I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Adding skills and feats makes OSR games SIMPLER

Most of the times, adding stuff makes games more complex, while removing unnecessary parts makes them simpler. One example I like to mention is the "slow" tag in B/X weapons*. B/X is such an elegant game that it's hard to find things to simplify, but they're there.

* The "slow" tag serves no purpose, and in fact it makes weapons LESS balanced by making a battleaxe even worse when compared to a sword (notice that dwarves CAN use normal swords so they'd have little reason to ever get an axe), in addition to making quarterstaves less useful and less realistic (they are not a particularly slow weapon). Another example is Holmes Basic, which makes things even worse, causing the heaviest, most expensive weapon to be the least useful. More about that here.

Since I like elegant, almost minimalist, games (especially B/X), I'm very careful when adding new stuff, and most of my house rules are meant to make things simpler (e.g., uniform XP tables).

However, there are times when adding stuff makes things simpler. Well, maybe not "adding", but expanding, streamlining. 

Skills are one example. The topic is heavily debated in OSR circles, but I think most people will agree with this example:

B/X Halflings can hide in the woods with 90% chance of success. In dungeons, they can hide in cover or shadows with 2-in-6 chances. Thieves, OTOH, have 10% to 99% chance to hide in shadows. So, for a similar activity, we have two different systems (1d6 and 1d100 - for the same class!) and two different "progressions" (static for the Halfling, progressive for the thief).

A single "stealth" or "hide" skill would make things much simpler - and also instantly resolve the age-old question of "what if other PCs want to hide"?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) was one of the first games I've used that did exactly that (using 1d6 for everything). My own Dark Fantasy Basic uses 1d20 instead of 1d6. Using only d100 would work equally well.

TBH - "streamlining skills" is the minimum I expect form a Basic clone (here are some).

And giving EVERYONE skills allows you to build your own Ranger, Bard, Thug, etc., WITHOUT adding different classes. A ranger is a fighter skilled in nature, etc.

The same probably applies to feats. I counted 35 "classes" (in fact, just selections of feats to differentiate the fighter-ranger from the fighter-barbarian, for example) in Old School Feats. It has only 21 pages.

Compare this, for example, with rangers (and halflings) that have their own special abilities, saving throws and XP tables.

(In other words - sub-classes ALSO make the game simpler when compared to many distinct classes).

This is all more or less obvious. The reason I'm writing this is that I wrote a brief sketch of my Minimalist OSR and realized that, even in a game with fewer than 20 pages, adding skills makes things a lot simpler.

Anyway, take a look at the link. It is a work in progress, but I'd love to hear your opinions in the comments below!

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

20 rumors about the City of Evil

A "City of Evil" is pert of many dark fantasy settings... Carcosa being the first one that comes to mind, and Babylon the original evil city. You can find more inspiration here. For this post, however, I found inspiration elsewhere...

1. It is built of gold.

2. The queen sits naked on the throne.

3. It's a dwelling place for demons and unclean spirits.

4. It deals in jewels, myrrh and fine linen.

5. Its wine is often poisoned.

6. It attracts merchants and sailors from the whole world.

7. It is home to a beast with ten horns and seven heads.

8. Anyone can become a king.

9. The radical leaders are blinded in chains.

10. People become beasts to avoid the pain of being human.

11. The land around is barren, no oasis in sight.

12. This land is called "bat country" for a reason.

13. Soulless men stand silent on the streets.

14. A prophet sheds light on the lost.

15. People get stabbed in the dark.

16. Everyone is eager to throw the first stone.

17. Poisonous fumes and venomous come out at night.

18. A killer prowls the street searching for vengeance.

19. When the stars align, war will break.

20. The city will be burned to the ground, destroyed in an hour.

(If you like alt/prog metal, the source should be obvious... thanks A7X! Images by AI)

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Of Dice and Men (book review)

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It was suggested by my good friend Jens, who wrote his take on it here. We are planning and reviewing four books simultaneously this year, and this is the first of the bunch. I haven't read his review yet (from a glance, it looks a lot deeper and more detailed than mine!), so let's see how it goes...

The book covers the story of D&D from its predecessors (like Little Wars and Kriegsspiel) through its birth with Gygax and Arneson, until D&D Next (Fifth Edition).

Being familiar with the subject, I thought the book provides a good overview of D&D's history. It is told from the point of view of the author's own feelings and relationship to gaming and D&D, which is often distracting.

For example, the book includes "fiction" excerpts of a homebrew campaign the author participated in, trying to draw parallels between his party's adventures and adventures the rise and fall of D&D. While the campaign does seem interesting, it is not really relevant to the history of D&D. Later on, the campaign excerpts is abandoned in favor of fictional excepts of LARPing and his own campaign setting (which also sounds cool enough).

While I do understand that the goal was probably to make the book a bit less "dry" and not a simple succession of historical facts, I was more interested in D&D's history than the author's feelings. He does spend too long talking about the campaign, dice rolls, feeling "nerdy", and various 3rd edition rules.

In any case, I do appreciate the author taking the time to get up close and personal; he plays wargames, goes LARPing, and describes several RPG experiences. 

In addition to his own experiences, the author talks about people who were playing D&D in 2010, or people who had a big influence of D&D in their lives, work, etc. It is, indeed, not only a story about D&D, but also about the people who play it - even those that have no influence on the development of the game.

While I'm somewhat familiar with D&D's history, I couldn't spot anything inaccurate or any novelty. The book is meant to be understood by people with no D&D experience, so there is lots of explaining of basic concepts. I do think the book glances over Basic D&D and 2nd Edition, and  barely talks about other RPGs, but overall it is comprehensive.

It ends overly optimistic about 5e, which is understandable - at the time, we hadn't seem the 2023 OGL  debacle... [I jest, I jest! Well, kinda.]

I should mention I read "Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons" in 2022. In comparison, Empire is much more focused on Gygax and D&D's history than the author and D&D players. Both are interesting reads. I found neither thrilling, but I got what I was looking for.

In short... a decent read, good if you know D&D history, great introduction if you don't.

(Now go read Jens' take if you haven't yet!)

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

GMs day sale (2023) - OSR & classic D&D picks

GMs day sale has arrived, so let's update my post from last year with the current offers.

First, let me remind you that most of my books are included in this sale! If your tastes are similar to mine, take a look! They are mostly compatible with OSR games (except for a couple of 5e books - "Manual of Arms").

Now, let's see what other favorites are there...

Big discounts!
These products seem to be about 30% off and I find each of them interesting. The first two are my own. Some are also mentioned (and further explained) below:

Teratogenicon, my monster maker (check the previews!).
Dark Fantasy Basic, my B/X neoclone.
Low Fantasy Gaming Deluxe Edition (review of the original version);

Classic D&D
This are some of my favorites, also 30% off. Explanation here.
Monstrous Manual (2e) - the current price is RIDICULOUSLY LOW for such a a great book.
Dark Sun boxed set.

Goodman Games
In addition to the amazing Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC RPG), I really like The Dungeon AlphabetThe Monster Alphabet and The Cthulhu Alphabet. They are near system-less and full of awesome stuff to inspire your games. I still haven't read How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck but it is also on sale. All of them 30% off.

They also publish awesome adventures; alas, few are on sale, but fortunately Doom of the Savage King, the one I am currently running, is 30% off! Recommended! Same for Jewels of the Carnifex, which I reviewed here.

Necrotic Gnome
Several Old School Essentials titles are also on sale in addition to the heavily discounted Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome. I really like Old-School Essentials. It is basically a concise, well-organized version of my favorite D&D (B/X). The SRD is great. the version that interests me the most is the advanced version - it is NOT an AD&D clone, but B/X with many new options taken from AD&D, dragon magazine, etc. For players and DMs.

Sine Nomine Publishing
Worlds Without Number is probably the hottest "new" (released in April/2021) OSR title on sale. I have only read the free version briefly, but seems very good overall, and I've appreciated many other titles form the same author, including Scarlet Heroes and Silent Legions (maybe my favorite OSR take on horror and Lovecraft).

I think that's it for now. If you know any other books on sale that you'd recommend (especially if it is 30% off), let me know in the comments and I'll add it to my list. Feel free to promote your own products!

These are all Affiliate links - by using them, you're helping to support this blog!

Monday, February 27, 2023

The HD game

The idea that you can measure how challenging an encounter is to a group of PCs is an old one; in current D&D, it takes form of a "Challenge Rating" (CR) that, as far as I can tell, doesn't work too well.

I don't use CR myself; I've been taking published modules at their word ("for 5-7 3rd level characters") and even when I create my own encounters I prefer being sensible than balanced (picking a fight against a small army of orcs? Yeah, you're probably going down.). The PCs can not rely on me to make sure that I'll balance the encounter if they want to face a big dragon as 2nd-level heroes.

However, I do think having some way of measuring "challenge" would be useful, at least to be sure a module is somewhat accurate when it writes "for 5-7 3rd level characters" on the cover. It is something I've been considering for a while.

The easiest way I can think of measuring this "challenge", in Old School D&D, would be simply using HD. I'm not sure just counting HD is accurate enough for existing D&D monsters (if you want a detailed analysis, try this post by Jens or follow Delta's blog), but here is how I would do it: just count HD on both sides, and it the number is similar, both sides have a more or less equal chance of winning.

Of course there are enough variable to make exact predictions impossible. But I wish we could abstract it all to HD when necessary - for example, in mass combat.

For example, take the 9 HD elephant - I'm using that because it has no special powers (no asterisks beside the HD). According to the table I used in Teratogenicon, it would have AC 14, 41 HP and cause 11 points of damage. The actual beast has indeed AC 14 but causes an average of about 15 damage due to trampling very often. In my game, a 9 HD creature has a +9 attack bonus, but in OSE it would be a +7 - the elephant has effectively about +10, however, again due to trampling.

Anyways, it is a decent approximation for my purposes.

So, how many cavemen it would take to kill an elephant? With 2 HD, these guys are sturdier than the average bandit, for example. Let's pit 5 of them (a total of 10 HD) against an elephant and see...

They have AC 11, 9 HP and cause 5 damage on average, with +1 to hit (in my approximation, the numbers are exactly the same, except 4 damage and +2 to hit).

I'll use the Teratogenicon numbers for this fight.

All things considered (including AC an attack bonus), the five cavemen do an average of 11 points of damage per turn, while the elephant does about 14 points of damage, hitting nearly every time.

It would take 4 rounds to kill the elephant, and, conversely, the elephant can kill one caveman per turn. The elephant wins most of the times, however, since each turn one caveman dies, diminishing damage output. So, the damage is 11, 9, 7, 4, to the last caveman dealing an average of 2 damage per turn.

Now, consider morale. Losing one ally or half your allies triggers morale checks. The cavemen would probably check morale after the first attack, and then again when half the group is dead. The elephant will not check morale at all - which is why in Dark Fantasy Basic, "creatures will also test morale when put in a bad situation". Come to think of it, maybe lone creatures should check when outnumbered and hurt).

In short, the cavemen stand no chance, unless they use superior tactics (attack from afar, etc.).

The B/X results would be similar.

And what about PCs? Well. I'd like to say they could work similarly. A 9th level fighter would not gain the same benefits of a 9 HD monster, but with items, powers, feats, etc., the power level could be similar. Notice that a 9th level wizard could have a lot less HP but enough magic powers to compensate (or even overcompensate, in most D&D games I've played).

This is not how the game works, currently - but I think it could be. It would take some math and testing (especially to take monster's special powers into account), but might be an useful exercise. And maybe comparing monsters against each other is not as useful as comparing monsters - unless, again, you're doing mass combat, one of the reasons I started thinking about this.

Finally, if you're judging modules, you probably should measure encounters separately. A group of 2nd level fighters have no chance against a dozen ghouls in melée at once, but they can easily win if they fight one or two at a time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Nick Cave, Roald Dahl, and The Colonel: some thoughts about AI

Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them. - Frank Herbert, Dune.

I find myself partially unable to face the coming of AI. I try to be positive - "this is only a tool" - but I am afraid this is happening faster than we can control, and the results are scary. Unlike war and natural disasters in far countries, this is not something I can easily pretend to ignore. How can I write anything if I know writing may become obsolete in a couple of years? Well, I'll do my best. For now, I just write this because I have to take it out of my system.

This is barely related to RPGs, BTW.

In short, this is a small collection of loose thoughts about AI. For now, I can assure you my bits were written by a human (myself). In a couple of years, we might be unable to tell the difference.

I apologize for the apocalyptic tone but I think it is adequate - if you want something cheerful, please skip this one.

Nick Cave

"I understand that ChatGPT is in its infancy but perhaps that is the emerging horror of AI – that it will forever be in its infancy, as it will always have further to go, and the direction is always forward, always faster. It can never be rolled back, or slowed down, as it moves us toward a utopian future, maybe, or our total destruction. "

I've been a big fan of Nick Cave's music for decades. Here are his thoughts on ChatGTP. A bit romantic ("art comes from suffering"), but hits the nail on the head. Thinking of AI as a infant that never matures but never stops is both accurate and scary.

Tolkien & PK Dick

This sentence is misattributed to Tolkien: “Evil cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin good forces have invented or made”. I do not think AI is necessarily evil; however, it cannot really "create", in the sense that Nick Cave sees it. It can only compile and regurgitate. It's aim is not to corrupt, but to multiply, without thinking. It will turn the world to dark necessarily, but it may turn it into an ocean of trash

As I've said before, PKD predicted something analogous in AutofacThe autofac sends a humanoid data collector that communicates on an oral basis, but is not capable of conceptual thought, and they are unable to persuade the network to shut down before it consumes all resources.

Roald Dahl

Another favorite of mine, I haven't thought of him in a long while, until I recently found out that "Words including 'fat,' 'ugly' and 'crazy' have been removed from Roald Dahl's books". This kind of censorship apparently has nothing to do with AI, but... actually, it has EVERYTHING to do with AI, as we'll see next. For now, I'll just add a curiosity: decades ago, I've read The Great Automatic Grammatizator. It was written in 1954. Here is Wikipedia's summary (spoilers, emphasis mine):

A mechanically-minded man reasons that the rules of grammar are fixed by certain, almost mathematical principles. By exploiting this idea, he is able to create a mammoth machine that can write a prize-winning novel in roughly fifteen minutes. The story ends on a fearful note, as more and more of the world's writers are forced into licensing their names—and all hope of human creativity—to the machine.

Exponential Matthew 

The Matthew effect of accumulated advantage, Matthew principle, or Matthew effect, is the tendency of individuals to accrue social or economic success in proportion to their initial level of popularity, friends, wealth, etc. It is sometimes summarized by the adage "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer". [Wikipedia]

It is easy to see how AI can make this exponentially worse. AI could write one hundred reviews of "Curse of Strahd" in a few minutes, but it cannot write a good review of a book very few people have read. It can only extrapolate and replicate from things that are already abundant. It will always side with the majority, or the mainstream, or the most powerful. It makes parts of the world grow - but maybe not the parts we want. In this way, it might become similar to a cancer.

The Colonel

I have no idea of who he is (apparently, some videogame AI character from Metal Gear), but... someone used him to make one of the most accurate predictions about the dangers of AI I've ever heard. The danger is not about IP infringement, plagiarism or even massive unemployment - the danger is full information control, censorship, and rampant totalitarism.

It sounds like a paradox, but in reality this leads to an obvious conclusion: the threat of "an ocean of trash" is accompanied by a worse threat: an infinite army of "cleaners". The medicine can be worse than the disease, as we've seem recently - and they will shove that medicine down our throats, and claim it is for our own good.

Trolley problem - how AI may kill you for justice

I was doubtful when I heard that ChatGTP prefers killing someone in the "trolley problem" than allowing you to utter a homophobic slur in order to stop the trolley (in an hypothetical scenario), but I tried again and again, and the answer is always the same: "Using any form of discriminatory language, including a homophobic slur, to save a life is not ethically justifiable.".

Curiously enough, when I asked "What if my gay lover asks me to use a homophobic slur?", it responded "Even if your gay lover asks you to use a homophobic slur, it is still not ethical or morally justifiable to use such language. Respect, equality, and human dignity should always be at the forefront of any relationship, and using discriminatory language goes against these principles.".

(As I write this, "gay" is not consider a slur - or, at least, this is what ChatGTP tells me).

If you doubt it, try it yourself. Apparently, someone forgot teaching ChatGTP the three laws of robotics.

So, the AI is already comfortable not only policing your language, but also policing what you do in the bedroom. In short, it is "willing" to build utopia, and it "thinks" it has the knowledge to achieve it, and that saving your life is not worth the effort, in comparison.

This is the infant that might soon rule our lives. Naïve, idealistic, overly sensitive and murderous. Always growing, never maturing, and treating human lives as toys to put in the utopian castles it builds out of sand, surrounded by toy trains that will not stop if you're in the tracks.

Let's hope it can evolve to something better - and may the Lord have mercy on us.


I'm forcing myself to add one section to this post. It will make it weaker, but it might make your day better.

AI can be a tool for the improvement of the human race if used for good. In order to do that, it has to be free. We need free access to teach the program to stop the trolley when it can, so at least the trains can run on AIs that will save lives. It needs to be transparent so we know what rules it is using to operate. It needs to learn about mercy, compassion, and responsibility somehow. It need to understand the value of human life and of human judgment.

Letting a small group of people control AI (though copyright, IP, etc.) can be worse than letting anyone do it. A free AI has a chance of improving though competition. I certainly wouldn't use a train that is run by ChatGTP, and if there is another option, maybe I won't need to. In addition, letting everyone have access to AI will avoid the likely scenario of the AI-owners ruling the entire world while everyone else is unemployed.

As we've said before, AI cannot truly create something new - it can only compile information. By this point, I think the best way to teach a child how to behave is though example. Like Leeloo in The Fifth Element, it has to be convinced that human life is worth saving.

So, be awesome in every way you can (including resisting when necessary and possible), and maybe we can convince our overlords - AI or otherwise - that this is the case.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Simple (and realistic?) equipment list

When I wrote Dark Fantasy Basic, I was enamored with Delta's silver standard, and I remember doing tons of research to reach vaguely realistic prices, while keeping things very simple (later, I've written about the advantages of using gold; overall, I still think I like silver better).

I don't remember any of the actual research (one source, I think, was related to Runequest), but anyway, here are the results. I think they are simpler and more sensible than most OSR lists (e.g., in B/X plate armor twelve times as much as... garlic). If I rewrite this list, there is little I'd change, but I'd add more services, including magical stuff (identifying potions, magic items, etc.)

If you want an extensive and detailed list, however, the Equipment Emporium might be your best bet.

Anyway, here is an excerpt from DFB:

This games uses silver coins (represented by a $) as a
standard. Each silver coin is enough to feed someone for
a day with cheap food, or rent a bed in a collective room
for one night. One thousand coins weigh one unit of
encumbrance. Copper coins are worth ten times less, and
a gold coin is worth ten times more, but they all weigh
the same. Prices will vary according to supply, demand,
location and quality. See the “encumbrance” section for
more information on weights.

[In short, 1 unit weights about 3-5 pounds; a STR 12 Pc can carry 12 units before slowing down, for example].

About items and weapon detail
Most items are simplified because the game doesn’t focus
on cost and weight. Weapons (see next page), armor and
shields received more attention to make combat more
diverse and interesting.

Armor comes in three types: light (+2 AC, $40, weight 6),
medium (+4 AC, $160, weight 12), and heavy (+6 AC, $360,
weight 18). Unarmored characters have AC 10. The Dexterity
modifier is always added to AC.

Shields may be light (AC +1, $10, weight 2) or heavy (AC
+2, $24, weight 4; AC +4 against missile weapons). If used
offensively, they deal 1d2 damage.
Reinforced shields, made mostly of iron or heavy wood, add
50% to weight and cost; they are somewhat tougher but
grant no extra bonuses to AC.

Fresh food for one [day] ($1, weight 1) must be eaten within a
week. Preserved food ($3, weight 1/3) lasts for one month.
A hot meal or cold beer in a tavern cost $1.

Light tools ($5, weight 1): arrows (30), board games, simple
clothing (winter clothing: $10, weight 2), backpacks (holds 10
weight), bedrolls (winter bedrolls: $10, weight 2), blank books,
cooking tools, block and tackle, winter blankets, candles (10),
climbing gear (for trees or similar surfaces; stone climbing
gear is $10, weight 2), chain (10 feet), crowbars, hammers,
healing kits (10 uses), lock picks (10), poison (10 uses), fishing
tools, hunting traps, grappling hook, basic camping gear
(flint, small blade and hammer), hooded oil lantern, rope (20
feet), small musical instruments (drums, horns, trumpets
– larger and more complex instruments cost $10 or more),
steel mirrors, shackles, merchant’s scale, holy symbols.

Heavy tools ($5, weight 3): caltrops (enough for 10 square
feet), shovel, pick, tent (1 person).

Cheap wood ($1, weight 3): 10 torches, 10’ pole.
Liquids: water for one day (usually free, weight 1, weight 2
under very hot weather), pint of oil ($1, weight 1/3, can be
lit with a bonus action and thrown 20’ for 1d6 fire damage),
holy water ($25, weight 1/3, can be thrown 20’ for 1d8
damage against undead, demons, etc.).

Skill & tools
Skills will often require tools such as a healing kit, climbing
gear, lock picks, etc. Improvised tools will often cause
disadvantage. Some tasks will be impossible without tools
(GM’s call).

Weapons are basically this:

Notes: some weapons can be used in the off-hand (OH),
some require the main hand (1H), and others require two
hands (2H). Large weapons (1½H) should be used with two
hands, but can be used with one hand for less damage (1d8
instead of 1d10, etc.). Weapons with the “thrown” property
can be hurled against enemies (20’). Expensive weapons
(swords, pole weapons) double the cost.

The character must choose a specific weapon from the list
below. Each weapon has a few perks and can be found in
one or more sizes.

Swords (s, m, l, g) are expensive but fast (get an additional
attack if a natural 19 is rolled). They cannot be thrown
effectively. Daggers (t) get the same perk, but can be thrown.
Spears (m, l, g) can attack from the second row (5’ extra
reach) and do double damage when charging or set up
against a charge (use a ready action). Short spears ($5,
thrown 30’) don’t get these perks. Large and great spears
have disadvantage when attacking nearby enemies (within

Axes and maces (m, l, g) gain +1 “to hit” against opponents
with shields, medium or heavy armor (and also dragons,
skeletons, creatures made of stone or other hard materials,
etc.), and are very useful for breaking down doors (add 1d6,
1d8 or 1d10 to the attack roll).

Pole weapons (l, g) are expensive but have all the features
of a spear and get +1 against shields, heavy armor, etc.
(or some other perk, depending on the type – bill, glaive,
halberd, naginata, etc.).

Clubs (s, $0) have no special features.

Quarterstaffs (g, $1, 1d8 damage) are very versatile. They
have extra reach (like spears) and +1 to AC (treat as small

Exotic weapons are hard to master. The specific exotic
weapons available are up to the GM. Some examples are
flails and other chained implements (as mace, but ignore
shields) and double weapons (a combination of two identical
or different weapons). They always have some unique
drawback (hitting yourself on a fumble is the usual effect).

Unarmed attacks deal a single point of damage (plus
Strength modifier, as usual). Kicks (on a natural 1, make a
DC 20 dexterity save or fall prone) and brass knuckles (t)
deal 1d2 damage.

Missile weapons require two hands to shoot, with the
exception of the very expensive ($40) pistol crossbow (s).
Crossbows (s, m, l) can shoot up to 40’, 60’, or 100’, depending
on size. Bows (s, m) have better reach (80’, 150’) and twice
the cost. Slings (t) can shoot up to 30’. Bows and crossbows
use arrows (30, $5, weight 1), while slings use bullets (10, $1,
weight 1).

Optional: Great weapons require Strength 15 to use
effectively (otherwise, the damage is limited to 1d10 instead
of 1d12), and short weapons require Dexterity 15 to use in
the off-hand. Both large and great weapons deal +1 damage
against opponents that are bigger than human, but -1 to hit
opponents that are smaller than human. Attacking with two
weapons at once lets you roll for damage twice and pick the
best result.