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.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

The God That Crawls (actual play review)

The God That Crawls*, is a LotFP adventure by James Raggi (if you don't know LoTFP, read this). Here is the blurb:

A murdering cult.
A religious order dedicated to protecting sacred history.
An ancient catacomb full of danger and reward.
The God that Crawls

A dungeon chase adventure for characters of levels 1–2 for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing and other traditional role-playing games.

Why did I buy/read this? I find many LotFP adventures interesting, including Better Than Any Man, which you can get for free. So I've gathered some for my current sandbox, including this one. I ran it using my Dark Fantasy Basic.


Like many LotFP adventures, this has awesome ideas, mixed with strange stuff. It seems like they always intended to do something novel instead of the tired "goblins and skeletons in adjacent rooms" that you can find in many D&D adventures, and I commend them for that. 

On the other hand, this taste for novelty sometimes makes the adventures become "anti-adventures" - instead of something that is easy to use, they become partially exciting, partially unusable.

For example: instead of providing hooks, this book says:
The hook or motivation to get the player
characters to the church is up to the Referee,
who would know how to get the players
involved better than any adventure writer. No
hooks that cast suspicion on the priest or villagers
before the adventure begins should be
used, as the natural paranoia of adventurers
will be in effect anyway.
Father Bacon is the leader of both the church,
the community around it [...] 
He will be very adamant about not allowing
visitors beyond the altar of the church. [...] 
It is perfectly possible (even likely with
some groups) that player characters will
not fall for any of the tricks and will not
be trapped in the dungeon, especially if
the Referee seems a little too eager to get
them down there. No matter. If they just
walk away, they are leaving a lot of treasure
behind. If they do something rash
like slaughter the priest and/or a bunch
of villagers and walk away, they will have
the legitimate authorities after them
soon and that will be adventure enough.
Force nothing; this adventure provides
an environment and a handy guide for
resolving “What happens if…?” within
that environment. This adventure is not
a club with which to bludgeon players.

So, you need a strong motive to invade a church, that the book doesn't provide. On the other hand, if you do invade it, the book advises you that the PCs should be drugged or captured by troops and tossed into the dungeon. And if the PCs don't want to explore... eh, what can you do? Maybe choose another adventure.

[In practice, Raggi was partially right - the usual PC paranoia made sure that one PC insisted enough on exploring the catacombs that they convinced the priest. Had I followed the instructions to the letter, maybe the PC would have to choose violence against the priest or simply leaving.]

There is basically one monster and LOTS of treasure. It is an interesting setup, and GREAT for a change of pace. The monster is basically too strong for the PCs, and the fact that there is only one main, unique antagonist makes it feel "special".

The goal of this module is forcing the players to think about encumbrance, movement, and mapping. The life of the PCs depend on it. And there is more treasure and artifacts than the PCs can carry, making these choices really meaningful. If you play this module handwaving movement and encumbrance, you're missing half of the point.

However, there are so much gold and magic items (and most of them in a single location) that it makes them feel less special. Also, most are cursed or dangerous, to the point of saturation.

Books? Some will kill will with no save, others will curse you, and one will eventually destroy the universe. Scrolls will cause genocide across Europe if sold to the highest bidder. or give you +1 attack bonus for killing your parents. Magic weapon? Cursed. Statues? Cursed. Jewel? Feeds on blood or maybe sucks you into the void if you try to take it. A pile of excrement? Well, now that might be useful!

There are also ordinary potions and scrolls, and many items that the PCs will probably not be able to understand, carry or use.

In short, unless you have an easy way of identifying magic items (e.g., "make a spell saving throw", etc.), you'll need another session after the PCs have escaped to even start making sense of what they got. Or, if the PCs are creative and want to test the items on the spot, they'll probably pay dearly for it (and become discouraged fast).

And then there is stuff like this:
If at any point a character takes exactly 8
points of damage (at once or cumulative,
not 7 or less, not 9 or more, but at some
point has taken exactly 8 points) while on
the chariot, from any source, he dissipates
into a whirlwind of sorrow and pain. Any
player who laughs at this naturally without
prompting can dictate the results of any one
die throw in the future (do not reveal this
until the chariot stops). If it is the player
whose character has disintegrated that
laughs, he gets to determine the results of
any two die throws in the future (including
during new character creation).
Any players caught laughing insincerely
because they have read the adventure and
wish to get the bonus must paint their nose
yellow for the rest of the game session. If no
yellow substance suitable for this purpose
is available, one of that player’s character
ability scores, selected at random, will be
reduced to 3 until such time as the player
completes an entire session with a yellow painted
nose. Note this is a player-facing
effect and new characters suffer this fate
until the player complies.
I get that this is supposed to be humor... but it happens often, in random places, throughout the adventure.

Anyway, the actual dungeon is really good. It gives you a labyrinthine feeling right away, with all its passages, ups and downs, etc. Aside for a few situations where you just can't win (best not to engage at all), most objects are interesting and provide clues for the challenges ahead.

The map is decent (and good-looking) but I've found it hard to navigate due to the (baffling) use of roman numerals and shades of blue and green that look very similar on the screen (also, it is printed in black and white in other parts of the book). There are enough stairs that will make you flip back and forth constantly. Finding the way out took me a while. I misunderstood one door to be barred from the wrong side, but that's probably on me. 

In short: spend some time studying the maps before running this module.

If you want to tone things down, you can change some of this stuff or allow some saving throws, or roll to identify items... Alternatively, I think it would be fair to start with a hook that allows the players that they are going into a place full of stuff that might be better left buried, and that they must be incredibly careful when interacting with it.

The art in this product (by Jason Rainville) is awesome and flavorful.

The writing is good (if verbose), the backstory is great, and overall I'd recommend checking this out if you want to play something different than the usual stuff. I enjoyed running it and may even leave the players an opportunity to go back (they escaped with lots of treasure, so I'm not sure of what they're doing next).

OVERVIEW (explanation here):

Usable? Yes, with a bit of GM work it becomes a great adventure.

Inspiring? Definitely! Turns the idea of "monsters in the dungeon" on its head, it has great flavor and novelty.

Bloated? A bit. You could cut the page count by half if you wanted something more straightforward -although I'm sure there are people that enjoy the absurdist humor, the crazy ideas, etc..

Tiresome? No, except, again, for the "paint your nose yellow" ideas.

Clear? Yes, except maybe for the map.

In short: Awesome for a change of pace, requires some modification if you aren't interested in giving PCs of levels 1-2 the opportunity to become insanely rich, obtain legendary artifacts and potentially cause genocide and world destruction... or if you don't want to tell the players to put their character sheets in an envelope and leave in a public place yadda yadda. Way more interesting than most "vanilla" adventures.

* By purchasing stuff through affiliate links you're helping to support this blog.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Class x skill - some quick thoughts

It is a discussion almost as old as RPGs: is it better to have distinct classes (fighter, mage, thief, etc.) or different skills (combat, magic, stealth, nature, etc.) that everyone can access?

There are also hybrid approaches - my Dark Fantasy Basic, for example, uses classes as a "shortcut" for certain skills and feats. Elthos has classes that allow you to become better with certain skills. D&D 5e has skills that basically anyone can pick with the right feat, but certain classes get more/better skills.

It is a matter of taste, of course, but each method has its pros and cons.

Class-based games are great when your group is a "Fellowship of the Ring", where everyone has different abilities that are clearly defined by their archetypes: the warrior, the mage, the ranger, and even the elf, the hobbit, etc.

Skill-based games excel in a "Knights of the Round Table"* scenario. Everyone has similar abilities**, but some are more skilled than others. It is also perfect for teams of detectives, soldiers, criminals ***, etc.

* I've found a similar comparison reading "Of Dice and Men", which inspired this post. Expect a review soon!

** Notice that Arthurian knights are also archetypes - but maybe these archetypes are less obvious, and also maybe not as strong as the "knight" archetype that includes all of them.

*** And elves! If you have an "elf" class, a band of elves can become too uniform; it would be better if they had different classes or skills. If you have a single elf in the party, however, it can be an archetype in itself.

Skill-based games seem suited for realistic games - because in real life, archetypes are vague and abstract, while in myth they are much stronger. In any case, archetypes are incredibly useful to create characters - even in skill-based games, it is good to have some archetypes to play with (which justifies hybrid approaches).

In theory, you could use professions or specialties instead of archetypes to create a team: say, a quarterback, a running back, a receiver, a kicker, a punter, etc. However, this cannot be "classes" in most games because a profession or job is insufficient to describe a real person - unlike archetypes, that are much broader. In other words, even games that have "profession" as an important part of PC creation usually include skills.

Classes are also very useful for world building; creating skills for every NPC is a hassle, but it is great for "player character building".

On the other hand, one should be careful to avoid creating a boring/weak class system by adopting classes do not represent strong archetypes. For example, archetypes such as "Strong Guy" or "Half-caster" might make sense within the rules, but are not by themselves strong enough to represent a class.  A "Witcher" class, on the other hand, is only a strong archetype because it has been drilled into our mind through books, games and the TV series. Likewise for paladins (D&D), Night's Watch (ASOIAF), etc. They are familiar enough to represent archetypes of their own. If you do not have specific in-universe archetypes, considering falling back into more recognizable ones: "Arcane Warrior", Holy Knight, Ranger, etc.

My preference? As suggested above, I like the hybrid approach. Start with an archetype that suggests some skills (and feats, etc.) and then add more details as you go. This allows quickly PC (and NPC) creation while also leaving room for customization. This is the approach I used with Old School Feats. Here is one example:

So, the "class packages" are ready for you if you just want to choose one. But you can also customize your characters or create multi-classes by simply picking form other lists. For me, this is the best of both worlds.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Elthos RPG overview

Elthos RPG is a game written by my friend Mark Abrams (there is also a leaner Essentials version). It is free, so you can check it out for yourself if you prefer, or read my impressions before. Disclaimer: this brief overview was made at his suggestion. He calls it a "a medium-light weight traditional RPG". It makes sense. The game is not minimalist, but reasonable light - lighter than most versions of D&D, except maybe B/X.

It is one of those games that seems to be able to do much with little, thus punching a bit above its weight class (i.e., lots of possibilities for a reasonable page count).

Elthos has four basic classes, three basic attributes, only uses 1d6, but is in a sense similar to old-school D&D (in its races, classes, AC, skills, etc.).

Notice that this game does not advertise itself as being "compatible with OSR games" or any of that, but since I only play OSR games these days, I couldn't help but to notice that the numbers are apparently in the right ballpark - and I could see myself running old school adventures with this game (using some conversion).

It uses a simple matrix for all activities, which I'll reproduce here. I really like that this reminds me of Tagmar, but simpler and easier:

As you can see, to succeed you must roll 1d6+level against 3+level - thus giving you a 50% chance of beating someone of the same level. 

The "red" and "green" parts allow you to go above your below your level. So, if your attack level (AL) is 4, you'll not only hit every time against AC 1, but also get +1 damage - simple and effective. Conversely, if your AL is 1 and the AC 4, you can still hit, but you need a 6 AND you get -1 damage.

Attributes (Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom) range from 1 to 6, giving you a modifier from -2 to +2 to certain things (similarly to OD&D, but streamlined). The skill list is of a decent size but choosing skills feels too crunchy due to niche protection and balance (e.g., thieves cannot usually learn Heavy Weapons unless they multi-class, some skills costs more points than others, etc.)

Everything is measured in this 1-6 scale (although you can go further with certain races, etc.). Levels are also in the 1-6 range usually - level 10 creatures exist, but they are demigods. It feels pretty close to my ideal level of detail. This is a PC from the book:

This works very well in practice. For example, life points are equal to STRxlevel (plus some optional additions). A STR 5 fighter has about 25 LP at level 5. Not that different from OD&D, but the math is simpler.

Mystic Points (used for spells and powers) work in a very similar way. Magic is very simple and clever - each has a power level that measures learning, cost and effect. For example, a thunderbolt spell that causes 6d6 damage costs 6 MP top cast and 6 learning points to learn. "Mystic damage" is separated from life points (they affect the mind rather than the body) - which both makes mages better against magic and non-mages have good uses for these points as well. It works for spells, miracles, psionic powers, etc. Some spells are immensely powerful but fumbles are deadly.

This might be my favorite aspect of the book. It is both easier and more balanced and flexible than old school D&D. Spells are very potent, but a simple +1 to combat also makes a huge difference, so fighters are equally tough. Warriors are susceptible to magic but mages are also susceptible to swords.

The book also has extensive (and mostly optional) rules for tactical combat, for folks who enjoy that.

This RPG leans heavily on the idea that the GM should create his or her own stuff, up to a point. The monsters, spells, feats, etc., are very few, with minimalist descriptions. The idea seems to be using this in conjunction with your own creations (especially with the Mythos Machine - see below) or other games.

So, overall, would I play this game? Yes! I might be tempted to simplify it even further, doing away with classes and class skills. This is easy to do out of the box: just let everyone be a freeman and pick any skill they want.

Another interesting aspect is this: 
The Rules Book is designed as a stand alone product that can be used independently, but it is intended to be used in conjunction with The Mythos Machine, a web application that fully integrates the Elthos RPG Rules and provides World Building and Character Management Services (among other features). Together they form a powerful combination of fast-play and comprehensive computer support.
I've tried the app briefly (at Mark's suggestion), and it does seem very useful to create and save PCs, NPCs, and entire settings.

Anyway, you can access both the books and the app for free, so if this sounds interesting I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

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

Monday, January 23, 2023

A glance at Basic D&D, B/X, and some clones (LL, OSE, BFRPG, DFB, BECMI and others)

This is a small post about the history of "Basic D&D", plus some of its greatest versions (including B/X) and clones.

What is "Basic D&D"?

Basic D&D is a line of D&D products that started in 1977 and ended a bit before 2000. The first version (Holmes - see below) was meant as an introduction to D&D, but since 1981 (B/X - see below) it became a separate line of products, with its own rules, settings (most notably Blackmoor and Mystara/Known World), adventures, etc. I won't talk about these settings and adventures here; suffice to say, there were separate from the AD&D line.

From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

After the release of the AD&D game, the Basic Set saw a major revision in 1981 by editor Tom Moldvay.[2] The game was not brought in line with AD&D but instead further away from that ruleset, and thus the basic D&D game became a separate and distinct product line from AD&D. The former was promoted as a continuation of the tone of original D&D, while AD&D was an advancement of the mechanics.


With the revision of the Basic Set, discrete rulesets for higher character levels were introduced as expansions for the basic game. The Moldvay Basic Set was immediately followed by the accompanying release of an Expert Set edited by Dave Cook with Steve Marsh that supported character levels four through fourteen, with the intent that players would continue with the Expert Set.

Basic D&D has some idiosyncrasies when compared to other editions of D&D, most notably "race as class": you can choose to be an elf OR a fighter, but not both. In addition, there are many small differences (different classes, races, spells, monsters, settings, deities, etc.) that can be considered boons or banes, depending on your taste. I think it is fair to say that both AD&D and BD&D have their own unique and awesome bits.

This graph from Wikipedia is accurate, but remember Holmes is still part of the "original edition" (the separate line starting with B/X).

What is B/X, and why so popular?

B/X is an abbreviation of Basic/Expert D&D - the two books picture below, published in 1981.

This edition is noteworthy because, for many people, it is the best/easiest iteration of D&D, ever.

Moldvay's Basic might the best D&D ever written, indeed. Only 64-pages, and contains answers to questions that have been discussed for ages - before and after this book. I've wrote multiple posts on the subject, calling it an oracle and a minimum viable D&D. Cook/Marsh's Expert completes the game with wilderness stuff, domain management, and more tools for adventuring.

Some of its qualities:

- Much simpler and leaner than AD&D or BECMI (see below).

- Still, a complete game, with dungeons, wilderness, domain building, etc.

- Clearer and better organized than the original D&D form 1974 and Holmes Basic.

- Streamlined ability scores, with bonuses going from -3 to +3 across every ability.

B/X is the basis of my current game, despite heavy house-ruling. I think it is a great game but not with its flaws (also, some idiosyncrasies that are not to everyone's liking - for example, dwarves and elves are classes). There are LOTS of room for improvement and even corrections to be made, IMO. 

Still - probably the best, as explained in the links above.

Other official "Basic D&D" products

B/X should not be confused with Holmes' Basic (1977) or BECMI (1983+).

Holmes' Basic (1977) was written as an introduction to D&D (the original 1974 game). While a good game in itself, it feels incomplete because of that (it has only three levels). It also has some quirks: it lacks some very popular innovations such as different weapon damage, while simultaneously having strange/broken rules such as a dagger attacking twice, for example.

BECMI (1983-1985) is a later revision that adds lots of stuff compared to B/X. BECMI stands for Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal - each a separate book, like B/X. They are also known as "Mentzer's Basic", "Mentzer's Expert", etc. It has a "tutorial" format, good for introducing beginners to the D&D rules. Many changes are positive (e.g., the cleric), and it has tons of cool options, but it eventually adds too much IMO, including adventuring beyond the 36th level.

The Rules Cyclopedia (1991) compiles most of the BECMI rules, and it might be the most complete D&D book ever, including 36 levels, immortals, monsters, and DM advice in a single book. Again, great for inspiration, but too much to use at once IMO.

The line ended a few years before 2000, when the "basic" and "advanced" versions were merged into a single game (D&D 3e). There were other products called "Basic D&D" after this time, but these were not usually meant as a distinct line of products,

All these products are more or less compatible, but B/X and its clones remain the most popular.

The three main clones: LL, BFRPG and OSE

There has been several "clones" of B/X, and they are some of the most popular OSR products. These are the three most important ones (due to popularity, sales, and being very close to B/X). They all have free versions, both in PDF and online format (or both), linked below. 

Labyrinth Lord (LL) - A version of B/X with very small changes (adds more levels to some classes, streamlines the cleric's weird spell progression and gives them spells on level 1). It was a pioneer in many aspects. 

The main draw: Goblinoid Games was the first retro-clone publisher to both make most content open under the OGL and create a free trademark license [...]. The material contained in the LL rules is available to others with few restrictions, allowing fans and other publishers alike to create their own derivative material for use with the system.[2] (Wikipedia). OSE is a derivative of the LL text IIRC, and I considered using it for one of my own games - it is really good.

[notice that the OGL is going through a ruckus caused by WotC at the time of this post, so I wouldn't advise using it at this moment].

Basic Fantasy RPG (BFRPG) - Another early clone with small changes, mainly ascending armor class and separation of character race and class. Also streamlines the cleric in addition to the thief (skills always use percentages). Here is the free SRD.

The main draw: BFRPG has an open/free philosophy, encouraging people to participate and create their own stuff, which fosters an amazing community with lots of free tools, in addition to cheap physical books and good rules (the basic book has few but worthy innovations). Check it here.

Old-School Essentials (OSE) - This is a newer clone (c. 2019). It is a strict B/X clone - as close to B/X as possible. Doesn't fix, add or change almost anything, but makes the rules clearer, has a clean layout and wonderful presentation: indexed, organization, great art, etc. It is the best looking of the three IMO. Rules-wise, it lacks the additions/corrections of the other two. Here is the free SRD.

The main draw: The presentation, amazing looks and faithfulness to the original rules. The SRD is also amazing.

Advanced versions

Both LL and OSE have "advanced" versions, bringing ideas from AD&D (race separated from class, more races, classes, monsters, items, etc.).

BFRPG has no advanced version "per se", but you can find rules for more classes, races etc., here.

Other "clones": LotFP, DCC and DFB

These are not exact clones, but clearly inspired by Basic D&D. The OSR clones are endless, but many are inspired by other editions of D&D instead of Basic (or no specific edition). Maybe one day I'll try to tackle at least a few dozen... but I chose three final "clones" for this post.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) - Famous for its gory, mature, bloody art, and some interesting adventures, but for me the rules are the best part: well organized, streamlined, and even somewhat rebalanced. Seems inspired by Mentzer's B/E. It strays a bit further from Basic than any of the ones mentioned above, but still roughly compatible. I find most of the changes (cleric, turn undead, 1d6 thief skills, etc.) very positive and preferable to the original rules and other clones. Free version here.

Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC RPG) - this one is ALSO famous for its cool art (but funny/retro instead of gory) and great adventures. System-wise, it uses a 3.5e basis but turns it into an OSR game. It is barely a "B/X clone", renaming attributes, creating new mechanic's and using lots of random tables. I think it deserves mention due to its popularity, coolness, and keeping of some B/X idiosyncrasies (race-as-class, fewer levels, etc.). You can find it here (free quickstart here).

Dark Fantasy Basic (DFB) - My own clone! Instead of copying mechanics from B/X, I took Moldvay's Basic and rewrote it page by page, adding some stuff from 3e and 5e (also some DCC and Target 20 inspiration). I am still using it to this day, but with some revisions, since I published in 2017. It still roughly compatible with B/X and I use it with published adventures from other clones, but it has a few bits of its own. You can find it here (alas, no free version available yet; I'll probably make a free version of the next update - hopefully before the end of 2023, starting as soon as we've got this OGL thing sorted out... - but for now here is a discount coupon).

In conclusion...

As said above, Basic D&D, in its many forms (including clones), is considered by many as the best version of D&D. If you haven't tried it, you're missing out!

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

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Disoriented Ranger talks: Musings about DMing

"Randomize everything. You'll never be more concrete in your ideas than you are after letting go of the illusion of control. DM tools are there to help you and free you." - Jens Durke.

The third book in the series is out; here are my posts on parts one and two. Part three is probably my favorite so far.

This is a compilation of GM advice and reflections from my friend Jens. I have read most of it - in fact, I had read most of it in his blog, and I even responded and referenced some of it with my own blog posts - here is one example. His post about GM styles is great, and it is included here.

Jens goes deep into this stuff. This is not "DM's tips for beginners"*, but reflections on the very nature of DMing. Jens discusses "elf games"  with Daoism, morality and free will. The book format is a plus if you have a hard time reading long posts in blog format, like I do.

(*although his version of the "12 things..." contains good, straightforward advice in addition to the philosophical stuff - like the quote in the beginning of this post).

As before, only one dollar - click here to get it, it is certainly worth the read!

Here is the blurb:

What's this about, now?

Nothing is older than yesterday's blog ... or so they say. After 10 years of exploring "all things D&D and role-playing" on The Disoriented Ranger blog, most of it during the Golden Age of the so-called OSR (and some of it in the Silver Age, I presume), it is time to look back and see what I deem worthy of conserving.

I talked several subjects over the years, many of them about game design, but some of it was also about what it takes to "DM" a role-playing game. What kind of DMs are there, how to DM a game, what players are like, and can be like, and how to handle that ...

I shared my takes about these over the last 10 years and they make a good third anthology. So here they are: 15 posts on roughly 97 pages with thoughts and musings about how to approach this hobby as a DM. All edited and prettied up for this pdf.

Also check out Part 1 about Gaming Culture here and Part 2 about D&D and the OSR here!

What's to come?

There are three more anthologies to follow in the next couple of months, so look out for:

  • Part 4: Storytelling Advice
  • Part 5: DIY & Gamedesign
  • Part 6: Theories in Action

Parts 1 to 3 as well as Parts 4 to 6 will also be compiled for a PoD option!

This is not a trip down memory lane, the topics presented here are still as important as they had been when I addressed them. My sincere hope is that sharing them here will encourage and inspire new readers (or fans of the blog, but with fresh eyes) to see the wealth of potential our hobby has, as well as its pitfalls.

Other than that: I can just provide the map, and even I get lost ...


The Disoriented Ranger


What qualifies me, you ask?

Just so you know: "Obscurity and competence - that is the life that is best worth living." (Mark Twain)