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)

2017-02-20 Turning Undead

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

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


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2017-01-23 Random Encounters

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

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

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

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


Comments on 2017-01-23 Random Encounters

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

Rorschachhamster 2017-01-24 10:30 UTC

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

– Alex Schroeder 2017-01-24 12:10 UTC

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2017-01-07 Normal Men

If your players can hire retainers, how do you handle it? I used a d30 list of candidates. Some of these were “normal men” – people who didn’t want to fight: porters, torchbearers, horse handlers and the like. Thus, when people wanted to hire some people, I had them roll 1d6 for the number of people to show up at the tavern at the beginning of the session, and I had them roll a d30 for as many times, read them the entry from my list, promised myself to replace that entry at some point, and then tried to figure out what stats to give these people.

Over the last few sessions, however, I’ve noticed a different trend: I simply have a large stack of printed, computer generated pre-generated characters and if players looked for new candidates to hire, they rolled a d6 and pulled as many characters from the stack. Instant details, including funny faces, equipment, spells, and all that.

I wrote the generator and so generating twenty or thirty characters is no problem at all. I ended up extending the generator whenever I joined a new game, so for the moment it is most useful for B/X (the default), Labyrinth Lord (the prices differ a bit), and Halberds & Helmets (my house rules). There’s even some ACKS support in there, but it is severely lacking, sadly. Encoding the feats has proven to be supper annoying and I no longer play in an ACKS campaign. If you don’t like it, there’s Ramanan's character generator with support for Basic D&D (the one I linked to), 1974 D&D, Holmes D&D and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and campaign specific characters for Pahvelorn, Apolyon, and Carcosa. Check out the footer for links!

Using pre-generated player characters turned out to be very popular, where as using “normal men” was fraught with problems. Do they gain XP? After I while I decided that they do. Can they gain a level? After a while I said yes of course, but obviously only classes suitable for humans. But when? When they gained 100XP. Do they get a share of the treasure? At one point I had the following rule, trying to limit the bookkeeping of minute XP amounts: they needed to gain 100 XP in one go by being part of a fight with monsters where every single participant got 100 XP or more. This made sure that those “normal men” only gained a level when fighting manticores or similarly traumatic events.

And yet… It was too damn complicated for me, and none of my players cared.

That’s why I’m going to drop the d30 table of candidates and replace the section in my player handbook with a note saying that the referee will have some character sheets prepared.

And finally, if my players don’t want to share treasure and XP with retainers, then they should buy war dogs instead. Pets are better than “normal men” with all the rules baggage.


Comments on 2017-01-07 Normal Men

I quite like your conclusions. I have been thinking for some time of printing cards with NPCs, treasure, monsters… Heroquest-style, to use at the table.

– Enzo 2017-01-11 17:30 UTC

Do it, and share it. :)

– AlexSchroeder 2017-01-12 15:46 UTC

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2016-10-21 In Defense of the Monster Manual

I’ve slowly been working on a small monster manual to go along with my Referee Style Guide. If you follow the links you’ll see that the monster manual is pretty traditional and that the art is simply whatever I can get done in two or three attempts.

Some people don’t like this kind of monster manual because they think it’s boring, and it is. Or it can be. My kind of monster manual is not a monster manual you read and marvel at the prose or the pictures. But compared to all the fancy monster manuals I have, all the blog posts about Velvet Horizon by Patrick Stuart, all of the Goblin Punch Bestiary by Arnold K, I just keep going back to the simplest monster entries in the Labyrinth Lord rule book. Why did I give away my Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and their Modern Simulacra by James Edward Raggi IV?

It’s a lot to read. It’s a lot to figure out. It’s a lot to prepare. And I don’t have time for that. Or should I say: that’s not the kind of preparation for the game that I enjoy.

Perhaps it would work in a game like Lamentations of the Flame Princess which labels itself as “fantasy/adventure/horror”. If you do encounter the monster at the end of a grueling descent into the nether world, it better not be an orc! I understand that.

But what can I say. In my sandbox game, there’s not too much of that. There’s an island of giant apes. There are mind flayers (“tentacle men”). There are hill giants (“giant shepherds on hills”) and stone giants (“giant servants of earth magic”), elves (“grey elves that settled the astral sea”), dwarves (“makers of golem armor”), and they have problems and places and it’s a bit of Planescape, Spelljammer, vanilla fantasy—what the Germans call EDO Fantasy: “Elves, Dwarves, Orcs”. My games are mostly wilderness exploration, travel, factions, also some fighting, finding treasure and getting XP, building a stronghold, expanding the domain, but not really about horror, most dungeons are small, whenever I place megadungeons in the campaign world my players explore a level or two and then they proceed to do other stuff.

That’s why the game world is full of standard monsters and their societies. But why do I need stats for these monsters? Why do I need to write up anything for these monsters?

  1. I like stats because having these things written down prevents referee fiat. I’m not boosting stats to make fights more exciting. I remain consistent over years of play. Player knowledge can be valuable. That’s what I like.
  2. Most of the descriptions I have read in existing monster manuals are either too long, or too boring, or too complicated, or not helpful (“casts spells like a 10th level cleric” – not making this any faster), or they don’t quickly suggest a reason for including the monster in my game. But that’s what I want.

Having these things written down is a bit like rolling for treasure instead of assigning it at will. I need the suspension of disbelief. I want to believe that an actual, imagined, shared, pre-existing world is out there, waiting for me. Having tables to generate treasure, having procedures to generate random encounters, having prepared locations, all of these things help. Having stats to describe monsters helps.

That’s why I’m writing a simple monster manual.

Perhaps this should be a two step process. First, you read great books and look at great pictures, then you write your monster manual for the campaign, and then you run your game, and then you just keep doing that.

But still, I can’t help but feel that the really interesting and innovative thing to do – the thing that would really set DMs free, expand their minds, empower them, and “inspire new stories at the table” – would be a Monster Manual without the stats, the banal descriptions, the leaden prose, the amusing pseudo-narratives, the prescriptions, the stats. It would have nothing in fact but art. 196 pages of pictures of monsters. Just pictures. No words, except for a short introduction: “Do what you want with this.” – noisms (2016)

Forgetting the faux-anger and hyperbole for a moment… these things really do piss on every other bestiary I’ve ever read, from great height, to the point that all these other books are goddamn useless. You’d better be a goddamn fresh-off-the-turnip-truck-never-actually-played-before GM to ever have the idea of a monster in your head already and need to look up the stats in a book. Because if in your mind you already know you want there to be a Protein Polymorph in Room 4b in the dungeon you’re making or running RIGHT NOW, you already know why you want it there and what it was supposed to be accomplishing so you don’t need the official digits at all because that’s always the least-important part of any monster. – James Edward Raggi IV (2015)


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2016-10-15 Common House Rules

Dave Baymiller presents his house rules for common situations on Google+ and asks for how we do this. Here’s what I said:

Climbing: anybody can climb without armor if there are good handholds. Otherwise, only thieves using their thieving ability (I use 1d6 with numbers similar to Hear Noise).

Disguises: anybody can disguise themselves. The particular situations he listed have never come up in my game, so no rulings. I’d probably simply use a Reaction Check. Neutral = Suspicious. Positive = They fall for it.

Interrogation: we just talk at the table for a bit, no dice rolling. If trust is required, I let them make a Reaction Check. Positive = they trust you to help them out and are ready to make deals.

Languages: the common tongue for anybody, a few basic words for elves and dwarves as per the book, an extra language per Int bonus, to be picked whenever it’s convenient. A kind of Schrödinger language slots: you don’t know which languages the character knows until you look. :)

Swimming: anybody can swim without armor. With armor, save vs. death every round or drown.

Torture: I ask the players what they want to hear. Then I say that this is exactly what their victim is saying after the maltreatment. And if they want to go into the details, I tell them I don’t want to hear about it. Ugh!

Scars: I use a Death & Dismemberment table with limb loss and one particular entry that has the loss of eyes, ears, nose, teeth… We don’t have simple scars.


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2016-10-08 Monster List

Sometimes I wonder about writing and illustrating my own monster manual. Basically for Halberds and Helmets – I don’t really need it for anything. When I run my game, I usually refer to the Labyrinth Lord monster list and if that doesn’t help, I’ll get up and get the Advanced Edition Companion (which only ever helps for a handful of creatures) from the shelf, or rarer still, the Rules Cyclopedia. By then I usually notice that I lost focus and the game is dragging, so I try to stop doing that.

What I need, I think, is my own monster list, my own illustrations, my own treasure tables, and so on. Something specific to my campaigns.

One place to start looking would be M20 Hard Core where I tried to simplify monsters and their damage is always d6 based (sometimes multiple dice).

So, looking at the Labyrinth Lord monster list…

  • Ant, Giant. Boring; who needs them? Use giant bees instead? Formians for Planescape?
  • Ape, Albino Ape, Giant. Yes please, excellent guards for hobgoblins and others.
  • Baboon, Higher. Just use more albino apes?
  • Basilisk. Definitely, an interesting solo monsters early in the game.
  • Bat. Boring. When have they ever been anything but a nuisance? And how do giant bats even fight a party in the dungeon?
  • Bear. Yes please. Remember I wrote some spells for bear magic, Ursomancy. Also, war bears used by dwarves.
  • Bee, Giant Killer. Yes please, interesting wilderness encounters and mission generators for low level parties. Maybe this can handle giant ants and giant wasps.
  • Beetle, Giant. Yes please, tough dungeon encounters for low level parties
  • Black Pudding. I don’t know, sounds more like a trap to me?
  • Blink Dog. Blinking makes for a frustrating fight and they’re lawful so most parties won’t fight them?
  • Boar. I don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps we need more halflings and dwarves riding on boars and goats. I guess we need goats, too?
  • Bugbear. Definitely. Evil sneaky bastards, yes please!
  • Camel. I don’t know. For a desert game instead of horses? Or just use horse stats instead? They seem to be a bit slower and do a bit less damage than riding horses. Using horse stats seems reasonable.
  • Carcass Creeper. Definitely. Eight paralyzingly attacks is a classic.
  • Cat, Large. Yeah, why not.
  • Centaur. I never used them, but they’re a classic.
  • Centipede, Giant. I used them countless times.
  • Chimera. I’ve never used them but I think I need Greek myth represented.
  • Cockatrice. A classic. But… It’s the same as the basilisk! “The cockatrice hight Basiliscus in Greek, and Regulus in Latin” says Bartholomaeus Anglicus [1]
  • Crab, Giant. Yes please!
  • Crocodile. Yeah. Also, useful as dinosaur stand-ins.
  • Cyclops. I like Greek myth. Then again, why not just use giants?
  • Demon Boar. Best boar ever. Maybe a general demon to fight? Actually, just one of the boar variants.
  • Doppelgänger. Classic.
  • Dragon. Classic! Sleeping dragons, surrendering dragons, spell-casting dragons, dragon age… I don’t know. Just use the dragon stats as is and you’re good.
  • Dragon Turtle. I used it once, but not as a classic monster. Talk to this mountain or die, basically…
  • Dryad. They can’t move away from their tree. I don’t know whether that makes them useful monsters?
  • Dwarf. Of course.
  • Efreeti. As I said above, yes please.
  • Elemental. As I said above, replace them all with genies. This also makes the spell conjure elemental much more interesting. The division into three kinds of elementals based on whether you used a staff, or another magic item, or a spell, is useless.
  • Elephant. I never used it. Have you? But perhaps… But does keeping the elephant mean I should also keep the camel?
  • Elf. Of course. Maybe have more of them in the wilderness? I guess in general I think I need to have numbers for patrols and settlements. A group of 2d12 elves sounds cool. No towns larger than 24 is strange… Perhaps that just needs an adjustment for my campaign. Or perhaps I’m simply wrong and 24 elves is good enough?
  • Ettin. Another classic.
  • Ferret, Giant. I don’t think I ever used it. Another riding animal for halflings and dwarves like the boards? Perhaps… Then again, who cares about the differences between giant ferrets and giant weasels? Weasels it is!
  • Fish, Giant. I never used them. Underwater adventures usually don’t involve fish in my game.
  • Fly, Giant Carnivorous. Just use giant killer bees?
  • Gargoyle. A classic.
  • Gelatinous Cube. Sounds more like a trap, if you ask me. They show up often enough in my games, but as a monster, they’re actually boring.
  • Ghoul. Classic! Elves being immune to their paralysis is weird, though. Where does that come from?
  • Giant. Yes please! I like simple hill giants shepherds, weird stone giants magic users, ferocious fire giants smiths and warriors, and classic mythic frost giants. I think cloud and storm giants are a bit lame, but cloud giants are the lamest. Also, sometimes I want norse mythology giants. How does that work? Or is any creature from 15 HD upwards practically semi-divine in D&D terms?
  • Gnoll. I don’t know where hyena men come from but now that they have arrived in my game, I like them.
  • Gnome. I like them as sillier intelligent encounters. I like my gnomes with long red hats. Does that mean I need giant badgers?
  • Goblin. I don’t know. I liked the Pathfinder goblins. But do I need goblins to be different from orcs? Maybe not.
  • Golem. Yes! But what kind of golem? I think I keep using golems stats for all kinds of artificial monsters. Looking at the Labyrinth Lord golems, I think I have no use for amber golems and I wonder about those huge bronze golems filled with molten metal. But OK, why not.
  • Gorgon. I was always confused (and not alone) about the Gorgon. Wow, I just fixed a reference on Wikipedia for Gorgon!
  • Gray Ooze. I don’t know. All these slimes and oozes. Are they interesting as monsters? I used a gray ooze as a trap. It’s always funny when I reply to a question about the environment with “the room looks super clean… as if somebody had licked it clean, in fact.” But as I said above, it feels like a trap and the exact AC and HD and all that don’t really seem to matter much.
  • Gray Worm. Is this a Dune sand worm? I don’t know. But I like worms.
  • Green Slime. Another trap.
  • Griffon Gryphon. Another mount or pet. Perhaps these need to be in a separate category. (Googling for “gryphon” gives me the right images, googling for “griffon” gives me dogs, so gryphon it is.)
  • Halfling. Yes!
  • Harpy. Another Greek classic.
  • Hawk. Useless? Is this for the one time the party gets shrunk to mouse size? Or as a pet? What about crows? Owls?
  • Hellhound. I need those for the fire giants.
  • Herd Animals. Use horses and you’re good to go.
  • Hippogriff. Another Greek classic. Or is it? The Wikipedia disagrees and mentions that the Greeks knew a similar creature named Hippalektryon. Who cares about their hunger for Pegasus meat.
  • Hobgoblin. I like well organized humanoids. Too bad they have practically no visuals to recommend them. Large goblins are orcs? Elite orcs?
  • Horse. We definitely need a list of pets and mounts.
  • Hydra. A classic.
  • Insect Swarm. An interesting fight for low level characters. But I still prefer giant bees (or wasps).
  • Invisible Stalker. There’s a spell that goes along with it and I like it.
  • Jinni. Classic! I want the other genies, too. Efreeti, Dao and Marid. But sometimes I feel that they should replace elementals entirely. Elementals are boring. Actually I only ever used air and fire genies.
  • Kobold. I like dog men. I like fairies. But little lizard people? I don’t know. So we have kobolds and lizard men, goblins and orcs, halflings and humans… It’s a bit weird.
  • Leech, Giant Giant Psychic Lamprey. Definitely!
  • Lizard, Giant. Maybe one, as a mount?
  • Lizardfolk Lizard People. Sure! I keep using them.
  • Locust, Subterranean. I never used it.
  • Lycanthrope. A classic! I usually limit myself to werewolves, though.
  • Manticore. A classic. Yes!
  • Mastodon. Perhaps if you want a stone age game? Wolf Packs and Winter Snow, for example.
  • Medusa. Greek myth classic!
  • Men Human. Do we really need the subtypes? Perhaps we need a bit more about the various groups we can encounter in the wilderness. Or this: roll 1d100×10 for size (or use the gem table?); make a reaction check without modifier: negative = bandits, raiding party, marauding mercenaries or robber knight; neutral = a community fallen on hard times, eager for cash; positive = a mill, a guest house, a trading post, a village, then apply reaction bonus and see how they react to the party.
  • Merfolk. Underwater adventures don’t need merfolk.
  • Minotaur. Greek classic. Also a good potential class for new player characters?
  • Morlock. Underground men?
  • Mule. Horse?
  • Mummy. A classic. The mummy rot is usually lame in my games, though. So perhaps we need to add some more punch to mummies?
  • Neanderthal. No stone age stuff.
  • Nixie. I like.
  • Ochre Jelly. Trap.
  • Octopus, Giant. Yes! Then again, I like the giant squid stats better and there only needs to be one creature with a lot of attacks.
  • Ogre. A classic brute.
  • Orc. My pig men!
  • Owl Bear. It’s very D&D but then again, I think bears are good enough.
  • Pegasus. More pets and mounts.
  • Phase Tiger. It’s weird. Forget about the blink dog enmity.
  • Pixie. Yes.
  • Pterodactyl. I have never used dinosaurs in my game.
  • Purple Worm. This is the near divine sand worm, perhaps? My current thinking is that HD 15 and above indicates some sort of divinity or natural force. The Labyrinth Lord entry says the worm is 100’ long or more. The Wikipedia entry says: “Sandworms grow to hundreds of meters in length, with specimens observed over 400 meters (1,312 ft) long and 40 meters (131 ft) in diameter”. I don’t know. Perhaps we should keep them but change them to sand worms. Or perhaps sand worms should be a setting specific thing and since they don’t appear in my game, I can just leave them off.
  • Rat. Who fights rats? It’s lame.
  • Rhagodessa, Giant. It’s a giant spider and it should be listed under spiders.
  • Rhinoceros. Unless we have rhino riding giants?
  • Roc. I’ve never used it and if I did, I wouldn’t have people fight them. HD 36? That’s divine levels.
  • Rot Grub. It’s a trap.
  • Rust Monster. It’s a trap.
  • Salamander. I don’t know about frost salamanders but flame salamanders show up in my games all the time.
  • Scorpion, Giant. Yes please!
  • Sea Serpent. I used a plesiosaur in a game of mine but I should have used sea serpents instead.
  • Shadow. Yes! Two dimensional beings are great and need to be used more often.
  • Shark. The only fish you need for your underwater adventure. Die, bone fish, die!
  • Shrew, Giant. More rats? No thank you.
  • Shrieker. A random encounter generator? Sounds like a trap to me.
  • Skeleton. Yes.
  • Snake. I usually just need the Giant Python, Conan style.
  • Spectre. Nazgûl. Cool!
  • Sprite. Another name for pixies?
  • Squid, Giant. It has better stats than the giant octopus. Who wants to roll 1d3 when they could be rolling 1d4 instead?
  • Statue, Animate. Is that the same as robots? As golems? I’m conflicted.
  • Stegosaurus. No dinosaurs.
  • Stirge. A classic.
  • Throghrin. Never used it.
  • Titanothere. No stone age rhinos.
  • Toad, Giant. Yes please.
  • Treant. Ents. Cool!
  • Triceratops. No dinosaurs.
  • Troglodyte. What are these, evil cave frog men?
  • Troll. My favorite. Guarding “guardians of places of transition: bridges, mountain passes, magical gates,” as Brian puts it.
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex. No dinosaurs.
  • Unicorn. As a pet or mount? OK.
  • Vampire. The best!
  • Weasel, Giant. Another pet or mount option.
  • Whale. Who fights whales? Is this a sick whaler RPG? No!
  • Wight. Yes, I want barrow wights!
  • Wolf. Absolutely. And dire wolves or worgs, too.
  • Wraith. More undead stuff, yay.
  • Wyvern. Why have small poisonous dragons when you can have real dragons?
  • Yellow Mold. Yet another trap.
  • Zombie. Yes of course.

OK, so with that I have a list of monsters to illustrate and practice my iPad pen, haha. I’ll be adding these to Google+ while I work on them and then, when I’m ready, I’ll do my monster manual.

I think I also have to add some demons and devils to this monster manual but we’ll see about that.


Comments on 2016-10-08 Monster List

Oh goody! Now we can disagree about something meaningful and important!

For me, as I mentioned on G+, what made a creature for me was the art I saw about it, or it’s excellent use in a story or movie. So for a lot of these, I can point to a particular piece of art that really made these cool to my eyes:

Elephants - I use ‘em all the time. They let the PCs know that they’re not in Kansas (or generic-replica-of-medieval-Wester-Europe-#846). Also: https://thevelvetrocket.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/frank_frazetta_the_mammoth.jpg

Ferret, Giant - mounts? Oh, hell yes! https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/d8/b2/90/d8b2909c633c966e08d9dd38d671161a.jpg

Goblins - there’s a great pic of a swarm of goblins carrying wicked-looking hammers in Alan Lee’s Castles book. (Can’t find a link, alas.) Since then, goblins have been my Underdark budget smiths, mass-producing cheap weapons for every dark wizard’s slave army. When they weren’t these guys: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/9b/3b/69/9b3b691e6db380b3316e2382bcce069b.jpg

Hawk - they make awesome pets, lending an air of aristocracy to the owner: http://s3.amazonaws.com/auteurs_production/images/film/ladyhawke/w1280/ladyhawke.jpg

Hippogriff - everyone with a pegasus mount cares about a hippogriff’s love of pegasus meat.

Hobgoblin - was always meh on these guys until I saw di Terlizzi’s take: http://diterlizzi.com/home/wp-content/gallery/games/1993_hobgoblin.jpg

Lycanthrope - I mostly limited myself to werewolves as well, until I saw this by Elmore: http://www.larryelmore.com/core/imgs/prints/DND-ENDLESSQUEST-RETURN-TO-BROOKMERE.jpg

Roc - not for fighting, but rather to pick up the PCs’ trireme and flying it across the sea. Also, epic mounts for giants.

Very much looking forward to seeing your take on the critters that made your cut. :D

Brian 2016-10-08 20:36 UTC

Oh, and almost forgot, you said, “…and I wonder about those huge bronze golems filled with molten metal.”

Have you seriously never seen this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxA3wFYxUB8

Brian 2016-10-08 20:39 UTC

Yes, sadly I have not seen a single Harryhausen movie! :)

Your links to art samples make a good point. I’m not sure the hawk needs stats but you are right about the nobility of keeping birds of prey!

Perhaps I should use more elephants… I love that mammoth (?) pic.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-10-08 21:07 UTC

Regarding ghoul paralysis, as I’ve heard it explained, a ghoul’s touch paralyzes because it is the touch of the grave. It is a psychological effect rather than physiological one. The victim of a ghoul’s touch can’t move, they see their loved ones about them mourning, they see the coffin lid close, they hear the dirt hitting the lid, they feel the worms & beetles burrowing into their flesh and no one can hear their screams. With that in mind, elves are extremely long lived, if not immortal, so the grave holds lesser fear for them than it does for more mortal races.

– Steve 2016-10-08 23:20 UTC

Oh wow, interesting! I had not heard of that before. Definitely an image I must use. :)

– Alex Schroeder 2016-10-09 07:24 UTC

Moving the entries I have into a separate Referee Guide PDF.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-10-16 11:18 UTC

Martin Kallies wrote The Monster in its natural habitat, “the most useful presentation of a monster is something that inspires encounters and adventures based around the creature” – and I agree. But then he goes on that he wants art to show “the creatures in action, in a context that suggests situations to steal for my own campaign” and I’m not so sure about that. Not only am I sadly unqualified to produce the necessary art, but I also don’t study the images carefully. I fear an action shot would provide input for a tactical setup: darkness, ledges, two dogs, snow, moon, lake side, campfire… I don’t know. Those are not the things I’m looking for. I’m looking for “these are the spells the Jinn will teach you” and “orcs will use boars to guard their villages”. I think the focus is not on the scene but on the background. I don’t care about Modron military organization, but I do care about a typical unit my party would encounter, and I’d love to hear what they might be thinking and saying. Are the bugbears willing scouts of the dark elves? Apparently they are!

– Alex Schroeder 2016-10-24 17:23 UTC

Collecting the monster manual entries on Google+ using a hash tag. My Drawing G+ Collection.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-11-10 09:29 UTC

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2016-09-13 Positioning

Recently, Brendan wrote about character roles in Roles for common adventurer jobs. Basically, players write on their character sheet, if their character always does this or that. It’s like an Instinct in Burning Wheel. The example Brendan picks is positioning. Characters can “always” be part of the Vanguard, Rearguard, a Scout, or a Torchbearer.

I like the general idea and I recently had a similar discussion at the table where a player said their character would always do this or that, and I thought of Burning Wheel’s instincts and said, that’s cool—write it down on your character sheet so that next time we won’t have to talk about it.

I’m not sure positioning requires this sort of mechanical support though. Does it lead to discussions at your table? I usually just start with assumptions: “So, it seemed like you were in the front, riding your raptor, right?” That’s when others can speak up and say that no, actually they were scouting. Or if nobody speaks up, then that’s that. Or something is going on at the front and I’ll ask, “So, was anybody guarding the back? I’m guessing the dwarf and thief and their retinue are in front by the door, right? So who’s in the back? Not the wizard? So it’s going to be your guys, Michael?” If find that this helps establish the situation, and since it is framed as a discussion, players will accept the resulting positioning more readily. They practically volunteer for this or that role, as we talk about the situation.

Thing I can’t do is “Roll for surprise, Michael, your guys are being attacked!” This will lead to players arguing that they weren’t there and all that. So I’ll ask who’s in the back, Michael agrees that it would have been his guys, and then I say, “OK, time to roll for surprise, then! One and two is bad!”

Brendan’s reply is that yes, these discussions take up a little table time because he wants to know before stuff happens – a bit like buying equipment before you know what you’ll need.

I guess I see it as a different thing because players know that they are volunteering for something bad to happen.

And I make similar decisions elsewhere: I don’t want to know about who takes which watch. I’ll roll for a random encounter, and for a random person on watch right then and there. They get to pick a friend who is up with them. So, “lazy” determination. Another example is sneaking: they only need to roll when there is somebody that can hear them. Again, “lazy” determination.

Since this doesn’t seem to hurt my immersion or suspension of disbelief, I am free to consider: is predetermination leading to an interesting trade-off? Buying and carrying equipment? Yes. Vanguard or Rearguard given that you don’t know from where the enemy will strike? Not so much.


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2016-09-01 NPC Treasure

I was wondering about non-player character treasure, on Google+. I like rolling on a table and I might say stuff like “this magic user is so powerful, I’ll just use the Vampire treasure type”. What else might I look into?

I knew about the treasure table in the Dungeon Masters Guide but I remember them resulting in a very different mix of magic items than has been common in my campaign.

So here’s my table.

Fighter, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling

This is stuff for a fighter that’s part of a non-player party, the leader of a few men. Armor appropriate to stature. This is what fighter levels usually mean in my campaign, and the bonus for the treasure table below.

Level Bonus Role
1+0guards, bandits
3+2veterans, village heroes, sergeants, squad commanders, leading ten men-at-arms
5+4town leaders, captains, company commanders, leading a unit of a hundred men-at-arms
7+6lieutenants, second-in-commands
9+8rulers of a castle, of a hex, of a tribe, barons

In the treasure table below, horses and chariots are all found only outside a dungeon, obviously.

1d6Equipment Treasure
1Poor: chain, spear 1d4×10 gold
2Solid: plate, shield, helmet, sword 1d6×10 gold
3Rich: as above plus lance, horse 1d10×10 gold
4Noble: as above plus barding 3d6×10 gold
5Loot: as above plus bow 3d6×10 gold, 1d4 gems
6Benefactor: as above but with elven sword +13d6×10 gold, 1d6 gems
7Aide: as above but with elven lance +13d6×10 gold, 2d6 gems
8Elf Friend: as above but with elven bow +13d6×10 gold, 2d6 gems, 1d4 jewelry
9Ruler: as above plus special item (see below)5d6×10 gold, 2d6 gems, 1d6 jewelry
10Lord: as above but with a set of elven arms and armor: plate +1, shield +1, matching helmet 5d6×10 gold, 3d6 gems, 1d6 jewelry
11Delver: as above but with a set of dwarven arms and armor: plate +2, shield +2, matching helmet, sword +2, and a chariot 5d6×10 gold, 3d6 gems, 2d6 jewelry
12Powerful: as above but with a flaming (+1d6 damage) sword +2 or a dwarven throwing hammer +3 if a dwarf, gauntlets of ogre power (strength 18)5d6×10 gold, 4d6 gems, 2d6 jewelry
13Higher Calling: as above but with angelic or hellish and armor: plate +3, shield +3, matching helmet, special sword of light or darkness +3 (see below)5d6×10 gold, 4d6 gems, 3d6 jewelry
14Special: as above but with a very special sword (see below)5d6×10 gold, 5d6 gems, 3d6 jewelry

Jewelry: 3d6×100 gold (average is about 1000 gold each) – rings, hair bands, crowns, bracelets, necklaces, amulets, hair needles, etc.

Gems: use the table below (average is about 200 gold each)

1–410 gold
5–950 gold
10–15100 gold
16–19500 gold
201000 gold

Special item:

1d6Special Item
1A random potion, roll 1d8: 1. diminuition (6”, 2h), 2. ferocity (double damage, 2h), 3. fly (2h), 4. healing (1d6+1, 3×), 5. invisibility, 6. love, 7. shape-changing, 8. speed (two action per round)
2A random ring, roll 1d4: 1. djinni calling (1/day, for a day), 2. fire resistance (immune to normal fire, +2 to saves, all fire damage dice -1), 3. minor creation (non-magical, portable things, 2h), 4. protection (AC +1)
3A random miscellaneous item, roll 1d4: 1. bag of holding (opens a small portal to another sphere), 2. boots of speed (double movement speed), 3. elemental summoning device (it takes 10min to perform the ritual, the element is determined by the device: bowl means water, brazier means fire, censer means air, stone means earth), 4. elven cloak (hiding 5-in-6 when not moving)
4Their weapon is special: it can glow as bright as daylight produce a dark mist like the continual light spell and its reverse, at will
5Their weapon is special: it grants them a permanent aura of authority (charisma 18)
6A horn of battle that will summon 2d4 barbarians from the next world to fight for you until killed, HD 1+1 AC 7 1d6 MV 12

Swords with a higher calling:

1+1/+3 vs. lycanthropes, forged by the high inquisitors
2+1/+3 vs. spell casters, forged in the philosopher’s war
3+1/+3 vs. undead, an angelic sword forged in heaven
4+1/+3 vs. dragons, an old elven sword forged in the dragon wars

Very special weapons:

  • Poison Dripper is a sword +3 blessed by the demon lord Set, anybody hit must save vs. poison or die
  • Frost Hell is a sword +3 blessed by the devils of an icy hell that turns into a sword +6 against any fire creatures (creatures with fire breadth or other fire damage dealing effects)
  • Hammer of Earth is a hammer +3 that will smash any structure made by man with but three blows

Add more special weapons as needed…



Use the special item table above.



Use the special item table above.


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2016-08-10 Swiss Referee Style Guide Integrated into Halberds and Helmets

I integrated my referee tips from the Swiss Referee Style Guide into my campaign rules document.

On Google+, Aaron McLin commented on my opening paragraph:

“This is not a Monty Haul campaign and not a stupid dungeon crawl.”

I always find statements critical of other games and play styles to be an immediate turn-off. Who has ever described their rewards as overly generous or a dungeon crawl they have created as “stupid?” While they don’t work for me, personally, a lot of people enjoy dungeon crawling, and sometimes, being all about the new cool gear is fun for people.

The statement strikes me as a cheap shot (and something of a straw man) designed to establish some “I’m smarter than some other gamers, so my game is better,” cred. But (and I feel that I’ve said this a million times) I’ve never met a salesperson who has sought to undermine their customer’s feelings of thoughtfulness and intelligence by attacking choices they may have made earlier - in other words, when you go to a Ford dealership, they don’t open by going on about how crappy Volkswagens are - after all, they might not know what you drove to the lot.

My reply at the time:

It seems to me that the statement made it really easy for you to know that you don’t want to play at my table. Works for me.

On a more self-critical note, I guess that in general, I’d agree with you. Putting other play style downs is lame. But here’s why I started out with those statements and links: when I tell some gamers that I’m using a version of D&D from the eighties, I have to also tell them that I’m not running the kind of game they are thinking of when they hear it. So I need a short hand for “no, not that kind of game”. After all, this is not a generic rule set, this is the document we use at my table, so I want to use the first page to tell potential players: this is what I like, this is what it is going to be about. It will not be about prestige classes, cool new gear or killing gods. Some people might enjoy that, but that’s not what they’ll find in my game. That’s why I feel justified in starting out with a value judgment. It also tells the reader: if you don’t share these values, you should read something else.

I’m still wondering about the choice of words. I have played and run sessions where the game is about moving from room to room, opening doors, finding traps and fighting monsters, but all activities happen on the simplest level where practically no thought is required.

Moving from room to room has a clear procedure:

  1. write down walking order on a piece of paper
  2. thief is checking for traps (rolls dice)

Opening doors has a clear procedure:

  1. thief listens carefully (rolls dice)
  2. thief checks whether it is locked
  3. thief opens the lock if necessary (rolls dice)
  4. alternatively, the fighter kicks in the door (rolls dice)

Finding traps is also a thoughtless process:

  1. thief checks chest for traps (rolls dice)

Fighting monsters is also thoughtless:

  1. roll for initiative (roll dice)
  2. roll attack (roll dice)
  3. roll damage (roll dice)
  4. say your armor class when targeted
  5. reduce hit-points when hit

The thoughtlessness is there because at one point we determined this to be our optimal procedure and we didn’t want to keep restating it, and there was no reason to change it. There were no trade-offs to make, no decisions to make, only the motions to go through. Thus, while I wouldn’t have called it “stupid” at the time, that’s how I see it now.

I hope that I managed to turn the game around whenever I realized that we were descending into this routine. What I’m trying to tell new players at my table is that this is not how I want to play, except I want to use a few words as possible.

Is “stupid” the right word?

Update: After some discussion on Google+ changed the intro page. Aaron McLin is right! :)


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2016-07-27 OSR and DIY D&D

Ben Milton recently asked about the difference between the OSR and DIY D&D on Google+.

OSR is about going back to the old games and exploring avenues not taken at the time. In terms of products, this meant republishing rules compatible with the old games and adventures looking like the old modules. As time went by, the OSR developed new settings, new ways of presenting setting materials, rules that where still compatible but included many house rules, or rules that were incompatible but still recognizably derived from the old rules. This latest development is what I call DIY D&D. So for me, DIY D&D is a subset of the OSR.

The market being so small, all of this was driven by very small teams of people and facilitated by POD. I’m not convinced that words such as independent and anti-establishment mean so much in this context. If a writer, two or three artists, an editor, a layout person and a publisher make a book, is it all that different from how Paizo and WotC work? Are their teams so much different? It would seem to me that their product is simply more opinionated, less designed to reach the widest audience possible. As such, I also see DIY D&D as an aesthetic movement. In way, pushing the hardest down “avenues not taken at the time”.

Zak also left a comment: “DIY D&D is a term I invented because I hate a lot of old stuff but I liked the bloggers who talked about it and their garage-rock house rules approach.”

If you’re wondering who Zak is, you might want to read his blog – or you might want to read this piece by Vanessa Veselka, The Best Monster (2014), as an introduction. I liked it very much. Zak wrote another article himself, Why I Still Love 'Dungeons & Dragons' in the Age of Video Games (2015). And then there is the older one which caused some controversy back then, a piece by Davy Rothbart, Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Porn Stars (2012).

I don’t follow Zak on G+ and he doesn’t follow me. I just read his blog and every now and then I read up on the controversies he’s embroiled in. This is the very first controversy, apparently: Default Tracy Hurley & Filamena Young Attack the D&D With Porn Stars Women Transcript, just in case you are as confused as I am by the recent resurgence of the discussion after the post of Mark Diaz Truman on Google+, Two Minutes Hate.

Curious about the post by Mark Diaz Truman? I thought it was a good read. I’m all in favor of treating people like people, not like objects of hate, in favor of some humility, recognizing the achievements of others and the failings of oneself. And I have often scratched my head, wondering what the hell I just read in a thread on G+.

Zak often comes across as aggressive. Here’s an example on a blog post of his where Brie Sheldon is quoted saying “I have been directly impacted by the bad behavior of Zak” and he jumps on that and wants to see the evidence. He also provides a link to a longer thread by Jeremie Friesen on Google+ where Zak and Tracy talk. He really wants to defend himself against any and all slights, including the thread mentioned above.

Here’s why I care: back when I ran the One Page Dungeon Contest I liked the fact that every submission had to use a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. One day Brett Bernstein contacted me and asked me whether I’d be OK with Precis Intermedia collecting the submissions in a printed volume. Of course I’m OK with it, but more than that: it doesn’t matter whether I’m OK with it. You don’t have to ask. That’s what the license is all about. No more asking for permission is key. The Book Free Culture talks about this a lot. The licenses were created to get around the need to ask for permission.

Sadly, some people didn’t understand that applying the license to their submission allowed others to do this very thing I was so happy to see. I felt I had done a good thing by insisting that the contest submissions used Creative Commons licenses but somebody else wrote a blog post calling the result a “dick move”. [1] [2] That hurts. And it keeps on hurting because the written words do not disappear. The spoken word will disappear, but the blog post will stay. Somebody is forever insulting me.

That’s why I agree with people like Zak: there needs to be more accountability online. Posting online is not like talking to friends. Posting online is like writing for the press if more than a handful of people can read it. Accountability is key. Politeness is key.

I really don’t like vague statements. I remember one of the comments in particular. Avonelle Wing says: “I’m concerned about all the voices that have serious issues with how they’ve been treated in the past who have now been silenced entirely because one person (one white man) behaved inappropriately in public in the perception of one high-visibility entity.” To me, this is an opening statement that works well in a face to face conversation, a private conversation. Are we talking about Zak? Who are “all the voices?” If we were friends and talking face to face, I could ask for clarification, we’d share the backstory I’m missing. But written words, no links to threads, no names, it’s all so vague. And yet, we’re perhaps discussing the reputation of a person. I’d be trying to defend myself against such vague insinuations and I’d like to see some evidence so that we can talk about it. The alternative is not to make such insinuations in public. I’ll go back to the thread linked above where Tracey Hurley is talking to Mandy and Zak. Is Tracey Hurley one of the people that have been silenced? I’m not friends with her, either. All I know from reading the transcript is that Zak and Mandy are vigorously defending their way of life and saying that they are not willing to take the blame for things that are wrong with capitalism and the magazine Maxim. Thus, the vague statements make it hard to know if I’m understanding what Avonelle meant. And comments are closed. And then another vague statement: “Fear of retaliation is gatekeeping, and there’s definitely gatekeeping going on that is keeping women out of publicly producing games.” What is the retaliation we are speaking about? Is it Zak angrily demanding that people provide proof when they allege his wrongdoings? Would me asking for quotes be construed as the same kind of “retaliation?”

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. I think people should own their accusations and name names and link to evidence—or take their discussions out of their public sphere. Is this “silencing?” I don’t think so. These are the consequences of sharing a public space. Your freedom ends where it impinges upon another’s.

„Das Recht ist also der Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen nach einem allgemeinen Gesetze der Freiheit zusammen vereinigt werden kann.“ [3]

Another example is a post by Sophie Lagace, Who measures progress? Good question. I’d love to see the “long-documented bad behaviours” she mentioned. And I keep wondering about “Calling out of victims.” When I read the transcript above, it seemed to me that Zak was the victim, except that he doesn’t show fear and doesn’t retreat to a safe space and instead defends his reputation vigorously, angrily. And yet his anger doesn’t get seen as appropriate. It’s weird. The entire blowback Mark is getting is weird.

After adding to this post over the days that the discussion has been unfolding, I realized that I had already said most of what I wanted to say back in 2014, Speaking in Public. Back then, I said:

What I took away from all those years on the Internet was being more careful about what I said. At first I felt like a coward. Afraid of comments on my own blog, I was.

Is this me being silenced or is this me being reasonable when speaking in public? I’m not being silenced and neither is anybody else who is rightfully criticised and challenged in public. Belonging to a group that is being silenced (their actors don’t play in big movies, their books don’t get nominated for awards, their artists are being paid less, their complaints about abuse are being ignored) does not mean that you get to say whatever. Like Tracy in that first thread up there, she definitely has the right to object to sexualized images of women playing D&D in a magazine—but she does not get immunity when challenged by the people being portrayed.

As I said back in 2014:

If I can’t stand the heat after nailing my blog posts to the church door, I’m not going to post.

Still true.


Comments on 2016-07-27 OSR and DIY D&D

Similar situation here: Alexander Cherry opens a discussion on Google+ with “So, as far as I can tell, the Old School Revolution is about demanding bad game design. Can anyone give me a counter-example?” How’s that for a terrible opening? Natalie Bennet says in a comment:

Your original statement is so non-sensical that it’s impossible to respond to it.

Clearly people who identify with the “old school revolution” don’t agree that the games that they prefer are “bad game design.” We play those games because they lead to the play experiences we prefer.

So you’re either trolling, stupid, or have a definition of concepts like “bad” and “about” that is incomprehensible to other humans.


Next time, try something like:

“Features of OSR games like X, Y, and Z thing seem like bad design. They lead to behaviors A, B, and C, which aren’t fun. But some people really like them, there are a lot of games that use them. What’s going on? Why do people want games like this?”

If you start from the assumption that people you don’t understand are basically reasonable, but have different experiences and temperaments than you, talking to them tends to go better.

And yet, at the end of the day, Zak’s doing evil shit? Alexander Cherry ends the thread:

Since Zak’s created a hostile environment in this thread, I’m disabling comments, which I should have done the previous time he did it.

But how did we end up here?

Ralph Mazza starts by defending the position that D&D is poorly designed. If there’s an argument I don’t see it. It basically seems to say that the rules are bad because he can’t use the rules without telling us what it is about the rules that prevents him from doing it.

D&D games aren’t bad design because they encourage free form. D&D games are bad design because D&D was a piss poor game in the first place. It encourages freeform, not because it was designed to encourage free form, but because that’s the only way to get the creaky thing to work at all. This is to be expected from a game that pioneered a whole new thing…the very first automobiles were also piss poor cars. We respect the achievement and put them in museums, but no one is commuting to work today in a horseless carriage.

D&D is a bad design. And OSR games that try to get the desired play experience by emulating a known bad design are thus themselves bad designs. And therefore OSR gamers who demand D&D-esque clones, are essentially demanding bad design.

Tony Tucker and Alexander Cherry then talk about combat with Tony saying:

Also, in OSR games combat is heavily discouraged. There are palpable rewards for avoiding it, and minimal rewards for engaging in it.

Zak comes in, picking up on Ralph’s idea that people need to avoid the rules in order to play the game, and picking up on Tony’s point that avoiding combat is often what the game is about, and writes the following:

Players often have snacks during D&D yet the game does nothing in the rules to encourage snacks. It is therefore poorly designed. When players are snacking they aren’t interacting with the system. Clearly, someone like Ralph should write a storygame which supports snacks so we don’t have to think up our own snacks.

I may have said it differently, but given the opening statements by Alexander Cherry and Ralph Mazza, it seems quite appropriate. And then it all goes downhill.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-08-02 13:04 UTC

People accusing Zak of being a harasser and friends of being his sock puppet accounts and whatnot because of a video game. But look! Coworkers speak out:

– Alex Schroeder 2017-02-20 07:02 UTC

Long chronology with many links by Patrick Stuart: A Timeline of the Zak Wars.

– AlexSchroeder 2017-03-08 16:44 UTC

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