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Old School

Old School Renaissance This page collects the my latest posts on the topic of old school D&D gaming. I follow the Old School Revisited and Why OD&D line of thought presented by Sham’s Grog ’n Blog:

  1. Decision of the referee is final – no rules lawyers
  2. A game of making the most of what you get
  3. Not about the power of the character
  4. Sandbox gaming (players decide how the campaign develops)

2014-07-28 OSR Top Blogs

There are various reasons to like a blog. Generally speaking, I’ve heard it say that posting controversial opinions gets you more interaction than “useful” content. I know I fall into the same category. My gaming category on Feedly has 243 unread posts and when I start reading, I skip a lot.

Not only do I skip all the session reports, I also skip most of the new classes, most of the new spells, most of the new magic items, most of the house rules… I guess I feel that my game hasn’t reached a point where I’ve exhausted the material at my fingertips and therefore I have no need for all the little extras.

Links to Wisdom

This is where Links to Wisdom comes in. This is the wiki to collect cool OSR house rules, including new classes, new spells, new monsters, advice for the creation of dungeon adventures, wilderness adventures, urban adventures, and so on.

OK, so Links to Wisdom has been growing steadily. It has nearly 1000 links on it, right now. 998 as I’m writing this, to be exact. I kept wondering, though: which sites had contributed the most links? Shouldn’t that be some sort of blog recommendation, as people would have to actually recommend particular posts on a blog? It’s better than a simple popularity contest, it would seem. And it would be better than a simple list of blogs. (If you’re interested in a list, check out The Great Blog Roll Call 2014 on Dyver’s blog.)

Anyway, I wrote a script to extract the blog domains from

Links to Wisdom and list them according to numbers appearing:

Top Blogs

If you click on the domain, you’ll be taken to the blog (unless it’s a useless domain such as plus.google.com or docs.google.com). It also says how many links were found, and if you click that number, it links to a list of all the matching entries.

At the moment, Daddy Grognard is the top dog because he’s been adding all his monsters. Thanks! Check out all the Daddy Grognard items.

Here’s how to make it easy to contribute to the wiki:

  1. create a dummy bookmark
  2. edit the bookmark and replace the URL with this: javascript:location='http://campaignwiki.org/add-link?url='+encodeURIComponent(window.location.href)
  3. rename the bookmark to “Submit OSR Links to Wisdom”
  4. save

If you’re looking at a cool page, click the link, and you’ll be taken to the submission form immediately.

It works if you’re on a mobile device, too. On my iPhone, there’s this little dance I do: Read cool stuff in G+ app → “Open in Safari” -> “Submit OSR Link” bookmark. How did I manage to get a javascript link in my bookmarks? Create a dummy bookmark and edit it. Paste the javascript URL over the dummy URL.

As for the categories: they are generated automatically from the web pages of the wiki. That means it’s all editable.

If you’re a coder yourself, you might want to write your own app to submit links or edit the wiki, something easier to use, for example. Check out the Help page, if you’re so inclined.


Comments on 2014-07-28 OSR Top Blogs

I mostly read stuff that is about how to actually run and prepare a game. Additonal content like treasure, spells, monsters, maps an so on isn’t really useful for me, same goes for people telling about the conventions they’ve been to or ranting about what some game designer or commenter say, which they don’t agree with.

Yora 2014-07-28 12:15 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Haha, yeah. Convention reports about conventions I did not go to are even less interesting than session I didn’t play in. 😊

I do like three supplements focusing on spells, though: The Basic Illusionist by Nathan Irving, Theorems & Thaumaturgy by Gavin Norman, and his (not available for free) Complete Vivimancer, also by Gavin Norman. Those collections provide a bit more than just a bunch of spells, they provide an entire theme, a spellbook for villains or allies, that kind of thing. Then again, situations where these come in handy are so rare, these spells and classes still haven’t made it into my campaign. I guess that just goes to show how little extra stuff is actually needed.

As for running and preparing games, I hope that the section Preparing and Running the Game has some interesting links. I keep thinking I should add some more subsections and reorganize it all, but I always get stuck and leave it as it is. Oh well. 👻

– Alex Schroeder 2014-07-28 12:57 UTC

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2014-07-28 Best of Sandbox Posts

Recently, Yora asked for Sandbox logs. Those are tricky to provide. After all, if you’re looking for advice on how to run a game, the session report is filled with useless in-game stuff that nobody but the players will read (if at all).

What I’ve done instead is collect blog posts where I think I have some advice backed up by anecdotes from my game.


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2014-07-06 Your First Time Game

Never ran a fantasy role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons before? Get yourself the D&D Basic Rules, Labyrinth Lord or the Basic Fantasy RPG (or any of the other role-playing games out there). Find some friends and volunteer to run a game for them. Here’s some excellent advice by Greg MacKenzie which he left on a Google+ post by Davin Asiala. I made some slight edits, too.

The important thing to realize is that unless you have a command of the material, an overview, you may have difficulty getting a sense of where it is all going. You are also treading in someone else’s footsteps. My personal advice is reduce your scope: make your own 6-10 room dungeon, and roll up the monsters for each room.

My early adventures went something like this: The adventurers start out at a local tavern where they meet. They hear a few rumours about some horrible hole and are offered either a guide to the spot or a map for a few coins. At which point they set off for the entrance. When they get there the guide leaves and they enter the dungeon. Now note that I provide no obstacles, save that for the dungeon.

You should have a few words of description for the entrance to set the mood. Each room should have a description and may or may not have a monster 1 in 6. The dungeon should be on one sheet of paper. The idea here is to make sure there is something to do. You don’t have to be terribly original here as the game takes on its own life as you play it.

The monsters should have treasure, and make sure to allocate a few magic items among the treasure. You want the players to gain experience points and get a taste of the good things, those magic items. The players should find a shut door for example, listen, try to open it, let the players make Strength rolls to open the doors, your giving them something to do and it involves them. If there are monsters inside, roll for surprise, and initiative to see if the players or monsters go first, and then follow the rest of the combat sequence for the player and monster groups. You will need those combat sheets to make your life easier. When you conclude each round of combat you re-roll for initiative. You can continue until one side or the other quits.

Because these are new players, and monsters aren’t dumb, you can decide if the monsters run away if things go against them or if they fight to the death, try to bargain, etc. Players inevitably fight to the bitter end when they should withdraw. Remind the players when they are low on HP that it might be wiser to run away. Running away is highly under-rated. In any event the monsters don’t have to follow the players beyond the entrance of the dungeon, making for a scary chase when you are low on HP.

If the players defeat the monsters they should be rewarded with treasures… Now what I am really suggesting here is not a give away, players have to earn these things, but in order to allow yourself and the players to get a sense of what the game is about it won’t hurt to be a little liberal with treasure starting out.

When you make your dungeon you can allocate monsters randomly by the tables, but if something is really nasty move it to the farthest point away from the entrance and put in references to it in the dungeon. Kobolds have scrawled on the wall “Go Back end of Kobold Territory”, or players might hear, “wait until ugly finds out” if the monsters are allied with whatever it is. As the GM, you have the decision to place monsters. I usually pick the worst one, and go random from there.


  • stick with the basics
  • know your combat sequence
  • know the dungeon
  • learn to improvise as you go along

Let the players clear the place out to give them a sense of accomplishment.

Improvisation is all about giving the monsters some personality. You can swipe references from film or novels. The players will know them. Juxtapositions are useful does the Orc leader behave and talk and sound like a film gangster? “Gimmie all your coins and I’ll let you go see…” Is one of the Orcs dumb and getting it wrong like one of the Three Stooges? He turns around a sets off a trap, a giant stone rolls through the middle of the room. Is one of them a coward like Ichabod Crane? Have fun with it.

Allow the players to make several trips to and from the dungeon as they may have to heal up before trying again. New players won’t complete this in one go. Compress the time takes, reset hit-points and spells, and carry on the story from that point so many days later. The tavern or village is a sanctuary where nothing should happen at this early juncture.

Some of their characters will be killed, that is part of the game. Re-rolling a character in the middle of the game is a pain for the rest of the players. It may be wise to have a spare on hand to hand out. I usually found that at the start of play, if players are rolling up characters that will eat up a good hour of the play session but it is absolutely essential to building the player-character relationship.

In short: Small dungeon, not big on plot, just players vs. monsters, hidden secrets, and traps. That’s how we did it. Just keep the action going if you can.

Players often go to the tavern to hire help. These non-player characters you play—or you can allow a player to role play one when their character is killed. Players will sometimes simply take over the non-player character for their own use.

When you describe something always have it end ambiguously, e.g. “When you hold your torch in the room you see that this is a 30 x 30 room with a stack of 10’ poles in the southwest corner. Nearby in the south wall there is a small round 2 inch hole in the stonework.” This sort of thing leaves all sorts of questions in the players minds, what are the poles for? Do we insert one in the hole, and if we do what might happen? Is it a trap? Nothing might happen, unless you find all of the other holes and put the poles in, then a secret room opens. Or the thing might set off a trap, release a monster, reward the players with treasure etc. Even when they fight orcs or goblins they might find a key when they are defeated and searched, what is it for? Always leave something open ended. Players will hang onto that key in the hopes it opens something long beyond when it may have been useful just because of the mystery.

– Greg MacKenzie

Greg MacKenzie also runs the website Busy Game Master.


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2014-06-20 Rewarding a Thing

Recently Ian Borchardt wondered on Google+, what people thought of basing experience gains off of class. He was thinking of fighters gaining experience fighting, magic users gaining experience learning spells, and so on. Ian was interested in applying this to D&D solo play. I think the topic bears a wider discussion, however.

I see two things to consider. How will this rule affect gameplay at the table? How will this rule affect what characters do in the game world?

I remember playing Burning Wheel and related games from Burning Wheel Headquarters. These games usually tie advancement to successes and failures in tests. Therefore, every test you make takes a tiny bit of bookkeeping. How difficult was the test? Did I succeed or fail? Jot it down. That’s too much bookkeeping for my taste.

In the games of The Shadow of Yesterday, Solar System or Lady Blackbird, characters have at least one Key. Each key describes a very individual way of gaining experience.

Example Key from Lady Blackbird:

Key of the Paragon
As a noble, you’re a cut above the common man. Hit your key when you demonstrate your superiority or when your noble traits overcome a problem. Buyoff: Disown your noble heritage.

Each key also has a buyoff. If the buyoff condition occurs, you have the option of removing the Key and earning two advances, which you can use to buy another Key or two.

Whenever I ran or played these games I liked this mechanic because it gave players the choice to pick whichever Key they desired, implicitly telling the GM what they wanted the game to be about.

As players get to select the Keys and they get to change them as part of their advancement, Keys can be more fine-grained than just the character’s class, and yet they don’t require as much bookkeeping as Burning Wheel and all those games because not every roll of the die needs record keeping. Players actively try to trigger their Key, and when it happens, they mark it off. Easy.

It is pretty free form, however. As the referee of such a game, you should have a list of Keys prepared that serves as an implicit indication of where you see the game going. By agreeing on a set of Keys beforehand, referee and players can make sure that the Keys stay within the kind of game they want play. It doesn’t have to be an anything goes kind of game.

Mazes & Minotaurs has the kind of experience system that Ian Borchardt was suggesting. I’ve never tried it, it seemed reasonable on paper, but I had trouble imagining it at the table. After every encounter, the fighter player speaks up and says, “that was worth 3 XP for me, right?” The mage player loots the lab and says, “two new scrolls found, 2 XP?” If it happens a lot, it could be a lot like the bookkeeping after every test in the Burning Wheel Headquarters games. If it happens rarely, it could be like a permanent Key in Lady Blackbird.

Then again, something I like in role-playing games is changing gameplay over time. It seems to me that making this Key basically permanent prevents this to some extent.

In a D&D game with dungeons and wilderness adventures I’d say that rewards based on class lead to a kind of reinforcement that I don’t like. Fighters will want to fight monsters that don’t need fighting, thieves will want to steal from people we don’t want to steal from, etc.

To elaborate – and this goes for solo as well as party play – I think that doing a thing should not be rewarded. That’s going to go Pavlov quickly is what I’m guessing. What I want is players doing things in order to get a reward, in other words, they are doing something else in order to get a reward. The action and the reward should be orthogonal. Fighters fight in order to get treasure. Wizards cast spells in order to get treasure. This is how they get to choose their approach, quietly or forcefully, quickly or slowly, talking or fighting, and so on. It allows for more ingenuity in my book.

Anyway, this is what I expect to happen without actually having tried it, and only based on my D&D 3.5 experience. There, fighting monsters granted most of the XP. Avoiding a fight and going about the mission quietly was always an uphill mental battle. It was going against the

affordance of the rules. The reward structure did not invite players to push harder, it invites players to optimize harder (since combat appears unavoidable, in a way, combat is the reward).


Comments on 2014-06-20 Rewarding a Thing

In D&D, I generally favor granting XP for accomplishing goals, almost like getting XP for completing a quest in a computer game. How you reach those goals is unimportant – what matters is that you get them done. It might be dragging home piles of treasure from an ancient tomb, saving a princess, or stopping a marauding dragon. My only criteria are that the goals are non-trivial and matter to the characters and/or players.

In fact, I like to go a step further – characters level when the players have progressed the story arc or campaign some reasonable amount. Our current D&D Next game evolved away from totaling XP for monsters slain (though if we found a good way to avoid a monster or challenge, we were usually given identical XP for that too), and now just relies on the DM’s feel of the game to figure out when going up a level is appropriate.

– Adrian 2014-07-03 22:07 UTC

It makes sense to level up on achieving goals. Basically you’re saying: A new chapter is beginning. The characters have changed. I like how that ties in with my preference for changing gameplay over time. Enough sleep and magic missile. Time to see some lightning bolt and fireball action. The only difficulty I see personally is how a referee is supposed to handle this in an open sandbox. As the players adopt new goals, the table decides as a collective that upon reaching this or that goal, they will all level up? Or do referees decide themselves? As Courtney argues in his blog post, On Advancement Mechanics, Experience, there’s always the danger of taking away agency from players. If the table agreed on an adventure path, on an adventure arc, then that is not an issue, I guess. I never tried it. I’m glad to hear that it’s working out.

AlexSchroeder 2014-07-03 22:35 UTC

Another good article on the topic of rewards: Don’t reward your players for role-playing. I laughed when I got to “I have an intrinsic dislike of extrinsic rewards.” I totally agree with this: “Giving out an extrinsic reward destroys the intrinsic fun. When you’re rewarded for performing an activity you enjoy, you lose interest in performing it for it’s own sake.” The post also includes a link the abstract of A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation by Deci, Koestner and Ryan. The article is also available via Research Gate. So what’s the point of XP in the first place? It’s there to “make sure that the game you play tomorrow is different from the game you played today.” This is something I keep saying about long-term campaigns: There needs to be a promise of ever-changing gameplay. XP is part of this. (In D&D, I think the other part is due to how spells are structured.) And if you’re handing out XP to “make them role-play more,” Jack Mack has you covered as well: “It’s a type of behavioral conditioning, a skinner box made to get your friends to behave the way you want. You shouldn’t need this. If you have a player who’s shy and doesn’t role-play much, why use a passive-aggressive rewards system to punish them for playing that way? If you dislike the way someone plays, why not just talk to them about it? Extrinsic rewards are just going to make them enjoy role-playing even less than they did in the first place.”

A blog post full of win.

I ended up having an interesting discussion with Tim Franzke in the comments to my Google+ post and on his Google+ reshare. One of his points was that in BWHQ games (Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel, Torchbearer, …) he’s having great fun with getting rewarded for role-playing, an activity that he enjoys. I said that as for providing both rewards (intrinsic and extrinsic), I could only reiterate what the blog post said:

Intrinsic fun AND extrinsic fun, that must combine to make the game more fun than ever, right?
Well, research has found that’s not quite true. In the words of this literature review: “…expected tangible rewards made contingent upon doing, completing, or excelling at an interesting activity undermine intrinsic motivation for that activity.” Giving out an extrinsic reward destroys the intrinsic fun. When you’re rewarded for performing an activity you enjoy, you lose interest in performing it for it’s own sake.
– Jack Mack

If it isn’t true for you, I said, then I’ll argue that Burning Wheel is different because of the following:

  1. Some of the rewards comes at the end of the session, so they are pretty dissociated from the act. Perhaps that undermines it.
  2. Most of the rewards don’t reward “role-playing” but succeeding and failing at tests, being useful, moving the story forward, moving the story in unexpected directions, making people laugh.

As for me, I feel like getting paid—I feel dirty!—when we need to talk about most valuable player, embodiment, mold breaker and workhorse. It’s not too bad because I don’t think about it during the session. I’d argue that the negative effects of the extrinsic reward don’t affect me that much because of #1 above, the rewards at the end of the session are far removed from actual play. It’s still an awkward situation for me, and one of the many reasons I don’t play Burning Wheel.

On Tim’s own thread, he summarized his experience as follows:

I like getting rewarded “for roleplaying” because it makes me do suboptimal things. It creates neat decision points.
– Tim Franzke

In a recent old school D&D session run by Harald, my cleric lost an arm. So what to do? No more shield use? Use a spiked shield and switch between protecting myself and bashing people? I decided to try and run my cleric as a pacifist. No more attacking. Clearly a suboptimal decision, and I didn’t do it because I expected a reward, I did it because I think it will be fun. I still want him to go on adventure, fight monsters and take their stuff, because that’s how I’ll get XP and level up, but the absence of a reward doesn’t mean that suboptimal decisions will not be taken. In fact, I’d argue that being humble without expecting an extrinsic reward would be more humble. The player would feel humble. The other players would be astonished at the humility. It would be a more valuable experience for the humans sitting at the table. Sitting at the same table, I might feel the urge to tease you, saying: “But you just did it for Artha…” Perhaps we’d enjoy ourselves because of the irony as we are players sitting at the table making our characters do things we know the players don’t feel at the table. There’d be a lot of winking and eye rolling, of “my character is so humble, he cannot accept this bow!” and “of course he is, hahaha!” The meta level turns into the source of entertainment. Speaking for myself, I find this reduces my enjoyment, unfortunately.

On the same post, I got pulled into a discussion with Robert about “extrinsic rewards for X but not Y” vs “extrinsic rewards for X and Y”. Clearly, I’m in the camp of “extrinsic rewards for X but not Y”—the interesting question should be why I prefer to reward looting but not role-playing, right? The answer in the context of Jack Mack’s blog post is that role-playing is an activity I enjoy at the table, it has intrinsic value, where as looting is something that has no intrinsic value at all. I just do it because that’s what I need to in order change the game over time, or in Jack Mack’s words, “to make sure that the game you play tomorrow is different from the game you played today.” It’s one of the things that makes role-playing games a game. It’s also left to the table to decide how far we want to go in the pursuit of this goal. And the thing you’re rewarding doesn’t have to be looting in every game—but it should be something that isn’t intrinsically enjoyable or you’ll spoil it. Perhaps it doesn’t spoil it for you and others, and that’s fine, too. The research says that there’s a tendency for extrinsic reward to spoil your intrinsic enjoyment, however.

Robert said that that some people don’t find intrinsic pleasure in RP and that “extrinsic rewards give them an incentive to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.” The original blog post has a whole paragraph dedicated to this:

In comparison, I always see role-playing reward mechanics recommended as a way to change how people play. You do it to make them role-play more. It’s a type of behavioral conditioning, a skinner box made to get your friends to behave the way you want. You shouldn’t need this. If you have a player who’s shy and doesn’t role-play much, why use a passive-aggressive rewards system to punish them for playing that way? If you dislike the way someone plays, why not just talk to them about it? Extrinsic rewards are just going to make them enjoy role-playing even less than they did in the first place.
– Jack Mack

I think that’s exactly the problem I have when Robert explains that he teaches “within a system that has exam structures imposed on my class by the government, parents, the school management, etc. Within that framework, it is sometimes necessary to use extrinsic rewards to encourage students to develop skills and knowledge that are not valued by the system.” If I were sitting at his table, and he were offering me extrinsic rewards for something I wasn’t doing because of an intrinsic enjoyment I felt, then it starts to feel like work and school.

You might point out that my characters are looting for XP, so what’s the difference from role-playing for Artha? I think the concept of a game is important, here. We’ve come together to play a game and the game is about particular activities. These activities are driven by goals. Loot is a simple goal to work towards. In Burning Wheel, beliefs act a bit like individual goals. Sadly, when I encountered them, they were often not clear cut goals, but they certainly can be, and when they are, it works quite well. Using instincts to my disadvantage, using traits to drive the story in unforeseen directions, being funny, being the most valuable player, the work horse, and so on—these aren’t goals. At least, these aren’t goals in how I understand them. These aren’t goals that provide direction to my activities.

Tim said that these mechanical rewards for things that I don’t recognize as goals do motivate him to make disadvantageous decisions. I can’t argue against that. All I can say is that for me, the referee making failure interesting is the only thing I require. I don’t require a reward.

As to why I consider the use a trait to drive the story in unforeseen directions not being a goal that provides direction to your activities, the way I see it this: we come together, sit at the table, the last session we told the game master that we wanted to explore the Gnoll ruins. What will be looking for? Option 1 is “loot”. Option 2 seems to be “looking for a way to drive the story in unforeseen directions”? That doesn’t sound right. It looks like the difference between strategy and tactics. “Loot” or the belief “I’m going to kill the lord of Xitaqua” will tell the game master what we want to do, it’s about the big picture and it will give us a sense of accomplishment when we have done it. It will take a session. Me having the trait “Playful” and throwing some bones at the lions, possibly changing the course of the expedition is something that happens spontaneously, it changes the scene, it changes the story in unforeseen ways, it doesn’t give us a sense of accomplishment. (At least it wouldn’t do that for me?) “Loot” or a specific belief says what we want to accomplish. A trait might suggest a way of accomplishing said goal, or change how we’re accomplishing said goal, or complicate out attempt of accomplishing said goal. It will not tell us what said goal is, however.

Well, if anything, I don’t think I ever wrote that much on a Google+ thread. 😊

AlexSchroeder 2014-07-07

I am going to respond to only one thing, your question about a sandbox. The way I see it (and this is just one point of view), in a sandbox game, the players are essentially “exploring” an unknown map. In some cases this is the literal act of mapping out unrevealed hexes on a map. In other cases it is finding out what is hidden in a particular wilderness hex. In other cases, it is the interaction with particular notable features on the map – like what do you do with that increasingly belligerent warren of kobolds, or the mysterious lone wizard in the mist-shrouded tower. I could see attaching XP rewards to all of these activities, if you really wanted a clearly laid out reward system – or you could play it by ear (not sure if I would want to give out XP for just exploring hexes, but I could see games where it would work). Dealing with the kobolds (slaying them, forcing them to leave, negotiating a treaty, defeating the chieftain and becoming the new kobold chief) might be worth a small XP reward, while exploring the lair of the legendary red dragon Ashfang (and slaying her / taking her treasure / appeasing her with sacrifices / becoming her agents) might be worth more. Bigger risk or more difficult task, higher reward, and so forth.

Now that I think about it, I think I am mostly reiterating what you said about exploring the gnoll ruins – the difference between what the goal is versus how we accomplish it in-game. I prefer rewards for the former, not the latter.

– Adrian 2014-07-07 18:31 UTC

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2014-05-22 Stat Blocks

Random Wizard writes about the OSR Stat Block and mentions Semper Initiativus Unum’s OSR Compatible Logo. I myself use a slightly different notation.

I started wondering: Why is it unlikely that I will be adopting a different notation?

The most important issue is probably that I don’t care enough about other systems and I feel that it’s incredibly easy to move from one system to another. If I can run D&D 3.5 adventures using Labyrinth Lord converting stats on the fly, then I’m sure you can do a quick “19 minus descending armor class = ascending armor class” or a quick “19 minus HD = single saving throw”.

Another important issue is that I usually take notes for myself, so I’m used to my particular format. This format continues to evolve (in minuscule steps). Perhaps we can look to the tech world. The Tao of IETF (the Internet Engineering Task Force) is “rough consensus” and “running code”—and it would seem to me that we are close to rough consensus and we have a lot of actual experience running and writing adventures and monster collections. We’re just quibbling about the details.

Here’s how I feel the B1 stat block mentioned by Random Wizard compares to mine.

Random Wizard and B1: Orcs (1-4) – HP: 6, 4, 3, 1; #AT: 1; D: 1-6; AC 7/12; SA: None

Mine: 2d10 orcs HD 1 AC 7 1d6 F1 MV 12 ML 7 XP 5

  • I don’t like the ranges because simple ranges can be expressed using die notation (1–4 = 1d4) where as weird ranges take too much time to figure out (5-14 = 3d4+2).
  • I don’t like the sorted hit points. Do I randomize the list at the table? If so, I might just as well roll the hit points myself (which is what I do).
  • I usually don’t see the point of listing the number of attacks.
  • I like AC to be at the beginning because I’ll refer to it a lot (every time a player attacks).
  • I’m a big fan of morale. Morale scores are important.
  • I’m not much of a fan of movement, but I sometimes I still care. How many shots can you fire at a charging enemy? Who can outrun the werecamel?
  • I wouldn’t mind listing ascending and descending AC. The simple a/b notation is short and it doesn’t use parenthesis. I like it.
  • As a nitpicker, I don’t understand why AC doesn’t need a colon were as HP, #AT, D and SA need one.
  • For that matter, I don’t understand why Damage or Special Abilities need a label. Isn’t it obvious that the only range or die notation in the stat block must be damage and that the only plain text must be special abilities?
  • XP is optional, I agree (and often forget to list it in my prep notes).

Longer example which includes a name, multiple attacks and various special abilities.

Bel, Slayer of Men, HD 10 AC 2 -/3d6 ML 11 MV 9; flaming whip does no damage but on a hit it grants +4 on the hit with the flaming sword in the same round and on a 20 it disarms the opponent; flaming aura deals an extra 1d6 to everybody nearby; immune to non-magic weapons; immune to fire

Perhaps if more people posted their favorite monster notation and argued for their differences, we could start building said “rough consensus”.


Comments on 2014-05-22 Stat Blocks

Ynas Midgard
The stats for the creatures above would look something like this in my notes:

Orc (2d10): HD 1; AC 7; Atk 1 axe 1d6; MV 12; ML 7

Bel, Slayer of Men: HD 10; AC 2; Atk 1 flaming sword 3d6, 1 flaming whip (+4 to-hit on next attack; disarm on 20); MV 9; ML 11; flaming aura deals 1d6; immune to non-magic weapons and fire

I couldn’t imagine myself putting down more complicated notes on a regular basis; although for some particularly complex ability or attack mode I could use something like indicating what happens on a natural 1, on a miss, on a hit, or on a natural 20.

Ynas Midgard 2014-05-27 15:30 UTC

Same here, sometimes I’ll have extra stuff happen on a natural 20. If monsters have a breath attack they don’t use every round, I also like to give the chance for them to use it (since no d20 is rolled). I like 50% or 1–3/6 better than “every 1d4 rounds”.

In your stat block the “Atk” label is the only thing I would drop. I used to have it my own notes as well, but dropped it as unnecessary. The attack descriptions are not easily confused with anything else.

AlexSchroeder 2014-05-28 06:07 UTC

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2014-03-15 Old School Elite Monsters

Recently I found a comment by andrew ferris on a Google+ post by Urizen Shaitan I’d like to share.

What works best for fun is not really realistic and sometimes when attempting to implement something “realistic”, you get something even less realistic than if you hadn’t tried.

Okay, first to deal with armor and hit points. Now if one wants monsters to scale up the same way PCs scale up, you are going to have an issue. PCs gain 1 hit dice per a level and generally speaking armor and damage increase. With some classes the armor and damage increases considerably less than with others, but generally speaking it increases. The thing is that… well… there isn’t a good formula for what level of monster ought to be able to handle 4-5 PCs by themselves.

For instance, generally speaking if you have a level 5 PC fight 5 level 1 PCs, the level 5 PC has 5× the hit points as well as having better damage potential and being harder to hit. They will generally mop the floor with the 5 level 1s.

However, a level 25 PC would almost undoubtedly be demolished by 5 level 5s, particularly if those 5 level 5s have among them a thief, cleric, and particularly magic-user. This is particularly true given how in old D&D where PCs cap out at level 9.

Now, if something is going to be a challenge for 5 PCs it can only do one of the following

  1. Have 5× the health it normally does or have some method to avoid ⅘ of the attacks (such as a high AC). This can either be all in one go or it can be be recovered over the battle (regen or healing magic) and the average health of the creature would be 5× by the end of the average length of a battle.
  2. Deal out 5× the damage a PC could. It could have 5× the attacks, hit 5× as often or deal 5× the damage a normal enemy of that level would do.

If you do both, it will be 25× as strong as a normal enemy. It is also worthwhile considering the difference between a solo and a group. After all, if you are fighting a group of enemies and you can manage to deal ⅕ of the total hit points in damage to one of the enemies in the group then the group’s damage output is going to decrease by 20%. But if you deal ⅕ of the hit points to an enemy with 5× the health, then its damage output isn’t going to decrease unless there is a system for it to do so.

In addition, PCs generally fight in groups. This means that if the attacks simply do 5× the damage or there are 5× as many attacks that can (and narratively should) be aimed at a single target, then you deal with another issue. Generally speaking a single enemy attack against a PC ought to sap around ⅓–¼ of their life. But if the attack does 5× damage or there are 5× the amount of attacks, this will wipe out a PC with each successful hit. This will cause the group’s effectiveness to drop by 20%.

Because of this, it is probably best to increase both the hit points and the damage output by about double. You can improve the AC or the monster’s chances to hit, but I would do it by a point or two at the most. Increased hit points and an increased number of attacks is what I would advise in order to have an exciting encounter that is less likely to result in a TPK.

As for the narrative attacks…. one of the things I feel the OSR has been painfully lazy about is when it comes to monster attacks. Particularly the old set up “2 claws, 1 bite” no animal in the world fights like that. Ever. It is utterly unimaginable that within a 6 second span of time a beast is ever going to swing its paws at two separate targets and then bite a third. It just doesn’t work that way. Nor is an animal going to make one swipe with each claws and then pull them back before biting. Rather than ever having such a sequence, it would have been far more realistic to simply describe this whole attack as a single unarmed attack sequence which will either be successful or not as a whole and the number rolled on the damage dice would be evocative of how many of its natural weapons it hit with.

Instead of giving a solo monster multiple attacks, the far better thing to do would be to give the monster area-effecting attacks. For instance, it can charge in a straight line which means it can run over a PC, knock another aside and then slam into a third target which would be a great way to get those mages into melee combat. Or it can make a sweep with a giant claw or weapon that has a chance of dealing damage to all enemies engaged in melee. Or it could release a cloud of toxic gas which could affect everyone in a given area or it could even be capable of picking up or knocking a PC off their feet (i.e. a successful melee attack), hurling them at another turning one PC’s body into a weapon against another (making a ranged attack).

With those sorts of attacks, suddenly it becomes very clear why it is foolish to attack the monster with a regiment of very weak soldiers and why a group of elite adventurers are needed to handle the monster.

So basically, my advice is when designing solo monsters… Double its normal hit points. Give it some sort of area attack (or several options!) that would allow it to hit 1–3 enemies a turn and particularly to be able to get at those more vulnerable ranged combatants. Increase AC, attack bonus and damage of the monster minimally—only 1–2 points.

And then you just have to accept that if this monster is, for instance, an Ogre or a Troll, that its numbers are not evocative of simply adding levels to the monster.

– andrew ferris

What can I say. These days my players kill red dragons in the surprise round and survive cloud kill… but area effects are clearly the way to go!


Comments on 2014-03-15 Old School Elite Monsters

Ynas Midgard
Good thoughts! Solo or boss monsters have been on my mind lately, especially since Beedo mentioned them in connection with his new megadungeon project. I think OSR games tend to avoid creating monsters that are explicit boss fights, unless they are quite high in level (like unique demon lords and such).

Ynas Midgard 2014-03-17 18:15 UTC

Also, dragons. :)

I do wonder, however, whether classic D&D is well suited for boss fights. Is it just going to be a damage fest? Could be boring. Is going to involve special attacks? Could be save or die every round for at least one player character. My experience in recent sessions has been this:

  • green dragon, party runs
  • black dragon attacks first, party kill it quickly
  • red dragon flies overhead, party runs
  • red dragon, different party, they kill it in the surprise round
  • polymorphing demon turns into a dragon, gets chased and fought, dies quickly
  • more demons, they free a djinni who sinks the ship with the demons aboard

Are these the “boss fights” we know from computer role-playing games? The key aspect of those is that you need to figure out a particular weakness (in D&D terms: immunities) and hit it a few times in a row while avoiding damage (in D&D terms: avoiding tons of damage or save or die effects). In a pen & paper game, smart players learn about immunities before starting a fight, so perhaps it doesn’t “feel” like a boss fight?

AlexSchroeder 2014-03-17 18:40 UTC

Ynas Midgard
Boss fights are typically those which can be memorable for exploiting the mechanics. That is, if a game has plenty of different conditions (and ways of inflicting and removing them), bosses could be given different attack types that deal decent damage and/or inflict one more negative conditions on one or more targets. They could be accompanied by a large number of different creatures, as well; and the environment could be made more fantastical and easy to exploit.

Come to think of it, boss fights are typically those that need careful planning on the DM’s part. Not because of railroading purposes, but because their very nature require more attention; if boss fights are like fighting giants or dinosaurs in D&D (i.e. like normal encounters but with more damage and hit points), they are not really boss fights.

Ynas Midgard 2014-03-19 18:28 UTC

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2014-02-19 Huge Parties

Yesterday I ran a game for eight players (I usually cap at six). We had already established that this was going to be a raid on a pirate fortress. I knew that it was going to have 80 elves ready to fight, 80 elves sleeping (all 1st level), a 9th and a 7th level elf, and a red dragon. The party allied itself with some commando elves and so the attacking force consisted of eight player characters and their eight henchmen with levels between 1 and 7 as well as the command elves, six 6th level elves and eighteen ordinary 1st level elves; forty characters in all. I handed out little index cards with the stats of the elven commando leaders and their henchmen. Three hours later it was all over, most of the pirates slain, the dragon dead, the enemy leader killed, her second in command take prisoner, the dragon hoard secured and the fortress being towed to the players’ domain. (This is a big mashup campaign using Spelljammer ships and fortresses, and An Echo Resounding for domain level play.)

It was a very unusual adventure, but I like the change in pace!

The fortress was structured as a series of encounters with a mini map I kept behind the screen, usually with ten elves, sometimes with a leader of level 1d6+1; sometimes with more elves about to arrive. Good use was made of hold portal to prevent elves from joining up and good use was made of silence and sleep to surprise enemies and incapacitate a dozen foes in the surprise round, haste was used to quickly position archers and casters, sneaky thieves were used to scout ahead and best prepare for assaults, and to avoid tricky hallways with enemy archers hiding, several lightning bolts were used to kill the dragon before it could join the elven sorceress, they survived her cloudkill with minimal losses and managed to dispel it the next round…

It was a bloodbath.

For ease of reference and consistent spell selection of both the allied commando elves and the defending elf pirates, I used a technique I described previously: my spell book notation lists the spell-book of the top elf or magic-user with spell level and spell name, and a third column with the character level at which this spell is usually picked. This helps me run a lot of spell casters. This list would begin as follows, for example:

Spell Level Character Level Spell Name Notes
11sleep2d8 HD
12shieldAC 4, AC 2 vs. missiles
17detect magic
24detect invisibility5 rd./level
35haste30 min.
36dispel magic
47polymorphAC 0 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d10 MV 240
48dimension door360 ft. or 120 m
59cloud kill⌀ 30 ft., MV 6

The most important skill of all is a sort of military “go! go! go!” efficiency at the table, however. No questions about who rolls initiative. Roll all the dice – have d20s and damage dice of matching colors and have all the colors assigned to your dudes and roll them all at once. All enemy elves, regardless of level, had AC 4. When your turn comes up, just tell me “I hit three times, damage is 4, 5, 2.” That’s the plan, anyway. :) Also, pick a leader who tells me where the party goes. Which stairs do you pick? Quietly or quickly? When the fight is on, just keep pushing. When the fight is over, let players talk, laugh, investigate, debate.

That’s it.


The picture shows the kind of notes I had prepared ahead of time. As you can see these are crude sketches of the area and enemy positions. Most enemies were all elves with a single magic missile memorized. If the party won initiative, it was usually over in a few seconds.

As you can see on the little fold-out flow-chart on the left, the encounters weren’t all arranged linearly. My main idea was this:

  1. Failure to scout ahead would result in players fighting elves on catapult platforms, essentially wasting resources. As it turns out, players did scout ahead but decided to fight all the elves anyway, thinking that they wanted to any surprises behind their backs.
  2. Following the main entrances would put the focus on fighting, following the steamy passages left and down would allow more sneaking and would allow players to fight the dragon before it joined up with the leaders. Players chose to go for the sneakier variant.
  3. I had the vague idea of figuring out whether players were wasting time or being too loud and springing extra ambushes on them if they did. In the press of the moment and considering how lame rolling for “move quietly” would be in this context, I just used the flow-chart as is.
  4. When I gave the players the commando elves to run, I told them that the elves would evaluate their leadership and if they felt that the party had been betraying them (using them as cannon fodder), then surely they would turn on them – just as the party would have turned on them. The players accepted this.

It worked for me!

In the final analysis, it was a lot easier than I expected. Was it because the commando elves were too strong? Was it because the party had four extra players I had not expected? (Two of them are new players from my Sunday campaign and another two players are not regular players so I wasn’t counting on them.) Oh well, I think it’s only fair to not adjust difficulty levels on the fly.


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2014-02-17 No More Pendragon

We stopped play midway through year 510 of The Great Pendragon Campaign after a devastating battle in May and ended the campaign. Too much railroading, too many sudden death moments, too many fiddly rules that slow us down but don’t further our enjoyment, too much leafing back and forth in the book… I’m both sad and relieved, in  a way.

The discussion was kicked off by one player who felt like quitting the campaign and explaining all the things he didn’t like. I agreed with a lot of it. I had written about it myself. Another player said he’d like to play on weekdays instead of weekends. Another player was missing. My wife wanted to continue playing but was suffering because of a recent string of character deaths. The last player was new and said he had been unable “to get into it” in the three sessions he had played with us.

An astonishing thing happened during the discussion. My wife and the player who had started the discussion are both players in my mashup game—the old school sandbox game using Labyrinth Lord, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Spelljammer, Planescape, and An Echo Resounding. They started comparing the Pendragon campaign to this other game. The other game is crazy (“I’d describe the atmosphere as killer clowns”) but it has more player agency. Pendragon is more about how you deal with the events around you. My mashup game is about the things you do. I rarely need to pick up a rulebook and search for a rule. The NPCs are all strange and memorable. No king Leodegrance, Sir Cador, Centurion King and other faceless dudes that you haven’t interacted with. Pendragon not only suffers from an inflation of NPC names that players haven’t interacted with, it also encourages me to add names, exacerbating the problem. What are the names of the sons of Duke Ulfius? Who cares? I still feel compelled to look it up instead of making it up.

In a way, the big campaign provides a railroad that affects me as well. I am inspired by the campaign, I steer the players towards the rails, I entice them to stay on the rails, they are always present. Like those pesky Paizo Adventure Paths, they shackle my imagination and stiffle my improvisation.

So, where as I am sad to see it go, I am also happy to see how my players love the classic D&D sandbox and validate the choices I made for that mashup game.


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2014-02-17 Cool OSR Blog Posts

Two blog posts I enjoyed today:

Specialization and Assumed Competence illustrates that any system where the gap between a characters with and without specialization increases is a system where the general competence decreases even if the general challenge level of the environment and the actual stats remain unchanged.

On the Deadly Difference drives home a point I’ve been trying to adhere to for a while, now: announce risks and consequences before players make decisions. My Swiss Referee Style Manual ends with the very same advice, inspired by the very same blog.

The following list is from the Hack & Slash blog.

Announce consequences before players commit to actions. There can only be meaningful choice if players know what to expect. (“If you fail the roll, you’ll […]. Do you want to risk it?”)

Provide information if players are unsure. You can wrap it in vague language, but be sure to provide the necessary information. (“It’s hard to say, but you feel a nagging suspicion that he’s probably hiding something.”)

In the same vein, provide warnings if players are putting themselves in danger. You’re aiming for “I knew it!” when something bad befalls player characters. (“You notice that the hanging bridge above the tar pits seems frail. Just make sure nobody cuts those ropes!”)

Provide alternatives if you think that what players want should be impossible. (“You can’t just buy a magic weapon but they say there’s a hidden entrance to a goblin market in the Smoke Forest.”)

Add obstacles whenever players are getting what they want. (“The insect trainer will teach your lizard how to spy ahead if you provide her with a living giant wasp.”)


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2014-01-23 Fight On

Fight On! #14 has been released on Lulu! The bestest old school fanzine is back, like a revenant it haunts the living even if we know that it is already dead. Calithena has said that #15 will be the last issue and that saddens me. Issue #14 also came without my Caverns of Slime. This doesn’t make me as sad as I thought it would because we get a fantastic troll fortress instead. Gatehouse, temple, main complex, it has everything and nice, emphatic maps. Thick, black lines, high contrast edges, and yet clearly labelled. Citadel of the Dark Trolls. Lee Barber. Well done!

One of the comments in the announcement thread says “I used the code GETIT25 and got 25% off my order.” Good luck!


Comments on 2014-01-23 Fight On

Thanks Alex, I also thought my troll level was going in 15, due to page count. To complement the Citadel I plan to release a bonus map of the Dagendreng hold/tavern; let me know if you’d like the eventual pdf link.

Lee Barber 2014-01-23 17:24 UTC

Yes please! Thanks.

AlexSchroeder 2014-01-23 17:28 UTC

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