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)

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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2017-06-04 Selling Rules and Setting

On G+, Jeff Rients linked to Revealed Preferences by Bradford Walker, who argues that selling RPGs in books had a detrimental effect and that we should return to boxed sets, basically “reducing both your lore and your rules down to the minimum required to actually get on with playing.”

Kyrinn S. Eis left a comment on Jeff Rients’ post arguing that there was a space for more variation, citing the wiki as an example. I’m not sure what wiki she had in mind, but I know that my campaigns always end with big wikis. Some of my entries from the Campaign Wiki Status page:

Campaign Pages
Greyheim¹ 226
Rasiermesserküste¹ 24
Wilderlande¹ 85
Fünf Winde 647
HagfishTavern 229
Kurobano And The Dragons 145

¹ ongoing

But Bradford Walker’s point still stands: when publishing your rules and your settings, you can’t publish the “finished” product. I like games where rules and setting are more fluid. You add the things you like to both settings and rules, you remove the things you forgot to apply during the game, modifying your rules and your setting as you go.

If that’s the game I like best, then what do you sell to people? The collection of things you started out with, or the refined rules and the elaborate setting you ended up with after a year or more of playing?

My campaign wiki has 600 pages and more, but that’s not something I’d ever want to buy.

Take a look at the Unified House Rule Document Update by James Young. This is the best part of the OSR, as far as I am concerned. People start with some sort of D&D and then they add stuff and remove stuff, tinkering and transmogrifying shit until it’s uniquely theirs, and then they share it in order to help others. Download, browse, experiment, delete, adapt, lift some stuff, it’s all good.


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2017-05-30 OSR, Where Art Thou?

It occurs to me that I don’t see my style of gaming in the places where one might be inclined to look for it, such as the OSR Community on G+. The German Rollenspieler Community on G+ is also pretty far from the things I care about.

I have no answers, lots of likes and dislikes, but mostly I am reminded of a sociology lecture I heard at university where we were told that growing older included a turning inward; less interaction with the outside world and a retreat into your own. Perhaps that’s part of it. No urge to carry the torch, to spread the light, but instead cultiver notre jardin.

So basically, it’s the circle of people I’m following on G+, the blogs I’m following on Feedly, the people hanging out on the Weapons vs. AC Mastodon instance, for me.


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2017-05-14 Called Shots

Today I saw a proposal to handle called shots by LS.

When the question comes up, I always tell my players that they can do it when their enemy has zero hit-points. This results in an awkward pause and then they say: but what’s the point, the monster’s already dead? And I say: exactly.

Or, to put it another way: you can’t poke Conan in the eye while he has hit-points left. But if you’re bringing him to zero hit-points, you can tell me how you did it, and what you’re doing exactly, including subduing your foe, or shooting them in the eye.

This is exactly the same as my handling of combat maneuvers.


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2017-04-27 Rulings

One of the defining statements for the Old School Renaissance is often said to be “rulings, not rules”. So what are rulings? How do they come to pass?

One fascinating document is the discussion of Eero Tuovinen’s D&D campaign. There, he treats D&D rules as oral tradition. If people remember a rule, it is applied. If a new rule is proposed on the spot, it is applied and if it remembered the next time such a situation comes up, it is applied again. The rules are what people can remember. Slowly, rules fade out and new ones fade in. It’s a living, mutual understanding of how the game will be played.

I want to talk about the process that leads to the proposal of rules. Here is something that happened recently in one of my games:

The party is fighting ghouls at a tunnel entrance. The last ghoul looses initiative but survives. On its turn, it paralyses a party member. Nobody objects, it’s by the book.

The next round, the ghoul wins initiative and drags the helpless character into the tunnel to kill them. The players object and I relent: it drags the paralysed character into the tunnel and whoever wants to follow the ghoul and attack can do so. (More about the ensuing discussion on G+.)

What exactly happens when I say “the players objected?” The way I run my game is I often suggest a plan of action and some of my players like to then think of ways to prevent it. I start by saying what happens: “OK, so ghoul hits and you roll a save vs. paralysis.” Some dice are rolled and then I provide a suggested course of action: “OK, so the ghoul is going to drag the unconscious Ishirou into the tunnel.” And since ghouls killed a character in those very same tunnels last session, the players all know what’s coming and they’re groaning and interjecting: “Hey, it can’t drag a corpse!” or “But it can’t kill Ishirou!”. I make my argument or propose an alternative to resolving this: “Sure, he’s helpless. But OK, let’s say that retreating and dragging a body prevents it from attacking, sounds fair?” So what happens is a short negotiation. When I say “the players object and I relent” then this is what is happening at the table: I propose how this is going to fall out and there’s a little moment of silence where players can interject or propose a different ruling until we’re all as happy as can be, and play proceeds.

How did it turn out? The players follow the ghoul into the tunnel and since the ghoul wasn’t fleeing but making a retreat, they can all reach it and attack, but they all miss. Then we roll initiative again. The ghoul wins and the players object again and we agree to make a morale check (9) but the ghoul makes it and therefore decides to not flee. Instead of retreating any further, it kills the helpless character for a little snack. The rest of the party then hacks the ghoul to pieces in a bloody fury.

Should the ghoul have fled? The cavern it had retreated into was a dead end and the players controlled the exit. Sadly, I forgot to have the ghoul talk. It was a murderous killer ghoul and those are boring compared to murderous smooth-talking ghouls.

But really I think the question boils down to this: here we have a monster that eats characters. If it only ever eats characters once they’re all dead, then the character eating part isn’t all that scary. In this situation I think I favour a monster that does the thing that’s less smart and more scary.


Comments on 2017-04-27 Rulings

On G+ I just had another discussion on this topic. Aaron asked: What are your favorite pieces of OSR games? And I think that’s a weird thing to say.

For one, many referees online turn into part time authors. This is great. We can all play more or less the same game and still make something. I think the do-it-yourself aspect of easy desktop publishing and print on demand and sites like RPG Now made a huge difference. +Rob Conley said it in a blog post, recently: What everybody forgets about the OSR.

That is why I have no actual favorite pieces. It’s the act of enthusiastically presenting them to the world that makes all the difference. Spells, monsters, house rules, advice. I just love being part of the conversation without having any particular favorite words.

You already know that I think the discussion of Eero Tuovinen’s D&D campaign is the best. There, he treats D&D rules as oral tradition. If people remember a rule, it is applied. If a new rule is proposed on the spot, it is applied and if it remembered the next time such a situation comes up, it is applied again. The rules are what people can remember. Slowly, rules fade out and new ones fade in. It’s a living, mutual understanding of how the game will be played.

Just read the first three posts by Eero in the thread and you’ll have the gist of it.

“My viewpoint on this ultimately indicates that most of D&D writing is necessarily of secondary concern, as most of that writing focuses on mechanical resolution concepts. This means that these writers, starting with Gygax, have failed to actually address the first-order concerns that gamers need to be able to overcome to play the game successfully: instead of telling us how he set up his sandbox campaign and how his group negotiated challenges, Gygax tells us about the outcome of this process of play. He tells us that after playing the game their group had established these sorts of character classes, and this is how their thieves picked pockets, and this is how shields worked vs. polearms. However, he never tells us the bit that I’m absolutely convinced about today after playing the game myself, that the GM’s referee position cannot work without a clear system of precedent. He also doesn’t tell us how these rulings need to be rooted in the fictional concerns of the group, and how there are no absolutely right or wrong choices for how to handle the individual resolution details. What we get instead is this myth where a long playtest has stabilized a genius rules system, and you’re not really playing AD&D if you don’t follow every brainfart rules subsystem written down by Gygax. I think that history has amply shown that the way D&D uses rules means that these rules are necessarily tied into a time and a place, into specific nuances of how people play and what they care about their fiction.”
– Eero Tuovinen

So this is where I get my position that I care about how rulings get made. I am much less interested in the actual rules themselves, the “pieces of the OSR.”

– Alex Schroeder 2017-04-29 21:18 UTC

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2017-02-20 Turning Undead

My games no longer have any clerics in them. But back when I had them, they turned undead. How exactly, asked Brett Eliot on Google+.

I ruled that LOS is important. I imagine the holy symbol shining some sort of holy light which hurts the undead. It’s that light which disintegrates them, too. Thus, distance is not a problem, in theory. But the undead can always take cover and so it depends. In a flat desert the army of undead will appear over the horizon and immediately freeze when they see the lone cleric, miles away, turning them. And slowly, in the milky twilight his holy light one zombie after another starts to melt, disintegrate. Do they rush forward, hoping to reach the cleric before all being destroyed, or do they build man shields to protect them, or do they take cover and wait for another day? Clearly, that explains why the undead prefer to exist underground. Less exposure to random holy photons. :)


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2017-01-23 Random Encounters

Gavin was wondering about random encounters on Google+. He was wondering about probabilities and said he had noticed that “wandering monsters virtually never come up.”

Yeah, wandering monsters are rare. But they do happen once or twice a session. The effect they have depends on the setup, however. If your players are pressed for time and after two or three hours they need to leave, and thus the dungeon exploration ends, then additional random encounters don’t do much, I think. They sometimes surprise the referee and add some color, that is all. That’s how I run it. I just roll the dice when I’m bored as a minor tax on players taking too long to make decisions or listening and checking for traps all the time.

If you add a severe penalty, as in rolling on a terrible table of tearful results if the party doesn’t make it out in time, then the exciting bit is rolling for random encounters on the way out and hoping for no delays. That’s how I want to run it, but I never rolled on that ominous table and thus perhaps players don’t actually fear it.

If, on the other hand, players stay for as long as they want but they can’t heal or memorize new spells in the dungeon, then the dynamics might change: they try to maximize their stay, pushing resources to the limit, and now avoiding combat with random encounters is even more important. Perhaps that’s how Gary ran his table?


Comments on 2017-01-23 Random Encounters

Is the term “random encounters” a little misleading? “Rational encounters” maybe? ;-) Just because it is to be expected to run into someone who is going somewhere else from time to time, be it in the wilderness or in the dungeon or in a castle. A total static dungeon makes even less sense than it does make anyway; apart from an empty tomb, maybe. Just a random thought.

Rorschachhamster 2017-01-24 10:30 UTC

Well, we’re using established jargon, here. Random encounters or wandering monsters is what it is. Just a wandering conjecture... ? :-D

– Alex Schroeder 2017-01-24 12:10 UTC

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