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)

If you’re looking for more blogs, I can recommend these two sources:

  1. Old School RPG Planet

2021-07-22 Episode 36

Halberds and Helmets Podcast Boars as pets for orcs, giant boars as mounts for dwarves and halflings, and demon boars as protector spirits of a forest.


  • 2016-10-13 Boar: “I dislike 2d4 and 3d4 for damage and just used 1d8 and 1d12 instead. Close enough for me. 🙂 As for HD there’s always the comparison with wolves and war dogs: 2+2. Apparently multiple wolves are required to take down a wild pig. So the only way I see is up. But HD 4 and 5 is for worgs and the like?” Thinking about boars in the comments…
  • Boar spear, on Wikipedia. Just read the title of the book cited: “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: From the Earliest Period, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles” (multiple copies available on the Internet Archive)
  • Halberds and Helmets: my homebrew rules with links to the PDF files


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2021-04-09 New features for Gridmapper

Gridmapper hasn’t gotten a lot of new features lately, but today somebody calling themselves the Flying Neko (neko being a cat, if I remember correctly) (which reminds me of El Gato Volador by Gian Varela & El Chombo) (anyway, Gridmapper!!) submitted some small changes:

  • $ toggles the visibility of secrets
  • ! makes all the lines a bit thinner

Making the strokes thinner is something I might have appreciated twenty years ago, when my eyes were better. If you’re twenty years younger, have at it! 😀

Flying Neko also added unidirectional doors, which is a nice new feature.

If you want to see some of the things people are creating using Gridmapper, you can visit the web app and click the “Load” Link for a huge list, or you can visit the Grimapper wiki (which is where the maps are actually stored):

To open the map in Gridmapper, click on the link, and then click on the link at the top of the page.


Comments on 2021-04-09 New features for Gridmapper

Oh my goodness, hiding the secrets is a brilliant idea! Thanks to the Flying Neko whoever they are. 🙂

acodispo 2021-04-16 20:42 UTC

Now I’m wondering about secret notes! Maybe even multiline notes?

– Alex 2021-04-16 20:50 UTC

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2021-04-05 The things I learned

“Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine.” – Failing better: a GMing retrospective, by Joseph Manola

Last month, Joseph wrote about the campaigns he ran and what he learned from them, and at the time I thought to myself that someday I’d do the same. Well, I guess today is that day.

The format used in Joseph’s blog post is that he has four short paragraphs for each campaign: what it was, what worked, what didn’t, and lessons learned. We’ll see how well this goes!

I got Das Schwarze Auge from my mom and ran some modules for her and her friends when I must have been around twelve (1985). I ran three or four official adventures. The first edition rules were simple and characters were hard to kill: they started out with 20–30 hit points; there was an active defence roll (instead of using armour class); armour was damage reduction; magic used “astral” points; the game had no clerics. What worked: I remember we had plenty of players. I was a kid running the game for three adults and older teenagers and as far as I remember, it worked. What didn’t: It didn’t last long. One of the adults wanted to stop playing, and then the campaign stopped. Lessons learned: simple rules enable kids to run games. I also remember the last adventure I ran, where the party discovers a gate to another world. When one of the players said that we should develop trade between the two worlds, something opened up in my brain. An open world! My first whiff of the sandbox.

I ran some adventures of my own devising in high school when I was fifteen and sixteen. We used Das Schwarze Auge at first, switched to AD&D 1st ed. and then to AD&D 2nd ed.; we still had no concept of a “campaign” – we stopped buying Das Schwarze Auge modules and we didn’t buy TSR modules, we just wrote our own and played them one after another (1988-1989). What worked: we played D&D, we played in English, and we played our own adventures. What didn’t: we didn’t know how to handle party conflict and when the thief tried to steal another player character’s gems, we didn’t know how to deal with that and that player left the group. Shame on us! We also discovered that one of us was a rules lawyer and a power gamer. Lessons learned: The upgrade treadmill is relentless. There’s always somebody who wants to upgrade to the next edition. In hind-sight we managed to deal with the hot mess of AD&D rules pretty well.

I ran a few sessions of a light variant of Mutant Chronicles game for fellow students at university (1995). What worked: we played in some maintenance tunnels, which was creepy and cool. What didn’t: no rules, no structure, no adventure; I don’t quite remember why it fell apart but it did. Lessons learned: a cool place to game does not make a campaign.

Kurobano and the Dragons. I ran a D&D 3.5 campaign after a long hiatus (2006–2008). It started out with me using M20, but we soon switched to D&D 3.5 even though I dreaded the size of the rule books. I successfully managed to integrate my own starting setup with Red Hand of Doom; later, I added more Paizo adventures. What worked: I learned the D&D 3.5 rules. What didn’t: I ended up disliking the battle map; I felt I was being forced to play a wargame week after week, against five other humans, and I wasn’t even good at it. So I had to add tougher opponents to counteract the lack of tactics on my end. Lessons learned: high level D&D is weird; some players loved it even though they were bad at keeping track of it: the multiple attacks, the buffs, it was a chore. All they wanted was to be super-heroes! The rules were failing us.

Golden Lanterns. I played in the Shackled City adventure path using D&D 3.5 with DM James (2007–2010). I started running this game for a few sessions and then I handed it over to James. It was my first Adventure Path and I loved the idea. What worked: James managed to make the fights work; and given the rare opportunities to play, he skipped a lot of filler material. What didn’t: Advancement was fixed. I felt that sometimes I got new abilities even though I hadn’t even used all the abilities I had previously gained. My paladin found a Holy Avenger in an armoury somewhere and that was weird. I guess James had decided that we needed it for balance. Lessons learned: Adventure Paths are great and terrible. They are great because they promise a story arc that takes you to fantastic heights. They are terrible because advancement, opposition, power levels, it all has to harmonise and the more freedom the game offers, the harder this is.

Hagfish Tavern. I ran the Rise of the Runelords adventure path using D&D 3.5 (2008–2011). Another Adventure Path. What worked: Again, the beginning was awesome. What didn’t: Again, the it started to fall apart towards the end. High level D&D is complicated because what works at lower levels doesn’t get abandoned at higher levels. Bless is still there. If you have three or four attacks like +16/+11/+6/+1 you still roll that last one because who knows, you might get lucky. Lessons learned: the next campaign I would run was going to be a sandbox for sure!

Krythos. I ran a small Burning Wheel campaign inspired by ancient Greece (2008). It was my first attempt at Burning Wheel. It turned out to be a short campaign of six or seven sessions, by my standards. What worked: It was my first online game using TeamSpeak. I was able to use Burning Wheel’s Bloody Versus (simple opposed rolls) and the Duel of Wits (social combat). What didn’t: The game didn’t “sing” for me. I think I’d need a lot more practice. Lessons learned: online gaming can work. All you need is voice chat. At the time we had no video, no dice roller, no virtual tabletop.

Sohn des Schwarzen Marlin. I played in this D&D 3.5 campaign set along the Dragon Coast in the Forgotten Realms with DM Peter (2008). It was a sort of nautical sandbox. I don’t remember us ever leaving that initial island, though. What worked: We didn’t have a cleric in the game and it worked. What didn’t: I don’t remember. The campaign ended after a handful of sessions; I don’t remember why, though. Lessons learned: An island hopping game with pirates might be interesting.

City of the Spider Queen. I played in this D&D 3.5 adventure set in the Forgotten Realms with DM James (2008–2009). It’s a long adventure; dare I say a short Adventure Path? We started at a higher level, if I remember correctly. Somewhere around level ten? What worked: I liked playing a cleric of Shaundakul; I liked creating a character with a strong bond to another character, a kind of tag team. I liked leafing through that Forgotten Realms setting book for D&D 3.5 in order to write up a backstory. What didn’t: I didn’t enjoy the high level fights. Lessons learned: Tag team characters from the get go are fun. Avoid high level D&D 3.5.

Grenzmarken. I played in a D&D 3.5 campaign with a homebrew setting by DM Peter (2008–2010). I played a dwarf wizard licking his toad familiar and doing other small disgusting things. This was a kind of West Marches game: almost every session was an excursion that ended back in town. By this time we had established a way to split the game between the session itself and writing on the wiki. Reports got longer. Things happened between sessions. What worked: sandbox exploration was great, with many monsters to defeat and small dungeons to clear. The wiki saw a lot more use. What didn’t: After a while it was a bit formulaic, travel to the destination, fight, fight, end boss, skip over the trip home because we were running out of time. As fights took longer, the non-fighting was relegated to the wiki. Lessons learned: I need my sandbox to be more interesting than monster fighting. The excursion structure needs some tweaking but it’s very promising.

The Alder King. I ran a D&D 3.5 campaign in Lenap of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and later switched the game to the Solar System RPG (2008–2012). I used very slow advancement compared to the games I had seen with DM James since I didn’t actually want to reach those higher levels. I had decided to start the game with practically no high-level non-player characters, either. My thinking was: we’ll play the next campaign in the same setting and the surviving player characters of this campaign would be the high-level non-player characters of the next campaign. What worked: There were factions all over the place. Finding allies against Yarshag the lizardman and his giant wasp riding dragon-blood infused super-soldiers provided for a nice campaign arc. What didn’t: When the low-level henchmen formed a new party to play through the Caverns of Thracia, I didn’t enjoy myself as much. The dungeon and I did not quite agree. Lessons learned: my default implied D&D setting doesn’t work well with Greco-Roman sensibilities; I’m starting to suspect that by now I might not like playing through bought Adventure Paths, high level adventures, and big dungeons. Time to buy a lot less!

Die Reise nach Rhûn. I played in a heavily house-ruled Rolemaster campaign set in Middle Earth with GM Berni; we later switched to Legends of Middle Earth (2009–2010). What worked: Rolemaster was weird in a good way. What didn’t: the campaign was short lived. We tried switching to a rules light system but that didn’t work, either. Lessons learned: both rules heavy and rules light cannot save a campaign; I think we should have talked less about the system and more about what we actually wanted from the game.

Kaylash. I ran a Mongoose Traveller game which was later switched to Diaspora using a randomly generated subsector (2009–2010). What worked: The random subsector creation inspired a campaign. What didn’t: The Traveller rules seemed to imply that trading was the way to play the game, a bit like the old Elite computer game, except that nobody actually cared about trading; when using Fate, the game shifted away from trade to fighting zombies in space. Lessons learned: again, switching rules does not save the game if you don’t talk about what you actually want from the game.

Lied vom Eis. I played in a few sessions of an Song of Ice and Fire RPG with GM Berni (2010-2011). We rotated GM duties a few times. We had one player via video call. What worked: the new game rules worked for us. What didn’t: we had created all sorts of characters that then had no in-game reason to actually adventure together; at the same time we did not think of running our house like a stable of characters with people picking the appropriate ones, depending on the adventure at hand. Lessons learned: do not create parties that are too far apart, conceptually. You can make it work if you run your game like a fast-paced movie but it takes a lot of energy. I also remember once telling those players that I had come to play, not for the small talk. In retrospective, perhaps I should have invested into that small talk. We stopped playing together.

Desert Raiders. I played in the Legacy of Fire Adventure Path using Pathfinder RPG with GM James (2010–2011). What worked: Pathfinder worked a bit better than D&D 3.5 for us. The campaign also didn’t go all the way to level 20. Once again, the lower levels were super cool. What didn’t: I had created a mounted archer and got to use a horse maybe once. Lessons learned: talk to players if you don’t know how to incorporate their character concepts into the campaign. Also, never let anybody borrow your RPG books because now I’m missing one of the books from this Adventure Path.

Burning Six. I played in a six session Burning Wheel campaign (2011). It was a short game set in an Italian Renaissance town, or something like it. What worked: It was Burning Wheel. What didn’t: again, I feel that the lure of the Tolkien-style troupe of everything and everybody foiled our plans. Instead of being laser focused on a thing, we all created characters and dropped them into a situation. I think I was playing an abbess, there was an elf, and others… Lessons learned: at the time, I felt that Burning Wheel simply wasn’t for me; these days, after hearing the Shoeless Peasant podcast by Sean Nittner and Judd Karlmann, I feel that perhaps we just thought we could play Burning Wheel like we play D&D: create a bunch of weird characters based on the rules and it’ll all work out. Not so. First, laser focus on the kind of game we want to play!

Durgan’s Flying Circus. I played in a HARP game with a homebrew setting by GM Stefan (2011–2012). It was short lived. What worked: It was HARP. As I think back, I now get the feeling that often we played campaigns because we wanted to try new rules and had no other plans beyond that.

Mondschein Saga. I played a handful of sessions in an OSRIC campaign set in the Forgotten Realms with DM Peter (2012). It was a sandbox and Peter was searching for rules that were simpler than D&D 3.5. Unfortunately, he picked OSRIC, i.e. AD&D 1st ed., and those rules aren’t actually very simple. The printed book is substantial. What worked: the island hopping sandbox was once again improved. What didn’t: OSRIC was not smooth sailing. The players didn’t like it. Lessons learned: OSRIC and AD&D are not rules light. The island hopping sandbox can still be made to work.

Ymir’s Call. I played in a Barbarians of LemuriaCrypts & ThingsAdventure Conqueror King campaign with DM Florian (2011–2013). It was a frost sandbox. We were people in some sort of polar region and there was trouble all around us. What worked: I loved it. There were many places to visit, people to talk to. What didn’t: The rules for Barbarians of Lemuria did not convince me. On the one hand, they were too simple, and on the other hand, spending that point to mow down dozens was too weird. Crypts & Things was better, but still very much on the simple side. Lessons learned: I really started to love the wilderness sandbox. Just make sure there’s plenty of stuff to do wherever players go. As for the rules, I started to realise that I liked something somewhere between Crypts and Things and Adventure Conqueror King.

Ritter von Salisbury. I ran the Great Pendragon Campaign for the years 485 to 510, when Arthur pulls the sword from the stone (2012–2014). What worked: we had a rough campaign outline and we loved it; the traits that sometimes make characters do things the players did not expect. What didn’t: character creating took a long time; the deadly battles were frustrating if your character bit the grass; the inability to actually influence the outcome of these battles took some getting used to; you could build infrastructure but they had no effect on the game; the winter phase felt like an integral and badly designed part of the game. We always wanted something important to happen in winter but the rules did not deliver. We should have just narrated it. Lessons learned: There’s a cool, simpler game with those traits hidden somewhere in those rules.

Karameikos. I played in a Labyrinth Lord game set in Mystara every second Monday evening (2012–2015), by @oliof. We played B10 Night’s Dark Terror and it was very cool. What worked: the siege of Sukiskyn was fantastic; fighting vampires felt good. What didn’t: I’m not sure how the campaign ended. We arrived at the hidden valley and then… I don’t know. Lessons learned: B/X D&D is the level of D&D I like. After some initial enthusiasm regarding the Mystara setting, I’m much less enthusiastic about the incredible emptiness. Large maps with many empty hexes simply don’t inspire me as much.

Berem and Beyond. I played in an Adventure Conqueror King campaign with DM Florian (2013–2015). It was another sandbox, except no longer up in the icy north. What worked: I liked the sandbox; there was also a second group playing in the same area and I remember at least once we came upon a little mausoleum that had already been plundered. What didn’t: I saw Florian improvising a lot, rolling up encounters, and I didn’t like it. It broke my immersion because I no longer felt we were exploring a “real” place. It was being made up as we moved through it. The ACKS upkeep and other economy rules did not interest me. It felt like homework. Lessons learned: ACKS is too involved for my taste. When I run a game, I make sure to use a screen in order to better maintain immersion. If the players stray of the prepared material, I want to maintain the illusion for as long as possible.

Montag in Zürich. Various people interested in one-shots got together and experimented with new systems (2009–2015). What worked: I never again played so many different games as back then. It was amazing. What didn’t: eventually things broke down as people no longer volunteered to run new games. Lessons learned: there are a gazillion games out there. Also, not many of them seem to be made for the kind of long campaigns I like (50+ sessions). What I totally learned was to present a game, hand out characters, and run a game in 2½h.

Fünf Winde. I ran a Labyrinth Lord game set in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy with a big dash of Planescape and Spelljammer on every second Tuesdays (2010–2017). What worked: plane hopping, B/X + house rules, building projects to spend gold and enrich the setting; references to the old player characters from the Alder King game. What didn’t: I had placed a few mega dungeons in the campaign setting but the players didn’t really want to go there; Planescape looks cool but if you’re actually looking for adventure material in the setting boxes, there is very little; the same is true for Spelljammer. Lessons learned: playing multiple campaigns in the same setting is a good idea; visible changes from one campaign to the next is great.

Wilderlande. I ran a Labyrinth Lord campaign set in a Points of Light campaign setting for my best friend and his three kids for two hours on a Friday evening every four weeks (2010–2018). What worked: one of the kids is my godchild and I managed to stay in touch for all these years. What didn’t work: I was unable to have the spark jump. As the older kids turned seventeen and eighteen, they showed up less and less. None of them wanted to pick up the referee mantle. Lessons learned: kids can play Labyrinth Lord; when they’re five and six, they might just sit there and draw pictures, making the occasional decision for their character, but as they grow older, they simply absorb the game. There’s no need for special games for children. Children don’t want toys made for children. Children want toys made for adults. They might ignore a lot of the rules, just like we did when we were kids, but that doesn’t prevent them from wanting the real deal.

Greyheim. I ran a Labyrinth Lord game around The Castle of the Mad Archmage (a megadungeon) on every second Wednesdays (2015–2018). It was a big dungeon, with a computer-generated wilderness map surrounding them. What worked: we played until we got down to level seven of the dungeon. We managed to invest the riches retrieved into infrastructure: a castle was being built soon after the campaign got going; we had a construction site, masons, carpenters, guards, a palisade, a quarry, and on and on. What didn’t: the wilderness map wasn’t populated with enough monsters, tribes, factions, and all that. We did have orcs and ogres and treants, and evil elves and necromancers, and whenever they were encountered, the game was great. I should have added a lot more at the beginning of the game.

Mondschein Saga. I played in a D&D 5 game with DM Peter, with no regular dates (2018-2020). This was a reprise of the earlier campaigns. Peter had refined his concept: islands, factions, sandbox, links to the rest of the Forgotten Realms (e.g. a visit to Baldur’s Gate), no single safe haven but a variety of safe harbours, more dungeons, and a group that took to D&D 5. What worked: Peter’s sandbox gained even more depth; a less formulaic approach. Player Rafael taught me the value of well written session reports to show character development and I started taking to it. Some of my best writing for role-playing games happened (in German, translate using DeepL if you’re curious): Der Wert eines Zwerges (talking at the campfire), Caer Corwell auf dem Opferaltar (burning down a city), Der Feuerzirkel von Rottesheim (epilogue after the party lost the last fight at the end of the campaign). What didn’t: I still have no great love for D&D 5, but playing with just the Basic Rules for D&D 5 actually works. I like that! Lessons learned: as a player, writing vignettes on a campaign wiki is great (or posting them on whatever medium you use to share writings for your campaign).

Rasiermesserküste. I ran a Halberds and Helmets game using Razor Coast on every second Wednesday (2017–2020). I was looking for a nautical sand box, islands and pirates and all that. What worked: a nice campaign with cool ideas using were shark and cultists. What didn’t: the book tries to square the role-playing book circle, it has everything – events, maps, dungeons, characters, prep sheets, and on and on. It’s huge. It’s dense. It takes a lot of work, I think. Lessons learned: try to run the next game without using any books and without big plans that need to be prepped.

Die dampfenden Dschungel von Chult: I played in a D&D 5 game with DM Peter, with no regular dates (2020-2021), via Skype. Same deal as before: I used the Basic Rules for D&D 5. Instead of a fire wizard I played a rogue and it was great. What worked: the mix of sandbox, interesting locations with smaller dungeons, the ruins of Omu, the big final dungeon. What didn’t: if at all, the big dungeon at the end was a bit too long, but just barely so. It was still a great game. Lessons learned: the D&D 5 sandbox still works! Yay!

Die drei Wälder. I ran a few sessions of Just Halberds, with no regular dates (2020), for a bunch of kids, via Zoom. What worked: it was a play test for the Just Halberds rules. What didn’t: I wasn’t really able to get into a good 2d6 groove and eventually the game just petered out. Perhaps the kids lost interest; perhaps gaming remotely using Jitsi, Zoom, and friends, isn’t made for larger groups of players. Lessons learned: for future games, I’m going to try and limit the number of players to three.

Die Zeit der Waldbrände. I’m playing in a Humblewood campaign using D&D 5 with DM Lars (2020–now), via Jitsi. What worked: D&D with anthropomorphic animals works better than I expected! The game is still ongoing, so it’s too early to talk about the things that didn’t work or the lessons learned.

Der Fluch des Stradh: I am playing in a D&D 5 game with DM Mircea, with no regular dates (2021–now), via Zoom. I’m playing a fighter that picked the Skilled feat to pick rogue skills. So, a rogue without sneak attack, haha. I’ve started using the D&D 5 Player’s Handbook, at long last. I guess it works for me because I’m playing a fighter. What works: the mix of interesting locations with smaller dungeons everywhere. The game is still ongoing, so it’s too early to talk about the things that didn’t work or the lessons learned.

Tau Subsector. I’m running a Classic Traveller game, with no regular dates (2021–now), more or less weekly, via Jitsi. I used a ton of random tables to provide even more details for the generated subsector and now I’m hoping that one thing leads to another, with not too much prep required. The game is still ongoing, so it’s too early to talk about the things that didn’t work or the lessons learned.

Lessons learned, overall: Keeping the notes of the games you played in, is future pleasure – in a jar. Do it! Open it a decade later and enjoy the memories, like I did.

Comments on 2021-04-05 The things I learned

Very interesting and a good read!

My lessons from the last decade:

  • Campaign wikis are great for lore, player background stories and interactions with the world. I also think they work better for character development and many aspects of role playing, as most people are more comfortable and creative at writing between sessions than at speaking during a session.
  • D&D 5e rules work. They are the best version of the rules in my opinion. Easy to get into, quite well balanced and without any really serious flaws. I would prefer them to be a bit more gritty and less Marvel Super Heroes style. The exploration/survival aspect is also too trivial.
  • Sandboxes are great. I love creating and running them. But pure wilderness hexploration as in the Grenzmarken campaign is a bit bland and can feel meaningless soon. Who cares about how many arch demons from Hell your hero killed in a forsaken dungeon in the wilderness? Killing an arch duke in a city or just having the power to possibly do so, is much more interesting and also character defining. So social sandboxes with fame and factions are more interesting for everyone, I think.
  • Dungeons are still the heart of the game and what the D&D 5e rules are made for. The players are on the edge of their toes and fully engaged most of the time: Thinking about tactics, spell selections, resting points etc. Everyone can contribute. The problem with social encounters is that usually it is just 1 or 2 players that are really engaged or relevant and the rest is fiddling their thumbs. I am just experiencing this again as player in DM Mirceas campaign.
  • Now here’s a big conflict with the point about sandboxes: For the campaign to be interesting and meaningful, you need a social setting rife with conflict and interactions. But in actual play it seems to me that running dungeons still works best. It is also less demanding of the DM than running and improvising interesting social encounters. So this led to my current kind of preferred gaming style of running mostly dungeons and combat in actual play and running a social sandbox for character development and world exploration on the campaign wiki.
  • There’s a also a social aspect of relevance at the meta-level: A smaller party size (3 or 4 max) would certainly make it easier to have more social interactions and character development during a session like we had in the past. But I also came to the conclusion that having a bigger party size makes the game and campaign much more relevant for everyone at the meta level. Many of my sessions with just 3 players felt a bit meaningless or bland in retrospective. If you kill the BBEG with a critical hit with just 2 companions at the table it doesn’t feel the same as with 5, where there’s always a lot of cheering, high-fiving etc. going on. It’s a bit like watching sports now in empty stadiums compared to fully packed ones in the past. It’s kind of stupid, but it really seems that among humans, everything becomes much more meaningful and long lasting in memory if there are a lot of spectators/companions.

– Peter 2021-04-05 20:59 UTC

This is a great post! Thank you for it! Is it just where you were in life or something about B/X based games that led to them lasting so long?

– Oliver 2021-04-05 22:39 UTC

It’s not just the B/X campaigns that went on for a long time; the D&D 3.5 and now the D&D 5 campaigns all went on for at least 30+ sessions, if not twice as much – even if I did not enjoy high level 3.5. I suspect that it has to do with how spell levels structure D&D gameplay: on the one hand, every new spell level attained changes the gameplay itself (suddenly you can fly, or fireball large groups of kobolds), and it also advertizes that change ahead of time in the rules: if you play until you get to level so and so, you’ll be able to do this and that. And immediately, people start dreaming.

See 2012-01-24 Changing Gameplay Over Time.

– Alex 2021-04-06 06:58 UTC

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2021-04-03 Episode 35

Halberds and Helmets Podcast Talking about giant beetles and how I used them: pack animals for the underworld, war elephants for goblins and the like, or car sized monsters in dungeon corridors.


  • 2016-10-13 Giant Beetle: “When I ran Castle of the Mad Archmage, we encountered several rooms full of giant bombardier beetles and we fought them all using everything we had. It was a hell hole of flaming oil, charred corpses and madness, because somehow one of the players had claimed that you might be able to find gems inside dead giant beetles.”
  • Burning Corridors: “Fight! A lot of flaming oil was used but they just kept on coming. One of them got Simed and bite off a leg of him and then they killed Tristan. But eventually we managed to kill all the beasts.”
  • Halberds and Helmets: my homebrew rules with links to the PDF files

A fearful human face in the foreground and a giant bug in the background, inspired by Starship Troopers


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2021-03-10 Blogosphere

Thinking about excellent blog links again...

A super cool post on how to run combat, OSR style, by James Young: How To Run Combat. After reading it, my main take away is that my monsters should try to wrestle players a lot more!

A post by Delta: Running Mass Fights in Classic D&D He says, “it’s pretty common to encounter bands of malicious bandits, brigands, or humanoids numbering in the hundreds.” How do you deal with them? Evasion, ranged combat (how to deal with a rain of arrows), killing leaders, and so on.

“Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine.” Failing better: a GMing retrospective, a super interesting retrospective by Joseph Manola. Makes me want to go through my own games and think about the things I learned.

Sandra Snan writing about verbal components in The Old Verbal Components reminds me of my unfinished dream of adding Sumerian spell names (serving as verbal components) for all the spells in my book. I failed at that. Perhaps one day there’s “fantasy Deepl for some lost language and D&D like spells”. Or some other way to translate English spells to some dead language. My favourite blog post on this still is Elf & Magic-User Sumerian Spell Names / Command Words for Labyrinth Lord by Samwise7RPG.

How not to be a game designer by Craig Maloney. A topic that’s been important to me for a long time: “I’ve done most of my designs when I let these self-inflicted restrictions go. I’ve lowered my expectations to please only one customer: me. Sure, this is not a great way to build a business but it has the added benefit of not having to do market research (I know the target market: me). Once I pulled back from the notion of building a business and making game design a full-time career (yes, this is a notion that I’ve flirted with and realized that I’m 20+ years too late to effectively do this) more possibilities became apparent to me.”

“I wrote up a little “hello world” brawl in Traveller5”, by Wanderer Bill, in Getting to know Traveller 5.

“When players feel like they can die, … then the game is tense and exciting. … one of the biggest obstacles to tension, especially at higher levels, is Hit Points. … If a Level 10 Fighter is attacked by a swarm of Goblins armed with d6 knives, he has nothing to worry about, as he has 60 HP.” Why you should cap Hit Points, by Yami Bakura. My unpopular opinion on the topic: add save or die attacks and level drain to the game. Or more generally: try to aim for combat that is just two rounds long. If it takes longer, the previous rounds were probably boring. It’s the last round that makes all the difference. Now, capping hit points and/or levels is an option, certainly. In my Halberds and Helmets game, I cap at character level 10 simply because all my recent campaigns have ended before getting there. But I also add save or die and level drain, for added excitement. This is how low hit points are not the sole source of terror at the table.

“… it makes those low modifiers very significant, especially when it comes to opposed rolls … I’m using opposed rolls for grappling in unarmed combat and giving a +1 modifier for being large sized. … This would have resulted in each group having at least one unarmed boccord specialist in it, i.e. a half-giant professional wrestler. That game sounds amazing, but it’s not the game I’m trying to design.” Ben L. is writing about skills in A Simple 2d6 Skill System, but all I can think of is every party bringing a half-giant professional wrestler to the table. What a wonderful tie-in to my interest in wrestling based on James Young’s post, above. But it also ties in with my interest in Traveller and in 2d6 systems in general, and my attempt at designing one, Just Halberds.

A long discussion of the changes made from AD&D 1st ed to AD&D 2nd ed in A Historical Look at the OSR — Part III. I also liked the previous parts of the series. As for my own AD&D experience… At the the time we simply decided that 2nd was obviously better than 1st and so we switched. We were 15 or 16 years old, living in Switzerland, not reading any fanzines, no Dungeon or Dragon magazines, no Usenet, and we bought no adventures. All I do remember is that the rules were confusing and we never used them all, and yet we thought them the best.

“I believe that the skeleton of Classic Traveller can bear the muscle of just about any genre or setting you’d like to tackle.” says Forrest Aguirre in The Simplest RPG System Out of This World, which I found via Via John Mettraux’s end-of-week links, Eow Links 9. And that led to me to read Stargazer’s interview with Marc Miller from 2017. And then there’s the Classic Traveller Out of The Box blog series, of course. But I’m running out of time and need to prepare breakfast…


As I’m sitting here, generating random characters for Traveller, I get a distinct Dogs in the Vineyard feeling: the characters are singularly unequipped for the actual tasks they are up again. Perhaps that is the secret sauce of many RPGs. You get characters suited for combat in one form or another, and you put them in a world were armed conflict is for losers, and then you watch them struggle with their lack of social skills, escalating to violence when it’s uncalled for.

And that makes me think of life in general, where we are often unable to affect the changes we want in the people we talk to. And I guess then one wonders: would violence solve this problem? And of course it doesn’t (for most of us, luckily). I tell others interested martial arts this all the time: who cares about “efficient” or “street” fighting. No! Run away, if you can, always! Even if you “win” you’ll go to jail and face endless time in court and who wants that if you can just run away?

And so we get to the RPG trope where violence actually does work, most of the time, because players and referees and designers usually wish that it would. Anyway, that’s what I’m suspecting, when I look at my classic D&D or classic Traveller characters, haha. How singularly unprepared they are, and how this is a strange mirror showing us the world we live in, in a way.

“Humans are very contemptuous of orcs. They are brutes, never shying away from any cruelty. And they are warmongers, always divided against each other, always plunging headlong into another meaningless war of succession. This is very similar to how myconids view humans.” Myconids, by Arnold K. Love it!

Here’s more about wrestling and grappling: “A grappling attempt, … If you succeed, your opponent may spend their round trying to escape … or trying to hurt you… or, if they’re holding a dagger, they can attempt, as you were attempting, a killing blow … Killing Blow: Another contested grappling roll. If you succeed, your opponent must save vs. death or be killed instantly. If they make their save vs. death, you merely do the usual 1d4 dagger damage.” Making Daggers A Deadly Option, by Graphite Prime. I my game, I just use 1d6 for all weapons. But now I keep thinking about wrestling. King Arthur’s Pendragon also had it!

Then again, D&D 3.5 also had it, and we always made fun of the rules, even as we used them. They were too complicated, compared to the ones we had for simple attacks. That is an important consideration. Don’t add back all the complications the designers of your game didn’t add to regular attacks. Grappling should involve the same amount of decisions, look-ups, dice rolls, and fear as regular attacks, I think.

😭 “The vast majority, 93%, of survey respondents were male. The most commonly self-reported ethnicity was white (90%), with Latino at a distant second (2%). As the survey was online, respondents could have been answering the questions from anywhere in the world. The majority of them were from within the United States (73%), with Western European residents second (14%), followed by residents in North America outside of the United States (5.5%), …” Motivations of Hobby Game Players, by CarrieLynn Reinhard and Brant Guillory (2018).

“Next in my series of capsule reviews of weird non-fiction books from my library that would be useful in running RPGs: A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits: A bestiary of fairies, demons, and other mystical creatures from around the world.” Weird Books for Gamers VII: A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits, by Polyhedral Nonsense. I have that book! 😁

“At a minimum, the basics should address the subsector map, interstellar government, and local technological levels. As needed, the referee may add more basics to the campaign, … local organizations of importance, world and local laws, history, and other foundations. With the basics available, it is possible to set any mundane adventure without further preparation. The only problem is that such adventures will be mundane; there is no real spirit of excitement behind them.” A fair warning. This is from The Traveller Book (1981), p. 125.

And that’s it. Older recommendations: 2021-02-06 Blogosphere

Comments on 2021-03-10 Blogosphere

Regarding “Motivations of Hobby Game Players”, by CarrieLynn. Perhaps the numbers have little to do with attempts to recruit other groups and more to do with there being something about the mundane white middle class America that makes folks wish they were somewhere else doing something more adventurous. I suspect Comic Book and Sci Fi fandom has similar numbers for similar reasons. I think the Punk scene in the 70s came out of similar social angst.

Ruprecht 2021-03-10 14:04 UTC

I don’t know how one would determine the root causes of the gender and race imbalance. Here in Switzerland, I can’t say much about race. I simply have no idea.

As for gender... I’ve been wondering whether boys playing with toys is something our culture fosters: knives, hammers, chisels, soldering irons, and later playing cards, dice, board games, computer games, and finally role-playing games. Perhaps because girls used to have less freedom, culturally bound for the kitchen and household chores; perhaps because boys used to be considered more suited for vice like gambling; perhaps because women in general are expected to perform the emotional labour of maintaining family relations, dealing with social fallout, raising the kids, placating the old, and networking with neighbours; perhaps men grow up emotionally stunted in small ways that make them appreciate make-believe social life a little more. That’s certainly a pattern I can see in my own life. But no matter what the underlying reasons, I think if the numbers are true, it definitely is a reason for regret. I wish it weren’t so.

I can’t say whether the numbers are a reflection of truth because I have no idea about self-selection (a survey in English, online... that alone will skew results) but I do know that women are rare in my own gaming groups. And once again, that could be because of something I’m doing, personally, or it could be something the locals here are doing, socially, but either way, I find it to be a cause for regret. I wish it weren’t so.

I really think we don’t really know what the causes are and assume that they are similar to all the causes for gender imbalance elsewhere. Sexism in a thousand different ways both big and small resulting in a culture that skews things in regretful ways. Patriarchy, a curse on all our houses.

– Alex 2021-03-10 14:40 UTC

Eow Links 11, by John Mettraux, has more recommended reading for you.

– Alex 2021-03-13

And I’m finding more people doing it! I love this! ♥

Shiny TTRPG links collection #8, by Xaosseed.

– Alex 2021-03-15 10:19 UTC

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2021-02-06 Blogosphere

Advice from the Blogosphere 2020, by Anne, on DIY & Dragons. There is nothing I have to add. I wish I had kept up my note keeping on good blog posts.

I sometimes post links to my RPG Mastodon account, @kensanata. I usually include a small quote. In honour of Anne’s post, I’ll trawl my own account for links I recently posted. It’s better than nothing, I guess.

And I’d love to see you on Mastodon. 😄

“Advice from the Blogosphere 2020: So, last year, I started what I hope will become a tradition for myself by posting about my favorite links from the previous year. I built this collection of links as I saw them throughout the year, with an emphasis on saving posts that gave advice about how to do things.” – Advice from the Blogosphere 2020, by Anne, on DIY & Dragons

I like this concept: pick a random PDF file from your folder and write a short review. So I read a few very short reviews, and followed the link to an older blog post in the same category. The fun part is reading about James’ likes and dislikes. – The RPG Folder I Caught in the Act, by James V. West, on Doomslakers

« In 2000-2010 it was still 80% of people joining as a teenager. Since 2015 70% who join are adults. » – Age of D&D new joiners jumped ~5 yrs since 2015 , by Xaosseed, on Seed of Worlds

Free Kriegsspiel… «I ran a one-shot over zoom last weekend with characters that looked like this: “You’re a paladin. You have good fighting skills, full armor, a sword and shield - and you can choose either the ability to try healing wounds through prayer, or to try turning the undead. Oh, and you have any 3 standard adventuring supplies.”» – [1], by Gundobad, on Gundobad Games

It’s … very free. I don’t know whether I like it. I think I need a little more system than just referee fiat.

This wiki with links to RPG adventures needs more love… Links to Adventures. I just added a link today.

Nearly 100 rooms: “Enchanted gremlins made of cherry pits, trapped devils with whom to deal, treasure to steal, a wizard’s corpse to loot, creatures frozen since the ice age to battle, dinosaurs to let loose, factions to fall into, and at least two rooms where it’s snowing all the time.” – The Cherry Crypts: a big ol' dungeon, by Linden, on Lapidary Ossuary

The URL says 2018 but this is a recent blog post by Eric Diaz about weapons in various editions of D&D. Weapons distinctions - brief D&D history, by Eric Diaz, on Methods & Madness.

My own personal approach is 1d6 damage for all weapons; but with strength bonuses and magic items you can still make killer melee fighting characters. I do remember that one very strong dwarf with the +2 dagger of speed, giving them two attacks of +5 to hit and 1d6+5 damage.

Oh, excellent writing advice from Jacob Hurst: don’t write and then A happened, and then B happened, and then C happened. Instead, write A happened but then B happened, therefore C happened, and keep repeating. Apparently from a Trey Parker and Matt Stone interview where they talk about how they structure their South Park Stories. I had never thought about it like that. Backgrounds, Adventures and but therefore, by Jacob Hurst, on Swordfish Islands

I wrote a longer response in the comments, here: 2021-01-19 Listening to Burning Wheel Actual Play.

I started listening to @Judd and @seannittner’s Shoeless Peasant podcast. I’m two episodes in and I love how different it is from my games. I’m thinking I’d love to run such a slow and deliberate one-on-one game. I was clearly not ready to play like that a few years ago, but I’m thinking that perhaps now I am.

“I (Name) swear before the Dragon Council to serve the Guild of Adventurers and no other master for the period of time necessary to achieve the ninth level within the aforementioned guild.” – Adventurer Guild Contract, by Lance Duncan, on 42 Rolls of Duck Tape

Interesting idea!

Thinking about play styles… I dunno, I used to be a lot more interested in these things. These days I guess everybody should read such a typology at least once so that we can all at least use the same words. But then my take is that enjoyment is a multifaceted thing that I enjoy all the things, some more so, some less so, some more when I do it, some more when others do it. And I think casual players are important for cohesion (like at the work-place, actually).

Knowing Your Players and Their Kicks, Lich van Winkle, on his blog

Ah, Melan diagrams to illustrate dungeon complexity… I like what The Alexandrian did, here, taking The Sunless Citadel and illustrating how the Melan diagrams work.

Jaquaying the Dungeon – Addendum: How to Use a Melan Diagram, by Justin Alexander, on The Alexandrian

I think that’s as far back as my posts go, the rest is archived offline...

Comments on 2021-02-06 Blogosphere

Thanks for keeping the ball rolling!

Anne 2021-02-07 22:04 UTC

Interesting follow-ups to play styles:

– Alex 2021-02-19 16:48 UTC

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2021-01-11 Hex Describe

I’ve been at it again... Text Mapper can generate Gridmapper-compatible maps. Sadly, that means I need an algorithm to create the maps, and that’s not easy. Recently, I needed some caves. What I did was take the existing mini-dungeon generator and just turn all the walls into rock walls. It doesn’t look bad, actually!

I’m using them for the post-apocalyptic mini-settings I’m working on and off with Josh Johnston. Visit Hex Describe → click “random Apocalypse” → pick “Josh Johnston (best for Apocalypse maps)” → click submit. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot some vat people caves, now!

I’m hoping the vat people caves are easy to extend with the structure in place, which I lifted from the structure that ktrey parker and had developed years ago to generate random dungeons. And still so good!

For the post-apocalypse I had developed a book name generator which I then used to populate libraries, and to create little library related book quests: finding book thieves, for example. I liked this so much that I wanted that for my Alpine mini settings, too. So recently I’ve been working on fantasy book titles, too. And missions to go along with them.

I need to improve those book missions, though.

Next up: more secret agents. 😀

Comments on 2021-01-11 Hex Describe

You may be interested in looking at Caves of Qud for book generation. It’s been a while since I played but while I remember the contents of the books being barely legible (whatever algorithm they were using was not convincing at all) the titles were all very evocative for the post-apocalyptic setting the game features. Dwarf Fortress is similarly a good source to mine for the fantasy generator.

Also, is there a possibility of the Hex Describe books referring to things generated in the mini-setting - perhaps even other books? One of my favourite tidbits of history is the anti-philosophy book “Incoherence of the Philosophers”, which prompted one philosopher to write a book rebutting it titled “Incoherence of the Incoherence”. Generating the context in which books were written could provide plenty of adventure seeds.

– Malcolm 2021-01-13 09:29 UTC

Indeed, referring to things in the setting is important! So currently I’m doing the following:

  • referring to magic schools and elements (that one was easy)
  • golem types that exist in the setting
  • referring to implied past wars based on magic items
  • referring to past empires of the implied setting, which are also used for ruins, wights, and the like
  • using the legend generator that is also used by bards and elsewhere
  • refer to the existing secret societies in the setting

Things I don’t do, but which I should be doing, perhaps:

  • generate a dozen scholars beforehand and have them write on topics (and refute each other) – an excellent idea!
  • instead of generating random elf and dwarf names for magic items, pick them from a pregenerated list of maybe a dozen each and then use the same names to generate books about them
  • refer to the warring factions in the setting

– Alex 2021-01-13 11:32 UTC

As for adventure seeds... perhaps I need some unique magic items, and legends about them, and thus songs and book titles could be a good place to “tell their story” (tiny as it may be). Perhaps other rare elements could be hinted at via book titles, like the passages to other realms. The teleporting monoliths, or the alien space ships come to mind.

– Alex 2021-01-14 13:07 UTC

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2020-12-18 New potions

I felt that Halberds & Helmets need more potions in a while. I usually don’t like big tables of funny results because I don’t see how that makes for a better game. At the same time, I also try to use potions that simply duplicate spells sparingly. Sadly, many magical effects that affect the caster might as well make a good potion. What to do? Making up potions is hard!

Today I added the following to Hex Describe:

  • potion of flooding (1h, makes you vomit forth water at an extremely painful rate, filling a 20ft cube; move at half speed and no other actions possible)
  • potion of snake bite (1h, gives you three venomous bites, victims must save vs. poison or die)
  • potion of transformation (1h, shape change like a doppelgänger)
  • potion of transcendence (10min, 60ft, true seeing past all illusions, transformations, through all matter)
  • potion of bonding (one year, all who share this potion with you will know where they all are: distance, direction, and emotional state)
  • potion of the golden aura (1h, makes your insides and your eyes and everything your body produces glow in a golden light: when you open your mouth, when you spit, sweat, pee, or poo, everything glows)
  • potion of the harpy (8h, grow wings that allow you to fly, claws that allow you to fight, a voice that charms; and you look like a hundred years old, shrivelled, elongated, sinewy, and ugly; anybody who hears you sing must save vs. spells or be charmed; deal 1d6/1d6 in melee; drop most clothes and gear due to the growth)
  • potion of knockout (1h, save vs. poison or lose consciousness; tasteless, can be mixed with water and wine)
  • potion of hearing (1h, ears grow painfully sensitive; you can locate every breath, heartbeat, and movement within 30ft)
  • potion of smelling (8h, nose grows painfully sensitive; you can track people and beasts like the best bloodhound)
  • potion of the gizzard (1h, allows you to eat anything without fear of injury or poison)
  • potion of dreaming (8h, grants you a dream where you can appear elsewhere to do whatever you like; if you die in your dream, or the rays of the sun strike you, the dream body dissolves in smoke and you wake up back in your bed)

Perhaps you like one of them? Feel free to take them. 😁

Comments on 2020-12-18 New potions

Harry Potter’s books are a good source for potions, including ingredients. Veritaserum for forcing people to tell the truth. Polyjuice for transforming into somebody else. Felix felicis for maxing out on luck.

– Enzo 2020-12-23 09:52 UTC

I listened to all the audio books but all I remember is the polymorph potion. What I liked about potion brewing was that it seemed so full of accidents, special ingredients, and that it took so long. I’m not sure how to bring that into an adventure game, though. That’s why I no longer have potion brewing in my games. If you want it, suddenly you need a gold economy that works for the costs, time tracking to make the decision to brew a potion or not to brew a potion a relevant one, and so on.

I think the part I still like best is having monsters with body parts “worth 5000 gold to an alchemist” or alchemists searching for a particular rare magical plant. With that, the most adventurous part of potion brewing starts to make sense: missions to go monster hunting or exploring. 🙂

– Alex 2020-12-27 13:13 UTC

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2020-12-17 Halberds and Helmets Saving Throws

sent a follow up mail with some thoughts on H&H saving throws. Looking at the stats in the cheat sheet, he made this table:

save vs. death             5 
save vs. dragon breath     8 
save vs. explosions        1 
save vs. paralysis         5 
save vs. poison           15 
save vs. rays              2 
save vs. spells           16 

I guess explosions are something I use for non-monsters, like grenades. The one reference in the cheat sheet is the ice devil casting ice storm and you “save vs. explosions” for half damage. It just looks better in my mind’s eye than using “save vs. dragon breath”.

Well, J. Alan Henning has a different proposal: to streamline them slightly!

He reclassifies them:

save vs. death             5 → save vs. death ray 
save vs. dragon breath     8   
save vs. explosions        1 → save vs. death ray 
save vs. paralysis         5   
save vs. poison           15   
save vs. rays              2 → save vs. death ray 
save vs. spells           16   

Is the ice devil’s storm more like a death ray? I don’t know! I’m feeling like I should be shouting: “Noooooo! This changes everything!” But the truth is, of course, that this is exactly what people should do. 😁

save vs. death ray         8 
save vs. dragon breath     8 
save vs. paralysis         5 
save vs. poison           15 
save vs. spells           16 

In an effort to write super concise rules mashing up H&H and the Target 20 variant from Searchers of the Unknown he ends up with this for saving throws: “roll a d20, add their level, and add the modifier as shown below; roll 20 or higher to succeed.”

spells                    +1
dragon breath             +2 
paralysis                 +3
death ray                 +4
poison                    +5

An interesting choice! Poison is the harshest, dragon breath is not so bad. Or not? Of course, it’s the reverse: a higher bonus makes it more likely to make the target number, so poison is the least dangerous where as spells are the most dangerous. All right! Well, only playtesting can show whether it works – and I suspect players simply adjust their risk behaviour to compensate for any perceived changes. If at all! I know that as a player I hardly ever think too much about the details of the rules.

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2020-12-17 Halberds and Helmets Monster List

Thanks to I now have a seven page cheat sheet of the Halberds and Helmets monsters that we’ve been using in Hex Describe. Good to have handy as a convenient reference. Might be useful to you for wandering monster tables as well? The Halberds and Helmets Referee Guide isn’t too long and I like to have a printed copy at the table just in case, but this looks like the ideal backup. 🙂

Thanks, J. Alan Henning!

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