Old School

Old School Renaissance This page collects the my latest posts on the topic of old school D&D gaming. I follow the Old School Revisited and Why OD&D line of thought presented by Sham’s Grog ’n Blog:

  1. Decision of the referee is final – no rules lawyers
  2. A game of making the most of what you get
  3. Not about the power of the character
  4. Sandbox gaming (players decide how the campaign develops)

2016-03-24 Initiative, Combat

Back in January, I was involved in a discussion about combat on Google+. This is what I wrote:

I think initiative rules are overrated, particularly in D&D variants where combat lasts multiple rounds. The critical issue is that everybody acts exactly once per round. If everybody survives the round, then it didn’t matter in which order people attacked. So, initiative is only important in the round when somebody is about to die.

Magic only changes this in so far as a fireball spell makes it more likely that people are about to die (the same is true for other deadly spells, of course). In D&D variants where it is possible to disrupt a spell by damaging a caster in the same round, initiative is also important for all those involved in this action. But B/X doesn’t have that rule, and in games that do, I always wonder about attacking casters after they have cast their spell. Shouldn’t this disrupt their next spell?

All in all, I’ve decided that initiative rules are overrated and I’m using the simplest rule that involves a little dice rolling and leads to occasionally having to suffer two attacks in a row. Group initiative. It’s the standard! :)

When combat is not the essence of the game, it’s not hard to do without the tactical elements. I run big parties – ten to twenty characters, five or six players at the table – and the interesting stuff is whether we’ll fight, how to ambush our enemies. Combat itself is basically just the test of our preparations. No miniatures, no battle map, no “I hit the guy that took 4 damage last round” or anything like that. The upside is, however, that I’m not afraid to field twenty or thirty enemies. Or 160 plus a red dragon (against a mid-level party).

What can I say except that I’m not too interested in the details of combat. The key is that it should be dangerous. I like save vs. poison, level drain, dragon breath, petrification gaze and all that, because that keeps combat short even at higher levels. Combat, like all challenges in my game, are there to test player skill: can you think of a way out of this? If it’s just rolling dice and counting down hit-points, that’s a fail in my book. So, I encourage setting up ambushes, bottle-necks, the using of traps against monsters, but I encourage setting up monsters to fight monsters even more. I encourage the scaring of monsters, the challenging of enemy leaders to single combat.

I also push for time. Roll all the dice. I don’t care whose turn it is. Instead, I keep asking: “Are you all done? Can I go? Is it my turn, yet?” I don’t like players taking forever. I encourage them to roll their to-hit roll together with their damage spell. I groan and moan and sigh when players start reading spell descriptions when their turn comes up. Next!! And then, when everybody has gone, and slow players are still wringing their hands, I threaten to have their characters skip or suggest a simple action like a melee attack instead of whatever else they wanted to do. It’s a thin line to walk, sadly. I have a slow player at one of my tables. I encourage them to play simple classes like fighters.

Brian wondered, why D&D? Classic D&D has been providing exactly the experience I like, though. B/X in particular doesn’t push miniatures, battle maps or fancy initiative rules.

When I tried Torchbearer I didn’t like the grind, the strict application of the rules, the haggling for bonus dies and all that. When I tried Burning Wheel I didn’t like the stilted duel of wits. I didn’t even get into Fight!, ranged combat, and all that. In general, I call myself a Luke Crane fanboy-wannabe. When I try their games, it falls apart. I’ve played about six or seven sessions of Burning Wheel, three or four sessions of Mouse Guard, and a session of Torchbearer. I’ve ran Burning Wheel for seven sessions, Blossoms are Falling for two or three sessions, Mouse Guard for two or three sessions—and it’s still not working out for me. It’s time to stop trying. :)


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2016-01-29 Retroclones

Recently, Aaron Griffin asked on Google+ where he could learn more about retroclones.

Here’s what I recommend:

Personally, I play Labyrinth Lord, the retroclone of Basic D&D by Moldvay and Expert D&D by Cook and Marsh. Back in 2009 I listed the features that I liked about B/X D&D and its retroclone (which is cheaper to get in print).

There is a comparison between many of the retroclones out there called Old School Renaissance Handbook. It costs a few bucks. Here’s a review. I bought it—but I still haven’t read it.


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2016-01-29 No Clerics

I’ve had this discussion in German already (Keine Kleriker) and I’m thinking of sticking to it.

  1. no clerics in my setting
  2. every faith can have priests with an appropriate spell repertoire and they’ll be magic users for all intents and purposes
  3. if you really want to cast spells like a pro and fight like a pro, you can be an elf

This necessitates an appropriate repertoire for the relevant priests in my campaign. Luckily, only two gods have made an appearance until now: Freya and Marduk.

I already have a spell book notation that I usually follow, so making the two lists should be easy. Once that’s done, I can type them up using LaTeX and add them to my house rules document, Halberds and Helmets.

As for the campaign currently in progress, I don’t mind letting players continue to play their characters using the old rules. All the new player characters will be converted, however.

At the same time, fighters dedicating themselves to a god can be sworn paladins and they may get a small number of enumerated powers. If you’re a paladin of Freya, for example, you’ll get a wolf that turns into an ice wolf until it’s as big as a pony. Each increase is related to how many “Freya points” you accumulated.

Priest of Freya

In my other campaign we’ve had a Freya cleric for a very long time so these spells were easy to pick.

Spell Level Caster Level Spell Name Traditional Name
11Watchful Eye of the Peace Keeper detect evil
12Scent of Sorcery detect magic
17Weather the Storm resist cold
23Language of Animals speak with animal
24Sound of Silence silence 15’ radius
28Paralysis of Men hold person
35Light of the Moon continual light
36Weapon of the Gods striking
39Wolf Shape limited polymorph self
47Honey of the Valkyries neutralize poison
48Wall of Ice wall of ice
410Curse of the Völva curse and remove curse
59The Path to Sessrúmnir raise dead and ray of death
510Freya’s Quest quest

Priest of Marduk

And this is work in progress with Marduk only recently making an appearance…

Spell Level Caster Level Spell Name Traditional Name
11Bolt of Power magic missile
12Protection from Harm shield
17Voice of the Ruler charm person
23Club of Law limited striking
24Courage of Marduk bless
28Eyes of the Overlord detect invisible
35Bolt of Lightning lightning bolt
36Protection from Hail protection from normal missiles
39Wings of God fly
47Chariot of Fire new
48Voice of the Master charm monster
410Wall of Fire wall of fire
59Eyes of Truth true seeing
510Melting Walls transmute rock to mud

Paladin of Freya

Anybody swearing eternal fealty can be a paladin.

The goddess of winter, of spring, of fertility, of grain, of war, of cats, of magic… She leads the Valkyries and collects half the slain in battle. These dine with her in Sessrúmnir.

Defeating stronger, human opponents in single combat after a challenge to a duel in her name pleases her, as this dedicates those brave souls to her hall. Keep track of the number of people you thus slew in battle. This is your Freya score!

(We’re assuming that player characters are not too interested in bearing children and bringing in the harvest. Those activities would also increase your Freya score, of course.)

Score Way of the Wolf
2Adopt a wolf and it’ll turn into a loyal companion. No training required.
4Share beneficial spells with your wolf.
6Your wolf is blessed by Freya and turns into a winter wolf: HD 3+1 AC 4 bite 1d10 (1–4/6) or breath of ice 2d6 for 5m (5–6/6) F4 MV 15
7The winter wolf grows larger: HD 4+1 AC 4 bite 1d10 (1–4/6) or breath of ice 2d6 for 5m (5–6/6) F5 MV 15
8The winter wolf reaches the size of a pony: HD 5+1 AC 4 bite 1d10 (1–4/6) or breath of ice 2d6 for 5m (5–6/6) F6 MV 15

Winter wolves are immune to cold. Magical cold only deals half damage. Magical fire deals +1 per damage die.

Paladin of Marduk

Anybody swearing eternal fealty can be a paladin.

Marduk is the patron of war chariots, of war lords, of might, of lightning, of punitive justice, of commandments and stone tablets. Marduk is popular in big cities and the dwarves love him as well.

Marduk enjoys smashing things with his giant club, throwing lightning bolts, and the slaying of monsters and demons. Keep track of the number of stronger monsters and demons you slew in single combat. This is your Marduk score!

If you’re a favorite of Marduk, you can rise in power!

Score Way of the Slayer
3When bellowing commands, you can increase morale of mercenaries by +1
4Lead a company of men (at least a hundred) into battle and fight in the first rank to become a champion of war – your enemies will die when you bring them to 5hp or lower /
5The morale of troops in your immediate surroundings are increased by +1
6Kill a devil of the fifth rank and become a devil slayer – devils and demons with HD 10 or less will recognize the invisible mark on your forehead and prefer to negotiate instead of fight no matter their numerical superiority
7Cut down a hundred men in battle using the scythes of your war chariot and become a reaper of blood – when you ride on your chariot, the armies of your enemies will part and you’ll be able to strike deep into the heart of you opponent

But why!?

Here’s the gist of it:

  1. I’ve never read any Fantasy books that had clerics in them.
  2. Having healing magic available during combat makes combat last longer without improving the game in any other aspect.
  3. Having healing magic available between combat devalues hit points as a resource to be managed.
  4. Having healing magic available between sessions reduces the need for longer recovery periods. (I’m actually not sure whether that’s required or not. I’ve been running a game of “the time between sessions is more or less one week in-game” and it worked just fine.)
  5. Turning undead makes undead a special challenge like traps being a special challenge for thieves. A separate mini-game that is boring for everybody else. (There have been interesting fights of low level parties against hordes of skeletons, but these encounters would have been just as interesting without clerics.)
  6. Having a potential healer in the party puts social pressure on the player to do just that.
  7. I’ve had a few players that had a hard time picking spells for clerics – both when they had to memorize them at dawn and when picking them freely from their repertoire in combat when I no longer insisted on memorization. Few spells means less choice means less paralysis.
  8. The spells available to clerics by the book often have a weird biblical backstory to them. I don’t want to be reminded of Moses and Jesus when playing D&D. It’s jarring. Unless you’re playing Unholy Land, I guess.


Comments on 2016-01-29 No Clerics

A very interesting discussion on Google+. I’ll need to summarize some of the points made.

One alternate system: allow PCs to “burn” physical stats (STR, DEX, CON) to heal HP, one hit die per point burned, whenever the PCs are not in an emergency situation. Stats recover one point per day.

This solves #2,3,4. Taking more damage leads to lower stats, a limited resource, which also creates a negative feedback loop resulting in worse performance. The one point per day heal rate leads to slow recovery as desired.

This system also matches the fiction - the points burned represent the lowering physical capability of the players as they take cuts, bruises, flesh wounds, and become generally weary.

Ian Wyckoff 2016-01-29 20:30 UTC

Something to keep in mind if it turns out not to work as intended! Thanks.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-29 20:39 UTC

Some of my points from the discussion on G+:

I suspect that game play will change a bit. Certainly adventures will be a bit shorter because of less healing. I don’t think I’ll need to do a lot of active changes myself since I run a sandbox so effectively players get to choose the kinds of risks they’re willing to take. There is no Challenge Rating (CR) system like there was in D&D 3.5.

When I was a player in parties without a cleric, the added tension made the game more interesting for me. It’s probably a problem if you play adventure paths or longer adventures, design encounters based on some assumed baseline (challenge ratings and all that), and keep the adventuring party small (retainers, hirelings, mercenaries – all ways to mitigate the lack of healing). So, I’m excited, I’m curious, and I hope my players won’t mind. If it turns out that it doesn’t work, no problem, we’ll add clerics back in. But I want to try without, for now.

One of the reasons I wanted to get rid of healing is because I felt it just prolonged fights and I don’t really enjoy the fighting aspect of the game. I like the strategy of when to fight, who to fight, how to fight, and then I want the fight to be short – in a different discussion a while ago I said my preferred fight was two rounds.

Healing outside of combat would not prolong fights, it would allow players to make longer expeditions into dangerous areas because they could handle more fights before having to retreat. Perhaps I’m not noticing any pressure in this respect because my actual gaming sessions are so short. We play on workdays for three hours, eg. 19:00 to 22:00 or 20:00 to 23:00. And since my group consists of a large pool of players and not all of them are regulars, I often push for “you all need to return to safety at the end of the session.” The length of the expedition is not limited by party hit point totals but by session length. Healing in combat would simply allow them to fight more dangerous foes that they need to avoid at the moment (i.e. longer fights), and healing between combats would allow them to continue for longer but they can’t because the session is over.

Tsojcanth also posted about Classic Greece and the D&D Cleric Problem. There, they suggest to replace turn undead with other abilities. Harald then suggested I could simply replace healing spells with other spells. And that, to me, is where I’m going with this. Just turn them into magic users.

Norbert suggested the use of Wonder & Wickedness by Brendan S. The reason I never checked out W&W was that I didn’t feel unhappy with magic-users and traditional Vancian magic, and I like some spells only being available at a higher level. It’s part of D&D’s promise of changing gameplay over time and thus a significant element of long running campaigns.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-30 11:13 UTC

Courtney offers a longer discussion on his blog. He links to a blog post by Delta where he notes that “it is the cleric class which makes the least overall sense in the context of pulp fantasy […] the armored, adventuring, miraculous man-of-Catholic-faith is simply not a type you see very much in the roots of the genre, if at all.”

– Alex Schroeder 2016-02-01 14:30 UTC

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2016-01-24 Rob Conley on the OSR

On G+, a thread I liked was deleted. I tried to save all the good comments on a blog post of mine, see Innovation and the Old School Renaissance. There was one good post about the Old School Renaissance (OSR) itself, however. Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic gave me permission to repost it. Thanks!

Here is what he said, slightly edited.

Man, you folks are reading more into the OSR than what there is.

The OSR is a collection of people interested in publishing, playing, and promoting classic D&D along with whatever else happens to interests them.

It is more or less an informal “chess club” that—due to technological advances of computers and the internet and the legal situation surrounding the d20 SRD being under the OGL—can do more than just play and talk. They publish and some do at a level that equal what the full time professional do.

Are their design philosophies, schools of thought, style of play, what characterizes the OSR? Sure, but then that is true of any other segment of the hobby and industry.

It neither a conservative or progressive movement. It is what the individual participants make it out to be.

Now, several factors combine into making the OSR a distinct branch of the hobby other than the fact of a focus on classic editions of D&D.

First, out of all the out of print RPGs, classic D&D from OD&D to 2nd edition AD&D has the largest potential fan base due to it past popularity. Even a tenth of a percent of classic D&D gamer becoming interested in playing again is still a large number.

Second, there is no dominant publisher. There are certainly tiers of publishers but unlike the situation with 3.5/Pathfinder there is no “Paizo” that dominates the OSR. Instead, you have a kaleidoscope of small publishers where most are one man operations like myself.

Third, coupled with the above, the use of classic D&D rests on the Open Game License. While no one has the right to make a 100% clone of an older edition, the various retro-clone are so close that the differences are insignificant. The implications of this is that anybody can jump in with their project, at any time.

Fourth, the OSR has taken full advantage of Print on Demandfor their projects. This, coupled with the OGL means there are very low barriers for anybody to get their projects started.

Fifth, because of the above, anything that can be done with classic D&D mechanics is going to be done. This includes adapting it to other genres, making RPGs that feel like classic D&D but use newer mechanics, and so on. The result is no hard and fast line at where the OSR ends and independent RPG publishing begins. While the OSR is centered on the classic D&D mechanics it quickly blurs depending on the interests of specific publishers and promoters.

So, some treat the OSR as a conservative movement to preserve a classic game. For others, it is a progressive movement meant to take classic games into new directions that wasn’t possible given the interest or resources of the original IP owners. For most, it a little of both.

Name the flavor of OSR you want and I can probably point you to the place where they hang out.

Finally, some will get annoyed at my assertion that the OSR is centered on classic D&D. The deal is this: Regardless of the label, there is a niche of the hobby focused on classic D&D, and they use the OGL and the internet to get material out. It has been very successful in reviving the classic editions and getting people interested in playing them. It gained widespread use in 2008.

I happened to call those people members of the Old School Renaissance or OSR. And the OSR is part of a much larger old school renaissance (note the small letters) that encompasses a revival of interest many other worthy older games like Runequest, and Traveller.


Comments on 2016-01-24 Rob Conley on the OSR

I thought this discussion started by +Stacy Dellorfano on Google+ was interesting. She says: “I started seeing there was this sharp divide between what I’ve always thought of as the OSR (mainly the G+ DIY crowd represented by folks like +James Raggi and +Zak Smith and a whole lot of other of you […]) and what the outside world sees as the OSR (genuine “old school” personalities re-entering the market). […] I suppose we’re calling ourselves the ‘DIY’ crowd, but it feels to me like there’s an even better distinction required there.” Zak Smith says he tried to get people to use DIY D&D and it didn’t work.

I’m not sure what to think of people quickly rejecting labels. I’m totally OK with using labels. People don’t have to self label. For me, labels are the tags and categories of thought we use to talk about groups. The people doing the talking are grouping other people according to some features – their income, their skin color, the games they play – in order to talk about them. And yes, this can be misused, see racism. But all in all it’s a useful tool to communicate.

In the old days, I never played OD&D, never played B/X D&D, played BECMI D&D for one session, bought some AD&D 1st ed books and ran it for a while, then we switched to AD&D 2nd ed, and within a year, we moved, and my gaming stopped. That’s it. Less than a year! That’s all the gaming I did as a teenager. It’s not much. It doesn’t qualify for nostalgia. I don’t feel a lot of loyalty towards the people that started it all, Gary Gygax and his players, the first TSR employees. I’m not sure how they played, I don’t know how they run their games now. In so far, I’m not using the label “Old School” to refer to how the game was played in the old days.

I am reminded of this old blog post of mine: Old School Affordances. I wanted to move away from a discussion of rules and feelings towards something closer to the truth at my table and still more quantifiable than “I’ll know it when I see it.” Affordance is a term I like because I can talk about the features that encourage the behavior I like to encourage.

“Affordance” is a term used by perceptual psychologists. Affordance is what an object suggests to us. For example, if you see a bench, you might think to sit down on it, or to lie down on it. Some doors have a panel on once side, and a handle on the other. If you see the panel, you think to push it. If you see the handle, you think to pull it. Perceptual psychologists use the phrase “object affordance” to talk about how objects make us think to use them. [1]

And that’s what I did when I talked about my game in the blog post B/X Affordances. In that list of features that encouraged the kind of game I enjoy the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethos isn’t named. It’s true that I like that part as well, but I’d probably be using some D&D variant like B/X or Labyrinth Lord whether there was a DIY community behind it or not.

Perhaps I’ll just have to agree with all those people that said we are stuck with the term OSR even though it doesn’t actually fit. It grew “historically,” i.e. it can only be understood in terms of looking at old blog posts, not in terms of the actual words that make up the label. Or perhaps we should simply emphasize the term Renaissance a whole lot more.

The Renaissance’s intellectual basis was its own invented version of humanism, derived from the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy [2]

We have a “our own invented version of D&D, derived from the rediscovery of classic D&D rules,” perhaps?

Old school D&D was rediscovered and we invented our own version of D&D based on that. We talked about new and different ways of doing it.

And that in turn reminds me of this old blog post:

D&D rules 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.
Fluidity in Rules and Setting

I still like it.

So, this thing we did, this invention after a rediscovery, this community we found on the blogs and then on Google+, this discussion of all the stuff, we can call it OSR, or DIY D&D. I guess I’m going to keep calling it OSR because that’s what so many of us do. And I shall remind myself that it doesn’t necessarily have to include the people that never stopped playing the old games. Those people did not invent their own D&D after a rediscovery. Perhaps those people were part of the great D&D inventing after the original discovery in the seventies. Quite possible, in fact. But those two groups don’t necessarily fall under the same label.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-25 10:44 UTC

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2016-01-19 Innovation and the Old School Renaissance

Robert Bohl asked for examples of innovation in the Old School Renaissance (OSR) and there were some good answers in his thread. Sadly, it got deleted and so I’m collecting the comments I liked on this page.

New settings, monsters, classes? Arnold K.'s blog, for example.

(All of Arnold’s blog posts pulled from the OSR Links to Wisdom Wiki which has nothing but links to blog posts I liked…)

Personally, I also enjoy the blog posts that talk about the fine details of how to run games. These posts aren’t sweeping innovations but they rather feel like reports from a community of practice. People like Brendan S or Ramanan S write posts in this genre, for example. Are they “innovations”? Perhaps they are, but they are small innovations, not “disrupting” innovations.

The very small innovations I was thinking of include Brendan S’s Hazard System, for example. There, he devises new procedures for game play based on the random encounter mechanics. This pushes the boundaries of the existing game in interesting ways without making big changes. Small, incremental innovation.

For myself, “prep” is a topic that keeps changing. Thus, where as the rules themselves might not change as much, there’s still plenty of space for innovation in the game procedures, social contracts and the like. For myself, again, contact with Dungeon World has made me rethink campaign developments using fronts (Using Fronts, Fronts). “Innovative?” Maybe not. But the field is still changing.

One could argue that changing the setting and moves from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World to Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches with flying in the Soviet airforce in WW2 is pretty “disruptive.” It would seem that the only change that you could make in the Powered by the Apocalypse field would be to stop using the rules and use something else entirely? And thus when people take the classic D&D rules and use them to do science fiction like Traveller (Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number), or when they keep the existing rules but add a domain game like Kevin’s An Echo Resounding, or when they keep the existing rules but add a wilderness development procedure involving tags like Kevin’s Red Tide, then those a pretty significant changes.

Let’s take a deeper look. What sort of domain game innovation is there to see? I guess in the seventies, people would have used Chainmail to fight mass battles. The Rules Cyclopedia had a different rule called War Machine where you assembled all your troops and threw a percentile die with results weighed based on the troops on each side in order to determine winners, losers and losses.

JB then wrote his B/X Companion with Mass Combat where units battle units and instead of rolling a d20 you just look up how much % damage you do based on to-hit and armor. Ian Borchardt pointed out that this is the mechanism of Swords & Spells (TSR), the unofficial 5th supplement to D&D, so perhaps that doesn’t count as an innovation.

Robin Stacey had written a similar thing for M20 using “combat scale” where damage done is multiplied using a non-linear scale. A copy is still available.

Kevin Crawford wrote An Echo Resounding which added upkeep costs for units, rules for creating new units, a simple financial system, and so on. I wrote a short summary for my players at the time.

At the same time, the Adventure Conqueror King System also worked on that, but instead of using abstract points of Military, Social and Cultural “power” it just extrapolated the D&D gold piece economy to the max. If you’re interested in a comparison between the two, the designers discussed the different approaches on a forum.

All of these developments look at how a classic D&D campaign reaching name level might develop and offers essentially various house rules to run these games.

As for wilderness development, there have been various attempts to work this out. The one I remember best is by Erin Smale. I even wrote some mapping software to use it. I also remember Rob Conley’s discussion of How to make a Fantasy Sandbox.

All of these involve quite a bit of work and don’t solve the basic problem of generating new ideas. Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide has the following usage example on page 103. As you can see, Kevin provides tables that interact with each other, helping you fill that wilderness with life.

“The first step is to determine the kind of settlement it will be. Having no preferences, the referee rolls 1d10 and comes up with “Country Estate”. Evidently, it’s a remote, fortified manor owned by a rich merchant or powerful noble.

With that established, the referee decides to roll twice on the site tags table to see what qualities make this manor all that interesting to adventurers. The results are “Faded Glory” and “Hell King Cultists”. Well, now. It looks like this humble country seat may not be the safest waystation for the PCs.

The referee turns to the site tag list and reads over the elements associated with each tag. After some reflection, he decides that the country seat won’t seem to be dangerous at first glance. Whatever’s going on at the estate is subtle enough that wayfarers won’t be instantly attacked as potential sacrifices.

Since the country manor is a little like a noble court, he rolls on the Court Site tables to get the roles of the three most important people at the estate. According to the dice, the three big names there are the Noble, the Spouse, and the Noble’s Child. A roll on the random NPC tables in the back of the book shows that the Noble is a woman and the Child is a daughter. Recourse to the random name tables give their names as the noble Daifu Tanaka Rei, her husband Tanaka Hengest, and their daughter, Tanaka Maiko.

Now the referee looks back at the tags and decides to start creating adventure hooks. …”

Each tag comes with a paragraph of text helping you push towards adventure hooks.

I really like the new presentation of wilderness and dungeon maps in A Red And Pleasant Land. Some nice pictures on this blog post.

Judd Karlman wanted to hear more about adventure layout and said that information was hard to find in the text and the where as maps are beautiful the players usually don’t get to see them. And I concur! Anybody reading the reviews by Bryce Lynch knows that there is a long tradition of suboptimal usability in adventure design, to put it mildly.

I tried to explore a different way of writing high level adventures for my Caverns of Slime but I’m sure there’s a lot more to be done, here.

This is also why I was very excited to read about Perilous Wilds and Perilous Deep by Jason Lutes. His classic D&D / Dungeon World cross over is a way to go I might want to pursue in my games as well. Or, as Ramanan S put it:

“The book introduces new rules and mechanics to Dungeon World games for travel, making camp, scouting, etc. These could be moved whole hog into a game of D&D. My plan is to do just that in my Carcosa game. The mechanics of Dungeon World are quite simple: roll a 2d6 and you either succeed, succeed with a complication, or fail and face a tough complication. You could model all reaction rolls in D&D on this formula, I suppose. The rules taken together add a structure to wilderness travel that feels lacking in vanilla D&D, and is apparently glossed over in Dungeon World.”

Anyway, those were my thoughts on innovation within the Old School Renaissance.


Comments on 2016-01-19 Innovation and the Old School Renaissance

Discussion of Proceduralism on Brendan’s blog.

As I said in my blog post, I feel there are still things to do better in this respect and I feel like Dungeon World and its Moves might be able to point us in new directions: a Chase Move instead of calculating stuff using movement speeds; a Research Move instead of paying a lot of money and skipping many sessions before rolling perentage dice, a domain game or a trading game that doesn’t end up being an accounting game.

– AlexSchroeder 2016-01-21 14:56 UTC

Some other people “from the Old School Renaissance” are picking up the thread. Sadly, a bit all over the place. I’ll try to link them as I find them.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-01-22 12:07 UTC

As for the value of innovation itself, Dan Proctor said it best, back in 2008: «I will note some challenges (in my opinion) the “old-school revival” faces. […] The idea of game “evolution.” It is true that in our culture there is a misconception, broadly, that cultural evolution evolves “upward,” so that changes are for the “better.” This social Darwinism is deeply ingrained. It is only natural that people translate that false assumption to games, often equating role playing games with technology, as if the next edition of an RPG is quantitatively better just like the next generation computer games that have better graphics. Of course this is false. An RPG is only “better” in the eyes of the beholder, not quantitatively.»

And half a year later, he writes: «Besides, the OSR isn’t just about retro-clones. It’s about a way of gaming, and a way of producing RPG material. It doesn’t matter if you write a module that doesn’t align itself with a particular clone game, its the content and feel that matter. It’s not just about fantasy games, either. Old-school gaming includes all genres.»

– Alex Schroeder

As Robert Bohl decided to delete the thread on G+, I’m going to ask people for their OK to repost their comments.

The comments below have been edited slightly because I only wanted to keep the “good parts” of that thread. I’ve also added links to products, mostly by pasting the product name into Google Search and picking one of the top links. If you’re looking for reviews, you’ll have to do some of your own googling.

Michael Moceri said: Godbound is kind of what you’d get if someone wanted to make Exalted as an OSR game, which seems pretty innovative.

The basic structure of the game is just what you’d expect. D&D abilities, levels, polyhedra, etc. Your typical OSR structure is just where you’d expect it to be.

The innovation comes from how it’s used. In this case, it’s to up the power level and scope of play. A starting Godbound will casually cut through crowds of mooks, taking out several per action without any particular effort. It doesn’t do the zero end of zero to hero at all.

Probably the biggest part of that is that it’s got a system for using your influence to change the world. You get points to spend from your worshipers, from your powers, and from deeds that you perform, and you can spend those points to create lasting change. Want to create a perfect system of justice in a city? Totally doable. Want to build a library that becomes a shining beacon of knowledge for the world? That works as well. And creating particular things in particular locations are where the scope of play begins; you can also alter the fates of nations or even the whole world if you set your mind to it, and the influence system handles it just fine.

It’s also set up to drive play. You need to go out and get stuff to build your larger, more impressive works. You need to gather influence. So you need to go on quests to get what you need. Which gives you a great excuse to go into that mad dungeon filled with clockwork traps (which you could actually build using the influence system if you wanted) to find the piece of celestial machinery at its heart so that you can use that magical artifact to build your own works.

It’s kind of neat. The free beta is also available if you want. I think it’s up to beta 0.12 right now.

Casey G. said:

  • Scenic Dunnsmouth – Innovative card and dice mechanics create a town and relationships that ensure no two play-throughs will be the same.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon is innovative because it’s an art book masquerading as a monster manual.
  • Yoon-Suin is innovative because it’s a toolbox for creating an expanding, unique campaign world.
  • Scarlet Heroes is innovative because it allows old-school play with only a DM and single player or solo play, with no conversion of source material. Also contains an engine for solo play that would be valuable to any game, not just an OSR game.
  • A Red and Pleasant Land is innovative because it’s the most beautiful RPG book on the market.
  • Kevin Crawford’s OSR Kickstarters are innovative in that they are all successful and deliver early. His model should be used widely.
  • Into the Odd is innovative because it boils dungeoncrawling down to its simplest essence in an evocative Victorian dystopia.

That’s just off the top of my head. That said, innovation is overrated. Good writing, a good story, and good mechanics don’t need to be innovative. 

Kevin Crawford said: I think looking for innovation in the OSR is at some level like looking for innovation in pens. There is a certain contingent of people who are deeply, passionately interested in new pens. They want to see new inks, new nib styles, a sober discussion of the merits of various barrels, and exciting new neo-pen, pencil-inspired modifications. The great majority of people, however, just want a damn pen so they can write something.

The OSR lets you write things. Everybody knows how it works. Everybody understands what you’re saying, even people who have no intention of actually using OSR rules. If you want to write a crazy city sourcebook like Vornheim or a trippy slug-man fantasia like Yoon-Suin or an unrepentant megadungeon like Dwimmermount (for Labyrinth Lord, for ACKS) then the OSR will let you do it with a minimum of system gasconade. There are some people who really want to just recreate the pens of their youth in a more accessible fashion, or who want to tweak the pens to suit their own writing style, but the great majority of really interesting OSR stuff is the result of what was written and not how.

System gasconade refers to the size of the damn you have to give about the system you’re using. There are many gaming systems in which the mechanics of the game are intimately intertwined with their creations. This is particularly prevalent in systems that explicitly emulate a genre or narrative structure, like Fate with its Fate Point economy, or the Gumshoe system with its clue economy, or any one of a hundred indie games oriented toward particular stories. The system says you need X, and Y, and Z in your game or there’s going to be a problem. The OSR has none of that. There is no coherent metastructure expected to be imposed on any given creation. While this deprives it of the inevitable advantages of an interesting metastructure, it also means that the author doesn’t have to genuflect to any other considerations when writing their stuff. It’s just you, the paper, and a handful of descriptive mechanical concepts and processes.

Quite aside from nostalgia, I think one of the biggest reasons that small publishers ape 80s trade dress is because they have no idea how to lay out a book without doing so. It’s not like their choices are between “A nuanced layout that emphasizes critical text in an evocative fashion, seamlessly blending an RPG rulebook’s tripartite role as reference, inspirational fiction, and instructional manual” and “AVANT GARDE FUCK THE GRID BOXED TEXT 4 LYFE”. Actually making a layout that responds to the three conflicting roles of an RPG book is incredibly hard, and for a raw amateur just doing it like it’s always been done is at least a guarantee that they won’t completely screw it up. What the hobby needs is a superbly talented book designer to study the genre, formulate basic principles, provide worked examples, and compile it in the form of a guidebook comprehensible to a total novice. Which suggests to me that we’re going to be seeing a lot of Souvenir for a long, long time. 

Zak Smith said:

Art and writing more innovative than anything in any RPG

Fire on the Velvet Horizon. Not only sentence-for sentence beautiful on a genuine literary level far beyond the Neil Gaimanisms that pass for “good writing” in RPGs but in terms of organization as wel. The art was made first, then the description written after and the bestiary trope of “experts claim” is woven into a sub-plot of secret competing experts. Praised publicly by China Mieville.

By the same authors: Deep Carbon Observatory.

Graphic and information design far more innovative than anything in any RPG

The One Page Dungeon Contest winners. For example Luka Rejec’s Purple Worm dungeon. Communicating lots of dense information at a glance to the busy GM.

Carcosa: the only well-organized, published hexcrawl, lots of room for notes while you do not have to fish thru paragraphs to find hex contents. Plus its weird enough fantasy that Monte Cook gave it props.

Innovative digital tools

First off, y’all should love this as it’s an OSR/Story gamer collaboration—the Abulafia random generators. Although Story Games people started it, the OSR has gone nuts adding to it creating generators with complex, nested content drawing on multiple libraries that generate all kinds of RPG content at the touch of a button. Basically the entire contents of a 15-page Judges Guild or TSR module can be made in 3 or 4 clicks.

Secondly there’s the Last Gasp random generators, which are super easy to make your own and they fit on your toolbar. So basically now there’s a button on my browser that I can hit and it randomly generates monsters disaggregated by environment or spells disaggregated by level or any other thing you might want while GMing. You just cut your homebrew random table and paste.

Thirdly there’s Dave's Mapper—which takes hand-drawn geomorphs from a variety of different artists and combines them into random maps.

Innovative game rules

Innovative analysis

Innovative collective projects

These were all crowdsourced and work and read faster in play than any existing hexcrawl product.

Innovative settings

Yoon-Suin presents a nightmare opium-dream Far East that owes absolutely nothing to samurai-movie cliches and does it in absorbing detail with absolutely zero fat on it, complete with slug men, mutants decadence and adventure-hook-generating rules for trade

Dwarfland is a weird menage of Arthur Rackham fairy fire and black humor where, for example, the king’s crown is and has always been secretly a Helm of Opposite Alignment so each tyrranical general becomes a kindly despot once she seizes power and vice versa

Innovative Everything

Monster Manual Sewn From Pants is folk-art lunacy waaaaay beyond anything anyone else in RPGs is making. Other dimensions, Anime-style Magical Girl cyberpunk, weird mutations out of Bosch and various avantgarde transhumanisms pretty much in every blog entry.

The OSR Links To Wisdom organizes a lot of the best articles.

Brendan S said: For me, a lot of what I learned from the OSR is to appreciate consequences of many classic rules that are often counterintuitive on their face (and may have been originally unintended).

  • The creative value of randomness [1]
  • Emergent narrative from random encounters (cousin of “play to find out what happens”)
  • Compatibility of play incentive with game behavior (GP as XP)
  • Interaction of lethality with engagement through tension [2] [3]
  • Prioritizing diegetic (fictional) problem solving as a legitimate alternative to using explicit mechanical solutions. [4]

As someone who learned tabletop RPGs originally in the 90s with AD&D 2E and White Wolf, many of these ideas were surprising and useful. Further, since those games were developed at least partly as reactions to the perceived shortcomings of earlier D&D, I suspect many of those designers may not have understood the way earlier systems contributed to play.

This represents a shift in beliefs for some substantial contingent of players (myself included), which seems like a good measure of innovation.

Olman Feelyus said: I don’t think there is anything acutely innovative about the OSR and as others have already stated, that isn’t really it’s goal. However, in the aggregate, both in how the philosophy around play at the table has been refined and in how product gets developed and marketed, it is overall a big innovation in our hobby. I don’t think there were ever groups who were so explicit about their dungeoncrawling and sandboxing and so clear on the parameters around that until the OSR came along and really started talking about it.

It’s like a remix and refinement of many already existing elements that has created something that is new and different, something that couldn’t have existed 20 years ago, yet is still very familiar.

Mark Delsing said: I’d argue that (what I saw as) the original premise of the OSR — namely, let’s look at these original games with fresh eyes, putting aside our ‘80s and ‘90s baggage, and examine how they were played by their creators and see what we can learn — was itself pretty innovative. It was gaming archaeology/anthropology, and I don’t think anything like it existed up until then.

Likewise, there may be the “rulings, not rules” stuff, but I also seem to remember ideas like, “Hey, did you know that Moldvay, if you play it exactly as written and forget what you think you know about D&D, is a really fun, functional game?” That was crazy-pants thinking to me.

The flip side is that I do think plenty of people have used the OSR as a way to defend having never looked beyond the habits they developed in the ‘70s.“See?! We were right all along!” E.g., arguing in favor of gender-based ability caps. It’s honestly why I’ve unfollowed a lot of OSR folk I used to read regularly.

At its best, the OSR bypassed the grognards and went to the source material, revealing that lots of accepted wisdom was wrong, IMO.

Rob Conley said: The innovation found in the OSR is the same as any other niche of the hobby and industry. It’s just being based on the mechanics of classic D&D rather than something novel or another system.

RPGs are about creating experiences. The experience is created by players acting as their characters interacting with a setting with their actions adjudicated by a human referee.

Because of this, RPG are inherently flexible. Even in RPGs as focused as Paranoia or Pendragon there are dozens of possibilities the referee can choose from.

This is similar to why after centuries of theater and a century of filmmaking, people are still finding new ways of presenting well-worn plotlines like boy meets girl. While on one level it’s all the same, on another the different circumstance and personalities often make it all fresh again.

What this means is that you don’t need to focus on mechanics to have variety and innovation. Mechanics grab people’s attention as they are about concrete rules used for adjudication or defining what characters can and can’t do. Easy to grasp and understand.

What’s not so easy is how to create a setting and how to manage the setting during the course of a campaign to give a the campaign a specific feel. One reason it is not so easy is because it’s so heavily weighted towards the experience that’s being depicted. Gothic Horror, Weird Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, Epic Quests, and the various combinations all bring different considerations.

The thing about the OSR is that because no single company dominates the IP there are a multitude of viewpoints being put out there. Which in my book is a good thing.

That’s the most useful collection oft RPG material I’ve seen in a long while. Thank you!

Falk 2016-02-06 11:03 UTC

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2016-01-15 Combat

Brian Haag was recently looking for some initiative house rules on Google+. I recently had a similar discussion with Gavin Norman, also on Google+. Here’s what I said.

I think initiative rules are overrated, particularly in D&D variants where combat lasts multiple rounds. The critical issue is that everybody acts exactly once per round. If everybody survives the round, then it didn’t matter in which order people attacked. So, initiative is only important in the round when somebody is about to die.

Magic only changes this in so far as a fireball spell makes it more likely that people are about to die (the same is true for other deadly spells, of course). In D&D variants where it is possible to disrupt a spell by damaging a caster in the same round, initiative is also important for all those involved in this action. But B/X doesn’t have that rule, and in games that do, I always wonder about attacking casters after they have cast their spell. Shouldn’t this disrupt their next spell?

The only real difference I can see is when the initiative rules allow more attacks for quicker characters or lighter weapons. Counting up ticks, for example. Daggers go every second tick, short swords every third tick, long swords every fourth, two handed swords every fifth, halberd a every sixth. It would be very different from D&D and require bigger differences in damage, perhaps? Also, when do monsters go?

All in all, I’ve decided that initiative rules are overrated and I’m using the simplest rule that involves a little dice rolling and leads to occasionally having to suffer two attacks in a row. Group initiative. It’s the standard! :)

So what about combat in D&D? Isn’t D&D essentially about tactical combat? I don’t think so.

When combat is not the essence of the game, it’s not hard to do without the tactical elements. I run big parties – ten to twenty characters, five or six players at the table – and the interesting stuff is whether we’ll fight, how to ambush our enemies. Combat itself is basically just the test of our preparations. No miniatures, no battle map, no “I hit the guy that took 4 damage last round” or anything like that. The upside is, however, that I’m not afraid to field twenty or thirty enemies. Or 160 plus a red dragon (against a mid-level party).

How does that work? Easy: I’m not too interested in the details combat. The key is that it should be dangerous. I like save vs. poison, level drain, dragon breath, petrification gaze and all that, because that keeps combat short even at higher levels.

Combat, like all challenges in my game, are there to test player skill: can you think of a way out of this? If it’s just rolling dice and counting down hit-points, that’s a fail in my book. So, I encourage setting up ambushes, bottle-necks, the using of traps against monsters, setting up of monsters to fight monsters, the scaring of monsters, the challenging of enemy leaders to single combat.

I also push for time. Roll all the dice. I don’t care whose turn it is. Instead, I keep asking: “Are you all done? Can I go? Is it my turn, yet?” I don’t like players taking forever. I encourage them to roll their to-hit roll together with their damage spell. I groan and moan and sigh when players start reading spell descriptions when their turn comes up. Next!! And then, when everybody has gone, and slow players are still wringing their hands, I threaten to have their characters skip or suggest a simple action like a melee attack instead of whatever else they wanted to do. It’s a thin line to walk, sadly. I sometimes have a slow player at one of my tables. I encourage them to play simple classes like fighters.


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2015-12-31 Raising a God

I’ve been working on transforming the rough notes for my Fünf Winde campaign into a 64 page setting book or high-level sandbox. It’s all on GitHub as parts of my Halberds and Helmets project. You can take a look at the first few pages.

There, I’ve introduced the gods on a single page. I think this needs to be short. If you’re going to write more, chances are, it’s going to be boring. In order to make the gods useful at the table, I’ve described my current iteration of the Reputation mechanics. The most important of these is that your reputation score is a percent chance of getting help from your god. This help will almost always be a creature that is being sent to aid you. I didn’t want to duplicate a classic spell from B/X D&D and creatures being sent has a nice vibe to it. In my campaigns, I’ve started describing the same agents as they join clerics in performing the miracles of fourth level spells and higher. I like it when a Valkyrie comes down from heaven and helps you raise a dead comrade, returning him from her halls. Keep using the same Valkyrie, give her a name, let her comment on the cleric’s deeds and you’ve got another interesting plot element. Somebody to visit when you’re in Asgard! The gods also grant boons to those they favor. So every god comes with a small list of boons – stuff that mark you as a member of the god’s faction, grant you an animal companion, etc.

I’ve also added the Astral Sea as a hex-crawl using flying ships. I’ll be providing a random table of six ship encounters so that a busy GM has something to use right away. One of the big themes in this setting is slavery. If you want to engage and start fighting slavery, you’ll have a lot of enemies. There are various slaver factions in this setting. All of them could use a beating. Thus, this is one of the hooks into the domain game. I guess The Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg and their fight against slavery left a lasting impression on me after all!


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2015-12-26 Benefits of Dungeon World

Doug Anderson asks on his blog: “What existing flaw or limitation in traditional RPGs does Dungeon World address that makes it worthwhile to play?”

  1. Traditional RPGs have a well defined turn structure in combat, which can be boring where as Dungeon World has no defined turn structure and that results in a more cinematic flow of action
  2. Traditional RPGs don’t teach referees when it is dramatically appropriate to escalate the action; some games provide procedures like random encounters and they all encourage you to draw maps and populate locations, others encourage you to railroad; where as Dungeon World has player facing dice mechanics that are tied in to referee facing procedures, providing clear indication for referees on when to do what kind of escalation
  3. Traditional RPGs encourage you to spend a lot of time to prep maps and locations and timelines where as Dungeon World prep provides a framework for improvisation of events and locations without needing well defined time-lines and maps

The cinematic flow happens because the referee starts by threatening a character, the character reacts and ends up making a move. If the move was a success (they rolled 10+ on 2d6), the player keeps talking, or another player starts talking, until one of them ends up making another move. If the move was a partial success (they rolled 7–9 on 2d6), the referee is to make a soft move, that is, upping the ante, threatening the players with more enemies, a deterioration of their situation, whatever. Something gets worse but there are no immediate consequences. If the move was a failure (they rolled 6- on 2d6), then the referee is to make a hard move, that is, dealing damage, separating party members from the rest. Something bad happens and there are immediate consequences.

When players are succeeding but stop talking, looking at the referee, same thing. The referee makes a move (announcing trouble up ahead, dealing damage, depending on the situation). When players walk into a situation where the fiction dictates consequences – walking into an ambush they know about – then that’s the same thing. The referee makes a move (again, announcing trouble up ahead, dealing damage, depending on the situation).

So basically, there’s a natural back and forth, a conversation, between players and referee. It’s like a movie. We are following the action with out mental eye. There is no turn structure that dictates who’s next. If the camera stays focused on a character, because we keep talking about the character, then that’s that. The onus is on us, on everybody at the table, to provide spotlight for every character by involving them in the action. No turn structure ensures that your turn will come up, eventually.

As for prep and fronts, I’ve written about using fronts a few days ago.

Thus, if a newbie friend comes up to you after a session with a traditional role-playing game and says “I ran it by the book but the session fell flat; I prepared so much but it just wasn’t enough,” what do you do? You can invite them to your game and show them how you do it. Oral transmission of how to pay is important in traditional games because the books aren’t very clear on that. Or you could say something about not needing to prep so much and winging it, of improvising more. That is, the oral transmission starts right away. Or you could tell them how Dungeon World solves these problems.


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2015-12-20 BX64

So, James V West posted the following challenge on Google+: “to create a 64 page saddle stitched book that fits with BX. A setting, for example.”

I’ve been running a Spelljammer/Planescape campaign for a few years, now, and I might have something… Susrael the Great. I just need to fill in the details. Also, make sure no traces of Spelljammer and Planescape remain.

It will feature:

  • islands in the astral sea that are portals to worlds
  • classes for shark men, squid men, giant apes, cactus men… That’s what reading Planet Algol and Metal Earth does to your brain!
  • various spell books for the well known schools
  • some magic swords, dwarven golem armor
  • The Ten Rings of Qwaar the Axiomatic… Too much reading of Jeff’s Gameblog
  • a potential plot line for this sandbox: the resurrection of a god

Anyway. That would be cool. I appear to have about 30 pages of notes already. This can’t be hard. Famous last words, haha.


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2015-12-15 Using Fronts

Ramanan S. recently asked on Google+: “So what exactly do people do to track what the hell is going on in their game? What stuff do you have on hand when running a game?”

I replied the usual stuff. Stage fright never goes away. Keep notes on a Campaign Wiki.

And I mentioned how prep using fronts has been creeping into my game.


So here’s the evolution of how things had been going, on a campaign level. First, I had a passive world, waiting for the players to mess with it. My motto was and still is: “The harder you look, the more there is to see.“¹ Then I started using An Echo Resounding and thought that the domain game would provide for the kind of slow movements in the world around them. As it turned out, the domain game didn’t get my players excited. It felt a bit like accounting and it was too much effort to simply introduce some random setting changes. I then turned to using a random table to introduce setting changes. But we kept forgetting to roll on the table. There was simply no incentive. So finally I have arrived at Fronts.

Fronts are easy to write up. Here’s what I have been using:

  1. a catchy name (“Slaad Invasion”)
  2. a short phrase to describe it, a subtitle (“The Manifestation of of a Slaad Lord”)
  3. a number of events with escalating effect (“war in the land of the fire giants”, “war of the god men against Asgard”, …) – a list of things that I can look down on when there’s a lull and improvise some calamity, an encounter, a news item, whatever; “announcing future badness
  4. a question or two regarding a player character; this will help me twist and turn the dagger so that it’ll end up pointing in their direction; it also reminds me to have daggers pointing at every single one of them (“Will Logard fight this anarchy?”, “Who will help the dwarves?”)


¹ The longer form of my motto is this introduction I recently elaborated:

“We’re playing in a sandbox. Dangers are not adapted to the strength of the party. Generally speaking it’s safer near civilized settlements. The further you move into the wilderness, the more dangerous it is. That’s how players control the risks they want to take.

You learn of rumors from travelers in taverns, merchants at markets, sailors at harbors, books in libraries or sages in their ivory towers. This information is not always accurate or complete. Use these rumors to add new locations, goals and quests to your map. The actions of your characters determines the direction the campaign will take. There is no planned ending for the campaign. As long as you keep investigating rumors, exploring locations and following quests, I will keep developing the game world in that direction. The harder you look, the more there is to see.”


Comments on 2015-12-15 Using Fronts

Wow! You’ve named the process I’ve been doing in my head for years. That’s a really cool feeling, knowing there’s a left-brain approach to my right-brain method.

Also, your motto is crystal clear and I’m totally printing it out and sticking it into my gaming binder. It’s a great thing for new players to hear when starting a sandbox game, especially if they’ve only played modules or in linear campaigns.

Dreadweasel 2016-02-03 23:01 UTC

Very cool.

Also, loved your post Two Stories With Regard to Killing People. :D

– Alex Schroeder 2016-02-04 09:55 UTC

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