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, May 29, 2023

Knights of Dark Renown (book review)

I've read Knights of Dark Renown by David Gemmell because of a recommendation from my friend Jens, after reading The Blade Itself - which we both disliked. 

This is the Amazon summary:
Once the legendary knights of the Gabala defended the nine duchies. [...] But they were gone, disappeared through a demon-haunted gateway between worlds. Only one held back [..]. Now he was the coward knight, and in torment. 
Murder and black magic beset the land. Rumors circulated that the king was enchanted, changed, that his soul was dead . . . and that a reign of terror was about to begin. Now Manannan realized he would have to face his darkest fears: he had no choice but to ride through that dreaded gate and seek out his vanished companions.
There is a lot more to the book than this, however - I won't get into it to avoid spoilers. I'll just say that this book is well worth the read. 

It succeeds in basically every criteria we usually mention here: it is good fantasy (has plenty of monsters, spells and ideas for your games), it is good dark fantasy (with tragedy, mature themes, dark humor, bloody twists, hard choices, loss, downfall, flawed heroes, cool villain monologues and shades of gray) and also good epic fantasy (with well-constructed heroism and hope).

To mention a few ideas I particularly liked:

- How the idea of "colors of magic" are treated. This is an evocative, coherent magic system. I could see it influencing Magic: The Gathering (and certainly my games). Also, it has a very interesting take on magic items, which require not only special efforts but also special materials. 
- One of the best portrayals of a bard that I've read in fantasy, mostly because he has an important role to play instead of being a comic relief.
- How the "gateways to hell" are treated, somewhat reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The whole "hell dimension" part is really interesting.
- Monsters that appear out of their natural habitat, creating a contrast between fantasy and realism.
- In addition to bards, the book has cool rangers/outlaws, awesome knights, paladins... and anti-paladins.

Other than that, the book is enjoyable for all the usual reasons: the characters are interesting, the plot is engaging, the setting is good. The action scenes are short and sweet, not particularly gritty or awesome. The characters are probably my favorite thing here: while there is no one as mighty and cool as Conan or Elric, everyone feels like real people, with flaws, different qualities and interests, and so on.

The pacing starts great but it gets a bit rushed by the end, similarly to The Broken Sword. In any case, the book never fails to keep you engaged. It has a cinematic quality that would do well in a TV series.

In fact, this book reminds me of The Broken Sword in several ways, although it is a bit less tragic and more heroic. And its quality is just a bit below the savage awesomeness of Poul Anderson's... which, as I've said, is one of the best appendix N I have read.

This book was published in 1989, so it couldn't make it to the Appendix N. Curiously, "Gemmell’s first U.S. editions were handled by New Infinities", owned by Gary Gygax" (source). Gygax once said "I've read one book by David Gemmell and enjoyed it." (source). 

In any case, this is certainly above-average for Appendix N books and fantasy books in general. It is also the start of a big saga, which I might be curious to read next... Let's see! 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

All elves are half-elves

(A  brief detour from my DMG series, related to the most recent post; might be a good idea to do these from time to time).

I've heard that the next edition of D&D (6e, D&Done, or whatever) is banning "half" characters: no half-elves, half-orcs, etc. I will not discuss their motives (nor do I trust WotC enough to care about what motives they claim). This is not a big concern for me because I'm no longer playing WotC D&D. I'm playing my own games and running my own campaigns the way I like them.

However, I want to share a quick thought... or two.

Copyright WotC. Notice elf/gnome wizard, dwarf/orc warrior.

First, it's worth mentioning that the original D&D (1974) suggests that you could start the game as a low-level Balrog or dragon. On the other hand, elves and dwarves do not have infravision*, and even monsters lose it as they join the party:
In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to “see” the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. 
- The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg. 9. 
* They do on Supplement I and Chainmail; could be an oversight.

AD&D keeps infravision (and adds half-elves, half-orcs) but, as mentioned in a previous post, says this on "monstrous" PCs: 
The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!
For me, having monstrous PCs is a matter of taste and setting. But, in this matter, it is very hard to keep your cake and eat it too.

Having PCs with infravisions partly ruins the "light source mini-game", where PCs have to keep track of torches, monsters are hardly surprised, etc.

In a similar manner, having PC elves and dwarves robs these beings of some of their mystery (and weirdness). Same goes for orcs, ogres, minotaurs, and so on.

In this sense, I think all elves are "half-elves", as they are part human and part the fey elf of legend. Few people play elves as the dangerous, selfish beings of Poul Anderson or the semi-divine beings from Tolkien.

[Maybe you could have these watered down PC elves and also keep "authentic" elves and call the Sidhe or whatever. Other solution are changelings/foster children, etc. Humans raised by elves or vice-versa, so PCs can never fully grasp the mystery of elves]. 

The same pattern is observed in dragonborn (half-dragons), tielflings (half-fiend), warforged (half-machine), genasi (half-elements), centaur/werewolf/shifters/tabaxi/kenku/etc. (half-beast), aasimar/deva (half-celestial),  dhampirs/revenants (half-undead), and so on. They all stand halfway between human and something else

Even more: they are CLOSER to human than to something else, having rational thoughts, human desires and free will.

[Dwarves and Halflings are even more obvious, often being portrayed as caricatures of scots and merry Englishmen].

It might be possible to have, say, wolf PCs (actual wolves, not intelligent ones), but this is not common at all - and I think few players could pull it off. Gygax is right in saying "humans are the role with which most are [...] capable of identifying with".

So, "half elves", IMO, could be a decent compromise in a game that doesn't allow elf PCs. So, you could have some elven traits, but keep elves as a whole a bit alien and mysterious. Although I don't think I've ever heard of such a game. 

Elves became so familiar that they are now all half-elves. Orcs follow a similar trend. Once they stop being archetypal demonic (or piglike) creatures and become simply green-skinned humanoids (with an actual humanlike civilization), there is no further need for half-orcs. Or, worse, they might have NO specific civilization and customs: they can become paladins, mages, etc, exactly like humans. At this point, they ARE humans except for appearance and some vague generalizations (and even that is disappearing).

(This could be a motive for using race-as-class, BTW, if you want to keep races distinct).

In practice, I err on the side of letting my PCs choose whatever character type they want (and treat it as cosplay, playing them like humans). But I can feel that this detracts from my games (here is one example) unless I'm playing in a highly cosmopolitan setting (e.g., Ravnica). I might as well go all-human (maybe allowing "elf blood etc.") or all-weird (everything goes but nothing stands out in the crowd) in my future games, since it tends to work better in my experience.

(BTW, this is why Dark Fantasy Basic is human-only but a future version might have more races for my players, as exemplified here).

And, come to think of it, I can't recall a good fantasy book where non-human characters are treated as humans in costumes (except maybe some parts of Tolkien). The ancestry of non-humans (or "different humans") is always important, even if they go against it: think of Tanis, Drizzt, Hellboy, and even Elric, Geralt and Daenerys Targaryen.

I do understand, however, if elves and dwarves are so familiar to you that you want to allow them (and half-elves, etc.) while prohibiting tieflings, for example - as Gygax seems to suggest. D&D's elves, dwarves and especially Halflings are so human-like that allowing only these types of PCs is almost as natural as running a human-only campaign. And I can definitely see how having serpent-folk PCs ruins serpent-folk, or tieflings partly ruins fiends, for example.

Just something to keep in mind. In the end, it is your campaign; do what serves you best.

Recommended reading:

On infravision:

Monday, May 22, 2023

AD&D DMG cover to cover - Part II, pages 9-22

We are reading the original DMG - the ultimate DM book - but from a B/X and OSR point-of-view. Check the other parts of this series here

Today we will tackle:
— DICE 9
— AGING 13
— Unnatural Aging 13
— DEATH 15
— The Paladin’s Warhorse 18

The game

First, we get a small paragraph repeating what we have heard before: D&D is about fun, not "realism" or "simulation". Sounds obvious, but it is valuable advice if you are coming from wargames - as they did at the time.

Next, we get a section explaining dice. Again, this looks obvious now, but it was necessary back in 1979, since the stranger dice types (including the iconic d20) were a lot less common. One interesting things is that it teaches you what a bell curve is - I find this knowledge to be essential to DMs (and, well, to everyone) and sorely lacking in modern DMGs.

In the end of this part, we get an interesting alternative for the habitual reaction rolls, and a good conclusion on dice in general. I'll reproduce it here (as a curiosity), but TBH I won't try it in my games, since it requires special dice and a lot of rolling and thought for something that can easily be resolved with 2d6.

Unfortunately, this is apparently something common in the book: we get decent advice mixed with unrefined, convoluted, in unnecessarily complex systems. 
The author has a d6 with the following faces: SPADE, CLUB, CLUB, DIAMOND, DIAMOND, HEART. If, during an encounter, players meet a character whose reaction is uncertain, the card suit die is rolled in conjunction with 3d6. Black suits mean dislike, with the SPADE equalling hate, while red equals like, the HEART being great favor. The 3d6 give a bell-shaped probability curve of 3-18, with 9-12 being the mean spread. SPADE 18 means absolute and unchangeable hate, while HEART 18 indicates the opposite. CLUBS or DIAMONDS can be altered by discourse, rewards, etc. Thus, CLUBS 12 could possibly be altered to CLUBS 3 by offer of a tribute or favor, CLUBS 3 changed to DIAMONDS 3 by a gift, etc.

In closing this discussion, simply keep in mind that the dice are your tools. Learn to use them properly and they will serve you well.
The sections on miniatures and playing aids (sheets, etc.)  are not especially relevant or useful nowadays, since most of it has gone digital.

Creating the PCs

As AD&D is an ongoing game of fantasy adventuring, it is important to allow
participants to generate a viable character of the race and profession which he
or she desires. While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters
by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a
suitable one due to quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal
characters tend to have short life expectancy — which tends to discourage new
players, as does having to make do with some character of a race and/or class
which he or she really can’t or won’t identify with. Character generation, then,
is a serious matter, and it is recommended that the following systems be used.
Four alternatives are offered for player characters: [...]

Coming from a BX/OSR view, this is strange advice, as many are used to roll 3d6 in order and play with what they get.  In practice, however, I agree with Gygax - why not let players get the class/race they want? Most players will create the same kind of PCs over and over again (in my experience), but they are having fun, so be it. 

So, instead of the usual 3d6 in order, we get FOUR different methods of generating PCs, the most famous being "roll4d6, drop lowest. That's a lot of redundancy and needless dice rolling, and generates very high ability scores. I might choose a less benevolent method for my own games, however: maybe assign 14, 12, 11, 10, 9, 7, or roll 3d6 seven times and assign to taste. Even better, just roll 3d20.

NPCs, wishes, Characteristics for PCs

NPCs have their own methods of generating ability scores. I find this unnecessary. Wishes can augment ability scores, but after 16 they only improve by one decimal point per wish. Okay. PCs shouldn't have (random) NPC characteristics (e.g., personality - the table is actually on page 100) forced upon them, as they should play the PCs as they see fit. Except for weight and height somehow.  Okay.

Player Character non-professional skills

Now, we get something useful. PCs are defined by their class "virtually to the exclusion of all other activities", but might have some past experience determined randomly. This is nice as it replaces many skills and backgrounds in modern games. It can be ported directly to B/X, and a similar system is used in modern games such as Shadow of the Demon Lord and my own Dark Fantasy Basic (both with a bit more specific advice on how to use these backgrounds mechanically). Just roll 1d100 and check the table below:

When secondary skills are used, it is up to the DM to create and/or adjudicate situations in which these skills are used or useful to the player character. As a general rule, having a skill will give the character the ability to determine the general worth and soundness of an item, the ability to find food, make small repairs, or actually construct (crude) items. For example, an individual with armorer skill could tell the quality of normal armor, repair chain links, or perhaps fashion certain weapons.

Starting level of experience for player characters

Some advice on dealing with PCs of different levels, and also players of different levels of experience. All very vague and nothing particularly useful except for the advice of running separate high level and low level campaigns, so that new players can have a taste of high level if they want.


This section has several detailed tables on starting age, aging, disease, death and resurrection. As such, they can be used in B/X as written. While I'm not particularly interested in checking monthly to see if the PCs suffer from parasites or mild ear disease, I can see the point if you're running a particularly extended and realistic campaign. But fun trumps realism, remember? Which is why we don't get realistic combat or even critical hits (IIRC). Instead, we have urinary system infection.

A sword to the head without a helmet is in the rules, but this won't cost you an eye or ear. Disease might. I'm not even sure there are rules for PCs that have lost an eye or part of their hearing. Guess we will see later on (let me know in the comments, or remind me to edit this post in a few months!). In short, these rules are interesting, but half-baked at best.


An explanation on what abilities (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) mean and how they function, followed by a section explaining dwarves, elves, etc. Mildly useful if you still want to understand the difference between Wisdom and Intelligence ("while the intelligent character will know that smoking is harmful to him, he may well lack the wisdom to stop"). The race descriptions are pretty standard.


Frist, we get lots of random tables for followers the PCs can get when they reach high levels. These are organized as troops, presumably for domain management and mass battles. Rangers get special creatures, including, potentially, a copper dragon or storm giant. The paladin's special warhorse is also described here.

Then we have rules for spying. Especially for NPC spies (assassins). No idea why this is in the PC section, but it is useful to gather information.

Thief skills are next. Back Stabbing does not function against creatures with no discernible backs. Opening locks, finding traps, disarming traps take 1-4 rounds each. Useful information. Slippery walls can be added to make climbing harder for the thief. "Slightly slippery is the norm for some reason, which DOUBLES the chance of failure. Sounds like a bad choice and a needles nerf on the thief.

OTOH, we learn that thieves and assassins can set traps. Assassins also learn to concoct poisons, and this section contains a poison table that is very useful for B/X games, as B/X does not contain a similar tool.

THE MONSTER AS A PLAYER CHARACTER is included in character CLASSES for some reason. Here, the author insists in the “humanocentric” tone of AD&D, discouraging PCs that want to de dragons, demons, devils, etc. This is contrary to OD&Ds suggestion that you could start the game as a low-level Balrog or dragon (and seems to contradict the advice we've read a few pages ago that players should be able to pick race, class, and personality as desired). I think each method has its own pros and cons, which deserve a post of its own (this one!). Suffice to say, this is general advice and could be useful for any RPG. I'll highlight this bit (emphasis mine):
The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!
Next, we get advice discouraging PCs to become lycanthropes, very much in the same vein, but more detailed. Apparently, these are allowed, with lots of downsides. Nothing particularly useful for my games here. Well, enough for today.

What have we learned today?
Lots of cool tables, but everything seems a bit unnecessarily complex, sometimes redundant. Some philosophical essays that are worth a read, and at least two subsystems that are easy and fun to use in B/X games: secondary skills and poisons. The spying section is equally useful, since B/X does not have an assassin class but does have spies you can hire, with no rules except for some very vague guidelines.

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Friday, May 19, 2023

AD&D DMG cover to cover - Part I, pages 1-9


What follows herein is strictly for the eyes of you, the campaign referee. As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another. Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from "on high" as respects your game. Dictums are given for the sake of the game only, for if ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is to survive and grow, it must have some degree of uniformity, a familiarity of method and procedure from campaign to campaign within the whole.

- Dungeon Master's Guide (1e), page 7

[Check the other parts of this series here]

Why I'm writing this

I have written extensively about why I love B/X. It is my favorite format of D&D, but mostly because it's very easy, simple, manageable, streamlined.

However, there is something about the original DMG that makes me feel it is the ultimate DM's book. While B/X is quick and effective, the DMG manages to be both wide and deep: it includes a wide range of relevant information while also maintaining a certain quality throughout. This is the work of people that have deep actual experience with D&D.

The writing is not particularly clear or elegant, and the art is not impressive, but there is a quality of truth to the whole thing that I can hardly find in other games.

This is all a bit vague and abstract, I know. So I have decided to read the DMG cover to cover (instead of looking up relevant bits as I usually do) to see if these impressions remain true. I tried reading the PHB, but it isn't as enticing for me; maybe I'll do that next.

Anyway, here are some concrete examples why, when comparing specific rules, I often favor using AD&D. For example, I prefer AD&D's:

- Attack progression (+1 per level for fighters).
- Powerful fighters (1 attack per level against HD lower than 1, multiple attacks as you level up, etc.).
- Magic-user nerf (chances of learning spells and I kinda like the idea of components. kinda).
- Turn undead rules (undead leaders make everyone harder to turn IIRC).
- Race separate from class.

OTOH I dislike:

- Messy attribute bonus instead of the neat -3/+3 of B/X.
- Bard and druid strange class progression.
- Weapon versus armor table (that contains arithmetic errors and not even Gygax used, apparently).

Notice I already implemented a few ideas from AD&D to Dark Fantasy Basic, my B/X homage. As I read, I'm sure I'll find more of to add to my Basic(ish) games.

In short, my reading will not be historical or literal, but utilitarian. Let's see what I can find in the DMG to use in my own games!

Let me know in the comments if this seems like a worthwhile exercise.

So, let's do this!

Foreword, Contents and Preface (pages 1-8)

The book begins with a small foreword by Mike Carr, discussing dungeon mastering as both "art" and "science". On one hand, it is a matter of taste, flair, style; on the other, it requires experimentation, preparation, etc. It is fun, but requires effort. It is "above all, a labor of love". 

This book focuses on the "science" part, I'd say - but you have to provide the imagination. 

After that, we get a table of contents that I won't discuss now, but in the next post, as the organization of this book is explaining on page 9. 

After the table of the contents, we get a preface by Gygax. It follows the reasoning of the foreword: you, as the referee, have ultimate authority, and you must create your own worlds, adventures, etc. However, the book advises you do not go too "wild", or you won't be playing AD&D anymore. So, keep most of the rules, races, monsters, as written, so you can have a shared experience with other AD&D players all over the world. 

This feels a little more limiting than most advice you read nowadays, saying simply you can do "anything you want" with your game. This freedom is what brought me into RPGs in the first place, and I still think it is the best approach. However, I can see the value of keeping some uniformity so we can still use D&D as lingua franca.

Still, the preface lays a lot of responsibility in the hands of the referee.

The preface is followed by Credits and Acknowledgments, and then the actual introduction.

Introduction (and a note on organization) - page 9

The introduction talks about the organization of the book. The first part is commenting on The Player's Handbook. The second ADDS STUFF to the PHB, which includes... everything else. Besides the actual rules, we will get designer notes explaining why the rules are created this way.

About the organization... There is no clear separation between these two sections in the table of contents. The sections/chapters aren't numbered or clearly separated in any order except the one mentioned above. The next section (The Game, which we will cover in the next post) starts in the same page and column, and the section title is almost identical to the subsection title. 

So, this book is a bit hard to navigate.

Anyway. Gygax say there was too much to add, so " the criterion was usefulness. First came material which was absolutely vital to play, then came the inclusion of what would be most helpful to you, and finally interesting items of broad I appeal to you which tends to improve the flavor of a campaign". Nice! Exactly what we are looking for. 

Action and fun are more important than realism and "long and drawn out operations by the referee". Agreed!

The penultimate paragraph of the section tells the you can cut portions of the book to " maintain excitement" - including random encounters! It mentions you should skip them if the PCs are tired and out of resources, or use them when the PCs "deserve" it. 

This seems like strange advice for me (especially coming from an old school perspective), as if the referee is not being completely honest, or playing softball with the players. But it is interesting to notice. And I can agree random encounters can feel anti-climatic at certain times. 

Fair enough. But I'm not convinced. I think random encounters when the PCs are weak could be useful to emphasize the danger of the surroundings, the "truthfulness" of the setting, and to force PCs to consider talking, escaping, etc., instead of fighting every time. But it is something to consider.

The last paragraph repeats what we've read before: learn the rules carefully, create your own stuff, do the work, and be a great DM. It will take effort (which the players won't always recognize) but it will be fun.

What have we learned today?

Not much for now. Just an introduction, a few reminders (DMing should be enjoyable, occasionally ignore rules in favor of fun, be creative while keeping some familiar elements to have a shared D&D experience with other people), and the impression that the book could be more clearly organized. There is much more to come!

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Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Russ Nicholson (R.I.P.)

Apparently, Russ Nicholson has passed away.

He was my favorite old school D&D artist.

His art in the FF books was a huge influence. The Citadel of Chaos was my gateway into RPGs. This darker/British/satirical shade of fantasy still influences my games and writings. You might know him from D&D (Fiend Folio, etc.), Warhammer, or OSR games.

He managed to combine fantasy, detail, grittiness, weirdness, and action into his work. This guy was a legend, the the epitome of "old school dark fantasy".

Thanks to social media, I managed to let him know and send him a "thank you for everything", which he responded kindly.


And thank you for everything.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Minimalist B/X classes (warlord, white mage)

One of the best things about B/X is how simple and flexible it is. It is very easy to create new classes, and you can find hundreds, if not thousands, of homebrew classes out there. There are books in DTRPG with dozens of classes, for example. Which is fine. 

My only problem with this is - each class takes one, two or even three pages. I'm not convinced that this is a good idea. It makes the whole harder to grasp, and I tend to think that you should not need to read 100 pages of races and classes to create a PC. 

I like going the opposite route instead - not 100 pages with 50 options, but, say, 30 pages with 100 options.

And B/X is perfect for that. A new class does not need its own weapons, saving throws, XP progression, etc. A paragraph and a few references to existing classes are enough. Here is one example (this is partly adapted from Old School Feats, which contain 35 "feat packages" that work roughly like that).

Art by Larry Elmore

Prime requisite: Strength.
Requirements: Strength 9, Charisma 9.
XP: as magic-user.
Everything else: identical to the Fighter.

War leader. You can shout orders to attack (+1 to attack and damage rolls) or defend (+1 to AC and saving throws), plus +1 morale, affecting yourself, allies and followers within 60’ that can hear you for one turn. You can only affect intelligent creatures that are willing to follow you, and your allies can only benefit from an order (either attack or defend) at once. Make a Charisma check; failure means you cannot repeat this until next day.

Leadership. Add three to your maximum number of hirelings, and your hirelings get +1 to morale when you hire them.

Authority. Due to your leadership qualities, you may be granted a barony starting on level 7. Your costs to build a castle or stronghold are reduced by 20%. 


And... that's it. I might add another feature to make PC level more relevant, and maybe a brief description about what being a warlord means, but I find this an interesting class as written. And it fits less than half a page.

BTW, I'd definitely allow a fighter to simply BECOME a warlord at any point, current XP unchanged. Maybe even at level 7 - you have 64,000 XP, take your barony, when you get to 150,000 XP you can get to level 8 - you've spend more time ruling than fighting.

Let's try another class.

Alternate Magic has five new classes - some are written using the "traditional" method (with their own unique XP tables etc.), while others use a slimmer version. For example:

White Mage

Prime requisite, HD, XP, Armor, Weapons, Attack bonus, and Saving throws: As magic-user.

White Mages are wizards that choose the path of healing and protection, eschewing death and destruction. They cast spells like magic-users of the same level (i.e., identical spell progression), and Turn Undead as clerics of the same level.

White Magic. White Mages can learn cleric spells and magic-user spells. However, they cannot learn spells that cause damage or death, nor cast reversed spells. Alternatively, casting such spells makes them temporarily lose their powers (until a quest is completed, a long time has passed, etc., at referee’s discretion; the limitations are comparable to the traditional cleric).

Improved healing. White mages double the number of HP healed when they use healing spells. In addition, they can spend any prepared spell to heal 1d6 per spell level. 

As you can see, you play with existing structures (what I often call multipurpose mechanics), instead of rewriting (or recreating) entire classes.

Dark Fantasy Basic has only the four basic classes, that can be customized to taste. But I like these class packages - might add them in a second edition of the game, if this ever happens. Or maybe make twenty-ish minimalist classes, plus additional feats to build your own class. Or should I create an OSE-compatible book of minimalist classes? 

Does any of these sound interesting to you?

Friday, May 12, 2023

Lamentations MEGASALE and PICKS!

As you probably know, LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) is a Basic clone famous for its gory, mature, bloody art, and some interesting adventures. The rules are great, IMO: well organized, streamlined, and even somewhat rebalanced. It "fixes" many rough edges from Basic: thief skills, cleric progression, encumbrance, etc.

BTW: If you don't know LoTFP, read this. And if you want to know what kind of adventures these are, read this

They are currently doing a HUGE sale for ALL products - everything for 1.15! 

But let me warn you: this not for the faint of hearth. Some modules are dark, strange, bloody, often experimental, and sometimes extremely graphic and gory.

The average quality of these products is such that I can say that, for this price, you might consider buying the whole bunch.

But if you are thinking of picking some specific books, but don't know what to pick... Here are some of my favorites. 

I tried to go a bit off the beaten path, but all their best sellers are probably worth checking out.

First, get the main rules. They are very good. Free version here.

Qelong is a great sandbox adventure by Kenneth Hite. I put this one first because it's less famous than others, and I think it deserves the attention. I've ran the whole module and is it one of the best coherent/self-contained OSR sandbox setting out there.

Carcosa is a dark/weird setting that is FULL of inspiration. Lovecraftian horrors, dark rituals, advanced tech, sword and sorcery... If you liek any of these, check this book.

Both contain amazing art by Rich Longmore, BTW.

Isle of the Unknown is not quite Carcosa but might be worth for the amazing looks and weird monsters alone.

Random Esoteric Creature Generator is an amazing monster maker, and this version has awesome art too. It was one of my inspirations for writing Teratogenicon.

Staffortonshire Trading Company is... a collection of historical maps and floor plans! Looks incredibly useful.

I haven't read Veins of The Earth, but I've got it. It looks good, full of interesting ideas, and has lots of positive reviews. Same for Broodmother SkyFortress.

I've ran The God That Crawls recently and it it is a very interesting adventure - if not for everyone. Review here.

Better Than Any Man you can get for free, but also deserves mention, it is a great adventure.

I've got World of the Lost because I find Chandler's stuff amazing. Haven't finished it yet.

Well, we could be here all day, but that is a good start. If you like weird, dark, OSR stuff, you can't miss this one.

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Reaction rolls in practice (OSR)

Here is a small procedure for reaction rolls.

1. Goals and disposition. Decide (or roll for) goals and disposition, in any order.
2. Role-playing and actions. Ask what the PCs say and do.
3. Roll to persuade and reactions. Roll to see how the NPCs react, if it isn't obvious.

Let's analyze each step.

1. Goals and disposition

Goals could be obvious. A beast is looking for food, or protecting if found in lair. Bandits are looking for easy money, not a bloody fight. Etc. But what if you find a chimera in the woods? Well, Teratogenicon has suggestions of goals for most monster types. Here is one that could work for supernatural, chaotic "monsters" in general.

d6 Goals
1 Hate. I want to destroy all natural creatures.
2 Cruelty. I like to play with my prey.
3 Survival. Everyone thinks I’m a menace. I’ll destroy them before they destroy me!
4 Predator. I kill because I need to eat.
5 Collection. I enjoy a specific type of object (gold, shiny things, iron) or flesh (hearts, eyes, fingers).
6 Fear. I must protect myself from anything that comes near!

Disposition is friendly/hostile. Roll 2d6 as usual. Charisma does NOT affect this roll.

Decide in any order. You can roll for disposition and then decide if the wolf is hostile because it is hungry or territorial, or find a goal (hunger) and then roll disposition (a starved wolf might be aggressive or weak and docile enough to beg for food).

2. Role-playing and actions

Ask what the PCs say and do. This part is role-playing and doesn't require a roll. Do the PCs offer the beast some food? Or prepare their weapons when they see a misshapen humanoid? Etc.

This is the time to consider languages, and maybe also alignment, class, race, etc.

The NPCs reaction will sometimes be obvious - for example, bandits that outnumber the PCs seeing weapons drawn, etc. If not obvious, proceed to the next step.

3. Roll to persuade and reactions

If you are unsure if the bandits will accept a bribe to simply walk away, or if the wolf is docile enough to accept meat from humans, make a roll. You can use 2d6, but since you already have a disposition, a good roll will mean it improves by one or two steps (from hostile to uncertain, for example), and a bad roll means the opposite. Charisma applies here.

Since my current game (Dark Fantasy Basic) uses d20 skills, I just make a persuasion check (DC 15) to change disposition.

Friendly bandits (step 1), when offered a small bribe (step 2) and a bad roll (step 3) will ask for more, not attack immediately. But if they are neutral, a small offer and a bad roll will indicate they require A LOT more - maybe ALL OF IT, while a terrible roll means immediate attack ("you try to fool us? Now die!").

And that`s it for the procedure. 

But let me ramble on a bit. After I show you the 2d6 table I'm using (also Teratogenicon):

Why I´m writing this

I have just realized I had not been not using reaction rules in my current sandbox campaign, defaulting instead to "the NPCs will do the predictable thing according to their motivations and your respond to the PCs according to role-playing".

It works fine. But random encounters become a bit predictable and stale. For example, the PCs encountered some wolves, and I thought the wolves wouldn't approach a big group of humans for no reason. The PCs did nothing, so they walked away. Which was okay - but if I had rolled aggressive or friendly wolves, I could have rolled with it and have a more memorable encounter.

Likewise, when they met a group of clerics when looking for a temple, I made the clerics immediately friendly due to circumstances. But again, what if they were suspicious of the PCs motives? Could be interesting, too. 

I have started thinking and talking online about this... And then I remembered I wrote about this before. But I thought it was worth another post.

Initiative, surprise and single-roll reaction

While I like the procedure outline above, it takes three steps instead of a single 2d6 roll. The results are more nuanced and varied, but maybe you prefer a quicker method. 

If that's the case, just use the traditional 2d6. Do not add charisma unless the PCs win initiative (or surprise etc.) and try to talk to their foes. Add circumstantial modifiers as needed (-4 to +4; e.g., NPC is a guard and PCs are invading, the weapons are drawn, NPC has a different language, etc.). 

Rolling 1 on both dice means an immediate hostility regardless, and double 6s mean a positive attitude, within reason.

Even if you don't want the quicker method, using initiative in this way gives PCs meaningful choices. Do they attack now, or do they concede initiative to a potential enemy?


In the absence of explicit goals for most monsters, you can use alignment as an indication. Chaotic monsters are more likely to attack when outnumber, cheat, steal, hide, break promises, etc., while lawful ones might be more honorable even when hostile ("I am bound to defend this bridge with my life, scum! Retreat or perish!")

As I mentioned before, alignment would be more useful if more specific.

Morale and courage

As seen on the table above, "hostile" doesn't mean "attack" necessarily. A weak foe might simply run.

Morale can be used to see how the NPCs respond to a credible risk or threat. You can add Charisma to the roll if you want, or require a Charisma check to trigger the morale roll when in doubt (as always, with circumstantial modifiers).

Recommended reading:






Monday, May 08, 2023

The Blade Itself (book review)

Part of a book review effort with my friend Jens. This time, we are reviewing The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercombie. Read his take here


"Why do I do this? Inquisitor Glokta asked himself for the thousandth time".

The question in the first sentence of the book haunts the entire book. The characters do not have clear motivations, and it's often difficult to understand what they're after.

The plot is... hard to summarize. The book is basically about the characters, some who will join to create a "group of heroes" (a la Fellowship of  The Ring) that will have to face some (still unclear) threat. All heroes are either living or traveling to the "central kingdom" ("Midderland", with "Angland" as the northernmost province... sigh), which has a weak king, corrupt priests and merchants, and the constant menace of war in the North (the barbarians from the cold) and South (the barbarians from the desert). There are also some orc creatures of unknown origin (later we will find they were created by some ancient dark lord) and lots of intrigue to gain power within the kingdom. But as the book goes, we see no war, the conspiracy is not fully explained, nor any mastermind revealed. There is a (sport) fighting contest but it has no importance in the grand scheme of things. 

So, the focus in on the characters and their personal issues. In addition to the inquisitor*, we have a Norseman barbarian who seems content with just surviving, and a soldier from the central kingdom who is not very motivated to win a fencing championship, but who, eventually, can be convinced by a little reverse psychology. There is also the magician who is thousands of years old and has his own mysterious motives. Much later, we meet Ferro, a brave southern warrior who acts as a wild animal at all times and has many remarkable abilities. For example, she is colorblind and still manages to be annoyingly racist.
(* Here, the Inquisition is a Soviet-style police. Unlike the medieval inquisition, there are no lawyers, process, prosecution, witnesses, publicity, etc., but a lot more victims per year, apparently. “Show me the man and I'll show you the crime”, as Beria said.)

However, there is something artificial about all of them. They fulfill their roles in the plot, but do not feel like real people. Rather than invoking archetypes, they look more like caricatures: the pompous nobleman, the Norse warrior, the wise and powerful mage, the very smart cripple with questionable morals, the wild Southerner. Their characteristics are exaggerated: the nobleman is extremely arrogant, the southerner is too aggressive, and the Norseman is completely stoic – until we find that he is also (surprise, surprise!) some kind of berserker. They do not seem to change in the book except in the most obvious ways.
The exception is perhaps Major West, a minor character who has a sister with an important role in the plot and even some nuance, almost (almost!) doing a 180-degree turn at one point. The main characters have almost no meaningful relationships with their families and friends – if they even have families and friends. The villains are not much better: we have scheming priests, greedy merchants, and very orc-like creatures making random attacks, in addition to one mighty villain that stabs his own arm to show how strong he is. There is a band of rogue Norseman that manage to be somewhat more interesting than the protagonists, and even face real danger and change.

The setting, in this first book, also has little to offer: ice and warriors to the north, sand and warriors to the south, ancient empires, old secretive wizards, "orcs", and so on. The monstrous "eaters" are a little more interesting, but so far, they just seem like evil creatures with no purpose - "ghouls" renamed to sound more obvious (they are eaters, because they eat people).
The story does not hold any big surprises either. This is the first book in a trilogy, and it becomes increasingly apparent that he is preparing, not telling, a saga. Little happens in this first book, probably to justify the grandiose events planned for the future. If you told me that the next books are more interesting, I would probably believe you. I briefly read a few summaries and the story seems to get better with time. Unfortunately, I am unlikely to look for these books - perhaps I should give a chance to some other work by the author.
I was interested in this book because I thought I saw it mentioned as an example of "dark fantasy". There has certainly been some mistake. The first book is not the greatest example of the fantasy genre, but it is not exactly "dark" either. There is no sense of tragedy, or downfall of the main characters. On the contrary, the characters undergo a slight rise: the arrogant becomes less arrogant, the defeated and unarmed warrior gains strength and a magic sword, the torturer comes to value human contact. There is plenty of dark humor and nihilism, but the tone is more epic than "dark".
On the other hand, the book has a collection of what has come to be called "adult themes": profanity, torture, severed limbs, a certain pessimism about institutions, and frequent comparisons of things to "shit". Sexual content, on the other hand, is very limited. Again, the later books seem to add twists, moral dilemmas and shades of grey, but there are few here.
However, there is also a bright side to this not-so-dark-fantasy. The book is certainly a page-turner, for one. I was often anxious to know what would happen next (unfortunately, not much happens in this book) and, at times, I could not stop reading. The characters, although stereotyped, have some flaws and color. In addition, the society presents some complexity with its guilds, orders, and banks (although having a store where you can buy theater costumes readily available was a bit too modern for me).
The story is told from several points of view – mostly form the “heroes”. Characters' thoughts are often described in detail. Landscapes also receive elaborate descriptions. Combat and action scenes are frequent, but not especially interesting or realistic. The heroes are all badasses (former badass, badass in training, badass until five minutes ago, centenarian badass, savage badass), but “modern” ones, so they get beaten, tortured, maimed and disarmed before they can win the day in the next scene. Unlikely pulp heroes - who can always throw a punch that is faster and stronger then their foes - they win for being able to take endless punches and still stand, never quite making you feel they could actually lose. If this piques your interest, you might enjoy the book.
The story of the trilogy as a whole seems compelling enough for me to consider reading other books by the author or at least a comic book adaptation. The book has a cinematographic “feel”, which makes me think that a TV adaptation could also be interesting.
Maybe I'm asking too much of the author's first book - or judging as a self-contained book something that is simply an introduction to a larger story. Still, even in a trilogy one book should suffice on its own.
Or maybe I'm unfairly comparing the book to great classics such as Tolkien, Moorcock, Anderson, or even George R.R. Martin, who recommends it. The Blade Itself is definitely not on that level. It is a bit below Glenn Cook or Nicholas Eames, a little less fun than the first Witcher books, but still has a few ideas you can use in your D&Dish games.
Well, it is definitely better than the last Eddings I have reviewed, and it is well written enough (if uninteresting) for a first novel. It is not much, but maybe it is something.


To end on a positive note, Jens recommended I try David Gemmel (which I did), and I've been reading ERB too. They are much better. So you'll probably read some positive book reviews soon!

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Converting 5e monsters to OSR games

There is no exact formula to convert 5e monster to OSR games.

You can use this:

- Divide HP by 10. This is your number of HD.
- Divide damage by half.
- Keep AC as written [if using AAC], or add +1.
- Attacks and HP are defined by HD.
- Saves as a fighter of equal HD (e.g., 9HD monster saves as a 9th-level fighter).

But it is much better to find a monster of a similar type in your "main" monster manual and change as desired.

Here is why.


A warning

I started writing this because I was curious. While I learned a few things about how monsters changed from TSR era to 5e, I find it that it was ultimately an unproductive exercise that took me too long. In conclusion, I think you're better off just finding a similar monster. But I decided to publish my ramblings anyway, so that maybe someone can find it useful or give me a simpler method.

(BTW, please notice I used commas as decimal points due to my version of Excel, sorry about that!)


Once upon a time, I was playing 5e and trying to convert some of my favorite monsters from the TSR era, and I wrote this. Nowadays, I am playing OSR games exclusively - if anything, I might convert 5e monsters to OSR stats if I want to try some 5e adventure or creature.

And there are plenty of good 5e monster books out there, including Tome of BeastsCreature Codex, and Creature Collection (overview here). The Monstrous Manual (2e) is hard to beat in terms of content (it is probably the greatest D&D monster book ever), but some of the art from these 5e books is simply amazing.

When someone asks me how I do this, I often say the easiest method is just dividing 5e damage and HP by two. If necessary at all - I prefer to find an existing monster in the MM or the S&W SRD, for example. 

But I got curious to run some numbers (with an admittedly small sample of 5 random monsters). Here are my results.

These are from the 5e SRD. 

I also tried divide HD by CR to see if there is an obvious relation. There is not (there are other ways to use CR that could be useful, but I'm not getting into that). Likewise, the amount of HP per HD is not fixed.

And these are from the OSE SRD (I took some liberties with 4+1 HD and 1-1 HD). I used the ascending options to make the comparison easier.

Here is a comparison. AC and attack bonus columns are 5e number minus OSR numbers. The other columns are 5e numbers divided by OSR numbers.

First round of conclusions

First: there is no exact formula. Result will vary widely depending on monster type. We can, at best, try some approximations - and we are doing this with a very limited sample.

Second: 5e damage is about twice as high, as predicted. HD follows a similar pattern... but not always. HP is about three times higher.

Third: AC is a bit lower in 5e (about one point), and the attack bonuses a bit higher (about two points). 

So, my first guess was about right, except 5e HP is higher than expected. But there seems to be an easier way to fix that.

Just divide damage and HD by two. Keep AC (or add a point if you will), but let attack bonuses, HP and saving throws be defined by HD. A monster with 5HD saves as 5th-level Fighter, etc.

A bigger sample

I was unsatisfied with the results and decided to try a bigger sample, using 5e HP as a measure of power. This might be a better idea since HD are different in 5e (2d4 HD to 2d20 HD are different things). So I started by dividing HP by 10 to find HD. 

I removed the dragons because they are just too different between B/X and 2e, to a point I don't think you could generalize "OSR" stats.

Here are some results:

As you can see, this method works reasonably well in the first group - up to 50-60 HP. AC is usually close too. From 60-100, it starts to break down - but you can can use a similar formula, maybe subtracting one HD or two and adding one or two points to AC as appropriate.

After 100 HP, 5e monsters get a huge boost in HP, but not in AC. 5e PCs at these levels are not really comparable to OSR PCs (a 14th level 5e fighter might have 110 HP or more, while in B/X it would be maybe half as much), and I think monsters are hardly comparable either. If you get this far, you might be better off reverting to a number between HD/2 and HP/10.

I think you could find a method that's a bit more precise than the ones mentioned above, taking HD AND HP into account at the same time... but, TBH, I don't think it is worth the effort, as you'll see below.

Outliers and monster types

Some monsters changed more than others. Notice that the earth elemental has the same HD in both versions, while the ghoul went from 2 to 5, and the 5e veteran has 9 HD while the B/X version has one to three!

The dragon changed a lot from B/X to 2e, for example. I used a young red dragon in my first comparison because the "standard" in the 2e Monstrous Manual is a youngling. In B/X there is only one version (10 HD), but in the 2e MM the youngling has 15 HD, while an adult has 17 HD.

But the main thing to keep in mind are monster types. Oozes lost lots of AC. Most humanoids NPCs are frail in the OSR, with one or two HD even for veteran warriors. Giants have lots of HP in 5e. And so on.

Is it worth the effort? Super-simple conversion

Given that there is no precise formula that applies equally to all monsters, as seem above, is a careful conversion worth the effort?

I think this whole exercise is useful to learn the right "ballpark" for monsters, but it might be easier AND more precise if you just found a similar monster and adapt accordingly. For example, a Nivix Cyclops (Ravnica) has 10 HD in 5e, while a usual Cyclops has 12 HD. In OSE, a Cyclops has 13 HD. So an OSE Nivix Cyclops could start with 11 HD or so, with a few special powers. 

As you notice, Cyclopes were already quite though in the B/X era.

But if you don't have a similar monster (which is rare), just decide where the monster fits in the HD pecking order, and go from there. 

Use your "main" monster manual for that. For example, this is adapted from Low Fantasy Gaming Deluxe Edition, used as an example, but you could choose the 2e MM or OSE as you "main" monster book.

< 1 HD - Bat, Giant Rat, Goblin, Kobold, Man Eating Monkey, Sprite, Stirge, Xornling
1 HD - Dwarf, Elf, Human, Projectile Leech, Skeleton, Urgot, Wolf.
2 HD - Centaur, Dire Rat, Giant Ant (Worker), Giant Centipede, Giant Spider, Green Slime, Horse, Serpentman (Hraarsk), Skorn, Will o’ Wisp, Zombie.
3 HD - Boar, Dire Bat, Dire Wolf, Gargoyle, Ghoul, Giant Ant (Soldier), Giant Eagle, Harpy, Lemure, Wererat, Worm (Plague), Yellow Mould.
4 HD - Cockatrice, Claw Toad, Doppelganger, Fire Beetle, Gelatinous Cube, Giant Lizard, Griffon, Ogre, Ogre Skeleton, Shade, Tiger.
5 HD - Barrow Wight, Chuul, Giant Serpent, Giant Shark, Giant Wasp, Hammer Snail, Hell Hound, Sorcerer, Maelheim Terror, Manipede, Merrow, Minor Elemental, Minotaur.
6 HD - Giant Ant (Queen), Giant Crocodile, Giant Scorpion, Grey Ooze, Hag, Imp, Owlbear, Serpentman (Ssurlock), Werewolf, Wraith.
7 HD - Banshee, Cyclops, Flesh Golem, Manticore, Mummy, Ogre Mage, Sabretooth Tiger, Spectre, Troll.

Notice that a Nivix Cyclops should have FEWER HD in LFG when compared to B/X, for example; OTOH, a LFG dragon would be much stronger (20 HD) than a B/X one (10 HD). 


For a completely "new" monster, just decide if it is stronger or weaker than existing ones of the same type. Creating a new undead? Ask yourself, is it weaker or stronger than a ghoul? You might decide for yourself or compare it to the 5e ghoul to find the answer.

Teratogenicon revolves around types rather than specific monsters (the RC also has monster types, but I've used the more detailed 5e version). It has a chapters on dragons, constructs, fey, etc This is a better perspective to convert monsters, IMO (although the Teratogenicon does NOT contain much about stats, being mostly a system-less book).

Thinking of monster types is good for making  coherent setting too (as also exemplified in the book's appendix). I like dragons to be especially powerful in my settings, for example, so I rather use 2e dragons than B/X dragons.

Teratogenicon contains a single table extrapolating other characteristics - including AC - from HD. Attacks are just +1 per HD (a 10 HD monster attacks with +10). This is obviously a rough approximation, but it has been working well in practice.

The book suggests using 5e conventions for HP per HD - meaning a big monster has more HP per HD (4d10 for an ogre, for example). This is a matter of taste and not strictly necessary. I happen to like big monsters having lots of HP, but not necessarily more accurate attacks. The table below uses 1d8 for HD.

Addendum: converting AD&D to Basic and vice-versa

I do not think that converting from AD&D 1e or 2e to Basic (B/X, RC, OSE, etc.) is worth the effort. The differences are so small that you are better off using the monsters as written. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia has some conversion guidelines, but 90% is "keep is as written or use the closest analogue". 

There is 1 point difference in AC that won't matter 95% of the time. 2e morale uses 2d10, but you don't need to convert - just roll 2d10. And so on.

In conclusion...

I think converting from 5e to OSR with mathematical formulas is, unfortunately, not a worthy endeavor. Just choose your "main" monster manual and fit new monsters into the existing fauna. The resulting monsters will match your system and setting much better.

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