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.

Also note the German variant, Hellebarden & Helme.

2016-08-10 Swiss Referee Style Guide Integrated into Halberds and Helmets

I integrated my referee tips from the Swiss Referee Style Guide into my campaign rules document.

On Google+, Aaron McLin commented on my opening paragraph:

“This is not a Monty Haul campaign and not a stupid dungeon crawl.”

I always find statements critical of other games and play styles to be an immediate turn-off. Who has ever described their rewards as overly generous or a dungeon crawl they have created as “stupid?” While they don’t work for me, personally, a lot of people enjoy dungeon crawling, and sometimes, being all about the new cool gear is fun for people.

The statement strikes me as a cheap shot (and something of a straw man) designed to establish some “I’m smarter than some other gamers, so my game is better,” cred. But (and I feel that I’ve said this a million times) I’ve never met a salesperson who has sought to undermine their customer’s feelings of thoughtfulness and intelligence by attacking choices they may have made earlier - in other words, when you go to a Ford dealership, they don’t open by going on about how crappy Volkswagens are - after all, they might not know what you drove to the lot.

My reply at the time:

It seems to me that the statement made it really easy for you to know that you don’t want to play at my table. Works for me.

On a more self-critical note, I guess that in general, I’d agree with you. Putting other play style downs is lame. But here’s why I started out with those statements and links: when I tell some gamers that I’m using a version of D&D from the eighties, I have to also tell them that I’m not running the kind of game they are thinking of when they hear it. So I need a short hand for “no, not that kind of game”. After all, this is not a generic rule set, this is the document we use at my table, so I want to use the first page to tell potential players: this is what I like, this is what it is going to be about. It will not be about prestige classes, cool new gear or killing gods. Some people might enjoy that, but that’s not what they’ll find in my game. That’s why I feel justified in starting out with a value judgment. It also tells the reader: if you don’t share these values, you should read something else.

I’m still wondering about the choice of words. I have played and run sessions where the game is about moving from room to room, opening doors, finding traps and fighting monsters, but all activities happen on the simplest level where practically no thought is required.

Moving from room to room has a clear procedure:

  1. write down walking order on a piece of paper
  2. thief is checking for traps (rolls dice)

Opening doors has a clear procedure:

  1. thief listens carefully (rolls dice)
  2. thief checks whether it is locked
  3. thief opens the lock if necessary (rolls dice)
  4. alternatively, the fighter kicks in the door (rolls dice)

Finding traps is also a thoughtless process:

  1. thief checks chest for traps (rolls dice)

Fighting monsters is also thoughtless:

  1. roll for initiative (roll dice)
  2. roll attack (roll dice)
  3. roll damage (roll dice)
  4. say your armor class when targeted
  5. reduce hit-points when hit

The thoughtlessness is there because at one point we determined this to be our optimal procedure and we didn’t want to keep restating it, and there was no reason to change it. There were no trade-offs to make, no decisions to make, only the motions to go through. Thus, while I wouldn’t have called it “stupid” at the time, that’s how I see it now.

I hope that I managed to turn the game around whenever I realized that we were descending into this routine. What I’m trying to tell new players at my table is that this is not how I want to play, except I want to use a few words as possible.

Is “stupid” the right word?

Update: After some discussion on Google+ changed the intro page. Aaron McLin is right :)


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2016-01-29 No Clerics

I’ve had this discussion in German already (Keine Kleriker) and I’m thinking of sticking to it.

  1. no clerics in my setting
  2. every faith can have priests with an appropriate spell repertoire and they’ll be magic users for all intents and purposes
  3. if you really want to cast spells like a pro and fight like a pro, you can be an elf

This necessitates an appropriate repertoire for the relevant priests in my campaign. Luckily, only two gods have made an appearance until now: Freya and Marduk.

I already have a spell book notation that I usually follow, so making the two lists should be easy. Once that’s done, I can type them up using LaTeX and add them to my house rules document, Halberds and Helmets.

As for the campaign currently in progress, I don’t mind letting players continue to play their characters using the old rules. All the new player characters will be converted, however.

At the same time, fighters dedicating themselves to a god can be sworn paladins and they may get a small number of enumerated powers. If you’re a paladin of Freya, for example, you’ll get a wolf that turns into an ice wolf until it’s as big as a pony. Each increase is related to how many “Freya points” you accumulated.

Priest of Freya

In my other campaign we’ve had a Freya cleric for a very long time so these spells were easy to pick.

Spell Level Caster Level Spell Name Traditional Name
1 1 Watchful Eye of the Peace Keeper detect evil
1 2 Scent of Sorcery detect magic
1 7 Weather the Storm resist cold
2 3 Language of Animals speak with animal
2 4 Sound of Silence silence 15’ radius
2 8 Paralysis of Men hold person
3 5 Light of the Moon continual light
3 6 Weapon of the Gods striking
3 9 Wolf Shape limited polymorph self
4 7 Honey of the Valkyries neutralize poison
4 8 Wall of Ice wall of ice
4 10 Curse of the Völva curse and remove curse
5 9 The Path to Sessrúmnir raise dead and ray of death
5 10 Freya’s Quest quest

Priest of Marduk

And this is work in progress with Marduk only recently making an appearance...

Spell Level Caster Level Spell Name Traditional Name
1 1 Bolt of Power magic missile
1 2 Protection from Harm shield
1 7 Voice of the Ruler charm person
2 3 Club of Law limited striking
2 4 Courage of Marduk bless
2 8 Eyes of the Overlord detect invisible
3 5 Bolt of Lightning lightning bolt
3 6 Protection from Hail protection from normal missiles
3 9 Wings of God fly
4 7 Chariot of Fire new
4 8 Voice of the Master charm monster
4 10 Wall of Fire wall of fire
5 9 Eyes of Truth true seeing
5 10 Melting Walls transmute rock to mud

Paladin of Freya

Anybody swearing eternal fealty can be a paladin.

The goddess of winter, of spring, of fertility, of grain, of war, of cats, of magic… She leads the Valkyries and collects half the slain in battle. These dine with her in Sessrúmnir.

Defeating stronger, human opponents in single combat after a challenge to a duel in her name pleases her, as this dedicates those brave souls to her hall. Keep track of the number of people you thus slew in battle. This is your Freya score

(We’re assuming that player characters are not too interested in bearing children and bringing in the harvest. Those activities would also increase your Freya score, of course.)

Score Way of the Wolf
2 Adopt a wolf and it’ll turn into a loyal companion. No training required.
4 Share beneficial spells with your wolf.
6 Your wolf is blessed by Freya and turns into a winter wolf: HD 3+1 AC 4 bite 1d10 (1–46) or breath of ice 2d6 for 5m (5–66) F4 MV 15
7 The winter wolf grows larger: HD 4+1 AC 4 bite 1d10 (1–46) or breath of ice 2d6 for 5m (5–66) F5 MV 15
8 The winter wolf reaches the size of a pony: HD 5+1 AC 4 bite 1d10 (1–46) or breath of ice 2d6 for 5m (5–66) F6 MV 15

Winter wolves are immune to cold. Magical cold only deals half damage. Magical fire deals +1 per damage die.

Paladin of Marduk

Anybody swearing eternal fealty can be a paladin.

Marduk is the patron of war chariots, of war lords, of might, of lightning, of punitive justice, of commandments and stone tablets. Marduk is popular in big cities and the dwarves love him as well.

Marduk enjoys smashing things with his giant club, throwing lightning bolts, and the slaying of monsters and demons. Keep track of the number of stronger monsters and demons you slew in single combat. This is your Marduk score

If you’re a favorite of Marduk, you can rise in power

Score Way of the Slayer
3 When bellowing commands, you can increase morale of mercenaries by +1
4 Lead a company of men (at least a hundred) into battle and fight in the first rank to become a champion of war – your enemies will die when you bring them to 5hp or lower
5 The morale of troops in your immediate surroundings are increased by +1
6 Kill a devil of the fifth rank and become a devil slayer – devils and demons with HD 10 or less will recognize the invisible mark on your forehead and prefer to negotiate instead of fight no matter their numerical superiority
7 Cut down a hundred men in battle using the scythes of your war chariot and become a reaper of blood – when you ride on your chariot, the armies of your enemies will part and you’ll be able to strike deep into the heart of you opponent

But why?

Here’s the gist of it:

  1. I’ve never read any Fantasy books that had clerics in them.
  2. Having healing magic available during combat makes combat last longer without improving the game in any other aspect.
  3. Having healing magic available between combat devalues hit points as a resource to be managed.
  4. Having healing magic available between sessions reduces the need for longer recovery periods. (I’m actually not sure whether that’s required or not. I’ve been running a game of “the time between sessions is more or less one week in-game” and it worked just fine.)
  5. Turning undead makes undead a special challenge like traps being a special challenge for thieves. A separate mini-game that is boring for everybody else. (There have been interesting fights of low level parties against hordes of skeletons, but these encounters would have been just as interesting without clerics.)
  6. Having a potential healer in the party puts social pressure on the player to do just that.
  7. I’ve had a few players that had a hard time picking spells for clerics – both when they had to memorize them at dawn and when picking them freely from their repertoire in combat when I no longer insisted on memorization. Few spells means less choice means less paralysis.
  8. The spells available to clerics by the book often have a weird biblical backstory to them. I don’t want to be reminded of Moses and Jesus when playing D&D. It’s jarring. Unless you’re playing Unholy Land, I guess.


Comments on 2016-01-29 No Clerics

A very interesting discussion on Google+. I’ll need to summarize some of the points made.

One alternate system: allow PCs to “burn” physical stats (STR, DEX, CON) to heal HP, one hit die per point burned, whenever the PCs are not in an emergency situation. Stats recover one point per day.

This solves #2,3,4. Taking more damage leads to lower stats, a limited resource, which also creates a negative feedback loop resulting in worse performance. The one point per day heal rate leads to slow recovery as desired.

This system also matches the fiction - the points burned represent the lowering physical capability of the players as they take cuts, bruises, flesh wounds, and become generally weary.

Ian Wyckoff 2016-01-29 20:30 UTC

Something to keep in mind if it turns out not to work as intended! Thanks.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-29 20:39 UTC

Some of my points from the discussion on G+:

I suspect that game play will change a bit. Certainly adventures will be a bit shorter because of less healing. I don’t think I’ll need to do a lot of active changes myself since I run a sandbox so effectively players get to choose the kinds of risks they’re willing to take. There is no Challenge Rating (CR) system like there was in D&D 3.5.

When I was a player in parties without a cleric, the added tension made the game more interesting for me. It’s probably a problem if you play adventure paths or longer adventures, design encounters based on some assumed baseline (challenge ratings and all that), and keep the adventuring party small (retainers, hirelings, mercenaries – all ways to mitigate the lack of healing). So, I’m excited, I’m curious, and I hope my players won’t mind. If it turns out that it doesn’t work, no problem, we’ll add clerics back in. But I want to try without, for now.

One of the reasons I wanted to get rid of healing is because I felt it just prolonged fights and I don’t really enjoy the fighting aspect of the game. I like the strategy of when to fight, who to fight, how to fight, and then I want the fight to be short – in a different discussion a while ago I said my preferred fight was two rounds.

Healing outside of combat would not prolong fights, it would allow players to make longer expeditions into dangerous areas because they could handle more fights before having to retreat. Perhaps I’m not noticing any pressure in this respect because my actual gaming sessions are so short. We play on workdays for three hours, eg. 19:00 to 22:00 or 20:00 to 23:00. And since my group consists of a large pool of players and not all of them are regulars, I often push for “you all need to return to safety at the end of the session.” The length of the expedition is not limited by party hit point totals but by session length. Healing in combat would simply allow them to fight more dangerous foes that they need to avoid at the moment (i.e. longer fights), and healing between combats would allow them to continue for longer but they can’t because the session is over.

Tsojcanth also posted about Classic Greece and the D&D Cleric Problem. There, they suggest to replace turn undead with other abilities. Harald then suggested I could simply replace healing spells with other spells. And that, to me, is where I’m going with this. Just turn them into magic users.

Norbert suggested the use of Wonder & Wickedness by Brendan S. The reason I never checked out W&W was that I didn’t feel unhappy with magic-users and traditional Vancian magic, and I like some spells only being available at a higher level. It’s part of D&D’s promise of changing gameplay over time and thus a significant element of long running campaigns.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-30 11:13 UTC

Courtney offers a longer discussion on his blog. He links to a blog post by Delta where he notes that “it is the cleric class which makes the least overall sense in the context of pulp fantasy […] the armored, adventuring, miraculous man-of-Catholic-faith is simply not a type you see very much in the roots of the genre, if at all.”

– Alex Schroeder 2016-02-01 14:30 UTC

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2015-09-10 Combat using Two Rows Per Side

My house rules don’t mention attacks of opportunity and they don’t limit firing into melee, nor does your movement end if you come too close to somebody armed with a melee weapon. Halberds and Helmets does have a simple protecting allies rule:

Protection: When you are attacked, nearby friends can protect you by placing themselves in the line of attack. The attacker will roll to hit your friend instead of you. You can place yourself in the line of at most one extra attack per round.

This means that most combat ends up having two sides and each side having two rows: a front row, and a back row. Those in front have better armor and melee weapons and they’ll deal more damage because of their strength bonus. Those in the back have no armor and ranged weapons or are casting spells. To protect party members in the back row, you’ll need as many people in the front row as the other side: their front row fighters will all be trying to attack a party member in your back row, and for every one of their attacks, one of your front row fighters will say: “I’m going to take the blow!” If you have a reserve in the back row—well armed or with a lot of hit points—then these can also jump in to protect the weakest party members.

Polearms are easy: you can attack from the back row. If you use a polearm in the front row, that doesn’t mean that you can reach the other side’s back row, though!

Ranged weapons are tricky. For a while, I used to say you could only use ranged weapons when nobody was in melee. You basically had to win initiative in the first round and shoot before the others could close the gap. If you’re lucky, you got to shoot twice if you both surprised your opponents and got initiative. Then I said you could shoot into melee but there’s a chance of hitting your own people, based on the ratio of combatants. This resulted in no change since nobody was ever willing to risk their own. Finally I have begun to say that it didn’t matter. Just fire away and I’ll assume decent positioning and all that. Can you shoot into the back row? Yes you can. Can you shoot through your own front row? Yes you can. It’s like stabbing through your own front row with a polearm. :)

How do other games do it, though? This is what Ryuutama says:

Enemy Back Area: A character must be equipped with a bow or use long ranged magic in order to attack a Monster in the Enemy Back Area.

Front Area: In the Front Area, enemies and allies alike join in close combat. Using spears, blades and axes, you can attack monsters in the Front Area. Spells or effects that target an area will affect both enemies and allies in this area. Characters in the Front Area can be attacked by ranged or magic attacks from a Back area.

Back Areas (Enemy/Ally): The Back Areas are separated from the Front Area, safe from close combat. If the Front Area is totally clear of enemies, all combatants in the Enemy Back Area will automatically be moved into the Front Area. Likewise, if no allies remain in the Front Area, all allies in the Ally Back Area are moved into the Front Area.

Take a look at the Battlefield Sheet in order to visualize the setup. The net result is that where as you’re “safe from close combat” in the back area, ranged attacks can target people anywhere. And that’s how my D&D works, too: ranged combat can hit anybody on the battlefield.

Ryuutama’s protection rule is very different, however:

Defend: A character may choose to focus completely on defense. Until the character’s next turn, whenever they take damage, the damage they receive is reduced by one. In addition, this character may decide to become the target of any attack aimed at an ally in the same area. If they decide to do so, the attack automatically hits.

The benefit seems to be that you can become the target of more than one attack. But they all hit. In D&D, they would all do full damage. In Ryuutama, armor acts as damage reduction, so perhaps that’s not so bad, after all.

Now watching: Ryuutama: Character Creation (14½ min)


Comments on 2015-09-10 Combat using Two Rows Per Side

Re: Firing into melee. You mentioned a percentage chance to hit a friend based on the number of combatants, but the uncertainty scared people off altogether. But what if you made the percentile roll and announced whether or not the shot is viable before they make the attack roll? That is, if there’s a 60% chance of hitting a friend and you roll under that, simply announce: “There’s no clear shot for you this round. What else do you want to do?” Sound like an idea worth trying?

– A. Perry 2015-09-12 20:12 UTC

That sounds like an excellent idea! The only drawback I can see is that there is a tiny extra roll to make. Surely something to come back to if I start to feel that my players are abusing the system. My current interpretation basically translates to “there is always a clear shot!”

– Alex Schroeder 2015-09-12 21:11 UTC

Hi Alex - I like this front and bank ranks idea a lot and will be trying it out next game. I agree with your thoughts on keeping it simple for shooting into combat. However I would rule that any rolls of 1 when shooting into a melee automatically hit your ally. Players a familiar enough with the trope of crits and fumbles so should be accepting of the ‘roll 1 hit your buddy’ rule.

What are your thoughts on area effect spells and the abstract combat? How would you adjuticate a burning hands spell vs a fireball spell? Whose hit and could you hit your allies?

– Rob S 2015-09-15 13:32 UTC

I like “roll 1 hit your buddy”. That’s easy enough to understand. I’m not going to use it for the moment because I don’t use fumbles anywhere else.

As for area effects like fireball and lightning bolt, we’ve usually just eyeballed it at the table. The one rule I use is that you can attack “all your opponents in front of your” with a two-handed sword. My rule there has always been: if they attacked you in melee and haven’t moved away, then they’re in reach for you to get back at them. That would work the same way for burning hands.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-09-15 14:01 UTC

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2014-11-30 SVG Charactersheet

I’ve been using the character tool for /Halberds and Helmets/ to maintain character sheets on Campaign Wiki. Some examples?


Labyrinth Lord:

How does it work?

You need a SVG character sheet. The easiest way to create these would be Inkscape. Example: Charactersheet.svg

Any text element with a particular id can be replaced with a parameter. But which ids are in that SVG file? The tool will show them to you:

Note how you can provide the URL to any SVG file on the web!

You can now provide values using parameters.

The tool actually has an editor, where you can edit the parameters:

The format used by the editor is the same format used on the Campaign Wiki pages containing a character sheet.

The code will compute various things for you, if it knows how to do it. It will compute the strength bonus if you provide the strength parameter, for example. See the documentation for more information. As you can see, the tool knows of various rule sets and computes parameters depending on the rule set in use.

If you have a character sheet that you would like to use with the /Halberds and Helmets/ tool, talk to me. Inkscape allows you to embed ordinary images into the SVG file and it can convert PDF files to SVG.


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2013-12-10 Writing Your Own RPG Rules

I started thinking about it when Johnn Four said on Google+ that he was interested in designing his “own little OSR game”. Like Joseph Bloch, I wondered. It doesn’t sound like Johnn really wants to run and play an OSR game. He’s just interested in designing the rules? There are already so many of them out there! All these Fantasy Heartbreakers…

What is a Fantasy Heartbreaker? I learned about the term from Ron Edward’s essay. They are “truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that’s evident in both their existence and in their details” and “but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D.” Since I like classic D&D, that’s not a problem for me.

Here’s how Ron ends his essay:

They designed their games through enjoyment of actual play, and they published them through hopes of reaching like-minded practitioners. […] Sure, I expect tons of groan-moments as some permutation of an imitative system, or some overwhelming and unnecessary assumption, interferes with play. But those nuggets of innovation, on the other hand, might penetrate our minds, via play, in a way that prompts further insight.

Let’s play them. My personal picks are Dawnfire and Forge: Out of Chaos, but yours might be different. I say, grab a Heartbreaker and play it, and write about it. Find the nuggets, practice some comparative criticism, think historically.

Get your heart broken with me.

This essay, I think, mentions all the important parts:

  • actual play is the basis for your game
  • publish it in the hopes of reaching like-minded gamers
  • make sure to strip all the material that you aren’t using yourself
  • focus on the innovations

I also like to read the design decisions somewhere, on a blog for the game, perhaps. Why add skills? Why drop Vancian magic? Why drop descending armor class? Why use fewer saving throws? Why add bennies? Why rework encumbrance?

As for myself, I’m basically using Labyrinth Lord. I’ve been thinking about skills, magic, spells, armor class, saving throws, bennies, and writing about these issues on this blog. And as I’ve said on Johnn’s post: “I just kept running my game and started putting my house rules on a wiki. Then I copied the missing elements from the book. Then I put it all into a LaTeX document. And I keep running my game and I keep making changes to the rules. And that’s it.”

For a while I had an English and a German copy of these rules on a wiki. After a while I abandoned the wiki and the English rules and moved the German text to LaTeX.

I think the important part was thinking about the rules, writing about the rules, changing the rules, reassembling the rules, having something to show others, a place to collect the house rules… and with all that achieved, there’s just nothing to do but make the occasional update. I’m not trying to convince anybody else to use the rules. But if you’re looking for something a bit different, perhaps you can find “those nuggets of innovation” in my rules, too. :)

• 💔 •

What are those those nuggets of innovation you ask? I think the only thing that’s truly new is how I write the document making full use of a sidebar to comment the main text. And I keep track of my player’s reputation with the various gods of the setting. Everything else I have seen somewhere else: Death & Dismemberment, using 1d6 for thief skills, using a d30 once a night, using 1d6 for weapon damage, limiting the repertoire of arcane casters… Nothing new under the sun. But I’d be happy to pontificate talk about all these points.


Comments on 2013-12-10 Writing Your Own RPG Rules

Thank you for all of this. It’s very validating.

Dither 2013-12-10 20:43 UTC

Great points, Alex, thanks.

– Johnn 2013-12-18 19:58 UTC

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Halberds and Helmets replaced the old Pathfinder House Rules.

– AlexSchroeder 2017-03-12 10:40 UTC

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