Mythic Fantasy and the Days of High Adventure

Among the many different branches of fantasy, one of the more obscure ones that is rarely seen in the wild is Mythic Fantasy. I believe it’s actually more a hypothetical idea than an actual concept anyone is working with in practice. I’ve seen it come up a few times in Fantasy-RPG books for gamemasters, as one of several suggested options for what different forms of styles a fantasy campaign could possibly take. The general idea seems to be fantasy that takes its main inspirations from Iron Age myths of the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic peoples, which tell tales of gods and superhuman heroes. And that’s usually about the full extend of detail for how this kind of fantasy would work. The only concrete suggestions I’ve seen is generally “I don’t know, I guess you use some medusas and minotaurs, or something”. But I say no, that’s not how you make a mythic fantasy campaign. That’s just reenacting Greek myths as an RPG. When we are talking about how we can give a fantasy RPGs like D&D different tones and flavors to make it more similar to other styles of fantastic stories, the goal is to put the default material into a new context. Stories of ancient myth are one thing, but I think when we use the term Mythic Fantasy, we should apply it to something else. Mythic is the adjective that describes that thing. Fantasy is the noun that is the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this these past few days, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions to how you can create original fantasy material, in a newly envisioned world, and present it in a way that evokes a similar overall feel without just directly copying existing material.

The Monster

This is a big one, and I believe, the most critical of all the points I am going to make here. Modern fantasy in general, and fantasy RPGs in particular, seem to have lost touch with The Monster and forgotten it’s central role it plays in many of the oldest tales that survive to this day. Not all stories need monsters, just as not all fantasy needs to evoke the style of ancient myths. But we just don’t see The Monster anymore. RPGs in particular are full of “monsters”, but these tend to be swarms of critters that appear as the heroes come around the corner, and after a short action scene, are immediately forgotten one’s the turn around the next. Monsters are there to be fought, because fantasy is supposed to have monsters that are fought, but they generally don’t really have any impact on the greater story.  The story plays out between human(oid) characters. And I believe this even mostly holds true in D&D, with its big tomes of high level monsters. Yes, you might occasionally have fought a beholder or aboleth. But how often was that creature the main villain of the adventure that the entire story revolved around? What interactions did the PCs have with that big monster before they opened a door and found themselves immediately attacked? These monsters may make big and memorable fights, but from what I’ve seen over the past decades now, they are almost always just window dressing for a story that would work just as well without any monsters in it at all.

This is very much not the case with the monsters of ancient myths. There may be both perception bias by me and survivor bias by the ravages of time, but most if not all of these tales are about one monster. Medusa, the Bull of Minos, the cyclops Polyphemus, Cerberus, Fenris, Grendel, Humbaba, Ravana. They all have a name. They all are known to the people living near them and greatly feared. They have a history. They are not just some random creatures that live by themselves deep in the wilderness, minding their own business. The heroes who fight these monsters are not simply showing of their strength and power, they are performing a great service for the community. Yet somehow, we don’t really see that in modern fantasy. I think having these unique great monsters, that are an active thread to society and that ordinary people can not deal with are a central element of what makes a story feel mythic and really need to be included when trying to make a world that feels like Mythic Fantasy.

The Courts of the High Kings

Mythic tales as a whole seem to have a much bigger focus on specifics than the general, compared to what is overwhelmingly seen in games. Take any setting book for a fantasy RPG and look at the description of cities. If there is any useful information at all, it tends to be general stuff about the overall feel and appearance of the city, for when a group of mercenary adventurers is coming through on their way to new adventures. Cities often are central to mythic stories as well, but usually they are not described at all. When mythic heroes come to a city, they really are coming to a king’s court. That’s really the only part of the city that matters. Perseus comes to Knossos, to meet with King Minos. The city of Knossos is irrelevant to the story. All that is important is the palace of king Minos. Beowulf travels to Heorot, the court of King Hrothgar. We would assume that the king’s hall is inside a small city or town, but it is of no importance of the story. The name of the king’s court is not.

As a broad generalization, mythic tales like to give specific names to all the important characters and places. Myths will often take care to mention the homes and lineages of even secondary characters. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the original audiences of these stories would have been able to glean a great amount of context from these pieces of information. The home and lineage of different characters could inform deeper meanings in the things these characters say or the things they do, that are now lost to us. But even so, I still think that we would recognize such thing as being characteristic of ancient myths. And this is something that shouldn’t be too difficult to emulate in a game. When introducing new characters that are to some degree relevant to the story, don’t just tell the players their names and outer appearance, but also have them be introduced as “the son of X, brother to the king of Y”. It does not have to actually mean anything, but it still creates an impression that these things would be greatly meaningful to the people within the world of the story. Present NPCs as important leaders and emissaries, and have other NPCs treat them and speak of them as people who have influence and power, or at very powerful and influential friends. The world of myths is in many ways a very small one, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is connected.

The heroes should be Heroes

In common usage, the term hero is often used to simply mean protagonist. Or simply any person who did something risky out of kindness. But that’s not the original meaning of the term. A mythical hero is a person who stands above all others and exist in a different category than everyone else. And furthermore, they perform great deeds that bring a significant and permanent benefit to society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, many ancient heroes are said to be demigods who are descended from divine beings. A hero almost has to be superhuman by definition. Heroes are the people who go down in history, and they don’t even have to be good guys.

If you want to have a game that feels like stories of myth, the protagonists have to be heroes. And in any kind of roleplaying game, the players have to play the protagonists. There are many awful examples of published adventures where this is not the case and the PCs are merely spectators watching the real heroes do cool stuff and save the day, which has been emulated by countless numbers of GMs. But that’s objectively bad gamemastering and adventure design. The medium of roleplaying games demands that the players play the protagonists of the story. The game is the story of the PCs. In mythic stories the protagonists have to be heroes, and in roleplaying games the PCs have to be the protagonists. This means that in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, the PCs have to be heroes. And what makes or makes not a hero are not their deeds, but the perception of their deeds. A hero is who the people regard as a hero.

One major aspect of realizing this in a game is in the way that NPCs talk to the PCs and behave towards them. Heroic PCs should be treated as being exceptional people who stand tall above the common men of women. Heroes mingle among the highest ranking people of society, and they will gain the personal attention of kings and queens when they arrive in a new city, who will treat them with the same honor and respect as foreign dignitaries. Even when the PCs are from simple backgrounds with no titles and few possessions to their name, their deeds elevate them to being part of the elite.

To make this really work and feel believable in an actual campaign, PCs need to exceed the prowess and skills of ordinary warriors pretty early in the campaign. Having PCs start at a higher level or with larger numbers of character points is one option. But I am personally much more in favor of instead having ordinary NPCs all be of the most basic type. The default soldier and brigand are usually good enough for all common soldiers and brigands throughout the entire campaign. When the PCs reach 5th level, there is no need to have them encounter ultra-elite soldiers and brigands. If they can just steamroll over any ordinary warriors they encounter then let them. They are heroes. They are supposed to be superhuman. Equally important is that this makes it more believable that the ordinary soldiers are not capable of dealing with the monsters that threaten their cities and people. In some fantasy setting, many adventure ideas are frequently shot down with the simple reason of “why doesn’t any of the powerful NPCs or the giant armies take care of the problem?”. The answer to that is simple. There are no powerful NPCs. There are no armies that could be wasted to die at the feet of an ancient horror.

Swords of Legend

As with monsters and NPCs, another way to make a game feel more mythic is to apply the same principle of specificity to magic items. In mythic tales, there are no +1 swords or mass produced amulets that are found in some random hole in the ground. Every magic item is unique. Often they have a name, and almost always they have a history. They don’t just lie around to be found by the first person who stumbles upon them. They are either pried from the dead hands of slain main antagonists who used them for their evil purposes, or given as gifts from influential people as rewards for outstanding deeds performed by the heroes. Or alternatively, the heroes go to on a quest to retrieve the items from their ancient resting place, overcoming many hardships and foes along the way.

But even with this in mind, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any magic items that are discovered unexpectedly in forgotten ruins. A great example of this is early on the movie Conan the Barbarian. Conan has been released from slavery by his master and is being chased by wolves, and trying to climb to safety on top of some rocks, falls into the well hidden entrance of an ancient tomb where he discovers his new sword. Since the movie has barely any dialog, neither the scene nor the sword gets any mention later in the film. But as the story have it, it was supposed to be a highly special and remarkable sword, a relic from the great and powerful realm of Atlantis that has long faded into myth. And in that scene where Conan discovers it in the tomb, this really comes across. He does not just find a sword lying around. He discovers an opulent tomb, with an ancient warrior king in his armor, sitting on a great stone throne, covered in dust and spiderwebs, the sword in his skeletal hand.

We do not know the name of the sword, or the name of the king. And we do not know any of their stories. But the way in which the sword is found makes it clear that this is not just some random sword from the shelf, that you can sell to a village blacksmith in bundles of ten. This is a unique artifact with a great history, even though the tales have been forgotten. And it still might just be a sword +1.

Illustrations by Justin Sweet, showing scenes from various Kull stories by Robert Howard.

What should Sword & Sorcery campaigns feel like?

There was a discussion on Dragonsfoot about how to bring a feeling of Sword & Sorcery to oldschool D&D. Like most of these discussion, the focus was on deciding which races and classes should be available for player characters, how to handle healing and magic items, and things like that. But I think that’s starting the whole topic at too late a point. Before you can make choices on how to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery through game rules, you first need to establish for yourself what kind of atmosphere and emotions you want to evoke in the first place.

I think at the most fundamental level, long before going into any specific elements, they key aspect that makes Sword & Sorcery a thing is that it is not a rational form of fantasy, but an emotional. The plots in Sword & Sorcery are almost always very simple and basic. I can’t really think of any story that has intricate plans, unexpected turns, and surprising reveals about hidden motives or betrayals. It’s not a genre of conspiracy plots and whodunits. Hero’s can be very clever, but their plans are remarkable in their simplicity rather than their complexity. Their strengths lie in improvisation combined with determination, and generally work only because of their outstanding martial skills. Plans help to shift the odds in their favor, but at the end it has to come down to a contest of force against force.

Sword & Sorcery can have considerable depth, but it’s not a cerebral experience. It is very much emotional. When we see philosophy make an appearance, it’s overwhelmingly existentialist. A philosophy that deals with giving meaning to a life after realizing that logic is hollow and empty and reason can not give you any joy. And that being said, Sword & Sorcery is fun! It doesn’t have to be humorous. It’s often grim and full of pain, but I think it’s almost always meant to be thrilling and exhilarating. Elric and Kane can be very brooding and morose, but that’s not why we like them. We like them because they inevitable will be overtaken by fury and then kick everyone’s ass, and it will be glorious.

But as a whole, I wouldn’t say Sword & Sorcery is dark. It’s no darker than The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s not really a distinguishing feature. People also often say that it is more grounded and down to earth, and I can’t really see where that idea is coming from? I think most important of all, Sword & Sorcery is always larger than life. It doesn’t dial up things to the maximum of what would still be sensible, but possibly always goes a little bit beyond. At least I can’t think of anything that I would unambiguously call Sword & Sorcery that is reserved and has both feet firmly on the ground. What Sword & Sorcery certainly is is somewhat grimy and gritty. It is never noble or idealistic, and goes to great lengths to be the opposite of pastoral and quaint. It can be majestic, but never pristine. There is always some degree of both savagery and decadence, and going back the point about being focused on the emotional aspects of fantasy, it is “sensual” in the wider sense of the term. It is bold and has little sense of shame. At times this can shift into sleaze, but I think even then, good Sword & Sorcery is always sincere. I can’t think of any work of Sword & Sorcery that is somewhat ironic or tongue in cheek, and doesn’t take itself serious. Sometimes it does get silly, but even at those times, you always get the impression that the creators think this is awesome and the greatest <expletive deleted> ever. In many later works, which is were you find much of the cheesier examples, there is a clear sense of self-awareness of how silly some of the elements are. But we’re supposed to lough with them, not at them. Even at its dumbest, Sword & Sorcery has no doubt that it’s still cool and awesome. Sword & Sorcery never apologizes for anything. Some of it might be silly or immature, but there is a sense of full acceptance that the creators love what they love. They don’t couch things with irony to defend and shield themselves against accusations of having bad taste.

Now what does all of this mean for GMs running a campaign?

Be bold. Make it larger than life. Don’t be afraid of cliches. Go for pathos and portray the NPCs with passion.
Challenge the players’ courage rather than their analytical skills. When in doubt, err in the players’ favor. If an idea sounds somewhat implausible but cool, be lenient with odds to succeed. Encourage the player to stumble forward and make mistakes they will have to live with, rather than shutting down their ideas and tell them to go back thinking of something else until they come up with something that satisfies you.

Going into fantastical and dangerous places is super fun. But to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery, I think dungeons should be relatively small and light on puzzles. Have fewer encounters, but make them more unique, elaborate, and filled with excitement. In the fiction, you often come across great ruined cities, but the heroes still only have two or three encounters in a small handful of distinct areas. Going slowly and meticulously through a huge area, drawing precise maps and cataloging your findings does not really evoke the emotions that are central to Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery stories tend to be short because they are incredibly dense. Lots of things are happening, and most of these things are remarkable. There is little place for the mundane and routine.

“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

– Robert Howard, Queen of the Black Coast

Balancing of Treasures in B/X

Since I first discovered the actual Basic/Expert game almost exactly six years ago, I’ve taken out the Basic rules a couple of times for relatively short games, but never really got into any of the Expert material. I also did not make much use of the wandering monsters and morale mechanics and mostly ran it pretty “modern conventional”. And I certainly did not use the random treasure tables. When I started work on my next campaign, I made the choice to try to really understand all the rules as they are written and follow the procedures as they are presented by Moldvay and Cook, to see how that plays out before I start making significant changes. It’s a game that is meant to be highly flexible and customizable, but it’s generally a bad idea to start making modifications to something before you understand what the default setup does.

A line of thinking that I encountered in the wild over the years of listening to the words of the elders, is that the tables for wandering monsters and generating randomized treasures are the main reference for how you set up dungeons with appropriate challenges and corresponding amounts of rewards. I’ve seen discussions about how some magic items are more valuable in Basic or AD&D because of the greatly different chances of them appearing in treasure hoards, and how this is indicative of the original assumptions how the games would be played and why some classes have different advantages with the rarity of those items in mind. I’ve long had my doubts about that and suspecting that that very little actual thought went into the creation of these tables and the resulting chances for certain encounters and rewards. And when you look at how the tables are constructed, this really seems very likely. On the wandering monsters tables, there are 20 entries, each with the same 1 in 20 chance. On the same table, you have 1 HD creatures appearing in numbers of 1-8, and 2 HD creatures in numbers of 2-12. This is not adjusted to be roughly equal in challenge on average. The magic item tables in Basic are just alphabetical lists numbered from 1 up, all with the same chances. The Expert tables are a bit more elaborate using a d100, but in the end all potions have either a 3% or 4% chance. I think these were all just eyeballed without any thought to intended play or adjustments for balance.

But I still was quite surprised when I scoured the texts again, and discovered what exactly Moldvay wrote on these topics.

Treasures are determined randomly or chosen by the DM. The DM should always determine the contents of a large treasure hoard before play in order to determine how best to hide and protect the treasure from theft, and if magic items are present.

 

The DM may choose treasures instead of rolling for them randomly, or may choose a result if rolls give too much or too little treasure. The choices should be made carefully, since most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure (usually 3/4 or more). It will often be easier for the DM to decide how much experience to give out (considering the size and levels of experience in the party) and place the treasures to give this result.

The method advocated here is to start with the total amount of XP that characters will be able to make in the dungeon or dungeon level as a choice by the GM and work backwards from there. One quarter of that amount should be in the form of enemy encounters, and the remaining three quarters in the form of treasures. Or to get the same effect, just populate the dungeon with whatever monsters you want to use, then calculate the XP for defeating all of them, and multiply that result by 3 to get the appropriate value of the treasures you should distribute among the creature lairs. The treasure tables seem more to be intended to be used when you don’t really have an idea for what treasure you might want to put in the dungeon and to give you some suggestions. But since the tables don’t know how many of the creature lairs will be of creatures that have treasure hoards or not, this can’t get you that rough 3 to 1 ratio for XP except by pure accident.

For my setting, I have a lot of custom creatures (though most of them are plain reskins), and I had been thinking about how I would assign treasure types to all of them. But I don’t think I really should bother with that. I don’t believe the treasure tables and treasure types have much logic behind them I could figure out and apply to my own creatures. It’s always only been eyeballed to look good enough.

Another small detail that I noticed is that something that I considered a new house rule of mine is actually tucked away in the text already.

Treasure is normally found in the lairs of monsters, but may be paid to a character by a high level NPC for performing a mission or job.

The basic formula of “you’re treasure hunters, so go hunt treasure for the sake of hunting treasure” never really worked for me as a basis for compelling adventures. I thought that carrying a rescued prisoner back to town for a 500 gp reward is mechanically the same as carrying a big gem from the dungeon that is worth 500 gp, so players could get the same amount of XP for this. Turns out this was already suggested 40 years ago.

Group Initiative and Spell Declaration

While I am a very big fan of Basic Fantasy, one of the things in which I believe it needlessly departs too much from B/X is the move away from the original group initiative. Which perhaps might have been a decision based on uncertainty about what you could get away with with the OGL and old TSR content back in the day when the first retroclones made their appearance.

Group initiative is a system that I really love. One of the main reasons is that I have always struggled with asking and recording every player’s initiative count and sorting them into the correct descending order, while at the same time everyone was chattering excitedly about the combat that has just brought out. On paper, this step seems like a trivial mental task, but it’s one of the situations where my ADD overwhelms my brain and I mentally freeze up. It’s stressful and it takes long, which only makes the players chatter more among each other, creating more distraction and more stress, which makes everything even worse. Group initiative neatly avoids this entire problem by reducing it all to me and one player rolling a d6 and the higher number goes first.

The other nice thing, which is even more significant, is how group initiative speeds up play. If you used the common “each player takes a turn in order” system, you’ll have seen countless times how this plays out: One player takes five minutes to decide what he wants to do with his turn. The other players get bored and find other distractions to keep themselves occupied while they wait. When the player finally makes his turn, the next player is totally surprised that it is his turn now. He has no idea what happened during the last three players turns and now has to spend five minutes taking up the completely new situation of the fight and then start pondering his options. Repeat for the next hour until the four goblins are dead. That does not happen with group initiative.

The Basic Combat Sequence
  • 1: The party and the enemies roll 1d6 for initiative.
  • 2: The side with the higher initiative takes their turns.
    • 2a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 2b: All characters do their movements.
    • 2c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 2d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 2e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.
  • 3: The side with the lower initiative takes their turns.
    • 3a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 3b: All characters do their movements.
    • 3c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 3d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 3e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.

In this system, all players have “their turn” at the same time. The moment when the most significant decision for the round has to be made is 2b/3b All characters do their movement. If and how you want to move really depends mostly on what you plan to do after that. But unlike with sequential initiative, all players have to think about their choice at the same time. Whichever player comes to a decision first performs the movement first. While this happens, the other players still have a bit of time to think about their own choice. The whole thing only takes as long as the slowest player needs to think. Not as long as the thinking time of all players combined. The actual execution of ranged attacks, spells, and melee attacks is really quite fast and uncomplicated in comparison.

There is however, one major hitch with this whole setup, on which Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, BECMI, and Rules Cyclopedia are all in disagreement. Which is the handling of casting spells:

In Moldvay Basic, things are simple and just as I described them above.

However, Cook Expert, which is an addendum to Moldvay Basic and expands and adds to it. “The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.” Thankfully, the explanation here is very clear on how it is supposed to work. But I do not like it. It negates the neat feature that all players think about their actions at the same time, and instead you have everyone at the table wait on that one wizard player to decide if he wants to cast a spell before initiative is being rolled for that round. It also makes our poor vulnerable d4 HD wizard a target for all enemy combatants and introduces a considerable chance that the spell will be lost with no effect. Given how few spells the poor guy has to begin with, that is just sad.

Things get only messier with later editions, though. In BECMI, the combat sequence is printed in both the Players Manual (twice) and the Dungeon Masters Rulebook, but they are numbered differently. The Players Manual begins with Step A: Roll for initiative. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook begins with Step 1: Intentions: The DM asks each player what the character intends to do in the coming round, followed by Step 2: Roll for initiative. Bad, bad editor! As far as I am able to tell, the topic of the players declaring their intentions is never brought up anywhere in the actual text of either book, so there is no explanation of how it affects anything. My guess would be that the idea of declaring stuff before rolling initiative was thrown out during development, but that one line in the combat sequence in the DM’s book was not properly deleted before printing.

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t mention declaring any intentions anywhere. But it does still mention how spellcasting can be interrupted if the caster is being injured.

The only version that actually does what it seems to want to do it Cook Expert. But as I said, I really don’t like that procedure. So here, finally, is what I consider the best way to do it:

  • If a character has moved during the movement phase, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. (“spells cannot be cast while performing any other action such as walking or fighting.” Moldvay Basic.)
  • If a character got hit or failed a saving throw during the enemy phase of the round, he can not cast spells during the party phase of that same round. (Assuming the enemies rolled higher initiative than the party.)
  • If the party and the enemies roll the same initiative number and the movement, ranged, spell, and melee phases of both sides happen simultaneously, and the character gets hit by a ranged attack, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. Both PC and enemy spells all go off at the same time.

In this take on the rules, spellcasters can never be interrupted and lose a spell that they already started to cast. Which is fine with me. Not being able to cast a spell when there’s a perfect opportunity is already annoying enough, given how few spells wizards have and how it makes waiting for exactly the right moment a big part of its efficiency.

Descending into the Crypt

There’s a new invitation on False Machine to collectively share the oldest fragments of oldschool roleplaying that we still remember fondly, and just for once I’m actually aware of it while it’s still happening. So I can actually reply to it before everyone else has moved on from two weeks ago’s news.

As far as I can remember, the oldest oldschool roleplaying thing on the internet that I became aware of was Ben Robbins’ West Marches. That was something that even made a splash in the D&D 3rd Edition circles that I was exclusively frequenting back in those days. It was something people were aware of and talked about, and for me really was the first time I got any perspective on what D&D was like before Dragonlance paved the road to hell with good intentions. It was also the first time I encountered the idea that a campaign could be open world instead of following a fully written script that the GM had already at hand. But I think for the following couple of years, nothing much really came from this first encounter.

I think what might have actually started my initial interest in oldschool play might very well have been Chris Kutalik’s Pointcrawl. I might have linked to that post a dozen times now on this site since I started it in 2013. By that time I must have already been a frequent reader of RPG sites of this kind to consider making one of my own, and I think even more so than today, oldschool roleplaying completely dominated the environment. And in one of my first post, I did start trying to properly read the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, which was regarded as scripture coming from the prophet’s hand himself. I bounced off that one pretty hard and still have no real love for AD&D myself. But Pointcrawl, that stuff was awesome! While West Marches had been a curiosity, Pointcrawling was something that really got me hooked. I think that’s really the thing that made me want to actually understand this whole oldschool roleplaying thing. When I first saw Spriggan’s Den appear in the link list of Hill Cantons, that was probably the biggest day for this site. I was being considered relevant by one of the revered sages. Of course, Hill Cantons is still in my link list and will remain there until the very end.

Other very important sites from that time were both Delta’s D&D Hotspot and Jeff’s Gameblog. Both are still very much alive and kicking with no signs of going anywhere, though I actually look at their new posts only very rarely these days, and they never were such a regular thing for me that I put them into my link list. I don’t remember any specific post, and I certainly am not going to try sieving through the archives, but it was something written by Delta that first made me appreciate the math and mechanics of the original D&D system. I think it was something about randomly generated monster encounters, which made me understand that those giant monster hordes are not just oversized battles against trivial critters, but actual seeds for entire spontaneous adventures. That was big for little old 3rd Edition GM me. Probably even more so than West Marches had before, appreciating Numbers Appearing was what really opened my eyes to a completely different way that games could be played and run.

I also want to shout out to Trollsmyth and Goblin Punch. With these two pages I can’t really point out any specific posts that stuck with me, but it was rather the particular styles of imaginations I encountered there. Both have played big parts in inspiring me to work on more creative and original material myself.

Getting somewhat off-topic from Patrick’s original question by climbing back up the stairs to the antechamber, but I really can not talk about my memories from the oldschool crypt without mentioning Joseph Manola’s Against the Wicked City! Joseph started his site at the same time as I gave the oldschool thing another try by looking into Basic/Expert for the first time, I seriously started with Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding, and I was finally starting to actually know what I was doing with the page and feeling like I had regular readers. So in a way, it felt to me that we were the two new guys entering the arena. And his Wicked City was a setting with very similar notions as my own, except that his was way better than mine. What was even cooler was that senpai notices me, and we frequently exchanged ideas in each other comments. And if you haven’t read his stuff, there’s some of the best gold on his site that is around. Your Demon Lord doesn’t need that many Hit Dice is certainly one of the gems that we have and The Long Haul continues to inspire my ideas for new campaigns just as much as Pointcrawl does to this day.

Also shout out to Justin Alexander. That man has always been unapologetically writing about 3rd and 5th edition, but he’s one of the OGs when it comes to teaching good gamemastering to us pipsqueaks and regardless of the editions he’s covering, I think I learned more about oldschool gamemastering from him than from anyone else. Calibrating your Expectations was where it all started for me, laying the foundation for my later appreciations for more down to Earth and small scale, grimy fantasy roleplaying.

Planet Kaendor House Rules for Basic Fantasy

You know what the world really does not need? Another B/X retroclone. Well, I think it kid of does, but I know that nobody wants to see it. So instead, I am simply going to present my own adjustment to Basic Fantasy. BF has always ranked among my favorite retroclones of choice because it’s very close to the original B/X by Moldvay and Cook while at the same time using the sane rational system to attack rolls and armor class. I know the later is trivial to slap on any iteration of D&D, but I am petty about my hate for a resolution mechanic that is objectively bad and done wrong, so that’s counting a lot to me. BF is also very cleanly laid out and easy to read, and the whole thing is free so you can just hand out pdf copies to anyone you like.

Below is a list of all my modifications to Basic Fantasy that reflects my own impressions of actually having read Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Moor, and Smith, rather than going by the grimdark Heavy Metal Album cover interpretation of what Sword & Sorcery is really about.

Characters
  • Roll 3d6 six times to generate six ability scores, but assign the six numbers to whichever attributes you like.
  • There are no racial modifiers and adjustments. PCs from all peoples just use the character classes as the are.
  • Characters get the maximum possible hit points at 1st level.
  • The character classes are warrior (fighter), thief, scholar (magic-user), and wilder (see below). Characters can be warrior/scholar or thief/scholar as by the Basic Fantasy rules for elves. (The XP to gain a level are the same as the XP for both classes combined, and the character gets whatever hit dice, attack bonus, and saving throws are better, as well as all spells and thief skills for the level.)
  • Maximum level for all PCs and NPCs is 10th level.
  • The thief skills all use a d20 instead of a d100 (since it’s almost always 5% steps anyway). They also start with considerably higher success chances at 1st level, but increase slower to be again identical to the odds in Basic Fantasy at 10th level.
  • The wilder class has the XP requirements and attack bonus as a warrior, d6 hit points, the thief skills move silently, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, and hear noise, as well as track, and exceptionally good saving throws. (Based on the B/X halfling class.)
  • All characters can use any weapons and armor. Scholars can cast spells in light armor, thief/scholars can cast spells in medium armor, and warrior/scholars can cast spells in all armor.
  • Characters can establish a stronghold at any level. Money is the only limiting factor.
Equipment and Encumbrance
  • Encumbrance is counted in the number of items a character carries instead of pounds. If the number of items is greater than the character’s Strength score, the character is lightly loaded. If the number is greater than three times the character’s Strength, the character is heavily loaded. (Light armor counts as 2 items, medium armor as 4 items, and heavy armor as 5 items.)
  • Up to 100 coins count as one item.
  • Shields provide a +2 bonus to AC instead of +1.
  • The default metal for weapons is bronze. Special blades made from iron function as silver weapons for the purpose of harming creatures resistant or immune to normal weapons.
Experience
  • There are no adjustments to XP based on prime requisite ability scores. (Neither 5% nor 10% makes any noticeable dent in the advancement speed and are just a cause of confusion and errors.)
  • XP for defeating enemies are based on the original numbers from B/X. Characters also get one XP for every gp worth of treasure they bring back from a ruin. (One of the few thing that Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Reward money for completing tasks in ruins also counts as treasure for calculating XP. Turns out this is not a house rule but a default mechanic of the game.
  • Magic items also count as treasure for calculating XP.
Combat
  • Combat is done using the B/X initiative system for group initiative. (The other thing Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Poison attacks do not kill instantly. Instead, a poisoned character makes a saving throw against poison every round or takes the indicated amount of damage. Once one of these saving throws succeeds, no damage is taken and the poison ends.
  • Energy drain works just as it does in B/X. You get hit, you lose one level.
Magic
  • Spellcasters do not have to announce the spells they cast before initiative is rolled for the round. (A rule that only exist in Cook Expert, but not Moldvay Basic, BECMI, or the Rules Cyclopedia, and really complicates things.) Spellcasters who were hit in the first phase of the round can not cast spells in the second phase, but otherwise act normally.
  • Spellcasters have separate “preparation slots” and “casting slots” in equal numbers. Spending a casting slot to cast a spell does not remove it from the preparation slot. The same number of spells can be prepared and cast as by default, but spells are not forgotten after casting.
  • The Scholar spell list combines magic-user and cleric spells, but does not include a range of different spells, such as cure light wounds, continual flame, raise dead, magic missile, fireball, fly, ice storm, and wall of fire, to make magic a more elusive and mystical force.

But why, tho…?

As I have whinged about here many times over the years, the biggest difficulties for me about the preparation for new campaigns has always been finding some kind of decent motivation for why the PCs should care about the main threat or antagonist of the campaign, in a way that gets the players invested beyond the basic “Well, that’s what the GM wants us to do”. I’m not a fan of this type of typical campaign and find it much more interesting and rewarding when the players take the oar and pick the direction they want to sail in next. Most often the excuses that pass as motivations are “we’re the heroes and that’s what heroes do” or “someone’s paying us to do it”. Both of these work, of course, for a basic game, but I always aspire to have my campaigns to be something more than that.

But you can absolutely overthink these things, too! After some not very impressive attempts at setting up campaigns in which the characters are motivated by a desire to rediscover the lost history and arcane secrets of the land, I decided to go back to the basics and embrace classic Sword & Sorcery instead of trying to do something clever and original about it. In the end, actually playing is the whole purpose of the entire exercise. Exploring new ways of what a hero can be in fantasy today and going is better left to other forms of creative outlets. What a game needs to be first and foremost is playable.

While conventional wisdom (that is, ultra-orthodox purists) tells us that Sword & Sorcery is never about assaulting the Dark Lord in his castle from where he is trying to conquer the world, an awful lot of classic Sword & Sorcery stories actually do conclude with the heroes assaulting a powerful evil sorcerer in his castle and putting an end to his plans to conquer the world (or at least the kingdom). It’s just that the hero doesn’t do it for the purpose of saving the kingdom or its people. (Unless it’s Conan, who literally does that in The Hour of the Dragon.)

I really quite like the idea of having a Sword & Sorcery campaign with the goal to defeat an evil sorcerer and had a very interesting conversation about how I could come up with decent motivations for the PCs. And the best suggestion I got was basically “let the players decide”.

At first the whole thing felt a bit backwards, because it goes completely against the common storytelling conventions of RPGs, where you begin with the player as ordinary schmucks doing regular adventure stuff, and hopefully by the end of the first adventure the true nature and goal of the campaign will be revealed. But you really don’t have to. Nothing is stopping anyone from starting a new fame with the pitch “We’re going to play a campaign in which you play characters who have all sworn to find and kill Wangrod the Vile.” That actually sounds a lot more exciting than the usual “we’re going to play a game in which you play adventurers and the story will be revealed later”. Nobody will be disappointed that you spoiled something that would be revealed within the first 5% of the story. That’s what people in the business call “the premise”.

Doing so allows you as a GM to prepare a lot of material in advance, but also leave it up to the players to decide who their characters will be and what their motivations are. You set up the goal, but the players create the motivation. Motivations that they care about and that feel interesting to them. You could of course prepare what the motivations of the PCs will be and tell the players to create characters around that. But if a player isn’t really feeling the excitement for that motivation, that doesn’t work out that well. As it concerns the story and events of the campaign, the motivations of the PCs don’t really matter. As long as the players keep working on the goal to confront and kill Wangrod, things will play out the same way.

Conan the Barbarian might actually be a really good reference for how such a campaign could be structured. When Conan is freed and sets out to find Thulsa Doom, he has no idea where he is or even who he’s looking for. The only clue he has is the standard carried by the warriors who raided his village. First he tries to make a deal with a witch who seems to know something about the symbol, but that ends up getting him nowhere. Then he raids the snake temple looking for more clues, and finds the emblem which tells him he’s on the right track. After the raid, he’s taken to the king who reveals that he’s also an enemy of the sorcerer and finally gives Conan a name. Because he wants his daughter back from the snake cult, he provides Conan with the information where to find the sorcerer and things play out from there. I think that could be a really cool structure to be used for a campaign. The players make their character tailored to be seeking an evil sorcerer and defeating him for whatever reason. Information about who exactly the sorcerer is, where they can find him, and how they can defeat him can be very good motivations to go on all kinds of otherwise unconnected adventures. And information of this kind can be put into the possession of basically every NPC, which makes this structure very flexible. If one adventure doesn’t work out and they don’t get the information there were promised, they can always get it somewhere else. If they leave one adventure for later, you can always just switch around what specific information the respective NPCs have to share to keep the flow of the ongoing investigation. You’re also not strictly married to any specific length for the campaign. When things seem to drag on, you can always have the NPCs give out bigger chunks of information, and should everyone want to make the campaign longer, you can throttle down the rate of progress that is made with each adventure. And even with the sorcerer dead, it doesn’t have to be the end of the campaign. Along the way the players might well have made many friends and new enemies that can be worth coming back to once the original goal has been completed.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…

Back when I finished the Inixon campaign half a year ago, I wrote that I am done with Dungeons & Dragons and that it just isn’t what I am looking for in a game. I neither like the baggage of assumptions about the world that players bring to a new campaign (to no fault of their own), nor the encounter and XP treadmill. But even back then, I did leave myself a door open that I wouldn’t rule out running a game using some variant or another of the Basic/Expert edition. The mechanical problems are mostly something specific to the d20 system that no tweaks and overhauls ever manged (or even tried) to solve, and the worldbuilding baggage comes from the AD&D tradition. When I actually read B/X for the first time six years ago, the thing that stuck out to me the most was how different it all felt from all the D&D I had known.

When I was taking a break from the whole Bronze Age and Sword & Sorcery fantasy for a while, I always knew that I would be coming back to it. Do something that feels more like Conan and Elric than my last campaign, with stronger influences from Morrowind and Barsoom. My plan was to either go with Barbarians of Lemuria or some kind of PtbA hack. But here I am, and that thing is starting at me again.

Come on… You know you want to…

Level up your descriptions with this one simple trick

While many people have tried writing long, expansive pieces about advanced techniques to run games and improve your gamemaster abilities, most of the best and most useful suggestions actually seem to come from very short posts. They are things that are so simply that there just isn’t much to say about them and no real point in elaborating on them with complex examples.

One such piece I stumbled upon in Bryce’s review of Zaratazarat’s Manse.

The rooms tend to start with a brief descriptor like “crammed storeroom” or “cluttered library.” I like this sort of overloaded room title stuff. It orients the DM immediately to the type of room to come and puts them in the right frame of mind to receive the description information following. You’re already thinking about a cluttered library and imagining it when you start to scan the description and I believe that helps to leverage the description to more than it is.

Boom. What an insight! I’m probably not the only person who reads tenfootpole but never buys any published adventures. That dude knowns how to build adventures, because he keeps reading and reviewing hundreds of them even though almost all turn out to be pretty terrible. And I think he’s exactly right on this one:

Start the description of a new room with “This is a [adjective] [room].” and then point out the interesting and relevant features.

This is stupidly simple to the point of being trivial. But if it were obvious, then everyone would already be doing it, and it would be in the GM section of every RPG. But it’s not. There are so many examples both in published adventures and written advice for new GMs in which the GM goes down a long list of details that obvious make a room a kitchen, while going out of his way to mention the word kitchen. And then the players are supposed to go “Oh, I think this might be a kitchen” and the GM can smile smugly and say “It looks to you like it could be.” This whole exercise is pointless. It accomplishes nothing. All that it does is provide more noise to drown out the signal. It’s not like players stop caring after three sentences of description. It’s simply that the average human brain can only process so much verbal information to construct a mental image from it. As a GM, you have a limited capacity for information that you can communicate in a description of a room or NPCs. You want to get as much useful information into that as you can and not waste anything on useless data. A good description should have as positive a signal to noise ratio as you can get.

Starting a description with an evocative adjective is perfect for that purpose. That one adjective provides a context for everything that comes after it. If I begin the description of a kitchen with being “filthy”, then the players will envision every knife, pot, and plate that I mention to be grimy and dirty and covered in who knows what without having to waste more of my precious limited words. By establishing a general tone for the room first, the players are able to imagine an appropriate space to which they can then add any further features that will be mentioned. Listing all the important features first and then trying to establish an overall feel and tone for the whole scene in front of the player will require me to wax on poetically for much longer than simply using a single good adjective at the very start.

What you don’t want is to get six disconnected features that the players all have to hold in their mind and then bring together into a single image. Instead of blind people describing the part of an elephant they are touching, begin your description with the big picture and zoom in. Start with a terrifying giant beast charging at you, then bother with mentioning its grey skin, huge head, and giant tusks.

It’s generally frowned upon in RPG circles to describe things to players in ways that mention how the PCs feel or what they do. (Which still doesn’t stop this from happening way to often.) And while this is generally right, you can go too far and be needlessly obtuse. Yes, evocative adjectives generally include some kind of qualitative judgement. When you call something filthy, overcrowded, cramped, or lavish, this can be a subjective opinion. But to a large extend, such things are not particularly controversial to say. There generally is a pretty good consensus about these things, so using them in discrptions for what the characters see does not intrude on the players’ agency to a meaningful extend. Telling the players “This is a filthy kitchen” is a very different thing from telling them “This kitchen is so filthy that it makes you feel nauseous and wanting to turn away in disgust.” Players might envision their characters as someone who is unaffected by filth and gore or feels offended more than disgusted. But even in those situations, the characters probably would not dispute that the place is filthy. Stick to adjectives that describe what is materially present, rather than feeling, and you should be fine. “Filthy” describes the room. “Disgusting” is more descriptive of the observer.

What I really like about this method is how stupidly simple it is. When you plan out a location and make notes for the individual rooms, you can put the primary adjective right into the description. Don’t label it as the “kitchen” but as the “filthy kitchen”. And when it comes to the players reaching the room and you pull out your notes to tell them what they see, simply start with reading out the name of the room. “This is a filthy kitchen.” I don’t think there’s any other method to describe rooms, people, or important object that gives you this much payoff from just a single word.

Vampire: The Masquerade: Northeast Passage

On the Reeperbahn, late half past one
If you got a girl, or got none
You will have great fun, that’s the way it’s done
On the Reeperbahn, late half past one

Who never in one cozy night
Strolled past the Reeperbahn’s lights
Is a sorry sod, ’cause he knows you not
Oh my Saint Paul’s, my Saint Paul’s by Night

Basically as soon as I started considering working on a Vampire campaign, I decided that it would have to be set in Hamburg. The premise of the game requires that it’s set in a major city (unless your deliberately want to run a nonstandard campaign), and every time I start worldbuilding on something, I always take a few moment to think if there’s anything from the Baltic Sea region that I can use. We almost never get to see our regional history an heritage make an appearance anywhere. The only thing you ever get is Vikings, and even those seem to always be shown far away from home. Hamburg is the biggest city in Northern Europe between London and Saint Petersburg, and it also happens to be where I was born and lived as a kid for 10 years (and I still pass through there pretty regularly). So it really was the obvious choice with no other contestants. And it turns out to actually have a lot of recent history that is great material for a Vampire campaign.

Hamburg

As a major city with a metropolitan area of 5 million people, Hamburg obviously qualifies as a perfect setting for a Vampire campaign. But once I started looking up various barely remembered details from places I remember from my childhood, I rediscovered so many things that not only make it suitable but amazing for that task.

While not nearly as old as the Roman cities in southern Germany, Hamburg has a long history that stretches back over a thousand years. The city really came into its prime with the rise of the Hanseatic League in the 13th century. Merchants from many important port cities on the Baltic and North Seas formed an extensive network of relationships that eventually grew into something akin to one of the world’s earliest megacorporations. In many of these cities, the Hanse merchants formed their own aristocratic class that often came to govern the ports as independent or autonomous republics. The capital of the League was in nearby Lübeck, which with modern city growth and transportation infrastructure is now part of the Hamburg metro area. In the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg and Lübeck were among a small number of cities that had no lords and owed allegiance only to the Emperor himself. This arrangement lasted until the 1920s, and even today the city of Hamburg is one of the 16 states of Germany, only one administrative level below the Federal Government. The merchant aristocracy of Hamburg was so proud that they would not accept any medals or join any orders of foreign powers, as they would recognize no authority other than their own. There really is no doubt: In the World of Darkness, the Hanseatic League was undisputed Ventrue territory.

Early on in the 30 Years War, Hamburg invested heavily in new massive fortifications to surround the entire city, and it was one of the few major cities in the Empire that were never besieged or pillaged, but still had the war come right to its doorsteps during Wallenstein’s campaign against the Danish king Christian, whose possessions included the northernmost parts of the Empire. Hamburg and Lübeck marked the greatest extend of Naploeon’s empire in the North at the start of the 19th century. After a great fire in 1842, the rebuilding of Hamburg led to a great industrial boom. Growing into the third largest port in Europe and becoming the gateway for emigrants to America and where exotic goods from around the world would come into Germany.

24 Then the Lord rained sulfur and fire out of the sky from the Lord on Sodom and Gomorrah, 25 overthrowing those cities, all of the plain, and everyone who lived in the cities. He also destroyed the plants that grew out of the ground.

– Genesis 19

Ruin of St. Nicholas’ Church, destroyed in 1943.

In 1943, the British Royal Air Force launched Operation Gomorrah, and for a full week they attacked Hamburg with incendiary bombs. One night the relentless bombing exceeded their wildest expectation, with the inferno turning into a giant tornado of flames that incinerated much of the city. Later the amount of destruction and deaths from the atomic bomb in Nagasaki would be rated as “not nearly as bad as Hamburg”. Along with tens of thousands of humans, the fire destroyed a majority of the city’s vampires, including many elders of many centuries. There are few things that scare ancient empires, but this night haunts those who survived to this very day. Not even 20 years later, Hamburg suffered a great flood that devastated the poorest parts of the city in the South, there the old dykes had still not been properly repaired. Since then, things have been looking upward for the city.

Hamburg by Night

The classic style of Vampire: the Masquerade is one of urban decay and street gangs. While this was a very contemporary style in 90s America, it just really doesn’t make any sense for Hamburg in the 2020s. You could do such a version of Hamburg, but it just wouldn’t reflect the character of the city, even in a darker and more twisted way. With most of the historic buildings being completely destroyed by the two fires in 1842 and 1943, most of the current city only 70 years old. And with the hastily constructed concrete blocks from the 50s now showing their age and being considered eyesores, the city is giving itself a makeover of shiny glass and gleaming lights. It just looks very modern and crisp, with a booming economy. Industrial ruins and burning cars simply don’t fit into this place.

But even with such a shining exterior, there is absolutely room to fill it with evil and corruption. There are persistent stereotypes and jokes about German society and culture, which are so persistent because they are not exactly wrong. They don’t get it quite right and miss many of the finer nuances, but there is a lot of truth to that. And even with Germany as a whole, the “Northern Lights” have a reputation for being dour, joyless, and lacking in courtesy. In my experience, “Germany” is really just a language area. Culturally, people in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Mecklenburg are Scandinavian. When we look South and see the Rhur Area with its Karneval, and Bavaria with its Oktoberfest, we just think they are all mad and an embarrassment to the whole county. It’s not that we mean to be rude or have no sense of humor or enjoying fun, but our regional culture puts a much greater emphasis of giving other people their space and being unobtrusive. We like not being bothered and extend that common courtesy to others.

Hamburg City Hall

But even so, it does take very little to go from courtesy to callousness. There is only a small step between not being nosy and willful ignorance, and between not rocking the boat and complacency. It’s easy to find yourself kicked out into the freezing rain. And the 1930s were not our proudest moments. This version of Hamburg that I am going for is one of order and oppression, but not enforced by police with clubs, but by social pressure. The police is not the hand of the oppressor, but the foot of the people, put down on those trying to disrupt a good thing. Corruption is not a serious concern of the people, as you don’t see it unless you want to. It’s not the drugs that bother people, but the junkies passed out on the sidewalks. Fighting crime is not about dealing with the causes, but removing it from sight.

Hamburg is an old Ventrue city. Shaped just as much by the vampires who infest it, as they are shaped by it. It is orderly, efficient, and makes a whole lot of money. It’s running smoothly, and the masses just hovering ever so slightly above poverty is by design. People who can’t afford to lose their job don’t ask questions or make demands. With Ventrue pulling many of the leavers that control the city, “Human Resources” take on the full horrific meaning that the term implies. The city and its industry does not serve the people. The people are the fuel and the grease that make the city run.

A City of Steel and Sin

While Hamburg is generally not considered to be among the fancy global cities of Europe, like London, Paris, Berlin, or Moscow, it is still a quite impressive place of its own.

The port of Hamburg is the third largest in Europe, after Rotterdam and Antwerp. Aside from its massive container terminals, it also includes several shipyards and oil refineries on the south side of the Elbe. Hamburg is also the site of the largest copperworks in Europe, an Airbus production site, and countless machine factories. It also has a major airport and a main train station with 12 platforms inside a single 150m long and 75 meter wide hall of steel beams and glass.

Hamburg is also home to the second largest cemetery in the Old World. Most cemeteries have a but stop. Hamburg Ohlsdorf has its own two bus lines with 24 stops. Right nearby are the Fuhlsbüttel prison and the Ochsenzoll Asylum, making for a quite unique neighborhood.

The Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli neighborhood is probably the second most famous Red Light District in Europe after Amsterdam. Originally the area started as a shanty town outside the walls of the cities Hamburg and Altona and became the home to all trades that were forbidden inside the cities. In the 1920s it fancied itself to be a glitzy and glamorous entertainment district the likes of Berlin, but after the war it was never properly redeveloped and turned into a crime-infested slum. In recent decades great efforts have been made to straighten it up and return it to its glory days. But it never lost its pride in its self proclaimed title as “The most sinful mile in the world.”