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

Friday, December 23, 2022

Condensed information in an ocean of trash (and some thoughts about AI)

“I apologize for such a long letter - I didn't have time to write a short one.” ― paraphrased from Blaise Pascal.

One of the nice things about good books is that they are (usually) condensed and filtered information. I don't mean that they summarize information  - although they often do that too - but that they give proper importance/attention to the most relevant information.

If this is not intuitive, let me give you an example (we'll get to RPGs eventually).

I've read The Brothers Karamazov recently. How does that compare to this year's best seller? I have no idea, haven't read it (nor heard Colleen Hoover before last week). However, it has been filtered by space and time. Of all the books of all times and places, someone decided to translate it from Russian, and keep it available in 2022, more than a century after publication. And it is still available because people are still buying, reading, and discussing book. Each one of these people has cast a vote so that the book can be in my hands (also, see Lindy effect).

It is a very good book, obviously, but it is long and also takes some effort (despite not being particularly hard to read). Reading it takes more time than casting a vote to choose a president, even if you have to cross an entire city to vote. People that read that book have more skin in the game, since they've invested a lot of their valuable time to read it.

Sturgeon's law - "ninety percent of everything is trash"

Writing a book isn't hard - writing a book with the same quality of The Brothers Karamazov is very hard. It is not necessary, however, to make money as a writer. You can sell trash, and with good marketing and presentation you can sell lots of trash.

And, according to Sturgeon's law, ninety percent of everything is trash. Certainly, at least 90% of all books published in the last year.

This law talks about quality - but I'm currently more concerned with redundancy.

As far as RPGs are concerned, even the best are 90% repetition of old formulas, old editions, or simply old text - often copied and pasted from the SRD. 

D&D 5e, for example, far from being the worst offender, repeats the same text (e.g., darkvision) though the book. The same features are repeated verbatim in different races/classes. And most lore is copied from old editions, sometimes adapted to modern sensibilities. There are still some original parts: advantage/disadvantage, proficiency bonus, etc. But many rules (e.g., falling damage) are just copied from old editions without reflection.

The OSR is sometimes worse. Huge swaths of text copied from old editions or directly from the SRD with no reflection at all. I often mention the B/X cleric and the fact that plate armor costs the same as 12 garlic as examples. There are troves of B/X clones out there (I have my own) - do they bring anything to the table, or are just 90% trash/repetition with one or two new ideas?


A brief aside: I think the SRD is a great idea and a net positive for the hobby. I dislike pasting text without reflection, but rewriting text and mechanics just because you cannot paste them is a complete waste of time.

The 1.1 SRD sounds like bad news for the hobby and probably means that Kobold Press and others that produce great third-party content for 5e will be hindered in their efforts. Most people will stick to 1.0, which is bad news for 5.5e/6e (remember the 4e GSL?).

I was able to publish 5e stuff only because of the SRD. I will not publish under 1.1 (or GSL, or DM's Guild) at this time, and I'm unsure if I'll write more 5e stuff in the future (or play 5e at all), for various reasons.

Condensed information in RPGs

When I started writing Dark Fantasy Basic, I went trough every page of Moldvay's Basic to see if I had anything to change or add. In some cases, I re-wrote the same page twice, posted online, tried to get more people to discuss it - or even add their own pages. 

DFB is the most condensed version of B/X I could write at the time - and, still, it has lots of rooms for improvement. I didn't add monsters or even races to the book. I had nothing to add at the time (although eventually I published the Teratogenicon, my treatise on monsters), and I didn't want to simply copy existing rules. 

This is one form of condensing information - through reflection, rewriting, etc. Another important methods is playtesting. A playtested rule is superior in quality to an untested rule. Repeated used is a filter, somewhat similar to an old book surviving rough centuries.

Proofreading, revision, good alpha readers and consultants, etc., are different tools to add quality to your text. Prior experience (with writing or playing different games) is also helpful.

It is possible that you are a genius and can write the best RPG supplement from scratch, in a stream of consciousness. But it is unlikely.

Presentation is extremely important. The same information can be presented in different ways, some much more efficient than others (I've ranted about how 90% of the monsters from de 2e MM have three lines describing "Special Defenses: Nil" and "Magic Resistance: Nil", for example). THAC0 is an example, and Target 20 is even better, to the point that I think most of our discussions about OSR should use Target 20 rather then B/X as a starting point.

My perfect RPG would be extremely condensed, play tested, etc. If there is a rule for falling damage, an effort has been made to make it sensible. If the glaive and halberd are different weapons, there NEEDS to be something to differentiate them. And so on. Every rule in the books should have a clear motive to be there.

Condensed information in blogs

A "condensed" blog would include some rewriting, revision, updates, hyperlinks and so on. You could also remove references to sales that are already finished and other obsolete information. A great blog could contain posts that are 10 years old and are still relevant. I'm doing my best to create get as close as I can to that ideal. Realistically, however, I think most people do not read or discuss old blog posts. So maybe I should do something like my friend Jens and write a compilation of selected/revised blog posts.

AI, filler, and the big picture

When current AI tools became available for art, I thought artists that create decorative art would soon be obsolete. And most my books (Teratogenicon being the exception) use decorative art - stock art, PD art, etc. It is there to make the book look good, not to illustrated a particular idea. This is sometimes called "filler" - it is there to fill space.

Protest on Artstation.

Now, AI is writing text. Random tables, adventure seeds, etc. The results are equally "filler" - for now, AI cannot write creative stuff by itself.

The problem is that, as explained above, most RPG text is filler. You could easily create an AI-RPG with 10% cool ideas and 90% AI-generated trash and it would be somewhat similar in innovation to many OSR products.

(Another aside: I would NEVER add pure AI text to my books, but maybe one day use it as a tool? Not sure. For now, I also prefer using art form actual artists rather than AI, while I understand that AI art might make it easier for indie publishers to create some cool covers, etc.).

This is not only about RPGs. I've seen posts on social media and even received a couple of e-mails written by AI (not merely "bots" or "spammers"; these LOOKED like the real thing at a first glance). I've seem social media posts from actual people that were apparently written by AI - long texts with lots of "it is understandable", "it is important to consider", etc. And, since social media relies on likes/dislikes (or, worse, VIEWS) instead of true/false, there is an endless torrent of trash information coming for us - now with the help of AI that doesn't mind creating useless/incorrect stuff.

In short, the thing that worries me the most at this moment (let's worry about Skynet in a couple of years) is the amazing pile of trash that AI will bring into existence. PKD predicted something analogous in Autofac.

I think one example from Reddit would be useful:
Explain the key features of 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons.

3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons was released in 2003 and is an update to the 3rd edition rules. The key features of this edition include minor rules changes, the addition of prestige classes, and the inclusion of the Monster Manual.

Explain the key features of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was released in 2008 and is the fourth edition of the game. The key features of this edition include a focus on tactical combat, the use of encounter levels to measure a party's progress, and the use of miniatures.

Explain the key features of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

5th edition Dungeons & Dragons was released in 2014 and is the fifth edition of the game. The key features of this edition include a simplified ruleset, the return of character levels, and the use of polyhedral dice.
See what I mean? Some parts even make sense (4e, tactical combat and minis), but they are mixed with nonsense with no clear distinction.

One could write an entire blog with this trash. It would never become a reliable source, but might just attract enough views to make the (negligible) effort worth it.

News, encyclopedic information, book reviews... creating misinformation has never been easier.

Chronological irrelevance

A brief aside. 

We are currently flooded with media that are better described as "quickly obsolete" rather than "bad" or "useless". I don't have the data, but I've heard that 80-90% of the videos being watched on YT were created in the last 24 hours. They will probably be forgotten with similar brevity. They do not matter.

A similar effect happens with the 24-hour news cycle, but the current situation seems much worse.

I don't know wether this is some kind of "planned obsolescence" or some unintended side effect of the algorithm, but I'm quite sure we are wasting a huge amount of time, with no positive results (except for people in Meta, Google, etc. filling their pockets).

Using AI and SRD to condense information

It doesn't have to be this way. Both AI and the SRD can be used to IMPROVE the average quality of stuff. AI could be a great tool for proofreading, for example, and computer algorithm might help play testing immensely. There will soon be specialist AI-artists that will do wonders with AI plus Photoshop (remember when Photoshop was created? a similar revolution is coming).

Similarly, instead of just pasting from the SRD, we can have multiple iterations of the same rules, endlessly refined and corrected. We can create a commented SRD, with criticism from multiple authors. We can use likes/dislikes to make a "popular vote" D&D, or cut down useless rules to create a minimalist D&D. The Black Hack, Knave, and Dungeon World are some examples on how to build creative stuff over existing games.

Separating the wheat from the chaff will always be a challenge - and THIS is what we should be thinking about, IMO.

AI, ethics, and legality

Not exactly a conclusion, but a few random thoughts.

I dislike the idea of using art from other people without giving them due credit and compensation on principle. AI art uses existing art in their algorithms in this precise manner. I do not think, however, that this is (or should be) illegal - at worst, it is tantamount to tracing, and it creates results that are often more original than tracing.

I also think that the advance of this technology is inevitable. And, because of this, I think we should make sure that everyone has equal access to these tools. Instead of creating hurdles, I say let's spread this far and wide. Instead of letting a few mega-corps benefit from the technology, we could make it available for small artists, creators, etc. Also, make it transparent o we know which artists are being used by AI... whenever possible.

(Also: things will move a lot faster than you think. I would bet that the majority of new RPGs published in December 2023 will be created with some AI assistance. In some cases, we might not even notice).  

Intellectual property, wether you like it or not, benefits mega-corps more than it benefits artists. Disney has lobbyists to make IP last forever, and lawyers to enforce IP. I have about a dozen books... if there was no such thing as IP, I think I would still have some readers supporting me - AND I might be publishing D&D stuff, even a "corrected" version of 5e if I could. I would hire an actual artist to make the cover.

I don't make a living on IP, and I understand the concern of those who do. I do not think we can regulated ourselves out of this mess. Instead, I think more regulation might make things worse - Disney might no longer need as many artists but will always use lots of lawyers.

There is much more to discuss about this topic. For now, I'll just say that I feel that we are jumping into a hole without bothering to measure its depth.

Related posts:

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Railroading paradoxes (plus: diegetic RR, meta-RR, ticking bombs, good and bad RR, deus ex machina, etc.)

Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome (Justin Alexander).

The first railroading paradox is this: if you negate a player's choice to go into a dead end, you're railroading. But once you reach the dead end, there is no more choice.

And that's okay. In order to make choices, the possibility of making a bad choice must be on the table. Enough bad choices and there are no more choices to make. If necessary, make a new character. In short, past choices can negate future choices.

(I'll use RR as an abbreviation for railroading from now on)

Allowing players to put themselves into bad situations is one of the most important protections against RR. Anyone can see how unfair and frustrating is to save your beloved villain from the PCs with dice-fudging and "deus ex machina" only to have him reappear later. But there are lots of GMs who think it is fine to save the PCs from the villain in a similar way. It is not. It is equally RR. You're negating player’s (bad) choices.

Choice for the players usually means they are able to risk and even sacrifice their characters.

[Notice: I do not mean random TPKs are mandatory. I mean the players get to choose. It is okay if you all agree beforehand that PCs can never die, or that they can only die when willingly risking their lives for something they believe in. As long as everyone knows what kind of game they are playing - see the next section about "social contracts"].

What is "player choice"?

Player choice is role-playing their PCs however they see fit. This usually includes risking and even sacrificing their characters when they find adequate. Taking this choice away is RR.

It does not necessarily include choosing elements that are extraneous to their character's actions. HOWEVER, before the game begins, or when there is no role-playing occurring, it is often a good idea (sometimes even necessary) to allow  players to choose elements that are extrinsic to their characters: for example, "what about playing a campaign in the northern wastes next month"?

Notice that this "social contract" limits future choice even in character actions: if a player agrees to play a campaign in the northern wastes and the first action his PC takes is going south, he is either trying to make a new character, or a certified a-hole (and maybe you should find a new player).

This is another example of how past choices can negate future choices.

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina [...] is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence. (source)

I think this is an important aspect of RR - especially the unlikely part. In this context, a potential TPK is a "seemingly unsolvable problem" that the GM can solve with RR.

Diegetic railroading and meta railroading; explicit railroading

Diegetic RR happens "in-fiction": help suddenly arrives out of nowhere, etc. Related to "deus ex machina".

Meta RR happens in the game mechanic - you fudge the dice, alter AC or HP, etc., to save the PCs or to let a villain escape.

Both are similar in that "the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome". I find diegetic RR preferable because at least is obvious and honest, while meta-RR is closer to cheating.

And explicit, direct RR is better than covert RR, in general. Maybe "a green dragon attacks you on your way to town" is barely even RR, but "a green dragon attacks a neighboring town and you must go there to fight it or the king will throw you into prison..." is. In both cases, the PCs have no choice but to face the dragon, but the first one at least removes the illusion of choice (see here).

Good and bad railroading

RR is usually a bad thing IMO, but not all RR is created equal. The worst forms of railroading are the most unlikely and also the most independent from player's choices. "Rock falls, everyone dies" is a good example.

On the other hand, if help suddenly appears, right after the PCs have just made an ally in the last scene, it barely strains credulity. And a rock that falls because the PCs failed to disarm a dangerous trap is not RR.

Notice that I'm NOT saying that RR is okay if the players do not notice it (it is quite the opposite, as seem above). It is not. I'm saying that might be some gray zone that deserves to be considered.

There is some aspect of unfairness in railroading. This might deserve a post of its own.

Consequences are not railroading

"If you don't take the quest, the king throws you in prison until you comply" is probably one of the lowest form of railroading that can be found in old adventures (and Descent Into Avernus).

However, having the king throw the PCs in prison because they committed a crime is not RR, it is the consequence - not the denial - of player choice.

Acts of God and Force Majeure are not RR

Earthquakes and tsunamis are not RR. They generate preconceived outcomes and are immune to player choice, but are not made "in order to" negate player choice. Same applies to plagues, riots, revolutions, and ancient red dragons destroying entire cities.

Ticking bombs, the end of the world, an another RR paradox

To avoid a "schrodinger's dungeon" or  "schrodinger's sandbox" (e.g., a place that is frozen in time until the PCs enter, which I call "railroading in time"), it is often using to have "ticking bombs". "The villagers were captured and might be killed in a week if not rescued".

This feels a bit like a RR, but noticed the PCs usually still have a choice. Let the villagers perish, etc. But what if they know the villagers will be used in a ritual to summon the demon lord and end the world?

"If you don't take this quest, the world will end" sounds even more extreme than being thrown in prison. However, if somehow feels less RR to have a lich planning to destroy the world than to have a king throw the PCs in prison until the perform a service.

(BTW: I have recently played a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign that did exactly that in its finale - either the PCs act in X hours, or the world ends).

Why is that? I think it might have something to do with affecting the PCs directly and specifically. Also, in D&D worlds it feels more likely to have a world-shattering peril than to have a king that can easily overpower the PCs but also needs them for a random task.

The "end of the world" scenario is an extreme case and should be used with great care IMO. Still, it is NOT RR if the PCs still have choices.... and the possibility of failure.

Affecting the PCs directly is dangerously close to RR

A heart attack cannot be controlled by the PC's actions. But you can easily see how giving a random heart attack to a PC can become a tool for the worst forms of railroading. 

Likewise, being thrown in prison for a crime you didn't commit is iffy unless you've made some enemies before.

Every time the PCs are affected directly by seemingly random events, the GM must be extra careful to avoid railroading.

In any case, the GM can avoid direct RR by using tools such as social contracts and random tables ("we are playing a realistic Pendragon campaign, after 40 y.o. your knights have 1% chance of sudden death every year").

In conclusion: sometimes, the GM must negate player choice

In conclusion:

- RR is anti-RPG since it limits the possibilities of role-playing (literally, it limits the capabilities of players playing their roles).
- Player choice can (and often should) be negated because of past choices, including previous actions and social contracts.
- As a rule of thumb, the GM should not negate player choice without their knowledge.

Related posts:

Thursday, December 08, 2022

5-Minute Dungeon (and some D&D reflections)

This is not about RPGs. This is my first post (AFAICR) about a board game (that is obviously inspired by D&D and similar games). I'm not a specialist and I'll be brief.

5-Minute Dungeon is a fun cooperative game for 2 to 5 players. It is simple, fast (you're supposed to win/lose in five minutes, although we often ignore this when playing with children), and amazingly "balanced".

You have ten characters to choose from: Ranger/Huntress, Valkyrie/Paladin, Wizard/Sorceress, Barbarian/Gladiator, Ninja/Thief. The party has to face a series of challenges (mainly people, monsters, and obstacles, but also occasional events and mini-bosses) to get to the boss. If the boss is defeated within 5 minutes, you win.

Each pair has a customized deck that focuses on one special "skill" (basically melee, defense, ranged, spells and acrobatics), and some special cards that help them overcome challenges (for example, Wizard/Sorceress have a fireball card to defeat monsters, and Ninja/Thief have a Snipe card to defeat a person). Since pairs are printed on both sides of the same "base" (pictured below), you will not get redundant decks (there is a single green deck for Ranger/Huntress, etc.)

In addition, each character has a special ability which requires discarding part of your hand (usually, a to defeat people, monsters, obstacles, or to allow other players to draw cards, or stop time, etc.).

The abilities, cards, powers and colors (red for the martials, green for nature, yellow for the divine, etc.) feel thematically appropriate, and there is even a vaguely hourglass-shaped box to go with it. Lots of cool "Easter eggs", not only for D&D fans but also about movies, videogames, and internet memes (even some that children should not understand).

It made me wonder why D&D cannot get to this level of balance and straightforwardness. We could, for example, have fewer classes like 2e (warriors, priests, etc.) with sub-classes, each focused on a type of challenge - with some "deck building" to customize the classes (by picking skills and feats).

You see, 5e has three "pillars", supposedly: exploration, interaction and combat. If you think about it, it has also three environments: city, wilderness, underground. Combining them will give you different scenarios: fighting in the wild favors ranged attacks, since you can see your opponent from a distance, etc. There are also three main approaches to problem solving, basically sword, skill and spell. Then there are additional parts such as divine magic, psionics, etc.

One thing 5MD has that is lacking in D&D is the idea that magic cannot solve everything, leaving space for other types of characters to shine. For example, if you say spells cannot create food easily, but the ranger can easily forage when outdoors. Or that no spell is better at killing a single target than an awesome fighter with a sharp sword. A tough sell for some D&D players, but might be worth considering.

[D&D offers some solutions for that. For example, magic is available for everyone in the form of potions, magic items, etc. Spells are limited, so maybe having a thief by your side is useful if you face multiple repeated locked doors and chests. And 4e attempted to give PCs clearer niches and approaches - a worthy goal, even if the result didn't please me.]

Anyway, it's a fun little game, especially for playing with children ages 8+.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Alternate Magic is GOLD!

ALTERNATE MAGIC is now a gold bestseller!

You can check half of it in the free previews - if you like what you see, you'll probably enjoy the book!

ALTERNATE MAGIC is a collection of mechanics for old school and OSR systems.

If you like "Basic" games and its clones (Old School Essentials, Basic Fantasy RPG, Labyrinth Lord, etc.), or even other OSR games, and want to expand magic options, you'll certainly enjoy this one!

In these pages, you'll find:
- New spellcasting classes;
- Flexible spells, suited for any spell level.
- Blood magic, random magic, and spell points.
- Cantrips and rituals.
- Alternatives for the cleric class.
- ...and many other tools.
The book is entirely modular! Each chapter can be used by itself or in combination with other chapters. For example, you might use blood magic with the traditional spellcasting system or combine it with flexible magic. You can use random magic with spell points or cantrips, or by itself. You might use the new classes without changing anything else in your game.

If you buy any of my books, check your e-mail for news, discounts, and so on!

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Quick Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals

Here are some deals, FWIW.

Frog God probably has the biggest sale ATM. Some titles - both 5e and OSR - are 60% off. Not sure what to pick, since I'm not into megadungeons and detailed settings. Maybe Monstrosities and Tehuatl.

Some of my own books are included in the sale (I don't know how they chose it).

Old School Feats and Alternate Magic are compatible with B/X and OSE, BFRPG, etc. They add lots of options to your games without getting to AD&D/RC levels of complexity, and you can check the free previews in the site to read almost half the books.

If you're into 5e, my two 5e books are also on sale (weapons and armor).

I also have a couple of "get everything" bundle for 50% off, but these are not Black Friday deals:

And here are some deals I've recommended in the past and are currently on sale:

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The B/X paradox (also: the AD&D paradox, minimum viable D&D)

The B/X paradox is that B/X is both one of my favorite RPGs - maybe the greatest - but I can also think of a dozen games that I like better. These games, however, are mostly directly derived from B/X.

B/X is, IMO:

- Very easy to improve,  customize, or house rule.
- In many ways superior to AD&D, 3e, 4e, 5e, etc., and even the RC.
- In many ways inferior to its streamlined/modernized versions: BFRPG, LotFP, ACKS, OSE and (dare I say it?) Dark Fantasy Basic.

There is not much more to it. B/X is a diamond in the rough. I am often playing some version of it... but ALWAYS with more stuff added, and NEVER exactly as written.

So B/X is also the most heavily house-ruled system I play, despite being a favorite. When playing most other editions of D&D, I use fewer house rules.

Ugly AI art.

Here is another paradox: while I like B/X neoclones more than most games, I hate it when they stick too close to B/X. If you're keeping it as originally written, what is the point? But I also dislike games that change B/X so much that they become incompatible (e.g., changing the number of ability scores or making all abilities "roll under").

So, at the bare minimum, I expect a B/X clone to "fix" thieves' skills and weapons. I would also like to see some solutions for arbitrary saving throws and race-as-class, in addition to the over-reliance on tables (XP, STs, skills, etc.) - but that is a matter of taste. On the other hand, I expect it to be compatible with existing modules, monsters, etc. with minimal tweaking.

Finally, here is my AD&D paradox: I think AD&D is messy and unnecessarily complex (when compared to B/X) and I would never play it as written (not even Gygax did), but I really enjoymany bits from AD&D, and all B/X clones that try to add AD&D stuff to the game: races separated from class, more classes, monsters (including demons), stronger fighters (better THAC0), multiple attacks, thieves with d6 HD, and so on. Same goes for the Rules Cyclopedia.

I think the easiest way to explain is that: B/X is close to a "minimum viable D&D", where every mechanic has a clear purpose. It still has some redundant parts (and some missing parts, IMO; I think every D&D should have a ranger or other way to meaningfully raise your chances at exploring the wilderness), but it does a great job overall. 

AD&D - and every other edition of D&D - also contain that MVD&D, but it is much harder to find under all the spare parts (and not all spare parts are working properly, e.g., weapons versus armor). OD&D could play a similar part if it had better organization. Holmes might be an even simpler D&D, but it lacks some of the parts I consider "minimal" (for example, a sword doing more damage than a dagger).

FWIW, Dark Fantasy Basic is my attempt of improving on the "MV D&D": streamlined skills and saves, ranger-like abilities, etc. 

And Old School Feats and Alternate Magic - both fully compatible with B/X and its clones - are good examples on how to add some fiddly bits to your games without getting to AD&D/RC levels of complexity.

I short - since I like SOME spare parts but not others, B/X remains my favorite game to customize. At least until I manage to publish my minimalist B/X... (the beta version is here).

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Milestones with different XP tracks (B/X)

Just a simple thought exercise...

I prefer using milestones instead of tracking XP in my games. With different XP tracks, this can become hard. The table below notes 55 milestones that guarantee that someone is levelling up whenever a new milestone is reached (provided there is a PC of the appropriate class; e.g., the 55th milestone makes a difference only for MUs).

It is up to the GM when to give the first milestone (thus getting the thief to level 2). After that, one milestone per dungeon or significant goal is appropriate. Or in whatever pace the GM wishes. The point is that no individual XP tracking is required.

Alternatively, if the GM wants to give away XP per session/dungeon/challenge, the table below suggests an appropriate amount. E.g., if the PCs have about 500,000 XP, give them 20,000 XP for the next milestone. 

If you prefer a formula to a table use, the 10% method. Start with 100 XP and raise it to 200 XP after the PCs reached 2000, then 300 at 3000 XP, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, 900, 1000, 2000, 3000, etc. The idea is to give away about 10% of the current (average) XP but disregard all digits except the first one: for example, if the PCs have an average of 4450 XP they get 400 XP per milestone (and not 445). This progression is granular enough to keep PCs leveling at different paces. Notice that all PCs get the same XP, roughly based on their average XP (and milestones should take this average into account - defeating a dozen goblins is no challenge for a party with 50,000 average XP).

Come to think of it, the formula is a lot easier than using the table.

Would I use this? No, I prefer using unified XP, as noted in my house rules:
Here is what I've suggested in Old School FeatsIf you prefer unified XP tables, we recommend using the magic-user table for all classes, adding a few extra feats for Clerics, Thieves and Fighters. Thieves also get 1d6 HP per level, like clerics. Clerics need no further enhancements. This changes some assumptions but is still balanced in my opinion. If you prefer unified XP tables, we recommend using the magic-user table for all classes, adding a few extra feats for Clerics, Thieves and Fighters. Thieves also get 1d6 HP per level, like clerics. Clerics need no further enhancements. This changes some assumptions but is still balanced in my opinion.
Anyway, just a random idea. If it is not clear enough it is because I never used it; maybe someone else can develop it further.

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Three Hearts and Three Lions

Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) is classic fantasy novel written by Poul Anderson. It is also the very first book in the Appendix N - for alphabetical reasons, but still hugely influential to D&D (and to Michael Moorcock, one of my fantasy writers, also in the appendix N) . It is the main source of the original idea of alignment, and probably where D&D paladins and trolls come from.

It is also a great book, well worth the read, even if you're not exploring the origins of D&D.

The book tells the story of Holger Carlsen, a Danish engineer that gets transported from World War II (where he is fighting Nazis) to another universe. Here, there is another war going on: between the forces of Law and Chaos. Chaos is comprised of elves, fairy, sorcerers and trolls, while Law is in need of a true champion - who might be Holger himself.

From there on, Holger spends most of the book travelling around with two local companions (a dwarf and a "swan maiden"), going through many adventures that are only barely connected (often verging on the picaresque), and trying to find a reason for his predicament, a way to get back to his own world, or both. There is magic, dragons, giants, and magic swords - drawing upon German and English myths, Dunsany, Tolkien (the "riddle" scene seems to be lifted almost entirely from the Hobbit), Shakespeare, etc. This is traditional fantasy - at its best.

Most of the book has a bit of a "young adult" vibe. It feels shallow (and a bit slow) at first, but pleasing to read, with loads of humor, adventure, romance, and so on. It takes a deep dive by the end of the book, making the journey exponentially more interesting. Some people will find the ending a bit abrupt, but for me, once we can see the whole picture, there is no further need to expand on the details of Holger's story.

In short, this is a classic. It doesn't quite reach the "favorite" level for me (which includes Tolkien, Moorcock, Dunsany, Poe, Lovecraft and GRRM), but it certainly belong in the top fantasy classics, well above average even for the Appendix N. 

When I finished reading, I immediately picked "The Broken Sword", which has a different tone altogether - more bloody, epic, and tragic. If you prefer that to this adventurous vibe, it is also worth the read (and probably a review of its own somewhere along the line).

Note: the book apparently has too versions. This is from mine: 

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Sandbox quest, Part II

Part I here. Still looking for cool dungeons, ruins and encounters to scatter into my new sandbox campaign.

I'm using Dark Fantasy Basic with a few changes, but any OSR adventure will do (and even some 5e -see below!).

As I've said, it's a lot harder than I expected - I almost gave up in favor of just proposing a series of adventures.

I'm currently on session 3, and it's been going well. It was a hard work but not that I've made a map an chose a few dungeons, things are starting to run themselves.

Well, here is my second attempt at finding cool locations and good hexcrawls.

FWIW, I'll also note that I've written my own OSR adventure, The Wretched Hive. I already ran it with this group. It contains the stuff I find important in these modules: coherence, different monsters, variety, etc. If your tastes are similar to mine, check it out!

Anyway, here is batch two:

Isle of the Unknown: This looks perfect! Weird monsters, forests, coasts, creativity, no orcs, goblins or skeletons (he skipped the familiar stuff on purpose). The art is amazing. Good map and well organized. I like the Greco-Roman flavor too. Unfortunately, it is all too random and lacking coherence (it has thematic coherence - statues, zodiac signs, etc. - but not much about the society, factions. etc.). Hexes are barely related, towns are described in an incredibly terse fashion, monsters rarely get a word about behavior or languages. This is "funhouse hexcrawling" to the max. Not what I want right now. Well... maybe use some bits.

Morgansfort - This has been recommended repeatedly. A free BFRPG hexcrawl! With a well-made home-base, maps, and three dungeons! The dungeons, however, are full of the stuff I dislike: a succession of goblins, kobolds, orcs, skeletons and giant monsters. Well, it is a start, and I like the town itself, maybe I can ignore or change some of the dungeons. So... Yes.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan - This has a great balance of vanilla, classic, weird, and flavorful.  It is small and fits the theme. I'm looking at the 5e version, which also has some great art (but no PDF version, and I'm playing online). So, I might get the original, or use the one I have. Yes!

Gregorius21778: The Four Flames & the Final Archway - The author sent me a copy so I could check this one out. And it checks a lot of boxes: it has a naturalistic vibe, it somehow feels like a real place instead of a collection of goblins and orcs (there are none of those here). The enemies are bats, worms, things you might find in a cave - in addition to the foul things that haunt the place. Yes!

BTW, he also sent me 20 Sacred Sites (yes!) and suggested 20 Encounters in the Ruins of the Elder Beings (maybe), which are decent additions to scatter in a sandbox. I've included the first in my folder (some entries are more useful and interesting than the ones in Isle of the Unknown, above), and I'm torn on the second one - it is good, but I feel I need to add a cave map (and maybe some additional stuff) to make it work properly.

Coming up: Some DCC RPG modules, and more! Leave any suggestions in the comments!

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Saturday, October 29, 2022

House of the Dragon (season one review)

At this point, you have probably decided for yourself if you're going to watch it or not. I did and I thought it was great. I guess I could end here if that is all you want to know. It is on par, or maybe even better, than decent fantasy series like Witcher and Sandman, and well above Wheel of Time (I'll not say much about Rings of Power because I'm having a hard time powering through the first episodes).

However after my negative review of Fire & Blood, I thought I might add some positive notes. The series covers the second half of the blood, apparently.

Let's make this clear: this is nothing like season one of a Game of Thrones. The story is significantly less interesting. However, the worse aspects of the book are toned down: no lascivious dwarves and few gratuitous sex and violence scenes. Few scenes about taxes and building roads. No multiple narrators.

The pacing is a bit weird. The stakes are too high, too soon: a tournament ends up with multiple gruesome deaths, and later on two nobles fight on another in front of the heiress for little reason, and one ends up dead. It is like being virgin in an orgy (which also happens in the series too). It is too much in-fighting for a peaceful kingdom. The impact of violence and war later on is lessened because of that.

I've said about the book that "there are not many interesting characters to root for (or to hate; everyone is kinda dumb and evil)". Now, in the series, the characters are still weak, spoiled, scheming, violent, or have some other severe flaw. There is no Ned Stark on Jon Snow, and no one is witty and charismatic as Tyrion.

There is one notable exception: Paddy Considine is AMAZING as king Viserys. A weak king with no exceptional courage, wits, strength Benjamin... or health, but iron bound to his duty to keep the peace at all costs. You resent him for his lack of decisiveness and bad decisions, but you end up admiring his commitment. The best actor in the season by far. 

(Lots of cool versions of Elric of Melniboné [and maybe a Corum, hehe] vying for power... makes me wonder why no Elric series... oh well, I digress).

On the other hand, I admire the series for having no clear "good side". The show certainly seems to take a side (even "changing" some events from the book in favor of the "heroes"), but the "villains" are often misguided or have at the very least decent excuses for their actions ("we need a coup or they'll kill all your children", "that is what the king would want", etc.). And the "heroes" grow from their pettiness but never cease to be flawed. There is no easy answers here... which makes the show that more interesting. This time, it really feels like anyone could win.

The worldbuiling is good as always. GRRM knows this stuff. Which is why I like his other books, and will probably keep reading despite a few hiccups. The rest cast is good, the production is great, etc. The battles are decent, and there are plenty of dragons, but this season is a warm up for future strife - I feel there is a lot more violence and dragon-fighting coming. And these could be some of the coolest dragons ever seen on screen.

The show has a few flaws - confusing time jumps with unexplained events, some "tell don't show", a couple of very dark scenes, a few rushed events, etc., but overall it is really worth watching. 

Ideas for your D&D games? You bet!

It is impressive that they managed to created such a great show after the debacle of the last seasons of GoT (and even managed to create some decent connections with the original series). 

This might be the greatest fantasy series of 2022.

Unfortunately, it will take a couple of years for next season (apparently, there will be a total of four). Well, at least the ending is already written - and we might watch it on TV before getting Winds of Winter!

Friday, October 28, 2022

My favorite B/X house rules / changes / bits from other editions [2022]

So, here is a list if things I like about modern D&D (or OSR games) that I don't find in B/X. I have a "fix" for each of these, which I'll explain below.
  • Race separated from class.
  • Advantage/disadvantage.
  • Backgrounds.
  • Critical hits.
  • Streamlined saves.
  • Unified XP.
  • Streamlined skills.
  • Feats.
  • Weapon details (especially 3e/4e), without going overboard (AD&D).
  • I like "metaclasses" from 2e (warrior includes fighters, paladins, etc.), and also new classes such as the 4e warlord.
  • Alternatives to Vancian Magic (spell points or spell roll)
Some of these require completely new systems, while others are fixed with a couple of paragraphs. My own retroclone, Dark Fantasy Basic, tries to "fix" all at once. But each can be resolved separately.

[The reason I've compiled these formally is because I'm starting a new campaign].

Let's see...

Ugly AI art
  • Race separated from class.
This is relatively easy. B/X races have limited powers. Just let humans add +2 to a couple of ability scores (or a couple of feats) due to their "adaptability", while Halflings and dwarves get +2 to all saving throws, and all demi-humans get their usual languages, infravision, keen senses, etc. Now, demi-humans must pick a class, identically to humans. You might limit some combinations; it seems fitting to me that humans can be anything, dwarves can be fighters and clerics, halflings fighters and thieves, and elves fighters and MUs, but it all depends on the setting.

I have started writing a small PDF on that subject too (with about 20 races, from vanilla to very weird), but not sure where it is going.

  • Advantage/disadvantage.
This is readily adaptable from 5e (i.e., throw 2d20 and pick best/worst). If you dislike it, you can add a +4/-4 modifier due to circumstances. It is almost the same.

  • Backgrounds.
Another effortless addition. Just choose a relevant background (or "profession" in AD&D terms) and you get adequate knowledge, and also advantage (see above) in appropriate circumstances. Tons of flavor, zero complexity. This is from Dark Fantasy Basic:
1 – Peasant/Slave: Folk Hero, Escaped Slave, Village Champion.
2 – Military: Hero of the Great War, Hedge Knight, Sword for Hire.
3 – Nobility: Fallen Aristocrat, Second Son, Usurped Heir.
4 – Clergy: Herald of the Dying Gods, Former Cultist of the Great Old Ones, Axe Preacher.
5 – Outlander: Desert Nomad, Barbarian of the Frozen Wastes, Clan Outcast.
6 – Criminal: Professional Assassin, Sly Pickpocket, Charlatan.
7 – Artist: Minstrel, Wandering Actor, Circus Freak.
8 – Artisan: Blacksmith, Leatherworker, Tinker.
9 – Commerce: Merchant Traveler, Fence, Trader of Exotic Goods.
10 – Arcane: Scholar of Forgotten Lore, Diabolist, Shaman.


  • Critical hits.
I've been doing some play-testing with this one. Here is what I'm currently using.

  • Streamlined saves.
I do not need five vaguely defined saves. I am using a single save (roll 1d20+level, target 18), and I'm considering adding dex/wis/con modifier depending on the case.

  • Unified XP.
We would have to "balance" the four main classes to use the same XP tables for all. This is especially important for me since I'm testing milestone leveling.

Here is what I've suggested in Old School FeatsIf you prefer unified XP tables, we recommend using the magic-user table for all classes, adding a few extra feats for Clerics, Thieves and Fighters. Thieves also get 1d6 HP per level, like clerics. Clerics need no further enhancements. This changes some assumptions but is still balanced in my opinion.

Notice I also changed the cleric a bit.

If you don't use feats, just give +2 to one ability score instead.

I'm not sure this makes all classes perfectly balanced, but I'm certain it eventually makes classes MORE balanced than the original.

  • Streamlined skills.
Again, Target 18 works perfectly for thief skills. Add dex/wis if you want - I think thieves deserve the boost. Also, only a natural 1 triggers potential disaster

In addition, the various d6 tests (forage, hunt, find direction, find secret doors, etc.) can be replaced by skills (nature, perception, even persuasion). How to pick a new skill? Spend a feat to get a bonus equal to half your level.

Combat and spellcasting can be replaced by skills too (which I did in Dark Fantasy Basic - see below for spellcasting).

  • Feats.
I wrote a small book about that. Half of the book is in the preview, you can check it for free. Feats are a versatile way of adding unique features to PCs. Just be careful with how you use them. Read on for a bit more on the subject.

  • Weapon details (especially 3e/4e), without going overboard (AD&D).
This is something I have yet to tackle again. For now, I just ignore the "slow" tag. Here is a post about that.

  • "Metaclasses" from 2e (warrior includes fighters, paladins, etc.)
Yes, four classes are enough for me. Rangers, paladins, etc,. are "class packages" in Old School Feats. This way, character creation is a lot faster, and you only worry about your subclass on level 2. The warlord is included as a class package too.

  • Alternatives to Vancian Magic (spell points or spell roll)
I also wrote a small book on that too. It has lots of alternatives to choose from. Lately, I've been using spell points from that book. 

Also, been considering Target 18 spells, which is really simple and diminishes the power of high-level casters a bit, since they learn fewer spells.

Is this still B/X?

Yes! Or at least compatible. I use the same weapons, monsters, magic items, spells, and most procedures. I borrow liberally from other games too (AD&D, 2e, some stuff from the RC,  BFRPG and DCC adventures, etc.).

But why B/X?

Even with all these changes, my game is significantly simpler than 5e and even AD&D. I have enjoyed fiddly games, but I just want something easier to run. Creating a 5e or AD&D PC takes a while, and my players forgot half their features by level 10 in my 5e campaigns. So, it is also a lot easier on my players.


This are the house rules I'm currently using. Looks like a lot, but their explanation fits a single post. As I've noticed, most - but not all - of this is in Dark Fantasy Basic, which I have been trying to expand for a while. Or maybe I should write a "B/X house rules" PDF? Let's see where it goes.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Sandbox quest

So I have started a new sandbox campaign. Something in the style of West Marches. The PCs are explorers from a distant land, that arrived recently by ship. I've written some lore and things look interesting... Jungles, pirates, many cultures, castles, factions, lost civilizations, shades of gray... Will share with you later as we go. 

I'm using Dark Fantasy Basic with a few changes.

I have a nice overview of the setting, and I've been looking for cool dungeons, ruins and encounters to scatter into my sandbox. 

Well, it's a lot harder than I expected. 

First, let me tell you of some past campaigns...

I liked CoS and ToA despite the terrible organization. They have BOTH a coherent "narrative" and a sandbox setting, (mostly) railroad-free. They are, however, too verbose and extensive (and somewhat flawed). Interesting nonetheless.

I ran the entirety of Tales of the Demon Lord, each adventure is about 2-4 pages. It works well, but it lacks some coherence and the sandbox aspect. 

Before that, I've ran a couple of campaigns I created, but they were mostly GoT-style intrigue.

Now I want to build my own thing. Start with a home base (in my setting, the "Seven Castles" in the shoreline of a mostly unknown continent) and let PCs explore, interact, etc. I really like that setup for several reasons I might explain later. BTW, the PCs are now in a tropical jungle area, which makes me rule out some modules I've found (e.g., deserts, snow...) - or at least save them for later.

Since I cannot find any other big campaigns that interests me in the OSR sphere (except megadungeons), I thought I'd start looking for good OSR adventures and go from there.

Well, all I could find until now is rooms and rooms full of orcs, skeletons and giant bees in succession, with little rime or reason. 

So: I'm going through all my PDFs to find stuff I can use. Mini-dungeons, ruins, villages, locations, and even full hex-crawl modules that are portable enough (and not dominated by orcs and goblins).

Yes, I'd like recommendations, especially if free. But, for now, I'm taking a quick look at a few PDFs to see if they fit the bill. I'll also go through some recommendations I already got online, and whether I'll pursue them or not. Anything that looks good goes to my sandbox folder...

I'll say I'm not particularly interested in:

* Megadungeons.
* Orcs, goblins, etc., and skeletons living in random rooms for no reason (unless it is an undead-themed place, for example).
* Generators to create my own setting (I'm doing that already and I already have plenty of B/X random tables).

I'll also note that I've written my own OSR adventure, The Wretched Hive (currently on sale). I already ran it with this group. It contains the stuff I find important in these modules: coherence, different monsters, variety, etc. If your tastes are similar to mine, check it out!

Anyway, here is the first bunch:

* Qelong: this module is pretty cool, it has everything I wanted - coherence, creativity, a sandbox aspect, terseness, a decent size... and some jungles. Alas, we've already played it. If you haven't, it is worth checking out. So, nope, but maybe check for unused encounters.

* Monkey Business - a jungle hexcrawl by my friend Jens (The Disoriented Ranger). This is more "toolbox" (lots of procedures, random tables, etc.) than a finished piece that I can add to my setting. It is full of interesting ideas and weird encounters, however. It has a very gonzo vibe and relies mostly on intelligent monkeys - which I'm not sure I want to add to my setting (but I can easily replace for something else). I can certainly use some jungle encounters and tables (not to mention mushrooms, aliens, villages, tribes, etc.), so... Yes!

B2 The Keep on the Borderlands - A classic. Decided to skip for now because of the description: "The Caves of Chaos themselves showed off the introductory nature of B2 in another way: They're pretty much a who's who of the humanoids you could meet in Basic D&D, with separate caverns inhabited by kobolds, orcs, goblins, ogres, hobgoblins, bugbears, gnolls, and even a minotaur. Gygax later admitted that the result wasn't "ecologically correct," but that wasn't really the point.".". No, not what I'm looking for right now. Nope.

*  The Towers of the Weretoads - A very small location, very terse, PWYW, cool monsters, no orcs... It is free and could fit anywhere. Yes!

Wreck on the Reef - A blog post (from https://clericswearringmail.blogspot.com/search/label/maps and adventures) describing a wrecked ship. It has some authentic "wrecked ship" feel - with a decent amount of empty space, which I like. Too many monsters (although they are fitting - sharks, giant crabs, etc.), which I can edit out. Fits my theme perfectly (the PCs are currently on a ship and the campaign is partly coastal). Yes!

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God - this one seems perfect. Theme, size... also a classic. I haven't bought and I have hundreds of unread modules... but it looks enticing and not expensive, so... Maybe?

Next: maybe some BFRPG, DCC, and One-page Dungeon stuff. Plus, give me your suggestions!

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