Old School

Old School Renaissance This page collects the my latest posts on the topic of old school D&D gaming.

Halberds & Helmets is my house rules document.

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)

2018-05-11 Charming

How do you run charmed characters?

I find charms work best of combined with simple commands by the referee. I play it like Jedi mind tricks. “You will protect me with your life.” Or “You will fetch the black sword for me.” Combine this with a simple “you may roll a save if allies of the magic user attack you.” That also means it won’t work for long periods of time because reduced agency is obviously frustrating. But it’s still better than telling them to role play being friends with the bad guys. That only works if the players are into that kind of messing with their friends. Sometimes they are and then it’s hilarious.


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2018-04-28 The Pagoda of Pazuzu

OK, I think I’m going to submit another entry to the One Page Dungeon Contest.

It uses the Neris font. “A display sans for one paragraph (or shorter) length text: quotes, openings, titles, etc. Sure, you could use it for body copy and get away with it, but that’s not where the typeface shines.”

It still workes for this one page document, though. Neris Black for the title, Neris Light for the body.

Inspired by my visit to Miyajima and seeing the Five-Tiered Pagoda at Itsukushima, as well as visiting Sanjūsangen-dō and seeing the 1000 statues of of the 1000-armed Kannon.

The color scheme is the same powerful scheme I used with all the pictures I painted using Zen Brush 2. Black and white, and red for colour accents. Too bad this trio has been popular with all sorts of people I am not associated with, including some particularly evil dudes. Yikes!

Well, in this case the picture is based on a photograph I took in Miyajima and then I made a sketch on top of it using Procreate on the iPad. But I still want it to look like some sort of ink painting.

You’ll notice that once again, I’m falling far short of my own guidelines for quality dungeons. Why is that? I don’t really want to spend too many hours on a dungeon that is going to be used at the table in a 3h segment. Spending more than 1h for prep in this context is already wasting my time. So it can’t be pretty and I have to rely on people being able to draw their own inferences:

  • If Eron is a “rabble rouser” then maybe he’s not a nice person by can be manipulated into storming the pagoda?
  • If one of the scrolls the librarians want is the Psalm of the Fourth Silence owned by a certain Enron, then clearly there must be tensions between the two groups.
  • If the 1000 statues require you to say their name as you pass them by, clearly you must have convinced one of the Eron, one of the monks or one of the librarians to help you.
  • The image of the pagoda supposedly implies that you can fly up to the upper levels and bypass the lower levels. Hopefully the list of spells available to the seven librarians, two sword masters and the demon are enough inspiration for a referee to turn this into a different kind of challenge.

And why no map? Well, what is it for? I don’t have the time to make something nice for the referee since that’s me myself and I. If there is a map, do the measurements matter? If they don’t, can the map be represented by a flow diagram? And if the flow diagram is simple – if it is linear, or has very few nodes, or very few branches – then we can simply omit the map and write some text. That’s what I wanted to do here. The picture lets you know all there is to know: there are a bunch of rooms on top of each other. If you can’t climb or fly, it’s a linear dungeon. As most of my wilderness encounters involve small lairs – and by that I mean one to five rooms at most – I practically stopped making maps.


Please let me know if you ever use it in one of your campaigns.


Anybody wondering how I would rule +1/+3 vs children: I’d say almost all creatures are children of their parents. Except for the undead, demons, devils, slimes, golems, robots, clockwork bots, and the like.


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2018-04-28 Interviews

The following started as a solo thread on Mastodon...

One of these days I should write up some interview questions I would like to see asked of other people in the RPG world. These days, I find most interviews extremely boring. Why is that? Something about there being no challenges, very little personal reveals, and product shilling, of course. They read like ads in dialogue form, not like interesting interviews.

So here’s my stream of thought on interview questions: How is your favourite human doing? Do you play role-playing games together? What was the last thing you did together? What does game design give you? Why did you base your design on rules X (Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse, classic D&D) and why didn’t you just house rule a similar game? Why did you pick these artists? Where did you find them? How exactly does the back and forth between you work? I’d love to hear more about the financial arrangements. How do you balance friendship and marketing? How do you keep your social media accounts interesting and yet peddle your wares? How do you feel about copyright these days? Where do you find your sparring partners and inspiration? Where do you think your strengths are? What about your weakness and how do you compensate for it? Why go back to old designs? Does the Long Tail work for you financially? Does game design work for you, financially? If not, why ask for money in the first place?

I had to think of somebody while I wrote down these questions and so I thought of @halfjack who has been on my radar ever since I bought the diaspora hardcover from Lulu. He said: “I can’t remember the last interview I did. Happy to fix that with a new one though!” I sure hope he gets an interesting #interview!

Read his answers on Google+.

In the interest of fairness I think I should answer these myself, too.

How is your favourite human doing? My wife has recovered from breast cancer, mastectomy and chemo therapy and we’re back out there running and enjoying ourselves. Chemo also led to immediate menopause, which also takes some getting used to.

Do you play role-playing games together? Yes we do. I run three campaigns. One of them is with a friend and some kids, one is my English campaign, and another one is my German campaign. She plays in my German campaign. I remember trying to explain the concept of role-playing games to her all those years ago and she just thought it was nuts and hadn’t ever heard of it. I think the only time I myself had seen role-playing games in school was my own group when I was about 15 or 16 years old, and later I learned of another group which had also been playing for quite a while. That’s it. My wife thought that it was a distinctly German or US thing; there was simply none of it in Switzerland. I am not sure and I have no data. So all I know are German speaking Facebook groups and two yearly mini cons in the German speaking part Switzerland. They are both very small, maybe fifty people or less. My wife doesn’t go. When she does see some role-playing people we always talk about the awkward moments. Some of these people seem to have a very hard time, socially. They don’t fit in, they have a hard time reading a group of people, when to speak, what to say. I feel the question hanging in the air: these are your people? I guess they are. Most of them don’t sit at my table but based on what I see, we’re a very tolerant bunch of people.

What was the last thing you did together? We went running. I think we did nearly 7km and tomorrow we will do some more running. Last week I came back from a three week holiday to Japan with two friends and their families. My wife didn’t come because she still fears the after effects of Fukushima. She knows it’s irrational but that doesn’t make the fear go away. If the cancer comes back, she’ll be looking for reasons and she knows it. It doesn’t help that she had leukaemia as a kid shortly after Chernobyl. Genetic testing seems to indicate a genetic mutation of unknown clinical relevance in a gene related to fighting cancer. So... it’s hard to argue about these fears and I went alone. At the same time, she’s been pushing hard for a reduction in work hours and she was now able to reduce her work to an 80% job. This is great because now the two of us have Fridays off and already we’re feeling much better about a lot of things. That certainly takes the pressure off of work. Work is clearly relegated to making money, not to providing identity and meaning to our lives. I’ve been working part time for a long time. I’m happy to find that she’s finally able to do the same.

What does game design give you? Working on my game booklets first and foremost means writing down my house rules. Once they are written down, they have more standing power. It gives them an existence beyond our memories. In addition to that, I’ve found that working on the documents scratches my itch regarding all the other skills I don’t have: layout, typography, art. I don’t know much about these but I want to know more. Having a project or two or three really pushes me to learn more. In a these are ways to work with a computer without programming all the time, and so it’s “same same but different.” A new kind of thing I can do at the laptop.

Why did you base your design on rules X (Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse, classic D&D) and why didn’t you just house rule a similar game? I used Basic D&D from 1981 by Moldvay as the basis of my game. When I learned to play role-playing games, I started out with the first edition of Das Schwarze Auge, published around the same time. It was similar in complexity. When I returned to role-playing games in 2006, I got sucked in by the publication of Rules Cyclopedia and then I started reading the Kitsunemori campaign setting and so I was set on the path of D&D 3.5. For a few sessions we played M20 but soon one of the players clamoured for D&D 3.5 and I relented. Big mistake. Things got more and more complex and my campaigns flourished, and eventually we switched to Pathfinder and still it was good, but then I tried to go back and eventually it all fell apart. I had to start with a new group. I think my wife, Samuel and Stefan were the only ones to make the change with me. And so I arrived at Labyrinth Lord and B/X D&D. I tried Labyrinth Lord with my wife and it was good. My house rules started out as a little player handout for those that couldn’t be bothered with reading it all. And who needs spells up to level nine and class advancement until level twenty? My campaigns always seemed to be fun until we got to level ten or so. That’s why at first my house rules only went up to level five and now they go up to level ten. I don’t think more is required. And with that, level limits are also off the table. This is great.

Why did you pick these artists? I don’t seem to have the talent to speak to artists in a way that makes them want to collaborate with me. I don’t make any money with my stuff and thus I also don’t want to pay anybody. But if nobody is enthusiastic about collaborating, then I don’t want to ask them to work for free (or for “exposure,” haha). So I decided to try and work on my own skills. I illustrated my House Rules using public domain pictures of helmets (this made sense because I called it Halberds & Helmets), and I drew the monsters in my Referee Guide myself.

Where did you find them? I didn’t find any. :(

How exactly does the back and forth between you work? All I can say is how the back and forth between me and my players is: I’m trying to run my campaigns using Eero Tuovinen’s idea of D&D as oral history. If you remember the rule apply it. If you forget it, it was not important anyway. Thus, no need to consult the rule books. Rules change over time, depending on the interest of players. I try to keep it that way: if we don’t use some rules, I drop them from the document; if we run into a problem and make a ruling, I add it to the document.

I’d love to hear more about the financial arrangements. There are none. I’m a software developer by day and thus I don’t need the money and I really like the idea of DIY D&D. Do-it-yourself is great!

How do you balance friendship and marketing? I don’t do any significant marketing.

How do you keep your social media accounts interesting and yet peddle your wares? The only marketing effort I make is that I post the occasional links to work in progress or I link to blog posts when I’m involved in a discussion on the topic. That’s it. Thus, I think I keep my social media accounts very interesting and practically don’t peddle my wares. Then again, I don’t make any money off it. But then does that lead to a world where the people who ask for money have to work for it and thus swamp us with their messages and those who do work for free don’t post about and are relegated to obscurity? Oh well, perhaps that’s what it means. Money pushes us harder and I refuse to “work” for role-playing games. I have to be entertained by every single step I take.

How do you feel about copyright these days? Generally speaking I feel like it makes everything harder. Sharing is complicated. People rarely understand the licenses. Even if we do, they make everything harder. If I publish my house rules and don’t do any actual copying and pasting of the SRD, do I still need the OGL in my document? I hate this. All those well meaning people illustrating their blog posts using images they took off the net, all of them in violation of copyright. My current position is that copyright was appropriate for a world of a few publishers printing books but these days we are practically all involved in the process of copying, modifying and distributing works. The Book Free Culture talks about this a lot. The Creative Commons licenses were created to get around the need to ask for permission. No more asking for permission is key. So, generally speaking, I went from the OGL to Creative Commons to Public Domain dedications.

Where do you find your sparring partners and inspiration? I don’t, except for my players.

Where do you think your strengths are? I’m best at running games. I’m a good host. I can organise games. And as far as game design goes, I can think things through and I can write it up.

What about your weakness and how do you compensate for it? My weakness is that I’m not an artist and that I have a hard time doing new things. I compensate by practising my painting by consciously deciding to not design any new games. I just stick to old ideas that worked well over decades: classic D&D, classic Traveller, and so on.

Why go back to old designs? I think familiarity with the rules translates to people at the table being able to focus on other things. To take D&D as an example: everybody knows how to fight and thus people can focus on the important decisions of whether to fight at all.

Does the Long Tail work for you financially? I don’t sell anything so I have no idea whether anybody looks at my old stuff. I suspect nobody does. Do people still play M20? I don’t think so. Thus, nobody cares about M20 Hard Core, I’m sure.

Does game design work for you, financially? Not at all.

If not, why ask for money in the first place? I don’t.

Wow, that turned out to be a very long blog post!


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2018-01-14 Counterspells

Declaring the intent to counterspell or delaying actions makes me uneasy: another round lost, more time lost at the table. I think for spell duels what we need is a kind of bullet time where all the spells go off at the same time, all of them cancelling each other as far as possible.

Thus, the basic rule is this: if you haven’t acted this round and a spell it being cast at you, you can use your action to react with any spell in your repertoire, aiming to counterspell. The side with initiative declares first.

Consequently, if you have already cast a spell this round and none of your opponents decided to counterspell, then they cannot cast a spell at you this round because your spells would have cancelled as far as possible. If you didn’t cast a spell, or if they are attacking you with other means, no problem.

Effectively, all the spell casting happens in the same moment.


When somebody casts magic missile at you and you haven’t acted yet, cast shield to defend yourself. This is a perfect counterspell.

When somebody casts fireball at you and you haven’t acted yet, cast lightning bolt to defend yourself. Both sides roll damage and only the difference gets applied to the loser. This works even when there are multiple people attacking each other. The winner gets to decide how effects are distributed amongst multiple losers.

In this case we’re assuming that all damage dealing spells are somewhat alike. Over time you’ll build a collection of rulings as to which effects can cancel each other like that.

Whenever spell effects cannot be compared directly, the simplest solution would be to have both sides roll their saving throws, if any. When both make their saves, nothing happens. When only one side fails their save, they are affected by the other’s spell. If both sides fail their saving throws, the spell of the higher circle wins: hold person (2nd circle) beats charm person (1st circle) if both sides fail their saving throws.

Similarly, if one side casts hold person and the other side casts fireball, both need to roll a save — one to avoid being held, the other for half damage. If both casters fail their saves, fireball (3rd circle) beats hold person (2nd circle).

And finally, if one side casts sleep and their victim can be affected, the other side is simply considered to have already failed their save.

This also means that it can be disadvantageous to attack with weaker spells because the counterspell might simply cancel whatever you threw at your opponent and thus you effectively gave away the initiative.


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2018-01-13 No Google Plus

A while ago I discovered Mastodon and loved it. I didn’t worry too much about being tracked. Everything and everybody was new. Posts were shorter. And I basically switched. I’m no longer a big Google+ poster.

I had joined Google+ because of all the other RPG people. The Old School Renaissance (OSR) folks had all collectively moved their talking from blogs to Google+, I felt. But in recent months I have often felt that many posts on Google+ were about politics, and they were getting me down. The orange pumpkin US president also didn’t help (Trump, in case I come back to this blog post many years later and have forgotten who it was). I wanted to read about politics but it was getting me down. I wanted to read about role-laying games but that was getting me down, too!

It’s hard to explain. Some posts were too long. Huge! Others were just linkspam, sometimes nothing but a link, or sometimes a very short sentence or two, plus a link, sometimes posted in multiple Google Communities. Even though that didn’t affect me much, it still made me a little angry. It’s stupid, I know.

Mastodon has a 500 character limit and no markup. Those limitations are stupid, too. But strangely, I feel more comfortable in this environment. And I noticed something else: I am quite comfortable posting about code and programming, something I had mostly kept out of my Google+.

Perhaps that’s because the RPG instance I am on, dice.camp, isn’t too interesting as far as the OSR goes. And so I did not post too much over there.

I thought the change would be hard. But it turns out it isn’t.


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2017-12-22 What I like about the Old School

I was talking with ghost bird on Mastodon about the OSR, trying to describe what I like about it.

I like the spirit of doing it yourself. Making your own house rules. The sheer uncontrolled mass that is Links to Wisdom makes me happy. Over a thousand links!

I like the part that is not related to products. I liked the part about Fight On! and the One Page Dungeon Contest that showed me other people doing similar stuff without shiny gloss and fancy art. Thus, where as I have bought some products, I would not recommend anything in particular. I loved the blogs and G+ about the OSR.

Remember the discussion about Innovation and the Old School Renaissance?

I’ve always thought of it as Old School Renaissance. The kind of rebirth that takes old statues and old manuscripts and makes new and awesome things with it. The Renaissance in Europe wasn’t about rebuilding Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, after all. It was about taking some found material and making new stuff.

As I am remembering how I ended up in the OSR, I remember getting into the blogosphere. I started my blog in 2002, rediscovered D&D in 2006, gave old school D&D a first try in 2008. And I discovered more and more blogs talking about classic D&D, what it could have been, how you could transmute it into something new and awesome.

There was the Planet Algog blog, for exampe. The session reports sounded so fantastic, this is what I wanted my games to be like. Start here: Chapter 3, Part 1: "The Seeds of Heroism..." (multi-part), Chapter 4, Part 1: "The Importance of Attentiveness..." (multi-part), etc.


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2017-07-12 Magic Items

Stuff I recently posted on G+:

An ancient trophy: Broken Antler Crown of the Elf Lord Orne Melethron, found in an old throne room deep below, chained to the ceiling. When worn, the elven glammer makes you shine with inner starlight, beautiful and stern. All living things must save vs. spells before they can attack you. This is awesome. Sadly, you must also save vs. spells or feel the broken hearts of all of Lord Orne Melethron’s kinsmen and family, dead or alive, tortured, broken, staring at dungeon cell walls, clawing at the dirt in total darkness deep underground. If you fail your save, scream your anguish out into the world, pouring liquid starlight from your eyes and mouth. It is also quite impressive, but sadly nobody feels bad about attacking a screaming elf lord wanna-be. [1]

The Mace of Demogorgon is a simple mace +1 with a metal demon head; the only drawback is that it watches and listens to everything you do, possibly reporting it, and whenever there’s a peaceful conversation going on nearby, it will insult the other party, making parley a difficult proposition. The safest place to keep such a thing would probably be a bag of holding.


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2017-07-10 New Characters

Random Face From a discussion I’ve been having on Mastodon: What about group character generation? Remember all those Fate games where you describe past events where your character was in a scene with another character? Was this awesome and made for a better game? Or was it boring and you just wanted to get into the game and have an adventure now instead of talking about adventures your characters had without you?

The problem with this approach is that not everybody enjoys this process; I’d rather begin playing right away. In my mind, character generation is not play.

And then there’s the problem with new players arriving over the years. Their characters will be different, so how much have you actually gained in the long run? Eventually, none of the characters in the party will have that shared past. All of them will simply have adventured together, at the table. And that’s great. Perhaps there was no need for group character generation.

That’s why I like character generators. When newbies join the campaign, I just let them pull a random character from the stack. Play starts immediately.

I have long running campaigns with people slowly dropping out and coming in, so party cohesion is usually provided by the old hats and newcomers are just tagging along until they develop their own characters.

As for the rules, I usually just hand-wave all that and tell them that we’ll explain it as it comes up. I guess that’s why handing out random pre-generated characters works for me.


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2017-06-26 Running the Megadungeon

On Google+, Mike Evans asked about megadungeons. My collected comments:

I’m 49 sessions into running Castle of the Mad Archmage and it’s still working out for me. Session reports are on the Greyheim campaign wiki.

The challenge/joy of running a megadungeon is to imagine the changes brought through player activities. I know I’m lazy but I still have the harpies killed replaced by... more harpies! When these are also killed: orcs, because the players relocated some orcs from lower levels. When the players then betray and massacre the orcs, the allied lizards build a settlement. When the alliance falls appart and the players fall upon the lizards with the help of the dwarves, then the angry little men will build a surface trading post, of course. And I’m thinking of how to undermine the newly established dwarven hegemony of the upper levels. Soon, my little angry beards, your little filter bubble will burst and surely the players will once again betray their allies...

But what about the procedural details? How do you start? Where do you start? My game usually starts with a recap. People around the table try to remember what happened and they tell each other. Then we spend gold on building projects and the like, and on equipment, mostly flaming oil, some of them also by rations for a week, but nobody really cares. Gold spent is experience points gained, so some people are trying to gain a level. I make a list of all the main characters and their retainers, their war dogs, their war bears, or their velociraptors. Usually there are about four to six players at the table and up to 20 targets in the party.

The assumption is that every time we meet at the table, about a week has passed, the exact number of days doesn’t really matter. We’re at full hit-points and spells, and when the session ends, we go back to town for a week of rest and recovery. And yes, in theory the 10 rooms could have changed 100% between one session and the next, but actually the referee is just going to introduce small changes and really, who cares whether room #7 has giant rats or kobolds after a while? Nobody. They’ll all run for their lives when the party needs to go to the giant stair to level three, pass through safe dwarven territory until they get to the stairs near the dentist, down to the arena level, ignore all the idiots and move down into level 5. Now exploration starts. On the way down, I might have rolled a wanding monster check for the arena level because it’s not “safe” but that’s it.


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2017-06-26 Megadungeon Generator

A while ago I started working on a megadungeon map generator which documents every step of its growth using a little picture, and every one of these pictures links to a rendering of said map using Gridmapper for debugging purposes. The actual “result” is simply the link from the last image.

Give it a whirl!

One example of a generated map

I’m interested in ideas for improving the generated maps. I already have some vague ideas:

  • Having the algorithm prefer growing new corridors into sections that are “less dense.” But how does one define that?
  • If that doesn’t eliminate dead ends, have some sort of estimate of whether the corridor will end up in a dead end and abort these outgrows. Or eliminate dead ends after the fact.
  • Placement of statues, altars, treasure chests, tables, beds, open pits and traps.
  • Agressively trying to add more “starting” rooms for levels that are “done” but aren’t “dense enough”. All of these terms need decisions to be made.

When I started the project, the first thing I did was draw the kind of dungeon elements I expected to find in a simple generated megadungeon map.

Megadungeon Elements

Next, I drew a map using the elements I had identified. I also started looking at corridor lengths and the like. That’s what the numbers are for.

Megadungeon example map

And finally, I tried to identify some simple statistics to build a simple table of probabilities, a bit like a Markhov chain.

Megadungeon statistics


Comments on 2017-06-26 Megadungeon Generator

Some thoughts: What about using a census of the region the proposed feature is going to go into, maybe up to 3 or 5 squares away, and the census values fall off by distance (1 square = 2, 2 squares = 1, 3 squares = 0.5, etc), and then if the value is above a figure you set the generator instead chooses a new location? Maybe you could use a random feature generator, something that works like the AD&D DMG dungeon generator, for traps/statues/chests/etc? It looks like you’re using something already, as I see that the generator will throw in the occasional portcullis or statue.

Frotz 2017-06-27 13:46 UTC

The way the generator works is that it places elements and based on the element it just placed, it randomly chooses appropriate next steps. The way to describe it right now would thus be something like this:

  1. start with a big room
  2. a big room has an exit
  3. a big room has a 70% chance for another exit
  4. a big room has a 20% chance for another exit
  5. a big room has a 20% chance for a spiral stair case
  6. a room exit goes in a random direction and looks for a wall to place a door
  7. a door out of a room will connect to a corridor that is about 60ft long
  8. at the end of a corridor, there is a 20% for a big room (back to #2)
  9. or a 30% chance for a settlement
  10. or a 50% chance for small room
  11. and so on...

To add a feature, I’d need to hook into this process and say, for example, that a big room without a stair case has a 30% chance of having an altar, and a 30% chance for a statue, and thus an about 10% chance for both.

Or, in a settlement, the last small room has a 50% chance of containing a chest.

– Alex Schroeder 2017-06-28 06:50 UTC

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