Category Archives: game design

A hazy idea for a new OSR magic system

Work hours have been a bit chaotic this month, with frequent evening hours and weekend workdays, so I have not really spend much of the long hours of tinkering with ideas that usually lead to me writing things. But all the overtime hours will get me a lot of shorter workdays after Christmas and there’s not really much to do in a gardening store in January anyway. There’s a lot of ideas floating in my mind that I want to pursue further on lazy afternoons and loudly proclaim my conclusions.

Right now I am occupying my free periods during the day with thinking about adapting my new idea for a magic system to an OSR rules system. Which actually turned out a bit more tricky than I thought.

The main concept is that all characters have an amount of spellpower that is calculated by adding the modifier from Wisdom to the number of levels in the mage class. A 4th level mage with a Wisdom of 16 would have a spellpower of 6 (4+2). Any time a spell is cast or a ritual performed, there is a chance for a missfire based on the character’s current spellpower score. At the end of the casting the spellpower score is reduced by a certain number. Dabblers in magic have a high chance of misfires when performing rituals (which does not require any specific character class) but so do even experienced mages who have already cast several spells that day. I like the concept but don’t have any good idea for how to calculate the chance of failure and how to make a die roll to check for a missfire.

I also think about having three categories of magic. Spells, which take one round to cas; incantations, which take 1 minute to cast; and rituals, which take 1 hour to cast. Only characters of the mage class can learn spells and incantations of limited numbers, but rituals are open to anyone who gets his hands on the instructions. However, I found that I have really very few ideas for traditional spells that would fit with my image of how magic performs in action.

One interesting oddity I noticed a few days ago is that all the effects I wanted my old magic system to do no longer fit with the new system. And a good number of things I deliberately chose to exclude seem highly appropriate for the new system. (Except teleportation, which is still out.) My old approach was highly inspired by Star Wars and Avatar, which spells being extensions of the body and mind. Now I feel much stronger drawn to witchcraft and sorcery that focus on dealing with external supernatural beings. Having just read Hellboy again (a review is one of the things I want to write) probably had a huge impact on that change of mind.

5th Edition Spell Lists for the Ancient Lands

This is a continuation from my last post on houserules on D&D 5th Edition for the Ancient Lands setting. It’s something of a draft as I am still not completely happy with it, particularly the witch spell list being much longer than the shaman spell list. But I think overall this is pretty much what I’ll be going with to give the game a try in my setting.

Ranger Spells

The ranger spells are largely based on the standard ranger spell list but I removed a number of spells that seemed to flashy to me.

1st level

Animal Friendship
Cure Wounds
Detect Magic
Detect Poison and Disease
Fog Cloud
Hunter’s Mark
Speak with Animals

2nd level

Animal Messenger
Beast Sense
Lesser Restoration
Pass without Trace
Protection from Poison
Spike Growth

3rd level

Conjure Animals
Plant Growth
Protection from Energy
Speak with Plants
Water Breathing
Water Walk
Wind Wall

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War Cry of the Flame Princess: Hit Points and permanent injuries

Like many people, I am not a big fan of having PCs be perfectly fine with 1 hp remaining and instantly dead when they are at 0 hp.

My approach to hit points is to not regard them as wound points but as stamina points. A succesful hit means that the target suffers minor scratches and bruises that interfere with its ability to succesfully deflect or dodge attacks and avoid serious injury. When a character runs out of hit points the extortion becomes too high and he slips, suffering a serious wound. It’s an abstraction like any way you can think of hit points, but I think it’s the best approach to have the fiction of the adventure match the rules of the game.

But the bigger challenge is how to handle the situation of a PC being reduced to 0 hp. I have a big dislike of the complex dice rolling and multiple modifiers of third edition and AD&D and I certainly don’t want to go through anything like the trouble of multiple successive rolls to stabilize and recover while having negative hit points. A much simpler approach is this:

When an attack deals more damage to a character than he has hit points left, the remaining points of damage are compared to his Constitution score. If the points of damage in excess of the current hit points is greater than the Constitution score, the character is dead. If not, the character is only unconscious for 10 minutes and permanently loses 2 points of Constitution. This loss of Constitution represents a lasting injury that neither surgery nor magic will ever fully reverse. While unconscious at 0 hp, any further damage will automatically kill the character. A character who regains consciousness is unable to fight or do other tiring activities until brought to 1 hp or more through resting or magic.

There are no saving throws or Constitution checks. Death and permanent injury are always automatic. In my past campaigns characters running out of hit points was always very rare already. Adding a significant chance to negate the effects only makes it even more unlikely that something bad will happen to a character. (Though running Sword & Sorcery dungeon crawls will probably increase casualties in my next campaign a lot.) I had considered to randomly determine whether the ability loss affects Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, or Intelligence, but with hit points already representing the ability to continue fighting I don’t think it’s necessary.

I like this solution since it’s both somewhat realistic in regard to actual battle injuries, and it also matches the habit of many Sword & Sorcery heroes to be left for dead with grievous wounds. As in Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, being almost dead is nothing that a week of rest can’t heal, even if it leaves a lasting mark. With a Constitution score of 2d6+6, this gives a character about three to seven opportunities to cheat death before being too crippled to continue, though it might be worth considering retirement much earlier than that. It’s a lot more forgiving than the standard rules for death, but it’s still something that players really will want to avoid.

War Cry of the Flame Princess: The Witch (spell point class)

My post from earlier this week about using Lamentations of the Flame Princess for a Sword & Sorcery campaign received some interest, so why not expanding it into a series? Probably the biggest change I’ve made to the rules is a complete overhaul of the magic-user class. I am not a fan of the spell slot and preparation system of D&D. Of the three big flaws I see in the game, it’s the one I don’t like the most. (Negative AC is easily fixed and Alignment can simply be ignorred.) Spell slots just don’t mesh with any kind of fantasy fiction except for the Dying Earth novels. It just doesn’t feel right to me. 3rd Editions sorcerer class was a decent first attempt to adress this, but oddly enough the best magic system I’ve ever seen in D&D is the revised 3rd edition psionics system. The edition with the biggest design flaws and the previously most clunky sub-system. The Witch class is the magic-user class from LotFP converted to spell points and with a revised spell list. In my Ancient Lands campaign it’s the only spellcasting class that covers both witches and shamans, as well as sorcerers who have access to a few unique spells.

The Witch


Everything else is just as the magic-user class. This table assumes that 5th level is the highest level of spells that characters can possibly learn or cast. For campaigns in which higher level spells are available it can easily be expanded. This spell point conversion uses the exact same spells as usual without any modification to them. The only thing that changes is the way in which spells are learned and limited to uses per day.

Level Hit Points Attack Spells Known Spell Points Max. Level
1st 4 +1 3 3 1st
2nd +1d4 +1 +2 7 1st
3rd +1d4 +1 +2 12 2nd
4th +1d4 +1 +2 18 2nd
5th +1d4 +1 +2 25 3rd
6th +1d4 +1 +2 33 3rd
7th +1d4 +1 +2 42 4th
8th +1d4 +1 +2 52 4th
9th +1d4 +1 +2 63 5th
10th+ +1/level +1 +2/level +12/level 5th

Learning Spells

A first level witch begins the game knowing three spells of first level. Which each additional level the character learns two new spells that can be of any level that is available, as per the column “Max. Level”. At third level, a witch can learn two new spells that can either be of first or second level. At fifth level the new spells may be of first, second, or third level, and so on.

Casting Spells

Spells are not prepared. A witch can cast any spell that has been learned at any time, but has to spend spell points when doing so. How many spell points a witch has is indicated by the colum “Spell Points”. The character’s Intelligence modifier is added to this number at first level (but not at each additional level the character gains later.) The number of spell points that are used is equal to the character level at which the spell becomes available.

Spell Level Spell Point Cost
1st 1
2nd 3
3rd 5
4th 7
5th 9

Witches are highly flexible in chosing their spells and could either cast a smaller number of higher level spells or a large number of lower level spells. Learning a wide variety of lower level spells can be advantageous over always learning spells of the highest possible level as they consume a much lower number of spell points. In return for this increased flexibility in casting spells, witches don’t have the ability to switch out the spells they know between adventures. Witches can only learn new spells when gaining a new level and these spells can not be changed later.

The only way to get access to additional spells is through relics.


Relics are magic items that allow a witch to gain access to additional spells beyond those the character has learned. Relics are body parts of supernatural creatures or legendary witches and sorcerers who retain some of their former owners magical power. Each relic contains usually one spell and a witch holding or wearing the item can cast this spell just as if it were one of the spells the witch has learned. The witch has to spend spell points to cast the spell, just as with all regular spells, but gains a bonus of +1 to +3 to the spellcaster level to determine its effects, depending on the relic. Even if the witch already knowns the spell granted by the relic, the increased spellcaster level still applies.

Spriggan’s Claw

Spell: Plant Growth
Spellcaster Level: +1

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War Cry of the Flame Princess: Ability Scores and Character Levels

1474423181OSR games, particularly in the Weird OSR scene that Joseph Manola lined out so well here, predominantly focus on low power, low magic adventures in whichopponents are either normal guys or extremely deadly eldritch horrors. While it’s a style that I find very appealing, my greatest love is still Sword & Sorcery. Particularly Conan and Kane, but also Hyperborea, The Witcher, and of course Star Wars. The uselessness of Stormtroopers aside, at least when they are deliberately letting the heroes escape or fight against ewoks, they are all works in which the protagonists are at the very top of what humans can be, but not outright superhuman. And while they have to be cautious, they are always on the offense.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my favorite RPG system by a good margin, but it does retain the inherent squishiness of the D&D Basic rules. Which is by design, but I think not fitting so well for Sword & Sorcery. Starting at higher levels is an option, but I always find that unsatisfying and it also means that new wizard players start the game with a considerably wider range of spells from the outset. (Which might sound appealing to some, but my spellpoint conversion already increased the number of spells.)

An in my opinion neater solution is to roll 2d6+6 for ability scores and also let the players assign the six numbers as they see fit for their chosen character class. 2d6+6 considerably shifts the average up and makes 8 the lowest score possible. But since modifiers in B/X are relatively small and don’t increase linearly, the result is that characters will on average have a combined total of +4. A +2 here and two +1s there isn’t hugely imbalancing, but with the ability to assign the scores to abilities freely (and getting maximum hit points at first level) this allows players to make considerably sturdier characters than rolling 3d6 in order. A fist level fighter with 10 hp or a +4 to hit is entirely doable.

The other method I am using is to firmly stick to the paradigm that any NPC who isn’t an outstanding combatant is a level 0 character, and to use a bestiary of entirely custom made creatures. The high end for regular monsters tapers off around 10 HD and I am using relatively smal numbers of special abilities each. In the fiction of the world this makes even 4th level characters already members of the top tier of people who roam the world and who are able to confront gods, demons, giants, and dragons. Maybe not one of those 13 HD behemoths, but certainly one of the smaller 7 HD ones.

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…!


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?


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.

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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.

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.)