If you want to get into self-publishing you’d better know what you’re doing

Getting close to having the design and stats for almost 100 Ancient Lands complete and turning towards writing the individul descriptions, I started looking into options to raise money for commissioning illustrations. I didn’t even get to look up common rates for artists yet but it’s already gotten complicated just looking at the legal issues regarding financing. I am in Germany. So very complicated.o

Fortunately for me, three semesters of German business law in one of my past failed academic endeavors turned out to come in very handy once more. I do speak some legalese. If you don’t it’s probably all much worse.

It did all start out quite simple. Kickstarter is now doing business in Germany and that seems where most backers for RPG materials are already having accounts. This could potentially have been a major obstacle. (I don’t think many people would bother to make a new account on some tiny site they never heard of to make a single 2€ pledge.) 5% fee for Kickstarter also doesn’t seem so bad. Quite reasonable actually.

But then I was wondering about taxes on the money raised. And oh boy… Wellcome to Germany! ^^

First thing, the whole sum that people have pledged is income. And subject to income tax. Not sure about the exact rates but this can easily gobble up some 20% of the money. If you fail to report what you spend it for. Money used to buy art for a book are business expenses. You don’t pay taxes on it. Buying layouting software is a business expanse even when you run it own your own computer. No tax on the money you spend on it. And the 5% fee you pay to kickstarter is also business expenses. If you spend all the money raised on producing your product you don’t have to pay any income tax on it. Income tax is only on the leftover money that you pocket at the end. But only if you correctly list the business expenses in your tax report.

When someone gives you money and you promise something in return, it’s a purchase. Kickstarter pledges clearly qualify for that. And everything that is a purchase is subject to 19% VAT. However, VAT is meant to apply only to sells to end consumers. As a business you can get the VAT that you payed to your suppliers and contracters refunded by the German revenue service. If your contractor is based in Germany. Which to my knowledge very few good fantasy artist are. It’s not to bad if I’d want money from the French or Dutch revenue service but if I’d hire an American artist it would get much worse. Hiring a tax lawyer to do it for you would probably cost more money than you’d get back.

But contrary to common belief, German administration clerks are not total monsters. If your annual revenue is under 17,500€, small business owners have the option to opt out of paying VAT for sales and getting VAT payed to suppliers refunded. Small business owners mostly don’t know how to do proper accounting anyway and the amount of money gained by the revenue service wouldn’t justify the costs of having their accountants spend time on figuring out the exact numbers. I was genuinly concerned about the possible situation of raising more than 17,500€ (which I very much doubt) and suddenly having to pay 19% VAT, possibly ending up with less money in the end. But no, the excemption applies for the whole year, you simply lose it for the next year. No such risk of falling into accidental debt because you made too much money. If you don’t expect to get any significant VAT refunds this is wonderful. Saves you a lot of accounting and you get to keep the whole 95% of pledges from a Kickstarter campaign.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is. Because you are now a business owner. Welcome to the Chamber of Commerce, young initiate. In Germany there are two types of self employment. Businesses and free professions. Business owners automatically become members of the chamber of commerce while most free professionals do not. If you’re an author you are a free professional. If you are selling goods, you’re a business owner. Writing your own books and selling them? That’s a confusing question that leads to hundreds of online search results from the last 12 years and nobody really seems to know anything. As a painter or sculptor your status as a free professional appears to be secure because selling each painting or sculpture is part of the job. This seems not to be the case with books. German law makers and judges seem to assume that only writing books for commission is part of the writers art. Publishing is a trade business and as such not a free profession. And think about it: As a self publishing writer how much money do you make with writing? None. All your income and profit is from selling large amounts of books. The different state revenue services and regional chambers of commerce still seem to be very uncertain about the whole situation and you might be able to weasel out of becoming a business owner. But I don’t think it’s worth the trouble of potentially getting accused of tax evasion.

And here is why: In case of releasing a monster book with commissioned art, could I be regarded as acting as a publisher for the artists? I think I very well might and then there’d be no doubt about my status. The revenue service might never know since they won’t be looking inside my book? Well, any money raised through Kickstarter is income subject to income tax. If I want to avoid that I have to show that I spend it on tax deductible business expenses, so I have to hand in the recipes from the artists. Also, if I’d ever end up collaborating with someone else on a book and split the profit, or use my resources to sell a book for someone else, I’d no longer be just selling my own art. It’s just so much easier to register as a business owner right from the start.

I’ve seen people worry about being subject to business tax and membership fees for the Chamber of Commerce if they are business owners instead of free professionals and that this might eat up all your profit leaving you with a net loss. But if you sell some books at the side as a minor second job this will be negligible in Germany. Business tax is only paid on profits after income tax has been subtracted. And as a business owner with no employees you only pay business tax on profits above 25,000€ per year. Good luck ever getting that much out of self-publishing your books. And on that money you only pay 10% business tax. If you make a profit of 30,000€, that is cash in your pocket, you still pay only 500€ business tax. That’d be under 2%. I consider this very reasonable for what I would regard as a big fish.

Membership fees for the chamber of commerce aren’t also that bad. If your profit is under 5,000€ per year you can apply for having all fees waived. If your profit is up to 15,000€ per year you have to pay a yearly fee of about 30€. Above that you also have to pay a small part of your profits. Which in my city is currently the low rate of 0,15%. So if you’re annual profit is 30,000€ you have to pay 500€ business tax and 52.50€ to the chamber of commerce. The later of which are also tax deductable. It won’t ruin you. The vast majority of taxes will be income tax, which you will have to pay anyway regardless of how your enterprise is registered.

This is just an example for Germany and I might very well have gotten very important things totally wrong. Getting here took me about 12 hours of research and I already had preexisting knowledge about the basics of business law. And all of it just to raise some money to sell a small book with negligible expected profit. The lesson here is this: Consider very well if you want to deal with alll this trouble.

In the end I found out that the amount of taxes and fees I’ll have to factor into the cost of the project are basically nothing. If I file all the right registration forms and correctly list my tax deductable business expenses. It’s not magic, but it’s rocket science.

Reading through Cook Expert (1981)

D&D Expert

This one is blue. Interesting cover, but not nearly as cool as the Basic Set. It’s okay, but nothing too impressive.

In the original Box Set, this book came bundled with the module X1: Isle of Dread, also written by Cook, and which is probably one of the most highly regarded adventures ever made. I might perhaps cover this after the Expert Set is done. (Because it is indeed very good, but also very unlike any other modern modules.)

The first page is a number of tables from the Basic Set, like the Ability Score modifiers, missile weapon ranges, and all the Encumbrance rules. The idea here seems to be that you have any tables you might need too look up during a game in a single book. Very thoughtful.

Part 1: Introduction

Obviously, this is an expansion to the Basic Set and assumes that you know how Basic works. The idea of reassembling the two books into one is mentioned again, but without printing all 128 pages (which I won’t) it’s hard to get an impression of how good that would actually look.

The Expert Set has rules for letting characters advance to 14th level, and includes new spells, magic items, monsters, and treasures for such higher level adventures. (Or lower levels when you go to dungeons.) There is also a big deal being made from going beyond dungeon adventures into wilderness adventures. “In expanding the campaign, the DM will create whole nations and cultures, giving the characters a history and background. Adventurers can even shape the hisoty of their world as they become more powerful.” We’re going to see how well the book delivers on this lofty promise later on.

At higher levels, players also may build strongholds for their characters and then become lords of their own territories.

A few new terms are introduced as well: A wilderness is any area that is outdoors. When characters reach 9th level, they have achieved name level, as by then a magic-user is called a “wizard” and a fighter a “Lord”, and their title won’t be changing any more after that. (At the lower levels, every class level comes with a fancy sounding title that doesn’t actually mean anything.) When characters build their own fortified base, it is called a castle when build by fighters, clerics, or wizards, a hideout when build by thieves, and a stronghold when build by demhumans.

A new concept introduced here are reversed spells, which allows spellcasters to cast their spells for the opposite effect they usually know. There is also magical research, which allows spellcasters to invent new spells and make magic items. “Many details of magical research are left the DM.” Interesting they already felt the need to mention that here in the introduction of the book.

There’s a historically very interesting paragraph on the second page of the introduction. At least if you have an interest in early D&D and the nerdiest aspects of OSR.

Most important, the characters in the wilderness campaign do not exist in a vacuum. The DM should have events going on elsewhere that may affect (or be affected by) the actions of the players. There may be any number of “plots” going on at once, and the DM should try to involve each player in some chain of events. These should develop logically from the actions of those involved. It is important not to force the action to a pre-determined conclusion. The plot lines can always be adjusted for the actions of the players.

This could very well be argued to be official definition of what is now usually called Sandbox campaigns. You could write small books about this quote alone. (And I am pretty sure someone did.) I won’t go into that here in great detail as there is plenty of more immediate stuff, but it’s interesting to see that Cook was stressing some points about open world campaigns that are still the source of great debate 35 years later.

Since player characters die with considerable frequency and the default assumption is that all new characters are created at 1st level, “As a guideline, not a rule, it is suggested that characters who have a difference in levels of 5 or greater” should not play in the same adventures. The reason for that being that a 1st level character in a 6th level party would not have any realistic chance of surviving anything the party might run into and that a 12th level character in a 6th level party would simply clear out all obstacles by himself, reducing the other characters to supporting spectators. Still, I can imagine a great number of 3rd edition players considering even a 5 level difference an outrage and a travesty.

The suggestion that a 3rd level character and an 8th level character should probably play in different adventures seems strange though. This seems based on the assumption that D&D is played in wargaming clubs where there are plenty of different games run by different groups. However, the Basic Set explicitly mentioned that B/X is meant to make D&D accessible to people beyond this original crowd, so it seems a bit out of place. The obvious alternative solution would be to have new characters created 5 levels below the highest level character in the party.

There’s also a couple of extra notes for people who want to use the Expert Set with the older Holmes Basic rules. I know nothing about that one, but I assume the Expert Set would indeed have everything needed to do that. The only thing it’s really missing are combat rules, monsters, and spells, which the Holmes Basic set most likely already had in a very similar form. Continue reading

Reading through Moldvay Basic (1981)

Last year I did a forum thread about reading through all of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert rules for the first time, after having flipped through it briefly and being quite impressed by what I saw. Looking over it again, I think it turned out interesting enough to preserve it here for the future.

D&D Basic

Lets’s do this really thoroughly. Let’s begin with the cover.

First thought: It is red. Though the art is changed in the Mentzer version two years later, the red color is kept, resulting in it being called the Red Box. (As there’s also the original White Box and the Forgotten Realms Grey Box.) It really does stand out. The art is very well done, especially when compared to the cra… less sophisticated art of AD&D 1st edtion. It has a fighter and a mage fighting a dragon in a dungeon. That dragon looks angry, the fighter has his spear raised, and the mage is about to throw her magic missile.There’s also a torch providing dramatic fire and the dragon is standing in water so it splashes around. This kicks ass! This could only be more awesome if the dragon was breathing fire. Also nice to see someone with a spear instead of a boring sword, but that’s just me. The shield is wrong, but whatever. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the artists personal style, but he really seems to have put a lot of thought into how to make the picture communicate the contents of the book. It’s not just some guys standing around posing for the artist while looking menacingly. It actually tells you what the game is about. And it’s red! You don’t need to know what Dungeons & Dragons is and with this cover you’ve already taken in all the art before you even read the name at the top. It looks a bit unsophisticated compared to modern cover art design, but I think sdjusting for the different styles of different periods, this is probably the best RPG cover I’ve seen so far.

I also like “For 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up”. Nice touch.

Next is the whole table of contents on a single page. Very nice. And then we get the credits OH MY GAAHH…!

dragon

I said the only way the cover could be more cool is if the dragon were breathing fire. This one does! And this wizard is throwing his magic missile and it’s also a dragon! The dude with the bow is about to shot the dragon into the mouth and the dwarf is under the dragon, raising his hammer to smash its knees. And that elf chick blocking the dragons breath with her shield while looking cool? Totally badass. Let me put on the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack before I continue writing this.

Why is this picture here on the credits page? This isn’t really telling us anything or illustrating something that is explained on that page, like most RPG art. It’s simply there to make the page not look as empty. So why not put something there that gets people hyped up for them game after they are already curious from the cover?

curiosity

Okay, let’s get to actually reading the book. It has a short foreword, which I usually don’t read, but since the interest here lies not just in the specific rules of the edition, but how it is related and compares to all the other rules versions, let’s give this a look. There is a bit of nostalgic musing about OD&D (if you can call it that after just 6 years), but Moldvay spells it out specifically that OD&D was written for experienced wargamers. The primary goal of this revision of the rules was to make them accessible to completely new players, who are not familiar with these types of games at all. Many of the changes were made in direct response to letters send by players to TSR with questions about specific elements of the rules. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention the Holmes version that had been released 3 years later. Perhaps he was including it with “the original D&D rules”? As I mentioned before, I don’t know anything about OD&D or Holmes Basic, so I am unable to even guess.

He also dedicates a short paragraph to say “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions”. He encourages to make changes, “particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination”. Which certainly is an important thing, especially with games of this period. But I think to completely new players who barely have any understanding of the rules as they are written at this point, this doesn’t really seem like particularly helpful advice. It seems a bit too much “yeah, whatever” to me. A few more sentences on explaining that it’s best to first fully understand the rules and using them for a while before trying to improve them for the personal requirements would have been a good idea. However, since this game is very compact and quite simple to begin with, it seems much less of an issue than with many other, much more complex games. The chance to accidentally cause a chain reaction as whole structures of rules collapse with rules on which they are build being taken away seems quite low here.

In the Aknowledgements, there’s special thanks to Frank Mentzer who helped with organizing the rules. He’s the one who would do the revision of this revision three years later.

Part 1: Introduction

This is two pages of the basic “What’s a Roleplaying Game” stuff. Usually I’d skip this, but here it might be interesting to take a closer look. It already mentions the Expert Set, as the two sets had been developed as a pair. The Basic set is for characters of 1st to 3rd level and deals mostly with dungeon adventures, while the Expert set will cover the 4th to 14th level and have rules for adventures outside the dungeon. It also announces the Companion set with rules for 15th to 36th level, which actually got released only 4 years later, together with a revised Basic and Expert Sets.

It’s recommended to remove the staples and cut the double pages up into single pages and make a ring binder out of them. So in theory you could later do the same with the Expert (and Companion) rules and have all the spells and monster together. For that purpose all the pages are numbered B1, B2, B3, and so on and then you’ll get the pages X1, X2, … from the Expert Set. But I do have my doubts if that actually would lead to a well organized binder, since with several monsters on every page you couldn’t get them all alphabetically. And I believe the Expert set has a few bits of errata but doesn’t duplicate the whole section of rules, just the specific paragraph. If I remember it, I’ll check it after having covered all of the Expert rules.

And here we do have a longer paragraph adressing how to judge whether to change a rule and advising on thinking it through carefully. Very nice.

The section “Definitions of Standard D&D Terms” begins with READ THIS SECTION CAREFULLY. In ALL CAPS and bold. Why no excalmation marks? Though will most of this section is most likely completely obvious to anyone reading it now, it probably was very important at the time of release and the intended audience. It explains not just things like Dungeon Master or Player Character, but also much more basic things like “party”, “dungeon”, “class”, and “adventure”. These are all now very common terms, but they are still technical terms, and not something that could be assumed to be instantly understood.

It also introduces the task of the mapper. The mapper is a player whose job it is to make a map of the dungeon as the party explores it, based on the description by the GM. It explicitly mentions that the map made by the mapper will be inaccurate and get even more so the further the players explore. While the idea of moving around with a shoddy map certainly is a lot of fun, making that damn thing sounds like a huge pain in the ass. It also requires that everything is done on grid paper for the mapper to have any chance of creating something that has passing resemblance to the actual environment, and that path has let us down to tens or hundreds of thousands of very implausible floorplans. In a game that is really just about exploring a dungeon and nothing else, it might have some excuse to exist. But once you start expanding into stories, grid paper maps really become much more of a burden than a useful prop.

The other role is the caller, which I think we know simply call the party leader. Every game with more than 3 PCs I’ve seen very quickly developed a party leader, but it was never an official position and there wasn’t any election or appointment. It just worked out that way. Here it is made much more official and exists on the border of ingame and metagame. The players may be debating and talking as much as they want, but it becomes actual ingame action only once the caller tells the GM what they are doing. I’ve never been quite sure what the purpose of this was. Probably might have something to do with groups reportedly being regularly pretty big, and I almost never run games with more than four or five PCs. I also always play only with good personal friends. With a group of mostly strangers for a one-shot game, getting things orderly and civil might be a lot more difficult, and if you then also have 10 players on the table, I can see it being a great reduction of work for the GM if he can have all the kindergardening outsourced to one of the players. For a home game with a few friends, it seems superflous though.

And, I kid you not, a quarter of a page dedicated simply to the many uses of the the word “level”, so that people don’t get too confused by it. Come on, guys! You obviously realized it was a problem! You are directly adressing that problem here. It was 1980, you still had an opportunity to fix this mess and introduce a few more terms to clear up the ambiguity of the language before it becomes standard terminology throughout all RPGs and video games. But no! You just had to keep doing it. At least it doesn’t seem to have caught on to say that monsters have a level. They simply have Hit Dice (or later a Challenge Rating). I think at least in AD&D, there is also a “monster level appropriate for a given dungeon level”, and a dungeon level does not just mean which story of a building it is, but also it’s difficulty level, as it is appropriate for PCs of a given character level. No surprise that this concept has been almost entirely forgotten in modern games.

Next is a simple explaination of dice notation. There’s also a short paragraph on explaining how to read the d4 and how to throw it. Though in my experience, players rolling dice too weakly so that they don’t really roll on the table is a significantly more rare problem than throwing dice with way too much force. Gamer Protip: Buy couches with enough floor clearing to fit a fist under it.

Finally a short paragraph on “How to ‘Win'”. Here we already see the term referee making an appearance. Which in my oppinion is the second worst term to use for a gamemaster after “storyteller” because you can not be an impartial judge if you also play the opposition and have the goal of making the game most fun. But that’s a completely different topic.

Continue reading

Wilderness Travel with a Pointcrawl System

I am not a fan of hex maps in RPGs. Even at a resolution of 6 miles per hex they still have a precision like satellite images and show the land from a view that the people of an ancient or medieval world would never have. Making accurate maps from ground based observations requires precision instruments and complicated math and also a great amount of work and time that travelling treasure hunting vagabonds just wouldn’t be able to provide. It’s an anachronism in most fantasy worlds. But more importantly, and annoyingly, seeing the fantastic world of the game in a way that seems the same as maps we have of our own countries today evokes the unspoken assumption that distances and travel would also be the same. But it isn’t. Hex maps make the world feel small and tamed while in most fantasy games it should feel vast and barely explored. Hexes create order and structure. Which in a setting like the Ancient Lands is just poison to the intended atmosphere. Maps like those for the Forgotten Realms setting are a bit better but they still seem to be hand drawn recreations of satellite images, which I think plays a big part in why it feels like ren fair fantasy. The famous map from The Lord of the Rings is really great in that regard as it only shows the general relative positions of major features but still has huge patches of white paper everywhere. White space on maps is great. It’s like darkness in a movie. It’s entirely up to the audienc to imagine what could be found in it if someone where to look. And as long as it remains unanswered it adds to the mystery of the setting.

The problem is that in an RPG you often need to be able to tell how long it takes the party from one place to another. Sometimes there are different routes they could take through different terrain, or they might choose to use or avoid roads and rivers. And in some cases you even want to know which one of two groups gets to a place first and how much time passes before the other arrives. For that you need a precision that a hex map can provide but a fuzzy map doesn’t. But thankfully there is a way to eat your cake and have it too. Chris Kutalik’s Pointcrawl system.

Pointcrawling is based on the idea that within the game world there are only a limited number of locations the party would want to travel to and a limited number of possible paths between these locations. This makes it feasible to create a map in advance that shows all these locations and all the connections between them. The players only get a fuzzy map in LotR style while the GM has the same map but with all the known and hidden locations marked and the connections between them drawn in. It’s a nice system, but I think I have some more ideas that could improve it.

When I looked at the movement speeds per day in B/X Dungeons & Dragons, I noticed that every possible speed per day is a multiple of 6. And the standard size for a hex is also 6 miles. Nice. 24 miles per day means 4 hexes per day. Well, if the hexes are plains. If you cross a hex by road it actually takes only 4 miles of your daily distance budget and if it’s forest it takes 8 miles and through mountains 12 miles. Now you have to juggle multiples of 6 and 4 at the same time and that means getting out a pen and doing some annoying fiddly calculations. But with a point map you can make things a lot easier for you. In the original pointcrawl system a dot is put on the paths for roughly every six hours of unencumbered walking time. But what if you are encumbred or you have small folk with different normal walking speed?

Travelling in 6-mile segments

The simple solution for all these problems is to make a dot for every “6-mile equivalent distance”. In a forest a segment represents 4 miles o travel, in mountains it stands for 3 miles of travel, and on a road for 9 miles of travel. Since the underlying map is inherently fuzzy the length of the lines between dots does not have to always match up. The map does not show exact distances but only travel times through the use of dots.

(The mountain example shows only three segments,  correctly it should be four.)

(The mountain example shows only three segments, correctly it should be four.)

An unencumbred human character has a walking speed of 24 miles per day, which translates to four 6-mile equivalent segments of travel. A lightly encumbered human or an unencumbered halfling has a walking speed of 18 miles per day or three segments. If you use the magic horses of D&D that can trott all day with the same amount of rest as humans (and dogs) need, it has a speed of 48 miles per day or eight segments. (Real horses are not well suited to sustained travel at high speed and only cover as much ground in a day as a human. But with a much greater load on its back.)

Rations (Optional)

A special rule that I am using is that PCs can automatically forage for food at the cost of one segment of travel per day. Characters who prepare for the journey by packing rations can rely on these instead and get their full movement speed. I assume that foraging parties will always eat their old rations first and replace them with the things they find while travelling so rations never spoil regardless of how long ago the characters packed them. Effectively rations become a single use item that allows characters to move one additional segment per day.

Random Encounters

Marking the distance with dots is also useful as an aid for handling random encounters in the wilderness. One random encounter check is made for each segment. To keep the number of encounters roughly in line with those that would result under the recommendations in the B/X rules, different dice are used for different movement rates. Parties that travel two segments per day roll a d6, for three segments it’s a d8, for four segments a d10, and for anything greater a d12. On the roll of a 1, a random encounter happens. By pure coincidence, the odds of having a random encounter in a day for both two d6, three d8, and four d10 is almost exactly 33%. The same as the average for the Expert Set rules.

The dots can be used to determine in what kind of environment the random encounter takes place and even the rough time of the day. If the party travels four segments in a day and a random encounter happens durin the third segment, it has to be early afternoon. (In fantasyland people measure time by the sun and the day is actually from six to six, not from eight to eight, and you get half you stuff done before noon.) If that third segment is mostly through forest, the encounter also takes place in a forest. I really like these little details that the game can hand the GM to make unprepared scenes more specific and interesting. I’ve never actually bothered to mention the time of day or the environment during a random encounter and have not seen it done by other GMs either. It’s something that is very easy to forget in the heat of the moment but can make encounters much more interesting and memorable. Just like reaction rolls and morale checks.

Somewhat unrelated to the pointcrawl system I also like to have half a dozen or so floorplans for caves and campsites with multiple entrances prepared. If a random encounter leads to the possibility of the party tracking the encountered creatures back to their lair, one of these maps can be whipped out and the randomly rolled lair population and their treasure horde placed very quickly.

Supernatural Adventures

Worldbuilding is all about finding a specific theme and atmosphere that pervades everything within the setting. Places, people, magic, and technologies are all means to bring that specific mood to life and make the audience feel it. But at the same time I don’t believe it’s possible to really know the right mood for the world right at the start of the worldbuilding process. You have to start with ideas that might be cool and then experiment with them to discover which work well together in a way you enjoy and then let a more specific concept take shape through these efforts. With the Ancient Lands I originally had an idea for a pretty standard fantasy world but simply with more wilderness and elves and dwarves as the primary races and humans one of several minor ones. It’s still a good idea but over the time I discovered that there are other related concepts that I would enjoy even more pursuing.

But in practice I often tend to lose track of some of the design decisions I made over the years and find myself further developing ideas that I had previously decided to drop. This requires to constantly finding the focus again, about which I wrote in my Project Forest Moon post two weeks ago. But a bit before that I wrote a few posts about antagonists and adventure templates. Which I think are pretty good, but they are for a setting about tribal warfare. Which really isn’t what I want the Ancient Lands to be. My favorite branch of Fantasy is Sword & Sorcery, which ultimately is about encounters with supernatural forces. Which my templates for antagonists really just aren’t and most of the templates for adventures aren’t either. They work, but they are generic. They don’t really do much to evoke the atmosphere that I want the Ancient Lands to have and which is meant to make it stand out from among other settings.

Another thing is that my enthusiasm for sandbox campaigning isn’t really holding up. I’ve been working on an outline for my next campaign for the last days and a sandbox where the players are meant to freely chose which of the ongoing background conflicts and events to get involved with just doesn’t get me excited as a GM. I see the potential of the concept, but I am just not feeling it. I feel much more drawn to keep running open ended adventures that encourage players to make use of support from people they had previous dealing with. A little bit like a sandbox, but one in which I chose the quest and give it to the players and then let them do with it whatever they want. Not plotting out the adventures for the players but “just giving them a little shove out the door”, as one bearded guy with a hat once said.

Now to the good part. What kinds of adventures do I think make good templates for a setting that is about encounters with the supernatural and exploring wondrous places? Here are a few ones on my new list of quests:

  • Hunters report finding a ruin that was previously unknown. But being just hunters they didn’t explore it and leave that up to actual heroes. Alternatively, people have been seeing strange things from a great distance, indicating that an already known place no longer is as empty as it was believed.
  • Water becomes unusable or wild animals are disappearing. This means someone has to go and find the source of this problem and deal with it, or the villages might have to be abandoned. It could be the work of a rare creature or a spirit or sorcerer who wishes the village harm.
  • Supernatural forces prevent access to a valuable resources. It might be a mine or a well, a hunting ground full with animals, or an old pilgrimage site. But something unnatural has taken hold of the place and makes it impossible for people to use it. It could be something new that is disrupting the life of the local people, or something very old that has made the place inaccessible for a long time and recent events make the use of the site vital to the people.
  • A returning hunter brings a curse to the village. It could be something that he did while on the hunt, a place he stumbled on, or an object he picked up. Now some kind of magical malady spreads through the village and heroes have to deal with the source and remove the effects it caused. Both can require visiting magical places or strange spirits to find a solution.
  • Enemies of the clan have gained supernatural help that lets them attack the village. This supernatural influence has to be broken to save the clan from being defeated. It could be a sorcerers, a dangerous spirit, or a powerful ancient relic.
  • Something is threatening the guardian spirit of the village. It has to be found and stop or the village will be unable to survive without its guardian. Often its a sorcerer who wants to steal something from the spirit or an attempt to weaken the villages under the spirit’s protection.
  • Villages or traveling merchants have been disappearing. They have fallen victim to a spirit or wandered too close to a newly appeared or unearthed supernatural danger. The victims have to be saved and the danger stopped. They may have been made to serve the spirit or have otherwise been changed to be hostile against the heroes who come to investigate.
  • The village’s guardian spirit demands a task has to be fulfiled. Often it will be some form of regular tribute that has been pledged by the founders of the clan in exchange for the protection of the spirit. Or one of the sacred laws has been broken and the spirit demands that the people do something to restore the supernatural order. It’s also possible that an enemy deliberately tried to disrupt the peace between the spirit and the villagers and might perhaps have stolen or destroyed an important object that needs to be recovered or replaced.

Not everything is trying to kill you

I think the greatest thing that oldschool roleplaying brought to the attention of younger GMs like me is the whole system of wandering monsters, reaction rolls, and morale checks. When I first got into RPGs I occasionally saw mention of them, but they seemed silly and annoying for what I assumed a good adventure to be like and a good riddance in general. But after having played and run games for over 10 years, all the adventures never turned out to be anything like what I had been hoping they would. And I think it really comes down to D&D of that time having abandoned the aforementioned mechanics. Which didn’t start with 3rd edition but actually preceded even AD&D 2nd edition for a good number of years.

My first contact with RPGs was Baldur’s Gate and that set a precedent of what I expected adventures to be like and I found it confirmed by AD&D modules I’ve looked at. When you encounter a creature, one side makes a surprise attack and then the fight continues until one side has been wiped out. The characters get XP and the treasure lies where the enemy fell. Having creatures appear randomly and someimes trying to run away would be a nuisance and interrupt the plot. But videogames NPCs are still absolutely primitive compared to one controlled by a GM and I much later learned that most of the modules were not meant to be normal AD&D adventures but tournament modules for conventions where many groups would play the same dungeon simultaneously as a single session one-shot and then compare which party got the most points. Which is why The Tomb of Horrors is so awful. It’s not meant to be part of an ongoing campaign, but unfortunately fails to explain that to GMs who read it.

Wandering monsters in a dungeon have the main function of keeping the party moving and the clock ticking. They make resting in a dungeon almost impossible and that means your spells and hit points have to last you through the whole expedition. Since wandering monsters have negligible treasure and roughly 75% of XP are expected to come from collecting gold, fighting them is just a waste of resources and a risk of death with barely any reward. And as wandering monsters are encountered based on time spend in the dungeon, there’s a real incentive to be quick. Giving the majority of XP for treasure also has the effect that it is often more efficient to just steal treasure without a fight and minimize the loss of spells and hit points (and party members). Getting 75% of XP for stealing treasures without defeating the owners will get you more than getting 100% from just one creature. XP for gold seemed silly, but is actually great design.

It also makes morale checks much more interesting. An opponent who runs away may abandon its treasure. Every round you don’t have to fight saves you more hit points and spells and allows you to continue the current expedition a bit longer. Yes, they run away with their pocket change, but you still get all the XP for having defeated them.

But let’s now look at reaction rolls, which are perhaps the most intriguing element of oldschool roleplaying. A reaction roll tell you how a group of creatures or NPCs will react to encountering the PCs when their reaction is not predetermined by the adventure or obvious. I took notice of this and mentally filed it away to be used with animals encountered in dungeons or NPC parties encountered during overland travel. But what does “obvious” actually mean? A group of zombies? Yeah, obvious. A golem guarding a door? Predetermined by the adventure. But what about a group of orcs sitting around a campfire? Obvious?

Well, I always assumed it is, based on fantasy books, movies, videogames, and all the adventures published by WotC and Paizo. But this is a preconception that is not actually supported by the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules. Yes, orcs are chaotic and it says that Chaos generally means evil. But player characters can be chaotic as well and they are members of the party. Chaotic indicates breaking rules and promises when it benefits you and you can get away with it. And what benefit is there in randomly attacking groups of well armed people?

I always found it somewhat difficult to interprete the rection table. What does it mean if the result is “Hostile, possible attack” or “Uncertain, monster confused”? But with a bit of searching you can easily find a few examples from fiction. When Bilbo encounters Golum under the mountains, Golum plans to kill him and eat him. But he doesn’t have surprise and knows that frontal attack is risky so he keeps Bilbo talking in the hope of getting an opportunity where he has advantage. That fits very well with “Hostile, possible attack”. Another good example is in Return of the Jedi when Leia encounters the ewok Wicket whose reaction is just spot on “Uncertain, monster confused”. He holds up his spear but only to keep her at a safe distance, not with an intention to attack her. Because she handles the situation well she’s able to get the ewoks as allies. A bit later the others get in a similar situation but Han handles it less well ad the ewoks decide to cook them.

return-of-the-jedi-ewoksOnly on a roll of 2 on a 2d6 does a reaction roll actually indicate an immediate attack and a 3 to 5 indicates hostility with a chance that the creatures might attack. This results in only a 28% chance that a fight breaks out without the players initiating it. If you start making reaction rolls for any encounter where the reaction isn’t automatically fixed, it will change the game quite a lot. Orcs and ogres are no longer monsters but people just like bndits, mercenaries, or barbarians. Their culture might be different and unappealing to many of the PCs, but if the players handle it right they can be interacted with just like people.

This affects both worldbuilding and the way that adventures play out. A dungeon in which only a third of encountered denizens are hostile and the rest could provide information, cooperate with the PCs, or even offer free help is a very different place from the common deathtrap presented in most modules in which everything including the kitchen sink tries to kill you on sight. And again, this is supported by XP being gained mostly through finding treasure. How much XP you get out of a dungeon does not depend on the number of fights. XP for gold may not be perfect, but it certainly beats XP for combat only. If you get a reward for fighting and no reward for not fighting, the message for players is clear. Kill everything. (Don’t let them run away, they take all their treasure with them which you need to buy magic items from stores.)

This encourages and supports a play style that is really about exploration and discovery of fantastic environments the PCs will find themselves in. Treasures are an incentive to poke around and find hidden rooms, but seem much less like the main purpose why you go on an adventure. The options to discover things about the environment and the greater world are very much limited when all your interactions are with statues and wall paintings. There is so much more that can be leared by interacting with other people and the knowledge you gain becomes much more useful and meaningful if it can help you with dealing with other people you’ll encounter later. Or possibly people you encountered before and who might reward you for sharing your discoveries.

Another fascinating part of the rules that had almost entirely disappeared are retainers. In 3rd edition you have to be at least 6th level and spend one of your precious few feats to get only one retainer. In Basic everyone can have around 4 at first level for free. (You have to pay wage, but that’s no limited resource.) My assumption was that you’re meant to post job offet notes at the market place and then pick one of the people who come to apply. But that’s not what the rules demand. A much more fun and interesting option is to recruit people you meet on adventures. It says retainers can be of any level or any class but not have a higher level than the PC they follow. But the Hit Dice of a monster are effectively the same as class levels in every way. Once you make it practice to befriend monsters, why not let players take them along as retainers? The GM would have to rely on making good judgement calls on what kinds of monsters might possibly be hired. A black pudding or a purple worm would be silly. But if it’s reasonably intelligent, able to integrate into society, and the player mange to get it friendly, why not?

While working on my setting and preparing for my next campaign I wanted to do something different than the average treasure hunt or assaulting the lair of a villain over and over. Instead I want to do something much more fantastic that focuses and supernatural things and discovery. I mostly failed at this with my last two campaigns and even in the last months much of my preparation once again ended up focusing on humanoid antagonists. Realizing that the 35 year old Basic rules suggest a world that is much less hostile and encouraging cooperation with dungeons denizens between the line has been a major eye opener for me. And once more makes me feel amazed that an RPG so close to what I consider perfect has been around almost from the very beginning. (There’s still negative armor class and spell preparation, but those are easily fixed and exist for the purpose of edition compatibility.)

Moving further towards perfection

With my work on the Ancient Lands I have fully embraced the paradigm that perfection is reached not when there’s nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. And there’s always more stuff that still hangs around because I like the idea but that doesn’t really contribute to the overall quality of the setting. This is not just geographical content and world lore, but also a lot of small changes and custom additions to the rules and mechanics of B/X D&D. Some of them might actually be really good ideas, but who is really going to care? Those people who would care are most likely people who make their own extensive custom changes to the rules and the most likely to not use any material the way I have written it. And what am I really trying to sell to people? It’s not a game, it’s a world.

I think cramming too much custom rules into a setting is to be following in the steps of the Fantasy Hearbreakers from the late 70s and early 80s. They were attempts by people to make and release their own RPGs that are largely like D&D but with some improvements. Some of them might even have been quite good, but who cares? People already had thei D&D and you have to offer them something substantially different to get them to switch. It’s easier with the new options of publishing today and Kevin Crawford seems to be doing just fine with his work, but I really don’t think that there is much interest in small obscure settings with their own unique rules. But it’s going to look much more promising when you turn to settings to be used with the rules people are already using.

Some while back I mentionee working on an alternative magic system, but I’ve now decided to not pursue it any further. At least for now. The Ancient Lands are a world to be used with the rules of D&D, but not written for D&D. While I like the mechanics f B/X, I am not actually a fan of the type of settings that follow from putting the content described in the rulebooks into practice. I already replaced the vast majority of character races and creatures with my own creations and the world is written with a soft cap of 9th level for characters. (You could play at higher levels but it’s assumed that the number of such people in the world is negible.) When it comes to spells, I have decided to give the setting its own identity by simply stripping away everything from the rules that doesn’t fit. D&D magic has long been designed to offer any kind of spell players could think of so they would be able to play any kind of spellcaster they’ve seen in fiction. While this is part of the reason why magic becomes so (over)powerful at higher levels, it’s actually very convenient in this case. For all the things I want magic to do in my setting, there are already spells available. So I created the following spell list to be used wit the magic-user class.

  • 1st Level: charm animal, detect magic, entangle, light/darkness, message, remove/cause fear, resist cold, sleep.
  • 2nd Level: charm person, detect invisible, ESP, invisibility, obscure, resist fire, speak with animals, web.
  • 3rd Level: dispel magic, growth of animals, gust of wind, hold person, infravision, produce fire, suggestion, water breathing.
  • 4th Level: charm monster, fear, growth of plants, polymorph other, polymorph self, remove/bestow curse, speak with plants, wall of fire.
  • 5th Level: animate dead, dispel evil, hold monster, insect plague, stone shape, wall of stone.

As some might have spoted, there is no direct damage, no free information gathering, no teleportation, and no healing. As I already mentioned in previous posts, healing is the domain of spirits and potions. Helpful spirits might be encountered in the wild and be persuaded to provide healing, but usually the right adress for magical healing is a village shrine where the shaman can channel the healing powers of the local god that watches over the settlement. In my last three campaigns the party did just fine by relying only on healing potions and not having any cleric around. It really depends on how generous the GM is with these being found on overpowered enemies and in treasure coffers.

Why D&D always seems to break down around 10th level

The 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons is notoriously bad at dealing with parties above 10th level or so. But this isn’t really anything new. Back with AD&D and even before that with the first D&D game, lots of people are in agreement that the game really works best in the range from 3rd to 10th level. After that things start getting increasingly wonkey.

184warpfThis came as a bit of a surprise to me. Even though they are all D&D, there’s a huge number of major differences between the various editions. The most common reason I’ve seen discussed for 3rd edition being bad at high level play is that wizards got more spells per day and lost most of the limitations and weaknesses they had in AD&D. But that alone can’t be reason if the problem goes back all the way to the mid 70s.

Higher level spells are certainly problematic a lot of times. It’s not so much that each spell taken for itself is a major dealbreaker (though there are a few contestants for that position) but that the wizard class in particular and the cleric class to a lesser extend, are too broad in what kind of things their magic can do. D&D magic is not good at one thing. It’s good at all things. A wizard class that would be really strong in one situation would not be too disruptive to the game. But D&D always aimed to be somewhat generic and so any kind of magic effect you could think of is available to wizards and clerics. Simply so that you can make the kind of spellcaster that you want to make, regardless of what work of fiction inspired you. Later 3rd edition classes that have a much more tighter focus on specific fields of magic are widely regarded as much better classes when it comes to being a team player. Magic being too broad is certainly a contributing factor, but I believe that’s still not actually the main reason for the wonkeyness of high level D&D.

I believe the real reason for the issue lies in the most basic action resolution shared by all editions of D&D since day one: The 1d20+modifiers roll.

As characters advance in levels, different classes advance different stats at different rates. In 3rd edition the bonus to attack for a fighter is double the bonus for a wizard of the same level. At low levels this is a small difference. +2 against +1. But as you go to higher levels and get a lot of additional modifiers from other sources, you can end up with +40 against +15. Even though it seems like the modifiers have scaled roughly evenly, the 1d20 roll to which they are added does not. The d20 never scales up. What you get eventually is situations where one character couldn’t even fail with the roll of a 1 and a different character couldn’t succeed with a roll of a 20. As modifiers increase and dice stay the same, uncertainty decreases and there is less and less “chance” to anything. It develops more and more into a simple yes/no.

You also have to consider that while you can increase the power of enemies, a lot of obstacles in the game remain static or have a maximum difficulty. At some point, and often pretty early on, you can’t make a wall more steep or a storm more deadly. Eventually you reach the point where all noncombat obstacles become trivial. This point might actually come much later, but it seems that regardless of edition the effect already becomes noticable and makes the game less satisfying around 10th level.

This problem is an intrinsic one of the basic 1d20 action resolution. No matter how much you tweak classes, monsters, and spells, this is something that can not be easily fixed without a complete replacement of the whole system. This is why high level D&D always has been wonkey and always will be wonkey. The most practical solution to that which I see is the one people have been using all the time: Stop continue playing with characters that have reached high level. Instead I propose to treat the game, regardless of edition you use (though 4th and 5th might be an exception here) as only covering the level range of 1-10. After that, you have reached maximum level.

An interesting option for OD&D, AD&D, and B/X would be to basically run it as “Epic 9”. In the 3rd edition variant “Epic 6”, characters only advance to 6th level and after that get one more feat for every additional 5,000 XP. Since characters in older editions already stop getting more Hit Dice and rolling hit points after 9th level, E9 seems to be a good cutoff point. The game does not have to stop there. You can still get the fixed increases of hit points from leveling up (though not chance to hit or saving throws) and find new magic items and discover new spells (of 1st to 5th level only).

Welcome to Chemnitz

After many years (is it six already?) work on my Bronze Age fantasy setting feels like having left the conceptual phase and it’s now seriously starting to take shape as an actual manuscript that people other than me could read and actually make sense of. Unfortunately, this means I have to tackle one of the most unpleasant and dreaded parts of worldbuilding: Locking in the names for things.

When I went ahead and did a serious cleanup of the messy heap of collected ideas that was the Ancient Lands a few months back, I renamed the new iteration on a completely redrawn map the Old World. But that name was always meant as just a temporary project title that would eventually be changed to a real name for the setting. Something snappy sounding that also communicates the content and catches the eye of people who might be into this stuff. Golarion or Grayhawk don’t really do that.

But coming up with names is hard. So I turned to a lesson from history. Back in 1990 the city Karl-Marx-Stadt was looking for a new name because of some political fad of that day, and in the end they just went with the simple route and named it back into Chemnitz.

Why throw away a perfectly good name and stress yourself with thinking up a new one? Welcome back to the Ancient Lands.

Is AD&D 2nd edition still oldschool?

There was another discussion started by curious people from outside asking what the deal is with this OSR thing that some fans of Dungeons & Dragons keep talking about in their corners of the internet. Which is always great to see, as it means some new people have already caught interest and they want to be given a sales pitch. And as usual, once the initial questions had been answered, it went on with the typical nitpicky debates about what exactly is oldschool and what isn’t.

And big surprise: It actually went in directions that had me consider some new thoughts. It stil happens. Usually the assumed default cutoff point for oldschool and not oldschool is the shift of D&D from TSR to WotC and the first major overhaul of the rules with the d20 system. But as the discussion moved toward oldschool roleplaying being most importantly about how GMs set up the game and players engage with the game world, it had me wondering whether the shift might have happened even earlier.

The two things in contemporary D&D that for me set it the most apart from OSR gaming are character optimization and adventure paths. Character optimization as it exists today really started with the d20 system, but the idea of having a prewritten story that the players follow goes back much further. My first hunch was that Forgotten Realms set a precedent that became the TSR paradigm for the second edition of AD&D. The old first edition books seemed much less metaplotty than those from second edition. But when I looked it up, it turned out that Dragonlance, which was first an adventure and then a setting while simultaneously being a novel series, preceded Forgoten Realms by three years. This makes it seem more like the Realms where published as a setting in response to the shift already having taken place.

And then Black Vulmea at rpg.net brought up this little “gem”.

By 1986, you have Doug Niles writing in the 1e AD&D DSG, “The story you design for your players is just as important as the world setting you create. In fact, the story line may be the most important element in your campaign. In fact,* the DM’s function may be viewed as that of a bard or storyteller who creates the stuff of heroic fantasy . . .” followed by a five-page of discussion of ‘story structure’ that could be cribbed from a Learning Annex seminar on, “How to Write Short Fiction That Sells!”

So yeah. I am really not surprised that second edition is almost never talked about in an OSR context. This is very strong evidence that as far as TSR is concerned, the oldschool era was already done and over by 1986. Which is 14 years before the launch of the third edition and about the same time the Known World setting was worked over into Mystara.