Category Archives: gamemastering

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Wilderness Travel

I wasn’t happy with all the rambling from my previous post, so here it is again in a more coherent and focused form.

Wilderness travel is one of the things I always wanted to include as a major element of my campaigns but the rules as written in either B/X or LotFP require too much on the spot calculation and conversion of movement speeds in different terrains that I just can’t handle at the table with my ADD when the players are talking about what they are going to do next at the same time. Adding the attack bonus to a d20 roll and subtracting hit points I can manage, but doing divisions and fractions while paying attention to conversations just ends up with me getting brain locked. All my homebrew systems and my choice of LotFP as the system I am using have been done as means to compensate for my impairment in this regard. Making game mechanics more accessible for people with neural impairments is something I’ve never seen anything written about and might be worth dedicating a post or two to in the future.
Last year I already tried my hand at coming up with a simpler and faster solution, but it’s still based on the underlying assumptions of a hexcrawl with way more precision and granularity than I need for Sword & Sorcery adventures. But a great idea for something much better comes once again from Angry-sensei, who just has some kind of gift for making methods that are practical to use instead of being best suited to programm a computer with. There are two big things of beauty in his proposal. The first one is that it doesn’t require a map with precise measurements or any degree of accuracy. In addition to being quite a lot of work for GMs, the current design standard for maps is basically satelite photography which is something that wouldn’t be available to people within most fantasy world but in my own experience also create a sense of the world being fully explored and tamed. Which is the complete opposite you’d want in a mythic bronze age Sword & Sorcery world. Tolkien’s hand drawn map for The Lord of the Rings is what I consider the ideal form of fantasy map. It’s a tool for navigation that provides an idea of the general layout of the lands but also has a level of abstraction that inspires the viewer to wonder what marvelous places might be hidden in all those blank spots that noboy alive has ever set foot in. The second great thing about it is that it works without any calculations and requires only looking up a single number in a simple table. This post is an adaptation of this concept to the rules of LotFP with some tables for actual use in play.

Travel Times and Distances

When a party makes an overland journey, the first step is deciding on the path they want to foollow from their starting point to their destination. The GM then makes a quick rough measurement on the map (which can be as sketchy as you want) or makes a judgement call how long this path is in miles. At the start of each day, the GM decides which type of terrain the party will mostly be travelling through on that day. Knowing the encumbrance rating of the slowest character or pack animal in the party, the GM simply looks up on the following table how many miles the party covers on that day.

Terrain Unencumbered Lightly Encumbered Heavily Encumbered Severely Encumbered
Road 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles 6 miles
Heath/Moor/Plains 16 miles 12 miles 8 miles 4 miles
Desert/Forest/Hills 12 miles 9 miles 6 miles 3 miles
Jungle/Mountains/Swamp 8 miles 6 miles 4 miles 2 miles

Soldiers throughout history have been marching at about 3 miles per hour on good roads, so with 8 hours of marching you get 24 miles per day. While those soldiers would have been encumbered by gear, they also wouldn’t be travelling through untamed wilderness, so I think this table makes a decent enough approximation of plausible travel speeds.

Mounts

Contrary to movies and books, horses do not cover greater distances in a day than a human can. While they can run much faster at short distances, humans (and dogs) are the world’s best endurance runners and can keep on walking with much less need for rest than other animals. The distances covered by humans and horses are about the same. The big important difference is that horses can carry a lot more weight than humans and are much less slowed down by the same loads. Riding and pack animals should have the same movement rates as humanoids but with double or tripple the carrying capacity of an average person for calculating encumbrance,

Water Travel

17 different types of ship with different sailing and rowing speeds, 5 classes of quality, and 9 degrees of weather conditions is a bit more than needed when dealing with travel at this level of abstraction. I reduced it all down to this simple table.

Type Favorable Conditions Average Conditions Unfavorable Conditions
Canoe 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles
River Boat 80 miles 60 miles 40 miles
Sailing Ship, Slow 120 miles 90 miles 60 miles
Sailing Ship, Fast 160 miles 120 miles 80 miles

I’ve done some researching of my own about the speeds of (admitedly modern) sailing ships and the numbers in the Expert rules and LotFP seem to be way off. These numbers for distance travelled in a day are much closer to what you could actually expect from real ships. For canoes the distance is given fr 8 hours, as for marching, but for the others the distance is for a span of 24 hours since they are powered by wind and people can take turns with steering while the others rest. For canoes and river boats favorable and unfavorable conditions means going downstream or upstream. Average conditions would be on lakes. For sailing ships these apply to the weather and the wind in particular. Whether they are favorable or unfavorable can be determined with a simple roll of a d6, with a roll of a 1 or a 6 indicating that less or more distance has been covered that day. On the seas travel distances can vary greatly, but this is a good enough approximation for a game.

Wilderness Encounters

Another suggestion by Angry that I also take pretty much as is is rolling for wilderness encounters by rolling a number of d6 bases on how how much monster traffic is present in an area the party is travelling through on a given day. For every die that rolls a 1 there will be an encounter sometime during the day. At what time during the day and in what terrains these encounters will take place is up to the GM to decide. I got curious and calculated the odds for wilderness encounters with this method:

#d6 Threat Level No Encounters 1 Encounter 2 Encounters 3 Encounters
1 Settled or desolate 83% 17%
2 Wilderness 69% 28% 3%
3 Hostile Wilderness 58% 35% 7% 1%
4 Hostile Patrols 48% 39% 12% 2%

They are not actually as high as I expected. Not having any encounters at all still remains the most likely outcome by a good margin and even at higher threat levels the chance to have multiple encountes in a single day is very low. As Angry explains it in a much more elaborate way, this is actually a pretty nice addition to the regular wilderness encounter rules. It raises the number of factors players have to consider when picking a route to three: “How long would we be at risk at encuntering monsters in that area?”, “How dangerous are the monsters we might encounter in that area?”, and now also “How many monsters are in that area?” Go through the swamp that is choking with giant spiders or risk the shortcut over the mountains where almost all creatures have been killed by a dragon?

I  very much encourage using the rules for foraging and starvation. Carrying a large amount of rations means the party wil be slowed down but make consistent progress each day. Not packing enough rations for the whole journey (to make room for treasure for example) means that the party is travelling lighter and at a faster speed. While finding enough food in the wilderness is relatively easy with a trained specialist or a scout, the time it takes is highly unpredictable and can cause the party to actually make even less progress in a day. It’s a nice layer of added uncertainty that the players can consider in their planning for wilderness journeys.

Since more than a single encounter per day is very unlikely even in the more crowded regions, the encounter tables should be stocked in a way that there is real danger for the party. If the players have no reason to expect the possibility of a character dying or the party getting captured then they also have no incentive to hurry up, making the whole exercise of wilderness encounters moot.

Encounter Distances

If an encounter happens, use this table to determine the distance as which surprise rolls are being made by both sides.

Terrain Distance
Forest/Jungle 2d6 x 10 yards
Desert/Hills/Swamp 3d6 x 10 yards
Heath/Moor/Mountains/Plains 4d6 x 10 yards
Lake/Sea 4d6 x 10 yards

When travelling on rivers, use the row for the surrounding terrain. The distance for encounters on sea or lakes are for encounters with monsters. Ships can be seen from much larger distances.

One Page Cultures

Dealing with cultures in a campaign setting is always a tricky issue. There are a lot of good reasons to provide a good range of different cultures with unique and distinctive character instead of going with some kind of generic Standard Fantasy Setting. But at the same time there’s always the very real risk of excessive lore dumps that make the setting less accessible to newcomers. While Tekumel and Glorantha always looked quite intriguing to me, I was never able to get even a foot into the door, so to speak. There’s so much and I don’t know where to begin reading. My goal with releasing Ancient Lands material is not just for it to be read but also to be used in actual games. I don’t want to write fiction (at least with this undertaking) but to create RPG material. Good RPG material.

So when chosing a format to present the various cultures I have created for the setting, making it so that it’s accessible and useable are the key considerations. That means it has to be short. Or as Bryce tends to put it in regard to adventures “terse and evocative”. Short enough to make people willing to read it even when they have no investment in it yet, evocative enough that it makes them want to have it in their games, and providing the kind of information they need to actually use it effectively. So the format I am fiddling around with now is the One Page Culture. One page of text of text has to be enough to cover all the essential facts.

But what are the essential facts? By which I mean “necessary or highly useful to present the culture in an actual adventure”. When I read about cultures in RPG books or other fantasy world, there tends to be a lot of stuff that might be somewhat interesting to read as entertainment, but is almost impossible for the players to actually encounter except in the form of an infodump monolog. So the main consideration is: “What aspects of a culture will the players be interacting with?” Limiting the full length of the description to a single page is a means to ensure the whole thing doesn’t get bloated with descriptions of cooking and embroidery. These are the things I found to be the most relevant for GMs to run a game, in no particular order.

  1. Who are the important people? Probably the most important thing for players to know. When they get to a village or stronghold, who are the people they need to talk to if they need something. Who are the people who matter for things related to adventurers?
  2. What can they do for you? Once you know what kind of leader or official you need to talk to, what kind of assistance can you expect to get from them and what are the limits imposed on them by their society?
  3. Who are the troublesome people? In addition to people who could be of help to the players, there’s also those who could mean trouble to adventurers. Witches, inquisitors, doomsday preachers, and so on.
  4. What can they do to you? If the players have run ins with these people, what kind of threat are they likely to pose?
  5. What services are available? Different cultures may have different good that they are producing exclusively or have various restrictions on what may be sold or provided to outsiders.
  6. How do they fight? What type of armaments are used by warriors of the culture and what’s the common composition of a group of armed people? Do they rely on certain tactics or are there special rules who can be in charge of such a group. Where would warriors be found in an average settlement and in what numbers?
  7. What do settlements look like? While the specifics about different architectural styles are of little consequence, it can be quite useful to have a general idea of the common layout of a settlement for each culture. In some cultures the hall of the chief or the shrine may be in the center, while in others they may be found on a prominent hill at the far side of the main gate. Or the shrine may not be located within the settlement itself but some distance away from people’s homes.  Some cultures may have tall stone houses, others circular single-story farm house with thatched roofs, or underground burroews. It doesn’t have to be alaborate, but if you keep these things consistent the players might quite likely recognize the patterns.
  8. What are shrines and temples like? Since adventurers tend to have to deal with various supernatural poisons, diseases, and curses and may have other needs for divine aid, shrines and temples are going to be places that are quite likely to be visited on several occasions. Giving a brief description of how the culture builds its shrines, how priests look like, and what requirements and restrrictions are in place for assisting outsiders can be a great boon to making a culture appear distinctive. Deep theological concepts or religious celebrations are usually completely irrelevant in actual play.
  9. What animals are around? This item is important for the Ancient Lands in particular, but can be useful for describing cultures in general. If the animals found in settlements are not the typical European farm animals, then what kind of mundane or unusual critters are around instead? The Ancient Lands don’t have horses, cows, pigs, or dogs, but many similar roles are filled by various types of deer, goats, and large reptiles. A settlement of skeyn would have many ogets (large riding goats), while Takari elves of the Mahiri Jungles would use large caravans of huge drohas (hardrosaurs). This also applies to what beasts warriors would be riding into battle.

Adventures for Fun and Profit

But let’s forget about the profit for now.

Noism started an interesting debate with two posts about a seemingly overarching theme of bleakness in modern oldschool RPG releases and discussion. And I think it’s an accurate observation. The majority of content that is getting major exposure these days is pretty dark. But I think the main reason for this lies in the popularity of the works of James Raggi and Zak S., whose personal styles simply are bleak and grotesque. You could easily count Patrick Stuart as also having ascended into this exclusive group. Together they and their works easily tower over everyone else combined. This of course creates the perception that oldschool gaming is dominated by dark and bleak content. And when it comes to commercially produced publications this is actually the case. But I believe these great adventures are popular primarily because they are really good, not because they have bleak tones and dark themes. It probably is mostly a coincidence that the most successful creators are sharing such similar artistic styles.

That being said, it’s still a valid question to ask how we all could produce content that is just as good but taking a more positive outlook on things? Having bleak adventures dominate is indeed kind of a problem, in that it is quite easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm that is surrounding their reception. Deep Carbon Observatory is awesome and makes me excited to make something just as awesome with my own ideas. But at least for me it’s always very easy to fall into the trap of falsely assuming that something similarly great would also be similarly structured. It takes me conscious effort to say “This is not what you wanted to do. You had a different idea that is also awesome and your own.” So I find it very worthwhile to encourage a discussion about what other shapes great oldschool adventures can take and to get people to put more of those out there so that we have a broader perspective on what we can be doing that builds on our own passions and develops into our own personal style.

The original question that started this was “can RPGs be cheery?” I am not a native speaker but this doesn’t seem like a word that I could align with fantasy adventure RPGs. Cheerfulness seems to be in conflict with …well, conflict. As I see it, every adventure needs conflict. Without conflcit there’s no treat and therefore no tension. Maybe you can have RPGs that are cheery, but I don’t see it working for games of the fantasy adventure type. However, what these games do have the capability of is FUN!

To me, the absolute holy grail of a perfectly executed adventure is Raiders of the Lost Arc. It has violence and pain, a terrible threat, and the most evil of evil villains: Nazis! Is it in any way cheery? No, I really wouldn’t say so. But is it a bleak movie or a pessimistic one? I’d say far from it. It’s exciting and wondrous and Indiana Jones is a hero who has no pretentions of glory but is good without a trace of doubt. And it really is fun.

I do enjoy a certain gloominess in my favorite games and movies, but I would say that those are all cases in which the mood isn’t bleak but rather somber. To me the big difference lies in the outlook forward. In bleak settings there is a universal certainty that the actions of the protagonists won’t be making and difference for the better. Things might even end up being worse despite their best efforts. Things are bad and are only going to be worse. Adventures in such environments can be fascinating and entertaining, but unless everyone is set to go down in a blaze of glory, it’s not going to be fun. (Early Warhammer 40k always seems hilarious to me.)

But dark elements or periods of gloom do not have to drag everything into bleakness. As with Indiana Jones you can still have an overall very positive outlook, simply by giving the players confidence that their efforts will make things better. Things will look up in the future because the heroes took great risks and paid great personal costs. if the players walk away with a confidence that it all had been worth it, then even an adventure full of darkness can have an overall positive outlook. A great example for such a tale would be Princess Mononoke. That movie gets outright terrifiying as shit goes to hell, but even then the hero keeps pushing forward because he knows that he can make the future much better than it’s currently looking to be.

I don’t think I’ve consciously been thinking about it this way, but I believe that my Ancient Lands setting is at its core a world meant to be about the struggle for making things better. The setting is build around the concept of treasure hunting, but not about gold fever and the suffering it brings to everyone involved, but again much more of the Indiana Jones type. The main motivation for PCs is the excitement of discovering magical wonders that people back home would never have dreamed of. To reach them, great threats have to be overcome and there is fierce competition from highly dangerous and unsavory people who might use such discoveries to harm. You can easily have the PCs encountering great dangers and dealing with serious threats, but overall I find it an approach that lends itself very much to having a lot of fun while doing so,

As I see it, the world is not so much “Points of Light surrounded by a vast sea of darkness”, but rather islands of the familiar surrounded by oceans of the unknown. When it comes to designing settings and adventures it’s really very much the same approach, but the dangerous unknown doesn’t have to be dark. Even if it’s just unfamiliar you can still have high tension adventures without any need for bleak darkness.

Simple encounter maps for online play

A week ago I was talking about the problem of having tactical encounter maps for online games that are at the same time easy to make, having an atmospheric look, and also encourage the players to imagine the actual environment and not think of the encounter as moving miniatures around.

I think I found a solution that satisfies all three criteria. This is a quick mockup of the idea.

I’m not happy with either the textures for the background or the tokens and the dye job I did on those tokens looks pretty awful. It’s probably going to be a good idea to draw a transparent layer of the rooms in advance in Photoshop or GIMP and then simply drop them over the background texture in Roll20. The standard line drawing tool doesn’t look very pretty and it can take a minute or two to draw a room like this. But if you have to get a map instantly and have nothing prepared, it’s still a good way to make one on the spot that looks mostly consistent with the standard style.

While I used a parchment texture as the default background, I think I will also try to use granite or polished black marble backgrounds for some dungeons as a littl additional mood setting tool.

Dungeon Mapping in Online Campaigns

Last time I was talking about giving an XP bonus to players who write session reports to encourage them to keep other players who weren’t present up to date with the campaign. Another important aspect of tracking important information that other players will know is the making of maps.

I am not a fan of miniatures in RPGs as I find them to get players into a chess game mode in which they think mostly about moving pieces around and less of actual people and monsters being in wondrous place. (One of the big reasons I quit d20 games.) But when playing online, and especially with changing groups and many people who aren’t native English speakers (or speak quite different variants of English) I find having a map that shows the layout of the area and the position of characters a necessity. It just would get too confusing.

I did make some huge dungeon maps for roll20 using lots of different textures and adding light effects, but while these provide some nice visual cues about the environment it still feels a lot like a miniature game. And from a practical perspective making these maps is a huge pain in the ass. I think in a sandbox game where preparation of dungeons will often happen just between sessions,it just won’t be possible to use such a work intensive method. Last summer I experimented with making premade tiles drawn in the style of Dyson Logos, but that also turned out really fiddly and again you’re drawing attention to the map. So I think what I’ll be doing instead is using simple sketches of black lines that indicate where walls and floor obstacles are and not attempt to show any details on the map. Players will have to remember the description of the room to know what objects they could make use of. But instead of the ugly plain white background of Roll 20 I will try to find some nice parchment or stone face textures onto which the floor plans will be scribbled.

Looks great enough in Thief.

Also, I will disable the square grid. When you knew nothing but d20 games for twelve years it might seem an obvious necessity, but I don’t think even in those a grid is really needed. If you really need to know exactly the distance a character can move in roll20 you can just use the ruler tool and don’t need to count squares. I think using a grid is a big factor that makes players eyes glued to the map and think of combat as a math problem and it’s one that is easily removed.

Now a fun sounding element in oldschool dungeon crawls is players making their own maps as they are progressing through a dungeon, which might be not too accurate. And when the party loses the map or has to flee taking a shortcut through unmapped terrain based on what they assume their current path is leading them back to should be quite exciting. But if you upload a regular dungeon map into roll20, there is no need for the players to make maps, unless you are always covering the map up again when the players move on to the next area. Which doesn’t really seem ideal. I think what might be a good approach is to do what old videogames did and cut the whole map into small areas divided by doors. When the party moves through a door the view changes to a different map. Roll20 can do that without real problem. As the GM you keep a complete map of the dungeon level with clear identification of each area so you always know which map you have to make visible to the players. The only problem is when fights happen to move between areas. But with a simple sketch map you should be able to just draw a few lines that show the rooms beyond the edge of the current map without it looking completely crappy.

A while back the Angry GM wrote about a nice system to make mapmaking not a chore for the players while still keeping the dungeon layout and architecture interesting. At it’s core it comes down to each area having only one exit in each direction and no branching paths unless the intersection is its own separate area on the map. This way the players really only need to make an annotated flowchart of which doors connect to which areas. This is many times simpler and more convenient than having the players translate verbal descriptions of measurements and directions into squares on a grid.

The biggest practical challenge is that the players would not be able to just give the map they made to someone else. This requires scanning or photographing the scribbled map,uploading it,and then sharing the link with the other players. Though by this point this isn’t a huge obstacle anymore. However, if other players are to continue the mapping they still have to transfer the whole map from the image to their own paper. I think this should be managable.

But how do you get players to diligently upload their map after each game so the party can still use it if the player isn’t there the next time? I think I just use the same incentive again: +10% XP bonus for every player who does. Just like writin reports of their expeditions, drawing maps is part of the explorer’s profession. Some very engaged players might regularly get a +20% boost, but using the B/X level progression this is still not going to give them much of a noticeable advantage over other players.

Session Reports and Incentives

Because technical reasons are probably going to delay the start of my (now long) planned Ancient Lands sandbox campaign until early summer, I still spend a lot o time on refining ideas and getting better prepared to running such a thing myself.

One special consideration  when running a game online with changing players is to keep everyone updated on what’s been happening so far. I could write a summary of each session myself, but that wouldn’t be very fun and it’s always difficult to get players to read anything between games. Having the players write the reports makes it easier for me and should be more fun to read for the other players.

How do you motivate players to write such reports when they are notoriously lazy about doing homework for the game? In this particular case I have the situation where the PCs are going to be explorers who are searching for knowledge about the supernatural. Collecting information and sharing them with other explorers of the (hopefully) constantly changing party is at the center of the campaign. And as such it feels not just justified but also really appropriate to give additional experience points to players when they write reports about their adventures and make their discoveries accessible to others. Fighters don’t get XP for fighting and witches don’t get XP for casting spells. Through the system of XP for treasure, everyone gets XP for being successful finders and retrievers of treasure. And compiling and organizing their discoveries on paper is certainly an activity that should increase  characters ability to find and secure treasures.

I think I will go with giving a bonus of +10% of the last session’s XP to every player who posts a report of that game. Doesn’t matter if there’s multiple accounts or how good those reports are. I believe once you get players to write about their exciting adventures to tell other players who weren’t there, they are not going to half-arse it just for a few XP. The only difficulty is to get them motivated to start, and if there’s one thing that motivates players it’s XP. Not free XP, but earned XP! And the way XP and level advancement works in Basic, 10% extra is not actually going to make much of a difference. Every now and then a player who always writes reports will reach the next level one session before the other players but the next two or three times it might very well again be at the same time. But still, +10% is +10% percent and players are greedy.

I’ve been quoted

I was browsing around looking for more monster ideas to improve the pulp lost world look of my setting when I came across this: Campaign Settings – Prehistoric/Lost Worlds

I quite liked reading it and unusually for me also looked at the sources at the end of the article where I saw ‘Paizo: “Ancient Lands”: Basics for a “tribal/prehistoric” campaign setting.’

That’s me!

This is so cool. I occasionally get messages from people telling me they like my ideas (so much they make the effort of sending a message), but this is clearly the most amazing validation that there are people interested in my ideas and that there is an audience for what I fancifully dream to publish one day. It’s been a long time in the working already and things like this are always very reassuring that it’s totally worth to keep going ahead.

You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

Hostile environments not meant for people

My Ancient Lands setting never felt like I wanted it to when I ran adventures in it, and I think I know understand why. Even though the whole concept of the world is one about dealing with alien spirits and witches, almost all my adventures were pretty generic empty ruins inhabited by animals and bandits. There’s some wisdom in the claim that the unnatural only feels unusual if it’s set in contrast to a very natural world, I took it much too far by making the normal stuff dominating the campaigns.

I am still not sure how to give the supernatural otherworld the center stage that it should have, I think it really starts with the idea that there are places and environments where people are not meant to be. Not just are the native creatures are great direct threat, the environment itself gets in the way of the characters and puts them at an even greater disadvantage to the native inhabitants.

Here are some generic factors that make an environment work against the players even when it does not actively try to harm them.

  • Don’t let the party have rechargable magical light sources. When torches and lamps run out they are completely blind when underground (or at least some of them) until they can find something to light on fire or glowing worms or something like that.
  • Track food and make edible plants really hard to find in dungeons and spiritworlds. Leaves and grass won’t feed people and fruits might not be healthy.
  • Use a lot of water. Even when the party has magic to breath underwater their torches and lamps won’t be working there.
  • Little weak monsters that wait to attack the party until they are weak and need to recover. And not just once, but repeatedly.
  • Great differences in height and monsters that can fly.
  • Huge open spaces and monsters with ranged attacks.
  • Fog that blocks sight and creatures that are sneaky.
  • Ground that slows characters down or hurts them when they trip. But not the native creatures.
  • Wind that can make characters fall and interferes with ranged weapons.
  • Low ceilings that force characters to fight crouched or narrow passages that make large weapons unusable and keeps parties from fighting as a team.

XP for magic items?

While I am usually rather against mechanics that are obviously made for gameplay reasons and not for getting reasonably realistic results, encumbrance is one element where I make a big exception. I am a huge fan of inventory slots in pen and paper games. Not because they are in any way realistic but simply because any attempts to measure items by weight or volume end up as such bothersome bookkeeping that people usually end up ignoring encumbrance entirely.

Which in a game of exploration expeditions and treasure hunting is a real shame. You lose so much of the experience of dungeon crawling and wilderness travel when you don’t have to worry about being slowed down by carrying too many supplies. And even worse, when the PCs can carry as much supplies (which are dirt cheap) as they want, then it also becomes redundant to track how many more torches and rations they currently have with them. And really: What’s left then? A Pathfinder adventure! I mean combat! Bookkeeping is not fun, but having to worry about running out of light or throwing away all your food to be able to outrun a monster while still hanging on to all your gold is something I never would want to miss again. And in AD&D 1st Edition and the Basic/Expert gold is not primarily money. Most importantly gold is experience. Your XP take up inventory space and can slow you down on your way to safety.

It always amazes me how deeply interconnected the various elements. Encumbrance, XP for treasure, and random encounters only look like completely different things but they are all a single unit of resource management that really is at the heart of the oldschool experience. If you drop one, the other two no longer work either and there’s nothing to keep the party from having 15 minutes adventuring days and rest after every fight, which is the huge glaring flaw of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder.

As such,I am really a big fan of the Encumbrance system in Lamentations of the Flame Princess which gives each character a number of inventory slots and every item takes up one slot. It doesn’t adjust the item limits based on character Strength but otherwise it’s clearly the right approach. The typical character sheet has a section for items with one line available for each item. Just mark after how many lines the encumbrance limits are reached and you never need to even count how many items your character carries. As long as you leave no lines empty you just have to check whether your item list passes the marked lines. That’s an encumbrance system you can actually use at the table without annoyance.

But now finally to XP: In my Ancient Lands campaigns there is very little use for money. It’s really only needed for big bribes, tributes, ransoms, or for buying really big things. And most people rarely use coins in daily life. So I don’t even bother with individual coins anymore. Instead I simply go with treasure items. In LotFP,a bag with 100 coins takes up one inventory slot. Like LotFP, I think silver is a much more sensible standard coin for normal business and it makes finding gold much more exciting when it’s not something people see every day. So the standard treasure item is worth 100 XP, with a bag of silver coins being the benchmark for how valuable such items commonly are on average. In addition to that I am also using great treasure items that are worth 1000 XP, or as much as a bag of gold coins. This reduces bookkeeping again by a lot. (I really hate bookkeeping.)

XP for treasure is a great system because it rewards players for behavior that you want to see as the GM. It rewards them not for slaying a monster but for getting the treasure guarded by the monster. It seems a bit silly that characters would get better at fighting by collecting coins, but then it’s no more realistic to learn more spells by shoting people with a crossbow. XP for gold encourages players to explore and sneak. XP for combat encourages combat. It actually discourages sneaking and negotiating except as means to get an advantage for a coming fight. I like XP for treasure much better, but the concept behind the Ancient Lands is not just one of treasure hunters but a game of knowledge seekers. Gold and jewels are not meant to be actually that thrilling for the PCs who are striving for a higher goal. Something else is needed to which the players are encouraged by the lure of XP.

By default characters get no XP for magic items. Magic items are useful to the party and give them advantages while in an oldschool game money usually doesn’t. Unless you eventually get into building castles,there’s not really much to do with all the massive piles of gold characters gain on their progression to higher levels. But in my campaigns the search for and fighting over rare magic items takes center stage and so I want to reward it with XP as well. Since magic items are meant to be rare, the players won’t getting their hands on a lot of them. At the same time gold and silver are meant to be less lustrous so I can simply hand out less of mundane treasure to even out the total gain of XP. The main difference is that magic items are worth much more XP but still take up only one inventory slot. But again,this can be countered by giving more silver treasues (100 XP) and fewer gold treasures (1000 XP).

Now assigning specific values to magic items is difficult as they don’t have a value that could be measured in coins. But in the end the XP are awarded for the challenge of getting them and so I consider it a good solution to simply set the XP for retrieving a magic item to 1000 times the dungeon level on which it was found. By which I don’t mean the actual physical story of the dungeon but the difficulty of the Wandering Monsters table that is used for the dungeon level. Often that will be just three or five times the value of a regular gold treasure,but then the players can also actually use the item’s power to their advantage, making it worth more to them than just the XP. I think it’s also a nice rule of thumb for special treasure items like huge gems.