Monday, August 31, 2020

OSR "Social Combat" System

"Dramatist" by Open-Clipart-Vectors
 from Pixabay

My games often include a lot of courtly intrigue and non-combat situations where words, manner, and standing matter deeply. I have developed a tool based on a mix of OSR NPC Reactions and ICRPG Core 2e mechanics to create a method for resolving complex and nuanced social interactions that I thought it useful to share.

Why Even Have Them?

I'm actually quite leery of social mechanics in role-playing games. I prefer games that are light on rules and where the GM adjudicates based on the described actions and acting of the players. This rule set is designed to favour in character acting, rather then to encourage players to ask if they can "roll diplomacy" to solve their problems.

So why not just throw them out entirely? Two reasons:

Facilitating Emergent Experience

In a good role playing game, the dungeon master is a surprised by what unfolds as the player characters. The DM should get to have an adventure, too. This is why many editions of Dungeons and Dragons have random weather tables, random encounter tables, random adventure generators, Etc. It allows a dungeon master who is willing to think on their feet to be as surprised as the players by the game that is unfolding.

Moves like this for social mechanics already existed in osr games. Morale, loyalty, and NPC reactions all were mechanics to allow the Dungeon Master to randomly determine how creatures were going to act, rather than have to adjudicate it. It can be quite a surprise and challenge to find that the orcs in room 23 of the dungeon are friendly.

Simulating Social Nuance

Appearance, cleanliness, body language, fashion, eye contact, vocal tonality, and timing are all things that cannot be stimulated play-acting at a table or on a webcam. Yes, all of these things have a huge influence on the outcome of a social interaction. Especially with people that a PC has not had a great deal of contact with before.

Having some kind of resolution system for handling whether or not a character is persuasive, such as whether a lie is detected, or whether their impassioned speech is truly moving may not be easy to estimate without some kind of mechanic to help.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Why Not Use Simple Persuasion Rolls?

After the introduction of bards in AD&D2E, there has been a progressive moved towards replacing described character action with single roll mechanics. This serves the function of handing power over to the engine, and reducing the amount of DM Fiat in the game.

I prefer game that relies heavily on rulings, and not rules, because it allows a faster playing game with a higher amount of trust and creativity brought the table. Hanging a player's roll on a single Diplomacy or Charisma (Persuasion) doesn't reward nor encourage immersion, in-character play-acting or make lengthy "social scenes" very rewarding.

This system turns Social Interaction into a mirror of OSR Combat. And, like good OSR combat is designed to reward player creativity.

Step 1.: Determine NPC Reaction

I use the BECMI variant of NPC and monster reaction rolls. I reproduce a streamlined version of them in several of my modules. Here is the version Face of the Temptress:

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Check out Black Dragon Games' DM Screen

Ian Slater over a Black Dragon Games and Dweller of the Forbidden City has shared a great DIY project that I wanted to give a signal boost:

He took a number of the DM Screen templates you can find on as well as some classic fantasy art and turned them into these very attractive DM screens. Six of them with different material on the back based on what he needs for a given phase of play:

Monday, August 24, 2020

How to Play Dungeons and Dragons with Zero Cost

Note: This Article is a little bit of a departure from my usual fare: it starts off assuming you are coming back to the hobby after quite a few years, or are absolutely new. Most of my articles are aimed at people already playing these games. I am hoping that it will help open doors into Old School Renaissance gaming for more people.

Dungeons & Dragons is, to my mind, one of the most enjoyable hobbies in the world. And it is one that is better for everyone who comes to the table with an open mind and an active imagination. Right now it is more popular than it has ever been. The 5th edition of D&D is a wild success. The current Player's Handbook has outsold almost every other D&D book combined in the 40 years before.

Cover to the D&D5e Player's Handbook;
©2014, Wizards of the Coast
I like the 5th edition just fine, but there is a pretty steep price of entry. A set of Dice and the Player's Handbook  will run about $80. And if you are buying the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master's Guide to get the full toolkit, getting the latest edition to play with the family will run you $200... or more if you are buying some pre-published adventures.

But it does nit have to be this expensive: If you want to dip your toes in, there is an excellent free demo and an affordable Starter Set.

The free Basic Rules are  a fairly self-contained game, although, I find that players will quickly outgrow them. They can also get more using the openly available 5th edition System Reference Document, which includes many more of the rules from expansions, although it is tedious to navigate. The books mostly provide you with a clear and easy-to-use way to access 5 the game.

5th edition is not the only version of Dungeons and Dragons available, either!

If you want to try your hand at D&D, or you are coming back into the hobby after years away, almost all of the older editions are available for free if you know where to look, thanks to something called the Open Game License and a movement that came out of it called the Old School Renaissance.

What is the Open Game License?

Cover to the D&D3e Player's Handbook;
©1999, Wizards of the Coast
The Open Game License or OGL was released when Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was released in 2000. It opened the rules of D&D3e to the public to use for anyone wishing to create content.

The conditions of the OGL are extremely straightforward. You may write your own game, rules, and adventures that will work with D&D3e with only a few conditions. Mostly,  you are required to include a copy of the license in your document, and you are not to claim it is a "Dungeons & Dragons" product, nor are you to use the names of certain places, characters, and particular creatures that are considered signature IP to Dungeons & Dragons (called "product identity"). There are also rules about including excessive sexuality or describing the leveling up process in some versions of the license.

Wizards of the Coast believed that the OGL could usher in a renaissance for table top games by opening up a free, universal game system for anyone to use, and at the same time make Dungeons & Dragons the heart of the TTRPG hobby again. And they were not wrong; for awhile D&D3e was the center of the role-playing game world, with hundreds of small companies and indie publishers building on the D&D3e skeleton.

What is the Old-School Renaissance?

Cover to OSRIC 2nd Ed.,
by Hugh Vogt; ©2008, Hugh Vogt
From the time Open Game License was released until about 2007, the role-playing game  hobby had an explosion of creativity. Adventures and content for D&D3e, as well as new games built on its engine proliferated. But, the limitations of the system were becoming very apparent to many players. D&D3e's engine was slow and clunky in play. It rewarded players that mastered rules, and punished players who weren't interested in perfecting builds. There was less sense of risk and reward for facing danger in the game. There was a strong movement towards going back to earlier editions of the game either for inspiration, or as an alternative to playing "modern role playing games." This movement called itself the Old-School Renaissance.

In 2006 Matt Finch published OSRIC as a test of how far one could go with the OGL. OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) was a complete collection of the rules for the 1978 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. While not a derivative of third edition, the language of the OGL suggested a reproduction of the rules for an older version of D&D was permitted. When Wizards of the Coast chose not to challenge it, it created a legal safe harbour for anyone who wanted to create and share a clone an older edition of D&D or a game based on it.

This created an explosion of other passionate developers who created either extremely faithful, or slightly modernized "retroclones" of older editions of D&D. And like OSRIC almost all of these retroclones are available online for free.

But, Isn't a New Edition Better?

One of the assumptions people tend to make about role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons is that newer editions are improvements on older editions. This is often not the case. In D&D there have actually been about 18 versions of the game (not all were numbered). Often, the new editions or versions are released as a marketing strategy. Every edition between the original 1974 D&D and AD&D2e which ran until 1999 were basically the same set of rules with some additions or subtractions. You could grab an adventure written for the Holmes version of Basic D&D and play it in AD&D2e without any difficulty. 3rd edition was the first to buck this trend by not being fully backwards compatible with earlier editions.

Whether you will enjoy a modern D&D game like 5th edition, or going back to the early rulesets is mostly a matter of what you want in a row Dungeons & Dragons experience. Because I have limited time as a father of small children , I have moved to retroclones: they play the faster and are easier to prepare for.

If you want to pick up Dungeons and Dragons, finding the right retroclone might be the perfect option for you. Especially as many of them have eliminated or streamlined the rules that give the older editions a reputation as hard to learn.

The Retroclone Round-Up

There are tons of freely available Dungeons and Dragons retrocolones, and games that have evolved from retroclones out there to explore. It would be impossible to cover them all. But I will cover some of the most popular free and nearly free options to help you find what is right for you.

OSRIC - OSRIC from Matt Finch and Stuart Marshall is the granddaddy of the D&D retroclones. It is a faithful recreation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), the version of the game released in 1978. AD&D added a lot of optional rules to D&D, including characters up to 20th level, separate race and class choices for characters, and much more complex rules for initiative. It also included a range of optional rules to handle things common to D&D, like characters drinking too much or gambling. OSRIC takes the meat of AD&D, while leaving a handful of the optional rules by the wayside. It's not the best organized game ever, and has added none of the modern conveniences. On the other hand, you can take any D&D product made between 1974 and 1999 and run it instantly without any fuss. It is also a good go-to for OSR game designers for the same reason. Get OSRIC here.

Labyrinth Lord - Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games came out almost at the same time as OSRIC. It is a clone of the Basic and Expert Dungeons and dragons (BD&D or B/X) BD&D was created in 1979 as a way to make a simpler, more accessible form of Dungeons and Dragons for younger players. It is simpler than AD&D, with fewer character options. Characters only advance 14 levels, and magic, monsters, and treasure are pared down to lower-powered play. Like OSRIC, it is a pretty faithful copy of the version it is copying... no modern conveniences here. The free version of Labyrinth Lord has no art in the manual. Labyrinth Lord is available here.They also have an Advanced Edition that adds back in many of the options from AD&D.

Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game - Was released just after Labyrinth Lord, and the two were developed in parallel. Unlike Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy is an attempt to make a hybrid of the D&D3e engine and the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rules sets that were all part of the Basic D&D line. (BD&D or BECMI). Basic Fantasy follows a lot of BD&D's conventions, but it uses modern conveniences like a 20-level limit (rather than the BECMI 36), simplified math for attacking and defending characters, and a pound-per-item weight scale... all of which make the game much easier to learn. Basic Fantasy has a huge community that produces a lot of free expansions and adventures. You can download Basic Fantasy here, or you can buy a hard-copy of the game from amazon sold at cost (around $5 USD).

Swords and Wizardry - Swords and Wizardry from Frog God Games reproduces the original Dungeons and Dragons game from 1974. This version of the game uses slightly different dice and mechanics than the later Basic and Advanced lines did. It is as simple as D&D gets, but lacks many of the options that later editions of the game had to offer. It does organize the rules in a much easier to read package. Get Swords and Wizardry here.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Lamentations of the Flame Princess from the company of the same name is a dark, gritty re-imagining of BD&D. It trades out some of the more obnoxious rules from BD&D for modern replacements that are easier to learn, such as replacing the Thief with a simpler and more customizable "Specialist." What really sets LotFP apart is its quality and its aesthetic. Books written for LotFP are usually premium books with top-notch art and design and innovative play ideas. They are also designed to make things strange and

exciting even for low-level characters. Adventures for Lamentations are also often bleak, full of death metal influences, body-horror, dark sexual themes, and Lovecraftian nightmares. It is also very well-organized and easy to read. A free version of LotFP, without art, is available here.

For Gold and Glory - For Gold and Glory by God Emperor Games is a faithful re-creation of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Second Edition (AD&D2e). There are not many clones of AD&D2e, despite it being the longest-running edition of Dungeons and Dragons; mostly because it offered very little new to the D&D franchise. AD&D2e was Bowlderized of controversial art and themes to make it family friendly, included a Bard Character, and a modified system for initiative and leveling up. For those who preferred those minor changes, however, For Gold and Glory is a faithful re-creation. Download it here.

Old School Essentials - Old School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome is another B/X clone like Labyrinth Lord and LotFP. What sets it aside is organization. OSE has applied information science and the best practices in book design to make a game that is easy to read, understand, and reference. OSE is currently the gold standard for retroclones. There is a free version of the rules that is pared down to include only human characters, the three lowest levels of spells, and no monsters.

This is far from an exhaustive list of freely available D&D clones. There are many others that are designed for particular kinds of play or genres of stories. I may do another roundup in the future of a few of those.

What About Dice?

So, you've grabbed a retroclone and have some scratch paper of an open file for taking notes, and it has cost you nothing. What about dice? They can be expensive!

True, but you hardly need them. Go type Roll 1d20 into a Google Search in your web browser. Google has a secret Dungeons and Dragons dice rolling app built into the search engine. 

If you want something more substantial, there are numerous free dice rolling apps for a smartphone. I personally recommend Purple Sorcerer's Crawler's Companion app. It is designed specifically for Dungeon Crawl Classics, (which is a very good retroclone that is, sadly, not free,) but the dice roller part itself is just that: a very stylish dice rolling program good for any game.

Special Thanks 

This article is much richer thanks to the information provided to me by Gregg Lauer. Thank you, Gregg!

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Adventure: A Windmill Full of Corpses

Nobody in Manechea likes the Mill, or the Miller.

To them, the windmill it is just another excuse for the baron to put his hand in their pockets. The miller is a strange outsider with sad eyes who barely speaks...

Nobody noticed at first when he stopped coming around. No one was there to help him when an alien horror crept out of the nearby caves. It wasn't until a villager went to have some flour ground and found that the mill had been strung with human bones and corpses that they knew something was amiss.

Now the townsfolk believe that Karrick the miller has become a homicidal maniac, killing wanderers and turning his mill into an abominable shrine. The truth is far worse...

A Windmill Full of Corpses is a new Old-School adventure written using OSRIC. It will work with any OSR-compatible role-playing game.

This is an adventure for 3-4 characters levelled 3-6. 

  • It uses a 5-Room Dungeon format.
  • Printable on A4 in pamphlet format.
  • Includes both ThAC0 and d20-style attack bonuses.
  • Includes both ascending and descending AC. 
  • Includes both percentile and d12 Morale values.
  • Features an update of a classic Old-School monster: the Decapus.
  • And a new variant: Decapus Spawn.

Now available on DrivethruRPG!

Friday, August 21, 2020

Comeliness Doesn't Work as a Separate Trait from Charisma

Cover, Unearthed Arcana, ©1981 TSR
I've had Comeliness come up in conversations a few times lately, and I wanted to give a take on it that not a lot of folks in the D&D community will.

For those of you who missed Comeliness (COM), it was a seventh ability score added to AD&D in Unearthed Arcana, and then republished in Oriental Adventures shortly thereafter. It was a stat meant to evaluate the physical beauty and attractiveness of a character. In the OA version, evil creatures that loathed all things divine and beautiful often had negative COM, and responded to good creatures as if their COM was inverted.

COM disappeared after the initial experiment with it. It never made a showing in BD&D and was left entirely out of AD&D2e (excepting a few odd showings in Polyhedron). It made a brief appearance in the infamous 3rd party D&D3e sourcebook The Valar Project: Book of Erotic Fantasy, but was pretty roundly rejected by the D&D community of the time.

There were two lines of reasoning for this division:

1. In many mythologies, beauty and divinity are interlinked. Creating a stat where we could play with the idwa of monsters repelled by beauty and that revel in the hideous, filthy, and unclean had an appeal.

2. The ideological belief that "beauty is only skin deep, and it is what's inside that counts" that was a driving part of the 1980s zeitgeist encouraged the devs at TSR at the time to divide the two in Dungeons and Dragons at the time. COM and CHA as divided stats allowed AD&D to make Charisma exclusively about influence, leadership, and presence.

I am going to leave the first point alone; it was a mechanical nightmare to execute, and tying whether a creature used regular or inverted Comeliness based on the two-axis alignment misses a lot of nuance about the mythologies that inspired it.

The second point is far more interesting to unpack. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Adventure: The Mind Mills

 Wizardry is a lonely profession.

Its no wonder that when, after a long exchange of letters, when a charming and gifted young diviner invites a few reputable magic-users to visit him for long chats, cheerful fellowship games, and fine brandy. No magical lore will be given or asked.

This is how Kobol the Visionary lures his victims. The chats are pleasant, the fellowship cheerful, and the brandy spiked with a powerful toxin. Once the poison takes hold, it drags the joyous mind of the mage off to the Astral Plane, where hypnosis and ESP lets Kobol turn them into vessels to scour the planes... and die in the name of his quest for eldritch lore.

But he has recently taken the wrong victim, and the PCs are hot on his trail... but can they survive his defenses?

The Mind Mills is lovecraftian a five room dungeon designed for 2-4 players levelled 3-5 in any OSR compatible role-playing game.

  • Made using OSRIC and the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopaedia.
  • Makes no references to material that cannot be found in a B/X based system.
  • Includes both ascending and descending AC.
  • Includes d20-style attack bonuses and ThAC0.
  • Designed to lead into my adventure Into the Wizard's Hookah.
  • Potential recurring villain.
  • Includes four unique magic items.
  • And an original monster.
  • Designed to be printed as a pamphlet on A4 paper.

Now available as Pay-what-you-want on DrivethruRPG!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

How I Build My Pamphlet OSR Adventures

 Over the last month, I have put out a trio of pamphlet adventures as a way to test the waters in publishing on DrivethruRPG. I wanted to quickly go over my process for other who might want to do the same.

Into the Wizard's Hookah

Love Nest of the Barbarix

The Mind Mills

Plan It Out

The first step is to have at least a rough idea of what I want to create. This is why I use my weird emoji-laden notation system. Any way of sketching it out will do, however. In this case, we have to keep things compact. Using the Five Room Dungeon format is probably your best bet, given the constraints of two pages divided into three collumns.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Resource Spotlight: How to Make Cool TTRPG Pamphlets

Cover Panel, "How to Make Cool
 TTRPG Pamphlets "
CC-BY Lantern's Faun Press

How to Make Cool TTRPG Pamphlets is a free pamphlet by Guilherme Gontijo available on Guilherme himself is a wizard at graphic design and layout and a notable part of the amazing indie RPG culture we are seeing out of Brazil right now.. He is the reason Pacts and Blades is so pretty.

The pamphlet is short, but contains a lot of hints on spacing, placing images, compressing your ideas. It also contains links to a downloadable template by Bruno Prosaiko usable with Word or Google Docs that serves as a starting point for writing a pamphlet.

It also has addresses to several curated collections of public domain art that can be added to your work.

This was the jumping-off point for me into creating my short 5-Room Dungeons: Into the Wizard's HookahLove-Nest of the Barbarix, and the upcoming The Mind Mills.

"The Mind Mills" is built using almost entirely tools and resources
from How to Make Cool TTRPG Pamphlets. Coming soon!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Game Review: Cha'alt Fuscia Malaise

 Game Review: Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise

"Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise " cover art by
Monstark, ©2020 Kort'thalis Publishing
 Venger As'nas Satanis
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
System: Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 Revised

Note: I recieved a complimentary copy of Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise from Venger Satanis in return for an unbiased review. It is also my fourth review of a Kort'thalis product.

Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is the second in a planned Trilogy of books in the Gonzo science fantasy setting Cha'alt.  It is such a shortly after the events in the original Cha'alt, and things are getting even more lethal as an alien Mega-corporation, Elysium, has taken over the spice fracking operations on the planet, and stealing the planet's dwindling moisture as well. The Sk'bah desert is becoming progressively more lethal as the ecosystem collapses.

The setting has evolved in several ways. Aside from the spice fracking operations being taken over by Elysium, they have converted a huge amount of their labour force to addicts using a drug called fuchsia malaise, which leaves them perpetually bouncing between jonesing and strung out... perfect for slave labour. Meanwhile, magic has gone wild, and a nightmarish Lovecraftian thing has begun roaming the skies, de-populating whole settlements.  And the zoth that sustains life on the planet is neatly gone...

...all in all, Venger Satanis has stepped up the already impressive complexity and challenge in Cha'alt to a whole new level. If your players are looking for a game where they feel like they are winning against impossible odds, Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is an excellent choice. The setting is gritty, lethal, and bizarre all at once.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Temptress got an Upgrade

I had the rare fortune of being reviewed and recommended by Bryce Lynch over at Specifically, he was looking at The Face of the Temptress.

He liked my innovative approach to possession and cursed items in "Temptress." And that was a good feeling.

On the other hand, he felt my approach to realizing my idea was "weak." He had three complaints.
  • He found that my rules were scattered and disorganized; they required too much page flipping.
  • I didn't provide guidance besides a comment in my Afterword about changing the theme.
  • He felt that Bassanta and her gifts were an uninteresting choice of villain and gifts. They, in his estimation amounted to a theme of "pretty girl."
As you may have gathered from my reviews, nothing makes me more impressed than a writer who takes criticism in stride and uses it to make their game better. So now its my turn. 

If I am going to talk the talk, I had better damn well be ready to walk the walk.

So I took two days to rework Temptress to try to address the criticisms.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Game Review: Cha'alt

Game Review Cha'alt

"Cha'alt" cover art by Monstark,
©2019 Kort'thalis
: Venger As'nas Satanis
Publisher : Kort'thalis Publishing
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
System: Crimson Dragon Slayer d20
Note : This is the third in a set of four rapid-fire reviews of Kort'thalis books, as I went on a binge.

Cha'alt is a campaign setting book by Venger Satanis that details a dying post-apocalyptic world in the same universe as The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence and Alpha Blue. And like those titles, Cha'alt has a humorous, satirical tone more densely-packed with geeky pop culture references than the average episode of The Simpsons.

And like the rest of Venger Satanis' "Gonzo", Heavy Metal inspired creations, it is often designed to appeal to the reader's inner twelve-year-old boy, from the edgy sexuality to the over-the-top violence.  A sense of humour is required.