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

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.

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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, they 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 written 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 (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 first two books (BE) are very similar to B/X.

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 basic 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). It has a CC-BY-SA version too. 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 "clones" for this post.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) - Famous for its gory, mature, bloody art and themes, 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, encumbrance, the summon spell, etc.) very positive and preferable to the original rules and other clones. The basic rules do not contain anything explicit or gory except for one spell (summon) that might cause sexual violence. 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, 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!

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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)

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Broken Sword - one of the best!

When I reviewed Three Hearts and Three Lions, by the same author (Poul Anderson), I half-jokingly mentioned that it was "the very first book in the Appendix N - for alphabetical reasons, but still..."

Well, The Broken sword is the third book on the list, but it sits on the top of the Appendix N for a different reason – it is one of the best book the list has to offer, ate least from the ones I’ve read so far.

The book tells the saga of two men switched at birth: the heroic human Skafloc, kidnapped and raised by the king of the elves, and his changeling doppelganger Valgarad, raised among human Vikings converted to Christianity (with little enthusiasm). Both will grow up to be great warriors with very different personalities, and will face various difficulties and tragedies until they can meet each other in battle. 

The “broken sword” of the title is a cursed blade that will become important in the latter half of the book. Moorcock has mentioned it as an influence to his own cursed sword, Stormbringer, and it really shows (there are likely other influences too - the elves, Skafloc himself, etc.). If you like Moorcock as much as I do, The Broken Sword is a must-read.

The book was published in 1954, the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, and Anderson might be at least as influential as Tolkien in D&D terms. This might sound odd given the huge impact of Tolkien’s work, but Gygax famously wasn’t a fan (and Moorcock finds Anderson’s work to be superior). 

The D&D references are fewer here than in “Three Hearths…”, however – but I find this a much better book.

It might be because of the tone. The Broken Sword is dark, violent, full of tragedy and war. It is reminiscent of the Nibelungenlied and Beowulf. The language is purposely old-fashioned, which demands some attention but gives the book a mythic feel that is hard to find. It has some of the best prose I’ve read in fantasy books.

TBS also has all the trappings I’d expect in a good dark fantasy novel – great characters, action, grittiness, humor, tragedy, passion, revenge, and many shades of gray. This is not plain “Law versus Chaos” – it is nature versus nurture, paganism versus Christianity, elves versus trolls versus humans, deities against mortals, fate against all. The elves, especially, receive an awesome treatment as something very different from humans – not only in looks and customs, but also morality and behavior. And it has the stuff you might use in your D&D games – monsters, factions, magic items, spells, and so on.

This book is a masterpiece. Definitely worth the read from anyone interested in fantasy, and already one of my favorites.

Note: the author made a revision in 1971, apparently toning down the violence and flowery language. I only read the 1954 version.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Happy 2023! + Projects + Reflections + Let me know!

Happy new year, folks!

Projects (2022 and 2023)

My projects for 2022 remain unfinished. I published a couple of books I hadn't planed - Alternate Magic and Old School Feats - but not the ones I intended. So, while I might write stuff that is not in my yearly plans, I won't make more plans until I finish some old projects. Just some loose ideas for now: updating some of my books, creating an actual monster manual for DFB, publishing some setting, and writing more B/X-compatible OSR material. I'd also like to make print versions of some books, since people have been asking me (some have created their own print versions, which I find awesome).

Going full OSR

This blog is going full OSR for 2023. I'm running a big OSR campaign (using Dark Fantasy Basic with a few updates) and going through lots of OSR (and TSR) material. You 'll see some reviews (including some old classics), lists, actual plays, etc. D&D 5.5 (or whatever it is called) does not look interesting to me at this time. I'm dissatisfied with the 1.1 OGL and I won't use it. My 5e projects are left aside for the time being.

I'll probably learn a bit about this stuff - and various RPG systems - out of curiosity, and I'll share the news with you. And I'll always write about RPG design, literature, fantasy, etc. System-wise, however, my focus is the OSR.

Mostly, I want to give some credit to existing OSR products, some of then a few years old - at least once a month, hopefully. Not only adventures, but also comparing different systems, bestiaries, etc. As I've said before, nowadays organizing is as important as creating, and recognizing other people's products is important to keep an OSR community going. Also, feels good. :)


I published a few reflections (about OSR, OGL, AI) in my last post of 2022. It might be worth reading if you want to know what I expected from 2023.

What do you want to see?

With that said, let me know in the comments what you'd like to see in this blog - or in PDF, print, etc. Reviews, actual plays, monsters, weapons, house rules... anything you've read in this blog (TV shows, design, comic books, literature, etc.) and anything else you want to see.

Thank you for your support and I hope you have a great 2023!