Some Dragonbane Advancement Statistics

Dragonbane is a skill based system in which you advance your character by using your skills during adventures. When you use a skill, you mark it, and at the end of the adventure you roll a d20 against your current skill rank. If the roll exceeds the current rank, the skill advances by one rank. It’s a neat system that justifies having a roll under dice mechanic as the default action resolution. And in practice it means that it’s easy to raise low skills quickly, but it gets increasingly slower to advance skills a character is already very good at.

I was curious about how long it would take to get a skill to it’s maximum rank of 18 and calculated the following numbers. On the left is the starting rank of each skill and at the top the rank you are aiming to reach. The field where the row and column line up shows how many adventures it will statistically take to get to the respective new rank.

6 3 6 10 15 23 34
7 1 5 9 14 21 33
8 3 7 12 20 31
9 1 6 11 18 29
10 4 9 16 28
11 2 7 14 25
12 5 12 23
13 2 9 21
14 6 18

In theory a skill rank could be as low as 3, but that takes a score of 5 or lower in the respective attribute (1% chance for that) and the skill also not being trained at character creation, so I didn’t bother with starting ranks lower than 6, which makes the table much smaller and more readable.

The highest a skill can start at is 14, which requires an attribute score of 16 or higher (13% chance for that) and the skill being trained. And even then it will take you a statistical average of 18 attempts to get it to its maximum rank of 18.

Of course, there are 30 skills in the game and you’re not going to use every one of them each time you play. So for many skills, especially those that aren’t the focus of your character, getting them to very high ranks of say 16 or higher should take a very long time. The risk of a character reaching a point where advancement pretty much stops seems to be very low.

First Impressions of Dragonbane

The new Dragonbane game by Free League was released a month ago and yesterday after work I spontaneously got the idea to give it a look, as the pdf is only €23. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of it, but I am intrigued by what I got.

Dragonbane is released as a new edition of the old Swedish RPG Drakar och Demoner, which apparently was a pretty big deal with Swedish players back in the 80s. But looking at the rules that we got now, I wonder how much continuity actually is there in the mechanics, because I feel I recognize almost everything from either recent D&D editions or Free League’s Year Zero system. The original game was apparently based on Basic Role Play, which I think is the engine of RuneQuest, but I don’t really have any experience with that.

First of all, this is a very slim game. The main pdf is only 116 pages and the actual rules are all on just 59 pages. I absolutely consider this a rules light system like B/X and Barbarians of Lemuria, though slightly crunchier than the later.

The Core Mechanic and Skills

While it feels quite similar in scope and purpose to B/X, it is a skill based system rather than a class and level based one. As the core mechanic to do pretty much anything, you roll a d20. If the number is lower or equal to your skill rank, you succeed. If it exceeds your skill rank, you fail. Being a guy raised on the d20 system, rolling under instead of rolling over always seems a bit weird, but in this case it really simplifies things in several areas. You don’t have to make any additions or subtractions to the number on the die for every roll and you don’t have to ask the GM for the target number for each specific roll. Your skill is at 14, then just don’t roll over 14.

It also is a neat part of the character advancement mechanic. If you use any skill during an adventure, you mark it on your character sheet. At the end of the adventure, you roll a d20 for every skill that you have used. If that d20 rolls over your current rank, the rank advances by 1. This means that when your skill rank is low, it will go up pretty frequently, but once it is high it will only increase more rarely. This way to you stop being bad at things you do often quickly, but it also can take a long time to actually max out the skill.

Skill checks can also be rolled with either a boon or a bane. Which are really just advantage and disadvantage from D&D 5th ed. Roll two d20 and pick either the better or worse one as your result.

Creating a Character

The first step in creating a character is to roll attributes. These are the same as in D&D and rolled in order with 4d6 keeping the best 3. The attributes determine the starting value for all your skills which will be from 3 for a score of 3, and a 7 for a score of 18. They also determine your Hit Points (equal to Constitution), your Willpower Points (equal to Willpower), and maximum load (equal to half Strength).

The second step is choosing is your character’s kin. The default ones in the game are pretty much the standard generic fantasy peoples plus wolf people and duck people. The character’s kin provides a single special ability that takes Willpower Points to use.

Next is profession. There are 10 professions that each provide the character with another special ability and also have a list from which you have to select six of your trained skills. The skills you select as trained have their starting rank doubled.

Characters’ age works pretty much like in Year Zero: Young character get a +1 to Agility and Constitution but only 2 free additional skills to pick as trained (regardless of profession), while old characters have penalties to attributes but get 6 free additional skills to pick as trained. (Adult characters just get 4 free trained skills.)


The basic mechanic for combat feel a lot like the d20 and Year Zero systems. Each character gets one action and one movement per round. However, there is no armor class. If you succeed on your melee combat skill check, you hit. If the target of your attack has not yet acted in the current round, it can use its action for the round to immediately make a parry or dodge check to negate the hit. You have to decide to dodge or parry before damage is determined. So I guess the decision depends on how scary the attack looks and how many hit points you still have left. This is the one part of the whole game where I really have no idea how well this actually works out in practice. But characters low on hit points being forced to give up more of their actions to negate hits could actually be a pretty interesting and cool way to represent fighters becoming less effective in combat as they are getting hit. Unlike D&D where you’re at full fighting capacity as long as you still have any hit points remaining. I’m really curious to see this in action.

When a target is getting hit, damage is rolled and then subtracted by its armor rating. This means actual damage might be quite low, which of course lines up with characters only having as many hit points as their Constitution score. A very different approach from D&D where hit points and damage just keep going up forever as characters advance to higher levels and face more powerful opponents. I like that.

When your character is out of hit points, a death roll is made where you need to roll a d20 lower or equal to your Constitution each round. Once you have three successes the character recovers, once you have three failures the character is dead. I believe this is exactly as in D&D 5th ed. There is an optional rule that a character recovering from being dropped has to make one more roll against Constitution and on a failure suffers a severe injury that causes penalties for a couple of days until it heals. This is quite similar to the critical injuries from the Year Zero system, but the severities of the injuries are much lower.

As in old D&D editions like B/X, there are three units of time. Instead of rounds, turns, and days, Dragonbane has rounds, stretches, and shifts which are the same concept, except that there are four shifts in a day. Once per shift, a character can rest for one round to recover 1d6 Willpower Points, or rest for one stretch to recover 1d6 Hit Points. When characters rest for a full shift, they regain all their HP and WP. But don’t remove their severe injuries, which is why I absolutely would use that optional mechanic to have some sense of characters actually getting injured in fights.

This also feels like a good point to mention Conditions. There are six conditions that mirror the six attributes. When a character is suffering from the respective condition, say Exhausted for Strength, then all checks for skills that rely on the respective attribute are rolled with bane, that is roll two d20 and keep the worse one. At a stretch rest, you can remove one of your conditions, and on a shift rest you remove all.


Unlike the other professions, the Mage does not get a special ability that uses Willpower Points to activate, but instead gets spells. A mage character is trained (double starting rank) in one of three magic skills: Animism is basically druid magic, Elementalism is Fire, Ice, and Stone magic, and Mentalism is telepathy, telekinesis, and divination. All mages can still learn any spells, but their rank in the other two skills starts much lower and they will probably have to deal with a lot of failed castings before they get their ability to useful levels. But at least you make a roll to advance a skill at the end of the adventure as long as you used it just once and it didn’t even have to have been successful.

If the skill check to cast a spell rolls a critical failure on a 20, the caster suffers a magical mishap. As with the severe injuries, these are way less dangerous as the equivalent mechanic in Forbidden Lands. Worst case, a demon is attracted to the caster and will show up during the next shift. What kind of demon and what it wants is left to the GM. No risk of of a dimensional rift opening and tentacles dragging the mage to hell any time you cast a spell.

Limitations of the Core Rules

The package of pdfs that I got is called the Core Rules. I have no idea if there are any other versions of Dragonbane or if there are any planned. But for what is being offered here, the term is very much appropriate. In many ways, this feels like a toolkit of core mechanics more than what most people would typically expect of a complete game. In this version, there are 49 spells and 14 sample monsters, and the five most generic humanoids to pick from (and one non-generic one). Certainly enough for a one-shot or mini campaign in a super generic Middle-Earth fantasy setting, but for anything more fancy than that, you will have to create your own custom content.

And the game seems to be intended to be that way. There are several mentions of more options possibly coming in future releases. There is even an open license that allows anyone to make and publish supplements for Dragonbane, though not to reproduce that content of the core game itself.

There also is really no Gamemaster section in the rulebook worth mentioning. It’s just the mechanics and assumed that anyone playing this game already knows what kinds of campaigns they want to run with it and how to do it.

Which I guess to a certain crowd is just fine. For people already deeply into B/X, OSE, and other games of that category, none of these things might be obstacles. Especially when you are looking for a generic system for which you would have to create the custom creatures of your homebrew setting anyway. And monster and NPC stats are really simple to begin with. Even simpler than in B/X.

I think this might possibly be just the game for me. It’s the purest example I’ve ever seen of what a Fantasy Heartbreaker might look like, with pretty much every single thing it seeming like it was more or less copied over from other games I already known and then welded together. But I really approve of what the designers chose pick for their pieces to turn into this game. From a mechanical perspective, there is not a single thing regarding character creation, advancement, skills, combat, or magic that I don’t like on my first and second read. But if this is all that Dragonbane is going to be, I don’t see it becoming a big breakout hit that will become hugely popular. I can see it getting a reputation similar to Barbarians of Lemuria and maybe with a big dose of luck, get a little time to shine like OSE had some months ago. And I guess that’s fine.

Since I read the whole thing only twice now, I don’t really feel like I could rate it in any way. But being such a light package, I also don’t think there is going to be a lot more learned from a third or fourth reading. I think all that’s left is to just take it for a spin and see how it plays out in practice. It seems like a game that should take very little prep work for adventures when it comes to crunch, so maybe I’ll have an opportunity to give it a try later this summer after I’ve moved closer to my new job and peak work season is over. Certainly looking forward to do it.

Using 30-mile hexes

Everyone knows that Hexagons are Bestagons, and that the 6-mile hex really is the only size that makes sense for wilderness travel. But since the dawn of RPG time, the 30-mile hex has also always been around and keeps showing up from time to time.

As someone who thinks that hexes are best used as a tool to approximate the length of a winding path between two points without having to fight with a measuring tape instead of treating it as a “wilderness room”, I always found the use of 6-mile hexes very compelling. Most wilderness travel will be something like 12 to 24 miles per day and you can easily set up a travel speed system where any overland movement will only be in full 6-mile hexes with no fractions and remainders. (And by you, I mean me.) Going smaller than that with the hexes becomes pointlessly granular, and bigger hexes become less useful for tracking daily travel. The 30-mile hex is way too big for travel tracking, and if you think the 6-mile hex is ridiculously big to hide just one encounter, then 30 miles is just ludicrous.

However, I was once again struggling with frustration about not having a clear image of how I want to handle the contrast between wilderness and civilization in the Kaendor sandbox I am still working on. And it occurred to me that perhaps I could make the city states much smaller and treat them as being on the same scale as individual barbarian tribes that live spread out over several villages in a limited area. And I think the 30-mile hex might actually be a really good unit for the territory claimed and mostly controlled by a mid-sized town or a tribe.

Example made from my 6-mile hex Savage Frontier map.

A 30-mile hex with the main settlement in the center means an area with a radius of 15 miles. That’s about the distance that you can travel with cargo in a day in pre-modern times. (Though of course express messengers can go much further than that.) This allows people from the outer edges of the area to travel to the central main settlement in a day, stay for the night, do their business in the morning, and make it back home before nightfall. Historically, towns organically grew to be spread out at half that radius for their respective area of influence so people could make it back home on the same day. But that’s for medieval Europe or the early American colonies. For a sparsely populated setting and in a frontier context, I think 30 miles should be very suitable. (In a more densely populated and developed setting, 10-mile hexes could be very useful too, though.)

I think that a 30-mile hex also makes for a good size for a forest or swamp in a sandbox. Each 30-mile hex contains 18 6-mile hexes and 12 half-hexes. Assigning 24 hexes to a geographic region with shared environmental conditions and using the same wandering monsters tables seems like a pretty good size if the campaign is about traveling to spread out ruins instead of clearing hexes where every hex contains a thing.

Old-School Essentials as a D&D alternative for D&D

In just the last week, I had three encounters with people voicing their unhappiness with essentially the same  issue they see with “D&D”.  (By which I assume they mean 5th edition in particular.) I only now got around to watching Matt Colville’s video Why Are We Fighting? last weekend, but I think his previous video What Are Dungeons For? also talks about the same fundamental issue. Then there was the thread Structural Flaw of the D&D Combat System on Enworld on Monday, and then this morning I saw this post on Mastodon.

And every time I was thinking “This issue had been figured out 40 years ago. This is a solved problem!”

I wanted to write an article about why people should consider Old-School Essentials as a system for roleplaying campaigns about wilderness exploration a few weeks back, but gave up when I couldn’t get even just the introduction down to under 2,000 words after several attempts. But now seeing several people independently voicing frustration with what I see the same fundamental issue with “modern D&D”, I really want to tell more people about a possible great match for their needs that has been hiding right under their noses by preconceptions about “old D&D” and “dungeon crawling”. Yes, OSE is both that, but in my opinion the rules are also a fantastic system for combat light, high tension, interaction heavy, semi-freeform adventures about exploring strange and magical underground environments and journeys through fantastical wildernesses.

Background and Origin of the Rules

When Dungeons & Dragons came out in the 70s, it was considered a huge success within the sphere of an established wargaming hobby. But whatever qualities Gygax may have had as a game designer, he really did very poorly as a technical writer and editor. Both the original D&D game that was more a collection of reference tables for people who had been taught the game in person, and the greatly expanded AD&D game a few years later are among the most difficult games to get into just because of the big hurdle of simply deciphering what the explanations are trying to say. To make D&D more accessible to a wider audience, Tom Moldvay created the Basic Rules that were a drastically cut down version of AD&D with only four human classes, a single class for dwarves, elves, and halflings each, and only covered the first three experience levels. At the same time, David Cook put together the Expert rules that had the expanded class tables up to 14th level, more spells for higher levels, more monsters and magic items, and also the rules for outdoor scenarios. They both did a great job in creating a much more compact version of AD&D and making it vastly more accessible, and the Basic and Expert rules became a massive commercial success, now usually simply known as B/X. Two years later, the B/X rules got a new edition that was still mostly the same game, but also got the Companion expansion and later the Master and Immortal rules, which led to it being known as BECMI.

When WotC created 3rd edition and released it in 2000, the new game was very much an evolution of AD&D 2nd edition with the alternative BECMI system being largely forgotten and unknown to people like me who only got into D&D at that time. But the compact and lightweight nature of the original 1981 B/X rules made it particularly well suited to using it as the starting framework for heavy modifications and it became the default standard for OSR creators trying out more experimental things that drifted increasingly further away from the conventions of D&D during the early 2010. While the original Basic and Expert rules are still available as pdfs, getting print versions in good conditions after 40 years is of course getting only more difficult, and while having the Expert rules separate from the Basic rules is really quite useful when learning the game, it’s a bit inconvenient to have spells, magic items, and monsters in two different books.

Old-School Essentials was created to address both these issues by combining the material from both books into a single text and putting it back into print. But in regards to the content of the rules, OSE and B/X are identical, with the one exception that the books have the attack bonuses and AC values for using the modern attack roll system of “d20 + bonuses vs AC” listed in all tables and description, alongside the original TSR system of attack tables. So if you want to use the modern (superior!) system, you don’t have to make the conversion yourself as with other retroclones and have the numbers you need right in the book.

Roleplaying Dungeon Crawling

Now, finally (after 800 words) to the main subject of this article. What makes OSE an interesting alternative to modern D&D for people who have gotten bored and frustrated with the slog of endless and mindless combat and are looking for something that makes exploration fun and exciting and has a stronger focus on interacting with the environment and the people and creatures that inhabit it?

On a first look at the rules (it’s all available online as an SRD), OSE seems a really strange choice for that purpose. It’s all about dungeon crawling and the rules for PC actions mostly just cover combat and spells and almost nothing else. There are no skills and no rules for social interactions. And the XP system is all about collecting as much gold coins and possible. That sound more like a hack and slash dungeon crawler than a roleplayin game. This seems worse than 5th and 3rd edition in those regards, not better.

One of the issues raised in one of the two videos I linked to above talks about how WotC was very successful in getting D&D established as the game that can be everything to all people. And in the process, their editions turned into a game that isn’t actually about anything specific. What is D&D about? What is the goal? How are individual mechanics set up to further that goal? These games provide mechanics to do a lot of things, but they don’t have a structure. Borrowing a term from videogame design, they have no gameplay loops. That makes the rules flexible and easy to adapt to many different kinds of campaign. But in turn they lack mechanics that specifically support the kind of adventures you have picked from your campaign by providing structures that take work of the GM’s shoulders and help players to be more proactive. I believe that much of the burden on the GM when it comes to preparing adventures and moving things along, and what can make playing D&D feel like a slog that drags on to players, comes from this lack of mechanical support for specific adventure styles.

The rules of Old-School Essentials all come together as a game that is designed with a very clear focus: It’s a game in which the PCs go into old ruins in the wilderness and face their many dangers to return with hauls of gold and other riches.

This does of course greatly reduce the possibilities of what kinds of adventures you can run with OSE. If you want to run a game in which dungeons do not take a central role and you are not interested in playing characters who are searching for riches in the face of great danger, then OSE does not have much to offer to you. But what the system of interdependent mechanics and procedures does provide is very strong support to make such explorations of strange undergrounds in mysterious wildernesses a game of great adventure in which the players are in charge of their fates and their choices determine what paths their stories will take. In many ways, I would even argue that OSE is a game for campaigns that are more similar to Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark than to the adventures and campaigns published for modern D&D.

Most of the quirks of early D&D need to be looked at in the context of adventures the game wants to produce and how this mechanic interacts with the other rules that make up the whole system. In most RPGs I’ve read over the years now, mechanic seem to be created to figure out what die to roll when a player wants to do a specific action. But the old B/X rules used by OSE are much more clever than that. You don’t just have mechanics to make dice roles for actions, you also have procedures that create situations and structure that give players the means to chart their own course instead of having to pick between two choices that the GM offers to them. All of these elements create a unified system in the strictest sense of the word, where every mechanic influences several others, and together they create results that you wouldn’t immediately expect if you just look at individual mechanics in isolation from the others. How this works is what I’ll be trying to explain in the rest of this article.

Credit goes mostly to Gus L’s Classic Dungeon Crawl series and Joseph Manola’s General Purpose posts. Everything about all of this I only know because they explained it.

XP for Gold is actually briliant

When I first heard that in older editions of D&D characters gained experience and advanced in levels based on the amount of treasure they collect around 2004, I thought that this was the dumbest rule that I had ever heard of. How is the amount of gold in your purse connected to getting better at swordfighting or learning more powerful spells? Getting better at playing lute from fighting monsters also doesn’t make much sense, but XP for gold seemed like a much more terrible mechanic.

What really is the purpose of XP? The reason why we want to reward certain actions and behaviors with XP but don’t give XP for others is to nudge the players to seek out opportunities to engage in those actions. When we are playing a campaign based on a premise that the PCs will have adventures similar to a certain type of fiction, then we want to create a lot of situations in the campaign that match that premise. OSE is a game about characters going into old ruins in the wilderness to search for treasure. By giving the players XP reward for collecting treasures and putting those treasures into old ruins, the players will automatically end up going to lots of dungeons and exploring them from top to bottom. And at no point do you have to make the decision as the GM what you want the players to do next. All you have to do is to make sure that there are several dungeons (could just be three) that have more than one path to explore them. The players are allowed to do anything they want and can think of, but by letting them know that they will be rewarded if they can bring treasure out of a dungeon,  they always know something that they can do next if there is currently nothing else pressing to them.

Another great thing about giving most XP for treasure but only little XP for defeating enemies (Moldvay recommends to aim for 3/4 XP from treasure and 1/4 XP from creatures when filling dungeons with content) is that it separates the questions of whether it is worth it to risk a deadly fight and whether they want to try getting a treasure they can see ahead. As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said “There are alternatives to fighting”. This is super important. By playing the emphasis on returning with treasure over defeating enemies in battle, you introduce the whole concept of stealing treasures through trickery rather than killing their guardians. This is something that gets completely lost in games where XP for defeating enemies is the default way to advance characters. As players, we always want XP. And if we only get XP by fighting monsters, we seek out fights with monsters. As many fights as possible. If a monster seems to strong to defeat it, then we probably plan to come back later when we’re stronger and get the XP then. Monsters not fought are XPs left unclaimed! And that is where the Murderhobo spawns as the only logical consequence.

In the OSE rules, it is assumed that monsters have their treasures stashed away in their lairs and don’t carry them on their bodies. You can sneak past the monster, lure it away, or distract it otherwise to get at its treasure without having to fight it at all. And perhaps even more importantly, wandering monsters that players run into in random encounters don’t have a treasure stash at all. This makes random encounters something you want to avoid. Random encounters have all the risk of losing health and spells and perhaps even characters getting killed, but don’t provide any meaningful rewards in the form of XP. In contrast, when combat is the primary source of XP, then random encounters are extra XP that come to you.

XP for treasure creates a kind of fiction in the game that is very different from post-Dragonlance D&D. In this game the PCs are treasure hunters, not monster slayers. And this allows you to present them with enemies that are actually scary instead of having to limit the dungeon to only monsters that do not pose a real threat. It’s now a survival game in which it makes sense to sneak past enemies and run away from them, and doing so can actually be an efficient way to gain XP faster than a form of failure and giving up.

Encumbrance is important

Encumbrance is one of the most hated mechanics in RPG. And for good reasons. Having to add the weight of each item you pick up to your total and subtracting the weight of every item you use up or throw away is a lot of bookkeeping. And inevitably there will be mistaken and then you have to do a full weight count of every item on your character sheet all over again. This sucks, this is terrible. And people are completely justified to not want to deal with it. Thankfully, there are much better ways to track how much stuff characters are carrying and how much it slows them down by making weights a little bit more abstract. Because having travel speed affected by how much gear the characters carry is serving an extremely important function in the greater exploration system. I believe people not bothering with calculating encumbrance because the rules in the books are too annoying was the first loose stone that made the entire complex exploration system of D&D collapse and disappear in later editions.

In the dungeon exploration and wilderness travel rules of OSE, random encounters are checked at specific intervals of time. The amount of random encounters a party will have depends on how much time they spend in a dungeon or how long it takes to reach the destination of a journey. And this depends entirely on how fast the party can travel. Ideally, you always want to travel as fast as possible to minimize the amount of random encounters. But a light load with no speed penalty really doesn’t let you carry a lot of things. You need your weapons and your armor. You also need food and water. You will need torches, lamp oil and arrows. You probably also want to have someone in the party having a rope or two, and crowbars, sledgehammers, shovels, and so on. Also sleeping bags and tents. And on top of all of that, while you are exploring the dungeon and make the journey back to the surface and then home, you’ll be increasingly loaded down by all the heavy treasures you collected.

If you bring too much, you get too much slowed down, have lots of random encounters, and might die. If you bring too little and things don’t work out just as planned, you might run out of supplies necessary to survive and will have to make detours or take greater risks. Perhaps you could leave things you no longer need in the dungeon behind to make more room for treasure you want to carry home. But then, who knows if you’re really not going to need them during the return journey?

There are no correct answers to these questions, and that’s what makes encumbrance such a brilliant mechanic in the exploration system. It creates constant tension and permanent doubt, and there are infinite possible combination for your characters loadout. It is also what will create situations in which the characters are dangerously low on certain supplies and force the players to go on unplanned side adventures to get water or stumble around blindly in the dark. Or at least have the party race through the tunnels in panic as their last remaining torch keeps getting dangerously low. Exploration as an adventure does not work without encumbrance.

Also, the amount of gold character need to gain new levels at the higher levels increase exponentially and pretty soon reach ridiculous levels. Even if the party has a bag of holding or two, the hauls at higher level get so big that it can take dozens of mules to carry all the stuff in one go. And the mules can also help a lot with carrying all the supplies that players might want to bring on a longer journey. Of course, you can’t take all these mules inside of dungeons and when left alone any bandit or griffon passing by can just snatch them up and be on their way. So the players probably will have to hire mercenaries to guard the supply train. And maybe get some retainers to look over the mercenaries while their PCs are gone inside the dungeon for hours on end.

Reaction Rolls and Morale Checks

The reaction roll is something that has disappeared from D&D long ago and I absolutely have no idea why. I assume its part of the fallout of the Dragonlance transformation that turned RPGs from players developing campaigns through their actions and choices as they went into a medium of adventure writers and GMs narrating a written out stories to the players. But together with dropping XP for treasure but keeping XP for defeating enemies, dropping the reaction roll is one of the main things that creates the murderhobo phenomenon and makes it pretty much inevitable.

In the OSE rules, monsters and NPCs encountered in a room or as wandering encounters have no default disposition towards the PCs. When the type of the creature or its placement really only allows for one plausible reaction of the monsters, then that’s what happens. For example an ancient crypt in which the dead bodies have risen as zombies. What else could they do but attack the living and try eating their brains? Or randomly encountering a group of guard looking for intruders into the castle? Of course they will tell the PCs to drop their weapons and get arrested. But those situation are generally rare and meant to be the exception. Normally, when creatures are encountered in rooms or wandering, a reaction roll is made.

Now as much as I praised Moldvay and Cook for making the D&D rules more accessible and easy to comprehend, the explanation of the different results for a reaction roll are super vague. There’s really only one or two words for each number with no elaboration on how that might look in practice. It’s also not quite clear how a character’s Charisma modifier to reaction rolls is supposed to be applied. (But I do have an idea how you can do it.) But having spend some time with that section of the rules, I think the following is really just the only thing that makes sense for what was originally intended.

  • There is a 3% chance that the creatures see the party and immediately charges at them and try to kill them.
  • There is a 25% chance that the creatures have a problem with the PCs being there and will threaten them to leave the area, try to rob them, or otherwise make demands on what the players will have to do to not have it devolve into a fight.
  • There is a 44% chance that the creatures are undecided on what to do and wait to see what the PCs are doing next, perhaps followed by another roll with a modifier based on the PCs behavior.
  • There is a 25% chance that the creatures want to avoid a fight and will try to negotiate with the PCs or retreat from the area to avoid violence.
  • And finally there is a 3% chance that the creatures see the PCs as welcomed guest and offer to provide information and assistance as it is within their means.

Say the PCs run into a group of bandits and the reaction roll makes them friendly. The bandits could mistake the PCs as new member of their gang or visitors they were expecting. Or they could assume the PCs have come to see their leader and join them. Or they are having a problem and think the PCs are another group of bandits and they could join forces to deal with the threat and split the spoils. Imagine the players encounter an ogre in his cave and he offers them pieces of his roasted halfling over the fire? That would be a very interesting situation for players to respond to.

Morale checks have lingered around much longer, but I’ve never really seen them given any real attention. Even back in B/X they were listed as optional, but they really serve a very important function. The idea is that under certain conditions, there is a chance that a group of enemies will panic and flee from a fight. The first morale check is made when the first member of a group goes down, killed or otherwise incapacitated. That’s when things suddenly become very real for everyone involved. Another check is made when a group has lost half its members. At that point, it’s generally becoming clear that the remaining ones probably won’t be surviving either. I personally also like to make morale checks when the leader or a particularly big and impressive ally of the group is killed. When a group of 12 goblins and an oger is two goblins down and the oger falls, that’s a very good reason for the goblins to reconsider their chances, even if their group is only one quarter of their fighters down. Successful morale checks of course don’t preclude the fighters to to make an informed rational decision that the fight is not worth to continue and order an organized retreat, or to offer their surrender. It just means that they don’t start blindly running away in terror.

What these two mechanics bring to the table should be very obvious. Not only is it not desirable for players to fight everything in the dungeon and the wilderness, most of the time they might not even have to and still can continue on their path without having to retreat back. It also provides many great opportunities to have interesting unplanned interactions with NPCs during explorations.

As GM, you could of course always decide what reaction towards the PCs randomly encountered creatures will have. But in my experience, in the heat of the action when all the players are looking at you eager to hear what happens with the things they just encountered, it’s just overwhelming tempting to always go with the default option that takes the least effort and can sprung into action immediately. “They attack.” By having the reaction roll as part of an established procedure for every encounter, you have a tool that always makes you at least take a moment to consider your options before settling on the easiest one. If the roll gives you a reaction and you have no clue how that could possibly work with that creature in that situation, you still always have the option to pick yourself how it should logically react. But having a dice roll always make a suggested outcome first is a very useful tool to have.

OSE might be worth a look

At 4,000 words, this is still only a look at the surface of what makes these 42 year old rules an interesting option for GMs and groups that think generic modern D&D can be a slog with too much mindless combat that takes way too much work and time to prepare for. I’m still not really happy with how this has come out and I am sure there are many more intricacies that would be worth mentioning, but I don’t think I’m going to get it much better than this in any reasonable time frame. If any of this sounds interesting and you want to know more in a lot more detail, I recommend again the Classic Dungeon Crawl series by Gus L I linked to above. He does a much better job at it, but also takes considerably more than 4,000 words.

My Plans for Aumaril and Wilderness Exploration Rules

People who’ve been following what I write for some time might know that I often come up with plans for grand ideas but rarely have anything finished to present later. Since I don’t have any money at stake with all this elfgame stuff, that’s fine. And it’s rare that I actually abandon anything I’ve been working on completely. Much of stuff that I create is tinkering with mechanics and concepts and it’s always a learning experience that helps me increase my understanding of the material. And nearly all of it kind of just goes into a drawer where I let it sit for some months or a few years while my attention is on other things, to get pulled out again at some later point to continue tinkering with it. So while it might be pretty early to make any kind of announcement yet for what I am currently working on and nothing might come out of during the next year or so, my current plans for a rules system and campaign setting are actually just a new phase of the same things I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years now. I am constantly getting better at it and feel like I am making great progress, but with increasing experience comes a better understanding of how far away the goal has actually been all along. It’s a bit like fusion power research, I guess.

With a lot of talk, confusion, and general uncertainty about the licensing situation of D&D type games in the last month, plenty of people have come out with the opinion that this is as good a time as there’s ever been to just go through with their ideas of what a perfect game system should look like and make it happen. Though in full self-awareness of how much interest and use such systems might actually see, the old term of fantasy heartbreakers immediately made it back into circulation. It’s not going to be the next Dungeons & Dragons or the next Pathfinder, and most likely not even the next Swords & Wizardry. This is something you do just for the fun of it and maybe to use for your own campaigns, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, it becomes popular enough that some people will take bits and pieces as house rules for their own campaigns. And in this mood and environment, why the hell not? I’ve been collecting quite some house rules myself over the years which I already put together as the Yora Rules, and there’s a number of things in B/X that I would personally have done very differently.

So I’m gonna do this!

There are actually three connected but separate things that I want to make:

  1. A revision of the classes and combat rules of B/X (like attack rolls and saving throws) mostly intended for my own personal use.
  2. A set of new rules and mechanics for a streamlined wilderness exploration system that makes wilderness travel and resource management simpler and faster, and a system for maintaining a fixed home base to serve as treasure vault, supply depot, and winter camp. I think this one actually has potential to be a successful (free) product.
  3. A campaign setting for my own next campaign in which I’ll use and playtest the new rules above.

At this stage, these are really more general plans for a playtest than specific plans for a product. These are plans to develop something, which depending on how things work out, could at a later point lead to releasing something.

OSRIC and OSE already set great examples for how you could replicate the structure of AD&D and B/X even with the OGL 1.0a, and with the new Creative Commons license for the SRD 5.1, I feel that all of this is both perfectly within both the letter and spirit of the law.

The Rules Revision

I started RPGs with D&D 3rd edition just when it came out and later played some Pathfinder for a while. It was fine back then because it was what I knew, but when I became curious about this oldschool roleplaying stuff I spend a while with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, as a more accessible way to get into the AD&D mechanic, but since I discovered the Basic/Expert rules eight years ago, I’ve been a huge fan of those rules ever since. That is, at least in general terms. I’ve never been able to actually understand the TSR system for making attack rolls and the saving throw categories seem quite nonsensical for someone who was first introduced to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. That’s why I always only actually ran Basic Fantasy and Lamentation of the Flame Princess and more recently Old-School Essentials, which all let you make attack rolls like in the d20 system. But I’m also quite a fan of some changes made to the B/X rules by Stars Without Number and its various descendants.

In the big picture, these rules will still be B/X. But with the amount of house rules I already made and some other changes I think would be big improvements to the game, it just seems convenient to do a fully new writeup for everything that I can hand to players and also share publicly. Some of these changes seem quite radical as they throw away a presumed “balance” that Gygax and Moldvay created for different classes. But it’s by now pretty well known that there was no precise fine tuning and diligent play testing for the exact values in the tables, and they just made up numbers that looked right. (If anything does break, it will show up during play tests and can be fixed later.)

  • Attack rolls and Armor Class as in d20-system games.
  • Saving throws are Physical, Mental, Evasion, and Magic.
  • All classes advance at the same XP scores as fighters.
  • Attack bonuses and saving throws increase linearly with levels.
  • No restrictions on weapons and armor.
  • Spellcasting is restricted by encumbrance instead of armor.
  • Spells are not lost after casting. (Though still limited in uses per day.)
  • Encumbrance based on number of items instead of weights.
  • Ability checks are rolled with 2d6 against a target number based on the ability score.
  • In dungeons, 1 turn covers exploration of “1 area” instead of a distance of corridor.
  • Encumbrance increases the requirement for rest turns instead of reducing exploration speed.
The Wilderness Exploration Game

While the rules for character advancement, combat, and dungeon exploration in the Basic rules are already pretty nice as a rules light version of D&D, it’s really the Exploration rules that always keep me coming back to this game. I remember when West Marches by Ben Robbins was first making its rounds and it always seemed like a really cool approach to set up a sandbox campaign. I later was greatly inspired by Joseph Manola’s The long haul: time and distance in D&D about approaching adventures as months-long expeditions into the unknown, interrupted by spending months cooped up in winter camp. More recently, I’ve read Gus L’s series on Classic Dungeon Crawls that emphasizes the survival game aspect as being essential to making the exploration of dungeons an engaging mode of play, and the whole time I was thinking “Yes, but what if we apply all of this to the outdoors?!”

I feel the wilderness has always been overshadowed by dungeons and by city adventures, but my own mental images of amazing fantasy worlds are filled with trees and mountains from horizon to horizon. And pondering on the ideas of the three wise men above, I’ve become convinced that there can be absolutely fantastic campaigns in which the wandering around in the wilderness can be the main attraction, rather than just the connecting transition space between different adventure sites. To make such a campaign work, there needs to be a clear campaign structure, as well as a set of easy to use tools for the GM to make it happen.

As campaign structure goes, the concept very much follows the West Marches and the original Basic rules: The game begins with 1st level PCs in a small frontier town that is relatively close to several ruins and caves that are home to various creatures and hiding ancient treasures. At first adventures are relatively short, with the travel to the sites being quick and probably uneventful and dungeons being fairly small, and all the PCs being back in the town after 3 to 5 hours where they get XP for all the treasures they recovered. Dungeons with more dangerous creatures and greater treasures tend to be farther away from the town and descend into greater depth, leading to increasingly longer adventures that eventually won’t be able to be played in a single go.

At this point it becomes strongly encouraged for the players to have more than a single character to deal with scheduling. If players A, B, C, and D go on a longer adventure with characters A(1), B(1), C(1), and D(1), the adventure can’t continue until all four players can come together at the same time with the GM again. If player C can only play every second week (maybe), but players A, B, and D want to play more often, they can go on another adventures with their character A(2), B(2), and D(2), and maybe also take along two other players with their characters E(1) and F(1)? If the campaign is about uncovering the secrets and mysteries of the wilderness instead of the personal stories of individual PCs, this way of playing multiple PCs is perfectly viable and it increased scheduling flexibility immensely. It also makes long healing times and characters working for weeks or months on creating magic items and similar things more viable. Just because one character is out of action for the game doesn’t mean all the other PCs have to sit around and fiddle their thumbs while they are waiting.

The Expert rules recommend that characters should start going on longer journeys deep into the wilderness and away from civilization around 4th level, which I think remains a good guideline. But I also think that this is actually the perfect time for PCs to start establishing their own stronghold. Not as barons ruling over their respective towns and villages (which isn’t really much of a group activity anyway), but to have a new forward base camp for their exploration deeper into the wilderness. It’s a place where they can stash their newly found treasures in their vault (and get XP for said treasures), have a supply depot with food reserves for months, can set up fully stocked shops for armorers and alchemists, and a garrison for the hired mercenaries who guard the vault and stay with the pack animals and supplies while they go down into dungeons to explore. It can also serve as their winter camp when the whether makes campaigning nearly impossible for several months of the year.

This new stronghold not only serves as an alternative for the starting town for launching new adventures deeper into the wilderness, it also functions as a generator for new adventures. Ben Robins recommends that the PCs should be the only adventurers exploring the West Marches, but the players don’t have to be the only people establishing a new outpost on the very edges of civilization. There can also be the keeps of aspiring new barons, mining camps, bandit camps, and of course endless hidden lairs of evil cults. Not to mention monsters like giants and dragons making their homes in the area. All of which could have a problem with the PCs setting up a new base near their own turf. Or potentially become allies to share resources and information, and aid each other in times of attacks.

The critical importance of random encounter in dungeon explorations is well enough known, but the same mechanic can also do an incredible amount of heavy lifting when it comes to the wilderness. Nearly everything that can be encountered in the wilds or on the road is either going somewhere or coming from somewhere. After the encounter has played out, there’s usually an option for the players to either follow the creatures to where they are going, or to follow their trail to where they came from. This is a fantastic opportunity to introduce new sites to the sandbox. People probably have noticed that the numbers of creatures encountered in the wilderness often goes into the dozens, and in the case of some lairs even in the hundreds. These numbers are not for a group of four PCs being suddenly ambushed by an entire army on the march. These are numbers for populating keeps, camps, and lairs. These groups are what you find when you follow the wandering groups of monsters back to their homes. And they don’t have to be hostile. The same reaction rolls for random encounters in dungeons can be used when approaching a stronghold in the wilderness. Which I think has the potential as an amazing tool to create a wilderness area that is a living space where players can discover the unexpected and the GM has fantastic opportunities for very freeform and improvisational play.

As I mentioned, a campaign like this also needs tools. The following are mechanics that I’ve already dabbled with to make running such adventures easier. Some of which overlap with the changes to the basic game mechanics mentioned in the previous section. Most of these are things that the Expert rules already cover, but I feel they are clunky and inconvenient to use. All of it can be done better without dramatically changing the outcomes.

  • Item-based encumbrance.
  • Simple rules for water and food rations.
  • Mechanical consequences for lack of food and water.
  • Rules for disease(?)
  • More robust rules for hunting and foraging.
  • Travel speeds that map exactly to 6-mile hexes with no half hexes or third hexes traveled per day.
  • Simple rules for river travel speed.
  • Rules for tracking.
  • Wilderness exploration turns analogous to Dungeon exploration turns.
  • Stronghold and lair generator tables.

The final piece for my upcoming campaign during which all these ideas for new rules and mechanics will be playtested is the setting. I like the sound of Aumaril, and I checked that it isn’t already used by something else. And it’s different enough from Arduin and Amalur to not seem like a knockoff.

Aumaril is a world dominated by severe weather and many volcanoes. Volcanic activity covers the sky in ash every few decades that can cause brutal winters and ruin harvests, but on some occasions have tipped the climate to a point of causing ice ages that can range from centuries to tens of thousands of years. The world only emerged from four thousand years of winter fairly recently, which destroyed the civilization of the fey, reduced the kingdoms of the giants to barbarism, and diminished the empires of the serpentmen to a shadow of their former greatness. As the ice retreated and forest returned to the northern lands, mortal barbarians migrated from the south to make them their home. In recent generations, these first mortal empires have fallen into chaos and decay, and many people are fleeing deeper into the wilderness to try their luck among the abandoned ruins of the fey and giants, and things much more older than even the ancients.

While civilization is centered around three old empires that have seen much better days, and could be interesting places for adventures in their own right, these are not the actual setting where the planned campaign takes place. The adventures of the PCs cover the vast wilderness of forests and mountains that still cover most of the world and remain largely unexplored, but have many ancient ruins from the previous age and civilizations that have long since disappeared. I am an unashamed fan of the 70s and 80s Sword & Sorcery style that gratuitously blends together traditional medieval fantasy elements with weird and alien environments from science fiction or prehistoric Earth. Mushroom forests, dinosaurs, and giant insects are totally my jam, as are evil sorcerers in giant black towers covered in skulls. Which I think has never been executed better (at least stylistically) than in Morrowind. I’m not leaning as much towards the camp or melodramatic, but I still think this is a really cool aesthetic that can be just as well suited for more down to earth fantasy adventures.

One thing that really excites me about this setting is that it’s being populated by various intelligent creatures that have been created for D&D pretty long times ago, but never really seen much breakout success or prominent appearances. In addition to the very human-like Aumarilians, who are greatly inspired by various cultures from the Hyborean Age and the Elder Scrolls, the other major peoples are chitines, derro, fey’ri, grimlocks, locathah, quaggoths, raptorans, and stone giants. Goliaths seem to have become quite popular in 5th edition, and of course yuan-ti have always been famous.

This part of my great creation probably won’t see any kind of proper release as some kind of book, but I guess I’m probably going to share various bits and pieces about it here as the actual campaign develops.

An ability test and Thief skill system for B/X

I’m actually doing it. I’m making my own version of what I think the Basic/Expert rules should have looked like, with dice rolls that are intuitive and level progressions that are consistent, based on my first experiences with the d20 system. I’m probably not gonna use it, and it’s really just an exercise in tinkering around. I don’t think you would get a lot of interested player for a campaign by a new GM with his personal fantasy heartbreaker, but maybe when I have an established OSE campaign running the players might be interested in a less messy version of the rules which still really do the same thing.

It’s really just all the Yora rules put together. Mostly ideas that come from Stars Without Number, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Deep Carbon Observatory. But I also got some original ideas of my own. (Which I’m probably not the first person to come up with.)

Where I think B/X really can be improved is some kind of consistent system for ability checks. Hear noise and detect secret doors are a 1 in 6 roll. Thief skills are a percentage roll. Other actions are suggested to be handled by rolling a d20 under the characters most relevant ability score. It’s all over the place. The solution that I’ve come up with is none of the above.

To make a roll to see if a character succeeds on an action that seems plausible to work but success is not certain and there are meaningful consequences for failure, roll 2d6 against a target number based on the character’s most relevant ability score.

For characters with no modifier for the relevant ability, the target number is 7. (Right in the middle for a 2d6 roll, the most common result, and a chance to succeed of 58%, slightly above half.) This number is modified by the ability modifier.

Score Modifier TN Chance
3 -3 10 17%
4-5 -2 9 28%
6-8 -1 8 42%
9-12 +0 7 58%
13-15 +1 6 72%
16-17 +2 5 83%
18 +3 4 92%

This system replaces the Strength modifier for opening doors. (2d6 against TN 5 is about the probability of 1-5 on a d6.) If a task seems particularly difficult, you can tell the player  to roll with -1 or -2, and the majority will intuitively understand that this means 2d6-1 against the same target number as always. (The target numbers should be on the character sheet, like saving throws.)

The very same system to make rolls can also be used to roll for Thief skills instead of 1d100 roll under. This assumes that Thief skills are things that are simply impossible for anyone who isn’t a thief. Climbing walls too smooth to climb on, moving without making any noise, hiding with nothing to hide behind. These are things you can’t take a shot at and hope to get lucky without the special training of the thief class. (For hearing noises, I would go with letting a thief roll against the target number of either his Wisdom or Thief skill, whichever is lower.