Thursday, December 31, 2020

Maps, Conceptual VS. Technical

When I was a kid first learning to play Dungeons & Dragons out of the Mentzer boxed set, I didn't have much access to supporting materials. I lived out in the boondocks with the nearest city an hour's drive away. Going out to get magazines, let alone modules was pretty much out of the question. And I was the only kid in my school that wanted to play. (I learned from a friend in another town on the other side of the county that I saw three or four times a year.) 

My first exposure to D&D was this the two adventures out of the Red Box Player's handbook, which I played over and over dozens of times. I ran other interested kids through the second sample dungeon to learn the game as well.  And here's the thing about these adventures : the map is nonexistent for one and totally optional for another. There was no tactical play or positioning in either. Combat is totally abstract and Theater of the Mind. 

In effect my early experience of D&D played more like a Fighting Fantasy or Choose Your Own Adventure book... Which were my favorite pass times in those days. And that is how I ended up playing them with my would-be players (I ran numerous other kids through those adventures. The maps were next to useless) . 

The Dungeon Master's Rulebook included a sample group adventure... A follow up dungeon with a map and a pre-stocked 1st floor, but it relied on the new DM to stock the lower floor and plan the floors below it. Now, I mapped out a bunch of dungeons using the cool mapping tools they suggested... But as my play was totally Theater of the Mind, I found the precise details pretty unhelpful. 

The lackluster presentation of that adventure, and the randomness of the stocking method suggested (these days called the "Barrowmaze method" ) also suggested to me that pre-written adventures wouldn't have much to offer other than a map. Not being able to get them anyway, I just decided I would home-brew my own material and be done with it. 

The mix of TotM play, only having the Basic Set to work with, and total isolation from the rest of D&D culture meant that my formative years of play went swiftly towards a theatrical, low-prep, and rules-loose style of game. By the time I got a stable group together that wanted to play regularly, I found that a dungeon map could easily be replaced by a flowchart for 90% of my play needs. 

While my style of play became more technical as I graduated into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, my use of maps was pretty scattershot at best.  What I needed was just a guide to the way the locations and encounters interconnect. And by the time I had moved into Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, I was working with players who actively disliked crawling through dungeons in favour of sweeping sea battles, adventures outdoors, and courtly intrigue. I stopped using maps altogether.

(During this time I was playing more RIFTS and Shadowrun than D&D, in general. ) 

So yeah... I basically play a game that could be called "... & Dragons" 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

On the Shape and Origins of New School Play

So, my last blog entry on how economics, not ideology is going to shape the future of Dungeons & Dragons led to a lot of thoughtful conversations, and people had tons of questions for me that warranted at least another article, so I wanted to dig a little deeper.

I intend here to be descriptive. And I will start with the caveat that New and Old-School gaming are not a binary position, but more of a spectrum.

I am personally comfortable running games for players of either stripe... Within limits. I have strong boundaries about using my game to work out someone else's issues and I don't tolerate Prima Donnas or characters that do not work with the group. I tend far more strongly towards the Old School

However, I do believe that right now there is a strong cultural shift towards the New-School, Frankly, Dungeons & Dragons does a piss-poor job of meeting the  goals on New-School players. They tend to get more satisfaction out of games built with story in mind, like FATE Core or Apocalypse World... If they are aware that these options exist. 

What Are We Talking About? 

New-School Gaming is a style of engagement in RPGs that leads to very different play. At its heart, it is about how you conceive of your character.

Old School

For most gamers before the recent boom, the Player-Characters were seen as playing pieces first. While more complex than a pawn in chess, it serves that same purpose first. It is the thing you manipulate to play the game. In this case it has a number of moving, interconnected parts, expressed as numbers, that are used to engage with subsystems in the game. That includes the subsystems of dramatic play-acting to resolve social encounters, and the subsystem of in-character decision making.

The Player Character in this conception is fungible; it can die and be replaced at a moment's notice. The game itself is structured to make keeping a piece in play difficult, and rewards players who solve problems creatively and play with skill by making the piece better over time. 

(This is an irony of early D&D: you gain levels and the statistical improvements that come with them when you prove you don't need them. ) 

Attachment to a PC is usually a result of playing it through several adventures successfully. The character's "story" emerges as you play, and character personality and quirks evolve during play as a way of playing with flair. 

New School

New School gamers instead see thir characters as a form of self-expression. They are investing a part of themselves into their character, either playing an idealized form of self, or a vessel for some sort of fantasy.,. They become deeply invested in and proprietary over their characters. 

The goal of a player of a New-School game isn't to play a game about burgling  lost treasure from monsters; it is to play out a story that let's them live out a fantasy of being a better version of themselves. 

Players in New-School groups can often seem to have a love affair with their player characters. They invest significant resources into custom character miniatures ($70 after shipping or paint), commissioned character portraits ($60 for a headshot, $100+ for full body art), home-designed character sheets ($15), and build advice (a few bucks), and in some cases custom character option material from the DM's Guild to let them build the exact character they want ($2-5).  all told, building a new character for a new school Dungeons & Dragons player with all of the fashionable accessories can run a player anywhere from $40 tip a few hundred.

Between the emotional and financial investment, it's no wonder they hold their characters to be sacrosanct. And are making significant demands on how Dungeons & Dragons works to accommodate their play style. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Critters are the Future of D&D

One of the most popular sports in the OSR recently has been speculating what Dungeons & Dragons 6th edition will look like. It's always an interesting exercise, but I often find that many of the OSR types miss a couple of key points when they're having their discussion. So, I'm going to make some suggestions about how 6th edition will look, but more importantly, I'm going to suggest that the people who will be the engines of D&D's change will be very different from what people expect.

I do not believe that the OSR leans particularly right, whatever my buddy Venger might say . It tends to be a very centrist movement  But, one thing remains true of it: most of the people in it remember the Satanic Panic pretty well. And Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal fandom used to come hand in hand. That means that almost every older member of the OSR knows full well that censorius members of the government and watchdog groups that claim to protect children from bad influences usually don't know what the fuck they're talking about. They tend to run on vapid, unexamined and dogmatic ideologies that they hardly understand. 

Given this experience, it's pretty understandable that the OSR is suspicious of Critical Race Theory Intersectionality, and Third Wave Feminism. They are often used as a bludgeon to justify things that they don't rationally justify, and anyone who actually has done some serious reading from the original progressive sources (like I have) realizes that the dominant voices in the discourse right now barely understand the ideology that they are touting. And that much of their vision of the world is deeply flawed. 

Accordingly, the OSR tends to have a lot of concern about the influence of woke scolds and crybullies especially from the twitterati on Dungeons & Dragons. And, the unfortunately homogenizing options presented in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything seems to confirm their worries. It's moving towards a D&D singularity where every character is essentially the same: a furry, battle-ready spellcaster that can do almost everything that has little or no flavor beyond the eight-page backstory that its players bring to the table. However, I think that speculating what sixth edition will look like based on "Tasha's Hideous Cauldron" and assuming it will be particularly woke misses the mark. It isn't the scolds that will shape the future of Dungeons & Dragons, it's the Critters.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Virtue of Being Stingy with Information

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay 

Fellow game developer and World of Weirth campaign member Haven Mirabella had an interesting question on Twitter the other day she wanted to push her players to join one or the other faction in her Pathfinder 2e campaign. Their choice will significantly shape whether they are working for the forces of good or evil. She wanted to know how she could help make sure the players made an informed choice.

She got a lot of solid advice on lines of letting the players sit down and talk to the leaders of factions, giving them time to collect gossip and fallow up on rumours, or going on short adventures for each faction you get a feel for what they would be doing working with them.

All in all, the Twitter peanut gallery gave lots of suggestions about how to give the players time and help them use that time to make their decision. I was a sole dissenting voice (though no less a part of the peanut gallery) . If anything, I argued, they should neither get time nor much information to make this decision. Instead, it was time to turn up the pressure.

To me, giving them all that time to make a decision will be what anyone would want in the perfect world. But, the whole point of a role playing game is to make the best you can in terrible situations with what you've got in a world that is very far from perfect. Why should learning about factions be any less perilous or improvisational than exploring a dungeon?

in fact, giving the player characters too much information chips away at their potential for drama and their agency. If they know Faction A is big on protecting poor farmers, while Faction B likes sacrificing the Virgin daughters of said farmers, the choice becomes far too easy. And it is very tempting to inject my preferences as to what my players should do by way of how I frame my information dump. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Quick and Dirty Campaign Primers

 I just started a new campaign after the Fizzle a couple of weeks ago.

I wanted to share my campaign planning process, and how it translates into a campaign primer: a document that tells your players enough to build a character that fits the scenario.


I am not interested in reading an 8 page backstories to characters, so it's only fair that I assume the PCs aren't interested in reading a novel's worth of setting lore. My goal is a short, punchy document that offers enough to get my players started. 

Choosing Your Tone 

Before I start any campaign planning proper, I want to make sure I have a sense of what kind of game I want to run. The tone of the campaign is the first stage to building everything else. 

Modern gaming culture is full of slang terms and concepts that can help you develop your idea. Ideas like "old school", "action-heavy", "gonzo", "grimdark", "noblebright" "cinematic", "story-driven", "RP-heavy", or "beer-and-pretzels" all have potential to help you shop around for campaign ideas. 

Another way to go about this is to make a list of the books, movies, games, or comics that you might like to draw on with the campaign. 

Whatever the case, your goal is to be able to articulate to your players what kind of experience that you would like to offer them. 

Setting Expectations

Your campaign primer should not take place of either a document with your house rules or a session 0. These are separate necessary steps that a Campaign primer simply can't replace. I often keep a short list of house rules in the Primer, but keeping them in a place where they are readily available for reference. 

The point of a Campaign Primer is to:

  1. Let the players know what style and tone of play you are looking for. 
  2. Where the PCs will begin the game. 
  3. The most important things all PCs need to know. 
  4. What they will need to know to make a character for the campaign. 
  5. Any options for characters not presented in the game's rulebook. 

You job here is to let the players know what they can expect if they choose to play in your campaign.

I often include a rough idea of what the players can expect their characters will be doing both at the beginning, and where I envision a campaign going barring PCs or the dice changing the game's arc. 

Setting the Stage

You don't need a lot to get a campaign going. A map of the area within a day's journey of the PCs' starting settlement.

A discussion of the local religion, economy, and culture in vague terms, but only insofar asif is important to make a PC.

Broad strokes of recent history that is specifically important to the first adventure, early adventure hooks, or oncoming campaign events. (For example, if there is going to be a war, you might want to include a little about the enemy nation and the bad blood between the nations.)

E about how magic, non-human, non-conforming characters, and religion generally fit it. But only to the point where you cover the likely bases for your players' styles.

Giving Constraints

As a default, nothing exists in a campaign world unless the DM says so. However, where you intend to deviate from the baseline game, it is important to let PCs know where their options have been limited. This is particularly true of classes and races, but also certain weapons and spells players tend to make their signatures. If fireball or cure wounds are not going to available in your game, it might be a good idea to say so up front both here, and in your house rules document.

Establishing Character Options

While writing up this document helps you organize your thoughts about the game world in general, for the players it is almost entirely for helping them build a character that fits into your vision well enough that it won't be jarring or a disappointment.

If there are custom classes, unique low-level spells, new races, or similar options, this is where you are going to give them. I like to give players a list of options for places or professions they might come from and offer the a minor ability, skill, or power connected to that part of the setting. This helps you build the world for the players. If the people of Thule are such masters of the cold that they all know how to summon a ray of frost, you have established a lot about the favor of the Thuleans.

Art and Maps

At some point in this process, you will want to give the players a map of that small area that you have thought through at least well enough to last you the first three adventures.

Beyond that, I try to add art that complements the ideas I have about the campaign. I put images of characters, monsters, and places that might fit into my campaign throughout the primer. This art can tell players who are astute observers a lot about how you envision the world that could take pages to otherwise make work.

I keep a Pinterest account where I collect galleries full of character, concept, and map art to use for purposes like ths.


I have shared my most recent campaign primer as a PDF below. This document covers everything a player would know to build a character in either an OSR game, or in ICRPG (the system for which it is intended) as an example.

Because I am publishing this one, the original art I used was removed and replaced with art that has a Creative Commons license. It is not quite as effective as the pirate art I was using... but I still feel that it catches a lot of the essence.

Take a Look!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Alchemy for B/X Games

"Cauldron" by MysticArts on Pixabay

Last article, I shared an excerpt from my home-brew system Ær: An Adventure Game of Dragon-Riding and Aerial Heroics detailing the Pacts and Blades-inspired Pact Magic system that I created for it. In this article I will be sharing the Alchemy system made for the same campaign. 

I have always liked Alchemist protagonists , although most of the ones I enjoyed appear in books like The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk (very topical these days) Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garçia Marquez and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Perhaps arguably Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (especially the original 1918 Ed. ) They were hardly Appendix-N adventure story hero material. More the subject of fantasy medical dramas.

When Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition offered the option to buy a selection of cool alchemical items, I siezed on it and built a custom class based on the Expert NPC class with some bonus feats, access to the black powder items from the DMG, and weak spellcasting that ran as a sometimes-present Cohort all the way into Epic Levels.

When Pathfinder introduced an Alchemist class in their Advanced Player's Guide,  I was both thrilled and disappointed. Like my experimental class it could chuck bombs, and brew potions, but at best had a limited relationship with the alchemical items, and a slightly less-muddled version the not-spellcasting of Eberron's Artificer class.

The more recent Pathfinder 2e makes a much more sensible Alchemist: a character that makes a selection of bombs, potions, and gadgets to solve problems. However the class is so complex that it took me forever to get a feel for it. The PF2e manual is painfully opaque to me, overall, though. It is as if someone studied my information-processing schema and wrote something specifically designed to scramble my Brain.

With PF2e and my ow older designs as a guide, I've built my own Alchemist class that serves as a healer and support character, much like a Cleric.  However, it is a character that requires careful resource management and planning, and has an arsenal of options to create tactical advantages, rather than being a strong combatant. I am hoping that this design will encourage a lot of creativity from players.

Read it here! 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Pact Magic for B/X Games

Image by Squarefrog from Pixabay

Back in the summer I reviewed the game Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy by Lucas Rolim. I instantly fell in love with it simple mechanics. Lucas was kind enough to set me up with his first major source book for the game, Salamandur Household as well. (Now we play games together on Thursday nights.) His idea for a magic system involves making bargains with spirits to get a flexible but constrained set of magical abilities is inspired. And, something I have wanted to integrate into my own campaigns ever since.

(It doesn't hurt that it reminds me of my favorite video game, Secret of Mana.) 

Lucas and I both are being GMmed by Stephen Smith over at Stephen's Hobby Blog. His World of Weirth campaign setting is so out of the ordinary for Dungeons & Dragons, that Stephen has been slowly hacking together rule sets and concepts to build his own unique and custom AD&D-based RPG. It was thinking about how I wanted to integrate Lucas's magic system and how Stephen had essentially built himself his own retroclone to suit his exact me that inspired me to build one of my own.

My setting specific retroclone, Ær: An Adventure Game of Dragon Riding and Aerial Heroics, focuses on being knightly adventurers serving a chain of magical floating islands by riding wyverns on important missions. I believe that even low-level characters ought to have an opportunity to do something awesome and world shaking. Discovering a lost island from dragonback certainly fits that bill to my mind.

I created Ær from two particular influences. The first was the Dragonriders of Pern, a favourite fantasy world of mine for a very long time. The other was the kingdom of Floating Ar in the Mystara resetting. Particularly how it appears in the Poor Wizard's Almanac & Book of Facts; A kingdom that was once part of a powerful empire of magicians now left on its own to solve its own problems.

I also like to liberally season it with Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar, which is a favourite of my wife and a couple of my other players. Namely, I wanted to play with the idea of powerful psychic bond being a characteristic of the heroes.

From this witches' brew of ideas, I built my own BX setting. I wanted it to play fast and light, and so my Thief character borrows a lot of its skills from Lamentations of The Flame Princess. I use advantage and disadvantage rather than complex numerical modifiers. I tried to make almost everything built on roll under ability checks, rather than D20 system roles. I used a low amount of fixed hit points, item slots, ascending AC, numerical alignment, and a few of my own hacks.

The big requirements for me was a magic system inspired by Pacts and Blades, an advanced aerial combat system, and a well-developed system of alchemy that replaces divine magic for healers.

The alternative magic system and Witch class can be used in tandem with traditional  B/X Magic-Users. They have very different powers and restrictions, but have roughly equivalent powers. Pact magic is available to all characters on the lowest level, but at the cost of the characters being beholden to the spirits granting the power.

It should be relatively portable to any other B/X by substituting Wits with Intelligence and Bond with Wisdom and choosing either to set the Bond limit.

Read it here. 

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 Weirth 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 been 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.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Adventure Review: Into the Demon Idol

 Adventure Review: Into the Demon Idol

: Jobe Bittman
Publisher: Bloody Hammer Games
Marketplace: Goodman Games
Engine: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, OSR (Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry)

Over the Summer, I did an article on using One Page Dungeons that was a huge hit. It remains my most-read article on Welcome to the Deathtrap. The adventure featured the adventure Into the Demon Idol by Jobe Bittman. In it, I noted that there was an expanded, full-length module version of the adventure that I had not read.

Jobe liked my article enough to send me a copy of the expanded Into the Demon Idol by mail (along with a copy of The Chick Tract "Darkest Dungeons" which gave me a huge laugh.) It was very different from the adventure I built up out of the one page module, and well worth reviewing here!

It is set in a region where several united Lizardman tribes are slowly advancing on civilization and crushing everything in their path. The region is presented as a hex crawl where Lizardman dominated territory is marked by a clear border. Encounters on the Lizardman side of the border are designed to be dangerous and difficult. As time passes, the border expands ss the Lizardman horde advances. 

The map adventure contains data on how the PCs can break the invading army's chain of command and halting their advance by invading their war-czmp, Drachensmoot, but these encounters involved are deliberately overwhelming.

Into the Demon Idol is an adventure in three acts. In the first act the PCs are sent on a mission to search a remote ruin of a now-extinct cult of evil magicians in hopes of finding weapons for the war effort. This involves hex travel ahead of a steadily advancing horde while evading scouts and shock troops.

 In the second act, the PCs explore the ruins. This is a fine-tuned version of the original one-page dungeon below, and  ends with the discovery of the Demon Idol.

In the third act, the PCs have a magical war machine at their disposal, albeit one with a limited supply of fuel and firepower, and which requires constant on-the-fly repairs to work. While controlling the Demon Idol, many of the killer encounters that they were forced to avoid become manageable. With it, they can break the Lizard-man advance and shatter their leadership, saving the region from annihilation.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Adventure: Harkin's Slave Pit

Cover Art by Brian C Rideout

That's right! Two adventures out in less than a week! Harkin's Slave Pit is a labor of love. It's a dungeon that I created to teach players Index Card RPG Core 2e, and guide them on playing RPGs Old-School.

If you want to try ICRPG, by the way, you can now grab a quick-start manual here!

Several strangers wake up prisoners in a dungeon, with nothing but breechclothes and a couple of tiny pieces of gear hidden on them, and must fight for suvival in a dungeon full of brutal mercenaries, goblins, madmen, and deadly traps, ruled over by a cruel witch. Can they find an exit before their luck runs out?

Harkin's Slave Pit is a mid-length adventure for Index Card RPG Core 2e. It is designed to serve as an introduction to new players for both ICRPG and Old-School Renaissance style play.

  • While built as a one-shot, it is easily tuned to be the first adventure of a larger campaign, and provides the GM with multiple hooks for future adventures.
  • Gradually increasing difficulty as players become used to the game engine.
  • Non-linear dungeon with numerous possible routes to explore.
  • All encounters built using the Three Ts system to ensure fast-paced, timed encounters that reward Player-Characters with opportunities to get the upper hand on the enemy and look good doing it!
  • Designed for ease-of use at the table.

Buy it on DrivethruRPG!

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Chaos and Surprise Make GMing more Fun

This month my goal is to finish off some of the long-standing projects I've had sitting about on my computer: I have a dungeon crawl classics adventure that needs only a slight bit of retooling and some art to be complete. I have a second DCC module that's about 80% complete and just needs a little additional text and art. And I have a beautiful digest sized OSR adventure set in an Edo-era Japan analog that just needs a little more attention and a map. And I have an adventure about exploring a volcano to refine.

But, I will attempt to continue to put out quality blog articles this month. Thankfully, the work I'm doing on these unfinished modules gives me a lot to think about... and last night my game gave me a great lesson in Chaos.

"Chung Chao-Yi Automatic Drawing" by Zhaoyi0812

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Solo Game: Pacts and Blades II: The Jester's Return Pt.3

The Bandersnatch

I am going to roll the rest of the details for the Bandersnatch now, and test to see if the details they have learned are true:

Body Structure: Organic (⚀ - false), it is actually 1d12: 7: Alien

Size: Large (⚅ - true)

Basic Type: 1d6 - ⚀ Animal

Pact or Blades: Claws and Nature (⚁ - false), it is actually d44: 33 roll three times: 43: a Pact with a fear entity, 11: A Pact with an elemental entity, and 41: Blade: thorny tail

Distinctive Features: Bifurcated Tongue with two heads - one has sentience (⚄ - true)

Motivations: d8: 7: it needs to lay eggs in your dead body

Special Skills: Can bend Time (⚃ - true)

Ye gads, this thing is a horror!

 The Thing

(Rolling BD&D-style Surprise: Bandersnatch , Adventurers ⚃; Monster Reaction⚄⚄ = 10: Neutral; Initiative: Bandernatch 5, Mirdon 6, Shanix 6, Lorenz 6, Walken 9)

Shanix stood on an ancient stone balcony overlooking the lava flows below. All around her was a carpet of luminous blue moss and brightly glowing white flowers. Their perfume overwhelmed the stench of brimstone they'd been breathing for hours. Glowing orange fire bees leaving heat trails behind them moved from bloom to bloom, studiously ignoring the human intruder.

For a moment, her permanently chiseled-on smirk fell into open-mouth wonder. She walked slowly, like a child in a yuletide snowfall, to the edge of the balcony and a broken rail. Below, across a broken stone bridge, was a dome of precious metals surrounded by glowing fungus. There, the orange lights of the fire bees shimmered brightly. Strains of alien music came up from below barely audible under the roar and hiss of geysers.

She shook herself from her trance and forced her face back into a scowl. Walking back to the foot of the rope she called up: 

"Get the lead out of your asses! I think I can see the hive."

The twisted, hunchbacked dwarf Mirdon was next, surprisingly nimble coming down the rope. Then the featherweight Lorenz; too pretty and delicate to be a farm boy to her mind. They too, went to the edge to look at the hive as Walken came down last.

He was halfway down when her mind began to stutter. Colors became too bright and all at once muted and washed out. One moment Walken was coming down too fast, the next he seemed to be going up the rope. Time echoed forward and backward assaulting her ears with echoes, some of them sounds not yet made, or that would never be made.

She forced her head towards the origin of the pain and sound and distortion, and saw a horrendous parody of life slithering from a nearby archway.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Bloody Engines of the Dinosaur Men

I am flattered by how many people have already read and played the adventure that I put together more-or-less in real time on my blog last week in my 6-part plus Building an Adventure Series (1, 2, Rationale, 3, 4, 5, 6). I am glad that it has already hit the table!

Today it is my pleasure to announce the release of The Bloody Engines of the Dinosaur-Men. This is a fine-tuned, edited, refined, version of the game written in 'Zine format.

The Bloody Engines of the Dinosaur-Men

An OSR-compatible adventure for 3-6 characters

Levelled 3-5. Made with Labyrinth Lord.

A Sinister Dungeon Full of Hazardous Environments and Brutal Traps!

Friday, October 23, 2020

Solo Game: Pacts & Blades II: The Jester's Return pt.2

This is part 2 of my solo play through of Pacts & Blades with the Salamandur Household supplement. In part 1, I decided a highly randomized adventure based on the setting and scenario that I rolled up using Salamandur Household. I will divide the play report into two articles. For a more pleasurable reading experience, I will save commentary for a separate article, and game mechanics stuff will be marked in teal or easy skipping.

And So We Begin...

Images Created in Hero Forge & Photoshop
used in accordance with their EULA

"Are you sure about this, Merry man?" Walken looked outside at the Carmine sky. The first of the brimstone shards were beginning to come, carving bright golden streaks in the sky between the grey flakes of ashen snow and shimmering embers.

A partially armoured hand clapped down on his shoulder. "I thought your people were fire-proof, Wak," Shanix chided.

He contemplated her light brown fingers against his mottled red skin. He hated having nicknames. He didn't much care for Shanix' attitude, nor her smirk. If adventuring work were anything like war, he knew that would change... providing her cockiness didn't get her... or him killed.

"We are. But we aren't immune to falling rocks. The storm's just getting started. They will be the size of fists in an hour."

"Merry!" replied the Jester, chuckling as he hitched up the last of his gear, "But sure? Never about anything! Hardly pays to be sure. I will say I am mad enough for this expedition, and Madness is a far finer thing than Certainty! And madness tells me we should make haste afore the rocks are fists, for I have been told I have a punchable face."

"And so you do," Shanix snarled, pulling away from Walken.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Solo Game: Pacts & Blades II: The Jester's Return pt.1

Mirdon Returns! Back in July I played a couple of solo adventures to take Lucas Rolim's Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy for a spin. I put the journal of the second one up on the blog. Lucas liked it enough that it will be included in an upcoming Pacts & Blades supplement. It also let me show off the dungeon generating tools on Donjon.

I said when I released it that I would do another one as a follow-up. And right now I finally have the time to start a solo play. And, like last time, I plan on using it to discuss ideas that are relevant to people planning, designing, and running games.

I am also showcasing Lucas Rolim's new sourcebook Salamandur Household with expansion rules for Pacts & Blades.

The Last Adventure

Mirdon and his friend Doraleous were searching the Vault of Gloomy Chaos for clues to the location of the lost Dwarf fortress of Koganusân. They won a solid victory against bugbear and goblin in the frigid tomb, but then blundered into an ogre's lair. The Ogre pounced on Doraleous and beat him to a gory pulp in seconds. Mirdon fled for his life narrowly escaping his friend's fate.

Since Then...

Mirdon has sworn vengeance on the ogre and hopes to give Doraleous a proper burial. He has used the pittance of treasure he found on the bugbear to recruit a team of young, would-be adventurers to help him purge the Vault. A veteran of two adventures, Mirdon hopes to use his wits to get his revenge. However, first he wants to prove them...

The Cast

Building an Adventure (pt. 6): Making it Memorable, and Campaigns

Lorenz is a character made With Hero Forge
& used in Accordance with their EULA

Over the last 6 articles, I have built an adventure in something close to real time. I wanted while I was doing it to explore the decisions you make and the mental processes, as well as the tools I can make the job of adventure planning easier.

I wanted to finish with a few thoughts about making your adventure memorable and making it part of a living campaign.

If you liked this adventure, an updated, cleaned-up and slightly expanded version of it is now available on DrivethruRPG.

Making an Adventure Memorable

Making an adventure memorable is by far the more important to those two ideas. At the end of the day, you have limited time to enjoy this hobby. If you are a Game Master or a creative involved in preparing materials for a tabletop role-playing game, it pays to make sure that time is spent very well. And unremarkable adventure is a lost opportunity.

This isn't to say that every encounter has to be full in technical complications, tactical considerations, or be weird and wonderful. Sometimes a baseline game of kick in the door, fight the monster, steal it's treasure, repeat is very fun and memorable. A lot of it has to do with delivery and play at the table. However, a well designed set of encounters definitely makes it much easier.

Borrow from the Best

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt. 5): Background, Rumours, and Intel

'Woman & T-Rex' by Darksouls1 from Pixabay

Now that we have the meat and bones of an adventure, it's time to give it a skin and the spark of life, in this case the information and background offered to the PCs. It's how we frame the adventure that gets initial buy-in and makes immersion easy.

You can have an almost perfect adventure written, but if you don't frame it effectively then the player characters are not likely to engage with it. Your beautifully-designed dungeon will sit unexplored by players who would rather go off to be pirates.

You frame has three major parts, the hook, rumours, and hard Intel.


In order to make sure your dungeon has enough appeal to get player characters into it, you need a hook. Something that will get them wanting to explore that location. 

Hooks for Plot Heavy Home Games

If you have a game where characters have complex story arcs or intrigue, writing a hook is mostly about tying the adventure into something the characters already care about. Whether that is a loved one, a rival, the power of a certain faction, or the safety of their Homeland. These are going to have to be highly personal to the campaign.

Example: My latest home campaign involves people transplanted from Earth to a bizarre fantasy world. That the dinosaurs are recognizable form of Earth life, and with hints of modern technology, I could easily hook that character into wanting to investigate a possible portal to her own world.

Hooks for Other Rationales 

When you are writing a module, for, for that matter, writing for a "beer-and-pretzels" game where the players don't particularly care to spend time on heavy role play and plot development, you need to have a handful of hooks ready that will all point to your adventure location as worth going to.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Tinkering with Animated Character Portraits

I haven't been able to share this on Twitter of Discord, so I thought I'd put it here: my animated character portrait of Róinsach having a freak-out using Hero Forge, Photoshop, and Ezgif.

Róin is a level-zero character with delusions of grandeur in the World of Weirth campaign run by Stephen Smith over at Stephen's Hobby Workshop.

Hero Forge just added the ability to colour your minis, making creating portraits with them way faster than when I reviewed them last week. Here are a couple of other portraits I've made of the characters I am playing from that campaign.

Lieres, Level-1 Thief (former Alchemist):
Addict, Lush, Charming idiot

Róinseach, Level-0 Mushroom Farmer; Gung-ho,
Desperate to get off the farm, Stupidly lucky.

Shazoruval, Level-0 Barber/Chiruregeon; Pessimist,
Superstitious, Suprising leadership, Talks to Giants.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt. 4): Plugging it into the System

Photo by Robert Coelho on Unsplash
Okay, now I have a solid outline and plans for an encounter. Now I will need to turn this into something usable.

For the purpose of this article, I will use BD&D, so anyone with Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess can use it one-to-one., and people with AD&D-based systems like OSRIC or Astounding Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborrea will be able to do so with minimal work.

Also, If you like this adventure, an updated, cleaned-up and slightly expanded version of it is now available on DrivethruRPG.

Plugging In

One of the most useful things that you can remember about adventure writing is that the best plans should be thought up independent of game engine.  Trying to think in terms of challenge ratings, stat blocks, point rewards, etc. can put boundaries on your creativity .

This is the difference between asking "What ideas can I make work in this system?" and "How can I make my ideas work in the system?"

The latter approach may require hacking or modifying the rules, but you will come  up with a much better, more memorable adventure. Often one with more unique content

"Plugging your ideas in to the system" can be a process that takes time and tinkering to do, but is worth it.

For purposes of this article, I will write the encounter in the format I use for my pamphlet Adventures. I have a more optimized method I'm using for writing larger modules, but this should be sufficient for our needs; not to mention fairly familiar to most people who read older Dungeons & Dragons modules.

Consider everything below this point to be part not in a sidebar to be of a module titled "The Bloody Engines of the Dinosaur Men" (working title) done under the OGL.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt.3): Encounter Design

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

This is part three of my detailed rundown of adventure creation. In these articles, I'm focussing on the decision making processes that lead to the creation of an adventure.

UPDATE: If you like this adventure, an updated, cleaned-up and slightly expanded version of it is now available on DrivethruRPG.

A Note on Party-Specific Design

If you're building an adventure for home, then tailoring the adventure to your particular characters can be very valuable. What I'm doing here is developing an adventure that could be published and shared with everyone.

As I pointed out on my article on Rationale, this in and of itself leads to certain assumptions. First, we have to assume that nothing is going to be used as written. You don't need a lot of complex specifics, highly detailed description, for background material that fits into other campaign worlds. In fact, too much of that will Peter waste of time, energy, and money. The real goal for writing a module is to create a jumping-off point for a Game Master, and assume that they are going to customize the hell out of the adventure. Therefore, focus on making it easily customizable.

If you're only writing for your own group, building challenges that will let the various members of your group shine is helpful. This means taking some time to asses what your PCs are capable of, and what class features the players favour.

For example: my playtest group is particularly good at handling high places. They keep a lot of grappling hooks and equipment that makes them better at climbing and moving vertically. The party thief has a set of magic wings that allow her to take flight. The party wizard is quick to use tenser's floating disk as an elevatorfor safety net. The danger of a fall is less frightening for them, and so if I were building this adventure with just my group in mind, I might find an alternative threat to having them fall into the machines. But I might make a thrilling vertical battle.

Likewise, I am recycling the boiler encounter. They have already tested it for me, and gave me a huge thumbs up for the tense design. I will probably replace the boiler with some kind of hostage situation that allows them to employ stealth deception, and magical tricks, as my group excels in those fields. Whatever I choose, it will probably be something I would like to use in a future adventure.

Encounter Design Tools

When I design encounter, I like to refer back to the Three T's that Hankerin Ferinale published in Index Card RPG Core 2E; I also look for an opportunity to create iconic moments where characters get to play at the fantasy archetypes that they built their characters on.

Finally, like the true grognard that I am, I'm not particularly interested in balancing encounters. I am, however, interested in making sure that everyone has a good time. To that end, I trying to make sure that players handling things intelligently will not face a tpk. For that reason, I like to leave an out or a bypass to any encounter.

My game of choice for my playtesting group is Index Card RPG. It is built on a Dungeons & Dragons core, but tightenrd for faster play. ICRPG characters mathematically work out to the equivalent of a second level Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition character, or characters between 3rd and 5th level in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons. You can simply use OSR monster stat blocks without modification with ICRPG as long as you make that your assumed level of play around 4th.

(Typically, I will build an adventure using OSRIC or Basic Dungeons & Dragons and then play it with ICRPG.)

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Building an Adventure: Side Note on Rationale

"Blacksmith" by Clicker-Free-Vector-images
From Pixabay

When planning an adventure, a GM often has a rationale for making it that will strongly inform their design choices.

For example, a Game Master whose goal to write an adventure to show off how clever he is will create a dungeon full of traps and tactically complex encounters. His design will likely reward rules mastery.

On the other hand, an adversarial Game Master who wants to see players struggle to outlet him, will likely build an adventure with several incredibly tough boss monsters, traps and ambushes that provide little warning, and the odd trick that confuses or humiliates.

The Game Master who is there to tell a story well have huge amounts of world building, lots of lore to discover, and very complex NPCs with a lot of behavioral triggers. They will be likely to try to build balanced encounters.

Personally, I prefer to write an adventure with the guiding objective of the players coming out of the session feeling highly entertained. I want to make sure my dungeons are fun, and believe that fun comes from a mix of challenge and high-risk situations with commensurate reward.

I also believe that fun comes from creativity. I tend to present challenges that are open tl multiple creative solutions, but don't give any obvious ones to the players. If you put a problem in front of a player character and let them think about what assets they have for a moment before you demand action, they will usually come up with something you never would have thought of in the first place 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt. 2): Example of Brainstorming & Outlining

Image by Clicker-Free-Vector-Images

This is part 2 of my series on the thought processes and choices made when designing a role-playing game Adventure. While the example here is for Dungeons & Dragons, or a retroclones thereof, most of what I am sharing is true for any role playing game with a traditional GM and PCs setup.

Throughout this article, I will be planning an adventure, first by covering the steps detailed in the previous article, and then turning that into an outline of encounters to use.

Starting at the End

As I mentioned in the previous article, I wanted to recycle an encounter that I created and tried out on my playtest group, but I wanted to place it in a different dungeon. That encounter involves trying to save 18 prisoners scattered across a complex of five or six rooms while on a tight timer. If they fail, a chambers with flood with steam and boiling water, killing the prisoners.

This means I need a dungeon with a massive boiler or a geyser. Better a boiler to explain why they haven't been killed already. I also need someone who have captured them and drag them off to this steam works dungeon. The dungeon itself should be full of steam-powered machines. It will need a fuel source to keep the boiler going. and I need a reason why this team is being used in the first place.

Because I tend to rate for the OSR crowd, by default, I want to make it something I can generally fit into an anachronism-filled 14th century Europe analog. A sinister Victorian factory could be a lot of fun, but isn't quite a fit for a generic OSR product. I want this adventure to be something that a GM can lift, flavors he wants, and drop into their game without too much hassle.

Thanks to the implied post-apocalyptic setting of the average fantasy game, it's easy enough to make the place ancient rather than something new. After all, the ancients before the unspecified cataclysm of the average dungeons & dragons world for clearly more gifted in magic, why not technology as well?

This should be an adequately weird but Sword and Sorcery compatible setting, and give me some cool ideas for visual design.