawls. I think that it would pair best with a minimalist setting more akin to the original Greyhawk rather than the hexcrawl approach the Wilderlands used, but I'd be interested to see it with either style of setting.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Knights and Snails

There is a whole genre of illustrations of knights fighting snails in illuminated medieval manuscripts. There are various explanations for why monks laboriously copying books would draw a confrontation between a knight and a deadly snail. Symbolically the snail stood for the deadly sin of sloth; a monk might decide to illustrate them on that basis. Pragmatically the monks were often gardeners, so this may have been a bit of satire based on their own experience and the uselessness of professional knights. No one's really sure.

AD&D, of course, had the flail snail, a multi-headed monstrosity of a giant snail. But I see some potential for using snails of about the size in the manuscripts, an implied 2' to 3' tall and fighting against armored humans, as monsters. These are probably no more than 3 HD, although they should have very good AC (maybe the range of 4 to 2) to represent the protection of their shells. Their movement rate would naturally be very slow, and they'd attack with their pseudopod-like bodies.

The interesting question is their slime trails. This has plenty of real-world uses but if we're making a D&D monster it should be something with some mechanical impact. It's a bit on the nose, but one possibility is that the slime causes opponents to act as if under a slow spell. For straight-up damage it could be acidic, working like the attack of an ochre jelly: destroys wood, leather or cloth, and does 1d6 or 2d6 damage per turn if the victim fails a saving throw. Alternatively it might be poisonous, with the precise effect depending upon the individual referee's rules for poison.

Some snails might have magical properties to their slime, or in their shells. For instance the slime might bring on hallucinatory visions (something I think is under-utilized in fantasy games) or the shell might be immune to some form of attack such as lightning. And both can be powerful magical ingredients; in real world magical thinking, snails are associated with divination and love magic.

The reason I'm presenting all this as possibilities is that I think any time you have a giant snail in a game, it should be unique. These oddities of illumination deserve no less.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The roleplaying in old school RPGs

Apologies that my postings have slowed down lately. I've been doing some work on non-blog gaming projects and most of my game writing time has gone toward that lately. Unfortunately for the blog that may continue for a while.

In the games I've run in 2013, I've found that roleplaying is often a stronger suit of old school gaming than I think people give it credit for. Mostly people think of roleplaying as "something you do in town," or areas where players engage in amateur dramatics. I've had that, sometimes to good effect as players get advantages (like getting on the good side of an NPC, or indeed the bad side). But it's viewed as kind of peripheral to the main event, something you do if you have time.

But that's not how older D&D is built at all. It's a game that encourages roleplaying in crucial ways that really make an impact on the game. The structure I like best is how it's built in the OD&D rules: players make offers to the monsters and the referee makes a reaction roll to see if the offers are accepted.

It's not just "roleplay it out" - this is a set of concrete rules that is built to handle the roleplaying interaction between PCs and monsters. And it does it well, encouraging prolonged negotiations - 6, 7 and 8, the most common rolls on 2d6, are "uncertain" and call for more discussion. Higher Charisma PCs get bonuses, and good or bad offers result in adjustments to the roll.

The impact of the 6/7/8 "uncertain" rolls really encourages some creativity. PCs who are trying to pull one over on monsters or get them to join have to think on their feet as they are met with skepticism or confusion. Good rolls might be "blown" on a relatively simple offer such as "don't attack" to initiate a truce.

Other parts of the simple OD&D rules play into this. For instance, the language rules - which unfortunately gets toned way down in Moldvay - put players in the boat of strategic choices about what monsters they may face in the future. Magic-users, particularly in OD&D and Holmes where there is 1 language per point of Intelligence over 10, should be strong polyglots and useful negotiators.

In practice, this form of roleplaying is crucial in older D&D. Since combat is a failure state, it becomes critical to avoid combat whenever possible. Good roleplaying (defined as making good offers to the monsters) gets a material bonus in not having to fight and risk resources. Smart players are ones who bluff, bully and negotiate their way through a dungeon rather than rolling the dice and hacking their way through. That seems entirely fitting within the literature that inspired the earliest games.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A flexible standard for OSR Compatible

In my last post I discussed creating an open standard for "OSR Compatible" in RPG products so that supplements and modules could be released independent of the various clone games out there. I think the stat block I presented doesn't give the degree of freedom that such a standard needs, but I think there's a solution.

At the start of any book with the OSR Compatible logo (we still need one), there should be a box with a description of the stat block. For D&D type games, I see this looking something like what follows:
This module is OSR Compatible, and will work with most old school fantasy RPGs and their modern clones. It was designed with the classic game in mind but can be adapted for your game of choice.

Encounters are listed in the following format:
Orcs (4) - AC 6 (13), HD 1, #AT 1, D 1d6

Armor Class is given both descending and ascending values. An unarmored character is AC 9 (10) and chainmail gives AC 5 (14).

Unless specified, all encountered creatures and men are assumed to have the same movement rates as normal men and to use the same saving throws as a fighter of the same level as their hit dice.
The important notes to hit will be:
  • The boilerplate indicating compatibility. I think talking about "original," "advanced" and "classic" games will let us indicate compatibility in a broad and understandable way without stepping on any toes.
  • Encounter format. A basic stat block for illustrative purposes.
  • Armor class. This should always be described and an unarmored character's AC given, along with an example of one armor type (typically leather, chain or plate).
  • If you choose not to include movement rates, armor class, hit dice, or damage, give a brief description of your default values. For instance, if all creatures are assumed to attack once per round for 1d6 damage, say so.
  • If you use any stats other than the basics, present a brief description and what value is better. For instance, Moldvay-style morale would be described as: "Morale is given as a number between 2 and 12. Creatures with a high morale are less likely to flee from combat."
Ultimately what I'd like is to have an official "OSR Compatible" logo, and a website ( is available) describing what the designation means for a product, giving instructions for publishers, and having links to publishers of OSR Compatible products.

To be clear - this is a self-designation, not a license, and I'd want to have the logo be licensed via Creative Commons CC-BY (by attribution, allowing it to be used in derivative works without requiring that the larger work be released as a CC license).

How does this strike people? I think it's going to be easier to build consensus around a flexible standard than to come down with a list of things that someone has to use, and it's best to be up front about exactly what parameters we're using so that it's as easy as possible to convert.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Proposal: OSR Compatible

I've been slowly working on a few things, and one issue that has come up is - what system should everything be compatible with? The early OSR clones started as ways to produce material compatible with AD&D (OSRIC) or B/X D&D (Basic Fantasy and Labyrinth Lord). But now there is a proliferation of clones that are played on their own. Each has some amalgamation of rules differences from the next, including armor class and similar concerns. Little or none of these make much difference in the long run.

Because I have it handy, here's a stat block from B2 Keep on the Borderlands:
AC 7, HD 1, hp 4 each, #AT 1, D 1-6, Save F 1, ML 8.

Also handy is a stat block from N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God:
AC 5; MV 12"; HD 2; hp 10 each; #AT 1; D 1-6

The first is a B/X module, the second an AD&D module - the B/X line actually has a bit more information. What I'd propose is that, instead of indicating compatibility with say OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry or any other particular clone, OSR games use a generic standard compatibility as follows:

Monster Name & number appearing - Monster's name with the number appearing in parentheses afterward.

Armor Class (AC) - give the descending AC. Different games with ascending AC use different bases, so it's not useful to list ascending ACs. There will be a slight difficulty where an unarmored person with a shield would be AC 9 in AD&D and AC 8 in B/X D&D, but this isn't big enough to worry about.

Movement rate (MV) - listed in feet, i.e. 120' rather than 12". Easy enough for OD&D and AD&D players to drop the 0; scale inches tend to confuse things.

Dexterity (Dx) - listed 3-18. This is for several games which use Dexterity to break ties in initiative (or Holmes D&D and its clones that use them to determine it in the first place).

Hit Dice (HD) - number of hit dice. Optionally this can include B/X style * for special abilities.

Hit points (hp) - a number of hit points. This should be in every stat block. List multiple creatures as "a,b,c,d" or "x each."

Number of Attacks (# AT) - the number of attacks per round.

Damage (D) - this is listed as a range, i.e. 1-6 or 2-7. Multiple attacks should be listed sequentially with "/" between each, such as 1-3/1-3/1-6.

Special Attacks (SA) - list any special attacks.

Special Defenses (SD) - list any special defenses.

Save - this is listed as a class and level. Typically monsters save as a fighter of level equal to their hit dice.

Morale (ML) - morale rating from 2 to 12. 12 is the highest morale rating and indicates least likely to flee.

So the first monster listing from B1 In Search of the Unknown would look like this:
Orcs (4) - AC 6, MV 90', Dx 8, HD 1, hp 5,4,3,2, #AT 1, D 1-6, Save F1, ML 8

The black widow spider would look like this:
Black Widow Spider (1) - AC 6, MV 60' (in web 120'), Dx 15, HD 3*, hp 13, #AT 1, D 2-12, SA poison, Save F2, ML 8

Write-ups for monsters would include all of the above plus Intelligence. Treasure type would have to be determined by the individual referee; it's too disparate across games.

I'd really like to make "OSR Compatible" a thing. Maybe someone with better Photoshop skills than I would be able to make up some kind of logo and release it open-source? I'd like to put it on my own future releases including Dungeon Crawl #4. Also - any additions or changes would be welcome.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Notes on playing B2 Keep on the Borderlands

I ran some more Moldvay B/X D&D last night, switching from B1 In Search of the Unknown to B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Overall I found the module more satisfying, although there's plenty of Caves of Chaos waiting for the next session.

The Keep itself worked out well. The PCs got very into interaction with the various characters, including the Curate. It was an interesting prelude to the actual adventure. It also set them off on the track of the hermit to the north of the Keep, which was an encounter they handled well. They defeated the puma quickly and one player was able to knock down and overbear the hermit himself, tying him and taking him back to the Keep, which netted them a small reward.

For tripping I used an attack roll and then a Strength roll to overbear the hermit. Anyone who says classic D&D combat is boring has little imagination - the "rulings not rules" attitude made the encounter interesting.

Once the PCs headed into the Caves of Chaos, they were surprised that they were multiple caves but wound up picking the goblin cave. They wound up fighting goblins in the first room they entered, and lost one PC; they outnumbered the goblins and beat them, finding the money in a barrel. (The character who got the "Bree-Yark" rumor from one of the guards was a dwarf and knew it was wrong since he knows goblin.)

They encountered the wandering goblins after that, and successfully got them not to attack with a good reaction roll. The dwarf tried telling them a story that their chieftain was going to sell them to a giant as slaves, but the reaction rolls kept them skeptical, and the PCs wound up casting Sleep and killing them. They avoided a larger room of goblins and went to another guard post, where they killed a third group of goblins.

It wasn't a terribly profitable adventure for the PCs, which kept the XP fairly low. That's a danger of the first expedition, but I'm interested to see what tack they'll take in the next game. A large number of PCs makes the combats easier but spreads the XP thin. Outnumbering in older D&D, I'm convinced, is the main key to victory.

B2's map was straightforward compared to the mapper's nightmare of B1. Yet it's a much more tactically interesting environment, since there are so many different possible entrances. The home base and wilderness map also make it really quite good, although the wilderness is not exactly full of lurking peril; it's fairly safe as long as the PCs aren't a few squares from a numbered encounter.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Disasters in the Underworld

Historically, we as humans have spent a lot of time digging holes in the ground. Throughout that history, we've had those holes collapse or blow us to holy hell. Coal miners have been known to bring canaries underground so that the birds would die from carbon monoxide poison while the miners still had a chance to escape alive. Even in modern industrial mines, a blowout can still lead to fatalities and miners spending days or weeks trapped underground with limited food and no sunlight. In Centralia, Pennsylvania, a coal mine fire started in 1962, is still burning in 2013 and will continue to burn unabated for 250 years.

In Dungeons & Dragons there's so much we can take out of this. The point I want to reach is in making underground disasters a challenge and not an annoyance or a simple declaration of "rocks fall, everyone dies."

The first type is to take a disaster that happened in the past. It becomes dungeon dressing: this is a collapsed hallway. Perhaps it conceals treasure, or a short cut, or a danger so awful that someone tried to bury it beneath the earth. Or maybe it's just a cave-in. There could be any number of horrors lurking in the earth, both giant insects and various tunneling monsters like the bullette. A wholly or partially collapsed dungeon area is fair game for being inherently dangerous; if it collapses, the existing fall should have served as adequate warning.

Other kinds of disasters than simple collapses could be interesting. Fire is one very dangerous thing; at low levels, a party will tend by its nature to have torches and/or lanterns. In general, there are plenty of flammable gases underground. A methane leak 50 years ago could make the air (or, as we know from modern gas mining, the water) flammable. Areas in an old mine or similar area might have the chance of causing a dangerous flare-off. On the other side you have possibilities like the Centralia mine, where there is literally a long-standing fire underground.

The second type of disaster is the one that only exists in potential. The most obvious of these is the inherently unstable area, where the local stone is weak and prone to shift catastrophically. The legend of the "tommyknockers" is drawn from the knocking sounds made by wood mine supports as they buckle and fail in advance of a cave-in. This is generally a feature that can make dungeons very dangerous, but players are likely to find it grossly unfair if the referee simply has a cave-in kill the PCs, however naturalistic that may be.

Such disasters can be foreshadowed in various ways. Noise is one; queer rumblings deep in the earth could be a dragon or balrog, but they could also be the signals that the earth is waiting to reclaim our band of adventurers. Popping and knocking in a wood-reinforced mine, or even the occasional support that is cracked down the middle or falling, can be one way of signalling this. All of this creates a sense of danger, and creates a time / action pressure on the PCs. It's one way to create what I've called in the past "fast" levels - levels that don't encourage in-depth exploration.

Of course there's also the possibility of PCs being trapped in the underworld. This can be a really railroad-ish tactic for a referee, although it can also really turn the "exploration" aspect of the game up if it leads to a new or different area of the dungeon. In a way this is a deeply Gygaxian trap, something like his teleporters that create a sudden need-to-find-the-exit situation in the underworld. This works particularly well if the cave-in happens to be a sinkhole down to a new level.

Last, a military solution would be an interesting cave-in situation: it is possible that some monsters or enemies have built a counter-mine intersecting with the "normal" dungeon that causes a collapse and then reveals a waiting ambush. For instance, undermining most of the way through a floor might make a normal person fall through it and become vulnerable to the attack below. In general counter-mines are a really fascinating way to fundamentally change a dungeon from beneath the ground.

As usual with my "idea" posts, I'll yield the floor with the question: what have you done with disasters, large-scale fires, cave-ins and other catastrophes in the dungeon?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Dungeon Crawl #4 - Chivalry, Sagas and Scheherazade

I was happy with the content of Dungeon Crawl #3 and its reception, but overall too much of the magazine was written with my byline. I'd really like to get a diversified crew on board for the fourth issue, for both longer articles and shorter pieces written by other people.

The theme for the fourth issue of Dungeon Crawl is medieval legends and mythology. This is a broad category with several fields within it, and I'd welcome submissions that are inspired by any of the following:

  • Chivalric Romances. Any of the chansons de geste in either the English (Arthur) or French (Charlemagne) cycles and their descendants.
  • Teutonic and Norse Myth. Think of the Nibelungenlied, the Sagas of the Icelanders, and by coincidence also Beowulf.
  • Folkloric heroes of the type of Robin Hood and William Tell.
  • Non-European medieval legends and folklore. Think The One Thousand and One Nights and generally Arabic / Persian stories.

Of course, the key here is "inspired by." That's a fairly broad category; whether you want to do a sandbox with a Sherwood Forest vibe, a dungeon out of the One Thousand and One Nights, magic items inspired by the Germanic myths, or monsters out of the chivalric tales, there should be plenty of ground to cover.

Submissions for Dungeon Crawl #4 are due by October 31. Send ideas to wrossi81 at gmail to confirm. Anything from a single monster up to a multi-page adventure is welcome.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: The Pope Lick Monster

It's a short week, so you may not have noticed it's Wednesday already. This monster is appropriate for any bridges or high crossings you may have in your campaign setting.

Pope Lick Monster

Hit Dice: 4+1
Armor Class: 7 [12]
Attacks: By weapon (1d8+2)
Saving Throw: 13
Special: Suggestion
Move: 12
Alignment: Chaotic
Challenge Level/XP: 6/400

There are several types of goatmen in the world, but the Pope Lick Monster is among the more dangerous. This solitary creature has the hind legs of a goat, with thick curly hair that is sometimes mistaken for a sheep, and the deformed upper torso of a man. It has an alabaster face with a broad nose and wide-set eyes, and its hair matches the fur on its legs.

The Pope Lick monster is named for a creek that its bridge passes over; there may be others living at other crossings. The bridge itself is an old, rickety and narrow bridge about 100' over the water. The monster's extranormal power is its voice, which is able to act as a Suggestion spell luring victims out further. Sometimes it goads them to leap, or to walk over a dangerous portion of the bridge (3 in 6 chance of falling through) or even to attack their compatriots. Victims who resist will be attacked with its rusty, blood-stained axe (+2 to hit and damage due to 17 Strength).

It is believed that this monster is the result of some horrible evil ritual, or else a fell hybrid of human and goat, and it has lived for at least a century. Whether others exist or not is the subject of fertile speculation.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Getting Basic: Wandering Monsters

Since the hangout games I'm currently running are using Basic / Expert as their system, I thought it would be useful to discuss some of the differences between it and OD&D. The majority of the system is very similar, although in many places more detailed, similar to my earlier Holmes / Moldvay comparison of magic-user spells.

In Original D&D, the referee checks for wandering monsters once per turn. No matter what, you roll the die and see if some monster is incoming. Holmes moved this back to once per three turns. This changes the rate of wandering monsters on average from 1 per hour (6 turns) to 1 per 3 hours (18 turns). Moldvay switched the turn length back to 2 turns, leaving it at 1 per 2 hours (12 turns). One interesting twist is that OD&D and Holmes both used 6 on the wandering monster die to indicate a monster, while Moldvay switched it to 1. Since I have a d6 where the "1" is the Eye of Sauron, I use this to indicate wandering monsters and therefore gravitate towards the Moldvay style even when I'm running OD&D or Holmes. Even though I don't run in Middle-Earth it seems appropriate.

OD&D had a system that Mike Mornard recently pointed out is extremely dangerous. There is a high chance that wandering monsters are well above the "level" of the dungeon - the first level can have 4th level rated creatures, and the third can have dragons and balrogs. Only 1/3 are from the level 1 chart, 1/3 from level 2, and 1/6 from levels 3 and 4. This makes dawdling in an OD&D dungeon extremely problematic. Holmes levels out the power curve: at level 1, 2/3 of all monsters are from the level 1 chart, 1/4 are from level 2, and 1/12 from level 3. Moldvay doesn't go with any of that, instead using a level 1 chart only for level 1, level 2 just for level 2, and level 3 just for the third level of the dungeon. Moldvay still has plenty dangerous creatures on level 1, but nowhere near as many as in OD&D or Holmes. Notably it's the first version of classic D&D where you can't run into ogres on level 1 of a dungeon.

Unlike OD&D and Holmes, Moldvay does not suggest altering numbers of wandering monsters based on party size. The numbers are calculated for dungeon level, and turn up regardless of how many PCs are in the party. I prefer this because it enforces the idea that the dungeon exists objectively regardless of the PC party, rather than adjusting to them. Moldvay follows Holmes in adjusting OD&D's encounter distance from 2d4x10 (20-80 feet) upward to 2d6x10 (20-120 feet).

Another departure is that Moldvay suggests varying the rate a bit. This is not a reflection of OD&D or Holmes, but is an interesting idea. Some areas and activities may increase the roll to 1-2, while some activities (Moldvay specifically mentions staying in one place and sleeping) make them less frequent. This can be used to excellent effect if you want to make "fast and slow" dungeon areas as I had discussed previously; a fast area could have higher wandering monster traffic, while a slow one could have Holmes's rate or lower. In any case it's primarily a question of the referee rolling correctly.

The final contrast is that all of Moldvay's creatures are in his monster listing. OD&D didn't have this, throwing out references like giant rats, spiders, giant hogs, and thouls - none of which is listed in Monsters & Treasure and each of which is meant to be made up by the referee. As a coincidental note, Moldvay actually wrote up stats for the thoul in his Basic Set, which had been in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures but never received a listing.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing on the Moldvay list is the humans. At level 1, there are Acolytes, Bandits, and Traders. Acolytes (level 1 clerics with no spells) can be any alignment, while Bandits are Neutral or Chaotic and Traders can be any alignment. This makes for some really interesting dilemmas, since a group of pilgrims wearing plate mail and carrying maces could be Lawful acolytes, or Chaotics; they could also be bandits dressed as clerics to fool opponents. A group of armed men could be traders or bandits and you wouldn't know right away. It's a recipe for some tense encounters.

All told, Moldvay has a very worthwhile take on wandering monsters. I think his pace is better than in OD&D or Holmes, especially considering the explicit advice to speed it up or slow it down. There's less chance of a wildly difficult encounter on the first few levels, and he really expanded the charts to give variety and some real tension to human encounters.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

On Running B1 In Search of the Unknown

Last night I ran a session of B1 In Search of the Unknown using the Moldvay Basic Set. I've always liked the idea of B1 because of its dynamic dungeon key, where monsters are placed and treasures hidden by the individual referee before the game; as classic modules go, that makes it easier to run B1 for players who have played or even run it before.

I did a fairly "light" stocking on the first level, leaving some unguarded treasures - which turned out not to matter because the players didn't find a well-secreted gem. But the empty rooms turned out not to be too big of a factor.

An early encounter was with goblins who I had in the dining room (room 3). This killed one of the NPCs rounding out the party but had the interesting effect of the PCs capturing several goblins and using them as guides, and out of the three captured goblins one even survived. The rumor table really worked, because the PCs knew about the room of pools and had the goblins lead them straight there. I always find such treks in a dungeon to be really interesting, because they reveal a bit about the layout but just a very specific subset. Goblin fear of orcs also helped the PCs out because they knew where I had placed them. (I ruled that the goblins weren't that adventurous and hadn't explored much beyond that part of the dungeon, but the pool room was so close they knew how to get to it.)

The room of pools is probably my favorite element in the module. The PCs were pretty methodical about it, and I allowed a saving throw against the pool of muting which meant it had no effect. They used the fish to "test" each pool that was suspect, which helped them avoid the pool of sleep, though they also avoided the aura pool because the fish looked stunned for a few moments. It was an effective way to get to the healing pool, which provided welcome HP after the scrap with the goblins.

A few later encounters just "felt right," including a monstrous black widow spider hiding above the bed in the mistress's room. (It lost initiative three times and missed the one attack roll it got, which was enough to do it in.) The valuable mirror was under the pillow and promptly found in the thorough search of the room. Another was a shrieker in the garden room, which of course had the intended effect of drawing wandering monsters - in this case some kobolds. Monsters kept failing morale checks and surrendering, so they now had a kobold and a goblin along who didn't like each other.

In the end, combat managed to kill the dwarf, as the party ran into a programmed kobold encounter - the kobold with them betraying the party. The PCs got out with some good loot from it, if nothing else. The dwarf's demise managed to derail their plans for a permanent goblin servant because no remaining PCs spoke goblin.

The biggest impact of the Moldvay rules was the damage factor. The party's fighter had a two-handed sword and a 17 Strength, and 1d10+2 is more than most of the monsters in B1 can handle by a high factor. Monsters would've been harder in Holmes with all d6 damage. Without a magic-user there was no other major shift away from Holmes. Moldvay's morale rules proved once more why they are my favorites - this group of players was the most creative with their captives of the ones I've seen. As I noted above, initiative rolls really mattered because I kept making crappy rolls for initiative, but I roll initiative even in OD&D.

Because of multiple store rooms, there were two good observations. The first was - "I think we're in an IKEA, not a dungeon." (The difference is the furniture here was already assembled.) The second was how much B1's first level feels like you're raiding somebody's house. This is one of the real oddities of the module. The module also was a pain for the mapper but since so much hangs off of the central area with the kitchens dining room and the landing from the first corridor, it all fits back together.

B1 was only nominally moved to Moldvay by adding morale scores. I was using a brown cover copy of the module instead of B1 for that reason, but there's a dwarf who has exceptional Strength and another whose Constitution score isn't high enough to qualify for the class. There's also a place or two using 3d6 under stat as an ability check instead of the B/X Expert method of using 1d20 roll-under; I find each to work pretty well despite the different probabilities.

All in all it's a fun module to run, and Moldvay worked as well as I expected it to. PCs are a bit tougher than in Holmes because of how ability scores work, but it's still the same fundamental game. I really think B1 could use some re-skinning though in the future. If nothing else, to avoid the "fantasy IKEA" effect.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Bree-Yark Factor, or, Rumors and Dungeons

Note: this post contains spoilers for B2 The Keep on the Borderlands.

It's traditional for dungeon modules, especially at low levels, to have tables for rumors that player characters can discover or know at the start of play. This is a convenient way to make it so that players know something about the dungeon and its contents, but have limited and possibly incorrect knowledge. Some of the rumors are typically false, such as the (in)famous claim that "Bree-Yark" is the goblin word for "I surrender." (Later we find out it actually calls more goblins to the scene.)

False rumors are an interesting facet of dungeon exploration, because they let the designer - with just a line or two of prose - to really change the players' perception and approach to the dungeon. Let's look at the false rumors in B2 The Keep on the Borderlands:

2. A powerful magic-user will destroy all cave invaders.
6. All of the cave entrances are trapped.
9. A fair maiden is trapped within the caves.
10."Bree-yark" is goblin-language for "we surrender"!
14. Piles of magic armor are hoarded in the southern caves.
15. The bugbears in the caves are afraid of dwarves!
19. Nobody has ever returned from an expedition to the caves.

Now, rumor #9 is perfectly in line with what players might expect. But consider - if you go into the Caves of Chaos expecting a fair maiden at the end of one of the sub-dungeons, it'll create this sense of expectation that totally changes the experience. It could also make a skeleton about 5'6" tall a really, ah, interesting find. Likewise #14 could add an interesting wild goose chase as players convinced that there is magic armor in the southern caves go seeking secret doors (and get more wandering monster checks).

Rumors #2 and #6 are somewhat helpful - they will put the players in a paranoid mindset that will serve them well in the Caves of Chaos. The magic-user also creates the kind of mystique that, again, recasts the light in which players experience the caves. If some creature knows about the false rumor, they could really wreak havoc on the PCs - using various effects to make it seem like they are near some powerful wizard's underground laboratory, being watched by invisible servitors, etc. #19 also enhances the mystique.

#10 and #15 are fun because of the false sense of security they create in the players. A PC dwarf showing bravado to a bugbear only to find out that they aren't really afraid could be a classic moment, as can be the instant PCs find out what "bree yark" really means. These "treachery moments" are great possibilities.

The false rumors are also a sort of guide to re-skinning the dungeon: none of these would be hard to make true. There could be a fair maiden or a trap at the entrance to each cave. Magic armor would be an interesting twist, particularly if the cave inhabitants find it first! And the referee could always make a real wizard's laboratory, possibly stealing some elements from Quasqueton in B1 In Search of the Unknown.

One interesting thing about false rumors is that one dungeon's false rumors could also be rumors - true or false - about another dungeon. The powerful magic-user might be in the Cave of the Unknown or Quasqueton or somewhere else entirely. I think it also gives the possibility of a whole list of potential rumors - some that a referee inserts into their dungeon, others which they adapt as false rumors. This is something that I'd like to put on the list for Dungeon Crawl #4: tables to generate rumors that you can adapt to any dungeon you're running, whether true or false.

Thoughts are welcome on dungeon rumors and the role they've played in your games.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Clerics as Demon Hunters

There's a thread of thought among the OSR that looks at clerics primarily as undead hunters. For instance, this picture of the original cleric from Grognardia was of Peter Cushing as Abraham Van Helsing, the intrepid vampire hunter of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Generally I like this, because it makes much more sense as an adventuring class to have a "monster hunter" type. It's also cool to have a class with the ability to directly avoid combat, if like me you think of D&D as more of an exploration game and less of a series of carefully planned out fights.

Another thread of clerics that I really like is the Knights Templar. I wrote a bit about this in the OD&D setting series ("Clerical Strongholds") and it's a vibe I have always really wanted to play off of more. But clerics usually get bogged down in whatever fantasy excuse you have for a religion, and at level 2 (level 1 in AD&D) become the healer more than the knight.

What I'm thinking of is shifting the focus of the cleric a bit. Undead are okay, but I really like the idea of clerics as hunting demons and other "invading" extraplanar horrors. This is explored lightly in some editions, but I am thinking that it would be a more interesting main focus in a game where monsters are more fundamentally weird: from first level, clerics are able to repel or command (Lawful or Chaotic) entities from other worlds, whether they be certain types of oozes and slimes or at the top levels things like balrogs or some of the Lovecraftian horrors. (For more on this check out my series on higher planes.)

One thing I feel should flow pretty naturally from this type of cleric is that such types should be on the fringes of religion. Once you start looking at the history of religious orders in the real world, they're not always perfectly in line with the religious hierarchy. The Templars themselves were accused of being heretics at points in their history. When you have characters who look into monsters and how to fight them, there is always the chance that they will become monstrous themselves.

An archetypal cleric, then, is on the fringe of his organized religion, always a step or two away from excommunication. Not all among the clergy feel that his powers are miraculous; some suspect arcane trickery, and others even worse - that they are derived from the monsters the cleric spends too much time investigating. Commoners alternately love them as protectors and fear them as virtual heretics - sometimes both at once.

I think riding the "Templar" angle even a bit further lets us see clerics as intensely mysterious. They have a cultivated mystique and are occasionally involved in doings which they would rather not speak about. This could produce some interesting tension if the cleric's order occasionally has them go off and deliver mysterious parcels or deliver messages to powerful individuals. The idea of this "order" is backed up in the OD&D rules, which specify that clerics receive help from "above" - unless it is raining gold pieces from heaven, this could mean that the cleric is explicitly helped by their order.

To bring this back around and tie it together - this is intimately tied up with the law versus chaos conflict. Demons are intensely Chaotic, and templar-style clerics are Lawful to a fault. The presence of clerics in the world is a symbol of the dangers that threaten it, and they are the hunters of that dark night that now haunts the land. I think making some types of "lesser" demons with variable powers is an interesting way to integrate this into the cleric's life from the word go. One way to start is with the spectre, which is explicitly the nazgûl from Chainmail, and extrapolate the lesser demons downward as variant undead. It'd certainly be more interesting than the umpteenth time you've seen skeletons.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cryptid Wednesday: The Black Howler

Sure, it was probably a hoax - but the one your players face won't be. Here's the Ozark Black Howler for Swords & Wizardry, as part of our regular Cryptid Wednesday.

Black Howler

Hit Dice: 6+2
Armor Class: 5 [14]
Attacks: 2 claws (1d4), 1 bite (1d8)
Saving Throw: 11
Special: Fear, Surprise
Move: 12
Alignment: Neutral
Challenge Level/XP: 7/600

A black howler is a large creature, somewhat bigger than a great cat, that stalks mountainous areas far from civilization. Its shaggy hair is jet-black and it has two prominent horns that are not typically used to attack because of their backward arch. Black howlers are solitary creatures and are exclusively nocturnal, allowing them to take advantage of the darkness. They will surprise on 1-3 in 1d6 instead of the typical 1-2.

The cry of a black howler is a truly awful thing, and when it is made, all characters within 20' must make a saving throw or flee in horror as per the Fear spell (60% chance of dropping carried items) for one turn. It will generally use this before a fight to drive off as many opponents as possible.

Black howlers are not social aside from mating, and will almost always be encountered alone.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Raptor Feathers and Dinosaurs in D&D

Dinosaurs have been present in Dungeons & Dragons from the very start. The sample "large animal" in Monsters & Treasure was the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which has 20 HD. They are prevalent in the wilderness tables as well, and I wrote about them in my OD&D Setting series (see here for the specific entry). It's hard not to think of these as slow, lumbering dinosaurs that filled the imagination before the "Dinosaur Renaissance" of the 1970s and afterward.

Having grown up in the 1980s as this image was changing, and having been obsessed with dinosaurs as many a grade school boy will be, I can't help but see this and want to at least augment it with a more modern view of quick, feathered bird-like dinosaurs. And seeing as how it's the 20th anniversary of the film of Jurassic Park, it seems appropriate to talk about Velociraptors and how they're awesome D&D critters.

There is a quick and easy triad of raptors: Velociraptor (pictured above; contra Jurassic Park, is quite a bit smaller than a man and would not even come up to waist height), Deinonychus which is a bit bigger but still not the Spielberg raptor, and Utahraptor which is actually a bit bigger. A Velociraptor is a great surprise beast, because in context it's so damn weird: this is an overgrown chicken with teeth that leaps up and attacks with its massive hind claw. We also know now that they had the kind of nodes that would in fact grow feathers, much like their modern avian relatives.

Now, despite the letdown over the relative size of the Velociraptor, we do get the solace that it's fast. You don't get called "velociraptor" without being twice as fast as the fastest human, so once you see the angry chicken-predator you won't be able to outrun it. Its movement should be at least 24", or 240 feet. Fast. Obviously that can be a big advantage.

The stereotype of dinosaurs as being rather dull seems to hold true even after the Dinosaur Renaissance. Velociraptors should be somewhat less intelligent than chickens - if they were scientifically accurate. And that works for your dumb, slow lizards of the pre-1970 view, but it fails for modern dinosaurs. It's a fantasy world, so why not have Velociraptors be as smart as the pack-hunters of Spielberg's films? Working a doorknob might be going a bit too far, but with modest gains they could be pretty smart creatures.

In combat, Velociraptors have the ability to do a pincer where one menaces from the front and a second comes in from the flank with its vicious claw attack. I think they'd have a bonus to damage versus non-armored opponents since the hind claws are quite nasty. The idea that something very very fast is hunting you and could charge in at any second, can create terrifying encounters. Even though they're from the desert, I like the idea of sticking them underground; being warm-blooded, Velociraptors could be quite happy in a dungeon with abundant prey. And hey, what's Jurassic Park without the encounter with the raptors in the visitor center?

As I see it, a Velociraptor should be a modest 2 HD or so, with an armor class around 7 or 8 for its feathery hide. Deinonychus can go up to 3 HD and Utahraptor to 4 - both with high land speeds. This creates an interesting and different dinosaur encounter without the 20 HD Tyrannosaurus to worry about. So: go ahead, throw a raptor in; it will certainly keep players on their toes.