The greatest thing that D&D forgot

Now this is not going to be a big, or even any, revelation to many people who are reading sites like this, but over the last weeks I’ve been doing more research on great adventure location design, which led me many times into dead ends because of the same single preconception the people writing have about D&D as a roleplaying game. So here you have it from my mouth:

Early D&D* was an exploration game, not a combat game.

I think this is probably the single most important aspect that distinguishes oldschool roleplaying from “modern games”. With AD&D 2nd Edition it’s a bit muddy, but we can safely say that 3rd to 5th Edition and Pathfinder are all combat games first that have some additional rules for non-combat situation tacked on to them. But with oldschool games, the situation is really very different. Combat is something that can happen, but the whole game is build in a way that you really don’t want it to happen. Except if it is for dramatic reasons, of course. Stopping a major villain and slaying a terrible monster is great. But the rules as a whole are all set up to make combat a bad thing for the characters.

Combat provides very little XP, except when it opens the way to treasure that gives the party a lot of XP. Getting access to the treasure without combat is always preferable. Combat is the primary pressure put on players to not spend too much time in dungeons rooms and not simply dealing with obstacles by destroying them. Because both these things attact potential combat. Encumbrance exist to slow characters down, which means they take longer to explore the dungeon and are less capable of escaping from a fight. Encumbrance only is a bad thing if players don’t want to fight.

Combat also is deadly and gets characters killed, even if the party wins a fight. But combat also isn’t necessary. Any time the party encounters living things in a dungeon and there is no good reason why those creatures and NPCs are hostile, the rules have a reaction roll to determine how they react to the party. And the creatures attacking on sight is the least likely reaction. The next most unfriendly reaction in the Basic Set is “Hostile, possible attack”, which I regard as being most sensibly interpreted as “attacks if provoked by the party’s actions”. There is a chance that a monster actually reacts friendly and the next most positive result is that the monster leaves or considers offers. Because the monster does not want to risk a fight with likely dadly consequences either. And if a fight breaks out, there is also the Morale check, which is used to determine whether monsters who are taking casualties decide that they would rather abandon the fight than risk now even more possible looking death.

The whole game is set up so that combat hold almost all risk and no reward for the players and that even their oppponents prefer not to fight. Combat is what happens when an encounter ends in catastrophy.

D&D being a game of exploration instead of combat also explains the majority of traditional spells that keep getting carried on by each new addition even though they seem to be pretty much useless. They are useless in a combat game. But hold portal, levitate, and speak with animal all make so much sense in an exploration game.

* That is pre-Dragonlance, 1974-1984.

Domains and Endgame in the Ancient Lands

These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and rereading the rules for high level characters and ruling over domains in the Expert and Companion rules. Domain play has always been something of an elusive beast that few people seem to have any real experience with. Got there once but didn’t stay with it long seems to be the most common statement.

When you look at the Cook Expert rules (1981), domain play is almost completely absent. It tells you that characters at 9th level can become rulers of a domain, tells the GM to handwave a monthly tax income, and has a half page of price lists for constructing a castle. But it doesn’t really go into what play as a ruler would be like.

In the Companion set, a lot more ink has been spilled about it. There’s lots and lots of rules for management and accounting. But as far as I am able to tell, there still is no real guidance of any kind what players would actually be doing in play. Doing the accounting for a domain and occasionally fixing the mess caused by raiders or disasters? How would this be appealing to players who so far have been exploring exotic places, navigated deadly dungeons, and had dealing with monsters and evil sorcerers?

It could be a fun game to some people, but doesn’t seem to mesh at all with what D&D has been up to that point. And much more importantly, it’s not a group activity. One player rules a domain and makes all the descisions for it. If all the players have their own separate domains, how would they be playing together? You can of course play a game of warlords, but that would be a competitive game, not a cooperative one. And a group of characters who have been working together for years wouldn’t suddenly become rivals and send their armies against each other. The only practical way I can see for having PCs become rulers over domains would be to have them retired from play and have them occasionally appear as quest giver NPCs played by their old player. Who would then be playing a new adventuring character to actually go on that adventure. If you have a large scale campaign with dozens of players and multiple GMs I could see that working for a handful of high level characters. But this simply isn’t the reality of how D&D is played. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of such groups that still exists today could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If there even are any.

One argument for domain play in a campaign with more Sword & Sorcery leaning that occasionally comes up is that Conan was a king. Kane was a sorcerer-warlord and Elric was an emperor. But the important part is that their stories are never about ruling and managing their domains. Sword & Sorcery tales about rulers are always about leaving the court with a sword in hand and fighting monsters. If you want to emulate the high level adventures of popular Sword & Sorcery heroes then domain management rules are completely irrelevant and out of place.

Occasionally there are big battles between armies, but even then those stories are not about being a field commander. It’s always about personally going after the enemy commander or pulling awesome stunts to destroy the enemy forces without having your own troops stab them dead one by one. Mass combat isn’t something that happens in Sword & Sorcery either. What you get is raids with a group of maybe up to a dozen people. Which would be a group of PCs and their henchmen.

So I’ve come to the descision that the high level elements of the Ancient Lands setting will simply assume that there is no such thing as domain play. Taking control of a stronghold and gathering followers will simply be down to players actually fortifying a place and talking to people. It may be done at any level and take whatever scale seems appropriate for a given situation. But for all intents and purposes characters will pretty much stop to advance after 9th level and only gain small increases in hit points at a very slow pace from their continued adventures, plus skill points for specialists and spell points for witches. (In my War Cry of the Flame Princess rules fighters reach maximum attack bonus and witches maximum spell level at 9th level, and scouts maximum Bushcraft and Stealth skills at 10th level.) I only ever had two campaigns reach 11th level and that was both in 3rd edition which has pretty fast level progression. So chances are pretty high I won’t ever see a 10th level character in the Ancient Lands anyway.

Adventuring seasons and long term campaigns

A few weeks back, Joseph had been writing about the idea of having parties going on adventures only for some months of the year when weather permits it and then returning for the winter to deal with business back home. It’s an idea that goes back at least as far as Pendragon, but also more recently appeared in The One Ring. And in both cases it seems to be an element that is quite popular with players and that constitutes a pretty important part in giving these games their unique spin. It basically has to main effects on a campaign.

One is that players have to regularly return to a safe haven for overwintering, which can nudge players to get involved in more urban or social adventures which they normally wouldn’t seek out. It also allows for a good blend of exploration adventures and domain management if that later aspect is desired.

The other thing that it does is to create a much stronger sense of the passing of time. One oddity of megadungeons, super-modules, adventure paths, and other kinds of published campaigns is that they often take characters from first level to high levels at an incredibly fast pace. Often just a couple of weeks or a few months at the most. After which they are as powerful and experienced as NPCs who have been at it for decades or even centuries. Even if the campaign includes time jumps like “after 5 weeks of sailing” or “several months later”, these things don’t tend to be felt by the players, to whom it might just as well have been “later that afternoon”. By regularly alternating between adventuring season and winter camp, you at least communicate the idea that the campaign stretches over a couple of years.

To add this aspect to your game, you don’t actually need any specific rules for it. All you really need to do is track the passing of days on the calendar. Even if it’s just a simple campaign of going to the dungeon and poking around, placing the dungeon a few days travel from the next village and putting each village with a dungeon a week or two apartĀ  from each other will lead to a lot of time passing between each session. If you have a sandbox (one that isn’t about filling out a 6-mile hex map), put the various locations a good distance away from each other and players should very quickly rack up pretty long travel times. Once the campaign reaches the end of the ninth or tenth month, simply tell the players that weather is getting increasingly awful for camping in the wilderness and that they should find a place to stay until the fourth month or so.

If it fits the campaign, you can then simply jump ahead to the next spring and continue from there. There are also a good number of great adventures that can be had during the winter. But these are usually not long expeditions into the wilderness. Much more commonly these are things with isolated villages being threatened and no help coming until spring. The kind of places where you would expect adventurers to stay for the winter. These don’t have to be elaborate adventurers. They can easily be just simple one-shots for a single session, but can also be pretty big things as well. The advantage of this is that you will have the players remember that they actually have experienced a winter and it’s not something that was only mentioned once in passing. For my Ancient Lands campaign, I am planning to make a simple Random Event table, on which I will make one roll for every month in winter camp. With a 1/6 chance four times in a row, something is almost certainly to happen; perhaps even two things. These would probably have to be rolled in advance and not at the table, so you can prepare some material for it. But again, it doesn’t have to be big things. “Frozen Zombies” or “Winter Wolves” would be enough as a hook for the GM. Then you can start with destroyed farms or dead cattle in a stable and have the players deal with it as you usually would in a sandbox. Since the players are kind of stuck in the place and have nowhere else to be, they probably wouldn’t resist looking into it.

But when it comes to running an campaign with a level based system I also got another idea. There’s a small and perhaps not too well known rule in the 1981 Basic Set that characters can never gain enough XP to level up twice after a single adventure. However, the book doesn’t really specificy what constitutes an adventure. I am assuming it means a single session, but when you’re playing the long game you can also think much bigger. Like a whole year bigger. Which, when you consider it narratively, still isn’t really that long. A young adventurer who goes adventuring every year could easily reach 9th level well before age 30. Make it twice as much and you end up with PCs reaching their maximum number of Hit Dice around 40. That seems very appropriate to me.

In fact, it would be quite critical that the campaign is laid out so that characters don’t reach their annual XP cap on a regular basis. The required XP scores for advancing to the next level are roughly doubling with each level which leads to lower level characters catching up to higher level characters pretty quickly. Be they replacement characters for dead ones, new additions to the group, or characters who have suffered energy drain. If all the characters in the party reach the XP cap every year, then the lower level characters will never be able to catch up. So when you estimate how much adventuring the party will be doing in a year, I think aiming for half the XP needed to have the highest level PC reach the next level would be a good baseline.

If the difference in character levels gets really big you run into some problems with encounters anyway, but it’s going to be troublesome here as well. You can easily have characters with an XP cap a hundred times higher than others, which can very likely mean that the lower level PCs would reach their maximum right after the first session of the season, which I guess wouldn’t really feel that fun for the players. One possible option would be to have a year in which the highest level characters don’t go on adventures. However, unlike with spliting the players into two groups and having them adventuring separately for one or two adventures, you can’t really have these adventures simultaneously when you want the lower level characters to catch up with the higher level ones. The players with the higher level characters would have to wait until the other group has finished its adventuring season before they can get back into the action. I think that wouldn’t really be feasible for more than one session or two. Perhaps those players might like to play henchmen or create secondary characters, but I am not sure if they’d be really happy with that either. While I’ve heard that it used to be quite common for players to semi-retire their high level characters and start new ones in paralel, I don’t know if this is something players would still enjoy doing with the expectations they have today.

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Wilderness Travel

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
Road 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles
Heath/Moor/Plains 16 miles 12 miles 8 miles
Desert/Forest/Hills 12 miles 9 miles 6 miles
Jungle/Mountains/Swamp 8 miles 6 miles 4 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?

IĀ  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.

Amulet of Life Protection

I love wraiths. I also love wights. I love how their attacks can permanently cripple their victims who can get away with their lives. While this is all cool when dealing with one such creature in a campaign once or twice, this does cause a major problem if you want to use them frequently in large numbers. Thematically, energy drain is a nice threat, but it’s not actualy that interesting or fun if there isn’t really anything the players can do about it other than “don’t get hit”. Always running away and using only arrows and spells isn’t tactical fun. It’s just annoying.

Given how the XP requirements for gaining levels work in B/X, I consider level loss to not be terribly bad as a mechanic. Since the required XP for each new level are doubled, you will very quickly catch up to your companions who didn’t get drained while at the same time always lagging behind just a little bit. I just wish it could be more interesting instead of something that just happens to you more or less at random.

The Companion Set introduced the spell restore, that can heal the lost levels but requires a 17th level cleric. Which don’t exist in the Ancient Lands. It also does not add anything tactically and makes energy drain less of a threat and even more of an annoyance. There is also a new magic item called the ring of life protection, which is a ring of protection +1 that can negate a total of 1-6 level losses. That’s a start, but throughout a longer campaign with many PCs, you’d be needing a lot of these things and end up with a sack full of rings of protection.

Way back in my first Ancient Lands campaign I was trying out the Taint mechanic, which I think was from the 3rd edition Unearthed Arcana. It drained a character’s Constitution and Wisdom instead of levels (which I now think was needless redundancy) and had more complex rules, but was a very similar concept that filled the same role from a narrative and worldbuilding perspective. Now I just use energy drains with a saving throw for going into demonically corrupted places for long periods of time. The cool thing about Taint was that it came with a more mundane counter than magic items. If you’re carrying pieces of jade on your body they will absorb the corruption and keep you safe until they reach their limit and crumble. But carrying more Jade didn’t mean that you were better protected, since at some point it just acted like a magnet for corruption and burned out even faster. I think that last detail made things actually too fiddly (this being 3rd edition after all), but it holds the general idea that I think can make energy drain a much more fun game effect.

Amulet of Life Protection

This simple amulet is made from special minerals, branches, herbs horns, feathers, or vials of magical water, often tied to a cord to hang around the neck. It is relatively simple to make with the right ingredients and does not require and actual enchantments.

The amulet can absorb and negate the corruption of demons and sorcery. When a character is hit by an energy drain attack or other level draining effect it automatically negates the level loss. The player has to roll 1d6 (or 1d4 or 1d8, based on the quality of the amulet) and on the roll of a 1 the amulet crumbles and loses its power. If a saving throw is allowed a roll still has to be made, regardless of whether the saving throw might have succeeded or failed. When a character is wearing or carrying multiple amulets at the same time, a roll has to be made for each one individually. Amulets left unattended in areas where a creature would be exposed to regular energy drain effects also have to make a roll against disintegration at each interval.

I think this should make fights against wights and wraith much more interesting. You still want to avoid getting hit, but even if you do get hit multiple times you still might make it through unharmed (other than hit point damage). But you can never know in advance how long your protection will last. As the amulets are easy and inexpensive to make you can always stock up on them before going into haunted places and demonic lairs. But carrying multiple ones doesn’t mean that you can be sure to not run out either.

B/X spells don’t disrupt adventuring?

One often lamented thing about D&D is that many potential adventure situations can’t really be done because there’s a simple single spell that can solve the whole problem. And with 3rd Edition this is definitely the case. Continual Flame? Detect lies? Zone of truth? Teleport without error? What the hell were they thinking?! Any time you have an idea for a spell because “wouldn’t it be neat if you could do that?”, you really have to stop and think how this would affect the obstacle it deals with in the long term. Teleport without errormeans the party will never have to prepare for the return trip out of the dungeon or back to civilization. Any time they face real difficulties they can instantly go to a city or castle of their choice with a single spell. Are you looking for a traitor? Get all the suspects together and have them say “I am not a traitor” after the cleric rested and prepared detect lies. This is such a problem that seemingly every second high level dungeon has magical interference that blocks teleportation and every villain wears an amulet of mind shielding. It’s a ridiculous situation and probably contributed a good deal to 3rd Edition and Pathfinder adventures being overwhelmingly linear combat. And to make matters worse, these games let you very easily make scrolls of all spells you know and even wands with 50 charages. One knock spell isn’t a disaster. A wand that holds 50 knock spells is an entirely different story, though.

So this week I went through the spells in the Basic and Expert sets again to see at which character levels certain kinds of obstacles become easily negated with spells. And to my surprise, B/X is actually doing really well in this regard. There are a few spells that are really extremely useful but they are few in number and even those are not making obstacles completely redundant.

Read Languages

With this spell a 1st level wizard can read any unknown script and language. While it says “any code”, I assume this to mean that it can decode any cipher but still will give you only a literal decryption but not tell you the meaning of secret code words and phrases. While you can read any written texts it doesn’t give you the ability to write in languages unknow to you so you can’t use it to communicate across language barriers. Two wizards who both have the spell prepared could do it if they can make their intention to do so clear, but even then it lasts only for 20 minutes.

Detect Evil

This spell lets a 1st level cleric sense “evil intentions, or evilly enchanted objects”. Since there is no evil alignment in Basic it can not detect that. The spell only provides a feeling of evil but no specific thoughts and it’s explicitly stated that GM has to interprete what evil intentions means in the specific campaign. This spell is not “find the guilty one”.

Continual Light

This spell allows you to make a torch that lasts until dispelled. Or lost or stolen. I’m not really happy with parties not really having to bother with lamps or torches (or only keeping some as emergency backups) from 3rd level on if a wizard gets this spell but it’s not a real disruption of actual major obstacles.

Continue reading “B/X spells don’t disrupt adventuring?”

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.

A hazy idea for a new OSR magic system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Witch

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

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

Learning Spells

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

Casting Spells

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

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

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

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

Relics

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

Spriggan’s Claw

Spell: Plant Growth
Spellcaster Level: +1

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