Old School

Old School Renaissance This page collects the my latest posts on the topic of old school D&D gaming.

Halberds & Helmets is my house rules document.

I follow the Old School Revisited and Why OD&D line of thought presented by Sham’s Grog ’n Blog:

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

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

  1. Old School RPG Planet

2020-04-29 Dungeon maps are overrated

Remember the small dungeon generator integrated into the Hex Describe tables written by J. Alan Henning and ktrey parker?

Today I got to use one of them!

Map The map looked very simple. But the dungeon was themed for a dragon. It had big, weed-smoking, story-telling lizard people, it had stinking, small and haggard lizard people (troglodytes), and a sleeping red dragon in a cave at the end with a back entrance and a hidden crack that one of the characters discovered to take a peek at the treasure. The treasure consisted of more than 1000 platinum coins and 80 jewellery, so worth about 90,000 gold pieces!

The first room was described as a natural cavern. The second had a wooden cage. The dragon’s room was some sort of temple. The rest just flowed naturally. There was enough description to get me into the flow and I was able to improvise the ruins of the town, the cave entrance, the hidden chute forming the back entrance, the dynamics of lizard people outside being hungry but harmless (they got killed by the player characters) and the sneaky and mean troglodytes (who nearly killed the player characters).

Thus, even though I was using Just Halberds and not Halberds and Helmets, I found that the mini setting generated by Hex Describe is working exactly as intended and I love 😍 love 😍 love 😍 it.

And there is more than just the dungeon! The setting itself generates villages and towns each in the hand of a name-level character. Halberds and Helmets only goes up to level 10, so these are all rulers with 9 or 10 levels, one or two followers with 3 to 8 levels, spell-books, magic items, and so on.

When the players picked their characters at the beginning, a few of them turned to elemental magic – and as luck would have it, elemental magic users are common in the mini-settings generated by Hex Describe. So they quickly found a village ruled by an aquamancer, a village ruled by a geomancer, a village ruled by a pyromancer, but also an elf that’s into monster hunting, and others. If they want to advance, they just need to learn more spells, and in order to learn more spells, they need to befriend the magic users, go on quests and all that, and I’m basically following the Morrowind playbook: there are many powerful local lords, plus three war parties, three secret societies, ten religious groups, and various monster factions such as orc tribes. It’s easy to befriend them but they all have conflicting goals and therefore, soon you’re trying to learn a spell from the geomancer who’s trying to eliminate a secret society in a village ruled by a pyromancer who’s technically in rebellion against Duke Shire, and on and on. I love 😍 love 😍 love 😍 it. I really do! 😁


Comments on 2020-04-29 Dungeon maps are overrated

Sounds awesome. It is right to immerse the spell casters in the power maelstrom of their crafts. Then let the cards fall where they may - it’s just true that real connections (ones of importance or quality) bring potential allies and enemies.

– doublejig2 2020-04-30 20:19 UTC

Yes! 😁

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-30 20:28 UTC

Just waited to say how much I appreciate your blog. You write from such a practical standpoint about your games, that it always inspires me. The reminder about the dungeon generator came at a perfect time as I’m going to be running a mostly impromptu game of Mausritter this weekend and really needed some kind of little dungeon at hand that I could retheme for the game.

Derik 2020-05-01 12:46 UTC

Thank you so much for the kind words. 😅 I read some entries on your blog and find the tagging of partial entries fascinating. A very cool idea that lends itself to journaling about a day or an event which is going to touch on many things. If such where to happen here, I’d have to tag it “Life” or “Philosophy” (assuming I learned anything, haha) – very broad categories. I haven’t seen such a setup before. Did you write it yourself?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-01 13:14 UTC

Yes, I ended up coding my own static site generator (to build from markdown files) because all the available options were too confusing or complicated, and then added that category show/hide stuff because I was... new to the idea of not just blogging about one very specific thing (my old blog about comics). It is a bit of pain tagging paragraph by paragraph, though.

Derik 2020-05-01 19:52 UTC

Yeah, probably true. But as a reader, I find it fascinating. Start reading, find that it belongs into another context as well, do you click that other tag, do you care to read more, it’s a more interactive way of reading. There’s always that “tell me more” moment that isn’t as generic as “tell me more about RPG” but “tell me more about this story, what else was there?” Fascinating.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-01 21:23 UTC

I love maps. As Greg Stafford said "What's not to love about any non-linear presentations of information?".

The settings created by Hex Describe are pure gold. They offer plenty of content to play for years. And they do it with succinct information, inspiring without constraining. Emergent play at its best. Brilliant job, Alex.

How do you use the dungeon maps? We tried different methods. The traditional approach (give directions and describe corridors and rooms as the party explores and maps the depths) do not work for us. We preferer letting the referee draw the map as the party advances. When we played the City of the Spider Queen using D&D 3.5 I, as the referee, drew all the maps with penciled colours. The players loved it; it was gorgeous but time-consuming.

We still have to try the dungeon maps produced by Hex Describe. These days I prefer this type of smaller dungeons. We don’t have as much time to play as we had years ago. I’m still unsure of how we will use them: I don’t know if we will explore the dungeons room by room or if we will shift to a more abstract approach.

– Ludos Curator 2020-05-10 10:22 UTC

In this particular case, they killed a dragon hunter and took the map from him. I just handed them the map as-is. In describe rooms and environments, for room 1 on the map: “a big natural cave, low ceiling, alcoves and hard to see in its entirety; in the back there is a gap leading further into the darkness. Who is carrying the torch?”

I often mix relative and cardinal directions, I use qualitative terms like long, short, big, and small instead of feet.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-10 10:35 UTC

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2020-04-12 The effects of stats in simple games

If you’ve played OD&D, or Swords & Wizardry, or any of the other old school games out there, you have encountered this before, regarding monster stats: monsters have hit dice (HD); this determines how many hit they can take, on average. Each hit die is 1d6, and each damage die is also 1d6. In later games, the picture is not that simple anymore. In B/X we already notice that many fighters have a strength bonus, but monsters also use 1d8 for hit dice. For the purpose of this blog post, I don’t care about the details.

I care about this relationship: every extra HD allows a monster to survive one more hit; every extra HD also allows a monster to hit more easily; extra HD also allow a monster to better resist spells.

What does it mean to survive more hits? It means that fights take longer, or that monsters can take on more enemies. It’s not that simple because the monster is also better at hitting the opposition. Without that twist, it’d be boring: four characters hit a monster with 4 HD and it’s dead; four characters hit monster with 8 HD and it takes two rounds to kill. The difference is that the 8 HD monster probably deals more damage to the characters. Most likely it also has special abilities that make it even more dangerous. That’s why I think save or die effects are important.

The net effect is hard to predict and that’s probably what makes the game interesting.

I’m trying to apply the same kind of analysis to Just Halberds.

Characters fight monsters by rolling opposed 2d6 checks. Monsters have hits (like HD in D&D) that allow them to survive longer but more hits don’t increase their ability to deal damage. So simply adding more hits just makes fights take longer and that’s boring, unless something interesting is going to happen. That means, the monster needs more special abilities to challenge the players.

Monsters have a bonus to their roll which doesn’t just determine the likelihood of hitting a character: the margin also determines the damage dealt, and winning the opposed roll also means that the monster keeps the initiative, allowing it to use special abilities that the players cannot easily defend against.

Let’s take an example monster from the latest copy of Just Halberds:

  • medusas ♡♡♡♡, +2 with their soft voice, +3 with their petrifying snake hair

So, if the party has a strong fighter who attacks with a +3 and gets the initiative, I’d say that the medusa has to roll +0 against his terrible blows. If the medusa has the initiative, however, and the fighter hasn’t prepared for her snake hair with a mirror, then the medusa gets to attack with a +3 and the fighter has to roll +0 against her petrifying hair.

It’s interesting to compare OD&D and Just Halberds when it comes to the effect of increasing the important stat.

My problem, for the moment, is how to model really dangerous opponents. How strong is Lawin the dragon hunter and why is he interested in hiring the party to go and slay the red dragon Burning Bone of the Mountain? Hex Describe says:

  • The dragon hunter fighter Lawin (level 9) is trying to hire two score desperate peasants to go and slay Burning Bone of the Mountain (2209). “I’ll be fair: half of the treasure found for me, half to be shared amongst the other survivors.” A potion of fire resistance (deep alizarin crimson, 1h). A map of the dungeon The Deepest Prison (2209). A black plate armour of Nergal +3, inscribed with runes of fire spelling doom and despair.
  • Boss Monster: the red dragon Burning Bone of the Mountain (HD 10 AC -1 1d8/1d8/4d8 F10 MV 24 ML 10 XP 1000; fire (as much as the dragon has hp left, save vs. dragon breath for half))

I feel like the fighter is about the same level as the dragon, has about as many hit-points, can hit as easily, but only has one attack where as the dragon has three, not counting its breath weapon. The fighter, however, has a potion to protect against the breath weapon, so perhaps he just needs henchmen to soak all that brutal damage while he kills the dragon. Works for me.

But how do we create a similar dynamic using Just Halberds? Let’s check what my notes say:

  • heroes ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +2, with heavy armour and a shield
  • dragons ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 with their dragon breath

As it is, the dragon slayer is going to avoid facing the dragon’s breath due to the potion, so I’m going to assume that whatever else the dragon has, it’s going to be less powerful: he’s going to fight with +2. That means that hero and dragon are on equal footing, more or less. The dragon can simply take more damage.

Hm. 🤔

I think this means that dragons need a much bigger bonus. Who’s going to be on equal footing with a dragon? A hero being a fighter (+1), a sword-fighter (+1), with a magic weapon (+1), knowing two or three extra tricks (+3) that I haven’t detailed, right? So dragons should get +6, in order to match that, right? And if regular soldiers attack it with a mere +1, the difference of 5 on average makes sure that most of the time, one of the regular soldiers dies. And that’s just when the dragon doesn’t get to use it’s dragon breath.

That’s a pretty devastating power:

  • dragon breath ☆ burns down an entire village; anybody who cannot run must die

I guess if I were to model the killing of Smaug by Bard in Laketown (Wikipedia), I’d say that the secret knowledge imparted by the thrush nullifies the dragon’s defenses so he must roll +0 and Bard gets to roll +3 for his job as archer, his specialisation with the bow, and his special black arrow.

The dragon still has ten hits, which would require a total amount of differences of twenty! How on earth is that going to work?

Maybe in this situation, we could simulate this as requiring one blow and the previous rolls leading up to it to be positioning rolls, entrapment, false trails, lures, deception. It’s not clear to me what sort of bonus you’d use to do that, though.

@paulczege offered some interesting ideas on Mastodon:

Give monsters a “recipe” of certain kinds of attacks it takes to kill them. An ettin might take a “suprise attack” (one rolled with Dex instead of Strength) plus a “heavy strike”, but maybe a couple of successful regular attacks is enough for players to keep the initiative until they get to it. A group of goblins might take a “mook flurry”. A dragon might take a sequence of successful “overstrike” attacks (where a player rolls better than the attack by the prior player).

I guess in the case of Bard vs. Smaug I could say that the ten hits might also be due to awesome armour and actually knowing the weak spot would nullify the armour... Perhaps the dragon only has four hits when discounting the armour? That would still require a difference of eight in the opposed 2d6 roll... but at least it’s possible to pull off.

Some sort of extra “killing blow” rules might still be required. I have to think about this some more.

We could return to the OD&D +1/+3 vs. somebody magic weapons I love so much.

If Bard is using a +1/+3 vs. dragons arrow, and we’re more liberal with granting Bard special abilities, then how about this:

  • +1 for his job as archer
  • +1 for his experience as captain of a company
  • +1 for his sharp eyes
  • +1 for his hatred of Smaug
  • +3 for using a +1/+3 vs. dragons black arrow

That’s a +7 attack vs. a dragon’s absolute weak spot, where the dragon has to roll +0. A difference of 7 would be worth at least four damage plus special effects. If the dragon only has 4 hits without his dragon armour, then it could work...

But wow. So much special casing. I guess that explains why it’s a feat worthy of being told.

And that also tells me that epic fights will go up into the +7 bonuses to the rolls and that epic armour will add up to six hits, and that I can use OD&D magic armour and weapon bonuses as-is.


Comments on 2020-04-12 The effects of stats in simple games

Really enjoying your work on just halberds. Recent stuff I’ve been reading that’s rules light: 1) Silent Titans (based off Into the Odd, see also Into the Dungeon: Revived.) 2) Trophy Gold (recent Kickstarter, very interesting approach to streamlining adventure module design) 3) Searchers of the Unknown (probably most closely aligned with 2d6 ethos)

starmonkey 2020-04-13 10:35 UTC

Hm, the copy of Searchers of the Unknown is from 2009, collected with many variants in this collection from 2012. Is that the one you were looking at? As far as I know it uses regular D&D dice: 1d20 to hit and all that.

I have Silent Titans but wasn’t too impressed. Maybe I should take another look and focus on the rules for a bit.

Tells me more about Trophy Gold – or post a link?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 13:22 UTC

Trophy Gold (there are 2 variants, the Gold one is the most relevant)

Silent Titans: Initially I was turned off for similar reasons you mentioned. What I’ve now found from reading it, spending time thinking about it, has revealed something very playable in my mind, a fire has been lit in my brain. I want to run this thing.

Regarding Searchers, I wasn’t referring to the mechanics, more the stripped back mechanics (apologies, I was not clear about that!)

starmonkey 2020-04-13 13:45 UTC

Thank you for the link. I’ll give Silent Titans another look. As for minimal d20 systems – I was a big M20 fan back in 2008. Good times! Sadly my players wanted to switch to D&D 3.5! 😅

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 16:55 UTC

The initiative rules are very cool - a blend of DW and more traditional D&D.

I really like that since combat is an opposed roll, the defender can damage the attacker, and then take the initiative.

Q1) How do you stop one player from continually nominating themselves to go next? How do you share that around? I’m assuming the PCs should nominate another PC to “go next”?

Q2) For ranged combat against someone without a ranged weapon, what happens if the defender rolls better than the attacker?

Starmonkey 2020-04-14 05:24 UTC

Good questions!

As for nominations, we’ve basically settled on “nominate someone else”. I also think that this is something that would self regulate. People do the right thing without needing a rule and sometimes that means that the player with a non-combat character never gets nominated in a fight! But then monsters will like attacking the non-combat character so every now and then they still get to roll.

As for ranged combat, on the occasions this happened, players fired ranged weapons until they lost initiative at which point the monsters either fled or closed in and their counter is actually their melee attack that their finally manage to pull off. You might have to spin a tale of slow giants throwing trees, or one failed roll standing in for many volleys of arrows in which the giant was able to approach, and so on. There is a slightly awkward moment when players counter with: “but we really wanted to keep our distance!” To that I say, “Yes, but the giant also really wanted to corner you and so he pursued you and now your standing with your back to the cliff and there’s no easy way out and he is swinging his club...”

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-14 06:05 UTC

Yeah, my instinct is to interpret the defenders win as movement. So the PC attempts to shoot the Tiger and fails, the result being the Tiger has charged the PC and now has initiative on the next roll. The Tiger doesn’t cause damage in the first failed roll, but it’s poised to do so in the second.

starmonkey 2020-04-15 02:55 UTC

Hah. I would have had the tiger deal damage on that roll.

I did not expect to see a tiger attack page on Wikipedia...

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-15 06:24 UTC

“Measures to prevent tiger attacks” – Tiger scarecrows!

starmonkey 2020-04-16 14:05 UTC

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2020-04-11 Save or Die

Recently somebody asked about hit-points on Reddit:

What’s a good point to cap HP to maintain the “survival horror” feel of the OSR?

My Halberds & Helmets house rules only go up to level ten but that’s because we never got to level ten! So how much is the cap in my games? 10×5.5 is 55 for a fighter or dwarf with a constitution of 13–15, I guess? Rarely more? Often less?

But I think the actual answer to the question is this: use monsters with save or die attacks.

Yes. Do it.

At some point, the game changes and hit-points are a secondary resource. Now you’re regularly beating all the damage dealing foes. The next challenge is beating poisonous and level-draining foes, petrifying foes, foes that can use devastating spells against the party. In my games this transition happens around level 5 because parties regularly consist of fifteen or more characters including henchmen, war dogs, and so on.

I’d say the game will change again at higher levels: once you’re always well prepared, and can deal with medusas, basilisks, spectres, and so on, the time has come for politics and little armies, facing a hundred orcs at the same time. That starts happening around level 7 in my games as the party itself is now equipped with spells or magic items that petrify, disintegrate or otherwise destroy their foes.

Anway. Save or die. It’s good for your campaign. 😀


Comments on 2020-04-11 Save or Die

Reasonable words. Just words.

– doublejig2 2020-04-12 03:08 UTC

Lovely short analysis, summary, and invite.

Save or die. It’s good for the campaign.

– doublejig2 2020-04-12 03:08 UTC

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2020-04-03 S.M.A.R.T. RPG and King Arthur Pendragon

I got a very nice voice mail by the Goblin Henchman in response to my latest Halberds and Helmets Podcast episode on Just Halberds, my simple 2d6 game. It talked about their own simple 1d6 game, the S.M.A.R.T. RPG. It basically boils everything down to the AD&D surprise system, of all things. I recommend reading up on it. 🙂

Characters have five attributes in the range of 1–6 and you roll 1d6: rolling your number or lower is a success, and the measure of your success is how high you rolled. Thus, trying to make an attack with an attribute at 1, you only succeed ⅙ of the time and if you do, you only do 1 point of damage (⅙×1=⅙ on average). With an attribute of 3, you succeed ½ of the time and if you do, you do 1–3 points of damage (½×1½=¾ on average).

It’s an interesting system and reminded me of the King Arthur Pendragon (KAP) system where skill tests are rolled on a d20 using the same idea: roll as close but still lower than your skill to succeed, roll your skill exactly for a critical success, and if you’re in a contest, both contestants make a skill check and you have to pass, and beat your opponent with the same roll. Thus, one person having a skill of 10 doesn’t just get a success on 1–10, their max result in a contest is also a 10. What I didn’t like about this is that it’s possible for both contestants to fail. What does that mean? Do you just roll again?

The really nice part about KAP is when you apply it to traits. All traits come in pairs that add up to twenty. So, if you’re chaste 12, then you’re lustful 8. If you try to be chaste, roll a d20 and try to get a 12 or lower. If you roll higher, your character automatically has to test for the opposite, even if you as their player don’t want that: characters have autonomy! So once you failed the chastity test, you need to make a lustful test: roll a d20 and now you try to roll higher than 8 because rolling an 8 or lower means your character succeeds at being lustful even though you wanted them to be chaste. Only if you fail both rolls does the player get to decide again.

It’s weird, and it’s interesting, and it makes players feels like their characters have a life of their own, and I like that. I don’t like the “fail twice and it’s up to the player to make a free choice again” aspect, though. I think I’d much prefer it if failing at being chaste automatically meant being lustful.

Related: 2013-08-05 Character talks about unbalanced Pendragon characters having to Roll whether their player likes it or not.


Comments on 2020-04-03 S.M.A.R.T. RPG and King Arthur Pendragon

Hi Alex

I’ve update my S.M.A.R.T. RPG rule system to fit onto one page.

If that is of interest, it can be downloaded from here: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/310367/SMART-RPG


Goblin's Henchman 2020-04-20 09:09 UTC

Excellent. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-20 11:05 UTC

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2020-02-07 Transparency at the table

Yesterday, @hardcorenarrativist posted a link to Good Faith and RPGs by @paulbeakley.

I find these ideas have shown up in my games as well ever since I moved away from D&D 3.5 and the play style I upheld back then. When I decided to no longer play „rules as written“ and read about making rulings at the table, together with the players, about rolling in the open, asking players for flashbacks and ideas – I slowly started to realize that I didn’t need rules to protect me from people I didn’t want to game with anyway. Rules don’t substitute for social skills. And I think my game got better for it.

As for the players… I ended the campaign which I didn’t enjoy and started new campaigns that had less rules than D&D 3.5 back then, no more character building, and with that I lost all but two players; but I found new players and I’m still happy, so you might say that I agree with the self-selection element mentioned by Paul Beakley: if you remove the things you don’t like and are honest about the things you do like, like-minded individuals will show up at the table (eventually).

I don’t know much about other people’s games, and I currently have just have one game going where I run a B/X derived D&D, but I’m also a player a 5E game where DM Peter rolls in the open and we often discuss the direction the campaign is taking, our character goals, what we like as players, and so on. Neither Peter nor I fudge rolls, nor do we change encounters during the session or play mind reading games with our players.

I can’t imagine playing in a confrontational game. I am reminded of a one shot where we were trapped in some sort of magical field being hunted by an undead creature and we spent the whole session running and trying this or that and when we finally decided that this was stupid and let the undead creature reach us our characters died. And then the referee was incredulous: “Why did you do that‽” Too bad I wasn’t as immersed in role-playing games back then or I would have told him that his game was shit. Or preferably, much earlier: “Uh, I don’t really know what we’re doing here. Can we move on from this scene? It’s frustrating.”

Anyway, today I saw Noisms’ post, Transparent DMing. I like the structure of the post and would like to go through the same points, explaining how I run my games.

I roll all dice in the open. I don’t explicitly tell my players what I’m rolling for but it’s always obvious: random encounters, surprise, initiative, attacks, damage. Players roll reaction rolls.

I use a screen. I used to think that it was useless but when I was a player in DM Florian’s game, I noticed that I as a player did not enjoy noticing when he was making things up and when he was looking them up. I preferred the illusion of him having everything prepared, of us exploring an existing imaginary landscape. I think I would still suspect with a screen, eventually, and when I run my games I try absolutely to have all the things prepared, but there will always be times when the players push into unprepared territory and I personally want to maintain the illusion up to the end of the session (and will prepare appropriately for the next session). So yes, I use a screen.

I don’t give players narrative control. I never ask them where monsters are going or what the backstory of the current location is. I’m with Simon, who commented on Noisms entry and said: “I fear that would harm player immersion by pulling them out of actor-stance and into author-stance.”

I am happy to ask their advice when making rulings. Yes! Absolutely. I’ve written about rulings before and called it “a short negotiation.” It’s short because I make a proposal of how to resolve the situation, make a pause so that players can interject alternatives, or that we may all moan at the suffering in store for us today, and then we move on. I often make a ruling and add a simple “I’d say that’s fair, what do you think?” That’s the implied invitation to propose a different ruling.

I am generally unwilling to retcon. I might reconsider when somebody loses a beloved character and we all forgot about something important that would have saved them, but generally speaking, with my approach to rulings I find that when the dice fall and bad stuff happens, we all agreed to it, explicitly or at least tacitly by not speaking up. On the contrary, I feel that it is bad form to complain about rulings once consequences have manifested. Take the setbacks and move on, I say. Enjoy the experience of defeat. I know that I like to risk my characters or have them fail catastrophically after a while. I’m not saying I want this to happen all the time. But occasionally, I want to know what defeat feels like.

I never change the result of a roll or fudge. I commiserate our fate, the random encounters, the terrible odds – but it is what it is.


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2020-01-31 My tropical campaign

Trying to answer How's your campaign?

How many sessions have you been playing, more or less? 54 sessions.

How long have you been running this campaign? It started January 2017, so three years. Then again, where do you draw the line? We keep playing in the same world, in the same timeline, so in theory we could go back and visit our old characters as NPCs. If that counts as “the same campaign” then there is a continuous chain going back to 2008 for my game: The Alder King game started as a D&D 3.5 game, had another campaign in the same area using Solar System, then switched to Labyrinth Lord and moved further south with Fünf Winde, and then we moved even more south to Rasiermesserküste, using Halberds & Helmets.

Have you had long breaks? If so, how did you pick it up again? I didn’t have long breaks.

How many people are at the table when you play? I aim for 3–6 players and me. More is better but 7 or 8 players and me is too much, both because I lack the space and because I like more interaction.

How many characters are in the party when you play? Every player plays one main character and one to four henchmen or pets, so we regularly have 15–20 characters or pets in the party. Pets have ranged from wolves and war dogs to velociraptors, giant lizards, and froglings. Currently it’s war dogs, froglings, and giant lizards.

How many players have you had in total over that time period, not counting guest appearances? We have six now and I’ve lost two and gained two, so a total of eight players.

Have you had guest appearances? How did it go? Did you gain regular players that way? Not in this campaign. Those who have joined for a guest game in the past never stayed, as far as I remember.

What have the character levels been over time? In these three years characters have started at level 1 and have now reached levels 4–5.

What classes did the players pick? Did you add new classes over time? We have an elf, four dwarves, a halfling, two magic-users, two thieves, four fighters, and a frogling.

Tell me about some adventures you ran over that time that I might enjoy hearing about? We stopped the were-shark invasion using cannons filled with silver-coin shrapnel... The corrupt captain of the fort guarding the city felt a lot like a Godfather and I enjoyed playing him.

Have the rule changes over that time? Do you maintain a house-rules document? Halberds and Helmets has changed very little in recent years.

Has the setting changed over time? I keep adding new hexes to the region we’re playing in, and the rulers of the big city have been changed, but other than that, not much. The natives are about to rise up and bring the fight to the city and the players still think there can be peace between the colonisers and the natives. I’m not convinced...

How much in-game distance did the party cover, how big is the area they have visited? About a dozen hexes. They are not contiguous because the party has occasional access to giant flying whales (on nights of the new moon) and a giant magical turtle (near big bodies of water).

Have you used proprietary setting books? Like, could you publish your campaign or would you be in trouble if you did? The first few sessions were based on a book from a Paizo Adventure Path; the big town and the were-sharks was based on the Razorcoast; the travel from a devastated town upriver to a broken dam was based on the Deep Carbon Observatory; I’m using more and more hexes from Hex Describe, however.


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2020-01-31 How's your campaign?

Have you been running your campaign for a while? I have some questions!

  1. How many sessions have you been playing, more or less?
  2. How long have you been running this campaign?
  3. Have you had long breaks? If so, how did you pick it up again?
  4. How many people are at the table when you play?
  5. How many characters are in the party when you play?
  6. How many players have you had in total over that time period, not counting guest appearances?
  7. Have you had guest appearances? How did it go? Did you gain regular players that way?
  8. What have the character levels been over time?
  9. What classes did the players pick? Did you add new classes over time?
  10. Tell me about some adventures you ran over that time that I might enjoy hearing about?
  11. Have the rule changes over that time? Do you maintain a house-rules document?
  12. Has the setting changed over time?¹
  13. How much in-game distance did the party cover, how big is the area they have visited?
  14. Have you used proprietary setting books? Like, could you publish your campaign or would you be in trouble if you did?

¹ Have you added cultures or regions after years of play because you read a good book? Have your players toppled governments, resettled people, or made other large scale changes to the setting – without that being the end of the campaign?


Comments on 2020-01-31 How's your campaign?

I blogged about it!

Anonymous 2020-01-31 02:34 UTC


@linkskywalker also posted about it: players and rules, setting

I also blogged about it. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-31 17:12 UTC

Hey Alex, these are great questions! My answers.

Nice to think about the game over the long-term like this. Thanks!

acodispo 2020-02-01 02:03 UTC

I love the idea of starting every campaign with the same few locations and having it develop in different ways, and still carrying over things like non-player characters and town features.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-01 07:43 UTC

I blogged about it, too. This D&D 3.5 campaign is just about to turn 10, and the PCs are almost all freshly level 20, having started at 1 (most of them, anyway).

George Dorn 2020-02-01 11:50 UTC

I also have fond memories of Red Hand of Doom and have reused parts of it in later campaigns.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-01 12:24 UTC

I've blogged about it.

Martin O 2020-02-01 17:12 UTC

Oh wow, that Grudlow is badass, and using an announcement, and strategy notes on bits of folded paper in the middle of the table, brilliant!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-02

Yep, I wrote something, too. It’s up on my blog.

Wanderer Bill 2020-02-01 20:24 UTC

Haha, I love the idea of using punks! As for LBB and Chainmail: Does mixing them work well? And how did you handle the one elf in your campaign, do you find the rules regarding elves to make sense or not?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-02

I took a stab, too.

deadtreenoshelter 2020-02-08 03:17 UTC

Darkest Dungeon was too depressing for me!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-08 07:54 UTC

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2020-01-26 Collaborating on a setting

Wanderer Bill is wondering about a free and open source setting for role playing games.

Things I like about the idea:

  • collaborating means mutual inspiration
  • local geography, climate, weather, flora, fauna, culture, spirits, religious beliefs, and on and on
  • lots of non-player characters

But there are some major road blocks, I suspect. I use Hex Describe to generate mini-settings of 300 hexes each and I love the output. Sure, the maps could always use more details. But that would be a great framework, I think. If we all write entries on random tables, chances are that we are not going to need a lot of coordinating.

As I was cooperating with ktrey parker and J. Alan Henning, I noticed a problem: when it came to details, I felt often at odds. Like in all common creative endeavours that the products of our imagination, with no borders holding is back, no gravity holding us down, we’re starting to drift. Do we need a table of random trees? How can we make them relevant at the table? What about fifty landmarks that don’t quite fit the tone of how I imagined it to be? Somebody has to say that this is good and this needs editing, somebody needs to say that this level of details is useful and that level of detail is useless. Somebody has to say that these encounters are lame and those encounters are cool. It’s not easy. It needs a delicate hand, a charming voice.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about this in the C4 chapter of Social Architecture by Pieter Hintjens. The part I want to focus on is optimistic merging which is programmer-talk for “accepting contributions without being 100% certain about them.” I tried hard to do this with Hex Describe. If this is going to be a collaborative project, then I need to be flexible. I’m going to add a circus even though I wasn’t too sure whether I wanted a circus. I’m going to add smiths selling little trinkets for weird prices even though I don’t know whether this is useful at the table. And then I’ll try to make these ideas my own. I want to love every part of this project. It’s not always easy, but that’s what I want from it. That’s what I’ll want from a setting we all work on.

Back to Wanderer Bill’s blog post, though. I guess I’m not quite the person to join such a project.

  1. I don’t like system neutral. I’d much prefer something like a B/X baseline. Maybe I’m silly, but to me it still makes a huge difference.
  2. I don’t think we need a common timeline. In that, I feel like most people in the old days didn’t actually know anything about the real timeline. The past was weird and full of myth. The people who had read the ancient books were spread all over the continent. There was no sense of history and I don’t think a setting needs it unless it’s key to some adventures. I don’t think that is required. I’ll concede that it’s good to agree on some common elements that existed in the past. For Hex Describe, for example, there’s often talk of “wight kingdoms”, a number of named wars, and so on. How long ago all this happened, doesn’t make a difference.
  3. A common spacial map: yes! That’s the part I like. Or do I? I think what I actually prefer is more mapping algorithms for Text Mapper and then I could just tell people to generate more stuff using the app. And every now and then people can pick a map and the results of all the random tables and polish it, make a beautiful PDF gazetteer and sell it on DriveThruRPG. Why not? Some people started working on it in 2019.

So... Yes, I’m interested – but my ideas are probably incompatible and I fear that most people have wildly differing views. I know that Gygaxian Democracy style community events have generated interested mini-settings in the past but I doubt that I would feel comfortable without a strong editing culture. Brainstorming is cool, but not enough.

I wonder where I would take it, if I were to try and orchestrate something... I guess I still think random tables would be more interesting than working on just a single document. Thus, I’d like to collaborate on extending Hex Describe. We could start with a fresh list of terrains. Start working on villages and towns; monster lairs; vistas (to pick something I saw in a post by Jens D. on the Disoriented Ranger blog: The Map is not the Territory - Part 4), and so on.

Or we could start smaller: maybe you just want to make frogling lairs more interesting. Or add badger people. Where would they live? How would we describe their lairs? What would they make? Who would they associate with? What could players learn by talking to them? And slowly the tables would grow and grow.

This way, the setting grows from the bottom up. The text is always focused on the information the referee needs when running the game. And thus, there is a map, there are non-player characters, monsters, treasure, factions, maps of buildings or dungeons, pictures of people and descriptions vistas, but there is no timeline, to high-level political description, no essays on the various cultures: just the actual people, their actual villages, the actual foods they are preparing, the dances they are performing. The essay you might have wanted to write has turned into random tables generating an endless plethora of material for play.

I guess I want there to be something like Yoon-Suin for a gazillion landscapes and cultures.


Comments on 2020-01-26 Collaborating on a setting

Now I’m reading The formless wilderness by Melan, following a link from The Map is not the Territory - Part 1 by Jens D. This is going to be a long night, I can tell.

The Map is not the Territory - Part 2 by Jens D. makes some interesting points.

The first one is considering the utility of a map for players:

“... imagine yourself in the middle of a forest without a map. What are your options, what is it you can do to get around, etc., etc. ... Now imagine yourself with a map. What would change? What is it you can do now? How does the map relate to what is surrounding you? Your options change, but not as much as one would actually think. As a matter of fact, if you don’t know where you are or how to work a map, it might end up being useless to have a map, right? And now imagine the players having a map without the characters having one ... that’s the discrepancy I’m talking about.” – Jens D.

The second one is considering the normative influence maps have on our imagination.

The first example given is that a map implicitly also defines all there is. Once you have a map, you can look at it and find this and that and the other. But you cannot find the things that aren’t on the map. In fact, it gets harder to think of the things not on the map if you have a map. This is true for both players and referees.

The second example given is that a map implicitly structures our imagination. If we create maps that are easy to map (like the maps created by @gridmapper) then the dungeons will be easy to map. When you compare this with actual underground locations, real caverns, real tunnels that were dug by people and grew over time, then you’ll notice how hopelessly artificial it all is.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I like maps.

In terms of designing a setting, I guess I’d like there to be a bunch of local maps and no clear way of getting from one place to another. Like, Hannibal moves from Carthage to Rome via Spain, France and Switzerland. The movie doesn’t show us how he moves on the map. The movie would show us the Spanish landscape, the Pyrenees, the French landscape, the crossing of the Rhône river, the Alps, the Po river, and on and on. We could have a setting map in Catalonia, one in the Alps, one in the Italian plains, and so on.

Everything else is white space, a gap, a lacuna, the unknown. Our vision of the land would be fragmentary, and we’d keep it that way. Any larger maps would simply be in-game guesswork.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-26

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2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

Hex Describe sometimes generates “dungeons” or “lairs” that basically consist of multiple “rooms” or “zones” with residents. On the first screenshot you can see how I stuck a Set temple description into my notebook. It consists of the following zones:

  • the gate of snakes with 26 snake people and two giant lizards
  • the central temple without any monsters
  • quarters with 23 snake people and one giant lizard
  • the lair of the spirit naga

I feel this more or less linear arrangement has about the complexity of the Thulsa Doom dungeon in the Conan movie.

The question is: does adding a map help the referee run the game?

I just spent some time drawing a map. It doesn’t add too much complexity, I feel. Giant lizards are kept in stables and have extra gates... that’s it, I guess?

I’m not convinced that these kinds of dungeons need elaborate maps. They need a short key that delivers the necessary punch.

Image 1 for 2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

Image 2 for 2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?


Comments on 2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

There was a reply over on The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms. I said:

I agree about the multiple exits. Furniture? It depends. Would one kitchen improvisation really differ from another? Many details only need mapping if their spacial arrangement is important for the game and non-trivial to improvise. But that gets me into another problem: at the end of the day I’m going to use words to describe the rooms to my players and if I can’t put it into words on the screen then chances are I won’t be able to it into words at the table. That’s why I’m drifting towards ever simpler layouts.

Some of the thoughts I had regarding maps were due to me wondering what I should add to the Gridmapper bot – do I really need to add pillars and chests and beds and tables and shelves? It would look nicer for sure. But would it be more useful?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-25 11:44 UTC

I think I agree with your assertion that for simple layouts maps are unnecessary. In my experience, even with more complicated layouts, it’s easier to run off a flow-chart diagram than an actual map.

Beyond necessity though, I find maps to be one of the pleasurable pieces of the D&D experience (like the act of rolling physical dice). Not necessary per se, but part of the fun. I like looking at maps just like I like looking at pictures of monsters.

I think where maps add the most, is when they are player facing. You can convey a fair amount of flavor with a well drawn map. Plus, it gives players something to focus on, and, at least for my players, really speeds up the adjudication of where everyone is relative to everything else.

deadtreenoshelter 2020-01-25 19:22 UTC

Yes! Absolutely, maps as artefacts for players to have and to hold!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-25 21:57 UTC

A lot of my maps these days are more scribbles and flowchart like. Whatever their quality, my player groups have generally found maps, even of simple situations, to be of use. Good text and word pictures are useful, and help, and may be enough sometimes, but I’ve never found a good diagram (which is often all a map is, really) to be surplus to requirements.

– Alistair 2020-01-26 13:23 UTC

Yes, I agree. If the map is basically a flow-chart that provides information that you can’t achieve by using a bunch of bold words in a text, then it’s definitely not superfluous.

I think my point still stands regarding room geometries. Back in 2017 I wrote a blog post about dungeon mapping and I said: “If I can’t communicate it at the table in a reasonable amount of time, it’s a waste of time.”

I also quoted Noisms who made the following point in Elementary Principles of Dungeon Drawing: “Snazzy weird shapes and arrangements of rooms look good on paper but in my experience are really hard to explain at the table without ending up with the DM doing lots of drawing, which defeats the purpose of having players do the mapping.”

Once we drop mapping the details, I agree that maps can be useful.

Back in the same year I also wrote about the purpose of a map and focused on wilderness maps. It can’t really be reduced to a pithy point. I end the post with a list of questions:

  • Are the distances important in my game?
  • Is the terrain important in your game?
  • Are rivers and mountain ranges important obstacles?
  • Are the locations mines, pastures, or forests important assets?
  • Is the distribution of settlements important in terms of politics?
  • Is there an opportunity to get lost, take risky short cuts, claim unsettled terrain?

I guess I just want people to make a conscious choice regarding the mapping they do. Not everybody needs to draw maps like Dyson Logos or Paratime Design. Not everybody needs to draw the kinds of maps you see on the Cartographers’ Guild.

I guess when I draw beautiful maps, it’s just to entertain myself. It’s something I do to get into the mood as I prep for an upcoming game. It gets me in the right head space. But I doubt that it is useful beyond that.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-26 15:23 UTC

I’m seconding the head space aspect of maps. I like to doodle on maps to get my creativity going. So I can’t “extract” much meaning from randomly generated maps. Simple and gameable information which I can easily work into my own maps get my vote.

– Freddy W 2020-01-28 12:37 UTC

Talysman writes To Map or Not.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-03-20 11:22 UTC

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2020-01-21 Blog finds

Ten art treasures I liked: Unique Treasures by Ezra Bloom.

To be honest though I just roll 3d6x100 for jewelry and adlib something about earrings, necklaces, cultures, gems and what not. Works well enough for a handful of items but not for dozens – but in that case I fear players wouldn’t care either.

Many weird swords that you can replace your +1 swords with, from the DW Discord: 42 magic swords.

A series of blog posts by Frylock starting with this one talking about copyright and stat block copyright and Wizards of the Coast and D&D.

A fantastic map I found via the links on the Thought Eater Humpday summary of blog post. Beautiful! I don’t think I need yet another map to run a campaign, but even I don’t need it, it’s beautiful. So beautiful!

Under Gallax Hall - Level 3 - Old Gallax Hall. Gridmapper is still getting used! That makes me so happy.


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