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)

2015-11-06 Level Limits

Gavin recently proposed replacing demi-human level limits for classic D&D with an XP penalty, on G+. Here’s what I said.

Whenever level limits for demi-humans come up I wonder: is this an actual problem at the table? I’ve been playing for years and the first cleric characters are slowly reaching level nine, now. And I’m tiring of these campaigns. The chances our campaign ending before level limits come up are far higher.

But I have a point regarding the math, too. If XP requirements double every level, then getting 50% XP simply means loosing a level. In the long run, that doesn’t make much of a difference. You could argue that this is exactly what elves in B/X D&D or Labyrinth Lord actually do: If you think of elves as splitting their XP between fighter and magic-user, then they only get 50% of their XP for their magic-user class and thus they need to gain 5000 XP to get to the equivalent of a magic-user with 2500 XP…

So, part of my argument is: “it has already been done.”

As an argument with players at the table, however, I’d simply pull out a list mapping levels to the importance of people in the world. Something short and visual, like this:

1. noobs
3. veterans, village heroes, sergeants, squad commanders
5. town leaders, captains, company commanders
7. lieutenants, second-in-commands
9. rulers of a castle, of a hex, of a tribe, barons

So basically, the level of non-magical types shows how big their domain in this campaign setting is. If the limit is 8, then ambitions are smaller than a castle. If the limit is 12, then the domain they rule can be larger: various mountain hexes. If the limit is 10, then the domain is simply a forest hex, maybe two. With no level limit, immortality or fighting the gods for divinity is the end game.

If your players agree with the power distribution of the end game, then the level limits remain. If they prefer to go for immortality and divinity, then just get rid of the level limits, no XP penalty required. You can still keep those level limits for non-player characters, if you want.

Or you could say that elves without level limits are obviously Melnibonéan overlords riding dragons and they exist and they run this place. :)


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2015-09-17 Combat Maneuvers

Gavin Norman has been writing about rogues on his blog. There, he introduces such maneuvers as Garrote and Black Jack:

Garrote: Make an attack roll. If the attack succeeds, you have the garrote in place, causing 1d4 damage. Each subsequent round, the victim suffers 1d4 damage and must save versus paralysis or fall unconscious […]

Black Jack: Make an attack roll. If it succeeds, the victim suffers 1d4 damage and must save versus paralysis. Failure indicates that they’re knocked unconscious.

In a subsequent discussion on Google+ I said that I had a different way of thinking about combat maneuvers.

I always wonder: What would Conan do? In my game, if Conan is a level 10 fighter, then I have a hard time understanding how lowly thieves can put him down without bringing down his hit-points. Similarly, nobody gets to push Conan around, trip him or disarm him, unless he’s out of hit-points.

You could of course claim that this isn’t much different from a hold person spell. If Conan fails his save against hold person, he’s helpless and can be killed in a round. In which case the garrote is a bit like a wand of hold person with unlimited charges, right? It’s very powerful. Specially compared to the lousy backstabbing thieves usually get: double damage in old school games.

I think I mostly settled on my interpretation of hit-points because I decided that hit-points was about luck, endurance, will to live, experience, toughness and when you’re at zero then you’re giving up. You have no more will to live. The next hit will kill you, or make you roll on the Death and Dismemberment table. That is when you force your enemies to submit.

Thus, in my game, I tell people that they need to reduce people to zero hit-points and then they can do with them what they want. That is, unless their enemies are suicidal in which case they’ll rather take the hit than submit. Submission is therefore being disarmed and giving up, or tripping and falling on your back and giving up, or being pushed over the edge and falling to your death. A maneuver is not an alternative to a hit for the attacker – submission to the maneuver is the alternative to death for the victim.


Comments on 2015-09-17 Combat Maneuvers

In your game, if Conan was a level 10 fighter, he would do 1d6 damage and even a lowly thief would have nothing to fear ;-) #mimimi

– Stefan 2015-09-17 15:44 UTC

We’ll, he might wield Frostbrand, wear a girldle of giant strength, and have his weapon enchanted by his cleric friend, and so he’d have a +6 to attack and deal 2d6+6 every round to everybody in range (because Frostbrand is a 2H sword). So it’s not that bad. :)

– AlexSchroeder 2015-09-17 15:50 UTC

You mean to say that his strength would in fact come from a couple of awesome magical items? Then truly, a thief would be his nemesis!

– Stefan 2015-09-17 20:02 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

Alex Schroeder
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

Alex Schroeder
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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2015-08-15 Rules in Use

For a while now I’ve noticed a strange fact:

  • Shields Shall be Splintered! is not being used. People will quickly turn to our Death and Dismemberment table and forget about the shields. I like this change. One of the rules that should go.
  • I don’t think we’ve ever used my d30 list of random hirelings in the past. Recently, a player sent me an email and said he wanted to spend those 10gp in order to attract 1d6 potential hirelings. The way I’ve run this is that it works once per session, so every session, the party can hire 1d6 hirelings. Should I have allowed every player character to hire 1d6 hirelings? If so, why limit the number of hirelings in the first place, there might as well be infinitely many. I think I’m going to stick to this rule. I’ll have to check that table of d30 potential hirelings, though. This list needs to be adapted to the campaign!
  • The only special weapon rule I’ve used is the two-handed sword allowing you to counter-attack all enemies with a single die roll. If two troglodytes attacked you, you can roll your attack and if it hits, those two troglodytes will be hit. This seems to be the simplest implementation of “all within range” and faster (and more useful) than “keep attacking if your last attack killed a creature” (also known as cleave). I’m still amenable to using cleave instead.


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2015-07-14 Monsters

Recently, somebody asked the following on G+: “If you use monster books, or even monsters from blog posts, what does your workflow look like?”

So here’s how I did it for The Crown of Neptune. Some doodling and brainstorming yields the following. I see a shark, a lamprey or moray man, and an aboleth. And I see a first table of random encounters on the right. Spider crabs, squids, sharks, mermaids, dinosaurs, wales. This dungeon is going to be about sharks and dinosaurs, and as you go deeper it will turn into underwater horror. Or so I think.


This is what I ended up with:


How do I arrive at the table in the middle of this sheet?

I start at the beginning and think about the environment. My adventures are almost always locations on a greater hex map. That already gives me some monsters from the surrounding area. In this case, that would be the plesiosaurus. Looking for dinosaur stats leads me to the Rules Cyclopedia and aquatic dinosaurs. The entry is disappointing.

The dungeon is underwater. So I’m thinking of monstrous animals. Sharks, obviously. Sharks have a nice stat block in the Labyrinth Lord book. I feel better already.

Not sure about wales. They seem pretty boring. Perhaps a creature to talk to, or to charm? The Labyrinth Lord book has stats for killer whales and they’re in the range I like right now: 6 HD.

And I want simple, humanoid, intelligent monsters that players can interact with. Some sort of nixie, or merfolk? Nixies and sirens can charm people and I’m thinking that this is a more brutal environment. Let’s pick merfolk instead. I remember something about tritons but they’re not in the Labyrinth Lord book. Merfolk will do.

OK, further down. Let’s start bringing that horror feeling. My campaign features neogi. Eel headed spider slavers. This reminds me of morays. Morayfolk! Or Lampreyfolk. Once they hit, they keep drawing blood without needing to attack. A classic special ability and easy to add. Think giant weasels or stirges. I’m not sure where I get that HD 2+1 from.

Spiders. Crabs. Spidercrabs. They look a lot like the giant crab monster from the Labyrinth Lord book. AC 3 instead of AC 2, 1d10 instead of 2d6. Trivial changes.

The kraken is a giant squid from the Labyrinth Lord book. My players know I love the kraken. In my mind, this kraken was huge. 50m long arms! It should have had a gazillion HD. But seven attacks is good enough, I though. Let the monster look tougher than it is. Labyrinth Lord, giant squid. Works for me! HD 6. Ideal.

Not sure where I got the giant clams from. Since they can’t move, that looks more like an obstacle to me.

And now for some unterwater undead. Kraken made me think of ink, and that made me think of dark clouds. Wraiths? And some more variations on the crab and on the lamprey themes. Simple variations in numbers. Things get tougher as you go down.

An astral spider is an intelligent planar spider from the Rules Cyclopedia, I guess. Or a variant on the aforementioned neogi and giant spiders. Giant jellyfish is a variant on the kraken theme but with paralysis instead of multiple attacks. I imagine them being soft targets which is why they don’t get eight attacks or more.

The giant anglerfish was supposed to be a building that can bite. I don’t know where I got the 36 HD from. It was basically a huge trap.

Further down! A gibbering mouther? An elf encased in an evil mech? I must have been thinking of the Goons in the Caverns of Slime:

3d6 Goons (HD 5; AC 3; Atk 1 slam +3 (1d6+3); MV 6; in combat the poor creature locked inside will be begging for forgiveness and cry for help even as it fights) are alerted to the party’s presence by imperceptible sensors embedded into the walls and ceilings of the building.

More kraken. And my version of an aboleth, since I couldn’t find one in the Labyrinth Lord book.

Basically the whole adventure is nothing but a map, random monsters, some of them with an obvious lair, and if a lair exists, then with treasure, and some traps or curious things to investigate – such as the dead diver I added because I had listened to the story of how David Shaw died.

Back to the initial question, though. How do I use monster books?

  1. leaf through the book, looking for inspiration – pictures help me describe monsters, a description of two or three sentences help me add variety to my monsters
  2. copy stats – and these stats help me add similar monsters
  3. roll for treasure – remember, I think they help me suspend disbelief
  4. suggest similar monsters nearby


Comments on 2015-07-14 Monsters

I like your spider crab illustration :)

Now, was it modeled after real spider crabs, or in true D&D fashion, was it a spider/crab mash-up?

– Adrian 2015-07-16 16:52 UTC

Alex Schroeder
As I’m still a biologist at heart, I was of course thinking of the Japanese spider crab, macrocheira kaempferi. Except, with D&D flavor sprinkled all over it. I barely avoided giving it psionic powers. :)

Looking at the illustration, it looks as if I started with a sahuagin head, added lamprey teeth, thought I needed more spiders, and now that I read the scribbles I see that it says “spider woman”. Well, it was enough to make me think of spider crabs when I was thinking of more monsters to add to the list.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-07-16 19:18 UTC

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2015-05-07 Domain Game Procedures

OK, so we talked about setting up a game of Hexcrawling and how the game will eventually reach its limit if the known region keeps growing and more and more factions are being introduced, more lairs, more assets, more domain turns; the game starts to collapse under its own weight. We also talked about my Domain Game Goals. The things I like. The things my players like. We have come to the point where we need to talk about the kind of procedures that will offer us an interesting domain game without growing as the domain expands.

I think this is key: The procedure must always take the same amount of time. Think about random encounters. No matter how big your party, you always roll once for random encounters. The monsters might be stronger. The trek might be longer. But the number of rolls is constant. But think also about its failure modes. If the party travels for eight weeks, do you roll for over 100 random encounters? I don’t. That’s why random encounters only work at a certain scale. Our domain game procedure will also work at a certain scale. We’ll postpone thinking about attaining immortality and godhood, for now.

The simplest solution would be a random domain roll. The results on the table are all either adventure hooks or role-playing opportunities where we get to see what kind of people the player characters are.

  1. Invasion! A tribe of humanoids show up. Will you allow them to settle? Will you go to war? Will you investigate who pushed them out of their homeland? This needs a short list of likely humanoid tribes. Pick races, name their tribes. Give their leaders names. Determine the cause of their migration.
  2. Disaster! An earthquake or flood destroyed several buildings in one of your towns. Will you help rebuild it using your own funds? Determine the location randomly. In a village, a temple and a few houses need to be rebilt, costing 10,000 gold pieces. In a town, the keep itself and several large temples need to be rebuilt, costing 100,000 gold pieces. In a town, even more money is required to rebuild the city walls, the cathedral, the harbor, the granaries… 500,000 gold are needed. Make a list of buildings and have a price list ready in case your players will only partially fund the restauration. Make a note of up to five powerful locals and the grudges they’ll bear if the player characters did not pay for it all.
  3. Unrest! The peasants are revolting because one of your vassals is being inept or corrupt. How will you find out? How will you deal with your vassal? Will the vassal be written in to the dead book? Or join the rebellion? This needs a list of named vassals. The traitor had a reason. Write it down.
  4. Rebellion! All your former vassals and their greedy allies have decided to come and take what they feel is rightfully theirs. This requires a list of former vassals and henchmen. Make it personal. Make sure you remember some sour deals they had to suffer.
  5. Madness! A charismatic leader has started a religious movement. Their numbers are growing every day. They are instituting land reform. Killing the reach and distributing their wealth. They are calling on their brothers and sisters everywhere to come and join them. How will you deal with this sect? This needs a list of two or three leaders and a handful of other influental people that have fallen under their influence. Name them.
  6. A cult has taken hold! One of the towns in your domain has fallen prey to a cult. Its institutions are no longer trustworth. Your vassal in charge either blind or enthralled by the cult. How will root out the problem without a massacre? This needs a cult location, a monstrosity sent by a demon lord to aid the cult, a few charmed officials, the inner ring of cultist. Name them.
  7. Enormous monster incoming! A dragon or some other giant lizard has destroyed one of the border towns. It is wreaking a path of destruction. The peasants are fleeing. Mercenaries will no longer take the job. Will you defend the realm?
  8. Disease! Nobody knows whether it was due to widespread substance abuse, a punishment sent by the gods, or some other cause but now your people are reeling under the hammer blow of an epidemic. People don’t leave their houses. The sick are burnt in their houses. The dead are piling up and still no cure has been found. Have the name of a great rival cleric available that is trying to turn the tide. If the party does not succeed in stemming the tide, this rival will and the settlement will be ready to secede from the domain when he is done.
  9. Dispute! Your merchants seem to have fallen on hard times. Your trade income is decreasing. Who will you send as ambassadors to your neighbors? You need some disputes ready. Taxes. Territory. Fishing rights. Lumber rights. Mining rights. You’ll need the names of powerful people at your neighbor’s court. Determine what will sway them: bribes, threats, the use of force, sweet talking, back room deals.
  10. War! One of your neigbors has decided to follow up on that trade war. If there is no previous history, assume a demonic cult or some other madness has taken over. This is an opportunity for a little war game. Find allies. Make plans.

Several things are still missing. In order to track the “mood” of the current campaign arc, you could run with Chris Kutalik’s idea of a chaos index as explained in his blog post The Weird is Rising, Thanks World Engine.

I think I’d like more of a multi-dimensional framework that takes the gods into account. You could use something like the fronts on the MC sheet for Sagas of the Icelanders. Have a list of gods or other influences, list some keywords (“Hel: breathe disease, consume, hoard with greed”) that will color current events. This forces you to vary the description of the results depending on what front is in ascendancy. Use the result of the random domain roll to build a little four step countdown. If the party does not engage, step one happens. If they leave it to fester, step two happens. If they are busy elsewhere, step three happens. If they don’t take care of it now, step four happens. As time keeps passing and more rolls are made, issues are piling up. This is good.

If your players have “traits” that influence the domain game such as Sticky Fingers which I mentioned in previous post on the same topic, some of the results on the domain roll table should reflect that. In a Dispute situation, for example, Sticky Fingers might allow you to ignore the first two steps of the countdown as your thieves infiltrate your neighbor’s domain. You will have to handle the issue eventually or just move to War.

The important thing is this: I’m looking for a solution that limits the number of dice rolls and that doesn’t require any sort of computation before rolling. I don’t want to roll for every unconquered monster lair. I don’t want to add a bunch of numbers on the wiki for every roll I make. I don’t even want to look at what the last roll four sessions ago was before making a roll.


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2015-05-03 Domain Game Goals

I recently wrote about my current setup for a campaign wilderness map and the associated hexcrawling that goes along with it. The greater context is the promise of ever changing gameplay. This is true for characters with saving throws replacing armor class as your most important defense, this is true for spells that change how the game is run, and I want it to be true for the campaign itself where dungeon looting yields to wilderness exploration, and eventually to kingdom building.

Kingdom building is what the domain game is all about. Wilderness exploration is about travelling from here to there and the creatures you encounter. It’s about learning who your allies and enemies are, new towns with new leaders and their own economic goals, monster lairs, humanoid tribes, instigating war, brokering peace. Eventually, the players are going to lay claim on a lair or a town. Now what?

Let us consider existing options for the domain game. The simplest rules I know are the ones in the Expert set by Cook and Marsh. Fighters get a land grant, build a castle, clear the surrounding area of monsters, organize patrols, attract settlers, raise taxes. Any mercenaries hired cost money. Clerics do the same thing, but their castle is only half as expensive and they get fanatically loyal troops for free (5d6×10). A magic-user gets to build a tower and attracts apprentices (1d6). A thief gets to build a hideout and attracts more thieves (2d6). Demihumans are like fighters. They build a stronghold and attract settlers of their own kind. Elves are automatically friends with the local animals. As for the attraction of settlers, all it says is that spending money on improvements (“inns, mills, boatyards, etc.”) or advising will do it. The details are up to the referee.

If you want a bit more detail you can use An Echo Resounding. It’s what I have been using for a while. A while back, I wrote a summary of the rules. Apparently you can add a lot more details by using Adventure Conqueror King System. There is an interesting comparison of An Echo Resounding and Adventure Conqueror King a forum I read a few years ago.

Unfortunately it’s turning out to be too much work for me. When I look at the monthly campaign summaries—something I write every four sessions—I notice that there is some free form stuff in the Sages and Spies inspired by recent events, my players’ interests and adventure hooks, and there is some stuff generated by the rules of An Echo Resounding. For every lair I need to find out whether it spawns units. If it does, these units need to attack a nearby location. I need to resolve these fights and if the units win, they plunder the location they attacked. For every non-player domain I need to figure out what sort of move they make during their domain turn. This involves looking at the numbers and rolling a d20, but often it has been so long that I feel I need to double check those numbers or I find little mistakes. In the end, a lot of time gets spend for very little gain. Or, to look at it from another perspective, I spend some time looking at numbers and rolling dice to produce text that is boring compared to the free form stuff I write up for the Sages and Spies section.

The stuff players like about the system don’t involve that much maintenance. They like knowing about their units and they like going to war every now and then. They like to build things in their domain. In my game, gold spent yields experience points. Since I have a list suggested prices for buildings, this encourages them to build temples, hospitals, towers, bath houses, and so on.

Building Price
a small statue for a well or a garden 50gp
a small, public altar made of stone with spirit gate und a small well (5ft.×5ft.)250gp
a small shop made of wood with a place to sleep in the back room (15ft.×15ft.)300gp
a simple wooden building with one floor such as a tavern, a gallery or a gambling den (50ft.×50ft.)700gp
a wooden building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.)1500gp
a stone building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.)3000gp
a manor house with two floors, marble columns and statues in a city (50ft.×50ft.)10,000gp
a provincial castle with six floors (60ft.×60ft.) and an inner courtyard (30ft.×60ft.) surrounded by a wall75,000gp

This leads to a strange effect: Build a large wooden Freya temple for 1500 gold and you’ve got a temple and 1500 experience points (gold spent = xp gained). Spend a few domain turns building a temple, however, and you will have a temple, it will give you Wealth -1 and Social +4, and a powerful 9th level cleric will come and settle here (using An Echo Resounding).

Having two very different ways of building a temple complicates things. It seems to me that paying for the temple using their own gold is a more visceral experience for players. They built it. This is what it cost. It’s easy to embellish it. It’s easy to list it on the campaign wiki. It doesn’t require anything on my part except determining a suitable price when they ask for a quote.

I also think they don’t mind getting a 9th level cleric, but there are still questions: why haven’t we met them before? Why aren’t they coming on adventures? In fact, why isn’t this a player character?

My game allows players to run multiple characters. In a particular session, players can bring up to three characters. The character with the highest level is the main character, the others act as secondary characters. Experience point gained for killing monsters is split on a per head basis. Treasure—and therefore experience points for gold—is split by shares. Every main character gets a full share, every secondary character gets half a share.

Sometimes, players will grow tired of characters. Sometimes, characters will break bones or loose limbs. These characters are perfect fits for these roles. Majordomos of castles, priests in temples, heads of guilds, captains of ships, regents of towns.

This is how I hope to achieve a greater identification with the setting. Over time, more and more important folks will be former player characters. It’s also ideal for a new campaign. At first, no high level priests exist. As soon as the first player character cleric reaches 9th level, however, raise dead is an option for all the player characters in the region—even if they’re playing in a different group! And raise dead will remain an option even if the player running the character abandons them or if the player leaves my table. The character has been established, backstory included.

My players also love their units. This is not a problem. We can keep the champion levels introduced by An Echo Resounding. The chapter introducing champion levels is Open Game Content. I’d go further than that, though. We could get rid of all the resource points and simply say that all other need to be equipped and hired.

The party could build an armory, buy equipment for four hundred heavy infantry (swords, chain and shield is 60 gold per person based on prices in Moldvay’s Basic D&D or 24000 gold total + 3000 gold for the armory itself based on my list of buildings above). Then, if the town is big enough to supply enough able bodied fighters, four units of heavy infantry militia will automatically be available whenever the town is attacked.

Hiring mercenaries will require less money. Human heavy foot guards in peace time will cost three gold per month (1200 gold per month for four units), twice as much in war time (2400 gold per month for four units).

I don’t think I need to use the War Machine rules introduced in the Rules Cyclopedia. I can keep using the unit combat rules in An Echo Resounding, the B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker, or the M20 Mass Combat Rules by Greywulf. I’m not sure what my favorite mass combat rules are, for the moment. I’m tending towards keeping the rules from An Echo Resounding because rolling for attack and damage is easy to remember. There is no scale factor and there is no /Unit Attack Matrix/. That makes it easier to understand.

What about the abilities your champion gets that aren’t tied to units? Sticky Fingers gives you +4 Wealth value. I don’t want to think about domain income, upkeep, taxes or tolls. When Chris Kutalik started rethinking domain-level play in his campaign, he suggested the use of domain skills and a skill check to go along with it. I don’t want to introduce skill checks and I don’t want minor and major skills in my game, however. Sticky Fingers does sound like a skill, though.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. What about abilities, or aspects?

Based on a recommendation on Google+ I took a look at Houses of the Blooded. There, you have domains consisting of provinces and each province consisting of ten regions. Each region produces something, and based on that you can have armies, goods, trade, and so on. I think it interesting, but I don’t think I’d want my D&D to be about it. Too much detail, it’s not really part of player characters, we wouldn’t want to spend time on it at the table, and so on.

I was also looking at the King Arthur’s Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign. My campaign fell apart because of many reasons, but the lousy winter season where you’re supposed to look after your family, your manor house, your lands, build fortifications and all that—this part of the game just was not exciting enough at the table. And that is a problem. As Chris says in one of his blog posts, there’s always the danger of these systems turning “boardgamey” or “beancounterly.” Or that all the decisions have no consequence after all.

I’m still chewing on this.


Comments on 2015-05-03 Domain Game Goals

Alex Schroeder
On Google+, Andy wondered about moving some of the ‘beancountery’ aspects of domain play from the table to the downtime between session, to email, to G+ or to the referee playing ‘solitaire’. This is a good question. How much indeed? What I can say is that there is very little interaction between me and my players between sessions. Everything needs to happen at the table. Between sessions, people focus on work, family life, other hobbies, etc. In our Pendragon campaign, that meant running the winter phase at the table. This lead to some frustration. The winter phase was not seen as part of the game. It was something that happened before or after the game. It took away from the game itself. In our An Echoes Resounding campaign, that meant me rolling all the dice and writing up all the results between sessions and players making two domain turns every four sessions, and most of them wanting to do the right thing but having no idea of the options open to them and a winter phase effect if we talked about it for too long. In the end I feel it means a lot of work for me for very little gain at the table and for the players. I can only speak for myself, of course. As far as I am concerned, I don’t enjoy playing a solitaire domain game. That’s why I need a different solution.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-05-04 07:47 UTC

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2015-04-30 Hexcrawling

Chris Kutalik has been writing about his campaign: Small is Beautiful in the Sandbox and Rethinking Domain-Level Play in the Hill Cantons. Those two topics have been on my mind as well, lately.

Let’s talk about the sandbox, first. Chris has written about the problem before: The Unbearable Dullness of D&D Wilderness. The way I handle it is still the same hexcrawl procedure I used in 2012:

  1. When the players enter a new region, prepare a new random encounter table with eight to ten entries. See the Swiss Referee Style Manual for more information.
  2. Players tell me where they want to go. Roll 1d6 for a daylight encounter and 1d6 for a nighttime encounter for every hex traveled. Combine encounters if that spices things up.

I’ve recently started a new campaign. Here’s how I did it.

First, I got myself a hex map. I created this one using Text Mapper:

  1. visit https://alexschroeder.ch/text-mapper
  2. click Random
  3. click Submit

Repeat until you like what you’re seeing. The random terrain is generated using the Welsh Piper’s algorithm as described in Erin D. Smale’s Hex Based Campaign Design, Part 1; the icons are based on the Gnomeyland SVG Map Icons by Gregory B. MacKenzie.

This is the regional map I got:


On this map, I placed a city, a few towns, a few lairs, a few resources – all according to the setup suggestions in An Echo Resounding. Unfortunately I can’t show them to you because they’re secret, but I did print out this map and use little stickers to help me picture it all, in the top right corner:


Then I picked the starting location for my adventures and added some details:


I added some taverns, a ruler, a keep and some guilds to the starting town and wrote it up: Greyheim.

The city of Greyheim boasts of the following:

  • a river harbor
  • the keep where Lady Kyle resides; she will hear complaints and remonstrances on Mondays, hear cases and pronounce sentences on Tuesdays, and witness any executions on Wednesdays; she’ll be out hunting every afternoon
  • Singing Mermaid, the harbor inn, for dockers, rafters, knaves and gamblers
  • Trader’s Rest, the inn for merchants and successful dungeon delvers
  • Haversack, the run-down inn for peasants und luckless dungeon delvers
  • a temple of Freya, goddess of fertility, harvest, health, fighting, furs, winter, wolves, and many other things besides
  • the Porter’s Guild House where you can hire torchbearers and other hirelings
  • the Adventurer’s Guild House where you can find new companions and exchange news
  • the Halfling Help Harmony is a self-help organization for halflings; they meet for Sunday brunch at each other’s homesteads in the area around Greyheim, talk about politics, collect money for halflings in need

If you’re a thief, you’ll know where to find the following:

  • the Thieves’ Guild House where you can report new targets, fence stolen goods and get new tools

I had also picked the location of our first dungeon and determined that travel to and fro would be safe, at first. Nevertheless, I could not resist writing an encounter table for the Elderberry Forest:

Roll 1d6 once per day and once per night. There’s an encounter on a 1. In that case, roll 1d6, add 3 during the day and consult the following list:

  1. a darkness of shadows (1-12), guarding an old ruin
  2. a horde of orcs (10-60), roaming the forest
  3. the black cat of night (1), hunting
  4. a pack of wolves (3-18), hunting
  5. a company of dwarves (5-40), travelling through
  6. a group of elves (2-12), on a spying mission
  7. an arse of bandits (10-40), out to rob some rich folk
  8. an aerie of harpies (2-8), hunting
  9. a sloth of bears (1-4, in summer, ⅙ of the time including the wandering druid) / shadows (1-12, in winter)

Remember to use reaction tables when encountering these. Remember to provide warning signs when approaching larger groups (sound, smoke, smell).

So what does that give us?

  • a regional map
  • places to go to (lairs, resources, towns)
  • non-player characters to visit and talk to
  • at least one dungeon
  • encounter tables appropriate to the lairs and dungeons nearby
  • the opportunity to go a monster hunting, hex clearing, keep building, domain establishing

What An Echo Resounding gives us on top of that:

  • a numerical basis for town resources and defenses
  • a numerical basis for units and their support
  • rules for domain management
  • rules for mass combat

But, as Chris says in one of his blog posts, there’s always the danger of these systems turning “boardgamey” or “beancounterly.” I recently mentioned on Google+ that I wasn’t happy with how An Echo Resounding was going:

How do you run your name level classic D&D campaigns?

I’ve been running An Echo Resounding for my group and they say they like it. I think they like it because they get monthly tales of what their neighbors are doing and maybe once a year there is a big battle. I’m sure they also like having champion levels and getting their own units. I run a domain turn every four sessions. Our sessions are short (about 3h) and we have a full table practically every time (6 players) and players will run multiple characters (2–3) and they’re all getting into champion levels. That’s why the player faction is huge, by now. That means I’ve been expanding the map and I’ve started thinking about adding more domains that can band together and pose a new challenge. At the same time, I fear the bookkeeping. So, what am I to do? I certainly won’t move into a more detailed system like Adventure Conqueror King. Are there alternatives to just winging it? Should I simply fall back to the Rules Cyclopedia, using the War Machine, hiring armies using gold, securing allies using boons and favors? Or should I buy Other Dust? I hear that it has a chapter that goes into Groups. Apocalypse World fronts? How much effort is it to run? I’ve heard speak about Other Dust. Anybody else?

To give you an idea of my game, here are some links to my German campaign wiki.

The first section lists the output of sages the players hired; the second section is monsters and the like from lairs as per An Echo Resounding; the third section is other domains taking their turns as per An Echo Resounding; the fourth section is the player domain taking their two turns; the last section is a list of open plots.

I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed and now I need a way to reduce the work load.

+Andy Bartlett said:

If your PC domain is growing in power, is it time for some of the smaller NPC domains to fade into obscurity, at least as far as dicing out their actions is concerned?

+Kevin Crawford said:

When player domains start to become big fish in small ponds, you generally just want to increase the pond size. Are they the hegemon in their region? Okay—scale everything up, as given in the advice on page 43 of the book. Their multi-location domain becomes a single site on a now-larger mapboard, where their competitors are a relative handful of other equal-sized regional hegemons, with old rival domains turning into single locations with flavor text, an appropriate Obstacle, and no further existence under the domain rules. That’s what I’d do in your shoes.

I don’t know. That would allow me to drop the smaller domains, but the larger domains would continue with the endless lists of assets and units. I think this is the point where I’m starting to like Chris Kutalik’s approach he described in Rethinking Domain-Level Play in the Hill Cantons:

NPC advisers carrying and hiding most of the actual domain business (by being “clicked on”) and presenting decision points that gave players choice without swamping the site-based adventure that is D&D’s main thing.

I’ll have to think of something.

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Comments on 2015-04-30 Hexcrawling

Vincent Frey
Nice work! I’ve been really getting into hexcrawls lately and been working on a starting area for an upcoming campaign so this is right up my alley.

Vincent Frey 2015-05-01 04:15 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Cool. And good luck with the new blog. :)

– Alex Schroeder 2015-05-01 14:52 UTC

Vincent Frey

Vincent Frey 2015-05-02 03:24 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Back in 2013 I added a comment to this old blog post linking to John Bell’s hex crawling procedure; he also left a comment. Today I saw that he reposted his procedure: A Procedure for Exploring the Wilderness Redux.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-05-07 21:29 UTC

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2015-03-12 How To Create A Large Dungeon

I’m not yet ready to provide a procedure to write a megadungeon. What I can say, however, is based on my experience using Gridmapper and trying to create The Sewer Prison, a little dungeon of 30×32 (I actually wanted to keep it within 30×30) – six levels deep.

What I did was this: I started with the entrance, drew some rooms and corridors, started placing pillars, altars, statues, secret doors, rooms nearby, beds, chests, and so on. Sometimes stairs down. And I kept going through the dungeon, looking for dead ends, doors that didn’t lead anywhere, and I just kept on adding. Sometimes there was a local significance. An area hidden from the rest via secret doors. But if I went on for long enough, I’d forget and what started as a secret segment of rooms on level two would end up going down for a few levels, and then connect to the rest of the dungeon – without a secret door! Oops?

At the same time, I know that I connected all the stuff because I always began drawing stuff starting from an existing corridor, an existing door. And yet, now that I start keying the dungeon, I realize that I have two main problems:

  • Which areas go together, form a segment?
  • How to get from A to B – as in: “what is the main road from the entrance to the big temple on level five?”

In a traditional dungeon with few stairs connecting the levels, these problems don’t arise as quickly, I guess. But I was really trying to use the third dimension. And now it’s a big mess and I’m realizing that I’m slightly overwhelmed by my own dungeon map. Gridmapper has allowed me to jaquay the dungeon beyond my ability to handle it!

So, what would I do differently?

  1. Start with the main roads from the entrance to the deepest important destination.
  2. Label those areas that belong to a larger segment spanning multiple levels. Don’t just think in rooms.


Comments on 2015-03-12 How To Create A Large Dungeon

I had a similar experience while playing around and “We dig deeper” grow. Mostly I got confused whit the question if this stair is now going up or down or both and how far does it go. I was thinking about writing labels (UP and DOWN) for that but in the end didn’t to.

– Sam 2015-03-16 16:40 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Hah, I am not alone!

The stairs never bothered me much. I just add them on both levels and the direction seems to work well for me. With six full levels, my laptop sometimes takes too long to switch levels. It annoys me sometimes. Specially if I have to switch jump many levels, for example. Some speedup might be in order.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-16 22:31 UTC

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2015-03-02 RPG Blogs

With blog rolls decreasing in importance and a lot of the RPG talk having moved to Google+, what are the blogs people recommend? I asked on Google+: If you were to recommend five RPG blogs to others, what would those be? If you want to recommend your own blog, please recommend five other RPG blogs, first! That’s how I did it. :)

Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

You’re welcome to the .ch top level domain Blogspot feels like adding because I live in Switzerland. No idea what this is used for.

Anyway. So many of my old favorites have fallen silent! I basically went through my blog subscription list, looking for names I recognized and checking whether the latest post was less than 100 days old.

Suggetions from the comments on Goole+


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