Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Fizzle

"House of Cards" by Indenture is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

About 2 months ago I started a new campaign. I was ambitious, I created a fairly open called Ær. The concept was that the player characters are agents of a kingdom built on a chain of floating islands. I borrowed much of the geography and basic concepts from the kingdom of Floating Ar in Mystara after the cataclysm in the Wrath of the Immortals and then mutated it until it was functionally unrecognizable.

The players are a group of young people who have won a lottery and been given a chance to psychically bond with wyvern (think Dragon Riders of Pern). Those that make the bond become members of a knightly order dedicated to furthering the kingdom's needs. They fight the terrible floating pterosaurs that prey on the region, explore a mainland overrun by lovecraftian horrors, chart the islands that their homeland passes over, and run diplomatic envoys to known kingdoms that were not overrun by the eldritch things.

While I started the campaign using index card RPG for 2E, I was inspired by Stephen Smith to build a custom B/X game for it. This included creating a class of ace dragon riders as an option, replacing clerics with alchemists that were talented surgeons, and importing the pact magic system from Lucas Rolim's Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy RPG to give me a magic system consistent with the idea of someone who forms psychic bonds. Clerics exotic and foreign type of magician unavailable for play, and Magic-Users as members of the ruling elite were not permitted to bond with Wyverns (That's work for people who are expendable.) 

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Requiem for Lieres: Loving Character Death In D&D

Lieres drawn in Hero Forge & colourized
W/ Adobe Photoshop. Used in accordance
w/ The Hero Forge EULA. 

Setting the Scene

Last week while playing Low Fantasy Gaming with the world of weird crew, tragedy struck my thief, Lieres. He was attacked by a trio of grave rats: long, serpentine creatures with heads like a mole rat, and several sets of tentacles instead of legs. They wrapped themselves around his legs and began biting.

While the party mage managed to pull one off, and our dwarf crossbow-woman was able to severely wound another, I rolled a terrible fumble. Lieres, already rapidly running out of hit points, ran a sword through his own thigh. Given the rules we use for death and dismemberment that will leave him with a permanent limp. He fell unconscious.

Then, as he fell his lantern fell and broke, spilling flaming oil in a pool around him. The mage had to spend the round putting the fires out to keep him from burning to death. And while crossbow bolts were sailing overhead, the last remaining grave rat started tearing at his throat.

Friday, November 27, 2020

How D&D Was Engineered Away from Old-School Play.

"Steampunk Door" by Prettysleepy on Pixabay

Back around 2004 - 2006 I was highly active in the official Dungeons & Dragons forums. (I used the username goon-for-hire, if any of you remember.)  One of the things that was very clear at that time was that Wizards of the Coast was constantly seeking more information about how the game was being played. We saw an endless series of surveys, questions from official staff, and outreach to try and get a handle on who was doing what with the game. And we could frequently see adjustments to the game appearing with every manual that showed they took the surveys to hear. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. 

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Ed. and 3.5 had been something of an experiment. Third edition was an attempt to unify the game's mechanics; to make everything fit on a d20 roll. it was also an attempt to make D&D work a little more like it's popular competitors, which at that time were games that were heavy on story, like Vampire: the Masquerade.

Changes to Game Rules

This led to a number of rules being sidelined or modified heavily I've covered a few of them in my previous articles:

  • NPC attitudes retain some of the form that they had held in B/X and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but there was no random generation of reactions for NPCs. the DM was entirely expected to figure that out for himself, and to give players opportunities to make dice rolls to change it. 
  • Monster morale was entirely stricken from the game, and the dungeon master was expected to decide when bad guys ran with little to no guidance. 
  • Wandering monster tables were the emphasized, as was randomness in general. 

The Dungeon Master was expected to be in control of far more of the narrative. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Lost Mechanics: Dominion-Level Play

"The Silver Warrior" by Frank Frazetta
Public Domain Image

I think one of the most interesting mechanics that have beans discarded in newer games is Dominion level play. In Dungeons & Dragons this was an option given to the players when they hit 9th level: they could choose to give up on their wandering lifestyle and become a leader within a community.

In early editions of Dungeons & Dragons this was an option granted two-player characters when they hit 9th level. They had to choose between becoming landed character or a wanderer. Becoming a landed character grants them a permanent residence, number of followers, and some sort of position of power. The specifics were dependant upon character class.


Fighters were given the option to move to the frontiers of the land in which they live to establish a new stronghold. Thiss involved clearing land of monsters & dangers, raising the funds to build a fortress, then defending his new holdings untilnthey are cleared and setyled. Once that was accomplished, the Fighter would have a small force of men-at-arms to command. They may also choose to be a part of the system of peerage of the realm with status and privileges. Alternately they can petition to become the ruler of an existing land with no ruler, but must complete a quest to gain the blessing of the local ruler.


Clerics were given the option to creating an Abbey stronghold. If they are in good standing with their clerical order, the order will donate a portion of the cost of establishing the stronghold  and be assigned several lower-level clerics to aid them.

Magic Users

Magic-users were given two options.  The simpler of the two would be to become a court magician "Magist" of a loxal lord. The character is rewarded with a stipend of several thousand gold and several low-level magic-user apprentices.

The more complex option is to capture of built a stronghold (referred to as a "tower"), following the same rules as a fighter's keep. They don't generally become a peer of the land, but are treated as a law unto themselves. They both gain apprentices, and If they build a dungeon, attract monsters to it (These do not necessarily serve the wizard.)


Thieves do not need to settle new lands. Instead they can establish a hideout in a dungeon, cave, or fortified house. They get a few apprentice thieves to help them with day-to-day operations, and give the PC a cut in return for training. A Thief can petition for official recognition of their hideout as a guild hall by the Thieves' Guild and be granted the title "guildmaster" to earn some perks. 


Demihumans of 9th level all have essentially identical paths to dominion-level play. The establish a stronghold like a fighter, with a little variant flavour anc bring a chunk of their clan out to expand, making them a Clanmaster. If they served their community, their elders might front a chunk of the cost. As with all classes, they get a bunch of low-level followers of the same class to serve them.

This systems for dealing with dominion-level characters were somewhat different between BECMI and AD&D. 

The rules beyond that I have outlined above we're fairly scant. AD&D had few mechanics for building a castle or dungeon beyond pricing for common structural parts, and discussion of the cost of the various laborers needed to make creating a dominion happen. There wasn't a lot of other information available. And there was a hidden assumption that it would not bring the player character significant treasure, but essentially be a self-sustaining thing that happens in the background.

The Companion box included dominion rules for BECMI that were far more detailed. Not only does it cover the necessary process for clearing and settling a land, and the cost of building a castle and paying the laborers to do so, but it had mechanics for attracting people to your community.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Lost Mechanics NPC Reactions

Another lost mechanic that I find very valuable is the NPC Reaction Table. I have discussed this in detail in my article on social combat, but I wanted to cover it again in the context of my current project.

NPC reaction tables are a 2d6 mechanic in Dungeons & Dragons, which appear to be the base DNA for the entire Powered by the Apocalypse Engine. Depending on the roll, on NPC can be outight hostile, unfriendly and wishing to be left alone indifferent, mildly friendly and open to persuasion, or downright helpful.

This roll, along with the distance from an NPC and determining who is surprised, were the three things you did at the beginning of every encounter, although any of those things might be pre-scripted for many encounters.

For any reaction other than hostile or friendly, the player characters had a chance to make a good first impression. Their actions in that round could add a bonus to another roll on the next round. If a character with a high Charisma took the lead, their charisma modifier could be added to the roll as well.

If you did not have a pre-scripted reason why a creature might attack, it was actually most likely that it would not act first, but rather be threatening or cautious when the player characters arrived. It was just as likely combat would start because the player characters initiated it as not.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Game Review: Low Fantasy Gaming

Game Review: Low Fantasy Gaming

Author: Stephen J. Grodzick
Publisher: Pickpocket Press
Engine: OSR / d20 Hybrid

I've been playing Low Fantasy Gaming for more than two months now with a group of other developers, and I figured it was high time that I reviewed it.

Low Fantasy Gaming (LFG for short) is a game derived from Dungeons & Dragons that is designed to emulate the gritty swashbuckling weird fiction of authors like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Magic is meant to be rare any mysterious, while action is meant to be fast, furious, and evocative.

The game mixes strong elements of OSR games, particularly AD&D, with D&D3.5 and even a few D&D 5e mechanics and a dash of OSR community hacks to keep play moving swiftly and evoke Appendix-N-style swashbuckling action

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Lost Mechanics: Morale

One of the things I would like to do this month as I discuss my latest adventure design is to cover rules subsystems that are common in early role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but have fallen by the wayside. The first of these is morale.

Morale was a subsystem to help you measure the flagging courage and will to fight of belligerents in combat or social conflict in Dungeons & Dragons. It used to have analogs in several other systems as well, but was one of the first subsystems to start disappearing as TTRPGs underwent a paradigm shift in the early 90s..

As it appeared in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, morale was a system with two parts. One was a measure of the baseline courage of the encountered creatures, and the other was a matter of knowing when to roll morale checks.

The measure of the creatures morale varied with each edition of the game. It started in chainmail as a 2d6 system. In the Basic line of Dungeons & Dragons products it used a D12. In AD&D it was a percentile system. And in A&D2e it was a d20. By default, most creatures had a slightly above median rating. So, creatures and basic had a six, creatures in Advanced had a 55.

Some creatures had much more and some much less. Simple animals tended to have a lower morale. Undead and constructs tended to have a morale that was very high.

The real trick about morale was when to roll it. there was a list of circumstances which varied a small amount from addition to addition they covered when morale should be rolled. And it varied whether the player characters were facing a group or single monster. For a single monster first blood and dropping down to half hit points were common markers. For groups losing their leader, losing their first member, and then losing half their number all triggered morale checks.