The Ultimate Retro-Pulp Fantasy Setting

A couple of weeks ago me and a few others threw around some random ideas for the Ultimate Retro-Pulp Fantasy Setting. It didn’t get very far, but even with the little we got it’s already a really cool setting I really would like to use for a couple one-shot stories or adventures.

To begin with, we have planet with a giant moon, which is the home to amazons and dark elves, who occasionally come to raid the planet riding on giant space whales.

On the planet there are the evil serpent men and the island empire of Talantis. The Talantians also build air ships, which can fly to the moon as well. There is also the great dragon sorcerer Tyrannosaurus Hex. Hawk Men are one of the minor races that inhabit the planet. There are also giant apes and dinosaurs.

frank_frazetta_thuviamaidofmarsThe moon would be even more hardcore and dangerous and only for experienced heroes. Below the surface live the dangerous Generic Brandâ„¢ Mind Flayers.

Regarding religion, the true gods are totally weird and alien beings from a different plane of reality and beyond human comprehension. There are lots of temples in all the cities, but only the high priests really know what kind of thing they are worshipping. Gods don’t intervene and don’t reveal themselves to normal people.

Colossal stone bodies cover the landscape and are the remains of titans, who were very powerful, but not true gods. There also is no real difference between a sorcerer and a priest, their magic is all the same thing.

Based on all these things, the tech level for weapons and armor would best be Antiquity. No knights in plate armor or samurai, or anything like that. That means chainmail, dragonhide, breast plate, and boob plate.

Nothing new under the sun?

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

I’ve been looking around for some more RPG and Sword & Sorcery related blogs to add to my own personal list, and there have been two major things I noticed.

For one thing, it seems that the world of RPG bloggers is entirely dominated by OSR gamemasters. I would say more than four out of five posts about RPGs on those sites are either B/X or AD&D and to a lesser extend Traveller. Which might be distorted that I am primarily searching for new sites by browsing through the links on sites I already know, and perhaps these people just don’t care about any posts about other games like Pathfinder, Vampire, Shadowrun, Fate, or Star Wars. Possible, though there still seems to be an unusually high amount of sites devoted entirely to OSR games.

The other thing is that the amount of posts on these sites has steadily been going down in recent years. Sites at blogspot conveniently display the number of posts per year, and almost everywhere I look the peak is at 2010 to 2011. Some started to reduce their number of posts to a third in 2011, others only in 2012, but from that point on it’s almost always steadily down. Trollsmyth is actually the only one I know of who has been around before 2008.

Which I find strange. I’ve heard in multiple places that the games market has been steadily growing for the past years. By some estimates even 20% every year.

Has everything be said that has to be said with nothing more to add? I find that very hard to believe. Yet, where is everybody?

Inception and how to tell a great story

I was just thinking about a funny quote from my favorite movie Inception, and it occured to me that in addition to the joke there is probably a piece of very good and very well considered writing advice in it.

It’s easy to miss when you watch it once or twice, but once someone points it out, it’s really obvious that the whole movie is not about heists or dreams, but really just about storytelling. (Don’t tell the audience what they are supposed to think and learn, make them come to the conclusion themselves. Don’t take too many liberties with the rules of the world, or the audience gets reminded that its all made up and then reject the fiction. Really, the whole movie is like that.)

The quote is:

Ariadne: And why don’t you approve?
Arthur: Because it involves telling the mark that he’s dreaming. Which involves attracting a lot of attention to us.
Ariadne: Didn’t Cobb say never to do that?
Arthur: So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.

All the characters in the movie stand for the different members of a film making team (with the man they trying to trick representing for the audience), and the character Cobb represents Nolan himself as the director and scriptwriter. And through the first half of the movie Cobb/Nolan explains how you tell a good story well and also points out what things are dangerous as they risk losing the audience.

And I think the line “So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.” is not just a joke. Because in the end, breaking lots of the rules works out very well for them.

Perhaps it’s even the most important line in the whole movie. Know the rules, understand the rules, but trust your instinct when you think it might be a good idea to break them.

Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 4

Continuing the exploration of the Creature Catalogue with the chapter on “Monsters”.


The Aranea is a large intelligent spider with humanlike arms to the sides of it’s head. It’s a original creature from the Known World and though it had made it into the 3rd edition Monster Manual it didn’t see a lot of use outside of the setting to my knowledge. The arenea presented here is quite different from the one in the Monster Manual. It is highly intelligent and can cast spells like a 3rd level magic user, but it does not have any ability to shapechange into either a human or hybrid form. It also does look a lot more like a full spider and has no other humanlike feature except its arms. Interestingly its alignment is also Chaotic, which makes it basically evil in the 3rd edition alignment system.


A Baldandar is a creature similar to doppelgangers. However, they are not shapechangers but masters of illusion instead. They can create almost any illusion imaginable in a radius of 80 meters and their illusions will remain for 10 minutes after they stop directly controlling them. Their illusions are not simply deceptions of the senses but are partly real. A baldandar can even cast illusions of other spells, but creatures targeted by them can make a saving throw at a -4 penalty to recognize that they are fake and be unaffected. It also can make itself invisible and fly around at will, which makes them very difficult to catch or corner.


The Bargda is a creature related to ogres and trolls and usually found as the leader of a group of these monsters. In addition to their great strength and toughness, they are so horribly hedious that anyone who sees them must make a saving throw or suffer a penalty to attacks and damage. In addition to attacking with a huge club, a bargda can also bite, which transmits a disease that reduces the victims dexterity. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 4”


Surprise, as it is explained in Dungeons & Dragons throughout almost all editions is a bit weird. In the TSR editions, it is usually explained that in the case of an encounter, both the players and the (potential) enemies roll a d6. On a roll of 1 or 2 they are not surprised, on a roll of 3-6 they are. If both sides or neither side is suprised, initiative is rolled to see which side goes first. If one side is surprised but the other is not, then the side that is not surprised gets to act in the first round and the other is not. After that round initiative is rolled as usual.

3rd edition ditched the d6 roll and only mentions in passing that a Spot or Listen skill check might be used to determine awareness, but it also explicitly calls the begining of the encounter a Surprise Round.

But when you think about how awareness and surprise would work outside of game mechanics, it doesn’t really make much sense. The flaw here is that the rules make it sound as if you have two groups running straight into each other and one realizes a bit faster what is going on than the other group.

Surprise Motherfucker
Surprise, Motherfucker!

But why does the group that has surprise only get one round during which the other side is still inactive? If you become aware of the other group before they do, you usually still have the option to not make your presence known to them immediately. If you are opening a door in a dungeon and there is an enemy on the other side, then yes. They may be surprised, but after the initial shock they would immediatly jump up and go for their weapons.

But unless you play a simple Hack & Slash game, that’s not what you’d usually be doing. You can become aware of another group before you are standing face to face. You silently creep through the dark corridor and reach a cave where an ogre is chewing on human meat with his back turned towards you. You hear voices talking around the corner or you might see the light of a lamp approaching from behind a bend in the corridor. In these situations you still have some time to extinguish all lights, find hiding spots, or run away before you are noticed at all. Depending on the distance you might still have a lot of time to prepare for battle. Once you jump out of your hiding places, then you are getting your surprise round during which the other group can not take any action.


Of all the editions of D&D I have here, only the Rules Cyclopedia even mentions this at all.

When one party is surprised, the unsurprised party notices the surprised party at the 1d4x10 (feet indoors, yards outdoors) distance rolled; the surprised party won’t notice the unsurprised party until they reach half that distance.

Thanks, Aaron Allston. If this was your own houserule, it’s a really good one. Maybe it had always been asumed, but to my knowledge it has never been explained like this anywhere else. Using this rule also makes a huge difference for thieves at low levels. Sneaking up on a guard to backstab it with 20% to Move Silently at 1st level is just suicidial. Nobody would ever do that, especially when you only have 1d4 hit points yourself. In combination with a surprise system that lets you turn around and back off to a distance outside the encounter distance, 20% is something to actually consider.

Imagine a the maximum encounter distance of 40 feet inside a dungeon. Both the thief and the monster make their surprise roll at 40 and if they are both surprised, they will notice each other at 20 feet. If the thief is succesfully Moving Silently, he will automatically detect the monster at 20 feet, but the monster will not notice him at either 40 or 20 feet. If the rest of the PCs stay 25 feet behind the thief, the thief will reach auto detect distance to the monster before the main party reaches possible detection range. The thief then can give a hand signal to the other or return back to them and tell them what he saw. Then the entire party knows the monster is there, make a descision whether to approach or not, and if they do they will have surprise on their side. The monster still has to roll surprise again to see if it will notice the party at full encounter distance or half encounter distance (which might be as close as 5 feet on the roll of a 1 on the d4). Even if the Move Silently roll fails, there is still chance to get regular surprise on the monster and the thieves friends are right behind him. It’s a lot less stupid than trying to walk up to a monster that might know you’re walking straight into the reach of its attack.
This is another one of these cases where an odd old rule mostely went ignored for being irrelevant though it does serve an important function: Encounter Distances. You don’t have to roll it and you could always decide on an appropriate value yourself, but any surprise system worth using should have the option to retreat undetected or prepare an ambush. Just a single free round of action before combat automatically starts isn’t cutting it.

Magic of the Ancient Lands: Ghost Paint and Soulstones

Ghost Paint

The dark elves of the tropical jungles in the south make a special paint from chalk and various plants and minerals with alchemical properties that is used to draw runes on the bodies of their warriors. These runes draw energy from the spirits of the clan and the jungles they inhabit to give the warriors strength and protection. The runes can be created at different degrees of complexity, with the fully completed patterns being the most powerful ones.

Least runes are very simple and only a couple of lines and can be done in a minute. Shamans apply a few of these to themselves every morning and when going to war all the warriors are given some to protect them in battle. Even apprentice shamans can do these and scouts patroling the borders of the clans territory are often given one or two by an apprentice before leaving the village.

Lesser runes are used much more limited and are only given to special people, like senior shamans, leaders of warbands, or scouts send into enemy territory. They take 10 minutes to create and can give the person significantly increased strength, reflexes, and perception.

Greater runes take one hour to make and are therefore only used for very special situations like shamans summoning a very dangerous spirit, chiefs leading their warriors into battle, or clan champions fighting an important duel. They can give a person inhuman strength and endurance and require a great deal of magic power from the shaman that creates them.

True runes are the most powerful patterns that can be made. They take several hours to make and a very experienced shaman, but when completed they allow a spirit to take full possession of the person as its avatar. The possessed person becomes incredibly powerful, but it is widely believed that any person who has once been possessed this way could become possessed again without summoning the spirit god and then it would not be bound by any contract made with a shaman. Therefore anyone who had been given a true rune must be slain after the possession ends.


A soulstone is a gem or piece of bone that has been carved with many symbols that serve as clues how one could find the place where they were originally made and to which clan it belongs. A soulstone is given to any members of a Vandren clan who leave the clans ancestral homeland and serves as an anchor for the owners soul in case he should die on his journey. If a Vandren dies while in possession of his soulstone, his soul will retain its form for far longer before completely fading into the spiritworld. If the soulstone is returned to his clan, the spirit will follow it and can be laid to rest by the clan shaman in the village shrine. It is believed that the shrines in the center of Vandren villages is a source of spirit power that allows any newborn children in the village to gain some of the strength and courage of their ancestors. If a Vandren would die far away from the clan, his power would be lost to them, but with a soulstone at least some of it can be recovered even long after the person has died and his spirit almost entirely faded away.

Clans will always give very great rewards for anyone who returns a soulstone to the shrine regardless of the circumstances of its recovery. Getting the strength and courage back which has been with their ancestors for generations is more important than any indignity of paying a scoundrel or greedy treasure hunter. Sometimes soulstones pass through several hands before they reach their final destination, as it is well known that they can be turned into gold and silver eventually. The easier the clan indicated by the engravings is to identify and the closer its current location, the more valuable they are. Some highly dispicable warriors collect the soulstones of the enemies they have slain and keep them as amulets to claim their power for themselves. To almost any other halfway decent folks this is one of the most horrible things that could be done to an enemy and absolutely without any honor. Anyone with at least some shred of honor will see that the soulstones of fallen enemies are returned to their clan.

Signs and Portents

In a discussion about WotCs release schedule for the new Dungeons & Dragons game, I rediscovered an old forum post I made back in July 2011, just three years after the 4th edition had been released:

Since this topic has come up quite a bit in several threads in recent weeks, I think having a dedicated thread for it might be a good idea, so it doesn’t swamp other threads about completely different issues.

I didn’t believe any rumors about 4th Edition until the official announcement, but right now I expect “something” to be announced within this year. It’s not that I think something is wrong with the 4th Edition (though I don’t play it) or have any wishes how any upcomming publications should be. I just think that the current business situation indicates that 4th Edition will not continue as it is to see a full 10 year run up until 2018 (roughly the time AD&D 1st Ed., AD&D 2nd Ed, and D&D 3rd Ed lasted).

  • A revision in the form of Essentials has been nothing unusual for D&D editions, though it has been by far the fastes one.
  • Shortly after Essentials was launched, many upcomming releases had been canceled.
  • Reportedly WotC has been laying off staff over the last months and what books are released are written by freelancers.
  • Some store owners claim that the direct competitor Pathfinder is outselling D&D. Also, recent releases like the Dark Sun books seem to no longer be able to be restocked if sold out.
  • Finally, the head of the 4th Edition development team has released some blog entries in his column on the offixial website, in which he is analyzing what D&D is really about, and what are the bare bones on which every D&D edition has to be build on to really be D&D. I think such thoughts are the first step to develop a new edition, or to look back on your work and consider what was done right and what done wrong.

As it is right now, it does not look as if there will be any more major releases for the 4th Edition. But since D&D is a hugely popular brand and brand recognition is one of the most valuable things a company can have, I really can’t imagine WotC continuing D&D with only four minor releases per year or just discontinuing it and leave the brand dormant.

Something has to happen, and a second reboot of 4th Edition after just one year is something nobody would really dare to risk.

If it will be called Dungeon & Dragons 5th Edition, I don’t know. It’s merely the most simple way to again make some good money with the brand. An alternative could be to pull out of the RPG market as it seems to be widely considered that the real profits of WotC are made in trading card games and other products. And who would have thought that TSR, Sega, or Atari would one day not be the big names of the RPG and video game business? Though as of now, I see nothing indicating a sell of the brand in any way.

With GenCon and PAX the next months, I expect an announcement of any kind to be made rather soon.


Turned out the announcement came the next january. Looking back, it turned out to be pretty spot on. And it wasn’t a lucky guess, people had been seeing the signs on the horizon for some time by that point. The one point on which I ended up being completely wrong was “I really can’t imagine WotC continuing D&D with only four minor releases per year”. Apparently, yes. This seems to be exactly what they are doing now with 5th edition.

Roll 3d6, in order

One of the things I noticed about the Dungeons & Dragons Basic rules is that the game uses the same modifiers to rolls for all six abilities just like 3rd edition does and which is quite different from the chaos that is ability modifiers in AD&D. However, the modifiers are smaller and more spread out than in 3rd edition, giving only a +3 for a score of 18 instead of a +4.

The actual ability scores in Basic are almost meaningless. As far as I am able to tell, everything really comes down to the modifiers. The reason that you have ability scores at all is that you can easily generate them with 3d6, but they are really just the first of two steps to get your ability modifiers. In theory, once you have the modifiers written down, you could erase the ability scores from the character sheet. They are no longer being needed for anything.

The super oldschool way to generate ability scores is rolling 3d6 six times and applying them to the six abilities in the order you roll, with no moving around to suit your taste. In 3rd edition, but also AD&D, that was pretty brutal and you could very easily end up with crap. When I generated 16 sets of ability scores, all but the first one looked pretty bad. (It was 13, 16, 10, 14, 16, 16! I wish that one was for an actual game.) But when I wrote down the actual modifiers you get from these scores and added them up, it almost always came down to a total between +1 and -1, which really is very average.

So I went ahead and made this graph to show the chances not to get the ability scores but only the ability modifiers:

snapshot107(It’s not entirely accurate because I took a shortcut and did not convert the 17 data points into 16 ranges, but it should be pretty close, with only the blue area being a slightly bit wider in reality.)

As you can see, the chance to get a modifier of +/-2 or 3 are actually pretty small. The chance to get a modifier of 0 or +/-1 is 86%. The chance to roll a 3 or 18 is under 0,5% each. That is not too bad and even if you do end up with a -2 or -3 in a stat, it often doesn’t hurt a lot. Only the Wisdom modifier is added tone one of the five saving throw types and there are no skills to which modifiers would be added. Even thieves don’t get any bonuses or penalties to their thieving skills. Also no skill points, so low Intelligence doesn’t hurt much. Strength is only added to the chance to hit but not the damage you do (and no +50% bonus when using both hands and any Power Attack shenanigans). Minimum ability scores to play a class exist, but only to play a dwarf, elf, or halfling, and then that minimum score is just 9 (everything starting from the line at “8” on the graph). Even a low Intelligence wizard or low Dexterity thief still works just fine, they just would level up somewhat slower than usual.

So I think in Basic, 3d6 in order really isn’t any bad. The odds to get truly terribly stats that make your character really suck or make you unable to play your prefered class are pretty low and when it really doesn’t work I probably would let a player roll again. (Better then to wait until the character charges heroically to his suicidal death in the very first encounter.) But a character with lots of 9s and 10s and another 6 really are no reason to complain in this game. May not be great, but still would be perfectly playable.

Now AD&D on the other hand is completely different story. Even the Player’s Handbook says that it is essential that any character has at least two 15s. Except for the one set I generated with the three 16s, I don’t think I had any 15s in the other fifteen.

Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 3


The Phanaton is described as a creature that looks like a cross between a racoon and a monkey and also a flying squirrel. They are about as big as halflings and only slightly less intelligent than most humanoids. They build their villages in the branches of large trees and as lawful creatures are usually friendly to most adventurers. They are also friends of elves, treants, and dryads. A normal phanaton is pretty weak and have only 3 hit points on average, but a village is usually led by a king with 8 HD and 50 hp who also has a bodyguard of warriors with 6 HD and 30 hp, which can easily be much tougher and stronger than players would expect.


Rakasta: All I have to say it Khajiit has wares, if you have coin.


Shark-kin seem very similar to sahuagin but with a few unusual differences. In their normal form, shark-kin are unable to walk or survive outside of water and their alignment is neutral. However, any time the king of a tribe dies the legs of the shark-kin grow stronger and they become able to breath air and they come to land for a ritual to select a new leader. During those times they are extremely hostile and agressive, seemingly behaving just the same way as sahuagin do.

Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 3”

A total noob explores BECMI: Part 1 – Abilities and classes

About a week ago I stumbled on a forum thread in which some veteran fans went through all the setting material of the Known World/Mystara setting, which had been the default setting for the B/X and BECMI editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Knowing nothing about that world I took a peek out of curiosity and quickly got very much interested. I had some vague familiarity with some retroclones based on it, mostly Adventurer Conqueror King and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and even though they looked very well made, they just seemed very weird. Very much unlike D&D as I had known it for the 10 or so years before I left it behind me.

But now I got myself really interested in that old game, mostly because it seemed pretty rules light, and the amount of complicated rules had always annoyed me the most about AD&D and made me leave behind 3rd Edition/Pathfinder and look for greener pastures. And I really hate the magic system so much that I never want to run any edition of D&D again and only play it if someone else is GM and wants to run it. But I am still very much interested in how that game really worked and what I can learn from it about running rules light games and how to make dungeon exploration as exciting as the tales I often read. So I got myself the original Basic and Expert rules as pdf and went ahead to really learn how that game actually works and was supposed to be played.

116578The first impression where so interesting that I thought about making this a series of post for other people like me, who really don’t know anything before 3rd Edition and perhaps a bit about AD&D.

Continue reading “A total noob explores BECMI: Part 1 – Abilities and classes”