Halberds and Helmets

I think we end up with retro-clones not because we want to inaugurate the next kick-ass RPG but because we’ve spent—or wasted—six months of our life tinkering with rules, adding house rules, doing layout for a target audience of four to five people and by now we might as well publish it...

Halberds & Helmets is the name of my Players Handbook for old school D&D. It takes it’s inspiration from B/X D&D (1981) via Labyrinth Lord and incorporates many of the various rules and ideas I tag Old School.

If clicking the link gives you a grey or black screen and no PDF, try using a right click and “Save Link As…” instead. Perhaps your browser can’t display the PDF.

Also note the German variant, Hellebarden & Helme. And for those of you interested in the sketches that led to all of this, there’s the Halberds and Helmets Wiki.

2020-12-17 Halberds and Helmets Saving Throws

sent a follow up mail with some thoughts on H&H saving throws. Looking at the stats in the cheat sheet, he made this table:

save vs. death             5 
save vs. dragon breath     8 
save vs. explosions        1 
save vs. paralysis         5 
save vs. poison           15 
save vs. rays              2 
save vs. spells           16 

I guess explosions are something I use for non-monsters, like grenades. The one reference in the cheat sheet is the ice devil casting ice storm and you “save vs. explosions” for half damage. It just looks better in my mind’s eye than using “save vs. dragon breath”.

Well, J. Alan Henning has a different proposal: to streamline them slightly!

He reclassifies them:

save vs. death             5 → save vs. death ray 
save vs. dragon breath     8   
save vs. explosions        1 → save vs. death ray 
save vs. paralysis         5   
save vs. poison           15   
save vs. rays              2 → save vs. death ray 
save vs. spells           16   

Is the ice devil’s storm more like a death ray? I don’t know! I’m feeling like I should be shouting: “Noooooo! This changes everything!” But the truth is, of course, that this is exactly what people should do. 😁

save vs. death ray         8 
save vs. dragon breath     8 
save vs. paralysis         5 
save vs. poison           15 
save vs. spells           16 

In an effort to write super concise rules mashing up H&H and the Target 20 variant from Searchers of the Unknown he ends up with this for saving throws: “roll a d20, add their level, and add the modifier as shown below; roll 20 or higher to succeed.”

spells                    +1
dragon breath             +2 
paralysis                 +3
death ray                 +4
poison                    +5

An interesting choice! Poison is the harshest, dragon breath is not so bad. Or not? Of course, it’s the reverse: a higher bonus makes it more likely to make the target number, so poison is the least dangerous where as spells are the most dangerous. All right! Well, only playtesting can show whether it works – and I suspect players simply adjust their risk behaviour to compensate for any perceived changes. If at all! I know that as a player I hardly ever think too much about the details of the rules.

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2020-12-17 Halberds and Helmets Monster List

Thanks to I now have a seven page cheat sheet of the Halberds and Helmets monsters that we’ve been using in Hex Describe. Good to have handy as a convenient reference. Might be useful to you for wandering monster tables as well? The Halberds and Helmets Referee Guide isn’t too long and I like to have a printed copy at the table just in case, but this looks like the ideal backup. 🙂

Thanks, J. Alan Henning!

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2020-01-20 Bugbears are cat people

I just learned about tabaxi (D&D 5E cat people) as I was reading 6th Edition Dungeons & Dragons by Jack Guignol. I’ve been using bugbears as cat people in my game, thinking of them as perfect thieves – like the Khajiit in Skyrim. Bugbears work well in my system because the 5-in-6 chance of surprise can be extended to all thieving activities and a human thief needs to attain level 9 before their thieving skills are at 5-in-6 (2-in-6 at first, 3-in-6 @ 3rd, 4-in-6 @ 6th, 5-in-6 @ 9th level).

Last session the part did run into three bugbears who kidnapped a party member (a retainer) while on watch, and were very hard to track – basically requiring reconnaissance by the player character that has taken over a dragon. For a few minutes I was inspired by the Futility Closet episode about The Mad Trapper of Rat River. If you prefer reading: Albert Johnson, “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

page 11, bottom

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Comments on 2020-01-20 Bugbears are cat people

I have been using Bugbears as my assassin/enforcer forces for my continent as well. I will admit that I changed their (9 fold) alignment to get them more in line with this role. My players seem to have fun with them like this. They are willing to talk so now the party has a couple of inroads to the place they are traveling to.

PresGas 2020-01-21 01:33 UTC


If they are cats, they are big fat chonky cats! Love it!

RogerGS 2020-01-21 06:21 UTC


I love image searching all this stuff. So much visual inspiration!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-21 06:40 UTC

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2020-01-08 Boneless magic

I finished another spellcaster for my Spellcasters project: Lem. It started with thoughts on squids and having no bones, on maybe having multiple arms, but then I started thinking about madness and mindflayers, as I am wont to do. When I started writing about Lem’s lair (that’s the introduction at the beginning which I can use to make sure every spellcaster gets a two page spread) it went to dark places… Maybe I should change that. People have joked that old school D&D is starting out thinking it’s a D&D campaign and then realising that actually it’s a Call of Cthulhu campaign and that you are totally unprepared. I prefer thinking of this as a joke. I remember once when I was a teenager the game had body horror and gore and my players told me afterwards that I should tone it down. Little did I know about X-Cards or Lines and Veils.

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2019-11-02 Whirlwind Attacks

Jeff Rients wrote about all weapons doing d6 damage, saying that he didn’t use the rule. Well, I do. What’s it like, at the table?

I haven’t noticed any drawback at all to my game. Only two-handed weapons needed a change as in my game shields can be sacrificed to annul one hit (after the seeing the damage done), making them very valuable.

Thus:

  • battle axes can be used to break through doors
  • pole-arms allow you to attack from the second rank
  • two-handed swords allow you to do “whirlwind” attacks: make one roll and everybody who is in melee with you gets attacked by the same roll

The Wikipedia article on the Zweihänder has the following fragment:

Frisian hero Pier Gerlofs Donia is reputed to have wielded a Zweihänder with such skill, strength and efficiency that he managed to behead several people with it in a single blow.

And this is the Battle of Kappel, showing soldiers wielding two-handed swords against pikemen. Yikes!

By Johannes Stumpf, Hans Asper - Chronik des Johannes Stumpf, 1548. Scanned from Schwabe & Co.: Geschichte der Schweiz und der Schweizer, Schwabe & Co 1986/2004. ISBN 3-796-52067-7., Public Domain

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Comments on 2019-11-02 Whirlwind Attacks

I prefer this approach. I played Pathfinder Adventurer Card Game, where you are constantly trying to improve your inventory of weapons - it was fun, but too videogamey. I prefer the weapons to be thematic. “You have my sword... And you have my bow. ... And my axe.”

I did introduce an intelligent sword (charisma 16, gets in charisma contests when what it wants - the PC to take a leadership role - differs from the PC) and the players were disappointed it didn’t offer some unusual attack or damage. So there are drawbacks.

J. Alan Henning 2019-11-02 16:21 UTC


On the other hand, if all swords do 1d6 then a +2 or a +3 already sounds more impressive. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2019-11-02 16:41 UTC


Regarding the attacking pikemen with a 2-handed sword... I’d always understood that was the point of the Zweihänder. They didn’t attack the guys with the pikes but aimed to chop off the head of weapon and drive the long staff to the side so others could move in past the pokey parts. Must have been some brave fellows.

– Ruprecht 2019-11-05 15:21 UTC


Yeah. But they also got double pay. And as I understand it, they were not in the first rank. They waited in the second rank behind shield bearers and other pikemen for crush and then they moved forward. At least that’s what one Wikipedia page says even though the picture shows something else. I know nothing…

– Alex Schroeder 2019-11-05 17:33 UTC


Does seem like using the shield guys would be better than standing out in no mans land waiting for every pikeman to poke you.

– Ruprecht 2019-11-05 19:28 UTC

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2019-10-13 Theatre of the mind

I don't use battlemaps. It’s all theatre of the mind.

Actually, it’s worse: it’s so abstracted that we don’t really need to imagine where people are standing, or which of the orcs has been hurt. The rules I use support this:

  • You can move anywhere on the battlefield and attack: you don’t know how to move from here to there on the battlefield
  • Anybody can take one attack to a buddy by interposing themselves; your armour and your shield and your body can protect your friend without you knowing where they are on the battlefield
  • You can’t take two attacks aimed at other people because you can only be in one place at a time, of course.
  • You usually cannot aim at particular monsters. Just as players can protect each other, the enemies do the same thing. I order to make it easier for me to run the game, I just array enemies in a particular order and every round they get attacked in turn, no matter what players say. When they ask how this is possible, I’ll just say that they cover each other as well (but not optimally so).
  • Anybody can fire ranged weapons at anybody else without needing to establish line of sight and without wondering whether the enemy is currently engaged in melee. There is no friendly fire. It’s simply quicker and easier that way. If you really don’t like that, then I’d suggest you simply disallow the use of ranged weapons once the surprise round is over. Given those two options, however, it’s simply easier to just allow people to fire at will.
  • When there are area effects, we negotiate the number of targets affected. Usually that’s not a problem. I love negotiating at the table, but only if negotiations are short. 😅

I’ve seen something similar in Ryuutama and at the time I wrote a blog post about combat using two rows per side.

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2019-09-19 Witch magic

I finished another spellcaster for my Spellcasters project: Qunu. Witches, curses, charms, that kind of thing.

I know, nothing special or revolutionary to see: just good old Vancian magic, spells in the range of 1–5, i.e. for spellcasters in the range of levels 1–10. 🧝🏻‍♀️🧝🏼‍♂️🧙‍♀️🧙🏼‍♂️

And I wrote a little script that extracts all the spell descriptions and puts them on a wiki page. That should allow for easier reference, and it gives you quick access to the Markdown source.

And the collected PDF with all the spellcasters (work in progress) now has a title page that makes it look like it belongs next to the Referee Guide. I’m so proud of myself. 🙂

Compare:

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2019-03-31 Treasure into the Book

I’ve done it! I’ve started to add magic items to my Halberds & Helmets Referee Guide, and when that is done, I should finally have a “complete” system that no longer requires B/X or Labyrinth Lord to play. It has all the rules, all the classes, many of the spells (the Spellcasters project remains unfinished), all of the monsters, all of the big setting stuff (mostly just the two pages on the Norse gods and realms and my favorite additions, plus Hex Describe with the Alpine maps and descriptions), the treasure types, and now — at last – thé magic items.

It has been ... eight years in the making? The first thing I wrote about it was 2011-03-11 GM Style Manual.

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Comments on 2019-03-31 Treasure into the Book

What’s your approach to magic items then?

For me it is proving to be the last hurdle for me to finish my b/x hack of 5e. On one hand, I find magic items in b/x to be one of its weakest points from an osr perspective as the items are mostly rather dull and functional. Been working on a procedural generator for it instead to help spur creativity.

OTOH, not including stock magic items might be too inhibitive for actual game play.

Anders H 2019-04-01 06:55 UTC


For now, it’s mostly small stuff: my favorite scrolls, my favorite potions, summoning things, +1 and +2 weapons and armor, small extra effects, but also dedications to the gods and demons of the setting, names of the people that made it or to whom it belonged, references to dragon names, dwarven forges, all of that. I actually started with a generator, then I stopped working on it, and now I’m trying to translate it all back.

To give it a try, visit Hex Describe with no map, and paste a dozen lines of this:

[magic item]
[magic item]
[magic item]
[magic item]
[magic item]
[magic item]

Or look at the 100 examples here: 2019-02-22 Magic Items.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-04-01 17:58 UTC


I uploaded the current state of affairs: Treasure.pdf.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-04-01 20:19 UTC

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2019-03-28 Mass Combat

Did some revisions to my mass combat section in Halberds and Helmets. This is what I have: One Page Mass Combat.

Pro:

  1. uses D&D stats
  2. units can be any size (none of that 1:10 stuff)

Contra:

  1. big numbers when it comes to hit points (hopefully the table alleviates the “… takes 42 damage, so they’re down to 92, which means 92/4.5/2=10-and-something so 11 gnolls remaining”
  2. high variability: one roll to hit, one hit for damage. I guess we could always deal average damage, or just keep everything in hit dice instead of hit points? And use a big table that says how many percent of that you deal on an attack based on the attacker’s HD and the defender’s AC. I suspect that would result in a more boring game, though?

Definitely needs more play testing. 😀

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Comments on 2019-03-28 Mass Combat

Let’s try this: 20 knights (HD 1 AC 2 1d6 ML 8 with 90 hp) against 200 peasants (HD 1 AC 9 1d6 ML 6 with 900 hp).

  1. knights win initiative and attack but miss; peasant’s miss as well
  2. peasants win initiative and attack but miss; knights hit: and deal 1×5 damage → peasants are down to 895 hp but make their morale check

At this point the knights must realise that this is harder than imagined. The next morale check is due when the knights have dealt another 395 points of damage. Since they hit on a 10 they have a 55% chance of dealing 3.5×5=17½ points of damage every round, so if the knights are never hit, this takes 395/0.55/17.5=41 rounds.

At the same time, the peasants hit on a 17 so they have 20% chance of dealing 3.5×9=31½ points of damage. The first hit is going to wipe out a third of the knights. This is bad news for the knights. They had one chance and blew it.

What happens if the knights split up? Let’s say they attach in four groups of 5 knights each.

  1. knights win initiative and three groups hit; they deal a total of 8×3=24 damage → peasants are down to 876 hp and make their morale check, which they fail
  2. the peasants are now broken so they try to rally themselves with another morale check which they fail
  3. knights win initiative again and two groups hit; they deal a total of 9×3=27 damage but more importantly, they are now routed

What would have happened if the peasants had won initiative (50% chance) and landed at solid hit (20% chance, so a cumulative chance of just 10%), but they would have gotten an attack against each of the smaller knight units. As five knights only have 22 hp, that’s a 10% chance for each of the smaller knight units to be annihilated in one go.

It’s hard for me to say what a good strategy would have been. I have the feeling that in this situation the variance is too high and that the knights are better off waiting for a situation where the peasants try to split up.

Thus, the forces meet but no engagement is fought. The knights start trailing the peasant army.

I think I like this result.

– Alex


Let’s try an example from an actual campaign, including player characters. I’m going to use Orcs vs Everybody Else, a scenario where we had a three way fight:

  • 40 bandits, 13 mounted elves
  • 19 dwarves, 1 eye terror
  • 20 orcs, the party

Let’s figure out how we’re going to run this. In the game the dwarves were trying to see whether they could get a good deal, or pull a quick one, or subjugate the survivors, so they’re going to delay.

Bandits are easy, we use our stats for humans. These bandits are poor. They have no armour, but they carry a throwing spear, a fighting spear, and a shield.

  • 40 bandits (HD 1 AC 6 1d6 ML 7 → hp 180)

Elves are tricky because they use 1d6 instead of 1d8, and they each have a spell. Let’s say that a third has sleep, a third has magic missile, and the rest has charm person. As for arms and armour, they are lightly equipped with chain, bow & arrow, and a long sword. In melee, their horses also attack!

  • 13 elves (HD 1 AC 5 1d6 ML 10 → hp 46)
  • 13 horses (HD 2 AC 7 1d4/1d4 ML 7 → hp 59)

Dwarves are easy but the eye of terror is hard. I’m going to use the stats from the Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord.

  • 19 dwarves (HD 1 AC 4 1d6 ML 8 → hp 86)
  • eye of terror (HD 10 AC 0 1d6/1d6/2d4 ML 9 → hp 45; tons of powers from the eyes: petrification, slow, hold monster, sleep, hold person, power word stun, telekinesis, feeblemind)

Orcs are also easy.

  • 20 orcs (HD 1 AC 6 1d6 ML 8 → hp 90)

The party is hard. I’m just picking some of the player characters and retainers from the Status page...

  • a dwarf 6
  • a magic user 6
  • a dwarf 5
  • a thief 5
  • an elf 5
  • two fighters 4
  • a magic user 4
  • a halfling 4
  • a thief 3

Perhaps I’m going to simplify this as follows:

  • three magic users 5 with a fireball or lightning bolt each, and some sort of hold person, and some sort of magic missile
  • five fighters 5 with good armour, and an average strength or magic bonus of +3

As they are “hiding” inside the orc unit, I’m not going to worry about the details, for now. What’s important is that we have at least one player character charismatic enough to push the orcs’ morale up to 9, just in case.

OK, I think now we’re ready.

Roll for initiative! Orcs & party win, then dwarves, then bandits & elves. The orcs & party decide to go against the elves, first.

  • orcs attack elves but miss
  • the first magic user casts fireball for 20 damage, elves make their save, take 10 damage, and make their morale check; I think it’s only fair that horses are targets as well since they occupy the same space, but horses fail their save and thus take 20 damage, and make their morale check

New numbers:

  • 11 elves (HD 1 AC 5 1d6 ML 10 → hp 36)
  • 5 horses (HD 2 AC 7 1d4/1d4 ML 7 → hp 39)

On with the attacks:

  • five fighters attack with a +3 bonus, three hit for 19 damage, thus reducing the elves to half their number, but they still make their morale check

I guess they massacred the elves that fell off their horses...

  • 5 elves (HD 1 AC 5 1d6 ML 10 → hp 17)
  • 5 horses (HD 2 AC 7 1d4/1d4 ML 7 → hp 39)

We still have two magic users to go, so they try to demoralise the bandits, too.

  • the second magic users cast fireball for 22 damage, bandits fail their save, take 10 damage, and fail their morale check → broken
  • the third magic user only needs to deal a tiny bit of damage so uses a magic missile to deal 5 damage → routed

We don’t care about the bandits any more, they run for their lives before engaging in melee so nobody gets a parting shot. Their total losses is 27/4.5=6 bandits.

The orcs have suffered no losses. The part has suffered no losses. The elves lost more than half their number, and they’re still willing to fight, but since the dwarves see how things have gone, they stay put and the elves promise to leave and not to return, and the players let them go.

Initiative and morale is very important, obviously!

I guess the elves are still dangerous. A sleep spell takes out 9 orcs on average. A magic missile and two charm person spells take out another 2. But that still leaves a magic user with a fireball spell which is going to annihilate them... So better to stop now.

– Alex

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2019-03-19 Metal Armour

A discussion with @lskh and @Provinto has me come back to the question of movement rate, encumbrance, and armour.

Basically, the question is: what effect does armour have besides armour class?

Or perhaps the more important question you need to answer first is this: how is movement rate going to affect the game? Can a character that is not faster than an opponent never flee? Can an opponent that’s faster never be caught? Notice that in B/X and Labyrinth Lord, movement speed does not factor into the chase rules. Even if you’re slower, you can hide behind bushes, dive for cover, over throw carts, and so on. In those rules, the trade-off is different: splitting up into smaller groups results in better chances of finding or avoiding opponents, but if a follow-up fight ensues, there’s fewer people on your side. As for my own chase rule: I ended up scrapping it since I never used it at the table. These days I tend to think that I don’t care about movement rate.

In my game, metal armour comes up in a small number of situations:

  1. you cannot sneak
  2. you cannot climb
  3. you cannot swim

Being unable to swim means you’re drowning. This is particularly harsh in my game because it means you must save vs. death or die, every single round.

That still leaves the question of chain mail. I just explain that chain mail is what stingy bosses buy for their troops (mercenaries, guards, soldiers), or poor characters on the first session. Characters should wear leather if pirates or thieves – or they should wear plate.

I also use the old price of 60gp for plate armour instead of hundreds of gold pieces. My argument is that this will buy you the worst armour that still satisfies the requirements. It’s the post-apocalyptic version of plate armour: chain mail with some plates attached, rusty, dented, ugly as hell. And if you want a fancy full plate armour like the ones worn by kings that you can still see in a museum, well then we’re talking about magical armour, or impressive armour that has an effect on the troups you lead, and at that point you might as well be paying thousands of gold pieces for it. It’s famous armour.

60gp gets you murder clown plate armour.

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Comments on 2019-03-19 Metal Armour

I am definitely going to use the phrase “murder clown plate armour” the next time I play D&D 🙂

– Adrian 2019-03-19 14:43 UTC


😀

– Alex Schroeder 2019-03-19 20:57 UTC


I have been toying for a while with the idea of armour as damage reduction. Basically, damage is rolled on a table (a bit like in rolemaster) based on location and type of damage. Armour substracts differently against different damage and the result is the hp loss, and if over certain threshold, means a wound.

Now, my idea is that one rolls to hit over (say) 10, then rolls for damage if one hits. The table has all the info, and if the location was not specified, it is determined by where the die landed.

Ideally, this means characters risk death from combat at higher levels, and hp are just a measure of fatigue. One dies from wounds, but 0 hp means the character is helpless.

– Enzo 2019-03-20 12:55 UTC


Interesting. I’ve played Das Schwarze Auge as a teenager (The Dark Eye), and there you had a defense roll (a d20 roll based on skill instead of a static target number), a damage roll, and damage reduction based on armor. My impression was that everything just took a lot longer. But your example has a static defense that’s easy to hit, right? Perhaps that simplifies things.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-03-20 14:43 UTC


Yeah, I haven’t tested it but I had in mind that you roll over 10 unless the opponent is actively doing something to avoid the blow.

– Enzo 2019-03-20 15:41 UTC


If you’re interested, take a look at the combat chapter of The All-Seeing Eye, a retro clone.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-03-20 16:58 UTC


It looks way more complicated than I was aiming for. Reminds me of my early rpg years (I cut my teeth with MERP).

– Enzo 2019-03-21 08:06 UTC


MERP! Good times. I bought MERP, and then Rolemaster with the companions up to IV, but when I finally got my players to check it out, they fought some orcs and got butchered and that was that. Back to AD&D! 😅

– Alex Schroeder 2019-03-21 08:50 UTC

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Halberds and Helmets replaced the old Pathfinder House Rules.

– AlexSchroeder 2017-03-12 10:40 UTC


Jeremy Friesen found Telecanter’s The Priest of Chaos Said… inspiring and mentioned it in his blog post, Rite of Admixture - A Ritual for the Dark Six of Eberron.

There’s also a mention of the Mass Combat rules in his short discussion of Daniel Collin’s “Book of War”.

John Mettraux mentions the H&H layout in his discussion of Wolves of God, noting that “it has marginalia, much like Halberds and Helmets does, and that helps a lot.”


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