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)

2018-08-02 OSR Blogs

On Google+, in the OSR Community, mista tipsta said they had a big list of OSR blog URLs up on Pastebin and asked to convert these into RSS feeds. Ramanan S. did the conversion and posted it on Github. I’ve changed the URL of my own blog in the list because I think people would want to have the RPG-only feed, so get it from here.

  1. visit page and click on the 「Raw」 button
  2. save the OPML file
  3. import into your feed reader

For example:

$ newsboat --import-from-opml=Downloads/osr.opml
Import of Downloads/osr.opml finished.

The 146 new blogs are tagged “Subscription”, so in Newsboat, use t to show all tags and pick it.


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2018-08-02 Exploration

@Tom and @not_another_mike were talking about a Western Marches style game. I started to organize my own campaigns around these principles back in 2008 and blogged about the experience in 2012: Whither the West Marches.

My impression from trying to run Western Marches style games over the years is that the term “exploration” is overrated. Exploration does not provide tension, wonder or joy at the table. It’s basically this:

  1. start with an empty map
  2. talk to people or otherwise learn of new locations
  3. put these on the map
  4. choose to go here or there, which provides for opportunities go back to step #2

That’s it. I’d say nothing is fundamentally incompatible with that.


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2018-08-02 Awards

Apparently it’s award season...

Brendan wrote an Ennies publisher guide where he takes all the publishers he likes from the Ennies site and provides links and explains why he likes them. Good stuff!

Ramanan published his The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2018.

His verdict:

  • Best Game: Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan for Troika
  • Best Setting Book: Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess for Veins of the Earth (with layout by Jez Gordon)
  • Best God Damn Book of 2017: Jacob Hurst, Gabriel Hernandez, Evan Peterson and Donnie Garcia for The Dark of Hot Springs Island

Of all the books mentioned, I think I only have Veins of the Earth, which is mostly a thick book. It’s somewhat inspiring to make your game weirder but it hasn’t really influenced my game, I think. I just leafed through it a few times, read a few passages, got mesmerized by the language, nodded along, and put it back on the shelf. I wrote a review back in 2017.

I was interested in Troika. Do you have it? Have you used it? How did it go?


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2018-05-28 What makes an OSR Game

Beautiful summary of what it means for a game to “be OSR”, i.e. to be part of the Old School Renaissance, found on a blog:

One of the most persistent myths about the old-school style is that it’s a numbers-first, tactical combat based, hack-and-slash style of gameplay. It’s not. The game is lethal, and if you wish to avoid the many varieties of grisly demise on offer, you need to think creatively, avoiding and subverting combat scenarios rather than engaging in them. […]

So, then, […] why do OSR systems have so many combat rules? As opposed to, say, rules for feeling things, or exploration? If the game is about things other than combat, why isn’t that reflected in its ruleset? […] because the way OSR play engages with the rules is fundamentally different from most other schools of RPG design. Your character sheet is a list of the few limitations imposed on you, not a list of your awesome powers and skill trees. […] OSR play is what’s not written - what’s written is there to ground the situation and make things difficult.

This is from the blog post Does An OSR Game Need Dedicated Combat Rules? from the recommended blog The Graverobber's Guide by D. G. Chapman.


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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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