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)

2018-01-14 Counterspells

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2018-01-13 No Google Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Remember the discussion about Innovation and the Old School Renaissance?

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

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

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


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2017-07-12 Magic Items

Stuff I recently posted on G+:

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

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


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2017-07-10 New Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2017-06-26 Running the Megadungeon

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

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

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

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

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


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2017-06-26 Megadungeon Generator

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

Give it a whirl!

One example of a generated map

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

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

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

Megadungeon Elements

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

Megadungeon example map

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

Megadungeon statistics


Comments on 2017-06-26 Megadungeon Generator

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

Frotz 2017-06-27 13:46 UTC

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

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

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

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

– Alex Schroeder 2017-06-28 06:50 UTC

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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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