In the Land of Zero-Level NPCs a 4th Level Fighter is a Hero

One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.

I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.

I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.

So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.

One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!

So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.

Starting at high Hit Points

One peculiar thing about Dungeons & Dragons, and especially in the older editions, is that characters at first and second level are extremely fragile because they have very little hit points and even a single hit by a pretty minor foe can easily lead to instant death, even if the character had been uninjured. A common reason I’ve seen people give for this is the idea of “Zero to Hero”, where you start as an absolute nobody with no skill at all and have to work your way up to become someone. But at some closer examination, that is not really the case. First level fighters are already elite warriors who are standing well above all regular soldiers, mercenaries, bandits, and other professional full-time warriors, many of which have been at that job for years or decades. Except for commanders, all soldiers in B/X or AD&D are simply “Normal Men” or “0 level men-at-atms”. A first level fighter has a better chance to hit, better saving throws, and also has a Constitution score that can get him additional hit points. You’re not a nobody, you’re already starting as someone who has come farther than all regular people will ever get.

As characters go from 1st to 2nd level, their average hit points double, and depending on how your dice fell, they might even tripple. Yet enemies are still dealing pretty much the same damage, so that is a huge jump in your odds to survive. In some recent games, like Barbarians of Lemuria, Dragon Age, and Atlantis, hit points for starting characters are handled quite differently. You start at a pretty decent number but then increase your maximum number of hit points only at a relatively modest pace. I wonder how that would change D&D?

One simple idea would be to reduce the type of hit die by one step for each class and then give all characters a number of bonus hit points equal to twice the maximum hit die result. An AD&D thief would start with 8+1d4 hp (9-12) instead of 1d6 hp (1-6) and a figher with 16+1d8 hp (17-24) instead of 1d10 hp (1-10). If you leave the amount of damage dealt by enemies unchanged this should change gameplay at lower levels quite significantly. Ignoring healing spells and potions (which 1st level parties would have almost no access to), staying power would increase about an average of four times. As you go to higher levels, that initial boost becomes increasingly less significant and you probably wouldn’t notice the difference between 9d10 hp (average 50) and 9d8+16 hp (average 56). If survival at low levels becomes significantly easier and groups can take on much larger numbers of enemies, but you got almost no difference at higher levels, it also quite likely would change the perception of how high-level play becomes either easier or harder.

However, that would mean that 1st level characters are able to deal with much larger numbers of low-level monsters at once, and I am not sure if I’d want them to be that heroic. One solution would be to also give all the monsters bonus hit points. Perhaps equal to the maximum result of one hit die (8). That would mean one on one fights are unlikely to end at the first hit and usually take two or three to win. This would be closer to what the games I mentioned above are doing.

I’d really like to try that out and see what happens.

Why so little love for Group Initiative?

Among the many great things of Basic D&D, one that stands out the most for me is the initiative system. I find it so much better than the commonly used by other editions and even most B/X clones.

A wonderful thing about group initiative is that it completely removes the whole work of remembering the initiative order. I absolutely hate it to scribble down a list of all the PCs and enemies in the correct order at the beginning of each fight. That’s always a minute or so of interruption doing something tedious, right at the most exciting moment of the game. The alternative is to write down the names in advance and make a row of numbers with the initiative counts, but then you easily skip someone by accident all the time. (At least I do.) With group initiative that doesn’t matter. You roll two d6 at the beginning of each round and then everyone goes in whatever order they want.

But I think something even much more important is happening on the player side. Everyone is paying attention all the time and taking turns much faster. Nobody is sitting around three numbers until their number comes up.
The players who decide the fastest what they want to do go first, and those who take longer do their thinking while everyone else is taking their turn. And everyone needs to pay attention during the whole enemy turn, because the next turn is always their turn.

I’ve been using this system for a while, and it’s just so much more fun to run the game, and I believe for the players as well. Why doesn’t everyone use it and most games go with individual initiative counts instead? Even such otherwise great games as Basic Fantasy and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and wonderful ones like Spears of the Dawn and Barbarians of Lemuria (not a B/X clone, but still) go with the cumbersome initiative count system. Which to me really has always been one of the most annoying thing about running games.

Ancient Monsters: Ghoul & Shade

I’ve been spending some more thoughts on undead in the Ancient Lands. Since there is only a single source of natural power and energy, anything that is unnatural is a corruption of it and also comes from the same source. Sorcery, demons, and undead are all really different forms of the same thing. In that context, I’ve been doing some reworking of the common undead types so that everything fits together seamlessly and makes all sense.

I particularly like the ghouls as being some kind of insane mutants. While they look more like diseased humans, they are actually a lot like Golum in most ways. The shadows are also cool. Usually they don’t really do anything and just stand around being creepy, but that means you can use them in much larger numbers and make them a type of dangerous environment.


Ghouls are humans, elves, or other humanoids who have been corrupted by the dark magic of sorcery or demons. Though they have never truly died, they resemble the undead, existing in a state between life and death. They grow gaunt with pale skin and dark sunken eyes and are suffering from madness, but are also filled with unnatural vigor and are much more cunning than any beast. Their clawed fingers can crush a mans throat and leave deep rends in the flesh of their victims, and their teeth have the strength to bite through bones, as they regain their strength by feeding on the flesh of humans and beasts.

Many ghouls once were adventurers and treasure hunters who delved too deep into ancient places where the living are not meant to tread, or what remains of those who become slaves of dark sorcerers or demons.

Ghoul (Barbarians of Lemuria)

Strength 2
Agility 1
Mind -1
Appeal -2

Combat Abilities
Attack with bite or claw +2; damage 1d6-1 plus paralysis
Defense: 2
Protection: 1
Lifeblood: 10

Any character hit by a ghouls attack must make a Moderate Strength roll (+0/TN 9) or be paralysed for one hour.

Ghoul (B/X)

No. Enc.: 1d6 (2d8)
Armor: 14
Move: Normal
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attacks: Bite or claw
Damage: 1d4 plus paralysis
Save: F2
Morale: 9

A creature bit by a ghoul or hit by its claws must make a saving throw against paralysis or be paralysed for 2d8x10 minutes.


When people die who have been corrupted by demonic sorcery, the Corruption that wrecked their bodies can linger on, turning into Shades. With both the bodies and souls of the original person gone, shades are nearly mindless clouds of Corruption that float silently above the spot where they died. They are normally invisible, but cast dark shadows in the presence of bright lights and they can be clearly seen as shapes of darkness if any light shines upon them in the presence of dust or smoke.

Walking through a shade drains a small part of the life force of living creatures and can start the spreading of Corruption over time. While most shades stand motionless in the spot of their death and don’t seem to react to anything around them, some are aware of the presence of living beings nearby and attack when anything comes too close to them. While their insubstential clawn do not leave any physical injuries, being in prolonged contact with an attacking shade can quickly drain all the life energy of a living person and spread the Corruption through its body. People who survive the attack of a shade often show dark purple streaks on their skin that becomes ashen pale and cold, which will last for several days. Those who die will often leave behind a shade as well, joining those who killed them.

Shades are common in places where lots of people have been killed through sorcery, like the lairs of demons or the sites of sorcerous battles.

Shade (Barbarians of Lemuria)

Strength –
Agility 3
Mind -3

Combat Abilities
Attack with touch +3; damage 1d6-1
Defense: 3
Protection: 0
Lifeblood: 5 (only harmed by magic)

When a creature is killed by a shade, a new shade appears in the spot of its death 3 rounds later.

Shade (B/X)

No. Enc.: 1d6 (2d10)
Armor: 15
Move: Normal
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attacks: Touch
Damage: 1d4
Save: F2
Morale: 12

Shades can only be harmed by magic weapons or spells. Any living creature killed by a shade must make a saving throw against Death or Poison or a new shade will appear where it died within 1d4 rounds.

The Difference between Conan d20 and Barbarians of Lemuria

Yesterday someone had been asking me why I consider the descision to base the Conan d20 roleplaying game on the d20 system to be the biggest mistake the developers had made. I think the d20 system is not suited for any game based on fantasy literature, movies, or videogames and only gets in the way of everything that defines the Sword & Sorcery genre in particular. It’s all about fast action and outrageous stunts and is deeply set in a mindset that is all about emotion and not rational consideration. It’s not the smart and calculating guys who win, but the ones who are courageous and daring. It takes place in worlds that work by the Rule of Cool. And the d20 system is the total opposite of that. You can play in a world that looks just like a Sword & Sorcery world, but it does not play like a Sword & Sorcery world.

This is something that requires explanation if you are not familiar with rules light Sword & Sorcery games like Barbarians of Lemuria and especially when all you ever played is d20 games. I couldn’t see how the choice of system makes a difference either until I really started to learn some other games as well.

Conan d20

GM: While you are sitting at your table in the tavern, an officer of the guard and two guardsmen approach you. The officer steps next to your chair and orders you to come with him to the palace.

Player: Is the officer within 5 feet of me so I can strike him?

GM: Yes, he is right next to your chair, looking down at you.

Player: Is he wearing a helm?

GM: Yes.

Player: What kind of helm?

GM: It’s a type of steel cap.

Player: How close are the two guardsmen? Am I in the area they threaten to make Attacks of Opportunity?

GM: They are too far away to attack you from where they stand.

Player: Okay, I want to take my mug and bash the officer in the head with it to knock him out.

GM: Make a Sleight of Hand skill check to see if you can grab your mug without drawing suspicion.

Player: 12.

GM: The officer has a 15 on his Spot check and notices you reaching for the mug. Roll Initiative.

Player: I got a 15.

GM: The officer has a 9, the two guardsmen have a 17 and a 6. The first guard is too far away to see what is going on so you go first.

Player: I try to hit his head with my mug.

GM: Are you still sitting or do you stand up first?

Player: Can I still draw my sword in the same round when I stand up and make an attack?

GM: No, standing up and drawing a weapon are both Move Actions. But since your Base Attack Bonus is +1 or higher you could draw the weapon while you are standing up as a single Move Action.

Player: Okay, so I try to hit the officer with my mug while still sitting, then stand up and draw my sword at the same time.

GM: Since the officer has not had a turn in this fight yet he can not make an Attack of Opportunity because you use an improvised weapon. Do you have a special ability that allows you to make attacks with improvised weapons without a penalty for not being proficient with it?

Player: No.

GM: Okay, then make an attack roll with a -4 penalty for using an improvised weapon and a -2 penalty for sitting.

Other Player: Is there even enough light in this smoky tavern to make a normal attack roll or should the attack have a 20% miss chance from Concealment?

GM: They are standing right next to each other, I think that’s good enough to not have a miss chance.

Player: My attack roll is 12.

GM: Since the officer has no weapon in his hand he can not parry. But as he is still flat-footed he also loses his Dexterity bonus and Dodge bonus to his Dodge Defense, reducing it to 10. You hit him. The mug deals 1d3 points of nonlethal damage plus your Strength modifier.

Player: Since he is flat-footed I also get my extra 1d6 Sneak Attack damage, right?

GM: Yes.

Player: Okay, that’s 1d3+3+1d6… 9!

GM: Since you said you specifically want to bash him in the head, I only apply the Damage Reduction for the helm, but not the armor he is wearing. So that’s 8 points of nonlethal damage.

Player: Does that knock him out?

GM: No. As it is his turn now he draws his sword and makes an attack against you.

Player: Oh well, was a fun idea though.

Barbarians of Lemuria

GM: While you are sitting at your table in the tavern, an officer of the guard and two guardsmen approach you. The officer steps next to your chair and orders you to come with him to the palace.

Player: I bash him in the head with my mug!

GM: Roll attack.

Player: 11!

GM: Your mug shatters on his face and he drop down cold. The other two guardsmen raise their spears in panic.

Player: Come and get it!

B/XoL: First draft (mostly) done!

My first draft for the Barbarians and Explorers of Lemuria hack for Barbarians of Lemuria is (mostly) done. You can take a look at it here.

The one part that is still missing is the section on how to deal with doors, light, thirst and hunger, and so on but I’ll be doing that in the following days. If you have any thoughts or suggestions for this hack, please share them in the comments.

B/XoL: Converting D&D creatures to Barbarians of Lemuria

The Legendary edition of Barbarians of Lemuria doesn’t come with a lot of creatures and most of them are pretty unique and unusual. Though my own goal with B/XoL is not to recreate Basic D&D but to take inspirations from it, Dungeons & Dragons is a great source when it comes to monsters. I think between BECMI and AD&D, there are way over a thousand of them.

Having looked at the creatures from the BoL Legendary Edition and the D&D Basic Set, I’ve come up with a couple of guidelines how to convert creatures from one game to the other:

Attributes: In the older editions of D&D, monsters don’t have any specified ability scores. However, starting with 3rd ed. they do, and the SRD is a good reference for them. Since the Lifeblood of monsters is not affected by their Strength score, we can simply ignore Constitution, and Wisdom always had almost no relevance to anyone but cleric, so we just need the Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma scores and convert them to Strength, Agility, Mind, and Appeal.

BoL says that an attribute score of 0 is human average, 3 is the maximum for new characters, and 4 or higher would be truly legendary. This is very convenient for us, as in D&D 10 is the average for humans and 18 the absolute maximum that only very few characters have. So we can simply make the conversion of 8=-1, 10=0, 12=1, 14=2, 16=3, 18=4, and so on. (Most animals would have a Mind attribute of -4, insects of -5. A Mind score of -3 is the minimum to understand languages and talk, if the creature is able to.)

Lifeblood: Having used some reference creatures that are pretty similar in D&D and BoL, I think the most practical formula to calculate the Lifeblood of a creature is simply 1 HD=5 LB. This is not modified by the creatures Strength score, as it would be for NPCs.

Protection: For protection, the different classes of armor can be used as reference. No meaningful protection = 0; fur or light hide = 1 (d3-1), thick hide = 2 (d6-2), scales = 3 (d6-1), thick scales = 4 (d6), extraordinary armor = 5 (d6+5).

Defense: Here it’s starting to get a bit fuzzy. Based on the creatures in the Legendary Edition, there are two hrd rules that are always obeyed: Defense is never lower than Agility, and never lower than 0. Other than that, there seems no consistent rules. Some creatures have an additional increase of Defense of +1 or +2, but that increase seems mostly arbitrary, though I think it’s somewhat more common with very powerful creatures than with weaker ones.

Initiative: The new Mythic Editon of BoL removes the Brawl combat ability and replaces it with Initiative. As I don’t have this edition I am not certain how it affects creature stats, but I would assume that in most cases Initative is simply identical to Agility.

Attacks: Here I have not been able to find any kind of consistent rules. The bonuses to attack and the amount to damage really seems to be entirely at the discretion of the gamemaster. There is only a single creature in the Legendary Edition that has a bonus of +5, and most are between +1 and +3. However, powerful characters can easily reach a Defense score of 7 (3 agility, 3 Defense, 1 shield), which means any attack needs a +4 bonus to have any chance to hit them at all. (And even then the chance is just 3%). So if you’re playing a campaign where characters reach that high Defense scores, feel free to give the bigger monsters attack bonuses of +6 and higher.

Damage: Damage appears to be more closely tied to the overall size and strength of the creature. 2d6 is already pretty high and only a few giant sea monsters get more than that. Since the Lifeblood of characters doesn’t really increase in BoL, I think it’s generally best not to go beyond this. If you want to make the monster nastier, make it hit more often instead.

A final thought that is currently bouncing around in my head is that one could potentially increase the average amount of treasure a creature has based on it’s Lifeblood (which with these conversions would be based on Hit Dice), but I think that may start to get too much into developing a full XP system, which I don’t really want to. My main motivation to add treasure to the game is to encourage the players to face monsters and dangers without a lethal fight during adventures. The search for treasure should not be the main reason to go on the adventure in the first place. I think that should still be motivated by some kind of basic background story. When Conan goes thieving, it’s usually not to get some bags of coins, but because he is looking for item specifically. But when you’re already in the place, why not make a few little detours to grab some bags with gold too?

B/XoL: Hacking Barbarians of Lemuria for treasure hunting

Here’s an interesting idea I’ve been pondering all day. Using Barbarians of Lemuria to run an oldschool campaign in the spirit of the old Basic and Expert rules of Dungeons & Dragons. I really quite love the style of adventures that is presented by this version of D&D, but I am just really not a fan of the game at the most basic level. The entire combat system and magic system just isn’t to my liking. BoL on the other hand is pretty close to ideal to what I want out of a rules system.

However, it could be argued that even Basic D&D and BoL are build on fundamentally different assumptions that make them highly incompatible with each other. The main difference is that D&D is build entirely around the assumption that the players want to get Experience Points and treasure, which make them more powerful and better equipped. On the other hand, BoL does not have any XP or treasure, and equipment is extremely limited.

But I think I’ve found a neat and very effective solution to this problem. By default, characters in BoL advance by finding some treasure of indeterminate value during the adventure, and at the end the players describe how they drink and gamble it all away in true Sword & Sorcery fashion. Depending on how creative and “heroic” the players describe it, their characters get between 1 to 3 Advancement Points, which they can use to improve their characters abilities. Instead of doing this, it’s trivially simple to not give the players AP based on the story they tell, but at the rate of 1 AP for every 10 treasures they spend. A treasure could be anything; a sack of coins, a golden idol, a big gem, some fine silverware, or whatever you want to think of. In practice it doesn’t matter. When the heroes search a vault or a fallen enemy, the GM can either describe what they find or simply say that they stuff 2 treasures into their pockets. They still don’t get Advancement Points for beating an enemy like in D&D, but I think it’s really the XP for treasures that makes the old editions of D&D so fascinating.

Another important element of the Basic and Expert rules is that players need to ration their supplies and have to judge how much food and treasure they can carry at the same time and how much it will slow them down between destinations in the wild. (Don’t want to find out in the middle of the dessert that you should have better taken one more skin of water instead of another bag of gold.) That will take some more thought, but I might get back to this somewhere the next days.